In an era marked by emphasis on thematic programming, sometimes it seems the theme counts more than the music, or that the music serves the theme. When all goes well, however, a theme can lend insight and bring pieces together synergistically, where they are better together than apart.
The latter is what happens on Nadia Shpachenko‘s new CD, Quotations and Homages. Noticing that some of her favorite composers had written pieces based on existing music, she conceived of a program to celebrate the practice of composing with quotation. The next step was to select the right repertoire, and to commission the rest.
“I approached composers I know and like and commissioned the music to fit this programming concept,” explained Shpachenko on the program’s genesis.
The result was a body of works that simultaneously looks backward and forward—a program that honors existing traditions while venturing forth into new terrains of composition.
Opening the recording with an uplifting brilliance–by turns motoric and ecstatic–Tom Flaherty’s Rainbow Tangle draws on the seventh movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, which “immediately came to mind” when Shpachenko commissioned the work. Flaherty transforms the gentle waves of Messiaen’s piano writing into a mosaic of rapid-fire repeated notes, interspersed with rapturous chordal outpourings. Electronics heighten the piano part and add unexpected dimension, much as that of the original quartet’s instrumentation.
The program takes a turn for the dark and stormy in Missy Mazzoli’s Bolts of Loving Thunder, an offshoot of the Rhapsody in G minor by Brahms. Recounting her own “enthused but sloppy” renditions of the work as a developing pianist, Mazzoli draws on many of the same gestures Brahms used in the Rhapsody: chordal crashes, energetic surges of arpeggiation, and flurries of tremolando activity. A unique statement emerges, at once Mazzoli’s, yet clearly welling up from the work’s guiding source material–a kind of séance of Brahms through music.
Next up, Peter Yates’s Epitaphs and Youngsters, proves how dynamic and flexible Shpachenko’s homage concept turns out to be. The work contrasts in mood and means with the preceding music, and that to follow. Generally introspective, the work draws on varying musical styles to convey the essence of figures important to Yates, in this case, John Muir, W. C. Fields, Glenn Gould, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Shpachenko intones text quotes in a lyrical sprechstimme with feeling and understanding. The artwork of Shpachenko’s own sons also served as inspiration, hence the “youngsters” in the work’s title.
In another commission by Shpachenko, Vera Ivanova’s Six Fugitive Memories reflects on a range of piano repertoire in a collage of six short movements. Ivanova cleverly reinterprets essential fragments by Debussy and Satie (whose music coalesces like two colliding galaxies in “Debutie”), Prokofieff, György Kurtág, Morton Feldman, and Galina Ustvolskaya at her most formidable.
In a reverse palette-cleanser of sorts, Nick Norton’s startlingly compact work, Piano Piece for Mr. Carter’s 100th Birthday, iterates every note on the piano exactly once. The highly virtuosic work of nine seconds in length effectively divides the album down the middle, sending the second half off in an energetic burst of raw pianistic power.
Taking the album down a surreal turn, Adam Borecki’s Accidental Mozart injects a healthy dose of humor with his terse variation set after Mozart’s Sonata Facile, K. 545. Each variation is inspired by an alcoholic beverage (never mind that most who play the Mozart are underage), including Dirty Martini, Cheap Boxed Wine, and Absinthe. Borecki conveys the spirit of each drink in vivid musical depictions, proving that homage need not be serious. Shpachenko has performed the work with a slideshow of clever pop-art slides to accompany each variation. The slideshow adds significantly to the work, but even as audio alone the work belongs on the disc and including it was the right decision. Shpachenko’s sensitive rubato and probing creativity fill the gap of missing visual cues.
The genius of this album is in its effortless flow. Each work follows naturally from one to the next. Though unified by the common theme of homage, each piece is wholly individual and unrelated to the others, enabling continuous listener attention.
Daniel Felsenfeld contributed in an area heretofore untouched on the album: rock, with all its drive and defiance. The seventies band Velvet Underground served as impetus for his Down to You is Up, where Felsenfeld channels the spirit of his younger years driving the streets of Los Angeles while listening to the subversive band. The work, and Shpachenko’s committed rendering, satisfy in the visceral sense expected of rock at its best.
Shpachenko is joined by top pianists in their own right (Genevieve Feiwen Lee, Vicki Ray, Aron Kallay, Sarah Gibson, and Thomas Kotcheff) for the final two numbers on the disk.
James Matheson’s Bagatelle commemorates Beethoven, composer of many bagatelles, though here it is the Eroica symphony that provides the quotation vocabulary. Perhaps also an homage to Sonata form, the piece “pulls apart, recontextualizes, stacks, and layers” the quoted music, and does so on a distinctly Beethovenian scale: 6 pianists on 3 pianos.
The album concludes impactfully and intuitively in a work by Tom Flaherty, his Igor to Please. Commemorating Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the work stems from the famous “Augurs of Spring” chord, but only hints at it. A work as inherently diverse as the album itself, it is scored for six pianists on two pianos, two toy pianos, and electronics.
Though derived from the Rite, Flaherty’s Igor bears little resemblance to the music of Stravinksy. Instead, it conjures the macabre world of pagan Russia and its barbaric springtime rituals in a way that resonates with contemporary ears. Utilizing differing musical languages and very different musical forces, the two composers attained similar achievements: to edify, dazzle, perhaps trouble, and certainly please.
Quotations and Homages undoubtedly comes at great effort on Shpachenko’s part. The concept is creative, the program well constructed, and Shpachenko’s pianism is of the highest caliber. The recording is sure to remain a mainstay of the contemporary discography for posterity.
Quotations and Homages is available on Reference Recordings at referencerecordings.com/recording/quotations-homages and from all major online music retailers.
LA scene regulars likely know pianist Nadia Shpachenko, whose tireless concert and recording schedule is a model to live up to. Nadia has premiered more than 60 works by Elliott Carter, George Crumb, Daniel Felsenfeld, Tom Flaherty, Annie Gosfield, Vera Ivanova, Leon Kirchner, Amy Beth Kirsten, Hannah Lash, James Matheson, Missy Mazzoli, Harold Meltzer, Adam Schoenberg, Lewis Spratlan, Gernot Wolfgang, Iannis Xenakis, Peter Yates, Jack Van Zandt, and others. This Saturday, March 10, she teams up with People Inside Electronics for a show at Throop Church in Pasadena featuring both premieres and works from her upcoming album, Quotations and Homages. Nadia had a minute to answer some questions, so we asked some:
PIE’s concerts tend to focus on the interaction between human performers and electronics. Do you have a background in this type of performance, or is this new ground for you?
I have been performing pieces with electronics for many years now, this is an area of great interest for me! I love to explore how composers use their imagination to complement the acoustic instruments with all kinds of additional timbres and sound sources. I think the very first piece with electronics that I commissioned was Airdancing by Tom Flaherty. Airdancing was written for my first album of brand new works titled Woman at the New Piano. This piece was written for me and Genevieve Feiwen Lee on piano and toy piano, and has since become quite a favorite with performers and audiences! I have performed works with live electronics and with fixed media. The works on Saturday’s PIE concert will include diverse approaches to electroacoustic writing, from Annie Gosfield’s bold and wild Phantom Shakedown featuring malfunctioning short-wave radios, grinding cement mixers, and detuned and prepared piano samples, to Isaac Schankler’s poignant and heartbreakingly beautiful Future Feelings, featuring gentle piano passages reinterpreted through ambient synths and filtered noise, to Alex Temple’s captivating incorporation of pre-recorded interviews with her friends, colleagues, former students and family members sharing very personal and at times extremely painful experiences. Also, my husband Barry Werger is a recording engineer and a roboticist. When we met in Boston more than 20 years ago, he was working on his PhD at Brandeis University and part of his artistic output was touring the world with his robotic theatre troupe. The plays often featured my performances and robot actors, so the interaction between human performers and AI was an interest for me even then, although in a form quite different from what I will presenting this Saturday.
I see some old friends and some new ones on this program. What do you look for when you’re programming a concert?
This program features many composers who I worked with closely on multiple projects, and also some composers whose works I haven’t played before. When I commission pieces, I usually perform them dozens of times (often as many as 40 times for each commissioned piece), especially when the pieces are recorded and I then tour the programs to promote the works and the albums. Since I often create thematically inspired programs, it can be challenging for me to program single compositions not already part of my larger projects. My upcoming PIE concert presented me with a great opportunity to both showcase the works I commissioned most recently, and also to select works by composers with whom I did not collaborate before, all united by the common inspiration of the electronics component in the music. Tom, Annie, Vera, and Jack all wrote pieces for me that I premiered in the past. I was eager to work with Isaac Schankler for a long time now, and finally I got a new piece from him that I will be premiering on Saturday, inspired by Isaac’s baby boy, noise music, Romantic/teen angst, the melancholy of Chopin, and the composer’s worries and hopes for alternate future possibilities. This concert will be my first collaboration with Alex Temple and Julia Wolfe.
Vera’s piece is the only one that lists multimedia. What can we expect from it?
Vera’s piece exists in several versions and at the PIE concert it will be performed with all possible components – projections of the text of the poems over images, and the fixed audio part, which interjects the piano part. The fixed audio part makes use of original recordings of the poems (The Echo, In the Fog, Wind, and The Lake Isle of Innisfree) read by the poets themselves (Anna Akhmatova, Herman Hesse, Boris Pasternak, and William Butler Yeats). Overall the multimedia is created to bring back the presence of these poets and to connect the text of the poems directly to the music. And there will be one more piece with multimedia. Jack Van Zandt wrote his Sí in Bhrú for my upcoming Poetry of Places album, which will be released on Reference Recordings in Spring 2019. My Poetry of Places album will feature newly-written works by Amy Beth Kirsten, Hannah Lash, James Matheson, Harold Meltzer, Andrew Norman, Lewis Spratlan, Nina C. Young, and Jack Van Zandt, all inspired by unique buildings. Jack’s piece was inspired by the oldest building in the world, built in Ireland during the Neolithic period, about 5000 years ago. This building, Sí in Bhrú (or Newgrange in English), is fascinating on so many levels. Like the passageway and the interior chamber of Sí an Bhrú itself, the electronic elements of the work (created in dozens of layers from several sources) resonate at a frequency of 110 hertz in support of the piano part that does the same. I will perform this work with an accompanying video that features images of this unique stone age monument.
Looks like you have a consortium commission on the concert, which seems like a great way for performers to bring new works into the world. Could you talk a little about how that process works, for our readers who may not be familiar with it?
The consortium commissioning is somewhat common in orchestral, wind band and choral worlds, but is relatively new for solo music. It was realized through the Global Premiere Commissioning Consortium, an organization which accepts applications from composer/performer teams and a group of commissioning consortium members who split the composer’s and the project leader’s fee. This approach makes it affordable for the selected teams to commission new music. A relatively small commissioning fee allows the consortium members to secure the premiere performance rights on their respective territory for a fixed amount of time and help the composer to get his/her work performed globally. It is a great project which is focused on promoting the composer and his/her performers. We currently have 25 members who will premiere Vera’s new piece in 10 countries and 16 USA states.
Tom Flaherty’s piece is on your upcoming CD, Quotations & Homages. Want to talk a little about the album?
My upcoming album Quotations and Homages will be released on Reference Recordings in early April (next month). This album features newly-written works inspired by a variety of earlier composers and pieces, from Mozart to Brahms to Stravinsky to Messiaen to Carter to Ustvolskaya to The Velvet Underground. It’s a program that’s both serious and lighthearted. Older works are brought to new light through piano/s, toy pianos and electronics by living American composers Tom Flaherty, Missy Mazzoli, Peter Yates, Vera Ivanova, Nick Norton (you!), Adam Borecki, Daniel Felsenfeld, and James Matheson. At my PIE concert on March 10 I will be performing the two works with electronics from my album. The first piece, written for me by Tom Flaherty, is titled Rainbow Tangle. It captures the otherworldly ecstasy of the seventh movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, using live electronic delays, transpositions, and reverberation to expand the sonic palette. I will close my PIE concert with Tom’s Igor to Please, a piece constructed using only the notes of Stravinsky’s “Augurs” chord from the Rite of Spring (an unusual spacing of an Ab harmonic minor scale). This piece exists in multiple versions for solo piano, solo toy piano, duo piano, and the original version for two pianos four-hands and two toy pianos, each with pre-recorded electronics. My album features the original version of this piece for 6 pianists, recorded with my amazing colleagues Ray-Kallay Duo, HOCKET, and Genevieve Feiwen Lee. On Saturday I will be performing the solo piano and electronics version of Igor.
What’s next on your schedule after this one that readers can look forward to?
After this week, which is keeping me busy with 2 days of recording sessions and six concerts (four of them at ArtNight Pasadena on Friday, previewing my PIE program, I will be going to Canada to promote the upcoming album release. Local performances next month will include collaborations with the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet, bassoonist Judith Farmer, and clarinetist Edgar Lopéz (performing Gernot Wolfgang’s Trio WINDOWS, which we will be recording in May). My concert schedule is updated at nadiashpachenko.com/event and interested readers can subscribe to my newsletter to be invited to future performances at nadiashpachenko.com/contact.
Tickets for this weekend’s show are available at peopleinsideelectronics.com/nadia-shpachenko.
String quartets have an extensive tradition, not only in their repertoire and performance practice, but also in characteristic sound. Accordingly, mixing electronics with string quartet is tricky because the balance has to be just right: Too much electronics and the strings are felt as accompanying the speakers, too little and the electronics are commenting beneath a string quartet. Indeed composers might want those effects from time to time, but creating them effectively and intentionally is a delicate procedure. On December 16th, People Inside Electronics presented the Eclipse Quartet in a program of electroacoustic works—all from within the last eight years—that addressed various approaches to handling this precarious balance.
Several pieces took the approach of quartet writing supplemented by subtle electronics that became part of the ensemble itself, often felt rather than heard explicitly. Kojiro Umezaki’s (Cycles) what falls must rise benefitted greatly from this atmospheric type of electronics, which consumed the strings and shakuhachi (performed by the composer) in a scored reflection of touching, personal energy. Ian Dicke’s Unmanned wove granular soundscapes into the agile ebbs and flows so natural to string quartets. The ensemble’s deep understanding of contemporary music was especially apparent in the careful unfolding of Dicke’s textures; straying further and further from the acoustic realm, the quartet gradually withdrew musically and physically until repeating harmonies devolved into electronic noise amid an empty stage.
Among this group of works, Tom Flaherty’s Recess best showcased Eclipse Quartet’s precise and invigorating virtuosity: Driving rhythmic hockets and frenzied, fragmented melodies sandwiched a gorgeously slow middle movement. Flaherty’s work can be performed with or without the electronics and so it is not surprising that it employed the most inconspicuous electronics of the program. And the piece was all the better for its electronic restraint; the writing achieved brilliant, contrapuntal balance between foreground and background throughout. The quartet returned the favor by savoring every raucous tutti and playful imitation with both composure and excitement, thrusting the audience into an intermission of wine-drinking fueled by enthusiasm rather than by awkward, idle small talk.
The bookends of the concert were works of more experimental nature, treating the electronics as an independent—even oppositional—feature rather than an integrative one. Especially striking was the opening piece, the world premiere of Zeena Parkins’s Spirit Away the Flesh. A mosaic of romantic, shimmering and agitated moments emerges from a broadly spatialized atmosphere of field recordings and voices. Recorded spoken texts address the creative process of abstract artists Eva Hess, Hilma Af Klint, and Richard Serra; inquisitive and curious creative impulses are voiced in densely-packed aphorisms. The performers cleverly emphasized the music’s own synthetic and exploratory nature, conveying a coherence among Parkins’s many appropriated influences that felt fresh, individual, and hip from beginning to end.
Parkins’s spacious and unforced writing made way for a Mari Kimura’s I-Quadrifoglio, an active and linear four-movement prayer in response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011. Kimura’s movements (“Faith,” “Love,” “Hope,” and “Luck”) each playfully interacted with the electronics, ranging from subtle synthetic backgrounds in the first movement to hopping echoes, sweeping filters and harmonizing lines in the later movements. An improvisatory style was delineated by a few moments of stunning cohesion: A melodic doubling between first violin and cello, the violin inheriting soaring, ascending sweeps from the electronics, and a teasing callback to the elegant opening harmonies in the final movement.
The program closed with Missy Mazzoli’s haunting ode to the Brooklyn Bridge, Harp and Altar. Electronics also play against the ensemble here, most of all in the moments where Gabriel Kahane’s voice materializes, singing lines from the Hart Crane poem from which the piece takes its title. But the synthesis of the two contradicting sound worlds is seamlessly brokered by Mazzoli’s signature language: Static yet driving, eerie yet loving, simple yet complex. The use of a clicktrack left something to be desired, but the performance by Eclipse Quartet unfurled dramatic waves of suspense and resignation throughout. The result was an emotionally tumultuous conclusion to the concert, but also one that poignantly reaffirmed the fundamental question of the night: When the performers can themselves convey such deep musical meaning, what role can (or should) technology play? Is it accompanist? Performer? Sound effects?
If you looked around the room at Throop Church during the performance, the incredible amount of work People Inside Electronics did to stage this program was readily apparent. The chairs, performance space and speakers were thoughtfully laid out. The space created was intimate but exciting. The people, cables, mixing boards, computers, light stands and video cameras waiting at the ready betrayed the incredible amount of care afforded every detail. And it payed off: The sound was excellent, the electronics seemed flawless, the concert carried an air of comfortable professionalism that put the audience in the right frame of mind for an adventurous program. At musical commencement, the audience witnessed the members of the Eclipse Quartet do their part, leaping around the fingerboard and pulling the bow heavily through the strings. But like so many modern concerts, that other, binary, member of the ensemble was invisible save a coy, glowing apple hovering above a table of audio equipment. We didn’t see her sweat. We didn’t see her frantically reach to execute the code, or run out of breath as she swept filters across delay lines. She was the buffering, multi-channel elephant in the room, but we didn’t get to see her balance tenuously on the ball.
I enjoyed the program immensely, but it seems to me that this is the missing aspect we must reconcile in order for electroacoustic music performance to move forward. The music is already there: The writing and use of electronic sounds was intricate and balanced and clever, and the Eclipse Quartet showcased impressive chops and huge ears. But the audience needs to experience the exertion, the risk, the capacity to fail of all essential elements of a performance—we need to see the jungle of cables, to doubt them, in order to really appreciate when they work. Of course, sometimes a composer wants to hide technical facets of a performance from the audience, but the impact experiencing a performance has on an audience’s perception of the music must be rightfully acknowledged and incorporated into compositional practice. I left “Electric Eclipse” encouraged that electronics have matured beyond mere exploration in contemporary music–they were meaningful, emotional and powerful musical-rhetorical devices. But I also left confident that the performance practice of electroacoustic music is now the pressing limitation to its further development. It is time to abandon the stoic, screen-lit face as an acceptable prime form of electronic music and explore ways for technology to critically enhance the performance of music, rather than just the sound of it.
Brightwork newmusic (Sara Andon – flute, Aron Kallay – piano, Maggie Parkins – cello, Nick Terry – percussion, Tereza Stanislav – violin, and Brian Walsh – clarinet), joined by soprano Stacey Fraser, will be performing an eclectic set of works by Southern California composers on June 27 at Monk Space. I had the chance to hear some of Maggie Parkins’ thoughts about the upcoming concert and more:
The program includes a diverse set of works by Southern California composers. Can you tell us about your experience with these works? What do you hope to convey to the audience?
We are very excited to present these pieces by LA composers at Monk Space. We have performed all the works on the concert before, which is fantastic. Doing repeat performances of a new work is a great way for us to go deeper into the piece. Of course, the better you know a piece the easier it is to bring to life the composer’s vision. It is also more fun to present things you are familiar with because you can let go more in performance. It is great to play works by local composers because it strengthens our already burgeoning new music community. Also, you find yourself developing a bond with the composers that can last for years.
On the program are works by William Kraft, Chris Cerrone, Shaun Naidoo, Pamela Madsen, and Tom Flaherty (whose piece, Internal States,is a Brightwork commission). Have you worked with these composers before? What is the process usually like between the composer and performers when commissioning a new work for the ensemble?
We performed William Kraft’s Kaleidoscope at the annual Hear Now Festival a few years ago. Bill coached us before that performance. This is the second piece by Chris Cerrone we have performed. Last season we played the Night Mare with guest violist Cynthia Fogg. It’s great to collaborate with top notch guest artists! Soprano Stacey Fraser will join us for this concert on i will learn to love a person. She is a friend of the band and is amazing to work with. Shaun Naidoo of course was a dear friend of both percussionist Nick Terry and pianist Aron Kallay. It is still hard to believe that he passed away so suddenly five years ago. He was a larger than life fixture on the new music scene for years. His raucous energy lives on in his music, and we are honored to keep his memory alive by performing his music. In Pamela Madsen’s piece, Why Women Weep, for cello and electronics, I recorded myself speaking a text provided by the composer that I then play along with. I get to be my own accompaniment! Internal States is vintage Tom Flaherty; gorgeous lush harmonies, biting wit, rhythmically intricate ‘dancing’ figures. It’s a blast to play.
Brightwork newmusic is known for performing cutting-edge music from emerging composers, as well as classics from 20thcentury literature. What do you find similar/contrasting between these two areas?
The great thing about playing new music is the ability to work ‘hands on’ with the composer. Getting feedback and working through performance issues makes realizing their piece in front of their eyes a very satisfying process. The classics are like milestones; performing them is an honor. It’s like living with a piece of history when you perform a piece that has stood the test of time to become a cherished work.
Any future projects on the horizon you’d like to share?
The most exciting thing we have coming up is a recording project featuring three of the pieces on this concert!
Check out Tuesdays at Monk Space for more information about the upcoming concert on June 27.
Delivered with an authority and unhesitating know-how that left no room for doubt, Shpachenko’s virtuoso program of new music for piano—both solo and electronically fleshed—revealed how convincingly present-day composers can match the prestidigital feats of Liszt and Chopin. Simultaneously, universal statements on life and art, expressed in a heartfelt lyricism still resounding almost audibly, emerged to elevate the afternoon event into something profound.
Vacating the ostensibly far-flung protectorate of Pasadena in favor of a more central Downtown Arts District, the Sound and Fury season touched down at Art Share LA, a flexible creative environment serving as gallery, workshop, and performance space. The venue’s edgy, industrially rustic atmosphere and attention-arresting exhibition comingled for the ideal new music terroir. Warm, supportive acoustics brought out the best of a dubious Kimball grand, whose surprisingly sweet, singing tone belied its dilapidated exterior.
At a hearty seventy-five minutes in length, Shpachenko’s thoughtfully ordered offering of uniformly winning pieces, centered on a theme of “quotations and homages,” was an homage to the audience—an inviting, overflowing musical cornucopia, impacting listeners all the more directly in its uninterrupted flow:
“Once I begin a program, I prefer to maintain intensity through to the end, rather than leave the stage midway,” commented Shpachenko in post-recital remarks. As if leading by example, the pianist’s sustained energy bolstered listeners into progressively deeper engagement throughout, up to the concluding work which seemed to arrive ahead of schedule.
Commissioned by Shpachenko herself, the program’s opening piece, Vera Ivanova’s 6 Fugitive Memories, set the tone for what was to follow in its variety, aphoristic wit, and evocative imagery. A festschrift of sorts, six clever pastiches perceptively comment on composers with anniversaries in 2016, year of the work’s premiere. Ivanova sensitively alluded to musical identifiers of each composer in concise reinterpretations of quoted material, leaving listeners hungry for more at every turn.
Calling listeners to attention in a torrent of thunderous tone clusters punctuated by intermittent treble range chirps, the opening sketch draws on the uncompromisingly modernist sixth sonata of Galina Ustvolskaya, a relentless procession of raw, barbaric sonority with only the faintest suggestion of anything resembling melody.
Committed classicist Prokofieff served as impetus for the next number, “Fugitive No. 2,” a response to the picturesque Visions Fugitives. A bubbly, effervescent accompaniment supported sweeping, rhapsodic gestures in the foreground for a contrasting emotional foil against the cool preceding and subsequent movements.
Palettes were cleansed in meditation and clarity, as only Feldman, the next movement’s guiding example, can organize into being. Gentle, bell-like note-moments melted to mark the passing of time, like the falling of delicate icicles.
Shortly, aromas of goulash and sun-scorched paprika came to mind in a movement after Hungarian composer Gyögy Kurtág, “Playing Cimbalom.” Shpachenko adroitly manipulated a fine wooden mallet on the piano’s strings, as if playing the Cimbalom—a Hungarian hammered dulcimer for which Kurtág provided the bulk of the repertoire.
The suite concluded in a surreal collision of two tensely co-existing icons of post-Romantic French music—Debussy and Satie, in “Debutie.” The famous opening chords of Satie’s first Gymnopédie are subtly paired with the initial whole-step cascade of Debussy’s prelude Voiles (“Veils” or “Sails,” or both…Debussy wouldn’t say). The two works find a peaceable if strained cohabitation. Satie’s soothing major sevenths meld with Debussy’s bleak, directionless whole-tone environment for a musical synthesis of Ivanova’s conception, a whole as great but different from its parts’ sum.
In Shpachenko’s dedicated hands, 6 Fugitive Memories proved a fully satisfying, complete listener experience in itself, without need of enhancements or additions. Yet the opening electronics of Tom Flaherty’s Rainbow Tangle, next on the program, signaled new sonic dimensions emerging to compliment and enrich the piano.
Setting out with a clear vision for her program, Shpachenko approached composers with a specific request: write a piece inspired by another composer. “I approach composers I know and like, and commission music to fit my programming concept,” the pianist articulated from the post-concert receiving line.
Her concept struck a chord with Flaherty, composer of two works on the program, who “immediately recalled a passage from Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, and relished the excuse to play with some its elements.” The Quartet’s seventh movement, “Tangle of rainbows for the angel who announces the end of time” provided the thematic vocabulary for Flaherty’s 2015 work. Vibratory repeated chords course up and down the piano’s range, expanding upon the gentle undulations in the piano part of Messiaen’s “Tangle.” Brilliant, original electronic elements as striking as the original Quartet’s instrumentation, heightened the ecstatic topic, while a crisp, interlocking hocket texture lent a drive and acerbic bite, galvanizing Messiaen’s otherworldly atmosphere.
Spun of more contemporary inspiration, Daniel Felsenfeld’s Down to You is Up, harkens back to the composer’s own early years, which were filled with the subversive sounds of The Velvet Underground. Felsenfeld’s three-movement work for piano solo draws on source material from the band’s debut album, “Velvet Underground and Nico.” The opening movement is a free adaptation of key melodic fragments and the piano part from “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”
Belting the work’s energetic opening chords with the self-forgetful abandon of a rock star, Shpachenko set a decidedly rebellious mood, rousing listeners to heated attention. A contrastingly introspective mood shortly followed in “So Cold/So Lonely,” movement two of the cycle. Repurposing Velvet Underground’s song “Pale Blue Eyes” as a musical loom, a collage of delicate chords started life as accompaniment to the original song—then the song was removed, leaving the accompaniment self-standing.
The final movement, “Everything Was Alright,” quoted more strictly, this time from “Beginning to See the Light.” Fiery charge returned to the hall as Underground’s darker elements rose up, channeled through a motoric bass ostinato and a blaze of squeezed, descending arpeggios, terminating resolutely.
Least quotational but equally relevant, the program’s next work, Close Ups (Through Tiny Eyes) by Stephen Cohn derives inspiration from Realist painting: “The art of depicting nature as seen by toads…,” notes Cohn. Augmentation and diminution—contrapuntal devices extant from Palestrina to the present—power the work in an interplay of expansion and contraction, ultimately heightening listener perception.
Meditative sonorities alternated with crashing chords and driving scalar figuration in 15ths. A cute, understated tremolo figure between the hands recurred continually, unifying contrasting elements and restoring listener orientation at regular intervals, finally returning in full forte for a decisive last word.
Forging ahead indefatigably, industrious Shpachenko spryly prepped the upcoming number, donning ear bud and microphone headset and issuing a brief sound-check. A conspicuous white screen instantly grew functional as the first slides of an art show materialized. Epitaphs and Youngsters, by Peter Yates, a cycle of melodramas (in the original meaning of the term: spoken word over music), honors four creative figures of intangible relation, connected by their meaning to the composer. Inspired by Shpachenko’s “absorbing presentations of eternal moments,” each movement is cast in a harmonic language reminiscent of the honoree, complimented by Shpachenko’s resonant sprechstimme on pertinent texts, and images by young artists Yates admires, Shpachenko’s own sons. A movement for naturalist John Muir features rugged quartal harmonies, while intricate contrapuntal lines accompany a quote by Glenn Gould, and an overflowing stream of words by juggler W. C. Fields stretches past a Gershwin-inspired musical tapestry, ending the work openly, in a tender moment of wonder.
Shpachenko resumed her seat at the piano—briefly—turning a sharp musical corner to ground listener sensibilities in the terse, steely brilliance of Nick Norton’s Piano Piece for Mr. Carter’s 100th Birthday. The aphoristic work, a reflection on the sinister sparkle of Elliot Carter’s Caténaires, uses all 88 keys exactly once in rapid-fire succession for a jolt of musical adrenaline to the senses.
The homage offering by Missy Mazzoli, Bolts of Loving Thunder, next on the lineup, is especially personal for pianists. Written for Emmuel Ax’s “Brahms then as now” project of 2014, the piece is an homage to Brahms, based closely on the Rhapsody No. 2 in G minor, op. 79, a repertoire staple of student and seasoned pianists alike. Reminiscing on her own “enthused but sloppy” renditions of the piece as a budding pianist, Mazzoli reinterpreted the Brahms Rhapsody by emphasizing its tempestuous effects in dense, thundering chords, dramatic hand-crossings, and lighting-like ascending arpeggios. Shimmering accompanimental tremolos recall the Rhapsody’s mysterious development section, while the key heartbeat rhythm of the Rhapsody’s second theme palpitates the new Bolts into an intense, vibratory finish.
The rhythmic drive quickly resurfaced in Tom Falherty’s Igor to Please—occupying final position in the program (officially). An eagerly awaited world premiere, Igor to Please immediately sets out to show Stravinsky as the great liberator of pulse, where Schönberg might be called liberator of pitch. Highly charged syncopations and sharp interplay of piano and electronics fill out source material from the famous “Augurs of Spring,” the startling moment in The Rite of Spring, where dancers lunge and stamp to throbbing blows of dissonance. Initially polarizing—indeed inciting a riot at its premier—the work is now canonical. Yet the “Augurs” retains its power to revitalize and stimulate, like an invigorating deep-tissue massage.
Scored for piano and electronics, Igor benefits from a rich palette of sonorities, including harpsichord and toy piano, as well as stereo-sonic effects. The work is slated for performance in an alternate, assuredly impressive instrumentation of two pianos and two toy pianos, with six pianists (among them Shpachenko). Hopefully the unique electronic effects will find expression in the acoustic version, for an equally pleasing rendition.
Billed a “bonus/encore” piece, Adam Borecki’s Accidental Mozart, the final musical number of the afternoon, was a good natured, zany parody of Mozart’s piano Sonata in C major, K. 545. In the ilk of Satie’s sardonic Sonatine Beauroctratique or the poignant Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum by Debussy—parodies of equally obligatory teaching repertoire—Borecki’s “set of very serious various,” breathes new life into the ubiquitous, tradition-encrusted classic. Each variation is modeled after a particular alcoholic potable, whether imported beer, boxed wine, rare whisky, or even stronger spirits. Evidently an expert in libations, Borecki conveyed the essence of each beverage with clear musical gestures, punctuated by humorous pop art slides. Audience members emerged a little closer, having shared a round of drinks.
Shpachenkos’s generous program was preceded by music of Sound and Fury founders, Christian Dubeau and Christine Lee. Lee performed her Crystal Glass, a piece about pure sound depicting the breaking of glass through the sparkling pops and crackles of granular synthesis. A haunting melody is accompanied by, and later accompanies, the tasteful electronic effects.
Dubeau presented the first four of his forthcoming set of twelve preludes for piano and electronics. The opus’s promising initial numbers treated of weighty environmental issues in the San Gabriel mountains, where Dubeau grew up. Recorded material and live processes infused depth and additional meaning to the piano writing, complimenting it naturally.
Musical proceedings concluded, a cordial Shpachenko greeted enthused attendees. Stragglers later coalesced into an ad hoc reception at nearby Wurstküche, where gracious Stephen Cohn toasted to the pianist’s success, thanking her for “giving composers a reason to go on writing.” Shpachenko tasted her first sip of beer, pronouncing it smooth. A Chimay ale, the question arose whether it would figure in Adam Borecki’s next piece.
A new CD by Nadia Shpachenko, Woman at the New Piano – American Music of 2013, has been released containing 75 minutes of piano music by no less than four separate contemporary composers. Tom Flaherty, Peter Yates, Adam Schoenberg and James Matheson have all contributed new works written to celebrate the fact that the world had managed to survive the Mayan Calendar predictions of doom for December 2012. As Nadia states in the CD booklet: “ I feel this program is a remarkable snapshot of compositional activity in the year 2013, a fascinating exposé of how four brilliant people see and experience this newly transformed world, how they express themselves through music, and how their different ideas are brought together by an enthusiastic performer who believes in their legacy.”
Airdancing by Tom Flaherty is first and for this piece Nadia on piano is joined by Genevieve Feiwen Lee on toy piano and electronics. Airdancing opens with deep mysterious chords in the lower registers of the piano with a playfully light melody on the toy piano floating on top. There is a syncopated hand-off between the two that is most engaging given the different timbres. Now some electronic percussion in the form of a deep bass drum adds an ominous feel and then lighter cymbal-like taps are added to produce a distinctly Asian feel. The deep, rumbling bass drum returns and is joined by low notes in the piano giving a palpable sense of menace. The pace accelerates, building drama and tension. The piece concludes with a swirl of keyboard runs and sudden silence. Tom Flaherty states in the liner notes: “As I worked on this piece, images of falling, floating, and flying often came across my computer monitor.” Airdancing is an appealing combination of the traditional piano sounds and electronic percussion. The lightness in the rhythms and timbre of the electronics are nicely contrasted with the lower, more ominous sections in an interesting mix.
Tom Flaherty also contributed Part Suite-a for Solo Piano, consisting of three dance-like movements: Passacaglialude, Lullabande and Scherzoid. In this suite the mood is a bit darker, starting with a mysterious deep note at the opening of Passacaglialude followed by a simple melody that expands into something more complex and is tinged with a feeling of uncertainty and menace. Although softening slightly as it proceeds, a series of rapid and sharp notes reinforce the uneasiness. At the very last, however, this movement comes to an unexpectedly satisfying close on the final chord.
Lullabande continues in the same mood with a quiet, tentative opening that creates a questioning feel. Single deep notes in the bass add counterpoint and a touch of menace. As the lower notes predominate, this movement takes on a sinister cast. A quiet tension builds in an increasingly complex set of passages until a rapid downward scale ends in silence. A more subdued, reflective section follows but the undercurrents of tension persist at the close.
The final movement of Part Suite-a begins with a series of strong chords and rapid passages the introduce a feeling of anxiety. Very fast moving lines and scales seem to crowd in on the listener. A slower section follows but with a feeling of uncertainty as rising arpeggios and a faster tempo lead to a fast downward run and a moment of silence. The pace picks up, like sanity slipping away, and there is a frantic pace to this requiring good technique – at times it seems like four hands are on the keyboard. Ominous chords in the bass increase the tension with a frantic melody above that builds to a rapid downward run and silence at the finish. Part Suite-a for Solo Piano is a technically challenging piece that is precisely realized here.
Composer Peter Yates contributed Finger Songs for Solo Piano, a series of five short pieces and the first of these, Mood Swing, has a very fast opening – almost a trill – but this soon slows to a pleasant bluesy feel. Different moods come and go: upbeat sections mix with slower or more inward looking passages. The sudden ending takes the listener by surprise but magnifies the realization of how many different moods were heard in just under three and a half minutes.
Gambol, at just 46 seconds is shorter still and packs a faster, brighter sound. Mysterious Dawn is much slower and more enigmatic, making a good contrast to the first two sections. Brave Show is full of lively runs and ornaments and the playing here is crisp and precise. All Better concludes with an upbeat and optimistic feel. Altogether, Finger Songs for Solo Piano is like a candy sampler with all sorts moods, tempos and techniques packed into small, bite-sized packages, Ms.Shpachenko extracting the full flavor of each.
Picture Etudes for Solo Piano by Adam Schoenberg is an amazing collection of four short movements, each musically describing the works of a well known artist. Starting with the short Three Pierrots, based on Albert Bloch’s painting, Die Drei Pierrots Nr. 2. Twittering, light and fluttering, this piece requires quick playing. Some lovely chords at the finish bring to mind the brightly colored feathers of the parrots. Miro’s World is next and this is quietly lithe like a cat in the beginning, and then loud with syncopated percussion and a quick melody. In just 1:32 Schoenberg has captured the whimsey of a Miro painting.
Olive Orchard can only be about Van Gogh with a languid, lazy opening – it is a summer day in the south of France. A lovely melody drifts along, now turning a bit darker. There is a feeling of reverence in this and an appealing complexity in the later parts. A very warm and sympathetic portrait of the artist.
Kandinsky, however, is the exact opposite of Olive Orchard, opening with sharp chords and irregular rhythms. A tense, almost sinister feel to this, magnified by strong bass drum beats. A melody appears, fast and abstract, with dissonance that adds to the tension. More rapid fire notes, sharp chords crashing about and the bass drum again. A long descending run finishes this vivid musical description of the expressionist.
Cretic Variations by James Matheson follows and he writes: “Cretic Variations requires quite a lot of the pianist’s hands and brain—sudden shifts of register, simultaneous lines, seamlessly crossing hands, carefully balancing multiple elements… “ This piece opens with a single, sharp high note that becomes a repeating pattern, then speeds up with counterpoint added. Now the patterns move to the middle registers – flowing like running water – with deep bass notes providing a sense of building tension. Chords appear and these come with irregular rhythms and a faster tempo; there is a sense of sustained tension. A melody moves along as an almost familiar-sounding tune , even as this becomes distorted and underscored by unsettling deep chords. There is the sense of motion and fast pace – as if running from something. A series of crashing chords are heard, interwoven with an engaging melody. Finally all is roar and rumble and all the keys become engaged – followed by silence. Deep solemn notes toll out, as fragments of the melody drift by; there is a sad feeling to this. Slow and deliberate notes follow, like watching a setting sun. The final chord provides a welcome sense of acceptance and peace. Cretic Variations is a remarkable journey, full of mood swings and changes of pace, all expertly played.
Adam Schoenberg also contributed Bounce for Two Pianos, which is the final track on the CD. For this Ms. Shpachenko was accompanied by Genevieve Feiwen Lee. Bounce has a slow, deliberate beginning that quickly becomes a bright melody on one one piano with counterpoint in the other. More solemn at 2:45; hymn-like chords are heard in one piano with rapid passages – like water running in a brook – in the second. More dramatic now halfway along, with a definite introspective feel. But this soon breaks out into optimism again, with lively syncopation and increasingly rapid keyboard runs that exhibit an exuberant dissonance. The piece falls back into a more rational, if still bouncy, rhythmic feel and concludes with a conventionally strong ending. Schoenberg writes in the liner notes: “ For Bounce, my main objective was to write the most playful and loving work that I could come up with while imagining having a child.” Bounce for Two Pianos is precisely played by both pianists who compliment each other perfectly while completely meeting the objective of the composer.
Woman at the New Piano is a generous helping of new piano music by four contemporary composers covering a wide range of feelings, moods and techniques. Ms. Shpachenko and Genevieve Feiwen Lee have skillfully combined to produce a memorable recording.
Editor’s note: Aron Kallay will be performing on Piano Spheres’ Satellite Series at REDCAT this Tuesday, December 16, at 8:30. GO!
Inoo/Kallay Duo – Five Conversations About Two Things
Aron Kallay, Piano Yuri Inoo, Percussion
From populist records comes an inaugural CD by the Los Angeles-based Inoo/Kallay Duo, that includes seven varied pieces from five different composers. Together with versatile percussionist Yuri Inoo, Aron Kallay explores an amazing variety of textures and timbres through premiere recordings of contemporary Southern California composers.
The first track is Like Still Water by Thomas Osborne and this begins with a series of solitary piano notes followed by periods of silence that allow the overtones to hang incandescently in the air. The vibraphone joins in with a series of solid, syncopated chords that at first counterbalances the airy lightness, but this evolves into series of delicate tones that mix and hover overhead. The ensemble of piano and vibraphone here is nicely done, producing just the right conditions for a ghostly interplay. Like Still Water is precisely descriptive of the liquid feel in this piece – it is like hearing the ripples you see when a stone drops into a quiet pond.
The Question Mark’s Black Ink by Bill Alves follows and this has an entirely different feel – cool, remote and with a soft whirring sound like some alien machinery running in the basement. The sound steadily increases, as if we are approaching the source, and the crescendo builds to a single strong piano chord. A series of syncopated rhythms in the vibraphone and piano follow and these mix to form a lovely melody while a warm, sustained pedal tone rises from underneath. This develops a nice groove that is soon dominated by a powerful piano line – the texture here turns bolder and more percussive. Quiet introspection follows, with solitary piano notes heard over a warm wash. In it’s quieter moments The Question Mark’s Black Ink is beautiful music and the playing has just the right sensitivity and touch.
Cantilena III by Karl Kohn is next and this begins with a low sounding marimba trill that immediately creates an exotic feel. A strong piano entrance follows, providing some nice riffs that seem to bounce off the marimba in a mix of the sophisticated and the relaxed. The interplay produces some interesting textures, combining the soft mallets and the slightly harder edge of the piano. Cantilena III suggests a visit by an American to a rural Mexican cantina – there seems to be a gentle clash of cultures occurring and by the end of the piece the marimba and piano, interestingly, seem to be on completely different wavelengths. Cantilena III is an intriguing exploration of contrasting sensibilities and the playing is carefully balanced.
Tracks 4 through 6 comprise the three movements of Elliptic by Caroline Louise Miller. The first of these, Distorted Sundown – Golden Moonrise, begins with a low, almost inaudible hum that crescendos into a series of sharp piano notes. A soft metallic clang is heard along with the sounds of gentle waves – like standing on a distant lake shore at sunset. The piano soon predominates with a series of slow arpeggios that add to the introspective feel. The piano fades softly away, followed by a short silence, and then re-emerges in a stronger, brighter line as the moon rises. There is just enough that is strange and unnatural here to evoke a certain alien remoteness, as if we are experiencing a natural phenomena in an unusual way.
The middle movement, Earthrise – Anarchy, begins with a more pensive feel – with tentative piano flourishes and light, bell-like percussion – we seem to be hovering in space. A sudden piano crash and a series of bass drum rolls add a burst of drama and energy that suggests a chaotic process unleashed. A rapid snare drum solo gives the sense of standing in the center of a battle. This is followed by an ominous rumbling by the piano in the lower registers that explodes upward into a series of crashing chords and thunderous waves of percussion. The movement concludes with a massive chord that recedes like a distant explosion.
The final movement, Exodus, is just a little over two minutes and has an ominous start, continuing the decrescendo from the the middle movement as if rolling outward in the distance. Soft piano notes follow, like watching a ship slowly sailing off towards a horizon. Elliptic is dealing with big, planetary issues and embraces a wide range of dynamics and textures. The playing here is well-matched to the moods as the story unfolds.
The last track is Wagon Wheeling by Tom Flaherty and this starts off softly with a syncopated repeating melody in the piano followed by a dramatic buildup in the percussion. The intensity increases with a good sense of balance in the percussion – always building but always under control. A smoother section follows with the piano and marimba weaving in and around each other with remarkable precision. This piece is quiet at times and at other time boisterous, but with a sound that is always carefully contained and shaped. The percussion especially stands out – so many notes and passages but always finding the right feel. The ending is a crescendo that comes to a sudden halt. Wagon Wheeling is a complex piece with a lot of moving parts produced by just two players.
Five Conversations About Two Things brings together a wide range of composers and compositions performed by two excellent musicians who are ideally suited for each other.
Aron Kallay will perform in the Piano Spheres Satellite Concert Series at RedCat on December 16, 2014.
Five Conversations About Two Things is available from populist records.
Pianist, composer, teacher, theorist, writer, festival organizer, man-of-many-nouns-used-as-modifiers Aron Kallay has a concert this Saturday at Beyond Baroque, and it sounds just awesome. For this closing event of Microfest, of which Aron is the assistant director, he’s commissioned a bunch of composers to reimagine what can be done with a piano. With all that this guy does, I’m lucky that he had a moment to talk about the project. See you there.
Let’s get right down to business: you commissioned works for piano using two ground rules, 1) re-tune the keyboard, pretty much in any way imaginable, and 2) re-map the keyboard. How have the composers you’ve commissioned responded to or interpreted these guidelines?
It’s interesting, and this is something that I think about all the time: the creative precess is pretty much the same for me regardless of the medium. If I’m curating a concert for MicroFest, I come up with a vision, or allow the music to dictate the vision to me, and try to shape a program that will fulfill that vision. The vision can be narrative or abstract, or a combination of the two, depending on the material. The result is like a meta composition–a symphony in several acts to hopefully be experienced as a whole by the audience. Whether or not I’m successful is actually beside the point. If the process is sound and I’ve created something that is true to the vision, people will come, and if they don’t, well, then I need to find a new profession.
The same is true when I wear my performer’s hat. I need a vision, and I need to be true to that vision, regardless of the dictates of “tradition” or “performance practice” or even what the composer is asking for in the score. If I don’t own that piece of music on the stage, then no one will be happy, not me, not the composer, and certainly not the audience!
What’s your favorite thing about new music in LA?
The abundance of amazing performers in this city. I’m not sure if it’s having the studios or institutions like USC and the LA Phil or the weather, but I’d put our musicians up against those from any city–any day of the week.
And your least favorite, or something you’d like to see change?
We need a more geographically contained city, or a transporter like they have on Star Trek! The only thing new music has going for it in places like New York is that everything there is closer together.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Nope! Time to get back to practicing!