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.
In anticipation of the upcoming Tuesdays at Monk Space concert tomorrow night, I sat down with composer Jim Fox, founder of the Cold Blue Music record label. The concert will feature music by Fox, as well as John Luther Adams, Stephen Whittington, and Peter Garland, with performances by Eclipse Quartet, clarinetist Phil O’Connor, and percussionist Jonathan Hepfer.
You’re the founder and director of the Cold Blue Music record label — can you tell us about how it all got started?
I started Cold Blue in the early 1980s. Why I started it is not clear anymore. Perhaps it wasn’t even clear at the time. (I’m not sure I’ve ever needed much in the way of particularly well-defined goals. In other words, I enjoy a certain amount of wandering.)
In the late 1960s I developed an awareness of record labels—particularly jazz- and classical-based new-music labels—as often possessing fascinating individual personalities. So, perhaps in view of that, starting a little new-music record company just seemed like the right thing for me to do. However, I had little money to throw at such a venture then—working in a bookstore for a little better than minimum wage, living in a $120-per-month Hollywood apartment, and enjoying a diet that relied heavily on 15-cent packets of ramen noodles.
Cold Blue in the 1980s was a frugal label. I started by releasing a series of 10-inch EPs (about 20 to 25 minutes per release)—a format that I felt allowed an inexpensive taste of a composer’s work—followed by a few LPs.
At its inception (and still today), my general vague intention was simple: put out some music that I particularly liked that wasn’t otherwise reaching a broad listenership. This was music by composers who were perhaps loosely united by a common interest in music’s basic sensuality and, as it just turned out, very often had strong links to the West Coast. Soon Cold Blue became known as an outlet for a certain stripe of West Coast music. Joan La Barbara, writing in High Fidelity/Musical America, deemed the label “an invaluable resource for what might be called the new ‘California School’ . . . a label with a particular viewpoint and consummate good taste.” And others also noticed the highly curated sound of the label—an LA Weeklycritic wrote at the time that “The label defines a certain ‘Southern California sound,’ uncluttered, evocative and unusual, with a wistful emotional edge.”
After just a few years of Cold Blue’s existence, its two primary distributors went out of business; and with the then-new and then-expensive CD technology (in which I didn’t have much interest at the time) starting to bloom, it seemed like a good moment for Cold Blue to close up shop as well. And that’s what I did.
Following 15 years of inactivity, I brought the label back to life in December 2000. (Don’t ask me why. Again, I don’t have a clear answer for that question.) As this reincarnated Cold Blue began to get CDs out into the world I was delighted to find out how many listeners and musicians and critics remembered the label fondly and cheered its rebirth. Since then, I’ve put out 54 discs, including a three-CD boxed set and, in homage to the old vinyl EPs, a number of CD EPs. And at the moment I have a half-dozen forthcoming releases in the works.
This music, while still heavily West Coast in its leanings, includes music from east of the Rockies as well as Australia and Europe. At the same time, some of the composers championed in the 1980s—such as Daniel Lentz, Peter Garland, Michael Jon Fink, and a few others—have continued to find a home at Cold Blue. And some who first appeared on the label in the early 2000s—such as John Luther Adams—have continued to consider it a home for current and future releases.
I tend to have a rather hands-on presence on most of the recordings, working closely with the composers to pick and sequence the works for each album and then actually producing or co-producing most of the music in the studio. I’ve even designed almost all of the CD packages. Without that sort of top-to-bottom hands-on intimacy, a little company like this would run the risk of turning into a dreary business. (So I wander on in that vein.)
How has Cold Blue Music evolved over time, and what do you envision for the future?
It has evolved. (Everything evolves, I suppose.) But I’d have a very hard time defining Cold Blue’s evolution in concrete musical or aesthetic terms. At the same time, people who’ve followed the label since day one often say that they sense something akin to a through-line that embraces all of the label’s offerings. And I, too, can sense a sort of through-line that seems to unconsciously unite the releases. That I suppose is the definition of a noticeably curated label that at the same time does not have an explicit agenda.
On Tuesday, your piece Between the Wheels will be featured as part of the program, performed by clarinetist Phil O’Conner and Eclipse Quartet. Can you tell us a little about this piece?
It was written in 1992 for clarinetist Marty Walker and the Amelite Consortium, a chamber ensemble run by violinist/violist/composer Maria Newman. It’s a quiet—perhaps even fragile—piece in which simple bits of music tend to reappear and recombine in various ways.
I usually don’t program my own music on Cold Blue events, because it seems self-indulgent. But after I had hired the always wonderful Eclipse Quartet to play the Adams and Whittington works, I realized that I needed a bit more music to fill out one half of the concert. So I tossed in Between the Wheels—a piece that was already in the Eclipse’s repertoire (they had performed it with Marty Walker some years back).
Is there anything you’d like to share about the other works on the program?
I’ve enjoyed long friendships with composers Peter Garland (since the late ’70s) and John Luther Adams (since the mid ’80s), and I love the music that they each write. They’ve each had music on seven Cold Blue releases. I’ve known Stephen Whittington, an Australian composer whose music I also regard very highly, for perhaps a half-dozen years. His work appears on two Cold Blue CDs.
Adams’s eerily beautiful string quartet untouched (from which the final movement, “Falling,” will be performed at Monk Space) was written two years ago, and this concert will mark its LA premiere. It is one of the pieces that John has written for the JACK Quartet in which the players’ fingers never touch their fingerboards—all the notes are natural harmonics or open strings. A technically challenging piece, it will be recorded this summer for a Cold Blue release next winter.
Whittington’s entrancing string quartet Windmill is an unusual tone-painting—the music inspired by the sounds of old metal windmills (the sort commonly found on farms) listlessly turning and halting and turning again in the wind. As these sounds occur and pause and reoccur, one finds oneself drawn deeply into the piece’s hypnotic soundworld. Cold Blue released a recording of Windmill last year.
Written in the winter of 2016, Garland’s hushed, pensive six-movement Moon Viewing Music (Inscrutable Stillness Studies #1) is scored for a small grouping of low Thai-style gongs and a large tam-tam. Each of its movements is based on a short poem or haiku about the moon. As the composer notes about moon viewing, “If autumn is the moonlight of nostalgia, winter is the moonlight of . . . an inscrutable stillness.” Cold Blue released a recording of this piece, performed by new-music percussionist William Winant, in February of this year.
Check out Tuesdays at Monk Space for more information on the concert tomorrow night and to get tickets.
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.