NPR Shares Dessner/Kronos Collaboration

This week, NPR’s First Listen program is sharing a streaming preview of Ayhem, a collaboration between Kronos Quartet and Bryce Dessner of the National. Out via Anti Records on November 5th, the recording is Dessner’s first full length album of concert works. That said, Dessner is no newbie to writing for classical instruments; he has composed for various contemporary ensembles. In 2011, I interviewed him about his part in American Composers Orchestra’s SONiC Festival.  A recording of the resulting piece, St. Carolyn by the Sea, is slated for release soon on DG.

 

 

Dmitri Tymoczko – Crackpot Hymnal

crackpot hymnal

Dmitri Tymoczko

Crackpot Hymnal

Bridge Records CD

In recent decades, there’s been a move in some American academic circles to put more separation between the disciplines of music composition and music theory. It seems especially curious to those of us who have, to greater or lesser degrees, modeled our careers and aesthetics on our forebears, adopting the “composer-theorist” approach (some of us even adopt the “composer-performer-theorist” tag, but that’s another story for another day). Happily, academics like Dmitri Tymoczko thrive, pointing out that a hyphenated or, more properly, interdisciplinary existence is still amply possible without compromising one’s standing in either or both disciplines.

Tymoczko is one of the best known scholars discussing geometric modeling in music theory; his “The Geometry of Musical Chords” was the first music theory article published in Science Magazine; his first book, A Geometry of Music (Oxford University Press, 2011) is thought-provoking and, given its subject matter, surprisingly accessible: It has engendered a great deal of discussion in music theory circles. However, Tymoczko teaches at Princeton University in the Composition Area; while many important theorists have studied at Princeton, there is no Theory Department in the Graduate Music program, only Composition and Musicology.

On his first CD, Beat Therapy (Bridge, also 2011), Tymoczko flexed his third stream muscles, presenting a program of concert works influenced by jazz including improvised solos. Crackpot Hymnal, his second recording for the Bridge imprint, features fully notated chamber pieces played by estimable ensembles: the Amernet and Corigliano Quartets and the Illinois Modern Ensemble with pianist Daniel Schlossberg. The pieces address crossover, or polystylism, though, for the most part, instead of jazz, popular and rock styles interact with folk and modern classical music. Given Tymoczko’s early background playing popular music, and his subsequent theoretical writings that point out the ways that geometrical modeling of scales and chords is applicable to the analysis of both classical and popular music, his exploration of similar issues in his compositions makes perfect sense.

He has a bit of fun as well with this idea of similarity of collections between disparate styles. In the album opener, The Eggman Variations (2005), a quintet for pianist John Blacklow and the Corigliano Quartet, the first movement, titled “Pentatonia,” overwhelmingly employs pentatonic collections. But is the listener guided to hear them as aspects of Asian folk music, Impressionist chamber music, or box riffs by a guitarist in a garage band? Depending on where you are in the piece, it could seem to be any one, or several, of these archetypal references to a five-note scale. Alongside the glissandos one might expect, permutations of chordal extensions (7th chords, 9th chords, et cetera), populate the piece’s second movement, “Bent.” “A Roiling Worm of Sound” (what a fantastic title) mixes multiple layers of ostinato repetitions into an ebulliently undulating whole.

Another aspect of polystylism that Tymoczko embraces in these pieces is the ever-expanding condition of our varied digital music libraries, with the concomitant use (abuse?) of the shuffle button on our iPod, iTunes, or other digital delivery system. With a few clicks of a mouse or remote, listeners can leapfrog throughout music history and a plethora of musical geographies. Typecase Treasury (2010), another piano quintet for Kevin Weng-Yew Mayner and the Amernet Quartet, is a seven-movement suite of miniatures that revels in stylistic juxtaposition. It is neoclassicism versus post-minimalism in “Where We Begin.” “Hurdy Gurdy” channels Nancarrow in its not-so-well oiled musical motor and bluesy cast. Sheared off blocks of angular rhythms and deliberately schmaltzy chords inhabit “Crackpot Hymnal” in a quirky coexistence. You can imagine what happens in “This One was Supposed to be Atonal.” The composer describes “Russian Metal” as “Shostakovich orchestrating Black Sabbath,” which is a nice summation for this simmering aural snapshot. “Intermezzo” explores polytonality and harmonics in an appealingly piquant scoring that seems to take Bartók as its starting point. “Anthem” brings the piece to a close in rollicking fashion, bringing back some of the material from the opening, but transformed into a kinetic finale.

This Picture Seems to Move (1998), is also played by the Amernet Quartet. Even though it is a relatively early Tymoczko work, one can already hear a penchant for juxtaposition. Its first movement’s title, “Twittering Machine,” is a Paul Klee reference; obviously, it significantly predates our default assumptions about “twittering” today. It pits a modernist rhythmic language against a neoromantic harmonic palette. The work’s other movement, titled (after Boccioni) “Those Who Go,” features a beautifully brooding quasi-tonal melody alongside five-against-three pizzicatos.

The recording’s final piece, Another Fantastic Voyage (2012), is a chamber piano concerto. Schlossberg and the Illinois Modern Ensemble supply a rousing performance of the piece, which is filled with abundant virtuosity for the soloist and hairpin turns and tricky rhythms aplenty for the sinfonietta. Its title references Asimov, and one can image the subtitles being the names of short stories by Ray Bradbury. As the three movements’ monikers – “The Mad King,” “Changeling,” and “An Evil Carnival” – suggest, this is a piece in which Tymoczko is willing to explore darker thematic terrain. It is also where he best demonstrates a flair for the dramatic.

Once again, we hear the composer unwilling to take received norms – the formality of the concerto form, for instance – at face value. Instead he seeks to subvert our expectations of what a piano concerto does by placing it inside the inspirational context of genre fiction. Of course, the piano concerto is one of the classical forms that is longest in the tooth, and there are a significant number of 20th and 21st century works that seek to deconstruct it. That Tymoczko is able to find still another way to reframe the concerto design is no mean feat. If you are one of those who distrust the “hyphenated” contingent of composer-theorists, assuming their music is overly cerebral and lacking immediacy, take a listen to this piece. When one hears its vividly orchestrated and vibrantly paced carnival ride closer, all bets are off. You’ll likely think twice before making extravagant claims about “interdisciplinary types” again.

– Christian Carey

RIP Lou Reed (1942-2013)

lou_reed_286

“One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.”

– Lou Reed

 

Much of my music passes the above “into jazz” marker. That said, Lou Reed taught me a great deal about productivity, creativity, and the maxim that “sometimes, less is more.”

Sad tonight for Laurie Anderson, and for us, who are deprived of more “more with less.”

 

 

Trailer for Experiments in Opera’s opener

Halloween week just got spookier …

Experiments in Opera’s Season Opener
Features Works by Zorn, Pavone, Cady and Welch
Saturday November 2, 8pm at Abrons Art Center Playhouse
466 Grand Street, New York.
$30 general, $20 students
One night only – will sell out!
Call Theatermania at 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.AbronsArtsCenter.org

chorus of all souls opera

Saturday: Ekmeles visits Rutgers

ekmelesinconcert

When I was a graduate student at Rutgers (a little over a decade ago), the composition students were fortunate to have the Helix! Ensemble, a contemporary music group in residence at Rutgers, to perform our compositions alongside other new works. I have many fond memories of working with Helix!. Apart from that, other ensembles at the school occasionally (more occasionally than we would have preferred) worked with the graduate students, and we had a department forum with guest speakers.

Of late, RU’s composition program has a lot more going on. New chair Robert Aldridge seems to have brought with him a great deal of energy and enthusiasm, which has trickled down and improved things for composers. Helix! is still there and active as ever, directed by pianist and conductor Paul Hoffmann (the group’s Fall concert is on Sunday at 2 PM). Several other campus ensembles are regularly working with student composers. The students are also active in presenting their own and each others’s music in recital. Distinguished composers Charles Fussell and Gerald Chenoweth remain on the faculty and Christopher Doll is a more recent addition.  Aldridge is teaching composers as well as chairing the department; Tarik O’Regan is also teaching at Rutgers this year.

Another welcome addition: inviting guest artists to campus to work with composers. On Saturday, New York-based vocal ensemble Ekmeles performs a program of new pieces by RU composers. Ekmeles is well known for their tremendous facility with extended techniques: I’ve written in the past about their accomplishments singing Gesualdo (in Vicentino’s tuning), Carter, and contemporary microtonal music. I’m looking forward to hearing what the students will learn from Ekmeles – and try out in Saturday evening’s concert (7:30 PM at Schare Hall – Mason Gross School of the Arts).