It’s Lou Harrison’s 100th birthday! (Well, almost.) San Francisco-based pianist Sarah Cahill will be joining LA’s own Varied Trio (Shalini Vijayan, violin, Aron Kallay, piano, and Yuri Inoo, percussion) at Monk Space on April 4 to celebrate, performing a variety of Harrison’s works. I had the opportunity to ask Cahill some questions about the upcoming concert and more. Here is Sarah:
You’ll be performing several solo piano works by Lou Harrison at Monk Space, including Jig, Range-Song, Dance for Lisa Karon, Conductus from Suite, and Summerfield Set. Can you tell us bit about these works? Also, what are your thoughts about Lou Harrison’s music in general?
Even though Lou Harrison said “Equal temperament destroys everything,” and was far more fascinated by just intonation and other tunings, he wrote some extraordinary music for the equal tempered piano (which describes basically all modern pianos). His Jig and Range-Song have been played only rarely, if at all, since he wrote them in 1939. He was 22 years old, studying with Henry Cowell, who was in San Quentin at the time. In these pieces, he evokes Cowell with his chord cluster techniques. There’s a third piece from this set called Reel, and it’s sometimes called Reel for Henry Cowell. That gets played a lot, as opposed to Jig and Range-Song. Dance for Lisa Karon is a year earlier, from 1938, and the manuscript was discovered just a few years ago in someone’s house in San Francisco. Conductus is from the Suite which Lou Harrison wrote when he was studying with Arnold Schoenberg, and it resembles Schoenberg’s own Suite in that it uses a twelve-tone row but is not strictly twelve-tone. Summerfield Set is an exuberant three-movement work from 1988, and it’s the Lou Harrison we know and love, with dance rhythms and singable tunes. It’s dedicated to the keyboardist Susan Summerfield.
What do you find most compelling about commissioning and performing new works?
I love the surprise of receiving a new score, of bringing a piece of music to life and knowing it’s going to enter the repertoire and be interpreted by countless other pianists (after I have lots of time with it!). It’s exciting to explore a piece of music that’s completely unknown territory. And I love working with living composers, the exchange of ideas, the whole process of developing a piece and working towards a premiere or a recording.
What initially drew you to the piano, and what are your favorite (and/or least favorite) aspects about being a pianist?
I was initially drawn to the piano by a charismatic and beautiful teacher named Sharon Mann who is a Bach specialist. Because of her, playing Bach was everything to me. My least favorite aspect of being a pianist is the pressure of trying to learn a piece fast when ideally it should be given a year or two. My favorite part of being a pianist is immersing myself in practicing all day long, which is a luxury, and that feeling in performance that someone else is playing and I’m just listening– when the music seems to play itself. One other thing I find exciting is getting to the point where I know a composer’s work so well that I can identify mistakes in the score.
Do you ever compose? If not, what kind of composer do you think you would be?
I would be a terrible composer. I love the whole process of interpreting.
People Inside Electronics (abbreviated PIE) performs and promotes electroacoustic music in LA. Often, concerts go beyond music and present interdisciplinary multimedia collaborations with dancers, actors, scientists, and so on. PIE focuses on the artists, and electronic synthesizers and modulators are the media. The more time passes, the more I appreciate the name of the series. Today, we live in a world where music can be created entirely by programs and algorithms, without people at all. Furthermore, an increasing portion of the population has electronics inside them, from pacemakers to RFID implants (yes, really). To turn the lens from the machines’ ability to the people’s, and what they can make the machines do, is something to behold.
Beginning the concert on a fantastic note was The Deep State by Isaac Schankler (2017), performed by Scott Worthington on bass and Isaac Schankler on electronics. Right from the start, I could hear Pauline Oliveros’s influence and inspiration on the piece. She is one of my favorite pioneers in electronic music, and I know she is an influence to Schankler as well. Her pieces change slowly, like delicately bending metal into a sculpture. Like Schankler, she often provokes contemplation.
Schankler writes in the program note, “This piece is ‘about’ both the necessity and seeming impossibility of this kind of contemplation in our…current situation.” It is not difficult to interpret what he was getting at by ‘current situation.’ The ambiguity of the phrase also allows the listener to turn to any other situation, perhaps one more personal and probably less dismal. Regardless of any narrative one applies to the piece, Schankler’s genius composition, performed by my favorite bassist in southern California, is sure to stimulate a deep state of contemplation and peace in anyone who hears it.
Next on the program, pianist Aron Kallay and percussionist Yuri Inoo performed Elliptic by Caroline Louise Miller (2012). Elliptic paints the landscape of a “particularly beautiful dream” Miller had about “our pre-apocalyptic, neoliberal world.” (Compared to Schankler’s The Deep State, we can infer that the apocalypse has occurred sometime between 2012 and 2017.) Miller’s program notes describe an enchanting ellipsoid planet with a golden moon, orbiting a pink star. Monoliths appear on the water and break the spell.
The monoliths were the harbingers of change. The Earth appears on the horizon and destroys the reverie with an onslaught of media noise. In the music, Kallay’s otherworldly electronic piano depicts the beautiful planet, while Inoo’s bombastic snare and gong invoke the Earth’s cacophony. The Earth vanishes, and the music freezes for a second…and then quietly resumes, as if tip-toeing through the wreckage. The third movement, “Exodus,” sounds like flying into the unknown. It is different than the beginning, but there is a similar sense of being, of existing. I would recommend listening to this piece on its own once, then with the program notes, and then a third time on its own again. Close your eyes if you wish to visualize the alien landscape, just don’t forget to open your ears to the sonic landscape Miller crafts.
After intermission, PIE introduced BitPanic, a computer music collective based in LA. In a computer music collective, performers improvise on networked composition systems on laptops. Mark Trayle cofounded The Hub, the godfather of computer music collectives, dating back to 1986. BitPanic took on Trayle’s semi-aleatoric piece Pins and Splits (2004). In this piece, the background sound is fixed, and the foreground allows improvisation. The players affect each other’s timing, like a music game of duck-duck-goose. The result of the game is a constant transformation from chaos to order and back again. The program note says the title comes from an email thread with Trayle’s Hub-mates. To me, this is delightfully meta. Like an email thread, in Pins and Splits each participant takes turns at the lead, asking questions and resolving conflicts.
After Trayle’s piece, BitPanic concluded the concert with a totally improvised set. The quartet set loose on keyboards, knobs, and violins. Each player seemed to exist in their own little bubble. Sometimes they coincided with another player, and sometimes seemed like polar opposites. One performer played the violin normally, albeit hooked up with wires to the laptops for sound processing. Another performer laid his violin on the table and treated it no differently than the laptop. The other two stared stoically at their screens, clicking and typing and twiddling away. It was unlike anything I had ever heard before. That’s the beauty of electroacoustic music. The limit is your imagination, and my thoughts and experiences were certainly not the same as the members of BitPanic. New music, in the hands of PIE and BitPanic, will continue to surprise and delight.
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.
Man, populist records is putting out so much great music right now! We just got a review of Andrew McIntosh’s Hyenas in the Temples of pleasure up, and yesterday afternoon Aron Kallay reminded me that his record with percussionist Yuri Inoo is coming out already. Today.
Here’s the first track.
We’ll get a review of the record and an interview with the band up soon. Until then, my wish for 11:11 on 11/11 is that you download it today.