On May 12, 2017 the Boston Court Performing Arts Center was the venue for a memorial concert marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Lou Harrison, presented by MicroFest. No less than seven Harrison works were programmed – curated by Bill Alves – including rarely and never-performed pieces. The stage was packed with all sorts of instruments and found percussion, including authentic recreations of two conduit xylophones designed by Harrison and tuned to just intonation. The musicians of Just Strings and Varied Trio were on hand and a fine crowd filled the theater in anticipation of an evening of music by one of America’s most influential composers.
Suite for National Steel was first and this four movement piece was written for steel-body guitar re-fretted for just intonation. The first movement is based on a whimsical sculpture by the artist Nek Chand, and several other Harrison pieces compiled by guitarist John Schneider complete the suite. Accordingly, Suite for National Steel opens with a rapid melody and precise counterpoint that had a lively, dance-like feel. The second movement, Jahla, was more relaxed and reflective, the longer notes accentuating the tuning. Music for Bill and Me, movement 3, was slower still and had that Asian flavor so typical of Harrison. Heartfelt and lovely, this was played by Schneider with great feeling. The final Serenado movement was just that: upbeat and optimistic, with a sunny and active feel. Suite for National Steel was beautifully played by John Schneider from memory, and nicely summarized many of Harrison’s most identifiable musical traits.
Solo (1972) followed and this was performed on a carefully reconstructed metal tube instrument first built by Harrison using aluminum conduit tubes tuned to just intonation. Often called a “tubulong”, it resembles a xylophone with resonator tubes. The sound, while distinctly metallic, is rich in overtones and two of these instruments were built by Kathryn Jones specifically for this concert. Solo was played by percussionist-extraordinary Yuri Inoo and the mysterious, exotic feel was immediately evident. The melody was nicely matched to the tuning and pleasant to the ear – a tribute to the composition as well as the playing and construction of the tubulong.
Suite from Young Caesar, consisting of four short movements was next, and there was percussion, a harp and a violin in addition to the conduit tubulong. Lullaby, the first movement, opened with a nice mix of percussion and long, sustained tones in the violin. There was a quietly beautiful Asian feel to this, and an exceptionally fine ensemble between the confident violin playing of Shalini Vijayan and the assorted percussion. The second movement, Prelude to Scene ii, felt stronger and more assertive, with Alison Bjorkedal’s harp trading passages and playing counterpoint to the violin. Shadow Scene and Processional, movement three, again featured the harp and violin; with just the slightest presence of percussion this managed to convey an exotic and mysterious presence. The final movement, Whirling Dance, had an uptempo melody in the violin with counterpoint in the harp and some lovely, deep sounds in the percussion. All of this was skillfully played with intricate, yet even textures throughout. Suite from Young Caesar is a convincing demonstration of Harrison’s ability to find just the right combination of percussion and instrumental pitches, each complimenting the other for just the right balance.
Variations (1936) followed with Aron Kallay at the piano and Shalini Vijayan on violin. Variations is the earliest work in this concert – Harrison would have been just 19 years old when it was written. The score for this piece was discovered by Bill Alves among Harrison’s papers, and was apparently never performed. This piece dates from the time Harrison was a student of Henry Cowell, whose signature keyboard gesture at the time was the tone cluster. Accordingly, Variations begins with a series of these in the lower registers, dark and ominous, like an advancing storm. Each crash increases in volume and menace, and Aron Kallay managed to extract all of it from the grand piano on stage. When the violin enters, there is a subdued and sorrowful melody, while the piano softens with single chords underneath. There is no trace here of the sunny Asian optimism or interest in alternate tuning – these would come later in Harrison’s career. More tone clusters are heard in the higher piano registers, further unsettling things, and when the violin joins in again there is a bleak and angry feel that almost boils with intensity. A final series of roaring crashes and chords are heard accompanied by somber violin passages, and the piece ends, as if on a question. Variations is an intriguing glance at Harrison as the young composer: confident and expressive, yet untouched by his later influences and interests.
After a short intermission the stage was reconfigured and there was much moving and placing of various found percussion objects. Omnipotent Chair (1940) followed, and this was performed in five short movements. Harrison was inspired by Henry Cowell and John Cage to create a percussion ensemble fashioned from items found in old shops and junk yards. Omnipotent Chair opens with an exotic melody in the violin accompanied by the striking of flower pots and drums. The blend is surprisingly balanced and even: the typical Asian feel of Harrison’s work was clearly heard, especially in the delicate soundings of a small triangle. As the suite continued, Aron Kally was heard playing an elaborate sequence of bells, and turned in a nice performance. In another section, Yuri Inoo tapped out the beat on the body of a double bass. In the fourth movement, rapid violin passages and the lively rhythms in the wood block recalled Harrison’s many compositions for dance ensembles. Throughout Omnipotent Chair the profusion of unusual percussive elements never overwhelmed Shalini Vijayan’s confident violin, and the overall texture felt comfortable and familiar.
Air from The Scattered Remains (1988) followed, and this was the result of a commission by filmmaker James Broughton for a film score. Harrison’s approach was to provide a series of repeating figures in order to insure that the feel of the piece would survive the inevitable cutting in the film editing process. This piece opens with a simple solo melody in the conduit tubulong that extends for a bit, followed by bass drum and wood block that add some variety to the texture. The harpsichord enters in a repeating counterpoint that brings a sense of purpose as the work proceeds, with a triangle contributing a light embellishment. A nice groove developed and the ensemble was controlled and precise. According to the program notes Air from The Scattered Remains “.. was perhaps the closest he ever came to the then-popular minimalism, a style Harrison sympathized with and which influenced his students of the time.” This performance was the first since the original recording of the film score.
The final piece of the concert was Varied Quintet (1987) and for this concert the original orchestration with just intonation was used, including two conduit tubulongs, a harp, violin, re-tuned harpsichord and assorted percussion. Varied Quintet proceeds in five movements and the first of these, Gendhing, began with the harp and the conduit tubulongs entering in sequence followed by a simple but strongly expressive melody in the violin. With its exotic feel, Gendhing is clearly influenced by Harrison’s continuing interest in Javanese gamelan forms. The harpsichord joins in and some lovely counterpoint develops. As the program notes point out: “…the interweaving just intonation bell instruments sparkle with an entirely different texture than what can be coaxed from the conventional piano.”
The second movement, Bowl Bells, quickly turned into a percussion tour de force by Yuri Inoo, whose rapidly accurate playing on a set of bowls dazzled the ear while generating a solid groove. Elegy, the third movement, featured a simple, yet sorrowful melody in the violin aided by thick chords from the harpsichord underneath. The percussion was mostly tacit for this solemn movement, with only a few quiet notes from the conduit tubulong. Rondeau in Honor of Fragonard followed, written as a tribute to one of Harrison’s favorite painters, and the buoyant optimism was in complete contrast to the previous Elegy. Some lovely interweaving of violin and harpsichord added to the cheer. The final movement of the piece, Dance, looked back to Harrison’s extensive experience writing for dance companies and the active, whirling feel and rapid passages were precisely executed by the entire ensemble.
Varied Quintet, with its unorthodox instruments, just tuning and exotic character was performed in this program for the first time since it was premiered. The musicians of Varied Trio and Just Strings – as well as the scholarship of Bill Alves – combined to produce a unique concert to hear important works by Lou Harrison that have been too-long neglected.
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.
By now, Piano Spheres has wound down their main 2015–2016 season, but that doesn’t mean that there are no opportunities to hear contemporary piano music in the Los Angeles area, or even that the specific artists from their season are nowhere to be heard this summer. Last night (May 20th), for instance, Nadia Shpachenko and Danny Holt gave a joint recital at Boston Court in Pasadena, playing music inspired by specific buildings and places. Some of the pieces were familiar — either from previous Piano Spheres concerts or earlier eras of the piano repertoire — but others were new, including a three world premières.
On the first half, Nadia Shpachenko took the stage to present a fiercely contemporary set of pieces written around and about works of ancient and modern architecture. The program began with the première of Hannah Lash’s Give Me Your Songs, a ruminative, convoluted work inspired by Lash’s time spent working in Aaron Copland’s old house in upstate New York. The layout of the building is, apparently, quite confusing, and Lash often found herself in the kitchen when the living room had been her goal (or vice versa), and the piece is in some ways an attempt to capture that surprising twisting and turning. The musical materials are simple and songlike, but their development is fractured and folded over on itself in endlessly shifting ways. There are moments where things seem to snap into focus — an earnest chorale, the beginnings of an aria, flutterings that bordered on the launch of a toccata — but the ground always shifted underfoot, and nothing ever remained quite what it seemed.
Shpachenko followed this with a reprise of Lewis Spratlan’s Bangladesh, which she premièred on a Piano Spheres concert last year. (Despite being written in 2015, this was the oldest piece of music on the first half.) Instead of the privacy of a personal home, Bangladesh takes its cue from the National Parliament House in Dhaka, Bangladesh, a building complex designed by American architect Louis Kahn. For those less than familiar with this complex, Dana Berman Duff put together a slideshow of sorts featuring scores of pictures of the building and its environs, including a long sequence of archival shots of the building’s construction. The music is lush and atmospheric, interspersing imposing block chords — echoing the hulking weight of Kahn’s structure — with gaudy pentatonic washes describing water and fog. In many ways, the piece feels like an accompaniment to the slideshow, which is a pity, because the slideshow leaves something to be desired. While the photos do a stunning job of capturing the monumentality of the building as well as the interplay of light and shadow within its halls, they are presented with little context, with the result that Bangladesh (the country) comes across as shrouded, exotic, and mysterious. But Bangladesh needn’t be mysterious. It’s the eighth most populous country in the world, with a long and well documented history. Marveling at architecture doesn’t require and shouldn’t come at the expense of othering non–Western locales.
This was followed by Amy Beth Kirsten’s h.o.p.e., a piece that calls for Shpachenko to do triple duty, playing the regular piano with one hand, a toy piano with the other, and intoning cryptic vocal lines above it all. Inspired by The Big Hope Show at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, this was the sparsest piece on the evening’s program. There are very few moments in the piece when more than one note is played at the same time, and for much of its duration the regular and toy pianos play exactly the same line, tho the inherent inaccuracy of the toy piano’s intonation added a bewitching halo of sound that kept the sparseness from feeling completely unadorned. My only complaint about this piece is that it was far too short — it felt like the patient beginning of something much longer and grander, and the ending felt like an abrupt truncation of a larger, half–glimpsed structure.
Once the toy piano was safely out of the way, it was then time for the première of In Full Sail by Harold Meltzer, inspired by Frank Gehry’s IAC Building in Manhattan. This was another atmospheric piece, and one that was cleverly programmed to hearken back to both the Lash and the Spratlan. In its fluid textures and organic form, it echoed Bangladesh, but instead of using pentatonic sonorities as grist for the mill, Meltzer draws on a more American idiom, drawing in some of the hard–edged angularity that lurks just below the surface of much of Copland’s populism (an angularity that was also very present in the Lash). This piece was also accompanied by images of the building that inspired it, but here they felt very much like an afterthought, and I found it hard to focus on the structure of the music when the same few images kept repeating in a static loop.
Next, and last on the first half, came the première of Jack Van Zandt’s Sí an Bhrú, the only piece on the program named after the building that inspired it. And, also unlike the other pieces, it’s based not on a contemporary dwelling or monument but on a Neolithic monolith constructed some time around 3200BC. Sí an Bhrú (or “Newgrange” as it’s known in English) sits in Ireland’s Boyne Valley, and its original purpose is not entirely clear — it takes the form of a large mound with a single passageway into its center, a passageway that lines up with the rising sun on the winter solstice, leading many to believe it originally had some religious purpose. But given the yawning gap of years between then and now, it’s difficult to say with certainty, and many plausible competing hypotheses remain. Van Zandt’s work embraces this loss and uncertainty, beginning with a meditation on deep time and progressing thru the construction and decoration of the structure into the dark starlit night of deep winter with music that seems achingly familiar without ever being fully placable, just as we recognize that human minds were behind this monolith without being to understand their full purpose. In addition to piano, the piece is scored with electronics, and these too, play a similar game. There are snatches of concrete sounds — a brook burbling or leaves rustling in the wind; chisels on stone or steps down a long corridor — but they mix and blur both with each other and with markedly synthetic static and pop. This was the only piece where the visuals (images of Sí and Bhrú and the surrounding landscape, plus a few nebulae) and music really felt integrated into a unified whole, each adding to and balancing out the other.
Coming into the second half, Danny Holt elected to shift the focus from specific buildings to geographical regions more generally, and from the very present day to the first decades of the 20th Century. Holt is perhaps best known for his virtuosic recitals where he plays the piano and various percussion instruments simultaneously, but here he eschewed such things and showed that he can dazzle just as well without the use of drumkits. Holt opened with Heitor Villa-Lobos’s fifth Choros, “Alma Brasileira” (1925), a work that was jagged and heartfelt by turns. This was followed by Le Cahier Romand (1923), a suite of sentimental piano miniatures penned by Arthur Honegger during his time in Switzerland. The highlight of the second half was Alexander Mosolov’s seldom–heard Turkmenian Nights (1928), a ferocious volley of Russian Futurism that nevertheless made me want to dance. Holt then closed with Leonard Bernstein’s transcription of Aaron Copland’s El Salón México (1936), revealing the transparency and delicacy underlying the orchestral version, and providing a tidy symmetry to the concert as a whole.
Over and above the explicit thread of “Places” that linked these works, I found myself drawn to a deeper tie between the two halves. We’re living in a time of great stylistic plurality, a time when certain older systems of composing have lost the sway they once enjoyed and new ones haven’t quite arisen to take their place. Shpachenko’s half helped show that — there are definitely styles that she didn’t have room to feature, but no two of the works she played take the same approach to melody, harmony, and form. It’s a tumultuous time, but it’s also an exciting time, and Holt’s half hearkened back to another time of similar tumult, as composers sought new means of expression after the psychic shock of World War One. It was a fitting reminder that masterworks do come out of this bubble and strife, and a subtle affirmation that some things being written now may well be touchstones of the repertoire in another ninety years.
This program was the epitome of newness. Nothing old enough to be enrolled in first grade and three world premieres, Synchromy and The Argus Quartet‘s February 27 concert achieved a rare level of innovation, with the presenter and ensemble working together to build an effective, feasible, and enjoyable program to showcase all their talents. Like a sonata, it built up, developed, had some themes come back, and ended on a sort of cadenza with a new theme -that of the voice. We had heard the voice before; the narrator, Chelsea Fryer, had also been introducing the pieces. One could say this non-performance voice became integrated into the program. Or perhaps it had been part of the performance all along, that as soon as the doors closed and the lights when down everything that happened on or near the stage was performative.
The concert opens with a sunrise in Andrew Norman’s Sabina, from the Companion Guide to Rome, for solo violin. It begins with a whisper, not even a note. When the sound finally starts, it sounds far away, almost like an echo in a canyon. It creaks into existence, broken by bird calls and wind. The violin finally begins a kind of fiddling over a drone and splitting high notes so pure. The sun is finally high enough to be seen through the window of the church that inspired Andrew Norman, and the violin plays a single, pure melody. No birds, no wind, nothing but a sweet melody.
Following the sky theme, the sunrise is clouded over by Kaija Saariaho’s “Cloud Trio,” which adds a viola and cello to the violin soloist but is still not the full quartet yet. This work depicts four types of clouds, and the audience is invited to imagine which clouds they are. Like many, I can identify cumulus as the fluffy ones and that’s it. Regardless of lacking the vocabulary to name the clouds, the types were clearly depicted in the music. Each has its own identity, utilizing thick harmonies or sparse counterpoint or the rhythmic shush shush of col legno.
Staying within the theme of Rome, one of the most popular archaeological sites in the world, Zaq Kenefick’s funeral song of the people of the ruined cities, speaks to the beauty and brokenness of the ruins. The violin plays a trembling solo and the viola strums chords dissonant with the cello. The video of folding black cloth was surely a beautiful artistic choice, though I must admit I and many other audience members I talked to afterwards were uncertain what to make of the visuals. The piece was over almost as soon as it began, the length itself a reflection of the lost ruins.
Immediately before intermission, the concert changed gears and addressed the modern: Skronk. A word thrown around in various musical genres and circles, it is a thick onomatopoeia. The introduction defines it in many ones, and generally as “not a thing you are, but a thing you do.” The piece features strong pizzicati and a syncopated rock rhythm and melody, some fiddling tossed between the different instruments, and overall frankly smoother string playing than I would have expected from a word that can mean the skronk of an electric guitar. This one was a fast crowd pleaser and kept everyone on their toes. Ending as though someone suddenly turned up the volume and then plucking away into nothingness like the fade-outs of rock songs of the ‘90s, John Frantzen captured the many facets skronk may and can represent.
Post-intermission, we were given something of a variation on a theme. The music kicked off with three excerpts from Norman’s Companion Guide to Rome for string trio, featuring swirling harmonies, birdlike whistles, crackling glitches, whispering on the bows, and plucked pizzicato like rocks skipping on a pond. This was followed by Nick Norton’s String Quartet No 1., in which chords slid like skates on ice and the melody bounced between the four instruments in a playful game of keep-away. The second section was frantic, reminding me of a car race – the way the upper strings chomped rhythmically at the notes and the cello made engine revs pealing past the stage, going so far as to imitate the Doppler effect, it seemed. The third ethereal movement felt like flying in a dream. The dramatic violin swelled alongside the pastoral lower strings, all slowing until they ran out of steam. The perfect end to the day that Norman’s first piece began. But a false ending gave way to screeching and tapping. The spell was broken. Composers have great power over the audience, and with great power comes great responsibility. Norton made the daring choice to shatter the beauty he built.
After Norton came the second Kenefick piece, harvesting tunes of the people of the rope-tree towers, this one featuring the viola practically crunching itself in half to sound like white noise on an old CRTV, a dark melody in the violin with dissonance in its twin, and the cello rumbling beneath it all. This video panned the length of a red cloth rope. Again, I will not pretend to have understood or fully appreciated the visuals provided, but the piece was an intriguing exercise in tension and release, and well placed in the middle of the second half of the program. It is experimental enough that I might experiment with it on a Spotify playlist someday, just to see how it goes.
Gabriela Frank’s excerpts from Leyendas: an Andean Walkabout gave a breath of fresh air from the concert hall by taking the audience on a pastoral journey through the Andes via “Tarqueada,” a piece imitating the split tone flute played in quartal and quintal harmony, “Himno de Zampoñas,” or panpipes, and “Chasqui,” the messenger runner who relies on small instruments light enough to carry on journeys, particularly small guitars. Each section was magnificently portrayed by the quartet, making the flutes and panpipes sing and drums thwack and guitars strum, all on bowed strings. For brief moments I was transported to the Smithsonian Folkways Festival of 2013 when a Quechua band played on the instruments the strings were portraying. The effect was astounding and beautiful, and I felt nostalgia for a place I’ve never been, only heard.
The concert ended with Eve Beglarian’s Testy Pony, which featured the cellist, a video and prerecorded sounds, and the narrator. A charming story of a girl who gets a pony and learns a life lesson, the pleasant tale is backed by a constantly rolling cello playing in time with the prerecorded sounds. If you don’t think this is technically challenging, try cooking while watching a chef on TV, and you’ll get some idea of the balancing act at play. This work seemed to finally end the “day” we started, as we watched the back of a horse gallop out of sight and out of mind.
The brief descriptions and interpretations of the pieces reveal a variety of ways in which music can be “new” and concerts can showcase facets of interest. Composition can show off new techniques, new subject matter (or old, in the case of the ruins, but in a new way), or use new orchestration. Synchromy is a collective of composers showing off recent works, and the Argus Quartet specializes in modern techniques. The New Classic LA facebook page has a rule that only ‘new’ music may be posted. 15th century madrigals are not new, but perhaps the way in which they are performed is new. Film music is not a new genre anymore, but a fresh composition is new. ‘New’ is such a tiny word packed with so much to interpret and interpolate. Regardless of how you take any of it to heart or choose to think about music, last Friday’s concert was a fair epitome of newness.
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.
This Friday, wild Up presents an evening of music curated by and celebrating the work of clarinetist Brian Walsh. Walsh is a staple of the LA scene, most frequently inhabiting the contemporary classical and jazz worlds, and having worked with everyone from the LA Phil and wild Up to Nels Cline and Bright Eyes to his own ensembles (Walsh Set Trio and gnarwhallaby). I’m glad he had time to answer a few questions ahead of tomorrow’s concerts at Boston Court (tickets available here).
This concert on Friday explores and celebrates your musical influences and experiences. Could you talk a bit about the program?
I wanted to present music that I love listening to and love playing. I also wanted to work with some of my best friends who are incredible musicians. The two pieces that first popped into my head when chatting with Chris Rountree were Brian Ferneyhough’s Time and Motion Study 1 for solo bass clarinet, and Fables of Faubus by Charles Mingus. The program developed out of that initial connection. gnarwhallaby will be performing a wonderful piece by Martin Smolka-Euphorium. This is scored for baritone saxophone, euphonium, cello, and prepared piano. It is both disgusting and beautiful. It also grooves. Magnus Lindberg’s Ablauf features a slithering clarinet solo bombarded by two bass drums. I will play a solo I wrote for clarinet striking assorted small objects. Walsh Set Trio(bass clarinet, bass and drums) will play my compositions that mix absurdist vocals, jazz and contemporary music. The music of the great Charles Mingus will round out the concert.
It’s a really wide-ranging program, and I’ve seen you in many different contexts as a performer. What opened you up to exploring such diverse musics? Do you even see them as diverse, or all part of the same practice?
I grew up only listening to classical music and some 60’s folk rock. When I hit 8th grade I discovered jazz and that opened the flood gates. At first, any music that featured the clarinet really interested me, and that pretty much exposes you to almost every kind of music. Almost. I don’t think so much about the diversity aspect. If I hear something and love it, I do it. The different styles just have slightly different needs. I still listen to a lot of music so my brain is used to moving relatively fluidly between styles.
Is there a particular music that’s your favorite to play? Why?
As soon as I think there is, something else comes along. I do tend to always return to contemporary music and jazz though.
What attracted you to clarinet in the first place? Was it your first instrument?
I saw a wind quintet play in the mall and liked the look of the oboe. The group was wearing tuxedos and socks that looked like shoes. I told my band director that I wanted to play oboe and got a clarinet. I figured it was close enough.
What other musicians in LA inspire you?
I have to say that all the groups and musicians I work with are constantly pushing me and inspiring me. Composers as well. Groups like wild Up and Chris Rountree, gnarwhallaby (Richard Valitutto, Derek Stein, and Matt Barbier), Nicholas Deyoe and all the folks at WasteLAnd. Daniel Rosenboom and Orenda Records just to name a few. Local heroes who are trying to make great art as well as build a strong, supportive community.
I mean this as a compliment: anytime I see you onstage I think, “oh, of course they’d get Brian, he can do anything.” That said, are there any musical goals or projects, that you’re interested in and haven’t yet been able to pursue or accomplish? Anyone you’d like to work with but haven’t yet?
I’m planning on recording an album of music featuring an expanded version of my trio, using strings and guitar. My current dream is to record an album with organist Larry Goldings. He doesn’t know that yet. I’ve also been thinking about recording a solo clarinet album. I usually don’t like listening to a whole album of solo anything so I’m not sure what to do about that.
Gnarwhallaby open their season tonight at Boston Court, with premieres from Colin Wambsgans and Nick Deyoe, and music by Martin Smolka, Edison Denisov, and Henryk Gorecki.
These guys rock. Here’s an example of why:
Tickets are at http://www.bostoncourt.com/events/221/gnarwhallaby, and you get $5 off with the code “MUSIC2014”.
Tell us about it.
For most of my life as a composer (which is, relatively speaking, not all that long), I’ve kept various notebooks or scraps of paper with little musical ideas jotted down on them. Sometimes, I’ll not write down anything for weeks at a time, and then it will only be one measure of music – just a few pitches, harmonies, or basic gestures. At times when I have a specific project in mind, these ideas are more plentiful or involved. Two similarities I noticed about all these collected scraps is that I have a ton of seemingly disconnected, completely unused ideas, and a majority of them came to mind and were recorded at night (like many people, I simply work better and more freely when it’s dark and quiet).
In November 2012, my good friend and colleague Mark Menzies and I performed a recital at the Hammer Museum which focused on Morton Feldman’s epic 80-minute duo for violin and piano, For John Cage. We also performed a substantial first half of shorter compositions for violin or viola and piano by Cage, Feldman, Anton von Webern, and – with mutual coercion – one each by Mark and I. Although slightly absurd in retrospect (the concert was about 3 hours long!), this first half allowed the audience to really attune the senses to Feldman’s lengthy (and quiet!) journey. It also afforded Mark and I each the opportunity to write pieces for one other, and more abstractly – though no less meaningfully – for John, Morton, and Anton as well.
This duo for violin and piano, frammenti notturni, was my contribution to that event, and in it I have included a wide array of some of the aforementioned compositional fragments from over two years of random jottings: many of which were primarily influenced by Cage, Feldman, Webern, and Menzies; their techniques, philosophies, playing styles, distinguishing characteristics, formal structures, etc. Basically, everything in this piece – from its formal plan to very specific harmonic and melodic gestures – comes from and points back to these four people. And it is to the four of them that I owe a great deal of my development as a musician, composer, thinker, and human being. This small compositional offering is dedicated to Morton, John, Anton, and Mark.
Favorite X : Y
Breakfast :: two eggs sunny-side up, link sausage, home fries, sourdough toast, some good cheese, grapefruit juice, and coffee.
The name of your piece being performed at LACP 2013 is:
Tell us about it.
The idea for Mr. Distinguished came from a simple idea—I missed writing fun music. I had been knee-deep in my opera about Gesualdo, and I felt I needed to write something that wasn’t emotionally draining.
Inspired by the works of Jacob Ter Veldhuis, I set upon finding a recording of a Dickens story or some poetry. I came across a website, LibriVox.org, an online project that gets volunteers to record themselves reciting books and poetry in the public domain. After days of searching, I found the text for Mr. Distinguished from a chapter of Emily Post’s book of etiquette—the chapter titled “Introductions.”
Much like a kid (me) entering phonetic combinations of letters into a Speak & Spell to hear dirty words, I wanted to manipulate the text into something much more playful than the ridiculously snobbish original text. I manipulated the spoken text to create a character, Mr. Distinguished, who is despicable and goes against many of the rituals Emily Post suggests. He is “always abrupt and unflattering, rude, preposterous, [and] inelastic”—he is almost exactly the way I was described by my etiquette teacher.
Favorite X : Y
My favorite car from the Pixar Cars movies is Fillmore.
Here’s the piece:
The name of your piece being performed at LACP 2013 is:
Tell us about it.
Asperges Me is based on the Latin antiphon of the same name, which is a part of the Roman Catholic Mass. Taken from Psalm 51, my piece uses the first two lines, “Thou shalt purge me, with hyssop and I shall be clean: Thou shalt wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” I wrote the piece following the birth of my nephew (the piece is dedicated to his parents) while thinking about the transformative possibilities that lie dormant in every relationship. One can view the piece as a kind of deconstruction of the chant. The melody itself has a beautiful rise and fall, invoking a sense of striving as it ascends and release as it falls and returns to the tonic. I took the melody and broke it down into 1-3 note fragments which are played in each voice and harmonized according to a range of overtone ratios. I prefer to look at the piece as a kind of translation, or opening-up. Each voice plays every part of the entire melody, but each with its own harmonization. As a collective, the ensemble plays the entire set of ratios and the audience gets to hear each note of the melody cast in a slightly different way, giving the piece a sense of multi-dimensionality. Duration, dynamics, and even the choice of one instrument are decided upon by the players, granting a wide range of expressive potential and making each performance specific to the ensemble.
Favorite X : Y
I’m gonna go with favorite childhood breakfast cereal: peanut butter Captain Crunch.
How about a recording?
While I do have a live recording of Asperges Me, I’d prefer to share a better quality recording of a recent piece which was composed at the same time as Asperges Me. The piece is rhythm color #2—resembling, suggesting. It was premiered by New Century Players in November 2012. The piece was constructed according to a similar process as the one in Asperges Me, organizing harmonies according to a limited range of overtone ratios which translate and shift over time.