Tag: chamber music

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.

Aperio: Indie-A-Go-Go


Aperio performs at the Hobby Center in Houston
Photo by Trish Badger

Aperio–Music of the Americas is an arts organization with a broad vision. “Dedicated to preserving chamber music literature through performances that showcase contemporary composers from the Americas,” Aperio curates concerts that one night might feature contemporary chamber music from the U.S. (like the one I attended last weekend) and focus on the music of Nicaragua the next. Certainly each of these countries have varied styles within their borders, but the change in focus from one region to the next over the course of a season helps Aperio track and understand trends on this side of the pond as distinct from concert series that include European repertoire. Michael Zuraw has been at the helm of Aperio for many years and, in addition to being a spectacular pianist, he has also consistently assembled one crack team of musicians after another to achieve his vision.
In his introduction to the evening, a program billed as “Indie-A-Go-Go–Vibrant Alternative American Works,” Zuraw indicated that some in the audience might connect with various musical references from the rock world that would show up throughout the night, but I think that the youngest might actually get more excited about hearing the opening work of the show, John Mackey’s Breakdown Tango. This work served as the source material for his orchestral work Red Line Tango which, in turn, became one of his most well-known wind ensemble pieces—a work played by many college and high school groups around the country.

Breakdown Tango began with driving, syncopated motor rhythms played by violinist Chloé Trevor and accented in the piano by Zuraw. Cellist Patrick Moore supplemented the texture as clarinetist Christian Schubert played the main melodic fragment of the opening of work. This largely chunky and visceral opening gave way to a lyrical breather before calling out the tango namesake in broad strokes across the whole ensemble, though primarily in the violin and clarinet. A brief return to the opening material brought the work to a close.

As the concert went on it became clear that the show was a marriage ceremony of sorts, with some things old, new, borrowed, and blue. Following the Mackey were the “borrowed” selections: “Three Songs,” which are arrangements of Radiohead tunes by Christopher O’Riley (of From the Top fame). For both composer and performer, it is tricky to avoid the hotel lounge vibe that solo piano versions of rock tunes might yield, but pianist Brendan Kinsella did a great job breathing life into arrangements that, in lesser hands, might deflate ever so slightly. Closing out the first half was Carter Pann’s Piano Trio No.1 (“Nicky’s Trio”) which featured some of the best orchestration and pacing of the evening. In four movements, it was arguably the piece that walked and talked most like a classical duck, but that characteristic worked most solidly in its favor. The opening movement, “Cowboys,” was packed with big open sonorities. High and lonesome in the beginning, it popped into virtuosic gear with giddy-up rhythms and virtuosic lines traded deftly between violinist Kirsten Yon and cellist Daniel Saenz. This tight communication continued into the second movement, which started in a similar vein as the first, though much more subdued. Here the energy of the violin and cello was tempered and more space appeared for Kinsella’s piano work. A gem of a third movement (perhaps less than 60 seconds and somehow recalling “What a Fool Believes” by the Doobie Brothers; a connection that surely must have only been in my head) acted as a brief palate cleanser for a fiery final movement. Following a brief intermission, two works by Michael Torke brought us something “old” and something “blue,” though not in that order. Torke’s Blue Pacific for solo piano is indicative of much of his work in this century. Clean and simple, the work started for all intents and purposes like a pop piano ballad centered largely in the middle range of the instrument and only venturing out by and by. As the work progressed, virtuosic passages and a more adventurous harmonic language lent depth and complexity to the initial melodic material. This was followed by the “old” piece of the night, Torke’s Yellow Pages from 1985. I haven’t heard this work in years and two things struck me as I listened: 1) I’d forgotten how hard the tune is and 2) I still don’t hear Van Halen’s “Jump” as a reference or source material. Not that the ensemble’s performance showed the former; in fact, they looked very comfortable and their playing was quite assured. I suppose the latter comes out in the accented upbeats, but to me it sounds like a piece all its own. As the ensemble flipped through the tonal phonebook, I couldn’t help but wonder what it was like to hear this in the mid-’80s–the bright harmonic language and motor rhythms still part of the preceding ten years, but the phrasing and harmonic rhythm part of the relatively new post-minimal sensibility. Though not as ancient as, say, the Mac [1], the piece certainly holds up and was quite well received.

And last but not least, the “new”est piece by the youngest composer of the night, D.J. Sparr’s The Glam Seduction, closed out the evening. Starting out with a harmonically reimagined but structurally spot-on arrangement of the opening gesture of Eddie Van Halen’s seminal guitar solo “Eruption” (including devastating introductory thunder drums courtesy of percussionist Luke Hubbley), this Van Halen reference was laid bare. No coy rhythms here. The piece segues quickly from the opening material to a rising line shared among Moore, Trevor, flutist Judy Dines, and bass clarinetist Sean Krissman. This heads-up collective motive returns several times during the work and serves as a chorus of sorts between solo sections for each instrument. Each player in turn does their best metal impression, though I think if the piece had a less evocative title [2] (and performance notes that obscured the origin of the musical material) it’s quite possible that the “metal” elements would be less obvious. In fact, there are many tender and quiet moments and sections throughout the work which set off the wilder and more provocative core and do give the ears a rest before things are cranked up once again. The piece goes out with a bang, as well as a huge swaggering coda that all but invites the audience (as Zuraw suggested in his introduction to the work) to break out their lighters and put their horns up.
Though I write for the most part about the USA (with a few exceptions) under the auspices of NewMusicBox, I’m interested to see what Aperio does to represent the rest of this continent and its southern counterpart. I’ll admit that despite my classical guitar background (of which a great deal of repertoire, contemporary and otherwise, is derived from Central and South American composers) I tend to think about contemporary music from an American or American/European perspective. Perhaps that’s simply my upbringing and education, or maybe I need to get out of the house a bit more. Either way, if this concert is indicative of the level of curation and performance that Aperio provides, I suspect there’s a whole world of music out there that they can show me.


1. Along those lines, it seems that the iPad on the piano (and the stage tech who has to carry it and a tiny new pedal out before the show starts) has officially replaced the Macbook on the stage in many new music concerts. Like all trends in music history these lines of demarcation are not always clear, so I suppose time will tell.

2. I’m by no means suggesting it should. I was seduced by this same glam in high school, and played tortured versions of “Eruption” until my parents couldn’t take it anymore.

Sounds Heard: Duo Scordatura, The Act of Loving You, and Ritual

Three very different albums showed up on my desk recently. One came from a friend, another from a friend of a friend, and the last from out of the blue, and the wildly varied music reminded me of what NewMusicBox is all about: exploding the idea that contemporary American music is any one thing.
Duo Scordatura

Violinist Nicholas Leh Baker and violist Faith Magdalene Jones form the Houston-based chamber group Duo Scordatura. Their eponymous debut album is the result of collaborations with all the composers featured on the album and each of the works came from their ongoing commissioning project.

Jordan Kuspa’s Beneath the Magma starts out with quietly growling unisons glissing and whining wider and wider into small turns. High energy, quasi-Balkan (or maybe real Balkan?) rhythms evolve from these opening gestures, populating alternating odd time signatures. While not straight-up tonal, the piece is centered in this ballpark for the most part and serves as a strong opening to the album. Robert Garza’s Ill-Tuned Illusions is one of the two works that reflects the duos namesake. Here the violin is tuned G D A# E and viola C G D# A, and the extra tension on the instruments can be heard in the work. A series of truncated vignettes, the piece is almost cartoon-like in its extreme changes of mood and texture. This is not meant pejoratively and, while there are a number of disparate sections, it certainly holds together quite well.

Jack Benson’s Tightrope Sonata is in two movements, and the first features long lines, each instrument having a turn at shaping them. Long soliloquies traded between the players merge into a languid dialogue, the back and forth spiraling upward in register before returning to material reminiscent of the opening. The second movement comes out guns blazing with its muscular jetés across double-stopped lower strings. Throughout the movement, one player plays chordal material in the chunky double-stop vein while the other lays out melodic material above. There are larger, more distinct sections, some of which have enough character to possibly warrant their own movements.

George Heathco’s Turbine features a Q&A between the two instruments that quickly overlap and become a sort of hockety canon starting in the lower registers and ascending by and by as the piece develops. A bright harmonic tonal center sways from dark to light and back again, as an ostinato in the viola plays against double stops in the violin. Pizz moments make their way into this trading texture, one that never gets too busy but always feels full and focused. This leads to a more legato section followed by a reductive ending in which a long phrase played between the instruments gets pared away until there is nothing left. Alexandra T. Bryant’s All True Passion Comes Out Of Anguish begins with a single keening line drawn out and punctuated with pizz. Glissando on the viola begins to break up the call while gentle dips in the violin mark the start of a new section, one in which arguably brighter harmonic content prevails. Chords long held by the violin are coaxed upward by sharp stabs in the viola, which upon dying away make way for a new and welcome texture of light arpeggiation from the violin and slowly gliding double stops in the viola. The arpeggiation moves into the realm of harmonics and dies away at the closing of the work. A final work by Benson, Fringe, provides an approachable and visceral close to a spectacular debut by the Houston duo.

Odessa Chen and the Invisible Stories Ensemble—The Act of Loving You

Odessa Chen’s chamber-folk EP The Act of Loving You is certainly an album of its time. Chen’s lyrical content and vocal delivery would fit comfortably in the pop rotation, though the former is more richly varied than much of that rotation and the latter has a breadth of character that outshines the average pop singer. Accompanying Chen are nine seasoned classical musicians and a composer/arranger.  (Full disclosure: the last is my friend Max Stoffregen.) The Act of Loving You has four charming tracks, each with their own character but wonderfully connected as well. The first thing that struck me about the opening song, “Our Hearts Boom Boom, was the distinctly different mic positions and distances between the vocal parts and the instrumental arrangements. Chen’s breathy vocal treatment is largely in line with typical pop production (the reverb is lush but not over the top) while the instruments are somewhat drier and more present. Delicate, intricate, and linear, the largely polyphonic arrangements set the piece apart from a pop track simply sweetened with orchestral instruments, though I admit that I missed the homophony a little bit in the choruses where, in pop, all things are tutti. Just a little.

In “Spring Comes On” a less rhythmically driven texture dominates. Filigree flute lines play around piano and bassoon while seagull strings serve to fill the space. The rhythmic activity does ramp up towards the end of the track, but the piece continues to float along by and large. “Objects May be Closer” begins with guitar and continues with a pulsing texture which at first blush is quite conventional. However, as the piece progresses and is overtaken by the orchestral instruments, one can hear the possibilities this sort of treatment has both in terms of density as well as timbre. Frankly, the pop world has no shortage of timbral possibilities, and that embarrassment of riches certainly plays a role in too many overly simplified broad-stroke arrangements. Here a strong understanding of each instrument and its timbral characteristics works strongly in favor of emphasizing the lyric at times, as well simply matching the quality of Chen’s voice, occasionally fusing the voice and instruments into a single entity.

The title track finally brings the homophony that I personally craved in the preceding arrangements while retaining the timbral matching of “Objects May be Closer.” While still floating along like “Spring Comes On,” “The Act of Loving You” is somehow bigger and thicker in spots, and when the piece ends like an indrawn breath, one is certainly left wanting more.

David Dominique—Ritual

David Dominique’s album Ritual reminds me of the best parts of the tradition of “rock band plus horns,” albeit with violin, flute, and flugabone in this case. The ten tracks feature four “Rituals” in spots one, three, seven, and nine, the first of which was salvaged from an opera and reworked from the original in which the piece acted as a sardonic fanfare for Saddam Hussein. As Dominique explained it to me:

The four “Ritual” tracks are all tied together by an emphasis on cellular repetition. In Ritual 1/BDB, that repetition gets a bit of development. Ritual 2/Dirge has a long chord progression that repeats once with repetitions in the way Andrew Lessman is improvising (not all exactly cellular). Ritual 3/Hostage overtly repeats almost the same material six times in a row, with small variations at the end of the “phrase.” And Ritual 4/Release takes an opening series of motives and deconstructs and varies them through processes of literal cellular repetition followed by a motivic group improvisation.

While the album is by no means derivative, listeners of a certain vintage will pick up on Zappa and Waits, while others may hear elements of Morphine and early Mr. Bungle channeled through Dominique’s tight arrangements. The album has a dirty, visceral quality, and while there is no story per se, there is a quasi-narrative forward motion—kind of like Zorn’s “Naked City,” without the hyperkinetic/schizophrenic arrangements and vocals.

In addition to the eponymous tracks, highlights include Golden Retriever, with its wandering pizzicato strings and lowing tenor sax, and Mulatto Shuffle, which marches in on its namesake before shuffling off, and last but not least, Drunk Hump, which sounds like the end of the night, no doubt. The album is very evocative, totally begs live performance, and to my ear lends itself to additional elements of theater and dance. Dominique’s performing contribution to the album is on flugabone on all ten tracks, and my only criticism is that with an album with a vibe like this, if you play a flugabone, you should name one of your tunes after it. Ritual 5, anyone?

Sounds Heard: Some American Albums

In the wake of the many “Best of 2013” lists floating around, I wanted to highlight some recent album releases worthy of your time and attention. I didn’t select them for this reason, but it occurs to me that they each say something interesting and distinct about what it means to make American music right now.
William Winant—Five American Percussion Pieces (Poon Village Records)

Winant has been a champion of contemporary percussion music for decades and can boast a personal connection to most of the composers represented on this album—Lou Harrison, Michael Byron, Alvin Curran, and James Tenney. This is a fascinating snapshot of mid-to-late 20th-century American percussion music, including pieces as early as Harrison’s Song of Quetzalcoatl (1941) and as recent as Curran’s Bang Zoom (1995), with works from the 1970s by Byron and Tenney filling in the gaps. The recordings themselves span many years, too—Byron’s Tracking I was recorded in 1976, while Tenney’s Never Having Written a Note for Percussion was recorded earlier this year. Taken together, these works lend the album the feeling of a retrospective in miniature, spanning most of Winant’s prolific career as a performer.

Song of Queztacoatl is the lone ensemble piece, and a curiously strident one for Harrison. It alternates between aggressive sections driven by unpitched percussion—tom-toms, bass drum, an insistent snare drum—and more melodious passages inhabited by bell-like muted brake drums, glasses, and cowbells. The Willie Winant Percussion Group (Todd Manley, David Rosenthal, Daniel Kennedy, and Winant) really captures the feverish energy here, and they play with an astonishing unity of purpose—if not for the many layers going on, you might be forgiven for mistaking this for a solo work.

Byron’s Trackings I for four metallophones toys with density; clangorous textures elide into skittering runs and back again. Curran’s Bang Zoom for 13 tuned cowbells immediately conjures up Balinese gamelan music, but without the frantic pace and tempo shifts. Winant maintains a steady, resolute tempo here, bringing out the emergent melodic patterns with incredible clarity.
Tenney’s Never Having Written a Note for Percussion is a bit of an anomaly here, consisting of a single tam-tam roll that crescendoes and diminuendos over the course of nine minutes. Again, Winant’s patience and precision gives the piece a magnificent arc, as disparate layers of sound from the tam-tam emerge and recede one by one.

The record concludes with another Lou Harrison piece, Solo to Anthony Cirone for tenor bells. It is understated, tantalizingly brief, and a perfect epigram for the album as a whole. One striking thing about the entire collection is its strong focus on melodic writing (with the exception of the Tenney). Running counter to prevailing stereotypes, it makes a strong case for melody as a central concern of 20th century percussion music, and Winant is an ideal ambassador for this message here.

Scott Worthington—Even the Light Itself Falls (Populist Records)

Scott Worthington’s Even the Light Itself Falls also looks back to the 20th century in a way, recalling the sparse, gentle textures of Morton Feldman’s music. Scored for clarinet, percussion, and double bass, Worthington’s piece unfolds at a remarkably patient pace—the bass does not even enter until several minutes in. The ensemble et cetera (Curt Miller, clarinet; Dustin Donahue, percussion; Worthington, double bass) plays with noteworthy restraint and control here. Miller’s playing is the most immediately ear-catching, with plaintive yet precise variations in vibrato. Nearly an hour and a half long, it is tempting to put this album on as background music, but the rewards for active listening are plentiful as well.

Various Artists – Rounds (the wulf. records)
Purchase directly from the wulf. records
There have been countless free concerts of experimental music at the wulf., a local Los Angeles venue. Rounds is the first release on the organization’s recently launched recording label, and it’s a very interesting choice for a first album. As the title implies, each composition is in fact a round, a melody that overlaps with itself. Of course, this immediately conjures up memories of nursery rhymes, but while many of these pieces do trade on a certain childlike simplicity, the composers also find diversity and depth in these limitations. Most tracks are a capella, though occasionally an instrument or two will double a line for extra support. There are bluesy inflections in Daniel Corral’s Your Storm, raucous nonsense syllables in Eric KM Clark’s Rhythmic Round, clever numerology in Jessica Catron’s Four 3 And, ominous chromaticism in Larry Polansky’s Scarlet Tanager, and so on.

The performances feature a beautifully heterogenous mix of trained and untrained voices, giving individual lines a timbral uniqueness that adds both clarity and character. It also connects the experimental tradition to folk music traditions—in particular, it reminds me of the Sacred Harp tradition of choral singing in the American South in its rawness and realness.

All Venues Great and Small

Kevin Puts

Kevin Puts
Photo by Henry Fair

Whenever I attend a concert at the 2,900-seat Bass Concert Hall in Austin, I like to stand up a few minutes before the show starts and have a quick look around. Before moving to the Long Center several years back, Bass was the home of the Austin Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble whose ticket sales managed to put more than a respectable dent in the available seating chart. However, on other performance occasions the balconies can be sparsely populated, and so it was here that my eyes rested minutes before the downbeat of the University of Texas Symphony Orchestra’s most recent concert. A Wednesday night offering at the close of the semester could easily be all tumbleweeds out in the house, but the UTSO doesn’t mess around, and the premier of Kevin Puts’s new work, How Wild the Sea, was enough to all but fill the house.

Puts is no stranger to Austin. He was a faculty member in the composition department at UT prior to his appointment at Peabody, and he has previously worked with other members of the Austin arts community—including last year’s collaboration with Conspirare. How Wild the Sea was the result of a commission from Texas Performing Arts, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra Society, City Music Cleveland Chamber Orchestra, ProMusica Chamber Orchestra of Columbus, and the Naples Philharmonic, with additional support provided to Texas Performing Arts by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. As part of a three-year initiative, the Texas Performing Arts commissioning project has yielded new works from John Luther Adams, Dan Welcher, and a forthcoming Nico Muhly commission, as well as residencies by eighth blackbird and Brooklyn Rider. When asked to contribute a concerto to this list, Puts’s first thought was to write something for the Miro String Quartet, UT’s quartet-in-residence and for whom he wrote the work Credo. As such, Puts’s new work is a concerto grosso of sorts, which is a bit of a risk even for a Pulitzer winner who, one might assume, can write his own ticket. Puts is well known for his engaging and approachable music, but the market for this particular arrangement is, arguably, modest. Though largely a logistical issue (how easily do you fit a quartet’s touring schedule in with an orchestra’s yearly offerings?) another concern is, shall we say, positional? The Miro stood for the entire performance, and though a standing group is not unprecedented, it’s certainly unconventional and could be a tricky thing on a tour, not to mention having to haul around a big box on which to place the cellist. I saw the Miro and Shanghai quartets placed in an unconventional configuration last year, and while both groups rose to the challenge it’s always a risk to alter the fundamental workings of a chamber group. So, how’d it work out?

Great. It was a truly fantastic piece.

Not just “solid” or “attractive” or some such vague terminology, but really, really great. The work was based on reflections Puts had after seeing footage of a Japanese man sitting helpless on the roof of his house as it was carried away by the tsunami of 2011. Representing the elderly man, the Miro began the piece alone with interlocking minor scales falling quietly through rising arpeggios. This delicate texture was eventually picked up and overtaken by the orchestra, the sense of proportional change quite stunning and made more palpable by a subtle but distinct harmonic modulation. The pace of the work increased and was marked by brass and percussion providing a bed for a return of the quartet, this time with a peppering of sixteenth notes. The second movement seemed less directly related to the suggested narrative of the first and abandoned its formal parry and thrust. Emerging attaca from the first, the quartet and orchestra traded fours seamlessly, flying along at a breakneck pace. Puts is not only a fantastic composer but also a superior orchestrator, and his use of color (in the winds in particular) and natural sense of balance among the instrumental choirs (much less between the quartet and the orchestra!) was uncanny. I don’t know if this piece will live past its commissioner’s performances, but anyone who can overcome the logistical difficulties will be rewarded with a wonderful work for both performers and listeners.


Chaz Underriner and Colin Wambsgans

Chaz Underriner and Colin Wambsgans

As regional editor for the greater Austin area (in which I’ll include Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, among others) I can tell you that while the music is great, the commute is drag. Long trips up and down one highway or another can be tempered with the right playlist or podcast, but the pain of hours spent in a car cannot be denied. However, I’ve got nothing on Los Angeles-based composers Sepand Shahab, Colin Wambsgans, and Michael Winter who, during a particularly thorny winter storm (and you have to remember that Texas has little infrastructure for such relative rarities), recently spent nine and a half hours in a car getting from Denton (a bit northeast of Dallas) to Austin—a trip that typically takes between three and four. The lion’s share of this trip was spent along the 40ish-mile stretch between Denton and Fort Worth; a nail-biting journey during which I-35 became a hellish slip and slide. Fortunately, all three composers arrived no worse for wear (and only a bit late, really) at the small venue in the neighborhood of Travis Heights. Measuring about 20’x100’, the private studio space held around thirty people, counting performers, and was a perfect, intimate location for the composers’ offerings.

Shahab’s Divisions on a Ground was performed by James Alexander on viola, Brent Farris on upright bass, and Travis Weller on violin. Written “for 2 or more bowed strings, sine waves, field recordings, and a metronome,” this performance was set to have a fourth player, but the weather did not permit. The work started with a faint and rising recording of an ocean joined eventually by Farris. The recording bore little resemblance to the “Gentle Ocean Sleepy Time” setting on your nighttime noisemaker, and was closer to a solid wall of constant sound. Farris’s entrance was met with another recorded sound (perhaps an airplane?) which was initially about a half step off the bass pitch resulting in subtle oscillations. A gentle rising chord in the strings developed into a slow resonant counterpoint, with voices leaving and returning and never fewer than two players at once. Long silences divided sections in which Shahab struck a balance between artificial and found sounds, finding common ground between the two sources.

Brent Farris, Travis Weller, and James Alexander

Brent Farris, Travis Weller, and James Alexander

Michael Winter’s Chorale and Finely Tuned Resonators for four electric guitars and sine tones was composed with larger forces in mind, but—along with the wayward violinist absent from the first piece—several of the guitarists lined up to play the tune were also missing. Fortunately, the work allowed for a solo version which was performed by Chaz Underriner. Wielding an Ebow over his semi-hollow body guitar, Underriner began the work against a sine wave beating. Plush pulses in a steady succession moved steadily higher, building to a shimmering crest populated by a lightly sawing sound which somehow resembled crickets. A largely textural work (at lease this version), Chorale still lived up to its namesake with a coda-like section involving more rapidly changing timbres, quick changes on the eighth note sounding like the pull of organ stops in place of the slower harmonic rhythm of the bulk of the work.

The final work, This Is A Long Drive for Someone Who Overthinks Things by Colin Wambsgans also required a bit of on the spot alteration to account for elements beyond the performers’ control. Originally intended to last over an hour and to include a video component, Long Drive was condensed to a 36-minute version for two guitars and two-channel fixed media with no video. Based on a candidly recorded conversation about a Modest Mouse album (highly influential among his peers) from the end of Wambsgans’s college days, the work started with the recording intertwined with the live guitars. Wambsgans and Underriner at times played notes in a pointillistic fashion, occasionally manipulating the tuners to realize a sort of measured vibrato, but for the most part the guitar parts were extremely sparse throughout the work. Though there were sections in which the recorded discussion of the music was echoed in the music (as in the vibrato), as the piece progressed, the ratio of live performance and electronic manipulation to pre-recorded dialogue became decidedly one-sided. It eventually morphed from the Modest Mouse dialogue into a monologue (from a mentor I believe) about the nature of music and composition which, while fascinating, seemed to go down a decidedly different path than the initial material. It can be challenging to get a complete sense of a work from what was essentially an arrangement, and I look forward to hearing it sometime in its full form complete with video to get the full effect.

While certainly distinctive in their own rights, Winter, Shahab, and Wambsgans did present a “sound.” Though Wambsgans work had a Presque Rein vibe with its electronic recordings largely laid bare, and Winter and Shahab played a bit more of a game of “guess the source” by mixing sine waves and natural sounds, there was still an organic element to the marriage of electronics and live play among the works that tied them together and made for a cohesive evening of chamber music. And were it not for the shuffling of the order of works and a few required changes, one would never have known what the composers went through to present their music that night. The show must go on, indeed!

Sounds Heard: Spektral Quartet—Chambers

Now in their fourth season, Spektral Quartet is currently ensemble-in-residence at the University of Chicago and already a well-known champion of Chicago composers, including the six whose works are featured on the group’s first commercial disc release. Since I heard Spektral perform at Chicago’s Empty Bottle this August, I’ve been intrigued by their homebrewed approach to contemporary music. Their first CD offering (also available on cassette, for those with an ’89 Volkswagen Golf or similar playback device) is not only a calling card for the group’s formative artistic collaborations but also a richly detailed portrait of Chicago’s up-and-coming contemporary music scene.

The album’s title, Chambers, is a wry play on the tradition of chamber music that Spektral Quartet is working so intensely to update via their performances at nontraditional venues, but it also reflects the very distinct sonic spaces that each of the six composers recorded here create with offerings mostly under ten minutes in duration. Hans Thomalla’s Albumblatt (2010) plunges us right into a fascinating space without preamble, with an initial pizzicato gesture igniting a series of melting lines that recede almost as quickly as they materialize. Familiar tricks of the contemporary composer’s trade such as extended timbral effects and microtonal inflections are made personal and fresh in Thomalla’s hands—for example, a series of glissandi combined with interesting bowing patterns make for an aural impression that is particular and sharply imagined rather than generic. At times these sliding figurations almost take on the character of mechanical sirens before fading to a whispered, chorale-like passage made tense by extremely slow bow speed, sounding something like a quiet scratch-tone. In the glissandi and spun-tone sounds, Spektral reveals a remarkable sense of control and a nuanced range of expression, qualities that place the quartet in the distinguished company of groups including the JACK Quartet and Kronos in their heyday.

Ben Hjertmann’s String Quartet No. 2, Etude (2013) is the most recently composed piece featured on this recording and also opens with a backdrop of glissandi against which an arching violin line unfolds and elaborates (one of four solos for each quartet member woven into the composition). Before long a more rhythmic section erupts, marked by pizzicato strumming (with guitar picks!) and complex, prog-ish meters giving the effect of a wild guitar jam. These percussive sections are where the piece’s personality really comes out—including foot-tapping and quartet members hissing through their teeth, deftly wedded to the sounds produced on their instruments. A dramatic violin cadenza dissolves into a sustained array of languid artificial harmonics that end with an abrupt and abortive crescendo to the faintest stirrings of mezzo-piano; surely one of the more original endings I have heard, with each gesture obsessively shaped and brought into focus by the quartet.

Eliza Brown’s String Quartet No. 1 (2011) begins with fingered tremolos and flickering harmonics and is marked overall by the purity and simplicity of its crystalline textures. Making its argument in more direct and unadorned terms than the previous works on the album, this is no textbook minimalism but a work in which textural variety is ably engaged with a richness of sound often lacking in similar music of such apparent and beguiling plain-spokenness. Brown’s quartet has something of a surprise ending as well, with a bracing dissonance all the more rewarding because it was saved for exactly this effect, with shadings of microtonality resolving to a luminous C Major.

Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s Dig Absolutely (2010) likewise opens with an interlocking network of glissandi (perhaps the unifying sound of the entire album, although handled with different expressive impact by each composer recorded here). Straining and wailing with the inflections of pop vocalism, the piece strikes an enchanting balance between aspects of vernacular expression and contemporary experimental music. For one thing, Fisher-Lochhead writes some incredibly specific and constantly varied rhythms, giving the whole affair a sense of improvisatory looseness more characteristic of roadhouse performance than the concert hall. The members of Spektral draw this feeling into the aural foreground, playing with a kind of “reckless precision” (to paraphrase a Tuck Andress guitar album) that is often difficult for trained classical musicians to achieve with conviction. Also bearing a strong pop influence (although neither work wears this influence on its sleeve or as a form of gimmickry) is Liza White’s 2012 Zin Zin Zin Zin, inspired by Mos Def’s scatting on The Roots’ “Double Trouble.” Beginning with onomatopoeia of the titular four syllables, White’s composition employs inventive techniques such as dead bow-stops and a crunchy harmonic palette of cluster-based chords to create the feeling that we are experiencing pitchless grunts and shouts rather than musical lines. This is the shortest work recorded here and also the most kinetic; the music is passed around the quartet like a superball with great virtuosity, only to slink away at the end in four breathless puffs of sound that mimic the work’s opening. It’s a tour de force of quartet writing that manages to make a vivid impression in under four minutes.

Marcos Balter’s Chambers (2011), which concludes the disc, is—like much of the composer’s work—highly gestural in its musical rhetoric while also pervaded by a feeling of stasis; the work’s three short movements are masterful at establishing moods but do very little to develop their initial gestures as the music unfolds, opting instead to offer three snapshots that invite the ear to linger. The first movement presents faintly shimmering harmonics in a cycling pattern, almost marked with the regularity of breathing or the steady “lub dub” of a heartbeat. This is by far the most minimalistic movement anywhere on the album with an extremely slow rate of change, yet investing its near-stasis with an incredible sense of urgency and suspense. The second movement is initially marked by pizzicato, the crisp notes of the high violin strings contrasted with the rounder, boomier sound of the cello’s low strings to great effect, before a series of cluster chords emerge out of nowhere. The work’s third movement likewise begins with pizzicato in a funky, dance-like groove, against which sagging string lines in canonic imitation animate the feeling of suspended time—whereas the previous movements sometimes feel a bit confined to their respective small chambers, this one feels like a larger room where anything can happen and, as such, provides a great conclusion to this sampler of young Chicago composers.

Spektral Quartet is moving up the ladder fast, and I can only suspect that this is the first of many recording releases for the group. It’s rare for an ensemble with such a predilection for contemporary music to also exhibit such a strong lyrical impulse, and this tendency—amply evidenced on Chambers—sets Spektral apart from many other players on the new music scene. I look forward to hearing them present an album that blends contemporary music with other offerings from the traditional quartet repertoire (their live performances of Verdi and Puccini selections made an impression just as strong as the contemporary works recorded on this disc). After all, what Chicago is perhaps most in need of is an ensemble that can perform the classical repertoire with the same commitment, nuance, and ferocity with which it champions contemporary composers, and the Spektral Quartet is a more sincere and viable candidate than most in bringing these two oft-separated worlds together.

Other Guitars

It’s not hard to find a guitarist in Austin. Like breakfast tacos and new condo developments, they can be found on just about any corner and every day more of them show up. To stand out among the six-stringers in this town is quite a challenge, a challenge that was met at two shows I heard recently. The first was Austin Classical Guitar’s final show of the calendar year, and the second was a one-night-only appearance by one of the giants of improvisational music, Henry Kaiser. Both were examples of the diversity in the guitar world in Austin, a world that too often is perceived through the lens of blues, rock, and indie music alone.

Les Freres Meduses

Les Freres Meduses
Photo by Arlen Nydam

Austin Classical Guitar is among the most dynamic arts organizations in Austin, and though it was founded in 1990, ACG really hit its stride with the appointment of Executive Director Matthew Hinsley in 2003. In the past ten years, it has grown from a modest collective curating a few concerts a year into the premier guitar organization in the country with an incomparable international concert series, an educational program serving hundreds of students in and outside of Austin, and an outreach program in the prison and juvenile detention systems. Part of Hinsley’s artistic vision is that of collaborator, and to that end ACG has in the past worked with the Alamo Drafthouse, the Miro Quartet, and most recently teamed up with Texas Performing Arts to commission a new work from Nico Muhly for next spring. New music has always played a role in the world of guitar in general and the world of ACG in particular, and their most recent concert featured the guitarists Benoît Albert and Randall Avers as duo Les Frères Méduses performing an entire program by living composers (the oldest born in 1955) as well as a world premiere of Memória by ACG composer-in-residence Joseph V. Williams II.

Opening the concert was the ACG Youth Orchestra. They played a strong though brief set, an aural amuse-bouche of sorts and a reminder of the organization’s dedication to community outreach. Following the YO’s set, Les Frères Méduses took the stage and began their portion of the program with Prelude “Mekankisk” by Avers. A bright, shining, technical showpiece, the work pulsed along in an unrelenting 7/8 with only a brief interlude as respite. Though only together for four years, the communication between the two looked like that which you might find in a duo with much more history.  Following the Avers were works by Dusan Bogdanovic and Atanas Ourkouzounov, both beautifully rendered and, though quite distinct, had a similar DNA (perhaps because both guitarist/composers are from the Balkans) almost sounding like bookmatched movements.

The main attraction of the evening was the eagerly anticipated premiere of Williams’s Memória. Williams has worked with ACG ever since his first commission Austin Pictures, but his appointment as composer-in-residence has allowed him to expand his involvement beyond a single work to participate in the educational and outreach programs that are part of ACG’s core mission. While Austin Pictures was a concerto grosso of sorts pitting the Miro Quartet against a small guitar army, Memória was a smaller and more intimate affair. “My ancestors come from Hungary, and Memória freely employs elements of Magyar folk music,” said Williams, and this Eastern European flavor paired nicely with the preceding works. The first of two movements, Prelude opened with block chords in wide-open voicings. Guitarists are wired to arpeggiate even the most static of chords—we can’t help it!—but Albert and Avers played these with precision and none of the rolling that is to guitarists what over-pedaling is to pianists. A move to the minor mode accompanied thoughtful and well-paced trading of parts between the two guitarists; a smooth compositional transition made stronger by the attention to matched tone and attack by both players.

Along with their solo and orchestral experience, string players (here I’m thinking more of the rosin and bow variety than us pickers and grinners) traditionally come up in a chamber tradition as well. This is generally not the same for guitarists (thought ACG’s educational wing is working hard to change that) and as a result guitar duos can sometimes sound simply like two guitarists playing at the same time instead of as an integrated unit. Les Frères Méduses sounded like one guitarist, seamlessly alternating lines and phrases with only the occasional glance to facilitate their communication. The second movement, Fantasy, featured a more active texture and an insistent bassline that pushed the work forward to its conclusion, resulting in a standing ovation from the crowd. This sort of reaction has become pro forma at many contemporary shows, but I’ve been happy to see that recently when they occur they are typically genuine and well-deserved, as was the case here. The commissions, outreach, and integration with the best that Austin has to offer are why ACG has consistently packed auditoriums with devoted followers, but it’s not the key to their success. Hinsley’s philosophy is simple, “The primary role of a great classical guitar nonprofit organization is not to play concerts, teach classes, bring guest artists, or compose new pieces.  The primary role of a great classical guitar nonprofit organization is to serve the community.”


Henry Kaiser has been around the block. The guitarist, improviser, film composer, and research diver was in town for one night only to perform at The Owl, a small venue on the east side of town which features experimental music. A longtime collaborator with Fred Frith, Kaiser has gone through a variety of stylistic changes in his career. Early improvisational work gave way to a retro-rock phase in the ’80s, a long-term project involving the work of Miles Davis, and a number of projects with musicians around the world.

At the core of Kaiser’s creative output is experimental free improvisation, and it was a set of this material performed with local and regional players that I saw at The Owl. Walking into the venue felt more like walking into a friend’s funky house than entering a conventional club or hall. Once through a modest foyer, I took a quick turn around a corner and boom, there was the stage. Several dozen people filled the small space, eager to see a legend work his magic. Kaiser was joined by percussionist Nick Hennies, trombonist Steve Parker, and bassist Damon Smith for an extended improv set.

From left: Henry Kaiser, Nick Hennies, Steve Parker, and Damon Smith

From left: Henry Kaiser, Nick Hennies, Steve Parker, and Damon Smith

The distinction in this set was (from my perspective) the degree of deference paid to Kaiser by the rest of the band. While certainly a mostly democratic affair, it seemed that Kaiser’s lead was followed by and large by the other performers. Having said that, Hennies, Parker, and Smith all have extensive and significant improv experience in a variety of settings, and at no point did any of them seem to be shy about the idea of leading the group down one path or the other. Kaiser coaxed scratches, percussive raps, and ebowed keening from his seven-string archtop while Hennies bowed his snare and occasionally took to playing the bottom of the drum. Smith took Kaiser’s lead, tapping out a Morse code rhythm on the bass before weaving a drumstick through the strings creating an adjustable bridge of sorts. In the course of the set, Parker’s trombone was assembled and disassembled, at times leaving him with only the slide to whistle through.

Typically when musicians perform instrumental music, they are either looking at each other, at their music, or at something in the distance. Kaiser is not a typical musician. At times he stood and stared at the audience, not in a confrontational way but almost as though he had asked a question and was waiting for an answer. It wasn’t uncomfortable strictly speaking, but when the room is only five rows deep, it’s a bit unusual at least. However, if lasers had shot out of Kaiser’s eyes it would not have been weirder than what happened next, at least for me. Kaiser put away the archtop (from which he had elicited all sorts of otherworldly sounds) and brought out a Klein electric guitar. As I indicated above, in a former life I was a guitar player and for many years I was a rabid gearhead. I’d never seen a Klein in captivity, and frankly if he had simply set it on a stand I probably would have sat there doing my best RCA dog impression. The Klein is built to be ergonomically sound and includes a locking tremolo which allows for all sorts of pitch bending, dives, and other microtonal play. Joining the Klein, Kaiser added to his already wide sonic palette with an array of pedals and other outboard gear.  During this portion of the set (the music did not stop during the instrument change) Kaiser often “played” the dials on his foot pedals more than he did the strings of the guitar. By doing so he created a large analog synth of sorts, one in which the guitar was a driver and provider of raw material to be altered, chewed up, and spit out by the various processors. The result was that Kaiser was sort of his own opening act, with a relatively subdued first set that proceeded attacca into a nuclear meltdown of bizarre tones, distorted riffs, and altered states.

Somewhere out on Sixth Street, a dude is playing some righteous blues, and that’s cool. I’m glad he’s out there. Folk singers are populating coffee shops and filling the air with songs of lost love while indie bands are beating the hell out of a handful of barre chords a few doors down. Fantastic, and I mean that quite sincerely. I’ve been in those places and, on more than a few occasions, I’ve played those roles. And when I quit doing it someone else came along and filled my shoes, and I don’t think that trend will change anytime soon. However, I’m very glad there are people out there looking at all the things you can do with six strings.

Whether it’s a delicate touch with nail and flesh or vicious pick scrapes run through seven stompboxes, there are whole worlds of great sounds being created by guitarists you’ve never heard of. Put down that taco and go check ‘em out.

New England’s Prospect: The Second Hand Unwinds—A 45th Season for Boston Musica Viva

Boston Musica Viva

Boston Musica Viva
Photo by Robert Harding Pittman

It is a bit of a tightrope for a new music group to celebrate an anniversary, if you believe Henri Bergson. The French philosopher located the source of much of the philosophical angst surrounding free will and causality at the difference point between experienced duration and measured time. “Sometimes we think particularly of the regular succession of physical phenomena and of the kind of inner effort by which one becomes another,” he wrote, “sometimes we fix our mind on the absolute regularity of these phenomena, and from the idea of regularity we pass by imperceptible steps to that of mathematical necessity, which excludes duration understood in the first way.” In other words: sometimes we intuitively sense a progression of events through time, sometimes we measure it with a clock. “And we do not see any harm in letting these two conceptions blend into one another, and in assigning greater importance to the one or the other according as we are more or less concerned with the interests of science.” But the clock’s precision distorts: “to apply the principle of causality, in this ambiguous form, to the succession of conscious states, is uselessly and wantonly to run into inextricable difficulties.”

Boston Musica Viva, the city’s oldest new music group, is marking its 45th season with, it would seem, a somewhat Bergsonian regard for the arbitrariness of that round-ish number. The group might have been tempted to, say, recapitulate its first concert (from February 1970: Bolcom’s Session III, Huber’s Askese, the Webern Pierrot-ensemble arrangement of Schonberg’s op. 9 Chamber Symphony, and Foss’s Time Cycle). But even institutions can’t claim absolute regularity—indeed, conductor Richard Pittman is the only performer remaining from that 1970 edition of the group. So instead, the year’s concerts are filled with relatively recent music, with a premiere for each—the kind of inner effort, one might say, by which new music stays new.
Their concert on November 16, at the Longy School of Music, had an added layer of temporal consideration. Charles Zoll’s Bailes encima del escritorio de nuestra juventúd (“Dances atop the school desk of our youth”) was the winner of this year’s Rapido! composition contest (started by the Atlanta Chamber Players and administered by a consortium that includes BMV, Fifth House Ensemble, Voices of Change, and the Left Coast Ensemble). The rules are all about speed: composers get a theme (dance, this time around), an ensemble (oboe, violin, cello, piano), and two weeks to deliver a score. The results might be predicted from the parameters: Zoll’s piece, in five movements, had lots of ostinati, lots of instruments imitating other instruments (cello as string bass, oboe as clarinet, and so on), lots of filled-out ABA forms.

The Bailes were unremittingly pleasant, though almost frictionlessly so; a busy-but-circumscribed bit of flamenco, a moody-but-smooth tango, a bit of awfully well-behaved jazz, even with Geoffrey Burleson working the inside of the piano with a couple of mallets. The performance (Burleson with violinist Jae Young Cosmos Lee, cellist Jan Müller-Szeraws, and oboist Miri Kudo), skittish at first, settled into a groove of such easiness that the only real drama was a page-turning snafu (which warmed my heart). I had heard some of the other Rapido! entries in a preliminary round; I can’t really say that Zoll’s winner (of which the first two movements formed his original entry) was more striking than any of those other pieces, just perhaps more finished—a tribute to the virtues of watching the clock.

The world premiere on Saturday’s concert, Fabrication 15: Amplification by Andy Vores, was a more discursive roam through the temporal workshop. Eventually, there will be 32 Fabrications, for a variety of forces, each built around a particular notion or metaphor; Fabrication 15 is all about speeding up and slowing down, alternately emphasizing the local and the global from both a performing and listening standpoint. At its center is an older Vores piece, Slow Peacherine Rag, a Scott Joplin deconstruction inspired by his overhearing such music being practiced at half-speed on a hot, half-speed-ish sort of day: the bouncy rhythms and cadences are stretched out, sliced up, interspersed with longueurs and languors. The Rag takes its place at the center of Fabrications 15, arranged for the instrumental sextet—Lee, Müller-Szeraws, and Burleson joined by Lisa Hennessy (flutes), William Kirkley (clarinets), and Robert Schulz (percussion)—but the frame, a riot of clockworks in and out of sync with each other—imperceptible steps to mathematical necessity, maybe—grows into a thick, busy impasto. The constant here is the sense of curiosity, the way Vores so manifestly loves his sounds: the piano’s decay, the clang of metallic percussion, the possibilities of fast, running flute lines and needle-nosed altissimo clarinet. Vores has a knack for music that feels determined without feeling deterministic.

The concert’s nod to retrospection only went back to 2000 and Thea Musgrave’s one man, one act opera The Mocking-Bird (an adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s short story) originally commissioned by BMV. During the Civil War, Private Grayrock (baritone David Kravitz) strays behind enemy lines; firing his rifle out of fear, he unwittingly precipitates a skirmish, causing him to muse bitterly on the incompetence of his officers, the vagaries of his life, his long-lost brother—the dividing lines of class and conflict and the vagaries of causality. The music (scored for the same ensemble as the Vores) is both romantically old-fashioned and modernistically fluid. Musgrave is not afraid of obvious symbolisms, be they illustrative (snare drums and piccolo reveilles) or structural (minor-key present versus major-key memories, flatted sixth and seventh scale degrees constantly weighing down the tonality, dragging it away from resolution and a tonicized home). And what little plot there is is both conspicuously exposited and eminently predictable.

But, like all ghost stories (and The Mocking-Bird is a ghost story, the specter of the past forever haunting Grayrock’s present), the juice is in the telling, and this performance’s telling was big, straightforward, sincere. (Kravitz was especially good, surmounting the part’s wordiness and unabashed expressive escalations with conviction.) Musgrave gives the proceedings a formal richness and efficiency that don’t so much plumb the drama of the story as amplify the insistent necessity of its reiteration. If humanity is determined wantonly to run into the same old inextricable difficulties, Musgrave’s opera hints, the same old stories will never see their time pass.

New England’s Prospect: Anniversary Waltzes—Kronos @ 40 in Providence

The end of Kronos Quartet’s concert in Providence on November 8 was almost designedly apt. At the close of Kareem Roustom’s A Voice Exclaimed (a world premiere), Kronos—surrounded onstage by faculty and students from Providential superheroes Community MusicWorks—began sending snatches of Middle-Eastern-tinted melody out into the Rhode Island School of Design Auditorium. These melodies were promptly echoed back by a sudden ingress of even more MusicWorks students, processing in from the back and sides of the hall. Kronos, the pied pipers of contemporary string quartet music, had enticed another crowd into their circle.

Kronos Quartet is celebrating its 40th season, a significant milestone; having that on the brain might be why I kept hearing the concert, on the whole, as a musical version of one of those married couples who grow to look like each other. Kronos played mostly recent works that all, nevertheless, had a kind of essential Kronos-ness about them: making reference to specific international vernaculars, utilizing Kronos’s flair for using extended techniques and intonations to evoke indigenous instruments, wrapping the whole thing up in a package of rock-and-roll energy and curated cool. I wouldn’t begrudge them any of it. After four decades, Kronos is still a new music group that takes its citizenship in the new music community seriously: show me another ensemble that has given more composers both the opportunity and the benefit of a meticulous, passionate performance. They’ve withstood their share of personnel changes, particularly on the cello—Sunny Yang is now there, joining violist Hank Dutt and violinists John Sherba and David Harrington—but their performance standards remain impeccable. The music they cultivate might be geared to what they do well, but what they do well, they do better than anyone.

Kronos Quartet

Kronos Quartet
Photo by Jay Blakesberg.

That said, the sort of genre-play at the heart of a lot of Kronos’s commissioned repertoire is not without its compositional perils. Roustom’s new work, the evening’s centerpiece—an expression of hope for his Syrian birthplace in the face of appalling violence—was the most effective of the evening’s Kronos commissions, mainly, I think, because his crossing of genres, his strategy of adapting Arabic musical materials to Western forms came with a certain clarity of purpose. When it works, Roustom’s use of familiar, firmly outlined formal patterns makes it easy to tune into the rhetorical novelties of the unfamiliar modes. This was especially beguiling in the second movement, “Consolation,” a call and response derived from a Syrian Christian hymn: Kronos would play a phrase in Arabic temperament, and the MusicWorks players would answer in Western equal temperament, a pattern that actually brought out additional, unexpected expressive subtleties in both intonations. And Arabic rhythmic cells made effective, Beethovenian motives threading their way through the outer movements.

The mix of expectations didn’t always play out: the mismatch between Roustom’s slow, static harmonic rhythm and developmental structures that, in the classical tradition, rely on increasing harmonic momentum meant that often the music was stuck at a low simmer just when it seemed necessary to boil over into the return of a theme or a section. Still, Roustom’s managing of the needs of both the forces—a triple quartet (one of which was expanded with additional players) of varying abilities, plus the extra theater at the end—and the needs of the occasion was skillful. A Voice Exclaimed provided a showcase for Kronos, the exceptional work MusicWorks is doing, and the sense of community involvement and pride that MusicWorks has fostered. That theatrical ending tied together the whole package—the piece, the players, the production, the process.
The first half of the concert was all Kronos, a mix of commissioned originals and arrangements, the provenance neatly dividing into music that imposed elements of genre and music that inhabited them. The commissioned works alternated between folk and pop costuming. Bryce Dessner’s Aheym reworked the musical colors of Eastern European Jewish immigrants into aggressive ostinati. Nicole Lizée’s Death to Kosmische looked to deconstruct the heavily synthesized Krautrock of the early ’70s—Popol Vuh, Tangerine Dream—going so far as to have the players put down their strings and pick up, periodically, a stylophone and an omnichord, redolently obsolete. Alexandra Vrebalov’s …hold me, neighbor, in this storm… had even more going on: Harrington and Sherba doubling on a Balkan gusle and double-headed drum, respectively; a recorded overlay of bells and thunder and calls to prayer; the full toolbox of Kronos’s imitative skills—microtonal inflections, expressively widened vibrato—brought to bear.
The arrangements were a similar old-and-new playlist. Judith Berkson’s transcription of Alter Yechiel Karinol’s “Sim Sholom” turned its pre-WWI cantillation into a fluid, florid solo for Yang’s cello, barely and simply accompanied by the other three. Jacob Garchik’s version of Laurie Anderson’s “Flow” used the instruments’ long-bowed abilities as a canvas for the song’s wisps of gently jostling triads. For an encore, Kronos slipped into Garchik’s arrangement of Greek-American chanteuse Marika Papagika’s 1918 “Smyrneïko Minore,” a slyly woozy bit of romance that turns briefly, bracingly frisky.

The programming was clever—while the arrangements were all bunched together, each seemed to have its counterpart among the original pieces: “Sim Sholom” and Aheym surveying the diaspora; “Smyrneïko Minore” and …hold me, neighbor, in this storm… a yin and yang of Balkan life; “Flow” and Death to Kosmische paying tribute to pop influences. Roustom’s piece had its programmatic partner, as well: another Garchik arrangement, of Omar Souleyman’s “La Sidounak Sayyada,” envelope-pushing Syrian pop music at its finest.

That sense of invention—Souleyman’s rhythms so happily furious as to threaten to overrun the meter—was, in the end, stronger in the arranged pieces than in the originals: they had the ebullience and fizz that comes with working within a genre rather than merely with it. Part of that is Kronos’s skill at curation, certainly; but part of it is also the difference between aiming for a style and inhabiting one—even, perhaps, looking to get out. Aheym was energetic and accomplished; but “Sim Sholom” was something considerably more mysterious and sublime. Lizée’s dismantling of very particular pop tropes, halting and dreamlike by turn, was diverting; but that Anderson/Garchik “Flow” was simply one of the most gorgeous things I’ve ever heard.

Prior to A Voice Exclaimed, Kronos and the MusicWorks players joined for an older Kronos commission, John Oswald’s 1990 Spectre. The music grows out of the sounds of the instruments tuning up; at its height, Oswald—drawing on his Plunderphonics proclivities—brings in 1001 pre-recorded quartets, a jet-like din over which the live players then exaggeratedly mime a performance. As the recorded quartets shift into pizzicato, the live players again join in, and the piece winds down in a plucked fog. It’s a deftly, almost daftly simple piece, a gag, an idea, a trajectory, and not much else. But it’s concise enough not to wear out its welcome, and the execution has flair. Its arranged complement? Kronos’s final encore, Raymond Scott’s familiar-from-cartoons classic, “Powerhouse.” It could have been a reminder that, if you’re going to play with genre, you shouldn’t forget to also play.

Double Trio: line upon line and Konk Pack

Funky warehouses are being cleaned up and repurposed at a record pace here in Austin. As the city grows and its rents rise, many artists have found their way to the outskirts of town to utilize spaces in various states of renovation and renewal. Among the most recent additions is Canopy, which houses a variety of sleek spaces for artists of all stripes. I headed over there to check out line upon line percussion’s most recent Austin show, a showcase that featured two new premiers, one classic hit, and one golden oldie. I strolled past several units in which painters and other visual artists were holding court, some actively working on new pieces while others chatted about existing work with patrons. At the end of a line of such units, I found the venue; a large open space with groups of instruments around the perimeter. The setup made for a series of little vignettes, and the audience was invited to grab folding chairs and place them wherever they liked (and move them as they pleased) to experience each piece.

line upon line percussion

line upon line percussion

In recent years, line upon line has been on a real commissioning tear, and their list of upcoming projects is long, stretching over the next few years. This show started with a last-minute addition of one of their earliest commissions, Steve Snowden’s A Man with a Gun Lives Here. I have seen them perform this piece many times, and each performance is spirited, alive, and as full of wonder and humor as the work itself. The three players surround the bass drum and their interaction during the performance goes beyond the simply musical and becomes somewhat theatrical. Brush swoops, stick exchanges, and the passing of a bag of buckshot all serve to visually illustrate the music.  This rendition was no different and these dynamic elements played well with audience members young and old. Following the Snowden was Kate Soper’s In the Reign of Harad IV, commissioned with the support of Chamber Music America. In three movements with no pause, the work featured a sort of fractured speech stuttered among the three players. Each performer engaged their particular kit in fits and starts with each instrumental grouping popping in and out in musical chunks reminiscent of tape splits.

The three-station setup for Kate Soper’s In the Reign of Harad IV

The three-station setup for Kate Soper’s In the Reign of Harad IV

While specific words and phrases were difficult to discern, the small figurations developed their own syntax; some declamatory, others questioning, and all part of a conversation that was at once familiar and foreign. Contrasting the large setup for the Soper, Ben Issacs’s Several Inflections called for each performer to have only the top octave (give or take) of the vibraphone removed and placed on a small stand, arranged on top of a bit of curled rubber tubing. This arrangement allowed for all the attack normally associated with the vibraphone but none of the resonance. The piece was described by line upon line member Adam Bedell (he actually recounted a description from a friend who attended a rehearsal) as “sounding like wind chimes,” which might initially bring to mind a simple, wandering texture, but my impression (while positive!) was anything but relaxed. Fragile, nervous, and anxious were all terms that came to mind, not only because of the aural impression but also because of the performance requirements. An overall extremely quiet dynamic profile (we waited until the AC was shut off before they began the work) coupled with a rapid texture that, while measured, often felt (and occasionally looked) like various overlapping nervous tremolos all made for a very intimate and slightly anxious experience; like chopsticks on tiny deconstructed chimes. It didn’t sound like Scirrano, but there was that “approaching the edge of silence” element that kept me on the edge of my seat.

Ben Issacs’s <i>Several Inflections</i>

Ben Issacs’s Several Inflections

The work can last anywhere from six minutes to two hours, but in this case was closer to the ten-minute mark. The score was highly detailed and specific, and the lengths to which any ensemble would need to go to prepare and present the work are substantial. The show wrapped up with a fantastic rendition of Xenakis’s Okho. Written for three djembes but realized here on three connected drum sets that included tom-toms, congas, and a shared bass drum, Ohko could not have struck more of a contrast to the Isaacs, and the dynamic release coupled with the performers’ physicality felt like cliff-diving after meditation. You know you’ve got a concert on your hands when the Xenakis is the palate cleanser, and the polyrhythms running around that room had heads bobbing and people fully engaged, including a few munchkins outside.


The second stop on my reclaimed warehouse chamber music tour was the Museum of Human Achievement to see the German improv trio Konk Pack presented by Epistrophy Arts. The trio includes analog synthesist Thomas Lehn, drummer Roger Turner, and Tim Hodgkinson of Henry Cow fame whose work with co-founder Fred Frith left an indelible impression on progressive rock of the late ’70s. I’ve seen many improv groups play over the years, but very few exhibited the level of communication on display at the MOHA. Gone were the rounded edges and long transformations often associated with free improv and in their place were crisp transitions, precise timbral choices, and telekinetic, turn-on-a-dime shifts in the music. Particularly impressive in this embarrassment of riches was the impressive exchange of timbre and rhythm between Lehn’s synth and Turner’s drums. Granted, the analog synths have a visceral nature and connection to the primary elements of music in much the same way drums do, but it takes deft manipulation by both parties to connect the two so seamlessly that at times I wasn’t sure who was playing what. It’s worth noting that Turner was not amplified, so everything he played was purely acoustic.

Konk Pack at the Museum of Human Achievement

Konk Pack at the Museum of Human Achievement

Not to be left out, Hodgkinson’s work on the lap steel guitar melded similarly with the synth, especially in the high registers. And while the lappy was not without modest processing, the lion’s share of the sound was coming from his hands, not from stompboxes or other devices. Plucking behind the nut, staccato punctuations, and karate chops to the midsection of the neck resulted in gorgeous reverberations, like gongs rich with overtones. Many of these sounds and textures sat squarely in the same timbral wheelhouse as the analog synth, and I had several, “Where did that come from?” moments listening to the guitar/synth pairing as well. It was less like a typical improv show and more like a concept album that developed right in front of you. One “piece” started with Lehn’s synth chugging along in the lower register, skirting the line between pitch and rhythm. This was picked up by Turner rhythmically in the bass and toms and “melodically” by taking a dowel, striking it against the rim of one of the toms and drawing it towards himself as it rapidly rebounded,  creating a tremolo that had distinct, rising pitch characteristics. As those pitches ascended, Hodgkinson took the cue, coaxing similar pitch and motion from the lap steel. This material developed in a strikingly linear way, with little of the wandering and tangential characteristics of your less experienced improv teams. The term “sound world” is thrown around quite a bit to denote the particular style of a given composer or work, but Konk Pack was able to create several shifting sound worlds, all connected, but each with their own distinct characteristics as well.


I love chamber music. I love the intimacy between audience and performers. I never thought it odd to hear a string quartet in a seven-hundred seat hall, but when I started going to smaller shows I began to see (and hear) things differently. The irony of intimacy found in a giant old warehouse is not lost on me, but the cordoning off of spaces within these huge buildings makes for a very personal and connected experience. (The only tricky part is that I feel a little awkward taking pictures during these shows, but I suppose that speaks to the nature of what we’re experiencing as a smaller audience and performing group.) Whether it’s at a brand new space like Canopy or a somewhat more funky room like MOHA, the chance to sit up close to performers as they work their magic is what chamber music is all about, and I’m glad to see that opportunities like this in Austin are on the rise.