Category: Albums

Sounds Heard—Liaisons: Re-Imaging Sondheim from the Piano

The cover for the ECM New Series 3-CD set Liaisons (2470-72).

Liaisons (ECM 2470-72), Anthony de Mare’s 3-CD recital of piano pieces by 36 different composers based on musical theatre songs by Stephen Sondheim, is somewhat unprecedented in the annals of recorded history. In some respects, it’s akin to numerous instrumental jazz albums that re-interpret Broadway show tunes, but not really. These re-imaginings are not by one artist or combo but rather by 36 different composers, actually 37, since as a postlude de Mare offers a Sondheim rendering of his own devising. So perhaps it is more like a tribute album in which the oeuvre of a specific songwriter or band is covered by a wide range of artists. Well, not quite. Even though three dozen disparate compositional voices were involved here and the results are extremely different, all were asked to create music for the piano (and most did, though some added electronics). Plus all of these Sondheim “covers” are interpreted by the same musician—Anthony de Mare—and these pieces form a surprisingly cohesive whole when the collection is listened to in its entirety.

Aside from the recording, de Mare is currently in the middle of a tour where he is performing these works live. On Thursday, November 19, he will perform a selection from the series in New York City, with Sondheim scheduled to be in the audience, at Symphony Space. Then on December 12, he will take the material to PianoForte Studios in Chicago, with more appearances in the works for 2016.

To give some hint of the range of this project, we asked two of the composers de Mare commissioned—Annie Gosfield and Eve Beglarian—to share with us the some of the back story behind their idiosyncratic takes on Sondheim songs. In Gosfield’s setting of “A Bowler Hat,” from Sondheim’s somewhat lesser-known 1976 Broadway musical Pacific Overtures, phrases from the original song waft in and out, whereas in Beglarian’s “Perpetual Happiness,” an elaborate fantasia on the song “Happiness” from Sondheim’s 1994 Tony-award winning show Passion, Sondheim’s tune is transformed into insistent, propulsive motives that caress the keyboard relentlessly. Both totally sound like the work of their respective composers yet both still clearly reflect Sondheim’s immediately-identifiable sound world.



Different Hats

By Annie Gosfield

I never sat through a live musical. I can barely name a show tune, let alone sing one.

So imagine my surprise when Anthony de Mare contacted me about reimagining a Stephen Sondheim song for a new project. As usual, Tony’s enthusiasm was infectious, and I love surprising projects that unexpectedly spring up, so how could I say no?

I met Tony in the 1990‘s, when the new music scene in New York was smaller, friendlier and a little more incestuous. Tony played my piece “Brooklyn, October 5, 1941,” in which the pianist’s fingers never actually touch the keys. Instead, the notes are sounded by baseballs, which are rolled on the keyboard, and used to strike the strings and soundboard of the piano. A catcher’s mitt comes into play, creating monstrous left-hand clusters. This athletic piece was a happy match with Tony’s very physical approach to the piano. I never would have guessed that writing a piece for piano, baseballs, and catcher’s mitt would lead to Sondheim.

We met to discuss the project, and Tony gave me a list of available songs. Steve Reich had already grabbed “Finishing the Hat,” so I quickly checked out “A Bowler Hat.” Why? Because I like hats, and I used to be a milliner. The two contexts are not completely unrelated: the urge to transform materials and make something new out of something in hand exists whether I’m dealing with a Sondheim song or a raw piece of felt. “A Bowler Hat” was a little more obscure (the last thing I wanted to do was tackle “Send in the Clowns”) and had an infectious repeated theme. It’s from Pacific Overtures, and sung by Kayama, a Japanese man proudly displaying his Western accoutrements—a pocket watch, a cutaway coat, and, of course, a bowler hat. The song is about cultural shifts and Kayama’s personal transformation, which fits nicely with the idea of adapting a musical theater piece to my own style.

Working with the piece was another story. The further I got from the original, the weaker the music became. I quickly learned what so many of the other composers already knew, that Sondheim’s songs were impeccably constructed. Any major changes felt like pulling one stone out of a Roman arch; Sondheim was our keystone and the original structure stood beautifully on its own. Like blocking a hat, the song had its own inherent shape, and it was best to respect that. Writing for Tony provided a lot of inspiration as well. I took some liberties, imagining his unique mix of muscular brawn and emotional lyricism, added elements, and combined existing motives. In the end, I stepped back and enjoyed being the instigator of a new conversation between Mr. Sondheim and Mr. de Mare.

This series of delightful surprises continued. When I was a teenager and first met my partner, guitarist Roger Kleier, in the dorm of the music school at North Texas State University, the background soundtrack was often the gorgeous, ethereal, reverb-heavy LPs by Terje Rypdal and John Abercrombie. They were part of Manfred Eicher’s signature sound world on ECM. Fast forward a few decades, and I’m at the Academy of Arts and Letters with the wondrous Judith Sherman producing Tony’s impressive 3-CD set, and after an unexpected sequence of baseballs, hats, and late night dorm listening, my name’s on an ECM release, represented by the spectacular Mr. de Mare.



By Eve Beglarian

I thought I knew what love was,
I thought I knew how much I could feel.
I didn’t know what love was.
But now I do.

—Giorgio in “Happiness from Passion

When Tony de Mare asked me to rework a Sondheim song for his Liaisons project, it took me a while to settle on the opening number from Passion. At the time, I had never actually seen a production of that particular show, so I was surprised when it called to me.

Passion opens with a couple reaching the end of their lovemaking and then singing a love duet in their post-orgasmic bliss. How else do you open a show called Passion, right?

But it’s a curious love duet. While the melodic lines do everything love duets are supposed to, and the words are full of love and certainty, the accompaniment is slightly off-kilter, with curious glancing dissonances that roil just beneath the surface. One of the hardest jobs I had in my reworking was to keep the crunchiness submerged: the dissonances wanted to leak out and infect my version, which would have destroyed the perfect ironic balance Sondheim created.

When I made my version, I thought I understood what the song was getting at. I understood the show as a warped rom-com that happens to end badly. The guy is with the wrong girl, who seems totally right at first; he meets the right girl (who seems really amazingly wrong at first) and finds true love, which is really great. But then it turns out that love, physical love, kills the woman he loves. So sad.

And a little confusing and unsatisfying. Is the story saying that passion is great but sex is a problem? Not too likely. Is it saying love has to kill you to be the real thing? I know there’s a long tradition (Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, and on and on) bolstering that line, but in most cases it’s outside forces that kill the lovers, not love itself. I’ve been mulling this whole question over for a while, even after seeing the fine production of the show at Classic Stage Company in 2013.

A few weeks ago, at Tony’s first show celebrating the CD release, the project’s producer, Rachel Colbert, told me about a novel called Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig, which tells the same story as Passion. Sondheim credits Ettore Scola’s film, Passione d’Amore, as his inspiration, a film which in turn was based on the novel Fosca, by Iginio Ugo Tarchetti. Tarchetti seems to be the source for both Sondheim and Zweig, but I don’t know if Sondheim has read the Zweig.

For me, Beware of Pity was a revelation.

Zweig makes horrifyingly clear that pity is an act of monstrous vanity which destroys everyone: both the pitier and the pitied. Pity is the opposite of empathy or even sympathy. The pitying person sets himself above the one he pities:

On that evening I was God. I had calmed the waters of unrest and driven the darkness from their hearts. But from myself, too, I had chased away the fear, my soul was at peace as never before in all my life.

Pity acts to alienate the pitier from the pitied, isolating the pitier from the vulnerability the pitied person arouses in him. In Beware of Pity, Zweig makes clear that the most broken person in the story is not the sickly woman, but the male protagonist, who himself realizes, “it is not evil and brutality, but nearly always weakness, that is to blame for the worst things that happen in this world.”

At the end of the novel, he abandons his now-fiancée—who commits suicide in response to his betrayal—and runs off to join the opening battles of the First World War. It’s clear to readers of the novel, which was published in 1938, that this soldier has the soul of a Nazi officer: a seemingly brave, strong hero who is actually weak, fearful, and therefore brutal.

In Passion, when Sondheim brings back the music of “Happiness” under a love scene between Fosca and Giorgio, I think he is hinting at some of this complexity. We know Giorgio was wrong to sing “I didn’t know what love was, but now I do,” to his first lover, Clara, at the top of the show. Fosca is heartbreakingly correct at the end of the show, when she sings “Too much happiness, more than I can bear” to the same melody. She sings these words to a man who even now doesn’t have a clue what real love is, because he is besotted with pity.

Usually I embark on creative work with some awareness of what it is I am trying to make sense of as I make the piece. In this case, the piece called me before I understood why I needed to grapple with it. I am grateful to Tony, to Stephen Sondheim, to Rachel Colbert, and to Stefan Zweig for showing me something I needed to understand. Thanks to this exploration, I understand something new about the vital distinction between pity and empathy/sympathy. But I’m still not going to claim I understand what love is!

Andy Milne on Star Trek

How did William Shatner choose eclectic jazz pianist/Dapp Theory frontman Andy Milne to score his series of Star Trek documentaries? It turns out that Avery Brooks, the actor who played Captain Benjamin Sisko for seven years on the Star Trek spinoff Deep Space Nine, is an accomplished jazz singer and pianist in his own right and had performed with Milne. So when Shatner asked Brooks whom he thought could create music for this project, he immediately suggested him. Milne’s Trek score (released on the CD From The Bridge) has led to multiple performances at Star Trek conventions. But for this lifelong science fiction fan, the greatest experience has been sitting in the captain’s chair on the Enterprise.

Cover of Andy Milne's CD From The Bridge featuring a photo of Milne sitting on the captain's chair of the Enterprise from Star Trek.

The cover of Milne’s From The Bridge Listen to excerpts from the CD here.

(You can read more about Milne and his music here.)

My Sunshine

Sheila Jordan frequently tells the story of how listening to Charlie Parker’s 1945 recording of “Now’s The Time” changed her life; hearing it made her devote her life to jazz. She still remembers putting her nickel in that jukebox in vivid detail.

I have a similar memory, but the life-changing recording for me was George Russell’s “You Are My Sunshine” featuring Sheila Jordan. At the time I did not know that it was her first major recording (and actually only the second time she ever appeared on a record). I also knew almost nothing about jazz. To remedy that, I was taking a jazz appreciation class during my freshman year at Columbia University. I now treasure almost everything I heard in that class, but at the time jazz was still not clicking for me. Then one day, toward the end of the semester, my professor launched into a tirade about “what went wrong with jazz.” He talked about how jazz started losing its connection to popular culture and began to emulate avant-garde contemporary classical music—my ears suddenly perked up; he was finally speaking what I believed was my language. Then he played an example of something he felt was the beginning of this tendency, the point at which jazz took that wrong fork in the road. What he played was George Russell’s recording of “You Are My Sunshine.”

On the original LP cover for George Russell's The Outer View (which is not the image reproduced in subsequent reissues), Russell is standing in front of the Guggenheim Museum in NYC.

One of the highlights of George Russell’s 1962 Riverside LP The Outer View is his off-kilter arrangement of “You Are My Sunshine” featuring the voice of Sheila Jordan.

In the very beginning of the arrangement, this famous tune is not recognizable at all; instead there are angular figurations in the horns that sound like something out of Edgard Varèse. Eventually, Russell bangs out the melody on the piano, accompanying it with a torrent of tone clusters. Then, at about ten minutes in, everyone stops playing and, after a moment of silence, an unaccompanied female voice enters singing a highly embellished version of the melody. It is vulnerable and, paradoxically, also extremely powerful. As amazed as I was by what Russell had done to this song, I was even more amazed by that voice. Eventually, the horns return with their figurations and gradually the whole ensemble enters in and ultimately drowns out the singer and it comes to an end.

To this day, it remains one of the most exrtaordinary things I have ever heard in my life. But at that instant, I finally understood how interpretation becomes a form of composition in jazz. Everything I heard after that, I heard in a new way. That wrong fork in the road is what changed my life. First I tracked down all of Russell’s Riverside recordings, then I moved on to all of the sidemen—Eric Dolphy (who was on many of these sessions but unfortunately not on “You Are My Sunshine”) became an obsession and Don Ellis (who went on to form a polystylistic big band) became the subject of one of my first published articles about music.

And then there was Sheila Jordan. At first I couldn’t find anything else. After years of scouring the bins, I finally tracked down her mesmerizing debut LP on Blue Note which, to this day, is my favorite jazz vocal album. Little by little, I tracked down everything else, and I tried to hear her live whenever she sang in New York City as well. By this time, I had become an avid jazz record collector, devouring every alternative take I could get my hands on. That was the fork in the road I went down, which I owe to “You Are My Sunshine.” To finally hear Sheila Jordan describe how this unique recording came about has been equally transformative.

Video Presentation by Molly Sheridan
You can read the entire conversation with Sheila Jordan here.

NewMusicBox Mix: 2014 Staff Picks

Before we close the file on 2014, New Music USA staff members have chosen some of their favorite tracks from the past twelve months for this edition of the NewMusicBox Mix. Below you will find each track streamed separately with a bit of commentary on what made it stand out, as well as a continuous playlist of all of the tracks at the bottom of the post. Follow the links for further listening and to add the albums to your own collection.
These artists have very generously allowed the use of their tracks in this project, and we encourage you to support them by purchasing their albums and letting them know if you enjoy what you hear!
Happy holidays to all!

Staff Picks 2014

Ghost Quartet

Dave Malloy: The Astronomer
Performed by Brent Arnold, Brittain Ashford, Gelsey Bell, and Dave Malloy

ALBUM: Ghost Quartet
Blue Wizard Music
Purchase via Bandcamp
I love Dave Malloy’s shows more than is, strictly speaking, reasonable. It seems as if he throws himself into his sources with enough force that he breaks through the other side with everything he needs for a show in pieces on the ground around him. In the case of Ghost Quartet, Malloy’s brain seems to have gone down the rabbit hole of the murder ballad “The Twa Sisters,” which goes back at least to the 1650s. On his way back, Malloy brings you through Iran, a modern subway platform, a series of distilleries, and a very strange shop somewhere in, I think, the Pacific Northwest. It’s not that important. It’s just an awesome album and an awesome song.

Kevin Clark, Strategic Director for Public Engagement


Chris Kallmyer: this nest, swift passerine
Performed by wild Up

Populist Records
Purchase via Populist Records
Purchase via Bandcamp
I love that the recordings on this disc are live, not assembled with precision and science in the laboratory of a recording studio. And I love that they reflect a new music scene in LA that’s likewise exploding with life. The musicians’ human energy, digitized though it is, leaps through the speakers at you, even in the quietest, most curiously affecting track of the bunch: this nest, swift passerine by Chris Kallmyer.

Ed Harsh, President and CEO

Haas Kowert Tice: You Got This

Haas Kowert Tice: The Decade

ALBUM: You Got This
Purchase via Bandcamp
Brittany Haas (Crooked Still, Dan Trueman), Paul Kowert (Punch Brothers), and Jordan Tice (Tony Trischka) are three friends who also happen to be top talents in bluegrass music and beyond. There are so many interesting tracks to choose from on this album—their first of what I hope will be many—but my favorite track is “The Decade.” It’s a short and incisive cut featuring Haas’s extraordinary fiddle playing and excellent ensemble work by Kowert and Tice. It’s complex, yet visceral and immediate, which is what drew me to this style of music in the first place. I hope it draws you in too!

Ethan Joseph, Development Manager for Individual Giving

Gabriel Kahane: Villains (4616 Dundee Dr.)

ALBUM: The Ambassador
Sony Masterworks
Purchase via Bandcamp

With characteristic wit—musical as well as lyrical—Gabriel Kahane takes the listener on a tour of some of Los Angeles’s landmark addresses and the complex history on which they stand. The subject matter gives him plenty to meditate on—from the architects who designed the city to the slumlords who run it. In “Villains (4616 Dundee Dr.),” he plays a sharp verbal game that seamlessly mixes commentary on clerestory windows and cantilevered beach houses with a consideration of Bruce Willis’s hair line and the modernist leanings of Hollywood’s bad guys.

Molly Sheridan, Executive Editor, NewMusicBox and Director, Counterstream Radio

Ambrose Akinmusire - Ceaseless Inexhaustible Child, and Rollcall for Those Absent

Ambrose Akinmusire: Ceaseless Inexhaustible Child, and Rollcall for Those Absent
Performed by Ambrose Akinmusire, Cold Specks, Sam Harris, Harish Raghavan, Justin Brown, Charles Altura, and Muna Blake

ALBUM: the imagined savior is far easier to paint
Blue Note

I’ve been a fan of Ambrose Akinmusire’s music for a number of years now, having first heard him at The Jazz Gallery when I worked there. His second release on Blue Note, the imagined savior is far easier to paint, which came out in the spring of 2014, displays his maturation as an artist—the essence of his music, the uniqueness of his voice as a composer and trumpeter, was present from a very early age, but it has amplified as he’s grown and on this CD it’s also amplified by the presence of the exceptional musicians he collaborates with. It’s deeply personal and unmistakably his—honest, probing, emotional, thoughtful, communicative, uncompromising. At the same time, it resonates with our common humanity, and challenges us to feel, think, and act. I chose these tracks, Ceaseless Inexhaustible Child and Rollcall for Those Absent for their artistry and their timeliness.

Deborah Steinglass, Director of Development

Donald Womack: Breaking Heaven

Donald Reid Womack: Breaking Heaven
Performed by Seizan Sakata, shakuhachi; Asako Hisatake, cello; Reiko Kimura, koto

ALBUM: Breaking Heaven
Albany Records

While blurring and blending a wide range of traditions has been a defining trait of 21st-century American music-making, some of the recent music coming out of Hawaii—situated in Oceania halfway between Asia and the Americas—is a direct response to its multicultural history. For the past decade, Hawaii-based Donald Reid Womack has been creating a fascinating body of chamber music utilizing both Western and Asian instruments and has claimed that through writing such music he has finally found his identity as an “American” composer. Breaking Heaven, Womack’s trio for cello, shakuhachi, and 21-string koto, is a great starting point for listeners eager to hear the exciting sonic result of this synthesis.

Frank J. Oteri, Composer Advocate and Senior Editor, NewMusicBox

Battle Trance - Palace of Wind

Battle Trance: Palace of Wind: Pt. II

ALBUM: Palace of Wind
New Amsterdam Records
Purchase via Bandcamp

This track from Palace of Wind, the first album-length work from tenor sax quartet Battle Trance, showcases the collaborative and sonic possibilities of the instrument in a whole new light. Intricate fast lines interact seamlessly with more meditative sections, anchored by multiphonics and circular breathing, creating a hypnotic flow of sound that is like nothing else I’ve heard this year.

Hannah Rubashkin, Manager of Institutional Giving

A Coffin in Egypt

Ricky Ian Gordon: The Open Prairie

ALBUM: A Coffin in Egypt
Albany Records

A small gem of an opera that embraces intimacy and takes the listener (in the case of this recording) on a cinematic journey through one woman’s tragic life and indomitable spirit.

Eddy Ficklin, Technology Manager and Developer

Jacob Cooper - Silver Threads

Jacob Cooper: Silver Threads
Performed by Jacob Cooper and Mellissa Hughes

ALBUM: Silver Threads
Purchase via Nonesuch

As the title track of this stunning minimalist song cycle, Silver Threads is Jacob Cooper’s quiet and contemplative interpretation of modern-day lied. An album I often revisit, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing portions of the entire cycle performed live; the immersive experience his work elicits both in person and in recording never disappoints.

Emily Bookwalter, Grantmaking and Community Manager

A Far Cry - The Law of Mosaics

Ted Hearne: Law of Mosaics: Excerpts from the Middle of Something
Performed by A Far Cry

ALBUM: The Law of Mosaics
Crier Records

A Far Cry’s The Law of Mosaics pairs Andrew Norman’s Companion Guide to Rome with Ted Hearne’s The Law of Mosaics. The release cements the string orchestra as a force to be reckoned with, presenting the unique voices of both Brooklyn exports and allowing them to shine on one of the best releases of 2014.

Sam Reising, Grantmaking Assistant

Sounds Heard: Christian Wolff—Pianist: Pieces

[M]aking a play and not a speech, he gives us not contrary arguments but a doubling or blending of poetic accounts, not dissoi logoi [“dissonant words”], contentious and divisive… but a dissos muthos [“dissonant myth”] which indicates connections and makes out of divergences a kind of harmony.
—Christian Wolff, “On Euripides’ Helen1

wolff thomas cover

Christian Wolff
Pianist: Pieces
(Sub Rosa SR389)
Performed by:
Philip Thomas
Buy from Forced Exposure

Most composers have, at one time or another, done some moonlighting—in offices, mailrooms, taxicabs. On rare occasions, the moonlight, like the song says, becomes you: the job sticks and turns into a parallel career—Charles Ives, prominent insurance executive, being perhaps the most famous example. It’s usually regarded as more of a curiosity than anything, a commentary on the odd compartmentalization that sometimes results from the demands of making a living.

Christian Wolff—having, when still a teenager, been a student and then colleague of John Cage—decided against a traditional music education and career; instead, he earned a doctorate in classical studies and spent years teaching ancient literature at Harvard and then Dartmouth, all the while composing and performing outside the classroom. It’s often mentioned only in passing, sometimes as a tacit (or not-so-tacit) approval of Wolff’s bypassing of the musical academy.2

But, just as Ives’s insurance selling and music making were both marked by the same Transcedentalist morality, Wolff’s extensive sideline in antiquity is maybe not so foreign to his composing as it might seem. It’s not to say that Wolff’s music springs directly from his scholarly work, but, looking at the latter, you pick up echoes—there’s a consistency in the sort of things that interest him. For instance: Wolff’s particular area of expertise has been the plays of Euripides, simultaneously the most traditional and the most experimental of the Greek playwrights, constantly distending and smudging the expected outlines of classical drama with human unpredictability. Compare Wolff discussing Euripides’s play Ion in a 1965 paper—

Human feelings such as the play represents are immediately recognizable. We can call them realistic. Divine favor, on the other hand, is part of a myth, a poetic invention. Thus, similar to the repetitions in the present of a story out of the past shaping the play’s plot, there is a drama in the interaction of what is immediate and human with the remote and divine3

—with Wolff, looking back on the period in the late 1950s when a crucial part of his musical approach came into focus:

…I turned to indeterminacy at the point of performance. Chance was not used in the process of composing, but the performers were given choices to make from variously specified ranges of material (pitch, color, dynamics, location in a time space), and when there was more than one performer, they were required to play with specific reference to each other’s sounds, which were arranged to appear in ways that were not predictable. This resulted in a music that was always variable with each performance.4

And in a later paper, on Euripides’s Iphegenia among the Taurians, Wolff argues for a harmonization of the play’s use of history and ritual in terms that are not so far from the music, however varied, produced by Wolff and his New York School contemporaries:

I would like to suggest a kind of metatheatrical attention in the play to the process of interpretation. Aetiology here is both a dramatic instrument and, more abstractly, an explanatory mode. Formally it is addressed to an audience in a way somewhat different from the rest of the play’s dramatic speech, song, and action. This difference encourages interpretation and opens up the possibility of questioning….5

Aetiology—the dramatic technique of referencing a contemporary place or event by having a character reiterate its mythic origin story—is one of the most prominent of Euripides’s techniques; he didn’t invent it, but no other playwright used it as consistently, or as creatively. Wolff might well be the most stylistically restless of the New York School composers, but one possible connecting thread is aetiology. In Wolff’s music, one might say that the implied history of each piece, the fact of its composition, its notation, its interpretation and performance, is elevated to the point where it is not just present (as, one could argue, it is with a performance of any piece), but it is, in fact, how the piece is experienced. Every sound is a reminder of its own origin. Every piece is its own aetiology.

Christian Wolff, For Piano I (excerpt); Philip Thomas, piano

This new 3-CD recording of Wolff’s solo piano music by Philip Thomas itself comes with excellent provenance. Thomas is both a superb pianist, of the new music bright-and-precise school—everything in sharp focus, the range of articulations and dynamics unfailingly delineated—and an expert on Wolff’s music, his engagement with it both analytically deep and aesthetically sympathetic.

Still, the collection, even at three-plus hours, is not quite a fully rounded portrait. On the face of it, it is an Apollonian view of the composer. It combines a handful of pieces from the 1950s with a handful from the 21st century (three of which—Pianist Pieces (2001), Nocturnes (2008), and Small Preludes (2010)—are recorded for the first time). Most of the ’50s pieces are traditionally notated; the one exception, the formidable For Pianist from 1959, is the only glimpse (albeit an extensive one) of Wolff’s initial engagement with indeterminacy. The later works, part of the explosion in Wolff’s productivity since his 1999 retirement from Dartmouth, are eclectic in their compositional technique: the composer in full, experience and research now expressed as dividend. The program also might seem to make Wolff a more abstract composer than he is, especially in vaulting over those decades when he was producing his most explicitly politically engaged music (the ’70s in particular, which yielded three major works for piano: the Maoist-tinged Accompaniments (1972), and the protest-song-derived Bread and Roses (1976) and Hay una Mujer Desaparecida (1979)).

The piano solo format also makes for a more analytical portrait of Wolff, who normally has been more interested in music that plays on inter-performer communication. Thomas admits as much in his chapter on Wolff’s piano music in the analytical anthology Changing the System:

The piano music, then, provides a useful tool with which to survey developments within Wolff’s compositional technique and style. It also paints a picture which significantly differs from that usually accorded to Wolff’s output. By removing the element of performer interaction, analysis can concentrate instead upon matters of form and musical language (pitch, rhythm, texture). As the attention is more drawn to that which is determined, or present, in the notation than that which is indeterminate, and often not present, the presence of Wolff as a composer is more readily observed.6

It’s a little different in performance, or even recording—the indeterminate aspects are back on an equal footing with the notated elements. But the spirit is there. It is, I realized, not unlike director Steven Soderbergh’s recent exercise in turning Raiders of the Lost Ark into a black-and-white silent movie, the better to notice the construction. As Soderbergh instructed: “See if you can reproduce the thought process that resulted in these choices by asking yourself: why was each shot—whether short or long—held for that exact length of time and placed in that order?” In other words: what is the aetiology of this experience—technical, aesthetic, mythic?

Where to start? Probably the best place is Long Piano (Peace March 11), a singular piece, written between 2004 and 2005, that takes up the entire second CD of the collection. It’s at the same time the most monumental and mercurial piano work Wolff has ever written: an hour-long stretch of tiny fragments—95 of them, plus a prelude—composed (except for the prelude) in chronological order, but revisiting techniques and ideas from across Wolff’s catalog. There’s the political dimension: it is, as the title indicates, one in a series of works referencing Wolff’s long-held pacifist ideals. There’s the precise indeterminacy, be it sections in which (for example) only fingerings and rhythms are indicated, but in enough detail that the realization becomes even more concentrated and intense, or long sequences of fragments largely bereft of dynamic or tempo markings, leaving performer and listener to almost compulsively invent connections. There’s a chunk of the piece that reprises the intricate, mathematical rhythmic operations Wolff used in his most complex pieces from the ’50s. There are bits of folk-like diatonicism, rendered as streams of chant-like notes. There are quotations—from Schumann, from Ives; the finale is a 20-second hint of the ubiquitous medieval “L’Homme Armé.” But mostly, there’s the realization that Wolff has always been coming at the same goal from different angles: a music that finds a middle ground between the extreme, hard-edged brevity and clarity of the post-Webern avant-garde and a fluid, ambiguous mood and emotion not unlike that at the core of Romanticism. (Schumann, too, was a fan of fragments.)
That’s why the music’s aetiological bent is so enriching: it’s where a lot of that fluidity comes into play. Thomas includes two very different realizations of For Pianist, one short and scantily populated with attacks, the other longer and more dense, a demonstration hinting at what Wolff does and doesn’t leave up to the performer, even in this extremely enigmatic score—and why. For Piano I (1952) projects a jaggedly complicated rhythmic sparseness onto a restricted, almost modal collection of pitches; knowing that For Piano II (1953) was composed, in part, after Pierre Boulez criticized that limitation, and that Wolff, in response, expanded the collection to include all 88 notes on the keyboard, one can hear not only what changes—the more serial-like diffusion of harmonic implication shifting the attention to color and range and rhythm—but also what doesn’t, what remains essential to Wolff’s thinking, the high-contrast variations of touch, the respiration between event and silence, so intricately designed that it approximates an organic unpredictability. The Nocturnes 1-6 leave a lot to the performer, including the choice of what clef to use to read the notated pitches. The sound world is a solidly luminous, quasi-diatonic one. Was the notational technique the impetus for the sound, or was the sound a goal that defined the notational technique? It’s not completely apparent, which is part of the point. Wolff is getting you to notice the music’s source, its compositional and interpretive backstory, in order to get you to engage. As Wolff characterized Iphegenia, the music opens up the possibility of questioning.


1. Christian Wolff, “On Euripides’ Helen,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 77 (1973) (back to article)
2. One exception: Michael Hicks and Christian Aplund’s recent study Christian Wolff (University of Illinois Press, 2012), which occasionally but perceptively makes parallels between Wolff’s musical concerns and his analyses of Greek drama. (back to article)
3. Christian Wolff, “The Design and Myth in Euripides’ Ion,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 69 (1965) (back to article)
4. Christian Wolff, “Experimental Music around 1950 and Some Consequences and Causes (Social-Political and Musical),” American Music, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Winter 2009) (back to article)
5. Christian Wolff, “Euripides’ Iphigenia among the Taurians: Aetiology, Ritual, and Myth,” Classical Antiquity, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Oct., 1992) (back to article)
6. Philip Thomas, “For Pianist: The Solo Piano Music,” in Stephen Chase and Philip Thomas, eds., Changing the System: The Music of Christian Wolff (Ashgate, 2010) (back to article)

Sounds Heard: Wayne Horvitz—55: Music and Dance in Concrete

LP cover for Wayne Horvitz's 55: Music and Dance in Concrete
Wayne Horvitz
55: Music and Dance in Concrete

(Other Room Music 001)
Music performed by Steven O’Brien, trumpet; Naomi Siegel, trombone; Kate Olson, soprano sax; Beth Fleenor, clarinet/bass carinet; Briggan Krauss, alto sax; Maria Mannisto, voice; Victoria Parker, violin; Eyvind Kang and Heather Bentley, violas; Roweena Hammil, cello. Recorded by Tucker Martine. Composed and mixed by Wayne Horvitz.

Listen to “55 (3)” from 55: Music and Dance in Concrete


© 2014 Wayne Horvitz. Streamed with permission.

Though Wayne Horvitz’s music has always been somewhat difficult to classify, it has usually adhered to a “jazz” sensibility. Even Wish the Children Would Come on Home, his previous album released back in May of this year which consists predominantly of pre-composed music performed by a brass quartet, exudes a jazz feel despite the overall lack of improvisation (except for a few tracks where Horvitz joins them for some impromptu mayhem). However, no matter how definitions can be finessed to tie all sorts of loose ends together, one would be hard pressed to associate his latest record, 55: Music and Dance in Concrete, with swing, bop, fusion or any of the myriad subgenres that have expanded this way of making music over the past century. Yet it is still clearly Wayne Horvitz and is utterly fascinating.

Each of the album’s tracks is cryptically titled “55” followed by an additional number, but those second numbers (which range from 1 to 29) are not presented sequentially. Horvitz, with whom I corresponded via email, was born in 1955 and was 55 when he began composing this music. So despite the seeming abstraction, this is very personal music. But it gets even more complicated. Though the opening track on the album is “55 (1),” it is followed by “55 (15)” then “55 (29)” and “55 (10)” etc., almost inviting listeners to determine their own path through the material. According to Horvitz, the tracks were simply titled in the order he created them but then he later sequenced them in an order that seemed more organic. The numbers go as high as 29, but he never completed three of the tracks. The 26 tracks, scored for various combinations of wind and string instruments, were actually culled from a total of 110 musical fragments. These fragments consist of performances of 55 pre-composed Horvitz chamber music pieces plus 55 improvisations all of which took place over the course of four days in the concrete bunkers and cistern at Fort Worden in Pt. Townsend, Washington where they were recorded by Tucker Martine (who has also worked with R.E.M., The Decembrists, Beth Orton, and others). Then Horvitz electronically manipulated and remixed these recordings so that the final audio result sounds nothing like what the musicians originally played. Then, these resultant pre-recorded tracks served as the sonic component for a modular site-specific multi-media work presented in a variety of locations within Fort Worden involving choreography by Yukio Suzuki and video by Yohei Saito.

Taken out of its original context the music still manages to comes across as part psychedelic soundtrack (think Barbarella), part mysterious fun house (think Sleep No More). I personally wish that I would have been able to experience the visuals as well as the music, though I’m not sure a DVD would have captured the complete experiential immersion that the collaborators were aiming for. At least the LP (yes, it’s available on LP!!!) comes with some large, tantalizing photos of the original production. Though there are only 13 tracks on the vinyl release (it has not been issued on CD!), all 26 completed tracks are available digitally on a download card included with the record. Additionally there’s a wealth of information (including some tantalizing video excerpts) on a dedicated website about the project.

Sounds Heard: No Lands—Negative Space

No Lands
Negative Space
(New Amsterdam 057)
Performed by:
Michael Hammond
with cameos by Anthony LaMarca, Aaron Roche, and Jay Hammond
Order on Bandcamp

The work of electronic musician/sound artist Michael Hammond first engaged my ears while listening to Sarah Kirkland Snider’s large-scale work Penelope, to which Hammond contributed elegantly subtle electronic textures. Negative Space is the first full length album of Hammond’s own recording project No Lands; it features nine electronic works that combine song format and ambient soundscape—the work of, as Hammond states in the liner notes, “Three years and a hurricane.”
Much of this music was created in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, an event that greatly affected Hammond, a Red Hook, Brooklyn resident and member of the New Amsterdam Records team. The dreamy nature of the music, with restless patches of multi-textured noise, synth washes, and eerie pitch-shifted voices, is both graceful and slightly disturbing at times. While the music has a surface level techno/dance music feel, substantial composerly attention is devoted to form, color, and line, making Negative Space a gratifying listening experience.

Sounds Heard: Michael Ching—A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Michael Ching
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
(Albany/Troy 1507/08)
Performed by:
Opera Memphis
Playhouse on the Square
Curtis Tucker, conductor

Two excerpts from Act One, Scene Two of Michael Ching’s opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream
© 2014 Michael Ching and ℗ 2014 DeltaCapella /Albany Records. Tracks streamed with permission.

“New music,” the term we use as an umbrella for the music we feature on NewMusicBox, is simultaneously a blessing and a curse for the exact same reason—the words in and of themselves don’t really mean anything terribly specific. Music at this point can mean almost anything and the definition of new is also rather malleable; what is considered to be of recent vintage sometimes encompasses material that is more than a hundred years old despite such music not seeming chronologically new. However, many of us seem to parse the new music from the old based on whether or not it’s somehow avant-garde, doing something that no one has ever done before. In our web-search saturated post-post-post-modern era (I might have missed a “post” or two—it’s difficult to keep track), claiming something has never been done before is a recipe for almost instant refutation. A common conception these days is that nothing is “new,” which of course makes a definition of new music where new implies avant-garde even more perilous.

For an artwork to be truly avant-garde—whether it’s a piece of visual art, literature, or music—there needs to be an element of cognitive dissonance upon first encountering it. That’s what the initial audience reaction was to Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Duchamps’s Fountain, Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, and Stravinsky/Nijinsky ballet The Rite of Spring. But of course all of these works have been with us for a century and have become part of our cultural heritage, so they’ve pretty much lost most of their shock value. In more recent times, high art’s embrace of banality—from Andy Warhol’s iconic Campbell’s soup cans and Yoko Ono’s Painting to be Stepped On to Jeff Koons’s glorification of kitsch—began as an aesthetic provocation but is also no longer particularly disquieting. Even Koons’s output, now the subject of a major retrospective at the Whitney, has entered the mainstream.

Yet despite how difficult it is to be startled by something at this point, that was precisely my reaction to the just-released recording of Michael Ching’s 2011 opera, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But it’s not startling because its libretto is extreme or confrontational or because the music is in some esoteric stylistic idiom that has rarely been mined in a stage work. After all, the libretto is directly taken from one of the most famous plays by William Shakespeare (not a word has been altered) and the music is resolutely tonal, frequently extremely tuneful, and sometimes borders on pop.

Perhaps the most radical aspect of Midsummer is that there is no orchestra in the conventional sense. Rather every sound made to accompany what the cast sings is made by a 20-member chorus of voices—a “Voicestra.” But that too is nothing new. Aficionados of choral music or doo-wop know that a complete and completely satisfying sound world does not require anything beyond the human voice and fans of Sarah Vaughan might even remember her 1948 hit “Nature Boy,” a clever track made during the musicians’ union’s ban on recordings, in which the singer was accompanied exclusively by other singers imitating instruments. (Singers were not affected by the ban!) In more recent times, Bobby McFerrin has even used the word Voicestra to describe a group he leads made up of twelve singers from a variety of stylistic backgrounds who perform without instrumental accompaniment.

However, perhaps it’s a completely radical new idea to create an entire opera that only consists of singing. Certainly musical instruments have been a key ingredient in opera since the Florentine Camerata established the genre as we know it today at the end of the 16th century. But, although Jacopo Peri and his cohorts claimed their efforts at dramma per musica were an attempt at reviving ancient Greek theatre, they were deeply indebted to a more contemporaneous phenomenon called madrigal comedy which told stories by linking together a series of madrigals sung by a group of singers, sometimes with instruments doubling their parts, but sometimes completely unaccompanied. So opera actually has its source in unaccompanied vocal music. And, in fact, Michael Ching’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream isn’t the only recent opera scored exclusively for voices. Lera Auerbach’s The Blind, which was performed last summer as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, is also completely instrument free.

But whereas for Auerbach the absence of instruments served as an extremely apt sonic metaphor for deprivation (additionally, in John La Bouchardière’s production of her opera, the audience was blindfolded!), for Ching being restricted to just voices seems hardly a constraint. Abandoning instruments has paradoxically allowed him to create an operatic narrative that at times is every bit as opulent as conventionally scored works, and the absence of a large group of people in a pit (and the even larger paraphernalia which they need in order to make sound) gives the opera a lightness and a freshness that makes it instantly appealing and extremely practical as well. Ching, who served as the artistic director of Opera Memphis for nearly two decades before relocating to Iowa in 2010, certainly understands the practicalities of mounting an opera better than most composers. So this recording of the premiere production mounted by Opera Memphis in collaboration with Playhouse on the Square, featuring the combined voices of local groups DeltaCappella and Riva plus an exemplary cast who all sound totally comfortable navigating between operatic, Broadway, and even R&B idioms, will hopefully be the first of many.

As for why it startled me, it was simply totally unexpected. It sounds nothing like what I imagine an opera based on Shakespeare would sound like. And yet it totally works. And again, it’s not without precedent; a Joseph Papp produced radical pop update of Two Gentlemen of Verona featuring a musical score by Hair composer Galt MacDermot fetched the Tony Award for Best Musical back in 1972. Ultimately whether something is “new” in the avant-garde sense is not really important anymore; Ching’s score is compelling from start to finish and rewards with repeated listenings as well. And, perhaps the biggest shock of all to some denizens of “new music,” it’s lots of fun!

Sounds Heard: J.C. Sanford Orchestra—Views From The Inside

JC Sanford Orchestra: Views From The Inside
(Whirlwind Recordings 4652)

JC Sanford: composer, arranger, trombone; Taylor Haskins: trumpet, flugelhorn, harmonizer; Matt Holman: trumpet, flugelhorn; Dan Willis: oboe, piccolo, flute, soprano sax; Ben Kono: English horn, bass clarinet, clarinet, flute, alto sax; Chris Bacas: clarinet, soprano, tenor sax; Kenny Berger: contra-alto clarinet, bassoon, alto flute; Mark Patterson: trombone; Jeff Nelson: tuba, bass trombone; Chris Komer: French horn; Jacob Garchik: accordion; Tom Beckham: vibraphone; Meg Okura: violin, electronics; Will Martina: cello, electronics; Aidan O’Donnell: bass; Satoshi Takeishi: percussion; Asuka Kakitani: conductor (tracks 6 & 12).
The transformations occurring in the world of jazz-oriented large ensembles—the big band and the jazz orchestra—are nothing short of inspiring. Thanks to groups such as John Hollenbeck’s Large Ensemble and Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society (to name just a couple) there has been an extension of musical possibilities so great that there’s no telling what will reach one’s ears. Composer-trombonist-conductor JC Sanford’s recent release Views From The Inside on Whirlwind Recordings delivers loads of aural surprises wrapped up in layers of jazz orchestra.

The 15-piece orchestra sports a number of unconventional instrument choices, such as accordion, oboe, and tastefully employed electronics, which result in unusual and highly compelling textures. Sanford is a masterful orchestrator, skillfully weaving together a somewhat disparate selection of instruments into delightfully intriguing forms. Matt Holman’s expansive trumpet solo in An Attempt At Serenity and Jacob Garchick’s spastic accordion ostinatos that open Verrazano Bikeride are just two examples of the range of expression on this album. The compositions are intended to be tributes to various aspects of Sanford’s life in Brooklyn, and indeed it sounds as if he soaked up the sounds of the streets and figured out how to gracefully incorporate them into his music.

Sounds Heard: Jeffrey Mumford—through a stillness brightening

Jeffrey Mumford: through a stillness brighteningJeffrey Mumford
through a stillness brightening
(Albany/Troy 1473/74)
Performed by:
Julia Bruskin, cello; Winston Choi, piano;
Miranda Cuckson, violin; Scott Dixon, bass;
Christina Jennings, flute; Lura Johnson, piano;
Wendy Richman & Eliesha Nelson, viola;
Argento Chamber Ensemble (Michel Galante, conductor); Avalon Quartet;
National Gallery Chamber Players (Peter Wilson, conductor)

an expanding distance of multiple voices – I. Estatico e molto appassionato
Miranda Cuckson, violin
Streamed with permission

Jeffrey Mumford’s recent 2-CD album through a stillness brightening features a selection of imaginative, skillfully executed solo and chamber works to fire up the ears. The composer’s evocative titles, always written out in lower case à la e.e. cummings, set the stage for similarly poignant music, rife with dramatic gestures and unexpected twists such as languid, sustained timbres that transform on a pinpoint into scampering flurries of notes or edgy, restless sections of double-stops. Mumford studied primarily with Elliott Carter—the influence is audible—but Mumford’s music has a powerful style very much its own, to be heard in his use of rhythm and counterpoint, and in the way he conceives of musical space and time.

The list of musicians involved is a potential dream team for tackling the challenges inherent in this type of musical complexity. Miranda Cuckson’s performance of an expanding distance of multiple voices for solo violin is ravishing, as are the expertly wrought performances of wending by violist Wendy Richman, to find in the glimmering air…a buoyant continuity of layering blue by cellist Julia Bruskin, and two Elliott Carter tributes by pianist Winston Choi. Mumford’s sense of instruments in relationship to and in dialogue with one another is revealed in an evolving romance for flute and piano performed by Christina Jennings and Lura Johnson, as well as through the filtering dawn of spreading daylight for viola and bass by Eliesha Nelson and Scott Dixon, to be still more thoroughly elaborated upon in the Argento Chamber Ensemble’s performance of through a stillness brightening, echoing fields…spreading light by the National Gallery Chamber Players, and the Avalon Quartet’s in forests of evaporating dawns.

Many of the performances are live concert recordings, another testament to the excellent musicianship at hand. Sometimes I worry about double portrait CDs, in that music by the same composer doesn’t always hold interest for two solid hours, but that is not a concern with through a stillness brightening; this is an engaging and varied assortment of fine pieces, deserving of multiple listens and careful attention.