Tag: chamber music

Sounds Heard: Aeolus Quartet—Many-Sided Music

The Aeolus Quartet, late of Austin, has been making music for several years now. They came together in 2008 in the time-honored tradition—while students at their conservatory of choice, in this case the Cleveland Institute of Music. Prize winners at the Fischoff International Chamber Music Competition and the Plowman Chamber Music competition among others, Aeolus was also the first resident graduate string quartet at the Butler School and they have recently begun studies at the University of Maryland. Before their return to the frozen Northeast, they entered the studios at UT Austin to record Many-Sided Music, an album of new works by American composers, its title taken from Leonard Bernstein’s description of the “many-sidedness” of American music. I’ve had the good fortune of hearing several of these pieces live, fresh, and new, but it’s great to hear them with the benefit of time and reflection.

Dan Visconti’s Black Bend begins with longing, gestural wails accompanied by the pizz. and pop of a lazy river. Stabs and runs fight for space, as abbreviated melodies push their way through a mosquito texture of sixteenth notes. Seemingly out of nowhere, a blues bar opens up “just around the bend,” complete with chromatic strolls to IV and back again. Guitar riffs straight out of the Robert Johnson songbook play out over pizzicato parts in the cello that nod to their string bass roots. A few choruses in, violinists Nicholas Tavani and Rachel Shapiro do their best “Devil’s Crossroad,” battling in the upper register as the violist Gregory Luce and cellist Alan Richardson trade in their bass lines for some new chordal duds. The final moments of this 12-bar blues section play no differently than the frozen time at the end of any blues tune, tremolo chords and flying riffs; everybody rocking out so much that you can almost see the cellist give the final downbeat, its only lacking elements the bass drum, cymbal hit, and leap from the drum riser that typically wraps this sort of thing up. Beyond that, the piece flows away, decelerating with just the slightest reference to the opening as the river flows around another bend.

Steven Snowden’s Appalachian Polaroids turns the Americana trajectory of the album towards the wide inland swath of the country where hills meet fiddles. Inspired by the photography of Shelby Lee Adams, Snowden begins with a haunting field recording of Shelia Kay Adams (no relation) singing “Black is the Color.” Quick and seamless integration of the quartet with the recording leads to a pentatonic celebration as the recording ends and the quartet steps to the forefront. Idiomatic double stops pop around all fourthy-fifthy in a frenetic eighth-note pattern as the folk melody makes its way from low to high strings. Sixteenths in the upper register up the ante as the longer lines find their way back to the bass, eventually dominating the competing sixteenths which lose a battle of attrition. The long pentatonic lines and harmonies of the opening material return to bring the piece to a close.

Lady Isabelle by Alexandra Bryant was written for Aeolus as a companion piece to Appalachian Polaroids. Also inspired by a field recording, Bryant uses the quartet to voice the song. Recorded here with separate microphones, the brief vocalizations give a stark, broken quality to the introductory material, a quality that is echoed in the quartet writing which doesn’t fully arrive until nearly two minutes into the piece. Shortly after this arrival we hear the first plaintive melody of the piece accompanied by arpeggiated harmonics and the breathing rise and fall of cello and viola. This dies and is replaced by double stops with glissandi on one of the strings of the cello played over a small range. Just before the halfway mark the melody returns over a newly vibrant texture which is followed by another section recalling the broken elements of the opening. A return to the cello glissando punctuated by pizzicato and wide open chords leads us to a recap of the opening material, vocalizations and all.

William Bolcom’s Three Rags for String Quartet, the oldest music on the album, matches well with the other offerings while fully embracing the characteristics of the rag. “Poltergeist” is playful while flirting with the dark side, occasional whole tone scales threatening to fully pull the piece into a modern idiom, only to turn at the last minute back to the diatonic scales that bring us home. “Graceful Ghost” is a melancholy waltz, firmly diatonic yet still nimble enough to perhaps raise a few eyebrows if it were played in the late 19th century. “Incineratorag,” however, sounds like it could be right out of the Joplin songbook, a fantastic study in the form and characteristics of that music and among the first works of its kind that Bolcom wrote.

Many-Sided Music is very well played and recorded and is extremely approachable. Populated and played by a mostly under-thirty crowd, it’s a welcome indication of the creativity and potential of Aeolus as well as that of the composers. In fact, I think that Bolcom guy has a real future.

Linda Dusman: Leading a Creative Life

Ed. Note: When I sat down with composer Linda Dusman in her Baltimore living room late last month, the gender equality discussion that has transfixed NewMusicBox readers this week had obviously not yet begun. Frankly, as a reporter who has covered gender issues in contemporary music repeatedly, I now tend to avoid this line of questioning entirely when speaking with women about their music unless it relates directly to the work they’re engaged in. When it does come up, the topic is often quickly dismissed.

However, for Dusman, a professor and former department chair at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, this perspective and—more than that—this advocacy work, is an integral piece of her life in music, and her comments are serendipitously resonant here on the site today.—MS

In a clever twist of titling, most of the music on Linda Dusman’s recent CD, I Need No Words, can be traced to various texts and quotes the composer drew upon when writing the seven pieces included on the disc. It’s a point of inspiration neatly traced to her love of reading. The title itself, in fact, is cribbed from Virginia Woolf’s landmark novel The Waves.

“It all comes from texts, but I don’t use texts, I don’t have people singing,” Dusman clarifies. “It’s more a sonic response to the texts.” It’s not unusual for her to make note of phrases she finds musical or for friends to send her texts they think she might find compelling. Then these fragments sit on her desk, sometimes for years, until she notices them at a particularly opportune moment. “If somebody asks me to write them a piece, very often I don’t start from the text, but then as I’ve started on the piece I’ll read something and suddenly it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s this piece. That makes perfect sense to me.’ So, it’s nothing very systematic, but it is very powerful, for me.”

Language is not the only well she draws from. Visual art and the natural world are also a constant source of sonic inspiration—from a shift in perspective she experiences while looking at a line drawing to the rhythm she hears as wind moves through the branches of the pine tree outside her office window.

“I always feel like whatever I’m working on is in response to where I am at the time,” Dusman explains, citing not only her concert music, but also her installation work and electroacoustic music. “I’m not trying to write music that’s an escape from anything. I’m really trying to write music that’s a reflection on the contemporary moment.”

It’s also a perspective that follows her beyond her compositions. “My goal has been to lead a creative life,” Dusman says. Even though the nuts and bolts work of being “a mom, a department chair, a professor, even a composer” can wear a person down, she suggest that “really, if you approach everything as a creative project, it gives you juice.”

At the mention of her work in academia balanced against her family life, the conversation turns to reflect on both her own experiences as a woman writing music, as well as her observations as an educator. Her anecdotes range from learning to compose in small increments after having a baby to presenting a paper to the IAWM Congress on her study of the experiences of women composers in graduate school.

“It’s really discouraging for me that there aren’t more young women going into composing. It’s still this incredible minority,” Dusman highlights. Citing research on racism that points to “micro-aggressions that create an environment of micro-inequalities,” she says she finds that female composition students can find themselves confronting a similar situation in academic institutions. Still, Dusman reflects, “the other thing I found just talking to my women students: it’s hard to bring it up, because they don’t want to deal with it either; they don’t want it to be true.”

Even though it’s now 2012, Dusman says the issues still haven’t gone away. “When I was in my 20s, I thought it would be fixed by now!” she admits. As her own contribution to the improving the situation, she started I Resound Press.

“Women’s lives can be very complicated,” Dusman says, noting the work/family juggling act many women must execute daily. “So I just got this idea that there should be a way to digitally have access to this music; it should be easier to send things out, it should be easier for women to do that.” Many of the composers on her roster are older, so the press serves as both a way to provide digital distribution for hard-to-come-by handwritten materials and as an ad hoc archival service. “It shouldn’t just be about me. Having access to the resources that I have at the university, I feel like I should be able to find a way to support other women composers who are maybe not as fortunate to have a faculty position.”

And while the project ended up being considerably more work than she anticipated, now that it’s up and running, it’s getting notice, and that’s making it worth the investment. “I’m getting more orders for music, and it’s exciting to be able to help other people out, frankly,” Dusman concedes.

Still, when it comes to fair and equal treatment for women who want to compose, “we’re really not there yet.”

New England’s Prospect: Alma Mater Studiorum

Full disclosure: Edward Cohen once gave me a job. This does not make me particularly special, actually. The number of grad and post-grad composers and pianists who have made rent teaching keyboard harmony in MIT’s room 4-070—a grid of digital pianos, tucked in a corner of the basement of Building 4, down a long hallway of fabrication labs—is not small. When I signed on, several careers ago, Cohen, longtime MIT senior lecturer (and before that, longtime faculty member at Brandeis), was the gatekeeper.

Edward Cohen

Edward Cohen

Cohen died ten years ago, at the age of 61, composing right up until the end—having, it was reported, outfitted his hospital room with an electric piano. In the intervening decade, opportunities to hear the results have been rare, so the February 18 memorial concert presented by MIT and the Radius Ensemble was not only an appropriate commemoration, but at least a small correction as well.

The concert wasn’t only Cohen’s music. There was a 2009 piano trio, Echo, by Cohen’s widow, Marjorie Merryman—a deceptively simple remembrance, E-D-C motives woven into lots of lyrical octave violin-cello lines punctuated by pianistic comment, but the music sneaks up on you; by the time it winds down into its unorthodox horn-call cadence (think Monk playing Les Adieux, an apt evocation of Cohen’s redoubtable jazz piano skills), Echo achieves unassuming, captivating poise. (Violinist Charles Dimmick, cellist Miriam Bolkosky, and pianist Sarah Bob gave the music a clear account.)

There was also a commissioned premiere, MIT alumnus Andrew McPherson’s After the Rains, for mixed sextet (flutist Sarah Brady, clarinetist Rane Moore, and percussionist Aaron Trant joining the trio’s players). The title and the piece are a take-off on Cohen’s own Acid Rain, for percussion ensemble, in which Cohen ventured into minimalist waters in his own idiosyncratic way. After the Rains wasn’t very minimalistic, but rather aimed for long builds and splashes of color. The trajectory had a stronger profile than the melodic material; everything ended up sounding like the introduction for a big theme that never quite materialized.

But it was Cohen’s compositions that provided the program’s impetus and lion’s share: a Suite for solo flute, a Capriccio for solo piano, and one of his major statements, his Quintet for Clarinet and Strings.

Cohen’s music has not traveled much beyond Cambridge. (Only two of his works—Acid Rain and the Clarinet Quintet—are available on recordings; I never heard any of his music until I moved east.) That it is not better known is both a crime and frustratingly understandable. The music, plausibly (but also misleadingly) characterized as academic, is not flashy or easily packaged—even his deep knowledge of jazz tends to be sensed only fleetingly, indirectly. As the euphemism goes, it requires close listening. But that close listening is constantly, generously rewarded.

He was a virtuoso of the varied repeat, rotating short motives into illusions of depth and dimension. The first movement of the Clarinet Quintet revels in such tiny shifts of intervallic demeanor, gently curt phrases that turn unexpected corners. Towards the end of the movement, the clarinet reassembles all the motives into a single, long, angular line, a seeming culmination, But no, it’s merely the end of a long development, and a brief recapitulation of the opening rounds the essay off with disorienting grace. To pull off such Haydnesque misdirection in a fully chromatic context takes real technique; Cohen made it seem easy. (The performance, with Dimmick and Bolkosky joined by clarinetist Eran Egozy, violinist Katherine Winterstein, and violist Noriko Herndon, was a little rough around the edges but captured the music’s sustained, long arc.)

The programmed pieces showed a penchant for non-sequitur endings that nevertheless recast everything that’s come before. (A Poulenc-esque token of his Francophilia, perhaps.) The Flute Suite (played by Brady) has a barbed “Finale” that slowly winds down, only to finish in a whiffling burst of notes, the tape suddenly spinning in furious rewind. The Capriccio (Sarah Bob giving the evening’s most confident and fluid performance) turns suddenly oracular in its last bars, the wit giving way to a serious backbone; something similar happens in the Quintet’s second movement, a scherzo that dissolves into a slow, muted finish, the melancholy lurking behind the joke.

The essence of Cohen’s craft is, I think, staying just one step ahead of the listener. The Suite works a daisy-chain of ideas: an increasingly complex compound melody in the Prelude sets up the monophonic counterpoint of the Fugue; the fugue subject’s two-note, stepwise motive turns into a hangdog glissando in the Pastorale. But as soon as the listener begins to perceive that movement-to-movement process, the music moves away from it to a counterpoint of mood; the “Song” turns out to be an ersatz fife tune that dissolves into dissonant qualifiers, the “Finale” sums everything up with oblique contrast. The closing Andante of the Clarinet Quintet works this vein, too, seeming to set up a sharp dialogue between contrasting materials—consonant-but-disjunct vs. dissonant-but-smooth—but again, as soon as the rules of the game become perceptible, the game changes, the boundaries begin to blur, the harmonies turn rich and ambiguous.

It would be a pity if such music only turned up on periodic memorials like this one. But composers, through their work, get to leave their own monuments, and Cohen’s music is a discriminating bequest—smart, dry of wit, precise about even modest moods, not afraid to be oblique and understated, but, then again, not afraid to be suddenly exquisite, either. Nice work if you can get it, really.


On February 28, Alvin Curran gave the annual Louis C. Elson lecture at Harvard University, a talk called “The New Common Practice—A Life in Unpopular Music.” Curran is a composer of compulsive eclecticism, and his talk was largely a celebration of that; “The New Common Practice,” an idea he has been playing with since 1994 (and which Benjamin Piekut explored on this site back in 2004). If the old common practice, the system of tonality and counterpoint and form bequeathed by the last millennium’s European tradition, represents “the entrenched models of the past,” as Curran put it, his ideal new common practice is an exuberant anarchism—”no common practice,” the field of musical research expanding to include “walls of noise and… its near-total absence,” the boundaries between high and low “all but wiped out.”

On the one hand, the “growing omnidirectionality” of music Curran sensed back in 1994 has only accelerated, the explosion of digital information and access shrinking distance (both geographical and temporal), flattening hierarchies. (In digital fashion, Curran dropped long lists into his talk like drum breaks, not only the contradictory census of styles and tendencies that opened his original 1994 essay, but also similarly catholic tallies of qualities and composers, like reveling in the streaming results of a broad, general web search.) But there was a kind of cheerful tension between that and Curran’s acknowledgement of his own personal history as a practical source. He opened by recognizing his indirect Harvard connections, from teachers (Elliott Carter, Harvard ’32) and partners-in-crime (Frederic Rzewski, Harvard ’58), to visits—Curran told of playing at Harvard Stadium as part of the Brown University Band then having the Harvard Band impress him as a horde of “spectral Vikings.”

Curran opened with a curio, a recording of him playing trombone in the 1958 edition of The Brunotes, a Brown dixieland group. “Essentially, you have everything right there,” he joked, “I’ve been making that sort of music ever since.” Or maybe he wasn’t joking: he followed with an excerpt from Erat Verbum John, an electronic fantasy on a recording of John Cage laughing (as brilliant a concept as I’ve run into lately), and, in the context, it did sound a lot like Dixieland: a snippet of laugh looped into a little trap-set pattern, another snippet sped up to a clarinet-like squeal, another snippet slowed down and sliding around the bass like a trombone.

The longest excerpt Curran played was a series of video clips from his 2006 Oh Brass on the Grass Alas, a grand, outdoor fantasia for multiple marching bands, moving all the way from aleatoric, process-driven clusters and wandering field formations to a final, Ivesian use of Bach’s “Es ist genug” chorale—as giddy an example imaginable of the “theme park” aspect Curran posits as part of the New Common Practice. It hearkened back to Curran’s own college day memories; it also emphasized the political thinking behind much of his music. At its premiere, at the Donaueschinger Musiktage, it was played by a host of local, amateur bands: not only breaching the walls of the professional festival, but bringing together groups that “normally only play against each other” in competitions, Curran pointed out. “It was a social and political success.”

In every piece Curran played, one could sense a discipline, an order that kept the seeming chaos from turning truly and boringly chaotic. It’s the relationship between form and rhetoric; no matter the sound-world—minimalist or maximalist, melodic or noisy, instrumentally compact or musique-concrète anything-goes—you always know at any given moment whether the music is on its way somewhere or already arrived. Where does that skill come from? Can you develop it without a grounding in some sort of common practice? The question provocatively percolated beneath the manifesto. At one point, Curran spoke of “the endless remix of all time and space—the fusion of memory and amnesia.” Do you keep all of musical history in play, or let the contradictory forces cancel each other, and everything, out? Curran would probably say “both” and then generate an idea for a piece from it.

It’s captivating to surrender to Curran’s creativity, his enthusiasm—and frankly, his ear for sheer beauty. But I also still had Ed Cohen’s exacting consistency in my ear. Curran’s music was, on the surface, the opposite of Cohen’s, but the effectiveness of both composers’ works springs from their relationship to the common practice, to rules, to limitations: Cohen was exhilarated by the challenge of staying within boundaries, Curran is exhilarated by tossing them aside.

Elson's Pocket Music Doctionary

There was one final irony, left unspoken. Louis C. Elson, the lecture’s namesake, was a codifier of the common practice, the author of Elson’s Pocket Music Dictionary. (“For practical and immediate use in the class-room,” Elson wrote of his effort, “I believe that the little volume will be found sufficient to the needs of the teacher.”) Elson also had a regular column in The Etude, answering readers’ questions about music; the first of the columns (from the May 1910 issue) had a question on that eternal bane of common-practice voice-leading students—parallel fifths. “[G]reat composers use them when desired,” Elson allowed. “Puccini has a whole series of them in the beginning of the third act of ‘La Boheme.’ But the young composer will do well to avoid them, at least until he has won as much fame as Puccini.”

Reverberant Celebration of Sofia Gubaidulina

As Sofia Gubaidulina joins the ranks of octogenarian composers, ensembles find themselves with a wealth of compositions to choose from when celebrating her irresistibly transcendent body of music—a catalog that promises to leave an indelible impression for generations to come.  Gubaidulina’s international renown, accolades, and concert celebrations are well deserved.  Chicago’s contribution toward applauding this Russian composer came in the form of an honorary degree from the University of Chicago and an evening of her music performed by the Contempo Ensemble at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.  While Contempo was unable to present a new collaborative piece by the composer due to health and time constraints, the three works offered on the program presented a glimpse into an oeuvre of devastatingly beautiful works that speak to both a profound sense of humanity and spiritual aspirations.

The celebration continued Contempo’s 46-year tradition of performing works by living composers at a high level of excellence.  The University of Chicago-based ensemble is regarded as one of the anchors of the new music community in Chicago and one of the premier ensembles in the country.  Their love and dedication to both the emotional and cerebral qualities of Gubaidulina’s music was on full display for their celebration concert.  The spoken introductions before each piece spanned a range of personal anecdotes and brief academic presentations were a thoughtful and heartfelt match to the brilliant aesthetic that reverberated within the composed works that were performed from the same stage.  The passion that Gubaidulina inspires was communicated along multiple levels over the course of the evening and it was easy to recognize why her music is so inspiring.

Tim Munro (flute), Alison Attar (harp), and Masumi Per Rostad (viola)

Tim Munro (flute), Alison Attar (harp), and Masumi Per Rostad (viola)

Garden of Joy and Sorrow (1980) is a work that scales toward the heavens upon the pitches of the harmonic series.  The wispy appearances of that “natural” sequence of intervals found itself balanced delicately against a dissonant field of minor seconds.  It achieves its resonance through sparse textures and a brilliant use of restraint.  Composed for viola, harp, and flute as a single-movement work, it is a clear expression of the balance between formal structure and intuitive detail that is found in much of Gubaidulina’s music.  The harp often takes on the qualities of a koto, suggesting a balance between Eastern and Western sensibilities in this music as well.

Stanislav Venglevski (bayan)

Stanislav Venglevski (bayan)

In Croce (1979) is a startling synthesis of multiple compositional impulses found in 20th-century composition.  This duet for cello and bayan (a Russian accordion) makes use of a singular sense of form through process, while leaving plenty of space for unexpected details in its realization.  The piece begins with the Bayan playing a tremolo of notes at its highest register over drones from the cello at its lowest register and eventually works toward a reversal of these two roles between the instruments, forming a study of crossing registers.  Like Garden of Joy and Sorrow, there is a striking clarity of the intervallic content that allows the listener to trace its harmonic logic throughout.  The way the music moves seamlessly between notated material and structured improvisation using graphic notation is a testament to both its compositional polish and the considerable talent cellist Brandon Vamos and bayanist Stanislav Venglevski brought to its performance.  These were further enhanced by the soaring crescendos that highlighted the timbral interplay between these two instruments. In Croce shows off one of Gubaidulina’s most startling qualities with the range of textural diversity found within the relatively narrow constraints of its formal structure.   The way it shifts between moments of contemplative meditation and moments of explosive energy maintains a sense of unpredictability within a clear formal shape, offering up a compelling coexistence of intuition and system within a single work of music.  Sofia Gubaidulina makes use of deft brush strokes along her canvas with an ear for sublime contrasts.

Tony Arnold (soprano), Masumi Per Rostad (viola), Yvonne Lam (viola), and Ricardo Rivera (baritone)

Tony Arnold (soprano), Masumi Per Rostad (viola), Yvonne Lam (viola), and Ricardo Rivera (baritone)

The highlight of the evening was Perception (1983), a large-scale work for soprano, baritone, and strings featuring poetry by Francisco Tanzer and excerpts from the Psalms.  Again, this piece showcased Gubaidulina’s sense of textural variation with music that could shift from glassy to dramatic in an instant while maintaining a strong sense of compositional continuity.  With the larger ensemble, she expands this technique to allow for dramatic shifts between instrument combinations and exposed vocal solos.  The textural qualities of the piece were even further enhanced by the addition of pre-recorded materials performed by the same ensemble to emphasize the work’s sense of expansiveness.  These were used sparingly toward the end of the work with the relatively dry reverberation of the recorded material contrasting noticeably with the spatial presence of the live ensemble on stage.  Another striking moment was the pizzicato movement that featured the full string ensemble strumming their instruments to rich harmonic effect.  Perception was a tour de force of extended string techniques combined with exquisite Sprechstimme in the soprano and baritone parts.  It is a complex work that requires extensive concentration by the performers.  It was well rehearsed and beautifully performed.

As a celebration, this concert made a powerful argument for Sofia Gubaidulina’s significant contributions to new music with just a small sample of her works.  Each piece of hers that reaches these ears has reinforced that impression.  Concerts such as this suggest that entire festivals of Gubaidulina’s music would still leave listeners craving more.  Let us hope that there are many more celebrations in store to recognize this fantastic composer.

New England’s Prospect: Storyboarding

New music seemed to explode out of the ground around Boston in the beginning of February like the tripods in the Spielberg remake of War of the Worlds. Something like this happens the same time most years, a sign, maybe, of how deep the academic calendar has wormed its way into the city’s general pace: it all feels like the natural life cycle of projects too complex to face in the rush of the new school year, so it has to happen now, now that everybody’s back from winter break, but before everybody gets sucked into the accelerating crunch of second semester.

So in the first two weeks of February, one was faced with, among other things,

—An Alea III concert featuring Boston University faculty composers, as well as a concert by Time’s Arrow, BU’s student new music group

—John Cage celebrations from piano students at New England Conservatory and So Percussion at Longy

—Cellist Matt Haimovitz and pianist Christopher O’Riley playing their “Shuffle.Play.Listen.” anything-goes repertoire at Regattabar

—A Collage New Music concert featuring four world premieres

—A chamber music Club Concert by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project at Oberon

—A recital by NEC composer and pianist Anthony Coleman

—A collaboration between pianist Vijay Iyer and George Lewis’s “Voyager” digital improvisation system at Wellesley College

Boston Lyric Opera’s production of Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Lighthouse

Reader, I missed them. Thanks to an out-of-town venture, an all-day choral festival, the usual demands of part-time church and teaching and writing jobs, and a spousal demand that I watch the Super Bowl, I did not catch a single one of these events. I hang my head in new music shame.


Georg Friedrich Haas

Georg Friedrich Haas – Photo by Philippe Gontier

In my defense, I did manage to get myself to a couple of unusually interesting concerts. The first was one of the more anticipated dates on the local new music calendar this season: the Boston premiere of Georg Friedrich Haas’s in vain, performed by the group Sound Icon at the Institute of Contemporary Art on Groundhog Day.

Haas’s hour-plus opus, composed in 2000, is already on a lot of people’s short list for the first great masterpiece of the millenium, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s technically impressive, a spectral-like microtonal vocabulary handled with absolute assurance, both harmonically and orchestrationally. (Among in vain’s 23 instruments is an accordion; as someone who, in my former composer life, often tried to integrate the accordion into ensembles large and small, the subtlety and seamlessness with which Haas does it was particularly jealousy-inducing.) It is a Serious Piece, with a serious theme (it was written in response to a resurgence of right-wing nationalism in Haas’s native Austria), and serious length and breadth. And it has a great existential hook: the lights in the hall fade in and out throughout the piece, and there’s a long stretch near the end that takes place in total darkness.

Sound Icon (I previously wrote about the group back in November) did what is becoming their customarily magisterial job, conductor Jeffrey Means keeping everything balanced and lively, the group’s stamina admirable. And the setting was terrific—the ICA’s sharp, uncluttered auditorium provided a space to match the music’s drama. (The ICA has only rarely programmed avant-garde music, turning over much of their performance calendar to the more mainstream presentations of World Music/CRASHarts, but their Public Programs Coordinator, John Andress, is also a percussionist and a new music stalwart, so maybe more hardcore repertoire might be coming to the place. It really is a great venue for it.)

Still, there was something about in vain that kept its distance. The main material is almost deliberately naïve, scales winding down in seeming perpetual motion, lush chorales, gong strikes of deafening, claustrophobic volume. A lot of the impact of in vain is in its length—it seems to justify the demands it makes on your time and concentration by making those demands.

When it works, it’s marvelous. In the final section, Haas brings back those opening scales, gradually getting faster, then looping back around to the original speed, only to begin the process again. The first time, it was deeply satisfying; when he did it a second time, it got to be a little annoying. But it was the third time through that sold it, the expected ending and the avoided ending somehow coming together in convincing ambiguity.

Other repetitions in the piece delivered far more diminishing returns—those gongs, for instance, so thrilling on first strike, drifted into a white-noise barrier; and a strobe-like flash illumination, detonating away the darkness, was similarly potent the first couple times, but as it came back again and again, the shock wore off, and its use as a coordinating device became distractingly apparent.

Then again, maybe all that was intentional; the music does seem intent on cultivating the gray area between process and expression. The most interesting thing about in vain, at least for me (and, really, the experience of in vain is a highly personal thing, a by-product of so much alone-in-the-dark listening), was how little of the music stayed with me. As it is happening, the piece is often overwhelming in the insistent way it envelops the ear; and yet, once it ends, so much of it seems to just vanish, a practically tangible dream-world dissolved in the light.

In mood and ambition, its boldfaced effects and sensual bleakness, in vain has something of the same tenor—if not the political implications—of the art of Anselm Kiefer, another virtuoso of grim landscapes. I thought of Kiefer’s artist’s books in particular: Cauterization of the Rural District of Buchen, for instance, a bound volume of the charred remains of painted canvases, or his massive sculptural books with pages of lead. But where Kiefer hints at a Hegelian view of historical progress—the past burned away, or sunk into the ground, so something new can grow from the wreckage—in vain posits something more cyclical, those descending scales forever chasing each other down, each acceleration encasing a glacial seed of its own repetition: light and darkness, in perpetual orbit, palpable and unremitting, yet transient and equivocal.


On February 11, I made it to a free-jazz improv show at the Lily Pad in Cambridge, performed by a group of local players: David G. Haas (piano), Jeff Platz (guitar), Scott Getchell (trumpet), Kit Demos (bass), and Luther Gray (drums). The Lily Pad doesn’t seem like much: a tiny storefront (late-arriving concertgoers can fill the entire place with their open-door draft), a few chairs, a shoebox stage space surrounded by hanging carpets. But the sound is excellent, and the disposition is adventurous.

Platz has fronted various groups—a band called Skull Session, which also featured Gray, as well as another band called Bright Light Group, featuring Getchell and Demos—and all four have recorded for Germany-based Skycap Records. Haas was nominally the outsider, but he had played with the late, great Joe Maneri for a time, and in the Boston improv/free-jazz world, a connection with Maneri is pretty much congruous with a connection to the scene.

And the quintet settled into musical conversation like they’d been doing it forever. Here’s a sequence I particularly liked, from their first set: Demos (by far the most far-out of the group, never meeting an extended technique he didn’t like) set up a strange ostinato, slapping his bass with dull thumps while bending the pitch with a whammy pedal; Platz layered some keening electric guitar sustain over it. With Gray and Getchell having temporarily dropped out, Haas added some whimsical percussion, tapping on the piano lid and music rack, John Cage-style. As Haas shifted back to the keys, tossing off bright sparks up high, Platz took over the percussive tapping, stopping the strings at the high end of the neck. This led into a full-band free-for-all, Getchell uncorking tight wails, Gray’s scattered attacks drifting in and out of a solid beat—which then morphed into fast, driving swing. Getchell then took over with a skittering solo—Gray’s energetic ride cymbal seemingly translated into trumpet terms, while Gray pulled back to sparse, ominous tom-toms.

For the next number, Demos moved over to modular synthesizer—a homebrew MFOS Ultimate—and, for a while, the rest of the band simply took in the resulting old-school analog chirrups and yowls with bemused interest. When they did start playing, I wasn’t sure what to expect; but the result was a surprisingly coherent Art-Ensemble-of-Chicago-meets-Doctor-Who vibe. That improv eventually returned to where the first one started, a moody, modal, minor-key ballad atmosphere.

The group’s second set was at once more mercurial—new tempos and rhythms and textures seeming to take off out of nowhere—and more straight-ahead, an anthology of more familiar jazz styles. But this one, too, arrived at exotic locales, winding up with a long colloquy between Demos and Platz that managed to feel both serene and cheekily stubborn (especially since the crowd for the next show was already filtering in).

In his book Primacy of the Ear, local jazz legend Ran Blake talks about “storyboarding” solos or interpretations or reinterpretations of repertoire:

I find a version of storyboarding to be a useful tool in composing or recomposing a piece as I prepare it for performance. It is a way to move beyond the spine of a piece without simply abandoning it, and it is a creative alternative to a sketch based simply on theory or abstract motivic development.

This quintet seemed to have that sense of scene, of musical setting; as the texture and mood would shift, everybody was quick and perceptive enough to lock into the new surroundings and start working with the scenery, and loose enough to immediately be casting an eye towards the next possible edit. It was provocative to compare this storyboard—fluid, moving, shifting the spotlight, lighting on details—with the storyboard for in vain, all long, carefully composed, slow-changing landscapes. It pointed up, for one thing, how much the construction of in vain is engineered for grandeur, even as the saturnine cast undermines it. The quintet’s improvisations were, by nature, closer to a road trip, the landscapes glimpsed from a moving vehicle. But sometimes, a glimpse can be as mesmerizing as a full immersion.

Sounds Heard: Aaron Cassidy—The Crutch of Memory

In a way, I’ve been writing this review for years—since long before I first got wind that NEOS’s The Crutch of Memory, the first CD wholly dedicated to Aaron Cassidy’s music, was scheduled for release. In 2005 (or was it 2006?), Cassidy’s stance toward instrumental composition seemed utterly exemplary to this zealous young partisan of contemporary music.

Some of those early pieces that first captivated my imagination are on this disc: I think Frank Cox’s rendition of the title track (written in 2004 and played here by Graeme Jennings) must have been my first brush with Cassidy’s music. I also encountered 1999’s metallic dust and 2000’s asphyxia early on, two pieces that went a long way toward establishing Cassidy as a transatlantic composer to be watched. Listening to the two most ambitious new music woodwind players on the planet, Richard Haynes and Carl Rosman, blow through these pieces, it’s hard to imagine that ten to fifteen years ago Cassidy was laboring over these unbelievably painstaking scores (worth a look, if you ever get the chance) with little hope of a second performance, let alone a recording of them out on NEOS.

The more recent Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (2008-09) consists of three probably-somehow-related movements, each for a different solo or duo instrumentation. More things happen in these pieces than I’d anticipated from Cassidy, who once noted that his music doesn’t begin or end but rather starts and stops—is this still the case? I, purples, spat blood of beautiful lips and songs only as sad as their listener (both from 2006) show two quite different surfaces to Cassidy’s aesthetic. The first, for voice “with live, computer-generated pitch material,” gives the casual Cassidy fan a concentrated dose of exactly what he or she wants—an oral scrambling and grasping for purchase without letup. The second, for trombone, employs Cassidy’s familiar de-coupling tactic in service of an unexpected strategy—at least, I assume it does. More on this one later.

We could call Cassidy’s approach—those proliferating and always-changing approaches, rather—”extreme,” but that would be unfairly reductive: Not only (contra Cassidy’s critics) has their “extremeness” never been the point, but to label them “extreme” suggests that they occupy some remote point on a single historicist continuum of performed deconstruction. A listen through The Crutch of Memory, whose pieces show not only Cassidy’s growth as a composer but also the surprising multivalence of his pieces’ deliberately unstable material, will quickly dispel that prejudice.

And if the CD itself doesn’t dispel it, Evan Johnson’s enthusiastic and astute liner notes are bound to do the trick. Johnson identifies Bacon and Deleuze as Cassidy’s chief “extra-musical interlocutors,” but he hardly needs to: These influences are, like the score samples that decorate the inside of the CD’s packaging, integral to Cassidy’s branding as a composer. (A mutual friend once remarked that Beethoven could certainly have titled a piece Phänomenologie des Geistes, but chose not to.) The bottom line for us, as well as for Cassidy, is that fragmentation, instability, contradiction, and negation are the names of the poststructuralist game. Plenty of critics and bloggers have expended plenty of words trying to capture what Cassidy’s music sounds like, but in fact its whiplash changes and instantaneous contrasts are what make it unique. When you see a performance of it, you are seeing human behavior that strives not to cohere.

When you see a performance of it, that is. I’m one of the lucky ones: I’ve had the good fortune to see a number of interpreters realize Cassidy’s music, including on several occasions the musicians featured on The Crutch of Memory—the once-Australian group ELISION, avant-gardecore explorers (“The cutting edge of sound,” their logo proclaims) now based in northern England who have over the past few years kept Cassidy’s figurehead in regular rotation on the prow of their Santa Maria. Within the next decade, and maybe much sooner, new and unprecedented performance practices will undoubtedly emerge for technically dissociated music like Cassidy’s; for now, though, ELISION’s renditions of his pieces are, in effect, canonical. That every performance on the disc is superb goes without saying. It’s a great pleasure to hear them dig into this music, which they obviously esteem and—more importantly—enjoy.

Or, at any rate, to hear evidence of their digging. Let’s not kid ourselves: That’s what this CD is. For fans of Cassidy’s music who have had the chance to witness great performances of it in person, there’s something downright torturous about this disc. I’m listening to songs only as sad as their listener, whose “modest, mysterious, seemingly endless series of softly keening cries from the highest register of a heavily muted trombone” (well put, Evan) are as infuriating as they are beautiful; I know that there must be more happening here than 44,100 16-bit numbers every second allow me to perceive. If I could only see ELISION’s Benjamin Marks, no doubt that would go a long way, but even a Blu-ray DVD would rob me of that very poststructuralist fragility that Cassidy’s music generates with such tireless focus. This music, more than most, is supposed to be fleeting. A CD doesn’t fleet.

Cassidy’s work is a valuable contribution to an ongoing (and itself rhizomatic) project: to fracture the sedimented object-semblance of musical practices. Like those densely marked-up, multicolored, intabulated scores that everyone loves to marvel at on Facebook, The Crutch of Memory—which after all is the same every time you listen to it—is a capital-O Object. It doesn’t belong in Cassidy’s aesthetic-philosophical cosmos, no matter how many people are clamoring to hear it and how strong are the professional expectations that an early-mid-career composer Had Better Start issuing commercial CDs Or Else. For a man who takes so little for granted on the page, he sure seems pretty content with inherited channels and mechanisms of production and consumption.

And yet here I am, 18 euros lighter and fondling a luxurious gatefold cover. Maybe I could have wangled a free review copy from NEOS, but I decided as soon as I learned the disc was coming out to buy it myself instead—not because I especially want to own it (I don’t) or because I expect to listen to it again (I won’t), but because I want to support Cassidy. A recording of contemporary music is never more than a more-or-less informative document; in Cassidy’s case, it’s less, and it’s less in a particularly cruel way, to boot. Maybe it’s not his job to rethink our entire cultural practice—fine, so be it. I still consider his music exemplary, just as I did in 2005, and I know I’m not the only composer a few years his junior to feel that way. However, The Crutch of Memory is an impeccable answer to a tangential and distracting question.

You should still buy it.

Narrative Before Music

Fifth House Ensemble deserves credit for the careful preparation and forethought that went into the multimedia “#thisrocks” installment of their In Transit series. So much of the experience was tailored to mirror our contemporary reality—lives overflowing with Facebook updates, Tweets, and an intense quantity of media that competes for our attention at any given time. With two video screens, a writer, director, media consultant, voice over artist, and sound engineer involved with “#thisrocks”—all in addition the piano trio at the heart of the production—there were plenty of competing focal points created for the performance itself.

5th House Ensemble

5th House Ensemble: Andrew Williams (violin); Herine Coetzee Koschak (cello); Adam Marks (piano)

The printed program took the form of a small deck of postcards wrapped in an “In Transit #thisrocks” paper band. One card detailed the three pieces featured on the program, one card featured the program notes, one card listed the players and producers of the event, and three cards were devoted to acknowledging the event’s many sponsors.

During #thisrocks, storytelling and live music operated along parallel tracks as a larger commentary on the nature of music itself and its ability to provide an anchor during life’s turbulent times. The fictional character of Miranda Rodriguez supplied the narrative thread—a young, aspiring concert cellist living in New York City as her early commitment and passion for playing cello (with the stated goal of sharing a stage with Yo-Yo Ma) is tested by a turbulent adolescence and an unsupportive home life.

The visual content projected onto two screens on either side of the stage was inventive, well-crafted, and easily visible to the audience.  It consisted of a montage of social media updates, family photographs, written letters and emails, as well as spoken narration placed between the musical movements.  Each element was carefully timed to give the eyes and ears every chance to follow the personalities and an unfolding narrative layered with the music.  It was designed to keep the experience engaging at multiple levels.

The regular appearance of letters written to Yo-Yo Ma at various points along the young musician’s life provide a sense of the role models and aspirations behind Rodriguez’s drive to realize her dream.  The story develops a powerful emotional arc that portrays music as something that literally saves the young woman’s life as she makes the difficult transition toward an adulthood that fulfills her dreams.  The style of storytelling allows for a great deal of tension to form from the exposure of deeply personal details.  This is particularly the case as the account works its way through a dangerous period of teenage rebellion and the tragic loss of a close friend to a drug overdose that triggers in Rodriguez a renewed commitment to her music studies.  The pacing, presentation, and writing were extremely effective at producing a resonant experience.  The final movement of the evening was accompanied by live Tweets from the audience responding to what they had just seen.  The end result was an aggressively updated, multimedia approach toward a chamber music experience.  The live music served as more than a soundtrack to the story.  It was more like the narrative was providing an independent track to accompany the music.  The performance maintained the thematic consistency and tone of our technologically saturated world while also inviting a real-time glimpse into the perceptions of an audience that plays a participating role in the production.

5th House Ensemble

5th House Ensemble: Andrew Williams (violin); Herine Coetzee Koschak (cello); Adam Marks (piano)

The music at the center of this experience consisted of three trios by three completely different generations of composers, brilliantly performed by Andrew Williams on violin, Herine Coetzee Koschak on cello, and Adam Marks on piano.  The music was well-rehearsed and the players effectively negotiated several physically demanding movements while hardly breaking a sweat.  They were a solid presence within a complicated presentation of fleeting parts.

Piano Trio no. 1 in d minor (1839) by Felix Mendelssohn provided a stylistic grounding in the Classical/Romantic music conservatory world of the protagonist.  It is a beautiful piece that was beautifully executed by the trio.  At the same time, it was the piece that felt most out of place within the swirling multimedia saturation that surrounded it.  The initial experience of projected social media statements over the top of this music was jarring at the onset of the concert.

One piece that fit the modern sensibilities of juxtaposition like a glove was Nivea Hair Care Styling Mousse (1999) by contemporary Dutch composer Jacob TV.  It is a churning, groove-heavy piece that acted as a welcome foil to the deeply sentimental qualities of the unfolding narrative.

David T. Little’s Brooklyn Alloy (2003-2004) was the 21st-century contribution to the program.  It is a fiercely aggressive, rhythmic piece with musical parts that lock together at unusual angles and junctions, with textures that move freely between wide variations of independence and synchronicity between the instrumental parts.  The materials were nicely sequenced into an intricate yet deeply satisfying sound.

While the performances of these pieces were nearly flawless, the decision to shuffle the individual movements of all three works was difficult to reconcile.  The first movement of the Mendelssohn was followed by the first movement of the Jacob TV, then a movement by Little and then into a mad scramble between three profoundly different works.  While this emulated the “shuffle” function of personal music players and matched the ethos of the overall experience, I felt that the formal integrity of these individual works suffered as a result.  It was odd to feel that one had the detailed experience of the movements of these works played live while not ever having the chance to grasp the compositional form that unfolds when heard un-shuffled.

The order of movements was not a “random” shuffle, however.  The sequence was clearly restructured in the service of the narrative.  To this end, the emotional arc of the story was well served—it was a compromise that gave the linear story the most impact.  It is the kind of musical manipulation that we have come to accept in film, but as a live performance this manipulation felt a little heavy-handed and transparent.  I suspect that the narrative would have been compromised had the sequential integrity of the music been left intact.

Fifth House Ensemble deserves enormous credit for making this kind of multimedia presentation incredibly appealing to a broad audience in a memorable way that opens ears to new music.  I hope those same ears may one day become attuned to forms that defy the fragmentation of contemporary life and offer a reprieve from the everyday experience.