Cold Blue Music has announced a new album, River of 1,000 Streams, by composer Daniel Lentz. Written in 2016, this is a single track of solo piano music inspired by a visit to the Yellowstone River and performed by Los Angeles-based pianist Vicki Ray. From the liner notes, “…River of 1,000 Streams is a virtuosic piano piece in which a live/solo part is expanded by the addition of hundreds of ‘cascading echoes’ (reappearing fragments of music) that appear kaleidoscopically in up to 11 simultaneous layers, creating a thick texture of primarily tremolos that gradually gains in density and volume as rich harmonies climb, in a great arc, from the very bottom to the very top of the keyboard.”
Although simple in concept and consistent in texture, River of 1,000 Streams is always changing and begins with a deep rumbling in the lower registers – almost like the roar of a distant flight of old bombers. There is a strong flowing sensation to this, as if unseen waters are roiling just out of sight. At 2:00 the rolling phrases rise just slightly in pitch, adding a new sense of expectancy. While still very dark and ominous, the expressive playing by Ms. Ray creates a powerful surging sensation; the texture and dynamics here are expertly shaped, and the result is like listening to a restless tide. The repeating patterns move slowly up the piano keyboard and each new set of pitches adds to a sense of evolving motion.
By 6:30 the notes are high enough in pitch to become a bit more distinct in the hearing – less like a roar and more like a patter. The flowing feel remains as the piece proceeds, but the small variations in pitch and the artful shaping of the dynamics keep the listener engaged. By 11:00 the register has moved high enough that there is a greater sense of drama in the notes, even as the passages and textural density remain consistent. At 14:24 a short melodic fragment is heard – like the cresting of a wave – marking the transition to the middle registers. The same pattern of tremolos and trills persist, but the new pitches feel more introspective and less menacing here. By 17:30 the pitch register is high enough to spark a sense of tenuous optimism – as if a ray of the sun is emerging from behind a dark cloud. At 19:00 another short melody fragment is heard, followed by dramatic surges of the low and ominous notes from the opening. The many subtleties in this piece rely on the perceptive playing of Ms. Ray, who manages to perfectly articulate the slight variations in density and texture from moment to moment.
By 20:00 the piece has arrived at the higher reaches of the keyboard with the notes sounding crisper and more distinctly percussive, as if a climax is approaching. At 21:54, another short melody fragment appears while the trills in the upper registers sound like an alarm going off. Middle and lower register trills roll by in accompaniment, adding a sense of layered depth to this section. At 23:30 the high register texture is now very animated and a wash of middle register trills fill in nicely below, adding balance. At 25:00 another short melodic fragment appears and the mix of pitches becomes somewhat more calming. By the finish, the very highest notes on the keyboard trill anxiously but are accompanied by a series of lower surges that offer a comforting sense of closure. At the end, the sound simply ceases, the last notes ringing out and slowly dying away.
River of 1,000 Streams is a prodigious work, in its vision as well as the realization. The subtle variations are always engaging, even as they unfold slowly, and the intricate layering of the various passages is precisely formulated. The performance by Ms. Ray deserves special credit – River of 1,000 Streams will only add to her deserved reputation as one of our premiere interpreters of contemporary music.
Is Yar perhaps a word, in some other language unbeknownst to me, that means “delicious sonic experience”? After listening to the new album, Yar, by siblings Scot and Vicki Ray, that’s what it means to me.
Neither Ms. Ray nor her excellent playing is new to me. She has been an impressive fixture on LA’s new (and not so new) music scene for many years. She plays or has played with an impressive litany of our best ensembles and players. Her recitals with the PianoSpheres series are always a joy. I confess to being unaware of her brother Scot. He was, I learned from the liner notes of their new release, originally a brass player. And not just any brass player but one who was in the thick of LA’s modern jazz scene. But while still very much enjoying a successful, vibrant, jazz career he uprooted himself, and moved back to his (and Ms. Ray’s) home state of Montana and decided to focus on the guitar. Listening to him play, in various guises and styles, including a lot of slide, would have me think he was a guitarist from the beginning.
Yar is a generous offering, a full 73 minutes of music. It uses that length brilliantly, exploiting a great variety of styles and timbres yet somehow managing to make the record, as a whole, feel cohesive, integral, and logical. But it is more than just a triumph of logic, to be sure. There is a synthesis of the modal and atonal, the consonant and dissonant, the timbrally delicate and harsh, sharp-edged noise. As I said, above, it’s truly a delicious sonic experience.
Only one of the album’s nine tracks comes in under 5 minutes (For Harry, at 4:47). Each piece is a substantial music journey on its own. Thematic elements are present, as is some notion of development and evolution of those elements. Every piece feels complete, fully realized and, by its end, satisfying.
Each one of Yar’s compositions present a unique territory, great fodder for one’s visual imagination. I see the players, surrounded in the detritus of musical instruments, cables, microphones and other electronic paraphernalia, yet I close my mind’s eye and I’m wandering in a new, delicious, hitherto unknown land of visual and auditory oddities. Some are more pleasant than others. But each one is enticing in its own way.
Listening to Yar, from start to finish, is like taking a beautiful tour of the artists the Rays have loved and been influenced by. Was this by design? Was this of primary importance to them? I can’t say. But to this listener, it is the aural equivalent of a challenging but ultimately rewarding scavenger hunt. The musics evoke many great composers and players. Some references are more explicit, some subtly hinted at. There are the helpful ghosts of so many great musical predecessors as well as various industrial machines and devices, perhaps angry with their lot in life, plotting to overtake their human overlords.
Anamorphosis, (the second track on Yar) according to my dictionary is defined as such:
1. a distorted projection or drawing that appears normal when viewed from a particular point or with a suitable mirror or lens.
- the process by which anamorphic images are produced.
- a gradual, ascending progression or change of form to a higher type.
I cite this definition here because, a) you might not be familiar with the word, (I wasn’t), and, b) taken together, both of these definitions do a wonderful, if abstract job, of explaining the work by this name. There are low drones which are then combined with slow-attack sounds fading in and out. Then comes a staccato, stutter-edit treatment of a plaintive vocal track or sample. It more than flirts with Middle Eastern modes and nasal double-reed-implying timbres. It’s cool, sure, but honestly, it earns its place not because of its treatment of what it’s referencing, but rather how it manages to mangle it, turn it into something all its own, unique, and yet somehow perfectly at home amid the other compositions.
Zero Doesn’t Exist is quite restrained but still a vehicle for Scot’s rather blistering solo. He doesn’t expose his technique often, but when he does, it’s impressive. I hear a lot of my guitar heroes from NYC’s Downtown scene, people I’d see in the first Knitting Factory iteration. Ray’s guitar playing pierces, and floats high above randomly recurring noises, from piano wires to other harsh metallic sounds, all above a quite unobtrusive, spacious electric bass ostinato.
I think it a fair assumption that For Harry is inspired by, perhaps a tribute to, Harry Partch. Ms. Ray is no stranger to the prepared piano, and she uses it here to approximate the more percussive elements of Partch’s music (Barstow, among others) while other sounds, from both Rays, fill out the would-be ensemble. Scot’s plucked strings are reminiscent of Partch’s adapted guitar, and these instruments combined with overdubbed percussive elements create a wonderful Partch-a-rama. It made me yearn for Partch’s strict 43-tone octave, but I’ll forgive the absence.
Thrice Ephemeral Journey was inspired by For Marcel Duchamp by John Cage. Cage’s prepared piano is easy enough to hear, and its tribute to his Sonatas and Interludes is clear and explicit enough, and beautifully executed. But Thrice adds another layer or two. In a soft but creepy, lurking percussive woodblock of sorts I hear PIL’s Under The House. And then Bill Frisell walks in, plugs into his volume pedal, and jams along. I’d like to think that Cage would be pleased. (When wasn’t he pleased by sounds like these?!)
In Fear of the Wind I hear something reminiscent of Stockhausen’s Kontakte, or perhaps some of David Tudor’s realizations of Cage’s later works. (Electrified cactus, perhaps?) It’s like a spinning top bouncing on a table while some odd servo-motored device churns in the backgroup, while outside a group of evil aliens play recorders! Demonic voices enter, and then a blistering quasi-rock guitar solo. And maybe that’s Bill Laswell on the bass?
I’m struck by the gorgeous evolution in The Highline, how it develops and unfolds the way Eno’s Ambient music might, but with decidedly less delicate timbres. It invokes the drama and tension of a tightrope walker’s wire, perhaps Philippe Petit’s line across the Twin Towers, tight yet buckling across that distant span, so many feet up in the air, shifting with the weight of its passenger, colored by the winds. Vertigo translated into sound. I much prefer it this way.
Among the many things to like on Yar is its great mix of beauty and noise. This is manifested movingly in Cortege. A cortege is a solemn funereal procession. As we hear the rattles in irregular staccato rhythms against the bell-like, slow-metronomic pulses, one can imagine the casket slowly, religiously carried by the pallbearers through the streets of a dark, eerily desolate town.
Just a few tracks in, and I start to wonder, “What is their compositional process?” And the more I listen, the more this delicious music turns this musing into a burning question. There are obviously real-time duets, but also other overdubs, layers, loops. The formal structures at work here warrant my curiosity, so I continue to wonder: how much of each track is pre-arranged, how much is improvised, how much is added and/or edited after the initial “basic tracks” are laid down?
Of course, how something is made is often not a satisfying question. (In certain situations, it can even be counter-satisfying.) You don’t need to wonder, or ascertain the “compositional process” of Yar. What matters, ultimately, is what we are left with. What is this music, and how does it make us hear, how does it make us feel? It delights with improvisational constructions, austere sonic fields that define their own territories, by way of harmonic language, timbral depth, and instrumental content.
This is a record that you can listen to passively or actively. I usually hate the idea of “background music” (and I hope that Yar isn’t used as such) but I find it to be equally satisfying both in “deep listening” (to borrow Pauline Oliveros’ term) or just having it be part of a more passive, meditative background.
I am genuinely fascinated by the creative process invoked here that resulted in the wealth of musical coolness that is Yar. For all my references to other composers and players, the payoff, the legitimacy, the wonder, all stem from my understanding of these works as not merely a collection of representations of their influences, but somehow some dialectical syntheses of the siblings’ collective musical instincts and influences into something quite unique, quite marvelous and quite beautiful.
To its great credit, despite the very wide-ranging sounds, Yar is devoid of irony, not at all anything resembling a postmodern commentary on anything. But that is not to say that it is always entirely serious or completely devoid of humor. It is, rather, a sincere and genuine exploration of a wide range of sonic possibilities. A collection that isn’t afraid to embrace beauty or ugliness, alone or in combination, without any faux-clever attempt to subvert or invert such subjective classifications. This, like so much of the music itself, is refreshing and extremely rewarding.
Yar is available from Orenda Records at orendarecords.com/orenda0040, and from most music retailers.
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.
Our friends over at People inside Electronics recently got their 501(c)3 status approved. To celebrate, they’re throwing a house concert/party with Vicki Ray, in part to fund their upcoming season. Tickets are limited – there are only 15 available – for the December 7 party at Vicky’s house.
Funds raised from this event will go to supporting PiE’s upcoming season, which looks awesome. For details, visit peopleinsideelectronics.com/vicki-ray.
This Saturday night, People Inside Electronics present Nothing is Real: psychedelia for piano and electronics at Pierre’s Fine Pianos in Westwood. Amid preparations for the show, artistic director and founder Isaac Schankler managed to find a moment for an interview.
Tell me a bit about this weekend’s concert. You’ve got a ton of pianists on it, and what looks like a cool mix of pieces by local (Shaun Naidoo) and seriously established (Alvin Lucier) composers.
Yes! We’re really happy to have a bunch of amazing pianists involved: Vicki Ray, Vatche Mankerian, Genevieve Feiwen Lee, Louise Thomas, Aron of course, and Rafael Liebich, who also happens to be our new assistant director.
As far as the music goes, part of our mission all along has been to program works by established composers alongside newer works, to show that there’s a kind of history that’s there that people are continuing to build on. For this concert the classic pieces are Alvin Lucier’s Nothing Is Real (Strawberry Fields Forever) and Charles Dodge’s Any Resemblance Is Purely Coincidental. Lucier’s piece is a kind of stripped-down arrangement of the Beatles tune, which you hear first from the piano and then emerging from a teapot, which the performer is able to play with onstage to control the resonance of the sound. Dodge’s piece takes an old recording of the tenor Enrique Caruso and digitally manipulates it — it was one of the first pieces to use digital manipulation in this way.
One of the things that these pieces have in common, we realized, was the illusory nature of the electronics. There’s this idea that, once you record something, it becomes detached from our ordinary reality and becomes this kind of putty that can be shaped at will. A liberating and scary thought! Hence the “psychedelic” theme that the concert is loosely organized around, though the selection is pretty diverse within that. Linda Bouchard’s Gassho is very meditative, and Mike McFerron’s Torrid Mix is inspired by hip-hop. Pierre Jodlowski’s Serie Noire is based on clips from old noir films, and Shaun Naidoo’s Voices of Time is based conceptually on a J.G. Ballard story. Those last two are quite virtuosic, by the way.
Oh! And I should mention that we just added yet another piece to the program, Benjamin Broening’s Nocturne/Doubles.
How did People Inside Electronics get started?
PIE got started in 2009, when Aron Kallay and I were both graduate students at USC, and we noticed that while there was a lot of new music in LA, there wasn’t a whole lot of electroacoustic music being performed (aside from the efforts of a few groups like SCREAM and Sonic Odyssey). And we had the thought, well, if the venue doesn’t exist, why not create one?
You’ve collaborated not only with artists working in other mediums, but with scientists and engineers as well. Could you discuss some of your collaborative efforts, how you got people involved, and what the reaction was like?
Sure, I can give a couple examples. In 2010 we worked with Alexandre François and Elaine Chew, who were both engineering professors at USC at the time and part of a research group called MuCoaCo (Music Computation and Cognition Laboratory). Alex designed this really cool piece of software called Mimi (Multimodal Interaction for Musical Improvisation). Mimi is a kind of improvisational partner, and there’s also a visualization aspect to it that allows you to see what Mimi is up to. I was really taken with the software, and performed with it at our June 2010 concert. The reaction was great, because it piqued the interest of science-minded people beyond the usual new music crowd. I think it’s exciting for people to see unusual and artistic uses of technology — even though they work with it day in and day out they don’t necessarily know what it’s really capable of.
Then there’s our collaborations with other artists. For example, on that same concert we presented Veronika Krausas’ Waterland, which included video by Quintan Ana Wikswo and text by Andre Alexis. Veronika is curating a concert in April that we’re co-presenting with the interdisciplinary arts organization Catalysis Projects, so you can expect a lot more of that in the future.
What has the reaction to your concerts been like in general? Do you feel that there’s a strong and supportive scene for electroacoustic composition here, or is it something that could use some improvement?
Yes, I would say people have been very supportive! For example, we’ve started to have funding campaigns for our last couple of concerts, and raised over $2000 total through that, so that’s been really encouraging. (You can still donate to our current fundraiser at indiegogo, actually.) We pour a lot of time and energy and money into making these concerts happen, and it would be really hard to do that if people hadn’t responded in the way they have. So if you’re reading this and you’re one of those people who has donated or come to our concerts in the past, thank you!
What do you see as the challenges to running a concert series here and now?
LA presents some unique challenges for a concert series because of the size of the city and the fact that there’s always so much going on. You have to present a really compelling reason for people to come out, especially if they’re driving across town! But I think in the long run it’s actually helped us by pushing us to really finely hone what we do, both in terms of the quality of the music and in how we present it.
I have to say that I think LA is a really fantastic place for new music right now. I’ve seen so many great concerts in the past year, and I’ve missed so many more. I feel terrible every time I miss a concert I want to see, but it’s practically unavoidable.
This is a big question, but it often feels like electroacoustic music somehow gets separated from other genres in an almost unfair way. As in, symphonic or traditional concert music connoisseurs seem to see it as novelty, whereas listeners more familiar with popular electronic music tend to think of it as a separate, experimental thing. Do you perceive that at all? And if so, is it something that concerns you?
I don’t particularly see this kind of thing happening, at least not any more than with other kinds of new music. It may be that I’m just insulated from this kind of talk. But electronics have played such an important role in the development of new music, and so many great 20th and 21st century composers have at least dabbled in the medium, that I think most people who at least know about it don’t view it as a niche at all. It’s been with us almost a century, after all, so it’s not really a novelty at this point.
The exception to this might be those people who view classical music as some kind of final stronghold, the only place where “real” music is still made with “real” instruments. They might say that technology is slowly chipping away at that. But every musical instrument was new technology at some point. Or, to shamelessly quote Brian Eno, “technology is just the name we give to things that don’t work yet.”
I think that’s why PIE has been focused on pieces that just work, pieces that are aesthetically compelling regardless of the technology involved. That’s what’s really striking to me about those pieces by Lucier and Dodge. Whether or not they were technically innovative at the time they were composed, that’s not really why we programmed them or what you notice when you hear them. The technological medium almost melts away, and you’re just listening to a beautifully constructed piece of music.
I’m very curious about your take on electronic performance practice, especially since it says in your biography that you’re interested in how people interact with electronics. Let’s be blunt: watching people press buttons is pretty boring. Having the live pianist and visual elements helps immensely, but are you also pushing new modes of performance for the electronic portions of these concerts?
Well, performance with electronics can be frustrating to watch because it’s kind of a black box; the performance isn’t really visible in the same way it is with an expressive instrumentalist (despite the best efforts of head-bobbing DJs everywhere). It’s a kind of disembodied performance. I think putting live instrumentalists front and center helps, as you said. And when programming newer works, we try as much as possible to incorporate live electronics that react to what the performers are doing, so the electronics become a kind of extension of the instrument. The electronics in Shaun Naidoo’s piece that Aron is premiering, for example, are incredibly responsive to what Aron’s doing at the piano. It just looks and feels like a natural extension of his performance, and it’s really fun to watch.
I also think we can still learn a lot from Lucier, the oldest composer on the program. The lifting of the teapot lid is such a straightforward action, but you immediately understand what it means sonically; you know exactly what the performer is doing to manipulate the sound, and that’s one of the simple joys of experiencing that piece.
I can’t help but notice that People Inside Electronics only puts on one or two shows a year. I’m sure you and your partners are quite busy with other projects. As such, have you hit a happy frequency with that, or are you hoping to increase the number of shows you do?
Two per year (one in the fall and one in the spring) seemed ideal in the past, but lately we’ve had a hankering to do more, which is one of the reasons we asked Rafael to be a part of PIE. We actually have 3 concerts this season: the one with Eclipse Quartet last fall, the one coming up on February 11th, and the one on April 28th called “Misfits and Hooligans” that’s being co-presented with Catalysis Projects. And we already have something in the works for this fall that I’m very anxious to talk about when it’s finalized!
Find more information or purchase tickets to this weekend’s concert at peopleinsideelectronics.com/nothing-real-psychedelia-piano-and-electronics, and donate to the fundraising campaign at indiegogo.com/People-Inside-Electronics.
I love it when a flyer actually contains all of the information that you might want to know about a given concert. Who’s playing, what the program is, the location, the date and time, how much tickets are, and where to get them. That’s it! You’d be amazed at how many fail to include this seemingly necessary information. Having spent some time working in concert marketing, I’ve discovered that people aren’t going to call or go to your website. They will, however, loudly complain about being uninformed. Put all of the info on the flyer, in the email, the facebook event invitation…basically, make it so that the person reading it doesn’t have to do anything else to find out what’s going on.
Having completed that minor rant, I’d like to share a superb example I received this morning, and encourage you to check out this concert. Amazing players, cool programs, friendly people, all of that good stuff. I might go just to thank them for making my job easy by sending such a well-designed and informative flyer. And on that note, here’s ALL of the info for the show (click to make it bigger/higher resolution):
I just discovered the Gordon Getty Concerts series, held at (you guessed it) The Getty Center. I haven’t been to one yet, but they look like really, really cool programs, all of which are designed to highlight or compliment a current exhibit at the museum. On November 12, electronic music pioneer Carl Stone will be there to play a mixed program of early works and world premieres. The shows are pretty cheap too, $15 max, or $10 for students and seniors. For details, visit the series’ page.
That second week of November is going to be huge. The very same night, Synchromy open their season over on the east side of town. The next night the LA Master Chorale performs The Little Match Girl Passion. Vicki Ray is playing an all premiere program (including one of her own) on Tuesday with Piano Spheres down at Zipper Hall, and the week closes with both wild Up and Jacaranda rocking their respective houses (both near the beach!) on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The American Youth Symphony (who sound absolutely amazing this year, and never charge admission) are performing Lutosławski’s Fourth Symphony and Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (and Beethoven 5) on Sunday as well.
Details about all of these, as always, can be found on our concert listings page.