Tag: chamber music

Friday Informer: Where Profanity Meets Art

It probably goes without saying, but the above clip is intended for mature audiences due to language.

Vice is not a magazine usually associated with new music coverage, yet pre-show buzz for The Nouveau Classical Project’s Sacred-Profane concert showed up on their pages (complete with score samples, no less).

Of course, being able to put “cunt-punt cantata” in the headline probably paved some of that PR road. The April 9 and 10 program featured the premiere of Vin Calianno’s Sororatorio: a Cuntata, a six-section setting of the famed, absurdly vulgar 2013 email lashing delivered by then-Delta Gamma chapter president Rebecca Martinson. The 885-word missive covered her…displeasure with the behavior of her sisters at recent social events, tearing them down using Tarantino-level profanity.

In the weeks after the email first went public, the jokes and spoofs were myriad, including this interpretive reading by actor Michael Shannon for Funny or Die.

Sororatorio, scored for Pierrot plus percussion (though in this case the percussion included a few vuvuzelas) could have been just a gimmick. And in the non-pejorative sense it was! The packed-in stylish crowd gathered in the black box space for the performance was buzzing with anticipation before the show opened with Marina Kifferstein’s arrangements of movements from Ockeghem’s Missa Prolationum, plus Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Chrysalis and Nina C. Young’s Meditation and Void. While waiting for things to get going, composers near my chair were debating just how Calianno would manage to set “cunt punt” anyway. If you missed the show yourself and need to have your curiosity sated, that clip is below.

NCP has plans to take this work on tour, and while the ensemble—particularly vocalist Amanda Gregory—deserve props for the premiere performance, with so many dramatic elements to play with, future performances are bound to offer opportunities for all sorts of interpretive play.

Miranda Cuckson: String Alchemist

Despite the remarkable breadth and diversity of violinist Miranda Cuckson’s repertoire list, there is a reliable theme that emerges when it comes to reactions to her playing: music critics and fans tend to note how comfortably she embraces even the sharpest, most unapproachable-seeming pieces, conveying the music with such palpable control and insight that it’s as if she’s holding the door into these worlds open for the audience.

Frankly, it’s the impression I carry as well, particularly after I heard her perform an all-Ralph Shapey program in Chicago in 2013. When work is at its most forbidding, she grabs the flashlight that is her skill and artistry and leads the way through.

Cuckson's 1742 “ex-Bazzini” Guadagnini violin

Cuckson’s 1742 “ex-Bazzini” Guadagnini violin

Cuckson’s extensive Juilliard training—from age 9 through her Ph.D—steeped her in a broad array of repertoire, but she discovered a particular affinity for new and often challenging pieces. “One reason that I’ve done well at this kind of thing is that I absorb quickly unfamiliar music, so being handed scores and [being told], ‘Play this,’ I’m able to do,” she acknowledges, laughing. “So I’ve found myself getting work.”

And while she’s more interested in music that has something “really vivid” to say rather than difficulty for difficulty’s sake, she admits that there is something attractive about the puzzle.

“I do enjoy music that presents something for me to really figure out, both in terms of understanding the music itself and how I’m going to play it on my instrument and what I want to convey with it,” she explains. “You feel like there are layers that you go through and certain things that, once you’ve absorbed them, become more ingrained in how you’re doing it. Then you can go further into another aspect of it or another level of it. It’s rewarding to work that way.”

Work, you quickly get the impression, is not something Cuckson has ever been one to shy away from. In addition to keeping up with her busy performance schedule of solo and chamber repertoire, she is an active recording artist and is also the artistic director of the ensemble Nunc. Plus, she writes about music as well, often penning her own program notes.

Cuckson's library of scores, books, and media.

Cuckson’s library of scores, books, and media.

So far, however, for as much as she values her role as an engaged and intellectually curious collaborator, she hasn’t felt the urge to compose new work herself.

But I feel strongly about what I do as an interpreter. It’s both putting all my imagination and hopefully perceptiveness and insight into the music, and skill and all that, but also being a great collaborator with the composers—whether they’re not around anymore so I have to figure that out, or with the people who can actually talk and work with me. There’s a kind of alchemy that goes on, and it’s one of the more mysterious things, music and the melding that goes on between artists’ personalities in performance: the composer’s vision and what they were feeling and the performers and their own personalities and how these things come together.

It’s also a reminder of the profoundly fluid and ephemeral nature of performance, no matter how many hours go into perfecting the delivery of even the most complex score or how much time a listener is able to spend in its company. That’s the interesting thing about new music, Cuckson emphasized. “One performance of something is part of a process, hopefully of either getting to know that piece or that composer’s work or in general just listening to more and more things.”

Chicago: The Spektral Quartet goes to pieces (and rots)

Like Alice in Wonderland, I can’t tell if the Spektral Quartet is getting bigger or smaller.

At the quartet’s Saturday night concert, Snowpocalypse Antidote, I had the opportunity to reflect on “miniaturization” and the pleasure of small forms. Both in the evening’s single-movement “sampler pack” concert format, and more obviously in the quartet’s ringtone project Mobile Miniatures, Spektral is making a career of embracing the small, the brief, and the compact.

Yet they’re “doing small” in a very big way. After all, those ringtones may be miniatures, but there are more than 100 of them. And the concert may have been comprised of single movements, but to me and my companions that evening, it felt like a major program indeed.


One critic friend of mine recently described such concert formats as almost unreviewable, claiming that the potpourri of movements is anathema to a cohesive, comprehensible program. I haven’t attended one of Spektral’s sampler packs for a while, but I’ve had my skeptical thoughts too, especially as the quartet has made the format a touring mainstay and selling point. Yet my doubts dissolved in Saturday’s joyful atmosphere at the simultaneously posh and cozy Logan Center “performance penthouse.” The assembled listeners were like a large dinner party enjoying, one after another, the delightful achievements of seven excellent cooks. It was a tasting menu, to be sure, but the portions were substantial. And most importantly, when the main course arrived–Dave Reminick’s new work The Ancestral Mousetrap–the audience was fresh, energized, and ready to listen carefully to a five-movement world premiere.

The first work performed was American composer Stephen Gorbos’s Passage Through the City, which takes as its inspiration the experience of “walking Chicago’s city streets.” The work was created with project support from local arts incubator High Concept Labs. Gorbos, a Maryland-based composer, has written an approachable piece evoking the grind of Chicago’s streets in every sense: the earnest hard work, the often inhospitable climate, and the constant, admirable hum of human endeavor. The quartet’s palette here was one of luminous, mellow timbres, gorgeously matched.

Although violist Doyle Armbrust announced from the stage that the quartet had neglected–oops–to include much “slow music” in this program, it was the quartet’s refinement and sensitivity that emerged most clearly throughout the evening. The opening of Beethoven’s Op. 132 had a courageous sense of introversion; Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s reimagining of James Blake’s I Never Learnt to Share had gorgeous stillness and lyricism; Haydn’s Op. 33 slow movement featured a poised and tranquil solo from Armbrust. The playing of the quartet’s newest member, violinist Clara Lyon, has a particular brand of elegance which has expanded the quartet’s sound world in a lovely way.

Dave Reminick’s highly anticipated new work for “singing string quartet,” The Ancestral Moustetrap, burst onto this polished and refined stage with an impolite roar. Reminick’s concise, funny, and often dazzling music has found an able playmate in the poetry of Russell Edson–or perhaps it’s the other way around.

Edson, a cult figure commonly referred to as the “godfather of the prose poem,” died in April, while Reminick’s Ancestral Mousetrap was still being composed. As a literary figure, Edson was a firm iconoclast who once claimed to strive for a voice “having no more pretension than a child’s primer. Which may,” he added, “be its own pretension.”

In his 1975 essay entitled “Portrait of the Writer as a Fat Man,” Edson wrote:

How I hate little constipated lines that are afraid to be anything but correct, without an ounce of humor, that gaiety that death teaches! …

How I despise the celebrity poet!

You get the idea. Edson marched to his own drum.

In terms of their form, Edson’s poems are provocative in that some people didn’t think they count as poetry. In terms of their subject matter, they are provocative because they contain what literary critic Sarah Manguso described as “lots of defecation, lots of procreation … lots of animals, particularly monkeys … And let’s not forget: lots of old men and lots of death.”

It’s the death, and particularly the decay of the body, that Reminick’s text selection reveals a keen interest in. Two of the poem/movement’s titles, “Killing the Ape” and “Bringing a Dead Man Back to Life,” speak death for themselves. Two others, “The Old Woman’s Breakfast” and “Oh My God I’ll Never Get Home,” feature the disintegration of the human body. The final, “The Ancestral Mousetrap,” is the most lyrical, describing the trap’s cheese bait:

A mouse would steal this with his death, this still unspent jewel of intent.

Reminick’s score, and its performance Saturday night, was bracing, original, and often jaw-dropping. The first movement, “Killing the Ape,” offers a startling take on the soli/tutti vibe of a concerto grosso, as violinist Austin Wulliman and violist Armbrust each alternate between his usual instrument and a second, gamba-style instrument held between his legs. This movement makes excellent use of the ultra-slow bow speed that creates an unpitched click from individual “grains” of the bow hair. Armbrust, in particular, got his bow to click so loudly that several audience members jumped. All this was delivered beneath Lyon’s ballsy, unaffected delivery of the sung text. In terms of singing in The Ancestral Mousetrap, this is Lyon’s big jazz solo, and her earnest, amateur lounge singer vibe was appealing.

Spektral Quartet

The second movement, “The Old Woman’s Breakfast,” uses all four singing voices for the first time. Here, the quartet alternates admirably between singing in barbershop-style harmony and delivering the composite text a few syllables at a time. Throughout the piece, Wulliman and cellist Russell Rolen both reveal vocal and dramatic skill. It is a delight to hear their musical instincts take new form as they make choices about vocal vibrato, glissandos, and affect.

In the subsequent movements, “Oh my God I’ll Never Get Home” and “Bringing a Dead Man Back Into Life,” the story the players tell becomes more and more gruesome. (In a particularly memorable moment, Armbrust delivers the text “They slap his face. His cheek comes off” with sprechstimme gusto.) The horror of the musical and poetic scenario, with its grotesque insistence that the dead man “respond,” peaks as Wulliman cries: “No use! Under his jacket nothing but maggots and ribs! No use!”

Edson’s favorite grisly topics rarely make it to the concert stage, and for bringing them there in such bold fashion, Reminick is to be heartily congratulated. But there is more to Edson’s poetry–and Reminick’s piece–than the shock value of bodily function and decay. Hidden inside Edson’s horrific images are elegant fragments possessing the balance and mystery of a Zen koan: “the ape climbing out of the ape”; “the porridge into herself, or herself into the porridge”.

In the space between brutality and contemplation, a uniquely tender and comical musical work has been born–one that pays unrepeatable homage to the now-deceased poet. In these poignant renderings of Edson’s death-obsessed texts, we get the message loud and clear: It’s not funny that we’re all going to die, but then again, it is.

Ken Thomson: Energized Complexities

Mention composer and sax/clarinet player Ken Thomson in conversation or seek out his work online, and you’ll pretty quickly get to some description of the intense physicality of his playing (he has been known to jump around some on stage) or his impressive work ethic (he’s involved in more than a few projects, including Slow/Fast, Gutbucket, Asphalt Orchestra, and Bang on a Can All-Stars).

Yet while he’s too easygoing and good natured to actually roll his eyes at me when I open our conversation with a question about this slightly manic characterization, it’s understandable that the pigeonholing is starting to wear thin. “It’s sort of the first thing that people say—’Oh, usually he’s the guy jumping up and down, blah, blah, blah’—even when I’m not!”
Still, he doesn’t deny that he likes to use his body in performance, both for musically expressive purposes and to deal with the more practical aspects of leading a group in often high-decibel environments without the use of his arms. A first violinist’s standard sniff cue will just not cut it.

“I like being physical when I’m playing, and I think that’s really important actually to show that you’re in it,” Thomson explains. But while his onstage persona might—at least sometimes—communicate a high-energy, in-your-face kind of guy, he actually feels much more reserved when away from the stage lights. A consideration of his scores deepens this view—his often-complex work is carefully designed and communicates powerfully in live performance without exhausting the audience. During a recent tour stop promoting his ensemble Slow/Fast’s release Settle, crowd attention never seemed to waver.

It’s a live consumption situation Thomson is careful to facilitate. “I obviously like music that’s exciting, that kind of keeps you on the edge of your seat in a lot of ways,” he points out, and during performance, he’s continuously monitoring the room to make sure the audience is still with him. “I’m really good at seeing yawns,” he admits, “or if I start feeling like we’re losing some kind of touch, it’s a very palpable feeling for me.”

He carries those concerns about attention back to his desk when first crafting music, a process that he has learned to be patient with. Sometimes pieces simmer along slowly for a while, and at other times they must rest entirely some months before completion. “I used to write too quickly, I think, and then I would come back the next day and think, ‘God, this is terrible!’ I’m a better editor maybe than a writer, and sort of give myself time to have fresh ideas along the way.”

Photo by Naomi White Connect with Ken:On TwitterOn FacebookOn YouTubeOn SoundCloud

Photo by Naomi White
Connect with Ken:
On Twitter
On Facebook
On YouTube
On SoundCloud

Thomson’s compositional output, showcased by the scores and media presented on his website, now spans a broad range of contexts. One thing that his online reputation is light on, however, is the typical list of schools attended and commissions fulfilled, something he suggests he doesn’t find “super relevant.” When asked, the Columbia grad doesn’t diminish his educational experience, but credits the opportunities it allowed him to learn and perform outside the classroom—both on stage and at his campus radio station, WKCR, where he was jazz director for two and a half years.

Columbia was also where he met and began playing with guitarist Ty Citerman, with whom he works in the collaborative, genre-mashing quartet Gutbucket to this day. When the group was first getting off the ground and exploring their sound, they had a weekly gig at the Knitting Factory where they would try out material. “We started getting better when we started getting beyond adding this plus this plus this,” Thompson recalls, noting that this more complete fusion is still something he’s always looking to do. “I never want to have something sound like, ‘Oh, this is the moment that’s the rock moment, or this is the jazz moment, or this is the contemporary classical moment’—ugh. To me, everything has to make sense.”
But for all the vital diversity his various project lineups and genre influences provide him, Thomson says that in many ways he feels a bit out of touch with the current zeitgeist. “I’m writing music for human beings without electronics. I haven’t done multimedia; I’m not using Max. I feel like I’m totally losing every grant!” he jokes, bursting into laughter.
“It’s really so much about the sound of the instruments and what they do together, and that’s what I love about music. So in that way I think I’m really hopelessly old school, and I don’t know how to fix that. Maybe I shouldn’t.”

New Music and Globalization, Part 1: Silk Road and Global Collaborations

Silk Road Ensemble

Silk Road Ensemble
Photo by Todd Rosenberg Photography

There is little doubt: the particular phase of globalization we are living in (forged from a combination of post-Cold War politics, digital networks, global finance, free market ideology, and cheap travel) has had a major impact on the forms and presentation of art, music, and literature. Within the visual arts, this is a major topic of critical interest, and is widely seen to be manifest in the explosion since 1989 of art biennials. The form of the biennial, as a festival-like exhibition of work from around the world, certainly reflects some aspects of the global experience: the mixing and curation of international artists, the touristic approach to culture, and the boundaryless flow of international capital.

There isn’t really an equivalent in—for want of a better word—art music, even though many of the same structural changes apply. (World music is better served through projects such as WOMEX and WOMAD.) For all their strengths, new music festivals like Tanglewood or the Bang on a Can Marathon can’t attract the same sort of money (and therefore glamour and press attention) as the Whitney, São Paolo, or Venice biennials. Art, through the biennial, can become particularly symbolic of the flow of global capital—often concretely too, as works are bought and sold. Music, as a time-based art form rooted in experiences rather than in objects, cannot attract the same level of capital investment. When it does reflect the flows and structures of globalization, it therefore tends to bring other dimensions out.

In terms of curatorial impact, perhaps a closer analogy to the art biennial might be found among new music ensembles. Single concerts don’t do the same thing and new music festivals, unfortunately, don’t have the same impact. Ongoing projects, however, in which repertories can be collected and developed, in which a sense of global mobility can be projected through international tours and residencies, and for which financial support and prestige can be built up over time, offer a closer comparison.
One example is the Silk Road Project, founded by Yo-Yo Ma. With Ma as its chief advocate, Silk Road is capable of attracting a level of capital, interest, and prestige that is possibly unique in new music. In large part this is due to Ma’s superstar status, but there is also a correlation with the group’s commitment to a globalized, multicultural vision that operates outside of the usual channels of new music, and there is a case to be made that the “global music” angle that Silk Road promotes opens doors in ways that more conventional, “abstract” compositional approaches cannot do.

Kojiro Umezaki

Kojiro Umezaki
Photo by C Taylor Crothers

The Silk Road Project was founded in 1998 to “promote innovation and learning through the arts.”[1] At the heart of the concept is the network of ancient trading routes from India and China to Europe, which acts as “a modern metaphor for sharing and learning across cultures, art forms and disciplines.”[2] Two years later the Silk Road Ensemble was formed, a variable collective of around 60 musicians, artists, and storytellers that performs music in accordance with the Silk Road ethos. The ensemble’s members come from more than 20 countries, many of them along the Silk Road itself. They bring with them the instruments and traditions of their own countries—from the gaita bagpipes of Galicia as played by Cristina Pato to Kojiro Umezaki’s Japanese shakuhachi—taking in the instruments and musical styles of southeast Europe, Central Asia, North Africa, India, and China along the way.

The composers involved with the group are similarly diverse in origin. The ensemble has commissioned more than 80 original works and arrangements, most of them from composers originating from outside the conventional Western repertory. They include figures like the Azerbaijani Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, the Argentinean-born Osvaldo Golijov, and the American Vijay Iyer, all of whom have substantial careers beyond their Silk Road work. However, others are little known outside of this context, composers such as the Lebanese Rabih Abou-Khalil, the Tajik-Uzbek Alisher Latif-Zade, or the Mongolian Byambasuren Sharav.
The ethos of the Silk Road Project (with the ensemble as its most tangible manifestation) is built upon the principles of cultural exchange, learning, and understanding. As Ma explains it, modern-day cultural fragmentation can be resolved through the sharing and passing on of knowledge. In musical terms this might be accomplished by something as simple as adjusting your ear to the nuances of a new kind of scale, or a new rhythm. Music, as a flexible, intangible medium, is well suited to this sort of transformative synthesis, but the sympathetic adjustment Ma talks about acts as a metaphor for a more substantial kind of global harmony. Ma’s model is one of transparency, in which progress is achieved through the acquisition of knowledge and understanding, within a collaborative creative process.

When it appears on stage, the Silk Road Ensemble is a model of harmonious unity: despite the national costumes and range of instruments on display, the emphasis is on togetherness and coordination, audible through the music itself, and visible in the relaxed body language and constantly exchanged glances and smiles of the players.

But while Silk Road’s music is enjoyable, its goals laudable, and the musicians’ skills impressive, hybridization of this sort is not a perfect model for understanding or addressing the issues of modern-day globalization through music. At the heart of its model is the notion of collaboration, but as the scholar Timothy D. Taylor has observed, “collaboration” has become an ideology in world music, since at least Paul Simon’s controversial Graceland: “The term frequently appears as a sanitizing sign when western musicians work with nonwestern ones, making their music safe for mass consumption.”[3] Against the background of hybridizing collaboration, differences get softened, he argues, “making Others and their cultural forms desirable in new ways.”[4] As musicians are expected to alter their original sound in order to conform to international expectations, others are expected to produce hybrid musics. The result, reflected in the respective sales of field recordings versus hybridized world music, is that music that is hybridized—like Silk Road’s—is received as more authentic. This is what a global music is supposed to sound like, and so engaging with that process comes to be seen as a more authentic gesture than sticking to your (isolated) roots. As Taylor puts it again, “World musicians may not be expected to be authentic anymore in the sense of being untouched by the sounds of the West; now it is their very hybridity that allows them to be constructed as authentic.”[5]

For all its merits, then, Silk Road’s ideal of global interconnectedness is not without its problems. (I should mention that the biennial model is also much criticized.) This post is the first of four looking at the impact of globalization on the aesthetics of new music. In my remaining three I will look at some alternative approaches, and how they have made their way into the work of other American musicians.


[1] Silk Road Project website: http://www.silkroadproject.org/.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Timothy D. Taylor: Beyond Exoticism: Western Music and the World (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), p. 129
[4] Ibid., p. 126.
[5] Ibid., 144.


Tim Rutherford-Johnson is writing a book on music since 1989 for University of California Press. He lives in London and blogs at johnsonsrambler.wordpress.com.

Chicago: Enter the Dollhouse—Colombine’s Paradise Theatre

Although I ostensibly attended eighth blackbird’s performance of Colombine’s Paradise Theatre—the new commedia dell’arte-inspired “fantasy” with score by Amy Beth Kirsten and direction by Mark DeChiazza—as a writer and art observer, I could not help absorbing it with the mind of a performer.

A 60-minute tour de force, performed completely from memory and without pause, Colombine’s Paradise Theatre is a stunning display of physical and musical virtuosity on the part of its performers. It is also a testament to eighth blackbird’s commitment to going the extra mile in the creation of new work. Only a mind-boggling amount of labor—memorizing the score and learning elaborate physical staging and choreography—could have produced such a performance.

Colombine demands significant risk-taking and courage from the ensemble. All six players must deliver physical movement and hissing speech parts with panache. Violinist Yvonne Lam, darting and dancing all over the stage as one of the Harlequins, sang frequently and admirably. Pianist Lisa Kaplan, in the role of Colombine, gave an utterly natural, unaffected performance of a cabaret-style song at the piano. Flutist Tim Munro was perhaps pushed furthest, completely abandoning the comfortable mask of the instrumentalist poker-face. He shrieked, sang, sobbed, and hissed his way through the role of Harlequin. When he exited, wailing his final falsetto lines, we had the sense that he had left his soul onstage.

Flutist Tim Munro. (All photographs courtesy of eighth blackbird)

Flutist Tim Munro. (All photographs courtesy of eighth blackbird)

Kirsten’s score evokes diverse environments and moods, from cabaret to Sprechstimme, from witchy incantations to sparse percussion solos. Colombine is quite lyrical at times—particularly in the cello solos, played with great seriousness by Nick Photinos as the Harbinger. Yet the piece is dominated by scherzando whimsy and plenty of humor. Kirsten’s inventive use of doublings keeps the score full and lively at all times. She makes particularly effective use of nonsense syllables and percussive sounds to create spooky rhythmic patterns and textures.

The music is often organized to sound as if characters are inventing the musical material on the spot—repeating it in a testing, probing way, finally landing on a gesture that sticks. It sounds organic and improvisatory, but is completely notated. The pacing of each instrument’s “speech” allows Kirsten to create distinct musical characters in dialogue with each other.
The staging and direction by Mark DeChiazza is one of Colombine’s greatest strengths. It was clear both in the production itself, and in the post-concert discussion, that DeChiazza had generously embraced Kirsten’s inspirations and aesthetic. He has produced a visual and physical world which, while supporting the score, also has complexities and resonances all its own. Particularly ingenious was the way the set allows for a visual imitation of the instruments themselves: percussion setups hanging like chandeliers; metal tubes silently wielded as giant flutes.

While Colombine does not have a clear narrative, it is held together by an interesting set of potential questions. As the protagonist Colombine feels the tug of her various puppet-masters and suitors, we are encouraged to reflect on the power dynamics onstage: Who has agency? Who is excluded? Who has control over another? And what kind of contemporary commentary might the piece be making about commedia dell’arte?

For me, Colombine’s main limitation is that it doesn’t always offer a satisfying perspective on these questions. In particular, the choice to simply reproduce, rather than critically reimagine, the gender dynamics of the stock commedia characters feels like a missed opportunity. Contemporary listeners are quite familiar with the love triangle of two male characters “seducing” their puppet-like female ingenue, and it would have been exciting to experience a more contemporary twist on these patriarchal tropes. The virtuosic, erotic four-hands piano duo between Yvonne Lam and Lisa Kaplan—which helps Colombine pass the proverbial Bechdel test—is a promising moment. But their relationship never becomes thematically important, and in the end, the show doesn’t evince much more gender sophistication than the 16th-century texts that inspired it.

Lam and Kaplan at the piano

Lam and Kaplan at the piano

It might also have been fascinating to see the piece acknowledge—or better yet, dance with—the inevitable historical shadow of Schoenberg. But when asked during the post-concert discussion if she had been influenced by Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Kirsten seemed surprised. She firmly said no, and mentioned that she had made a point of not listening to the Schoenberg during the creative process of Colombine. Yet with a character named Pierrot, Sprechstimme scenes, a dark and moonlit set, and an almost identical instrumentation, it will be hard for the piece to make its way in the world without evoking Pierrot.

Lisa Kaplan with Matthew Duvall as Pierrot

Lisa Kaplan with Matthew Duvall as Pierrot

With its dazzling visuals, sumptuous score, and stunning performance, Colombine is a game-changer and a standard-bearer for the world of new music and interdisciplinary collaboration. It is sure to inspire an ambitious new crop of staged contemporary chamber music. This is perhaps why I wanted more to chew on theoretically and why I wanted it to be more than a fun, spooky confection. But when audiences enter Colombine’s macabre musical dollhouse—with a sensual surprise in every cobwebbed corner—they will probably, like me, be more than happy to play by her rules for the night.

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

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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
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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)
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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

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.

Loudness Isn’t What It Used to Be: Southland Ensemble and Robert Ashley

One of the most memorable events I’ve been to this summer was Southland Ensemble’s June 8 concert featuring the music of Robert Ashley, presented by Dog Star Orchestra as part of their annual new music festival in Los Angeles. The event was hosted by Automata, a small gallery nestled in Chinatown’s Chung King Plaza, and the space was packed to capacity. There was a palpable sense of energy in the room, which felt transformed into another world for the duration of the smartly staged, almost ceremonial performance. The ensemble chose to perform their selection of Ashley’s works continuously without a break, sometimes even simultaneously. Boundaries were blurred—not just between the pieces themselves, but also between music and theater, between audience and performer, between performance and life. This confusion could have been alienating, but in the hands of these committed players, it was instead bewitchingly mysterious. It made me deeply curious about the origins of the concert and the process that led to their programming decisions, so a few days after the performance I posed a few questions to ensemble members Christine Tavolacci, Eric KM Clark, Matt Barbier, and James Klopfleisch.

The concert was bookended by Klopfleisch performing The Entrance, which calls for pennies to be carefully stacked on the keys of an organ, generating long held drones (though whether the sound is the point of the process or a byproduct is ambiguous). The piece appealed to Klopfleisch’s masochistic side—“it requires tremendous focus and is very physically taxing”—but it also had an exceedingly long possible duration, far longer than they expected the concert to last. Having the piece run continuously during the show allowed them to conceive of it as a throughline that bound the concert together. It also recontextualized the space between pieces, as Clark noticed: “I personally love replacements of silence and changes in perception. During The Wolfman, I was standing right beside the organ yet couldn’t hear it at all. As soon as The Wolfman ended, the organ came back into prominence for me. I loved that sensation.” (To me it also suggested an infinity of sound, implying tones both before and after the performance.)

In a sense, this made She Was A Visitor the true beginning of the performance. One of Ashley’s best-known works, this version featured Christine Tavolacci repeatedly intoning the titular phrase with impressive precision and consistency, while the other performers led the audience in mimicking selected sounds and phonemes from the phrase. Tavolacci found this work to be unexpectedly demanding. “In order to successfully and consistently perform the speaking part for a long period of time, I had to exclusively regard the text as a combination of musical sounds,” she explained. “It is one thing to understand a concept, and another to successfully perform it. The moment that you think that you are reciting the words is the moment that the ostinato could potentially fall apart.”


The Wolfman (1964) - James Klopfleisch Photo Credit: Eron Rauch www.eronrauch.com © Southland Ensemble 2014

The Wolfman (1964) – James Klopfleisch. Photo by Eron Rauch

If She Was A Visitor is one of Ashley’s most inviting pieces, The Wolfman is perhaps one of his most forbidding, at least by reputation. The score calls for a vocalist, in the persona of a “sinister nightclub singer,” to be amplified with feedback tuned to the size of the room, creating piercing high-pitched squeals in all but the largest spaces. Here Klopfleisch played the vocalist with appropriate levels of sleaze, while Casey Anderson ran electronics with a unique interpretation of the score. Klopfleisch said that “Casey had the most interesting take on The Wolfman—that even though it is presented as being obscenely loud, loudness is now more relative than it used to be, or rather the technological limitations of the time required the piece to be incredibly loud.” By using software to create digital feedback, Anderson was able to ameliorate the harshest sounds without diluting their power. The result was almost overwhelmingly intense but never painful, and I appreciated being able to hear an incredible amount of detail in the cascading, ever-changing waves of noise.

In Memorian Esteban Gomez (1963) - Casey Anderson (saxophone); Eric KM Clark (harmonium); Christine Tavolacci (flute). Photo Credit: Eron Rauch

In Memorian Esteban Gomez (1963) – Casey Anderson (saxophone); Eric KM Clark (harmonium); Christine Tavolacci (flute). Photo by Eron Rauch

in memoriam… ESTEBAN GOMEZ and Trios (White on White) rounded out the program. Drones were a prominent feature of both, blending effortlessly with the ongoing organ tones from The Entrance. The first Trio, with Tavolacci on flute, Anderson on alto saxophone, and Matt Barbier on trombone, was especially bracing. Barbier was particularly drawn in by this piece. “Our parts are all to be played as loud as possible, so it was challenging to find ways to do that while also making a combination of alto flute, sax, and trombone sound so all three are audible,” he admitted. “It’s a fascinating aspect of Ashley’s music—the small details don’t always seem to mesh with larger ideas at first glance, and part of the process is to find a solution in the details.”

Trios (White on White) (1963) - Matt Barbier (trombone), Casey Anderson (saxophone), Christine Tavolacci (flute). Photo Credit: Eron Rauch

Trios (White on White) (1963) – Matt Barbier (trombone), Casey Anderson (saxophone), Christine Tavolacci (flute). Photo by Eron Rauch

In the second Trio, the overlapping long tones played by Orin Hildestad (violin) and Jonathan Stehney (recorder) were intermittently interrupted with resonant junk percussion played by Klopfleisch. After all this nearly static slow burn, the third Trio was an enjoyably absurdist surprise, with Barbier giving a mini-lecture on the history of his instrument and demonstrating with musical examples. Partway through, a violinist (Eric KM Clark) and violist (Cassia Streb) emerged wearing black tie formal wear and masks to provide off-kilter musical accompaniment. Theatrically, the costuming and staging was inspired, and emblematic of the ensemble’s approach. Throughout the concert, they managed to make creative and enriching additions to Ashley’s ideas, all the while staying true to the spirit of his scores.

Trios (White on White) (1963) - Cassia Streb, Matt Barbier. Photo Credit: Eron Rauch

Trios (White on White) (1963) – Cassia Streb, Matt Barbier. Photo by Eron Rauch

All of the performed works were from Ashley’s early period in the 1960s. Tavolacci observes that while these works remain “highly influential and pivotal pieces in the canon of American experimental music,” they are rarely performed, perhaps because of their reputation for being more conceptual than musical. Southland Ensemble proved that this is anything but the case, that this is vital music that leaps off the page and takes up residence in our imaginations. Something tells me that I will be living with this music for a long time.

Trios (White on White) (1963) - Orin Hildestad and Jonathan Stehney (far left), James Klopfleisch (right). Photo Credit: Eron Rauch

Trios (White on White) (1963) – Orin Hildestad and Jonathan Stehney (far left), James Klopfleisch (right). Photo by Eron Rauch