The next Tuesdays at Monk Space concert will feature a unique opportunity to hear almost all of Luciano Berio‘s famous Sequenzas – all in one place! Berio wrote these solo pieces throughout his life, starting in the 1950s up until his death in 2003. Numbering fourteen in total, they speak to the unique possibilities of almost every orchestral instrument. The concert will take place in the warehouse at Monk Space, with a simultaneous performance happening in the Annex across the hall. Audience members are invited to move between the halls at their own pace (and maybe stop for some wine in between).
An all-star cast of performers will be lending their talents to these works, and are graciously donating their performances to this fundraising concert. I asked some of the performers about their challenges, triumphs, and overall experiences with these pieces. Here’s what they had to say:
Elizabeth Huston – Sequenza II (Harp)
I find it fascinating how Sequenza II uses nearly every known extended technique for the harp, while simultaneously making the piece cohesive using thematic material. Often, when composers use too many effects and bizarre techniques, it comes off as just a showcase of weird sounds, not a thoughtful piece of art. This is not the case with Sequenza II, however, which really showcases Berio’s skill as a composer. I also find it incredible how many new rhythmic, melodic, and dynamic themes I find every time I practice the piece. It’s incredibly dense.
I first performed it on my own showcase of all the Sequenzas. Like any piece with this level of complexity, you can practice it indefinitely and it always has room for improvement, which is simultaneously frustrating and rewarding. It’s very significant to me because the challenge of putting together the showcase was, like the piece, incredibly frustrating and rewarding, and resulted in one of the most fun projects of my life. The research put into all of the pieces to create a cohesive show made me really understand the incredible thing that is the Sequenzas, and how the evolution of the Sequenzas in many ways maps the evolution of western music as a whole. I applaud Aron for taking this on!
Stacey Fraser – Sequenza III (Voice)
I think the most interesting and challenging thing is that you need to remain humble and continue to revisit the score despite the number of times you may have performed it! There really are so many notes, subtleties and nuances that it is essential for one to continue to study the score, vocal and silent practice are critical. This is not an improvised piece, Berio notated every note and every vocal gesture. I have been singing the piece since I was a student in the late 90’s and I think the fun thing for me is to see how the piece has matured in my voice over the last 22 years. I have the technical facility to do a lot more in the way of actually making tone yet the “young me” somehow still emerges every time I take the piece out to practice. Those were the days of rock and roll – Nirvana, Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots and BERIO!
I first performed the piece on the stage of Borden Auditorium at the Manhattan School of Music on February 25, 1995 as part of their annual Festival of New Music. I was the first act on the program and the concert closed with Tan Dun’s Circle with Four Trios and he was indeed in attendance, I of course had no idea who he was at the time. Not only was it my first time performing the Sequenza III but this also marked my New City debut. I was a young soprano from Nova Scotia, Canada having just completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto. I found myself enrolled in the Master of Music program at MSM and among a sea of 90 amazing sopranos, graduate and undergraduate combined. I figured out within my first month that if I wanted a solo opportunity in my first semester at MSM, it would likely only happen if I sang music that the other 89 sopranos would not be so interested in learning. I hoped and prayed that that my U of T training would allow me to tackle such a challenging work. Claire Heldrich, percussionist and Director of the Contemporary Music Ensemble entrusted me with the piece, she hadn’t even heard me sing but somehow my passion for new music convinced her that I could do it.
A few days before the concert I came down with sinusitis/laryngitis but by some miracle I was able to sing – I didn’t realize until my teacher Cynthia Hoffmann called me the following Saturday morning to tell me that a photo of my performance and a favorable review by Allan Kozinn was gracing the front page of the Arts Section of the Saturday edition of the New York Times. Although not a new music aficionado of contemporary music herself, Ms. Hoffmann was proud and felt that the piece was the key to me opening up my operatic voice; I believe she was correct. It is always fun revisiting the work, and I can’t help but feel like that 20 something year old naive soprano from Canada is somehow reflected in even my latest rendition of the piece.
Mari Kawamura – Sequenza IV (Piano)
This piece casts of variety of small sections with different characters that are sequenced one after another, and this demands of the pianist a great deal of concentration and delicate control. As the section move on, you have to change the technique immediately: the touch, speed of attack, amount of body weight…these constant shifts are the most difficult thing about this piece.
I first performed this piece last March, so our relationship is rather new. The more I learn it, the more charming and playful I find it to be.
Matt Barbier – Sequenza V (Trombone)
For me the most interesting parts about the trombone sequenza relate primarily to it’s place in the canon. It’s really the first piece in the trombone repertoire that asks a player to redefine their relationship with one’s instrument. It also has an interesting, and somewhat dubious, history, but I suppose it’s best to leave somewhat off the record. The biggest challenge for me is picking the sequenza back up as these moments arise. I always find it an interesting dichotomy when I return to the piece because the it’s ingrained on my memory for the view of a much less skilled trombonist, so my return visits always find me questioning if I’ve made the musical choice I’m remembering to cover a lack of skill or to embrace a past vision. I always enjoy trying to access my 22 year oldish brain and try to sort what was going on in there.
I first performed it in the fall of 2007. For me it’s gone from a piece that I thought would, at one point, be a repertoire cornerstone, but, as my relationship to traditional new music has changed, has really become something I view as quite old (it’s 51 years old). As something of that age, I came to feel that it’s important to know, but ultimately something to be moved past. Now my relationship with it is primarily in teaching it as a jumping off point with students who are more interested in exploratory techniques. That said, the piece does have a very nostalgic place for me as when I started to learn it I ended up having about ten days to do so for a master class with Mike Svoboda. That moment laid the foundation for our relationship and Mike has been an incredibly helpful resource as I’ve found my own creative path.
Trumpet player Daniel Flores has his mentor’s copy of Sequenza X, with handwritten markings from Berio himself.
Daniel Flores – Sequenza X (Trumpet)
For me, Sequenza X represents a unique blend of both technical challenge, and an opportunity to express oneself in a freer manner than one might find on a standard piece of trumpet literature. As you can hear throughout the different sequenze, Berio offered both a consistent set of textures and effects he wanted created, ranging from trilled notes on one pitch, frantic scale runs, and extreme dynamic contrasts, to more instrument native ideas. In the case of Sequenza X, Berio had both the great jazz trumpeter’s Miles Davis and Clark Terry on his mind, and really, jazz was certainly on the mind of Berio throughout. Whenever you hear the interval of a minor third from D natural to F natural in the first gesture of the piece, you are actually hearing Ray Noble’s “The Very Thought of You,” sang by Nancy Wilson in 1964! So, what I find most interesting about Sequenza X is the blend and balance of the evolution of Berio’s original ideas, coupled with the taste and information of what makes sense in the trumpet tradition.
I first performed this piece in 2015 at the Chosen Vale International Trumpet seminar, which was quite a year! I had the opportunity to learn the piece from two very special artists, the great Thomas Stevens, former principal trumpet of the LA Philharmonic, who premiered the first iteration of the piece, as well as the famous Italian trumpet soloist, Gabriele Cassone. In fact, I had to perform the piece in masterclass for both of them, which made me quite nervous, but things seemed to work out! That night, Thomas Stevens gifted Berio’s manuscript of the third iteration of the piece, which we play today, to Gabriele…what a special night that was!
So, Sequenza X has a very close place to my heart in that my teacher in Italy, Gabriele Cassone, worked directly with Berio in the recording studio, to create what many of us consider to be the benchmark recording of the piece. In fact, the score in front of me on stage is a copy of Gabriele’s part with Berio’s personal hand markings, as well as penciled in meters that were the genesis of what would become Chemins VI, otherwise known as Kol-Od, which Berio wrote specifically for Cassone.
I would definitely consider myself a 2nd generation student of Berio in that the information Cassone received was directly passed to me, and my relationship with the piece certainly has evolved from one of understanding the basic architecture of the work to that of being able to interpret the piece on a much more personal level, really striving to play it from the heart…to not worry about being surgical with the technique, but to play each and every gesture with as much freedom as possible. It never will sound the same twice, and in my opinion, that is the beautiful result of Sequenza X!
Mak Grgic – Sequenza XI (Guitar)
I find that the most interesting characteristic of the Sequenza written for guitar is also its biggest challenge. This might be the case with the others as well, but amongst the plethora of notes used in all the crazy permutations, which sometimes seem a bit repetitive, there is a clear progression and pathway from one “tonal” center to another. These tonal centers are sluggish to shift, as each lasts for a few pages easily. Battling through all the virtuosic material with grace while underlining such a global progression of musical mass is what intrigues me most with this piece and is also a very tasking thing to do well.
I performed this piece for the first time at Jacaranda Series, and had less time to prepare it than I would have hoped for. At that time, which I believe was a year and a half ago, I had told myself that it will be impossible to land every single of the notes, so I went for “the gestures”. The performance was just as nerve wracking as it was successful. Now, a year or so later, I have had the opportunity to play it a few times around, and have grown fond of its intricacies, which I hope will speak with grace and vigor at the performance on Tuesday.
Ashley Walters – Sequenza XIVa (Cello)
As a kid, I grew up playing both cello and percussion and I think part of why I love this piece so much is because it allows me to play both! In many ways, Berio set the precedent for composer/performer collaboration making the unique characteristics and capabilities of each dedicatee a central theme in many of his Sequenzas. In the case of this final Sequenza, Berio incorporates these Kandayan drumming cycles, which were shown to him by the great Sri Lankan cellist, Rohan de Saram. I first learned this piece 10 years ago and it has been a staple of my repertoire since.
Tom Peters – Sequenza XIVb (Double Bass)
Sequenza XIVb is a re-imagining of the cello Sequenza, by double bassist Stefano Scodanibbio with the blessing of Luciano Berio. The most challenging part is learning Stefano Scodanibbio’s crazy pizzicato harmonic techniques, something he was famous for. This will be my first performance of Sequenza XIVb.
Check out Tuesdays at Monk Space for more information about this event.
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.
Hungarian showstoppers took center stage at Disney Hall last night, in the second performance of the last concert program the LA Philharmonic is presenting in their 2015–16 season. The evening opened with Kodály Zoltán’s charming Dances of Galánta from 1933. Written on commission for the 80th anniversary of the Budapest Philharmonic Society, the Dances draw on Hungarian folk tunes collected from the area around the town of Galánta (which is now located in Slovakia, not Hungary), where Kodály’s father worked for many years as a station–master. An elegant work that combines rustic vigor with neoclassical grace, Dances of Galánta falls into two sections: a plaintive, lyrical introduction lush with delicate woodwind solos, and a breakneck dance that leaps and tumbles with endless agility. The Philharmonic covered this territory with supreme élan, making its numerous virtuosic pyrotechnics seem transparently effortless.
Underappreciated instruments tend to stick together, so as a bassoonist, I’ve always had a soft spot for works for solo viola. I felt quite vindicated in that stance with the next work on the program, Bartók Béla’s viola concerto, completed posthumously from 1945–49 by Tibor Serly, the solo part here covered by the LA Philharmonic’s principal viola, Carrie Dennis. Following a similar pattern to many of Bartók’s later works, the viola concerto begins mired in snarling dissonances and progresses over the course of its twenty–minute span through a transcendent hymn–like space to a rousing finale blazing with life–affirming energy. The scoring is thin, almost ghostly at times, but this only makes the tutti passages even more thrilling when they arrive. I have been impressed with Dennis’s playing on numerous previous occasions at the Phil — her sinuous interpretation of the solo in the passacaglia from Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes stands out in particular in my memory — but last night outclassed them all. Dennis played like a woman possessed, swaying and dancing with the music, at several points all but leaping into the air with the intensity of her playing. Bartók’s craggy chromatic lines can sometimes sound stagnant in less capable hands, but Dennis sculpted each of them into a gripping utterance, by turns lashing out, sulking away, and bursting forth with manic exuberance. Summoned repeatedly back to the stage by roaring applause, Dennis played an improvisatory paraphrase of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” as an encore — it may have seemed an incongruous fit for the rest of the program, but given Gershwin’s interest in European modernism, I thought it was subtly, and cleverly, fitting. If you ever get the chance to see her live, take it.
Next, after the intermission, came Apparitions (1959), Ligeti György’s breakthrough work of midcentury European Modernism. If the Bartók was sparse, the Ligeti was almost not there at all — the piece is built from scraps of sound of almost vanishing quietude. The strings whisper a twisting line of microtones, the winds hold a pungent chord, silence punctuates everything. Even in the livelier second movement, which includes moments of loudness indeed, there’s still a sense of breathlessness, a sense that the music is only just barely clinging together, a hair’s breadth from disintegrating into nothing. For all this, though, there’s a profound feeling of cheeky joy just beneath the music’s surface. This is something of a signature in Ligeti’s works; even at his most severe and strident, I always have the feeling that he’s simply overjoyed to be able to play with such a malleable thing of endless possibilities as musical sound. Stuffy purists might have turned up their noses at the quiet chuckles that ran through the audience at numerous points during its unfolding, but I think they had the right idea.
Ghostly textures were cast aside in the finale, Bartók’s suite from The Miraculous Mandarin (1919/24). The story of the original ballet, with its blatant orientalism and undercurrent of sexism, hasn’t aged well, but the concert suite has held up somewhat better, even if the trombones at the Chinese Man’s entrance are still uncomfortably pentatonic. Unlike most of the rest of the program, this is a dense score, bristling with multi-layered textures and aggressive discords, summoning up a disintegrating world on the brink of collapse. (The scandalous première may have taken place in 1926, but the bulk of the composition was done in 1919, just after the end of the First World War, a time when artists of all stripes were reeling from the psychic shock of the blood–drenched pointless horror of that conflict and still grappling with what it meant to make art in its wake.) With shrill woodwinds imitating car horns and jittery percussion marking an unconscious body being tossed down a flight of stairs, this is not a comforting score, and the Phil brought it to life with a grim brutality that matched the ballet scenario’s grime. Shortly after beginning the work, Bartók opined that the score “[would] be hellish music”; nearly a century on, the demons have not lost any of their power.
At one point towards the middle of Theatre of the World — a new opera with music by Louis Andriessen and a libretto by Helmut Krausser that received its world première on Friday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall with the LA Philharmonic playing under the baton of Reinbert de Leeuw — Pope Innocenzo IX asks cantankerously “how long is this going to last?,” followed not long thereafter by a petulant “I just want to leave!” Setting such lines in a contemporary opera always seems a bit like tempting fate, as there’s a very real chance some members of the audience will genuinely feel the same way. But the house was free of nervous chuckles at that moment, and no one seems to have taken it as their cue to leave.
Not that there wasn’t laughter at other points over the bizarre course of the evening. The Pope (played by Marcel Beekman) says those lines shortly after being transported to Egypt around 1400 BC, along with Athanasius Kircher (Leigh Melrose), a German Jesuit polymath of the 1600s; a twelve-year-old boy (Lindsay Kesselman), who later turns out to be the Devil; and Janssonius (Steven Van Watermeulen), Kircher’s publisher in Amsterdam. This follows mercurial scenes set variously in Rome and Amsterdam, and is followed in turn by a visit to Babylon, a phantasmagorical lovers’ duet, and a gristly scene where the Boy/Devil eats Kircher’s heart — just cut out of his recently deceased body — only to discover that Kircher’s soul has escaped his clutches and gone up to Heaven. If this sounds a tad bewildering, it was, though perhaps not unintentionally. In an extensive program note, the composer is quoted explaining that his score “is intended to provide a jostling, surreal, Bosch-like world summed up in the work’s description as ‘a Grotesque.’”
Demanding sense and orderliness from this, then, is probably a fool’s errand. The historical Kircher was a man of many interests, and over the course of his life published dozens of monumental tomes in a determined effort to summarize every piece of knowledge known at the time. Much of this “knowledge,” being based on 17th–Century methodologies, hasn’t exactly been supported by subsequent inquiry, but his works were wildly popular in his day, and there has been a recent resurgence of interest in his books, not the least because of their beautiful illustrations. The opera ostensibly takes Kircher as its subject, pairing his scholarly interests with the Jesuit conception of the world as a stage on which a cosmic play authored by God unfolds (hence the title), but the character of Kircher Krauser and Andriessen present takes the historical person more as a starting point for fantasy than as a goal to capture. They gives us a Kircher plagued by visions and demons, and while this seems like a clear reference to tropes associated with various Christian mystics, I can’t find any evidence that Kircher would be an appropriate fit for such things. The staging (by Pierre Audi) adds another uncomfortable wrinkle, with Kircher twitching and stimming as though he has some (unspecified) mental illness. It was a strange decision, and one I don’t really understand.
Regrettably, it wasn’t the only questionable staging choice. At numerous times, both Kircher and the Pope grope, grind up against, and otherwise molest both each other and various other characters. Only once is this even mentioned in the libretto, and even then has no impact on the rest of the plot, such as it is. It’s hard to escape the feeling that the director was using sexual content in a cliched attempt to be shocking and outré, with no deeper meaning in mind. The nadir for this was probably when three witches entered to disrupt the love scene in the second half. If you were deliberately setting out to write a scene to illustrate various Queer Theory ideas about how non-normative sexualities have been demonized in media, you could hardly come up with a clearer example than this. The two lovers — identified only as He and She (Martijn Cornet and Nora Fischer, respectively) — sing a rustic, folksy duet of rapturous devotion, the picture of monogamous heterosexual bliss. They are then set upon by the three Witches (Charlotte Houberg, Sophie Fetokaki, and Ingeborg Bröchler) who, dressed in dominatrix garb, sing a jazz–inflected diatribe against the male gender, urging the female lover to join their decadent world of liberated female sexuality and ultimately striking the male lover dead. (He gets better.) To drive the point home, the Witches are working directly for the Devil himself, and make their first entrance by climbing up out of a trapdoor in the center of the stage. Subtle.
In spite of all this, there is much that is attractive in this score. Andriessen weaves together numerous influences with a deft touch, producing something that feels like a thoroughly integrated whole for all the disparate sound worlds it integrates. If some contemporary composers have opted for a path of pastiche, blithely pasting patches of different styles together without evening out any of the seams (a choice which, needless to say, can be powerfully effective at times), Andriessen instead seems to be bending his masterful craftsmanship to smoothing over the gaps until it’s impossible to tell just where one style stops and the next begins. At one point, a brass fanfare that could have been quoted directly from Gabrielli bypasses centuries of music history in mere seconds to morph effortlessly into a figure Copland could have penned — this fanfare being built around the drooping, all but atonal trombone motive that opens the work, and that elsewhere is transfigured in the woodwinds into a march that keeps threatening to become the passage from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen Mahler recycles in the first movement of his first symphony. And yet it all feels like one; the unity of the musical fabric never feels in danger of coming unwoven.
Even more astonishing is the balance Andriessen has struck between the density of his orchestrational colors and the underlying transparency of the texture. Many of the sounds Andriessen deploys are gnarly composites of several instruments, rich treats for the ear to unpick as they pass by, duets for bass and contrabass clarinet alternating with electric guitars, synthesizers, and a large percussion battery, among many other sonic resources. And yet the complexity never goes to far; the score is never muddy, even in the ferocious tutti passages that erupt at various climax points. This music is a virtuosic display of the compositional dexterity needed to balance an intricate net of details at the smallest level against overarching clarity at the largest.
Still, at times it felt like I was listening to an incredible orchestra piece that someone had, for some reason, pasted an opera on top of. There’s a long tradition of composers cobbling together instrumental suites from their operas, and I sincerely hope Andriessen continues that practice. Theatre of the World is full of attractive music, any of which I would very much like to listen to again without having to watch a Baroque Pope dry humping one of Europe’s last Renaissance men while a sarcastic publisher looks on with a Devil wearing a Batman shirt and exercise pants. Unlike Innocenzo IX, I didn’t want to leave. I just wanted to close my eyes.
[NB this review discusses Fascism, Islamophobia, and sexual assault. The views expressed are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of New Classic LA]
A gentle undulation in the strings, a murmur of woodwind melodies, the suggestion of burbling water under a quiet, rural sunrise. So begins Ottorino Respighi’s Fountains of Rome, the 1919 tone poem that opened Friday night’s concert at Disney Hall and helped secure the composer’s fame. Under the baton of John Adams, whose “dramatic symphony” with solo violin Scheherazade.2 comprised the second half, the LA Philharmonic gradually blazed to majestic life as Respighi’s focus shifted from dawn to morning to high noon before ebbing back into the stillness of night. Perhaps because of the conductor, I found myself focusing less on Respighi’s sweeping dramatic gestures (though the low brass were truly electrifying at the Trevi fountain’s climax) than on the small repeated figures that make up much of the musical texture. The Fountains of Rome is not a minimalist piece by any stretch of the imagination, but under Adams’s baton, it felt like it could easily be rewritten as one.
Dispensing with the opening tranquility of Fountains, the next work on the program was the second of Respighi’s Roman pieces, The Pines of Rome (1923–4). Despite its reputation as a flashy, even trashy showstopper, the Phil found a remarkable depth of feeling, the ghastly collapse from the giddy Villa Borghese to the gaunt Catacombs opening a yawning chasm of grief and loss. Between Tom Hooten’s offstage trumpet and Burt Hara’s delicate-as-breath clarinet solo, the Janiculum offered a harrowing path to acceptance and resolution before the Appian Way returned to end the first half with brilliant splendor.
Adams made a point to refer to this ending as an act of aggression in his speech to the audience after intermission, as though to imply that The Pines of Rome is part of the world of male violence against women that Scheherazade.2 is supposedly pushing back against. If so, it would be the only specific instance he pointed to outside the Middle East, a choice with an uncomfortable tinge of Islamophobia to it. I certainly don’t mean to imply that the Middle East is a feminist utopia, but listing Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan as the only specifically named places where men commit violence against women plays into a pernicious trope that pits a more “civilized” West against a more “barbaric” Islamic world, blaming a religion for the evils of patriarchy and ignoring the history of Western intervention and destruction of progressive regimes in the area. It was not the only regrettable moment in the talk — at one point Adams seemed to imply that rape can develop into a healthy, consensual sexual encounter, which is a notion that cannot be condemned strongly enough. I’m not sure if that was Adams’s intent — I sincerely hope it wasn’t — but that it was unclear was one of many things that offered reason to doubt Adams’s full understanding of the feminism he is claiming to espouse.
Maybe it was for the best, then, that his piece was less charged that his rhetoric. The first movement was a slalom of irregular plonks and quiet rumbles, with the solo violin carving out jagged, irregular lines above the fray. In continuing his evolution away from minimalism, Adams seems to be picking up the mantle of texturalists like Unsuk Chin, though her tapestries cohere more and gleam with greater transparency than Adams’s offering — fans of his Naïve and Sentimental Music will be familiar with this language, even if the accent is altered somewhat. Towards the end, the music coalesces into a violent convulsion, the first obviously continuous line in the work.
Soft, overlapping string chords started the second movement, projecting less the violence Adams described than the religious ecstasy of Bernini’s Theresa. Likewise, the movement’s end was less a warm and heartfelt intimacy than a wan and colorless exhaustion. The third movement picked up where the first left off, violent unisons for the full orchestra alternating with inert lines from the violinist and discordant interjections from smaller sections of the orchestra. These included everything from a happily burbling conference of bassoons and oboes to a xylophone–led percussion display that could have come from a less avian Messiaen. This quasi-programmatic depiction of a group of “bearded men” condemning Scheherazade to death (because apparently beards correlate with misogyny?) was certainly rousing at times, but even by the end, Josefowicz’s lines were too abstract and disjointed to convey much in the way of noble resistance to an unjust fate.
Returning to a looser sense of narrative constraint, the last movement was the strongest of the four by far. Even so, despite Josefowicz’s consummate playing and some deftly intriguing klangfarbenmelodie between the tuned gongs and the cimbalom, the music felt sluggish and bedraggled. The whole piece clocks in at nearly 50 minutes, and it does not make good use of that time. There are many excellent moments scattered throughout the score — surprising timbres, spot-on chord changes, intricate rhythmic games — but they don’t add convincingly to a larger whole. In fact, they don’t really add at all. They merely happen, in sequence, continuing on with no clear goal or direction. The moments are fresh enough to keep the piece from being boring, but they don’t gel well enough to make it actually interesting.
Even though Adams seemed to be being rather tongue-in-cheek when he described “The Pines of the Appian Way” as being an act of aggression, I think he’s absolutely correct in this. In 1922, the year before Respighi began writing that piece, Benito Mussolini marched his army into the city of Rome to stage a Fascist coup d’état. In that historical context, it’s not hard to understand why Respighi’s militaristic celebration of imperial triumph was often co-opted as propaganda by the Fascist regime. It’s impossible not to get swept up in this triumphal conclusion — all doubts are swept aside in an unstoppable wave of cymbals and brass — and it’s only later, on reflection, that the chilling realization of how easy it is for music to sweep away such doubts casts the resolutely upbeat ending in a more sinister light. (It is comforting to imagine that we would be able to see through propaganda and remain unseduced by its charms, but a piece like The Pines of Rome should give us pause.)
Sadly, Adams misses this subtlety. His villains aren’t the heroes of their own story, they’re just villains. There is no equivalent, in Scheherazade.2, of beginning to be moved by a rousing speech only to pull back in horror when we realize its central argument; everything is marked clearly from beginning to end. In a piece ostensibly about a clever, wily figure who uses plot twists and cliffhangers to change her fate, there is precious little wit indeed. It’s not exactly a moralizing piece, but it does move with some of the same plodding predictability, motivated less by guile and cunning than a worn–out sense of dutiful obligation. Adams has done better in the past; let’s hope he does better yet again.
There are concerts that are intellectually stimulating, if a little emotionally dry. There are concerts that are perfectly unobjectionable, pleasant ways to fill otherwise empty evening hours. And then there are concerts that are just plain fun. The David Orlowsky Trio, performing last night in the Bram Goldsmith Theater at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, fell decidedly into the latter category. It’s been a long time since I’ve been at a concert that was so lively and engaging from start to finish.
Hailing from a small town in Germany, David Orlowsky — the trio’s clarinetist and frontman — began his musical career playing drums, but when his mother took him to a klezmer concert, he fell in love with the emotional and musical ambiguity of the style and switched tracks. In a pre-performance talk with Cantor Don Gurney of the Wilshire Blvd Temple, Orlowsky explained how these ambiguities — the ability to make a minor scale sound happy, or a major scale sad — reflect the ambiguities of life. “With this music, as in life, there’s always a tear in your eye even when you’re laughing.” (In the same conversation, he suggested that his mother might have encouraged this switch to get a reprieve from the noise of a teenager practicing drum kit.) Not long after, he joined with guitarist Jens-Uwe Popp and bassist Florian Dohrmann to form the David Orlowsky Trio, a group dedicated to performing klezmer-infused music they describe as “chamber.world.music”.
Even if that descriptor sounds noncommittal or half-baked, the performance was anything but. Orlowsky is an electrifying presence on stage, projecting an air of easy confidence built on a foundation of seemingly effortless technique. Vaulting from the earthy low register to the piercing upper notes with grace and agility, it’s hard to decide what’s most impressive about Orlowsky’s playing. It may be the range of his tone, from a clean, languid, expressive line to a raucous, growling squawk. Or it may be his dynamic control — upper-register clarinet gymnastics can easily become earsplitting in less deft hands, but Orlowsky can dance wildly in the stratosphere at a delicate pianissimo without sacrificing musical expressiveness. Either way, he does all this while also physically embodying the musical impulse, by turns standing in meditative stillness, strutting forward for a self-assured solo break, and breaking into gleeful foot-stomping little dances.
Despite his virtuosity, there was plenty of room for the other members of the Trio to shine. Popp’s guitar playing ran the gamut from full-bodied volleys of dense chords to delicate contrapuntal filigree, with a few choice percussive interludes thrown in for good measure. Dohrmann provided a solid harmonic and rhythmic foundation on bass, but also enjoyed some solo breaks of his own, nimbly working his way around an instrument that can sometimes be lumbering and ungainly. Like Orlowsky, they both do this without breaking a sweat, as though such dazzling displays are mere accidental by-products of casually jamming for fun.
A good ensemble, of course, is more than just the sum of its members, and here the David Orlowsky Trio shines as well. That they have been playing together for nearly 20 years now is apparent in their deep and automatic connection — they hand off melodies and shift the spotlight with an intuitive ease, and can turn on a dime from wild party to intimate prayer. Guitar, bass, and clarinet are obviously rather different instruments, but at times it seemed like they were all being played by one collective mind. (There was, for example, the striking opening and closing of their rendition of “Volach”, a traditional klezmer tune, where they all moved together in eerie and exact parallel motion, their eyes shut and calm, as though invoking a deep and ancient ritual known by heart.)
Virtuosity aside, the program was an excellent mix of music: Varied enough to avoid monotony, but similar enough to maintain cohesion. There were traditional klezmer tunes, homages to great klezmer clarinetists of previous generations, and a few original compositions by each member of the Trio itself. Many of the songs ran together into larger sets, but Orlowsky would periodically step forward to provide a lively mix of historical context and personal anecdotes. When introducing a set of arrangements by Naftule Brandwein, a klezmer clarinetist from the 1930s, for example, Orlowsky explained that Brandwein would turn his back to the audience during intense technical passages so that his competitors couldn’t steal his fingerings; in the set that followed, Orlowsky jokingly turned his back to the crowd, inspiring the bass player to do the same despite playing the simplest of stock basslines — Orlowsky then cheekily chased Dohrmann almost full circle, trying to get a clear look at what the bassist was doing. Scripted or not, it felt spontaneous, and was hilarious.
It seems unnecessary to describe every single arrangement played that evening, but some general comments are in order. In both the more lyrical first half and the rowdier second, there were some pieces that fell solidly into the klezmer genre, but there were others that lived up to the boundary blurring that the group’s “chamber.world.music” suggests. In the context of a klezmer-infused program, they felt right at home, but they could fit equally well into a number of different contexts besides. Orlowsky, who is not Jewish, is fairly explicit about not wanting to claim the mantle of Authentic Klezmer Musician — in the pre-performance talk he took pains to make clear that he’s not doing or claiming to do authentic, historically accurate klezmer music; rather, he said, the group plays “klezmer-infused music”, taking something of the spirit without making any claims of belonging to the underlying culture. (Some may still feel that this is an inappropriate appropriation. The lines between influence, appreciation, and appropriation are not always clear-cut, and reasonable people may well come down in different places when considering specific cases. I can only speak for myself when I say that the Trio’s use of klezmer sources didn’t bother me, though I freely admit to not being the most connected to my own Jewish heritage.) The results, by and large, felt truly syncretic: Not a mere gluing together of disparate bits and pieces, but a thorough blending, a construction of something genuinely new, with many threads weaving seamlessly into a multi-faceted whole.
Doubling back to where I began, this was a thoroughly delightful evening. If the David Orlowsky Trio ever passes through your area, it is well worth making the time to catch their show.
Andrew Norman’s star has been on the rise recently, and last night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, curious listeners got a taste of what all the fuss is about. The LA Philharmonic, under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel, opened their program with the first movement of Play, a work he wrote for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project in 2013. (The Phil will be playing the complete work in their next season.) While the movement’s designation as “Level One” may seem whimsical, the music is anything but. Without preamble, it plunges into a skittish, disjointed soundscape, an inhuman maelstrom of digital glitch and grain. There are no electronic instruments in the orchestra, but there might as well have been: the Norman is the closest thing I’ve ever heard to making live players sound like MIDI simulations.
Mixed in with the frenetic tumult are several slower interludes, but even here tenderness is not forthcoming. These interludes feel like examinations of the seams of something that has been pulled apart, as though Norman has stripped away all the flashy graphics of a big-budget video game sensation to show us not the human beings who poured their hearts into making it but the dry code they had written instead. Nevertheless, towards the end something human does seem to be trying to emerge. Several times an aching, arcing line rises up from the depths of the orchestra, a warm gesture that struggles at every moment to retain its integrity in the face of the digital wash, a feeble signal repeatedly lost to onslaughts of noise. Towards the end there is a brief moment of triumph when the woodwinds and brass burst into a Higdon-esque fanfaric dance, but the percussion — who, as per Norman’s program note, have been “playing” the orchestra in much the same way that the conductor “plays” the percussionists and the score “plays” the conductor — join forces in a coordinated attack, forcing the dance higher and higher until it disintegrates into a panicked mess, leaving only a few blips and bloops to bring the piece to a grim, heartless close.
Exhaustion reigns at the start of the next piece on the program, Alberto Ginastera’s first piano concerto. (Sergio Tiempo covered the ferociously demanding solo part from memory with admirable panache.) The first movement is essentially an accompanied cadenza for the soloist, and it shifts easily and casually between heavy, groaning interludes that barely move and whirlwind outbursts of helter-skelter activity. Although resolutely 12-tone in conception, there are repeated hints of late Romanticism peeking out from just below the musical surface. They never fully blossom — a harsh dissonance always drives them away — but their lurking presence adds an air of almost familiarity to an otherwise astringent score.
Rustled whispers dominate the second movement, which picks up in tempo but drops in volume to the very edge of audibility. Ginastera called the movement a “hallucinatory scherzo”, but given the way twists and winks out of sight, it’s more a mirage than a hallucination, the shimmer of air over asphalt on a scorching summer’s day. Disney Hall has the unfortunate effect of amplifying noise from the audience, and while that’s often inconsequential, here there were times where the music on stage was considerably quieter than the ambient volume of the house, causing several of the quieter flutterings to disappear completely, ghosts imagined instead of observed.
In the expansive third movement, calm reigns supreme. An opening viola solo leads to an impassioned outburst, but the subsequent music is sparse and quiet, a pointillistic wash of scattered tones. It is almost as if Ginastera has pulled apart a single one of Norman’s twitchy pixels and found an entire world to explore inside, stretching a single moment out towards eternity.
Coming directly on the heels of this gaunt meditation, the finale bursts forth with explosive vigor, a blistering, relentless toccata that calls to mind the thunderous scherzo of Aaron Copland’s Organ Symphony. The program notes quote Ginastera’s claim that “[t]here are no more folk melodic or rhythmic cells” in the music of his piano concerto, but the music of the finale has more than a few echoes of his earlier nationalistic ballets. Many of its practitioners might push back against this claim, but serial music is confined to a narrow emotional range. Its powers of joy and catharsis are limited, and when it tries to overstep those bounds, it often falls flat. Ginastera recognizes how tightly he is hemmed in by the musical language he is using, and doesn’t try to burst out of this box. Instead, he explores every inch of it and insists, resolutely and unapologetically, that even in these tight confines, there is still room to celebrate, to dance.
After the modernist onslaught of the first half, the second was a bit of a let-down. This half opened with John Williams’s Soundings (initially slated to start the program, but switched with Play at the last minute), a piece written to celebrate the opening of Disney Hall in 2003. I wanted to like it. Many in the classical community have an anti-populist bias that all film composers are inherently hacks, and I often find myself defending people like Williams, because I do think that much of his work is legitimately great. Unfortunately, Soundings isn’t. It feels half-baked, as though Williams couldn’t quite decide what he wanted the piece to be. At twelve minutes in length, it’s a little too long to be a simple celebration, but a little too short to fully grapple with all the material that Williams has in play. Especially with the Ginastera so fresh in our ears, the dissonances sounded wan and half-hearted, wrapped in cloying softness to avoid offending those with more conservative tastes. Had it opened the concert as originally planned, it might have held up better, but slotted in where it was it wound up falling rather flat. (If Soundings is ammunition for those dead set against film music, the encore was a strong rejoinder: A searing rendition of the “Love Theme” from Bernard Hermann’s score to Vertigo, an agonizing mix of loss and desire. I can’t help but wish that that had opened the second half instead.)
Still, Soundings did provide a nice transition from the caustic world of Ginastera to the diatonic evenness of Copland’s Appalachian Spring. I confess that I still prefer the lightness and transparency of the original chamber version, but there’s something to be said for the power that the full orchestra can bring to the brasher moments of the score. There were a few moments where the ensemble seemed on the verge of losing cohesion — despite its outwards simplicity, it’s a surprisingly tricky piece to put together — but on the whole the Phil gave a rousing account of an iconic work in the canon of American concert music.
We found the place all right, though it took a minute to find the door. It’s frankly genius, using a dance studio as a concert venue at night, since it functions like a blackbox theater. It even had a balcony, with squishy sofas to view the performance. It was completely sold out, standing room only. The lights dimmed and Nick Norton, one of Equal Sound‘s directors, ran up to the stage to make an announcement: the Michael Gordon piece, originally written as a reaction to 9/11, was moved to the beginning of the set as tribute for the recent attacks on Paris and Beirut. This simple and meaningful gesture hushed the audience, and the piece began.
Light Is Calling is pure and beautiful, just a solo violin and electronic sounds. It began with the thump of a slow heart, a tiny ray of hope in light of a tragedy. It sounded like music heard through pounding ears, muffled and throbbing like there’s too much adrenaline to calm down enough to pay attention. The violin cut through the pulsating track, the only pure and uninterrupted sound, singing, like glass rubbing on glass. At the end of the song, the sounds through the speakers were clearly manipulated synths, and yet they sounded human, like a choir singing underwater and far away. It was both an elegy for the lost and a paean for the survivors.
John Cage’s Radio Music is a (relative) oldie but a goodie. Oddly enough, it carried over the mood from Gordon’s song. The trick with Cage music is that one often hears what one wants; aleatoric music is more or less a blank slate, the most famous example being 4’33” of silence. I like to say that Cage’s music lets the listener put in more of themselves, sort of like paint by number rather than a filled in piece. Radio Music had the performers holding radios and taking turns twiddling the dial on AM and FM stations and turning up and down the volume. There were commercials for car dealerships, live reports on various sports games, a few pop songs, and a talk radio segment. More than half the piece was static. At the best of times, static and white noise have a kind of mystery, a potentiality to become or be imagined as anything else. Coming immediately after Light Is Calling, the static seemed like a metaphor for waiting to hear from people at the sites of the attacks, or the silence of the fallen.
Next up was Missy Mazzoli’s Harp and Altar. Having first been introduced to her work through her opera the LA Opera put on a month or so ago, it was affirming to hear a quartet piece that solidifies what I now recognize as her style of strident strings, tasteful pitch bends and slides, highly motivic, pounding syncopation in exciting sections, and recorded sounds blending and sometimes overtaking the live sounds. At first I thought the recorded voices were an illusion from open strings from the quartet. After a segment of minimalism in the middle, the voices crescendoed until it all but set the quartet in the background. The ending was absolutely turgid with the quartet grinding on their strings and the voices growing ever louder, and one could practically hear the grain in the wood of the cello. It ended suddenly, like inhaling after holding your breath for almost too long, just a cut and ringing out to nothing. I say here again that my mind was still on Paris and Beirut, and the fading resonance at the end was to me another reminder.
One cannot remain sad forever and the show will go on. I would describe Fog Tropes II by Ingram Marshall as if Stephen Sondheim wrote Lark Ascending as a track for use in the movie Pan’s Labyrinth during the rain scenes. The recorded sounds became windy, dissonant, and haunting; the strings gradually caught up from pastoral air to grim dirge, as if it only slowly dawned on them to change. Chattering birds added to the foggy forest mood, followed by didjeridoo and scratchy strings to make it more foreboding. A woman’s voice in the recorded sounds turned into an unreal animal. Near the end was a kind of double duet, with the violin and viola hocketting pitches and the other violin and cello intertwining melodies. The sound as a whole is how I always imagined a cursed forest would sound. Being from Seattle where the landscape is vastly dim forests, it felt weirdly like a slice of home.
You have probably heard M83‘s Grammy-nominated Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, which contains their hit “Midnight City,” one of their more danceable songs. A French electronic band now local to LA, their niche lies in chill grooves and ephemeral minimalism, often similar to Sigur Rós or Balmorhea. There were ten tracks in total, and given the seamless flow from one piece to another I inevitably got off in keeping track of where I was in the program. That said, Digital Shades is decidedly an album that ought to be heard together in one sitting, so maybe it is even better this way.
My notes from the performance stand as testament to the distinct sonority M83 possesses in each of their songs. It started with ocean waves, synth waves, and string quartet waves. It moved on to vocals moving softly like a stream, drops in the water, over tremolo cello, in the form of a passacaglia; the vocals never change, but the strings move around them. The performance featured a viola plucked like a ukulele, bird song, and white noise, and always sounded natural. Certain sections strongly reminded me of Iceland. Others sounded like people bumping into each other on a New York sidewalk.
An essential takeaway from this concert is that modern music is not inaccessible. While writing this, several people implored me to make this clear, for even they were surprised. It seems that many stereotype new music to be constantly unyieldingly harsh. Yes, I am one who enjoys hearing extended trombone technique solos and experimental jazz. I will be the first to admit that much modern music is an acquired taste. That said, a substantial corps of music in general, from Perotin from the Medieval era to Buxtehude from the Baroque to Milhaud at the turn of the century, can sound alien to our ears attuned to Nirvana and Taylor Swift, when all we listen to from ‘Classical music’ is Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. There is so much more. Live performers can play tonally and in tandem with recorded sounds and it can sound simply beautiful, no qualifiers attached. Some composers push the limits of possibility with sound, and they are, quite literally, the fringes. Equal Sound reminded everyone in the audience that modern music is not dissonant, just new.
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.
Tomorrow (Tuesday) night, pianist Nadia Shpachenko has her Piano Spheres Satellite Series debut at REDCAT. Tickets are available at redcat.org/event/piano-spheres-nadia-shpachenko. We reviewed Nadia’s last album here a few months back, and are stoked both for this concert and the fact that she had a minute to answer some questions about the program via email. Here’s Nadia.
So tell me about your Satellite Series show.
Tomorrow I will be performing a recital that features music written for me by six very talented composers with whom I worked closely on the interpretation of the works. It is an incredibly personal program that I can’t wait to share with LA audiences! The second half of the program will present the world premieres of two architecture-inspired works commissioned by Piano Spheres. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Lewis Spratlan’s Bangladesh conveys the transformative hope of Louis Kahn’s National Assembly Buildings in Dhaka. Annie Gosfield, whom the New Yorker called “The Carl Nielsen of Second Avenue,” wrote The Dybbuk on Second Avenue for this recital. Annie’s piece reflects the changing mix of influences in one theater in the Lower East Side’s “Jewish Rialto” over the years: from Yiddish theater to burlesque, from Chekhov to William Burroughs. These are the first two works of a project I am completing, to commission and record works inspired by architectural settings. In 2016 I will premiere four more new works by Amy Beth Kirsten, Hannah Lash, James Matheson, and Harold Meltzer at the Piano Spheres series at Boston Court, all illuminating particular architectural phenomena. The first half of the program will include works written for my albumWoman at the New Piano by Tom Flaherty, James Matheson, Adam Schoenberg, and Peter Yates. I like to humorously call that program Music for a New B’ak’tun, that is music for a newly transformed world, the new 5,125 year cycle according to the Mayan Calendar, which began in 2013 when all those works were written. I will note that the pieces all touch on the themes of transformation, of resonances across time, of cycles of rebirth. Cretic Variations by James Matheson emphasizes lengthy resonances, how momentary events persist, shape new events, and how our memory of the past is revised by events of the now. Whereas Adam Schoenberg’s Picture Etudes take us through a variety of worlds, from placid to energetic, Peter Yates’ Finger Songs take us on a journey through time, playing on our sentiments with flashes and resonances of musics past. Whereas Tom Flaherty’s Airdancing (for which the wonderful Genevieve Feiwen Lee will join me on toy piano) and Adam’s Picture Etudes introduce novel combinations of sound sources, Peter’s Finger Songs feature novel combinations of musical forms and genres. A number of the pieces feature descent into true musical chaos, and emergence into the new – whether momentous, as in the thunder and dawn of Cretic Variations, or thrilling, as in whoops and swirls of Airdancing. I am very excited to perform this program tomorrow!
Here is a sneak peak into the first half repertoire:
Had you selected the In Full Sail piece to begin with, or does the theme really encompass the whole program?
In Full Sail to me means sailing towards my dreams, taking chances and going for it all the way. In Full Sail is also the title of a piece Harold Meltzer is writing for my architecture-inspired program. In Full Sail won’t be premiered until May 2016, but Harold was the first composer I approached for the project and the first one to come up with a title. And thoughIn Full Sail is a critic’s description in particular of the Frank Gehry building to which Harold is responding, the title seems to describe well the theme of the first concert that will feature works from this project (but will also feature works fromWoman at the New Piano), given its wide meaning.
What’s it like being a Satellite Series artist? I’ve heard there’s a bit of mentoring and support from the long-term Piano Spheres mainstays.
I am honored and excited to join Piano Spheres as a Satellite Artist! Vicki Ray has been a wonderful mentor, giving me great advice about programming and career building and I am looking forward to presenting a composition workshop with Vicki this afternoon at Boston Court, together with composers Lewis Spratlan (who just got into town from Massachusetts) and Adam Schoenberg. Vicki’s sparkly personality and infectious energy definitely have a way of rubbing off on me, and all the other Piano Spheres pianists and staff have been very supportive, making my Piano Spheres experience superb!
We’re lucky in LA to have a lot of fantastic pianists. Who else in town inspires you?
I agree, the Los Angeles new music (and older music) scene is thriving! When I go to concerts of new music, I see enthusiastic people of all ages in the audience. There is great appreciation in LA for all things avant-garde, outside the box, with too many wonderful new music ensembles and solo artists to list. Since my twin boys were born 5 years ago, my concert going experience slowed down a bit for a few years, but last year I was able to attend many incredible, inspiring concerts featuring adventurous, innovative music, much of which was actually written by local composers. Since I can’t list everyone who inspires me in town, I would like to focus on the Piano Spheres pianists, who inspire me beyond words. I was fortunate to be able to attend most Piano Spheres concerts last season (and of course the fantastic season opener with Gloria Cheng and Thomas Adès in September). Each of the principal artists, Gloria Cheng, Vicki Ray, Mark Robson and Susan Svrček, presented cohesive, exciting, beautifully-themed programs that featured their exceptional pianism and great imagination in interpreting new works. I was also very impressed by the inaugural Satellite Series last season and still remember vividly Nic Gerpe’s powerful Crumb performance and Aron Kallay’s unforgettable program, which included a piece for speaking pianist and electronics by Vykintas Baltakas, for which Aron recited a text in Lithuanian! I also frequently collaborate with the adventurous pianist Genevieve Feiwen Lee, with whom I recorded two works for my album (Airdancing by Tom Flaherty and Bounce by Adam Schoenberg), and who will be airdancing with me on Tuesdayat REDCAT. I would just like to mention one more pianist who to this day continues to inspire me, my wonderful teacher John Perry, with whom I completed my graduate studies during the late 1990s through mid 2000s. Perry is turning eighty in February and has not slowed down a bit with his teaching and performances, which are moving, powerful and deeply felt. And he just presented a recital at Carnegie Hall to celebrate his 80th birthday!
What’s next after this show?
I have a very exciting season planned, with numerous premieres and exciting collaborations! I will be focusing on two brand new solo programs this season, which I will touring and recording in the near future. One of the programs, which I will start calling The Poetry of Places once it starts presenting only the architecture-inspired works in one recital, will feature six new compositions written for my project mentioned above (two of which I will be premiering). I will be performing these works more than a dozen times this season in California, New York, and Baltimore. For this project I will also be recording Andrew Norman’s Frank’s House for two pianists and two percussionists. Andrew and I were classmates at USC and I am thrilled to collaborate with him on this project! My other program, which I like to call Quotations and Homages will feature new and very recent musical homages by Matthew Elgart, Daniel Felsenfeld, Tom Flaherty, Vera Ivanova, James Matheson, Missy Mazzoli, Nick Norton (you!) and Peter Yates, five of which I will be premiering at Spectrum in New York on December 13. I am also very excited about my upcoming collaborations with Los Angeles Philharmonic’s violinist Vijay Gupta, with whom I will be performing a few local concerts in January, and with Kathleen Supové, with whom I will be performing concerts in three states in December, January and February, including the premiere of Jack Van Zandt’s Regular Division of the Plane for two pianos and a piece selected from ACFLA’s call for scores.
Anything else to add?
For this concert I had the privilege of choosing a beautiful Steinway & Sons concert grand that will be delivered to REDCAT tomorrow! I became a Steinway Artist last February and this was the first time since becoming a Steinway Artist that I had the opportunity to choose an instrument for a specific performance, an instrument that I felt would be a great match for the program on Tuesday. Adam Borecki beautifully filmed the Steinway Selection process, during which I discussed the differences between the instruments and performed short sections from some of the pieces on each piano. You can watch the clip, which was just finished this morning, here: