On January 20, 2016, the Santa Monica Public Library kicked off a new concert series, presenting innovative contemporary music in their Martin Luther King auditorium on the third Wednesday of each month. Featured in this first concert were artists of the Los Angeles-based Cold Blue Music record label in an evening of piano music. Composers Daniel Lentz, Jim Fox and Michael Jon Fink were on hand to introduce and play their works and pianist Aron Kallay was the featured performer.
Two Preludes for Piano, by Michael Jon Fink was first, played by the composer. The first prelude, Image, was built around quiet passages of single notes and simple chords. This is plainly stated music with a straightforward declarative style, but the fine, nuanced touch by Michael Jon Fink added a dimension of mystery and elegance to the otherwise simple materials. The second prelude, Wordless, similarly began with a series of soft single notes, but now in repeated phrases with slight variations. This prelude evoked a more introspective feel, enhanced by the occasional solemn chord. The playing towards the end was more forthright – but never loud – and this made for a nice contrast with the opening as the piece slowly faded away. Two Preludes for Piano is spare and restrained, but masterfully shaped to facilitate a strong emotional encounter.
Five Pieces for Piano followed, also by Michael Jon Fink and again performed by the composer. This began with another soft line of notes ending in a gentle chord, again eliciting a thoughtful and reflective feel. The second movement added a little anxiety by way of some slight dissonance while movement 3 incorporated simply stated chords that delivered an uncomplicated sense of grandeur. A repeating line with a counter melody was very effective towards the end of this section. The final two movements provided a bit of tension and mystery but were free of any heavy drama. A series of deep notes moving up the scale resulted in some lovely sustained tones that seemed to hover in the still air. The conclusion of the last movement invoked a more solitary feeling, as if looking at a far horizon from an empty beach.
Five Pieces for Piano is a jewel of a piece where each phrase is crafted with a quiet emotion that affirms the power of its understated simplicity.
Composer Daniel Lentz next offered a few remarks on the writing of his 51 Nocturnes, a piece that was created by improvisation, followed by writing up the notation. All 51 of the nocturnes fit into something like 18 minutes, as played by Aron Kallay. The program notes describe this piece as follows: “As with much of Lentz’s music, it is somewhat kaleidoscopic, restless, and given to changing directions without warning.”
The opening chords set the tone for the piece – warm and welcoming. Like the music of Michael Jon Fink this piece is the essence refined simplicity, but each of the nocturnes are, by turns, accessible and inviting, slightly agitated and anxious, mildly intense or even dramatic – but always returning to a settled and comfortable optimism. The many nuances and colors of the nocturnes were scrupulously observed by the sensitive playing of Aron Kallay. At the finish the light arpeggios and warm chords rekindled the warm mood of the opening and it was as if you were watching your life pass by for a minute, pleased and holding no regrets. 51 Nocturnes is settled, secure music, full of good hopes and wishes without turning saccharine.
The final three works of the program were by Peter Garland, Michael Byron and Jim Fox, as performed by Jim Fox. Nostalgia of the Southern Cross by Garland was first and opened with a series of gentle, solemn notes followed by a wistful chord. This music is quietly thoughtful and perhaps somewhat reminiscent of the Lentz piece in its sensibility. Repetition followed and each repeating phrase seemed to draw out a bit more color. As She Sleeps by Michael Byron followed directly and although a subdued lullaby, had a brightly optimistic feel, as if you had just finished your morning coffee and had the whole day was in front of you. The last chord hung deliciously in the air and slowly evaporated into silence.
The final piece heard was smoke, hornblende, clay by Jim Fox and this took less than a minute to complete. A slow two-note trill, followed by a bright arpeggio and some quiet chords completed this sunny and marvelously concise work.
This initial Soundwaves concert by the Santa Monica Public Library was an important step for bringing live new music to the west side. The artists of Cold Blue Music lifted up our West Coast minimalism to its rightful stature while bringing it home to its native ground.
Recordings by the composers featured in this concert are available from Cold Blue Music.
Cold Blue Music will again host a concert on February 16, 2018 at Monk Space in Koreatown.
Further Soundwaves concerts can be heard on the third Wednesday of each month at the Santa Monica Public Library.
From Los Angeles-based Cold Blue Music comes a new CD by Michael Jon Fink titled From a Folio, featuring Derek Stein on cello and the composer at the piano. Michael Jon Fink has a distinguished 30+ year career as a composer and his music has been performed at the Green Umbrella series of new music concerts by the Los Angeles Philharmonic as well as a number of other venues and festivals throughout the United States and Europe. The long arc of his composing career has allowed Michael Jon Fink to refine his style of understated eloquence through simple musical materials, and From a Folio is a fine example of just how much this can achieve.
All of the tracks on this CD are short – running from two to a little over three minutes. All but one of the tracks use the same combination of spare piano rhythms accompanied by the cello. The first track, Invocation, is typical – the piano provides a steady, purposeful line of single notes in a rising, repeating sequence. The cello follows the piano, but in an unexpected register – high but not shrill – and the cello ends each passage on a sustained tone that compliments piano figure. This simple structure is unhurried and restful. Good control of intonation and pitch by Derek Stein is critical – the cello is almost never heard in its lower, warmer ranges.
Heiroglyph is next and this has a more mysterious feeling in the piano passages. The rhythms are a series of straightforward, deliberate notes. The cello follows with soft, sustained tones that add to the enigmatic atmosphere. Melos follows and here the piano weaves its line of single notes around very simple cello tones. More complexity is heard in the piano as this piece unfolds, but by the finish it has resumed its restrained character.
Aftersong, on track 4, is a completely different piece consisting of just the cello in a series of slow, dramatic tones that have been recorded separately but are heard together in this track. This has a sense of lonely isolation and is played with great feeling by Derek Stein who also performs with Gnarwhallaby and wildUp, two Los Angeles groups known for a much more animated and energetic sound – this CD is impressive evidence of a softer, more introspective side to his playing.
The remaining tracks – From a Folio, Over and Exit – return to the original combination of piano and cello. From a Folio, track 5, suggests a questioning feel in the quiet piano chords. The cello answers by way of single, sustained tones that are masterfully infused with emotion. Over is a more solemn piece, with a tinge of sadness. Exit, the last track, opens with a series of luminous piano notes that seem to hang suspended in the air. The cello shortly picks up the same notes, sustaining them while the piano replies in quiet counterpoint. The cello, again in a high register, repeats the opening theme as the piano adds a few short arpeggios. The solitary sound of the cello plays out as the track concludes.
From a Folio is the perfect title for this CD. Each piece is one of a series of brilliant jewels as if cut from the same stone. From a Folio by Michael Jon Fink is music that is simple, yet essential – an elegant vessel of deep expression.
From a Folio CB0039, is available from Cold Blue Music starting October 14, 2014