Tag: chamber music

New England’s Prospect: Beyond the Sea

Lining out Matthew Ritchie's Monstrance/Remonstrance, ICA/Boston, March 28, 2014.

Lining out Matthew Ritchie’s Monstrance/Remonstrance, ICA/Boston, March 28, 2014.

Introducing his collaborative piece Monstrance/Remonstrance at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston on March 28, Matthew Ritchie—currently in the midst of an 18-month stint as the ICA’s artist-in-residence—gave a whirlwind, 30-second history of the philosophical object. His endpoint was deliberately unfathomable: the object-oriented ontology of Graham Harman. In Harman’s view, the ingrained philosophical habit of considering objects only inasmuch as they are used or encountered by human consciousness is forever incomplete: in addition to perceived and idealized objects, there are real objects, with their own ontology, existing whether we sense them or not. “[The] real world,” Harman writes, “is made up of individual objects that are withdrawn from all theoretical, practical, and even causal access.”
Harman’s philosophy isn’t much concerned with aesthetics, but one can see why an artist might love it. It’s full of sentences

 The interplay of dust and cinder blocks and shafts of sunlight is haunted by the drama of presence and withdrawal no less than are language or lurid human moods

—that could easily double as mission statements for any number of post-modern conceptual art installations. If you were looking for them, you could see Harman’s real objects as a recurring feature of Monstrance/Remonstrance. They also were, in the end, something else: an alibi.


See and hear: music was an integral part of the piece. Ritchie had recruited an impressive group of collaborators, drawing heavily from what might be called the Parenthetical Parallel Résumé wing of the new music establishment: vocalist Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), guitarist Bryce Dessner (The National), clarinetist Evan Ziporyn (ex-Bang on a Can All-Star), sound designer David Sheppard (Sound Intermedia). The performance started in the ICA lobby, site of the ICA’s art wall, turned over to chosen artists on a regular basis for large-scale murals. Ritchie’s mural sprawls across the wall and into the adjacent glass facade. The imagery—spiraling lines, jagged, vectorized tendrils, vaguely organic circles—is congruent with his mural, Remanence: Salt and Light, currently covering a large wall in nearby Dewey Square (itself, not so long ago, the site of Occupy Boston); the mural recycles elements from Ritchie’s painting The Salt Pit, on display elsewhere in the ICA. Ritchie further echoed the imagery in the foam pads scattered across the floor in place of traditional seating.

David Sheppard (center) under the art wall, ICA/Boston, March 28, 2014.

David Sheppard (center) under the art wall, ICA/Boston, March 28, 2014.

The music for this portion was Propolis, devised by Dessner, Ziporyn, and Sheppard, first performed in 2008 as part of The Morning Line, a Ritchie installation in Seville, Spain. It is a framework for improvisation, though this performance had documentary specificity, being filmed and recorded for subsequent incorporation into the space, via playback and smartphone-accessible video. It started with Dessner and bassist Blake Newman slowly layering over a mulching electronic background, with Sheppard hovering nearby, manipulating the sound from a tablet computer. Then violinist Shaw Pong Liu began to weave through the crowd, soon joined by trombonist Randy Pingray, and then Ziporyn. Everybody was amplified; the conversation—or, maybe, competition—between local and global perception was constant.

The piece itself fell into four large sections: an opening in which the overlay of electronic noise predominated; an industrial breakdown (the “three minutes of excruciating pain” Ritchie warned the audience about, though it was actually pretty inviting in its head-banging way—a chunky, asymmetrical stretch of metallic thrashing); collective commentary over a pleasantly bumpy bass clarinet loop; and then a long coda settling into rich, Ligeti-like clusters. The improvisation had a tendency to default to a particular style—bursts of extended-technique scribbling over minimalist grooves—a little of which, for me at least, goes a long way. But the slower sections, where the players had an expanse of resonance to play into, built up into shimmering walls of sound.
The physical interaction between the players was minimal, ending in an apt tableau in which Pingray, Ziporyn, and Liu faced the wall, away from the audience and each other, while continuing to play. (Dessner had already left the space by this point.) The performance seemed to occupy the interstice between a group improvisation and five people improvising. Maybe you could call it a symbol of the gap between the perceived object and the real object.


Monstrance/Remonstrance then moved out of the museum, along the pier, and across the street, to the Our Lady of Good Voyage Chapel, for the second part of the piece: a screening of Ritchie’s film Remonstrance, to the live accompaniment of Dessner’s To the Sea. This, too, was a revival, having been premiered at the short-lived L&M Arts gallery in Los Angeles (though, like all of Ritchie’s works, it’s been continually tweaked and altered). Remonstrance was already playing as the audience was herded into the chapel. The film mixes sea imagery, computer animation, and allegorical ideas, all filtered through a sepia-toned, painterly filter of video processing. A drone flies over a beach; we see the pilings of a pier and a decaying bridge. (Harman: “The reality of the bridge is not to be found in its amalgam of asphalt and cable, but in the geographic fact of ‘traversable gorge.’ The bridge is a bridge-effect; the tool is a force that generates a world, one in which the canyon is no longer an obstacle.”) The whole is invaded by protozoa-like spheres, again recapitulating visual elements from painting and mural.

Worden and her on-film doppelgänger then made their entrances. (The film incorporates footage from an earlier, 2011 version of the piece, which included an installation/performance component that took place on Venice Beach.) In the chapel, Worden processed up the aisle with a model boat—a carvel-built, 17th-century English-style vessel, by the looks of it, appropriate for a pilgrimage—while on-screen Worden summoned seaweed-clad golems from the Pacific. Her costume made, perhaps, Harman-esque commentary: geometric patterns that evoked both fishnets and the harmony of the spheres, a carapace-like mask made of interlocking iterations of those jagged tendrils.

She was singing all the while, long, keening lines buoyed by Dessner and three trombones (Pingrey, Ian Maser, and Christopher Moore) and organ (Elaine Rombola) and Ziporyn, who turned up at the end. Perhaps this is reading too much into Dessner’s instrument of choice, but To the Sea seemed to derive its sound-world from a paradigm of guitar feedback: overtones and layers of pitch and noise built up into a shiny, grainy harmonic edifice. The basic progression was simple—a grim, lush circle of minor chords—but the musical surface (once again amplified and processed) was rich with constantly shifting texture. (One casualty of that texture was the text: Worden’s crystalline tone soared, but the actual words were largely a wash.) At the climax, Dessner veered into some marvelous big, dissonant, Messiaen-like chords: wide-angle, saturated luminosity.


I was kind of half-waiting for all of the disparate parts of Monstrance/Remonstrance to click into place, to come together in some summation, but they never do. Ideas mill around the same conceptual space, images are mirrored and echoed. It’s a series of partial glimpses of some theoretical, larger whole. I’m sure that’s intentional, but it kept running up against the notion that the piece was site-specific; the sites were more specific than the piece was, which sometimes made for an odd imbalance. It also brought to the fore how music is automatically site-specific in a way that visual arts have to work at.

Our Lady of Good Voyage, for example, is a utilitarian box of a building; apart from a couple of statues, some stained glass, and appropriately uncomfortable pews, there is not much in the architecture to suggest religious transcendence or mystery. Which is, one could say, part of the ontology of the place, a chapel for working sailors and fishermen whose required divine grace is of an unapologetically practical form: safety, security, survival. The way Remonstrance evoked the elemental nature of the sea, by way of mythology, was a little bit dissonant with such a practical place. I kept thinking of that most powerful of New England seafaring myths—Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick—and how its literary summoning of the sea’s power is inseparable from its exhaustive, anthropological detailing of the rituals and rules of shipboard life and the equipment and techniques of 19th-century whaling.
Of course, this was where the invocation of Harman’s real objects could answer any such quibbles. The performance’s disconnection from the place could, after all, reflect our inherent disconnection from the world of objects. The seeming jumble of images and ideas could, possibly, be taken as a shadow of a web of meaning beyond our perception. But Melville is dealing with real objects, too—he’s just doing it by describing, cataloging, narrating as much as he can, up to the limits of language, and in the process making you realize that it’s still not enough.

In press materials for the show, the ICA proposed that “the performance connects Boston’s seafaring history with its new identity as a hub of technology and innovation.” I could see a few connections in retrospect—that drone flying around at the beginning of Remonstrance, for instance—but, then again, you can see those connections just by walking around the neighborhood: building and development is going on all around the ICA. (Our Lady of Good Voyage, situated on prime real estate, is about to be moved.) Would I have been primed to think about those connections without the experience of Monstrance/Remonstrance? Probably not—in that sense, Ritchie’s project was a success. But I wonder if the connections would have been more immediate, more powerful, if it had been just the music—if we had heard the snaggy machinery of Propolis with only the view of the girders and excavators in the ICA’s parking lot, if we had heard the deep currents of To the Sea with the chapel as the main visual component, rather than just a box to be filled.

But what does it matter what I wonder? According to object-oriented ontology, none of it, not the sea, not the buildings, not the bulldozers, not the instruments or the loudspeakers, not the paintings and sculptures and rolls of film, not even my eyes and ears, none of it needs my consciousness in order to have presence and withdrawal and biographies and philosophical actuality. Maybe that’s the ultimate point of Ritchie’s work, that art, or anything we make or do, turns to music, essentially, as soon as its made or done: in the world, apart from us, beyond our sway or even comprehension. What is art? In multiple senses: it’s out of our hands.

Brooklyn in Austin’s House

Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland

Conceived and curated by Joseph Horowitz and presented in partnership with Texas Performing Arts, The Butler School of Music, The Austin Symphony Orchestra, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, “Copland and Mexico” was a four-day celebration of the music surrounding Copland’s trip to Mexico in the early 1930s. Copland, a Brooklyn composer of the last century, hoped to embrace the folk music of both Mexico and the United States, and this trip had an impact not only on his creative material but his sense of social purpose as a composer. His output following this trip includes works such as El Salón México and Billy the Kid, pieces that spoke to his new populist leanings. The former a hodgepodge of dance hall tunes and folk songs and the latter populated by cowboy tunes, both were wildly popular and signaled Copland’s desire to move towards a more accessible and nationalist means of expression.

Three shows (four nights counting the ASO’s repeat performance) focused on different portions of not only Copland’s output but also that of composers in similar veins, as well as other cultural and artistic endeavors that speak to the period. ASO’s show included wonderful performances of  El Salón México and Two Mexican Pieces (“Paisaje Mexicano” and “Danza de Jalisco”), plus Carlos Chávez’s Chapultepec and Redes (complete with film) with a score composed by Silvestre Revueltas. The final work is significant not only to the populist theme (fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico experience a labor-related political awakening) but also for its connection to Austin. Mexican nationalist composer Silvestre Revueltas is best known for a significant creative period late in life, but he is less well known for the time he spent in the U.S.A. in his early years, in particular the time spent at St. Edward’s College (now St. Edward’s University) in Austin. His contribution to Redes is significant in that, to quote Dr. James Buhler, associate professor of music theory at the Butler school, “Revueltas’s music is beautifully composed to sound as though it must labor mightily against the technology, a straining that is central to its affective character. In live performance this musical struggle with technology is transformed into an opposition, as music is freed from the grim determinism of the recording apparatus.”

I don’t know the original soundtrack version of this music, but the ASO performance was stunning, and the free, organic quality of live performance did make for a compelling contrast to the content of the film. Other events in the series included performances and workshops by Danzonera SierraMadre of Monterrey, Mexico, northern Mexico’s most prominent danzón orchestra, with UT music students and Patio del Danzón dancers as well as the UT New Music Ensemble, UT Percussion Group, and the UT Symphony Orchestra performing works by Copland, Chávez, and Revueltas. I only wish I could have seen them all.


Brooklyn Rider

Brooklyn Rider
Photo by Sarah Small

The second concert of Brooklyn Rider’s ten-day Texas Performing Arts residency featured new works by several American composers, as well as Schoenberg’s second string quartet performed by Brooklyn Rider with Dawn Upshaw. Following an opening volley in the form of Schubert’s Quartettsatz was a performance of one of the group’s “Brooklyn Rider Almanac” commissions, Dana Lyn’s Maintenance Music. Inspired by Mierle Ukeles, self-appointed artist-in-residence at the NYC Department of Sanitation , Maintenance Music was written to draw attention to the everyday workings of our daily lives. Starting from out of nowhere with a texture like tuning, the piece featured glissandi from one chord to another as the cello played a wandering melody, an arrangement that switched to viola in short order as the other strings took up harmonics. Quick arco interjections played back and forth with pizzicato, building then stopping with a five-note riff. A group of discordant, rising, symmetrical arpeggios marked another section, one of many moods that rolled by in the work.

This was followed by Evan Ziporyn’s Qi, a piece that, in an evening of heavy-duty tunes and stellar performances, stood out as particularly special. The opening movement, “Lucid Flight,” featured pulsing factory rhythms which made way for long, luxuriant lines that developed into pointed sixteenths traded among the players. Big, blocky harmonies reminiscent of the best of the minimalist tradition faded into one another, almost as if the parts were suspensions and anticipations writ large. The following movement, “Garden,” was particularly compelling. Ziporyn spread chords across the ensemble with plenty of double-stops and little vibrato, imparting a pedal-organ impression that was stunning. This was complimented by a later section in which a similar treatment with harmonics sounded somehow like a harpsichord without the attack, which is something I think we can all get behind. His sense and use of rhythm was absolutely spot-on. Though he used relatively little surface complexity (no tuplets were nested in the writing of this piece), Ziporyn’s ability to take a relatively simple harmonic fabric and lay it over a subtly shifting rhythmic foundation left me constantly wondering where the pulse would be next. Though it sounded nothing like the following, it reminded me of how the Pixies sounded when I first heard them; recognizable and alien all at once.

For the second half of the show, Dawn Upshaw joined the ensemble for Schoenberg’s second string quartet as well as a new work by the group’s Colin Jacobsen. The Schoenberg was wonderfully rendered, and clearly Upshaw is still at the top of her game. Jacobsen’s Suite from Chalk and Soot was a five-movement work drawn from a larger piece for quartet and dance with text by Kandinsky from Klänge. It should be noted for those unaware that Brooklyn Rider draws its name from Der Blaue Reiter, a group of artists (Kandinsky among them) based in Munich in the early 20th century, so the use of Kandinsky’s work is not random. The texts in Klänge focus on the sound of words as much if not more than their meaning, so it should come as no surprise that the narrative in each of these is heavy on the whimsical and light on the narrative. Highlights included the slithery sul ponticello edging around the opening movement “Look,” as the quartet juxtaposed Upshaw’s clear tone with a creepy, muttered, singing response. “Curtain” made a reprise of an initial declamatory gesture from “Look,” and then turned a corner with fevered tremolo and talking among the players. The final movement, “Table,” was full of joyful expression, with clapping gestures moving around the quartet and Upshaw in a 5/8 rhythm. Even the light guy got in on the action, bringing in total darkness once or twice before the actual final downbeat.


Sponsored by some of the heaviest hitters in Austin, both projects sought to present hidden gems of yesterday and today to the initiated as well as to an audience that might not otherwise uncover them. Providing great performances and cultural snapshots of Austin then and now, Copland and Mexico and Brooklyn Rider gave us an inside look into where we’ve been and where we’re going.

SXNY – The Big Apple heads to Austin

In a SXSW season that was largely panned as having jumped the shark commercially and was sadly marred by a horrific tragedy, two Big Apple bookends operating outside of the SXSW machine served to salvage an otherwise lost Spring Break. Jace Clayton (who performs as DJ Rupture) was joined by narrator/singer Arooj Aftab and pianists David Friend and Emily Manzo to perform The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner, while Brooklyn Rider played the first of two shows of their ten-day residency with Texas Performing Arts.

Emily Manzo and Jace Clayton

Emily Manzo and Jace Clayton (with David Friend who is just out of this shot) perform The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner
Photo by Sandy Carson

Presented by the University of Texas Visual Arts Center and Church of the Friendly Ghost, The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner is a long-form work for two grand pianos, live electronics, and voice by Jace Clayton. Based fundamentally on two works by Julius Eastman, Clayton combined his live electronics with the pre-existing material and theatrical vignettes to create the new piece.
Clayton’s electronic set-up in the center of the stage was flanked by the two grand pianos, each placed so that the performer was facing away from the audience. Tremolo on single pitches played a significant role in the piece, and both pianists spent a great deal of the early portion of the work intoning streams of these over what amounted to a d minor key center. Clayton’s electronics would bubble to the surface by and by, sometimes manipulating the material we’d just heard and at others creating new textures. Everyone was amplified, so even his most delicate moments were accessible. Much of this would circle around before coming to rest via a big dramatic riff played by the pianos which lived mostly in the lower end of the range.

Lasting over an hour, the minimalist musical portions of the work were broken up by a few short spoken vignettes, brief interludes drawn from Eastman’s material including one of an interview for a position as an Eastman impersonator. Eastman was most active from the ’60s through the ’80s, and as a gay African-American was largely marginalized during his most creative period. It was interesting to get a glimpse into the world of sexual and racial politics, though at times it was difficult to reconcile the vignettes with the bulk of the music. The two seemed to reconnect more strongly towards the end when Aftab began to intone elements of the interview, singing in a smoky alto over dark minor chords coming from one piano while high pedal points came from the other. A provocative and challenging piece, The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner provided a compelling perspective of the political, racial, musical, and historical climate of New York in the late 20th century.

Brooklyn Rider

Brooklyn Rider
Photo by Sarah Small

Brooklyn Rider is in town for a ten-day residency with Texas Performing Arts during which they’ll play two concerts and participate in a variety of activities involving the university and the community at large. Their first show had a decidedly eastern bent, starting with Eastern Europe and moving along to the Middle East.

The first half of the show consisted exclusively of the music of Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin, and the quartet kicked it off with Zhurbin’s Budget Bulgar, a short engaging Klezmer tune that was “sketched between playing dance sets at a Russian wedding in western New Jersey.” Full of life and energy, it set the tone for the evening and introduced the audience to Brooklyn Rider’s slightly unconventional configuration (left to right) of violin, cello, viola, and violin with all standing save cellist Eric Jacobsen who was perched on a platform. The standing configuration allows for more movement during performance, and the quartet took full advantage of this freedom by taking the standard physical movement inherent in typical performance practice and ramping it up. It never seemed forced or played for effect mind you, and I expect most players freed from the chair would do the same. Here it certainly helped convey the exuberance of both Zhurbin’s opening piece and the longer Culai which followed. The title of the latter comes from the nickname of Nicolae Neacsu who was violinist and vocalist for the Gypsy group Taraf de Haïdouks and who served as inspiration for the piece. Set in five movements, the work diverged from the Klezmer precedent and moved squarely into the realm of gypsy music, complete with shouts and pizzicato basslines swirling throughout the first movement. Eric’s brother, violinist Colin Jacobsen, conjured a languid melody punctuated by rapid lines which swooped in from above. The highlight of the second movement was during the two long solos which, while compelling in their own right, were almost outshined by a simple accompaniment of chords led by violist Nicholas Cords. Simple, unadorned, and only slightly syncopated, there was a drama in their simplicity and in the need for the players to be perfectly synchronized during this somewhat long section.

The final piece, an arrangement of a Romanian traditional work Music of the Roma, came in like a lion and went out like a lamb, its melancholy end accented when, as the final lines were played, Jacobsen and fellow violinist Johnny Gandelsman turned and walked offstage, followed in short order by Cords, leaving Eric alone for the final moments, a pregnant pause before an eruption of applause.

The second half of the concert began with a superb run of Bartók’s second quartet, the applause from the first half peppering the pauses between movements. Following Bartók is no small feat, especially in an evening dominated by eastern European folk-influenced string music, but Jacobsen (Colin this time) stepped up to the plate with his Three Miniatures for String Quartet. Inspired by a trip to Iran, Three Miniatures is a set of works that aim to embody “the tradition in which the epic stories of love, heroism, and allegories of human folly are played out in tiny portraits of incredible detail.” Jacobsen’s works lived up to the model, each a world (and occasionally worlds) of their own. The outer movements shined in particular. “Majnun’s Moonshine” opened with delicate harmonics following wandering pizzicato lines in the viola. Filigree scales feathered up and down, developing as the group came together in a 7/8 figure, the delicate opening forgotten and traded in for a lumbering exit. “A Walking Fire,” Brooklyn Rider’s debut CD namesake, was full of pulsing, nervous energy. The piece didn’t so much build to a climax as live in one. Ostinati and melodic fragments swirled around chunky double stops, the group rising together and fading back as one or another player came forward with a longer solo, only to rejoin the odd-time fray. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening as evidenced by the animated post-concert chatter in the lobby, a chatter that will likely be amplified for the second concert when the quartet is joined by Dawn Upshaw for Schoenberg’s second quartet and a new work by Colin Jacobsen.

Sounds Heard: Zwerm—Underwater Princess Waltz

Zwerm—Underwater Princess Waltz

Underwater Princess Waltz: A Collection of One-Page Pieces (New World 80748)
Featuring work by: Karl Berger, Earle Brown, Alvin Curran, Nick Didkovsky, Joel Ford, Daniel Goode, Clinton McCallum, Larry Polansky, and Christian Wolff

I have a “less is often more” world view, and in keeping with that ethos I’ve long found something particularly engaging about “small” art—eight-inch canvases, brief poetry—as if the space constraints actually cleared more room for a spectator to form a deeper, interactive connection with the work at hand.

So it was easy for me to fall into the concept of Belgian/Dutch electric guitar quartet Zwerm’s release Underwater Princess Waltz: A Collection of One-Page Pieces, since in a way they were developing that sort of relationship with the included music. In each case, the quartet began with the parameters of the piece presented through these brief scores, and the recoding then served as a document of their own exploration and dialog, both with the work at hand and with each other.

Their release of pieces by American composers on New World Records provides that label’s typical brand of thorough booklet notes. For the curious, Amy C. Beal explores the pieces one by one, with each of the scores reproduced for the listener to examine—works that rely on everything from more-or-less traditional notation to what one might characterize as “Marvel comic super heroes battle a graphic score” (h/t to Nick and Leo Didkovsky for that one).
The increasing circular chaos of Joel Ford’s Gauss Cannon (2006) opens the disc before the wistful sweet romance of Alvin Curran’s Underwater Princess Waltz and Her Waltzing with Her (both 1972) take over—a bowed saw adding the liquid character to Curran’s tracks.

Zwerm doesn’t allow the listener to sink too far into this daydream, however, before diving into the above-mentioned Didkovsky score Mayhem (2012). Presented in three interpretations spaced out over the course of the album, each one-minute version assumes as its subtitle one of the weapons depicted in the score—hammer, bow, and blade. Where “The Hammer” takes Didkovsky’s word at the encouragement to “be brutal,” what actually impressed me here is the nuance Zwerm brings to subsequent perspectives—”Blade” is given a sexy, high-speed car chase danger and “Arrow” a Wild West horror. (The banjo certainly helps things along there.) This quirky spirit also tints Daniel Goode’s The Red and White Cows (1979), a narrated mathematic story problem leading into a bluesy meditation on “the girl I love” for rhythm guitar, solo guitar, samples, and voice.
Larry Polansky’s tween (k-tood#2) (2002) may give some musicians exercise flashbacks as short phrases roll over and over in delicate complexity, whereas Clinton McCallum’s round round down (2012) starts in sonic bedlam and then just keeps climbing.
The most texturally diverse performance on this disc might be found in Zwerm’s interpretation of Christian Wolff’s Burdocks, Part VII (1970-71), as the musicians react to one another while old radio samples climb the dial and other recorded sounds color the field, often ratcheting up the tension. A solo version of Earle Brown’s December 1952 (1952) resides at the other end of that spectrum, a steady flicker of pitches nearly always blaring their way across a more than eight-minute span, solid yet malleable, with the artfully sculpted sound only thinning out for brief moments of recovery until it reaches a clear summit and quickly drops off into a lengthy decay.

After this imaginative tour, Zwerm brings the show to close with Karl H. Berger’s Time Goes By (1975). When it first began, the simple organ and hand percussion tricked my ears into thinking that iTunes had somehow skipped over to a Yo La Tengo album elsewhere in my library. But actually the track is an appropriately extended meditation on the piece’s title, the simple words sung over and over, up and down and up and down the scale again. The meditative trance it induces is broken apart by the guitars a third of the way in, and the instruments continue to claw at the choir until they fully shrouded it completely in their curtain.

Vicki Ray Reflects on 20 Years of Piano Spheres

Vicki Ray

Vicki Ray

“I believe in composers,” Vicki Ray tells me. This is exactly the kind of thing that could sound like an empty platitude, but she says it with undeniable conviction—and with the track record to back it up, too. Along with Gloria Cheng, Mark Robson, and Susan Svercek, Ray is one of four pianists involved with the Piano Spheres concert series, a Los Angeles institution that is now celebrating its 20th anniversary. Over the years, Piano Spheres has presented 73 premieres (48 of them world premieres), and commissioned 19 pieces through the Leonard Stein Memorial Fund. According to Ray, however, the actual number of commissions associated with the series is harder to pin down, since “sometimes other institutions like CalArts help out, and sometimes I just pay for it out of my own pocket.” (Because she believes in composers.)

Of course Piano Spheres programs older music, too—that is, contemporary music that is no longer contemporary, until we have a better term for this kind of thing. Mark Robson’s recent concert on February 11 covered a remarkable swath of music from the 20th and 21st centuries, including everything from extremely delicate pieces by Beat Furrer, Toru Takemitsu, and Olivier Messiaen, to thorny fingerbusters by Charles Ives and Thomas Adès, whose Concert Paraphrase on “Powder Her Face” sounded something like a diabolical tango buried under layers of dense counterpoint and Lisztian shrapnel.

Mark Robson in performance

Mark Robson in performance

Ray’s upcoming program on March 18, by contrast, is solely grounded in the present. She will play several recent works by living composers, including Hoyt-Schermerhorn by Invisible Cities composer Christopher Cerrone, Six Settings for Solo Piano by local composer and LA Phil percussionist Joseph Pereira, and Donnacha Dennehy’s Stainless Staining. She’s particularly excited to play Dennehy’s music, which doesn’t get a lot of performances on the West Coast, she says.

Ray will also play the winning piece from their spring 2013 audience poll, a new initiative created for Piano Spheres’ 20th season. This poll allowed the audience to vote for one piece from a shortlist of pieces from the last twenty years for each pianist to perform again. When the audience voted for Ray’s own composition, The Waking, her reaction was one of incredulity. “I was shocked, stunned… I swear I didn’t stuff the ballot box!”

This modesty carries over into Ray’s account of how she first became involved in Piano Spheres, the brainchild of musicologist and pianist Leonard Stein. “I had just finished my doctorate, and Leonard just called me up one day and asked me to be a part of it.” She attributes much of Piano Spheres’ early success to the respect and “street cred” that Stein carried within the new music community. (At the time, Stein was also the music director of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute at USC, which did much to promote Schoenberg’s music and legacy in Los Angeles.)

Ray with Morton Subotnick and Leonard Stein

Ray with Morton Subotnick and Leonard Stein.

But even with Stein’s participation, Piano Spheres was a risky proposition at first, with the LA new music community being much smaller in those days. Ray vividly describes how things have changed in the past 20 years:

Back then, it was basically the [California] EAR Unit and Xtet in town, and those were the two main new music groups, and then there was the [LA Phil’s] Green Umbrella series, but there wasn’t that much going on, certainly not the unbelievable plethora of small venues that you see here everywhere today. There are so many new groups right now—for example, there’s Gnarwhallaby, and What’s Next Ensemble, and the Hear Now Festival, and all the stuff at Monk Space, and People Inside Electronics, and DC8—and that’s just a drop in the bucket. It just feels like the community’s grown, and it’s more vibrant, and it’s less dependent on big venues and established theories. There’s a lot more self-producing going on.

Part of that vibrancy is certainly due to pioneering groups like Piano Spheres, which started out with a similar DIY spirit. “When we first started out we didn’t have a board, we were just licking stamps and self-producing our own concerts,” Ray recalls. The series started out at the Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church of Pasadena, but their audiences quickly outgrew the space, and they soon moved to the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall, where they continue to host concerts today.

Piano Spheres

Piano Spheres (l to r) Mark Robson, Gloria Cheng, Leonard Stein, Vicki Ray, and Susan Svercek.
Photo by Betty Freeman.

Stein passed away in 2004, just before the series’ 10th anniversary, but by then it had enough structure and momentum to sustain itself. “As word got out, we started to get a lot of solicitations from pianists from all over the world, because there’s really no other series like this.” This allowed the series to host a rotating cast of guest artists from all over the world, a long list that includes Thomas Adès, Kathleen Supové, Christopher O’Riley, Ursula Oppens, Eric Huebner, Joanne Pearce Martin, and Liam Viney.
But as Ray says, “Leonard’s original mission was to showcase pianists from Los Angeles, so that has always been part of the mission. Our main new venture we’re starting is this Satellite Series, where we’re showcasing four younger pianists also from the Los Angeles area. We feel like we want to pass on the legacy that Leonard left us to the next generation.” The inaugural run of the Satellite Series will commence in 2015 with Steven Vanhauwaert, Richard Valitutto, Aron Kallay, and Nic Gerpe as the featured performers.

As for Ray, she has an eclectic range of things to keep her busy in the meantime. Her other performances in the past month have included a gig with jazz composer-improviser Wadada Leo Smith in Mexico City, and a performance with Aron Kallay as the Ray-Kallay Duo at the MicroFest Records Release Party, celebrating the album release of John Cage’s Ten Thousand Things, which earned Ray a Grammy nomination this past year.

When she goes on sabbatical from teaching at CalArts next year, Ray has a few other ideas for things in the works—“I can’t seem to stop starting projects,” she admits. She wants to get back into composing more, and dreams of commissioning a prepared piano concerto from John Luther Adams. She also hopes to start a new local concert series for art song, which would bring her closer to her classical roots as a performer, which she feels often gets overlooked:

You do get pigeonholed…I used to do tons of lieder recitals and traditional chamber music, but people tend to think of you one way, and what can you do? But they inform each other, so you want to keep your traditional sensibility, and your historical link to the past. When I was a student I did standard rep all the time. Now I think if it’s a great piece and I want to play it, I don’t care when it was written.

New England’s Prospect: The Agnosticism of Boston’s Equilibrium Concert Series

Boston's Equilibrium Concert Series

Waiting for the show, February 21, 2014.

Boston’s Equilibrium Concert Series, which started in 2011, has made entire seasons—not to mention an entire new music community—out of that most alchemical of compositional tricks: establishing a connection between two ideas simply by putting them next to each other. The organization opportunistically shifts its identity between composer collective and presenter, at times putting together made-to-measure programs of premieres, at times turning over the reins to friendly performers and groups who bring in their own repertoire and connections. Instead of a unified aesthetic, they end up with a multitude of enthusiasms. The idea that 21st-century new music is stylistically agnostic might be somewhere between a truism and an extrapolation, but EQ actually comes pretty close to that ideal.

Their concert on February 21—at the Central Square YMCA Theater in Cambridge, one of the area’s more elegantly ramshackle spaces—featured Boston Modern Brass. (The group also made an appearance on EQ’s 2012-13 season.) The program was spiked with examples of the group’s spoke-by-spoke connectivity. One of the performers—trumpeter Jason Huffman—is also one of EQ’s core organizers; three others—trumpeter Jonah Kappraff, hornist Yoni Kahn, and tubist Beth McDonald—also lend their talents to the EQ Ensemble, an as-big-as-it-needs-to-be group that gathers for the more composer-centric concerts. (Trombonist Paul Fleming rounds out the quintet.) Another EQ organizer, Aaron Jay Myers, had a piece premiered on the concert, which also included a contribution from Kahn.

The rest of the program had something of a throwback feel, built around a trio of old-school modernist works combining mixed-meter angles with chunky dissonances and nervous energy. What was interesting was how much the program’s 21st-century pieces seemed to channel similar vibes; it was almost as if the sheer choice of instrumentation allowed some atavistic, brass-based form of American once-upon-a-time-new music to again express itself. Coincidental or not, it was a reminder of how much fizz is still in that style—it might be retro, but the best of it never gets old.

And the old stuff was pretty good indeed. William Mayer’s 1965 Brass Quintet was the busiest, a dense hubbub of teletype Neoclassicism. Mayer’s catalog has ranged far and wide, stylistically speaking; the Quintet is tonal, but just barely, with an efficient use of effect. (The third movement, a toccata-scherzo in which the players seem determined to sabotage any hint of heroic brass—with mutes, with fluttertongued raspberries, with speed-bump rhythmic shifts—was especially fluent in that regard.)

The music of John Huggler, who died in 1993, seems ripe for rediscovery. I was surprised to find he doesn’t even rate a Grove entry. For years a professor at UMass-Boston, he spent a couple seasons in the ’60s as that rarest of birds, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s composer-in-residence. (One fruit of that has made it online.) Huggler’s Quintet for Brass Instruments, from 1963, was a real beauty, sinuous and austere: an opening movement that made compelling use of long tones in fast rhythms, an almost-fugue marked by stark unison passages, a “Mysterioso” wonderfully cast with a high tuba solo, a closing clutch of tight, cubist fanfares.

In between came Ralph Shapey’s marvelous grit: his Fanfares, composed in 1981, is three minutes of pure, unadulterated crunch. Shapey’s penchant for massiveness was out in full force—it’s kind of amazing how he could make the quintet sound so much bigger than it is, as if filming it from an extremely low angle—but so was his restless imagination: the clashes and clusters are refracted through all manner of mutes and voicings.

The concert opened with Counterpoint, a 2003 piece by Kahn —his first completed work, according to the program notes. It was an interesting mediation between busy modernism and easygoing post-minimalism. Its somewhat slow harmonic rhythm was translated into a density of attack: drones and pedal tones reiterated into an agitated stutter of short notes. Individual lines were overlaid with cross-traffic accents. Dissonant intervals came on a steady bed of fourths and fifths.

The one brand-new piece, Aaron Jay Myers’s FLUX, was, much of the time, an exploration of different kinds of homophony: first a series of repeated chords, then a division of the quintet into two factions (horn, trombone, and tuba in slow, moody cahoots, while the trumpets offer muted chatter), then a fluid lock-step chorale, then a return of the opening idea. (Myers’s program note linked the structure to a personal struggle and recovery; one could, in that light, hear those opening jitters transformed, lemons-to-lemonade style, into crackling positive energy behind the chorale’s cushion.)

The program’s one apparent outlier, Hans Abrahamsen’s Rundt Og Imellem (“Round and In-Between,” finished in 1976) seemed to visit from another concert, in both its European origin and its in-your-face simplicity and triadic tonality. Still, its rhythmic ideas were congenial to the program, its squared phrasing trimmed to odd numbers of beats, lending an off-kilter surrealism to its deliberate genericism. A cheery brass band marches through an Escher print; a bright fanfare drifts out of step with itself; a soft-edged legato turns more loping than lyrical. The piece makes the most of the most basic of formal contrasts, juxtaposed jump-cut style: that marching band tune interrupted by tuplet outbursts, those fanfares undercut with dark, droning pedals. Trumpet and horn pick up a triangle and bells, respectively, at the end, a pastoral touch genial and jarring at the same time. In fact, Myers’s currents and Abrahamsen’s clockwork formed a complement that, rhythmically speaking, encompassed the whole program. Where Abrahamsen’s mixed meters were subtractive, looping around faster than you might expect, Myers’s were more additive, which created its own layer of lacunae: the stop-and-go rhythms really did stop, noticeably, putting each phrase in its own frame.
Equilibrium’s mixed-meter programming gives every new music style its chance to have its say. The next few EQ concerts are like some kind of eclecticist’s fever dream: a solo glockenspiel concert from Trevor Saint; the debut concert of Trio Okho, three Boston new music percussion stars (Nick Tolle, Jeffrey Means, and Mike Williams) performing Xenakis, a new piece by Victoria Cheah, and Rick Burkhardt’s amazing Great Hymn of Thanksgiving; and a string quartet concert featuring a premiere from EQ organizer Stephanie Lubkowski alongside music by Zorn and Górecki. That’s a montage to make Eisenstein proud. Equilibrium Concert Series finds balance in variation.

Sounds Heard: Things You Already Know

It’s always exciting to find a “new” favorite piece of music or music maker, and when a genre’s emphasis is on the innovative, that perhaps lays the foundations for a particularly blinkered focus. I almost passed up the three discs below for that reason, because while they were new, I had covered these artists in some measure before and felt obliged to keep my ears moving. But then I heard Kamala Sakaram in her interview this month suggesting that there is so much to be gained by digging past the premiere, and I decided to apply that to my listening.

Once this idea slapped me in the face, Chris Campbell‘s Things You Already Know (poetically appropriate, no?) metaphorically hit the other cheek. In this case this was not music I already knew but rather Campbell playing around (as he explains in his CD or vinyl-accompanying note to the listener) with dialog across his own internal and external realities. While much music might be traced in one way or another to a similar root motivation, here the work wears its intention on its CD sleeve and it led me to consume the tracks as a sort of tour though the composer’s aural memory palace, several doors left temptingly unlocked and the drawers open for ready snooping. With the assistance of musicians drawn from various genre specialties in the Twin Cities and a colorful collection of unusual and/or processed instrumental timbres, it’s a rewarding journey—particularly Water Variations, with its exotic string instrument collection. Campbell himself sits at the piano at key points offering reflective commentary until the listener is beckoned to peek behind the next swaying curtain.

David T. Little’s Haunt of Last Nightfall was stuck in my head for nearly a month after our Spotlight interview, and it has taken up residence there yet again in anticipation of the commercial release of a recording on New Amsterdam (out today!). It’s not always comfortable sonic material to host in one’s ear. The history which Little explores through the music—the massacre at El Mozote, El Salvador in December 1981—draws on a full palette of extreme content stretching from horror to prayer. What particularly impresses me about this piece, however, is how rich and gripping an emotional experience Little, Third Coast Percussion, and guest musicians Eileen Mack, Mellissa Hughes, Andrew McKenna Lee, and Toby Driver are able to conjure—particularly in the percussion-only sections the work offers. A visceral reaction to a driving electric guitar is perhaps not an experience to brush aside, but it’s the timbral interplay of the various percussion sounds that bring a remarkable exploration of the events to light and one that won’t easily be shaken even after the last sounds fade.

Saxophonist Aaron Irwin is a bandleader whose projects sometimes catch my ear even before I realize his name is attached, but they tend to stick around in the rotation long enough for me to do my liner note research and get my credits straight. His latest release, Ordinary Lives, is sure to take up similar residence. In addition to Irwin on alto, this outing features Danny Fox (piano, Fender Rhodes), Sebastian Noelle (guitar), Thomson Kneeland (bass), and Greg Ritchie (drums), and the men are clearly well at home in one another’s company. The tracks are filled with too-easy-to-eat hooks, seductive gestures, and, well, regular injections of joyful lick playing that neatly keep things from getting tedious and ruining the party. It’s a warm and welcoming recording that quickly rewards attention.


New England’s Prospect: Boston Symphony Chamber Players Celebrate 50 Years

Boston Symphony Chamber Players, Randall Hodgkinson, piano

Boston Symphony Chamber Players, Randall Hodgkinson, piano
Photo by Hilary Scott

Musical institutions have the amnesiac pleasure of getting themselves birthday presents and still being surprised. On February 9, the Boston Symphony Chamber Players unwrapped the bulk of their 50th-anniversary loot: four commissioned pieces, premiered en masse. (Another commission, Sebastian Currier’s Parallel Worlds, will have its premiere in Arizona before coming to Boston in April.) That nearly doubles the group’s commissioned repertoire all at once; up until this year, only seven other pieces (going by the handy list of repertoire included in Sunday’s program) had been written for them. Then again, I suppose 50 is a plausibly sitcom-ish age for suddenly realizing that you’ve always wanted a lot of new toys.

And, then again, the Chamber Players have always been institutionally unusual. They were founded (as I learned from Jeremy Eichler) as a side effect of Tanglewood’s long flirtation with the automobile; Erich Leinsdorf wanted prelude concerts to give patrons an extra hour to deal with traffic and recruited some of the BSO’s principals to fill the bill. (The members are all still principals, with the exception of cellist Jules Eskin, the lone veteran of that 1964 lineup.) Those commissions are technically BSO commissions, funded by the same pool that keeps the orchestra intermittently current. So the birthday party is both a calendrical observation and a confirmation of the Players’ success—five commissions is a strong commitment from the parent company.
The four new pieces on Sunday’s concert were deliberately local—a couple of old familiar Bostonians (Gunther Schuller and Yehudi Wyner), and a couple of newer connections (Kati Agócs, who teaches at the New England Conservatory, and Hannah Lash, who graduated from Harvard). Agócs’s contribution, Devotion, for horn, harp, and string quintet, hovered in an area somewhere between chamber and orchestral music—one could imagine the strings, at times, blown up to a full symphonic complement. (It did warrant a conductor, outgoing BSO assistant Andris Poga.) The harp (Jessica Zhou) primes the piece with a healthy dose of glitter, a kind of harmonic respiration between diatonic and synthetic scales, under which the strings (Malcolm Lowe, Haldan Martinson, Steven Ansell, Eskin, and Ed Barker) provide a cushion; over it all, the horn (James Sommerville) sweeps and soars, much of it haute-contre high. The middle section was a contrast in almost every way, triggered by Sommerville shifting from the highest part of the horn’s range to the lowest, one snarling pedal tone after another; the viola tiptoes around a melody; the violins and cello stalk soft chords; harp and double-bass keep a hesitant tick-tock. The horn rises back up to the top of its range, an A-section recapitulation, and a wheels-on-the-tarmac unison ending.

Boston Symphony Chamber Players perform Hannah Lash's Three Shades Without Angles

Boston Symphony Chamber Players perform Hannah Lash’s Three Shades Without Angles
Photograph by Hilary Scott

Lash’s Three Shades Without Angles also put Zhou’s harp front and center, flanked by Debussyian flute (Elizabeth Rowe) and viola (Ansell). The harp part started as an exercise in stamina, a moto perpetuo ride the other instruments hopped onto, all mixed meters and crossed accents; the effect was something like the world’s most dreamy and delicate action movie. Then the harp abruptly turned taciturn, offering occasional punctuation for flute and viola recitatives, before laying down arpeggios over which the other two strung a loping, wide-interval melody, hopping from stone to stone across a flowing stream. Like Devotion, Three Shades had that 21st-century sense of moving flats and bright outlines—sharp and deliberate section breaks, a constantly churning counterpoint that, however, keeps stirring through a seemingly single harmonic color (in this case, a higher-overtone, dominant-seventh plus sharp-9 and 11 sort of shimmer). Both pieces had an almost Vermeer-like polish: tightly framed, smoothly varnished vignettes of carefully modulated luminosity.

Where Agócs and Lash used controlled brushwork, Schuller and Wyner opted for more freewheeling lines. Schuller, 88, is a more frail presence than he used to be, but his music—on Sunday, it was Games, a compact divertimento for wind and string quintets—keeps doubling down on musical and intellectual energy. UNESCO has a program where they periodically designate a certain craft or tradition as (and I love this phrase) an Intangible Culture Heritage; if I was in charge of making that list, I would be sorely tempted to include Gunther Schuller’s late-period gonzo stream-of-consciousness style. Every piece of his I’ve heard over the past few years—his Four Vignettes, the Piano Trio No. 3, Dreamscape—is the product of a deep, singular, and probably inimitable reserve of skills and experiences being rummaged through with a compulsively entertaining raconteur’s disdain for restraint or the unities. Games is dense, mutable fun. The opening, a chattering overlap of conflicting tuplets, soon gives way to an entire midway of ideas: a Stravinskian ostinato stuck in its own groove; a burlesque quote of Ravel (the Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, transformed into something gleefully ignoble and unsentimental), whisked away behind some disjointed pointillism; a slashing, slapstick ending swiped from Mozart’s Musical Joke. Along the way, Schuller has a lot of fun with the sheer timbre of dissonance, odd combinations of instruments, and intervals that, on at least a half-dozen occasions, had me half out of my seat, trying to parse what strange alchemy had created such an unexpected sonority. Games was about half the length of any of the other new pieces, but it contained at least twice as much music. (Oboist John Ferrillo, clarinetist William Hudgins, and bassoonist Richard Svoboda joined the crowd; Poga again conducted.)

Boston Symphony Chamber Players perform Gunther Schuller's Games

Boston Symphony Chamber Players perform Gunther Schuller’s Games
Photo by Hilary Scott

Wyner’s piece was nowhere near as manic as Schuller’s bag of tricks, but it, too, ended up covering a significant amount of ground. Into the Evening Air put a traditional ensemble (a wind quintet) into a traditional mood (nocturnal, in both susurrant and serene varieties), but deviated from the path just enough to keep the ear continually attuned. Both the busy, twittering opening and the languid dissonance it turned into nodded toward other staples of the repertoire (Samuel Barber’s Summer Music came to mind more than once), but only from a distance. In an analogous way, Wyner paid heed to customary quintet allegiances—flute and oboe, horn and bassoon, clarinet as a free agent—but then, in a section of passed-around solos, used some deft play with range to expand and shift those alliances: horn and bassoon going up into their higher notes to let low flute join in, oboe going down to its lowest tones to make common cause with the horn and bassoon, the flute and bassoon suddenly stalking about in wide-spaced octaves, the other three instruments slipping into the gap. Into the Evening Air moves from idea to idea with a kind of diaristic nonchalance. The conversation slows almost to a frozen stasis before Wyner turns one last nifty corner: a soft chord that fades into a single clarinet note, which then dovetails into a quietly questioning call from the flute.

Boston Symphony Chamber Players perform Yehudi Wyner's Into the Evening Air

Boston Symphony Chamber Players perform Yehudi Wyner’s Into the Evening Air
Photo by Hilary Scott

The group surrounded their bounty of novelty with a pair of turn-of-the-last-century works that extended the locavore theme—more New England composers—but also encompassed the program’s contrasts: mood and structure, formal and feisty, male and female. Ansell, Ferrillo and pianist Randall Hodgkinson opened the show with a lush and equable mezzotint reading of Charles Loeffler’s Two Rhapsodies. Hodgkinson was back, joined by Rowe, Martinson, Ansell, and Eskin, for the finale, Amy Beach’s brawny op. 67 Piano Quintet, in a performance that made a pretty good nomination for the Quintet’s admission to the Academy of the Underrated. (The Quintet’s Adagio espressivo movement, certainly, is a stretch of late-Romantic mastery that can take its place alongside anything at all.) Give the Boston Symphony Chamber Players their due as hosts and hostesses: the party favors were as good as the presents.

Sounds Heard: Keeril Makan–Afterglow

Afterglow cover
Keeril Makan
Afterglow (Mode 257)
Performed by ICE: Eric Lamb, flutes; Joshua Rubin, clarinets, James Austin Smith, oboe; Gareth Flowers, trumpet; Erik Carlson, violin; Kivie Cahn-Lipman, cello; Randall Zigler, double bass; Nuiko Wadden, harp; Cory Smythe, piano; Nathan Davis, percussion; Erik Carlson and Adam Sliwinski, conductors.

It is always a pleasure to encounter music that serves as a reminder of some basic creative ideas: that music is a physical thing, connected to the body and to breath; that simplicity is often the most satisfying option; that the present moment and all that it holds is important. All of these notions are present in composer Keeril Makan’s latest release on Mode Records, Afterglow, a selection of chamber music and solo works performed by International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE).

In an effort to listen with ears as widely open as possible, I always do a first pass on a recording without reading the liner notes or considering biographical details about the artist(s) involved in any way (barring past information that I may already know). Although Robert Kirzinger’s liner notes and Makan’s New York Times essay about the link between his struggles with depression and his creative life are both excellent and well worth reading, I appreciated that my first listening experience of Afterglow was uncolored by extra input. Either way, the six compositions featured on this album communicated a strikingly beautiful sense of clarity and openness in both form and content.

The opening track, Mercury Songbirds, is scored for a Pierrot plus percussion ensemble. It opens with a smooth-as-glass, sine wave-like tone performed by clarinet, which is quickly thickened by additional long tones and peppered with short interruptions over top that build up and abruptly return the instruments to the previous spare texture. While there is a subtle and nearly constant drone emanating from the piano, percussive sounds performed inside the piano play a prominent role in marking the start and stop points of the more active material.

After the seven-minute mark, all of the instruments join together in a short, plaintive song that, while ultimately returning once again to slower, sparser content, causes a transformation in which all pitch content is raised to a higher register. At 9:25 we experience the first bit of silence in the work; the drone cuts off briefly, leaving gentle chords to make footprints of their own for a short time. Almost without noticing, the drone fades back in underneath the chord progression and is eventually overtaken by piano and long string tones that are abruptly cut off by a final wooden smack on the body of the piano.

Husk for flute, oboe, and harp is a more “in your face” affair—a study in contrast from start to finish. It begins with short yet dramatic harp gestures and flute jet tones, but still sports plenty of sustained pitches, many of which are performed by the oboe and set squarely in the instrumental foreground. At three minutes, an instrumental “panic attack” breaks in of twirling oboe, brash slaps, and glissandi from the harp and piano (played with plenty of fingernail action). This frantic outburst is quickly replaced by intensely quiet material, such as the sound of hands rubbing across harp strings and breath tones from the flute, made all the more dramatic when placed against the material before.

Afterglow for solo piano revels in the sonic landscape of the instrument’s harmonies and overtones that are created through a limited palette of harmonic and rhythmic material. Opening with one repeated note that keeps cycling around, it blooms with additional pitches and slightly altered rhythmic gestures. The progression of events is quite slow, so when new notes and different registers come into play, the sonic effect is fresh and surprising. The pace picks up just a bit at about eight minutes, but by the end it has slowed back down to the original pulse. According to the liner notes, the timing of the piece is quite flexible, allowing for differences between both instrument and performance space; I hope that many pianists will take up this work and bask in its sound world as much as the composer obviously has.

The other solo work on the album, Mu for prepared violin, also has a somewhat flexible score that allows the performer to explore the nature of unexpected and/or changeable timbres that result from her or his instrument. This close microphone recording puts the listener practically inside the violin; the proximity of the delicate yet complex sonorities of bowing strings prepared with paper clips creates a feeling of vulnerability and unpredictability. The effect is like the sound of slightly labored deep breathing.
Becoming Unknown for flute/bass flute, clarinet/bass clarinet, trumpet, and double bass, follows a fitful opening of melodic fragments with a plaintive melody that is, after a short time, smacked to a halt by double bass. The material afterwards features a combination of chordal material, textural exploration, and snippets of melodic content, both compressed into short gestures and stretched out into long tones.

The final work on the disc, titled After Forgetting, is a big change, as the biggest, brightest (in terms of instrumentation), and most accessible composition of the set. A pulse is established right away that continues throughout the work, but the music never rushes—all of Makan’s work exhibits a sense of patience, even at its most frenetic. Bright, open orchestration is also a hallmark of Makan’s music, with every sonority fully present in its own space, and After Forgetting is particularly lush and engaging in this regard, with vibraphone adding a metallic sparkle.

What I find most notable in this music is its complete lack of pretension; there is nothing flashy or forced, nothing trying too hard. It’s an unexpected kind of exciting music, of the fiercely quiet sort, that will greatly please discerning ears.

Sounds Heard: Chris Wild–Abhanden

Abhanden (Navona Records) is the debut release from Chicago-based cellist Chris Wild. Wild is a mainstay of the Chicago contemporary music scene; he has been a core member of Ensemble Dal Niente since its founding and is an active conductor and music educator. His onstage presence is intense and contemplative, so it comes as no surprise that Abhanden presents six works which, in radically different ways, explore intimate and interior worlds. The recording is expertly crafted by Wild and his co-producers, engineer Dan Nichols and composer Eliza Brown, and features excellent performances from Dal Niente’s pianist Mabel Kwan, percussionist Greg Beyer, violinist J. Austin Wulliman, and soprano Amanda deBoer Bartlett.

The album’s first work is Chinary Ung’s Spiral (1987) for cello, piano, and percussion. Ung, a Cambodia-born composer whose music draws on (and works to preserve) the musical traditions of his native country, has written a series of pieces for various instrumentations, all sharing the title Spiral. In this, the first piece of the series, Ung frequently places the cellist in the traditionally virtuosic, singing role of soloist. Wild’s approach to the material is soaring, lyrical, and bold. Pianist Mabel Kwan and percussionist Greg Beyer contribute dynamic and exciting performances; they create a rich, dark, percolating atmosphere which can spring to rhythmically ferocious life at any moment. It is hard to imagine Ung’s enchanting music finding finer advocates than these. Each moment of the piece’s heart-stopping final sequence is painstakingly shaped and colored by the trio, and the cello’s final note seems to both swallow all of time, and be swallowed by it.

The next track is Claude Vivier’s 1975 Piece pour violoncelle et piano. (Vivier was a promising French-Canadian composer whose career was cut short by his murder at age 34.) With its dramatic passages of extended recitative, the piece calls to mind great chamber works by Ravel and Debussy. Vivier, like his French predecessors, was interested in the musical cultures of Asia (in this case, Balinese gamelan music). The piece, written for a Canadian performance competition, walks the line between celebrating cellistic virtuosity and taking the formal and harmonic risks we might expect from late-20th century music. Wild and Kwan’s performance is sensitively timed and supremely patient, allowing the work’s material to sparkle as it unfolds at a glacial pace.
Chicago composer Daniel Dehaan’s If it encounters the animal, it becomes animalized begins calmly enough, in an ether of harmonics. But then an arresting groan, as if from the mouth of a living creature, emerges and startles the listener. This is the first signal that the piece, a virtuosic tour-de-force for solo cello, will indeed engage the instrument’s “animal nature.” Dehaan’s piece places the animal (the human performer) in a many-sided physical relationship with the cello and all the raw materials of which it is made. The recording and production work is particularly excellent here, capturing Wild’s full-bodied performance and successfully creating a three-dimensional sonic image of the cello itself that the listener feels she can almost touch. The closeness of the microphones leaves us delightfully uncertain whether Wild’s audible breathing is a part of the notated score or not.
If it encounters the animal… is an excellent representation of the creativity that can result from long-term collaboration between performer and composer. Each cello sound seems to have been carefully and collaboratively developed. The piece feels so multi-layered that one could easily forget it is an unaccompanied cello work. It evokes both an animal–whips, groans, breaths, rasps, slaps–and the windswept chasm in which the animal might manage to survive. This recording is yet another reason why Dehaan has become one of the most exciting young composers in the city.

Andrew Greenwald describes his music as being concerned with “issues of pixelated sound material viewed at increasing resolutions.” His Jeku II for violin and cello, performed here by Wild with J. Austin Wulliman, demands a wide technical range and interpretive daring. The duo delivers a focused and dramatic performance; there’s particular flair in the way the piece’s long silences amp up the tension before another burst of activity. Wild and Wulliman execute Greenwald’s palate of extreme sounds with a combination of playfulness and precision. Every whoosh, clatter, and scramble sparkles in contrast to the surrounding sounds. Wulliman seems to know the dimensions and density of each centimeter of his bow; in one passage, he creates an arresting series of percussive clicks with the movement of what seems like one “tooth” of the bow hair. It’s a clear-sighted performance that demonstrates why Wild and Wulliman are such successful longtime collaborators.

Marcos Balter’s elegiac memoria, for solo cello, shows off Wild’s strengths as an introspective performer. Balter has written subtle and slow-moving shifts of timbre that make the simple addition of a second pitch feel magical. As the piece spins in what feels like one never-ending note, there are haunting glimpses of harmonics that seem to ascend and descend from other dimensions. The recording quality is again excellent, embracing the three-dimensional aliveness of the cello itself.

Eliza Brown’s Ich ben der welt abhanden gekommen–a work for cello, soprano, and electronics inspired by Gustav Mahler’s setting of the same Ruckert text–was, for this listener, the most fascinating and revelatory on the disc. Brown describes her music as exploring “culturally defined elements of musical meaning and syntax,” and succeeds wonderfully here. This is art song that alternates between feeling like Mahler and feeling like Mahler played through a radio on the moon. Brown makes subtle and powerful use of electronic tracks, which move in mysterious waves as Bartlett opens the piece with wide-vibrating long tones and a melodic line of Mahlerian scope. Brown’s setting often finds the cello and soprano in intimate interaction, trading off unisons that blend seamlessly into one another. The electronics are a highly dynamic third character: sometimes tender and lush, lending superhuman strength to the cello; other times self-consciously machine-like, crackling with cold, post-apocalyptic static.
Abhanden offers the listener excellent renderings of work by three of Chicago’s most interesting voices, as well as three fascinating works by composers less often heard in the city–yet each one manages to project a sense of musical intimacy. Abhanden confirms that Wild is not only an exciting performer to watch, but also a wise programmer and collaborator. The album manages a delicate balance between being both a fascinating portrait of Wild himself and an intimate map of the collaborative community in which he works.