On Wednesday night pianist Vicki Ray and visual artist Carole Kim combine forces at REDCAT for two huge new works for piano, electronics, and projections. The evening includes the world premiere of Ben Phelps’s exponentially expanding Sometimes I feel like my time ain’t long, based on the Alan Lomax recording of the eponymous tune. Also featured is Daniel Lentz’s Yellowstone-inspired River of 1000 Streams, which was named a top recording pick of 2017 by Alex Ross in The New Yorker.
Vicki has been a major player in the LA scene for years as a pianist, improviser, composer, and teacher. With all she does I’m glad she had a few minutes to answer some questions about this show. Tickets and full details are available at redcat.org/event/vicki-ray-and-carole-kim-rivers-time.
Rivers of Time focuses on two “monumental” new works. How do you approach large scale pieces, as both performer and concert programmer?
In terms of programming it really depends on the piece(s). Usually with one long work I’ll put something contrasting on the other half of the concert like miniatures or just feature the single work itself. But this concert is different. Each piece is almost exactly a half hour. They seemed like perfect book ends. And then there is the thematic linkage between the pieces in terms of their focus on time. So it seemed a natural pairing. As a performer my approach has to vary depending on the demands of the piece. Ben’s piece is very rigorous – it is extremely mercurial and there are many fast shifts of tempo and mood. It’s technically virtuosic. A lot of the challenge is about knowing what’s going to happen next. Daniel’s piece is equally demanding but in a completely different way – it uses an almost constant tremolo which can be really exhausting for the body. So I had to work up to complete run-throughs of it…sort of like training for a marathon. With this piece it’s about staying relaxed (well, when isn’t it?) and keeping the long arch of the piece always in the forefront of my mind.
What really excites me about this Wednesday night’s concert at REDCAT is the opportunity to share Ben Phelps’ new work Sometimes I Feel Like My Time Ain’t Long. It has been a total pleasure to learn this piece, or I should say continue learning this work. Like all great pieces it has layers to uncover and explore and everytime I sit down to work on it I find something new. Technically and musically it’s incredibly satisfying. The way Ben exponentially expands the piano part in correspondence with the time-stretched folk tune is ingenious. But rather than be some kind of purely cerebral exercise the totality of the piece is quite mystical and haunting. I feel very honored to get to give the premiere and I hope to play it many more times.
Could you discuss your collaboration with Carol for this project?
I started hearing about Carole’s work years ago when she was at CalArts. And then shortly after that she did some work with my brother, Scot, up in Montana. He was raving about her work and I saw some clips from the evening that blew me away. Finally here in Los Angeles I had several opportunities to see her work, most notably at an Open Gate Concert with some stellar improvisers. What impressed me was how she is able to join the musical conversation by weaving visuals into the texture without dominating it. It’s incredibly unique and thoughtful. Elegant. For this concert she’ll be projecting onto scrims that envelop the piano.
Your career as a soloist, collaborative pianist, improviser, composer, teacher is, to put it mildly, wildly diverse. How do your various musical practices inform each other? Is balance a challenge, or are they more like different aspects of the same work and interests?
I don’t really see it “various musical practices.” When I was a kid I played pop music, I sang in choirs, I acted in plays, I wrote little tunes, I improvised, and I learned classical pieces. They weren’t all squared away in separate boxes. So I’ve always been that sort of player even though there was a long stretch during my college years where a lot of the improvising and composing got put on a back burner. I feel much more creatively energized when I can work both as a creator and a re-creator.
You began in Los Angeles as a graduate student at USC. You’re now the head of keyboard studies at Cal Arts. To some extent, I view these schools as existing on completely opposite ends of the musical spectrum, at least aesthetically. Could you comment a bit on this dichotomy in the LA scene, if it even is one?
I can’t really comment on USC. I graduated from there a million years ago and I’m sure it’s changed since then. But what I do know without a doubt is that I wouldn’t be the artist I am if it weren’t for my years at CalArts. The place has had an enormous impact on me. My colleagues and my students are so gifted and interesting that I often feel like a permanent student rather than faculty. I’m so grateful to be a part of it. It continues to stretch and challenge me every day.
How has the new music scene in Los Angeles changed over your career thus far? I know we’re quite proud of ourselves in recent years, with good reason, and wonder if that has always been the case or if this is the renaissance it seems to be.
It’s definitely a great city to be in right now if you’re into new music! There’s so much going on and yes, much more than when I first arrived in the 80’s. Back in the 80’s and 90’s there was the EAR Unit and Xtet. The Green Umbrella concerts were always great. And the Monday Evening Concerts were there too of course! And there was always something interesting going on at the Schoenberg Institute at USC. Also there used to be those fantastic soirees at Betty Freeman’s house…wow…those were incredible evenings. But in terms of the number of groups playing and the diversity of musics being offered right now – it’s fantastic. I just wish we had a few more good, small to mid-size venues that were dedicated to new music (AND had a good piano…!)
What was your favorite concert you’ve attended or played on in the past year?
Oh that’s too hard! But the first thing that comes to mind is hearing Andrew McIntosh’s piece Shasta on the Green Umbrella. Just gorgeous. [editor: I too have that piece near the top of my list.]
What’s next for you after this show?
Next up is Feldman’s For John Cage with violinist Tom Chiu and dancers Oguri and Roxanne Steinberg. I’m really looking forward to it! February 26 on Piano Spheres.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I just want to thank YOU and all the folks at New Classic LA for what you do!!
Tickets for Rivers of Time are available at redcat.org/event/vicki-ray-and-carole-kim-rivers-time.
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.
On January 20, 2016, the Santa Monica Public Library kicked off a new concert series, presenting innovative contemporary music in their Martin Luther King auditorium on the third Wednesday of each month. Featured in this first concert were artists of the Los Angeles-based Cold Blue Music record label in an evening of piano music. Composers Daniel Lentz, Jim Fox and Michael Jon Fink were on hand to introduce and play their works and pianist Aron Kallay was the featured performer.
Two Preludes for Piano, by Michael Jon Fink was first, played by the composer. The first prelude, Image, was built around quiet passages of single notes and simple chords. This is plainly stated music with a straightforward declarative style, but the fine, nuanced touch by Michael Jon Fink added a dimension of mystery and elegance to the otherwise simple materials. The second prelude, Wordless, similarly began with a series of soft single notes, but now in repeated phrases with slight variations. This prelude evoked a more introspective feel, enhanced by the occasional solemn chord. The playing towards the end was more forthright – but never loud – and this made for a nice contrast with the opening as the piece slowly faded away. Two Preludes for Piano is spare and restrained, but masterfully shaped to facilitate a strong emotional encounter.
Five Pieces for Piano followed, also by Michael Jon Fink and again performed by the composer. This began with another soft line of notes ending in a gentle chord, again eliciting a thoughtful and reflective feel. The second movement added a little anxiety by way of some slight dissonance while movement 3 incorporated simply stated chords that delivered an uncomplicated sense of grandeur. A repeating line with a counter melody was very effective towards the end of this section. The final two movements provided a bit of tension and mystery but were free of any heavy drama. A series of deep notes moving up the scale resulted in some lovely sustained tones that seemed to hover in the still air. The conclusion of the last movement invoked a more solitary feeling, as if looking at a far horizon from an empty beach.
Five Pieces for Piano is a jewel of a piece where each phrase is crafted with a quiet emotion that affirms the power of its understated simplicity.
Composer Daniel Lentz next offered a few remarks on the writing of his 51 Nocturnes, a piece that was created by improvisation, followed by writing up the notation. All 51 of the nocturnes fit into something like 18 minutes, as played by Aron Kallay. The program notes describe this piece as follows: “As with much of Lentz’s music, it is somewhat kaleidoscopic, restless, and given to changing directions without warning.”
The opening chords set the tone for the piece – warm and welcoming. Like the music of Michael Jon Fink this piece is the essence refined simplicity, but each of the nocturnes are, by turns, accessible and inviting, slightly agitated and anxious, mildly intense or even dramatic – but always returning to a settled and comfortable optimism. The many nuances and colors of the nocturnes were scrupulously observed by the sensitive playing of Aron Kallay. At the finish the light arpeggios and warm chords rekindled the warm mood of the opening and it was as if you were watching your life pass by for a minute, pleased and holding no regrets. 51 Nocturnes is settled, secure music, full of good hopes and wishes without turning saccharine.
The final three works of the program were by Peter Garland, Michael Byron and Jim Fox, as performed by Jim Fox. Nostalgia of the Southern Cross by Garland was first and opened with a series of gentle, solemn notes followed by a wistful chord. This music is quietly thoughtful and perhaps somewhat reminiscent of the Lentz piece in its sensibility. Repetition followed and each repeating phrase seemed to draw out a bit more color. As She Sleeps by Michael Byron followed directly and although a subdued lullaby, had a brightly optimistic feel, as if you had just finished your morning coffee and had the whole day was in front of you. The last chord hung deliciously in the air and slowly evaporated into silence.
The final piece heard was smoke, hornblende, clay by Jim Fox and this took less than a minute to complete. A slow two-note trill, followed by a bright arpeggio and some quiet chords completed this sunny and marvelously concise work.
This initial Soundwaves concert by the Santa Monica Public Library was an important step for bringing live new music to the west side. The artists of Cold Blue Music lifted up our West Coast minimalism to its rightful stature while bringing it home to its native ground.
Recordings by the composers featured in this concert are available from Cold Blue Music.
Cold Blue Music will again host a concert on February 16, 2018 at Monk Space in Koreatown.
Further Soundwaves concerts can be heard on the third Wednesday of each month at the Santa Monica Public Library.