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.
Brightwork newmusic (Sara Andon – flute, Aron Kallay – piano, Maggie Parkins – cello, Nick Terry – percussion, Tereza Stanislav – violin, and Brian Walsh – clarinet), joined by soprano Stacey Fraser, will be performing an eclectic set of works by Southern California composers on June 27 at Monk Space. I had the chance to hear some of Maggie Parkins’ thoughts about the upcoming concert and more:
The program includes a diverse set of works by Southern California composers. Can you tell us about your experience with these works? What do you hope to convey to the audience?
We are very excited to present these pieces by LA composers at Monk Space. We have performed all the works on the concert before, which is fantastic. Doing repeat performances of a new work is a great way for us to go deeper into the piece. Of course, the better you know a piece the easier it is to bring to life the composer’s vision. It is also more fun to present things you are familiar with because you can let go more in performance. It is great to play works by local composers because it strengthens our already burgeoning new music community. Also, you find yourself developing a bond with the composers that can last for years.
On the program are works by William Kraft, Chris Cerrone, Shaun Naidoo, Pamela Madsen, and Tom Flaherty (whose piece, Internal States,is a Brightwork commission). Have you worked with these composers before? What is the process usually like between the composer and performers when commissioning a new work for the ensemble?
We performed William Kraft’s Kaleidoscope at the annual Hear Now Festival a few years ago. Bill coached us before that performance. This is the second piece by Chris Cerrone we have performed. Last season we played the Night Mare with guest violist Cynthia Fogg. It’s great to collaborate with top notch guest artists! Soprano Stacey Fraser will join us for this concert on i will learn to love a person. She is a friend of the band and is amazing to work with. Shaun Naidoo of course was a dear friend of both percussionist Nick Terry and pianist Aron Kallay. It is still hard to believe that he passed away so suddenly five years ago. He was a larger than life fixture on the new music scene for years. His raucous energy lives on in his music, and we are honored to keep his memory alive by performing his music. In Pamela Madsen’s piece, Why Women Weep, for cello and electronics, I recorded myself speaking a text provided by the composer that I then play along with. I get to be my own accompaniment! Internal States is vintage Tom Flaherty; gorgeous lush harmonies, biting wit, rhythmically intricate ‘dancing’ figures. It’s a blast to play.
Brightwork newmusic is known for performing cutting-edge music from emerging composers, as well as classics from 20thcentury literature. What do you find similar/contrasting between these two areas?
The great thing about playing new music is the ability to work ‘hands on’ with the composer. Getting feedback and working through performance issues makes realizing their piece in front of their eyes a very satisfying process. The classics are like milestones; performing them is an honor. It’s like living with a piece of history when you perform a piece that has stood the test of time to become a cherished work.
Any future projects on the horizon you’d like to share?
The most exciting thing we have coming up is a recording project featuring three of the pieces on this concert!
Check out Tuesdays at Monk Space for more information about the upcoming concert on June 27.
It’s Lou Harrison’s 100th birthday! (Well, almost.) San Francisco-based pianist Sarah Cahill will be joining LA’s own Varied Trio (Shalini Vijayan, violin, Aron Kallay, piano, and Yuri Inoo, percussion) at Monk Space on April 4 to celebrate, performing a variety of Harrison’s works. I had the opportunity to ask Cahill some questions about the upcoming concert and more. Here is Sarah:
You’ll be performing several solo piano works by Lou Harrison at Monk Space, including Jig, Range-Song, Dance for Lisa Karon, Conductus from Suite, and Summerfield Set. Can you tell us bit about these works? Also, what are your thoughts about Lou Harrison’s music in general?
Even though Lou Harrison said “Equal temperament destroys everything,” and was far more fascinated by just intonation and other tunings, he wrote some extraordinary music for the equal tempered piano (which describes basically all modern pianos). His Jig and Range-Song have been played only rarely, if at all, since he wrote them in 1939. He was 22 years old, studying with Henry Cowell, who was in San Quentin at the time. In these pieces, he evokes Cowell with his chord cluster techniques. There’s a third piece from this set called Reel, and it’s sometimes called Reel for Henry Cowell. That gets played a lot, as opposed to Jig and Range-Song. Dance for Lisa Karon is a year earlier, from 1938, and the manuscript was discovered just a few years ago in someone’s house in San Francisco. Conductus is from the Suite which Lou Harrison wrote when he was studying with Arnold Schoenberg, and it resembles Schoenberg’s own Suite in that it uses a twelve-tone row but is not strictly twelve-tone. Summerfield Set is an exuberant three-movement work from 1988, and it’s the Lou Harrison we know and love, with dance rhythms and singable tunes. It’s dedicated to the keyboardist Susan Summerfield.
What do you find most compelling about commissioning and performing new works?
I love the surprise of receiving a new score, of bringing a piece of music to life and knowing it’s going to enter the repertoire and be interpreted by countless other pianists (after I have lots of time with it!). It’s exciting to explore a piece of music that’s completely unknown territory. And I love working with living composers, the exchange of ideas, the whole process of developing a piece and working towards a premiere or a recording.
What initially drew you to the piano, and what are your favorite (and/or least favorite) aspects about being a pianist?
I was initially drawn to the piano by a charismatic and beautiful teacher named Sharon Mann who is a Bach specialist. Because of her, playing Bach was everything to me. My least favorite aspect of being a pianist is the pressure of trying to learn a piece fast when ideally it should be given a year or two. My favorite part of being a pianist is immersing myself in practicing all day long, which is a luxury, and that feeling in performance that someone else is playing and I’m just listening– when the music seems to play itself. One other thing I find exciting is getting to the point where I know a composer’s work so well that I can identify mistakes in the score.
Do you ever compose? If not, what kind of composer do you think you would be?
I would be a terrible composer. I love the whole process of interpreting.
People Inside Electronics (abbreviated PIE) performs and promotes electroacoustic music in LA. Often, concerts go beyond music and present interdisciplinary multimedia collaborations with dancers, actors, scientists, and so on. PIE focuses on the artists, and electronic synthesizers and modulators are the media. The more time passes, the more I appreciate the name of the series. Today, we live in a world where music can be created entirely by programs and algorithms, without people at all. Furthermore, an increasing portion of the population has electronics inside them, from pacemakers to RFID implants (yes, really). To turn the lens from the machines’ ability to the people’s, and what they can make the machines do, is something to behold.
Beginning the concert on a fantastic note was The Deep State by Isaac Schankler (2017), performed by Scott Worthington on bass and Isaac Schankler on electronics. Right from the start, I could hear Pauline Oliveros’s influence and inspiration on the piece. She is one of my favorite pioneers in electronic music, and I know she is an influence to Schankler as well. Her pieces change slowly, like delicately bending metal into a sculpture. Like Schankler, she often provokes contemplation.
Schankler writes in the program note, “This piece is ‘about’ both the necessity and seeming impossibility of this kind of contemplation in our…current situation.” It is not difficult to interpret what he was getting at by ‘current situation.’ The ambiguity of the phrase also allows the listener to turn to any other situation, perhaps one more personal and probably less dismal. Regardless of any narrative one applies to the piece, Schankler’s genius composition, performed by my favorite bassist in southern California, is sure to stimulate a deep state of contemplation and peace in anyone who hears it.
Next on the program, pianist Aron Kallay and percussionist Yuri Inoo performed Elliptic by Caroline Louise Miller (2012). Elliptic paints the landscape of a “particularly beautiful dream” Miller had about “our pre-apocalyptic, neoliberal world.” (Compared to Schankler’s The Deep State, we can infer that the apocalypse has occurred sometime between 2012 and 2017.) Miller’s program notes describe an enchanting ellipsoid planet with a golden moon, orbiting a pink star. Monoliths appear on the water and break the spell.
The monoliths were the harbingers of change. The Earth appears on the horizon and destroys the reverie with an onslaught of media noise. In the music, Kallay’s otherworldly electronic piano depicts the beautiful planet, while Inoo’s bombastic snare and gong invoke the Earth’s cacophony. The Earth vanishes, and the music freezes for a second…and then quietly resumes, as if tip-toeing through the wreckage. The third movement, “Exodus,” sounds like flying into the unknown. It is different than the beginning, but there is a similar sense of being, of existing. I would recommend listening to this piece on its own once, then with the program notes, and then a third time on its own again. Close your eyes if you wish to visualize the alien landscape, just don’t forget to open your ears to the sonic landscape Miller crafts.
After intermission, PIE introduced BitPanic, a computer music collective based in LA. In a computer music collective, performers improvise on networked composition systems on laptops. Mark Trayle cofounded The Hub, the godfather of computer music collectives, dating back to 1986. BitPanic took on Trayle’s semi-aleatoric piece Pins and Splits (2004). In this piece, the background sound is fixed, and the foreground allows improvisation. The players affect each other’s timing, like a music game of duck-duck-goose. The result of the game is a constant transformation from chaos to order and back again. The program note says the title comes from an email thread with Trayle’s Hub-mates. To me, this is delightfully meta. Like an email thread, in Pins and Splits each participant takes turns at the lead, asking questions and resolving conflicts.
After Trayle’s piece, BitPanic concluded the concert with a totally improvised set. The quartet set loose on keyboards, knobs, and violins. Each player seemed to exist in their own little bubble. Sometimes they coincided with another player, and sometimes seemed like polar opposites. One performer played the violin normally, albeit hooked up with wires to the laptops for sound processing. Another performer laid his violin on the table and treated it no differently than the laptop. The other two stared stoically at their screens, clicking and typing and twiddling away. It was unlike anything I had ever heard before. That’s the beauty of electroacoustic music. The limit is your imagination, and my thoughts and experiences were certainly not the same as the members of BitPanic. New music, in the hands of PIE and BitPanic, will continue to surprise and delight.
Pianist Aron Kallay offered a well-rounded program of innovative, politically charged music, including three world premieres, to open the Piano Spheres 2016-17 season. This, the 23rd season, is dedicated to Piano Spheres founder, Leonard Stein–born 100 years ago December–whose memory will inform each concert even more than usual.
“I did not know Leonard Stein personally,” stated Kallay in a preconcert talk, “but his impact on new music is clear, and makes its way into this program.”
Stein conceived of Piano Spheres, with a mission statement to champion “broader spheres of piano repertoire.” He performed an annual recital in the series, alternating with the four other pianists he selected.
Following his demise in 2004, Stein was never replaced. His spot in the series was left open for a guest artist, of which Kallay was this season’s choice.
Kallay programmed an exciting assortment of new works with an eye to Stein’s preferred repertoire, as well as the upcoming Presidential election and its implications for social justice. True to himself, Kallay–a director of People Inside Electronics and Microfest–performed several pieces involving electronics, though Stein generally played acoustic piano alone.
The REDCAT stage, decorated with political signs, came to life with the first notes of Monroe Golden‘s microtonal composition for retuned and remapped digital piano, I’m Worried Now, after the perennial blues standard “Worried Man Blues,” on a text about penal servitude.
Golden’s piece, a microtonal reinterpretation of twelve-bar blues, set the tone for the Kallay’s program, entitled “I’m worried now…but I won’t be worried long.” Most of the works explored troubling topics in recent history, and pointed to the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming election, although ended on an optimistic note.
Microtonal music, with its expanded pitch vocabulary, enjoys heightened capacity for emotional expression. Monroe Golden relied on the technique of extended just intonation, retuning the digital keyboard to the pitches of the overtone series out to the 96th partial, to express the atrocities of penal servitude in the 20th century South most directly.
“‘Worried Man Blues’ is a piece I’ve known all my life,” stated Golden in a post concert interview. “The practice discussed in the text primarily affected the poor….I wanted to use microtonality to express the pain the compelled prisoners must have felt.”
Beyond the arresting, microtonal twang, which reinforced the blues song’s original message, viewers were treated to a surreal cognitive dissonance as far right keys sounded low in pitch and far left keys sounded high, defying expectations of any keyboardists present.
In a nod to Leonard Stein, Kallay offered a crystal clear rendition of Dallapiccola’s Quaderno Musicale di Annalibera (“Musical Sketchbook for Annalibera”), a suite of eleven miniature movements for piano solo dedicated to the composer’s daughter (the work’s namesake), on the occasion of her 8th birthday.
Beyond the scope of most children’s abilities, the work is more about childhood, in its whimsical playfulness, than for children per se.
“This is one of my favorite pieces for piano solo of the twentieth century, and I know Leonard Stein admired it and performed it,” stated Kallay.
A major twelve tone composition, Quaderno, would be known to Stein, who was Schoenberg’s assistant and graded assignments by Schoenberg’s pupils at UCLA. The brand of twelve-tonality utilized by Dallapiccola was closer to Berg’s than Schoenberg’s however, integrating tonal references, such as thirds and sevenths, for a gentle lyricism throughout.
The work also earned a place on the program due to Dallapiccola’s staunch support of the anti-fascist movement in mid-twentieth century Europe, which Kallay deemed apt in view of the imminent shift in Executive leadership and the risks entailed.
“I hope you like wrestling…,” signaled Kallay wryly, as a screen lit up and attendees sat up, evidently striving to process what was in store.
Kallay co-funded the next work, a world premiere Piano Spheres commission by composer Ian Dicke—wrestling aficionado, political activist, and accomplished music technologist—a volatile combination, ideally suited to Piano Spheres and the REDCAT stage.
Dicke’s Counterpundit features a montage of classic wrestle-mania footage (names like Hulk Hogan and Sgt. Slaughter), looped into additive phrases, somewhat like a Stravinsky ballet. Dicke created a computer application combining live electronic processing of piano input with the video media. Kallay, opening the work as a soloist, eventually shifted roles into chamber musician, integrating piano music with the oddly hypnotic footage and layers of electronic sound in this Gesamtkunstwerk.
Heavily camp-laden Counterpundit compares the buffoonery of wrestle-maniacs to the political media pundits that influence perception in critical times such as these.
“I would have written something about this even if Aron hadn’t asked me to, as I consider myself a politically engaged composer.”
Traditional musical language, from Satie to Prokofieff (the latter quoted at one point), works with Dicke’s own harmonic concept as a convincing partner to the footage. The rhythmic play between instrumental forces attained to virtuoso levels, Kallay wizardly synchronizing with the media at several turns.
If Kallay is any example, it is clear that today’s pianist must go beyond piano playing. Kallay creates themed concerts, discovers existing repertoire to support a thesis, finds composers to commission, and constructs a verbal narrative to contextualize the program for attendees.
In the course of such research, he discovered Karen Walwyn, pianist and composer from Washington D.C., who provided the next work—another world premiere—“June 17th,” a movement from her suite Mother Emanuel: Charleston 2015, after the shooting in Charleston on that day.
“As much as I love this piece, I struggled with whether to program it because of its extraordinary gravity,” noted Kallay, “but thought it was important and should be heard.”
The work opens with a simple statement of classic hymn “Amazing Grace,” which breaks off abruptly, interrupted by terse, tense figuration. The hymn is reharmonized in surprising ways, fleshed with angry virtuoso writing until breaking off once more in a sharp, unanswered conclusion.
“Impromptu is a cry expressing the tortures of the soul that plague contemporary human beings,” writes Daoust, and indeed the musique concrète effects of the recorded media—sirens, traffic, and other elements of the urban soundscape—infuse the piece with a sense of angst, supporting the theme of social upheaval.
The Impromptu is a genre associate with the Romantic era, when friends would gather to generate their own music, largely by improvising. Daoust offered a modern, fully worked out Impromptu, every nuance preformulated and accounted for, but still expressing humanity’s key questions.
“I think people are as tortured by existential questions as they were during the Romantic period,” notes Daoust.
Preserving a link to the Romantic Impromptu tradition, Daoust quotes the haunting B section melody of Chopin’s Fantasy-Impromptu, (used also by Crumb in his piano work Makrokosmos).
Lee, playing the Steinway model D, brought a melting lyricism to the singing melodies, while angular lines emerged from out of the recording and duo ensemble.
In a strongly topical inclusion to the program, Laura Karpman’s Shrill, a work of “disposable music,” as Kallay introduced it, is overtly centered on the 2016 presidential election. Whether the work will endure as a humorous and surprisingly musical snapshot of current events, or fade away as quickly as the losing candidate, only time will tell.
Shrill, commissioned by Kallay and Piano Spheres, is Karpman’s answer to a critique of Hillary Clinton. Detractors call her voice shrill, “but it is Donald Trump who is truly shrill,” so notes Karpman.
The work is scored for “solo piano and Trump,” which reads like a typo at first glance. Cast in the perennial melodrama genre—spoken word accompanied by music—the verbal content is complimented by music reinforcements, yet unfolds with clarity.
Soundbites of Trump’s especially polarizing statements are presented in catchy rhythms, looped for effect, both musical and political. Kallay served once again as accompanist to the media, interspersing Trump’s charged remarks with a sardonic, biting musical language reminiscent of Satie’s funniest moments. Stereophonic effects abound, imparting a sophistication that lifts the work well beyond its prosaic central topic.
Fortuitously, Trump’s voice and locution is highly musical, so it turns out. Who knew he sang melodies such as descending broken minor triads, and perfect fifths while on the campaign trail. He may have missed a calling as vocalist.
Kallay concluded by stating, “I am actually not sure I won’t be worried long….”
The future remains uncertain, but the Jewish hymn “Shalom Chaverim,” arranged into a set of eight variations for piano solo by American composer Adolphus Hailstork, rounded out the program on a friendly, hopeful note.
Hailstork’s reinterpretation of the traditional Jewish theme, sung by children on holidays throughout the Jewish calendar, utilized modern harmonies, including quartalism and expanded tonality, and warm textures that express the original text implicitly:
Till we meet again
Minimum and maximum shared the stage at Boston Court last Friday, their point of contact being People Inside Electronics—the leading presenter of music involving electronics in Los Angeles. Presenting a program of electroacoustic music by three generations of composers called “Points of Contact,” the PIE team once again demonstrated the vital, transformative power of electricity in music.
“Why use electronics…?” an attendee queried in the populous, enlightening pre-concert talk. Theories, each satisfying in their own right, ranged from an expeditious “because it’s there,” to the discretionary “we need not use it,” settling finally on a more deliberate “to create sounds that could never be heard otherwise.”
“Points of Contact” refers to the centerpiece and concluding work of the program, Kontakte (Contacts), by legendary electroacoustic pioneer, Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007). PIE’s riveting rendition by pianist Todd Mollenberg, percussionist Ryan Nestor, and sound engineer Scott Worthington proved a pan-sensorial, full body delight, captivating listeners and reaffirming Stockhausen’s place alongside the greats.
Kontakte, composed 1958-60, was among Stockhausen’s first space pieces, whereby the element of space plays an integral role in audience perception. “Sit in the middle of the hall for the full experience, as the piece is quadraphonic,” advised PIE director Aron Kallay pre-concert when there were still a few seats left.
Stereophonic sound was used as early as 1940 in the Disney film Fantasia, where Rimsky-Korsakoff’s bumblebee is heard buzzing to-and-fro among increasingly nervous viewers. Such is the effect of a moving sound source on listener perception. Sound takes on dimension, becoming tangible, corporeal.
Kontakte, among other space pieces by Stockhausen, offers a boosted listener experience by multiplying all the usual effects of music—pitch, timbre (itself highly original in Kontakte), rhythm, volume—with the element of sonic rotation, promoting that sense of absorption and self-forgetfulness induced by all great music.
To ensure optimal success, Stockhausen called for specially built halls ideally suited to the demands of space music—something approaching Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome. Fortuitously, Boston Court’s Main Stage, site of the Summer Music Series, approximates an egg shape and met Stockhausen’s requirements satisfactorily.
The beautiful configuration of instruments on stage, a Western Gamelan of sorts, was prescribed by Stockhausen and is used in all renditions of the piece. The pianist—really a percussionist with piano abilities—begins by striking a gong, dramatically placed center stage, then wades through an obstacle course of percussion instruments to take up temporary residence at the piano. Pianist Todd Mollenberg handily met the extraordinary demands of his role, juggling a virtuoso piano part while nimbly navigating among an extensive collection of percussion instruments (inadvertently enlarged by percussive footwear) with both control and abandon.
Ryan Nestor, dedicated percussionist, glided discretely and efficiently among his instruments, often approaching them at the last moment as if to avoid spoiling the surprise.
Sound engineer Scott Worthington, working from a station in the back row, adjusted levels of each channel independently, continuously adjusting outputs to achieve the ideal balance.
With keen rhythmic sense, Mollenberg and Nestor coordinated the numerous points of contact between electronics and acoustics, articulating sonic hand-offs precisely. Such stretto effects added an additional source of meaning, promoting listener endurance throughout the objectively lengthy piece.
Climactic moments seemed to be followed by additional high points, without loss of impact or credibility. Treats for the listener abounded in every moment, quite by design.
“The piece was conceived in Moment form,” noted Todd Mollenberg in post-concert remarks. “Each moment is self-contained and separate from its neighbors to create an antinarrative,” elaborated Mollenberg.
The completion of each moment—the unforeseeable evaporation of sound followed by fresh sonic germination, a kind of ongoing death and resurrection of sound itself—induced a timeless state, an eternal (or at least 35 minute) present, in listeners.
Far from mere theory, this all happened. There was an atmosphere of excitement in the air that abstract music such as this—undeniably bizarre, space-age music for electronics and acoustic noise-makers—could be so thrilling.
Contrasting so sharply from Kontakte as to be linked only by the use of electronics, the pre-intermission lineup featured a minimalist tasting menu of three pieces by three generations of composers sympathetic to the cause of less being more in music.
If Kontakte drew on the maximum means to induce focus in listeners, the minimalist first half subsisted in narrower bands, allowing space for meanderings of free-association, leaving free rein to the imagination.
Scott Worthington, before donning sound engineer’s hat, took the stage for the opening number as contrabass soloist in Julia Wolfe’s Stronghold.
“I am always thinking about the physical effort involved and what it takes to make sound,” Wolfe (born 1958) has said of her compositional process. The term “stronghold” should refer to the bassist’s bow grip, which is thoroughly tested throughout the ambitious, extensive exploration of bass terrain. A stronghold of musical devices, each finding safe haven in the towering presence of the contrabass, king of strings, the piece unfolds in a steady flow of events including abrupt changes in volume and textural density, microtonal moanings of marine mammals, and crab canons (where a melody is accompanied by itself played backwards) reminiscent of Bach.
Throughout, the work is unified by a disciplined self-referential process, where each idea grows from an initial germ stated in the solo bass, then taken up by additional basses in a recording. The resulting effect is a musical kaleidoscope, with one event type subtly giving way to the next. The piece halts suddenly following powerful, characteristically deep bass tones, bowed on the bridge.
In proper new music form, lights were dimmed to pitch black for the next work, The Light Gleams an Instant, by PIE director Colin Horrocks (born 1992). Horrocks himself performed the work, scored for solo saxophone and live electronics. The title, borrowed from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, refers to the impermanence of life and music. “Music is a temporary art form; the ephemeral nature of sound allows it to exist only in the moment,” explained Horrocks in program notes. Beckett’s “light” is, for Horrocks a metaphor for sound.
Horrocks’s sounds did not merely fade away, however, gleaming an instant only to disappear into oblivion. They were all recorded, electronically reworked with Max, the industry standard for live musical processing, and played back in self-referential accompaniments. “The live notes are transposed, and in some cases the upper partials are played back,” clarified Horrocks in post-concert discussion.
As expressive saxophone tones and their musical fractals emerged from the lights-out backdrop, a surreal calm descended on the hall, calling listeners together in a moment of reflection and recollection.
Steve Reich’s (born 1936) Electric Counterpoint, a contrastingly bright, light piece befitting the season in its carefree summery bounce, drew the program to the halftime mark and off to a busy intermission.
Brian Head, noted guitar leader, performed the piece with refreshing vitality and jazzy flair. Head played the work’s 1987 premiere, thus bringing seasoned insight to the current performance.
Electric Counterpoint, like so much of Reich’s music, is the quintessential minimalist example. Terse, spare motives intermingle with each other, delicately phasing in and out of synch to form mosaics of scintillating mist. Discrete notes, while extremely few in number, seem to interlock in ornate braids of extraordinary richness and complexity, much as a DNA molecule or spiral galaxy.
Amidst the simplicity of musical means, otherwise banal devices like crescendos and modal shifts take on striking impact and purpose, inspiring listeners and lightening spirits.
A satisfied audience departed the hall for intermission amusement—a caption writing contest on a photo of Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Later, a generous post-concert reception included beer and sake (potentially worth the price of admission itself). Artists and audience mingled in enthused conversation, their own electric counterpoint, as another original evening at Boston Court drew to a charged close.
In a diverse, capably executed program of Microtonal music for solo piano and violin entitled “Beyond 12,” Tuesdays@MonkSpace further solidified itself as a major presenting organization for contemporary music in Los Angeles. Pianist and T@MS co-founder Aron Kallay, a noted exponent of microtonality, joined musical forces with like-minded violinist Andrew McIntosh of the Formalist Quartet in a generous offering of harmonically-expanded music spanning three centuries. The concert marked the season finale of T@MS, as well as that of Microfest–the primary source for microtonal music in the area–which co-produced the event.
While the octave (8 lines and spaces on the musical staff), is generally divided into 12 equally spaced notes, microtonality allows for dividing the octave into many more notes and spacing them at varying distances from each other, providing for greater and freer expressive power.
The first selection on the program‑‑a staple of Kallay’s repertoire—Kyle Gann’s Fugitive Objects (2004), exemplified the extraordinary harmonic richness possible in microtonal music by dividing the octave into 36 discreet pitch classes—three times the usual number of notes on the piano. With sweeping romantic intensity and lyricism–heightened by Kallay’s expressive playing—the piece meanders through original, unexpected dimensions of pitch. Listeners are kept on track by memorable ostinatos that define a form amidst a spongy, vibratory tone-massage.
Acoustic pianos are incapable of sustaining the pressures of such extreme tonal fission. Consequently, Kallay used a midi-controller with timbre and tuning courtesy of Pianoteq, a real-time piano modeling software.
“The changes in tuning required by Gann are so great as to be impossible on an acoustic piano: the strings would simply break,” Kallay pointed out. “Even when we can change the piano’s normal tuning system to a microtonal variant, it requires many tunings to stabilize the new tonal scheme, followed by additional tunings to restore the original temperament,” Kallay elaborated.
Such practical factors have led to the accepted and widespread use of electronic technology in live microtonal concerts.
Andrew McIntosh did not use software to produce the tunings of his program for solo violin. The simultaneous blessing and curse of the string player is the ongoing onus of intonation, note by note. The violin’s flexibility of pitch is ideally suited to microtonal music, where subtle tone-warps add expressive range, in many cases complementing programmatic content.
Taking the stage alternately with Kallay, McIntosh opened his survey of microtonality for solo violin with, “Intonation After Morton Feldman, 1” by Marc Sabat, from his suite Les Duresses (2004). McIntosh introduced the piece with enticing context-building commentary, adding an impactful additional element to the concert experience. All evening long, in standard T@MS form, the performers served as musicologists, drawing on extensive academic training in sensitizing listeners to each work’s essential attributes.
Combining a love for the music of Morton Feldman, icon of twentieth century experimental music, with a passion for precision, Marc Sabat pinned down Feldman’s allusions to microtonality in a fully worked out, rigorously notated adaptation of Feldman’s late string writing style.
“In his final few years, Feldman seemed to suggest microtonal inflections of pitch in his music for strings. When pressed to explain his methods, he seemed to avoid the question but hinted that some notes would weigh more than others,” explained McIntosh, who went on to perform the piece with clear, convincing modulations of pitch, indeed evoking weight in some notes, buoyancy in others.
The Weasel of Melancholy, a terse, humorous work for piano solo by Eric Moe, followed, closing out the first half with microtonal whinings and abstract figuration. Animal sounds and songs are always microtonal. Moe drew on the versatility of microtonality to convey animal emotion, and Kallay dispatched passages of virtuoso figuration with abandon and effortless fluency.
A jovial crowd, remaining close at hand throughout intermission, drew to attention as the stage was set for a substantial second half.
In a refreshing reminder that microtonality is nothing new, McIntosh presented a lengthy suite for violin solo, “the first example of microtonal music for solo violin,” by the Baroque composer Johann Joseph Vilsmayer.
Microtonal effects were common in the Baroque, having been used widely by Antonio Vivaldi and Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber for subtle undercurrents of meaning in program music and character sketches. Vilsmayr’s Partita number 5 is a fusion of Austrian folk melodies, French ornamental writing, and poignant microtonal leanings modeled on Biber’s Rosary Sonatas.
In an original scordatura tuning devised by Vilsmayr, the E string became a D string (for two D strings in total), allowing for numerous harmonic possibilities otherwise inconvenient in violin writing.
Aron Kallay, characteristically warm, acknowledged departing interns as well as MonkSpace owner Michael Lane, then continued to inform without lecturing. “There are pockets of microtonal communities throughout the country, especially Boston, as well as Birmingham, Alabama.”
The History of Elevators in Film, by Birmingham composer Holland Hopson, depicted the sensory experience of riding in elevators with virtuoso compositional prowess. Doppler-like expansion and contractions of pitch evoke that unmistakable sensation of “Moving while standing still,” the title of one movement, as well as the ominous destination of floor number 13, in “Floor 13, please….”
Hopson’s History might be considered the sole collaboration of the program: a duet between piano soloist and technology itself. The keyboard’s tuning dynamically shifted in response to programmed triggers using Max, an interactive framework for real-time musical processes. Kallay would “play a low note, repeat a chord a certain number of times, leap by a given interval, etc.” and the tuning would audibly shift concomitantly. The process lent a spontaneous, interactive chamber music quality to the piece, further conveying the reduced independence of elevator passengers.
Apart from Vilsmayar’s Partita, all the pieces of the program were composed in the current century. Many were commissioned by Kallay himself. “I began to grow tired of equal temperament 10 years ago and began playing microtonal music then, but not much had been written for piano solo,” Kallay noted at the program’s outset. “I began commissioning works, and hope to continue building the repertoire forever.”
Among the latest additions to Kallay’s growing compendium is The Blur of Time and Memory, by Los Angeles-based composer, Alex Miller, which brought the program to a dramatic finale.
Miller’s Blur integrated uniquely microtonal effects with idiomatic, even traditional piano writing for a holistic listener experience. An inventive microtonal tuning allowed for seamless glissando-like transitions through the entire range, inducing a haunting, surreal atmosphere of liquefied pitches and flowing masses of sound. While inextricably linked to microtonality, the piece was not dependent upon it, drawing power from striking tone clusters, singing lines, and undulatory dynamic gestures.
Building energy progressively, Miller’s Blur seemed to conclude with its climax. A torrent of sonority reverberated in the lively MonkSpace acoustic, shortly giving way to authentic, spontaneous applause by a nourished audience.
The mood was set for a reception that would last hours—a known T@MS phenomenon—drawing together friends, new and familiar in the joy of a shared adventure, the sense of something meaningful in music, and the promise of another season.
On January 20, 2016, the Santa Monica Public Library kicked off a new concert series, presenting innovative contemporary music in their Martin Luther King auditorium on the third Wednesday of each month. Featured in this first concert were artists of the Los Angeles-based Cold Blue Music record label in an evening of piano music. Composers Daniel Lentz, Jim Fox and Michael Jon Fink were on hand to introduce and play their works and pianist Aron Kallay was the featured performer.
Two Preludes for Piano, by Michael Jon Fink was first, played by the composer. The first prelude, Image, was built around quiet passages of single notes and simple chords. This is plainly stated music with a straightforward declarative style, but the fine, nuanced touch by Michael Jon Fink added a dimension of mystery and elegance to the otherwise simple materials. The second prelude, Wordless, similarly began with a series of soft single notes, but now in repeated phrases with slight variations. This prelude evoked a more introspective feel, enhanced by the occasional solemn chord. The playing towards the end was more forthright – but never loud – and this made for a nice contrast with the opening as the piece slowly faded away. Two Preludes for Piano is spare and restrained, but masterfully shaped to facilitate a strong emotional encounter.
Five Pieces for Piano followed, also by Michael Jon Fink and again performed by the composer. This began with another soft line of notes ending in a gentle chord, again eliciting a thoughtful and reflective feel. The second movement added a little anxiety by way of some slight dissonance while movement 3 incorporated simply stated chords that delivered an uncomplicated sense of grandeur. A repeating line with a counter melody was very effective towards the end of this section. The final two movements provided a bit of tension and mystery but were free of any heavy drama. A series of deep notes moving up the scale resulted in some lovely sustained tones that seemed to hover in the still air. The conclusion of the last movement invoked a more solitary feeling, as if looking at a far horizon from an empty beach.
Five Pieces for Piano is a jewel of a piece where each phrase is crafted with a quiet emotion that affirms the power of its understated simplicity.
Composer Daniel Lentz next offered a few remarks on the writing of his 51 Nocturnes, a piece that was created by improvisation, followed by writing up the notation. All 51 of the nocturnes fit into something like 18 minutes, as played by Aron Kallay. The program notes describe this piece as follows: “As with much of Lentz’s music, it is somewhat kaleidoscopic, restless, and given to changing directions without warning.”
The opening chords set the tone for the piece – warm and welcoming. Like the music of Michael Jon Fink this piece is the essence refined simplicity, but each of the nocturnes are, by turns, accessible and inviting, slightly agitated and anxious, mildly intense or even dramatic – but always returning to a settled and comfortable optimism. The many nuances and colors of the nocturnes were scrupulously observed by the sensitive playing of Aron Kallay. At the finish the light arpeggios and warm chords rekindled the warm mood of the opening and it was as if you were watching your life pass by for a minute, pleased and holding no regrets. 51 Nocturnes is settled, secure music, full of good hopes and wishes without turning saccharine.
The final three works of the program were by Peter Garland, Michael Byron and Jim Fox, as performed by Jim Fox. Nostalgia of the Southern Cross by Garland was first and opened with a series of gentle, solemn notes followed by a wistful chord. This music is quietly thoughtful and perhaps somewhat reminiscent of the Lentz piece in its sensibility. Repetition followed and each repeating phrase seemed to draw out a bit more color. As She Sleeps by Michael Byron followed directly and although a subdued lullaby, had a brightly optimistic feel, as if you had just finished your morning coffee and had the whole day was in front of you. The last chord hung deliciously in the air and slowly evaporated into silence.
The final piece heard was smoke, hornblende, clay by Jim Fox and this took less than a minute to complete. A slow two-note trill, followed by a bright arpeggio and some quiet chords completed this sunny and marvelously concise work.
This initial Soundwaves concert by the Santa Monica Public Library was an important step for bringing live new music to the west side. The artists of Cold Blue Music lifted up our West Coast minimalism to its rightful stature while bringing it home to its native ground.
Recordings by the composers featured in this concert are available from Cold Blue Music.
Cold Blue Music will again host a concert on February 16, 2018 at Monk Space in Koreatown.
Further Soundwaves concerts can be heard on the third Wednesday of each month at the Santa Monica Public Library.
Microtonality is often quipped at as “the cracks between the piano keys.” It is tradition in our Western art culture to have the smallest interval be what is called a half step, or semitone; but why do we divide the octave into twelve semitones, why not eight or thirteen? In the live preview last week at Harvey Mudd College of the second volume of his Beyond Twelve series, Aron Kallay used an electronic keyboard to realize a six different composers’ takes on alternate tuning and temperament.
The program kicked off with I’m Worried Now by Monroe Golden. The first thing that struck me was the schizophonia – Aron would strike a key in what ought to be the lower register of the piano, and it would sound a note from a higher register. He would sweep his hand up and down the keys in a glissando and it seemed a crapshoot whether the notes would rise or fall. One of the notes I scribbled during the performance reads: “Vince Guaraldi on an ancient piano in a thunderstorm.” The piece is jazzy and tipsy. The thunderous low notes set apart from the tip-toeing upper melody. The retuning sometimes sounds intentional and other times not, to the intriguing effect that it would set my teeth on edge and then resolve into tonality, though no longer equal temperament; yes, during the performance I was certainly worried. All in all, music that moves your emotions and mind in such a rollercoaster is surely a triumph by Golden.
Alex Miller’s composition The Blur of Time and Memory used 1/10th (instead of ½, or half) steps. The result was that chords in which one or two notes move chromatically upwards seemed to peel away from the original chord identity to glide into another, like a chameleon shifting its coloring. The piece was meditative overall, intensified in sections by shifting harmonies and tugging the listener’s ear through tonal areas it is not used to visiting. It ended with an uncanny resemblance to wailing wind in a drafty room, like a ghost had haunted the keys to take the tuning out of whack.
Underbelly, by Stephen Cohn, utilized notes above and below the standard piano range, in which a dance fitting for the Mad Hatter’s tea party plays and the Jabberwocky thumps below in the bass region. The unfamiliar overtones from the bottom register give an otherworldly twist. The other parts of the piece resembled water music, but with more finesse and realism thanks to the microtonality at play. The smaller intervals gave an ultra-realistic fluidity to the cascade of notes winding through the recital hall.
The last work before intermission was Paths of the Wind by Bill Alves. It began as a wall of sound, like standing atop a windy mountain straining to hear the rumbling bass melody in the distance. The clusters of notes washed together and averaged into a drone which became a musical line unto itself. Like the Cohn piece’s effectiveness in using microintervals to enhance fluidity, Alves glided through notes like a bird on the wind, seemingly continuously rather than discretely. Without microtonality, there is no way a piano could sound so natural; it’s as if wind were transported directly into the hall and pitched to a melody, but still unfettered by tonality. A truly spellbinding work by Alves.
Post-intermission we were treated to two more pieces, the first of which, Involuntary Bohlen Piercing, was composed by Nick Norton. This used temperament in an even more unorthodox manner, by cutting up a perfect twelfth instead of a perfect octave into segments. The twelfth is divided into thirteen even segments, each slightly less than a quarter-tone larger than our equal-tempered half step. The first scribble I have for this one reads: “Drunken tip-toeing complete with running into things.” In other words, the piece begins hesitant and gentle, even a little uncertain, but is soon brought out of its nascent stages by magnificent Rachmaninoff-esque crashes. Reminiscent of Schoenberg’s Six Small Pieces for Piano, minimalists like Terry Riley, and a peppering of Impressionism, this piece was never dissonant, but always pleasant even when alien. The pacing was slower than the other composers’, but worked within the frame of the hesitant beginning and end. The tolling bells near the end seemed to be a clock announcing the end of the piece, or perhaps, in Norton’s case, the nearing completion of his PhD.
The concert ended with Clouds of Clarification by Robert Carl. Given my adoration for the book and movie “Cloud Atlas,” it was difficult to extract my mind from that world. Carl explained before the performance that the piece included four movements played without break: water, earth, wind and fire. After a stately opening, the first high note not belonging to the equal temperament was jarring like a shard of glass. The aquatic movement came off like water dripping from stalactites, and had a distinctly crystalline feel. The music split the difference between pentatonic and whole tone scales as it moved into the earth movement, lumbering across the keys. Upon reaching the air movement, Aron’s hands looked like birds flitting on the keyboard, and it was reminiscent of Olivier Messiaen’s bird pieces. Nearing the end, each low thwomp in the bass was ear cleansing relief between microtonal clusters, like healing a burn from the fire movement. My favorite part of the piece was watching the composer react to Aron’s portrayal. He knew every note he wrote; this piece, like everything he has written, is his child, and he was infectiously joyous hearing it realized. I believe most of audience felt his enthusiasm, and I hope all may be as enthusiastic as microtonal music when they encounter it.
Writing reviews as a composer can be a delicate business, in that the needs of one – being friends with performers – sometimes conflict with the needs of honest, unbiased writing. Every now and then, however, you come across a concert so good that it blows away any concern for that conflict, because in lauding the performers with accolades you are merely speaking the truth. Ray-Kallay Duo‘s concert at Boston Court last week was one such show.
As the name implies, Ray-Kallay Duo is the four-hands project of pianists Aron Kallay and Vicki Ray. Just saying four-hands undersells it, though, as Friday’s concert had them awash in four-hands, four-feet, laptop, ankle-shakers, microtonal vs. equal-tempered keyboard rep. The show opened with Kevin Volans’ Matepe, with the pianists hocketing changing rhythms back and forth while beating out time with legs covered in seed pods. This contrasted nicely with Kyle Gann’s gorgeous and calming Romance Postmoderne, which was written for the duo.
You might expect stage changes galore, what with the unstrapping of seed pods and moving between instruments. While some ensembles get awkwardly silent during these times, Ray-Kallay has the insight to use them to their advantage, as Vicki Ray delivers affable program notes about each piece from the stage while Aron resets. The friendly vibe of the event helped out pieces like Frank Oteri’s Oasis, written for Yamaha DX7s and intended to make fun of the ridiculousness of early FM synth instrument modeling. In a “serious” recital such a piece may have felt out of place, but here it fit right in.
Composers in attendance visited the stage as well, with Isaac Schankler explaining how his piece Because Patterns (the title an answer to Morton Feldeman’s Why Patterns?) uses preparations to an acoustic piano to try to conjure the feel of electronic sounds.
Boy, did he succeed. The minimalist, groove-based piece was the highlight of the night. Extremely transparent, it not only showed off Schankler’s feel for phrase and musical structure and attention to sound (almost like a friendlier Tristan Perich), and the non-pandering influence of electronic artists like Matmos and Aphex Twin, but highlighted just how tightly the pianists were synced. It would be easy to convince a listener that it was one musician sitting at the piano.
Dylan Mattingly’s piece The Rest is Silence also benefitted from the cohesion of Ray and Kallay, this time with one at the piano and the other at a just-intoned keyboard. This piece is strikingly lush and beautiful, and calls into question the idea that JI music is music for specialists. It’s my favorite Mattingly piece I’ve heard yet.
When writing for four hands, I’m often thinking about chord voicings and contrapuntal writing that one pianist couldn’t achieve within their span. The range of things that Ray-Kallay demonstrated are possible with two performers of this caliber was inspiring. I hope they continue to build a rep for their infinitely-malleable setup and concertize everywhere, not just as two pianists, but as two extremely versatile musicians.