Happy 80th Birthday Philip Glass

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Photo: Steve Pyke

Philip Glass turned eighty years old today. A celebration was held at Carnegie Hall tonight, a concert by the Bruckner Symphony Linz, led longtime Glass collaborator conductor Dennis Russell Davies in the premiere of the composer’s Eleventh Symphony and Three Yoruba Songs (with vocalist Angélique Kidjo).

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In Nashville tonight, I’m not hearing any live Glass alas, but I am enjoying a brand new recording by Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson. Philip Glass – Piano Works, his debut for Deutsche Grammophon, features interpretations of the Études and excerpts from Glassworks. The Siggi String Quartet joins the pianist on some of the music, reworked to incorporate strings. Both here and in the solo selections, Ólafsson brings to bear a supple sense of phrasing and wide-ranging gestural palette. His playing stands starkly at odds with the seemingly irrepressible notion that ostinatos serve as motoric cogs in a supposedly limited minimalist vocabulary. He finds 1,000 flavors of repetition. Anyone who wants an point of entry to or refresher course on Glass’s music need listen no further than here to find bold, dramatic interpretations of his work.

New York Polyphony at St. Mary’s

New York Polyphony Photo: Chris Owyoung
New York Polyphony
Photo: Chris Owyoung

New York Polyphony sings works by Ivan Moody and Giovanni Perluigi da Palestrina

Miller Theatre’s Early Music series at Church of St. Mary the Virgin

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Sequenza 21

by Christian Carey

NEW YORK – As part of Miller Theatre’s Early Music series, the male vocal quartet New York Polyphony (Geoffrey Williams, countertenor; Steven Caldicott Wilson, tenor; Christopher Dylan Herbert, baritone; and Craig Phillips, bass-baritone) celebrated their ensemble’s tenth anniversary with a concert at Church of St. Mary the Virgin on Saturday, January 21st. Speaking from the stage, the group acknowledged their long relationship with both Miller Theatre and St.Mary’s; they have appeared on a number of concerts curated by Miller and began their association when they were singers in the choir at the church. The concert began with Sicut cervus, a seamlessly beautiful motet by the evening’s star composer, Giovanni Perluigi da Palestrina.

For the occasion, New York Polyphony commissioned a new work that received its world premiere. Ivan Moody’s Vespers Sequence demonstrates his abiding interest in incorporating music and liturgical practices from the Orthodox church into his composition language. In addition to settings in English from Protestant and Catholic liturgies (St. Mary’s is an Anglo-Catholic Episcopal church), the piece featured chant and texts from the Russian, Serbian, and Greek traditions. In his program notes, Moody even provided a connection to Jewish liturgical practices in one of the psalms he chose to set. However, and fittingly for the location, special attention was paid to Marian texts: the piece culminates in a lustrous rendition of Rejoice, Virgin Mother of God, the Byzantine rite version of “Ave Maria.” Moody juxtaposes chant with chords featuring stacked seconds and fifths, which provide the proceedings with a shimmering quality. Another distinctive part of his language is the use of canon and other imitative passages to overlay melodic material into polytonal or polymodal pile-ups, again allowing dissonance to season the chant-inspired atmosphere. It is an often haunting and always elegantly written piece.

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Like Sicut cervus, all of the selections on the second half of the concert were by Palestrina; all were also programmed on New York Polyphony’s latest BIS CD, Roma Aeterna. This segment featured the core quartet alongside three additional singers: Timothy Keeler, countertenor; Andrew Fuchs, tenor; and Jonathon Woody, bass-baritone. Clearly there was an affinity among the entire group’s membership; the additional trio’s tone quality and flowing legato fit right in with the New York Polyphony “sound.” Tu es Petrus, a six-part motet, was rendered in exuberant fashion. It was followed by the concert, and the compact disc’s, centerpiece, one of the most famous and beloved pieces of the Sixteenth century: Missa Papae Marcelli by Palestrina. Roma Aeterna is the first recording of this piece of which I am aware to feature countertenors, rather than trebles or sopranos, on the top lines of the mass. Herein lies a choice that changes the entire sound world of the piece. Williams is a countertenor of the alto, rather than male soprano, variety. And while there is little consensus on absolute pitch in the Renaissance, this leads to a transposition of the mass that is lower than the norm. Thus, where one was previously accustomed to bright sonorities and bustling rhythmic activity, New York Polyphony instead accentuated sonorousness, lyricism, and a supple gentleness. They provide an entirely different, and often appealing, version of this masterwork.

The audience’s applause demanded an encore, and the quartet complied, but with a somewhat out-of-season selection: the Christmas folksong “I Wonder as I Wander,” arranged by Williams. While it was well performed, it ended the evening in somewhat curious fashion. I wouldn’t have minded another Palestrina motet or a reprise of Moody’s “O Gladsome Light” in its place.

Tonight: Righteous Girls and Bearthoven at Joe’s (1/20/17)

Gig Annnouncement

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RighteousGIRLS & Bearthoven
at Joes Pub
Friday, January 20th – 7pm

RighteousGIRLS (feat. E.J. Strickland, drums) team up with sound designer Matt McCorkle (Audio from Space/CDZA) for a full-length improvised set to McCorkles field recordings of fire, water, rain, and NYC night life. McCorkle places RighteousGIRLS and their audience at the heart of his sonic landscape.

$15 Adv/ $20 Door
Tix: JoesPub.com
RighteousGIRLS.com

ENTRANCE Releases Single to Benefit Planned Parenthood (Bandcamp)

ENTRANCE Photo: Amanda Charchian
ENTRANCE
Photo: Amanda Charchian

This week, Guy Blakeslee (who records for Thrill Jockey as ENTRANCE) released a single titled “Not Gonna’ Say Your Name.” The song protests Friday’s presidential inauguration (lyrics below). Proceeds from downloads and streams benefit Planned Parenthood. On Valentine’s Day, he will be playing on a benefit concert for the organization (details below).

Blakeslee penned an article for Talkhouse in which he discusses the genesis of the song. It also includes a well-curated playlist of protest songs that you can hear in full on Spotify.

Not Gonna say Your Name
by Guy Blakeslee
There are people who say
we oughta give you a chance
but there’s not a chance in hell
we’re gonna sit back and watch you try to turn back the clock
and just sigh and say “oh well”
No, we’ll fight you every step of the way
you’re playing a losing game
and you’ll be the one with nothing to say
but I’m not gonna say our name
I’m sick of your name,
I’ve heard it enough
I’d rather not hear it anymore
but you’re wrong if you think we’re gonna look the other way
while you kick our friends to the floor
Though it’s  hard to accept you’re really here to stay
I know our culture is obsessed with fame
I might have to see your face a hundred times every day
but I’m not gonna say your name
you let your name
be a symbol of hate
and you never said a word
anything you say now is too little too late
it’s pathetic and absurd
now the voices of hate are getting louder each day
they’re all looking for someone to blame
but  I’m gonna keep  singing  for love anyway
and I’m not gonna say your name
tell me don’t you have a mother?
a daughter, a wife?
Man, you really oughta be ashamed
you brag about grabbing what gave you your life
you must really think life is a game
when I called up my mother,
we were both in tears
cuz nothing will ever be the same
but   we won’t move away, we will stay right here
and  we’re not gonna say your name
planned-parenthood-benefit

Bardo Pond: “Crossover” (SoundCloud)

Bardo Pond Photo: Michael Gibbons
Bardo Pond
Photo: Michael Gibbons

Philadelphia postmodern rockers Bardo Pond return on March 24, 2017 with Under the Pines, an LP for Fire Records.

The band has shared leadoff single “Crossover” via Soundcloud (embed below).

In a Nutshell: An Interview with David Smooke

Photo: Britt Olsen-Ecker.
Photo: Britt Olsen-Ecker.
On Sunday, January 22nd at 7pm at National Sawdust in Brooklyn
(80 North 6th Street), composer and toy pianist David Smooke will celebrate the release of his New Focus CD Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. Joined by album personnel loadbang, Karl Larson and Michael Parker Harley, Smooke will also perform and improvise on the toy piano. I recently caught up with him and discussed the new recording, compositional approaches, and some future plans.
Artwork: Alejandro Acierto.
Artwork: Alejandro Acierto.
  • What attracts you to composing for and performing on the toy piano?

The sound of the toy piano evokes an idealized childhood, the sort that no one I know actually enjoyed and yet many of us possess as a shared mental experience. I love having that association underlying my explorations of disturbing and unusual sounds. In addition, it’s relatively easy to travel with one—certainly compared to a cello—and I like that there’s a basic keyboard interface alongside all sorts of other ways to interact with the instrument. When I first started playing live, it was also a huge selling point to me that there isn’t a standard performance practice with the toy piano, so I could do what felt comfortable to me without feeling like there was going to be someone in the audience shaking their head at the way that I hold my hands or where I place my feet. I keep thinking that I’ll move on to other instruments, and have plans to build some original ones, but then I keep finding other things that I can make this little box do.

  • Did the macabre image of the title provide a jumping off point for the winds piece or was it incorporated latter on?

When I first discovered that the Nutshell Studies existed, before I even saw them in person, I knew that I would have to eventually use them as the title for a major toy piano piece. They are a remarkably close analogy to what I do with the toy piano in that they take something associated with childhood (dollhouses in this case) and treat them in a very adult manner. And even though they portray an extreme fascination with death, they are actual tools that are used to assist people studying forensic science, and so are not sensationalist or exploitative. So the title sets up the exact expectations that I want for the piece.

Photo: Britt Olsen-Ecker.
Photo: Britt Olsen-Ecker.
  • What microtonal tunings do you use in the wind ensemble piece? How did you manage to detune the banjo? What other tunings appear in your music?

Like you, I do enjoy lots of different temperaments! Since every toy piano is tuned differently from each other, and none of them are in anything close to equal temperament, I tried to place the toy piano within an environment where its unique scale wouldn’t sound too wrong. From the very first conceptualizations of the piece, I knew that I needed an instrument to link the toy piano to the ensemble, in this case, the banjo. Two strings of the five-string banjo are one quarter-tone sharp of their regular tuning, and in writing the part I was very specific as to which notes were played on which strings. And so we I created a continuum from the aleatoric tuning of the toy instrument, through the professional instrument with folk associations tuned in order to make it sound somewhat distorted, into the more standard concert instruments. In that piece, concert instruments use quarter tones as well. Some Details of Hell also uses a lot of quarter tones, in that case in order to explore resonance off of a single low pitch. In A Baby Bigger Than Up Was, I compose out the vowel formants from the repeated text, which required a more systematic approach to mictrotones, using naturally-tuned thirds and sevenths in addition to quarter tones.

  • Your text-setting often takes a deconstructionist or fragmentary approach. Tell us a little about how you view writing for the voice and texted scores in general.

I love words and writing! I love them so much that sometimes I can feel hamstrung when I try to set a text. And I think that the human voice remains the absolutely most beautiful and expressive instrument that we have yet created. So, for several years I avoided text entirely while writing for voice. Some Details of Hell is the last piece in which I took a published poem that I love and tried to set it as clearly as possible. In that case, I spent months analyzing the poem, including its line breaks, and figuring out exactly how I could do justice to Brock-Broido’s incredible sensitivity to language. A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was is my most recent work for voice, and marks my return to the idea of text setting. But the text for that piece is unique in that it’s a story with all of the hallmarks of a narrative but published in alphabetical order, beginning with 19 iterations of the word “a” and ending with nearly an entire page of punctuation. So, every word is set exactly as it was published, but the text itself is organized in a non-narrative manner. The excerpt on the CD brings us from “a” to “breathing” in five minutes, but the entire piece is nearly an hour long—it all gets pretty intense when we reach the ms and the 72 statements of the word “mom” and 442 of the word “my”!

  • The idea of looping appears in two different guises on the album: down.stream where you use a loop pedal on your toy piano and the overdubbed bassoons on 21 Miles to Coolville (bonus points for that title, by the way). Obviously, your music eschews a conventional approach to minimalism. But irregular sorts of repetitions prove to be a throughline, from your vocal settings to the aforementioned looping structures. How do you deal with repetition in your compositional language?

We never experience true repetition. Each time an event is encountered, we perceive it within a context, and any previous contact with that idea or similar ones colors the new experience. I’m fascinated by that idea and also by nature, where near repetition is quite common, but true repetition is almost unimaginable. I think a great deal about listening to the interaction between various bird calls, or predicting ocean waves, or watching rivers where the water is forever changing and forever the same. In my music, I try to play with these concepts by having ideas or words or motives recur but generally subtly changed. 21 Miles to Coolville (and thanks!) is completely written out, and has been played by four bassoons and also by Michael Parker Harley as a solo with prerecorded Harleys. The only difference in how I created to that piece from any previous compositions is that the quarter note pulse remains constant throughout. And my approach to looping pedal in my solo performances is a bit different from most people in that I generally am using it to create drones and sustained sounds, which are otherwise incredibly difficult to produce on the toy piano, and to allow for the buildup of more orchestral textures. When I was in high school, the music of the minimalist composers was one of my first entries into the classical music world, and I still adore minimalist and post-minimalist music and art. So, I feel the influence of that aesthetic very strongly, and try to be patient in my own music, allowing ideas to remain in place for as long as necessary, and I do sometimes enjoy unadulterated recurrence.

  • Tell us about the gig! How did you come together with National Sawdust to present a portrait concert? Who is playing and what will be on the bill?

With the new CD, I wanted to launch in New York, where so many of the performers live, as well as in my home of Baltimore. I’ve been hearing so many amazing things about National Sawdust, and I was fortunate enough to have them agree to host this concert. We’ll be presenting four of the six tracks from the CD, all performed by the players on the album: loadbang, the pianist Karl Larson, the bassoonist Michael Parker Harley, and myself. In addition, loadbang and I will improvise together to close out the show. I’m very excited to have this opportunity to share the stage with such amazing people and players!

  • What’s next for David Smooke? What projects are in the pipeline?

I’m going to be playing live quite a bit more than usual over the coming months, with shows in Boston on the Opensound Series on February 11 and in San Francisco at the Center for New Music on February 24, among others. And I’m working on a piece for the Baltimore-based Sonar Ensemble right now that uses a recording of a run on a nature trail near my home as the ground layer over which the ensemble will perform.