Reviews

Shannon Knox, Micaela Tobin, Sharon Chohi Kim’s Unseal Unseam is not easily forgotten

Unseal Unseam, the title of an hour-long experimental chamber opera presented on October 6th and 7th  at Highways Performance Space, doesn’t give much away in terms of the rich programmatic soil from which it grew. This palimpsest of a piece by Shannon Knox, Micaela Tobin, and Sharon Chohi Kim developed through multiple iterations of MFA projects which responded to Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle (A kékszakállú herceg vára), which itself is influenced by previous settings of a French literary version of an even older folktale. Unseal Unseam seeks to recast Bartok’s female victim as heroine. Elevating and centering female subjectivity is the project at hand, and this nastiest of fairy tales couldn’t be a riper subject.

Unseal Unseam. Photo by Katie Stenberg.

Unseal Unseam. Photo by Katie Stenberg.

For the uninitiated, the original folktale of Bluebeard boils down to a cautionary tale about the unknowability of abusive husbands and the price of female curiosity. In most versions of the story, a nobleman with an unearthly blue beard selects a new wife from a small village. Whisked to his opulent castle after a shotgun wedding, the new bride is entrusted with a set of keys and a warning that all rooms may be opened save one. Of course the curious wife opens the door to the forbidden room, wherein she finds all Bluebeard’s previous wives dead, dripping blood, in some versions, hanging on hooks. She is subsequently caught by Bluebeard, and either dies similarly, or is saved by some handy brothers ex machina.

The tale can either be read as a literal warning against male violence, or perhaps more subtly as a warning against the horrors revealed in men by unsuspecting women who probe too far, desire too much power, or demand too much from their spouses.

The plot itself is a little thin, so in Bartok’s version, the locked doors number seven, each revealing a new treat: a torture chamber, an armory with terrifying weapons, a treasury with blood-spattered coins, a garden with flowers watered by blood, a pool of tears, an entire kingdom whose clouds are darkened by – you guessed it, blood, and the final chamber entombing Bluebeard’s dead wives. It is unclear how much of this exponentially unbelievable drama is literal and how much is psychological torment, but either way, the terrifying portrait of a serial killer is not soon forgotten.

It is this melange of folk and classical creepiness with which Unseal Unseam wrestles. Before Unseal Unseam is fully started, as the audience chats and catches up, one performer quietly conjures electronic whines with pedals on the floor, nearly inaudible to the meandering crowd, invisible to society. Another performer sits stiffly at a white piano as the lights dim and a scene begins on the concrete floor. Three wives enter in voluminous black skirts, connected by red cords bound over their faces as Judith, in beige, crochets a net with her hands. The group slowly unfurl their cords, their choreographed liberation punctuated by slams of the piano lid, plonks of prepared piano strings, and hocketed, dissonant phrases of “locked… what was locked?” and “Where did this happen? Outside or within?” These snippets of plot hints are as concrete as the libretto’s narrative gets, but the haunting, spare music and visual drama unfolding are so enrapturing that not knowing what’s going on doesn’t much matter. The attention to visual impact, from costumes to props, choreography to lighting, is intoxicatingly stunning, especially given a limited budget.

Unseal Unseam. Photo by Katie Stenberg.

Unseal Unseam. Photo by Katie Stenberg.

Similar scenes unfold in different areas throughout the space, from a domestic scene with broken plates used as percussion, to a particularly arresting scene of the women singing through hands over their mouths – both their own and sculpted plaster male hands which flare into trombone-like bells. The audience moved reverently throughout these transitions, naturally matching the ceremonial pace of all involved.

Each of these scene changes is meant to represent one of the seven rooms from Bartok’s original opera, and in some cases, this is clear, as in the pool of tears represented by three amplified cylinders full of water into which are dipped vibrating chimes, and the final tomb, a spectacle of the women singing “open the doors and you will find us” while smoke is somehow magically kept within the bounds of an invisible cube. But, it seems nearly impossible to determine where each door stops and start, and when we are in each chamber. Bartok’s original is present in the overall sense of suspended terror, but everything feels fractured – the throughline of Judith’s own subjectivity has broken even the physical structure of his castle.

Chohi Kim and Tobin’s music itself is built from a balanced palette of hypnotic, cyclical vocal ostinati, lyrical aria duets, earthy classically-structured cello lines, atmospheric electronic manipulation of acoustic phenomena (bowed and rubbed metal, amplified water, rubbing a steel wool-like substance over a microphone) and aggressive metallic percussion (throwing metal objects into a resonant tin). The music is very clearly workshopped, organically developed to flow between performers. It breathes. When the singers do let their full bel canto powers unfurl a few feet from audience members after such restraint, the effect is either hair-raising or paralyzingly beautiful, or perhaps both.

To do service to Bartok, in the original, Judith is hardly a two-dimensional opera character. Neither larger nor smaller than life, Bartok’s Judith is nervy, exhibiting both love and strength and moving Bluebeard with her agency: “I will dry these dripping walls. With my lips, I will dry them. I will warm the cold stone. With my body, I will warm it… together we will overcome these walls… I will have no doors closed to me.”

But of course, by the end, she pays with her life for these transgressions and assumptions of power. In Bartok’s version, Judith may temporarily exercise the power to open doors, but Bluebeard himself is still the defining palace in which her dramas unfold and ultimately end.

In Unseal Unseam, Bluebeard himself is all but erased. Judith is the setting and the actors, the past and the present. In some ways, she seems even more victimized. She is reacting in relation to Bluebeard’s castle, but his personage seems melted into the furniture, a memory she is trying to expunge. At one point, two Judiths appear and she sings to herself disconnectedly about her body, as if trying to gain power over her own objectification. As composers Micaela Tobin and Chohi Kim explained, “…we wanted to re-focus the story on Bluebeard’s wife Judith, and make it about how she was unlocking–unsealing, the doors to her own story… In our version, Judith eventually unlocks the door that reveals her true self, and finds the empowerment and self-love she needs to walk through the final door out of her psychological purgatory.

Was the project effective? Nearly all the audience members seemed moved afterward, and it’s hard to imagine that the dazzling impact of the visual effects could have been lost on anyone. Judith didn’t seem as completely freed from her bondage as the composers might have hoped, but there are things more authentic than an effectively happy ending. Quietly undergirding the entire project was the testimony of actual domestic violence survivors. Composers Micaela Tobin and Sharon Chohi Kim note, “Shannon, Sharon, and I decided that the design and structure … needed to be informed by the truths of actual survivors of domestic violence… every prop, color, and texture you witnessed in this production came from the anonymous answers to our questions.”  The project may not have completely succeeded in transmuting pain into power, but such a success is almost never achieved. More viscerally present, and perhaps more important, were chilling intimacies of abuse which were recognizable, disturbing at a level we almost never choose to experience, and like Bartok’s, not easily forgotten.

 

Hocket and Friends in Pasadena

On Saturday, September 30, 2017 People Inside Electronics presented HOCKET along with special guests Vicki Ray, Aron Kallay and Derek Tywoniuk at the historic Throop Church in Pasadena. The varied program included a world premiere by Samuel Wells, a minimalist landmark work by Steve Reich from 1970, and an unusual piece for three toy pianos. The auditorium was filled to capacity for the first People Inside Electronics concert of the fall season.

The first part of the concert was given over to the world premiere of The Lacuna (2017), by Samuel Wells. HOCKET – Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff – were seated at the piano while the composer manned a computer behind the audience. Soft, dreamy electronics filled the stage to open the piece. A strong chord marked the entrance of the piano, followed by a series of sparse notes adding to the solitary, remote feeling coming from the electronics. The four hands of HOCKET soon began producing a great profusion of notes from the piano, accompanied by the sound of lapping water. As the piano went silent for a moment, a more tentative and uncertain feeling prevailed as if we were standing on some distant shore. A series of softly repeating arpeggios then began in the piano – reprocessed by the computer and echoed through the speakers – and this was very effective in creating a quiet, settled feeling. At length the piano became more rapidly active and a sort of conversation ensued with the electronic reprocessing of the acoustic sounds.

At one point a dance-like groove broke out, growing in volume and generating a pleasantly warm feeling, much welcomed after the prior remoteness. The cycle of emotions continued, sometimes animated and with counterpoint, sometimes hopeful and at other times dramatic and anxious. The piano and electronic processing were amazingly well-coordinated, each complimenting the other to generate a wide range of expressive sensations. The electronics became a natural partner to the excellent playing by Hocket, even in the fastest and most intricate stretches. The Lacuna is a cutting edge work that does much to validate the capability of electronic reprocessing when joined in real time with skilled piano playing.

qsqsqsqsqqqqqqqqq (2009) by Tristan Perich followed the intermission and three toy pianos equipped with three-channel 1-bit tones were occupied by Vicki Ray, Kotcheff and Gibson. They opened with an unexpectedly bright and vivid sound, full of rapid passages and precise counterpoint that filled the space with a pleasingly playful energy. The 1-bit electronics augmented the normally modest dynamics of the toy pianos, adding a whimsical arcade game sensibility. There was some minimalist DNA in all of this, but the phrasing was more compact and the harmonic changes more engagingly frequent. Intricate layers of notes poured forth from the players, with sudden stops and grand pauses sprinkled throughout. All of this was skillfully performed, a feat made more remarkable by the cramped postures necessitated by sitting at the small instruments. qsqsqsqsqqqqqqqqq is a surprisingly attractive and inventive piece for unlikely musical forces, delivered with precision and style by HOCKET and Ms. Ray.

Orizzonte (2004) by Missy Mazzoli for solo piano and electronics was next, performed by Gibson. A clear, slowly pulsing tone issued from the speakers to begin, followed by a series of single piano notes that were close in pitch to that of the electronics. Open chords were soon heard in the piano producing a somber feel and as the piece proceeded the phrases by Ms. Gibson turned more complex and darkly dramatic. The playing here was satisfyingly expressive as the texture gradually became more dense and colored by variations in the dynamics. The piano wove intricate passages in and around the electronic tone which remained more or less constant in pitch and timbre. The simple electronics proved to be surprisingly effective as the foundation for the strongly plaintive mood. Orizzonte artfully combines skilled playing with a straightforward electronic accompaniment in a way that augments each to the benefit of the whole.

Musique de Tables (1987) by Thierry De Mey contained three solid tablets equipped with contact mics on a narrow table. Ray, Gibson and Kotcheff were seated so that their hands, fists and fingers could easily contact the surface of the tablet. The auditorium was completely darkened and the players wore LED head lamps so that the motion of their hands was highlighted as they performed. All of the possibilities of hands and fingers on a flat surface were adroitly explored in this piece, often with striking results. There was, of course, drumming with all three players in unison or separately weaving complex passages and this was often reminiscent of a marching band drum line. There was the tapping of fingers and pounding with fists. There was rubbing of palms and scratching on the surface of the tablets as well as hands clapping, all making for an effective contrast with the more dominant percussive sounds. In the darkness it often felt as if we were witnessing some primal ceremony in a remote village. Musique de Tables is a wonderfully imaginative piece made all the more impressive by the simplicity of the materials, the staging and the ingenious lighting.

The final work on the program was Four Organs (1970) by Steve Reich. Vicki Ray and Aron Kallay joined HOCKET at keyboards on a table in the center of the audience. Derek Tywoniuk began the piece with a steady and continuous eighth-note pulse from two maracas. Four Organs is early Reich, and it was one of his first pieces to be performed for a large audience at a concert by the Boston Symphony in 1971. In his book Writings on Music, Reich wrote that Four Organs was “…composed exclusively of the gradual augmentation of individual tones within a single chord. From the beginning to the end there are no changes of pitch or timbre; all changes are rhythmic and simply consist of gradually increasing durations.” The process-driven feel of this piece is immediately apparent from the beginning and it slowly unfolds with an unrelenting rigor. As the pitches lengthened, the chord took on a sort of grandeur as the tones were allowed to ring out. The playing by all was both accurate and disciplined as Four Organs uncoiled along its deliberate course – a nice reminder of the early days of minimalism.

People Inside Electronics continues to explore the many possibilities of acoustic and electronic collaboration in ways that consistently create good music. Their concert will be Sunday, October 15, 2017 at the Throop Church and will feature cellist Ashley Bathgate.

Alex Wand: The Great Hunt

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.

Daniel Lentz – River of 1,000 Streams

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.

River of 1,000 Streams is available directly from Cold Blue Music and also Amazon Music beginning August 18.

Scot Ray and Vicki Ray: Yar

Vicki Ray and Scot Ray

Vicki Ray and Scot Ray

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.

2. Biology

  • 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.

Lyris Quartet, Moira Smiley at Music & Conversations

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.

Moira Smiley with the Lyris Quartet

Moira Smiley with the Lyris Quartet

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.

Lukas Ligeti, the Gőz-Kurtág-Lukács Trio, and the Vision of Moholy-Nagy

Sitting in Bing Theater in the heart of Los Angeles, I found myself experiencing a unique insight into Hungarian culture at The Vision of Moholy-Nagy and Contemporary Music. The performance was timed to coincide with the Moholy-Nagy exhibition Future Present at LACMA. In all fairness, there was a dose of German culture mixed in too, since the ideals of the Bauhaus school (of which the Hungarian painter and photographer Moholy-Nagy was a prominent figure) were a resonating theme throughout the evening. The performers came from all over: Hungary, yes, but also Los Angeles and New York. True to the Bauhaus movement, different approaches to music, technology, and art were combined, necessitating the concert to be a multi-disciplinary event – even the walk to the theater involved passing some pretty spectacular sculptures and architecture.

The Gőz-Kurtág-Lukács Trio at LACMA's Bing Theater

The Gőz-Kurtág-Lukács Trio at LACMA’s Bing Theater

The concert began with the fearless GőzKurtágLukács Trio, who performed various selections of electro-acoustic works on cimbalom, trombone/bass trumpet/seashells, and synthesizer/computer, with mesmerizing visualizations by Szabolcs Kerestes. Partly through-composed and partly improvised, these works were a collective microcosm of the Hungarian classical electronic music scene, a creatively vital genre during the repressive decades of state socialism. Their performance transported me to a meditative, almost spiritual state, yet somehow simultaneously rooted me with technical, detailed focus. I was entranced by the immaculate, reverberant textures, ranging from pointillist and chaotic to celestial and broadly gestural. The accompanying visualizations featured rapidly moving lines, shapes, and colors, and were directly responsive to live sound. The exception to this rule was György Ligeti’s graphic score to Artikulation, which was comically incredible to watch on a big screen with surround sound.

Lukas Ligeti, who recently moved to Southern California for a new teaching position at UCI, was the featured composer after intermission. The art of the Bauhaus movement, and of Moholy-Nagy, seems to have a marked influence on Ligeti’s music, which showed impressive breadth, experimentation, and proportional symmetry. He presented three works with varying instrumentation and compositional approaches. The first, Language: PROUN: music (2016), had its west coast premiere by soprano Ariadne Grief and wild Up members Matthew Barbier (trombone), Matthew Cook (vibraphone), Derek Stein (cello), and Andrew Tholl (violin). The piece itself is a reaction to Moholy-Nagy’s exhibition Future Present, and follows the Bauhaus tradition in its unconventional exploration of balance and symmetry (however, this is done on Ligeti’s own terms). While in many cases text is made to fit the cadences of music, Ligeti turns the usual plot on its head by allowing the natural rhythm of freely-flowing speech to entirely dictate the music. Continuing on with the natural progression of this idea, the instrumentalists follow the cadences led by the soprano, which Ariadne Grief accomplished with radiant, playful sincerity.

Members of wild Up perform Lukas Ligeti's piece, Language: PROUN: music

Members of wild Up perform Lukas Ligeti’s piece, Language: PROUN: music

Next was Thinking Songs (2015), a fiercely virtuosic five-movement work for solo marimba. Few marimbists could have pulled it off like Ji Hye Jung – she not only played it perfectly, but also somehow made it look easy (in fact, she danced through the hardest parts). The technical expertise required for movements such as Four-Part Invention and Dance was matched by a musical expressivity that was stunning to behold. The composition itself took us an incredible musical journey: exploiting timbral possibilities with different mallets in Dance, slow-moving lines in Lamento, technical impossibilities manifested into reality in Four-Part Invention, playful exploration of prepared marimba in Scherzo, and quasi-minimalist shifting accents in Two-Part Invention. 

Closing the show were three works for Notebook, an ensemble founded by Ligeti to explore the intersection between composition and improvisation. These pieces featured not one but two electric guitars (Eyal Maoz and Tom McNalley), trombone (Rick Parker), violin (Amma Savery), saxophone (Daniel Blake), synthesizer (Ricardo Gallo), and the composer on drums. The performance was pure fun, with an exploratory energy that reconfirmed the experimental and playful side to Ligeti’s musical personality.

MicroFest’s Lou Harrison Centennial Concert at Boston Court

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.

Guitarist John Schneider

Guitarist John Schneider

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.

Lou Harrison's <em>Varied Quintet</em> at Boston Court

Lou Harrison’s Varied Quintet at Boston Court

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.

 

Review: Happy Valley Band’s debut album “ORGANVM PERCEPTVS”

Happy Valley Band’s debut album, ORGANVM PERCEPTVS, is described as a virtuosic decomposition and reconstruction of the Great American Songbook. Think of it as American Classics + The 21st Century. In this album, you will hear a microtonal version of “You Make Me Feel,” a distorted funk version of “Like a Virgin,” and a crunchy, grungy, middle-school band-esque take on “Jungle Boogie” that I am convinced is an actual recording of my high school’s pep band at a snowy football game when every brass instrument detuned after five minutes out of their cases. This album is fresh, deceptive, and insanely fun to listen to.

ORGANVM’s raison d’être is to encourage the listeners to examine biases and expectations. For example, we all know “Ring of Fire.” Listening to “Ring of Fire” that’s been put through a learning algorithm is a different experience. This is not just covering or reimagining music. This is hearing music as machines hear and interpret music. The artistic license is not so much an artist’s personal flair as it is their personal algorithm choice and process.

Love it or hate it, this is the age of algorithmic music and computers creating art from intelligent programs. I’ve heard some crazy things come from algorithms, some of which I loved. It often boils down to what the composer wants the algorithm to accomplish, lest ye worry about a lack of human musicians in our future. David Kant, the head composer and director of the Happy Valley Band, says in liner notes, “We should use machines to hear differently, not to reinforce our expectations – because whose expectations are they anyway?” Don’t hate the process, hate the preconceived notions and preferences. Or something like that.

David Kant also confronts the notion of intellectual property in the perspective of deconstruction and manipulation. If anything can be extracted, sampled, reworked, and replicated, then is the result The Thing-Changed, or A Different-Thing? By rooting itself in familiar territory and turning these songs on their heads, ORGANVM gives us a glimpse through the looking glass.

The Happy Valley Band is in LA on April 29th at Human Resources. You can check out more on ORGANVM PERCEPTVS  here at Indexical’s website, and the sale options via bandcamp (digital download album or 12″ vinyl plus booklet) are here.

wild Up presents Richard Valitutto’s WORK in Pasadena

On April 8, 2017 the Pasadena Conservatory of Music was host to Richard Valitutto along with gnarwhallaby, Arpeture Duo and a subset of wild Up – all in a concert from wild Up’s WORK series, which focuses on single members of the group. Several new pieces and arrangements by Valitutto were heard, as well as reference works by Messiaen, Feldman and Wolfe. Soprano Justine Aronson made a special appearance and the elegant Barrett Hall was filled almost to capacity on a quiet Saturday evening.

Pianist Richard Valitutto

The program opened with Papier Mâché, an original piano work by Valitutto. This began with a slow, mysterious feel and just a hint of tension in the chords that increased as the piece progressed. The density and complexity slowly built up, adding to a sense of uncertainty, just as the dynamic crested and fell back, fading at the finish. Papier Mâché has a sophisticated sheen and a solid, well-crafted construction that made for a fine opening to the concert.

Polichromia, by Zygmunt Krauze, followed, and this was performed by gnarwhallaby, the Los Angeles-based new music group who have made a mission of performing works by Polish avant-garde composers active in the mid-20th century. Polichromia begins with sustained tones in the cello, muted trombone and clarinet while the piano counters with rapid one and two note figures separated by silence. The highly chromatic tones in the instruments make for some intriguing harmonies and the sharper piano licks offered a fine contrast. After a few minutes this sequence finishes and there is an extended silence by all. This process restarts twice more, with the tones in the instruments becoming more active in each new sequence. Polichromia creates an environment filled with many varied tone colors, vividly portrayed by gnarwhallaby.

Next was an arrangement by Valitutto of two piano works: From the Cradle to Abysses by the Romanian-French composer Horațiu Rădulescu and Hungarian Passacaglia by György Ligeti. As Valitutto explained, these pieces felt like piano reductions of some larger instrumental work and the purpose of his arrangement was to fill out the parts that seemed to be embedded in the original scores. Two Arrangements for gnarwhallaby was the result, and this was played continuously as a single piece of music. The brass, woodwind and string components present in the gnarwhallaby ensemble was ideal for this sort of exploration.

Two Arrangements for gnarwhallaby began with solitary piano notes followed by a sharp sforzando from the trombone and quietly sustained tones in the cello and clarinet. Something like a melody materialized from the piano and cello while the trombone continued to emit loud sforzandos at various intervals. The dynamics of the piano chords increased rapidly and soon joined the trombone in making unsettling statements as the cello and clarinet continued with their smoothly understated response. The contrasts here were very effective – the more so because of the difference in instrumentation.

The program for wild Up and Richard Valitutto’s WORK concert

A soft cello solo appeared and seemed to tiptoe around the dramatic piano crashes. This melody was soon passed around to the clarinet and trombone. The piano calmed down to a series of steady two-note chords as the clarinet took up the melody in a higher register. Eventually all three instruments joined in together and some lovely harmonies emerged. The passages in the instruments gradually increased to a rapid tempo just as the piece concluded.

Two Arrangements for gnarwhallaby is an inspired expansion of the works of two 20th century masters, and confirmed Valitutto’s sharp instincts for orchestration. This arrangement creates a seamless connection between the two source pieces and the vivid colors brought out by the expanded instrumentation were matched by the coordination and precision of gnarwhallably’s playing.

Shadow (2013) by Rebecca Saunders followed. This is a solo piano piece that explores the sympathetic vibrations of the piano strings that occur after a loud chord is played. An acoustic ‘shadow’ is heard, and with the sustain pedal depressed, the soft tones are allowed to ring out and decay in the subsequent silence. Accordingly, Valitutto struck a series of crashes, tone clusters and sharp chords – often with maximum force – so that the resulting acoustic shadow was clearly heard, even up in the top row of Barrett Hall. These effects were amazingly varied – from lightly hovering and insubstantial to menacingly ominous to warm and welcoming. After a few minutes of listening you begin to ignore the initial impulse and focus instead on the quiet shadows that follow. The process is something like hearing a loud crash of thunder and then listening to the rolling echo as it dissipates into the distance.

The playing became more complex, loud crashes alternating with softer ones, multiplying the contrasting character of the various shadows. The interactions between the shadow tones themselves, although very understated, were also intriguing to the ear. Shadow is an instructive piece that points to the importance of listening for nuance, even when confronted by repeated dynamic outbursts. Valitutto’s sense of timing and the application of energy was perfect, allowing this piece to unfold with all of its subtlety intact.

Another solo piano piece was next, The Black Wheatear, by Oliver Messiaen, from Catalogue d’oiseaux (1958). This began with strong, crashing chords reminiscent of a booming surf; the breeding grounds of the black wheatear include the rocky sea cliffs of the Iberian peninsula. A series of short and rapid runs in the upper registers portray the brief but rich warble of the species. These skittering phrases regularly recur, nicely suggesting the chattering of birds wheeling high above a coastal meadow. The quick and spiky passages were accurately played by Valitutto, fully realizing Messiaen’s unconventional vision.

Voice, Violin and Piano by Morton Feldman followed, and for this Valitutto was joined by Adrianne Pope on violin and – naturally – soprano Justine Aronson. All the familiar Feldman virtues were present – the soft, airy voice of Ms. Aronson hovering lightly over a quiet violin and gentle piano chords. Each sound seemed independent of the others, but the sequences often produced memorable moments despite the spare texture. The intonation, especially in the voice, was impressive as there are almost no landmarks for pitch; even so, there was no hesitation or tentativeness in the many entrances. Voice, Violin and Piano is counted as a miniature in the Feldman canon, but this performance contained everything that makes his music so distinctive.

Valitutto’s Another Spring was next, based on poetry by Denise Leverton and with violist Linnea Powell joining the other players on stage. The opening piano chords of this were bright and sunny while the strings played very high, thin pitches that brought to mind wisps of wind. With the entrance of the soprano voice, Another Spring gained its focus and produced some lovely passages; the strong vocal part giving Ms. Aronson some room to stretch after the restrained Feldman piece. The seemingly disparate piano chords, airy strings and lovely legato vocal parts came together in a fine balance that nicely captured  the optimism of a radiant spring day.

In his final remarks Richard Valitutto explained that the composers of his generation have spent their artistic lives working in the shadow of 9/11, and this burden has only increased since the November election. Accordingly, the last piece selected for this program was Compassion (2001), by Julia Wolfe. This begins softly, with an ominous slow trill that steadily builds tension, followed by a series of strong chords that become progressively more chaotic. The roiling chords roll in like a booming surf, freighted with powerful emotions. The rumbling continues to build in intensity, especially in the lower registers, until there is an explosive silence – and the roar slowly dies away. After a short silence, a new trill is heard, now filled with a quiet sorrow. Compassion is destined to be a landmark of our era and was played to perfection by Valitutto, whose efforts were received with extended applause.

The impeccable playing by all the performers made Work an engaging evening of contemporary music that ranged from  forceful and complex to the soft and subtle. This concert was a good benchmark reading of Valitutto’s varied musical influences as well as pointing to his continued artistic growth.