MicroFest Records has released The Great Hunt, a new song cycle of chamber music pieces by Alex Wand. With a first-rate ensemble that includes members of wild Up and Partch, The Great Hunt explores the many aspects of mortality and death as seen through the lens of poetry by Carl Sandburg. Nine short tracks make up this collection, described in the liner notes as music that “weaves together folk and classical influences, microtonal guitars, improvisation, and speak-singing recitation.”
Cool Tombs is based on a poem about the burial of Abraham Lincoln and begins with a mysterious solo flute line followed by sustained cello tones and counterpoint in the bassoon. The poetry is spoken against a series of darkly mystical harp passages, soon rejoined by the flute. The feeling is solemn and grave, but not frightening. More spoken text about the burials of U.S. Grant and Pocahontas amplify the theme that, great or small, we are all equal in the tomb. The perfectly woven instrumental lines produce just the right combination of uncertainty and expectation that infuses Sandburg’s text.
Grass takes up a similar theme, but from the more overwhelming perspective of large-scale death in battle. Beginning with a quick percussive hit and followed by languid guitar strumming, the text speaks of the dead piled “high at Austerlitz and Waterloo. Shovel them under and let me work; I am the grass, I cover all.” The spare ensemble reflects the anonymity of mass casualties in war – the graves obscured by grass so that years later the resting places are forgotten. The feeling here is decidedly tragic, especially in a stark cello solo by Derek Stein as Grass rolls to a quiet close.
An unexpectedly brighter view of death is heard in Time Sweep, beginning with strong vocals, pleasing harmonies and an upbeat tempo that starts with the text “Since death is there in the light of the sun, in the song of the wind…” Death is artfully portrayed as a new and vivid experience, neither grim nor frightening, but rather occurring as a natural experience. A somewhat slower instrumental interlude is almost mournful, but never melancholy, with long, deep tones and thick harmony. The vocals take this up, bringing a warm and comforting color to the piece as it glides slowly to the finish. Time Sweep is an extraordinary musical and poetic statement on death as the natural consequence of life.
Under the Harvest Moon returns to the more familiar territory of Halloween spookiness and the sense of foreboding on a dark autumn evening in the graveyard. “Death, the gray mocker, comes and whispers to you…” A strong percussive presence, repeating guitar riffs and some discordant tutti playing add to the sense of dread. This pivots in the second half of the piece, however, becoming more of a summer reminiscence with less jarring harmonies and a softer beat. The ensemble here is very precise, leaving just a hint of the uncertainty, even as this track arrives at a smooth finish.
Not all of the album is focused so tightly on death. Jug is an engaging tribute to the simple clay vessel used to hold so many commonplace things: cider, maple syrup, vinegar. The relationship to human mortal insignificance is perhaps metaphorical, as the poem states: “There is nothing proud about this; only one out of many…” A strong repeating cello line, cleanly sung vocals and a catchy rhythm all serve to celebrate this ordinary but useful object. New Weather is a nicely nostalgic look at the highly personal way that climate and landscape were experienced in the last century. With a lilting, waltz-like melody the text seems to be a throwback to a time when we paid more attention to our surroundings. Passersby has a wonderfully breezy flute obbligato by Christine Tavolacci that floats above a determined vocal line, and this manages to impart just a hint of pop sentiment. The Great Cool Calm is even more nostalgically whimsical, with some lovely vocal harmonies and an excellent tutti ensemble section.
The Great Hunt, the title track, begins with a repeating guitar riff soon joined by the vocals of Alex Wand. The singing of Jackson Browne flashes briefly to mind here, but the exquisite harmony of Laura Jean Anderson along with sustained cello and flute lines clothe the pop sensibility with a dignity equal to the text. This piece is just two minutes long but manages to be both beautiful and captivating. The entire album, for that matter, has been carefully crafted around the touching Sandburg texts with just the right balance of the simple and the formal – all superbly performed.
The Great Hunt is available for high resolution download at prostudiomasters.com/album/page/15460.
This is exciting. Composer Joel Feigin has his first digital-only release coming out this Friday, September 8, and was kind enough to give New Classic LA an exclusive stream of the whole record, which features the Ciompi Quartet performing his piece Mosaic in Two Panels. Here’s the stream:
Mosaic drops Friday in all the normal spots that records drop these days.
Cold Blue Music has announced a new album, River of 1,000 Streams, by composer Daniel Lentz. Written in 2016, this is a single track of solo piano music inspired by a visit to the Yellowstone River and performed by Los Angeles-based pianist Vicki Ray. From the liner notes, “…River of 1,000 Streams is a virtuosic piano piece in which a live/solo part is expanded by the addition of hundreds of ‘cascading echoes’ (reappearing fragments of music) that appear kaleidoscopically in up to 11 simultaneous layers, creating a thick texture of primarily tremolos that gradually gains in density and volume as rich harmonies climb, in a great arc, from the very bottom to the very top of the keyboard.”
Although simple in concept and consistent in texture, River of 1,000 Streams is always changing and begins with a deep rumbling in the lower registers – almost like the roar of a distant flight of old bombers. There is a strong flowing sensation to this, as if unseen waters are roiling just out of sight. At 2:00 the rolling phrases rise just slightly in pitch, adding a new sense of expectancy. While still very dark and ominous, the expressive playing by Ms. Ray creates a powerful surging sensation; the texture and dynamics here are expertly shaped, and the result is like listening to a restless tide. The repeating patterns move slowly up the piano keyboard and each new set of pitches adds to a sense of evolving motion.
By 6:30 the notes are high enough in pitch to become a bit more distinct in the hearing – less like a roar and more like a patter. The flowing feel remains as the piece proceeds, but the small variations in pitch and the artful shaping of the dynamics keep the listener engaged. By 11:00 the register has moved high enough that there is a greater sense of drama in the notes, even as the passages and textural density remain consistent. At 14:24 a short melodic fragment is heard – like the cresting of a wave – marking the transition to the middle registers. The same pattern of tremolos and trills persist, but the new pitches feel more introspective and less menacing here. By 17:30 the pitch register is high enough to spark a sense of tenuous optimism – as if a ray of the sun is emerging from behind a dark cloud. At 19:00 another short melody fragment is heard, followed by dramatic surges of the low and ominous notes from the opening. The many subtleties in this piece rely on the perceptive playing of Ms. Ray, who manages to perfectly articulate the slight variations in density and texture from moment to moment.
By 20:00 the piece has arrived at the higher reaches of the keyboard with the notes sounding crisper and more distinctly percussive, as if a climax is approaching. At 21:54, another short melody fragment appears while the trills in the upper registers sound like an alarm going off. Middle and lower register trills roll by in accompaniment, adding a sense of layered depth to this section. At 23:30 the high register texture is now very animated and a wash of middle register trills fill in nicely below, adding balance. At 25:00 another short melodic fragment appears and the mix of pitches becomes somewhat more calming. By the finish, the very highest notes on the keyboard trill anxiously but are accompanied by a series of lower surges that offer a comforting sense of closure. At the end, the sound simply ceases, the last notes ringing out and slowly dying away.
River of 1,000 Streams is a prodigious work, in its vision as well as the realization. The subtle variations are always engaging, even as they unfold slowly, and the intricate layering of the various passages is precisely formulated. The performance by Ms. Ray deserves special credit – River of 1,000 Streams will only add to her deserved reputation as one of our premiere interpreters of contemporary music.
New Classic LA writer Paul H. Muller has collected the reviews that he’s written for this site over the past four years, along with the reviews he’s written for Sequenza21, and released them as a book titled New Music Los Angeles, 2012-2016. The book is available at lulu.com and he’s graciously selling it for no profit to himself, and donating a percentage of the proceeds to the upkeep of both Sequenza21 and New Classic LA. It’s a great overview of many of the happenings that we’ve had in our town over the last few years, and certainly worth having on your shelf. Thanks for all the writing, Paul!!
Is Yar perhaps a word, in some other language unbeknownst to me, that means “delicious sonic experience”? After listening to the new album, Yar, by siblings Scot and Vicki Ray, that’s what it means to me.
Neither Ms. Ray nor her excellent playing is new to me. She has been an impressive fixture on LA’s new (and not so new) music scene for many years. She plays or has played with an impressive litany of our best ensembles and players. Her recitals with the PianoSpheres series are always a joy. I confess to being unaware of her brother Scot. He was, I learned from the liner notes of their new release, originally a brass player. And not just any brass player but one who was in the thick of LA’s modern jazz scene. But while still very much enjoying a successful, vibrant, jazz career he uprooted himself, and moved back to his (and Ms. Ray’s) home state of Montana and decided to focus on the guitar. Listening to him play, in various guises and styles, including a lot of slide, would have me think he was a guitarist from the beginning.
Yar is a generous offering, a full 73 minutes of music. It uses that length brilliantly, exploiting a great variety of styles and timbres yet somehow managing to make the record, as a whole, feel cohesive, integral, and logical. But it is more than just a triumph of logic, to be sure. There is a synthesis of the modal and atonal, the consonant and dissonant, the timbrally delicate and harsh, sharp-edged noise. As I said, above, it’s truly a delicious sonic experience.
Only one of the album’s nine tracks comes in under 5 minutes (For Harry, at 4:47). Each piece is a substantial music journey on its own. Thematic elements are present, as is some notion of development and evolution of those elements. Every piece feels complete, fully realized and, by its end, satisfying.
Each one of Yar’s compositions present a unique territory, great fodder for one’s visual imagination. I see the players, surrounded in the detritus of musical instruments, cables, microphones and other electronic paraphernalia, yet I close my mind’s eye and I’m wandering in a new, delicious, hitherto unknown land of visual and auditory oddities. Some are more pleasant than others. But each one is enticing in its own way.
Listening to Yar, from start to finish, is like taking a beautiful tour of the artists the Rays have loved and been influenced by. Was this by design? Was this of primary importance to them? I can’t say. But to this listener, it is the aural equivalent of a challenging but ultimately rewarding scavenger hunt. The musics evoke many great composers and players. Some references are more explicit, some subtly hinted at. There are the helpful ghosts of so many great musical predecessors as well as various industrial machines and devices, perhaps angry with their lot in life, plotting to overtake their human overlords.
Anamorphosis, (the second track on Yar) according to my dictionary is defined as such:
1. a distorted projection or drawing that appears normal when viewed from a particular point or with a suitable mirror or lens.
- the process by which anamorphic images are produced.
- a gradual, ascending progression or change of form to a higher type.
I cite this definition here because, a) you might not be familiar with the word, (I wasn’t), and, b) taken together, both of these definitions do a wonderful, if abstract job, of explaining the work by this name. There are low drones which are then combined with slow-attack sounds fading in and out. Then comes a staccato, stutter-edit treatment of a plaintive vocal track or sample. It more than flirts with Middle Eastern modes and nasal double-reed-implying timbres. It’s cool, sure, but honestly, it earns its place not because of its treatment of what it’s referencing, but rather how it manages to mangle it, turn it into something all its own, unique, and yet somehow perfectly at home amid the other compositions.
Zero Doesn’t Exist is quite restrained but still a vehicle for Scot’s rather blistering solo. He doesn’t expose his technique often, but when he does, it’s impressive. I hear a lot of my guitar heroes from NYC’s Downtown scene, people I’d see in the first Knitting Factory iteration. Ray’s guitar playing pierces, and floats high above randomly recurring noises, from piano wires to other harsh metallic sounds, all above a quite unobtrusive, spacious electric bass ostinato.
I think it a fair assumption that For Harry is inspired by, perhaps a tribute to, Harry Partch. Ms. Ray is no stranger to the prepared piano, and she uses it here to approximate the more percussive elements of Partch’s music (Barstow, among others) while other sounds, from both Rays, fill out the would-be ensemble. Scot’s plucked strings are reminiscent of Partch’s adapted guitar, and these instruments combined with overdubbed percussive elements create a wonderful Partch-a-rama. It made me yearn for Partch’s strict 43-tone octave, but I’ll forgive the absence.
Thrice Ephemeral Journey was inspired by For Marcel Duchamp by John Cage. Cage’s prepared piano is easy enough to hear, and its tribute to his Sonatas and Interludes is clear and explicit enough, and beautifully executed. But Thrice adds another layer or two. In a soft but creepy, lurking percussive woodblock of sorts I hear PIL’s Under The House. And then Bill Frisell walks in, plugs into his volume pedal, and jams along. I’d like to think that Cage would be pleased. (When wasn’t he pleased by sounds like these?!)
In Fear of the Wind I hear something reminiscent of Stockhausen’s Kontakte, or perhaps some of David Tudor’s realizations of Cage’s later works. (Electrified cactus, perhaps?) It’s like a spinning top bouncing on a table while some odd servo-motored device churns in the backgroup, while outside a group of evil aliens play recorders! Demonic voices enter, and then a blistering quasi-rock guitar solo. And maybe that’s Bill Laswell on the bass?
I’m struck by the gorgeous evolution in The Highline, how it develops and unfolds the way Eno’s Ambient music might, but with decidedly less delicate timbres. It invokes the drama and tension of a tightrope walker’s wire, perhaps Philippe Petit’s line across the Twin Towers, tight yet buckling across that distant span, so many feet up in the air, shifting with the weight of its passenger, colored by the winds. Vertigo translated into sound. I much prefer it this way.
Among the many things to like on Yar is its great mix of beauty and noise. This is manifested movingly in Cortege. A cortege is a solemn funereal procession. As we hear the rattles in irregular staccato rhythms against the bell-like, slow-metronomic pulses, one can imagine the casket slowly, religiously carried by the pallbearers through the streets of a dark, eerily desolate town.
Just a few tracks in, and I start to wonder, “What is their compositional process?” And the more I listen, the more this delicious music turns this musing into a burning question. There are obviously real-time duets, but also other overdubs, layers, loops. The formal structures at work here warrant my curiosity, so I continue to wonder: how much of each track is pre-arranged, how much is improvised, how much is added and/or edited after the initial “basic tracks” are laid down?
Of course, how something is made is often not a satisfying question. (In certain situations, it can even be counter-satisfying.) You don’t need to wonder, or ascertain the “compositional process” of Yar. What matters, ultimately, is what we are left with. What is this music, and how does it make us hear, how does it make us feel? It delights with improvisational constructions, austere sonic fields that define their own territories, by way of harmonic language, timbral depth, and instrumental content.
This is a record that you can listen to passively or actively. I usually hate the idea of “background music” (and I hope that Yar isn’t used as such) but I find it to be equally satisfying both in “deep listening” (to borrow Pauline Oliveros’ term) or just having it be part of a more passive, meditative background.
I am genuinely fascinated by the creative process invoked here that resulted in the wealth of musical coolness that is Yar. For all my references to other composers and players, the payoff, the legitimacy, the wonder, all stem from my understanding of these works as not merely a collection of representations of their influences, but somehow some dialectical syntheses of the siblings’ collective musical instincts and influences into something quite unique, quite marvelous and quite beautiful.
To its great credit, despite the very wide-ranging sounds, Yar is devoid of irony, not at all anything resembling a postmodern commentary on anything. But that is not to say that it is always entirely serious or completely devoid of humor. It is, rather, a sincere and genuine exploration of a wide range of sonic possibilities. A collection that isn’t afraid to embrace beauty or ugliness, alone or in combination, without any faux-clever attempt to subvert or invert such subjective classifications. This, like so much of the music itself, is refreshing and extremely rewarding.
Yar is available from Orenda Records at orendarecords.com/orenda0040, and from most music retailers.
On Saturday, June 10, 2017 the Jack Rutberg Fine Arts Gallery on fashionable North La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles hosted a Music & Conversations concert featuring the Lyris Quartet and vocalist Moira Smiley. An overflow crowd packed the venue, sampling Casa Torelli fine wines and previewing works of the upcoming “Artists of Mexico” exhibition. Contemporary music by Moira Smiley and Jane Brockman was on the concert program as well as String Quartet No. 15 by Franz Schubert.
Selections from the Mikrokosmos, by Béla Bartók – as arranged by Moira Smiley – began the concert, with Mikrokosmos #148 – 1st Dance in Bulgarian Rhythm up first. This opened with a strong repeating cello line accompanied by clapping. The violin took up the repeating figure and Ms. Smiley entered with an active vocalese that had a bit of an edge to it, much like scat singing. The hard consonants and clipped delivery was reminiscent of an Eastern European language and proved to be very expressive. At times Ms. Smiley’s voice soared eloquently over the tutti strings, weaving in and out of the busy texture. This is a nicely rhythmic piece with a good vocal presence. Mikrokosmos #75 – Summer Has Come followed and for this Ms. Smiley supplied the lyrics in English. This began with slow, sustained tones in the upper strings followed by counterpoint in the cello. The vocal melody entered with “Summer has come” and was smoothly sung as the strings portrayed a pastoral, organic feel matching the sense of the lyrics. A nice contrast to the opening piece.
Mikrokosmos #74 – ‘The Hat’ was next and opened with a series of pizzicato figures in the upper strings that gave this a fast start, matched by lively vocals. Ms. Smiley had a small accordion and this added to the exotic feel. A violin duo – ‘Bagpipes’ – commenced and this filled the performance space with rapid fiddling that sounded more like twice as many players. The insistent vocals added to the energy as a second violin duo – ‘Mamaros’ – emerged without pause. Mikrokosmos #75 proved to be a rousing portrait of what might have been a Saturday night in any rural Hungarian village square.
Silverlake followed, an original work by Moira Smiley adapted from a text by Charles Wesley that, according to her website, describes “ the wakefulness that comes in the early AM – as the mind wrestles with the questions of fate & divinity.” A repeating pizzicato figure in the cello opens Silverlake, with slower tones in the upper strings. Ms. Smiley’s soprano voice entered above with a beautiful legato melody.
This was completely unlike the previous pieces with their vocalese and sharp edges. The singing here was clear and pleasingly fluid, recalling Judy Collins. Towards the finish a bit of anxiety crept in, but the strings took up smooth tutti passages that created some lovely harmonies with the voice. With the strings and voice perfectly complimenting each other, Silverlake is an exquisitely charming work.
Time Cycles, by Jane Brockman was next, a song cycle in three parts for string quartet and voice with lyrics by Lois Becker. Hurricane Housekeeping was first, and this began with a rapidly repeating tutti figure in the strings, soon taken up by the voice, producing a palpable tempus fugit feel. Quick pizzicato passages added to the sense of breathlessness as Ms. Smiley sang “Time is on the wing…” Later, cyclic rhythms in the strings brought briefly to mind certain sections of Different Trains by Steve Reich. “We are swept along…” fittingly, was heard just before the finish. To anyone who has tried to prepare for company, Hurricane Housekeeping is the perfect musical metaphor.
The Mayfly Rag followed, and this was a more playful and somewhat less harried piece. “Carpe Diem” was heard in the vocals at the start and the brisk pizzicato in the strings gave Mayfly Rag a buoyant, yet purposeful feel. The mayfly, of course, has a very short lifespan and you might expect that this would make for a darkly fatalistic outlook. This music, however, is appealingly upbeat and confident, happily trying to cram all the experiences of life into a single joyous moment. The tag line at the ending was also brightly amusing: “A mayfly lives for just a day… Don’t snooze!”
The Turning of the Seasons completed the three-movement cycle and this, of course, took in a much longer view than The Mayfly Rag. The Turning of the Seasons has a more serious and introspective tone, especially for autumn. An echo of Vivaldi could be heard in the winter section with its flurry of sharp passages. The balance of strings and voice was excellent and the precise playing of the Lyris quartet throughout made for a well-crafted performance. At the finish Ms. Smiley’s expressive voice again soared over the texture, dramatically proclaiming “The cycle does not end…” Time Cycles is an engaging and stimulating look at the way we experience time from three different perspectives. The applause that followed was sincere and enthusiastic.
The balance of the evening was given over to the sprawling String Quartet No. 15 in G Major by Franz Schubert. The Lyris Quartet was on familiar historical footing here, with the phrasing, balance and dynamics all carefully calibrated. The acoustics of the Rutberg Gallery came through once again – even the delicate pianissimo passages were clearly heard in the back row. The 1st movement, Allegro molto moderato, unfolded with all its variety of forcefulness and subtlety intact. The active sections filled the space with sound, as if two string quartets were present. The smooth Andante un poco moto ambled along at just the right tempo, revealing some lovely harmonies and the occasional bit of drama. The lively Scherzo: Allegro vivace was precisely played and the dynamic contrasts all strictly observed. The catchy melody in the recapitulation was particularly well done. The final Allegro assai, although taken at a brisk tempo, was light and nimble and the syncopated sections artfully negotiated. Intense at times, but always under control, the 40+ minutes of non-stop Schubert in the warm gallery was quite a workout for the Lyris Quartet, whose efforts were repaid with a standing ovation.
The success of Music and Conversations concerts comes from just the right mix of an interesting venue, a sociable atmosphere, and good music. Credit for this must go to Jane Brockman and Jack Rutberg who have worked hard to prepare these concert events. The attendance is invariably standing-room only, and the thoughtful programming is always accessible and enlightening, combining exciting new music with familiar classics.
A few months ago we heard the premiere of Daniel Bjarnason‘s Qui Tollis at the LA Phil’s Noon To Midnight festival (review here). Tomorrow, the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet brings the piece back to LA at the release concert for their album BEYOND. In the third of our series of exclusive videos, Daniel and the members of the quartet discuss the work.
Beyond that, Daniel was kind enough to answer a few questions:
In the video about Qui Tollis, LAPQ member Nick Terry describes it as having a combination of serenity and brute power. I’d say that about a lot of your other work too, particularly Emergence, which also came out recently. Is that balance something you actively strive for, or does it happen almost on its own as a result of your voice and taste?
I would say it is something that is a part of my own voice, like you say, and having realized that I don’t really fight against it but am aware of it. Sometimes I want to emphasize that characteristic and sometimes not.
You mentioned looking to other percussion works for inspiration on this one. Are there any particular inspirations, or pieces you discovered while listening, that readers can also check out?
I would like to mention one piece in particular that I completely fell in love with which is The So Called Laws of Nature by David Lang.
What excited you most about working on this piece with LAPQ?
I felt that they were really willing to go the extra mile to bring the piece to life. Apart from being fantastic musicians they have a wonderfully curious and positive attitude. For example the idea of using electronic triggers was entirely theirs and I thought it worked great.
You’ve been doing a lot in LA lately. What attracts you to the scene here? What’s different about it from Reykjavik or the other places where you are most active?
I’ve had the great fortune of developing a relationship with the LA Phil and I continue to work with them regularly which is an absolute privilege and joy. I have also worked the Calder quartet which is LA based and have been in touch with many other wonderful musicians and artists in the city. I find that there is this energy and curiosity in LA and a general willingness to experiment that I find invigorating. In some ways it reminds me of Reykjavik in that there is a feeling of everything being possible. I think that is what is attracting so many artists to the city now.
Yesterday we premiered The Los Angeles Percussion Quartet‘s video with Andrew McIntosh about his piece I Hold The Lion’s Paw, from their forthcoming album Beyond. Today we’ve got composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir discussing her piece Aura.
The record is out on Friday, and LAPQ is playing a free album release show at the USC Brain and Creativity Institute that night at 7:30. The album and concert include music by Christopher Cerrone, composer of The Industry’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated Invisible Cities; Daniel Bjarnason, who was recently featured in the LA Phil’s Reykjavík Festival; and rising LA composer Ellen Reid. The evening will also include video and surround-sound audio samples of works by Anna Thorvaldsdottir and Andrew McIntosh, plus a demonstration of an immersive virtual reality video of Cerrone’s L.I.E. from his Memory Palace, heard on the new album.
Come back tomorrow for our video and interview with Daniel Bjarnarson, and pick up the album and concert tickets at lapq.org.
The Los Angeles Percussion Quartet‘s next album, Beyond, drops on Friday, and they’re playing a free album release show at the USC Brain and Creativity Institute that night at 7:30. The album and concert include music by Christopher Cerrone, composer of The Industry’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated Invisible Cities; Daniel Bjarnason, who was recently featured in the LA Phil’s Reykjavík Festival; and rising LA composer Ellen Reid. The evening will also include video and surround-sound audio samples of works by Anna Thorvaldsdottir and Andrew McIntosh, plus a demonstration of an immersive virtual reality video of Cerrone’s L.I.E. from his Memory Palace, heard on the new album.
LAPQ gave us permission to premiere three composer interview videos they did, and we’ll have them up today, tomorrow, and Thursday ahead of the concert and release. To start, here’s composer Andrew McIntosh and members of the quartet discussing his piece I Hold The Lion’s Paw
Album and concert details are at lapq.org.
On May 12, 2017 the Boston Court Performing Arts Center was the venue for a memorial concert marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Lou Harrison, presented by MicroFest. No less than seven Harrison works were programmed – curated by Bill Alves – including rarely and never-performed pieces. The stage was packed with all sorts of instruments and found percussion, including authentic recreations of two conduit xylophones designed by Harrison and tuned to just intonation. The musicians of Just Strings and Varied Trio were on hand and a fine crowd filled the theater in anticipation of an evening of music by one of America’s most influential composers.
Suite for National Steel was first and this four movement piece was written for steel-body guitar re-fretted for just intonation. The first movement is based on a whimsical sculpture by the artist Nek Chand, and several other Harrison pieces compiled by guitarist John Schneider complete the suite. Accordingly, Suite for National Steel opens with a rapid melody and precise counterpoint that had a lively, dance-like feel. The second movement, Jahla, was more relaxed and reflective, the longer notes accentuating the tuning. Music for Bill and Me, movement 3, was slower still and had that Asian flavor so typical of Harrison. Heartfelt and lovely, this was played by Schneider with great feeling. The final Serenado movement was just that: upbeat and optimistic, with a sunny and active feel. Suite for National Steel was beautifully played by John Schneider from memory, and nicely summarized many of Harrison’s most identifiable musical traits.
Solo (1972) followed and this was performed on a carefully reconstructed metal tube instrument first built by Harrison using aluminum conduit tubes tuned to just intonation. Often called a “tubulong”, it resembles a xylophone with resonator tubes. The sound, while distinctly metallic, is rich in overtones and two of these instruments were built by Kathryn Jones specifically for this concert. Solo was played by percussionist-extraordinary Yuri Inoo and the mysterious, exotic feel was immediately evident. The melody was nicely matched to the tuning and pleasant to the ear – a tribute to the composition as well as the playing and construction of the tubulong.
Suite from Young Caesar, consisting of four short movements was next, and there was percussion, a harp and a violin in addition to the conduit tubulong. Lullaby, the first movement, opened with a nice mix of percussion and long, sustained tones in the violin. There was a quietly beautiful Asian feel to this, and an exceptionally fine ensemble between the confident violin playing of Shalini Vijayan and the assorted percussion. The second movement, Prelude to Scene ii, felt stronger and more assertive, with Alison Bjorkedal’s harp trading passages and playing counterpoint to the violin. Shadow Scene and Processional, movement three, again featured the harp and violin; with just the slightest presence of percussion this managed to convey an exotic and mysterious presence. The final movement, Whirling Dance, had an uptempo melody in the violin with counterpoint in the harp and some lovely, deep sounds in the percussion. All of this was skillfully played with intricate, yet even textures throughout. Suite from Young Caesar is a convincing demonstration of Harrison’s ability to find just the right combination of percussion and instrumental pitches, each complimenting the other for just the right balance.
Variations (1936) followed with Aron Kallay at the piano and Shalini Vijayan on violin. Variations is the earliest work in this concert – Harrison would have been just 19 years old when it was written. The score for this piece was discovered by Bill Alves among Harrison’s papers, and was apparently never performed. This piece dates from the time Harrison was a student of Henry Cowell, whose signature keyboard gesture at the time was the tone cluster. Accordingly, Variations begins with a series of these in the lower registers, dark and ominous, like an advancing storm. Each crash increases in volume and menace, and Aron Kallay managed to extract all of it from the grand piano on stage. When the violin enters, there is a subdued and sorrowful melody, while the piano softens with single chords underneath. There is no trace here of the sunny Asian optimism or interest in alternate tuning – these would come later in Harrison’s career. More tone clusters are heard in the higher piano registers, further unsettling things, and when the violin joins in again there is a bleak and angry feel that almost boils with intensity. A final series of roaring crashes and chords are heard accompanied by somber violin passages, and the piece ends, as if on a question. Variations is an intriguing glance at Harrison as the young composer: confident and expressive, yet untouched by his later influences and interests.
After a short intermission the stage was reconfigured and there was much moving and placing of various found percussion objects. Omnipotent Chair (1940) followed, and this was performed in five short movements. Harrison was inspired by Henry Cowell and John Cage to create a percussion ensemble fashioned from items found in old shops and junk yards. Omnipotent Chair opens with an exotic melody in the violin accompanied by the striking of flower pots and drums. The blend is surprisingly balanced and even: the typical Asian feel of Harrison’s work was clearly heard, especially in the delicate soundings of a small triangle. As the suite continued, Aron Kally was heard playing an elaborate sequence of bells, and turned in a nice performance. In another section, Yuri Inoo tapped out the beat on the body of a double bass. In the fourth movement, rapid violin passages and the lively rhythms in the wood block recalled Harrison’s many compositions for dance ensembles. Throughout Omnipotent Chair the profusion of unusual percussive elements never overwhelmed Shalini Vijayan’s confident violin, and the overall texture felt comfortable and familiar.
Air from The Scattered Remains (1988) followed, and this was the result of a commission by filmmaker James Broughton for a film score. Harrison’s approach was to provide a series of repeating figures in order to insure that the feel of the piece would survive the inevitable cutting in the film editing process. This piece opens with a simple solo melody in the conduit tubulong that extends for a bit, followed by bass drum and wood block that add some variety to the texture. The harpsichord enters in a repeating counterpoint that brings a sense of purpose as the work proceeds, with a triangle contributing a light embellishment. A nice groove developed and the ensemble was controlled and precise. According to the program notes Air from The Scattered Remains “.. was perhaps the closest he ever came to the then-popular minimalism, a style Harrison sympathized with and which influenced his students of the time.” This performance was the first since the original recording of the film score.
The final piece of the concert was Varied Quintet (1987) and for this concert the original orchestration with just intonation was used, including two conduit tubulongs, a harp, violin, re-tuned harpsichord and assorted percussion. Varied Quintet proceeds in five movements and the first of these, Gendhing, began with the harp and the conduit tubulongs entering in sequence followed by a simple but strongly expressive melody in the violin. With its exotic feel, Gendhing is clearly influenced by Harrison’s continuing interest in Javanese gamelan forms. The harpsichord joins in and some lovely counterpoint develops. As the program notes point out: “…the interweaving just intonation bell instruments sparkle with an entirely different texture than what can be coaxed from the conventional piano.”
The second movement, Bowl Bells, quickly turned into a percussion tour de force by Yuri Inoo, whose rapidly accurate playing on a set of bowls dazzled the ear while generating a solid groove. Elegy, the third movement, featured a simple, yet sorrowful melody in the violin aided by thick chords from the harpsichord underneath. The percussion was mostly tacit for this solemn movement, with only a few quiet notes from the conduit tubulong. Rondeau in Honor of Fragonard followed, written as a tribute to one of Harrison’s favorite painters, and the buoyant optimism was in complete contrast to the previous Elegy. Some lovely interweaving of violin and harpsichord added to the cheer. The final movement of the piece, Dance, looked back to Harrison’s extensive experience writing for dance companies and the active, whirling feel and rapid passages were precisely executed by the entire ensemble.
Varied Quintet, with its unorthodox instruments, just tuning and exotic character was performed in this program for the first time since it was premiered. The musicians of Varied Trio and Just Strings – as well as the scholarship of Bill Alves – combined to produce a unique concert to hear important works by Lou Harrison that have been too-long neglected.