A new CD by Nadia Shpachenko, Woman at the New Piano – American Music of 2013, has been released containing 75 minutes of piano music by no less than four separate contemporary composers. Tom Flaherty, Peter Yates, Adam Schoenberg and James Matheson have all contributed new works written to celebrate the fact that the world had managed to survive the Mayan Calendar predictions of doom for December 2012. As Nadia states in the CD booklet: “ I feel this program is a remarkable snapshot of compositional activity in the year 2013, a fascinating exposé of how four brilliant people see and experience this newly transformed world, how they express themselves through music, and how their different ideas are brought together by an enthusiastic performer who believes in their legacy.”
Airdancing by Tom Flaherty is first and for this piece Nadia on piano is joined by Genevieve Feiwen Lee on toy piano and electronics. Airdancing opens with deep mysterious chords in the lower registers of the piano with a playfully light melody on the toy piano floating on top. There is a syncopated hand-off between the two that is most engaging given the different timbres. Now some electronic percussion in the form of a deep bass drum adds an ominous feel and then lighter cymbal-like taps are added to produce a distinctly Asian feel. The deep, rumbling bass drum returns and is joined by low notes in the piano giving a palpable sense of menace. The pace accelerates, building drama and tension. The piece concludes with a swirl of keyboard runs and sudden silence. Tom Flaherty states in the liner notes: “As I worked on this piece, images of falling, floating, and flying often came across my computer monitor.” Airdancing is an appealing combination of the traditional piano sounds and electronic percussion. The lightness in the rhythms and timbre of the electronics are nicely contrasted with the lower, more ominous sections in an interesting mix.
Tom Flaherty also contributed Part Suite-a for Solo Piano, consisting of three dance-like movements: Passacaglialude, Lullabande and Scherzoid. In this suite the mood is a bit darker, starting with a mysterious deep note at the opening of Passacaglialude followed by a simple melody that expands into something more complex and is tinged with a feeling of uncertainty and menace. Although softening slightly as it proceeds, a series of rapid and sharp notes reinforce the uneasiness. At the very last, however, this movement comes to an unexpectedly satisfying close on the final chord.
Lullabande continues in the same mood with a quiet, tentative opening that creates a questioning feel. Single deep notes in the bass add counterpoint and a touch of menace. As the lower notes predominate, this movement takes on a sinister cast. A quiet tension builds in an increasingly complex set of passages until a rapid downward scale ends in silence. A more subdued, reflective section follows but the undercurrents of tension persist at the close.
The final movement of Part Suite-a begins with a series of strong chords and rapid passages the introduce a feeling of anxiety. Very fast moving lines and scales seem to crowd in on the listener. A slower section follows but with a feeling of uncertainty as rising arpeggios and a faster tempo lead to a fast downward run and a moment of silence. The pace picks up, like sanity slipping away, and there is a frantic pace to this requiring good technique – at times it seems like four hands are on the keyboard. Ominous chords in the bass increase the tension with a frantic melody above that builds to a rapid downward run and silence at the finish. Part Suite-a for Solo Piano is a technically challenging piece that is precisely realized here.
Composer Peter Yates contributed Finger Songs for Solo Piano, a series of five short pieces and the first of these, Mood Swing, has a very fast opening – almost a trill – but this soon slows to a pleasant bluesy feel. Different moods come and go: upbeat sections mix with slower or more inward looking passages. The sudden ending takes the listener by surprise but magnifies the realization of how many different moods were heard in just under three and a half minutes.
Gambol, at just 46 seconds is shorter still and packs a faster, brighter sound. Mysterious Dawn is much slower and more enigmatic, making a good contrast to the first two sections. Brave Show is full of lively runs and ornaments and the playing here is crisp and precise. All Better concludes with an upbeat and optimistic feel. Altogether, Finger Songs for Solo Piano is like a candy sampler with all sorts moods, tempos and techniques packed into small, bite-sized packages, Ms.Shpachenko extracting the full flavor of each.
Picture Etudes for Solo Piano by Adam Schoenberg is an amazing collection of four short movements, each musically describing the works of a well known artist. Starting with the short Three Pierrots, based on Albert Bloch’s painting, Die Drei Pierrots Nr. 2. Twittering, light and fluttering, this piece requires quick playing. Some lovely chords at the finish bring to mind the brightly colored feathers of the parrots. Miro’s World is next and this is quietly lithe like a cat in the beginning, and then loud with syncopated percussion and a quick melody. In just 1:32 Schoenberg has captured the whimsey of a Miro painting.
Olive Orchard can only be about Van Gogh with a languid, lazy opening – it is a summer day in the south of France. A lovely melody drifts along, now turning a bit darker. There is a feeling of reverence in this and an appealing complexity in the later parts. A very warm and sympathetic portrait of the artist.
Kandinsky, however, is the exact opposite of Olive Orchard, opening with sharp chords and irregular rhythms. A tense, almost sinister feel to this, magnified by strong bass drum beats. A melody appears, fast and abstract, with dissonance that adds to the tension. More rapid fire notes, sharp chords crashing about and the bass drum again. A long descending run finishes this vivid musical description of the expressionist.
Cretic Variations by James Matheson follows and he writes: “Cretic Variations requires quite a lot of the pianist’s hands and brain—sudden shifts of register, simultaneous lines, seamlessly crossing hands, carefully balancing multiple elements… “ This piece opens with a single, sharp high note that becomes a repeating pattern, then speeds up with counterpoint added. Now the patterns move to the middle registers – flowing like running water – with deep bass notes providing a sense of building tension. Chords appear and these come with irregular rhythms and a faster tempo; there is a sense of sustained tension. A melody moves along as an almost familiar-sounding tune , even as this becomes distorted and underscored by unsettling deep chords. There is the sense of motion and fast pace – as if running from something. A series of crashing chords are heard, interwoven with an engaging melody. Finally all is roar and rumble and all the keys become engaged – followed by silence. Deep solemn notes toll out, as fragments of the melody drift by; there is a sad feeling to this. Slow and deliberate notes follow, like watching a setting sun. The final chord provides a welcome sense of acceptance and peace. Cretic Variations is a remarkable journey, full of mood swings and changes of pace, all expertly played.
Adam Schoenberg also contributed Bounce for Two Pianos, which is the final track on the CD. For this Ms. Shpachenko was accompanied by Genevieve Feiwen Lee. Bounce has a slow, deliberate beginning that quickly becomes a bright melody on one one piano with counterpoint in the other. More solemn at 2:45; hymn-like chords are heard in one piano with rapid passages – like water running in a brook – in the second. More dramatic now halfway along, with a definite introspective feel. But this soon breaks out into optimism again, with lively syncopation and increasingly rapid keyboard runs that exhibit an exuberant dissonance. The piece falls back into a more rational, if still bouncy, rhythmic feel and concludes with a conventionally strong ending. Schoenberg writes in the liner notes: “ For Bounce, my main objective was to write the most playful and loving work that I could come up with while imagining having a child.” Bounce for Two Pianos is precisely played by both pianists who compliment each other perfectly while completely meeting the objective of the composer.
Woman at the New Piano is a generous helping of new piano music by four contemporary composers covering a wide range of feelings, moods and techniques. Ms. Shpachenko and Genevieve Feiwen Lee have skillfully combined to produce a memorable recording.
Back in July I was invited to a garden party hosted by Jacaranda, at which they featured five pianists and an incredible lunch [I don’t usually plug businesses on here, but Cafe Luxxe in Brentwood provided the coffee service and dude, their stuff is delicious]. They also announced the concert lineup for their 2012-13 season, which features composers John Cage and Benjamin Britten, and works inspired by or connected to them. It’s an impressive one to say the least, kicking off on with a four-day Cage festival on September 6 that includes a complete (read: 24 hour long) performance of Erik Satie’s Vexations. I caught up with Artistic Director Patrick Scott to talk about what’s coming up. Check it out:
Okay, the garden party was epic. Tell our readers about it.
The party celebrated the end of the season and announces the new one. We featured five of the pianists who will perform in the next season. They each played 10-15 minutes of music (total 70 in two sets) that is in some way related to the upcoming concerts, including this year’s special pre-season Cage 100 Festival. A fabulous lunch was served between the two sets. The first set includes solo and four hands music played by Danny Holt and Steven Vanhauwaert, aka 4HandsLA.
Danny played music by David Lang and Nico Muhly. Excerpts of Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion will be included in the December concert, “Winter Dreams,” as will Knee Play V from Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass, Muhly’s mentor. Steven also played Old & Lost Rivers by Tobias Picker. Picker’s piece The Encantadas will receive its LA premiere in October’s concert, “Different Islands.” Together they played Eric Satie’s own 4 hands arrangement of his ballet, Parade. Satie was a major influence on Cage and his Vexations will be played over 24 hours by 32 pianists (including all 5) in the festival. Danny and Steven will perform in Steve Reich’s City Life in October. And they will both play the original 4 hands arrangement of The Rite of Spring in February. Steven will perform with the Pantoum Trio in the US premiere of Eric Tanguy’s Trio in November’s “Seduction.” Steven is also prominently featured on the season finale playing a rare Benjamin Britten concerto.
Genevieve Feiwen Lee played more Satie, and Nothing is Real (Strawberry Fields) by Alvin Lucier, a disciple of Cage. Aron Kallay will perform the Lucier in the festival. Genevieve will also play sampling keyboard in City Life. Aron, who will join her on the second sampling keyboard, played three Un-intemezzi by Veronika Krausas, just because I wanted to hear them live and the pieces fit the program well. To close, Grammy-winner Gloria Cheng played Cage’s In a Landscape and Les sons impalpables du rêve from Messiaen’s Preludes. Messiaen was deeply influenced by Debussy, whose 150th anniversary we celebrate in November. Gloria will open the season with music by Esa-Pekka Salonen written for her. She will also perform the Ligeti Piano Concerto in January’s “Fierce Beauty.”
Quite a few party guests to bought subscriptions and festival tickets.
The next season, the one the party is supporting, features 100 year shindigs for both Cage and Britten. They seem like an unlikely pair, but the music you program with Jacaranda is really wide ranging. What are your thoughts going into programming?
Cage’s actual 100th birthday is September 5, 1912 in Los Angeles. We start celebrating the next day in our regular venue First Presbyterian. It’s a really unusual, fun and wild program with a lot of short pieces including a super-rare performance of an organ work based on 18th century New England hymns. Chance is a factor as three “assistants” pull the stops according to I Ching tosses. We then move to the Miles Playhouse in the middle of a park for 24 hours for Satie’s Vexations. The next venue was a place Cage regularly lectured about contemporary art and premiered his earlier music: Santa Monica Bay Women’s Club. To close we will be at the Annenberg Beach House. Brooklynite Adam Tendler will play from memory the complete Sonatas & Interludes by Cage — his gentle gamelan-like masterpiece for prepared piano. I think Cage is attractive to a younger audience and I hope they will come back for the Steve Reich.
We love Britten and think he is under-appreciated and under played here. Both Cage and Britten were gay, but very different. Britten’s birthday was November 22. 1913. We are dedicating three consecutive concerts to Britten, as well as including a work for children’s chorus and organ in December’s “Winter Dreams.” The programming takes a biographical approach and one that emphasizes his relationship with the tenor Peter Pears and their life in Brooklyn during WWII. A bunch of American composers and the Canadian Colin McPhee were their friends. So the March concert will put Britten in this milieu. We will stage our first opera, Britten’s Curlew River, a one-act chamber opera intended for church performance. There is an all male cast and the central role of the Madwoman was originally created by Pears in 1963. Internationally, the most exciting young opera director, LA-based Yuval Sharon, will direct. The season finale is full of contrasts, super popular and super obscure, solo piano to string orchestra with string quartet and piano.
We are celebrating Britten in the early part of 2013 because the 2013-14 season is our Tenth Anniversary and we cannot devote so many concerts to one composer.
Great programming takes a very deep knowledge of repertoire, history and culture. It depends on alchemy and intuition as well. I am not a trained musician so I have the advantage of approaching programs from the audience’s point of view. I want the atmosphere of the intermission to be charged with the afterglow of excitement, of shared discovery, of intense sensation and emotion. That state readies the audience for the substantial journey of the second half — full of surprises and challenges. At the end of a concert I want the audience to feel deeply satisfied and on a high.
How do you think programming such a range of music affects audiences’ experience? Do you find the same crowd at most of your concerts, or does the audience change drastically from say, the Debussy concert coming up in November to the second Viennese school one set for February?
I like variety — within a concert and within the season. But I also like things to be connected in unusual ways. The Jacaranda audience is quite loyal because the performance quality is super high and the adventure is planned to span the whole season, sometimes reflecting back on season’s past. I hope each concert will attract new listeners that will become loyal because they trust that the journey will be an exciting one, full of dazzling virtuosity and musical commitment. Among our audience development strategies, we do targeted outreach through the Consulates General. This year the consulates of France, Hungary, Austria and Britain will help.
What excites you about presenting this music in LA?
The amazing talent pool of musicians here makes almost anything possible; and the sophisticated audience in LA really has an appetite for new and modern music.
What would you like to see change here, whether about your own series or our town’s scene in general?
The geography of LA traffic is making it harder for people downtown, in Hollywood, and Pasadena to attend our concerts in Santa Monica. Eventually the train will help. In the meantime, we need more support in the media to inspire people to make the trek across town, by making a whole afternoon of their Santa Monica visit. There are awesome restaurants nearby, as well as the beach, shopping and movies on the Promenade, Bergamot Station, the newly renovated Santa Monica Mall, and two parking structures nearby. We have people regularly driving from Riverside, Whittier and Long Beach! There is a guy who actually drives from Arizona once a year! It just takes a little more planning.
For more details and tickets, visit jacarandamusic.org.
This Saturday night, People Inside Electronics present Nothing is Real: psychedelia for piano and electronics at Pierre’s Fine Pianos in Westwood. Amid preparations for the show, artistic director and founder Isaac Schankler managed to find a moment for an interview.
Tell me a bit about this weekend’s concert. You’ve got a ton of pianists on it, and what looks like a cool mix of pieces by local (Shaun Naidoo) and seriously established (Alvin Lucier) composers.
Yes! We’re really happy to have a bunch of amazing pianists involved: Vicki Ray, Vatche Mankerian, Genevieve Feiwen Lee, Louise Thomas, Aron of course, and Rafael Liebich, who also happens to be our new assistant director.
As far as the music goes, part of our mission all along has been to program works by established composers alongside newer works, to show that there’s a kind of history that’s there that people are continuing to build on. For this concert the classic pieces are Alvin Lucier’s Nothing Is Real (Strawberry Fields Forever) and Charles Dodge’s Any Resemblance Is Purely Coincidental. Lucier’s piece is a kind of stripped-down arrangement of the Beatles tune, which you hear first from the piano and then emerging from a teapot, which the performer is able to play with onstage to control the resonance of the sound. Dodge’s piece takes an old recording of the tenor Enrique Caruso and digitally manipulates it — it was one of the first pieces to use digital manipulation in this way.
One of the things that these pieces have in common, we realized, was the illusory nature of the electronics. There’s this idea that, once you record something, it becomes detached from our ordinary reality and becomes this kind of putty that can be shaped at will. A liberating and scary thought! Hence the “psychedelic” theme that the concert is loosely organized around, though the selection is pretty diverse within that. Linda Bouchard’s Gassho is very meditative, and Mike McFerron’s Torrid Mix is inspired by hip-hop. Pierre Jodlowski’s Serie Noire is based on clips from old noir films, and Shaun Naidoo’s Voices of Time is based conceptually on a J.G. Ballard story. Those last two are quite virtuosic, by the way.
Oh! And I should mention that we just added yet another piece to the program, Benjamin Broening’s Nocturne/Doubles.
How did People Inside Electronics get started?
PIE got started in 2009, when Aron Kallay and I were both graduate students at USC, and we noticed that while there was a lot of new music in LA, there wasn’t a whole lot of electroacoustic music being performed (aside from the efforts of a few groups like SCREAM and Sonic Odyssey). And we had the thought, well, if the venue doesn’t exist, why not create one?
You’ve collaborated not only with artists working in other mediums, but with scientists and engineers as well. Could you discuss some of your collaborative efforts, how you got people involved, and what the reaction was like?
Sure, I can give a couple examples. In 2010 we worked with Alexandre François and Elaine Chew, who were both engineering professors at USC at the time and part of a research group called MuCoaCo (Music Computation and Cognition Laboratory). Alex designed this really cool piece of software called Mimi (Multimodal Interaction for Musical Improvisation). Mimi is a kind of improvisational partner, and there’s also a visualization aspect to it that allows you to see what Mimi is up to. I was really taken with the software, and performed with it at our June 2010 concert. The reaction was great, because it piqued the interest of science-minded people beyond the usual new music crowd. I think it’s exciting for people to see unusual and artistic uses of technology — even though they work with it day in and day out they don’t necessarily know what it’s really capable of.
Then there’s our collaborations with other artists. For example, on that same concert we presented Veronika Krausas’ Waterland, which included video by Quintan Ana Wikswo and text by Andre Alexis. Veronika is curating a concert in April that we’re co-presenting with the interdisciplinary arts organization Catalysis Projects, so you can expect a lot more of that in the future.
What has the reaction to your concerts been like in general? Do you feel that there’s a strong and supportive scene for electroacoustic composition here, or is it something that could use some improvement?
Yes, I would say people have been very supportive! For example, we’ve started to have funding campaigns for our last couple of concerts, and raised over $2000 total through that, so that’s been really encouraging. (You can still donate to our current fundraiser at indiegogo, actually.) We pour a lot of time and energy and money into making these concerts happen, and it would be really hard to do that if people hadn’t responded in the way they have. So if you’re reading this and you’re one of those people who has donated or come to our concerts in the past, thank you!
What do you see as the challenges to running a concert series here and now?
LA presents some unique challenges for a concert series because of the size of the city and the fact that there’s always so much going on. You have to present a really compelling reason for people to come out, especially if they’re driving across town! But I think in the long run it’s actually helped us by pushing us to really finely hone what we do, both in terms of the quality of the music and in how we present it.
I have to say that I think LA is a really fantastic place for new music right now. I’ve seen so many great concerts in the past year, and I’ve missed so many more. I feel terrible every time I miss a concert I want to see, but it’s practically unavoidable.
This is a big question, but it often feels like electroacoustic music somehow gets separated from other genres in an almost unfair way. As in, symphonic or traditional concert music connoisseurs seem to see it as novelty, whereas listeners more familiar with popular electronic music tend to think of it as a separate, experimental thing. Do you perceive that at all? And if so, is it something that concerns you?
I don’t particularly see this kind of thing happening, at least not any more than with other kinds of new music. It may be that I’m just insulated from this kind of talk. But electronics have played such an important role in the development of new music, and so many great 20th and 21st century composers have at least dabbled in the medium, that I think most people who at least know about it don’t view it as a niche at all. It’s been with us almost a century, after all, so it’s not really a novelty at this point.
The exception to this might be those people who view classical music as some kind of final stronghold, the only place where “real” music is still made with “real” instruments. They might say that technology is slowly chipping away at that. But every musical instrument was new technology at some point. Or, to shamelessly quote Brian Eno, “technology is just the name we give to things that don’t work yet.”
I think that’s why PIE has been focused on pieces that just work, pieces that are aesthetically compelling regardless of the technology involved. That’s what’s really striking to me about those pieces by Lucier and Dodge. Whether or not they were technically innovative at the time they were composed, that’s not really why we programmed them or what you notice when you hear them. The technological medium almost melts away, and you’re just listening to a beautifully constructed piece of music.
I’m very curious about your take on electronic performance practice, especially since it says in your biography that you’re interested in how people interact with electronics. Let’s be blunt: watching people press buttons is pretty boring. Having the live pianist and visual elements helps immensely, but are you also pushing new modes of performance for the electronic portions of these concerts?
Well, performance with electronics can be frustrating to watch because it’s kind of a black box; the performance isn’t really visible in the same way it is with an expressive instrumentalist (despite the best efforts of head-bobbing DJs everywhere). It’s a kind of disembodied performance. I think putting live instrumentalists front and center helps, as you said. And when programming newer works, we try as much as possible to incorporate live electronics that react to what the performers are doing, so the electronics become a kind of extension of the instrument. The electronics in Shaun Naidoo’s piece that Aron is premiering, for example, are incredibly responsive to what Aron’s doing at the piano. It just looks and feels like a natural extension of his performance, and it’s really fun to watch.
I also think we can still learn a lot from Lucier, the oldest composer on the program. The lifting of the teapot lid is such a straightforward action, but you immediately understand what it means sonically; you know exactly what the performer is doing to manipulate the sound, and that’s one of the simple joys of experiencing that piece.
I can’t help but notice that People Inside Electronics only puts on one or two shows a year. I’m sure you and your partners are quite busy with other projects. As such, have you hit a happy frequency with that, or are you hoping to increase the number of shows you do?
Two per year (one in the fall and one in the spring) seemed ideal in the past, but lately we’ve had a hankering to do more, which is one of the reasons we asked Rafael to be a part of PIE. We actually have 3 concerts this season: the one with Eclipse Quartet last fall, the one coming up on February 11th, and the one on April 28th called “Misfits and Hooligans” that’s being co-presented with Catalysis Projects. And we already have something in the works for this fall that I’m very anxious to talk about when it’s finalized!
Find more information or purchase tickets to this weekend’s concert at peopleinsideelectronics.com/nothing-real-psychedelia-piano-and-electronics, and donate to the fundraising campaign at indiegogo.com/People-Inside-Electronics.