Category: Listen

Bernd Klug: traces of [dis]location

Brooklyn-based sound artist and composer Bernd Klug has turned the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York into a social musical instrument. His art installation, traces of [dis]location, spans three floors and uses the architectural structure of the building to create multiple points of engagement. traces of [dis]location runs until September 16 and is free and open to the public.

Strings

A single wire weaves through a room at the basement level, connecting at various points to contact microphones, transducers, and hooks on the walls. Each point represents a different geographic location of an institution or individual who was involved in some way with the installation. As one walks through the room, the strings build up feedback, ultimately shortcutting the transducer with a loud snap.

Turntable

Up a small flight of stairs is the second level of the installation, titled Bearing, which Klug created in collaboration with visual artist Johanna Tiedtke. Here, the pair showcases prints of visual traces of visitors to an earlier version of the installation at Galerie Freihausgasse Stadt Villach in Austria, which were captured on zinc plates in the floor and have since been scanned to UV prints on translucent paper. Beneath the prints, now hung at ACFNY, sit a row of turntables that continuously play the sonification of the same traces.

Bernd-Klug

At the top level of traces of [dis]location is a small room with two speakers that represent a sonification of the building. The amplified soundscape includes the sounds of the building’s sewage system, elevators, and fire board, as well as a police scanner monitoring the neighborhood. Electronic noise is also gathered from visitors’ cell phones, adding to the low hum that represents the building itself.

On September 11, 2015, the string quartet The Rhythm Method will premiere Klug’s accompanying composition for the installation, string quartet and skyscraper. The group—consisting of Marina Kifferstein, Lavinia Pavlish, Anne Lanzilotti, and Meaghan Burke—will play different aspects of the installation itself, from bowing the strings on the first level to engaging with the electronic noise generated on the top level. The Rhythm Method’s repertoire will also be inserted into the installation through short recorded clips and manipulations by Klug.

string quartet and skyscraper was supported by New Music USA.

RighteousGIRLS Release gathering blue

RighteousGIRLS is the New York-based duo of flutist Gina Izzo and pianist Erika Dohi. Their debut album, gathering blue (New Focus Recordings), was released today and features compositions by various contemporary/classical and jazz artists including Andy Akiho, Ambrose Akinmusire, Pascal Le Boeuf, Christian Carey, Vijay Iyer, Dave Molk, Mike Perdue, Jonathan Ragonese, and Randy Woolf. The project was funded in part by New Music USA.

Emily Bookwalter: This album seems like a huge undertaking; there is such a wide variety of artists represented, each with their own unique aesthetic and musicality that you’ve managed to capture so convincingly. To what extent did these artistic differences affect your creative process in putting this all together? For example: Was there a lot of improvisation in some of the works that required working more directly with those composers over extensive periods of time? Or with the walls between genres disappearing more and more, did you find that all the works, for example, had elements of improvisation?

Gina Izzo: When Erika Dohi and I first talked about recording an album together back in 2013, we had already been performing as a duo for about three years and wanted to document that—but were in a sort of musical transition. At the time, we had been thinking a lot about the downtown music community in New York City and were actively going to concerts and listening to a lot of different styles. Through this experience, we have developed a unified language as a duo—one that emerged from our curiosity with sound, improvisation, and live/recorded music. The artists we discovered during this time are those we approached for gathering blue.

Although the artists featured on this project come from different backgrounds, we chose to collaborate because we share similar musical values. It was a privilege to work closely with these composers/peformers, and it allowed us to shape each work and to better understand each piece. There is a common thread, a feeling, that links the music allowing a piece like Ambrose Akinmusire’s Anzu, Christian Carey’s For Milton, and Vijay Iyer’s Accumulated Gestures to work in context with each other.

gathering blue has thirteen tracks (a mix of notated and improvised music) and three guest artists—Andy Akiho, Ambrose Akinmusire, and Justin Brown—who play with us in improvised trio settings. Through a series of postproduction interludes linking disparate pieces, the complete album has a continuous flow. Each interlude developed by composer/producer Pascal Le Boeuf, is derived from material pulled from throughout the album (compositions, improvisation, outtakes). You’ll hear parts of Justin Brown’s improv from Iyer’s Accumulated Gestures in the intro to our opening track GIRLS, and parts of the improvised steel-pan on Akiho’s KARakurENAI used in the interlude Robe Threader, while …Out of the Blue, which closes the album, is actually Robe Threader with the audio reversed. These interludes allowed us to reconstruct, improvise, and pull from our experience on each piece, threading together the individual voices.

Emily Bookwalter: gathering blue is your debut album and includes nine (!) commissioned works. Did you feel that this was a huge risk—to not only commission but then to permanently document an entire album of unknown music? Or did this bold first statement seem like a natural course for RighteousGIRLS?

Gina Izzo: For me, the album was more a sweep of personal discovery than a risk—a metaphor about our gathering of colors and weaving them together to represent a collage of our musical values.

The album is titled after the Lois Lowry novel, gathering blue. I read this novel at a young age and came back to it later in life with a different perspective of what it might mean to “gather blue.” I don’t feel that either of us set out to do anything “bold” on this album—we don’t really approach music in that way—but rather, to reflect our development and identity as an ensemble. Over the five years Erika and I have been performing together, this seemed to be a rather natural course for our first album—and although the nature of the project is risky, the quality of the artists and their contributions was always a solid conviction.

Emily Bookwalter: RighteousGIRLS is a fantastic example of the genrelessness we’re beginning to experience within new music. You’re hardcore improvisers with classical training, and you regularly call on the traditions of jazz, classical, world music, and beyond. But how do you define yourselves as musicians? How did you choose this path?

Erika Dohi: Living in New York City for the last ten years has exposed us to various genres of music. We both go to tons of shows, some featuring new musicians we’ve heard about, and others where our friends are involved.

Music scenes can change quickly, and we like to be there to notice what’s changing, how, and why. That can affect our own musical direction. We feel extremely lucky to be in the middle of a rapidly transforming artistic environment where audiences are constantly being challenged.

Speaking of my own experience, I found a kind of genrelessness at The Stone, one of my favorite venues. A personal change for me was hearing [Vijay Iyer’s] Fieldwork for the first time there. I had never heard anything like it. Something about the unusual texture, rhythmic complexity, and incredible subtlety of their collaboration inspired me greatly. It didn’t seem to fall into any particular category of music that I had heard before. Hearing Jason Moran and Tyshawn Sorey play free improv at The Stone was also a turning point for me. I think that was the first time I experienced “free improv.” I heard these shows when I was just a freshman at the Manhattan School of Music. They changed my life. It was fascinating for me to discover a sound that could not be labeled.

It’s also important for us to know what’s “hot.” Even if our music doesn’t follow what’s trending, we like to be aware.

Our music has changed a lot since we formed the duo back in 2010. It continues to evolve, and we’re evolving in our own ways as individual musicians, too. I can’t think of a way to label our music, although of course there are elements of jazz, classical, more free improvisation, etc. We try to never limit ourselves. We want to keep growing.

Emily Bookwalter: You’ve performed and will no doubt continue to perform in a variety of styles and venues around the country. What have some of the biggest rewards and challenges been thus far in your music-making? How do you feel your unique voice has been received?

Erika Dohi: We’re challenged constantly. I’ve had some opportunities to play in more specifically “jazz” settings through saxophonist Brad Linde and the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra in Washington D.C. At these gigs I would read off chord charts, which I wasn’t really comfortable doing. I just hadn’t had that training. Count Basie and Duke Ellington tunes actually scared me. There’s a style and feel, and it takes time to own that. They’d call out rhythm changes on every gig and I’d improvise over them, too.

It really is the scariest thing, when you’re put on the spot, on stage, to play in a way you’re not used to, or play in a style you’ve never tried. But it pushes me to confront and get rid of that discomfort, and to see through a different musical lens. That kind of experience is so important for growth.

We ask a similar kind of bravery from our audiences, who can face the discomfort of hearing sounds they might not be accustomed to. For Gina and I, programming is extremely important. Our shows tend to have a variety of types of music. We like to program more tonal, accessible music that can be more easily understood, alongside more complex, dissonant works that might disturb or challenge the listener. We’ve gotten very positive results. I love when we get to introduce new music to completely unfamiliar audiences who end up really enjoying the more challenging stuff. We hope to always play for open-minded audiences who are ready for anything. gathering blue is a good example of how we program.

In the Darkness: The Glowing Sound of a Wild Rumpus

VIDEO PREMIERE! The night before its first public performance, Wild Rumpus gathered in a California church and made a video for Nick Vasallo’s The Moment Before Death Stretches on Forever, Like an Ocean of Time…. Vasallo had this to say about the making-of:

Composing for a new music group is a challenging endeavor. One strives to write something musically inventive, or technically challenging, perhaps contextually relevant, or socially aware, and maybe esoteric…sometimes all the above! Lately I have been really trying to separate any expectations or presumptions and just write in the most direct manner I possibly can to get the aural result that I want. I think the first step to this is trust. Wild Rumpus is a wonderful collection of talented Bay Area new music performers. I knew I could (and needed to) trust them to interpret my music and make it their own.

Another approach I have been using lately is finding the title of a work before deciding what the music will be. The title for this piece, The Moment Before Death Stretches on Forever, Like an Ocean of Time…, is loosely adapted from one of the last lines of the movie American Beauty. I began thinking: what if I took a moment, an energy, and let it grow as organically as I could into a huge moment, and then stretched that moment out? To do this I needed to change time perception continuously, from one range to another, from a rhythm into a pitch, or a tone or a noise into a formal structure. I also decided early on to compose the music entirely using duration, so the performers would use a timer to follow the music. This approach probes into the nature of duration itself, particularly as it relates to human experience. I needed to convey that the dynamic of duration is not only change but growth through change. When the brain receives a lot of new information, it takes a while to process it all. The longer this takes, the longer that period of time feels. Reciprocally, time seems to move faster if there is less to process even if the same amount of time has transpired. With this piece I didn’t want to merely stretch out sound to make it seem like a long time, but I wanted to play with the cognitive process. Most of this was empirical and intuitive, myself being the guinea pig. It is fascinating hearing how others perceive time in this piece. People I’ve spoken to tell me the first five minutes feels like only a few, perhaps due to the complex sonorities occurring. And I build up to these moments with extreme simplicity so there is a continuous change in time perception.

After composing the full score using an Excel spreadsheet and a stopwatch, I began writing out each part. It was like writing a story from the perspective of each individual character (musician) using the global narration (score) as a guide. Each performer’s part had a timeline on the left side of the page and musical indications on the right. For the first reading all the musicians took out their smart phones and pressed a timer at the same time. Nathaniel Berman, Wild Rumpus’s conductor, merely counted off the moment for the performers to press start on their phones. Thankfully, Sean Dougall (the talented husband of Wild Rumpus’ Co-Director Jen Wang) coded a clever full screen timer that the entire group could follow on a laptop. So, now the laptop is the conductor.

The night before the world premiere at Composers, Inc.’s annual !BAMM! 2015 concert, all the members of Wild Rumpus, audio engineer Zach Miley, videographer Taylor Joshua Rankin, and I went into a dark, cold church in Oakland, California, and recorded The Moment Before Death Stretches on Forever, Like an Ocean of Time… into the wee hours of the night. This video is the result of the entire process. So, go into a quiet and dark place, turn the volume up, and enjoy!

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.

We Won’t Be In Love Much Longer: Online Premiere

Marion Walker – “We Won’t Be in Love Much Longer” (Official Music Video) from Marion Walker on Vimeo.

As the notion of genre is becoming increasingly difficult to define in today’s musical landscape, artists are actively embracing this ambiguity not only as a happy byproduct of our endless channels through which ideas are shared, but as an artistic advantage.

When New Music USA launched the inaugural round of our project grants in November 2013, we had high hopes for the breadth of art we might see resulting from a process designed to better meet the conventional and unconventional needs of creators. We have not been disappointed. One of many awardees who perfectly embodies this artistic freedom is the Reno/Seattle-based choreographer/filmmaker/composer/performer duo Marion Walker (Jessie Marion Smith & Kyle Walker Akins).

We Won’t Be In Love Much Longer is their most recent [of many] collaborative endeavors that challenges the boundaries of dance, live performance, film, and music video. Today, we are delighted to host the online premiere of their culminated efforts.

Their project is unique in our body of supported work; it deliberately exists as an independent entity, but the film’s longevity is contingent on its presentation to live audiences in a communal, musical setting. To get a better idea of their motivation surrounding the creation and multi-faceted presentation of what they call “dance cinema,” I interviewed Jessie and Kyle about their refreshing approach to this budding conglomerate of styles.

Emily Bookwalter: As two seemingly jack-of-all trades artists, you two work together in myriad manifestations. As a result, your work is delightfully difficult to define in terms of any historically conventional genre or style. How would you choose to describe stylistic trends in your collaborative work thus far?

Marion Walker: The best way for us to talk about style is to talk about process. We are obsessed with “inventing accidents.” We are willing to try a million different combinations before we sit down and edit ourselves. The style that we’ve developed is out of a maintained practice that, to be honest, isn’t a choice for the two of us. Any and all of our conversations return, as predictable as high tide, to our process and our practice. That is truly the style we’ve developed. We often remind ourselves of the rules attributed to John Cage. THE ONLY RULE IS WORK!

Artistically, our lineage stems from collectives living in times of worldwide cultural turmoil. Artists such as Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings of the Zurich DADA collective, John Cage, Joseph Beuys, the Fluxus Movement, and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable are the wellsprings on which we are drunk. We are also letting the current, dire state of our times filter in through our work. While we may not be overtly political, it is ever present in our abstracted forms.

The song “We Won’t Be in Love Much Longer,” is a way for us to examine the dejected experience without dwelling in it. While the archetype of ‘love’ can trigger an array of responses in an audience, the idea is ultimately about our inability to stay together in a timeless context. It’s an effort to dismantle our ineptitude at reaching permanent solutions.

Musically, we come from sources/bands like The Velvet Underground. We are literally living and breathing with other artists in a warehouse congested with creativity called The Warehome in Reno, NV. This rich artistic community allows us the flexibility to exist in the grey area where we love to work. And, this penumbra operates as our own gateway through mediums. Even within the new music community, we are an oddman outfit, being more rock’n’roll centered in our pursuits. Our inclusion within this organization just speaks to the reach that creativity, at its core, can have and the importance of cross contamination between artistic discoveries.

As songwriters, we may experience our own particular version of synesthesia. We often start by sitting down with a color or feeling. As we get into the process of crafting the song, it inevitably takes interesting twists and turns. Rather than staying constrained by an initial idea of style, or a common songwriting structure, we follow the direction of the song as it reveals itself. Kyle likes to call this “ serving the song. ” We do this with all of our creations. We connect with any genre, medium, or method we can that helps us to fulfill the pieces we are making to their utmost potential.

EB: Were there any new stylistic discoveries in the making of this film?

MW: When we set out to make “We Won’t Be in Love Much Longer,” we had no crew. This was an interesting challenge. (Especially for Jessie, who as a choreographer is particularly intent on designing camera action to exemplify movement.) When we were both in front of the camera that meant no one was behind the camera. So, we started playing with the camera and light to develop a visual styling that was engaging with a still frame. This was an exciting discovery for us. The two of us are very used to working as a self-contained unit. (Except for the rhythm section that we play with as a band. We have to give a shout out to Donald John McGreevy Jr. and Paul David Heyn, who played on the recorded song for the video. And, Donovan Jordan Williams and Clark Carvil Demeritt, who we are currently playing with.) Working without a cinematographer to shoot “We Won’t Be in Love Much Longer” pushed us into different ways of thinking about making the video, forced us to call on our other perspectives, and design a new lens through which to look at the work. We ultimately constructed the video with thousands of still photographs. With no true video images present, the scenes of the video are isolated incidents within time.

In “We Won’t Be in Love Much Longer,” we applied a specific logic to both our visual and musical technique. As sound can only exist within one moment, the pleasure of music exists on a temporal plane. When making this video, we also followed that rule. Because we have an agreement on syntax, music exists. With the memory of the note/word just previous to this moment, and the expectation of the next note/word to arrive, we have language, we have music.

EB: This work in particular is part of your larger efforts in what you have described as “dance cinema.” Could you educate me a little more about what that is and what dance cinema means to you?

MW: We have been calling this video a dance film, a music video, and an art flick. So clearly our definition of dance cinema is pretty broad. For us, there isn’t a hard line between the realms of dance cinema and music videos. As video editors, we lean towards high paced cuts that keep things constantly engaging. We create arcs with our edits that are often very driven by the music. These choices might be thought of as falling more into the music video category, where a dance film might be more driven by choices dictated by the choreography.

The form of music videos is pretty wild (there aren’t too many rules that have to be followed). Some may think that the “high art” context of dance cinema makes it more constrained. We think it can be just as wide open of a form. We taught an all-ages, all-levels workshop on making dance films awhile back and it was really fun to expand the participants’ ideas about this. A lot of them were concerned with the idea that you have to be a highly trained dancer to make a dance film. We talked about how dance cinema can also mean things like choreographing the camera action over a still object or choreographing an object rather than a body.

EB: Presenting a video work that could very much be a final product in and of itself no doubt poses some challenges for live performance. What are some of the ways that you’ve chosen to introduce this work to larger audiences?

MW: We had a live event last month to premiere the video to Reno audiences. We set up the evening with the intention of re-contextualizing dance cinema within a music setting so we held the event at a local music venue/bar. Marion Walker played live music. And, because the bar was too small to house a proper projection screen, we got our hands on the biggest flat screen TV we could find and held it over our heads while the video played. It was a great party!

We also had a little personal viewing station with headphones in the back corner of the bar. A real highlight of the night was walking by that station and seeing people fully engrossed in the video despite all the commotion around them. We saw many people return to the TV multiple times throughout the night and even drag friends over to watch it!

Having the video hosted here, on NewMusicBox, and getting to share it with the internet world at large is another great way for us to get the video out to new audiences. We are also planning to screen it at dance cinema festivals in the future. We want to frame “We Won’t Be in Love Much Longer” in as many different settings as we can and get it out there in all different sorts of fashions.

EB: Do you two take on many artistic projects as individuals, or does the majority of your work take place as a team?

MW: More often than not we are holed up working on Marion Walker projects together but we do take breaks to focus on other projects individually. Jessie has her own dance company, Dead Bird Movement, as well as choreographing for Seattle art/theater group Saint Genet, and dancing with Seattle choreographer Dayna Hanson. Kyle has his own visual art practice, working predominantly with felt, as well as recording for and playing in a few other bands.

EB: Do components of this work exist independently? I.e. is the dance an entity that can be performed live? Is the music an independent entity that happens to be within a film with dance? Or does this work have to exist as a cohesive whole?

MW: The dance was made specifically for the video so, for now, that is its only existence. The song was actually composed first and we made an extended version of it for the video. That extended version has since come into regular rotation in our live music shows. It is also featured on a 12” vinyl LP compilation of Reno bands called “Guide to Permanent Oblivion Vol. III” that will be coming out on the “Intruder Alert! Intruder Alert!” record label in early April.

EB: What other projects do you have on your horizon?

MW: We are currently in the thick of recording/mixing a tape EP that is coming out on Casino Trash Records this March called Serious Picnic. We also have a split 7″ vinyl EP with fellow Reno band Plastic Caves coming out in mid-May. We will be heading out on a six week US tour this summer to promote all these releases! See you on the road!

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


FEATHER & STONE

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

ALBUM: FEATHER & STONE
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
Nonesuch
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


Poultry Jam: A Chicago Thanksgiving Playlist

Thanksgiving Turkey
Ah, Thanksgiving: a holiday as rich in calories as it is in cultural significance. Depending on whom you ask, it’s either the greatest culinary day of the year, a twisted celebration of American colonialism, or the annual site of uncomfortable conversations with that conservative uncle of yours. For the turkeys, it’s mass carnage. For the vegetarians, it’s slim pickings. And for retail employees, it’s the beginning of the end. What’s the proper soundtrack for a day that means so many different things?
I’ve always loved This American Life’s annual Thanksgiving episode. They call it the “Poultry Slam,” and cobble together a bunch of stories that have some tenuous connection to poultry. Why reserve the tenuous connections for public radio alone? Why not canvas the work of Chicago composers for music that’s as complex as Turkey Day? Ira Glass, eat your heart out:

For the selfish and gluttonous: Are your niece and nephew fighting over the last piece of pie? Feel a pang when your spouse polishes off the last of the stuffing? James Blake can relate. Check out Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s arrangement of his song “I Never Learnt to Share,” written for and performed by the Spektral Quartet.

For the anxious and ambivalent: Alex Temple, The Travels of E.C. Dumonde. With its mysterious incidents taking place in Oklahoma cornfields or advertising-obsessed towns in California, this eerie piece is perfect for those who experience ambivalence (to say the least) when road-tripping to their towns of origin.

For the hunters: Jenna Lyle, How To Accidentally Kill a Crow. This stylish, humor-filled chamber work was inspired by the composer’s adventures shooting crows in her grandfather’s backyard in Georgia. There’s nothing quite like spending time with family.

For the argumentative: If the two saxophones in Eliza Brown’s Apart Together are sparring relatives, you’ve got a ringside seat for their brawl. The composer writes: “Like an ill-fated family gathering, it begins with a burst of energy and connection, periodically erupts into conflict, and peters out in a state of mutual alienation (the decoupling of the instruments from the performers’ mouths).”

For the birdwatchers: There’s a wintry Americana stillness to Luke Gullickson’s 2014 EP To Evening Lands. (Full disclosure: I played and sang a bit on this album.) It’s thankful music in any season. Check out the final track, Daedalus and Perdix.

For the spiritual, part 1: James Falzone, With Notes Almost Divine. Just when you thought this wide-ranging clarinetist and improviser couldn’t surprise you anymore, he has an original Advent hymn available as a downloadable PDF score on his website. Why can’t I download more composers’ work to sing with my friends around the table after a few glasses of wine?

For the spiritual, part 2: Augusta Read Thomas, Prayer and Celebration: a warm, gorgeous, brief chamber orchestra piece originally composed for a high school orchestra in Concord, New Hampshire.

For the Polish, and for those who miss Lee Hyla: This year’s holiday marks the first Thanksgiving that the late Boston/Chicago composer’s many admirers will spend without him. Listening to Hyla’s brilliant Polish Folk Songs is both pure delight–evoking an important Chicago ethnic community–and a reminder of someone deeply missed.

For the nervous host: Are you anxious about producing a holiday spread for, say, five adults and two children for the first time? Or is that just me? Well, one of the most crucial Thanksgiving decisions one can make is what music one grooves to while chopping, peeling, simmering, and stirring. I’m going with Chicago trumpeter Marquis Hill, who just made the city proud by winning the Thelonious Monk Competition, one of jazz music’s most prestigious prizes. While you’re looking forward to the major-label release that’s part of his winnings, any of his gorgeous SoundCloud tracks are sure to soothe your nerves.

For anyone with a soul: Imagine if, in the year 1825, Beethoven was at your Thanksgiving table. When it was his turn to say what he was thankful for, he would grunt, “I’m grateful I’m still alive” and then compose this. It would be–and still is–kinda hard to compete with the Heileger dankgesang.
Happy Thanksgiving!

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.