Reviews

Second Take: Bonnie and Clyde

Los Angeles-based experimental opera company The Industry workshopped the much-anticipated contemporary opera Bonnie and Clyde for their Second Take program on February 26, 2017. Written by Andrew McIntosh – with libretto by Melinda Rice – the performance was given at the spacious Wilshire Ebell Theatre with a large crowd in attendance. More than three years in development, the full musical score of Bonnie and Clyde was realized by a cast of soloists, a small chorus and wild Up, a 17-piece instrumental ensemble, all under the direction of Christopher Rountree.

Yuval Sharon, Artistic Director for The Industry, explained in his welcoming remarks that the Second Take preview was designed to give a complete performance of all the music in the opera. There is no acting, costumes or scenery, but the full musical forces are all present. The program notes explained that “[Second Take] showcases the new piece in a nascent and pure state; production concerns and directorial interpretation have not yet put this composition to the test.”

The six vocalists comprising the cast stood on one side of the stage, four choristers were placed on the opposite side, with wild Up in the center. A large screen above and at the back of the stage helpfully displayed the libretto as it was sung. As all the singers were stationary and dressed in formal black, the performance feeling a bit more like an oratorio than an opera. The presence of wild Up at center stage tended to emphasize the accompaniment over the singers at times, but the instrumental texture throughout was generally transparent enough that there was no compromise to any of the vocal elements.

As librettist Melinda Rice observed, “When a story is familiar, there is hardly any question of how it will end.” This perspective informs almost everything about Bonnie and Clyde, and from the opening moments the feeling is one of a somber sadness. The libretto is always on a personal and emotional plane, with much of it taken from the reminiscences of the surviving players in the real-life drama. The libretto draws material from the published autobiography of Ted Hinton to form the narrative thread. Hinton worked as a delivery man and personally knew both Bonnie and Clyde. He later became a police officer and was a member of the posse that finally caught up with the fugitive pair.

Bonnie and Clyde unfolds in 24 scenes over two acts. Act I serves to introduce the many characters: Ted Hinton (James Onstad), Clyde’s mother Cumie (Sarah Beaty), brother Buck Barrow and his wife Blanche (David Castillo and Lauren Davis), as well as the titular Bonnie and Clyde (Justine Aronson and Jon Keenan). Given the static nature of the staging, it took a few scenes to get the sense of these relationships – the acting and costuming in the final production will be helpful here – but the music and the singing were both sensitive and precise, clearly sketching out the emotional terrain. Early in Act I Cumie, portrayed by Sarah Beaty, sings a beautiful aria in the form of a letter asking the governor to parole Clyde as he “is needed here on the farm.” There is a palpable sense of pathos in the music; the hard-scrabble life of an East Texas farming family is distinctly heard and felt. When Clyde returns home from prison he arrives in a new Ford V8. Rather than return to his family and the difficult life of a farmer, Clyde is completely bewitched by the power of the automobile and the freedom this represents; you can hear this tension in the music and it marks a decisive point in the story.

The final scene in Act I is masterfully done – Bonnie and Clyde are on the run and crash their car near a washed out bridge in the country. Bonnie is severely burned and they seek shelter at a nearby farmhouse. The family there offers to call for help, but Clyde refuses and announces that he will steal their car to continue the flight. The frightened family begins to sing a hymn – as heard in the chorus – and this immediately connects with the audience on a spiritual level, much like a chorale in a Bach Passion. Act I thus concludes with Bonnie and Clyde renouncing everything that is good in their past for an uncertain freedom in the future.

Act II opens with a spoken soliloquy by Ted Hinton, and this helpfully brings the narrative forward, putting the audience squarely in the middle of the most familiar part of the story. Bonnie and Clyde are now public enemies with brother Buck Barrow and Blanche also members of the gang. In a dramatic duet, Buck is asked to renounce Clyde and return to the quiet life. The music poignantly captures the heart-rendering choice that turns on a brother’s loyalty. When Buck is killed in a police ambush, Ted interrogates the captured Blanche in a tense scene accompanied by a steady tone in the woodwinds that heightens the emotional impact. “Your husband is dead” announces Ted – and the story gains its full dramatic traction.

After a brief orchestral interlude, Bonnie and Clyde return to the stage for a duet – having been absent since the end of Act I – and the story gathers momentum toward the inevitable finish. Another soliloquy by Hinton tells of how Bonnie and Clyde ran a roadblock on Easter Sunday, killing a rookie policeman in the process. The young man was just two weeks from his wedding and there is a very touching aria sung by Marie, his intended bride, lamenting her loss. Hinton now sings of how he has ‘gotten into their future’ and believes he can predict the couple’s next move. Hinton devises a trap for the pair and at this point the music turns very dark, the solemn toll of piano chords ringing out like church bells. A final epilogue scene is unexpectedly quiet with none of the violent histrionics of the more popular accounts. Clyde is simply heard repeating: “Freedom is driving and driving and driving…” as the opera fades to its finish. After a respectful silence, the audience responded with an extended and enthusiastic applause.

Bows after the concert premiere of Andrew McIntosh and Melinda Rice's <em>Bonnie and Clyde</em>.

Bows after the concert premiere of Andrew McIntosh and Melinda Rice’s Bonnie and Clyde.

This performance of Bonnie and Clyde, although limited to just the musical elements, was nevertheless a powerful experience. The singing and playing was of a very high caliber throughout and the conducting by Christopher Rountree was flawless. The music and libretto were well-matched and artfully performed by all. The eventual staging, scenery and costuming will be an important element in portraying the relationships and motivations of the characters, especially in Act I. The singing was hauntingly beautiful, with the arias and duets more or less evenly distributed throughout the cast. The premiere of the finished production of Bonnie and Clyde is sure to be an extraordinary event.

 

Review: Mark Menzies plays Nono, Chao, and Ulman

On February 3, 2017 wasteLAnd presented the second in a series of four concert appearances – titled 4:7 – by master violinist Mark Menzies. A long time presence on the Los Angeles new music scene, Menzies was in town on a visit from his native New Zealand and the four concerts also marked the violinist’s 47th birthday. The spacious downtown Art Share  venue was filled to capacity despite a rainy Friday night on the local freeways. Three solo pieces were heard, by Ching-Wen Chao, wasteLAnd resident composer Erik Ulman and the Italian utopian Luigi Nono.

Elegy in Flight by Ching-Wen Chao was first, inspired by Buddhist sacred texts and the ‘wheel of life,’ as described in the program notes: “This piece starts with a statement of a 59-note set, which is derived from a 59-syllable mantra used in recitation for the dead. The set subsequently expands itself through the multiplication of its own intervals… This expansion/compression process is stated 6 times over the course of the piece with variations of speed and emphasis.” Elegy in Flight opened with a strong, declarative statement followed by a series of softer runs. Menzies is extremely adept at dynamic contrast and this added to the underlying sense of anxiety and building tension in the complex passages. A stretch of soft, sustained tones followed that changed the feeling to one of a quiet remoteness, only to change again with a series of rapid runs full of spikes and squeaks. In all of this Menzies was in full command of the intonation and expressiveness pouring out from his violin. Some lovely playing was heard in the lower registers while several short, stabbing phrases marked the finish. Elegy in Flight is a dynamic, evolving work that makes many demands on the soloist; all artfully met in this performance.

The world premiere of Lake, by Erik Ulman followed, and this solo viola piece was dedicated to Mark Menzies. Soft, sustained tones in a rich viola register filled the space, making for an elegant contrast to the preceding work. Lake has an introspective feel, nicely conveyed by the series of long tones that decrescendo to pianissimo. High-pitched phrases added a rhythmic movement that evokes a more alien feel, but this changed yet again to an active bubbling propelled by the pop of rapid of pizzicato notes. All of this was managed adroitly by Menzies, and as the final notes faded quietly away, sustained applause filled the room. Taking full advantage of the viola’s range and timbral possibilities, Lake is a worthy contribution to the solo repertoire.

After the intermission, La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura by Luigi Nono was performed by Mark Menzies along with Scott Worthington at the controls of the electronics. This piece was seemingly inspired by a stray piece of graffiti that Nono happened to see while visiting Toledo: “Traveler, there is no pathway, there is only traveling itself.” Accordingly, several music stands holding copies of the written score were scattered throughout the venue – on stage and in or around the audience – and Menzies traveled, as it were, from stand to stand during the performance. Speakers were also positioned in various places effectively filling the space with the recorded electronic accompaniment.

La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura began with Menzies at a music stand on stage, violin at the ready, while the speakers filled the room with the ambient sounds of what seemed to be string players warming up or tuning. There was a few odd words heard, then some thumps and squeaks before a strong upward glissando unleashed a series of complex runs that established an air of mystery and tension. Menzies then added short bursts of high, anxious notes and rapid passages that increased the ominous feel. The recorded sounds often came from single speakers in opposite corners of the space, and this added spatial perception to the overall experience. More rumbles and rattles came from the speakers as if large cases or cabinets were being moved. Menzies walked slowly and thoughtfully across the stage, settling at another music stand, and began playing a new set of quietly anxious tones along with the electronics.

The piece proceeded in this manner – the sounds from the recording continuing, full of riddles, while the soloist contributed variously fast phrases or slow, sustained tones. There was little form or structure evident – at times the sounds were fast and intense while at other times slower and softly atmospheric. The overall result was a remarkably good blend of electronics and live playing, with excellent fidelity from the speakers that perfectly matched the soloist. The dragging and thumping sounds in the recording were most convincing and the violin playing was controlled and precise throughout. Menzies made his way around to the various music stands at certain defined points in the score, but not in any preset pattern. There was a microphone at the final music stand and the piece concluded with a strong, steady violin pitch that persisted for a moment, then faded away as Menzies slipped offstage. La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura is a journey unto itself, full of mystery and uncertainty, yet always inviting the listener to formulate context from multiple combinations of sonic clues.

Review: Hub New Music and Kelsey Broersma at Sound and Fury

Hub New Music, an artist-led chamber group hailing from Boston, made their West Coast premiere on Sunday, January 29 at the Sound and Fury Concert at Lineage Performing Arts Center in Pasadena. Comprised of flute, clarinet, violin, and cello, the group has commissioned numerous works by established and emerging contemporary composers. In light of all that is happening in our political climate, this concert contained relevant themes of rejuvenation, self-actualization, environmental issues, journey, and sacrifice. This was my first time at a Sound and Fury Concert, but I was inspired by the directors’ enthusiasm about the music that lay ahead.

Kelsey Broersma, alto saxophone

The first half of the concert featured Kelsey Broersma, a dedicated new music saxophonist of the Inland Empire. She began the program with No.e Parker’s work for solo saxophone, Sweeney Summer (2), an audification of temperature data. As both an artist and composer, Parker’s work addresses issues such as environmental sustainability and technology. Sweeney Summer (2) is one of a multitude of Parker’s works that explore data sonification.

Next was Christian Dubeau’s Crystal Lake, an electro-acoustic composition featuring recorded tape of lake waters as a basis for the saxophone solo. As a composer, environmental issues largely inspire Dubeau, and Crystal Lake is no exception. Its musical narrative tells of the only natural lake in the San Gabriel Mountains being gradually polluted and slowly shrinking due to drought. A lullaby of soft, floating tones from the saxophone over concrète water sounds gradually transforms; the water is distorted through process and the musical lines become more agitated. After reaching a climax, we are left with an eerie sound similar to wind, over which the saxophone resumes softly while facing away from the audience.

Patrick Gibson’s Feedback Loop features the composer on electric guitar along with Broersma. Before playing, Gibson explained that he was inspired by the similarity between saxophone multiphonics and guitar feedback. The piece starts with material reminiscent of a waltz before abruptly transforming texture. The middle section is the heart of the piece, for it is here that the two instruments play off each other’s “feedback.” It closes with material akin to the opening.

Over the Board by Christine Lee closed the first half of the program. Along with saxophone, it featured the composer on piano. Christine Lee described the piece as an “imaginary journey” of a boat on the sea. The piece involves an array of extended techniques for saxophone, the most prominent being multiphonics.

Hub New Music

The second half of the program introduced Hub New Music. They began with Judd Greenstein’s at the end of a really great day, a piece in memoriam of Emily – a friend of the composer’s who died in a tragic accident. Greenstein describes Emily as a beautiful, infectious spirit, and the music and performance alike were equally as contagious. As a celebration of her life, the piece is characterized by shimmering textures, piercing melodic lines, and a jovial lightness of being.

Kirsten Volness creates an exquisite sound world in Little Tiny Stone, Full of Blue Fire, inspired by Dorothea Lansky’s poem Beyond the Blue Seas. Just as the fire’s heart swells and subsides, so does the music. Within this outlining structure of ebb and flow are striking textural changes. The piece begins with a quiet whisper from the violin, overlapped by light, stuttering figures from the winds. The texture grows in the warmth and intensity, and then rapidly recedes. Angular textures are contrasted by freely floating lines. After a pause, the piece ends with a gurgle from the winds – one last word from the fire before its death.

Last but certainly not least was Mason BatesThe Life of Birds, a set of six short but dense movements. Together they tell a complete story, some chapters more abstract than others, but all equally vivid in their imagery. Intricate textures, bubbling lines bursting with energy, and lush, folk-inspired harmony are staples throughout the movements. I felt a refreshing sense of pure joy and innocence while listening to this work – a perfect way to end the evening.

If you missed the concert on Sunday, no worries – you can check it out again at Outpost Concert Series (with the added bonus of a piece by LA-based composer Daniel Wohl) on February 1.

Review: Equal Sound presents Battle Trance @ Live Arts LA

I had never heard of Battle Trance before attending this show. What little I did know was what I read on the Facebook event page, and gleaned from talking to other concert goers. I don’t believe I even knew their instrumentation. Like seeing a movie without seeing a trailer, this can be a better experience. Hype can set a bar too high. All I knew was that Equal Sound was putting on the concert, and that some quartet called Battle Trance would play Blade of Love. 10/10 for the names, but would the performance live up to these vague expectations?

A string quartet – Madeline Falcone and Emily Call on violin, Diana Wade on viola, and Betsy Rettig on cello – performed the first half of the concert, which consisted of Medieval and Medieval-inspired music. They opened with Hildegard Von Bingen’s O Virtus Sapientiae, a pensive, simple polyphonic work. Its texture was so lush, yet at the same time, so bare. In light of the women’s marches worldwide, particularly the 750,000-strong march in LA on January 21st, I appreciated that the most prolific Medieval female composer had the honor of opening. I always love von Bingen’s work, and this was no different. O virtus Sapientiae praises the power of wisdom, a lesson we can all value in this age.

The next piece, Valencia (2012), by New York composer Caroline Shaw, had clear roots in Medieval style. The strings pass around ostinato rhythms and simple melodies, intercut with striking glissandi and dense harmonic swells. Shaw wanted to evoke the texture of a Valencia orange. Such a synesthetic feat may be impossible (I must admit I did not get the connection between the title and the piece until reading about it later), but the music by itself was pleasing and its textures were interesting.

Third, My Desert, My Rose (2016) by Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov, featured low and slow cello like a cantus firmus while the higher strings played aimless harmonies, muddled like a fine cocktail. It feels like wandering through a busy marketplace; each step brings a new wave of sounds, and while there is a goal to reach, the journey wanders. It’s a flawless interpretation of Medieval inspiration for a 21st-century style.

Finally, the quartet concluded the first half of the concert with Guillaume de Machaut’s Kyrie I. The Kyrie is the first sung prayer of the Mass Ordinary, and it is most appropriate during penitential seasons like Lent and Advent. The quartet saved the Kyrie for the last piece in their set, but it also served to introduce Battle Trance, thus keeping with tradition. While we were not actually in a penitential season, something about the timing and the mood of the audience made it fitting.

After intermission, we got what we came for: the tenor saxophone quartet Battle Trance performing Blade of Love. Here’s my short review first: it was bananas. And I love bananas.

Battle Trance performing Blade of Love at Live Arts LA, presented by Equal Sound

Battle Trance performing Blade of Love at Live Arts LA, presented by Equal Sound

Now here’s the longer review. First, you must realize that each segment flowed from one to the next, sometimes overlapping or splitting half and half between the players. The players never rested. The performance was one uber-piece, and the energy ebbed and swelled but never ceased. Sometimes three players would provide an upbeat, looping harmony for the soloist to howl over. Other times, all four would whistle through their reeds. There was impressive counterpoint. There was intense sound blending. There were intergalactic lasers and interstellar spaceships. There were intrepid explorers in jungles. There was an immeasurable ocean. There was an insane profession of love. There was also insufferable honking – but so it is with saxophones, I suppose, and it didn’t last too long.

Most impressive of all, in my eyes (ears?), was that there were difference tones. Those happen resonances combine and modulate in your ear so that your ear itself creates new sound. It’s a curious sensation, and rare for acoustic instruments to pull off. So not only did the four gentlemen of Battle Trance play for an hour straight, on memorized music (somewhat improvised, but mostly structured for sure), and was the music incredible, but they also caused your ear to invent its own music, using acoustic instruments. This illustrates why I love writing these reviews; every time I think I’ve heard it all, that I’ve heard every extended technique, I go to another concert and I’m absolutely floored.

Battle Trance’s music is available on their Bandcamp page. You have the upper hand compared to me; you already know what to expect. I’ll be upfront: I’m told that their recordings don’t have the same chutzpah. So this is what I recommend: buy a CD. Hear how good they are recorded. Then see them live. Fly to New York if you have to, but experience them in person. It’ll be bananas.

Review: Cipher Duo’s West Coast Tour Kickoff

Cipher Duo consists of soprano Justine Aronson and violinist Sarah Goldfeather. This week, they commence their West Coast tour. I was fortunate to see their Wednesday night performance in Geiringer Hall at UC Santa Barbara. They will perform in Pasadena with gnarwhallaby on Thursday, USC on Friday, and then head north to the Bay Area on Sunday. Wherever you are in California, do not miss this concert.

Sarah Goldfeather, left, and Justine Aronson in performance as Cipher Duo

Sarah Goldfeather, left, and Justine Aronson in performance as Cipher Duo

The program starts with something a little familiar. Though I did not know this piece, I am well acquainted with a variety of Kaija Saariaho works. If you haven’t listened to Saariaho, start now. Changing Light (2002) is the is the perfect introduction to Saariaho, and to the Cipher Duo. The text is an English translation from Hebrew and explores the subject of the fragility of uncertain existence. Beginning simply enough, on the line “Light and darkness,” Aronson sings chilling poetry while Goldfeather floats above on harmonics. Like many Saariaho pieces, each part has a purpose and a goal, but their paths are unclear and meandering. The fact that this concert features only 21st-century works confirms, at least to me, that Kaija Saariaho is in line for Debussy’s crown as the essential composer to bridge the century gap.

The duo then takes on another English piece, also a philosophical musing. Rebekah Driscoll was inspired to write January: Brin’s Mesa (2016) when she observed new life emerging from the ashes of a forest fire in Arizona. From page to performance, Aronson and Goldfeather breathe life into the contemplative score. Listen for the small, organic changes – one can almost hear tendrils of plant life growing and emerging.

The middle piece of the program is a crowd-pleaser for the Californians. Even if you missed the event, you know about Hopscotch (2015). Cipher Duo performs Hopscotch Tarot by Veronika Krausas. In the Hopscotch holistic performance, the audience members could only hear two or three fortunes before getting ushered into the next limo. Here, Aronson and Goldfeather perform all twelve short movements, each one a tarot card reading from Fortuna. If you wanted more insight into the plot of Hopscotch, watch Aronson’s expressions, particularly when she smirks. Each fortune has its own character and style, and Aronson captures them all exquisitely.

The fourth piece of the show comes from Goldfeather herself. Come Back (2017) showcases Goldfeather’s experience as a singer/songwriter with an indie band. Though not in a typical verse-chorus form, the rest of the key elements to an indie song are present: simple lyrics, repetitive gestures, and a distinct sonority. For the first half of the piece, Aronson sings five words on five notes. But it isn’t minimalism. Goldfeather overlaps and dovetails the motives within and between the instruments. When a verse finally arrives, it hits the audience like a bucket of water. The first time a minor chord replaces a major chord, a collective chill went down the audience’s spines. I won’t give away what happens at the ending, but I can tell you it was perfect. After so many minutes of intricate looping, layering, and rearranging of motives, Goldfeather pulls off the perfect ending.

Finally, the duo ended on their namesake. Kate Soper’s Cipher (2011) is one of the most breathtaking violin and soprano pieces I have ever heard. The duo told the audience that Cipher explores timbre. As well as exploring musical dynamics and human dynamics, it wends between music, meaning, and language. The violin and the voice become shared objects. Sometimes both performers sing, speak, or finger the violin together. At times, they even swap. Each movement features conflicting voices and temperaments, such as Wittgenstein, Freud, and Guido d’Arezzo. The conjoining line, “People can understand you when you say something,” is frequently obscured. If nothing else has convinced you to see Cipher Duo this weekend, go for this. Cipher will blow your mind.

Review: Nicholas Chase: Bhajan

Cold Blue Music is releasing a new album by Nicholas Chase titled Bhajan (CB0046). An engaging mix of electronics and brilliant violin playing by Robin Lorentz, Bhajan is inspired by Hindu devotional music and the Indian raga. The four tracks of this CD are loosely connected by Western classical tonality, yet reflect a diversity achieved through “temporal freedom, melodic non-structure and fusions of musical genre…” The computer-driven electronic sounds realized by Mr. Chase and the sensitive violin playing of Ms. Lorentz make for an intriguing combination.

Bhajan album artThe first track, Bindu, begins with a series of thin electronic tones that gradually change in volume and pitch. More electronic elements are added, giving a sense of being in the presence of a metaphysical entity. A high repeating Eb violin figure becomes the focal point, fixing the listener’s attention while oscillations, whirring and clicking sounds add to the otherworldly feel. Towards the finish, as the violin figure becomes more strident, an electronic chorus appears and the piece morphs from the strange and anxious to the settled and serene. Bindu fashions an interesting emotional bridge between the familiar and the unknown.

Drshti, track 2, comes from a completely different place. A sharp, but deep bell-like tone opens the piece and a sustained violin-buzz is accompanied by a related drone in the electronics. There is a spiritual feeling to this – like standing in some remote Asian temple. The raspy, monotone pitches in the violin line have the rhythm and cadence of a spoken chant. About midway through, the drone and violin arrive at almost the same pitch, zero-beating, and this is soon accompanied by a stately melody in the electronics. The violin continues ‘speaking’ and the electronic chorus weaves in and around the violin and drone, adding to the strong devotional feeling. Towards the finish, a deep, satisfying bass appears in bursts of short phrases. The music quickly vanishes, as if swept away on the breeze. Drshti is very effective and beautifully extracts the liturgical essence of the ceremonial, even in the absence any specific context or intelligible text.

Japa is next and this track begins with rapid, quiet clicking sounds – followed by a short, vivid electronic phrase – and then silence. More electronic phrases follow, louder and more striking, while the soft clicking seems to move left-to-right at a rapid rate. Now the acoustic violin joins in with recognizably musical phrases, followed by silence. The electronic sounds are pure tones and act as background while the violin phrases are at the forefront by virtue of the familiar tone and timbre so that listener instinctively identifies with them. The periods of silence and the sense of movement in the electronic sounds add to the image of watching something approach and then fade away. The electronic sounds are swirling and amicable – not menacing or formidable – and they seem to be attracted to the violin, as if participating in a conversation. Japa finishes suddenly just as violin and electronics are in mid-phrase. The interaction of the electronics and playing of Ms. Lorenz is especially precise and well-coordinated.

Bhajan, the title track, is the most understated and stunningly effective piece of this album. A soft electronic drone is cleanly heard in the higher registers while a somber violin repeats mournful phrases below. The overall feeling is not one of sadness or melancholy, but rather of wistful reflection. It is very beautiful and does not wear, even as it continues in the same repeating patterns over its entire length. It has a hypnotic mysticism, as watching the sun slowly set over a calm ocean. Towards the finish there is more activity in the electronics, including a low hum that grows in volume. The violin skitters a bit, then recedes as a continuous sine tone, wavering slightly in pitch, fills the foreground. The violin persists, resuming its prominence as the electronics fade at the finish. Bhajan is a warm and comforting wash, introspective and reassuring as well as beautifully performed.

Ms. Lorentz has a formidable resume as an acoustic violinist that includes the music of John Luther Adams, Daniel Lentz, Michael Jon Fink, Jim Fox, the California EAR unit as well as Jerry Goldsmith and Michael Jackson. To this must be added Bhajan, a masterly collaboration with the electronic music of Nicholas Chase. The art of ensemble playing with other acoustic musicians is, of course, a highly regarded virtue. The ability to play closely and sensitively with music realized by electronics must now be included in the arts of the acoustic musician. Ms. Lorentz and Nicholas Chase have set a standard in Bhajan that others would do well to emulate.

Bhajan is available directly from Cold Blue Music starting January 20, 2017.

 

Album Preview: Hopscotch

I’m submitting this as my review of the soon-to-be-released recording of The Industry’s Hopscotch opera project, but here’s the thing: No such thing exists. Conceived by The Industry’s Artistic Director, Yuval Sharon, Hopscotch was an opera presented in the fall of 2015 in twenty four cars driving between a number of locations scattered around Los Angeles. At the start of each performance, a few audience members would get into each of the cars along with a group of performers, and would then experience part of the opera en route to the next physical location, where they’d see another scene before being whisked away in another car. To make matters more confounding, the cars travelled along three different routes, meaning that any given audience member could only see part of the whole in any given performance. Only at the very end did all of the routes converge on a central location for the final scene.

Needless to say, this project doesn’t lend itself easily to a traditional recording. Do you present each of the car routes as a unit to approximate the experience of attending? Do you present the scenes in order to give a view of the work impossible for someone who attended it to have seen? How do you balance the inside of a limo against an open-air concrete bank of the Los Angeles River?

Difficult questions, and ones without obvious answers. Fortunately, with current technology, we can sidestep some of them. With the album released as files on a flash drive instead of tracks on a CD, you’re free to open them in any order and explore the world of this opera as you see fit. You can follow each of the car routes separately, play everything in the order of the plot, or even sort things out by individual composer or lyricist. (There were six primary composers for the project and six primary librettists, all working in a range of different styles in their respective fields.) The liner notes — in the form of a wide-ranging interview with Sharon and Josh Raab, the opera’s dramaturg — encourage this kind of self-guided exploration, though elsewhere in the booklet there are some helpful lists of which tracks to listen to to follow which routes.

Unsurprisingly, given the range of artists that contributed to this project, the tracks cover a lot of ground. “Lucha’s Quinceñera Song” (music by David Rosenboom and text by Janine Salinas Schoenberg) is a sweetly plaintive verse-chorus affair, while “Floats the Roving Nebula” (music by Ellen Reid and text by Mandy Kahn) hovers in an ecstatic crystalline stasis. “Jameson and Lucha in the Park” (music by Mark Lowenstein and text by Erin Young) presents a tightly controlled dance number coordinated with spoken dialogue, while other spoken sections feature music improvised by the contemporary performing group Gnarwhallaby. The plot is a surreally altered (but predictably heterosexual) retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, and snatches of Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 treatment of the same myth rub up against bristlingly contemporary soundscapes. There are as many contrasts as there are tracks on the album.

Such stylistic diversity can make for an uneven listening experience, especially when paired with the differing qualities of the recordings. Some of the tracks are beautifully mastered studio takes, while others are invaluable field recordings from the site-specific scenes around town. Obviously, there’s room enough in the world for both of these approaches to recording, but repeatedly switching back and forth with such short notice can be a little jarring. (So perhaps another fruitful approach to organizing your listening could be to tackle all the field recordings followed by all the studio takes, or vice versa.)

These slight jars, however, feel in keeping with the nature of the project. Hopscotch the opera wasn’t a singular experience as much as it was a collection of possible experiences, and Hopscotch the album follows suit. There’s no one single recording of the work; there’s a collection of possible recordings all dizzyingly contained on a single flash drive. Elsewhere in the liner notes, Sharon describes the piece not as an opera but as a web, a series of interconnected points with many possible paths leading between them, none more inherently valid than any of the others. The more I listen to the album, the more this description feels right. This album isn’t a documentation or presentation of an artistic event that happened and is now over, it’s an invitation to enter into this world and explore it on your own terms, to find your own way through the work’s myriad winding paths, to make the piece yours as only you can. It’s an opera in twenty four cars, and you’re the one behind the wheel.

You can order the “album” at records.theindustryla.org/album/hopscotch.

The Industry is presenting two events on January 20 to celebrate the release. Details are below:

Panel discussion
Friday, January 20 (4 pm)
USC, Wallis Annenberg Hall (ANN), Room L105A
3630 Watt Way, Los Angeles
Panelists include composers Veronika Krausas and Marc Lowenstein, Yuval Sharon of The Industry, and arts journalists Mark Swed and Sasha Anawalt (moderator).

Hopscotch in Concert
Friday, January 20 (7:30 pm)
USC, Newman Recital Hall (AHF)
3616 Trousdale Parkway, Los Angeles
This special evening emceed by director Yuval Sharon will be the first live concert of songs from the opera. Six chapters from the work will be performed (one from each of its six composers), including the expansive choral finale by Andrew Norman. 

Areon Flutes: “Thrive”

As a fellow Miyazawa flutist, I could hardly contain my excitement about this review. Thrive is Areon Flutes’ third full album release and innova Recordings debut. The flute chamber music ensemble upholds a dogma of revitalizing chamber music for 21st-century audiences. In May 2008, Areon Flutes was awarded the Bronze Medal at the prestigious Fischoff Chamber Music Competition in Notre Dame, Indiana, the first flute chamber music ensemble to do so in thirty-five years. In 2015 they were hailed as one of the most memorable live performers by the San Francisco Examiner. This album Thrive features compositions by Elainie Lillios, Cornelius Boots, and Mike Sempert, and performances by the core trio of Areon Flutes: Jill Heinke, Kassey Plaha, and Sasha Launer.

Areon Flutes - ThriveLillios’s Summer Sketches, the winner of Areon’s 2014 International Composition Competition, begins with a playful, wandering flute solo. Two more flutes join in and engage in an aural game of hide-and-seek. At times the music describes an action like skipping and diving, and other times seems more onomatopoetic. The two movements, “Skating on Discs of Light” and “Dry Wind,” follow ants running past a picnic, mosquitos buzzing past your ear, spiders creeping toward their prey, and dragonflies dive-bombing the lazy river. Unorthodox tone color, hums, trills, percussive tongue and finger slaps, flutters and growls used on the whole flute family evoke these quintessential insectoid summer sounds. This broad exploration of sounds and soundscape makes sense for an electroacoustic composer flexing her flute trio muscles. Lillios gives a voice to every insect, spider, and bug. Summer Sketches evokes a 21st-century variation of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux combined with a modernized Das Jahr (Hensel), compacted into two movements.

Cornelius Boots’s Chthonic Flute Suite, commissioned by Areon Flutes, takes the listener on a journey through the underworld. The first movement, “Root of Ether,” begins with a calm, solo meditation. About a minute in, the player exhales poignantly; upon this ‘last breath,’ the tempo picks up and the listener approaches the allegorical rabbit hole. The next movement, “Enantiodromia,” kicks off with a loud chord, and then the three flutes move in and out of sync with each other, taking turns with the melody and turning counterpoint on its head. This middle movement of Chthonic Flute Suite suggests diving down the rabbit hole and finding the underworld. ‘Enantiodromia’ is the concept that any force inevitably produces its opposite, usually towards equilibrium. This is quite possibly my favorite piece on the album for the sheer amount of fun I had listening to the twists and turns. As the name suggests, the piece moves in cycles of turning, reversing, and toppling – on an unrelated note, I just found the perfect word to describe politics. The third movement of Boots’s journey, “Void of Day” opens with a wan panpipe solo. The anemic yet cheerful tune gives way as the trio volleys melodies between each other, forming a collage of scenes from the underworld. At the midpoint, the music suddenly becomes somber and churchlike. Boots changes the mood on a dime. A great gravity overcomes the prior mystique. This does not last until the end, for as the name suggests, the void is coming! After nearly a minute of frantic chordal chuffing, the flutes arpeggiate up and…nothing. Boots saw the opportunity and took it – the void swallows the piece before it can conclude.

The last piece on this album is Uncanny Valley by Mike Sempert, commissioned by Areon Flutes. This gentle three-part counterpoint in the beginning evokes relaxing video games like Journey, Flower, and Thomas Was Alone. I choose this comparison conscientiously. The video games listed are all simple stories concerning man versus machine and are renowned for their unique (and pleasant) soundtracks. When the synthesizer enters, the piece takes on its own soul. Stumbling rhythms, harmonious electronic dance sounds and waltz-like melodies in the flutes offer a glimpse into a halting conversation between artificial intelligence and organic beings. The two halves of this multi-sided duet (organic flutes vs artificial synthesizers seek and fail to find common musical ground. The synthesizers eventually cut out, and the three flutes come together more united than before. This is a track I put on repeat and imagine a different story for each playthrough. It feels like a science fiction story put into music, and I have the pleasure of deciphering it.

Thrive easily earns a spot in my top five albums of 2016. Every track is easy to listen to, and the more you listen, the more levels of appreciation you gain. There is very little showing off, which frankly is something of a relief. So many compositions and performances are downright acrobatic nowadays. Finding a composition without virtuosity for flashy virtuosity’s sake is becoming a rare treasure. It is said that a true master makes something difficult seem easy; Areon Flutes embodies this concept and makes modern compositions for chamber ensembles accessible and pleasurable to all.

Thrive is available from Innova Music at innova.mu/albums/areon-flutes/thrive, and from iTunes, Amazon, and other music retailers.

Akhnaten: Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Resurrected at LA Opera

The daughters of Akhnaten. (Photo: Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera)

The daughters of Akhnaten. (Photo: Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera)

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.

A scene from "Akhnaten." (Photo: Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera)

A scene from “Akhnaten.” (Photo: Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera)

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.

Arresting Stillness

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 Operafrom the original, faster version of the Stuttgart State Opera.

At center, Frederick Ballentine as the High Priest of Amon in "Akhnaten." (Photo: Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera)

At center, Frederick Ballentine as the High Priest of Amon in “Akhnaten.” (Photo: Craig T. Mathew / LA 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.

Adapting Musically

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:

Anthony Roth Costanzo (center) in the title role of "Akhnaten." (Photo: Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera)

Anthony Roth Costanzo (center) in the title role of “Akhnaten.” (Photo: Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera)

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.

Anthony Roth Costanzo in the title role of "Akhnaten." (Photo: Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera)

Anthony Roth Costanzo in the title role of “Akhnaten.” (Photo: Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera)

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.”

Synchromy + HOCKET present Crusoe at LACC

Composer/pianist/HOCKET member Sarah Gibson emptying out a treasure chest during Synchromy's performance of Rzewski's Crusoe.

Composer/pianist/HOCKET member Sarah Gibson emptying out a treasure chest during Synchromy’s performance of Rzewski’s Crusoe. Photo by Adam Borecki.

If there were any doubts that the LA new-music scene is in the midst of a surfeit of musical and aesthetic diversity, Synchromy and HOCKET’s evening of music, titled Crusoe, on November 5 should certainly quell them. The playing, centering on Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff of the piano duo HOCKET, and later adding a larger ensemble, was truly exceptional: precise, expressive, virtuosic where needed, yet playful, even comedic where possible.

The concert’s first half was comprised of four compositions for piano-four-hands by four local, living LA composers.

Alexander Elliott Miller’s Clock Smasher made for a striking and auspicious beginning. As its title might suggest, the opening motif, in four hands in ascent, burst open a vivid sonic palette that would traverse and transmogrify in interesting and musically satisfying ways.

Composer Alexander Elliott Miller, here playing guitar with Linnea Powell, viola, on Synchromy's performance of Crusoe. Photo by Adam Borecki.

Composer Alexander Elliott Miller, here playing guitar with Linnea Powell, viola, on Synchromy’s performance of Crusoe. Photo by Adam Borecki.

In his program note Miller makes mention of the “… polyrhythms, many of which do have a sort of ‘tick-tock’ quality, like a room full of out-of-sync clocks.” This is most certainly accurate but it only begins to suggest the variety and vitality of harmonic and gestural realms it creates and explores. Clock Smasher teases us at first with a metronomic, pulsed music which evolves into something ominously hovering, then interrupted by syncopated rhythms infused with quasi-jazz harmonies. Even the mention of the “J Word” is sometimes frowned upon – personally, I don’t frown upon it – but regardless of what that might suggest to you, this is certainly not a jazz composition. But that isn’t to say that it doesn’t flirt with tonality, some very lovely melodies and, at times, even hints at something Bill Evans might have mused about at the keyboard.   This music, as Miller’s notes suggest, does subvert its own idiomatic tendencies with those irregular rhythms, to my ear something of a this-is-definitely-NOT-jazz insistence, which then somehow, artfully evolves into a spacious, airy coda, punctuated by big, long and spacious chords. A poignant, striking work.

The next piece on the program was Marc EvansOne Wandering Night. This piece was for a slightly varied configuration of HOCKET in that Ms. Gibson remained on the piano while Mr. Kotcheff moved to an electric keyboard and they were augmented by the addition of two melodicas (played by the composer and Nick Norton).

Fun fact: I went to a Joe Jackson concert when I was a kid, probably around 1980. He whipped out a melodica and declared it “The Instrument of the Future!” Perhaps he was right. I do hear a lot of melodica at new music concerts these days.

Evans’ piece was inspired by Bartok and that came through clearly enough. There is always the danger of being on the wrong side of the line separating homage from uninspired imitation. Fortunately, One Wandering Night falls decidedly on the right side of that line. While the melodicas played a sort of wheezing Eastern European Bartokian ostinato, definitely and pleasantly reminiscent of Bartok’s own take on modal folk melody, the piano and electric keyboard sputtered and interjected their own contrasting bits. I found this particularly satisfying as it reminded me, on a simple level, of Bartok’s own 2-handed piano trickery, where the two hands remain, stubbornly, in their own domain (key, mode, register) despite any discord that stubborn autonomy might produce. And on a more complex level, it reminded me of one of my very favorite pieces of music, Messiaen’s jardin du sommeil d’amour, a movement from his Turangalîla-Symphonie. While the melodic and harmonic technique is quite different in Messiaen’s masterpiece, a similar bifurcation and their disorienting affect is in play.

L to R: Marc Evans, Sarah Gibson, Nick Norton, and Thomas Kotcheff perform Evans' One Wandering Night.

L to R: Marc Evans, Sarah Gibson, Nick Norton, and Thomas Kotcheff perform Evans’ One Wandering Night.

And playful it is. As the piece progresses, the tempo of the melodicas’ pumping melody increases and the interjections become more intense until, like a tired Hungarian hiker on the banks of the Danube, all four instruments slow down until they reach total repose. I must admit to being completely unfamiliary with Evans’ work but if this piece is at all representative of his musical sensibilities, then I definitely want to hear more.

Nick Norton told us from the stage that his Mirror Smasher was a number of things. He said it was “minimalisty” (and as such, “easy to write”), loud, and a work in progress. This piece was, again, for the four deft hands of HOCKET, and in fact even the pitch material itself was produced and ordered by them. The unordered (or, to quote the program, “played about a zillion different ways, as if looking at it in a broken mirror”) pitch set is:

H O C K E T = B G C D E F#

Yet again, HOCKET played beautifully. The piece begins with a clear tonal center, pulsing along as “minimalisty” pieces often do. But not long into the playing, a pre-recorded track of electronic sounds makes its presence known.

Norton’s choice of electronic sounds – both their timbre and idiomatic qualities – were a highlight for me. The combination of the smooth, hypnotic four-handed piano combined with the somewhat Kraftwerky buzzes, gently evolving into higher pitched electronic sounds reminiscent of some of the organ work in Einstein on the Beach really made for a powerful electro-acoustic marriage.

About halfway into Mirror Smasher the volume cranks up significantly. (The composer warned us of this before the performance. There will be no lawsuits.) If there was a hint of Einstein before the knob was turned, now the Einsteinian character felt married to something more like Heavy Metal, even Rock Opera. (Norton’s program note says that the title is a nod to Alex Miller’s Clock Smasher but I couldn’t help wonder if it might, even subconsciously, have any connection to The Who’s Do I Smash The Mirror, from Tommy. OK, probably not, but still…) OK, Rock Opera is misleading at best, demeaning at worst. But Mirror Smasher’s loud second half is formidable, powerful, and I could easily imagine it, as the composer suggested, being extended into a much longer Minimalist work. While different in pitched/melodic material, it reminded me, in a very good way, of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music in its powerful, gyrating and relentless sonic attack.

The program’s first half concluded with Jason Barabba’s The Distance of the Moon. The piece takes its title from a story in Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics of the same name. Calvino’s work is a collection of clever, fanciful tales, sometimes mischievous, sometimes romantic and nostalgic, often subverting our expectations if not the laws of nature as we’ve come to understand them. Calvino’s Distance of the Moon is a story about the moon, which, once upon a time, existed but a hop away from the Earth, but is now gradually moving farther and farther away. As the two spheres continue to distance themselves from each other, the inhabitants abandon the moon for the Earth. All but one of them, who decides to remain, forever, stranded alone on the moon.

Barabba’s musical interpretation of the story is itself a clever, fanciful tale. But unlike the rather light quality of the short story, it is a significant, weighty work. This is not to say that it isn’t imbued with moments of lightness – it is! – but it is not a mere bagatelle, but rather a significant musical and pianistic undertaking. Distance of the Moon was originally composed for a single pianist (presumably the two-handed kind) but as such it was almost impossible to play. I can all too easily believe this. Even in its two-person version, it is quite challenging.

Stylistically, it manages to explore a number of moods and idiomatic gestures yet still most definitely feel like a coherent, unified work. Moments of romantic, almost tonal passages intermingle deftly with strong, almost Schoenbergian dissonances. Lugubrious night music passages transition into stumbling, irregular rhythms with almost-BeBop melodic lines.

In the end, analogous to the story on which its based, Distance makes us feel the separation, the yearning, the tension hoping, however in vain, for a resolution. It ends, fragile and sparse, in a delicate and beautiful diad. Two notes at either end of the piano keyboard. A deep work, and one that I suspect would definitely reward repeat hearings and analysis.

Then came an intermission. If this had been a meal, I would have felt not full but satisfied. This was a chunk of concert that delivered four works of diverse character yet not, as a whole, illogically incongruent. But wait, there’s more…

The second half began with Mayke NasDiGiT #2.  (For the curious, I don’t think there’s a DiGiT #1.)  For those who don’t know (I didn’t), Ms. Nas is a Dutch composer, born in 1972. I don’t know how her work wound up on this program but it was a perfect palette cleanser. DiGiT is, to my ear, entirely devoid of a single specified pitch for any of the four hands, or four forearms, or two foreheads that activate the piano keys. It is, to be clear, a humorous bit of performance, perhaps a commentary on what we consider to be “high art.” It also allows a piano duo to highlight a different take on virtuosity.

DiGiT centers itself around a variation of our childhood schoolyard hand jive or clapping game that involves an intricate collaborative clapping between two people (usually young girls), while simultaneously singing a rhyme. (Shimmy Shimmy Cocoa Pop! was the one the Black girls bussed into my Queens elementary school taught me). DiGiT, however, is inspired by another favorite, Oh Little Playmate. It is not only a charming work – one that HOCKET obviously enjoyed immensely – but even a virtuosic one, albeit in a very different way. Piano keys are only played in clusters, but other sounds arise from the intricate interplay of the two pianists’ strikes against the palms, arms, and thighs of themselves and each other. The rhythms are at times satisfyingly smooth, even evoking soft shoe dance moves in their elegance and grace. It’s very much a performance piece, and, if you like, you can see an older performance of it (not by HOCKET, but by eighth blackbird, here:

The concert itself was billed under the title of CRUSOE. The grand finale, so to speak, was Frederic Rzewski’s composition of that name. Rzewski, born in 1938, is seen as a somewhat enigmatic figure of the 20th century avant-garde, someone who studied with “Uptown” and Princeton figures (Babbitt, et al.) yet whose own musical output butterflied effortlessly among genres widely, from serialism to minimalism. His works are coherent and easy to describe in and of themselves. But to describe what a “Rzewski piece” might be is near impossible.

Isaac Schankler, Thomas Kotcheff, and Nick Norton performing Rzewski's Crusoe. Photo by Adam Borecki.

Isaac Schankler, Thomas Kotcheff, and Nick Norton performing Rzewski’s Crusoe. Photo by Adam Borecki.

As for Crusoe, where to begin? First of all, it was a delight! Which is not to say that it was necessarily such a delight on the page, but Synchromy upped the dose for our viewing pleasure. The stage was adorned with a backdrop of a deserted island, inflatable palm trees and beach balls. A large ensemble adorned themselves a la Castaway, with everything from light headgear to a stuffed parrot on a shoulder to, in the case of one player (Mr. Norton, on guitar) a full-on shark suit! It was most definitely an aesthetic choice, not one dictated by the score, and I found it to be a wise one which bore much (tropical?) fruit.

Crusoe employs a performing force of unspecified instruments, requires its players to sing and chant various lines about Robinson Crusoe, play percussion instruments, and do other things that might make a Musicians Union bristle. The vocal sections are interspersed among bright, quite lovely pointillistic instrumental episodes. As such, Crusoe is reminiscent at times of some of Harry Partch’s better works, albeit without the microtonal schema.

Soprano Justine Aronson performing Rzewski's Crusoe with Synchromy and HOCKET. Photo by Adam Borecki.

Soprano Justine Aronson performing Rzewski’s Crusoe with Synchromy and HOCKET. Photo by Adam Borecki.

After various chants, instrumental interludes, spilling of doubloons, breaking of branches, dusting off of hands, tinkling of toy pianos, swords whirred as they are raised in the air, heads patted, feet stomped, the Narrator (sung by Justine Aronson) comes forth to chant the last line. At which point she is pelted by the ensemble with beach balls. The End! (I won’t call the Union if you don’t.)

As I said, Rzewski is enigmatic. And Crusoe is no less an enigma. Did this performance, and this piece, provide any insight into the tale of Robinson Crusoe? No, not really. Did it give me a sense of what Rzewski’s compositional voice was? Well, kinda sorta, inasmuch as only one of his pieces might. But more importantly, it was a perfect end to Synchromy’s ambitious concert, a perfect counterweight to an already diverse and profound selection of our community’s musical wealth.