Author: AndrewSigler

eighth blackbird: Shifted During Flight

eighth blackbird, photo by Luke Ratray

eighth blackbird, photo by Luke Ratray

“I didn’t expect it to be so charming…”
The ensemble eighth blackbird has set up shop in Austin for ten days populated with concerts, masterclasses, and lessons. I heard the above quote in the foyer during the intermission of the first of two concerts scheduled during their residency with Texas Performing Arts, and I’m inclined to agree with the sentiment. The group has always been more bon vivant than enfant terrible, their collective personality more welcoming than foreboding. I’m pretty sure everybody is smiling in their press photo. Having said that, not all audience members attending these shows know exactly what to expect. “New Music” can still shiver a few timbers among concertgoers, and when they see a program full of unfamiliar composers, some will look for the exit doors. Of course, eighth blackbird put any concerns to rest with their spot-on performances and engaging personalities.

The concert opened with Nico Muhly’s Doublespeak. Written in honor of Philip Glass’s 75th birthday, Muhly managed to pay homage to the man without aping his greatest hits. The work opened with repetitive germs played by violinist Yvonne Lam which grew bit by bit as the other players joined in, but just as the material began to gel, the work slammed to a halt, sputtered for a moment, and came back to life, this time with Nicholas Photinos leading the charge on cello. Muhly drew deeply from Glass’s harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary; driving rhythms filled out with simple harmonies drove the piece forward until about a quarter of the way in where Muhly injected a bit of chromaticism that seemed for a moment to draw the piece in a different direction. Soon the original texture returned, revealing something of a modified rondo. The sections bounced back and forth until the final moments of the piece, when Photinos and percussionist Matthew Duvall picked out syncopated hits together, the last hit ending the piece.

Flanked by Photinos and clarinetist Michael J. Maccaferri as narrators, Lam performed Knee Play II from Glass’s Einstein on the Beach. These bookend entr’acte sections were used to facilitate set changes and to begin and end Einstein, and the presentation here of Knee Play II apart from the full opera allowed for focus on an otherwise somewhat utilitarian work. I have to say that I was surprised at the level of tension created by watching Lam perform the simple scales and arpeggios (played expertly and super quick folks, no doubt) that constituted the piece. Obviously it wasn’t an easy work, but seeing her chug away while Photinos and Maccaferri read—or chanted…or chanted slightly creepily—in monotone stereo certainly added to the tension. Will she miss? Will the narrative distract her from her duties? Of course, Lam didn’t miss a thing and Photinos and Maccaferri complemented her playing quite well.

The tension of Knee Play II was dissipated in short order by Tom Johnson’s Counting Duets. Described by Lisa Kaplan as “Sesame Street on crack,” the work was performed by Maccaferri and flutist Tim Munro in another duet, this one involving numbers spoken. While the cheeky introduction was endearing, it was the piece itself that hooked the audience, many of whom (present company included) were laughing out loud by the time the work ended. The four movements involved Maccaferri and Munro counting, hocketing, whispering, and yelling simple number sequences to/at each other while they constantly changed their physical position on stage relative to one another. I could talk about the simple additive processes (though written in 1982, similar at a DNA level to the final movement of David Lang’s So Called Laws of Nature) but at the risk of assuming composer intention here, I think that’s missing the point. The piece engaged the audience by laying bare the processes that drove it, giving them an opportunity to figure out each short puzzle as it played out. This, coupled with the visual impact of the tall and lanky Munro and the less tall Maccaferri rapidly yelling numbers back and forth at one another, made for one of the most engaging moments of the night: when both performers walked off stage and the lights were dimmed, seeming to indicate the end of the piece. As the audience began to enthusiastically applaud, Munro (now slightly horse from yelling) began the final sequence from stage right as Maccaferri responded from stage left. Everyone quieted down until they finished and returned to the stage to some of the loudest applause of the night. My wife and I are expecting a baby in a few months, and about halfway through the piece she grabbed my notebook and wrote what you see in the image below:
Sigler Baby Likes Sesame Street
So there you go. Everybody liked it.

In sharp contrast to the lightness of the Johnson, Aaron Jay Kernis’s Pieces of Winter Sky saw the return of the entire ensemble to the stage for this longer, more somber work. The third of four commissions of the night, the Kernis began with Kaplan and Duvall bowing inside the piano with loose bow strings, the thin, ethereal, overtone-laden pitches joined by harmonics in the other instruments. Short bird-song melodies were traded among the players, only to fade into nothingness before fully forming. A violin solo was accompanied by the bowing and scraping of cymbals by all five other members as the ghost of Winterreise passed through the room. Derek Bermel’s Tied Shifts is one of eighth blackbird’s chestnuts, and it was treat to watch and hear. A study in Bulgarian rhythms and careful choreography, the ante was upped in the visual impact department as the blackbirds moved about the stage. Arrangements of two of Ligeti’s mid-’80s piano etudes followed, including No. 4, Fanfares, which recalled the moto perpetuo intensity of the Glass, now spread across the ensemble. Finally, Andy Akiho’s erase, the commissioned work resulting from the ensemble’s 2011 composition competition rounded out the program. A tour de force, the piece careened through tutti roller coasters, glissando workouts in the piano and on the vibes, and noir-through-a-kaleidoscope excursions complete with Maccaferri conjuring with his bass clarinet. The piece shattered to a close with Duvall doing a bit of John Bonham to take us home.

I expected to see a fantastic show and was not disappointed, but what struck me most was how well integrated the whole program was. The Muhly lead to the Glass both musically and in terms of the relationship between the composers, and the blackbirds indicated that without making a big deal out of it. The Glass lead to the Johnson, the trio now a duet, and the symmetry inherent in the structure of the works linked them while their characters contrasted. Even across the bridge of intermission, connections were made such that the concert was more like a large piece itself, a reminder of what it was like when we bought albums (records, tapes, CDs, whatever) that were shaped not just by their content but by their ordering. It’s attention to these factors that give eighth blackbird their edge, and I’m certainly looking forward to their next show.

New Music in New Places: After Hours Concerts in Austin

Michael Hertel, Sunil Gadgil, and lots of cans.

Michael Hertel, Sunil Gadgil, and lots of cans.

There are pros and cons to consider when messing around with contemporary concert presentation. Change it too little and you may not attract the newer (read: younger) audiences that can sustain your project. Change it too much and you run the risk of alienating your base. The attractive features of your new venue may clash with the needs of the music. I’ve been to more than a few shows where the magical moments were ruined by the ring of a cash register or the frothing of milk. Cell phone etiquette? Good luck. As much as we rail against these protocols, they do serve a purpose. But if you find the right curator, a balance can be struck between cool venue and great music.

After Hours Concerts run by saxophonist Spencer Nielsen held its inaugural concert at Austin Beerworks. Doubling down on the “Why don’t we have a concert at the coffeehouse/bar?” concept, Nielsen and (most of) his Bel Cuore cohorts held court at the brewery itself. Located in a warehouse in North Austin, Austin Beerworks is one of a number of microbreweries that have recently sprung up after so many went south following the bursting of the late ’90s tech bubble. The ticket price for the show covered admittance to the concert, a few beers [1], and an ABW pint glass. Not a bad deal.


Cool new music locations are sometimes hard to find, especially when they are located among row upon row of nondescript warehouses. I get lost in my own home, so I walked in a bit late as the first piece, Rob Smith’s Morse Code Pop, was being performed by Nielsen and Michael Hertel. Written for alto and baritone saxophone, the punchy syncopated rhythms hopped and skipped around a pulse that was occasionally outlined by key clicks and foot stomps mimicking hi-hats. Nielsen followed the up-tempo Smith piece with Joan Tower’s Wings. Mostly lyrical lines were accented with grace notes leading to pedal point trills, all impressively negotiated by Nielsen with a clear, round tone. Sunil Gadgil joined Hertel and Nielsen for William Albright’s Doo Dah. A somber work overall, the three saxes traded and shared long lines that, as they came together, created beating combination tones before resolving. Short fast lines lead to something of a Scelsian moment, a single tone played among the three which seemed to expand and contract before wheeling out of control into a wild polyphony, the lines moving every which way. Side trips into fugue, blues, and jazz found common ground in timbral exploration. Albright’s goal was to make the three instruments into one, and it was particularly impressive to hear the trio simply fill the large room with sound.

line upon line and the vat cathedral

line upon line and the vat cathedral

As Bel Cuore headed for the bar [2], line upon line percussion took the stage. Their set opened with Ian Dicke’s commentary on consumerism, Missa Materialis. In five movements, the piece was not only aurally compelling but also visually stimulating. The first movement evoked tribal rhythms performed on a trash can with broken sixteenth note figures played on anvil. The motoric qualities of this movement gave way to a call and response on ratchets which started with the players “discovering” the sounds the instruments made; a discovery made particularly enjoyable by their theatrical delivery which helped tell the story without descending into campy silliness. A more melancholy section followed, one populated by whistling, musical saw, and vibes, recalling the character of an old radio show. The piece ends with a movement featuring plastic grocery bags, wine glasses, and a brave rendition of Agnus Dei with a bit of vibes thrown in for good measure. Steven Snowden’s A Man With a Gun Lives Here for bass drum (primarily) and three players is in three movements and gets its name from the so-called “hobo code” which consisted of symbols used in the early 20th century to indicate a place to get a meal, potential danger, and other characteristics of a given location. In the first movement, “Be prepared to defend yourself,” syncopated rhythmic patterns that form and disintegrate are interrupted by low rumbles created by a rubber mallet slowly drawn across the head of the drum. “There Are Thieves About” featured grooves played on the rim and various metals, with Cullen Faulk diving in to give “zrbtts” [3] to the drumhead. The final movement shares its name with the piece and featured brushes used on and around the drum. As the brushes swished and banged, a paper bag materialized and was integrated into the rhythmic texture. It was picked up, passed around, and slid across the drum as a crescendo slowly built. At the climax, Faulk (who was positioned in the center) raised the bag in the air where it was stabbed on either side by Matthew Teodori and Adam Bedell. The buckshot within spilled onto the drum, and as it rolled around it looked like flocking birds and sounded a bit like the wind.

Backstage at the merch counter.

Backstage at the merch counter.

Let’s just say that having a concert in a brewery is likely going to draw a crowd. While it wasn’t church-quiet in there, the ambient noise of the room was certainly within listenable parameters and at times added to the impact of the music. The visual aspect was sort of cathedral-like, with the vats positioned like some huge shell behind the performers, but it looked pretty cool and it gave some acoustic character to the warehouse. After Hours Concerts has shows scheduled at Texas Coffee Traders and Springdale Farms this spring, and I’ll be sure to check them out. Espressos and wheat grass shots, here I come!

***


1. May I recommend the “Mister Falcon?” It was a mix of two of their beers, and if it wasn’t so delicious I would have had the presence of mind to write them down. Also worth noting is that Mister Falcon and Mother Falcon are both used extensively in broadcast versions of movies featuring Samuel Jackson.

2. I don’t really know if they went to the bar. It’s very possible they headed offstage for bottled water, juice, or a quick run around the building.

3. Ah, the ’80s.

John Luther Adams and Glenn Kotche go on Spirit Journeys with Ilimaq

Glenn Kotche and John Luther Adams’s collaborative relationship took root several years ago in Alaska. While on tour with the rock band Wilco,[1] Kotche rang up Adams and suggested dinner, and this initial meeting lead to a friendship as well as a collaboration on Adams’s newest work, Ilimaq. Though Kotche is best known for the Wilco gig, he is no stranger to the world of new music. He has collaborated with eighth blackbird and has been commissioned by the Kronos Quartet, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, and So Percussion among others. On the other side, Adams has a rock band background as well, so the two already had a great deal in common before that first dinner.

John Luther Adams (left) and Glenn Kotche

John Luther Adams (left) and Glenn Kotche

In true rock and roll fashion, the headliner [2] required an opening act, and On Fillmore, featuring Kotche on percussion and Darin Gray on bass, played just that role. Dovetailing with the pre-concert audience patter, bells began to peal at irregular intervals through antiphonally positioned speakers in the McCullough Theater on the campus of UT Austin. Also in keeping with rock and roll tradition, it was really loud and served eventually to transition most of the crowd from their how-do-you-do’s into full concert mode. Any stragglers were wrangled into place by bassist Darin Gray’s entrance. Looking a bit like a cross between a Stop Making Sense-era David Byrne and Tom Waits at his most junk-kit gravelly, Gray walked from the side of the room across (and above) the audience’s chairs armed with a variety of noise makers. Gray’s duck calls, whistles, clappers, and static generators (the last of these likely one of the wind gadgets overblown like crazy, making me occasionally yearn for the quiet peace of the antiphonal bells which were actually drowned out once or twice…) had an organic, natural quality and acted as an appropriate precedent to the Adams. Gray eventually made his way to the stage to join Kotche in a series of tunes peppered with reverb and other effects. Listening to two seasoned veterans lock together is always a thing of beauty, and Gray and Kotche delivered the goods; largely simple grooves and bass lines that took the listener from rock show to slightly surreal art presentation and back again. The latter description was delivered via the occasional noisemaker and the use of orchestral percussion (glockenspiel and crotales in particular) which, when used along with the insistent bass lines, obligated me to make the note, “Tom Waits Christmas” with a big smile next to it. It was fun, well played, and a great warm up for the Adams.

The second half of the concert was dedicated to the 45-minute Texas Performing Arts commission Ilimaq. The three-movement work was divided into three instrumental groupings on the stage: bass drum, cymbals/gongs, and drum kit. The first movement was in essence an extended bass drum roll, but eventually moved listeners away from the individual sound events and immersed them in a larger texture removed from time. Starting at a modest volume, the roll began to echo through the speakers placed around the hall. Kotche accelerated, decelerated, crescendoed, and decrescendoed throughout, but these small-scale changes were less important than the overall effect, which was that of a hypnotic thrumming. Despite the fact that I was listening to someone beat the hell out of a bass drum, I honestly felt like I could fall asleep in the middle of the whole thing. This was not out of boredom, however; I think that Adams was actually able to tap into the whole shaman/hypnotic thing and it was really quite effective. Adams creates the sense of “really big space” (and McCullough is not particularly expansive) in many of his works, and the opening movement of Ilimaq is no exception.

In the second movement, Kotche moved to a set of cymbals and gongs. Slow rolls played on crash cymbals were barely perceptible and came across like small waves crashing. The use of soft mallets made for little or no attack, and presented a great contrast to the visceral and constant attacks of the roll(s) in the first movement. Adams talks about creating an “aura” for the piece, an electronic background texture which reads/sounds like a bit like an ambient synth bed over which the percussion rides. This aura swirled around us through the speaker system, at times coming to the fore, but for the most part playing second fiddle to the percussion. This “all rounded with no edges/attacks” quality took a turn as the piece progressed, and more aggressive rolls resulted in the bite of the cymbal becoming all edge. This section was brief, however, and with a strike on the bell of the cymbal the movement ended.

The final movement saw Kotche move to a large drum kit positioned in the center of the stage. Armed with eight toms, eight cymbals, and two kick drums, Kotche seemed poised to play any number of epic rock drum solos, and Adams finale didn’t land far from that mark. Huge rolls, this time more akin to rock drum fills played across the kit, were punctuated with cymbal hits. Patterns of increasing and decreasing rhythmic values gave shape to the phrases, but any evaluation of the finer points and proportions is probably missing the point. This was about energy, movement, and frankly, sheer power, and Kotche gave it everything he had. I don’t think I heard a single individual who didn’t have something to say about the endurance required to play either of the outer movements, much less both of them. As the lightning and the thunder subsided, the bowing of a small gong signaled the end of the work.

Adams was in town for several days and spoke at two or three locations on campus about the work and the collaboration that took place. In one of these talks he spoke about writing music that embodies the out-of-doors as well as writing music that actually requires performance outside; music that should not be played indoors at all. Ilimaq could well be a harbinger of things to come, and not for the volume level alone. The hypnotic repetitiveness of the first movement, the introspective quality of the second, and the visceral, athletic elements of the third all begged to be let loose, to be performed and experienced in a venue as big as the music, and Adams’s great outdoors would be the perfect place for the next rendition of this work.


1. I know I’m getting old when instead of saying “Wilco” I say “The Rock Band Wilco”


2. Well, Kotche was the headliner but since this concert revolved around Ilimaq, I’m going with the piece as the headliner.

String Quartet Smackdown! In Austin

How many times during a heated debate about chamber music have you longed for a pair of boxing gloves or perhaps a cricket bat? In the topsy-turvy world of new music, sometimes having a solid piece of wood in your hand can be quite useful. Long gone are the thoughtful, dispassionate discussions of historical significance and the careful dissections of dogma peppered with compromise. These have been replaced by heated accusations, wild ad hominem arguments, and other madness which, if allowed to continue unchecked, will not end well. I say we let the music duke it out and let the audience decide. Via text message. The organizers of Golden Hornet Project’s “String Quartet Smackdown!” clearly agree that the present state of musical debate requires an overhaul. Staid competitions with pedigreed judges be damned! We’ve got smart phones, strong opinions, and a fully stocked bar. Let’s get cracking.

Golden Hornet Project’s “String Quartet Smackdown!”

Featuring sixteen quartet compositions chosen anonymously from among over 100 entries, the Smackdown! was held at Austin’s Scottish Rite Theater, home to regular avant jazz shows as well as secretive, Masonic meetings. Set up to run like the last few rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament, the Smackdown! started with a “Sweet Sixteen” round in which the first minute of each quartet was played. Full disclosure: I had a piece in this competition. Its involvement was…brief. This was followed by an “Elite Eight” round with two minutes per piece performed, a “Final Four” with three minutes each, and the Championship in which the last two pieces were played in their entirety. The Tosca String Quartet took on the sizeable task of learning all sixteen string quartets in a few weeks and having each one under their fingers in the event that it reached the final round. One of the entrance requirements was that each piece needed to be right around four minutes (lots of single movements out there), but that’s still over an hour of new music to learn in a relatively short time. Tosca did a fantastic job, not only performing flawlessly but also avoiding having even a single page out of order or any other similar issue which could have easily thrown a monkey wrench into a presentation in which timing and solid performances mean the difference between glory and an early trip to the bar. They also managed to keep straight faces when at the end of each work’s allotted one, two, or three minutes, the gong which signaled “time is up” broke into the flow of the piece, cutting it short as required by the rules. This was funny at first (there used to be this t.v. show…), but after the first few thwacks it started to wear out its welcome. Fortunately, the timers backed off on the hits as the show went on.

Some contests were close!...Some contests were not so close.

Some contests were close!…Some contests were not so close.

Once the gong was struck, the audience was given a few minutes to text their vote and the results came up on a large screen behind Tosca. Watching the real-time “Battle of the Bars” was half the fun, and the audience reactions to contests close and not-so-close were chock full of “oohs” and “aahs.” In the interest of anonymity the quartets were all assigned numbers, one through sixteen, so one would see SQ1 -vs- SQ16 and so on. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that most audience members would be able to “put names to faces” with a given piece, so to speak. For instance, my piece went out in spectacular fashion in the first round, but I suspect that a few of the people who voted for it might have wanted to know who wrote it, and even though the names and titles of each work were included in the program and shown on the screen at the end of the competition, there was no correlation with the numbering system. An industrious audience member (or one with a notebook, pen, email communication with the contest coordinators, and modest research abilities) could probably dig up the facts, but letting people know whose piece was being played at a given time probably wouldn’t have had a huge impact on the voting and would have given said audience member an idea of which composer to check out the next day.

Tosca String Quartet at the String Quartet Smackdown!

Hopefully the audience took those programs home and checked out all of the composers, because there were a number of wonderful pieces included in the show. The gentle introspection of Jonathan Russell’s …in the fir trees: fireflies, with its slow and quiet rising lines, offered a wonderful contrast to the rhythmic intensity and harmonic crunchiness of David Biedenbender’s Surface Tension. Despite its compelling use of pre-recorded materials slowly overtaken by the strings, Steven Snowden’s Appalachian Polaroids also went out in the first round, so I didn’t feel too bad about getting my card punched before intermission. Ruben Naeff’s Little JACKASS (originally JACKASS written for the JACK Quartet) was another strong work; odd time signatures gave shape to quiet high-register rhythmic figures which descended by and by and were joined by longer lines, still walking in lock-step with those asymmetrical rhythms. But in the end, there could be only one, and the catchy rhythms and strong melodies of Chris Black’s Fifteen Grand in a Paper Sack came out on top.

All in all the Smackdown! was a resounding success. It was well attended, and the diverse audience didn’t look to be new music regulars, which I contend is a good thing. As far as I could tell, no one left during intermission, which is a victory for any show. The fact that the audience played an active role in the proceedings coupled with relatively short pieces made for a presentation that was compelling and easily digestible. Given this, I wonder if at the next Smackdown! we could hear the pieces in their entirety from the get go? No one seemed anxious to leave, and while it would certainly add time to the event it would also let more slowly evolving pieces do their thing. (I’m not referring to my piece. It was pretty evolved by the time it got smacked by Sarah Norris’s Stalin Does The Robot).

I can see the Tosca’s reviewing their contract right now…

Blanton Soundspace: Space and Symmetry

Seventy-six Trombones, sir? Clearly you are not trying hard enough. Steve Parker’s recent Soundspace installment at the Blanton Museum searched for symmetry in a variety of ways, and nice round numbers like 80 seem to have fit the bill. The series stayed true to its name by encouraging the audience to circulate around the museum during the performances, as pieces overlapped in a variety of locales throughout the space. The symmetry was also manifest in the composition of the works and the organization of the performances. Each piece was performed twice in a large-scale presentational arch form, with the pivot point occurring at 3:00 p.m.

Henry Brant's Orbits from the first floor Photo by John Clark

Henry Brant’s Orbits from the first floor
Photo by John Clark

To describe the performance of Henry Brant’s Orbits for 80 trombones, organ, and soprano as antiphonal doesn’t do it justice. Multiphonal? Omniphonal? Surround Sound 80.1? Words can’t fully express the experience of being in the belly of the beast during this performance, one in which the occasional interjection of the organ is the respite. Starting on the first floor and winding up the stairs and around the second-floor landing in the two-story open space near the entrance of the Blanton, the 80 trombonists worked their way through devastating sound masses, angular, stabbing gestures, and occasional glimpses of conventional choir moments. Organist Charlie Magnone played amplified keyboard on the first floor while mezzo-soprano Laura Mercado-Wright held court on the second floor. They shared the spotlight in delicate counterpoint–light, thin pops of sound echoing about before being subsumed by the trombone onslaught. The atrium of the Blanton is covered in a variety of blue tiles, giving a visual sense of the ocean, and here the trombones came again and again in wave after wave.

Orbits from the second floor landing in the Blanton Museum Photo by John Clark

Orbits from the second-floor landing in the Blanton Museum
Photo by John Clark

Inspired by the work of Dmitri Tymoczko, jazz theorist Barry Harris, and Toru Takemitsu, guitarist Thomas Echols performed a solo set which mirrored the arch form of the entire event. He started with an electric/acoustic improvisation entitled Mutatis Mutandis complete with a theremin which was manipulated by the audience, allowing for participation in the show. The improvisation was followed by Takemitsu’s transparent In Twilight, which was followed in turn by another improvisatory set. Adam Bedell performed Stockhausen’s Zyklus, a circular exploration of keyboards, bells, drums, and triangles, among other instruments. The performer is called upon to start anywhere in the score and play until that initial moment is reached, so it’s unlikely that any two performances will be the same. Bassists P.K. Waddle, Jessica Valls, Christopher Flores, and Pat Harris gave a truly sublime performance of Reflections on Whittier and Ives for bass quartet by Bertram Turetzky. Largely chordal, pulsing with lazy melodies that rose to the surface only to slowly sink again, Reflections was the most meditative of the offerings.

Laura Mercado-Wright performed a number of works, including two premiers by Shawn Allison. She was joined by baritone Thann Scoggin for Three New Lullabies. Conceived as a modern “parental duet” of sorts, the piece reflected the challenges of creative parents trying to balance work and home life. Scoggin and Mercado-Wright sang from opposite sides of the dimly lit room, trading slow, winding lines back and forth. Also presented was [höre] with percussionist Cullen Faulk. If you picture the room as a clock face, Faulk was positioned at noon, with Mercado-Wright at 9 o’clock. Atmospheric at its core, [höre] initially sounded like traded breathing, with Mercado-Wright’s sighs dovetailing with the gentle lines and bowing in the vibes. This progressed to a more visceral coming together just past the halfway mark as she moved counterclockwise around the room, the climax of the work occurring as she neared the percussionist. She then returned to her initial spot, this final move paired with a return to the hushed whispering texture of the opening.

I Will Wait by Keith Manlove continued the theme of space utilization by having Mercado-Wright move in, out, and around the room while performing. Said Manlove of the work, “I give the performer multiple streams of information (more than they can physically perform) as a …way for them to improvise and extend the instrument. I’ve given all the information of the piece in two measures that the performer repeats over and over, (and) they’re allowed to choose as little or as much information as they like. The idea is that no matter how much the performer struggles or tries, how well they perform, how much or little information they use, they’re stuck in this loop. They’re waiting for someone.”

I Will Wait

From the score for Keith Manlove’s I Will Wait. Copyright 2012 Keith Manlove. (Click here for a larger and more complete version of the score.)

Cathy Berberian’s Stripsody lent a mid-century lightness (the only time that ever happens) to the proceedings. The score for Stripsody is essentially a series of comic strip tropes (represented on Berberian’s score with illustrations by Roberto Zamarin) and its performance was greeted with smiles and wonder by all.

Clarinetist Nathan Williams’s animated performance of Stockhausen’s In Freundschaft was a feast for the eyes as well as the ears. It wouldn’t be Stockhausen if the work wasn’t mathematically rigorous and methodically planned (pitch and rhythm are mapped onto an X-Y axis, and the work is conceived in three voices), but the impact was anything but dry and mechanical. The performer is directed to face forward, stage left, or stage right for various phrases, and the different voices are “aimed” up, down, and center, relative to their range. For example, Williams would play a high floating line while facing left, then rapidly face forward to deliver a honk or multiphonic in the midrange, then just as quickly face right to explore the chalumeau range. These rapid changes resulted in a performance that had the impact of watching a solo actor performing multiple roles, right down to the changing of perspective between characters.

Bassists Christopher Flores, P.K. Waddle, Pat Harris, and Jessica Valls

Bassists Christopher Flores, P.K. Waddle, Pat Harris, and Jessica Valls performing Reflections on Whittier and Ives for bass quartet by Bertram Turetzky.

This installment of the Soundspace series was arguably the most ambitious to date. Organizing 80 players of any given instrument is a challenge in and of itself, but to do it twice in one day is a tall order in any market. Add to that a number of premiers, a huge performance space(s), invaluable art, and a roaming audience, and you’ve got more than a concert, you’ve got mini-festival. The red thread of symmetry that ran through the show gave a sense of continuity while allowing for a wide variety of performances and experiences. This was the largest turn out yet for a performance at the Blanton, and the fact that it was on a Sunday afternoon in Austin in early fall (a time when all things outdoor are picture perfect) is a testament to the quality of the music and the hunger Austin audiences have for new and interesting music.

Texas Performing Arts and Conspirare: New Season, New Commissions

The commissioning of new works is the life blood of contemporary music. Whether large or small, from consortiums, ensembles, foundations, or individuals, these nods to compositional creativity provide practical support for composers as well as career-boosting validation. Texas Performing Arts and Conspirare are two of the strongest players in the music scene in Austin, and their commitment to the commissioning and performing of new works is significant. Recently, both groups commissioned and premiered major new works within only a few days of one another. Fall is always overflowing with great sounds, and this embarrassment of new music riches, coupled with a bit of mercifully cool weather, made for an exciting start to the season.

Dan Welcher

Dan Welcher

The double string quartet is a bit of a rare avis. If you happen to attend a concert with a new one programmed, you’re also going to hear either the Shostakovich or the Mendelssohn. It’s going to happen. Or you may hear both as bookends to the new work, which is what the audience experienced when the Miró and Shanghai quartets came together to premier Dan Welcher’s new work Museon Polemos. ** The Shostakovich Two Pieces for String Octet, which preceded the Welcher, featured a common setup for the performers which (from stage right) is the standard quartet configuration (vn, vn, vc, va) but doubled. A little weird, like driving an unfamiliar stick shift, but still quite workable. However, Museon Polemos’ antiphonal requirements not only had the quartets set up opposite one another but also had the viola and cello switch their conventional position such that both groups (when viewed from the audience) were mirror images of violin I, violin II, viola, and cello from the front to the back of the stage on a bit of an angle. I imagine that after a few decades you get pretty used to having the viola right there, so doing a shell game shuffle with the seating positions could be, you know, problematic; something like driving in England with the stick in your left hand, the clutch under your right foot, in the rain, caught in one of those endless roundabouts. Yet during this performance, you’d never know anything was unusual, either from what you could see or hear, all of which was dynamic, compelling, and flawlessly performed. Labeled as a “25 minute ballet without dancers,” Museon Polemos pits the two string quartets against one another in an Apollonian/Dionysian contrast of music and mood with the Shanghai quartet as the thoughtful, cool former and the Miró quartet as the visceral, earthy latter. While the forthcoming Rite of Spring centennial is in the near future, Welcher took inspiration primarily from Stravinsky’s later ballets of the ’30s and ’40s when composing his work.

The Shanghai (top) and Miró (bottom, photo by Nathan Russell) Quartets

The Shanghai (top) and Miró (bottom, photo by Nathan Russell) Quartets

The work opened with a short, sharp tutti chord which contained the harmonic profile of both groups, combined in one thorny punch. This led to an introduction to the character of each quartet, starting with the Shanghai’s bright, clean lines in the violins bolstered by pizzicato in the viola. The Miró responded with sneering, blocky double-stops, violin I rising against accents in violin II. The sabre rattling took the shape of solos with both groups firing shots over the other’s bow until the movement ended, the matter unresolved, illustrated by another statement of the opening chord. The second movement began with Miró weaving a unison line contrasted by chords performed by Shanghai. A solo broke from the unison line, dramatically contrasting and ultimately dominating the chords in the Shanghai. However, before a death blow could be dealt, a slow, melancholy, barcarolle-like motion emerged from the remains of the chords Shanghai had all but abandoned. Miró joined the procession, the music building inevitably to a climax before both groups returned to their introductory material; a quiet ending which left the conflict of the work still unresolved. For the third movement, Welcher pulled out all the stops including rhythmic elements from “Dance of the Adolescents” from part I of The Rite of Spring, his one nod to the centennial. Following the initial onslaught, a calm section provided a break; a gathering of forces for the final push. A Gregorian chant of sorts developed in the violins, pushing forward and mimicking the inevitability of the barcarolle from the second movement. This gave way to big pizzicato lines traded among the players as trills erupted, both providing tension and effectively freezing the forward motion of the work. A high note traded between both first violins was caught in a web of pizzicato and served to illustrate the two groups locked in combat; a conflict neither side would win. Acknowledgement of this dichotomy came by way of another long held chord by both quartets, now spent, which ended the work.

*

Conspirare

Conspirare

Conspirare is one of the real gems of the Austin art scene. Their recent release, Samuel Barber: An American Romantic, made its debut at #10 on the Billboard Classical Music charts and is the most recent result of their $1 million dollar expanded recording program with the label Harmonia Mundi. Their Legacy of Sound initiative also provides significant funding for the commissioning of new works, and two of those works, If I Were A Swan and To Touch the Sky by Kevin Puts, were recently premiered by Conspirare with the composer on hand. Conspirare’s focus is always on the music, but their presentation is also compelling. As they have in previous concerts, Conspirare began by entering from the back of the room and populating the aisles for the first work, Rene Clausen’s Tonight Eternity Alone. The work began with gentle minor pentatonic melodies slowly cascading as two sopranos broke through, rising above the texture. As the piece closed, Conspirare continued to the stage to perform Steven Stucky’s O sacrum convivium (in memoriam Thomas Tallis). In marked contrast to the Clausen, the Stucky was rhythmically explosive and tonally ambiguous with symmetrical chords sliding up and down in the propulsive texture.

Kevin Puts

Kevin Puts

Following the Stucky was the world premiere of the first commission, Puts’s If I Were A Swan. Starting almost imperceptibly, the male and female voices traded staggered entrances, with the women ultimately yielding to rapid sixteenth notes in the male voices on the plosive “puh.” [1] At moments, these sixteenths were (Phillip) Glass-like as they appeared and faded, playing hide and seek as they traded places with other rising and falling lines. An eventual return to the initial texture intimated an ending, but not before the sixteenths reappeared, giving a bright ending to the work. This concert was part of the Conspirare “Signature Series” in which new works are paired with those that have become part of the Conspirare canon [2], so the remaining works on the first half were terrific arrangements of (and new works based on) spirituals. The second half began with the centerpiece of the concert, Puts’s To Touch the Sky. Set in nine movements, the work was described by Puts as his first “mature attempt at writing for unaccompanied chorus.” Based on the concept of the “divine feminine” manifest in many of the world’s religions, Puts found a variety of texts reflective of this phenomenon to use in the work. The smooth polyphony of the first movement, “Annunciation,” acted as a strong counter to the rising chromaticism of the second, “Unbreakable.” The third and fourth movements also had a paired quality, the former driving, pulsing, (recalling the sixteenths from If I Were A Swan) the latter gentle and quite short. The fifth movement was the longest and served as the centerpiece of the work. Initially evocative of early church music, the quasi-modal language and rhythmically simple delivery was quite effective. The 3/4 time signature was largely populated by a half note/quarter note rhythm which anchored the piece as the soprano line broke from the pack, rising as a string of suspensions played out below. Pairings not dissimilar to the opening movements followed, highlights of which were the whispering susurrus of the seventh movement, “Who has seen the wind?” and the high, clean, and pure boys choir quality of the final movement “Most noble evergreen” which, after a few cadential teases, brought the piece to an end.

The final portion of the concert mirrored the collections of spirituals, this time drawing from arrangements of Sondheim and Bernstein as well as folk music icon Woody Guthrie and local favorite Eliza Gilkyson. I attended the show on Sunday, but both Friday’s and Saturday’s performances of To Touch the Sky were recorded by Harmonia Mundi for an upcoming live concert CD. This recording will be produced in collaboration with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in conjunction with a recording of Puts’s Fourth Symphony under the direction of Marin Alsop.

2011 marked the 30th anniversary of Texas Performing Arts, and this is the 20th anniversary season of Conspirare. Both organizations are shining examples of the world-class art that Austin has to offer; compelling evidence that alongside the spectacular popular music festivals, high-tech industry, amazing food, and dynamic lifestyle, Austin has an art music scene worthy of the world stage.

And these two groups are just hitting their stride.

 

** Dan Welcher is a professor of composition at the Butler School of Music at UT Austin where I’m a doctoral student.

 


1. Try it. Puh puh puh puh. It works quite well.


2. Make no mistake; this audience knows its Conspirare canon. The concert program was divided into four sections, some of which had works listed in the program that were not played. For example, the first section had five pieces, of which only three were played. When it was announced that the Tarik O’Regan work I Had No Time To Hate was not to be played, a loud groan rose from the crowd.

Deep Sky Objects: Musiqa’s Season Opener

For more than a decade, Houston’s Musiqa has presented a sort of artistic cornucopia for its audience. Music, dance, and the spoken word come together with other art forms in dynamic multifaceted presentations that keep the audience engaged and on its toes. Their recent opening night featured a new commission supported by a major grant from Chamber Music America in the form of a collaborative work by composer Sebastian Currier and poet Sarah Manguso. Also featured were works by Lera Auerbach, Musiqa’s Pierre Jalbert, and the world premiere of choreographer Tina Bohnstedt’s work Divided and Scattered featuring music from Currier’s 1995 piece Quartetset.

Houston, like many large cities, is a work in progress and, as such, is regularly being torn apart and rebuilt in one way or another. After a slightly late start to accommodate an Escher-like parking situation, the evening began with several movements from Lera Auerbach’s Twenty-four Preludes for Violin and Piano. Using Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier as a starting point, Auerbach’s piece explores a variety of styles and techniques that have been developed and become common since the composition of that seminal work. Violinist Lisa Burrell deftly negotiated the syncopated rhythms and chunky double stops of No. 9 in E major, trading hocketed figures with pianist Tali Morgulis. No. 3 in E major wandered in childlike, tonal, and innocent, lightly colored with dissonance around the edges. The stage was lit in bright swaths of red, blue, and green, which changed with each movement. I don’t suppose that there was any intention or suggestion of synesthesia here, but it was a nice visual reset between sections and pieces.

The Auerbach was followed by a reading by Sarah Manguso of selections of poetry from her book The Captain Lands in Paradise. Hearing a work delivered by its author has the potential to be either fantastic or terrible depending on the creator’s performance skills. Fortunately, Manguso’s understated delivery was captivating and provided an interesting change of perspective during the concert. Secret Alchemy by Pierre Jalbert received its Houston premiere and was prefaced by short descriptions and performance snippets of each movement. Violist James Dunham and cellist Lachezar Kostov joined Nelson and Morgulis for the four movement work. In the first movement, delicate appoggiaturas lead to repeated-note figures in the piano which when added to the close, oscillating harmonies in the violin and viola gave the impression of a breath held. A plaintive melody in the cello provided contrast to this texture, but it wasn’t until the appearance of a series of rapid ascending lines in the strings that the piece fully formed and really took off. Just as the motoric rhythms began to push it forward, it was pulled back by a return to the initial material and a wrapping up of the movement. It wasn’t unsatisfying or a tease, but rather provided a nice set up for the following movements. The second movement began with an agitated dynamic delivered by way of syncopated pizzicato accompanied by rumblings in the piano. A brief arco section gave way to a return of the pizzicato, this time reanimated with harmonics. High register piano skittered about as the harmonics and trills floated, coalesced, and dissipated, with added-value rhythms jumping the barline at every turn. The third movement started icy with the wide range in piano echoed in the strings, meaty fifths and unisons sounding larger than the personnel we saw on stage. The final movement was aggressive and explosive, with brutal attacks leading to rising waves in the strings plateauing in a static staccato figure. Crazy, angular parts for the cello fought for purchase while the violin and viola bickered in the background.

Currier’s Deep Sky Objects is described as “a cycle of love songs set in the distant future, exploring intergalactic longing and desire.” In ten movements and scored for soprano, electronics, and piano quintet, Currier manages to incorporate the electronics without being ruled by them. Each movement begins with an electronic incipit which created a “micro-composition” based on the title of each song, sort of an electronic calling card complete with a nonplussed female voice announcing the title, sounding ever so slightly like HAL from 2001:A Space Odyssey. Incorporating actual elements of signals generated by pulsars, man-made satellites, and Currier’s own creations suggestive of deep space, the electronic elements of the work serve for the most part a largely textural role; and they do it well. At times the incipits approached a suggestion of actual sci-fi fare, but never crossed the line and always set the stage acting as aural illuminations for the sound-text that followed. Soprano Karol Bennet delivered every syllable with finesse and passion, providing a perfect foil for the somewhat cold electronics of deep space.

Choreographer Tina Bohnstedt presented Divided and Scattered, a new work set to “Divided” and “Scatterbrained,”—two movements from Curriers Quartetset. Following a dramatic “Lowering of the String Quartet into the Pit” (by way of a motorized stage) Bohnstedt’s own quartet took the stage. Largely a three-against-one arrangement (and bearing in mind that my background in dance is…modest), Bohnstedt’s dancers from Houston Ballet II mirrored the music beautifully while presenting their own story on the stage.

I go to a fair number of new music concerts, and while I enjoy shows that feature exclusively recent fare, it’s also compelling to see presentations that combine the old and the new. The experience of seeing a concert programmed with music from a variety of eras is similar to seeing a concert programmed with a variety of arts. There is something refreshing about hearing everything all mixed together, and the combination resented by Musiqa on this and other concerts has a similar impact. Overall, the effect is one of “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” and when the parts are this good by themselves, together they make for a particularly remarkable experience. The extremely high level of artistic presentation, the relaxed and welcoming attitude, and the diversity of programming come together to show why Musiqa plays such an important role in Houston’s new music scene.

Talk About Sound: Austin’s Mother Falcon

Mother Falcon

Mother Falcon – Photo by by Brian Rindfuss

Austin’s Mother Falcon is comprised of an ever-changing group of performers, mostly string players, who’ve taken their classical training and background and applied it to their own music. Their sound is born of instrumentation largely rooted in the world of classical music mixed with a healthy dose of an indie rock aesthetic. After recording an EP and a full-length album, as well as garnering a number of accolades in Austin, Mother Falcon has begun to branch out into new ventures, including projects involving education and film. I sat down with Nick Gregg and Matt Puckett to talk about the past, present, and future of the group.

Tracks excerpted in this podcast (in the order in which they appear):

“Kathryn”
“Fireflies”
“Alligator Teeth”

All titles from the album Alhamabra

12th Anniversary of Annual “Happy Birthday Mr. Cage!”

Happy Birthday Mr. Cage at the MACC

Photo by Matt Bradshaw

Happy Birthday Mr. Cage, indeed! The wash of Cage performances, celebrations, remembrances, and retrospectives that started earlier this year culminated in centennial concerts across the country this past weekend, and Austin was no exception. However, this year’s celebration, while special in its own right, was actually the 12th anniversary of Michelle Schumann’s annual “Happy Birthday Mr. Cage!” event. Inaugurated in 2000, the celebration soon became a “Rite of Fall” of sorts for Austinites in and around the new music scene who came to see Schumann and other Cage aficionados perform his works. This year’s observance was marked by a marathon concert at the Mexican American Cultural Center featuring 92 performers of all stripes. The show was co-curated by Michelle Schumann and the Austin Chamber Music Center, along with Travis Weller of the Austin New Music Coop, Brent Baldwin of Texas Choral Consort, and Matt Teodori of line upon line percussion. The show was a product of nearly a year of planning, and the members of each of the curating groups brought their own unique perspective in an attempt to capture a broad look at the composer’s life and work.

Michelle Schumann

Michelle Schumann
Photo by Matt Bradshaw

The five-hour show was divided into five equal sections separated by brief intermissions. Though most of these sets were presented conventionally with one piece following another, the overlapping of works was a feature of two of them. For instance, the 5 p.m. set (see below) featured Variations IV throughout while Composed Improvisation, Solo, One4, Two, and Aria were played, and the 6 p.m. set featured 45 Minutes for Speaker which went on throughout while Four5, Variations III, Suite for Toy Piano, and Amores were performed one after the other.

cage @ 100 program

Works like Variations IV and 45 Minutes for Speaker lend themselves to this layering process, and in the case of the former speak directly to its instructions. While other works could have been put in place of the shorter works which were played simultaneously with Variations IV and 45 Minutes for Speaker, the “superimposed” works that were chosen here provided a compelling counterpoint to the “pedal function” of the longer works without overshadowing them. In short, they play(ed) well together.

Brent Baldwin of Texas Choral Consort

Brent Baldwin of Texas Choral Consort
Photo by Matt Bradshaw

A marathon concert covering the life and times of any composer is a lot to pack into an article, (especially when the event is one of many similar events occurring across the country and world) but some highlights of the marathon included Texas Choral Consort’s performance of Hymns and Variations, New Music Co-op’s presentation of Four6 for violin, contrabass, and percussion/electronics, and Schumann’s interpretations of Cage’s piano works (some for toy piano, others for prepared piano). Percussionists from the University of Texas as well as dancers and other instrumentalists from the Austin community rounded out the list of performers.

Brandt Barnard and Tristan Boyd

Brandt Barnard and Tristan Boyd
Photo by Matt Bradshaw

Despite the scope of the concert, the variety of the music, and the novelty of the presentation, nods to conventional performance (such as holding on to 4’33” until the final set) did give a sense of order and direction to the show which, of course, featured a great deal of indeterminate music. Schumann and the other curators truly shot for the moon this year in honoring Cage’s life and legacy with this special marathon. But make no mistake, next year will see yet another marking of his birthday by those whose lives have been so significantly impacted by his music.

Sounds Heard: Ion Sound Project and the Music of Jeremy Beck

Ion Sound Project, the fourth Innova recording dedicated to the music of composer Jeremy Beck, takes its title from the Pittsburgh-based chamber group of the same name. Stemming from a friendship with pianist Robert Frankenberry, Beck’s collaboration with Ion Sound Project began in 2007 at the University of Pittsburgh with a performance of his September Music, the piece which also closes this album. Beck’s music is unabashedly tonal, rhythmically intricate, and makes nods to the past while sitting squarely in the present. He is a prizewinner in the 2010 National Opera Association’s New Chamber Opera Competition, Boston Chamber Orchestra’s 2011-2012 Commission Competition, and the 2012 Aliénor International Harpsichord Composition Competition. When he’s not releasing new recordings of his work or receiving accolades from national and international competitions, he practices intellectual property (copyright and trademark) law, entertainment law, and general business law in Louisville, Kentucky.

Ion Sound Project opens with its strongest piece, In Flight Until Mysterious Night. Pulsing, jazz-inflected rhythms propel the work forward, recalling Copland’s Three Latin American Sketches in spots. Bright shifting harmonies in tandem with those syncopated rhythms pull the music this way and that, occasionally giving the listener the feeling you get when you are walking up (or down) a flight of stairs in the dark and you think there is one more stair, but there isn’t. Held together by the fluid playing of Frankenberry, this juxtaposition of largely accessible and recognizable pitch and rhythmic material with the occasional sharp left makes for compelling and interesting listening. Up next is by Beck’s Cello Sonata No. 2. , performed by Elisa Kohanski. The delicate and understated first movement starts quietly and builds to its animato namesake before returning to its hushed beginnings. The second movement features long melancholic melodies with sparse accompaniment in the piano before perking up with rhythms and harmonic language akin to In Flight Until Mysterious Night.

Soprano Margaret Baube Andraso joins ISP for In February, a work written in 2002 with text by the composer. For soprano, clarinet, violin, and piano, this one-movement song of love lost opens with a slow ostinato in the piano into which the other instruments weave. The simple melodies, accompaniment, and pacing make this a piece that could be at home in theater or film as easily as on the concert stage. Gemini for flute, cello, and piano features independent lines leading to tutti accents on upbeats that could be (at least rhythmically) straight out of any number of rock tunes from the ‘80s and that betray a contemporary classical style that formed in that period without sounding dated or borrowed. The ironically titled Slow Motion for piano and vibraphone takes cues from the collaborative work of Chick Corea and Gary Burton. Percussionist Eliseo Rael deftly trades polyphonic strains with Frankenberry, parts winding around one another before briefly coalescing in chords and accents that stutter step around, dressed in colorful harmonies. A less active choral section provides a respite from this activity before returning to the manic, quasi-improvisatory material from the top.

Third Delphic Hymn is a showcase for the evocative playing of violinist Laura Motchalov. Her ability to cleanly perform multiple lines at once sounds at times like two distinct players and is quite effective. This brief work is the oldest on the album (the original version for viola was written in 1980), but it is nonetheless a highlight both in terms of performance and composition, and I’ll admit to being disappointed that it ended so soon. This is not to say it was an inappropriate length, but that I was left wanting more. The final work on the album, September Music, initially picks up on the melancholy of Third Delphic Hymn in its modest tempo and longing harmonic language, and these characteristics continue for the most part in the second movement. The insistent third movement eventually displays many of the characteristics of the other works on the recording. Tutti climaxes rebounded from duo and trio excursions. Colorful clashes in the clarinet and flute, performed by Kathleen Costello and Peggy Yoo respectively, are answered by dramatic responses in the strings.

Ion Sound Project is a thoroughly engaging CD from top to bottom. Ion Sound Project (the group!) does a great job of presenting Beck’s work here, whether in solo or ensemble settings. Though architecturally rigorous, Beck writes clearly and without pretense, and while one might listen for the technical elements of his work, I think that would be missing the point. Well-wrought music should be architecturally sound as a matter of course, but checking that compositional tick-box alone does not necessarily a great piece of music make. If you’re interested in music that is for the most part harmonically tonal and rhythmically diverse, you’re sure to find a great deal of satisfaction in the world of Jeremy Beck.