Next Tuesday, gnarwhallaby (Richard Valilutto, Matt Barbier, Brian Walsh, and Derek Stein) will be performing an adventurous program at Monk Space, including two world premieres and some recent commissions. I interviewed Matt Barbier (trombone) about the program, the future of gnarwhallaby, commissioning, and more. Here’s what he said:
On June 5, you’ll be performing “Lullaby 4” by Nicholas Deyoe, world premieres by Olga Rayeva and Daniel Tacke, and recent commissions by Elise Roy and Richard Barrett. Can you tell us a bit about the works on the program?
It’s a fairly personal program for us in a lot of ways, especially at the group’s current juncture. Nick’s piece was the first major work written for our iteration of the quartet and what we made our Carnegie debut with, so it’s always been a very special piece that’s at the core of our repertoire and the work that is most closely tied to us as individual players. Dan’s piece is quite exciting for us because we’ve played a pre-exising work of his that had no trombone, but did have voice (the change to trombone is questionable), so we’re looking forward to being able to have a work of his that we all play. His piece is based on Morton Feldman’s Half a minute, it’s all I’ve time for, which is an actual 30 second piece Feldman wrote for the original group that we’ve enjoyed playing over the years, but can be a little odd to program. We look forward to playing something that is based on it, but has a little more room to breathe. Elise’s piece is a bit like Nick’s in the sense that it was written by a friend who we’ve all known quite a while, however we mostly know Elise from performing with her (she’s a very good flutist on top of her great composing). Because of this, her approach to us is from a very different angle than Nick and a very different type of familiarity, but we look forward to them sharing that space. Olga’s piece is a bit of wild card for us. I met Olga when she was a fellow at the Villa Aurora and she came to a concert I gave that included Michelle Lou’s colossal HoneyDripper and really enjoyed it. From there we started conversing a little bit and she asked to write us a piece. It’s really excitingly out and feels, in certain ways, to tie to some of the more ethereal works written for the early Polish group, who, I think, everyone in the group feels a kinship (or fondness?) for. Richard’s piece is probably our ‘biggest’ commission to date and something that was in the works for quite a while. We’re big fans of his music and have been discussing doing a concert of his music for a long time. The idea of getting a new piece came up a few times and so I ended up just asking and he was, very kindly, interested in writing quite a large piece for four people in jumpsuits. His piece is in four movements, each based on an important jazz artist for him: Cecil Taylor, Thelonius Monk, Eric Dolphy, and Miles Davis.
Were all the works you’ll be performing on this program gnarwhallaby commissions? What do you enjoy most about commissioning new works?
Everything on the program was written for us by people we know, or got to know in the process. Commissioning new works for gnarwhallaby has been an especially rewarding process because our group exists as the third iteration of an ensemble founded in Poland in the late 1960’s and we’ve tried to be very cognizant of the instrumentation’s history when contributing new works. The Warsztat Muzyczny had a very particular bend to their own commissions and the Quartet Avance did a lot to keep the repertoire alive while adding their set of works that related but also reflected the generation that they were of. It’s been an exciting challenge to find composers whose music fits into that progression but also reflects our own interests, particularly as the first American group.
How did you get started as an ensemble? Has the group’s goals and/or focus changed since you formed in 2011?
Our origins come from CalArts where we were all students. We weren’t there together but everyone overlapped as MFAs (Brian’s last year was Matt’s first, Matt’s 2nd was Derek’s first, and Derek’s 2nd was Richard’s first). I (Matt) had a very keen interest in this one specific piece by Gorecki, which Brian, Derek, and I all played together before Richard arrived, and that interest led to finding a treasure trove of other works (over 60). At first our focus was to primarily revive that repertoire and occasionally add new pieces. However, over time our focus has really shifted to a much heavier focus on new works by people we like to work in close collaboration with.
What are your thoughts about how gnarwhallaby’s repertoire fits within the existing canon, either in the context of your particular instrumentation or in the wider context of chamber music?
It’s a fun group in a lot of ways given that we’ve got three instruments that can be quite loud and one that can only be…moderate? So our instrumentation has kind of violated some understood orchestration rules from it’s very origin, while also functioning as a micro orchestra. It has a very traditional but also somewhat unique place in the canon in terms of the way the ensemble functions. A huge portion of our repertoire functions as the clarinet, cello, and trombone as a meta instrument that fits with the piano. This isn’t a particularly new idea, but it is something that happens quite consistently from a wide range of composers so one wonders if it is something inherent to the nature of the group. On the personal side (as a trombonist that is), it fits in the canon in a very unique way because of this. Many composers (whether related to range, touch, velocity, color, etc.) demand that the trombone not only do things that’s not quite in it’s understood nature to do, but do them as well as the other three instruments. So it’s fairly unique in the canon of brass music that you’re being held against very idiomatic writing for instruments that do very different things than your own.
What’s in store for the future of the band?
Well we’re entering quite a new and kind of terrifying stage. Very shortly Richard will be leaving LA to get a doctorate at Cornell so we’ll have to sort out a new mode of existing and this will be our last show for a little while. We’re all quite close friends and we rehearse a lot over long periods of time. And drink lots of coffee. So we’ll have to, sadly, find a new mode. We’re planning Exhibit B, however. It’ll include music by Nicholas Deyoe, Michelle Lou, Andrew Greenwald, and Adriana Holszky. We’re also planning some more large scale concerts, including the full Barrett cycle.
For more information about the concert or to get tickets, check out Tuesdays at Monk Space.
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.
On April 8, 2017 the Pasadena Conservatory of Music was host to Richard Valitutto along with gnarwhallaby, Arpeture Duo and a subset of wild Up – all in a concert from wild Up’s WORK series, which focuses on single members of the group. Several new pieces and arrangements by Valitutto were heard, as well as reference works by Messiaen, Feldman and Wolfe. Soprano Justine Aronson made a special appearance and the elegant Barrett Hall was filled almost to capacity on a quiet Saturday evening.
The program opened with Papier Mâché, an original piano work by Valitutto. This began with a slow, mysterious feel and just a hint of tension in the chords that increased as the piece progressed. The density and complexity slowly built up, adding to a sense of uncertainty, just as the dynamic crested and fell back, fading at the finish. Papier Mâché has a sophisticated sheen and a solid, well-crafted construction that made for a fine opening to the concert.
Polichromia, by Zygmunt Krauze, followed, and this was performed by gnarwhallaby, the Los Angeles-based new music group who have made a mission of performing works by Polish avant-garde composers active in the mid-20th century. Polichromia begins with sustained tones in the cello, muted trombone and clarinet while the piano counters with rapid one and two note figures separated by silence. The highly chromatic tones in the instruments make for some intriguing harmonies and the sharper piano licks offered a fine contrast. After a few minutes this sequence finishes and there is an extended silence by all. This process restarts twice more, with the tones in the instruments becoming more active in each new sequence. Polichromia creates an environment filled with many varied tone colors, vividly portrayed by gnarwhallaby.
Next was an arrangement by Valitutto of two piano works: From the Cradle to Abysses by the Romanian-French composer Horațiu Rădulescu and Hungarian Passacaglia by György Ligeti. As Valitutto explained, these pieces felt like piano reductions of some larger instrumental work and the purpose of his arrangement was to fill out the parts that seemed to be embedded in the original scores. Two Arrangements for gnarwhallaby was the result, and this was played continuously as a single piece of music. The brass, woodwind and string components present in the gnarwhallaby ensemble was ideal for this sort of exploration.
Two Arrangements for gnarwhallaby began with solitary piano notes followed by a sharp sforzando from the trombone and quietly sustained tones in the cello and clarinet. Something like a melody materialized from the piano and cello while the trombone continued to emit loud sforzandos at various intervals. The dynamics of the piano chords increased rapidly and soon joined the trombone in making unsettling statements as the cello and clarinet continued with their smoothly understated response. The contrasts here were very effective – the more so because of the difference in instrumentation.
A soft cello solo appeared and seemed to tiptoe around the dramatic piano crashes. This melody was soon passed around to the clarinet and trombone. The piano calmed down to a series of steady two-note chords as the clarinet took up the melody in a higher register. Eventually all three instruments joined in together and some lovely harmonies emerged. The passages in the instruments gradually increased to a rapid tempo just as the piece concluded.
Two Arrangements for gnarwhallaby is an inspired expansion of the works of two 20th century masters, and confirmed Valitutto’s sharp instincts for orchestration. This arrangement creates a seamless connection between the two source pieces and the vivid colors brought out by the expanded instrumentation were matched by the coordination and precision of gnarwhallably’s playing.
Shadow (2013) by Rebecca Saunders followed. This is a solo piano piece that explores the sympathetic vibrations of the piano strings that occur after a loud chord is played. An acoustic ‘shadow’ is heard, and with the sustain pedal depressed, the soft tones are allowed to ring out and decay in the subsequent silence. Accordingly, Valitutto struck a series of crashes, tone clusters and sharp chords – often with maximum force – so that the resulting acoustic shadow was clearly heard, even up in the top row of Barrett Hall. These effects were amazingly varied – from lightly hovering and insubstantial to menacingly ominous to warm and welcoming. After a few minutes of listening you begin to ignore the initial impulse and focus instead on the quiet shadows that follow. The process is something like hearing a loud crash of thunder and then listening to the rolling echo as it dissipates into the distance.
The playing became more complex, loud crashes alternating with softer ones, multiplying the contrasting character of the various shadows. The interactions between the shadow tones themselves, although very understated, were also intriguing to the ear. Shadow is an instructive piece that points to the importance of listening for nuance, even when confronted by repeated dynamic outbursts. Valitutto’s sense of timing and the application of energy was perfect, allowing this piece to unfold with all of its subtlety intact.
Another solo piano piece was next, The Black Wheatear, by Oliver Messiaen, from Catalogue d’oiseaux (1958). This began with strong, crashing chords reminiscent of a booming surf; the breeding grounds of the black wheatear include the rocky sea cliffs of the Iberian peninsula. A series of short and rapid runs in the upper registers portray the brief but rich warble of the species. These skittering phrases regularly recur, nicely suggesting the chattering of birds wheeling high above a coastal meadow. The quick and spiky passages were accurately played by Valitutto, fully realizing Messiaen’s unconventional vision.
Voice, Violin and Piano by Morton Feldman followed, and for this Valitutto was joined by Adrianne Pope on violin and – naturally – soprano Justine Aronson. All the familiar Feldman virtues were present – the soft, airy voice of Ms. Aronson hovering lightly over a quiet violin and gentle piano chords. Each sound seemed independent of the others, but the sequences often produced memorable moments despite the spare texture. The intonation, especially in the voice, was impressive as there are almost no landmarks for pitch; even so, there was no hesitation or tentativeness in the many entrances. Voice, Violin and Piano is counted as a miniature in the Feldman canon, but this performance contained everything that makes his music so distinctive.
Valitutto’s Another Spring was next, based on poetry by Denise Leverton and with violist Linnea Powell joining the other players on stage. The opening piano chords of this were bright and sunny while the strings played very high, thin pitches that brought to mind wisps of wind. With the entrance of the soprano voice, Another Spring gained its focus and produced some lovely passages; the strong vocal part giving Ms. Aronson some room to stretch after the restrained Feldman piece. The seemingly disparate piano chords, airy strings and lovely legato vocal parts came together in a fine balance that nicely captured the optimism of a radiant spring day.
In his final remarks Richard Valitutto explained that the composers of his generation have spent their artistic lives working in the shadow of 9/11, and this burden has only increased since the November election. Accordingly, the last piece selected for this program was Compassion (2001), by Julia Wolfe. This begins softly, with an ominous slow trill that steadily builds tension, followed by a series of strong chords that become progressively more chaotic. The roiling chords roll in like a booming surf, freighted with powerful emotions. The rumbling continues to build in intensity, especially in the lower registers, until there is an explosive silence – and the roar slowly dies away. After a short silence, a new trill is heard, now filled with a quiet sorrow. Compassion is destined to be a landmark of our era and was played to perfection by Valitutto, whose efforts were received with extended applause.
The impeccable playing by all the performers made Work an engaging evening of contemporary music that ranged from forceful and complex to the soft and subtle. This concert was a good benchmark reading of Valitutto’s varied musical influences as well as pointing to his continued artistic growth.
Last weekend, composer collective Synchromy bridged the Nor Cal/So Cal gap and opened the floodgates for inter-state collaboration. In other words, they hosted the incredible San Francisco based new music ensemble Wild Rumpus, down here at ArtShare. After seeing the group perform at last year’s New Music Gathering, Synchromy member Nick Norton said that it was “only a matter of time” before they made their way down to LA. And while building a “California Sound” might be a bit ambitious for a single concert, the performers and composers featured showed an impressive artistic breadth that never felt overwhelming. More importantly, what this concert lacked was pomp. The audience was small (as one might expect for an out of town group) but excited to see what Wild Rumpus had in store. While some of the music was thorny, the whole show ended up fun. Fun isn’t typically the go to description of Contemporary Art Music, but from the noisy neighbors who did not care that “Serious Art Making” was happening downstairs, to Norton’s tie dyed FYF shirt and his band’s logo duct-taped to the front of the bass drum that made its way into the percussionist’s setup, the whole night felt a little impromptu, kind of spontaneous, and a bit like hanging out in a good friend’s garage.
San Francisco provided some amazing composers, and Wild Rumpus brought some killer players. It was a little novel seeing new faces on the Art Share stage that has become a bit of a home base for LA new music. But the novelty was quick to wear off, and the talents of the performers soon stood in full display. For close followers of Synchromy, a pair of trombone solos from last years anti-valentine’s day concert were reprogrammed, this time under the interpretation of Weston Olencki. Both Richard Valitutto’s Walk of Shame and Scott Worthington’s Unphotographable were outstandingly played. The Valitutto was rendered shamelessly and brashly as a piece of its name and nature ought to be. And the Worthington proved an indomitably delicate wall of glissandoing brass against the backdrop of a slowly shifting sine wave.
The two trombone solos were stylistically distinct, as was the rest of the concert. Each piece seemed in a different world than the previous, making each moment fresh, never fatiguing despite a few pieces that lingered in soundworlds for an extended period of time. Despite their stylistic differences, each piece drew from its context on the program and it was interesting to see similar soundscapes explored by different composer. For example, where Walk of Shame started brassy and noisy and had petered itself out by the end, Sonnet XX for solo cello composed by Ursula Kwong-Brown, and performed by Joanne De Mars, started sweet, almost melodramatically so, and slowly peppered in more and more gritty gestures eventually ending in a shimmer of harmonics Unphotographable had an electroacousitc companion on the program too, Spectral Fields in Time by LA based Joshua Carro featured a longer form with slowly shifting masses of sound and the timbres of the full instrumental ensemble of Wild Rumpus. It featured the amplified wash of cymbals, (which harkened to the Lucier-esque LFO of Worthington’s miniature) and heavily amplified piano to accompany the ensemble’s winds, bass, and electric guitar. Both electroacoustic pieces suffered from a logistic issue: the placements of the mains. While ArtShare is a relatively wet hall, it certainly isn’t as reverberant as Zipper or any other recital hall. As such, the high mounted mains really made the electronic elements feel very separate from the ensemble. This was passable for the Carro due to the size of the ensemble, but really took away from the Worthington.
Another gripe on the venue were the neighbors. As the final sounds of Balance of Power by Dan VanHassel (also co-director of Wild Rumpus) faded out, dance music thudded in from a tenant upstairs. (Artshare is an apartment for artists as well as a venue). The piece relied on stark contrasts between more intense moments of percussive groove and lush swelling noisy chords, and while at first the Cagian response of an upstairs boombox seemed a little cute, and almost appropriate for a concert of new music, it continued, ruining more subtle moments both in Walk of Shame and Sonnet XX. Despite the interruption, the VanHassel was executed brilliantly, and was, (to one who is only fleetingly familiar with the composer’s work) quintessential VanHassel, featuring an incredibly well blended ensemble sound and and incredible accuracy within the group.
The Norton and the Barabba utilized the full ensemble along with vocalist Vanessa Langer. Brabba’s cry trojans cry was evocative of the VanHassel, though, with textures peeking in and out of each other a bit more subtly. The piece was extensively theatrical making great use of Langer’s immense stage presence. Beach Song by Norton may have been the only lone wolf on the program, seemingly unpaired. The song is an adaptation of a pop song originally written “after suffering a dramatic New Year’s Eve break up” and then re-re-arranged for Wild Rumpus. The use of classical voice provided an incredibly interesting juxtaposition over the very singer/songwritery text and the timbrally interesting arrangement.
While Wild Rumpus probably won’t be back in town for a while, if you end up up the coast, or they end up down here, I highly recommend coming out to see this incredibly versatile ensemble. The video below features their performance from last year, and the Carro that was on the program last week:
The final wasteLAnd concert of 2015, Nocturnes and Lullabies, featured Richard Valitutto at the piano and was presented on Friday evening, December 11, 2015 at Los Angeles City College’s Clausen Hall in Hollywood. An enthusiastic crowd turned out on a chilly night to hear piano music by Wolfgang von Schweinitz, Bunita Marcus, Nicholas Deyoe, Timo Andres, Helmut Lachenmann, Salvatore Sciarrino, and Linda Caitlin Smith.
NCTRN (2014) by Nicholas Deyoe started things off, opening with a sharp rap followed by a sudden, crashing chord. The piece immediately turned quiet and a series of dense, atmospheric chords drifted up, creating a shimmering undercurrent of anxiety. This continued and soon a quiet rapping was heard, as realized by several prepared keys in the uppermost notes of the keyboard. The rapping became more insistent as the piece progressed, adding another level of tension that contrasted nicely with the dark chords coming from the lower registers. The persistent knocking became louder – like a ghost trapped in a closet – ceasing suddenly at the finish.
Notturno crudelo no. 1 (2000), by Salvatore Sciarrino was next with a march-like rhythm dominating, almost mechanical in its repetition and regularity. Complex passages consisting of rapid runs and skips intervened – less strident and at times even tentative – but the forceful marcato texture invariably returned. Valitutto managed all of this with high efficiency, effectively portraying the vivid contrast between the sections.
Three pieces were then played continuously: Wiegenmusik (1963) by Helmut Lachenmann, Lullaby (2000) by Bunita Marcus and Plainsound Lullaby (2014) by Wolfgang von Schweinitz. The Lachenmann piece felt restrained, full of quiet notes and short stretches of silence. Some sharp, rapid figures were heard in the upper registers at times, but the overall feel was remote, tentative and mysterious. Lullaby by Bunita Marcus had an altogether more settled sound and featured repeating phrases combined with conventional chords, producing a more introspective feel.
The von Schweinitz piece called for Valitutto to play from the keyboard while depressing the sustain pedal and reaching inside the piano to pluck several of the strings in the lower registers. This required an awkward posture, but the results were amazing. A series of bell-like tones – almost electronic in timbre – issued out from the piano in a pleasant sonority, complimenting a quiet melody of conventional notes. This combination was both unusual and engaging and Plainsound Lullaby received sustained applause from the audience at the conclusion.
After intermission Heavy Sleep (2013) by Timo Andres began with a singular series of deep, questioning chords that were answered similarly in the higher registers. As the piece continued it became, by turns, warm, reaffirming, settled and connected until it arrived at an expansively grand sound. At times, Heavy Sleep exhibited great power, like a piano concerto without an orchestra. The playing here was accurate and the changing dynamics were negotiated effectively.
The final two pieces of the concert, A Nocturne (1995) by Linda Caitlin Smith and Lullaby 2 by Nicholas Deyoe were performed continuously. A Nocturne started quietly and there were long stretches of silence between the phrases that let the notes ring out and slowly die away. Familiar chords followed, producing a questioning, introspective feel. The stillness and quiet of this work made for a good segue to the Deyoe piece, and this began with deep, solemn chords in the lowest registers of the keyboard. Answering chords followed with higher pitches and the low chord returned again with added mystery and power. The fine touch by Valitutto brought out the delicate contrast here.
The prepared keys again made an appearance in the form of a rhythmic knocking that held the attention of the listener. This knocking dominated as the piece progressed and the supporting chords built up a dreamy atmosphere that terminated in a series of roiling runs up and down the keyboard and a sharp thunder clap. At one point the keyboard cover was closed and a soft rapping sound was made upon it. A dreamy fragment of a romantic melody appeared, conjured up so quietly and mysteriously that it seemed to be coming out of the mist in the far distance. A sudden closing of the keyboard cover brought Lullaby 2 to a final, satisfactory finish.
Richard Valitutto brought his many talents to bear on the wide variety of contemporary pieces in Nocturnes and Lullabies, consistently delivering just the right blend of passion and artful technique.
On Saturday evening, August 1, 2015, the final concert of the WasteLAnd summer series was given in Clausen Hall at Los Angeles City College in Hollywood. The music consisted of works for piano and voice, with Stephanie Aston, soprano and Leslie Ann Leytham, mezzo-soprano the featured singers. Richard Valitutto and Brendan Nguyen accompanied.
The first piece on the program was Got Lost (2007/2008) by Helmut Lachenmann and this began with whooshing and breathy sounds from Stephanie Aston while a series of low solitary notes issued from the piano, played by Richard Valitutto. This continued for a some minutes but gradually some humming was heard along with a few musical fragments of tunes. This escalated, and rapid runs on the piano keyboard collided with powerfully sustained pitches by Ms. Aston as the dynamic balance shifted back and forth between them. As the piece continued the voice parts became more musical and the piano took on a split personality with Richard Valitutto skilfully executing a number of extended techniques. The piano strings were variously strummed, plucked and stopped by hand as a note was played and this gave rise to a number of interesting effects in quick succession; it actually seemed as if there were two different instruments accompanying the vocals. Perhaps the most intriguing effect was when the piano was silent but with the sustain pedal held down. Ms. Anston gave out a short fortissimo passage that was caught by the piano strings and heard as a ghostly echo. Lachenmann’s unconventional techniques were on full display in this piece – all the more impressive as none involved electronics or amplification of any kind.
Got Lost is without any sort of beat and the performers were seen to be cuing each other as they worked their way through. Their timing and coordination were admirable given the unorthodox demands of the score. The various clicks and pops of the vocal sounds were like a frustrated foreign language, just on edge of intelligibility. The piano added to the alien, anxious feeling with sharp, stabbing notes and loud crashes at unexpected intervals. Got Lost astonishes the listener with its ever-changing series of complex sounds, textures and dynamics and the performance on this occasion was smoothly and skillfully realized.
5 McCallum Songs (2011) by Nicholas Deyoe followed, again featuring Stephanie Aston and Richard Valitutto. This piece consists of five sections, each a setting of the text from the series Love Poems, by poet Clint McCallum. The opening section begins with deep, solemn chords from the piano and the airy soprano voice above singing “I want you to look at me with throbbing eyes…” This sets the tone – plaintive, yet with a smoldering passion. High soprano notes arced gracefully above the piano accompaniment and with the words “I want to show you the cover, and snatch the book away” Richard Valitutto slammed shut the keyboard cover on the piano to end this section.
The second section seemed yet more sorrowful and the quiet vocals had a feeling of lonely sadness about them that hinted at distress. In section three the singing was stronger and more active with soft piano notes and chords underneath. The text “Your begging eyes free my soul, I’ll never let you go” was especially moving. Section four had a single line that was repeated: “to convince you” and this was beautifully sung by Ms. Aston in a small, soft voice. For the final section the piano was tacet and the emotion from the soprano voice singing “ and as I turned you grabbed me and kissed me” was very moving. 5 McCallum Songs filled the spacious hall with a quiet economy of sound yet completely imparted all of the sentiment embedded in the text.
The final piece in the concert was Canti della tenebra (2011) by Swiss-born composer Beat Furrer and this was the US premiere. The featured singer was Leslie Ann Leytham, mezzo-soprano and the pianist was Brendan Nguyen. Canti della tenebra, a setting of text by Dino Campania, was sung entirely in Italian and proceeded in a series of sections. The first began with a deep rumble in the lower registers of the piano that dominated the soft vocals and this established the feeling of faint tension that suffuses throughout the entire work. The voice line soared briefly above, but the piano became more agitated, with notes running rapidly up and down the keyboard. The voice retreated into low, quiet tones, as if subdued, and this added an understated color to the overall texture. Eventually, the piano dropped back a bit as if to give the vocalist some space for a final declarative statement to conclude the opening section.
There were moments that overcame the early bleakness. In a later section, the singing of Ms. Leytham took the lead with a lovely chromatic melody line with the piano in a supporting role. This produced a more introspective feeling, aided by some masterful singing in the lower registers. Still another section had a more uplifting feel as a line of single piano notes was followed by warm, sustained tones in the voice that made for some lovely harmony. The later sections restated the initial sense of anxiety with waves of active piano notes and a series of strong vocal passages filled with tension. Towards the close an extended piano solo moderated the disquiet and the singing became gentle and reassuring. Some very lovely singing and playing followed as the piano slowly faded away at the finish.
Canti della tenebra contains a wide range of emotions that must flow through the voice and piano. The singing of Leslie Ann Leytham – especially in the lower, darker registers – was admirably suited to this task and the playing of Brendan Nguyen provided the ideal accompaniment.
This final concert of the WasteLAnd summer series proved how powerful and evocative the simple combination of voice, piano and poetic text can be in the right artistic hands.
People Inside Electronics has been busy lately — fresh off the heels of their concert with Gnarwhallaby, they’re presenting a concert this Saturday of new works for the Magnetic Resonator Piano, with pianists Nic Gerpe, Aron Kallay, Richard Valitutto, Steven Vanhauwaert, and Genevieve Lee. What the heck is the Magnetic Resonator Piano, you ask? In the words of its creator, Andrew McPherson:
“The magnetic resonator piano (MRP) is an electronically-augmented acoustic piano capable of eliciting new sounds acoustically from the piano strings, without speakers. Electromagnets induce vibrations in the strings independently of the hammers, creating infinite sustain, crescendos, harmonics, pitch bends and new timbres, all controlled from the piano keyboard.”
This is gonna be awesome.
In addition to the concert, there’s also a Kickstarter campaign to commission four local composers — Julia Adolphe, Jeremy Cavaterra, Alex Miller, and Elise Roy — to write new works for the Magnetic Resonator Piano that will be premiered this weekend. Here’s a video about both the MRP and the campaign:
Which you can help support here:
If you can’t make the Saturday concert, on Sunday at 4:30pm McPherson will present a free lecture demonstration at Keyboard Concepts in Van Nuys that will include performances by Gerpe, Kallay, Valitutto, and Rafael Liebich.
Full details and tickets are at http://
If you live in Los Angeles and are into new music, chances are high that you’ve crossed paths with pianist Richard Valitutto. Pianist is an understatement, though. His website lists him simply but accurately as “musician,” and he often appears as melodica-player, composer, curator, and more. To get a taste, here’s a live recording of his premiere performance of Ryan Pratt’s On Expansion.
Next week is a big one for him, as he’s got his first full-blown solo recital on PianoSpheres’ new Satellite series, at REDCAT on Tuesday at 8:30. Here’s Richard:
Let’s start with NAKHT. What’s the concert all about?
NAKHT is a major step forward in my exploration of the genre of the piano nocturne. I’ve been imagining and devising programs either largely based on or entirely comprised of nocturnes for the last couple years, and this is my first major solo recital in the process. I guess it’s something that could be called a ‘nocturnes project,’ but I don’t want to get too nerdy about it. I wanted this particular program to be mostly 20th/21st century music, being that it is presented by Piano Spheres, and I wanted to create a program that definitely included certain pieces, particularly the Sciarrino Due Notturni crudeli and the Skryabin Poème-Nocturne. They’ve been on my wish-list for a while now!
Also, several months ago I was hanging out with Nicholas Deyoe having some whiskey (as we do) and we were discussing my nocturne fetish as well as his feeling of closure to his Lullaby series, to which the only other large-scale solo piano work he’s written belongs, Lullaby 2. He said he would love to write another bigger piano piece, and contributing to the nocturne idea would be cool because he’d been thinking particularly about various ways to subvert the idea of a “nocturne” piece, drawing a lot of inspiration from Benjamin Britten’s incredible guitar solo Nocturnal (after John Dowland). So it was then I knew exactly who I wanted to commission as a part of the Piano Spheres Satellite Series.
The program basically developed from these various repertoires and ideas; I think it’s a good representation of my interest in pieces that delve into the complex and volatile relationships between the night and the human psyche.
What attracted you to programming around nocturnes in the first place?
Mostly the music itself, of course: these are some of my favorite pieces of late. But it’s also the fact that I came to realize I had never really heard of a solo piano program (or series of them, for that matter!) comprised mostly or entirely of nocturnes. There are often all-sonatas programs; and I’ve heard many all-prelude, all-dances, even all-etudes (which, in fact, is exactly what Piano Spheres Satellite artist Steven Vanhauwaert will be doing on June 2, 2015)!
Like many people, some of my favorite pieces very early on were Chopin nocturnes. They’re some of the most gloriously melodic pieces we pianists have, and the figurations are so pianistic that it’s like swimming with the hands through maple syrup. On a conceptual level, though, the young me loved the idea of a piece somehow specifically being for night-time – something we don’t get a whole lot of in Western Classical Music. Also, the budding linguist in me loved my understanding etymology of the name itself. But in the last couple of years, I began to notice that not only are there some absolutely wonderful, overlooked gems in the major nocturne oeuvres of Chopin and Fauré, but many composers – often composers unfamiliar to me – will have in their catalogs a nocturne I never knew existed, and many of them just wrote a single one! It became a game, every time I saw a composer’s solo piano catalog I would look to see if they had a nocturne, and many do! It’s alluring: the idea that there was this body of pieces out there – simultaneously limited in scope and largely unknown – that all share the same title, presumably alluding to a similar affect or tradition.
But at the same time, the genre doesn’t really have a set form or tradition, unless you count the original notion of John Field and Chopin of a solo piano aria quasi bel canto, which frankly, a lot of people simply aren’t interested in writing anymore, at all. So what does it then mean for a solo piano piece to be a “nocturne” especially in this century? That’s what I’m trying to find out, mostly by experiencing the music itself.
This might be a big one: when we met we had both just moved to LA, and you were a new student at Cal Arts, and mentioned that you’d heard this guy was starting this orchestra you might help out with. That’s turned into one of the country’s most-acclaimed new music ensembles, and your own notoriety as a performer has grown in parallel, from new student in town to playing at Disney and Carnegie Hall and getting written up by Swed. Could you give us an idea of what that ride has been like for you? And have you thought of your career so far as an artistic narrative, or are you more focused on the project in front of you?
Yeah, that is a big one! Downright cosmic, actually. It’s hard for me to answer that, mostly because that part of all of us that always wants to as humble as possible is currently shoe-gazing and scuffing his toes saying, “Pshaw…” But really, you put it better than I could: I’m just focused on the projects in front of me. It’s certainly exciting to notice the attention and opportunity, not to mention the critical acclaim, of course. But we’re all just people trying to say and do something interesting, from the biggest arts organizations to the smallest independent arts venture or show. During my last year at CalArts and into my first year out of school, I had two rules for myself: The first was, if you can do it, say yes. The second was, even if you have no idea what’s going on, have as much fun as possible. They’ve gotten me pretty far, I’d say, and I’ve certainly done a lot of things that have been really fun (although recently, a couple more rules had to be implemented to temper this unilaterally over-zealous approach)! Most importantly, I truly believe that we’re all students of the world for life, and I try to keep a beginner’s mind throughout it all. The general rule in nature is, “if you’re not growing, you’re dying”. And I think that we’re all called to be constantly bettering ourselves physically, spiritually, emotionally, and artistically so that we may then be a benefit to our community and the world around us simply through our existence and representing our set of values through the things we do for ourselves and others.
Can you share any stories from Gnarwhallaby’s Carnegie Hall concert? I heard a thing about you breaking pianos, which I was actually kind of proud of…
Well, the piano-breaking thing is something I was confused by, more than anything, although in retrospect, it does feel pretty badass. What happened was, our rehearsals were in these recording/rehearsal studios way out in Midtown West, and there were a number of Yamaha grands located in multiple studios. In the course of our few days of rehearsals of Nicholas Deyoe’s Lullaby 4 for the premiere in Zankel Hall, there were no less than three instruments that simply… gave out, I guess is the best way to put it. Like, they were rendered completely unplayable. By me. It had something to do with at a certain point during our rehearsal, the action got jammed and then most of the keyboard just simply didn’t work. At first I thought it was a fluke, but then it happened twice more, and I realized that I must have hands (and forearms) that an ordinary piano simply can’t handle. And just to be clear, this piece had no extended techniques at all – so it’s not like I wasn’t playing the instrument “the right way,” or whatever.
As for other stories, perhaps a better question is, should they be shared! Of course there are stories, but what is appropriate in this context I wonder…?
What excites you about making music here in LA in 2014?
I’m just gonna come out and say it: Los Angeles right now is the most fulfilling and exciting musical environment I could have hoped for, and it’s only looking to get better! What I totally admire about my colleagues and our city is the prolific diversity of style and context as well as the profound commitment to truly interesting and unique modes of art-making. It’s like nowhere else. And most importantly, the level of support within the various artistic community I’ve been privileged to be a part simply feels like family, a home.
What music have you been digging recently?
Andrew McIntosh’s new album Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure is just off the chain beautiful. And speaking of Nicholas Deyoe, I feel like I hear a new piece of his every other month (including the one I’m going to premiere at REDCAT!) and it’s always an experience to which I look forward, both as performer and auditor. Most recently, it’s been exciting for me to discover the composer Ramón Lazkano, whose recent CD Laboratorio de Tizas with Ensemble Recherche has been getting a lot of car play.
Anything else to add?
If you’d like to know more about the program and particularly the new pieces to be premiered, Piano Spheres will be presenting an open forum discussion with Nicholas Deyoe and me facilitated by Mark Robson at the Boston Court Theater in Pasadena the day before the concert [Monday] from 10:30 a.m. – 12 p.m. This event is free and open to the public.
It’s not on the Boston Court website, but it’s definitely happening! Here’s the link to the Piano Spheres webpage about the event: http://pianospheres.org/satellite-series-workshops/
Tell us about it.
For most of my life as a composer (which is, relatively speaking, not all that long), I’ve kept various notebooks or scraps of paper with little musical ideas jotted down on them. Sometimes, I’ll not write down anything for weeks at a time, and then it will only be one measure of music – just a few pitches, harmonies, or basic gestures. At times when I have a specific project in mind, these ideas are more plentiful or involved. Two similarities I noticed about all these collected scraps is that I have a ton of seemingly disconnected, completely unused ideas, and a majority of them came to mind and were recorded at night (like many people, I simply work better and more freely when it’s dark and quiet).
In November 2012, my good friend and colleague Mark Menzies and I performed a recital at the Hammer Museum which focused on Morton Feldman’s epic 80-minute duo for violin and piano, For John Cage. We also performed a substantial first half of shorter compositions for violin or viola and piano by Cage, Feldman, Anton von Webern, and – with mutual coercion – one each by Mark and I. Although slightly absurd in retrospect (the concert was about 3 hours long!), this first half allowed the audience to really attune the senses to Feldman’s lengthy (and quiet!) journey. It also afforded Mark and I each the opportunity to write pieces for one other, and more abstractly – though no less meaningfully – for John, Morton, and Anton as well.
This duo for violin and piano, frammenti notturni, was my contribution to that event, and in it I have included a wide array of some of the aforementioned compositional fragments from over two years of random jottings: many of which were primarily influenced by Cage, Feldman, Webern, and Menzies; their techniques, philosophies, playing styles, distinguishing characteristics, formal structures, etc. Basically, everything in this piece – from its formal plan to very specific harmonic and melodic gestures – comes from and points back to these four people. And it is to the four of them that I owe a great deal of my development as a musician, composer, thinker, and human being. This small compositional offering is dedicated to Morton, John, Anton, and Mark.
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