Tag: chamber music

Sticks and Strings: Houston’s Liminal Space

In the new(ish) world of bootstrap new music development, big things can come from the smallest of starts. In contrast to (or perhaps in response to) the slow-to-change, large-scale organizations that are dodging strikes, lockouts, and other potential extinction events, smaller, more nimble groups that are able to hide from the nuclear winter of dried-up funding, atrophied audience, and fracturing infrastructure are thriving. In contrast to the large institution model which involves the performance of largely 18th- and 19th-century warhorses to an audience whose average age is moving steadily upward, ensembles like San Antonio’s SOLI and Houston’s Musiqua have combined smaller forces and adventurous programming to engage with audiences old and new. Emerging from the rubble, these groups find new life in new forms, and though the Pierrot ensemble has emerged as one of the leading configurations, other families are taking shape as well. While the Pierrot is comprised of traditional instruments, the catch-all potential of the “plus percussion” option is quite compelling and has played a significant role in the development of music for the ensemble. When the percussion is taken out of this traditional context and placed alongside another primarily 20th-century chameleon, the guitar [1], a potent new pairing is created. A few months after seeing the potential of this duo during the Living Earth Show this past spring, I stopped in to hear Houston’s Liminal Space (guitarist George Heathco and percussionist Luke Hubley) present a concert that included two commissioned premieres.

Liminal Space at Frenetic Theater Photo by Nicholas Leh Baker

Liminal Space at Frenetic Theater
Photo by Nicholas Leh Baker

I arrived at the Frenetic Theater just outside of downtown Houston about twenty minutes prior to the show and had a chance to survey the facility and the crowd. The multi-use venue geared towards dance and theater held a good-sized Sunday night crowd. Spread out in the 100-seat theater, some patrons had taken their chairs while others stood chatting, and it was in this relaxed setting and with little fanfare that Liminal Space walked onstage to start the show.

Originally written in 2008 for two bass clarinets, Mark Mellits’s Black has since been rearranged for a variety of duos and lent itself well to the guitar and marimba incarnation. Rolling lines and punchy riffs which brought to mind a mid-’80s King Crimson were couched in symmetrical phrases and sections, their rock and roll roots showing. Both players were all in for the bulk of the work, and Heathco’s clean guitar tone with just a hint of overdrive for body [2] complimented the mellow tone of the marimba.
The evening’s concert was the closer of the inaugural season, and Hubley took a minute to describe the genesis of the group, which made its debut with a John Cage centenary concert last September. Among their goals is the regular commissioning of new music for the ensemble, and to that end Liminal Space has commissioned nine composers in the Houston area to compose new works for guitar and percussion. The next piece on the evening’s program, Apparatus by Mark Buller, was the second of two world premieres of work written for Liminal Space as part of their 2013 New Music Initiative. Apparatus started with a simple additive process played in unison, the two slowly expanding lines diverged recalling Reich’s Piano Phase, only to eventually return to their original position. The second movement began with pulsing dyads outlined in crescendos and decrescendos, hairpins rising and falling while an initial symmetry gave way to odd groupings and smaller divisions. This lead to a clearer separation of the parts as arpeggios in the marimba formed a framework for leaping octaves in the guitar. A recollection of the first movement had the guy behind me tapping (a bit loudly…) his feet and bopping his head, though it was funny to hear him lose the rhythm as the patterns began to phase once again.

Taking a quick break from the duo action and a modest step back in time, Heathco performed the solo plus tape version of Reich’s Electric Counterpoint. The work holds up well 30+ years later, and the relative ease with which an enterprising guitarist can record and playback the parts on a laptop should allow for more performances than ever before. Hubley then took his moment in the spotlight to perform Cage’s In a Landscape. Written for dancer Louise Lippold in 1948, its modest range and bifurcated octaves give the work a controlled and harmonically segmented sensibility. A pleasant, quasi-pentatonic sound resulted as scales rose and fell in comfortable mid-tempo eighth notes, every one taking its place from a list of dance counts provided to Cage by Lippold.
The closer for the evening was the second NMI world premiere of the night, Eric Martin’s You didn’t build that!, which was a nod to some of the rhetoric of the last presidential election cycle. A guitar intro which begged to be joined by drum kit [3] was interrupted abruptly by the marimba, part of the concept of the piece in which each instrument attempts to one-up the other. This led to a more traditional back and forth of sorts, with the guitar backing the marimba for a time and the marimba returning the favor. Harmonically straddling the modal/white-note world, the two instruments morphed comfortably from foreground to background before reaching the work’s conclusion.
Liminal Space put on a terrific show for a clearly enthusiastic audience. The guitar/percussion combo is quite approachable and particularly versatile, and while the idea that the use of these more familiar instruments will make inroads with those outside the new music community is debatable, it can’t hurt. When a traditional string trio or brass quintet takes the stage, adventurous new music converts may be inclined to check out before the first note. However the familiarity of the guitar (or the laptop) has the potential to bring something from an audience member’s world into the one they are about to experience, and who doesn’t like watching someone beat on things with sticks? [4] Regardless, the music on tap that evening was certainly as rich and involved as any one might hear from more traditional instruments, and with the 2013-2014 season lined up, Liminal Space is in a great position to be at the vanguard of a whole new ensemble movement.


1. In another life, I was a classical guitarist and am well aware of the rich pre-20th century repertoire for the instrument. I’m also aware that a few guitarists out there read that sentence and immediately began harrumphing all over the place, so just relax.

2. It’s a tone I’ve always associated with jazz, but given that I’ve listened to and played very little jazz, you can take my evaluation of this “jazz tone” with a big old grain of salt. Heathco was playing a gorgeous red hollow body, and it’s certainly possible that the hint of overdrive was just a result of the pickups coloring the sound. Or aliens.

3. I’ve played in approximately a million rock bands, so you can take this estimation to the bank.

4. It’s been brought to my attention that there is more to percussion than this.

Sounds Heard: Amy Williams—Crossings: Music for Piano and Strings

Being a Suzuki-trained violinist myself, it’s rare that music listening inspires me to reach for a score, but that’s what I found myself wishing for while unpacking the layers of sound that comprise Amy Williams’s Richter Textures (2011). (I soon discovered that the composer has helpfully posted it to her website, and so I was able to explore the piece’s construction in more detail.) In this opening composition on her new Albany CD of chamber music, Williams conjures in sound the character of seven Richter paintings and the JACK Quartet brings them to remarkable life. The seven-movement work proceeds without pause, which further heightens the impact of the assured passing game the quartet members run throughout the piece. No examination extends longer than four and a half minutes, but each movement builds up a translation of Richter’s visual medium ranging from frozen to frantic. Williams employs a full bag of colorful string techniques to accomplish this, but none that show any evidence of pushing the players beyond their comfort.

In total, the music included on the disc spans some ten years of compositional activity, and Williams’s experience as a pianist and her work in The Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo has likely contributed to her sensitivity and skill when it comes to composing chamber music. Williams’s comments in the brief booklet notes highlight her interest in using points of inspiration not as material for quotation but as “a structural model, abstract reference or starting point for a particular compositional process.” (A sentiment which somewhat harkens back to Arlene Sierra’s comments on her own working methods.)

In some instances, her influences are seemingly audible, as in Brigid’s Flame (2009), a solo piano work composed in memory of Williams’s late father-in-law. The piece features a number of dense running piano lines which easily link up with the images of flickering firelight suggested by the title. The Brian Philip Katz poem that inspired the composition of Falling (2012) written for Ursula Oppens is reprinted in the booklet, but the sonic connections Williams draws out are arguably less directly presented and instead perhaps more personally infused into the slow drift of the music. Both brief works are performed on this recording by the composer herself. From here, the emotional tone of the album takes a sharp left as Jeffrey Jacob launches into the intricate, rapid-fire keywork required in Astoria (2004), a piece rooted in Astor Piazzolla’s Movimiento Continuo (Williams cites its structure, harmonic progressions, and rhythmic patterns as points of intersection) without being terribly obvious about it. It’s an addictive little gem of a piece.
The Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo performs the two remaining piano-focused works, the genesis of both traceable to the music of other composers. According to Williams, Crossings (2009) reaches back to Bach and Abstracted Art (2001-02) to the music of Art Tatum, but the leash of influence seems long and I suspect listeners would be hard pressed to make the associations if the composer hadn’t pointed them out herself. Crossings for four hands unspools along deliberately plotted steps, the exploration keeping largely to the upper register until well past the halfway point and the density only gaining serious weight in the work’s final minutes, Williams’s dynamic finally reaching the bolded and underlined stage. Despite its serious sounding title, Abstracted Art has a lot more play in the lines and isn’t shy about flashing the sass it has to offer.

Arriving at the closing bookend, the JACK is joined by Williams at the piano for Cineshape 2 (2007), one in a series of works inspired by films–in this case the split screen experiment Timecode. The instrumentalists work through the music, sometimes in a kind of soliloquy among the other players and sometimes in conversation with them, the development of various thematic areas punctuated by some startling moments of auditory aggression.

Across the disc, this collection of music stands in dialog with other creative work, whether in the form of stories, images, text, or other music. It is an intimate look inside Williams’s artistic influences, a portrait of what she has seen there and what she has taken away.

Sounds Heard: Burr Van Nostrand—Voyage in a White Building 1

I may know better than to judge a CD by its cover, but it was hard to resist the poetic allure of the graphic score which unfolds across the front of Voyage in a White Building 1, a New World Records-issued recording of three pieces by Burr Van Nostrand.
Though the notation samples reeled me in (there’s another within the detailed booklet notes by Mathew Rosenblum), it was actually Matthew Guerrieri’s review from last year of performances of Van Nostrand’s music at the New England Conservatory of Music that first attracted my attention to this American iconoclast’s work.  Guerrieri’s vivid descriptions of the texture and flavor of the pieces left me intrigued, yet its infrequent live performance had me doubting I’d ever have the chance to hear it for myself. So consider this as much of an alert as a record review: if you ever desired the opportunity, it has arrived.

The three works included on the album were all written between 1966 and 1972. It opens with Fantasy Manual for Urban Survival, a six-movement fully notated composition. The recording included here—featuring performances by Robert Stallman (flute), Jay Humeston (cello), and Herman Weiss (prepared piano)—was made at the piece’s premiere at the New England Conservatory in 1972. I was somewhat surprised to read that Van Nostrand “began the project by compiling lists of extreme ensemble sonorities,” since to my ear, each gesture feels so deliberate and well-placed—nothing thrown at the wall just to see if it will stick. It comes off not as a catalog but as an organic exploration of a dim world, no turn taken too quickly. What begins as a murky, slow-moving study sharpens its attack and reveals additional facets as things progress. Midway through, the performers begin taking turns speaking text from the Friedrich Hölderlin poem “Hälfte des Lebens,” an inspiration for the piece, as the music continues to slip and stutter. The final two movements turn spare and crystalline, breath and light key clicks dissolving into the ether.
Phaedra Antinomaes was written for friend and collaborator violinist Paul Severtson, who infuses an attractive confidence into his presentation of the material (as documented in the 1969 recording featured on the disc). The work’s three continuous movements can be played in any order, as can the fifteen fragments that make up one of the sections. Severtson chose to lead with his ingredients—the gestural “Fragments”—before slipping seamlessly into the “Very slow, suspended” section, aggressive bow work, twacks against the instrument, and plucked accents contrasting with delicate spiccato sputters and glissando introspection.  The final section, “Violent, fast—very slow,” kicks up the tension level, but not as much as these descriptive words might imply. Throughout the work, Van Nostrand pads his statements with enough air around them to allow full aural absorption. As a result, Phaedra Antinomaes remains, start to finish, a haiku of a piece. No single line in its twelve-and-a-half-minute run time seems to unspool more than a few syllables before taking a breath, but absorbed as a whole the music contains surprising weight.

Tara Mueller, violin; New England Conservatory, April 2012

A new recording of the title work, Voyage in a White Building 1, closes the disc with a bang, and it is here that the enticing graphic score pages come to life. Premiered originally in 1969, the booklet notes explain that Van Nostrand created the work for a collection of close colleagues and relied on the unconventional notation system to include their diverse range of styles and reading abilities. On this disc, the work is presented by the NEC Chamber Ensemble led by Anthony Coleman, and a hat must be tipped to them—particularly the “speaker,” who emphatically emotes his way through the performance—for picking up this challenge and making it such a rich sonic experience.

For as seductive as I found the graphic score illustrations, the sonic image they convey (at least to these musicians) resolved into an ominous picture. Based on Hart Crane’s poem “Voyages 1,” it is structurally and thematically reflective of its three stanzas—a warning to children playing on a beach. Any sort of playfulness that may be present at the outset seems to melt into a kind of nightmarish fairy tale horror along the twists and turns Van Nostrand’s interpretation takes. The seeming madness of the speaker—his nearly nonsensical verbal explosions, maniacal laugher, moans, gasps, and cries—hold center stage throughout much of the performance, ramping up with deliberate speed as the piece moves towards its finale.  But it’s a beautiful terror to witness, a vibrant piece of theater for the ears.

Burr Van Nostrand – Voyage in a White Building 1

Marcos Balter: Hyperactive Unity

There is an arresting, high-voltage energy that often infuses presentations of Marcos Balter’s music, and an obvious fascination on the part of the composer with exploring new sonic possibilities while keeping the human element—the living, breathing performer—center stage. While the roots of these influences are clearly reflected in Balter’s own personality, putting too much emphasis on his Brazilian upbringing and the Portuguese accent that lightly colors his rapid English would be a mistake.

“I’m a Brazilian composer, I’m a gay composer, and people always go for those things as if they are the really crucial, defining elements in my music, when they’re really not,” Balter explains with a mix of understanding and frustration. A composer born and raised in Rio de Janeiro who currently calls Chicago home, he appreciates the American interest in how where you come from shapes the music you write. In his case, however, growing up in a diverse metropolitan city offered him a broad slate of experiences, and the hallmarks of his own music are much more personal.

“As you can probably tell, I’m a very hyperactive person,” Balter concedes with a knowing smile. “I’ve always been very energetic and doing one million things at once, very fast paced in general in life. And when I look at my music, I see that. I see that sense of—unity. It’s that one thing sometimes, but if you look very carefully, it’s one billion things within that one thing.”

As a young conservatory student, his musical passions “were very well behaved,” he admits, with a special affinity for the keyboard composers he was studying as a pianist. Composition was also already a “very natural act to me,” coming almost hand in hand with learning to read and write. In 1996, a piano scholarship to Texas Christian University brought him to the States, though his educational focus was ultimately on composition. Study at Northwestern University followed, and he is currently the director of the music composition program at Columbia College Chicago.

During his first years in the U.S., he found that his music became a little more conservative before he rebelled—a reaction, perhaps, to the education he was receiving, which he found stiflingly dogmatic. “I think that sometimes the least interesting thing about my music is how it’s made,” he clarifies. “If you want to know about that, that’s great, and you can do all kinds of crazy analysis and find out some fun stuff. But to me the most important part of music is still the emotional connection between the composer and the performer, and the performer and the listener. The rest is secondary.”

Considering how closely Balter likes to work with the musicians who play his pieces, that primary consideration carries particular weight. “I really see the act of composing as a collaborative act. Even when you’re composing by yourself, not talking to anyone, you’re still working with that entity, you’re still working for those people.”

In Balter’s case, however, that person often is in the room at certain points in the process, offering feedback and demonstrating possible sounds and techniques. In the case of his extensive work with the musicians of the International Contemporary Ensemble over many years, he’s writing not only for respected colleagues, but also very good and trusted friends.

“That’s why I love working with them. I know that when I walk into a rehearsal, that the rehearsal is still a workshop. We’re still debating ideas; we’re still negotiating things.” And that, he argues, is an essential step in the artistic process that he’d be foolish to overlook. “Things change considerably when they leave the paper and they reach the performer, and for me to not acknowledge that and make that part of the creation of the art work is insane.”

He also counts on that feedback to keep him pushing forward in his own art. In one extreme example, during the creation of his Descent from Parnassus—inspired by Cy Twombly’s painting The First Part of the Return from Parnassus and written for ICE founder and flutist Claire Chase—Balter sent his first sketch of the piece her way. “She called me back, and she said, ‘That’s not it.’ And I was deeply offended! I was mad at her. I’m the composer; you shall not tell me if it is or it isn’t—I’ll know!”

A step back and some reflection offered new perspective, however. “Within four or five hours, the coin dropped, and I looked at this sketch and thought, ‘She’s absolutely right. This is not in any shape or form what this painting is about.’ I called her back and I said, ‘You know what? Let me give it another shot; let me try to process things differently here.’
“Within 72 hours, I had Parnassus.

That openness to exploring new paths and changing direction on the fly is why Balter considers himself at heart an experimental composer. “I don’t know where I’m going. And I actually think that if I knew, I would have stopped composing a long time ago,” he admits. “So no, I don’t know what’s going to happen to my music next year, I don’t know what’s going to happen next week. And that’s the beauty of it; that’s the excitement of it—it’s the not knowing. If I knew everything, I could write a book about it and be done.”

Sounds Heard: An Exaltation of Larks—The Lark Quartet performs Jennifer Higdon

Grammy and Pulitzer winner Jennifer Higdon certainly doesn’t require an introduction, yet it’s remarkable how often people’s opinions of her music seem—for better or for worse—to be formed based on her fantastically successful orchestral works. This new release from Bridge Records showcases a more intimate collection of chamber works that are unmistakably Higdon’s but which explore different reaches of her musical interests than tend to find expression in her large and frequently blockbuster orchestral works. It’s a refreshingly different side of her music and a great starting place towards appreciating what makes this composer tick.

Leading off, An Exaltation of Larks (2005) is 16-minute work in a single extended movement originally commissioned for the Toyko Quartet. The composition is a natural match for the Lark Quartet, and not just because of its title. The Lark is a quartet rooted in tradition and lyricism, yet the four musicians have an openness and sensitivity to timbre that brings their interpretations nuance as well as occasional edge. Likewise, Higdon’s music is also rooted in traditional means and sources, yet handled with a sense of humor and curiosity that expands classical tradition even as it draws from it. In the right measure, the tension between these complimentary tendencies is eloquent, personal, and strikingly realized. An Exaltation of Larks begins tenderly and is never far from receding into a kind of hushed, expectant quiet, yet the piece blossoms in several forays into ever more ecstatic (and just bordering on frenetic) patterns of rapid string crossing. It’s a great showpiece for the Lark Quartet and an impressive tour-de-force of the many ways a skilled composer can manage to be expressive and creative even when adhering (mostly) to solidly traditional quartet writing. The ability to achieve Higdon’s level of sheer sonic interest via largely traditional means is one of her most attractive qualities as a composer—an incredibly vivid imagination combined with a certain plainspoken, straightforward demeanor. (Those who know her might agree that this is a rather accurate portrait of the composer herself!)

Scenes from the Poet’s Dreams (1999) adds Gary Graffman to the mix for a left-hand-only piano quintet. Higdon writes that the inspiration for this work came from her curiosity over about dreams of poets: “Because they presumably work in a world of imagination, would their dreams be different than what others might dream? Or are we all poets in our own dream worlds? The poet might be the main character or s/he might also just be part of the fabric, observing from the sidelines. This also represents the pianist’s role within a piano quintet, prominent but also just part of the story.”

This is especially true of the piano part in Higdon’s quintet, in which Graffman’s role is almost inconsequential enough to be superfluous, yet sparingly doled out over the entire composition to great effect—another example of Higdon’s economy of means providing character and interest. The movements lean toward the tranquil, although the third movement is worth noting for its positively nightmarish depiction of a host of electric insects. Here, Higdon breaks out all the stops including glissandi, tremolo passages, and ponticello effects punctuated by a funky groove in the low register of the piano—a rare eruption of instrumental color rendered all the more effective by the sturdy simplicity of the previous movements. Graffman’s playing is deft as always and the Larks pull off the virtuosity with a ferocity that made me imagine the cloud of rosin they must have inevitably produced during the recording session. By contrast, the quintet’s opening movement is a kind of cosmic reverie that cycles through all major keys, accelerating faster and faster through sudden changes of color, dynamics, and harmony.

The disc’s final offering, Light Refracted (2002) adds clarinetist Todd Palmer and pianist Blair McMillen to perform with members of the quartet. The work follows out of Higdon’s popular orchestral work Blue Cathedral. Inspired by Monet’s studies of the same subject viewed in different light, Higdon takes another look at her own musical materials and the result is a compelling two-movement work that becomes even more interesting for listeners who are already familiar with Blue Cathedral and will be able to appreciate the many ways that Higdon recasts that material.

Old First Concerts Offer Exceptional Chamber Music

Old First Concerts, a series founded in 1970 in a Presbyterian church in San Francisco, presented two exceptional young chamber ensembles performing contemporary music on consecutive Fridays in late March. Both concerts demonstrated O1C’s commitment to emerging and mid-career artists who are exploring non-standard repertoire. The City of Tomorrow, a wind quintet, offered a program comprising 20th- and 21st-century repertoire; the entire Mobius Trio performance consisted of works written specially for their acoustic guitar trio. The series itself has a small but regular and enthusiastic following—an audience willing to sit in hard wooden church pews to hear a broad range of unfamiliar music.

The City of Tomorrow

The City of Tomorrow: Laura Miller (left), Elise Blatchford, Leander Star, Camila Barrientos, Andrew Nogal
Photo by Tarina Westlund

The City of Tomorrow, gold medalists in the 2011 Fischoff Chamber Music Competition, performed on March 15 as part of their first West Coast tour. Two members of the quintet—French hornist Leander Star and flutist Elise Blatchford—are alumni of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Star mentioned that, coincidentally, the two first met at Old First Church. The idea for the quintet formed later, when Star and oboist Andrew Nogal were both graduate students at Northwestern. Since then the other seats have been filled by Camila Barrientos on clarinet and by bassoonist Laura Miller, the group’s newest member, who joined in July of last year.

Despite the fact that the members are scattered across the country—Blatchford and Star are now in Portland, Oregon, while Barrientos is back East in New York; Nogal remained in Chicago, while Miller is down in Austin—this quintet plays with an extraordinary sense of ensemble, not just in terms of rhythmic precision but in tone color, balance, gesture, and sensitivity. Most astonishing in this regard was Luciano Berio’s virtuosic Ricorrenze, which The City of Tomorrow performed sitting in a straight line, facing the audience. Composed in 1987 for Pierre Boulez’s 60th birthday, this piece is filled with recurring quick chatterings and murmurings on one pitch tossed among the instruments. The notes are repeated using a variety of methods, including quick tongue articulations, flutter tonguing, and an interesting technique where single pitches are trilled using alternate fingerings, by which Berio creates the perception of rearticulation in the trembling wah-wah-wahs that result. Amid the chatter, individual soloistic voices pop into relief, and at times all musicians play elaborate grace note figures simultaneously before returning to their nattering. (A very brief excerpt of The City of Tomorrow performing this 16-minute piece is included below.) Despite minimal eye contact given the seating arrangement, these musicians brought off the playfulness of Berio’s colorful and intricately intertwined conversation.

Also programmed were Darius Milhaud’s exquisitely lyrical and restrained La cheminée du roi René (1939), the U.S. premiere of British composer Rob Keeley’s Wind Quintet (2003/2011), and Magnus Lindberg’s Arabesques (1978). The long liquid lines of “Cortège,” the first movement of the Milhaud, were an immediately charming introduction to the second half of the program, and a stark contrast to the extroverted and high-intensity Arabesques, which followed. Written 35 years ago, shortly after Lindberg became acquainted with Berio’s music, Arabesques juxtaposes periods of constant noisy activity with striking events such as abruptly highlighting the oboe alone playing multiphonics or sounding the bassoon unexpectedly in the extreme low register.

The group, which takes its name from a Billy Collins poem and describes itself as “retro-futurist,” expresses the desire to become an ensemble that is generating new music for wind quintet. Though they have presented the North American premieres of the Keeley quintet and Blow by Franco Donatoni, to date they haven’t had any works written specifically for them. However, composers interested in exploring the possibilities of this instrumentation should get to know this skilled ensemble; The City of Tomorrow performs the same program with the addition of Jennifer Higdon’s sextet Summer Shimmers with pianist Katya Mihailova, at the Dimmena Center in their New York debut on April 19.


Mobius Trio

Mobius Trio: Mason Fish (left), Robert Nance, Matthew Holmes-Linder

The members of the Mobius Trio, which performed on March 22, are all alumni of the San Francisco Conservatory. In contrast to the members of The City of Tomorrow, who were attired in formal concert garb, the three young men of Mobius (Mason Fish, Matthew Holmes-Linder, and Robert Nance) came out in jeans and khakis, casual sport coats, and hardy boots, which were prominently displayed on the players’ foot rests and elicited much comment at intermission. Their dress reflected the comfortable and unburdened presence that these exceptional musicians have on stage, despite performing very intricate repertoire. Also unlike City of Tomorrow, all of the group’s music has been written explicitly for them; the group started in 2010 with five commissions from colleagues and friends, and works have been accruing since then, with a world premiere by Kevin Villalta at this performance. (An additional premiere by Samuel Carl Adams was initially scheduled but postponed.)

Mobius Trio at Old First Church

Mobius Trio at Old First Church

Four of the seven works on this program—pieces by Sahba Aminikia, Danny Clay, Dan Becker, and Brendon Randall-Myers—were included on the trio’s recent debut CD, which was covered on NewMusicBox last year. Of the three new works, More Gargoyles by guitarist and composer Frank Wallace was the least concerned with the exploration of extended techniques and relied instead on Mobius’s superb group sensitivity both in the tender waltz in the first section of the work and a final, intimate duet between Holmes-Linder and Nance. Likewise Adrian Knight’s Bon Voyage showcased the group’s gentle playing by focusing a microscope on the instruments: the three acoustic guitarists, playing entirely on harmonics, were amplified. The steady eighth-note arpeggiations that underlie nearly the entire piece create the sense of a delicate miniature music box, with the soft hazy decay of the vibrating strings quietly hypnotizing the room.

Villalta’s Witch Wagon was inspired by a Salvadoran folk tale about a wagon eternally rattling through the streets as a warning against immorality. The composer searched out sonic possibilities, from strumming all the way up by the pegs to tapping all around the body, transforming the three guitars into a single unrecognizable folk instrument. Strings were detuned and clamped, sometimes yielding a bracing and unsettling moaning effect. There were times when it was really not clear to my ear or eye how certain percussive and metallic sounds were achieved, and by the time the first chord with a recognizable guitar resonance was strummed, it was an unexpected event. In less secure hands the piece might have sounded like a collection of arbitrary sound effects, but Villalta and Mobius created a compelling sonic portrait that was simultaneously detailed and non-narrative.

The natural ease of Mobius’s playing and their unforced integration of inventive ways of using their instruments into their solid base of traditional technique made for a consistently excellent evening. It’s clear from the unity of their playing that the members of Mobius genuinely love making music together, cuing each other with just the lift of an eyebrow or even a hint of a smile. The group next performs on the Peninsula Guitar Series in San Bruno, California, on May 4. Their CD Last Light is available here.

Consider the Brass

There is much talk these days of inequality, of unfounded biases and long-standing preconceptions that not only affect those that face the brunt of such prejudice, but ultimately the entire community as views slowly become more monochromatic, indistinguishable, and, in a word, dull. Often undue favoritism can be subtle, inadvertent, even unintentional (as many biases via omission can be), and over time this can slowly erode the affected population until it has dwindled to the point where only through direct and organized activism can such trends be reversed. It is entirely possible that many who are reading this article may, either overtly or subconsciously, in fact be a perpetrator of intolerance towards this long-standing yet misunderstood group.
I am, of course, speaking of the bias against brass instruments in contemporary chamber music today.

In many ways, it’s perfectly understandable why brass instruments have not found a proper niche within the contemporary concert community. Their limitations are completely antithetical to many of the parametrical experiments composers have been working on, especially over the past fifty years or so. Want to write a work that lasts an insanely long time? Chopbuster. Enjoy breaking away from linear lyricism and incorporating angularity into your melodic material? Not so much. How about working with extremely soft dynamics (unless you’re open to being limited timbrally with mutes)? Minimalistic use of repetition? Extreme registers? How about just blending and balancing with strings and woodwinds?

Of course these can all be worked around with the right players and well thought-out orchestration techniques, but I think that these limitations only scratch the surface of why more composers don’t write for brass instruments and why chamber ensembles don’t incorporate them. Pre-20th-century chamber repertoire already brings pianists, strings, and woodwinds together with only the occasional addition of a horn when composers were feeling frisky, even after horns and trumpets became truly chromatic and tubas gave composers another octave with which to work. Early in the 20th century, brass instruments were not ignored–Stravinsky proved with his Octet and Histoire du Soldat that brass instruments could be utilized to great effect outside of their normal orchestral wheelhouse–but they never garnered as much attention as the strings, woodwinds, and keyboards did. Two outstanding composers who wrote solo works for several of the brass instruments (as part of their collection of solo instrumental works for all the families) were Hindemith (whose Sonatas are boons to brass players and banes to pianists) and Berio (whose Sequenzas for trumpet and trombone are staples of the literature).

When one looks at the various musical adventures over the past 40 years or so–minimalism, spectralism, post-minimalism, alt-classical, and many others–brass instruments are very hard to find. In fact, if any instrumental group has come into its own over that time period, it would be percussion, beginning with Cage’s experiments, moving through Steve Reich’s relationship with the Nexus percussion ensemble, and picking up steam with So Percussion, Third Coast Percussion, Meehan/Perkins Percussion Duo, and others over the past 15 years.

All is not lost, however. From my vantage point, there are three primary veins of activity in the new music world that are seeing more and more composers jump onto the brass bandwagon, the first and oldest being the brass quintet. Beginning back in the 1940s in Chicago and New York, the brass quintet as a chamber genre continues to have a strong but slightly limited tradition of commissioning composers to write music for them. These days there are three brass quintets that have carved out their own places in the genre–the American Brass Quintet (a group that’s been around longer than almost everyone and has commissioned more than anyone else), the Meridian Arts Ensemble (an additional percussionist allows them to explore repertoire such as Zappa with an intensity not found in other quintets), and the Gaudete Brass (the youth and commissioning activity of which proves that the traditional medium is not yet dead). This mixed-instrumentation ensemble is not everyone’s cup-o’-tea to write for, but groups like these and others are proving that the genre is an extremely versatile one.


If the mixed brass quintet is the most prevalent brass chamber ensemble, the homogenous brass quartet or ensemble seems to have the most momentum these days as far as new groups being formed and new ideas being experimented with. Whereas the brass quintet allows for maximum color and range, homogenous ensembles give composers a much more blended and balanced palette with which to work. The most common of this type of group is the trombone quartet or ensemble, with a history that reaches back hundreds of years to the time of sackbutt consorts, and a list of these would have to include the New York Trombone Quartet and Four of a Kind (both fronted by NY Phil principal trombonist Joseph Alessi), the Amsterdam-based New Trombone Collective, and New York’s Guidonian Hand (whose performance at the 2012 Bang on a Can Marathon proved that brass could work in the current new music concert scene) as well as non-NYC-based groups such as the Chicago Trombone Consort, Washington Trombone Ensemble, and the Texas-based Minor 4th Trombone Quartet. Other types of homogenous ensembles are decidedly more rare on the new music front, although one that has been building up steam is the self-styled “leading post post-feminist feminist all-female horn experience” Genghis Barbie, whose current show “Guns & Rosenkavalier” (with operatic tenor Andrew Wilkowske) seemingly shows the potential for such a group to infuse both humor and non-traditional styles into an admittedly very traditional sound world.

The final type of chamber ensemble that is beginning to show interest in utilizing brass instruments is the mixed ensemble. There are several large mixed ensembles, two of the most prominent being Alarm Will Sound and Dal Niente, that conform to the “new music ensemble” format found at many universities that bring together one of each brass and woodwind along with a string quintet, piano, percussion, and various other instruments (depending on the ensemble). These are practically chamber orchestras and don’t have the balance issues that smaller groups do, but they do give composers the chance to incorporate brass into their works. Much less common are smaller ensembles, but there are two that, to my mind, demonstrate the variety of direction that other groups could explore. Asphalt Orchestra, started several years ago by folks associated with Bang on a Can, is made up of trumpets, trombones, saxophones, sousaphone, and marching percussion. They have taken the concept of a marching band (more of a New Orleans “Second Line” band than anything you’ll see in the Rose Bowl Parade) and asked composers such as Yoko Ono, David Byrne, and Tyondai Braxton to add to their repertoire. Taking a completely different tack, the quartet loadbang combines trumpet, trombone, clarinet, and baritone voice, a combination that encourages composers to re-evaluate how brass instruments can be used in a chamber setting. In addition to performing their own interpretations of Guillaume de Machaut, John Cage, and David Lang, they themselves have been forced to commission new works simply because of the uniqueness of their instrumentation.

Having written more than my fair share of brass works, I find myself asking why more composers don’t try their hand at it. In many ways it’s like the “chicken-and-the-egg” conundrum–what comes first, the repertoire or the available and interested performers? As more repertoire is written and more chamber groups explore the potential of including brass instruments within their ranks, that inequality I wrote about earlier may indeed fall by the wayside.

Heartbreak and Hallucination: Ensemble Dal Niente Performs in vain

Ensemble Dal Niente performs in vain

Ensemble Dal Niente performs in vain
Photo by Chelsea Ross

From the moment that Ensemble Dal Niente announced that George Friedrich Haas’s widely admired work in vain would be the cornerstone of their 2012-13 season, Chicago has been buzzing about the performance. Ensemble members declared on social media that the piece was on their performance bucket list. Critic Peter Margasak of the Chicago Reader—which rarely covers fully notated contemporary classical music—described it as the concert he was most excited about this year. The performers, composers, and new music lovers that make up Ensemble Dal Niente’s audience seemed to feel the same way: that a very special and important work was finally coming to Chicago.

Eager to know what all the fuss was about, I delved into both the political and aesthetic contexts in which the work was written. I learned that Haas’s music is closely connected to the spectral school, but that it also contains shades of Ligeti, of Bruckner, even of Schubert.

As a newcomer to Haas, I wanted to interview Michael Lewanski, Dal Niente’s conductor, about why the ensemble had made Haas the center of its programming this year. I asked Lewanski why the piece was such a big deal, and he smiled. “I just love this piece. But there is a slightly mysterious, unknowable aspect to why it’s a masterpiece.”

“Accessible is a word I don’t like to use,” he continued cautiously. “I’m resistant to the notion that contemporary music is NOT accessible—but people nevertheless think that. If someone said to me, I hate contemporary music. What should I listen to? This is the music I would give them. It’s very viscerally beautiful. Somehow, it also seems to fit into this tradition that the Viennese have where they’re worried about two very different types of publics. There’s a lot of music that has the title, “For Connoiseurs and Amateurs,” because they really cared about doing both. They wanted to be able to appeal to both and speak to both.”

“I think it’s a mistake,” he continued, “to think that in vain is super original. It’s not Haas showing us a bunch of new sounds. It’s contextualizing all this stuff in new and unimagined ways. There is nothing less new than the overtone series. That is the least new thing in music. But the way he presents it—there’s this moment in the first dark section when the strings gradually coalesce into the harmonic series over B. It’s this riveting, spine-tingling, jaw-dropping moment. It’s the same thing you’ve heard for your whole life, but you hear it in this new way. You’re hearing it with new ears.”

One of the most important things I discovered during our interview was that Lewanski saw a key difference between Haas and the pure spectralists: while they write “music about sound,” Haas uses “sound as a metaphor.”

And this made sense, because in the course of learning about in vain, I had begun to construct elaborate metaphors around the piece. And I’m not the only one: in this video, Simon Rattle compares the music to the staircases of M.C. Escher, or to Sisyphus pushing his stone up the hill. In his column on Haas, Alex Ross identifies profound themes of truth, of human darkness, even of Biblical pride.

Why does in vain lend itself so easily to broad metaphorical brushstrokes? Perhaps because in the years preceding in vain‘s composition, the far-right Austrian Freedom Party was becoming increasingly reactionary and increasingly powerful. This surge was led by Joerg Haider, the charismatic and controversial son of Nazi parents who, in 1999, led the party to a 27% victory and a firm place in the coalition government. Haider said publicly that “the multicultural society is a fiction that cannot work”; Haider was virulently anti-immigration; Haider regularly attended the retirement parties of Nazi soldiers without comment.

This was the dark stuff that, according to everything I’d read, in vain would be “about.” The narrative arc of the piece—where an extended episode of equal-tempered scales yields to a darkened paradise of the overtone series, only to be vanquished by the tyranny of the scales once again—certainly seemed to resonate with Austria’s recent political history. For progressive Austrians and for observers all over the world, the electoral success of the Austrian Freedom Party indicated a terrifying backslide into the xenophobia and racism that characterized the worst period in European history. Haas described the end of in vain as “the return to a situation thought to be overcome.” And so my mind prepared the analogies:

equal temperament : the specter of history :: just intonation: a hopeful future
scales : political noise :: long tones : truth

Because my research had yielded such a compelling narrative of political history, I wondered if there was a layer of musical history in the metaphor, too. What significance does, say, a Schubertian seventh chord or a Brucknerian climax have for Haas? In this musical world of stark contrasts—light and dark, scales and long tones, chaos and unity—are Haas’s Austrian predecessors good guys or bad guys? I needed to know. Did the analogy look like this?

Murail : progress :: Schubert : dubious tradition

Or more like this?

Grisey : presence :: Bruckner : revelation

In the evening’s program note, there was an even more compelling idea: that in vain is a meta-narrative about the futility of composition itself. And indeed, the work is built from such elemental building blocks—scales, arpeggios, and long tones—that it very well could be music about music. At times the musicians, repeating their fragments over and over in long episodes, seem like 24 obsessive souls toiling alone in their practice rooms.

But as it turns out, there is nothing to compare this music to. As it turns out, I was grasping at straws. When the performance of in vain began, none of my research mattered. I scratched blindly at my paper in the dark concert hall, wondering if I’d be able to read a word. Or if I would care. If that isn’t an example of futility, I don’t know what is.


What I saw and heard at Dal Niente’s performance last Thursday was, for me, more than a political statement. It was more than a treatise on intonation. It was more than any metaphor could have prepared me for.

The opening musical landscape—the strings fussing anxiously at their scales, the horns portending doom—suggested the hyperactive loneliness of modern life. But then came the lighting change that Haas calls for in his score. Like a flock of unsuspecting birds, the musicians (and the audience as well) were plunged into complete darkness. Here, it seemed the players could finally speak with their real voices. In the dark, the instruments seemed to be living creatures, calling to each other across a chasm. When, after a great silence, the harp began to play its coaxing, gentle fragments, I was certain we had entered the underworld.

But I could never be sure where I was. Throughout the work, sound was in a state of transformation. Perfectly consonant harmonic-series chords evaporated as quickly as they had appeared. Long tones were passed from instrument to instrument in a slow-motion, timbre-bending relay. There was a pervasive sense of auditory hallucination: did I just hear what I think I heard?
When the second “dark section” began, and all the lights in the hall were again extinguished, the cascading tremolos felt like the music of religious revelation and ecstasy. Sudden flashes of light made the onstage ensemble flame, glow, and recede like an apparition. The music went on and on, the tension stretching like a rubber band. At some point, the percussion roared so loudly, the lights flashed so brightly, and the sound became so urgent that I leaned back instinctively, like a cartoon character who stands inches away from the open jaws of a lion. The brass sounded a kind of alarm and the lights flashed in panic. And it must have been my imagination, must have been another ghostly vision, when I caught a glimpse of Michael Lewanski’s face. Surely that could not have been the conductor, facing us, hands down at his sides, a powerless witness to this apocalypse of sound.
And then, with the excruciating cry of the tam-tams, heaven collapsed. The light returned, and we were left only with 24 exhausted creatures, dragging themselves through their paces once again.

A desolate emptiness settled into my body. I reached for my pen.
Heartbreak, I wrote. Whatever that was, it’s over.

Sounds Heard: Mary Ellen Childs—Wreck

Would I have been able to smell the sea salt in the air quite so powerfully while listening to a recording of Mary Ellen Childs’s Wreck if I hadn’t already seen the image of a man face down in the water that graces its cover? Possibly not, but knowing that at the outset, I swear I could feel the waves crashing against the boat and a brisk ocean breeze hitting my face as the small ensemble of clarinet, violin, cellos, and percussion cut a sonic path forward through the piece’s opening measures.

That’s not to say that the work, originally commissioned to accompany an evening-length piece by Carl Flink’s Black Label Movement dance company, paints a strictly narrative portrait. While a recording of waves and instrumental lines that mimic gull cries quite evocatively accents the nearly hour-long score, its overall character extends well beyond these nautical touches.

Set inside the last watertight compartment of a recently sunk ore boat resting at the bottom of Lake Superior, Wreck explores the depths of physical and psychological endurance and human fortitude in the face of impending and inevitable loss. Wreck expresses cooperation and violence, compassion and obsession, and the ultimate question of how we face death. —Wreck liner notes

Based on the photos and teaser video alone, I wish I had had the opportunity to see the full production. With the music now available as a stand-alone recording, I can at least appreciate Childs’s contribution: an original score for which she was recognized with a 2008 Minnesota SAGE Dance Award.

Childs is no stranger to the integration of movement and images within the frame of her music. The percussion ensemble she founded—CRASH—is a poster child for this approach (further examples here) and the work she wrote for the string quartet ETHEL incorporates the drama of a visual element—video projections in this case, rather than the more directly physical player interaction that CRASH involves. As a glance down her projects page confirms, what the eye consumes plays a significant roll in her artistic outlook.

When all that is taken away, however, I found it fascinating to hear how much of that sense of movement and visual character is carried strictly within the notes and rhythms of her musical language. Divorced from the dancers on the stage, the music captured on the recording still knits its own gripping connections though its movement-conjuring phrases—from moments of graceful swaying to heart-pounding drive and shrieking terror. According to information provided by Innova, Childs wrote the score after much of the choreography was complete, fitting her work to the movement like a film score. On the disc, it is presented as 18 aural “scenes” featuring excellent performances by Pat O’Keefe (clarinets), Laura Harada (violin), Michelle Kinney (cello), Jacqueline Ultan (cello), and Peter O’Gorman (percussion). I would be hard-pressed to point out any one portion that stands above the rest, as the real power of the work is in the overarching sum of the parts. Still, sections such as the brightly ringing clamor of the percussion-driven “Spirit Duet” definitely make a lasting impression.

Knowing the fictional setting of the dance piece, I felt a clear connection to the depth of emotion—the fear, the anger, the questioning, the resignation—that a group of people facing death together might experience. Of course this was my own listener’s fiction, but especially as the work proceeds through later moments of suffocating delirium only to conclude in a space of haunting emptiness, Childs’s presentation of these ideas in sound became an ever more powerful listening experience.

SFCMP Presents Sold-Out Reich Event

I’ve never seen the lobby of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music as crowded as on January 28 before the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players’s concert of music by Steve Reich, built around Reich’s magnum opus Music for 18 Musicians. SFCMP had completely sold out the conservatory’s 450-seat concert hall in advance: it became one of those events where numerous people suddenly turned to Facebook the morning of the show to cast about for tickets. There was a sense of anxious jostling while trying to get into the performance hall that we don’t usually associate with new music concerts. This is the second season in SFCMP’s 42-year history that has been under the artistic direction of Steven Schick, the longtime champion of contemporary music for percussion. Given the enthusiasm surrounding this program—titled “Confirmation,” a reference to Reich’s pithy response when asked what he had gained after his 1970 trip to West Africa—it will be interesting to see what other interests Schick and SFCMP can tap into as his tenure progresses.

Steven Schick, courtesy of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players

Steven Schick
Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players

The repertoire was a reprise of a concert Schick had presented a year ago at University of California, San Diego (where Schick is a professor) with his new music ensemble red fish blue fish, augmented with members of the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Here, the core musicians were members of SFCMP, who were joined by conservatory students. The student musicians’ contribution to this effort was not insignificant: for Music for 18 Musicians, five of the percussionists, two pianists, and the four vocalists were drawn from the student body. (All told there were 21 musicians on stage.) It was an admirable example of this professional ensemble integrating its work with an educational institution to create an opportunity that would have been difficult to realize without SFCMP and Schick’s guidance.

The evening opened with the three percussionists of SFCMP—William Winant, Daniel Kennedy, and Christopher Froh, all pioneering musicians in their own right—and Schick performing Clapping Music, which began before the applause welcoming them to the stage had died down. It was performed two on a part, with Schick and Kennedy taking the base track and Winant and Froh moving out of phase. The musicians approached it with a sense of playfulness that would seem out of place with a pure process piece if it weren’t so purely enjoyable to see and hear four guys who clearly enjoyed the physicality of rhythm making sounds simultaneously simple and complex with just the skin on their hands.

Clapping Music

Steven Schick (left), Daniel Kennedy, William Winant, and Christopher Froh perform Clapping Music
Photo courtesy Neocles Serafimidis

The Conservatory Guitar Ensemble, under the direction of SFCMP guitarist and professor David Tanenbaum, followed with Electric Counterpoint, featuring conservatory alumnus Travis Andrews performing the solo part. While the piece was originally written for one musician prerecording ten guitar parts and two electric bass parts and then playing the eleventh guitar live in concert, this performance featured Andrews and the two bassists playing electric instruments with twelve members of the ensemble playing acoustic guitars. As the piece is built on a series of canons, the timbral differences between the electric and the acoustic instruments plus the spatial displacement of the electric instruments made for a disjointed listening experience where the various canonic lines (though sensitively played, especially in the second movement) failed to present in a balanced and unified way. At the top of the show, there was an announcement that the sound check had been limited due to a scheduling conflict with the hall, which may have contributed to this issue.

The hour-long Music for 18 Musicians (online score here) filled the rest of the program. I will assume that most NewMusicBox readers are familiar with this massive work, for two string players, two clarinetists, four treble voices, four pianos, three marimbas, two xylophones, and vibraphone. (Schick, on vibraphone, and SFCMP clarinetist Jeff Anderle, a Bay Area new music mainstay, took the cueing roles.) I suspect, too, that most NewMusicBox readers have already formed their own opinions about this piece since its first performance in 1976; for me, working as a production assistant on the 1997 Nonesuch recording of Music for 18 remains one of the greatest fortunes of my musical life, and I count myself among those unabashed lovers of this transcendent work that breathes and pulses like an organism.

There were some balance glitches that may have stemmed from the sound check issue noted above; in particular, the vocalists were often submerged and at points the high frequencies of the xylophones pierced aggressively through the texture. (Nevertheless, high soprano Sara Hagenbuch deserves recognition for her stamina and precision throughout.) Despite these occasional issues, SFCMP and their conservatory cohorts were able to deliver the essential delight of the piece to a hungry audience. One of the joys about experiencing Music for 18 live is being able to observe visually all of the organism’s components interacting, intertwining, handing things off to each other, shifting gears as a unit when a new entity steps into the aural picture. The most memorable moment of the evening came in the transition to Section VI, when Winant, who had been sitting to the side for some sections of the first 25 minutes of the work, stepped to center stage, raised a large set of yellow maracas, and suddenly unleashed a dance party. That was the point when I put the pen and notebook down, and started riding the waves.

The San Francisco Contemporary Music Players’s next subscription concert is on Monday, February 25, at Herbst Theatre, featuring world premieres by Mark Applebaum and George Lewis, and works by Paul Dresher, Eve Beglarian, and Stuart Saunders Smith.