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.
In a diverse, capably executed program of Microtonal music for solo piano and violin entitled “Beyond 12,” Tuesdays@MonkSpace further solidified itself as a major presenting organization for contemporary music in Los Angeles. Pianist and T@MS co-founder Aron Kallay, a noted exponent of microtonality, joined musical forces with like-minded violinist Andrew McIntosh of the Formalist Quartet in a generous offering of harmonically-expanded music spanning three centuries. The concert marked the season finale of T@MS, as well as that of Microfest–the primary source for microtonal music in the area–which co-produced the event.
While the octave (8 lines and spaces on the musical staff), is generally divided into 12 equally spaced notes, microtonality allows for dividing the octave into many more notes and spacing them at varying distances from each other, providing for greater and freer expressive power.
The first selection on the program‑‑a staple of Kallay’s repertoire—Kyle Gann’s Fugitive Objects (2004), exemplified the extraordinary harmonic richness possible in microtonal music by dividing the octave into 36 discreet pitch classes—three times the usual number of notes on the piano. With sweeping romantic intensity and lyricism–heightened by Kallay’s expressive playing—the piece meanders through original, unexpected dimensions of pitch. Listeners are kept on track by memorable ostinatos that define a form amidst a spongy, vibratory tone-massage.
Acoustic pianos are incapable of sustaining the pressures of such extreme tonal fission. Consequently, Kallay used a midi-controller with timbre and tuning courtesy of Pianoteq, a real-time piano modeling software.
“The changes in tuning required by Gann are so great as to be impossible on an acoustic piano: the strings would simply break,” Kallay pointed out. “Even when we can change the piano’s normal tuning system to a microtonal variant, it requires many tunings to stabilize the new tonal scheme, followed by additional tunings to restore the original temperament,” Kallay elaborated.
Such practical factors have led to the accepted and widespread use of electronic technology in live microtonal concerts.
Andrew McIntosh did not use software to produce the tunings of his program for solo violin. The simultaneous blessing and curse of the string player is the ongoing onus of intonation, note by note. The violin’s flexibility of pitch is ideally suited to microtonal music, where subtle tone-warps add expressive range, in many cases complementing programmatic content.
Taking the stage alternately with Kallay, McIntosh opened his survey of microtonality for solo violin with, “Intonation After Morton Feldman, 1” by Marc Sabat, from his suite Les Duresses (2004). McIntosh introduced the piece with enticing context-building commentary, adding an impactful additional element to the concert experience. All evening long, in standard T@MS form, the performers served as musicologists, drawing on extensive academic training in sensitizing listeners to each work’s essential attributes.
Combining a love for the music of Morton Feldman, icon of twentieth century experimental music, with a passion for precision, Marc Sabat pinned down Feldman’s allusions to microtonality in a fully worked out, rigorously notated adaptation of Feldman’s late string writing style.
“In his final few years, Feldman seemed to suggest microtonal inflections of pitch in his music for strings. When pressed to explain his methods, he seemed to avoid the question but hinted that some notes would weigh more than others,” explained McIntosh, who went on to perform the piece with clear, convincing modulations of pitch, indeed evoking weight in some notes, buoyancy in others.
The Weasel of Melancholy, a terse, humorous work for piano solo by Eric Moe, followed, closing out the first half with microtonal whinings and abstract figuration. Animal sounds and songs are always microtonal. Moe drew on the versatility of microtonality to convey animal emotion, and Kallay dispatched passages of virtuoso figuration with abandon and effortless fluency.
A jovial crowd, remaining close at hand throughout intermission, drew to attention as the stage was set for a substantial second half.
In a refreshing reminder that microtonality is nothing new, McIntosh presented a lengthy suite for violin solo, “the first example of microtonal music for solo violin,” by the Baroque composer Johann Joseph Vilsmayer.
Microtonal effects were common in the Baroque, having been used widely by Antonio Vivaldi and Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber for subtle undercurrents of meaning in program music and character sketches. Vilsmayr’s Partita number 5 is a fusion of Austrian folk melodies, French ornamental writing, and poignant microtonal leanings modeled on Biber’s Rosary Sonatas.
In an original scordatura tuning devised by Vilsmayr, the E string became a D string (for two D strings in total), allowing for numerous harmonic possibilities otherwise inconvenient in violin writing.
Aron Kallay, characteristically warm, acknowledged departing interns as well as MonkSpace owner Michael Lane, then continued to inform without lecturing. “There are pockets of microtonal communities throughout the country, especially Boston, as well as Birmingham, Alabama.”
The History of Elevators in Film, by Birmingham composer Holland Hopson, depicted the sensory experience of riding in elevators with virtuoso compositional prowess. Doppler-like expansion and contractions of pitch evoke that unmistakable sensation of “Moving while standing still,” the title of one movement, as well as the ominous destination of floor number 13, in “Floor 13, please….”
Hopson’s History might be considered the sole collaboration of the program: a duet between piano soloist and technology itself. The keyboard’s tuning dynamically shifted in response to programmed triggers using Max, an interactive framework for real-time musical processes. Kallay would “play a low note, repeat a chord a certain number of times, leap by a given interval, etc.” and the tuning would audibly shift concomitantly. The process lent a spontaneous, interactive chamber music quality to the piece, further conveying the reduced independence of elevator passengers.
Apart from Vilsmayar’s Partita, all the pieces of the program were composed in the current century. Many were commissioned by Kallay himself. “I began to grow tired of equal temperament 10 years ago and began playing microtonal music then, but not much had been written for piano solo,” Kallay noted at the program’s outset. “I began commissioning works, and hope to continue building the repertoire forever.”
Among the latest additions to Kallay’s growing compendium is The Blur of Time and Memory, by Los Angeles-based composer, Alex Miller, which brought the program to a dramatic finale.
Miller’s Blur integrated uniquely microtonal effects with idiomatic, even traditional piano writing for a holistic listener experience. An inventive microtonal tuning allowed for seamless glissando-like transitions through the entire range, inducing a haunting, surreal atmosphere of liquefied pitches and flowing masses of sound. While inextricably linked to microtonality, the piece was not dependent upon it, drawing power from striking tone clusters, singing lines, and undulatory dynamic gestures.
Building energy progressively, Miller’s Blur seemed to conclude with its climax. A torrent of sonority reverberated in the lively MonkSpace acoustic, shortly giving way to authentic, spontaneous applause by a nourished audience.
The mood was set for a reception that would last hours—a known T@MS phenomenon—drawing together friends, new and familiar in the joy of a shared adventure, the sense of something meaningful in music, and the promise of another season.
By now, Piano Spheres has wound down their main 2015–2016 season, but that doesn’t mean that there are no opportunities to hear contemporary piano music in the Los Angeles area, or even that the specific artists from their season are nowhere to be heard this summer. Last night (May 20th), for instance, Nadia Shpachenko and Danny Holt gave a joint recital at Boston Court in Pasadena, playing music inspired by specific buildings and places. Some of the pieces were familiar — either from previous Piano Spheres concerts or earlier eras of the piano repertoire — but others were new, including a three world premières.
On the first half, Nadia Shpachenko took the stage to present a fiercely contemporary set of pieces written around and about works of ancient and modern architecture. The program began with the première of Hannah Lash’s Give Me Your Songs, a ruminative, convoluted work inspired by Lash’s time spent working in Aaron Copland’s old house in upstate New York. The layout of the building is, apparently, quite confusing, and Lash often found herself in the kitchen when the living room had been her goal (or vice versa), and the piece is in some ways an attempt to capture that surprising twisting and turning. The musical materials are simple and songlike, but their development is fractured and folded over on itself in endlessly shifting ways. There are moments where things seem to snap into focus — an earnest chorale, the beginnings of an aria, flutterings that bordered on the launch of a toccata — but the ground always shifted underfoot, and nothing ever remained quite what it seemed.
Shpachenko followed this with a reprise of Lewis Spratlan’s Bangladesh, which she premièred on a Piano Spheres concert last year. (Despite being written in 2015, this was the oldest piece of music on the first half.) Instead of the privacy of a personal home, Bangladesh takes its cue from the National Parliament House in Dhaka, Bangladesh, a building complex designed by American architect Louis Kahn. For those less than familiar with this complex, Dana Berman Duff put together a slideshow of sorts featuring scores of pictures of the building and its environs, including a long sequence of archival shots of the building’s construction. The music is lush and atmospheric, interspersing imposing block chords — echoing the hulking weight of Kahn’s structure — with gaudy pentatonic washes describing water and fog. In many ways, the piece feels like an accompaniment to the slideshow, which is a pity, because the slideshow leaves something to be desired. While the photos do a stunning job of capturing the monumentality of the building as well as the interplay of light and shadow within its halls, they are presented with little context, with the result that Bangladesh (the country) comes across as shrouded, exotic, and mysterious. But Bangladesh needn’t be mysterious. It’s the eighth most populous country in the world, with a long and well documented history. Marveling at architecture doesn’t require and shouldn’t come at the expense of othering non–Western locales.
This was followed by Amy Beth Kirsten’s h.o.p.e., a piece that calls for Shpachenko to do triple duty, playing the regular piano with one hand, a toy piano with the other, and intoning cryptic vocal lines above it all. Inspired by The Big Hope Show at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, this was the sparsest piece on the evening’s program. There are very few moments in the piece when more than one note is played at the same time, and for much of its duration the regular and toy pianos play exactly the same line, tho the inherent inaccuracy of the toy piano’s intonation added a bewitching halo of sound that kept the sparseness from feeling completely unadorned. My only complaint about this piece is that it was far too short — it felt like the patient beginning of something much longer and grander, and the ending felt like an abrupt truncation of a larger, half–glimpsed structure.
Once the toy piano was safely out of the way, it was then time for the première of In Full Sail by Harold Meltzer, inspired by Frank Gehry’s IAC Building in Manhattan. This was another atmospheric piece, and one that was cleverly programmed to hearken back to both the Lash and the Spratlan. In its fluid textures and organic form, it echoed Bangladesh, but instead of using pentatonic sonorities as grist for the mill, Meltzer draws on a more American idiom, drawing in some of the hard–edged angularity that lurks just below the surface of much of Copland’s populism (an angularity that was also very present in the Lash). This piece was also accompanied by images of the building that inspired it, but here they felt very much like an afterthought, and I found it hard to focus on the structure of the music when the same few images kept repeating in a static loop.
Next, and last on the first half, came the première of Jack Van Zandt’s Sí an Bhrú, the only piece on the program named after the building that inspired it. And, also unlike the other pieces, it’s based not on a contemporary dwelling or monument but on a Neolithic monolith constructed some time around 3200BC. Sí an Bhrú (or “Newgrange” as it’s known in English) sits in Ireland’s Boyne Valley, and its original purpose is not entirely clear — it takes the form of a large mound with a single passageway into its center, a passageway that lines up with the rising sun on the winter solstice, leading many to believe it originally had some religious purpose. But given the yawning gap of years between then and now, it’s difficult to say with certainty, and many plausible competing hypotheses remain. Van Zandt’s work embraces this loss and uncertainty, beginning with a meditation on deep time and progressing thru the construction and decoration of the structure into the dark starlit night of deep winter with music that seems achingly familiar without ever being fully placable, just as we recognize that human minds were behind this monolith without being to understand their full purpose. In addition to piano, the piece is scored with electronics, and these too, play a similar game. There are snatches of concrete sounds — a brook burbling or leaves rustling in the wind; chisels on stone or steps down a long corridor — but they mix and blur both with each other and with markedly synthetic static and pop. This was the only piece where the visuals (images of Sí and Bhrú and the surrounding landscape, plus a few nebulae) and music really felt integrated into a unified whole, each adding to and balancing out the other.
Coming into the second half, Danny Holt elected to shift the focus from specific buildings to geographical regions more generally, and from the very present day to the first decades of the 20th Century. Holt is perhaps best known for his virtuosic recitals where he plays the piano and various percussion instruments simultaneously, but here he eschewed such things and showed that he can dazzle just as well without the use of drumkits. Holt opened with Heitor Villa-Lobos’s fifth Choros, “Alma Brasileira” (1925), a work that was jagged and heartfelt by turns. This was followed by Le Cahier Romand (1923), a suite of sentimental piano miniatures penned by Arthur Honegger during his time in Switzerland. The highlight of the second half was Alexander Mosolov’s seldom–heard Turkmenian Nights (1928), a ferocious volley of Russian Futurism that nevertheless made me want to dance. Holt then closed with Leonard Bernstein’s transcription of Aaron Copland’s El Salón México (1936), revealing the transparency and delicacy underlying the orchestral version, and providing a tidy symmetry to the concert as a whole.
Over and above the explicit thread of “Places” that linked these works, I found myself drawn to a deeper tie between the two halves. We’re living in a time of great stylistic plurality, a time when certain older systems of composing have lost the sway they once enjoyed and new ones haven’t quite arisen to take their place. Shpachenko’s half helped show that — there are definitely styles that she didn’t have room to feature, but no two of the works she played take the same approach to melody, harmony, and form. It’s a tumultuous time, but it’s also an exciting time, and Holt’s half hearkened back to another time of similar tumult, as composers sought new means of expression after the psychic shock of World War One. It was a fitting reminder that masterworks do come out of this bubble and strife, and a subtle affirmation that some things being written now may well be touchstones of the repertoire in another ninety years.
Microtonality is often quipped at as “the cracks between the piano keys.” It is tradition in our Western art culture to have the smallest interval be what is called a half step, or semitone; but why do we divide the octave into twelve semitones, why not eight or thirteen? In the live preview last week at Harvey Mudd College of the second volume of his Beyond Twelve series, Aron Kallay used an electronic keyboard to realize a six different composers’ takes on alternate tuning and temperament.
The program kicked off with I’m Worried Now by Monroe Golden. The first thing that struck me was the schizophonia – Aron would strike a key in what ought to be the lower register of the piano, and it would sound a note from a higher register. He would sweep his hand up and down the keys in a glissando and it seemed a crapshoot whether the notes would rise or fall. One of the notes I scribbled during the performance reads: “Vince Guaraldi on an ancient piano in a thunderstorm.” The piece is jazzy and tipsy. The thunderous low notes set apart from the tip-toeing upper melody. The retuning sometimes sounds intentional and other times not, to the intriguing effect that it would set my teeth on edge and then resolve into tonality, though no longer equal temperament; yes, during the performance I was certainly worried. All in all, music that moves your emotions and mind in such a rollercoaster is surely a triumph by Golden.
Alex Miller’s composition The Blur of Time and Memory used 1/10th (instead of ½, or half) steps. The result was that chords in which one or two notes move chromatically upwards seemed to peel away from the original chord identity to glide into another, like a chameleon shifting its coloring. The piece was meditative overall, intensified in sections by shifting harmonies and tugging the listener’s ear through tonal areas it is not used to visiting. It ended with an uncanny resemblance to wailing wind in a drafty room, like a ghost had haunted the keys to take the tuning out of whack.
Underbelly, by Stephen Cohn, utilized notes above and below the standard piano range, in which a dance fitting for the Mad Hatter’s tea party plays and the Jabberwocky thumps below in the bass region. The unfamiliar overtones from the bottom register give an otherworldly twist. The other parts of the piece resembled water music, but with more finesse and realism thanks to the microtonality at play. The smaller intervals gave an ultra-realistic fluidity to the cascade of notes winding through the recital hall.
The last work before intermission was Paths of the Wind by Bill Alves. It began as a wall of sound, like standing atop a windy mountain straining to hear the rumbling bass melody in the distance. The clusters of notes washed together and averaged into a drone which became a musical line unto itself. Like the Cohn piece’s effectiveness in using microintervals to enhance fluidity, Alves glided through notes like a bird on the wind, seemingly continuously rather than discretely. Without microtonality, there is no way a piano could sound so natural; it’s as if wind were transported directly into the hall and pitched to a melody, but still unfettered by tonality. A truly spellbinding work by Alves.
Post-intermission we were treated to two more pieces, the first of which, Involuntary Bohlen Piercing, was composed by Nick Norton. This used temperament in an even more unorthodox manner, by cutting up a perfect twelfth instead of a perfect octave into segments. The twelfth is divided into thirteen even segments, each slightly less than a quarter-tone larger than our equal-tempered half step. The first scribble I have for this one reads: “Drunken tip-toeing complete with running into things.” In other words, the piece begins hesitant and gentle, even a little uncertain, but is soon brought out of its nascent stages by magnificent Rachmaninoff-esque crashes. Reminiscent of Schoenberg’s Six Small Pieces for Piano, minimalists like Terry Riley, and a peppering of Impressionism, this piece was never dissonant, but always pleasant even when alien. The pacing was slower than the other composers’, but worked within the frame of the hesitant beginning and end. The tolling bells near the end seemed to be a clock announcing the end of the piece, or perhaps, in Norton’s case, the nearing completion of his PhD.
The concert ended with Clouds of Clarification by Robert Carl. Given my adoration for the book and movie “Cloud Atlas,” it was difficult to extract my mind from that world. Carl explained before the performance that the piece included four movements played without break: water, earth, wind and fire. After a stately opening, the first high note not belonging to the equal temperament was jarring like a shard of glass. The aquatic movement came off like water dripping from stalactites, and had a distinctly crystalline feel. The music split the difference between pentatonic and whole tone scales as it moved into the earth movement, lumbering across the keys. Upon reaching the air movement, Aron’s hands looked like birds flitting on the keyboard, and it was reminiscent of Olivier Messiaen’s bird pieces. Nearing the end, each low thwomp in the bass was ear cleansing relief between microtonal clusters, like healing a burn from the fire movement. My favorite part of the piece was watching the composer react to Aron’s portrayal. He knew every note he wrote; this piece, like everything he has written, is his child, and he was infectiously joyous hearing it realized. I believe most of audience felt his enthusiasm, and I hope all may be as enthusiastic as microtonal music when they encounter it.
Writing reviews as a composer can be a delicate business, in that the needs of one – being friends with performers – sometimes conflict with the needs of honest, unbiased writing. Every now and then, however, you come across a concert so good that it blows away any concern for that conflict, because in lauding the performers with accolades you are merely speaking the truth. Ray-Kallay Duo‘s concert at Boston Court last week was one such show.
As the name implies, Ray-Kallay Duo is the four-hands project of pianists Aron Kallay and Vicki Ray. Just saying four-hands undersells it, though, as Friday’s concert had them awash in four-hands, four-feet, laptop, ankle-shakers, microtonal vs. equal-tempered keyboard rep. The show opened with Kevin Volans’ Matepe, with the pianists hocketing changing rhythms back and forth while beating out time with legs covered in seed pods. This contrasted nicely with Kyle Gann’s gorgeous and calming Romance Postmoderne, which was written for the duo.
You might expect stage changes galore, what with the unstrapping of seed pods and moving between instruments. While some ensembles get awkwardly silent during these times, Ray-Kallay has the insight to use them to their advantage, as Vicki Ray delivers affable program notes about each piece from the stage while Aron resets. The friendly vibe of the event helped out pieces like Frank Oteri’s Oasis, written for Yamaha DX7s and intended to make fun of the ridiculousness of early FM synth instrument modeling. In a “serious” recital such a piece may have felt out of place, but here it fit right in.
Composers in attendance visited the stage as well, with Isaac Schankler explaining how his piece Because Patterns (the title an answer to Morton Feldeman’s Why Patterns?) uses preparations to an acoustic piano to try to conjure the feel of electronic sounds.
Boy, did he succeed. The minimalist, groove-based piece was the highlight of the night. Extremely transparent, it not only showed off Schankler’s feel for phrase and musical structure and attention to sound (almost like a friendlier Tristan Perich), and the non-pandering influence of electronic artists like Matmos and Aphex Twin, but highlighted just how tightly the pianists were synced. It would be easy to convince a listener that it was one musician sitting at the piano.
Dylan Mattingly’s piece The Rest is Silence also benefitted from the cohesion of Ray and Kallay, this time with one at the piano and the other at a just-intoned keyboard. This piece is strikingly lush and beautiful, and calls into question the idea that JI music is music for specialists. It’s my favorite Mattingly piece I’ve heard yet.
When writing for four hands, I’m often thinking about chord voicings and contrapuntal writing that one pianist couldn’t achieve within their span. The range of things that Ray-Kallay demonstrated are possible with two performers of this caliber was inspiring. I hope they continue to build a rep for their infinitely-malleable setup and concertize everywhere, not just as two pianists, but as two extremely versatile musicians.
A new CD by Nadia Shpachenko, Woman at the New Piano – American Music of 2013, has been released containing 75 minutes of piano music by no less than four separate contemporary composers. Tom Flaherty, Peter Yates, Adam Schoenberg and James Matheson have all contributed new works written to celebrate the fact that the world had managed to survive the Mayan Calendar predictions of doom for December 2012. As Nadia states in the CD booklet: “ I feel this program is a remarkable snapshot of compositional activity in the year 2013, a fascinating exposé of how four brilliant people see and experience this newly transformed world, how they express themselves through music, and how their different ideas are brought together by an enthusiastic performer who believes in their legacy.”
Airdancing by Tom Flaherty is first and for this piece Nadia on piano is joined by Genevieve Feiwen Lee on toy piano and electronics. Airdancing opens with deep mysterious chords in the lower registers of the piano with a playfully light melody on the toy piano floating on top. There is a syncopated hand-off between the two that is most engaging given the different timbres. Now some electronic percussion in the form of a deep bass drum adds an ominous feel and then lighter cymbal-like taps are added to produce a distinctly Asian feel. The deep, rumbling bass drum returns and is joined by low notes in the piano giving a palpable sense of menace. The pace accelerates, building drama and tension. The piece concludes with a swirl of keyboard runs and sudden silence. Tom Flaherty states in the liner notes: “As I worked on this piece, images of falling, floating, and flying often came across my computer monitor.” Airdancing is an appealing combination of the traditional piano sounds and electronic percussion. The lightness in the rhythms and timbre of the electronics are nicely contrasted with the lower, more ominous sections in an interesting mix.
Tom Flaherty also contributed Part Suite-a for Solo Piano, consisting of three dance-like movements: Passacaglialude, Lullabande and Scherzoid. In this suite the mood is a bit darker, starting with a mysterious deep note at the opening of Passacaglialude followed by a simple melody that expands into something more complex and is tinged with a feeling of uncertainty and menace. Although softening slightly as it proceeds, a series of rapid and sharp notes reinforce the uneasiness. At the very last, however, this movement comes to an unexpectedly satisfying close on the final chord.
Lullabande continues in the same mood with a quiet, tentative opening that creates a questioning feel. Single deep notes in the bass add counterpoint and a touch of menace. As the lower notes predominate, this movement takes on a sinister cast. A quiet tension builds in an increasingly complex set of passages until a rapid downward scale ends in silence. A more subdued, reflective section follows but the undercurrents of tension persist at the close.
The final movement of Part Suite-a begins with a series of strong chords and rapid passages the introduce a feeling of anxiety. Very fast moving lines and scales seem to crowd in on the listener. A slower section follows but with a feeling of uncertainty as rising arpeggios and a faster tempo lead to a fast downward run and a moment of silence. The pace picks up, like sanity slipping away, and there is a frantic pace to this requiring good technique – at times it seems like four hands are on the keyboard. Ominous chords in the bass increase the tension with a frantic melody above that builds to a rapid downward run and silence at the finish. Part Suite-a for Solo Piano is a technically challenging piece that is precisely realized here.
Composer Peter Yates contributed Finger Songs for Solo Piano, a series of five short pieces and the first of these, Mood Swing, has a very fast opening – almost a trill – but this soon slows to a pleasant bluesy feel. Different moods come and go: upbeat sections mix with slower or more inward looking passages. The sudden ending takes the listener by surprise but magnifies the realization of how many different moods were heard in just under three and a half minutes.
Gambol, at just 46 seconds is shorter still and packs a faster, brighter sound. Mysterious Dawn is much slower and more enigmatic, making a good contrast to the first two sections. Brave Show is full of lively runs and ornaments and the playing here is crisp and precise. All Better concludes with an upbeat and optimistic feel. Altogether, Finger Songs for Solo Piano is like a candy sampler with all sorts moods, tempos and techniques packed into small, bite-sized packages, Ms.Shpachenko extracting the full flavor of each.
Picture Etudes for Solo Piano by Adam Schoenberg is an amazing collection of four short movements, each musically describing the works of a well known artist. Starting with the short Three Pierrots, based on Albert Bloch’s painting, Die Drei Pierrots Nr. 2. Twittering, light and fluttering, this piece requires quick playing. Some lovely chords at the finish bring to mind the brightly colored feathers of the parrots. Miro’s World is next and this is quietly lithe like a cat in the beginning, and then loud with syncopated percussion and a quick melody. In just 1:32 Schoenberg has captured the whimsey of a Miro painting.
Olive Orchard can only be about Van Gogh with a languid, lazy opening – it is a summer day in the south of France. A lovely melody drifts along, now turning a bit darker. There is a feeling of reverence in this and an appealing complexity in the later parts. A very warm and sympathetic portrait of the artist.
Kandinsky, however, is the exact opposite of Olive Orchard, opening with sharp chords and irregular rhythms. A tense, almost sinister feel to this, magnified by strong bass drum beats. A melody appears, fast and abstract, with dissonance that adds to the tension. More rapid fire notes, sharp chords crashing about and the bass drum again. A long descending run finishes this vivid musical description of the expressionist.
Cretic Variations by James Matheson follows and he writes: “Cretic Variations requires quite a lot of the pianist’s hands and brain—sudden shifts of register, simultaneous lines, seamlessly crossing hands, carefully balancing multiple elements… “ This piece opens with a single, sharp high note that becomes a repeating pattern, then speeds up with counterpoint added. Now the patterns move to the middle registers – flowing like running water – with deep bass notes providing a sense of building tension. Chords appear and these come with irregular rhythms and a faster tempo; there is a sense of sustained tension. A melody moves along as an almost familiar-sounding tune , even as this becomes distorted and underscored by unsettling deep chords. There is the sense of motion and fast pace – as if running from something. A series of crashing chords are heard, interwoven with an engaging melody. Finally all is roar and rumble and all the keys become engaged – followed by silence. Deep solemn notes toll out, as fragments of the melody drift by; there is a sad feeling to this. Slow and deliberate notes follow, like watching a setting sun. The final chord provides a welcome sense of acceptance and peace. Cretic Variations is a remarkable journey, full of mood swings and changes of pace, all expertly played.
Adam Schoenberg also contributed Bounce for Two Pianos, which is the final track on the CD. For this Ms. Shpachenko was accompanied by Genevieve Feiwen Lee. Bounce has a slow, deliberate beginning that quickly becomes a bright melody on one one piano with counterpoint in the other. More solemn at 2:45; hymn-like chords are heard in one piano with rapid passages – like water running in a brook – in the second. More dramatic now halfway along, with a definite introspective feel. But this soon breaks out into optimism again, with lively syncopation and increasingly rapid keyboard runs that exhibit an exuberant dissonance. The piece falls back into a more rational, if still bouncy, rhythmic feel and concludes with a conventionally strong ending. Schoenberg writes in the liner notes: “ For Bounce, my main objective was to write the most playful and loving work that I could come up with while imagining having a child.” Bounce for Two Pianos is precisely played by both pianists who compliment each other perfectly while completely meeting the objective of the composer.
Woman at the New Piano is a generous helping of new piano music by four contemporary composers covering a wide range of feelings, moods and techniques. Ms. Shpachenko and Genevieve Feiwen Lee have skillfully combined to produce a memorable recording.
Composer Marc Evans recently posted a video of his piece Romance?, and I love it. The piece keeps me hooked all the way through, and seems to draw from quite a few different musical languages, including jazz (which is neat to hear on viola). Jordan Warmath is the violist, and Marc himself is on piano. Enjoy!
(If you see a blank space above this line, the video might be taking a while to load. Try refreshing. Vimeo can do that sometimes. It’s worth the wait.)
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.
If you live in Los Angeles and are into new music, chances are high that you’ve crossed paths with pianist Richard Valitutto. Pianist is an understatement, though. His website lists him simply but accurately as “musician,” and he often appears as melodica-player, composer, curator, and more. To get a taste, here’s a live recording of his premiere performance of Ryan Pratt’s On Expansion.
Next week is a big one for him, as he’s got his first full-blown solo recital on PianoSpheres’ new Satellite series, at REDCAT on Tuesday at 8:30. Here’s Richard:
Let’s start with NAKHT. What’s the concert all about?
NAKHT is a major step forward in my exploration of the genre of the piano nocturne. I’ve been imagining and devising programs either largely based on or entirely comprised of nocturnes for the last couple years, and this is my first major solo recital in the process. I guess it’s something that could be called a ‘nocturnes project,’ but I don’t want to get too nerdy about it. I wanted this particular program to be mostly 20th/21st century music, being that it is presented by Piano Spheres, and I wanted to create a program that definitely included certain pieces, particularly the Sciarrino Due Notturni crudeli and the Skryabin Poème-Nocturne. They’ve been on my wish-list for a while now!
Also, several months ago I was hanging out with Nicholas Deyoe having some whiskey (as we do) and we were discussing my nocturne fetish as well as his feeling of closure to his Lullaby series, to which the only other large-scale solo piano work he’s written belongs, Lullaby 2. He said he would love to write another bigger piano piece, and contributing to the nocturne idea would be cool because he’d been thinking particularly about various ways to subvert the idea of a “nocturne” piece, drawing a lot of inspiration from Benjamin Britten’s incredible guitar solo Nocturnal (after John Dowland). So it was then I knew exactly who I wanted to commission as a part of the Piano Spheres Satellite Series.
The program basically developed from these various repertoires and ideas; I think it’s a good representation of my interest in pieces that delve into the complex and volatile relationships between the night and the human psyche.
What attracted you to programming around nocturnes in the first place?
Mostly the music itself, of course: these are some of my favorite pieces of late. But it’s also the fact that I came to realize I had never really heard of a solo piano program (or series of them, for that matter!) comprised mostly or entirely of nocturnes. There are often all-sonatas programs; and I’ve heard many all-prelude, all-dances, even all-etudes (which, in fact, is exactly what Piano Spheres Satellite artist Steven Vanhauwaert will be doing on June 2, 2015)!
Like many people, some of my favorite pieces very early on were Chopin nocturnes. They’re some of the most gloriously melodic pieces we pianists have, and the figurations are so pianistic that it’s like swimming with the hands through maple syrup. On a conceptual level, though, the young me loved the idea of a piece somehow specifically being for night-time – something we don’t get a whole lot of in Western Classical Music. Also, the budding linguist in me loved my understanding etymology of the name itself. But in the last couple of years, I began to notice that not only are there some absolutely wonderful, overlooked gems in the major nocturne oeuvres of Chopin and Fauré, but many composers – often composers unfamiliar to me – will have in their catalogs a nocturne I never knew existed, and many of them just wrote a single one! It became a game, every time I saw a composer’s solo piano catalog I would look to see if they had a nocturne, and many do! It’s alluring: the idea that there was this body of pieces out there – simultaneously limited in scope and largely unknown – that all share the same title, presumably alluding to a similar affect or tradition.
But at the same time, the genre doesn’t really have a set form or tradition, unless you count the original notion of John Field and Chopin of a solo piano aria quasi bel canto, which frankly, a lot of people simply aren’t interested in writing anymore, at all. So what does it then mean for a solo piano piece to be a “nocturne” especially in this century? That’s what I’m trying to find out, mostly by experiencing the music itself.
This might be a big one: when we met we had both just moved to LA, and you were a new student at Cal Arts, and mentioned that you’d heard this guy was starting this orchestra you might help out with. That’s turned into one of the country’s most-acclaimed new music ensembles, and your own notoriety as a performer has grown in parallel, from new student in town to playing at Disney and Carnegie Hall and getting written up by Swed. Could you give us an idea of what that ride has been like for you? And have you thought of your career so far as an artistic narrative, or are you more focused on the project in front of you?
Yeah, that is a big one! Downright cosmic, actually. It’s hard for me to answer that, mostly because that part of all of us that always wants to as humble as possible is currently shoe-gazing and scuffing his toes saying, “Pshaw…” But really, you put it better than I could: I’m just focused on the projects in front of me. It’s certainly exciting to notice the attention and opportunity, not to mention the critical acclaim, of course. But we’re all just people trying to say and do something interesting, from the biggest arts organizations to the smallest independent arts venture or show. During my last year at CalArts and into my first year out of school, I had two rules for myself: The first was, if you can do it, say yes. The second was, even if you have no idea what’s going on, have as much fun as possible. They’ve gotten me pretty far, I’d say, and I’ve certainly done a lot of things that have been really fun (although recently, a couple more rules had to be implemented to temper this unilaterally over-zealous approach)! Most importantly, I truly believe that we’re all students of the world for life, and I try to keep a beginner’s mind throughout it all. The general rule in nature is, “if you’re not growing, you’re dying”. And I think that we’re all called to be constantly bettering ourselves physically, spiritually, emotionally, and artistically so that we may then be a benefit to our community and the world around us simply through our existence and representing our set of values through the things we do for ourselves and others.
Can you share any stories from Gnarwhallaby’s Carnegie Hall concert? I heard a thing about you breaking pianos, which I was actually kind of proud of…
Well, the piano-breaking thing is something I was confused by, more than anything, although in retrospect, it does feel pretty badass. What happened was, our rehearsals were in these recording/rehearsal studios way out in Midtown West, and there were a number of Yamaha grands located in multiple studios. In the course of our few days of rehearsals of Nicholas Deyoe’s Lullaby 4 for the premiere in Zankel Hall, there were no less than three instruments that simply… gave out, I guess is the best way to put it. Like, they were rendered completely unplayable. By me. It had something to do with at a certain point during our rehearsal, the action got jammed and then most of the keyboard just simply didn’t work. At first I thought it was a fluke, but then it happened twice more, and I realized that I must have hands (and forearms) that an ordinary piano simply can’t handle. And just to be clear, this piece had no extended techniques at all – so it’s not like I wasn’t playing the instrument “the right way,” or whatever.
As for other stories, perhaps a better question is, should they be shared! Of course there are stories, but what is appropriate in this context I wonder…?
What excites you about making music here in LA in 2014?
I’m just gonna come out and say it: Los Angeles right now is the most fulfilling and exciting musical environment I could have hoped for, and it’s only looking to get better! What I totally admire about my colleagues and our city is the prolific diversity of style and context as well as the profound commitment to truly interesting and unique modes of art-making. It’s like nowhere else. And most importantly, the level of support within the various artistic community I’ve been privileged to be a part simply feels like family, a home.
What music have you been digging recently?
Andrew McIntosh’s new album Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure is just off the chain beautiful. And speaking of Nicholas Deyoe, I feel like I hear a new piece of his every other month (including the one I’m going to premiere at REDCAT!) and it’s always an experience to which I look forward, both as performer and auditor. Most recently, it’s been exciting for me to discover the composer Ramón Lazkano, whose recent CD Laboratorio de Tizas with Ensemble Recherche has been getting a lot of car play.
Anything else to add?
If you’d like to know more about the program and particularly the new pieces to be premiered, Piano Spheres will be presenting an open forum discussion with Nicholas Deyoe and me facilitated by Mark Robson at the Boston Court Theater in Pasadena the day before the concert [Monday] from 10:30 a.m. – 12 p.m. This event is free and open to the public.
It’s not on the Boston Court website, but it’s definitely happening! Here’s the link to the Piano Spheres webpage about the event: http://pianospheres.org/satellite-series-workshops/
Dedicated readers may remember pianist, composer, teacher, and concert organizer Aron Kallay’s interview about his Beyond 12 project. If not…well, that was a link, and here’s a picture of him with a toy piano:
In any case, he’s released a CD of works by composers who have drastically retuned and reorganized the piano. And it rocks. It’s out now on Microfest records. Composers include Isaac Schankler, Kyle Gann, Tom Flaherty, Brian Shepard (with the standout All The Pretty Colour of The Rainbow) and others. It’s absolutely fascinating listening. Available via Mircofest Records’ store at microfestrecords.com/store, iTunes at itunes.apple.com/us/album/beyond-12/id707673261, and pretty much all the other big ones.