If there were any doubts that the LA new-music scene is in the midst of a surfeit of musical and aesthetic diversity, Synchromy and HOCKET’s evening of music, titled Crusoe, on November 5 should certainly quell them. The playing, centering on Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff of the piano duo HOCKET, and later adding a larger ensemble, was truly exceptional: precise, expressive, virtuosic where needed, yet playful, even comedic where possible.
The concert’s first half was comprised of four compositions for piano-four-hands by four local, living LA composers.
Alexander Elliott Miller’s Clock Smasher made for a striking and auspicious beginning. As its title might suggest, the opening motif, in four hands in ascent, burst open a vivid sonic palette that would traverse and transmogrify in interesting and musically satisfying ways.
In his program note Miller makes mention of the “… polyrhythms, many of which do have a sort of ‘tick-tock’ quality, like a room full of out-of-sync clocks.” This is most certainly accurate but it only begins to suggest the variety and vitality of harmonic and gestural realms it creates and explores. Clock Smasher teases us at first with a metronomic, pulsed music which evolves into something ominously hovering, then interrupted by syncopated rhythms infused with quasi-jazz harmonies. Even the mention of the “J Word” is sometimes frowned upon – personally, I don’t frown upon it – but regardless of what that might suggest to you, this is certainly not a jazz composition. But that isn’t to say that it doesn’t flirt with tonality, some very lovely melodies and, at times, even hints at something Bill Evans might have mused about at the keyboard. This music, as Miller’s notes suggest, does subvert its own idiomatic tendencies with those irregular rhythms, to my ear something of a this-is-definitely-NOT-jazz insistence, which then somehow, artfully evolves into a spacious, airy coda, punctuated by big, long and spacious chords. A poignant, striking work.
The next piece on the program was Marc Evans’ One Wandering Night. This piece was for a slightly varied configuration of HOCKET in that Ms. Gibson remained on the piano while Mr. Kotcheff moved to an electric keyboard and they were augmented by the addition of two melodicas (played by the composer and Nick Norton).
Fun fact: I went to a Joe Jackson concert when I was a kid, probably around 1980. He whipped out a melodica and declared it “The Instrument of the Future!” Perhaps he was right. I do hear a lot of melodica at new music concerts these days.
Evans’ piece was inspired by Bartok and that came through clearly enough. There is always the danger of being on the wrong side of the line separating homage from uninspired imitation. Fortunately, One Wandering Night falls decidedly on the right side of that line. While the melodicas played a sort of wheezing Eastern European Bartokian ostinato, definitely and pleasantly reminiscent of Bartok’s own take on modal folk melody, the piano and electric keyboard sputtered and interjected their own contrasting bits. I found this particularly satisfying as it reminded me, on a simple level, of Bartok’s own 2-handed piano trickery, where the two hands remain, stubbornly, in their own domain (key, mode, register) despite any discord that stubborn autonomy might produce. And on a more complex level, it reminded me of one of my very favorite pieces of music, Messiaen’s jardin du sommeil d’amour, a movement from his Turangalîla-Symphonie. While the melodic and harmonic technique is quite different in Messiaen’s masterpiece, a similar bifurcation and their disorienting affect is in play.
And playful it is. As the piece progresses, the tempo of the melodicas’ pumping melody increases and the interjections become more intense until, like a tired Hungarian hiker on the banks of the Danube, all four instruments slow down until they reach total repose. I must admit to being completely unfamiliary with Evans’ work but if this piece is at all representative of his musical sensibilities, then I definitely want to hear more.
Nick Norton told us from the stage that his Mirror Smasher was a number of things. He said it was “minimalisty” (and as such, “easy to write”), loud, and a work in progress. This piece was, again, for the four deft hands of HOCKET, and in fact even the pitch material itself was produced and ordered by them. The unordered (or, to quote the program, “played about a zillion different ways, as if looking at it in a broken mirror”) pitch set is:
H O C K E T = B G C D E F#
Yet again, HOCKET played beautifully. The piece begins with a clear tonal center, pulsing along as “minimalisty” pieces often do. But not long into the playing, a pre-recorded track of electronic sounds makes its presence known.
Norton’s choice of electronic sounds – both their timbre and idiomatic qualities – were a highlight for me. The combination of the smooth, hypnotic four-handed piano combined with the somewhat Kraftwerky buzzes, gently evolving into higher pitched electronic sounds reminiscent of some of the organ work in Einstein on the Beach really made for a powerful electro-acoustic marriage.
About halfway into Mirror Smasher the volume cranks up significantly. (The composer warned us of this before the performance. There will be no lawsuits.) If there was a hint of Einstein before the knob was turned, now the Einsteinian character felt married to something more like Heavy Metal, even Rock Opera. (Norton’s program note says that the title is a nod to Alex Miller’s Clock Smasher but I couldn’t help wonder if it might, even subconsciously, have any connection to The Who’s Do I Smash The Mirror, from Tommy. OK, probably not, but still…) OK, Rock Opera is misleading at best, demeaning at worst. But Mirror Smasher’s loud second half is formidable, powerful, and I could easily imagine it, as the composer suggested, being extended into a much longer Minimalist work. While different in pitched/melodic material, it reminded me, in a very good way, of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music in its powerful, gyrating and relentless sonic attack.
The program’s first half concluded with Jason Barabba’s The Distance of the Moon. The piece takes its title from a story in Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics of the same name. Calvino’s work is a collection of clever, fanciful tales, sometimes mischievous, sometimes romantic and nostalgic, often subverting our expectations if not the laws of nature as we’ve come to understand them. Calvino’s Distance of the Moon is a story about the moon, which, once upon a time, existed but a hop away from the Earth, but is now gradually moving farther and farther away. As the two spheres continue to distance themselves from each other, the inhabitants abandon the moon for the Earth. All but one of them, who decides to remain, forever, stranded alone on the moon.
Barabba’s musical interpretation of the story is itself a clever, fanciful tale. But unlike the rather light quality of the short story, it is a significant, weighty work. This is not to say that it isn’t imbued with moments of lightness – it is! – but it is not a mere bagatelle, but rather a significant musical and pianistic undertaking. Distance of the Moon was originally composed for a single pianist (presumably the two-handed kind) but as such it was almost impossible to play. I can all too easily believe this. Even in its two-person version, it is quite challenging.
Stylistically, it manages to explore a number of moods and idiomatic gestures yet still most definitely feel like a coherent, unified work. Moments of romantic, almost tonal passages intermingle deftly with strong, almost Schoenbergian dissonances. Lugubrious night music passages transition into stumbling, irregular rhythms with almost-BeBop melodic lines.
In the end, analogous to the story on which its based, Distance makes us feel the separation, the yearning, the tension hoping, however in vain, for a resolution. It ends, fragile and sparse, in a delicate and beautiful diad. Two notes at either end of the piano keyboard. A deep work, and one that I suspect would definitely reward repeat hearings and analysis.
Then came an intermission. If this had been a meal, I would have felt not full but satisfied. This was a chunk of concert that delivered four works of diverse character yet not, as a whole, illogically incongruent. But wait, there’s more…
The second half began with Mayke Nas’ DiGiT #2. (For the curious, I don’t think there’s a DiGiT #1.) For those who don’t know (I didn’t), Ms. Nas is a Dutch composer, born in 1972. I don’t know how her work wound up on this program but it was a perfect palette cleanser. DiGiT is, to my ear, entirely devoid of a single specified pitch for any of the four hands, or four forearms, or two foreheads that activate the piano keys. It is, to be clear, a humorous bit of performance, perhaps a commentary on what we consider to be “high art.” It also allows a piano duo to highlight a different take on virtuosity.
DiGiT centers itself around a variation of our childhood schoolyard hand jive or clapping game that involves an intricate collaborative clapping between two people (usually young girls), while simultaneously singing a rhyme. (Shimmy Shimmy Cocoa Pop! was the one the Black girls bussed into my Queens elementary school taught me). DiGiT, however, is inspired by another favorite, Oh Little Playmate. It is not only a charming work – one that HOCKET obviously enjoyed immensely – but even a virtuosic one, albeit in a very different way. Piano keys are only played in clusters, but other sounds arise from the intricate interplay of the two pianists’ strikes against the palms, arms, and thighs of themselves and each other. The rhythms are at times satisfyingly smooth, even evoking soft shoe dance moves in their elegance and grace. It’s very much a performance piece, and, if you like, you can see an older performance of it (not by HOCKET, but by eighth blackbird, here:
The concert itself was billed under the title of CRUSOE. The grand finale, so to speak, was Frederic Rzewski’s composition of that name. Rzewski, born in 1938, is seen as a somewhat enigmatic figure of the 20th century avant-garde, someone who studied with “Uptown” and Princeton figures (Babbitt, et al.) yet whose own musical output butterflied effortlessly among genres widely, from serialism to minimalism. His works are coherent and easy to describe in and of themselves. But to describe what a “Rzewski piece” might be is near impossible.
As for Crusoe, where to begin? First of all, it was a delight! Which is not to say that it was necessarily such a delight on the page, but Synchromy upped the dose for our viewing pleasure. The stage was adorned with a backdrop of a deserted island, inflatable palm trees and beach balls. A large ensemble adorned themselves a la Castaway, with everything from light headgear to a stuffed parrot on a shoulder to, in the case of one player (Mr. Norton, on guitar) a full-on shark suit! It was most definitely an aesthetic choice, not one dictated by the score, and I found it to be a wise one which bore much (tropical?) fruit.
Crusoe employs a performing force of unspecified instruments, requires its players to sing and chant various lines about Robinson Crusoe, play percussion instruments, and do other things that might make a Musicians Union bristle. The vocal sections are interspersed among bright, quite lovely pointillistic instrumental episodes. As such, Crusoe is reminiscent at times of some of Harry Partch’s better works, albeit without the microtonal schema.
After various chants, instrumental interludes, spilling of doubloons, breaking of branches, dusting off of hands, tinkling of toy pianos, swords whirred as they are raised in the air, heads patted, feet stomped, the Narrator (sung by Justine Aronson) comes forth to chant the last line. At which point she is pelted by the ensemble with beach balls. The End! (I won’t call the Union if you don’t.)
As I said, Rzewski is enigmatic. And Crusoe is no less an enigma. Did this performance, and this piece, provide any insight into the tale of Robinson Crusoe? No, not really. Did it give me a sense of what Rzewski’s compositional voice was? Well, kinda sorta, inasmuch as only one of his pieces might. But more importantly, it was a perfect end to Synchromy’s ambitious concert, a perfect counterweight to an already diverse and profound selection of our community’s musical wealth.
On November 21, HOCKET will be presenting a FREE concert of new commissions at the Brand Library & Art Center in Glendale, CA (concert information available at www.HOCKET.org). Leading up to the performance, HOCKET will be interviewing the four commissioned composers of this concert and discussing their newly written works. Here is HOCKET’s interview with Ryan Harper where they discuss his piece A 19.
Tell us about A 19.
A 19, for two toy pianos, takes its name from a work by the artist László Moholy-NagyThe piece explores a sustained gesture in which the melodic range and rhythmic structures are gradually constricted, leading both the performers and audience inexorably toward a single point.
What about the painting by László Moholy-Nagy inspired you?
I was intrigued by the fact that no matter how I looked at A 19, I found my eyes drawn to a point of convergence. There’s a translucent circle hovering over the intersecting lines, but like the audience it seems to be a spectator to the events occurring below it.
How do you feel this painting is represented in your piece?
The painting and the piece both maintain a formal detachment to the depicted gesture that nevertheless is the reason for the work’s being. I think structure is paramount in both.
What drew you to two toy pianos as the instrumentation for this piece?
In addition to the fact that it’s not everyday you get to write for a group like you guys on the Schoenhut Piano Company Artist Roster, I looked at the limited melodic and tonal range of the toy piano as a kind of challenge. I was interested in exploring how to portray extremes within a narrow set of parameters.
You have lived in both New York and Los Angeles, two major cities with very different musical scenes right now, how has this affected your music?
I think the longer I spend in New York the more I become drawn to the idea of an economy of means. It’s impossible to yell longer or louder than the city, so you have to figure out how to make what you say count in some other way. There’s definitely some great music happening in both cities right now though.
Anything else you would like to add?
Have a good concert! I wish I could be there.
On November 21, HOCKET will be presenting a FREE concert of new commissions at the Brand Library & Art Center in Glendale, CA (concert information available at www.HOCKET.org). Leading up to the performance, HOCKET will be interviewing the four commissioned composers of this concert and discussing their newly written works. Here is HOCKET’s interview with Emily Cooley where they discuss her piece Phoria.
Tell us about Phoria.
It’s a single-movement piece that is about seven minutes long and commissioned by you guys, HOCKET, who are great friends and colleagues of mine. It contains a little nugget of musical material that has appeared in several of my recent pieces. You can hear it most clearly at the end of the piece, when it’s repeated over and over by Sarah on the piano 1 part. The whole piece basically grew out of that singsong-y, music-box-like melody. But the way it appears in the piece, I ended up putting everything else first – every variation on that little idea occurs before the original idea, which is only heard towards the end. So in a sense, the events of the piece reveal what the piece is actually about.
“Phoria” is when two eyes are unable to look at the same object. How is this represented in your piece?
That’s the technical definition of the word, and it plays out in my piece in the sense that the two players are often doing slightly different things. The musical material they play is related, but in an unbalanced, off-kilter way; during the fast music in the middle of the piece, they’re literally playing in two different keys. But beyond the word “phoria” as a noun, I was also thinking of it as a suffix – as in the words “euphoria” and “dysphoria.” To me, different moments in my piece embody each of those words. There is some joy, but also some deep unease. And at the end of the piece, maybe some sadness at the fact that joy is often inhibited by unease. A lot of my work has to do with language and identity, and with trying to musically express some of the emotions surrounding those things.
How does writing for piano-four hands differ from writing for solo piano or any other chamber ensemble at that?
This was my first piece for piano-four hands, and actually my first piece in a while that involves piano at all. I had been writing mostly for strings, so it was fun to dive back into keyboard writing. Obviously there are some technical challenges, in the sense that the keyboard can get pretty crowded with four hands on it. You guys helped me work through some of that by finding really ingenious ways to avoid hand collisions in what I had written – so I was very lucky in this collaboration.
We spent time together in residence at the Avaloch Farm Music Institute workshopping and putting this piece together. Can you talk about our collaborative process and how it affected the piece.
I loved our time together at Avaloch – what a perfect working environment! It allowed us to workshop and experiment with the really fine details of the piece. I remember us doing a ton of work with pedaling – not the first element of the music a listener might notice, but in four-hands writing and in this piece I think it was really critical. You guys had so many useful things to suggest and contribute, and I loved that all of us in the room were both composers and pianists (although I’m a very bad pianist).
You, Alex Weiser, and Ryan Harper are three of the five composers of Kettle Corn New Music. How do these colleagues inspire your music and is there a unifying element to the music you guys compose?
I don’t think there’s one unifying element to our music, although I know we all have some common influences. I think we all produce very distinct music from one another. The great thing about Kettle Corn New Music is that although we’re primarily a presenting organization, we’re also all composers and we have certain common perspectives. As the youngest in the group, I feel as though I’ve literally come of age, musically, with the other members of Kettle Corn by my side. Alex and I have been trading music and giving each other feedback for almost 7 years now. It’s incredibly rewarding. We have such vastly different musical tastes and sensibilities, and yet we’re able to help each other too.
On November 21, HOCKET will be presenting a FREE concert of new commissions at the Brand Library & Art Center in Glendale, CA (concert information available at www.HOCKET.org). Leading up to the performance, HOCKET will be interviewing the four commissioned composers of this concert and discussing their newly written works. Here is HOCKET’s interview with London based composer Aaron Holloway-Nahum where they discuss his piece Remember Me?.
Tell us about Remember Me?
Remember Me? is a forty-minute extravaganza for two pianists, one piano, two toy pianos and an array of other toys and props. It’s a set of variations on Dido’s Lament, broken up into four parts that can each be played individually, or together in one sweep as half of a concert. The first part takes place entirely on the keys of the piano, ending with the slamming of the piano lid. The second part is played on and in the piano, but the pianists never touch the keys. The third part is a kind of mirror set of variations to the first part, but here its distorted because the music is played on one piano and one toy piano. The fourth part (which was the first to be performed, as is the part you can currently hear on HOCKET’s Soundcloud page) is for two toy pianos.
What lead you towards Dido’s Lament from Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas as the source material for this large-scale variations?
There are some technical things about the piece that make it very good source material (the passacaglia, the familiarity, the rich variety within the already repetitive structure, etc…) but it’s hard to say exactly what drew me to this music because I wasn’t really thinking about those things at the time. I think I just found I’d often get the music stuck in my head and had found myself daydreaming variations on it in the past.
The history of the large-scale variations for piano is such a strong tradition – – Bach’s Goldberg Variations,
I’ve heard from a lot of composers that when they’re composing a certain kind of work (like a string quartet, say) they avoid listening to any other pieces like that because it makes it impossible for them to work. I’m exactly the opposite of this. It’s more like a writer who, when writing an essay on a particular topic will read loads of other things on that topic, looking for interesting tidbits, seeing what people have said already, etc…
I include score study in my daily routine of composing and I literally had all three of the scores you mention here (along with many others) on my desk while I was writing Remember Me? Another book that lives (always) on my composing desk is Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist. One of my favourite quotes in it is this:
“If you have one person you’re influenced by, everyone will say you’re the next whoever. But if you rip off a hundred people, everyone say you’re so original!” (Attributed to cartoonist Gary Panter)
So all this score study is about soaking in the sum-total of what’s been made and said in this genre so far. Sometimes this leads to something like a direct homage (there is one in Remember Me? to Rzewski, and one to Beethoven) but more often I’m trying to steal loads and loads of little things that I stack up in new ways that are interesting to me.
Part II of Remember Me? doesn’t touch a note of the piano and is an incredible exploration of extended techniques. How did you go about discovering and creating the sound world for this section of the piece?
So part of this is wrapped up in the previous question. I listened to a lot of music that used a lot of really varied extended techniques. When I heard things I liked, I would find a score and make a note in my notebook of how the composer had done this. Many of these sounds, though, are now found in contemporary piano music so often that they really sound like cliches to my ears. So I’d try layering up two or three ideas together, or to reimagine how I could get a similar sound in a different way. I think the most unusual thing to know about the second movement – for me as a composer anyway – is that I wrote it without ever actually going to a piano and trying to make these sounds myself. I wanted to be led by my imagination rather than what I could physically accomplish on the instrument.
Part III and Part IV or your piece feature the toy pianos and push these instruments to previously unexplored areas. What drew you to the toy piano?
To be honest it was your passion for the instruments that did this. All of my music is really inspired by and about specific musicians whom I respect and adore, and many of my pieces just begin as conversations where I’m asking “what do you like to play?” and “what do you wish composers would do more often?” We were putting on a sort of “extra-curricular” concert at the Aspen Music Festival where we played Rzewski’s Coming Together and Thomas brought along a toy piano (and a melodica, which also makes an appearance in Remember Me?) And I saw the instrument there through his eyes and the possibilities were so wonderful I just felt I would be foolish to leave it out.
We have worked very closely with you on putting this piece together, can you talk about the process of collaboration with us.
Well, what I’d really say is that working with the two of you has firstly been a lot of fun: you’ve been so open to any idea, and so helpful in thinking about how to accomplish something. Let me give you a really specific example: I had been in NYC working with ICE Ensemble and seen them perform with Pauline Oliveros, and there was this great concert filled with great music but there was this one thing that totally blew me away: at one point as she was improvising she let all the music die down and was just running her hands over the keys of the accordion. And I thought: that is a sound I have to put into the piece. But I had no idea how to write it down, or even how to describe it. So I wrote something approximate and then ended up sending Thomas a video and literally just said this is the sort of sound I want, what is the best way to make it on the Toy Piano?
And there’s loads of things like that in this piece. From working out the best place to make a sound, or how long the resonance of the toy piano lasts, or whatever. The collaboration has been totally built on this joy we all share in making music and the piece is so much stronger for that.
Anything else you would like to add?
Well I’d just like to say thank you to both of you for the countless hours of practice you’ve put in on the piece. I’m so, so sorry I won’t be there for these premieres because I just know how wonderfully you play every single bar of it and I can’t wait to get together and work on the recording in June. All power to your fingers, HOCKET!
I just saw a preview for the new movie adaptation of Into The Woods, and have been meaning to post something by composer and pianist Sarah Gibson (the other half of HOCKET) for a while, and it reminded me of this piece.
She’s actually got a little bit of Sondheim and Bernstein in her sound (more so in her piece Celebrity, also available on her SoundCloud page, definitely worth listening to), and it serves her well.
More info on Sarah at http://www.sarahgibson-music.com.
Hocket, the piano duo of Thomas Kotcheff and Sarah Gibson, had their first concert on Sunday, and it was just killer. They tore through a really active and visceral program, to a really really full house at the Brand Art Center. Both Thomas and Sarah had great pieces on the program, too.
This is not one of them, though hopefully they’ll send me a video or something to put up. Thomas wrote this piece, bang Z, on a commission for the Aspen Music Festival this year, and I dug it so much I just had to post it.