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Were it not for the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, last week would have been the 10th anniversary season of PROTOTYPE, a festival held in New York City each January devoted to boundary-pushing new opera and music theater. One of the highlights of this year’s offerings was to have been The Book of Mountains and Seas, a collaboration between Chinese American composer Huang Ruo and experimental puppeteer Basil Twist. I was so excited to see and hear this work, especially after being so deeply moved by Huang Ruo’s hour-long string quartet A Dust in Time which the San Francisco-based Del Sol String Quartet premiered online in October 2020 as the virus raged around the world. (In October 2021, Bright Shiny Things issued Del Sol’s recording of A Dust in Time on a CD that is packaged with a coloring book of Tibetan mandalas which listeners are encouraged to color in as they listen to the music.)
So in late December, I talked with Huang Ruo about A Dust in Time, The Book of Mountains and Seas, and many other works of his. No matter what he composes, whether it’s a bona fide opera or an instrumental work for a chamber ensemble, there is usually some kind of visual stimulation and often an element of theater involved in the performance. For Huang Ruo, music–like theater–exists in a four-dimensional space, which is why it is often difficult to capture his work in a merely two-dimensional medium like, say, most CD recordings. In fact, in one of his most intriguing creations, Sound of Hand, the solo percussionist barely produces an audible sound.
In our conversation, Huang Ruo remembered telling David Schotzko, the percussionist for whom the piece was originally written, “I want to approach it like a Chinese medicine. I want to give you this piece; clean out all your right or wrongs in your system. Just to rebuild you, from nothing to something. From bottom up. So then I created this piece, I want a piece to have the hand, just as the instrument, without holding anything. The hand itself could be the skin of the drum. The cymbal. The surface of a percussion instrument. Sometimes they are moving in the air. People might not hear anything, but they could see everything. It is a performance art piece. It is not just a piece for solo percussionist. … A dancer could do it. A regular person, they could see the score, they could learn it almost like Tai Chi, like a Kung Fu piece. I hope this piece could help people to build their own being, mental and also physical.”
There is a larger purpose in most of Huang Ruo’s work. His recent Angel Island Oratorio is based on poems that were scrawled on the walls by East Asian detainees in the immigration processing center located on this San Francisco island which is the antithesis of Ellis Island and all the myths we’ve been taught of how welcoming the United States has been to immigrants. His 2014 opera An American Solider, which he created with playwright David Henry Hwang, was based on the true story of Private Danny Chen, who committed suicide in Afghanistan after being harassed and beaten by his fellow soldiers for being Asian. The Sonic Great Wall, which was a joint commission from Ensemble Modern, Asko Schoenberg, and London Sinfonietta, shatters the fourth wall between performers and the audience.
There was so much to talk about with him and our conversation all in all lasted an unwieldy hour and a half! But since the performances of The Book of Mountains and Seas have been postponed until next year, we decided to save the portion of our conversation about that piece for a later date. There is still so much material in the hour we are presenting here which we hope will be inspiring to read and or listen to during these unfortunately ongoing precarious times.
According to Huang Ruo, “We need to learn to live with challenges, including this ongoing pandemic. One thing for sure, art and music should continue and should find its own way to be shared, to be created. And of course, doing it online. … We all need to connect, but also we need to be safely distancing ourselves. Now, yes, physically performer and audience might need to be distancing, just for safety reason, health reason. However, the main idea, why we exist, why we create art, why art exists, thousands of years, even until we are long gone, I believe this idea will still be there, is to be shared, to connect, to connect people, to share with people. And that’s the joy, the tears, that’s the laughter. That’s why we feel the burning of the art. I believe that no matter what, that will still be felt, and still carry on. If we are persistently looking, searching, and thinking, we will find a good way to create that.”
Listening to a CD will give you two-dimensional space, instead of four, when you really see a theatrical performance.
One big lesson I learned during the pandemic is accepting our fate. Accepting where we are, but also learning how to let go of the things we might have to lose.
The only way we can learn not to repeat the same mistake is by really learning what happened in the past.
A critic who came to review our opera wrote that both David and I created this very bombastically anti-American work. ... It was absolutely not our intention to create division.
Each character has their own dilemma, has their own duty to be bound to. It's not just easily black and white, who is right or who is wrong. To me, opera should tell a story more complex than that to let audiences reflect and to think. To find their own answer.
The true meaning of revolution is not about just being successful, but about keep trying.
I believe everything happens in our life for a reason.
To me the idea is to use music to bring down the barrier of what the physical wall normally is.
I think we need to learn to live with challenges, including this ongoing pandemic.
Why we exist, why we create art, why art exists, thousands of years, even until we are long gone, I believe this idea will still be there, is to be shared, to connect, to connect people, to share with people. And that's the joy, the tears, that's the laughter. That's why we feel the burning of the art. I believe that no matter what, that will still be felt, and still carry on. If we are persistently looking, searching, and thinking, we will find a good way to create that.
This post was originally written for the Salastina Music Society, ahead of their premiere of Derrick Spiva Jr.’s American Mirror string quartet on October 7, 2017.
The text has been reworked with the assistance of Kim Nguyen Tran for NewMusicBox and reposted with permission, along with a video of the performance. The original post can be found here.
A few months ago, I was getting ready for an international trip. I had lots of preparing to do. For anyone who has traveled internationally, we all know that immunizations can be a huge part of the process, depending on which country you plan to visit. In this case, I am a classical composer who often integrates musical practices from around the world into my work, and I was going to Ghana—an amazing country in West Africa—to continue my studies in traditional Ghanaian music and culture.
Derrick Spiva Jr. (in grey hat) playing axatse (shaker) with an Ewe music ensemble in Anyako, Ghana, hometown of the Ladzekpo family. July 2017.
One of the most important immunizations required for entry into Ghana was the yellow fever shot. I had received all of my other immunizations, but this one was in short supply globally, so I had to go to one of only two places in Los Angeles that provided it. When I arrived at the clinic, I filled out all of my paperwork and waited to be called in.
The travel clinic was decorated with some lovely paintings and other pieces of art from around the world. How beautiful, I thought. When I was called in to receive my immunization, I couldn’t help but strike up a conversation with the nurse who was administering the shot. While looking at my American passport, she asked me where I was from.
“I was born in Santa Ana, California,” I told her. “But I grew up in the Central Valley and live in Los Angeles now.”
“Oh, wow!” she responded. “I thought you were from Bali or something.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle. I asked her how in the world she had gathered that information.
“Well,” she said, “I thought I recognized your accent.”
I thought to myself, I know a few people from Bali who live in Los Angeles, and I absolutely love playing Balinese gamelan with them at UCLA on Tuesday nights!
Derrick Spiva Jr. (right) and his wife Kim Nguyen Tran (left) with their Balinese gamelan gong kebyar teacher, I Nyoman Wenten (center), after a performance in 2016.
But I don’t have any linguistic roots in Bali. If anything, I would have a slight accent from the American South, seeing as my grandparents grew up in Tennessee and Texas. I’m not sure how I would even fake a Balinese accent while speaking English, without first doing some intensive research and rehearsal. Beyond that: what accent is considered the American accent, anyway? Aren’t there are multiple dialects of English throughout all 50 states? Needless to say, there was some identity confusion taking place.
As an American who is a descendant of slaves, I don’t have a complete picture of exactly who my ancestors are. But I am going to claim who I am, nonetheless. My American identity is shaping up to be the result of the absorption of many different coexisting cultures.
As an American who is a descendant of slaves, I don’t have a complete picture of exactly who my ancestors are. But I am going to claim who I am, nonetheless, as a member of my community, here in America, here in Los Angeles. Like many people living in this sprawling metropolis, my American identity is shaping up to be the result of the absorption of many different coexisting cultures.
I’ve been mistaken as not being an American before, and I know this experience is shared by many others who live in our country. Sometimes it is as simple as a misunderstanding in an immunization clinic. At other times, it can be downright abusive, as it is used as a tactic to separate individuals from a group by using religion, race, sexual orientation, and/or gender to isolate them. It is a scenario that I have seen play out at every level of our society, including debates about the Americanness of a president of the United States. And not just with Barack Obama. John F. Kennedy’s loyalty to the United States was questioned because of his Catholic religion.
Incidents of judging Americanness in the court of public opinion continue to drive me to ask these questions:
What does it mean to be American?
Who am I, as an American?
Because I am a composer within the genre of classical music, I also ask:
What is American classical music?
Does classical music have something meaningful to say in this conversation about being American?
The answers to these questions seem to continuously morph and unfold over time, just as the social experiment that is our country seems to do the same. I decided to write a string quartet (titled American Mirror) that I hoped would shed light on the America that I have experienced.
Of course, after it was done I couldn’t help but also ask:
What have I gotten myself into, trying to tackle these questions in a string quartet !?!?
Despite what its reputation might be, classical music—especially contemporary classical—is amazingly open as a musical form. Classical music is one of the most flexible genres in its ability to accept a wide variety of sounds into its sonic world. Take a look at this list here. It’s incredible that all of these diverse pieces fall within the classical music genre.
Palestrina – Missa Papae Marcelli – Gloria
Kala Ramnath – Amrit (arr. Reena Esmail)
Penderecki – Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima
Alvin Lucier – I Am Sitting in a Room
Rhys Chatham – A Crimson Grail for 400 electric guitars
Juan Pablo Contreras – Mariachítlan
Classical music has an ability to open itself up to different sounds, instruments, cultures, genres, and perspectives. Despite this openness, sociological, economic, and historical factors have excluded large groups of people from participating fully in classical music. Women and people of color in particular have had difficulty finding a place in the classical music world.
Classical music has an ability to open itself up to different sounds, instruments, cultures, genres, and perspectives. Despite this openness, sociological, economic, and historical factors have excluded large groups of people from participating fully in classical music.
I have struggled to find my place in the classical music world at times, also. I have always been drawn to the porousness of classical music, it’s ability to accept limitless sounds and concepts into its sonic world. But in my classical music education, I did not always see this openness highlighted. I found myself being deeply drawn into other musical traditions that resonated with me in ways just as profound, yet different, from the ways that classical music resonated with me.
Some of the musical traditions that have most influenced my classical compositions are traditional Ghanaian music, Hindustani and Carnatic Indian classical music, Eastern European folk music (particularly from Bulgaria), and American folk traditions (gospel, hymns, jazz, bluegrass). In order to engage with these different musical traditions in a meaningful way, I realized early on that I needed to continuously accept the humbling fact that there was so much I did not know.
When hearing live Ghanaian music for the first time, I was overwhelmed by the many layers of polyrhythms and timbres. It felt as if I was riding an avalanche of rhythms thundering with joy. It took months of listening, practicing, and performing for me to even begin to understand the complex structures and relationships between the instruments, vocal songs, and dancing of this tradition.
There is also a sense of welcoming in the music, a feeling that I (or anyone else) could be a part of that avalanche of joy, if we took the time to learn it. In traditional Ghanaian music, it is common for there to be a participatory and communal relationship between performers and audience. You are often expected to be a participant (clapping, singing, dancing), not just a spectator. As my teachers, from the Ladzekpo family, always tell their students: “If you can talk, you can sing. If you can walk, you can dance.”
I want the classical music community to experience this kind of access to music, where the audience feels that they are part of the music-making process. I also want the classical community to experience the beautiful close harmonies and melodic ornamentations of Bulgarian women’s choir singing; the rhythmic complexities of Hindustani and Carnatic Indian classical music; and the profound stories of historical struggle and redemption that are present in the sounds of American folk traditions. My compositions strive to integrate these concepts and aesthetics into a cohesive and expressive musical language, in a classical music setting. I reach for the possibility that people in the audience, no matter what their background, might be able to hear themselves reflected somehow in the music—whether it be a reference to a folk tune from their homeland, a lullaby a parent sung to them as a child, or a rhythm that makes them want to get up and dance.
My string quartet American Mirror is a sonic reflection of my community here in Los Angeles. The music reflects what I see, hear, and live with in my everyday life as an American in this beautiful City of Angels. Melodically, the piece draws from gospel, West African, North African, and Eastern European vocal techniques. Underneath these melodies, American Mirror uses Copland-esque open harmonies not only found in Appalachian folk music, but also many other folk musics from around the world. There is also some audience participation built into the piece in the form of humming a drone (perfect fifth) to support the musicians and keeping tala (Hindustani and Carnatic rhythmic cycles) in the traditional way by clapping and waving.
Finding a way for all of these musical traditions to exist together in a cohesive, integrated way has taken a lot of time and effort, through performing, researching, and trying to locate and understand the points of overlap that exist between the styles. I found that vocal lines, certain rhythmic cycles, and the embodiment of rhythm through movement were particularly important points of connection. It sometimes felt like playing that old video game Tetris, in which shapes have to be layered as efficiently as possible in a given amount of time. The most amazing thing to me is that there are so many wonderful interconnections between what at first seem to be very different musical cultures.
When you understand and empathize with someone (and maybe enjoy their music), it makes it awfully difficult to hate.
Writing American Mirror was very emotional for me at times. A slow section in the middle of Part II was especially difficult. The section begins with solo viola, playing a very vocal melody inspired by the humming of folk tunes, a phenomenon that occurs in many cultures across the globe. Gradually, the other instruments join the humming viola, with their own versions of the humming. When it comes down to it, when everything is taken from us (property, technological gadgets, finances), we still have our own voices. Without anything else, we can tell stories, mourn, express infinite things through just our voice. While I was writing this section, my thoughts were with members of our community who have not been able to feel the sense of belonging that we all yearn for. Many of us know what it is to feel like an outsider in our own communities.
One of the main purposes in writing American Mirror was to represent my identity musically, by weaving together my favorite moments of awesomeness in musical cultures that resonate strongly with me and sharing this with the classical music community. It’s important to understand that each of the individual musical practices that I have brought into the piece are amazing, uplifting, and transformative in their own right, and certainly don’t need my work to shine. But I hope my music can be a doorway for people to learn about musical cultures that they are not yet familiar with.
As I continue to find points of overlap between the musical cultures that I practice, it is becoming clear to me that music has the ability to serve as a model for how we can find points of common ground in our society at large. The shared experience of music can be a profound vehicle through which people come to understand one another, despite different backgrounds and perspectives. When you understand and empathize with someone (and maybe enjoy their music), it makes it awfully difficult to hate.
[Ed. Note: Later this week (October 14-15, 2017), Sirius Quartet will present their second annual Progressive Chamber Music Festival for two nights at the Greenwich House Music School in New York City. We asked the quartet’s four members to tell the story of the evolution of the group into a post-genre ensemble and why they decided to create their own music festival. Founding violist Ron Lawrence describes how the quartet came into being and the underlying aesthetics that inform what/how the group plays as well as the music festival they curate. Second violinist Gregor Huebner explains how the quartet evolved into a group of composer-performers. Cellist Jeremy Harman, the quartet’s most recent addition, describes why he joined the group seven years ago. And first violinist Fung Chern Hwei explains how the idea for a festival emerged over a conversation between the four of them while they were on tour in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Along the way, each describes their own personal musical journeys and the directions those journeys have taken as a result of playing music with each other. As with the four separate parts that seamlessly weave together in a string quartet performance, whether it’s pre-composed or improvised, their four independent narratives inform and enhance each other.-FJO.]
The Sirius Quartet (from left to right): Fung Chern Hwei, Jeremy Harman, Ron Lawrence, and Gregor Huebner.
The conflict/merging of the sacred and the profane has been a major theme in western culture since the rise of Christianity. In the modern world, one expression of this conversation has been the gradual breakdown of the barriers between contemporary academic music and popular and folk music traditions. The aesthetic of the Sirius Quartet and our Progressive Chamber Music Festival is an expression of this ongoing blending. We created the festival to be an annual opportunity to showcase the diversity and depth of the community of like-minded composer/performers. On a more prosaic level it is an attempt to create a new “bin in the record store” for this mulatto style (perhaps labeled “omnivores’ delight”).
The Sirius Quartet revels in the musical smorgasbord that the digital tidal wave has brought to the internet.
The Sirius Quartet revels in the musical smorgasbord that the digital tidal wave has brought to the internet. With a few taps on a keyboard, anyone can access the entire canon of humanity’s musical experience. The opportunities for cross-fertilization of musical styles, performance techniques, and creating new social contexts for musical performance are abundant. The Sirius Quartet has been dedicated to exploring this new world, and the artists we’ve presented during the Progressive Chamber Music Festival for the past two years all embrace and explore these possibilities.
However, there are dangers in the digital tidal wave that has washed over the new millennium. Beyond the obvious steering of a complacent audience into the “if you like that, you’ll love this” cul-de-sac, the configuration of the software programs and their default settings creates a huge temptation to allow the machines and plug-ins to make crucial aesthetic decisions.
Without making a conscious decision, the medium can become the message. For example, the editing process can dictate what should be musical/emotional decisions. The click map is a wonderful tool when writing music to picture, but expressing rubato is time consuming. It’s easier to just loop some cool beats and lay it on the click map. The technology has dictated the musical style. Plug-in technology is also insidious. Rather than make a conscious decision about the color palette, the composer/producer will just plug in the funky ’70s Fender Twin bass sound from his or her library. It would take hours of painstaking listening to get under the hood and tweak the software to find an original sound. Once again the technology has preemptively dictated choices, homogenizing the style. The composers/performers of Sirius and our colleagues use improvisation and the spontaneity of extended techniques to combat this homogenization. We want our music feel homemade and give the audience the sensation of “fresh from the pot.”
I think my personal journey to becoming a creative musician began while driving around Michigan as a teenager with my car radio blaring rock and roll. I reveled in the breathtaking tonal and emotional palette of the electric guitar. When I arrived in New York in the early 1980s, the classical conservatory training of instrumentalists was increasingly specialized and recording techniques were creating a style and sound that worshiped velocity and close-miked sizzle over warmth and soulfulness. There was a “correct violin sound” and one’s education and technical training focused exclusively on producing that timbre and emotional quality. I yearned for that wider palette of the electric guitar. As a listener, I was as drawn to Sonny Boy Williamson or Bata drumming as I was to Babbitt or Boulez. New York, always a nexus for the melting pot of cultures, gave me the opportunity for an almost anthropological exploration of the roots of popular and folk music styles.
Playing with a few charanga and tango bands taught me that each particular style has its own unique technical challenges distinct from the classical tradition. Not only does each folkloric tradition have a unique rhythmic feel, but one’s physical approach to the instrument must be flexible enough to step outside of the classical concept of “good violin” playing. As a performer and composer, choices of bow distribution, quality of attack and decay, and tonal variety inform the rhythmic feel and emotional content of any style.
Eventually, I was asked to join the Dave Soldier Electric String Quartet. As a mainstay of the downtown, Knitting Factory music scene, Dave introduced me to that diverse, eclectic collection of urban, postmodern creative “folk” musicians. Here was my wider palette. When the Soldier Quartet disbanded, I founded the Sirius Quartet as a vehicle to continue these explorations for composers/performers.
Gregor Huebner’s reharmonization of Lennon & McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby” performed by Sirius Quartet
I joined the Sirius Quartet around 2004, shortly after I started working with jazz pianist Richie Beirach. Richie and I recorded the albums Round about Bartók and Round about Federico Mompou, which were very much about exploring the intersection of composition and improvisation in more of a jazz context. At the time, Sirius Quartet was really focused on contemporary classical and avant-garde jazz composers. As a player and a composer, this was a perfect group for me to explore my own musical identity and ideas. I started composing pieces for Sirius which included both the extended techniques of the contemporary classical “language” as well as the spirit of improvisation from my jazz experiences with Beirach, Randy Brecker, Billy Hart, and George Mraz, with whom I play in a quintet.
These days we are a string quartet which writes its own music and incorporates improvisation in many different forms.
When Jeremy and Chern Hwei—two fantastic composers and improvisers—joined the quartet, it felt like focusing on our own music was the way forward. So these days we are a string quartet which writes its own music and incorporates improvisation in many different forms. That is my own personal definition of what we are calling “progressive chamber music” as it applies to Sirius and we can stretch that term very broadly to include all kinds of creative small ensemble music, which is the focus of our annual festival.
Jeremy Harman’s composition More Than We Are performed by Sirius Quartet
I grew up spending equal amounts of time immersed in classical music via cello lessons, playing in my school orchestras, and playing in a quartet with high school friends, as well as the rock/metal world, which was a very different circle of people, most of whom were self-taught and were more focused on writing original music. I always felt equally at home in both worlds, and at the same time, maybe like in each world that I wasn’t able to fully be myself as a musician due to both collective and personal misperceptions that these two were incompatible. Throughout my life, I’ve sought to bridge this gap on a personal level, and when I auditioned for Sirius Quartet in 2010, I found some like-minded string players who each came from a pretty unique background of musical influences, but who shared my desire to build bridges between genres, and more specifically to blur the lines between supposed high-brow and low-brow art and music. We all have a classical background, but each of us have spent our lives reaching beyond that in our own ways, which have included exploring various types of improvisation, from soloing over chord changes to playing completely free with no premeditated musical goals or expectations, exploring alternative and extended techniques of playing to widen our sonic palette, and composing our own music which we hope reflects our unique identities as both individuals and as a quartet.
Each of us have spent our lives reaching beyond our classical backgrounds.
With seven years in the group, I am still the newest member of the Sirius Quartet, and most of its history predates me. Initially the quartet came out of the Soldier String Quartet run by violinist Dave Soldier in the late ’80s as Ron has already mentioned, but as the resident “rookie” here, I think they did some very interesting work as part of the early Knitting Factory/“downtown” scene, working with artists such as Elliott Sharp and Nick Didkovsky and playing a lot of music that was more on the experimental side.
As has been said, in recent years, the quartet has focused more on original works by members of the quartet itself and has leaned more toward the jazz side of things, collaborating with a lot of phenomenal musicians including Linda Oh, Steve Wilson, Richard Sussman and Rufus Reid who all have written really incredible music incorporating the string quartet into more traditional jazz ensembles and instrumentations.
As a quartet, I think we occupy a somewhat unique position in the New York City music scene. So we wanted to put together a festival that brings together musicians from the various corners of the musical worlds we occupy. There are already some fantastic music festivals in the city, but we thought there was plenty of room for another one. If there were a Venn diagram that existed and each of these festivals occupied their own circle, I think that the circle that the Progressive Chamber Music Festival would occupy would have significant overlap with all of them.
Fung Chern Hwei
The genesis of the Progressive Chamber Music Festival happened one fine October morning in 2015. The place was Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where we were on tour and had a day off. Before the sun displayed its full equatorial glory, we were enjoying breakfast at a South Indian-Malaysian roadside food stall—more commonly known as a “mamak” stall. Words were exchanged over a topic as old as the quartet’s two-decade long career: How does one define the musical direction the quartet is taking? How does that fit into the current musical landscape of the music scene in New York and elsewhere? Many of our fans and listeners would agree, it can be difficult to place the group in a certain category. Sirius has a fascinating lineage of former members who have developed their own projects writing and/or performing contemporary classical music and/or various non-traditional genres—Todd Reynolds, Meg Okura, Jennifer Choi, Dave Eggar, just to name a few.
The current incarnation of the quartet is primarily focused on music that is internally written, as three of the four of us are composers. We all compose in different styles and methods, since each of us came from a slightly different musical background. The end result is, I think, an eclectic body of music that pulls listeners in many directions and hopefully both challenges and intrigues them.
We don’t rule anything out.
We don’t rule anything out in the music we write: tonality, atonality, groove, form, etc., and we like to incorporate improvisation in various ways to achieve various goals in our music. This could range from creating vamps in the midst of otherwise through-composed music (to bring about a change of pace or vibe) to finding ways of embellishing or improvising on a previously written part in one of our pieces, to linking various movements and/or pieces together with free improvisation, which we’ve found can create a nice heightened sense of focus in the audience since what is composed and what is improvised becomes less and less distinct.
We have had the absolute pleasure to work with accomplished creative jazz musicians like Uri Caine and John Escreet, both of whom in their own way share our affinity for line-blurring. They have each written some amazing music that we have performed together over the years which consists of very interesting mixtures of composed and improvised material. I certainly don’t think this is unique to our quartet; I think there is a growing movement of creative musicians of all stripes blending these elements in a myriad of really interesting ways.
Getting back to our breakfast in Kuala Lumpur, we didn’t necessarily come to any explicit conclusions when talking about our place in the larger world of creative music, but we found the discussion to be really enjoyable and it gave us a chance to reflect upon and really appreciate the musical community that we are a part of. New York City has long been an incubator for cross-genre pollination and experimentation in all corners of the music community. It is not difficult to find artists and groups, many of them personal friends of ours, who fall outside of the mainstream categories of “concert” or “art” music. So someone probably half-jokingly mentioned putting together a festival with a bunch of friends and colleagues whose music resonates with us and who we respect very much as artists, and we thought it actually sounded like a good idea!
Currently the festival is a total DIY operation, but the goal is basically to give each artist the chance to do solely what best represents them and their creative identity without having to compromise anything. The name “Progressive Chamber Music Festival” retains the ambiguity of the types of music presented, therefore giving musicians absolute freedom of expression, while at the same time it clearly defines the philosophy that I think we and our musical comrades stand for—progressiveness within but also regardless of convention. We hope to challenge the common notion of what chamber music should be, while inviting old and new voices to partake.
Adam Berenson: Lumen
(Dream Play Records 88295 05724)
Adam Berenson – composer, piano, prepared piano, synthesizer, percussion, and live electronics; Scott Barnum, doublebass and occasional percussion; Eric Hofbauer, guitar and percussion; Bill Marconi, percussion; Bob Moses, drums; Yukako Funahashi and Annete Chan, violins; Ilana Schroeder, viola; Sigurgeir Agnarsson, cello; plus JACK Quartet: John Pickford Richards, viola; Ari Streisfeld, violin; Christopher Otto, violin; and
Kevin McFarland, cello Buy now:
In what seems like a deliberate play on the channel surfing of this day and age, Lumen, an extremely expansive two-CD set culled from twenty years of recordings of music by Philadelphia-area composer/pianist Adam Berenson, constantly changes moods and styles. From track to track, it veers between performances by a jazz combo (where Berenson is joined by Scott Barnum on bass and either Bob Moses or Bill Marconi on percussion), string quartet compositions, solo piano improvisations (which upon occasion wander inside the piano), and sonic experiments involving percussion and electronics. Within this premeditated serendipity, however, a subliminal through-line emerges. The more you listen, the less aware you are of whether the music was composed a priori or improvised on the spot.
In a cover letter from Berenson that accompanied the disc when it was sent to me back in March, Berenson claimed that in his “improvised ensemble work” and his “composed string quartets … the musical thinking is the same, the psyche is the same, and the process of making the music is very similar; all of the pieces are chamber music. … The concept behind the set is that in the modern world everything is everything.”
While concluding each disc with a string quartet composition could imply that his fixed music is somehow a crystallization of his improvised material, Berenson subverts that interpretation by ending the first disc with his String Quartet No. 3 and the second with String Quartet No. 1. To further mix things up, four of the tracks are parts of a work entitled “jnana”—parts 10, 13, and 8 appear on the first disc while part 18 is on the second. Aside from teasing listeners curious about at least fourteen additional parts to this piece that were not included, the listening path that Berenson has chosen for his listeners ultimately guarantees that the journey is not a chronological one. After having taken Berenson’s journey several times, here’s an attempt at a travelogue. But first, take a listen to one of the tracks.
The first disc opens with “Transpersonal,” a percussion duo with Marconi which sounds somewhat incantatory given its various gong twacks. This is immediately followed by the first installment of “jnana” (part ten) which combines what sounds like a mildly prepared piano with an array of electronics that hint at the sonority of the mellotron as well as magnetic tape speed manipulations. Are folks still using reel-to-reels like this? Cool. Some mysterious percussion and an occasional arco bass chime in on occasion to add to the sonic mayhem. “Late 20th century Stomp” is the first of the tracks to directly evoke the sound world of jazz, specifically that of one of its most ubiquitous combos—the piano, bass, and drums trio—in exploratory music that would feel at home on one of the original ESP-Disk’ releases. It’s all over in only 38 seconds, but the trio continues on in the equally adventurous “Emotional Idiot,” which features some skewed walking bass lines and frenetic drumming. However, although “Prose Surrealism” also features a jazz combo, here they begin to stray into very different sonic territory whose source is the other, equally inspirational end of the ‘60s jazz spectrum; the music they’re now playing would not sound out of place subbing for the Bill Evans trio at the Village Vanguard.
Things return to a more decidedly free jazz state on “Very Soon Mankind Will No Longer Be a Useless Passion (Broadway Melody Of 1996).” And all things are possible in the next section of “jnana” (part 13) which revels in an array of electronic experiments. “Rilke,” on the other hand, is a gorgeous, almost Scriabin-esque solo piano fantasia which segues abruptly into “Ricercar (for Sven Nykvist),” an homage to Ingmar Bergman’s cinematograther, returning us to jazz while “…was near the black plague…” is something of a bitonal rag. “A Little Boy Opened a Window” introduces some prepared piano sonorities in combination with percussion; at one point, Berenson ekes out a tune reminiscent of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” For “…Searching… Everywhere” the trio returns for what is perhaps the most laid back music they have played thus far. “Dithyramb” continues the jazz trajectory, only now the musicians are playing in a way that hints at Cecil Taylor’s early combos.
This is followed with another dose of “jnana” experimentation. (It’s part 8, for those keeping score.) But about a minute and half in, there’s a brief pause and the texture suddenly completely transforms. It’s suddenly all acoustic. An almost hymn-like piano melody is accompanied by arco bass and occasional percussion punctuation. You might think you’re in a new track; you’re not. After only about a minute, more unusual sounds return, some seemingly electronically generated although at this point the ear has been pulled in so many directions that it’s hard to tell! The experimentation of “jnana” continues on “Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek,” in which Barnum and Berenson are joined by Eric Hofbauer on guitar and all three share percussion duties; acoustic and electronically modified sonorities seamlessly blur, although now there are also hints of grooves from time to time. Then comes the live performance by the JACK Quartet of a roughly 16-minute single movement composition for string quartet, his String Quartet No. 3, which involves tons of extended techniques—snap pizzicatos, col legno, etc. As a result of all the improvised and electronic music that proceeds it, this notated acoustic chamber music composition often sounds like it’s neither.
“I,” which opens the second disc, begins with a riff on the synthesizer which is quickly joined in duet with acoustic piano, contrasting the abilities of these two very different keyboards—Berenson’s fingers race across the keys of the piano while his synthesizer lines are mostly slower and take advantage of the ability to change the ADSR envelop as well as to bend notes. “Respectable People” brings us back to the jazz trio for what is mostly a straight-ahead performance. “Stars 1” is another piano solo, a quiet chain of block chords, but for “The Adytum,” Berenson’s aphoristic piano lines are enhanced by eerie electronic clusters. On “Tickled to Death,” bass and drums punctuate a captivating series of jagged scalar runs on the piano, and more experimentation ensues on the final installment of “jnana”—part 18. (I really do want to hear the missing parts. Note to self: acquire Berenson’s 2010 CD Jnana.)
“Ingrid Thulin” is a slightly blues-tinged tribute, for trio, to the celebrated Swedish actress who appeared in many Ingmar Bergman films (there’s Bergman again), after which “through this stillness,” which pits piano against bowed cymbals, has a Feldmanesque quality. But perhaps the most introspective track in the entire collection is “Yasujiro Ozu,” which combines oblique piano chords with muted percussion taps that almost sound like footsteps. For its five minutes, time seems completely suspended, which is perhaps appropriate given the track’s namesake, the seminal Japanese director whose often static films are completely immersive. In “Spooky action at a distance,” Berenson wanders back inside the piano, rubbing strings with the flesh of his fingers à la Henry Cowell’s “The Banshee.”
The remainder of the disc is devoted to a 1997 studio recording of Berenson’s first String Quartet, a five-movement composition whose twelve-minute first movement is glacially slow; it is followed by faster music that seems like it’s about to go somewhere, but never does. (This is actually a compliment.) The third movement returns us to the slowness which now feels even more somber, perhaps as a result of being misled about going somewhere else in the previous movement and winding up back here instead. The fourth movement at times has a similar quality to the early chamber music of Arthur Berger, which has been very appropriately described as a kind of diatonic Webern. It turned out not to be a path Berger or anyone else wound up taking, so it’s nice to hear it being explored again. But where Berenson ultimately takes us to, in the quartet’s final movement which is also the final track on the disc, is slow, somber music once more. It’s been quite a ride.
[Ed Note: Seymour Barab, one of the most prolific composers of operas and music for young audiences as well as a formidable cellist dedicated to the performance of new music, died on June 28, 2014 at the age of 93. To honor his memory, we asked violinist Anahid Ajemian—who knew Barab for more than half a century and who, along with him, Matthew Raimondi, and Bernard Zaslav were the founding members of the Composers Quartet formed in 1963—to share her recollections of Barab as composer, cellist, and friend. We’d like to thank George Boziwick, Chief of the Music Division for The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, as well as Ajemian’s son Greg Avakian, for helping to coordinate this essay, and also Barab’s daughter-in-law Marie McCann, who supplied us with the historic photos reproduced herein—FJO]
A young Seymour Barab playing the cello
Seymour Barab started composing at an early age, and his interest in new music and composition remained a major part of his life. It was many years before I became aware of the number and variety of his compositions because I later knew Seymour as a fellow musician in the Composers String Quartet.
I probably met Seymour in New York City sometime in the mid 1940s. Even then, Seymour made quite an impression as he walked into a room—a large, cheerful man swinging his cello at the end of his arm. At this time composers were eager and even anxious to have readings and performances of their music, and Seymour was already writing, performing, and organizing new music events.
It was another era.
In 1946 my sister, pianist Maro Ajemian, and I were touring in Europe. We played in Paris where we also spent some time attending concerts and gatherings. During an informal afternoon reading of a movement of what could have been a segment from Boulez’s first piano sonata, I recognized Seymour Barab among the many musicians there from New York. He had taken a year after being discharged from the navy to work and compose in Paris. I later found out that during this year he composed over 200 instrumental and vocal works.
Upon returning to the United States, Seymour immediately became very busy in New York doing various recording projects, concerts, and of course composing. The number of contemporary concerts at an increasing number of venues led to a cadre of younger performers who were eager to learn and play these challenging works. Seymour was immensely popular due to his confidence in performing, as well as his interest in, and rapid understanding of, these complicated scores.
In the 1950s as television and radio commercials became more common, Seymour was very much in demand and we would occasionally meet in the studios. This is when I first began to know Seymour as a friend and not just as a colleague. I sensed the kindness of the gentle soul that he was. He quickly deciphered any music that was placed before him, but he was also respectful—both as a musician and as a human being.
Barab reading through a score by Ben Weber, who is standing behind him.
During this period, the composer Gunther Schuller selected the best available musicians in the city for concerts of new works. These concerts were a terrific success. Gunther asked Matthew Raimondi to organize a quartet to perform three concerts of contemporary new works. Matthew asked me, and then quickly chose Seymour and Bernie Zaslav as other members. We were an ad hoc group—all with careers and obligations to other ensembles—and didn’t know what might be the outcome of this exciting endeavor. The results were numerous requests from universities, and composers suddenly had need for a permanent quartet. This is how we formed The Composers String Quartet in 1965.
As a musician, Seymour was remarkable to work with. As would be expected, his playing was brilliant, but as a member of the quartet, he was an asset beyond his ability to play his instrument. Seymour could articulate and explain the structural intent of a given piece of music, and his playing was void of vanity.
Seymour had a sense of the musical purpose of a composition. Some composers start work by using ideas and elements of music as building blocks and then create an intellectual structure of music that is emotional and beautiful nonetheless; others are inspired by an emotional image, sense, or feeling that must be expressed. Seymour had an uncanny ability to read the music and interpret the composer’s process and intended emotional content—and thus play the music from the composer’s point of view and not just by reading the notes on a page.
For Seymour, working with three other people who all had a passion for music seemed easy; he was intelligent and articulate, but he never used this to get his way or challenge the other members of the group. He did not dictate his desires as much as put them forth for our consideration. Seymour would join his ideas to others so that we never spent much time discussing musical interpretation. We played together and if something was said, Seymour would add to it, often showcasing a brilliant aspect of the music that perhaps we hadn’t heard before. But more than anything, Seymour’s ability to articulate different ideas through his playing helped us to converse through music and not just talk.
As the quartet grew in popularity, it became evident that travel and touring would move beyond the concerts we were regularly performing in the United States. At this point, Seymour was justifiably feeling the time constraints in his work as a composer.
After a long rehearsal one day, Seymour invited Matthew and me out for a drink. Seymour told us that he loved to play with us, but he was uncomfortable with the travel and time it took away from his composing. We had known that this was on his mind for some time and decided to accommodate schedules until we solved the problem. Because Seymour was Seymour, our friendship never ended.
Seymour finished his time with the Composers String Quartet by playing several concerts and was on several recordings. My favorite is of Carter’s First String Quartet when Seymour starts that solo entrance; it’s perfect.
Seymour, we will all miss you.
A collection of family photos of Seymour Barab assembled by the Barab family.
Accompanying music: Dances for Oboe and Strings by Seymour Barab,
performed by the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra conducted by Richard Auldon Clark (Kleos Classics 5112)
Performed by the Del Sol Quartet:
Kate Stenberg, violin
Rick Shinozaki, violin
Charlton Lee, viola
Kathryn Bates, cello
(New World 80753-2) Buy now:
San Francisco-based Del Sol Quartet’s recent New World Records 2-CD release of Robert Erickson’s complete string quartets is truly an ambitious album. Working chronologically and covering a compositional period from 1948-1986, Del Sol illuminates Erickson’s development and maturation as a composer.
Listening to his quartets brings to mind the image of an onion: at first glance, an onion is, well, an onion—basic and non-threatening. But as each layer is peeled away, the onion becomes more pungent and affects the person peeling it with greater, often times uncontrollable intensity. This gradient is sharply noticeable in Erickson’s quartets. Though everyone experiences music and sound differently, for me his debut quartet, completed in 1950, is an unpeeled onion on the kitchen counter. This is not to say the piece, organized in three movements and written using traditional methods of counterpoint and twelve-tone harmony, is not interesting; after all, the best sauces use onion, and Erickson’s first quartet has its moments of brilliance. But the piece is strict, uptight, and highly cerebral.
Over the next six years, Erickson only finished a handful of works, juggling teaching commitments, a stint on KPFA radio, writing a book, and moving around the country. But at the end of this period, he emerged transformed as a composer with his Second String Quartet (1956). Immediately this quartet pushes past the limitations of the first and expresses a greater confidence in the idiom. As Erickson’s student and biographer Charles Shere points out in the set’s accompanying program notes, “Where the conversations of the First Quartet had been contrapuntal, direct, like rational and logical disputations proceeding toward a logical outcome, those of the Second Quartet are fanciful, exploratory, playful, and not so rule-bound.”
For the next three decades, Erickson composed for a wide variety of ensembles as well as for electronics but did not return to the string quartet until Solstice, completed in 1985. A radical departure from the first and even the second quartet, it is comprised of drones and meandering lines reminiscent of an Indian raga or Middle Eastern music, meeting in powerful unisons across all four instruments but only fleetingly before one instrument leaps away to a soaring harmonic or teases with a seductive melody. One such instance is at c. 3’44”, when the instruments compound into a seemingly impenetrable wall of octaves from which an evocative solo voice emerges, pristine. Unrestrained by any traditional form or counterpoint, Erickson communicates his musical ideas every which way—powerfully, playfully, viscerally. Though he had stated that Solstice is not program music, there are reflections of the definition of a solstice (i.e. either the longest or shortest day in the year) in the interplay of short, melodic gestures and seemingly endless drones.
Finally, there is Corfu. Written just a year after Solstice, Erickson’s last composition for string quartet functions as both a seamless continuation of Solstice and as an independent creation. Corfu moans. Its harmonics jump off the fingerboard, constantly pushing the notes higher and higher, all within an extremely stripped-back, naked context. One particularly striking moment is c. 20’36” when, out of nowhere, the violin springs to a staggeringly high note and the cello sounds like a machine grinding to a halt. The harmonies are awfully dissonant and tense until a lower voice releases the tension and the piece fades to a close. Like a white dwarf that remains after the implosion of a star, the piece’s concluding gesture—which not only ends Corfu but Erickson’s entire exploration of the medium—transcends the double bar line, its residual energy lingering long after the music ceases.
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.
With the Kronos Quartet celebrating their 40th anniversary this season, a survey of new music’s current crop of innovative young string quartets reveals a diverse array of ensembles who specialize in unique niches of the music scene. Whereas the original Kronos Quartet lineup performed works by Lutoslawski along with Glass and world music, today’s younger generation quartets seem split between groups like the JACK Quartet—who have defined themselves by a commitment to experimental modernism—and, on the other hand, groups like this disc’s Brooklyn Rider, an ensemble with a predilection for the vernacular and chops steeped in the musical anthropology of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble (of which the gentlemen of Brooklyn Rider are all members).
Brooklyn Rider had enormous success with their previous Seven Steps release, a recording which paired Beethoven’s monumental C-Sharp Minor String Quartet with a group-composed composition that reflected and expanded upon that masterwork’s varied musical facets. Brooklyn Rider thrives in the realm of world music and folk traditions, yet they’ve always sought to tie this impulse into their considerable classical chops—all while at the same time cultivating the ensemble as a kind of composer collective led by violinist/composer Colin Jacobsen.
In this case, Bartók’s Second String Quartet is the glue that holds this new album together, with that work’s blend of folk sources defining the album’s musical core. The Bartók is flanked by two new compositions by present day composer-performers that further burnish Brooklyn Rider’s reputation for hip collaborations that shed light on our relationship to our roots.
Ljova’s Culai (2011-12) wears its Romanian gypsy influence proudly, finding a nice balance between an offhanded, improvised feel and carefully orchestrated gestures that mark Ljova as composer with craft and ingenuity to burn. The work’s central movement—inspired by the stylings of gypsy vocalist Romica Puceanu—is catchy, harmonically pungent, and rich in character. Brooklyn Rider brings a suitably rustic quality to the work—knowing when to lay off of their classical side is one of the group’s strongest suits. “Love Potion, Expired” is easily the fieriest movement, a scampering tarantella that’s as fun and exciting a romp as you’re likely to hear on string instruments. Even the work’s more low-key “Funeral” movement is animated by mournful slides that wring every last bit of sentiment from the scene; Ljova and Brooklyn Rider are a great pair, and I hope to hear more of their collaborations. Ljova inhabits pop miniatures with a sense of care and orchestrated gesture that adds layers of punch and expression to simple textures, which in turn is what Brooklyn Rider’s interpretations offer the attentive listener.
Colin Jacobsen’s Persian-laced Three Miniatures (2011) expands on a tradition of miniature paintings in which epic scenes packed with emotion and action are rendered on tiny surfaces. As something like Brooklyn Rider’s resident composer, Jacobsen has been developing with each new offering and this is perhaps his strongest and most persuasive composition to date: a series of microcosms that encapsulate powerful feelings and gestures, while never seeming overblown or overwrought.
Brooklyn Rider seems to thrive on miniatures and established quartet masterpieces in equal measure, and here Jacobsen serves up a series of movements grounded in ostinato patterns, most obviously in the first movement, “Majnun’s Moonshine.” The suite’s slow movement, “The Flowers of Esfahan,” drifts in like perfumed air, its vivid imagery of nocturnal gardens and birdsong unfolding naturally in trills and runs, demanding passagework that Brooklyn Rider makes effortless and delicate. This is one of the album’s most arresting tracks, and one in which Jacobsen’s potential and personality as a composer is given the most room to blossom into something truly unique and satisfying. The concluding movement, “A Walking Fire,” seems to reach the limits of Jacobsen’s ostinato-based approach but in a glorious way, revving up the intensity over a variety of harmonic and textural shifts.
Like many newly minted compositions for Brooklyn Rider, this one is bite-sized and unrelentingly poppy—which, after the Bartók, struck my ears as refreshing. The particular genius of Brooklyn Rider has been the way in which the group manages to connect established masterworks to new projects that capture the pop infatuation, diversity, and more informal spirit of the group’s namesake borough. A Walking Fire makes a telling argument for the validity of this approach, with an infectious toe-tapping quality that pervades both the Bartók masterwork and the lighter offerings which set it so cleverly in relief.
From one vantage, almost all music analysis can be summed up in one question: Where does the time go? This lovely new recording by the Los Angeles-based new music specialist Eclipse Quartet and percussionist William Winant is, primarily, united by the relatively unusual, pleasantly mad scientist-ish combination of string quartet and percussion. But it also presents three works that wear their respective approaches to marking the time on their sleeves. It also suggests, however small the sample size, that how the time gets passed depends on what time the composer has passed through; the cohort divide between the program’s composers is audible and fascinating. When it comes to time—to paraphrase one of my favorite time-killers—the perennial problem for each generation is finding a good way to spend it.
Boxes and process characterize the first two works. The nested elevens of Frederic Rzewski’s Whimwhams, for string quartet and marimba—eleven sections of eleven groups of eleven quarter-note beats—is a restrictive yin to a pure-imagination yang: the modules are, ostensibly, the only formal restriction on a form of compositional improvisation, Rzewski filling each module with bits of passing fantasy. But Rzewski’s improvising is disciplined and restrained: his conviction seems to be that the short ideas—a quick little four-note oscillation, for example, is a prominent character—have more variation and potential than might be apparent. Motives stay in play for a surprisingly long time from section to section; much of the music’s hold on the ear hinges on subtleties—some modules circle back to their beginnings, some don’t, and Rzewski has a fair amount of fun with tiny shifts that nonetheless completely change a phrase’s stylistic lean.
The entire process of James Tenney’s Cognate Canons is announced in the title: twenty-five minutes of canonic near-translation, pitched strings and largely unpitched percussion doing their best to echo each other. That the time goes so quickly is due to Tenney’s management of the gap between vocabularies: the relationship between the string and percussion sounds are close enough to recognize but far enough to lose track of, and it’s easy for the listener to slip between hearing the structure assured by the title and setting it aside for an experience of pure sound. The piece wears its ingenuity lightly.
Whimwhams and Cognate Canons are generational cousins: both composers were born in the ’30s, both pieces date from 1993. Zeena Parkins, whose s:c:a:t:t:e:r:i:n:g fills out the recording (and was commissioned by the performers), is of a later time. Parkins got her start in the experimental music world of 1980s New York, and her experience is characteristic of that time and place: a lot of avant-garde rock bands, a lot of music for dance, a lot of free movement between notation and improvisation—and between alternative spaces and academia.
Completed in 2012, s:c:a:t:t:e:r:i:n:g has a structural similarity to Whimwhams—ten continuous movements this time, in which ideas weave and swirl from section to section. But Parkins’s music is cumulative: the ideas don’t so much bounce off of each other as pile up. There’s a heavy overlay of electronics as well, amplifying the instruments, processing the sound, introducing new sounds—manipulated vocal sounds are a prominent feature. The music is deliberately overscheduled, a crowded grid.
One of my listening sessions with this recording filled the time on a long, cross-country drive, and I started hearing the disparate works in similar terms: Tenney’s piece a picture of slow-shifting, rolling landscapes, Rzewski’s a state highway tour of successive small town centers. Parkins’s was a much more urban/suburban landscape—signs and billboards, in such profusion as to make zoning restrictions nominal. From era to era, it seems, fixed points move: regimentation turns mercurial, systems produce mystery, sprawl becomes expressive. The passage of time can also be a handoff.
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.