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.
Monday Evening Concerts is the longest running contemporary music series in the world. The series began in 1939, and has programmed the world premieres of pieces by Stravinsky, Boulez, Sciarrino, and Kurtag, as well as U.S. premieres of just about every major 20th century composer you can think of. Their concert on April 16th was not a momentous occasion for premieres, but it was my first time hearing Isabel Mundry performed live, and first time hearing a Sciarrino performance in the United States. I was giddy with excitement. Spoiler alert: the concert lived up to expectations. I am absolutely amazed by the talent of the performers, and I wish to commend concert curator and conductor Jonathan Hepfer on a marvelously selected and executed program.
Aptly named “Labyrinths and Enigmas,” the concert offered intricate, intimate works by Isabel Mundry (b. 1963) and Salvatore Sciarrino (b. 1947). First, Mundry’s Dufay Bearbeitungen [translation: Dufay Machining or Machination] (2003/4) delivered familiar Dufay chansons (familiar if you’re into Renaissance motets, at least) in a 21st century way. The text and musical motifs themselves were largely unchanged from the original – the staging and light work made the performance new. In the first section, the instrumentalists sat around the reciter in the dark. The lights only rose when the clarinetist played his first note, swelling and brightening like a sunrise. When the music fully enters, it manifests in ways Dufay never could have dreamed: on bass marimba, on fluttering alto flute, on dulcet chimes. Mundry used quite a bit of low end to make the music feel substantial, but also delicate touches and staccato to give it an ethereal lightness. In each section, the instrumentalists moved farther away from the reciter. First they moved to the edges of the stage and almost into the audience. For the third section, they went up into the balcony surrounding the stage and audience, playing down like angels from on high. As the musicians moved farther from center stage, the music moved farther from the original Dufay sound. And yet it felt less like the musicians moving away and more like the audience zooming in on the reciter. Mundry applied dissonance, harmonics, and unfamiliar timbres and spectral techniques like plucking the strings inside the piano to gradually move Dufay to the present day. At the same time, the modern staging techniques moved the audience into Dufay’s world.
After the intermission to reset the stage and the audience’s ears, we were engulfed in Salvatore Sciarrino’s Perduto in una città d’acque (translation: Lost in a city of water) (1990/91). His program notes indicate that the piece is largely inspired by visiting the composer Luigi Nono in Venice near the end of Nono’s life. He notes that death resonates through our hearts, like pitch resonates in our ears; the meanings of both are illusive. In Perduto, I felt like I was underwater as a rush of quiet notes flooded my ears. Occasionally, the flood was broken by an Ablinger-esque burst of notes. I imagined I could hear words in the piano, but I just couldn’t understand the language. Pianist Richard Valitutto managed to splash the keys and swirl the notes just right so to keep the illusion of treading water, swimming through the melody and eddying through the harmony.
This was not my first encounter with Sciarrino, but it was my introduction to his operatic work. The audience was provided with the Italian libretto and its English translation. It was still difficult to keep pace with the pointillist singing style. Eventually I gave up keeping track and finally relaxed into the music. Aspern Suite (1979) is a condensed version of The Aspern Papers, an opera based on the eponymous novella by Henry James about Lord Byron’s affairs. The surprisingly sassy songs include snippets of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro and gondolier songs reworked into Sciarrino’s mystical compositional language. Alice Teyssier, the amazing soprano who brought these songs alive, sang from a cozy armchair, and sometimes from offstage. Whether she was sitting, standing, or backstage, the orchestra changed their timbres to match her vocal timbre and environmental filtering. It seems like a trick that can only work in certain spaces, but the ensemble pulled it off very well.
On the whole, the concert showcased incredible talent and a variety of compositional styles and textures. Clocking in at a full two hours, it wasn’t for the faint of heart or the tepid contemporary music aficionado. For those seeking the cream of the crop in late 20th – early 21st century music programming and performance, you will not go wrong with Monday Evening Concerts.
I want to talk to you about mud.
Not the sole-adorning, crossing-the-grass mud. I’m talking about thick, jailbroken swamp; the kind of mud that takes a full hand of fleshy, calloused fingers to scrape from your cheek. That was the raw, slopping sound world of Øyvind Torvund’s “MudJam”—a rib-vibrating reminder that beneath the glyphs and tuplets and extramusical suggestion, music is just sound; simple, physical, shoved around by skin, wood, and metal. At the most recent installment of the Monday Evening Concert series, each work demonstrated a different way this tug-of-air might communicate meaning; some works focused inward at the sonic material itself while others gazed outward towards their reflection in the world. The program impressed on me how sound, like dirt and water, can be molded to convey simplicity of form while its inner makeup remains impenetrably intricate—sound soil patted into a castle whose form can be either admired or subjected to the impending tide. What the hell am I talking about? I have no idea. But I left Monday’s program, New Voices IV: Untitled School, with a renewed sense of wonder at the aural sludge we work with as composers and musicians.
This isn’t to imply that the evening’s entertainment was messy or monochromatic or tracked itself halfway across my apartment before I thought better of it and took off my boots. In fact, the program was exquisitely designed and brilliantly performed—ambitious and hip and carefully paced. New York-based piano and percussion quartet, Yarn/Wire, were not just instrumentally virtuosic, but musically virtuosic. Consisting of Laura Barger and Ning Yi on pianos with Ian Antonio and Russell Greenberg on percussion, Yarn/Wire’s dozen years together has yielded a savviness for new music which bathed each work with a sense of proud ownership. In Thomas Meadowcroft’s Walkman Antiquarian, their playful ensemble work intertwined with nostalgic electronics in child-like exploration, punctuated by moments of breathtaking, reflective stillness. As Paul Griffith puts in his program notes, “Memory is coming to us from several angles and at different removes, in a form that proceeds with the necessity of a ritual.” This reminiscent quality is partially an artifact of the form, but is also illuminated by Meadowcroft’s orchestration. Resonances are disembodied and passed around the ensemble with the saccharine distortions of memory: Vinyl crackles become beads dancing on a speaker cone, melodic episodes reverberate eerily from the harp of the piano. Textures dissolve with a casual inevitability in the way that memories softly, if persistently, return to reality.
The more inward-focused works were Catherine Lamb’s Curvo Totalitas and Johannes Kreidler’s Scanner Studies. Where Meadowcroft’s work attended to sound’s referential (and so, emotional) potential, Lamb’s contribution was one of austere magnification of sound itself. Waves of metallic rumbling respirate slowly, almost imperceptibly, gradually unveiling a world of spectral details and transformations. Yarn/Wire’s performance was patient and deliberate, elegantly unfolding subtle shifts of timbre to stunning, pulsating, effect. Scanner Studies (numbers 1 and 2 were performed) were equally concise in concept: images are sonified in the manner of a simple grahic score before parameters are expanded to the point of absurdity. But beneath the amusing exercises is Kreidler’s always keen eye for musical potential in the mundanely ordinary, and a profound awareness of dramatic, rhetorical and comedic form.
The title work of the program, Torvund’s Untitled School, was a massive, seven-movement audio-visual exploration of scales, chords and textures that closed the evvening. Clever and driving, its later movements traverse imitations of various styles and textures before landing in the chirping soundscape of “Jungles.” This dramatic shift begged the question of how (or where) the work might progress—serene landscapes quivering with life amid dimming lights might well have concluded the piece. But then came the mud.
The final two movements, “MudJam” and “Campfire Tunes,” were set apart in several ways. There were no accompanying images. The stage lights were dimmed. There was no formal separation starting or ending either movement. All of this amplified a sense of arrival: Now, we listen rather than watch. Returning to sound(s) from the world rather than the brain, Yarn/Wire summoned a hell-raised, raucous rumbling, only loosening its grip for the flickering, smokey tranquility of “Campfire Songs.”
If anything fell short in the program’s careful design, it was the occasional awkward trappings of traditional concert format: The space, balance and performers were all on-point, but some pieces needed time for digestion afterwards. Jonathan Hepfer exuded calm, considerate intelligence and I could imagine him and/or members of the ensemble saying a few words about each piece during stage changes. Certainly program notes can provide helpful context, but with new music the context is unclear at best, and usually still in-development—brief discussions might serve (or supplement) this sort of series well. Still, Paul Griffiths’ program notes were beautiful (“scanning geometries in a thundercloud?” Be still my chart…), and the program held my interest throughout. Needless to say, this will be the first of many Monday Evening Concerts for me; I’ve already marked the remainder of this season’s offerings in my calendar.