One Body, by Berkeley-based composer John Kennedy was performed February 15, 2019 at Boston Court in Pasadena as part of their Winter Music Series. This five movement cantata combines texts by Walt Whitman, St. Augustine, Native Americans and several contemporary poets with the formidable vocal skills of Timur, the masterful playing of the Isaura String Quartet and multi-talented percussionists Yuri Inoo and Sidney Hopson. Conducted by the composer, this five-part work explores the spiritual implications of the earth as a living entity, divisions by species, the limitations of race and stereotypes of gender. The composer writes that One Body seeks to create “a modern liturgy of secular humanism which joins spirituality with intellectual freedom.” There was hardly an empty seat in Boston Court’s Branson performance space despite the heavy Friday night traffic and a driving rain.
The five movements of One Body are performed without pause and all have a similar form. There is a prelude of string solos, quartet music or percussion, followed by one or more sung texts. Kennedy’s music is calmly tonal. This work strives for the transcendental and succeeds convincingly. The opening movement begins with a sustained, but ragged tutti chord, suggesting a formless chaos at the beginning of creation. The sounds gradually become organized as Timur’s voice enters with two sustained notes that float airily above the strings and percussion. Texts by Walt Whitman and Kenneth Patchen were sung, at times in greatly differing registers. Timur’s amazing range is capable of full baritone, tenor, countertenor and higher – all seamlessly connected with no breaks or boundaries. There is a comforting and uplifting feeling that persists over the entire work, and the lush harmonies in the strings, the understated percussion, and the expressive vocals all come together flawlessly. The text by St. Augustine, preceded by an expressive viola solo, was particularly appropriate:
If we are members of one body, then in that one body
there is neither male nor female;
or rather, there is both;
it is an androgynous or hermaphroditic body,
containing both sexes.
As the five movements continued, Timur moved gracefully about the small stage, taking up different positions. Although barefoot, his tall stature made for an imposing but never intimidating presence. At certain points during the string preludes and solos, Timur stooped to light a series of votive candles arranged in front of the quartet. This added a ceremonial dimension to a performance that, although devoid of overt religiosity, imparted a decidedly humanist and secular spirituality.
Movement II featured a particularly lush low register cello interlude. Later, the gently animated string quartet embodied Joy Harjo’s Eagle Poem text, sung in this section. Movement III contained an extended stretch of subtle percussion that perfectly complemented the Mohawk prayers in the text. The singing here was particularly impressive, with Timur changing registers on alternate verses, jumping effortlessly from baritone to countertenor, and back again. Movement IV was perhaps the most dynamic, with strong percussion that subsided into a sweetly calming string section.
The final movement was preceded by yet another lovely string interlude, full of quiet assurance. The final text was heard first in the baritone range, a formal and declarative summation with just the right amount of ringing in the accompanying triangles. The singing was completed in the countertenor range, slowing and with just a touch of melancholy. A projection of what seemed to be a goddess was seen on the rear of the stage as the strings quietly faded at the finish. The stage went dark, and a full 10 seconds of silence followed before enthusiastic applause and loud cheering rang out from the audience.
One Body, despite its manifest brilliance, is fated to receive few performances, depending as it does on the uncommonly gifted vocal soloist. There is no way to break the various texts into the conventional ranges; if there were soprano, alto, tenor and bass singers, it would simply cease to be One Body. There was some speculative talk in the lobby afterwards about mounting another performance. Should that materialize, do not fail to miss it. One Body must be heard to be believed.
With election day just a week away, Tuesdays@Monk Space offered Midterms: This Will Hurt Someone, a concert program devoted to contemporary music with a political viewpoint.
Grab it, by Jacob TV opened the show, preceded by a recorded track of coarse street talk that blended into an equally angry video. The four hands of HOCKET accompanied, and the raw stream of words was perfectly matched by a dense and powerful outpouring of piano notes. The music reflected the passionate resentment of those caught up in the wheels of a system intent on punishing the small time street criminal. Scenes of prison life and enraged inmates gave way at the finish to a hymn-like stretch that spoke hopefully of a life reclaimed after incarceration. Grab it is a stark reminder of the failings of American justice and how it perpetuates a violent underclass.
This Will Hurt Someone, by the late Matt Marks followed, arranged by pianist Thomas Kotcheff who accompanied vocalist Gregory Fletcher. The text for this piece is the final statement of R. Bud Dwyer, State Treasurer of Pennsylvania, asserting his innocence upon conviction of bribery in 1987. The music has an easy, sweet feel, and the entrance of a toy piano played by Sarah Gibson added a childlike innocence to the words. Fletcher sang calmly and gently, navigating the higher registers with a steady confidence. The music turned darker at times with lines such as “But in this nation, the world’s greatest democracy, there is nothing they can do to prevent me from being punished for a crime I did not commit.” Yet the placid character of the music continued, underlining the disconnect between the reality of conviction and Dwyer’s enduring sense of innocence. “This will hurt someone” were the last words spoken by Dwyer before committing suicide on-camera during the press conference. This piece is Matt Marks’ testament to an often misplaced confidence in our judicial system.
Counterpundit by Ian Dicke was next, a work that for piano and video performed by Aron Kallay. This opened with a quietly introspective piano line that attained a nostalgic sensibility at times. As the tempo increased, the music became more active and the video displayed a flag waiving in the breeze. Strong percussive beats were heard on the sound track of the video as the images became halting and choppy. As the piece proceeded, images of Hulk Hogan became increasingly intermingled with the flag until the video was dominated by wrestling personalities striking patriotic poses. Counterpundit was written during the 2016 election campaign and is an astute observation of how spectacle has replaced reasoned political discourse. The outcome of the election and the subsequent behavior of the present administration only amplifies Dicke’s central premise from 2016. The piece ended with a quiet introspective feel that seemed to be longing for a return to a more enlightened past.
Following the intermission Tonality, a ten-voice choir that specializes in music about justice issues, took the stage to perform “Her beacon-hand beckons”, the third movement of Caroline Shaw’s To the Hands. Lush four-part harmonies filled Monk Space with beautiful a cappella sounds and a peaceful sentiment. This perfectly matched the text, a freely paraphrased version of the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. The final line, “I will be your refuge…”, was particularly moving.
Philosophy of Furniture, by Natalie Dietterich followed, performed by speaking percussionist Derek Tywoniuk. A video projected a series of statements – ostensibly on the ideology of interior decoration and fashion – accompanied by loud, primal drum strokes. Tywoniuk shouted out the texts as they appeared on the screen, punctuating them with booming blasts and sharp raps. The contrast with the previous piece could not have been greater and the thunderous percussion created a compelling emphasis on the otherwise mundane stream words on the screen. The drift of the argument seemed to be that contemporary taste is overly influenced by money so that expensive furniture invariably acquired a higher status. “We proceed on false principals and imagine we have done a fine thing…” All of this unfurled seamlessly and Tywoniuk’s dexterity of was on full display as he attended to the many percussive elements while shouting out the spoken words at the correct instant. The text then took a most interesting turn. By describing the same processes that are at work in fashion, money was shown to similarly exert a decisive leverage on one’s political opinion. Philosophy of Furniture combines the quiet of subtle reasoning with explosive percussion to make a telling point.
Two pieces from widely known contemporary composers completed the concert program. “Which Side are you on?” the second movement of Four North American Ballads by Frederic Rzewski, began with a recorded vocal rendition of a Harlan County miners’ protest song. Rzewski’s take on the song, arranged for piano, followed immediately, full of strong chords and a sturdy texture that was ably realized by Thomas Kotcheff. The complexity and power of the music seemed to increase with each variation on the simple folk tune, filling the cozy Monk Space with a robust militancy and ending with a vigorous crescendo that drew cheers from the audience. Tonality closed the concert with Make Peace by David Lang, a composer known for his sensitivity and a strong sense of empathy. The close harmonies and delicate balance in the music were complimented by the house acoustics and excellent intonation by the singers. Make Peace was a gracefully tranquil ending to an often raucous examination of our current politics through contemporary music.
Midterms: This will Hurt Someone was a carefully curated and timely collection of diverse musical commentary on our political culture.
On Saturday, July 21, 2018 Piano Spheres held a new music salon at the West Hollywood home of James Schultz. The theme of the afternoon was “What to Listen for in New Music.” Pianist Aron Kallay and Heidi Lesemann, executive director of Piano Spheres, were on hand to meet and greet. There was a literally full house as friends and patrons wedged themselves into a small drawing room filled with folding chairs and a grand piano. Mark Robson was the featured artist, and he came equipped with ten short pieces of piano music dating from the early 1900s to a new work to be premiered in the coming concert season.
The program began with Robson playing through some pieces without identifying them, and then asking the audience for their reactions, the name of the composer and the date the music written. When asked how many people regularly attended new music concerts, quite a few hands went up – the followers of Piano Spheres being generally knowledgeable – and these listening exercises immediately proved popular.
The listeners described the first piece played by Robson as “dense” and “animated” as well as “contrasty”. Guesses for the date varied widely, from early 20th century to late 1950s. When the piece was revealed to be Schoenberg’s Op. 11, no. 3, composed in 1909, there were some surprised looks among the crowd. The next piece was diagnosed as having repeating phrases with a limited harmonic structure and was so quickly identified as a work by Philip Glass, his Metamorphosis One from 1988. Some Messiaen followed, one of his many bird pieces, and this was a bit more difficult for the audience to identify, even as it was acknowledged to have a very distinctive character.
Robson’s choices and eloquent comments proved not only enlightening, but pointed to some helpful guidelines for listening to new music, such as how to be open to new experiences, to observe your feelings when hearing a piece, and having some bearings as to where a piece fits into the last 100 years or so of musical history. A discussion on concert program notes followed. Are they useful? What should they contain? Should you read them before or after hearing a piece? More varieties of contemporary piano music followed, from the lesser known Soviet composer Galina Ulstvolskaya’s Sonata no. 4 (1957) to Into Thin Air (2014) by James Soe Nyun, of the present decade. Robson also offered a preview of a new work by Karl Kohn that will be premiered during the coming Piano Spheres concert season.
The coming concert season marks the 25th anniversary of the founding of Piano Spheres. Six performances are scheduled. They are:
September 11, 2018: Mark Robson – The Debussy Project. The Debussy Etudes with responses by contemporary composers
November 27, 2018: Gloria Cheng – Garlands for Steven Stucky. A tribute to the late contemporary composer
February 26, 2019: Vicki Ray – Feldman/Butoh. Feldman’s For John Cage with violinist Tom Chiu of the Flux Quartet and Butoh dancers
April 2, 2019: Susan Svrček – Schoenberg Reimagined with Nic Gerpe
May 28 2019: Jeffrey Kahane – Kahane Plays Kahane… and more. Special guest appearance by the former director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
June 15, 2019: Michael Lang – Piano Spheres first foray into the piano as a jazz instrument.
The salon was a convivial event, enjoyed by all who attended. Informative yet intimate, this was a great way to preview the upcoming Piano Spheres season.
The 21st annual MicroFest season finale featured a performance of Daphne of the Dunes, by Harry Partch, as well as quartets by Ben Johnston. Every seat was filled at REDCAT for the June 16, 2018 concert, the second of two shows on consecutive days.
The program opened with Johnston’s String Quartet No. 9 (1988), performed by the Lyris Quartet. A one-time Partch apprentice, Johnston absorbed the theory of just intonation, but lacked the practical skills to create new instruments in the manner of his mentor. Johnston, however, successfully applied the new tuning to more traditional forms, and String Quartet No. 9 is one of his later and most accomplished examples.
The first movement, Strong, calm, slow begins appropriately with a long viola tone, soon joined by the other strings in beautiful harmony. A more lively stretch follows, pleasantly complex with some fine counterpoint. The playing by the Lyris Quartet here is characteristically precise and balanced. Strong sustained chords are again heard, and tutti tremolos begin a stretch that includes an uplifting, ethereal harmony at the finish of this long, invigorating movement. Fast, elated, the second movement, has a busy feel in the violins with a nicely syncopated melody in the cello. The violins take up the melody and it acquires an actively strident feel with a faster pace and interleaving parts, all carefully played by the Lyris Quartet.
The third movement, Slow, expressive, is just that, with a smoothly flowing feel reminiscent of an old hymn tune. The harmony is wonderfully balanced and full; Johnston’s mastery of the classical form is on full display. The final movement, Vigorous and defiant, is full of strong tutti phrasing and briskly interwoven passages. A perfect contrast to the reserved third movement, this unleashes the full technical range of the Lyris Quartet. At one point a fugue breaks out among the players as the piece seesaws between resolute declaration and intricate lines among the parts in a rousing finish. String Quartet No. 9 is a masterwork, artfully bridging the brave new world of just intonation with the familiar form of the string quartet – and doing credit to both.
The American premiere of Octet (1999/2000), also by Ben Johnston, followed, and the Lyris quartet was augmented by a flute, clarinet, bassoon and bass. Octet is based on Ashokan Farewell, the 1982 composition by folk musician Jay Unger, and is the tune that gained wide recognition as the theme for The Civil War miniseries, by Ken Burns. The structure of Octet is a straightforward theme with variations, beginning with the familiar melody in a flute solo, accompanied by a low drone in the bass. The melody is picked up by the clarinet with a lovely flute descant and soon the strings enter in a warm harmony. All is soft and sweet as the bassoon enters for an extended variation that adds just a hint of tension. A strong tutti section with new and unusual harmonies is heard, but this flows as a natural extension of the previous variations. The flute, expressively played by Sara Andon, dominates once again with the opening melody, as the piece quietly concludes. Octet is a masterful combination of formal structure and innovative harmony, grounded in solid fundamentals yet guiding the listener to entirely new, yet comfortably reassuring surroundings.
Daphne of the Dunes (1967), by Harry Partch, followed the intermission on a stage crowded with his amazing musical inventions. There was the Gourd Tree, Cloud Chamber Bowls, Boo and Diamond Marimba as well as many others. Choreographers Casebolt and Smith began with a preamble describing the outlines of the plot, based on a Greco-Roman myth of uncontrolled desire and pursuit. A large screen at the rear of the stage displayed classic paintings relating to the story in a video by Joel Smith. The music begins, full of motion and distress as Apollo, smitten by Cupid’s arrow, begins his quest of Daphne, the beautiful river sprite. The predominance of percussive sounds and the exotic tuning created the perfect primal accompaniment to this ancient story. At the entrance of Daphne, the music becomes more strident and purposeful but turns tentative and solemn as she also receives an arrow from Cupid. The pace picks up again as the chase begins, and the images on the screen are taken from the movie ‘North by Northwest.’ On stage, Daphne is seen disguised as a modern spy, complete with sunglasses and kerchief, moving about and even hiding among the musicians. The chase continues as the two make their way out into the audience and towards the exits.
The musicians, meanwhile, are seen moving from station to station, playing new combinations of instruments. The intriguing colors and textures of the music are always engaging, and the precision in the playing was remarkable given the fast tempos and unfamiliar instruments. As Apollo closes in on Daphne the music becomes tense and anxious. In an inspired bit of staging, Daphne retreats to Partch’s Gourd Tree and, merging herself into the wood of the tree, finally eludes her lustful pursuer. In the poignant final scene, a woman is seen gardening with her husband, and together they are planting small trees. Daphne of the Dunes is an amazing retelling of an old story that succeeds brilliantly with contemporary instrumentation, imagery and choreography. That MicroFest LA could mount a technically complex production of such high quality was recognized by the enthusiastic applause from the big crowd
The concert concluded with Partch’s Barstow: Eight Hitchhiker Inscriptions (1968). Based on Partch’s own experiences as a hobo, Barstow is a colorful account of the challenges and personalities encountered on the open highway. The difficulties and frustrations of a Depression-era tramp would seem better served by dramatic tragedy, but Barstow is full of goodnatured banter and sharply drawn characterizations that are completely absent of malice. The music is surprisingly lively and upbeat, with the narrations and playing perfectly paired. A great cheer went up from the audience upon hearing those immortal words: ”Gentlemen: Go to five-thirty East Lemon Avenue, Monrovia, California, for an easy handout.” Barstow was the perfect ending to an impressive concert of works by two of the pioneers of just intonation.
Cold Blue Music presented music by John Luther Adams, Stephen Whittington, Jim Fox and Peter Garland in the latest Tuesdays @ Monk Space concert series. The Eclipse Quartet was on hand, as well as bass clarinetist Phil O’Connor and percussionist Jonathan Hepfer. A full evening of quietly restrained contemporary music was on the program, including three Los Angeles premieres.
The first piece was the Los Angeles premiere of Falling, by John Luther Adams. This is the third movement of his untouched (2015) string quartet, a work distinguished by the exclusive use of natural harmonics and open string tones throughout. Adams has taken up string quartet music late in his career, and this piece is part of a series that includes The Wind in High Places and other works. Falling opens with high, thin tones in the violins that recall wisps of wind whistling through trees and rocks on some high mountaintop. The repeating phrases suggest a certain solitary remoteness, but the feeling is never lonely or anxious. As the piece proceeds, lower pitches in the viola and cello add a warm coloring to the sound, enhancing the pastoral sensibility. The precision of the Eclipse Quartet and the acoustic friendliness of Monk Space added to the serene sensibility. The harmonic intervals cascaded downward, ending on a full, reassuring chord at the finish. “Falling” continues the empathetic exploration of nature and the environment that is the hallmark of Adam’s music, now pleasingly expressed through the medium of the string quartet.
Windmill (1992), by Australian composer Stephen Whittington followed, another Los Angeles premiere. Windmill is a tone painting for string quartet of the small windmills that dot the Australian outback – and, for that matter, the American southwest. Beginning with high, thin tones in the violins, the rhythmic squeaking vividly evoked the turning of an old windmill in a gentle breeze. The steady, repetitive sounds of rusty machinery were never tedious or irritating, but rather had a free-wheeling and airy feel. The Eclipse Quartet did a fine job realizing all the nuances, and the close acoustics of Monk Space captured every detail. The starting and stopping of the windmill as the breeze ‘slowed’ was nicely portrayed by the excellent coordination between players. Windmill is a lifelike – yet musical – conjuration of one of the more iconic sights of rural desert life.
Between the Wheels (1990), by Jim Fox, was up next and for this bass clarinetist Phil O’Connor joined the Eclipse Quartet. Deep, sustained tones from the bass clarinet form the foundation of this piece, with tremolos in the violins and viola and more long notes from the lower strings that add a just a hint of uncertainty. Quietly mysterious but not anxious, this is music that deftly conveys a tangible sense of wonder. Between the Wheels could have easily tipped into Halloween mode – but the gentle chords and understated embellishments in the strings kept everything restful and calming. A high, thin violin pitch that was barely audible added the perfect finishing touch to this warmly atmospheric piece.
After an intermission, the stage was reset with three gongs and a tam-tam for Moon Viewing Music (Inscrutable Stillness Studies #1) (2016), by Peter Garland. Based on Japanese haiku poetry about the moon, this Los Angeles premiere was performed by percussionist Jonathan Hepfer and proceeded in six movements. Like the previous pieces in this concert, Moon Viewing Music is quiet, introspective and nuanced, just as if we are watching the moon from a remote forest or hilltop. With only a handful of available tones, it was up to Hepfer to extract all the subtleties in this piece using refined technique. The Monk Space acoustics aided in this, with the gong tones being particularly vivid. The various techniques for striking each of the gongs and tam-tam were all artfully exploited, realizing the fine gradations present in the score and the reserved intentions of the composer. The combination of gong tones when sounded together was particularly warm and reassuring. When the tam-tam was struck as the gongs sounded, the interaction released an unexpected profusion of lovely new colors and textures. Moon Viewing Music is a striking reminder that softness combined with an economy of tones can still produce memorable images and masterful sonic expression.
Music from this concert is available on CD from Cold Blue Music.
The next Cold Blue Music program will be at the Santa Monica Public Library as part of the Soundwaves new music concert series on May 16, 2018 at 7:30 PM. The music of Daniel Lentz and Michael Byron will be featured with Vicki Ray and Tasha Smith Godínez in performance.
The Isaura String Quartet, based in Los Angeles but too rarely heard, appeared in Chinatown on Sunday, February 18, 2018, at the spacious Human Resources venue. The concert program consisted of five contemporary chamber pieces, including first performances of works by Scott Worthington and Ulrich Krieger.
Valencia (2012), by Caroline Shaw, was first. The audience – appropriately enough – snacked on orange slices thoughtfully provided at the door and this simple token worked on the imagination of the listener, even before the first note sounded. As the composer writes of the Valencia orange: “It is a thing of nature so simple, yet so complex and extraordinary.” The opening arpeggios are light and breezy and some very high squeaks in the violin suggest a gentle breeze blowing in the branches of an orchard. A twittering of birds is heard and a solid optimism prevails in the tutti passages. The feeling is warm and earthy, and taking the orchard metaphor further, it is as if we are watching the fruit ripening in the sunshine. The pizzicato phrases towards the finish even suggest oranges plucked from the tree. The Isaura Quartet played with their accustomed sensitivity, deftly extracting all of the elements present in this inventive work.
Next was Decay One (2015), by Amy Golden. A quiet, sustained chord was followed by a slow, downward glissando in the cello and this imparted an increasing sense of anxiety. The others joined in, sliding up and down the strings at different rates and increasing in volume, much like a slow motion siren. Each string instrument independently varied its pace, pitch direction and register, neatly simulating a group of sirens and adding to the sense of discomfort. Every Angelino immediately understands that many sirens coming from different directions amounts to a major problem. The sudden stop at the finish only inflated this sense of urgency – when the sirens stop you know that trouble is close at hand. The playing throughout was disciplined and cohesive even as the score lacked any melody, pulse or formal harmonic structure. Decay One artfully invokes one of the more instinctive anxieties of contemporary urban living.
The first performance of Scott Worthington’s The Landscape Listens (2016) followed. Long, quietly sustained tones opened this piece, building into luminous harmonies. No pulse or melody intruded on the delicately introspective sensibility. As the chords progressed smoothly upward, small changes in their construction and some unconventional pitch combinations continuously recast the sound into a beautifully calming ambiance. There is a timeless feel to this piece – it slowly unfolds at its own pace, yet never loses the listener’s interest. With everything depending on precise intonation, the poise and concentration of the Isaura Quartet never faulted. Towards the finish, the top pitches in the violin were very high and thin, but these were played squarely in tune and with a very fine touch. The Landscape Listens is a radiant piece that is a superb addition to Worthington’s already impressive body of work.
Darkness is Not Well Lit (2016), by Nicole Lizée was next and for this the Isaura String Quartet entered a large metal cage made from small aluminum tubes, as you might see in a tent frame. The players arranged themselves, each sitting behind a circular fan placed just in front of their music stands. The fans were powered up and rotated at a fairly low speed so that when a note was played the sound partly reflected back and partly passed through the fan. This effect added a cheerfully alien character to the music as it proceeded in a series of two or three note phrases and by sustained tones. The shorter notes tended to acquire an echo from reflection by the fan blades while longer notes could interact in various ways with their own standing waves. Some syncopated vocalizing was occasionally heard, broken up by the fans, and this added to the unorthodox feel. The low throbbing of the four fans was heard most effectively in the mechanical processing of the string sounds, and not as a separate component of the ensemble. For the finish of the piece the fans were turned off and the players froze in mid-motion as the sounds slowly faded away. Darkness is Not Well Lit is remarkable for the simplicity of this novel concept and the unexpectedly powerful way that the sound of the string quartet was transformed.
The first performance Up Tight II (1999/2010/2018), by Ulrich Krieger completed the concert program, a work some 19 years in the making. This latest edition for string quartet began with a great busy chord, roiling and bubbling outward into the audience. The players were all using two bows applied to open strings, creating an active texture of breathtaking proportions. It was like hearing a great primordial soup of sounds, very dense and often rough, yet surprisingly cohesive. After a few minutes the viola and violin players shouldered their instruments and everyone began playing with a single bow. This thinned the texture somewhat, but it continued flowing outward as a hot, swirling cloud of anxious sound. Following a grand pause, the quartet restarted, this time in a somewhat more organized fashion. A steady beat appeared and a stream of accelerating tutti notes suggested a steam locomotive gathering speed. The tempo increased again after a second grand pause, adding to the sense of powerful kinetic movement and high velocity. The playing was as precise as the composer’s intentions; the extended techniques, JI tuning, and lack of conventional structure were all masterfully navigated throughout.
Another grand pause, several seconds in length, signaled a turning point in the piece. A series of strong gestures gave way to softer tutti chords and slower tempos. High, thin tones in the violins – played perfectly in tune with the darker pitches in the lower strings – gave the feeling of a failing machine in need of lubrication. After a short burst of frenetic activity the piece came to a sudden halt, having finally broken down completely. Up Tight II is a remarkably acute vision of the forces of genesis and entropy as expressed in sound, expertly performed by very talented musicians.
Rachel Beetz and Jennifer Bewerse, also known as Autoduplicity, curated the wasteLAnd concert at Art Share L.A. on Friday, December 1, 2017. The duo presented six pieces by women composers, ranging from an electronic work by Pauline Oliveros to a premiere by Celeste Oram.
Bye Bye Butterfly by Pauline Oliveros was first. The lights faded to total darkness and the high whine of an electronic oscillator came from speakers hanging from the ceiling. The sound was reminiscent of an old heterodyne radio tuning in a far-away station. The pitches varied a bit, creating a somewhat alien feel. The oscillator was soon joined by a chorus of faint voices, and this served to add a human element to the mix of sounds. The piece proceeded with the voices overlapping the electronic tones so that it was hard to tell where one left off and the other began. The context shifted back and forth between alien and human, while the sounds themselves mixed together, blurring the distinction. Bye Bye Butterfly is classic Oliveros, inviting the listener to experience familiar emotions through unexpected combinations of sounds.
DiGiT #2, by Mayke Nas followed. Ms. Beetz and Ms. Bewerse both seated themselves at a piano and the piece began in dramatic fashion with a great forearm crash to the keyboard. The massive sound rang into the hall, slowly dissipating into silence. After a few seconds, a second powerful crash hit in a somewhat higher register. This continued, alternating between the ominously low and the anxiously high portions of the keyboard. The length of the intervening silences decreased as the crashes shortened, and this built up a definite feeling of tension. At about the midway point, the two performers began clapping hands just before they struck the keyboard. This happened briefly at first, but as the piece progressed the clapping sequences became longer and more intricate. By the finish, the clapping predominated, creating a playful feel that dispelled the previously menacing atmosphere. DiGiT #2 artfully illustrates how even the most sinister musical foreshadowing can be overcome by a simple expression of optimism.
2.5 Nightmares, for Jessie, by Natacha Diels, was next. Ms. Bewerse, with her cello, occupied a low riser in the center of the stage. Ms. Beetz and Dustin Donahue took their places on either side, sitting at tables with a ukulele, a sand paper block and other assorted percussion. The cello began by playing short, scratchy strokes while the wood blocks were drawn across the sandpaper. Silence followed, and a mallet striking a pie tin combined with bowed ukuleles to create a sequence of wonderfully strange sounds. The players also choreographed their movements and vocalized as the piece proceeded. Weaving together found sounds, cello, ukulele and choreography, 2.5 Nightmares, for Jessie nicely expresses that precise blend of the formal and the surreal that populates our dreams.
a…i…u…e…o…, a video piece by Michiko Saiki, followed. The opening scene simply showed a beautiful young woman alone in a room with red chairs lining an interior corner formed by two white walls. The soundtrack started with some vocal sounds which evolved into singing, often with lovely harmonies. The images portrayed a strong sense of loneliness mixed with a search for identity. There was also an element of the surreal to this – at one point the young woman was shown with several sets of arms, and again with something like sprouts of clover growing out of her skin. The technical effort was of a very high order, and none of the effects seemed contrived or forced. The powerful images and appealing vocals of a…i…u…e…o… made a strong impression on the audience.
The thin air between skins, by Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh, was next. Ms. Beetz and Ms. Bewerse seated themselves back-to-back on the stage. A low trill from the flute began the piece and the cello entered with soft tones, creating an air of quiet mystery. Skittering flute sounds mixed with the cello to create a remote feel, as if hearing a breeze sweeping through a lonely forest. The flute occasionally became more agitated, but The thin air between skins remained consistently understated and sensitively played. A short, overblown blast from the flute ended this peaceful and reserved work.
The premiere of Machut: sanz cuer / Amis, dolens / Dame, par vous (Ballade #17), by Celeste Oram concluded the concert. Autoduplicity, clad completely in black, returned to the stage. The piece began with strong passages from the cello and a stately counterpoint in the alto flute. The feeling was very formal, a bit like early baroque music. The rich tones in the flute and cello made for an elegant combination, especially in the lower registers. Part way through, Ms. Beetz rose from her chair and walked behind a black screen at the rear of the stage. As she did so, an image of her – now dressed in a white top – appeared on the screen. The players traded off, walking back and forth from their music stands, an image of them appearing at the moment they walked behind the screen. At times there were scratchy or breathy sounds heard from the screen, at other times musical sounds, and sometimes silence.
The illusion of seamless, live action was very convincing and all the more remarkable as the images on the screen were prerecorded videos. The music was smoothly continuous and the comings and goings on the stage seemed to connect the players to another dimension. The complex choreography of movement by the players and the split-second timing of the images was remarkable. This flawless premiere of Machut: sanz cuer / Amis, dolens / Dame, par vous is even more impressive given the potential for a technical catastrophe. The skill of Autoduplicity and the ingenuity of the music and video combined for an engaging and entertaining performance.
The next wasteLAnd concert will be on February 10, 2018 at Art ShareLA and will feature new works by Ulrich Krieger and Sarah Belle Reid.
Mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen and pianist Nadia Shpachenko performed original works by George Gianopoulos, Yuri Ishchenko, and Christian Carey, as well as a solo vocal piece by John Cage, at a new music recital titled The Truth in Simple Things at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Glendale on Saturday. The weekend audience made its way into the cavernous sanctuary of St. Mark’s and settled comfortably into the long wooden pews.
Based on the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Three Songs of Shattering for Mezzo-Soprano and Piano, Op. 18 (2009/2013) by George N. Gianopoulos opened the program. The first movement, No. 1: The First Rose…, began with a haunting piano phrase and a strong vocal entrance by Ms. Ihnen that filled the large sanctuary space. There is a somber feeling in this music, aided by a trace of the blues in the piano accompaniment. Ms. Ihnen’s rich mezzo voice was powerful enough to be heard everywhere in the audience without a microphone or amplification – but the spaciously resonant hall tended to swallow up the words of the text. Even so, the smoothly strong vocal lines, offset by Ms. Shpachenko’s active piano passages, produced a finely balanced combination.
The brighter, jazzy feel of No. 2: Let the Little Birds Sing… included some lovely vocals in a high register that went soaring lightly over the piano line. Expressive and playful, this movement prompted a spontaneous round of applause as it concluded. No. 3: All the Dogwood Blossoms… began with powerfully dramatic chords in the piano and tightly drawn vocal phrasing that dialed up the tension. Forceful singing, blending nicely with an intricate piano accompaniment, went weaving in and out of the texture, adding some drama. A powerful crescendo from both performers filled up the hall and then pulled back slightly, enhancing the strong finish. The audience greeted Three Songs of Shattering with sustained applause.
A second Gianopoulos song cycle, this one based on the poetry of Sara Teasdale, followed. I. Dawn, the first movement of City Vignettes for Mezzo-Soprano and Guitar (or Piano) Op. 29 (2013), began with a solemn vocal line and a bustling piano accompaniment, similar in character to the first Gianopoulos piece. Strong, declarative lyrics followed, with further flourishes in the piano as if the rising sun were still over the horizon, a power more sensed than felt. A more relaxed II. Dusk featured an overarching vocal melody that soared smoothly upward, filling the big sanctuary space with sound. Ms. Ihnen’s power and range were on full display here and quite effective. III. Rain at Night gave a more cautious and tentative feel, especially in the piano, while nicely shaped vocal phrasings added to a sense of uncertainty. This movement captures the generally mixed feelings Southern Californians have about rain at night – especially on the freeways. City Vignettes for Mezzo-Soprano and Guitar (or Piano) further validates Gianopoulos’ pragmatic style of assigning technical embellishments to the piano, freeing Ms. Ihnen’s robust voice to rise impressively upwards, filling the space above the audience.
Piano Sonata No. 6 (2005), by Yuri Ishchenko began with a Fantasia. Its strong opening and quietly mysterious melody made for a gloomy feeling. A bit of agitation animated the texture, leading up to a series of resounding chords. This pattern of quiet tension followed by increasingly anxious passages continued, especially in the lower registers where deep rumblings added a sense of menace. A marvelous Ukranian bleakness poured grimly out of the keyboard under Ms. Shpachenko’s steady hands. The dynamics and tempo increased just as the texture thickened, the notes rushing out into the audience like a dark, flowing torrent. A very rapid run upward and a solemnly quiet chord at the finish carried Fantasia to its conclusion.
The second movement, Imperativo, arrived with a bright, almost waltz-like tempo invoking a feeling that is both decisive and purposeful. The active phrasing, while often complex, never felt timid or nervous. The precise and nuanced playing impressed, especially in the quieter stretches, and a hint of Prokofiev lyricism emerged in the melodies. A new line in the lower register rose up in a complex wave, making its way through the middle piano keys and accelerated to an almost fugue-like intricacy. This is engaging music, aided by the expressive passages and a profusion of notes that roared outward at the conclusion. The final movement, Epilogo, proved much more subdued, with tentative notes and a vague feeling of uncertainty. Although brief and fittingly restrained, this movement contrasted perfectly with the preceding fireworks. As the last notes died away, much cheering and applause arose for this most energetic performance
Aria by John Cage followed, a solo piece for voice. Ms. Ihnen explained that the score is fashioned from graphical notation with symbols, shapes and colors employed to indicate the vocal line. Aria began quietly, with a combination of musical notes and vocalese. Various languages comprised the text, the words mixing with sharp, spiky sounds and smoothly soaring musical notes. Hand clapping and breathy sounds scattered among the musical tones added to the variety. The dynamics and tempo frequently changed, often without notice, but skillful execution by Ms. Ihnen made for a graceful flow. The constant need to fit the various sound fragments into some sort of context proved challenging, and the sequences came as from a dream. Aria follows the philosophy of other Cage pieces – music is present everything we hear, as part of a continuous spectrum of sound experience.
Kenyon Songs, by Christian Carey followed, three pieces based on the poetry of Jane Kenyon and completed between 2007 and 2009. Song opened with soft chords and a simple melody in the piano. A settled, nostalgic feeling came through and the quiet lyrics spoke of the familiar and the mundane: “An oriole sings from the hedge, and in the hotel kitchen the chef sweetens cream for the pastries…” Subdued and straightforward phrasing in the vocals sustained a pleasant wistfulness. A bit of tension crept in as the lyrics turned to some threatening weather: “Far off lightening and thunder agree to join us for a few days down in the valley…” The vocals became stronger, but never evoked even a hint of menace in this charmingly peaceful portrait. Next was Otherwise, and the smoothly graceful opening extended the sense of serenity. Homespun lyrics persisted: “I ate cereal, sweet milk, flawless peach, it might have been otherwise” – that last phrase introducing just the slightest uncertainty, echoed in the piano line. More singing of benign, everyday activities followed, each phrase ending with “…it might have been otherwise.” The final line: “But one day I know it will be otherwise.” forcefully drove home the point of the poem. The carefully modulated vocals and accompaniment perfectly matched the intentions in the text. As Otherwise concluded the feeling turned poignant, reflecting the sense of impending loss.
Let Evening Come completed Carey’s song cycle. This brought a warmer feeling combined with a sense of completion – a welcome to the end of the day. The declarative phrasing in the voice added a bit of purpose, echoed from the text “To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop in the oats. to the air in the lung – let evening come.” Kenyon Songs celebrates those small, prosaic parts of life that so often bring great contentment; the music and the nuanced performances capturing this exactly.
The final piece on the program was Three Songs for [Mezzo] Soprano & Piano, Op. 7 (2007/2010) – another song cycle by Gianopoulos. Based on texts by Dorothy Parker this consisted of three sections: I. Little Words, II. One Perfect Rose and III. Purposely Ungrammatical Love Song. A breezy, Manhattan feel that combines the wit and energy of Ms. Parker’s prose with a Broadway sensibility permeates all these pieces. The carefully balanced piano and vocal passages occasionally contained some impressive flash from the keyboard. The final section featured a nicely syncopated melody in the vocals joined with a light, swinging feel that animates the accompaniment. Three Songs for [Mezzo] Soprano & Piano perfectly expresses the elegant urban sophistication of New York at its height.
On Saturday, September 30, 2017 People Inside Electronics presented HOCKET along with special guests Vicki Ray, Aron Kallay and Derek Tywoniuk at the historic Throop Church in Pasadena. The varied program included a world premiere by Samuel Wells, a minimalist landmark work by Steve Reich from 1970, and an unusual piece for three toy pianos. The auditorium was filled to capacity for the first People Inside Electronics concert of the fall season.
The first part of the concert was given over to the world premiere of The Lacuna (2017), by Samuel Wells. HOCKET – Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff – were seated at the piano while the composer manned a computer behind the audience. Soft, dreamy electronics filled the stage to open the piece. A strong chord marked the entrance of the piano, followed by a series of sparse notes adding to the solitary, remote feeling coming from the electronics. The four hands of HOCKET soon began producing a great profusion of notes from the piano, accompanied by the sound of lapping water. As the piano went silent for a moment, a more tentative and uncertain feeling prevailed as if we were standing on some distant shore. A series of softly repeating arpeggios then began in the piano – reprocessed by the computer and echoed through the speakers – and this was very effective in creating a quiet, settled feeling. At length the piano became more rapidly active and a sort of conversation ensued with the electronic reprocessing of the acoustic sounds.
At one point a dance-like groove broke out, growing in volume and generating a pleasantly warm feeling, much welcomed after the prior remoteness. The cycle of emotions continued, sometimes animated and with counterpoint, sometimes hopeful and at other times dramatic and anxious. The piano and electronic processing were amazingly well-coordinated, each complimenting the other to generate a wide range of expressive sensations. The electronics became a natural partner to the excellent playing by Hocket, even in the fastest and most intricate stretches. The Lacuna is a cutting edge work that does much to validate the capability of electronic reprocessing when joined in real time with skilled piano playing.
qsqsqsqsqqqqqqqqq (2009) by Tristan Perich followed the intermission and three toy pianos equipped with three-channel 1-bit tones were occupied by Vicki Ray, Kotcheff and Gibson. They opened with an unexpectedly bright and vivid sound, full of rapid passages and precise counterpoint that filled the space with a pleasingly playful energy. The 1-bit electronics augmented the normally modest dynamics of the toy pianos, adding a whimsical arcade game sensibility. There was some minimalist DNA in all of this, but the phrasing was more compact and the harmonic changes more engagingly frequent. Intricate layers of notes poured forth from the players, with sudden stops and grand pauses sprinkled throughout. All of this was skillfully performed, a feat made more remarkable by the cramped postures necessitated by sitting at the small instruments. qsqsqsqsqqqqqqqqq is a surprisingly attractive and inventive piece for unlikely musical forces, delivered with precision and style by HOCKET and Ms. Ray.
Orizzonte (2004) by Missy Mazzoli for solo piano and electronics was next, performed by Gibson. A clear, slowly pulsing tone issued from the speakers to begin, followed by a series of single piano notes that were close in pitch to that of the electronics. Open chords were soon heard in the piano producing a somber feel and as the piece proceeded the phrases by Ms. Gibson turned more complex and darkly dramatic. The playing here was satisfyingly expressive as the texture gradually became more dense and colored by variations in the dynamics. The piano wove intricate passages in and around the electronic tone which remained more or less constant in pitch and timbre. The simple electronics proved to be surprisingly effective as the foundation for the strongly plaintive mood. Orizzonte artfully combines skilled playing with a straightforward electronic accompaniment in a way that augments each to the benefit of the whole.
Musique de Tables (1987) by Thierry De Mey contained three solid tablets equipped with contact mics on a narrow table. Ray, Gibson and Kotcheff were seated so that their hands, fists and fingers could easily contact the surface of the tablet. The auditorium was completely darkened and the players wore LED head lamps so that the motion of their hands was highlighted as they performed. All of the possibilities of hands and fingers on a flat surface were adroitly explored in this piece, often with striking results. There was, of course, drumming with all three players in unison or separately weaving complex passages and this was often reminiscent of a marching band drum line. There was the tapping of fingers and pounding with fists. There was rubbing of palms and scratching on the surface of the tablets as well as hands clapping, all making for an effective contrast with the more dominant percussive sounds. In the darkness it often felt as if we were witnessing some primal ceremony in a remote village. Musique de Tables is a wonderfully imaginative piece made all the more impressive by the simplicity of the materials, the staging and the ingenious lighting.
The final work on the program was Four Organs (1970) by Steve Reich. Vicki Ray and Aron Kallay joined HOCKET at keyboards on a table in the center of the audience. Derek Tywoniuk began the piece with a steady and continuous eighth-note pulse from two maracas. Four Organs is early Reich, and it was one of his first pieces to be performed for a large audience at a concert by the Boston Symphony in 1971. In his book Writings on Music, Reich wrote that Four Organs was “…composed exclusively of the gradual augmentation of individual tones within a single chord. From the beginning to the end there are no changes of pitch or timbre; all changes are rhythmic and simply consist of gradually increasing durations.” The process-driven feel of this piece is immediately apparent from the beginning and it slowly unfolds with an unrelenting rigor. As the pitches lengthened, the chord took on a sort of grandeur as the tones were allowed to ring out. The playing by all was both accurate and disciplined as Four Organs uncoiled along its deliberate course – a nice reminder of the early days of minimalism.
People Inside Electronics continues to explore the many possibilities of acoustic and electronic collaboration in ways that consistently create good music. Their concert will be Sunday, October 15, 2017 at the Throop Church and will feature cellist Ashley Bathgate.
MicroFest Records has released The Great Hunt, a new song cycle of chamber music pieces by Alex Wand. With a first-rate ensemble that includes members of wild Up and Partch, The Great Hunt explores the many aspects of mortality and death as seen through the lens of poetry by Carl Sandburg. Nine short tracks make up this collection, described in the liner notes as music that “weaves together folk and classical influences, microtonal guitars, improvisation, and speak-singing recitation.”
Cool Tombs is based on a poem about the burial of Abraham Lincoln and begins with a mysterious solo flute line followed by sustained cello tones and counterpoint in the bassoon. The poetry is spoken against a series of darkly mystical harp passages, soon rejoined by the flute. The feeling is solemn and grave, but not frightening. More spoken text about the burials of U.S. Grant and Pocahontas amplify the theme that, great or small, we are all equal in the tomb. The perfectly woven instrumental lines produce just the right combination of uncertainty and expectation that infuses Sandburg’s text.
Grass takes up a similar theme, but from the more overwhelming perspective of large-scale death in battle. Beginning with a quick percussive hit and followed by languid guitar strumming, the text speaks of the dead piled “high at Austerlitz and Waterloo. Shovel them under and let me work; I am the grass, I cover all.” The spare ensemble reflects the anonymity of mass casualties in war – the graves obscured by grass so that years later the resting places are forgotten. The feeling here is decidedly tragic, especially in a stark cello solo by Derek Stein as Grass rolls to a quiet close.
An unexpectedly brighter view of death is heard in Time Sweep, beginning with strong vocals, pleasing harmonies and an upbeat tempo that starts with the text “Since death is there in the light of the sun, in the song of the wind…” Death is artfully portrayed as a new and vivid experience, neither grim nor frightening, but rather occurring as a natural experience. A somewhat slower instrumental interlude is almost mournful, but never melancholy, with long, deep tones and thick harmony. The vocals take this up, bringing a warm and comforting color to the piece as it glides slowly to the finish. Time Sweep is an extraordinary musical and poetic statement on death as the natural consequence of life.
Under the Harvest Moon returns to the more familiar territory of Halloween spookiness and the sense of foreboding on a dark autumn evening in the graveyard. “Death, the gray mocker, comes and whispers to you…” A strong percussive presence, repeating guitar riffs and some discordant tutti playing add to the sense of dread. This pivots in the second half of the piece, however, becoming more of a summer reminiscence with less jarring harmonies and a softer beat. The ensemble here is very precise, leaving just a hint of the uncertainty, even as this track arrives at a smooth finish.
Not all of the album is focused so tightly on death. Jug is an engaging tribute to the simple clay vessel used to hold so many commonplace things: cider, maple syrup, vinegar. The relationship to human mortal insignificance is perhaps metaphorical, as the poem states: “There is nothing proud about this; only one out of many…” A strong repeating cello line, cleanly sung vocals and a catchy rhythm all serve to celebrate this ordinary but useful object. New Weather is a nicely nostalgic look at the highly personal way that climate and landscape were experienced in the last century. With a lilting, waltz-like melody the text seems to be a throwback to a time when we paid more attention to our surroundings. Passersby has a wonderfully breezy flute obbligato by Christine Tavolacci that floats above a determined vocal line, and this manages to impart just a hint of pop sentiment. The Great Cool Calm is even more nostalgically whimsical, with some lovely vocal harmonies and an excellent tutti ensemble section.
The Great Hunt, the title track, begins with a repeating guitar riff soon joined by the vocals of Alex Wand. The singing of Jackson Browne flashes briefly to mind here, but the exquisite harmony of Laura Jean Anderson along with sustained cello and flute lines clothe the pop sensibility with a dignity equal to the text. This piece is just two minutes long but manages to be both beautiful and captivating. The entire album, for that matter, has been carefully crafted around the touching Sandburg texts with just the right balance of the simple and the formal – all superbly performed.
The Great Hunt is available for high resolution download at prostudiomasters.com/album/page/15460.