By now, Piano Spheres has wound down their main 2015–2016 season, but that doesn’t mean that there are no opportunities to hear contemporary piano music in the Los Angeles area, or even that the specific artists from their season are nowhere to be heard this summer. Last night (May 20th), for instance, Nadia Shpachenko and Danny Holt gave a joint recital at Boston Court in Pasadena, playing music inspired by specific buildings and places. Some of the pieces were familiar — either from previous Piano Spheres concerts or earlier eras of the piano repertoire — but others were new, including a three world premières.
On the first half, Nadia Shpachenko took the stage to present a fiercely contemporary set of pieces written around and about works of ancient and modern architecture. The program began with the première of Hannah Lash’s Give Me Your Songs, a ruminative, convoluted work inspired by Lash’s time spent working in Aaron Copland’s old house in upstate New York. The layout of the building is, apparently, quite confusing, and Lash often found herself in the kitchen when the living room had been her goal (or vice versa), and the piece is in some ways an attempt to capture that surprising twisting and turning. The musical materials are simple and songlike, but their development is fractured and folded over on itself in endlessly shifting ways. There are moments where things seem to snap into focus — an earnest chorale, the beginnings of an aria, flutterings that bordered on the launch of a toccata — but the ground always shifted underfoot, and nothing ever remained quite what it seemed.
Shpachenko followed this with a reprise of Lewis Spratlan’s Bangladesh, which she premièred on a Piano Spheres concert last year. (Despite being written in 2015, this was the oldest piece of music on the first half.) Instead of the privacy of a personal home, Bangladesh takes its cue from the National Parliament House in Dhaka, Bangladesh, a building complex designed by American architect Louis Kahn. For those less than familiar with this complex, Dana Berman Duff put together a slideshow of sorts featuring scores of pictures of the building and its environs, including a long sequence of archival shots of the building’s construction. The music is lush and atmospheric, interspersing imposing block chords — echoing the hulking weight of Kahn’s structure — with gaudy pentatonic washes describing water and fog. In many ways, the piece feels like an accompaniment to the slideshow, which is a pity, because the slideshow leaves something to be desired. While the photos do a stunning job of capturing the monumentality of the building as well as the interplay of light and shadow within its halls, they are presented with little context, with the result that Bangladesh (the country) comes across as shrouded, exotic, and mysterious. But Bangladesh needn’t be mysterious. It’s the eighth most populous country in the world, with a long and well documented history. Marveling at architecture doesn’t require and shouldn’t come at the expense of othering non–Western locales.
This was followed by Amy Beth Kirsten’s h.o.p.e., a piece that calls for Shpachenko to do triple duty, playing the regular piano with one hand, a toy piano with the other, and intoning cryptic vocal lines above it all. Inspired by The Big Hope Show at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, this was the sparsest piece on the evening’s program. There are very few moments in the piece when more than one note is played at the same time, and for much of its duration the regular and toy pianos play exactly the same line, tho the inherent inaccuracy of the toy piano’s intonation added a bewitching halo of sound that kept the sparseness from feeling completely unadorned. My only complaint about this piece is that it was far too short — it felt like the patient beginning of something much longer and grander, and the ending felt like an abrupt truncation of a larger, half–glimpsed structure.
Once the toy piano was safely out of the way, it was then time for the première of In Full Sail by Harold Meltzer, inspired by Frank Gehry’s IAC Building in Manhattan. This was another atmospheric piece, and one that was cleverly programmed to hearken back to both the Lash and the Spratlan. In its fluid textures and organic form, it echoed Bangladesh, but instead of using pentatonic sonorities as grist for the mill, Meltzer draws on a more American idiom, drawing in some of the hard–edged angularity that lurks just below the surface of much of Copland’s populism (an angularity that was also very present in the Lash). This piece was also accompanied by images of the building that inspired it, but here they felt very much like an afterthought, and I found it hard to focus on the structure of the music when the same few images kept repeating in a static loop.
Next, and last on the first half, came the première of Jack Van Zandt’s Sí an Bhrú, the only piece on the program named after the building that inspired it. And, also unlike the other pieces, it’s based not on a contemporary dwelling or monument but on a Neolithic monolith constructed some time around 3200BC. Sí an Bhrú (or “Newgrange” as it’s known in English) sits in Ireland’s Boyne Valley, and its original purpose is not entirely clear — it takes the form of a large mound with a single passageway into its center, a passageway that lines up with the rising sun on the winter solstice, leading many to believe it originally had some religious purpose. But given the yawning gap of years between then and now, it’s difficult to say with certainty, and many plausible competing hypotheses remain. Van Zandt’s work embraces this loss and uncertainty, beginning with a meditation on deep time and progressing thru the construction and decoration of the structure into the dark starlit night of deep winter with music that seems achingly familiar without ever being fully placable, just as we recognize that human minds were behind this monolith without being to understand their full purpose. In addition to piano, the piece is scored with electronics, and these too, play a similar game. There are snatches of concrete sounds — a brook burbling or leaves rustling in the wind; chisels on stone or steps down a long corridor — but they mix and blur both with each other and with markedly synthetic static and pop. This was the only piece where the visuals (images of Sí and Bhrú and the surrounding landscape, plus a few nebulae) and music really felt integrated into a unified whole, each adding to and balancing out the other.
Coming into the second half, Danny Holt elected to shift the focus from specific buildings to geographical regions more generally, and from the very present day to the first decades of the 20th Century. Holt is perhaps best known for his virtuosic recitals where he plays the piano and various percussion instruments simultaneously, but here he eschewed such things and showed that he can dazzle just as well without the use of drumkits. Holt opened with Heitor Villa-Lobos’s fifth Choros, “Alma Brasileira” (1925), a work that was jagged and heartfelt by turns. This was followed by Le Cahier Romand (1923), a suite of sentimental piano miniatures penned by Arthur Honegger during his time in Switzerland. The highlight of the second half was Alexander Mosolov’s seldom–heard Turkmenian Nights (1928), a ferocious volley of Russian Futurism that nevertheless made me want to dance. Holt then closed with Leonard Bernstein’s transcription of Aaron Copland’s El Salón México (1936), revealing the transparency and delicacy underlying the orchestral version, and providing a tidy symmetry to the concert as a whole.
Over and above the explicit thread of “Places” that linked these works, I found myself drawn to a deeper tie between the two halves. We’re living in a time of great stylistic plurality, a time when certain older systems of composing have lost the sway they once enjoyed and new ones haven’t quite arisen to take their place. Shpachenko’s half helped show that — there are definitely styles that she didn’t have room to feature, but no two of the works she played take the same approach to melody, harmony, and form. It’s a tumultuous time, but it’s also an exciting time, and Holt’s half hearkened back to another time of similar tumult, as composers sought new means of expression after the psychic shock of World War One. It was a fitting reminder that masterworks do come out of this bubble and strife, and a subtle affirmation that some things being written now may well be touchstones of the repertoire in another ninety years.
Diamond Pulses, the new electronic album by Daniel Corral, released on Orenda Records and available September 12, is an odd duck. How could it be otherwise, as by Corral’s admission, it “started as a mockup for a microtonal Plinko game/sound-installation.” The Plinko element is referenced on the album artwork, as a glowing grid interacting with a drifting abstract background. There’s a clue.
On the surface of the single, 32-minute track, everything seems perfectly transparent, maybe even grid-like. Insistent, hopped-up Plinko polyrhythms braid together in a dense patchwork of minimalist activity, while oceanic noise waxes and wanes. Or it’s pop electronica, but more desperate, more worldly, shamelessly reverbed. Minimalist motivic transitions speed the texture through harmonic and registral shifts, while rhythm remains constant. Corral knows exactly what he wants us to hear, at what pace, and moody swells of noise give us enough respite to fool us into thinking we’ve made our own choices. Robert Ashley said that music either comes from speech, or it comes from dance. Diamond Pulses is unconditionally from the dance. There are no words here at all.
But there is something else, tugging. What is it? Why the Feldman quote in the liner notes, “Sound is all our dreams of music. Noise is music’s dreams of us.”? The rhythms aren’t just insistent, they’re rabid. Transitions aren’t just inevitable, they’re eerily prescribed. Electronic ephemera churn in atonal relation to pretty guitar-ish licks. Noise swells aren’t just a contrast; they undermine with a mysteriously undercooked autonomy. Things are not as diatonic as they seem.
The piece is not really diatonic, after all. It slowly transforms into an 11-limit tuning system, the middle of the piece swimming in shades of microtonal subtlety. Taken together, the whole is perplexingly different than the sum of its parts. Nothing here quite matches up, as Corral notes, “making it impossible to focus on the endless business of trying to square an imperfect circle.” Grappling with alternative tuning systems has a tendency to bring these kinds of cracks to the fore. Things don’t fit. The illusion of the joints of reality being flush is demolished. That’s the interest in this album; we don’t realize it, but the incongruities here turn us inside-out.
Take a few listens, and see if you notice the flip-flop. Maybe don’t listen to this, despite temptation, while driving. Listen at home, with dedicated ears, to this strangely rigid dance meditation, a fervent solipsism with a disturbingly wild, encroaching reality. Consciously intended or not, Diamond Pulses evokes Los Angeles.
We asked Daniel a few questions about the album:
You mention that the album grew out of an experiment for a Plinko installation. Can you talk a little more about that process of development?
I was at a residency when I sketched out that original Plinko installation idea. I had a great studio right near the beach, and you might be able to hear a cheap imitation of those ocean sounds in the noisy washes that fade in and out during Diamond Pulses. That studio was quite large, and allowed me to imagine what installations might fit inside it. I really like Trimpin’s work, and I think his whimsicality comes out in my music box installations. I was trying to imagine similarly playful sound installations that also have a more conceptually sound footing. I sketched out a just intonation Plinko game on some graph paper, and started thinking about how that might be translated into a performable piece. At the same time, I had a 4-channel audio setup there with which I made quite a few quadraphonic electronic pieces with a tunable sampler. These streams of thought smashed together into Diamond Pulses. Perhaps it is a bit more serious than the original game show-inspired idea, but hopefully still enjoyable.
What specifically made you think that these materials would work as an album-length piece, rather than as an installation?
There are two big factors in the decision to turn Diamond Pulses into an album-length piece: accessibility and space. An installation has a specific time and place in which it can be appreciated, and that unique experience is part of what makes it so magical. On the other hand, an album can find its way all over the world via the internet. Also, live performances of it are solo, so it’s easy to plan and schedule. When my residency ended, I returned back to LA and realized that it would be ridiculous to try and put more installation-type pieces in my small house. But, I could develop the performable electronic piece practically anywhere. For example – I did a lot of programming for it on my laptop during a long Bolt Bus ride with Timur and the Dime Museum. After the first performance of Diamond Pulses at Battery Books, I decided that it would be worth trying to make an album of it. I knew that Orenda Records had put out some fantastic albums of adventurous music, so I reached out to them. I am grateful that they were interested, and they have been great to work with as I developed the piece into what’s on the album!
Is this whole piece in 11-limit temperament? Could you give a little more information for readers who may not be familiar with alternative tuning systems?
It’s hard to come to a succinct explanation of tuning, but I’ll give it a try! Most musicians using microtonality do so with systems based on ratios, often with some sort of fundamental pitch as the denominator. A ratio with a lower numerator and denominator is usually considered more consonant, while higher numbers are more complex and dissonant. “Limits” bound the available pitches to a certain level of complexity (EX: a system with a 3-limit will likely sound less complex than a system with a 5-limit). Basically, Diamond Pulses starts super simple, gets more complex, and returns to simplicity in a sort of ternary form. It starts with just one note and very gradually moves to a limit of 3, then, 5, 7, 9, and 11. After reaching a limit of 11, it gradually contracts back to the single note it started with, which is the fundamental that all of the tuning ratios relate to. Because Diamond Pulses starts with just one note and slowly increases it’s limit, the available intervals get more complex as well. When it decreases it’s limit back to one fundamental pitch, it’s kind of like a symphony ending on a big V-I – at least that’s how I imagine it. I put an image of the “score” on my website here, if anyone is interested: spinalfrog.com/projects/diamond-pulses
I’ve spent a fair amount of time with people and works that use microtonality with great skill and musicality, and have long been a bit too intimidated to really share any of my own. Diamond Pulses is the first piece of mine built around a tuning system that I feel comfortable putting out in the world.
If there is one thing you’d want people to listen for in this piece, what is it?
I never have one universal thing that I want all people to listen for in my music. Rather, I hope that Diamond Pulses has multiple levels on which it can be experienced. Someone that has trained his/her ears to hear the tuned intervals might enjoy doing so, while someone else with no knowledge of or interest in that might just like the spacey rhythmic grooves. I want listeners to engage with Diamond Pulses in whatever capacity they see fit.
Check out the official CD release show this Saturday, with special guests Danny Holt and Mike Robbins:
Saturday, September 12, 8pm and 10pm
504 Chung King Court
Los Angeles CA 90012
• Workers Union, performed by Danny Holt and Mike Robbins
• Diamond Pulses, performed by Daniel Corral
• Two Pages, performed by Danny Holt
• Diamond Pulses, performed by Daniel Corral
But tickets online here:
Back in July I was invited to a garden party hosted by Jacaranda, at which they featured five pianists and an incredible lunch [I don’t usually plug businesses on here, but Cafe Luxxe in Brentwood provided the coffee service and dude, their stuff is delicious]. They also announced the concert lineup for their 2012-13 season, which features composers John Cage and Benjamin Britten, and works inspired by or connected to them. It’s an impressive one to say the least, kicking off on with a four-day Cage festival on September 6 that includes a complete (read: 24 hour long) performance of Erik Satie’s Vexations. I caught up with Artistic Director Patrick Scott to talk about what’s coming up. Check it out:
Okay, the garden party was epic. Tell our readers about it.
The party celebrated the end of the season and announces the new one. We featured five of the pianists who will perform in the next season. They each played 10-15 minutes of music (total 70 in two sets) that is in some way related to the upcoming concerts, including this year’s special pre-season Cage 100 Festival. A fabulous lunch was served between the two sets. The first set includes solo and four hands music played by Danny Holt and Steven Vanhauwaert, aka 4HandsLA.
Danny played music by David Lang and Nico Muhly. Excerpts of Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion will be included in the December concert, “Winter Dreams,” as will Knee Play V from Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass, Muhly’s mentor. Steven also played Old & Lost Rivers by Tobias Picker. Picker’s piece The Encantadas will receive its LA premiere in October’s concert, “Different Islands.” Together they played Eric Satie’s own 4 hands arrangement of his ballet, Parade. Satie was a major influence on Cage and his Vexations will be played over 24 hours by 32 pianists (including all 5) in the festival. Danny and Steven will perform in Steve Reich’s City Life in October. And they will both play the original 4 hands arrangement of The Rite of Spring in February. Steven will perform with the Pantoum Trio in the US premiere of Eric Tanguy’s Trio in November’s “Seduction.” Steven is also prominently featured on the season finale playing a rare Benjamin Britten concerto.
Genevieve Feiwen Lee played more Satie, and Nothing is Real (Strawberry Fields) by Alvin Lucier, a disciple of Cage. Aron Kallay will perform the Lucier in the festival. Genevieve will also play sampling keyboard in City Life. Aron, who will join her on the second sampling keyboard, played three Un-intemezzi by Veronika Krausas, just because I wanted to hear them live and the pieces fit the program well. To close, Grammy-winner Gloria Cheng played Cage’s In a Landscape and Les sons impalpables du rêve from Messiaen’s Preludes. Messiaen was deeply influenced by Debussy, whose 150th anniversary we celebrate in November. Gloria will open the season with music by Esa-Pekka Salonen written for her. She will also perform the Ligeti Piano Concerto in January’s “Fierce Beauty.”
Quite a few party guests to bought subscriptions and festival tickets.
The next season, the one the party is supporting, features 100 year shindigs for both Cage and Britten. They seem like an unlikely pair, but the music you program with Jacaranda is really wide ranging. What are your thoughts going into programming?
Cage’s actual 100th birthday is September 5, 1912 in Los Angeles. We start celebrating the next day in our regular venue First Presbyterian. It’s a really unusual, fun and wild program with a lot of short pieces including a super-rare performance of an organ work based on 18th century New England hymns. Chance is a factor as three “assistants” pull the stops according to I Ching tosses. We then move to the Miles Playhouse in the middle of a park for 24 hours for Satie’s Vexations. The next venue was a place Cage regularly lectured about contemporary art and premiered his earlier music: Santa Monica Bay Women’s Club. To close we will be at the Annenberg Beach House. Brooklynite Adam Tendler will play from memory the complete Sonatas & Interludes by Cage — his gentle gamelan-like masterpiece for prepared piano. I think Cage is attractive to a younger audience and I hope they will come back for the Steve Reich.
We love Britten and think he is under-appreciated and under played here. Both Cage and Britten were gay, but very different. Britten’s birthday was November 22. 1913. We are dedicating three consecutive concerts to Britten, as well as including a work for children’s chorus and organ in December’s “Winter Dreams.” The programming takes a biographical approach and one that emphasizes his relationship with the tenor Peter Pears and their life in Brooklyn during WWII. A bunch of American composers and the Canadian Colin McPhee were their friends. So the March concert will put Britten in this milieu. We will stage our first opera, Britten’s Curlew River, a one-act chamber opera intended for church performance. There is an all male cast and the central role of the Madwoman was originally created by Pears in 1963. Internationally, the most exciting young opera director, LA-based Yuval Sharon, will direct. The season finale is full of contrasts, super popular and super obscure, solo piano to string orchestra with string quartet and piano.
We are celebrating Britten in the early part of 2013 because the 2013-14 season is our Tenth Anniversary and we cannot devote so many concerts to one composer.
Great programming takes a very deep knowledge of repertoire, history and culture. It depends on alchemy and intuition as well. I am not a trained musician so I have the advantage of approaching programs from the audience’s point of view. I want the atmosphere of the intermission to be charged with the afterglow of excitement, of shared discovery, of intense sensation and emotion. That state readies the audience for the substantial journey of the second half — full of surprises and challenges. At the end of a concert I want the audience to feel deeply satisfied and on a high.
How do you think programming such a range of music affects audiences’ experience? Do you find the same crowd at most of your concerts, or does the audience change drastically from say, the Debussy concert coming up in November to the second Viennese school one set for February?
I like variety — within a concert and within the season. But I also like things to be connected in unusual ways. The Jacaranda audience is quite loyal because the performance quality is super high and the adventure is planned to span the whole season, sometimes reflecting back on season’s past. I hope each concert will attract new listeners that will become loyal because they trust that the journey will be an exciting one, full of dazzling virtuosity and musical commitment. Among our audience development strategies, we do targeted outreach through the Consulates General. This year the consulates of France, Hungary, Austria and Britain will help.
What excites you about presenting this music in LA?
The amazing talent pool of musicians here makes almost anything possible; and the sophisticated audience in LA really has an appetite for new and modern music.
What would you like to see change here, whether about your own series or our town’s scene in general?
The geography of LA traffic is making it harder for people downtown, in Hollywood, and Pasadena to attend our concerts in Santa Monica. Eventually the train will help. In the meantime, we need more support in the media to inspire people to make the trek across town, by making a whole afternoon of their Santa Monica visit. There are awesome restaurants nearby, as well as the beach, shopping and movies on the Promenade, Bergamot Station, the newly renovated Santa Monica Mall, and two parking structures nearby. We have people regularly driving from Riverside, Whittier and Long Beach! There is a guy who actually drives from Arizona once a year! It just takes a little more planning.
For more details and tickets, visit jacarandamusic.org.