Category: Listen

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

MidsummerNightsDream
Michael Ching
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
(Albany/Troy 1507/08)
Performed by:
Opera Memphis
Playhouse on the Square
DeltaCappella
Riva
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)

Performers:
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.

Sounds Heard: The Things We Did [This] Summer

My vote for song of the summer (at least for this morning) comes courtesy of Boston-based pop omnivores Pulitzer Prize Fighter and their first single since their late-2012 EP, All Sweetness and Light. “Movies” ticks off all the boxes for a good summer song: a relentless hook, genial amounts of volume, sing-along lyrics proclaiming the merits of shrugging off thoughts of mortality by just doing stuff, a low-key, meandering haze of disposable leisure. Not least, it packages up some nice musical nostalgia, be it a sunny ’70s squall of parallel-harmony guitars, a cool, noir-ish pour of muted trumpet, or the comforting psychedelic worry of a fully diminished seventh chord. (Listen carefully, at the dominant pause just before the end of the bridge, and you can hear a lovely, chromatically descending keyboard decoration buried in the mix like some unexploded ordnance from the British Invasion.)


Summer music, for me anyway, tends to rise and fall on its leveraging of nostalgia, even more so now that actual summer vacation time is an increasingly distant memory. I’m already nostalgic for the beginning of this summer, when a lazy, sun-dappled respite was still a naïve possibility rather than an unattainable grail. In that spirit, here’s a handful of more recent local releases of varying retro commitment and/or critique.
BMOP Spratlan cover
Lewis Spratlan: Apollo and Daphne Variations; A Summer’s DayConcerto for Saxophone and Orchestra
Eliot Gattegno, saxophones
Boston Modern Orchestra Project; Gil Rose, conductor
(BMOP/sound 1035)
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Excerpt from Lewis Spratlan’s A Summer’s Day


Spratlan’s musical version of A Summer’s Day (2008), commissioned and premiered by BMOP, has the instant nostalgia of a strongly evoked, specific time and place. His “Pre-Dawn Nightmare” includes fragments of the theme song to The Sopranos; “At the Computer” evokes the sounds of an already-obsolete desktop machine. And the connective tissue of the piece, the folk-like tune presented at the outset (“Hymn to the Summer Solstice”), is a memory of summer romanticized into an abstraction. But the tune is repeatedly interrupted and contradicted; and Spratlan is more interested in reversing the usual polarity of such tone poems, taking trompe-l’oeil musical literalisms (and some flat-out literalisms, as with the rhythmically dribbled ball in “Pick-up Basketball Game at the Park”) and working them into a fluid, chromatic musical texture until they turn back into pure sound. (BMOP’s stylistic facility is a boon here, shifting effortlessly between limpid lushness and a more incisive, new music briskness.)
The Concerto for Saxophones and Orchestra (well-assayed, on both soprano and tenor instruments, by saxophonist Eliot Gattegno) and the Apollo and Daphne Variations do something similar with nostalgic styles, the inevitable jazz references in the former, a deliberately Schumann-esque Romanticism in the latter. Three very different pieces, but all engaged in a rich dance between the memory of something, the actuality of the thing being remembered, and the persistent present that the memory can’t quite mask.
Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol: Whatsnext
(Dünya)


Buy now:
Download from Bandcamp


To be sure, only a couple of tracks on Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol’s big-band album, released this spring, directly traffic in nostalgia, and the nostalgia is pretty specific: “Kozan March” convincingly reimagines a Cypriot folk song as a Neal-Hefti-ish workout; “Gone Crazy: a Noir Fantasy” tosses out handfuls of noir signifiers, with some sirens and police whistles to boot. But much of the fizz of the album—which alternates between a 17-piece traditional band and a 13-piece ensemble that includes traditional Turkish instruments—is Sanlıkol’s use of various vintage sounds, from an eerily formal harpsichord on “Better Stay Home” to the pastoral warblings of a Turkish ney on “The Blue Soul of Turkoromero” to a pellucidly primeval analog synth lead on “N.O.H.A.”
And, anyway, Whatsnext is just superb summer music. Sanlıkol—Turkish-born, Berklee- and NEC-educated—slips Turkish sounds and ideas into a polished, modern big-band idiom with wrinkle-free ease. Relaxed and cool, it turns out, is a universal, cross-cultural virtue.
Neil Cicierega: Mouth Silence
Buy now:
Download available from the artist for a donation.


A good mash-up is a double-shot of impressive cleverness, making two disparate pieces of music play nice with one other. A great mash-up uses that superimposition to tap into some deep commonality across the genre spectrum. Somerville-based Neil Cicierega, though, has devoted 2014 to a style of mash-up even more outlandishly transcendent, as if tapping into a conspiracy theory explaining some alternate history of pop culture.

Like this spring’s Mouth Sounds Mouth Silence makes esoteric use of deliberately banal material, a churn of nostalgia refashioned into something resembling the soundtrack to a Hanna-Barbera adaptation of a Don DeLillo novel. Mouth Sounds— while positing the formerly annoyingly ubiquitous Smashmouth hit “All-Star” as the hidden key to four decades of pop-music history—repeatedly dredged up musical madeleines from the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s, only to immediately undercut and profane them. Mouth Silence goes one step further, wreaking havoc on numerous songs that themselves capitalize on nostalgia in one way or another: “Crocodile Rock,” “Born to Run,” “Wonderwall.” REM’s “End of the World” and Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” end up in a Street Fighter match of boomer timelines; the good old dark days of Pokémon panic are re-animated into a golem-like stand-in for every fleetingly misunderstood fad. Cicierega’s mischief is so deep that even the moments that don’t quite mesh feel more like elusive clues for any would-be cultural Dale Cooper. And the 24:03 mark? We all go a little mad sometimes.
bso chamber players 1964 cover bso chamber players 1968 cover
Boston Symphony Chamber Players
Music by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Copland, Fine, Carter, and Piston (1964)
Music by Mozart, Brahms, Schubert, Poulenc, Colgrass, Villa-Lobos, Haieff, and Barber (1968)

(BSO Classics)
Buy now:
Download directly from the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Back in April, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, the BSO began re-releasing re-mastered editions of four recordings the group made for RCA in the 1960s. The bulk of the repertoire is Austro-Germanic bread and butter: Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart. But the recordings also included some then-contemporary repertoire, and the result is some prime Boston-School neo-classicism, in rich, time-capsule performances. On the first set, Aaron Copland’s Vitebsk gets a sharp, grim reading; Walter Piston’s 1946 Divertimento is vigorous fun. One of the century’s more notable collection of principal winds—including flutist Doriot Anthony Dwyer and oboist Ralph Gomberg—takes on Elliott Carter’s 1948 Wind Quintet. The best is an exhilarating, athletic account of Irving Fine’s 1957 Fantasia for String Trio, with violinist Joseph Silverstein, violist Burton Fine, and cellist Jules Eskin (today the group’s sole remaining founding member).
Excerpt from Irving Fine’s Fantasia for String Trio


The second re-issue includes Gomberg and Sherman Walt on Alexei Haieff’s lean, light Three Bagatelles for oboe and bassoon, along with Burton Fine and Vic Firth on Michael Colgrass’s Variations for Four Drums and Viola. As a bonus, there is a previously unreleased live recording of Samuel Barber’s Summer Music, a truly excellent performance, as bright and cool and languid as a gin and tonic on the lawn.

Sounds Heard—On Shattering, Burning, and Diverting with Passion

ETZ,MB,JS
It is hard for me to overlook the fact that music is a male-dominated industry. I am one of six female undergraduates studying composition at my university, comprising a bleak 16% of the overall program. However, it would be inaccurate to claim that women have not been making a splash with their works. Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b. 1939), Margaret Brouwer (b. 1940), and Judith Shatin (b. 1949) are three celebrated female composers—living proof that women have the capacity to excel as artists in the face of gender disparities and discrimination in the music industry. Born within ten years of each other, each are trailblazers in the field. Zwilich was the first woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize for music composition as well as the first woman to receive a DMA from Juilliard. Brouwer has been commissioned by the Dallas Symphony, Detroit Symphony, Rochester Philharmonic, the American Pianists Association, CityMusic Cleveland Chamber Orchestra, and the American Composer’s Orchestra, and is an American Academy of Arts and Letters awardee (2006) as well as a Guggenheim Fellow (2004). Shatin is the founder and director of the Virginia Center for Computer Music and has served on the boards of the American Composers Alliance, the League/ISCM, and the International Alliance for Women in Music (IAWM) and as president of American Women Composers, Inc. (1989-93).

Cover of Zwilich CD on Azica

(Azica ACD-71292)
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Aside from tremendous successes and formidable biographies, these women share something else: recent CD releases. In listening to all three discs, it is evident that each composer has something wildly different to offer to the contemporary music scene. Zwilich’s disc, Passionate Diversions, is like a musical sprint: tremendous amounts of emotional and physical energy are expended in a very short period of time. One of the most successful things about Passionate Diversions is the full spectrum of emotions and colors that Zwilich leads the listener through. The pieces are at different times (and often simultaneously) cinematic (e.g. the piano gestures 3’40” into the 2nd movement of Piano Trio), heart-wrenching and lyrical (the violin lines in the 2nd movement of Septet c. 3’08” – 3’34”), impish (the pizzicato motif c. 4’40” in the 2nd movement of Piano Trio), suggestive of Shostakovich (the opening of Piano Quintet) and reminiscent of Gershwin (the third movements of both the Piano Quintet and Septet). The ebb and flow of these assorted styles ultimately forms a soundscape that is endemic of Zwilich’s music.


Ellen Taaffe Zwilich: Quintet for Violin, Viola, Cello, Contrabass, and Piano (2010) — 1st Mvmt.
Performed by the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio with Michael Tree (viola) and Harold Robinson (bass).
℗ and © 2014 by Azica Records. Streamed with permission of the composer and the label.

Cover of Brouwer Naxos CD

(Naxos 8.559763)
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Brouwer’s disc, Shattered, features four original pieces and two arrangements of Debussy and Bach scored for mixed ensembles of various sizes. The disc has an energy commensurate with—though completely different from—Passionate Diversions. In her program notes for the recording, Brouwer likens the first piece on the disc, Shattered Glass, to “a musical kaleidoscope.” She explains,

Instead of seeing the constantly changing colors as you do in a kaleidoscope, you hear them. There are two contrasting yet related sound worlds…[which] eventually mix and overlap, becoming sometimes rhythmic, sometimes raucous, and sometimes mysterious and melodic.

During a 2010 NewMusicBox interview, Brouwer describes a specific passage in her Violin Concerto as an example of what it means to her to be 21st century composer:

[T]here’s a place where the violin is playing the twelve-tone row while the woodwinds are playing the tonal chords. I love the way that sounds. I like mixing. To me, that’s what I love to do as a 21st century composer, is mix those things. To me, that sounds avant-garde.

The pieces included on Shattered are perhaps the quintessence of this mixing which Brouwer loves so much. From the relentless, primal energy of Shattered Glass to the naked beauty of Whom do you call angel now? and lushness of her arrangement of Debussy’s Clair de Lune, Brouwer’s music represents just how uniquely diverse the output and voice of a single composer can be.

Margaret Brouwer: Whom do you call angel now? (2005).
Performed by Sandra Simon (soprano) with the Blue Streak Ensemble.
℗ and © 2014 by Naxos Rights US, Inc. Streamed with permission of the composer and the label.

Cover of Shatin innova CD

(innova 845)
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Judith Shatin’s boldly titled disc, Time to Burn, furthers this idea of unique diversity—output that is extensively varied yet identifiably and singularly branded. Whether her compositions are atmospheric and talkative (such as Glyph, written in 1984 for solo viola, string quartet, and piano) or literally robotic (as in Sic Transit, written for percussionist and CADI—i.e. Computer Assisted Drumming Machine), Shatin always accesses a space that is conversational—between musical lines, instruments, and performers and audiences. She allows herself to be inspired by shared stories (e.g. Elijah and his entrance into Heaven in her piece Elijah’s Chariot, or as she describes in her program notes, the “renewed holocausts” of the past decade “driven by ethnic and religious hatred”). When something is in conversation, it is escapes ephemerality: a state Shatin discusses in her profile on NewMusicBox. Reflecting on rapidly changing technologies of the late 20th century, which caused one of her initial pieces for electronics to become obsolete within a mere two years, Shatin admits that the experience “was a real sort of wake up call.” “How do we think about these things and do we care whether our pieces are ephemeral or not?” she ponders. “I guess for the most part I do because I spend a lot of time working on them…it’s not like writing for piano; that probably is pretty settled at this point.”

Judith Shatin: Glyph (1984) — IV. Incandescent.
Performed by James Dunham (viola), the Cassatt String Quartet, and Margaret Kampmeier (piano).
℗ and © 2014 by Wendigo Music. Streamed with permission of the composer and the label.

* * *

Though Zwilich, Brouwer, and Shatin are only three of many distinguished female composers (check out this list of over 200), they serve as important models of the different ways a successful career as a female composer can look. While enjoying hard-earned success—particularly as a woman in a male-dominated field—calls for celebration, Zwilich offers young composers a cautionary piece of advice:

Success is more difficult than failure for a young person. When you fail, all those times you try to get your foot in the door and the door slams so tight it breaks your foot…all of the things where you fail to achieve whatever it is you’re looking for…if you can pick yourself up and go on, you’ve become much stronger. So I sometimes say to young composers, I hope you experience failure and learn how tough you are, how strong you really are.

Sounds Heard: Dan Becker—Fade

Dan Becker—Fade
Dan Becker
Fade (Innova 855)
Performed by:
The Common Sense Ensemble
The New Millennium Ensemble

The title of Dan Becker’s album Fade is named after one of its tracks, yet it doesn’t begin to disclose the manic sense of drive present in much of the music. This selection of chamber works composed between 1993 and 2008 suggests that Becker has an “on/off” switch resulting in either intensely energetic music or in work of concentrated repose. There isn’t a lot in-between, but clearly such extremes suit the composer, who according to the liner notes, is consumed by the idea of processes—both musical and otherwise—unfolding around him at all times.

Farthest to the “on” side of the spectrum are his Five ReInventions, which redress the two-part inventions by J. S. Bach in post-minimalist garb and set them for Disklavier á la Conlon Nancarrow at can’t-be-performed-by-normal-humans speeds. Other works that will make you consider skipping your morning coffee are the adrenaline-infused Gridlock, given a focused, enthusiastic performance by the Common Sense Ensemble, the second movement of Keeping Time, performed by The New Millennium Ensemble, and the final work, A Dream of Waking, for NME members Sunghae Anna Lim on violin, and Margaret Kampmeier on piano.

The title track, Fade, falls to the other edge of Becker’s compositional style; it is gentle, delicate music that walks on eggshells, ideal for laying in a hammock on a warm summer day. Similarly, the first movement of Keeping Time is a slowly measured dance through sparkling layers of vibraphone, piano, bass clarinet and strings. The excellent production by Judith Sherman makes all of the evocative works on the album glow, and delivers a satisfying punch in just the right places.

Sounds Heard: Adam Berenson—Lumen

Berenson--Lumen
Adam Berenson: Lumen
(Dream Play Records 88295 05724)
Adam Berenson – composer, piano, prepared piano, synthesizer, percussion, and live electronics; Scott Barnum, doublebass and occasional percussion; Eric Hofbauer, guitar and percussion; Bill Marconi, percussion; Bob Moses, drums; Yukako Funahashi and Annete Chan, violins; Ilana Schroeder, viola; Sigurgeir Agnarsson, cello; plus JACK Quartet: John Pickford Richards, viola; Ari Streisfeld, violin; Christopher Otto, violin; and
Kevin McFarland, cello
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In what seems like a deliberate play on the channel surfing of this day and age, Lumen, an extremely expansive two-CD set culled from twenty years of recordings of music by Philadelphia-area composer/pianist Adam Berenson, constantly changes moods and styles. From track to track, it veers between performances by a jazz combo (where Berenson is joined by Scott Barnum on bass and either Bob Moses or Bill Marconi on percussion), string quartet compositions, solo piano improvisations (which upon occasion wander inside the piano), and sonic experiments involving percussion and electronics. Within this premeditated serendipity, however, a subliminal through-line emerges. The more you listen, the less aware you are of whether the music was composed a priori or improvised on the spot.

In a cover letter from Berenson that accompanied the disc when it was sent to me back in March, Berenson claimed that in his “improvised ensemble work” and his “composed string quartets … the musical thinking is the same, the psyche is the same, and the process of making the music is very similar; all of the pieces are chamber music. … The concept behind the set is that in the modern world everything is everything.”

While concluding each disc with a string quartet composition could imply that his fixed music is somehow a crystallization of his improvised material, Berenson subverts that interpretation by ending the first disc with his String Quartet No. 3 and the second with String Quartet No. 1. To further mix things up, four of the tracks are parts of a work entitled “jnana”—parts 10, 13, and 8 appear on the first disc while part 18 is on the second. Aside from teasing listeners curious about at least fourteen additional parts to this piece that were not included, the listening path that Berenson has chosen for his listeners ultimately guarantees that the journey is not a chronological one. After having taken Berenson’s journey several times, here’s an attempt at a travelogue. But first, take a listen to one of the tracks.


Adam Berenson: “jnana (Part 8)”. Adam Berenson – piano, synthesizer, live electronics, and composition;
Scott Barnum – doublebass, prepared doublebass, and live electronics; Bill Marconi – percussion and live electronics.
Featured on Lumen, ℗ and © 1998-2014 by Adam Berenson / Dream Play Records and streamed with permission

The first disc opens with “Transpersonal,” a percussion duo with Marconi which sounds somewhat incantatory given its various gong twacks. This is immediately followed by the first installment of “jnana” (part ten) which combines what sounds like a mildly prepared piano with an array of electronics that hint at the sonority of the mellotron as well as magnetic tape speed manipulations. Are folks still using reel-to-reels like this? Cool. Some mysterious percussion and an occasional arco bass chime in on occasion to add to the sonic mayhem. “Late 20th century Stomp” is the first of the tracks to directly evoke the sound world of jazz, specifically that of one of its most ubiquitous combos—the piano, bass, and drums trio—in exploratory music that would feel at home on one of the original ESP-Disk’ releases. It’s all over in only 38 seconds, but the trio continues on in the equally adventurous “Emotional Idiot,” which features some skewed walking bass lines and frenetic drumming. However, although “Prose Surrealism” also features a jazz combo, here they begin to stray into very different sonic territory whose source is the other, equally inspirational end of the ‘60s jazz spectrum; the music they’re now playing would not sound out of place subbing for the Bill Evans trio at the Village Vanguard.

Things return to a more decidedly free jazz state on “Very Soon Mankind Will No Longer Be a Useless Passion (Broadway Melody Of 1996).” And all things are possible in the next section of “jnana” (part 13) which revels in an array of electronic experiments. “Rilke,” on the other hand, is a gorgeous, almost Scriabin-esque solo piano fantasia which segues abruptly into “Ricercar (for Sven Nykvist),” an homage to Ingmar Bergman’s cinematograther, returning us to jazz while “…was near the black plague…” is something of a bitonal rag. “A Little Boy Opened a Window” introduces some prepared piano sonorities in combination with percussion; at one point, Berenson ekes out a tune reminiscent of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” For “…Searching… Everywhere” the trio returns for what is perhaps the most laid back music they have played thus far. “Dithyramb” continues the jazz trajectory, only now the musicians are playing in a way that hints at Cecil Taylor’s early combos.

This is followed with another dose of “jnana” experimentation. (It’s part 8, for those keeping score.) But about a minute and half in, there’s a brief pause and the texture suddenly completely transforms. It’s suddenly all acoustic. An almost hymn-like piano melody is accompanied by arco bass and occasional percussion punctuation. You might think you’re in a new track; you’re not. After only about a minute, more unusual sounds return, some seemingly electronically generated although at this point the ear has been pulled in so many directions that it’s hard to tell! The experimentation of “jnana” continues on “Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek,” in which Barnum and Berenson are joined by Eric Hofbauer on guitar and all three share percussion duties; acoustic and electronically modified sonorities seamlessly blur, although now there are also hints of grooves from time to time. Then comes the live performance by the JACK Quartet of a roughly 16-minute single movement composition for string quartet, his String Quartet No. 3, which involves tons of extended techniques—snap pizzicatos, col legno, etc. As a result of all the improvised and electronic music that proceeds it, this notated acoustic chamber music composition often sounds like it’s neither.
“I,” which opens the second disc, begins with a riff on the synthesizer which is quickly joined in duet with acoustic piano, contrasting the abilities of these two very different keyboards—Berenson’s fingers race across the keys of the piano while his synthesizer lines are mostly slower and take advantage of the ability to change the ADSR envelop as well as to bend notes. “Respectable People” brings us back to the jazz trio for what is mostly a straight-ahead performance. “Stars 1” is another piano solo, a quiet chain of block chords, but for “The Adytum,” Berenson’s aphoristic piano lines are enhanced by eerie electronic clusters. On “Tickled to Death,” bass and drums punctuate a captivating series of jagged scalar runs on the piano, and more experimentation ensues on the final installment of “jnana”—part 18. (I really do want to hear the missing parts. Note to self: acquire Berenson’s 2010 CD Jnana.)

“Ingrid Thulin” is a slightly blues-tinged tribute, for trio, to the celebrated Swedish actress who appeared in many Ingmar Bergman films (there’s Bergman again), after which “through this stillness,” which pits piano against bowed cymbals, has a Feldmanesque quality. But perhaps the most introspective track in the entire collection is “Yasujiro Ozu,” which combines oblique piano chords with muted percussion taps that almost sound like footsteps. For its five minutes, time seems completely suspended, which is perhaps appropriate given the track’s namesake, the seminal Japanese director whose often static films are completely immersive. In “Spooky action at a distance,” Berenson wanders back inside the piano, rubbing strings with the flesh of his fingers à la Henry Cowell’s “The Banshee.”

The remainder of the disc is devoted to a 1997 studio recording of Berenson’s first String Quartet, a five-movement composition whose twelve-minute first movement is glacially slow; it is followed by faster music that seems like it’s about to go somewhere, but never does. (This is actually a compliment.) The third movement returns us to the slowness which now feels even more somber, perhaps as a result of being misled about going somewhere else in the previous movement and winding up back here instead. The fourth movement at times has a similar quality to the early chamber music of Arthur Berger, which has been very appropriately described as a kind of diatonic Webern. It turned out not to be a path Berger or anyone else wound up taking, so it’s nice to hear it being explored again. But where Berenson ultimately takes us to, in the quartet’s final movement which is also the final track on the disc, is slow, somber music once more. It’s been quite a ride.

Sounds Heard: John Adams—City Noir / Saxophone Concerto

John Adams: City Noir / Saxophone Concerto
John Adams: City Noir / Saxophone Concerto
(Nonesuch 541356-2)
Performers:
St. Louis Symphony
David Robertson, conductor
Timothy McAllister, saxophone
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John Adams’s most recent album, released by Nonesuch, contains the 2007 work City Noir (freshly revised in 2013) as well as the Saxophone Concerto, with Timothy McAllister as featured soloist. The album could essentially be seen as an exercise in nostalgia; City Noir, commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is an homage to the city of Los Angeles and its movie-making style of the 1940s and ’50s, while the Saxophone Concerto gives a hat tip to Adams’s own jazz-steeped upbringing.

Both of these works sport all of the characteristic Adams-isms that we know and love—the frenetic, scurrying, tightly interwined lines, mountainous pile-ups of contrapuntal activity that are suddenly snatched away to reveal shimmering, gentler material, made even more dramatic for the contrast, and huge, yet still clear as a bell-sounding brass chords that bound across the musical terrain. The heavy-duty music geeks out there will find plenty of those “How did he DO that?! Must see score now.” moments.
Both compositions are rife with references to jazz, without “just coming out and saying it” directly in the music. Alto sax is featured in City Noir, with a “fiendishly difficult part” writes Adams in his liner notes, and according to legend, it was hearing McAllister perform the part that inspired the composer to write an entire concerto for McAllister. Well, that and McAllister’s past life as a champion stunt bicycle rider (!), which for Adams spoke to the musician’s fearlessness. Also in the liner notes, Adams states that for the Saxophone Concerto he wanted a sax sound associated with jazz performance, rather than the vibrato-laden French style that is often employed in classical saxophone music. Timothy McAllister’s powerful performance does have a more “American” sound, while the St. Louis Symphony’s performance (led by conductor David Robertson) achieves the intended infusion of bebop into its veins while maintaining a sense of clarity and conciseness throughout. One of my favorite parts is the very opening of the piece, which sounds as if McAllister is pulling an entire orchestra out of the ground with his instrument alone. But the jazz element isn’t just about the saxes—both works contain jazz-oriented harmonic and gestural material molded specifically for orchestra performance. These are vital, engaging performances by all involved.

Sounds Heard: George Heathco and Misha Penton—Ravens and Radishes

Ravens and Radishes cover WEB
George Heathco and Misha Penton: Ravens and Radishes
Performed by:
Misha Penton, soprano
George Heathco, electric guitar
Daniel Saenz, cello
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The product of a collaboration between composer/guitarist George Heathco and soprano/lyricist Misha Penton, Ravens and Radishes is a song cycle for guitar, cello, and voice that takes inspiration from classic fairy tales and, unlike the recent film Maleficent, recasts them in a new and interesting light instead of, say, ruining them.
The slow rising double-stopped fourths of the Daniel Saenz’s cello in Witch in Winter recall a sort of metal guitar dirge and match well with Heatcho’s popping, muted clean-tone guitar, the latter like pizzicato. From the small, mid-range chords in the guitar against the cello and Penton’s voice in the opening of Mirror to the somewhat lighter (in the context of the darker brooding surroundings) uneven groupings of rising guitar scales against pizzicato cello of October Ravine, Heathco carefully balances the instruments throughout.

Ravens and Radishes EP release – photo by David DeHoyos

The recording is stark and spare with very modest post-production, which gives it a live quality, one that enhances the primarily dark musical treatment of the text. It feels like it’s happening right in front of you, and nowhere is this more evident than in Sheep’s Clothing. An “A” played on the “D” string of the cello glides in and out of tune with the open “A” string while Heathco trades punchy attacks on the low “E” of the guitar with delicate open harmonics, a bit of musical slap and tickle through the dark undercurrent. This leads to another section in which the guitar is beating polyrhythmic time with chords as the cello and voice trade barbs back and forth.


L’oiseau de Feu sees a return of the rising fourths from Witch in Winter, and though it’s not a guitar piece strictly speaking, here the six-string influence is undeniable. From the oscillation between two notes (transpose and swing those a bit and Detroit Rock City might show up) that serves as motive, to the three-chord rising figure on upbeats that, if isolated and repurposed, could find itself at home in any number of metal tunes—including this one, which is where I’m guessing the rising line might find its inspiration? I always thought it was totally metal, frankly…—the song is rooted in the guitar world both idiomatically and musically. Heathco takes these materials and plants them in new soil, the syncopated groupings of October Ravine reimagined and now emerging in incessant sixteenth note bursts in the guitar and cello, all while Penton works her magic.

Sounds Heard: Robert Erickson Complete String Quartets

CD cover for Robert Erickson Complete String Quartets

Performed by the Del Sol Quartet:
Kate Stenberg, violin
Rick Shinozaki, violin
Charlton Lee, viola
Kathryn Bates, cello
(New World 80753-2)
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San Francisco-based Del Sol Quartet’s recent New World Records 2-CD release of Robert Erickson’s complete string quartets is truly an ambitious album. Working chronologically and covering a compositional period from 1948-1986, Del Sol illuminates Erickson’s development and maturation as a composer.


Listening to his quartets brings to mind the image of an onion: at first glance, an onion is, well, an onion—basic and non-threatening. But as each layer is peeled away, the onion becomes more pungent and affects the person peeling it with greater, often times uncontrollable intensity. This gradient is sharply noticeable in Erickson’s quartets. Though everyone experiences music and sound differently, for me his debut quartet, completed in 1950, is an unpeeled onion on the kitchen counter. This is not to say the piece, organized in three movements and written using traditional methods of counterpoint and twelve-tone harmony, is not interesting; after all, the best sauces use onion, and Erickson’s first quartet has its moments of brilliance. But the piece is strict, uptight, and highly cerebral.

Over the next six years, Erickson only finished a handful of works, juggling teaching commitments, a stint on KPFA radio, writing a book, and moving around the country. But at the end of this period, he emerged transformed as a composer with his Second String Quartet (1956). Immediately this quartet pushes past the limitations of the first and expresses a greater confidence in the idiom. As Erickson’s student and biographer Charles Shere points out in the set’s accompanying program notes, “Where the conversations of the First Quartet had been contrapuntal, direct, like rational and logical disputations proceeding toward a logical outcome, those of the Second Quartet are fanciful, exploratory, playful, and not so rule-bound.”

For the next three decades, Erickson composed for a wide variety of ensembles as well as for electronics but did not return to the string quartet until Solstice, completed in 1985. A radical departure from the first and even the second quartet, it is comprised of drones and meandering lines reminiscent of an Indian raga or Middle Eastern music, meeting in powerful unisons across all four instruments but only fleetingly before one instrument leaps away to a soaring harmonic or teases with a seductive melody. One such instance is at c. 3’44”, when the instruments compound into a seemingly impenetrable wall of octaves from which an evocative solo voice emerges, pristine. Unrestrained by any traditional form or counterpoint, Erickson communicates his musical ideas every which way—powerfully, playfully, viscerally. Though he had stated that Solstice is not program music, there are reflections of the definition of a solstice (i.e. either the longest or shortest day in the year) in the interplay of short, melodic gestures and seemingly endless drones.
Finally, there is Corfu. Written just a year after Solstice, Erickson’s last composition for string quartet functions as both a seamless continuation of Solstice and as an independent creation. Corfu moans. Its harmonics jump off the fingerboard, constantly pushing the notes higher and higher, all within an extremely stripped-back, naked context. One particularly striking moment is c. 20’36” when, out of nowhere, the violin springs to a staggeringly high note and the cello sounds like a machine grinding to a halt. The harmonies are awfully dissonant and tense until a lower voice releases the tension and the piece fades to a close. Like a white dwarf that remains after the implosion of a star, the piece’s concluding gesture—which not only ends Corfu but Erickson’s entire exploration of the medium—transcends the double bar line, its residual energy lingering long after the music ceases.