On Wednesday night pianist Vicki Ray and visual artist Carole Kim combine forces at REDCAT for two huge new works for piano, electronics, and projections. The evening includes the world premiere of Ben Phelps’s exponentially expanding Sometimes I feel like my time ain’t long, based on the Alan Lomax recording of the eponymous tune. Also featured is Daniel Lentz’s Yellowstone-inspired River of 1000 Streams, which was named a top recording pick of 2017 by Alex Ross in The New Yorker.
Vicki has been a major player in the LA scene for years as a pianist, improviser, composer, and teacher. With all she does I’m glad she had a few minutes to answer some questions about this show. Tickets and full details are available at redcat.org/event/vicki-ray-and-carole-kim-rivers-time.
Rivers of Time focuses on two “monumental” new works. How do you approach large scale pieces, as both performer and concert programmer?
In terms of programming it really depends on the piece(s). Usually with one long work I’ll put something contrasting on the other half of the concert like miniatures or just feature the single work itself. But this concert is different. Each piece is almost exactly a half hour. They seemed like perfect book ends. And then there is the thematic linkage between the pieces in terms of their focus on time. So it seemed a natural pairing. As a performer my approach has to vary depending on the demands of the piece. Ben’s piece is very rigorous – it is extremely mercurial and there are many fast shifts of tempo and mood. It’s technically virtuosic. A lot of the challenge is about knowing what’s going to happen next. Daniel’s piece is equally demanding but in a completely different way – it uses an almost constant tremolo which can be really exhausting for the body. So I had to work up to complete run-throughs of it…sort of like training for a marathon. With this piece it’s about staying relaxed (well, when isn’t it?) and keeping the long arch of the piece always in the forefront of my mind.
What really excites me about this Wednesday night’s concert at REDCAT is the opportunity to share Ben Phelps’ new work Sometimes I Feel Like My Time Ain’t Long. It has been a total pleasure to learn this piece, or I should say continue learning this work. Like all great pieces it has layers to uncover and explore and everytime I sit down to work on it I find something new. Technically and musically it’s incredibly satisfying. The way Ben exponentially expands the piano part in correspondence with the time-stretched folk tune is ingenious. But rather than be some kind of purely cerebral exercise the totality of the piece is quite mystical and haunting. I feel very honored to get to give the premiere and I hope to play it many more times.
Could you discuss your collaboration with Carol for this project?
I started hearing about Carole’s work years ago when she was at CalArts. And then shortly after that she did some work with my brother, Scot, up in Montana. He was raving about her work and I saw some clips from the evening that blew me away. Finally here in Los Angeles I had several opportunities to see her work, most notably at an Open Gate Concert with some stellar improvisers. What impressed me was how she is able to join the musical conversation by weaving visuals into the texture without dominating it. It’s incredibly unique and thoughtful. Elegant. For this concert she’ll be projecting onto scrims that envelop the piano.
Your career as a soloist, collaborative pianist, improviser, composer, teacher is, to put it mildly, wildly diverse. How do your various musical practices inform each other? Is balance a challenge, or are they more like different aspects of the same work and interests?
I don’t really see it “various musical practices.” When I was a kid I played pop music, I sang in choirs, I acted in plays, I wrote little tunes, I improvised, and I learned classical pieces. They weren’t all squared away in separate boxes. So I’ve always been that sort of player even though there was a long stretch during my college years where a lot of the improvising and composing got put on a back burner. I feel much more creatively energized when I can work both as a creator and a re-creator.
You began in Los Angeles as a graduate student at USC. You’re now the head of keyboard studies at Cal Arts. To some extent, I view these schools as existing on completely opposite ends of the musical spectrum, at least aesthetically. Could you comment a bit on this dichotomy in the LA scene, if it even is one?
I can’t really comment on USC. I graduated from there a million years ago and I’m sure it’s changed since then. But what I do know without a doubt is that I wouldn’t be the artist I am if it weren’t for my years at CalArts. The place has had an enormous impact on me. My colleagues and my students are so gifted and interesting that I often feel like a permanent student rather than faculty. I’m so grateful to be a part of it. It continues to stretch and challenge me every day.
How has the new music scene in Los Angeles changed over your career thus far? I know we’re quite proud of ourselves in recent years, with good reason, and wonder if that has always been the case or if this is the renaissance it seems to be.
It’s definitely a great city to be in right now if you’re into new music! There’s so much going on and yes, much more than when I first arrived in the 80’s. Back in the 80’s and 90’s there was the EAR Unit and Xtet. The Green Umbrella concerts were always great. And the Monday Evening Concerts were there too of course! And there was always something interesting going on at the Schoenberg Institute at USC. Also there used to be those fantastic soirees at Betty Freeman’s house…wow…those were incredible evenings. But in terms of the number of groups playing and the diversity of musics being offered right now – it’s fantastic. I just wish we had a few more good, small to mid-size venues that were dedicated to new music (AND had a good piano…!)
What was your favorite concert you’ve attended or played on in the past year?
Oh that’s too hard! But the first thing that comes to mind is hearing Andrew McIntosh’s piece Shasta on the Green Umbrella. Just gorgeous. [editor: I too have that piece near the top of my list.]
What’s next for you after this show?
Next up is Feldman’s For John Cage with violinist Tom Chiu and dancers Oguri and Roxanne Steinberg. I’m really looking forward to it! February 26 on Piano Spheres.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I just want to thank YOU and all the folks at New Classic LA for what you do!!
Tickets for Rivers of Time are available at redcat.org/event/vicki-ray-and-carole-kim-rivers-time.
This week, Zipper Concert Hall at the Colburn School hosted the latest installment of the Piano Spheres series, a concert by pianist Mark Robson entitled “The Debussy Project.” Specifically, the program placed Debussy’s Douze Etudes against a set of compositions by living composers—each responding in their own way to a particular etude from Debussy’s set.
Robson’s command of the Debussy was stunning: watching his performance, one could get lost in the theater of fingers built into the work. But beneath the virtuosic flurries was a technical mastery that highlighted Debussy’s emphasis on texture, and amplified the orchestral spirit of his piano writing. The simplicity of concept that underpins each etude might have risked sounding like a progression of, well, studies, but in Robson’s hands they provided a window into how various musical materials were treated by Debussy to create a musical language rich with contrast, layers, and detail.
The twelve accompanying composer reactions constituted the second half of the recital, and the range of styles and approaches indicated the degree to which Debussy’s language continues to serve as musical inspiration, continues to provide a bridge between past and future. Some focused on his style: Kotcheff’s work evoked virtuosic and dramatic contrasts, and Ivanova’s explored the commenting, often brash, musical interruptions. Bansal and Kohn both tapped into Debussy’s proclivity for sheathing his musical ideas with layers of sparkling textures—a foregrounding of detail taken to the extreme by Gates, whose piece unfolded flurries and sheets of sound until a final, tender conclusion.
Others focused on exploding those details out of time completely, exploring harmony and texture carefully and without Debussy’s liberated, roaming abandon. Rothman and Gibson used low piano harmonics to create a patient, meditative atmosphere anchored by the resonance of the piano. Norton’s response utilized two pianos (Vicki Ray joined Robson on stage for this) for spacious, overlapping textures that in their freedom managed to capture something of Debussy’s penchant for fleeting sentimentality, that return later as tinted, softly-distorted memories. Also in this vein was Robson’s own reaction, a magic act of sorts, summoning rich timbres and sonorities that moved seamlessly between the piano and electronics.
It might have been interesting to have seen the works paired directly with their inspirational counterpart, but hearing the progression of Debussy’s original twelve etudes in direct sequence, in my opinion, better prepared the audience by giving a framework to identify and appreciate the various types of inspiration and influence employed by the commissioned works. It is rare that a solo piano recital of this length can maintain my interest throughout, but the quality of Robson’s performance and the strength of the music was certainly worthy of the audience’s attention. And from what I could hear in muffled murmurs around the hall between pieces, Piano Spheres has succeeded in building an audience that is willing to give that attention, and which is appreciative of the talent presented.
Saturday night at REDCAT treated a full house to Play Like A Girl, an evening of works by American composer Eve Beglarian. CalArts students and faculty explored music from her ever-evolving Book of Days. Hailed by the Los Angeles Times as “a grand and gradually manifesting work in progress,” this latest installation did not disappoint.
Examples of “playing like a girl” abound in stories of justice, strength, regret, and courage. Highlights included Vera Weber’s Fireside rendition of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s poetry with block chords that cycled through harmonies from Crawford’s fifth prelude. The choice to have the pianist recite the text instead of a vocalist lent the work an intimacy it would otherwise be without; as the pianist played with her back to the audience, illuminated yet still not fully visible, you felt the singularity of her efforts and hung on to every word, unsure when the next iteration would begin. The program’s opener I will not be sad in this world for flute and pre-recorded voice based on the Armenian song Ashkharumes Akh Chim Kashil left audience members spellbound by CalArts faculty member Rachel Rudich on the shakuhachi, whose melodies rose and fell with a mystery and grace only matched by the timelessness felt by Beglarian’s setting of the traditional text.
The titular pieces delivered on their taunt with energy and style. Performed by a quartet of pianists (Vera Weber, Yaryn Choi, Vicki Ray, and Sarah Voshall), the variations on Kaval Sviri from the Bulgarian Women’s Chorus can be played in any combination for either toy pianos, grand pianos, or both. This evening presented two variations with mixtures of grand piano, toy pianos, celeste, melodica, and harmonium. The propulsive lines floated and spun, glittering with the metallic bite of the celeste and the elongated vibrations of the harmonium.
The program closed with The bus driver didn’t change his mind from 2002. Beglarian’s Bang on a Can commission constructed a world taut and rhythmic led by pianist Vicki Ray, with references to Mahler’s second symphony and Berio’s Sinfonia. Laced with pre-recorded material constructed from pipa samples, the band intoned bluesy ululations from the clarinets by Phil O’Connor and Tal Katz on cello. Vocalist Meltem Ege was strategically reserved for the end, cutting through the texture with a “keep going” mantra inspired by poetry from the Bangladeshi troublemaker Taslima Nasrin and closing the event with the perfect message.
Next Tuesday, November 21, cellist Nick Photinos of Chicago-based ensemble Eighth Blackbird will be performing works from his debut solo album, Petits Artéfacts at Monk Space, aided by pianist Vicki Ray. I asked Nick some questions about the album, performing, working with composers, and Eighth Blackbird. Here’s what he had to say:
Can you tell us about the process of recording your album, Petits Artéfacts?
The concept for the album happened after I premiered the Florent Ghys work, Petits Artéfacts, a 17 minute work of six small, tightly constructed pieces. I got thinking about all the short pieces I had played over the years and, when I started digging around, found that none of them had been recorded yet, so the content came together pretty quickly. So did the idea to collaborate with pianist Vicki Ray and percussionist Doug Perkins, two people I’ve played with for many years but not often enough. The recording sessions themselves happened in May and June of 2016 and January of 2017.
What are your thoughts on performing this music live? Does the live performance offer something the recording cannot, and vice versa?
The plan was always to tour this music live following the release, so it’s been really great to get this music out in the world more. As far as why go see this live, besides just that live music is and should be better than listening to recordings: the Ghys in particular has great accompanying videos that Florent made himself, so those are definitely worth seeing and something you can’t get from the album alone. A lot of the works also have more punch when seen live, from the politically-charged Little to the wit of the Norman.
Do you plan on more solo albums in the future?
I’ve started thinking about it, but I want to get as much mileage out of this album as I can, so that’s at least a few years down the road.
Did you work with any of the composers personally while recording the album? Can you tell us about this experience?
Not so much in the recording process itself, but I did work extensively with Florent for the editing and mixing process. I’ve loved his album Télévision, not just for the music but also the sound on the recording: full and rich but also close and present, with not as much reverb as a lot of solo classical albums have. He had a lot of great input and helped shape the sound of the recording in a big way.
So far we’ve been focusing on your work as a soloist in light of your new album, but you’re also the cellist for the Chicago-based new music ensemble, Eighth Blackbird. Can you tell us a bit about your experiences with Eighth Blackbird? In contrast with solo performing, what do you love most about performing with the group? Anything on the horizon for you guys that you’d like to share?
I’m the founding cellist of Eighth Blackbird, now in its 21st season, so it’s old enough to drink. There’s so much I love about the group–the repertoire, the staging and memorization–but it all comes down to simply getting to go to work every day, whether that’s at our studio or recently onstage in front of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and just play good music really, really well together, and have fun doing it. So much on the horizon for us, including a new album of a staged 90-minute work by Dan Trueman, called Olagón, that comes out on Nov. 10; performances of that and our regular rep; and this June the second year of Blackbird Creative Lab, our two-week summer festival in Ojai, CA that’s free of tuition, room, and board for accepted fellows.
On Saturday, September 30, 2017 People Inside Electronics presented HOCKET along with special guests Vicki Ray, Aron Kallay and Derek Tywoniuk at the historic Throop Church in Pasadena. The varied program included a world premiere by Samuel Wells, a minimalist landmark work by Steve Reich from 1970, and an unusual piece for three toy pianos. The auditorium was filled to capacity for the first People Inside Electronics concert of the fall season.
The first part of the concert was given over to the world premiere of The Lacuna (2017), by Samuel Wells. HOCKET – Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff – were seated at the piano while the composer manned a computer behind the audience. Soft, dreamy electronics filled the stage to open the piece. A strong chord marked the entrance of the piano, followed by a series of sparse notes adding to the solitary, remote feeling coming from the electronics. The four hands of HOCKET soon began producing a great profusion of notes from the piano, accompanied by the sound of lapping water. As the piano went silent for a moment, a more tentative and uncertain feeling prevailed as if we were standing on some distant shore. A series of softly repeating arpeggios then began in the piano – reprocessed by the computer and echoed through the speakers – and this was very effective in creating a quiet, settled feeling. At length the piano became more rapidly active and a sort of conversation ensued with the electronic reprocessing of the acoustic sounds.
At one point a dance-like groove broke out, growing in volume and generating a pleasantly warm feeling, much welcomed after the prior remoteness. The cycle of emotions continued, sometimes animated and with counterpoint, sometimes hopeful and at other times dramatic and anxious. The piano and electronic processing were amazingly well-coordinated, each complimenting the other to generate a wide range of expressive sensations. The electronics became a natural partner to the excellent playing by Hocket, even in the fastest and most intricate stretches. The Lacuna is a cutting edge work that does much to validate the capability of electronic reprocessing when joined in real time with skilled piano playing.
qsqsqsqsqqqqqqqqq (2009) by Tristan Perich followed the intermission and three toy pianos equipped with three-channel 1-bit tones were occupied by Vicki Ray, Kotcheff and Gibson. They opened with an unexpectedly bright and vivid sound, full of rapid passages and precise counterpoint that filled the space with a pleasingly playful energy. The 1-bit electronics augmented the normally modest dynamics of the toy pianos, adding a whimsical arcade game sensibility. There was some minimalist DNA in all of this, but the phrasing was more compact and the harmonic changes more engagingly frequent. Intricate layers of notes poured forth from the players, with sudden stops and grand pauses sprinkled throughout. All of this was skillfully performed, a feat made more remarkable by the cramped postures necessitated by sitting at the small instruments. qsqsqsqsqqqqqqqqq is a surprisingly attractive and inventive piece for unlikely musical forces, delivered with precision and style by HOCKET and Ms. Ray.
Orizzonte (2004) by Missy Mazzoli for solo piano and electronics was next, performed by Gibson. A clear, slowly pulsing tone issued from the speakers to begin, followed by a series of single piano notes that were close in pitch to that of the electronics. Open chords were soon heard in the piano producing a somber feel and as the piece proceeded the phrases by Ms. Gibson turned more complex and darkly dramatic. The playing here was satisfyingly expressive as the texture gradually became more dense and colored by variations in the dynamics. The piano wove intricate passages in and around the electronic tone which remained more or less constant in pitch and timbre. The simple electronics proved to be surprisingly effective as the foundation for the strongly plaintive mood. Orizzonte artfully combines skilled playing with a straightforward electronic accompaniment in a way that augments each to the benefit of the whole.
Musique de Tables (1987) by Thierry De Mey contained three solid tablets equipped with contact mics on a narrow table. Ray, Gibson and Kotcheff were seated so that their hands, fists and fingers could easily contact the surface of the tablet. The auditorium was completely darkened and the players wore LED head lamps so that the motion of their hands was highlighted as they performed. All of the possibilities of hands and fingers on a flat surface were adroitly explored in this piece, often with striking results. There was, of course, drumming with all three players in unison or separately weaving complex passages and this was often reminiscent of a marching band drum line. There was the tapping of fingers and pounding with fists. There was rubbing of palms and scratching on the surface of the tablets as well as hands clapping, all making for an effective contrast with the more dominant percussive sounds. In the darkness it often felt as if we were witnessing some primal ceremony in a remote village. Musique de Tables is a wonderfully imaginative piece made all the more impressive by the simplicity of the materials, the staging and the ingenious lighting.
The final work on the program was Four Organs (1970) by Steve Reich. Vicki Ray and Aron Kallay joined HOCKET at keyboards on a table in the center of the audience. Derek Tywoniuk began the piece with a steady and continuous eighth-note pulse from two maracas. Four Organs is early Reich, and it was one of his first pieces to be performed for a large audience at a concert by the Boston Symphony in 1971. In his book Writings on Music, Reich wrote that Four Organs was “…composed exclusively of the gradual augmentation of individual tones within a single chord. From the beginning to the end there are no changes of pitch or timbre; all changes are rhythmic and simply consist of gradually increasing durations.” The process-driven feel of this piece is immediately apparent from the beginning and it slowly unfolds with an unrelenting rigor. As the pitches lengthened, the chord took on a sort of grandeur as the tones were allowed to ring out. The playing by all was both accurate and disciplined as Four Organs uncoiled along its deliberate course – a nice reminder of the early days of minimalism.
People Inside Electronics continues to explore the many possibilities of acoustic and electronic collaboration in ways that consistently create good music. Their concert will be Sunday, October 15, 2017 at the Throop Church and will feature cellist Ashley Bathgate.
Cold Blue Music has announced a new album, River of 1,000 Streams, by composer Daniel Lentz. Written in 2016, this is a single track of solo piano music inspired by a visit to the Yellowstone River and performed by Los Angeles-based pianist Vicki Ray. From the liner notes, “…River of 1,000 Streams is a virtuosic piano piece in which a live/solo part is expanded by the addition of hundreds of ‘cascading echoes’ (reappearing fragments of music) that appear kaleidoscopically in up to 11 simultaneous layers, creating a thick texture of primarily tremolos that gradually gains in density and volume as rich harmonies climb, in a great arc, from the very bottom to the very top of the keyboard.”
Although simple in concept and consistent in texture, River of 1,000 Streams is always changing and begins with a deep rumbling in the lower registers – almost like the roar of a distant flight of old bombers. There is a strong flowing sensation to this, as if unseen waters are roiling just out of sight. At 2:00 the rolling phrases rise just slightly in pitch, adding a new sense of expectancy. While still very dark and ominous, the expressive playing by Ms. Ray creates a powerful surging sensation; the texture and dynamics here are expertly shaped, and the result is like listening to a restless tide. The repeating patterns move slowly up the piano keyboard and each new set of pitches adds to a sense of evolving motion.
By 6:30 the notes are high enough in pitch to become a bit more distinct in the hearing – less like a roar and more like a patter. The flowing feel remains as the piece proceeds, but the small variations in pitch and the artful shaping of the dynamics keep the listener engaged. By 11:00 the register has moved high enough that there is a greater sense of drama in the notes, even as the passages and textural density remain consistent. At 14:24 a short melodic fragment is heard – like the cresting of a wave – marking the transition to the middle registers. The same pattern of tremolos and trills persist, but the new pitches feel more introspective and less menacing here. By 17:30 the pitch register is high enough to spark a sense of tenuous optimism – as if a ray of the sun is emerging from behind a dark cloud. At 19:00 another short melody fragment is heard, followed by dramatic surges of the low and ominous notes from the opening. The many subtleties in this piece rely on the perceptive playing of Ms. Ray, who manages to perfectly articulate the slight variations in density and texture from moment to moment.
By 20:00 the piece has arrived at the higher reaches of the keyboard with the notes sounding crisper and more distinctly percussive, as if a climax is approaching. At 21:54, another short melody fragment appears while the trills in the upper registers sound like an alarm going off. Middle and lower register trills roll by in accompaniment, adding a sense of layered depth to this section. At 23:30 the high register texture is now very animated and a wash of middle register trills fill in nicely below, adding balance. At 25:00 another short melodic fragment appears and the mix of pitches becomes somewhat more calming. By the finish, the very highest notes on the keyboard trill anxiously but are accompanied by a series of lower surges that offer a comforting sense of closure. At the end, the sound simply ceases, the last notes ringing out and slowly dying away.
River of 1,000 Streams is a prodigious work, in its vision as well as the realization. The subtle variations are always engaging, even as they unfold slowly, and the intricate layering of the various passages is precisely formulated. The performance by Ms. Ray deserves special credit – River of 1,000 Streams will only add to her deserved reputation as one of our premiere interpreters of contemporary music.
Is Yar perhaps a word, in some other language unbeknownst to me, that means “delicious sonic experience”? After listening to the new album, Yar, by siblings Scot and Vicki Ray, that’s what it means to me.
Neither Ms. Ray nor her excellent playing is new to me. She has been an impressive fixture on LA’s new (and not so new) music scene for many years. She plays or has played with an impressive litany of our best ensembles and players. Her recitals with the PianoSpheres series are always a joy. I confess to being unaware of her brother Scot. He was, I learned from the liner notes of their new release, originally a brass player. And not just any brass player but one who was in the thick of LA’s modern jazz scene. But while still very much enjoying a successful, vibrant, jazz career he uprooted himself, and moved back to his (and Ms. Ray’s) home state of Montana and decided to focus on the guitar. Listening to him play, in various guises and styles, including a lot of slide, would have me think he was a guitarist from the beginning.
Yar is a generous offering, a full 73 minutes of music. It uses that length brilliantly, exploiting a great variety of styles and timbres yet somehow managing to make the record, as a whole, feel cohesive, integral, and logical. But it is more than just a triumph of logic, to be sure. There is a synthesis of the modal and atonal, the consonant and dissonant, the timbrally delicate and harsh, sharp-edged noise. As I said, above, it’s truly a delicious sonic experience.
Only one of the album’s nine tracks comes in under 5 minutes (For Harry, at 4:47). Each piece is a substantial music journey on its own. Thematic elements are present, as is some notion of development and evolution of those elements. Every piece feels complete, fully realized and, by its end, satisfying.
Each one of Yar’s compositions present a unique territory, great fodder for one’s visual imagination. I see the players, surrounded in the detritus of musical instruments, cables, microphones and other electronic paraphernalia, yet I close my mind’s eye and I’m wandering in a new, delicious, hitherto unknown land of visual and auditory oddities. Some are more pleasant than others. But each one is enticing in its own way.
Listening to Yar, from start to finish, is like taking a beautiful tour of the artists the Rays have loved and been influenced by. Was this by design? Was this of primary importance to them? I can’t say. But to this listener, it is the aural equivalent of a challenging but ultimately rewarding scavenger hunt. The musics evoke many great composers and players. Some references are more explicit, some subtly hinted at. There are the helpful ghosts of so many great musical predecessors as well as various industrial machines and devices, perhaps angry with their lot in life, plotting to overtake their human overlords.
Anamorphosis, (the second track on Yar) according to my dictionary is defined as such:
1. a distorted projection or drawing that appears normal when viewed from a particular point or with a suitable mirror or lens.
- the process by which anamorphic images are produced.
- a gradual, ascending progression or change of form to a higher type.
I cite this definition here because, a) you might not be familiar with the word, (I wasn’t), and, b) taken together, both of these definitions do a wonderful, if abstract job, of explaining the work by this name. There are low drones which are then combined with slow-attack sounds fading in and out. Then comes a staccato, stutter-edit treatment of a plaintive vocal track or sample. It more than flirts with Middle Eastern modes and nasal double-reed-implying timbres. It’s cool, sure, but honestly, it earns its place not because of its treatment of what it’s referencing, but rather how it manages to mangle it, turn it into something all its own, unique, and yet somehow perfectly at home amid the other compositions.
Zero Doesn’t Exist is quite restrained but still a vehicle for Scot’s rather blistering solo. He doesn’t expose his technique often, but when he does, it’s impressive. I hear a lot of my guitar heroes from NYC’s Downtown scene, people I’d see in the first Knitting Factory iteration. Ray’s guitar playing pierces, and floats high above randomly recurring noises, from piano wires to other harsh metallic sounds, all above a quite unobtrusive, spacious electric bass ostinato.
I think it a fair assumption that For Harry is inspired by, perhaps a tribute to, Harry Partch. Ms. Ray is no stranger to the prepared piano, and she uses it here to approximate the more percussive elements of Partch’s music (Barstow, among others) while other sounds, from both Rays, fill out the would-be ensemble. Scot’s plucked strings are reminiscent of Partch’s adapted guitar, and these instruments combined with overdubbed percussive elements create a wonderful Partch-a-rama. It made me yearn for Partch’s strict 43-tone octave, but I’ll forgive the absence.
Thrice Ephemeral Journey was inspired by For Marcel Duchamp by John Cage. Cage’s prepared piano is easy enough to hear, and its tribute to his Sonatas and Interludes is clear and explicit enough, and beautifully executed. But Thrice adds another layer or two. In a soft but creepy, lurking percussive woodblock of sorts I hear PIL’s Under The House. And then Bill Frisell walks in, plugs into his volume pedal, and jams along. I’d like to think that Cage would be pleased. (When wasn’t he pleased by sounds like these?!)
In Fear of the Wind I hear something reminiscent of Stockhausen’s Kontakte, or perhaps some of David Tudor’s realizations of Cage’s later works. (Electrified cactus, perhaps?) It’s like a spinning top bouncing on a table while some odd servo-motored device churns in the backgroup, while outside a group of evil aliens play recorders! Demonic voices enter, and then a blistering quasi-rock guitar solo. And maybe that’s Bill Laswell on the bass?
I’m struck by the gorgeous evolution in The Highline, how it develops and unfolds the way Eno’s Ambient music might, but with decidedly less delicate timbres. It invokes the drama and tension of a tightrope walker’s wire, perhaps Philippe Petit’s line across the Twin Towers, tight yet buckling across that distant span, so many feet up in the air, shifting with the weight of its passenger, colored by the winds. Vertigo translated into sound. I much prefer it this way.
Among the many things to like on Yar is its great mix of beauty and noise. This is manifested movingly in Cortege. A cortege is a solemn funereal procession. As we hear the rattles in irregular staccato rhythms against the bell-like, slow-metronomic pulses, one can imagine the casket slowly, religiously carried by the pallbearers through the streets of a dark, eerily desolate town.
Just a few tracks in, and I start to wonder, “What is their compositional process?” And the more I listen, the more this delicious music turns this musing into a burning question. There are obviously real-time duets, but also other overdubs, layers, loops. The formal structures at work here warrant my curiosity, so I continue to wonder: how much of each track is pre-arranged, how much is improvised, how much is added and/or edited after the initial “basic tracks” are laid down?
Of course, how something is made is often not a satisfying question. (In certain situations, it can even be counter-satisfying.) You don’t need to wonder, or ascertain the “compositional process” of Yar. What matters, ultimately, is what we are left with. What is this music, and how does it make us hear, how does it make us feel? It delights with improvisational constructions, austere sonic fields that define their own territories, by way of harmonic language, timbral depth, and instrumental content.
This is a record that you can listen to passively or actively. I usually hate the idea of “background music” (and I hope that Yar isn’t used as such) but I find it to be equally satisfying both in “deep listening” (to borrow Pauline Oliveros’ term) or just having it be part of a more passive, meditative background.
I am genuinely fascinated by the creative process invoked here that resulted in the wealth of musical coolness that is Yar. For all my references to other composers and players, the payoff, the legitimacy, the wonder, all stem from my understanding of these works as not merely a collection of representations of their influences, but somehow some dialectical syntheses of the siblings’ collective musical instincts and influences into something quite unique, quite marvelous and quite beautiful.
To its great credit, despite the very wide-ranging sounds, Yar is devoid of irony, not at all anything resembling a postmodern commentary on anything. But that is not to say that it is always entirely serious or completely devoid of humor. It is, rather, a sincere and genuine exploration of a wide range of sonic possibilities. A collection that isn’t afraid to embrace beauty or ugliness, alone or in combination, without any faux-clever attempt to subvert or invert such subjective classifications. This, like so much of the music itself, is refreshing and extremely rewarding.
Yar is available from Orenda Records at orendarecords.com/orenda0040, and from most music retailers.
Writing reviews as a composer can be a delicate business, in that the needs of one – being friends with performers – sometimes conflict with the needs of honest, unbiased writing. Every now and then, however, you come across a concert so good that it blows away any concern for that conflict, because in lauding the performers with accolades you are merely speaking the truth. Ray-Kallay Duo‘s concert at Boston Court last week was one such show.
As the name implies, Ray-Kallay Duo is the four-hands project of pianists Aron Kallay and Vicki Ray. Just saying four-hands undersells it, though, as Friday’s concert had them awash in four-hands, four-feet, laptop, ankle-shakers, microtonal vs. equal-tempered keyboard rep. The show opened with Kevin Volans’ Matepe, with the pianists hocketing changing rhythms back and forth while beating out time with legs covered in seed pods. This contrasted nicely with Kyle Gann’s gorgeous and calming Romance Postmoderne, which was written for the duo.
You might expect stage changes galore, what with the unstrapping of seed pods and moving between instruments. While some ensembles get awkwardly silent during these times, Ray-Kallay has the insight to use them to their advantage, as Vicki Ray delivers affable program notes about each piece from the stage while Aron resets. The friendly vibe of the event helped out pieces like Frank Oteri’s Oasis, written for Yamaha DX7s and intended to make fun of the ridiculousness of early FM synth instrument modeling. In a “serious” recital such a piece may have felt out of place, but here it fit right in.
Composers in attendance visited the stage as well, with Isaac Schankler explaining how his piece Because Patterns (the title an answer to Morton Feldeman’s Why Patterns?) uses preparations to an acoustic piano to try to conjure the feel of electronic sounds.
Boy, did he succeed. The minimalist, groove-based piece was the highlight of the night. Extremely transparent, it not only showed off Schankler’s feel for phrase and musical structure and attention to sound (almost like a friendlier Tristan Perich), and the non-pandering influence of electronic artists like Matmos and Aphex Twin, but highlighted just how tightly the pianists were synced. It would be easy to convince a listener that it was one musician sitting at the piano.
Dylan Mattingly’s piece The Rest is Silence also benefitted from the cohesion of Ray and Kallay, this time with one at the piano and the other at a just-intoned keyboard. This piece is strikingly lush and beautiful, and calls into question the idea that JI music is music for specialists. It’s my favorite Mattingly piece I’ve heard yet.
When writing for four hands, I’m often thinking about chord voicings and contrapuntal writing that one pianist couldn’t achieve within their span. The range of things that Ray-Kallay demonstrated are possible with two performers of this caliber was inspiring. I hope they continue to build a rep for their infinitely-malleable setup and concertize everywhere, not just as two pianists, but as two extremely versatile musicians.
Our friends over at People inside Electronics recently got their 501(c)3 status approved. To celebrate, they’re throwing a house concert/party with Vicki Ray, in part to fund their upcoming season. Tickets are limited – there are only 15 available – for the December 7 party at Vicky’s house.
Funds raised from this event will go to supporting PiE’s upcoming season, which looks awesome. For details, visit peopleinsideelectronics.com/vicki-ray.
This Saturday night, People Inside Electronics present Nothing is Real: psychedelia for piano and electronics at Pierre’s Fine Pianos in Westwood. Amid preparations for the show, artistic director and founder Isaac Schankler managed to find a moment for an interview.
Tell me a bit about this weekend’s concert. You’ve got a ton of pianists on it, and what looks like a cool mix of pieces by local (Shaun Naidoo) and seriously established (Alvin Lucier) composers.
Yes! We’re really happy to have a bunch of amazing pianists involved: Vicki Ray, Vatche Mankerian, Genevieve Feiwen Lee, Louise Thomas, Aron of course, and Rafael Liebich, who also happens to be our new assistant director.
As far as the music goes, part of our mission all along has been to program works by established composers alongside newer works, to show that there’s a kind of history that’s there that people are continuing to build on. For this concert the classic pieces are Alvin Lucier’s Nothing Is Real (Strawberry Fields Forever) and Charles Dodge’s Any Resemblance Is Purely Coincidental. Lucier’s piece is a kind of stripped-down arrangement of the Beatles tune, which you hear first from the piano and then emerging from a teapot, which the performer is able to play with onstage to control the resonance of the sound. Dodge’s piece takes an old recording of the tenor Enrique Caruso and digitally manipulates it — it was one of the first pieces to use digital manipulation in this way.
One of the things that these pieces have in common, we realized, was the illusory nature of the electronics. There’s this idea that, once you record something, it becomes detached from our ordinary reality and becomes this kind of putty that can be shaped at will. A liberating and scary thought! Hence the “psychedelic” theme that the concert is loosely organized around, though the selection is pretty diverse within that. Linda Bouchard’s Gassho is very meditative, and Mike McFerron’s Torrid Mix is inspired by hip-hop. Pierre Jodlowski’s Serie Noire is based on clips from old noir films, and Shaun Naidoo’s Voices of Time is based conceptually on a J.G. Ballard story. Those last two are quite virtuosic, by the way.
Oh! And I should mention that we just added yet another piece to the program, Benjamin Broening’s Nocturne/Doubles.
How did People Inside Electronics get started?
PIE got started in 2009, when Aron Kallay and I were both graduate students at USC, and we noticed that while there was a lot of new music in LA, there wasn’t a whole lot of electroacoustic music being performed (aside from the efforts of a few groups like SCREAM and Sonic Odyssey). And we had the thought, well, if the venue doesn’t exist, why not create one?
You’ve collaborated not only with artists working in other mediums, but with scientists and engineers as well. Could you discuss some of your collaborative efforts, how you got people involved, and what the reaction was like?
Sure, I can give a couple examples. In 2010 we worked with Alexandre François and Elaine Chew, who were both engineering professors at USC at the time and part of a research group called MuCoaCo (Music Computation and Cognition Laboratory). Alex designed this really cool piece of software called Mimi (Multimodal Interaction for Musical Improvisation). Mimi is a kind of improvisational partner, and there’s also a visualization aspect to it that allows you to see what Mimi is up to. I was really taken with the software, and performed with it at our June 2010 concert. The reaction was great, because it piqued the interest of science-minded people beyond the usual new music crowd. I think it’s exciting for people to see unusual and artistic uses of technology — even though they work with it day in and day out they don’t necessarily know what it’s really capable of.
Then there’s our collaborations with other artists. For example, on that same concert we presented Veronika Krausas’ Waterland, which included video by Quintan Ana Wikswo and text by Andre Alexis. Veronika is curating a concert in April that we’re co-presenting with the interdisciplinary arts organization Catalysis Projects, so you can expect a lot more of that in the future.
What has the reaction to your concerts been like in general? Do you feel that there’s a strong and supportive scene for electroacoustic composition here, or is it something that could use some improvement?
Yes, I would say people have been very supportive! For example, we’ve started to have funding campaigns for our last couple of concerts, and raised over $2000 total through that, so that’s been really encouraging. (You can still donate to our current fundraiser at indiegogo, actually.) We pour a lot of time and energy and money into making these concerts happen, and it would be really hard to do that if people hadn’t responded in the way they have. So if you’re reading this and you’re one of those people who has donated or come to our concerts in the past, thank you!
What do you see as the challenges to running a concert series here and now?
LA presents some unique challenges for a concert series because of the size of the city and the fact that there’s always so much going on. You have to present a really compelling reason for people to come out, especially if they’re driving across town! But I think in the long run it’s actually helped us by pushing us to really finely hone what we do, both in terms of the quality of the music and in how we present it.
I have to say that I think LA is a really fantastic place for new music right now. I’ve seen so many great concerts in the past year, and I’ve missed so many more. I feel terrible every time I miss a concert I want to see, but it’s practically unavoidable.
This is a big question, but it often feels like electroacoustic music somehow gets separated from other genres in an almost unfair way. As in, symphonic or traditional concert music connoisseurs seem to see it as novelty, whereas listeners more familiar with popular electronic music tend to think of it as a separate, experimental thing. Do you perceive that at all? And if so, is it something that concerns you?
I don’t particularly see this kind of thing happening, at least not any more than with other kinds of new music. It may be that I’m just insulated from this kind of talk. But electronics have played such an important role in the development of new music, and so many great 20th and 21st century composers have at least dabbled in the medium, that I think most people who at least know about it don’t view it as a niche at all. It’s been with us almost a century, after all, so it’s not really a novelty at this point.
The exception to this might be those people who view classical music as some kind of final stronghold, the only place where “real” music is still made with “real” instruments. They might say that technology is slowly chipping away at that. But every musical instrument was new technology at some point. Or, to shamelessly quote Brian Eno, “technology is just the name we give to things that don’t work yet.”
I think that’s why PIE has been focused on pieces that just work, pieces that are aesthetically compelling regardless of the technology involved. That’s what’s really striking to me about those pieces by Lucier and Dodge. Whether or not they were technically innovative at the time they were composed, that’s not really why we programmed them or what you notice when you hear them. The technological medium almost melts away, and you’re just listening to a beautifully constructed piece of music.
I’m very curious about your take on electronic performance practice, especially since it says in your biography that you’re interested in how people interact with electronics. Let’s be blunt: watching people press buttons is pretty boring. Having the live pianist and visual elements helps immensely, but are you also pushing new modes of performance for the electronic portions of these concerts?
Well, performance with electronics can be frustrating to watch because it’s kind of a black box; the performance isn’t really visible in the same way it is with an expressive instrumentalist (despite the best efforts of head-bobbing DJs everywhere). It’s a kind of disembodied performance. I think putting live instrumentalists front and center helps, as you said. And when programming newer works, we try as much as possible to incorporate live electronics that react to what the performers are doing, so the electronics become a kind of extension of the instrument. The electronics in Shaun Naidoo’s piece that Aron is premiering, for example, are incredibly responsive to what Aron’s doing at the piano. It just looks and feels like a natural extension of his performance, and it’s really fun to watch.
I also think we can still learn a lot from Lucier, the oldest composer on the program. The lifting of the teapot lid is such a straightforward action, but you immediately understand what it means sonically; you know exactly what the performer is doing to manipulate the sound, and that’s one of the simple joys of experiencing that piece.
I can’t help but notice that People Inside Electronics only puts on one or two shows a year. I’m sure you and your partners are quite busy with other projects. As such, have you hit a happy frequency with that, or are you hoping to increase the number of shows you do?
Two per year (one in the fall and one in the spring) seemed ideal in the past, but lately we’ve had a hankering to do more, which is one of the reasons we asked Rafael to be a part of PIE. We actually have 3 concerts this season: the one with Eclipse Quartet last fall, the one coming up on February 11th, and the one on April 28th called “Misfits and Hooligans” that’s being co-presented with Catalysis Projects. And we already have something in the works for this fall that I’m very anxious to talk about when it’s finalized!
Find more information or purchase tickets to this weekend’s concert at peopleinsideelectronics.com/nothing-real-psychedelia-piano-and-electronics, and donate to the fundraising campaign at indiegogo.com/People-Inside-Electronics.