Kate NV’s next recording, Room for the Moon, will be out on RVNG Intl. on June 12th. The Moscow based artist’s use of minimal grooves has become more fluid, with an assured hand at layering different textures. We have included two teaser tracks via Soundcloud here.
On behalf of Kate NV, a portion of proceeds from this release will benefit Mama Cash, an international fund that supports female-identifying, trans and intersex people’s movements around the world, as a part of our Come! Mend! initiative.
American composer, conductor, and pianist Charles Wuorinen has passed away. Wuorinen was the first person to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for an electronic music work, Time’s Encomium. He was also a MacArthur Fellow and received numerous other commissions and awards. His book, Simple Composition, is one of the clearest explications of composing using 12-tone techniques.
He was my teacher at Rutgers University for four years, where I was studying for the Ph.D. in Music. One of the best sight-readers I have met, his musicianship was impeccable and intellect formidable.
Pianist Philip Thomas is a prolific artist. A member of Apartment House, he recently participated in their recording of Ryoko Akama’s compositions for Another Timbre. Also on Another Timbre is Thomas’s gargantuan CD set of piano music by Morton Feldman, which includes several previously unreleased pieces.
Two of the pianist’s other recent projects focus on other members of the New York School. His deep dive into Cage’s Concert for Piano (again with Apartment House) has resulted in a book, recording, and an interactive online project, Cageconcert (cageconcert.org) that also includes apps to work with segments of the piece and make one’s own versions. He has also released a recording of Christian Wolff’s piano music. Finally, Thomas has recorded a CD of composer-pianist Chris Burn’s work, including transcriptions of improvisations by the late guitarist (and author of one of the key books on improvisation) Derek Bailey. As the interview below demonstrates, Thomas’s performance and recording schedule shows no signs of let-up. (Note: Philip and I talked before the pandemic, so some of his future projects are now TBA).
How did you and
Martin Iddon come to collaborate on a book about Cage’s Concert for Piano
(1957-’58)? Were the book and recording in process before the website and apps
were conceived or was the idea of multiple presentations part of the initial
This goes back a long
way! I had it in my thoughts that, having performed the piece a number of
times, with Apartment House but also with others, including the Merce
Cunningham Dance Company for the dance ‘Antic Meet’, it was a far richer piece
than had perhaps history had credited it. It’s such a well-known piece, not
least from its visual appearance, and its historic performance value has
influenced what we think of as a Cage-ian performance practice. Plus the
premiere performance and recording is notorious from its depiction on the
Twenty-Fifth Retrospective Concert album. But I felt strongly that there was
much that is not more widely known when digging a little deeper, both about the
way it can be performed, about the graphic notations of the ‘Solo for Piano’,
and about the instrumental and conductor parts. And I was aware that
performance as both historical and contemporary practice has a lot to say about
the music, not least because of the unusually long time one has to spend with
the piano part in order to arrive at something which is playable. So I set to
thinking about this as a major research project and immediately thought of
Martin as being an ideal collaborator, particularly due to his brilliant book
about Cage and Tudor, as well as his Darmstadt book. So over lunch in London
one day we dreamt up the project, which over the following year developed and
formed to include the book, the website and apps, as well as the involvement of
Apartment House. Then there was the inevitable long wait until we found out our
grant application was successful. The grant was for a 3-year project but
inevitably aspects of that spill over into the months since – and I’ve just now
finished the index for the book! The apps grew from a simple idea that we
thought might be nice to a far more complex concept than any of us could have
imagined, forming a vital part of the project. The team expanded to include two
research assistants, Emily Payne and Chris Melen – Chris being the developer of
the Solo for Piano app – with additional help from others, including Stuart
Mellor who designed the Concert Player app.
As a pianist who
specializes in experimental music, Concert for Piano seems like a natural work
to explore from multiple vantage points. When did you first become acquainted
with the piece, and what does it mean to you as an interpreter?
I’ve mostly played it
with Apartment House. I think possibly the earliest occasion was in 2008 when I
organised a 50th anniversary concert
of the 25-year retrospective concert. My experience then was as it continues to
be, that this is an exceptionally rich and lively piece, full of surprises, and
one which is a total joy to perform – each moment is alive and fresh, and my
experience as a performer is of being part of music being made, rather than
something which is ‘re-played’. We don’t rehearse, everyone works on their own
materials, and then it’s put together, so for everyone playing the experience
is as new as it is for the audience. This is true of many pieces by Cage of
course, but this piece seems to heighten those senses and the material is so
exaggerated in its range here – noises, pitches, highs and lows, louds and
The website and apps
provided detailed and varied material from Concert. Will you share with us some
of the features you consider to be highlights?
There’s so much
there, a few of my favourite things include:
Apartment House – I love to hear the musicians of Apartment House talk about
what they do. These interviews are brimming with insight. I especially like the
films which combine their different insights, such as the ‘Performing the
film and the last 10 minutes of the conductor film.
Watching the films of
our performances of the ‘Concert’ and also Christian Wolff’s ‘Resistance’ is a particular
thrill, because, as I suggested above, there’s so much unknown in the
performance itself that it’s great to get a stronger sense of the kinds of
things the other musicians are doing.
This one is not yet
on the website but will be appearing very soon – I have made a studio recording
of the complete ‘Solo for Piano’, which has never been done. It’s completely
different from the version I play with Apartment House – for this I recorded
each notation individually, according to a space time measurement of 3 minutes
per page, and then Alex Bonney has mapped them together like a patchwork quilt,
to get a complete 3 hours and 9 minutes performance of the Solo. You can hear
it now actually on the Concert Player app as it’s this recording which we use
for the app.
For the uninitiated person
finding this on the web, what do you think they apps will demonstrate to them?
I hope firstly that
it’ll just be a great entry into the music – that this is music people play and
love to play, and is really great to play, instead of perhaps either that it is
too ‘far-out’ or obfuscatory, or, the flip-side, that it is entirely open and
‘free’! For users trying out the Solo for Piano app, I hope it’ll both be a
great way of playing with the notations and their conditions for performance,
to see what might be possible and conversely what is not possible with each,
and to play with the multiple possibilities the notation offers; and that it
will also be an aid to performance. Of course each pianist will want to try it
out in their own way, but at the least I hope that for some notations this will
be a time-saver, offering possibilities to randomly generate multiple outcomes
and to print them off in usable formats. An obvious criticism of the app is
that it removes the fun of working these things out yourself – I think it
manages to keep the fun of playing with each notation, whilst cutting down on
the work needed to write these things out. And we’ve been careful to always
show where and how we’ve made interpretative decision when others might make
other choices, so it’s clear that this is both a facility AND an
And then the Concert
player app is simply a delight to hear – there are 16,383 possible instrumental
combinations of this piece, and we have a handful of recordings available.
Clearly, a recording of a work such as this can only hint at the slightest
possibility of how this piece may sound. But the app allows users to randomly
generate or select combinations, plus select pages, their durations, their
sequence, and then hear how that might sound. We’ve taken great care to ensure
the space-time properties of the music are upheld (measuring by the pixel!) and
so really this is a pretty accurate – no matter how inappropriate that word is
to this piece!! – realisation. I still listen to it regularly and am surprised
all the time by the combinations. It’s a thrill, so I hope people will just
You have been
performing Morton Feldman’s music for over a quarter century. Still, the
recording you did for Another Timbre last year was a mammoth undertaking. How
long did it take to record? How do you keep so much detailed, long repertoire,
with irregular repetitions, in your brain and fingers?
Somehow it didn’t
feel like a mammoth task, more like a real pleasure to play these pieces again.
Perhaps surprisingly, I didn’t feel any kind of pressure to give a ‘definitive’
statement on the music – my performances on disc just happen to be a
representation of how I play this music today, after many years of thinking
about and playing it. If I were to record it all again in 10 years it may be
quite different, who knows? It was though a particular pleasure to discover a
few pieces that I hadn’t played before, namely the unpublished works I explored
at the Sacher Foundation in Basel, and the transcription I made of the Lipton
I recorded the music
over a period of about 2 years, in different sessions. It’s funny how the music
at times just sticks in terms of fingering, rhythmic detail, whilst at other
times what should be very familiar to me still seems strange. Certainly,
whereas I thought this project might draw a line in the sand for me – no more
Feldman! – I feel it’s done the opposite, opened up more possibilities, more
ways of thinking about the music. In particular, Triadic Memories, which
I’ve probably played more often than any other single piece of music, changed a
great deal for me in preparation for the recording and what I thought I knew
now feels more experimental, more curious, than ever. There’s a part of me that
sometimes tries to avoid Feldman’s music – it’s almost too gorgeous at times,
and I need to find something else, something of rougher hue, but those chords
keep pulling me back! Thankfully, there’s so much more to the music than just
beautiful sonorities, and in particular the music’s form and narrative feels to
me to be so strikingly original.
Are there surprises
among the previously unrecorded pieces?
addition of struck drum and glass to the Feldman sound is pretty surprising,
bringing to mind much more the 1940s music by Cage, and here included as part
of a set of three pieces composed for the dance. In fact there’s a surprising
number of pieces composed for dance collaborations, not just for Cunningham,
but also for Merle Mersicano, as Ryan Dohoney has written about in considerable
detail recently. One of these is Figure of Memory which sounds nothing like
Feldman and more like some kind of sketch of a Satie piece, consisting simply
of repetitions of three short phrases.
release is of music by Chris Burn, including a transcription of an
improvisation by Derek Bailey. How does that translate to the piano?
Well Chris is a
wonderful wonderful composer, and a brilliant pianist and improviser. And so he
is fully aware of the slightly perverse nature of what he was doing in writing
these pieces, not least as someone who used to play with Bailey. But these
pieces are not just really lovely pieces of music, but they also reveal
something about Chris and how he hears and thinks of music, as well as being
revealing of Bailey’s own work, and in particular of his love of Webern and his
close attention to pitch. So when the guitar-ness of the pieces is removed a
different side to Bailey’s music is revealed which is simply different but to
my ears no less remarkable.
As if 2019 weren’t
busy enough for you, a compendium of Christian Wolff’s piano music was released
on Sub Rosa. In the notes you say that “In all my performances of Wolff’s
music, I aim for interpretations that both interest and surprise me, allowing
the notations to lead me to new ways of playing and thinking about music,
the same time trying
to lead the notations toward the unexpected.” When discussing the piano music
with Wolff, what were some insights he offered? What piece will most likely
The recent double
disc follows on from an earlier three-disc set, and hopefully precedes another
three-disc set to follow. Christian’s music is, when it comes down to it, the
music I feel closest to. I love the potential for change, for surprise, for
play. On the whole I tend not to ‘collaborate’ with composers (I trust them to
do what they do well and then it’s over to me) and so I love the moment when I
begin a new piece, I put it up on the piano and I start to think ‘ok so what am
I going to do with this’. This is where I am at my most creative, and
Christian’s music works especially well to that effect. I’ve never asked him
for his approval of what I do and most often he doesn’t hear my interpretations
until after I’ve performed or recorded it. Though the very first time we met,
in 2002, I played ‘Bread and Roses’ to him, waited for his response, and learnt
fairly quickly that his typical response was ‘Sure!’. He tends not to validate
not to denigrate peoples’ performances of his music and I appreciate that. He
doesn’t want to say ‘yes, this is how it should be played’ preferring instead
for the individuality of the player to find new solutions, new ways of playing.
And so I do hope with each performance I give of his music that I might offer
something that would surprise him, that might suggest possibilities in his
music which he’d not considered.
In this recent set
I’ve included a few pieces which are not published, so that surprised him too!
So three variations on Satie, pieces he composed for John Tilbury, which he
never quite convinced himself as worth publishing but hopefully he’s convinced
now they’re out on disc – they’re wonderfully eccentric pieces. Also his
Incidental Music, which he has played and recorded (wonderfully, on Mode) but
which he’d not heard anyone else perform. He was delighted, so that’s great.
And for anyone familiar with Wolff’s music I hope that my playing brings both
recognition and surprise too.
What will be your
next recording/recital? What will Apartment House be up to in 2020?
Next concert, in Cambridge in April, features a brand-new piece that Toronto-based composer Allison Cameron is writing for me, which I’m delighted about. And Simon Reynell’s always dreaming up new ideas and introducing me to younger composers and I’m always happy to play a small part in that project. And as a result of the Feldman release we’ve been able to commission one of my very favourite composers, Martin Arnold, to write a large-scale new piece for me. But that won’t be for a while. Lots of ideas, lots of pieces I want to play, but actually I’m hoping for a bit of a quieter year this year!
Carey is a composer, performer, musicologist, and writer. His work has been
published in Perspectives of New Music, Intégral, Open Space, Tempo, Musical
America, Time Out New York, Signal to Noise, Early Music America, Sequenza 21,
Pop Matters, All About Jazz, and NewMusicBox. Carey’s research on
narrativity in late music by Elliott Carter, presented at IRCAM in Paris on the
composer’s 100th birthday, appears in Hommage à Elliott Carter (Editions
Delatour). He is Associate Professor of Composition, History, and Theory at
Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey.
Sequentia Cyclica – Super Dies Irae ex Missa Pro Defunctis
Jonathan Powell, piano
Piano Classics PCL10206 (7 CD boxed set; digital)
Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892-1988) was the composer of some of Western classical music’s most intricate, extended, and ambitiously virtuosic works to date. His output encompassed seven decades, from 1914-1984. The serial composer Milton Babbitt, often himself described as the creator of tremendously difficult pieces, ranked Sorabji, alongside Brian Ferneyhough, as the most complex composers of the Twentieth century (Talking Music, William Duckworth). This is not just due to the massive scope of the pieces – several last a number of hours in duration – nor to their formidable technical demands, although both of these aspects of Sorabji’s music are ubiquitous. The notation of the music poses challenges as well. It is a welter of corruscating counterpoint and its rhythmic shapes are seldom delineated with bar-lines; nor do their gestures readily suggest metricity. Dynamics and tempo indications are infrequent and the music is often laid out on several staves. Thus, a lot is left open to interpretation.
Despite these challenges, Sorabji’s music is being documented by stalwart performers. Happily, a performance practice for the music is taking root that is helping to clarify some of the aforementioned difficulties. Noteworthy among these interpreters is the English pianist Jonathan Powell, who has championed the composer for over two decades. He has taken a number of Sorabji’s works in manuscript and transcribed them into performing editions, toured them widely, and begun the challenging task of creating recorded documentation of the piano oeuvre. His most recent project has been Sequentia Cyclica, a piece lasting nearly eight hours that he has presented in marathon single-day concerts in the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States. Piano Classics has released a seven-CD boxed set of Powell’s rendition of the piece. It is an extraordinary recording of a totemic work.
Sequentia Cyclica (subtitled Super Dies Irae ex Missa Pro Defunctis) is a set of twenty-seven variations on the Dies Irae sequence from the Catholic liturgy of the Mass for the Dead. Composed sometime in the thirteenth century, the Dies Irae has taken on extra-liturgical significance through its use in a number of concert works from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, most famously in the Symphony Fantastique by Hector Berlioz, but also in a plethora of other piece including ones by Rachmaninoff, Saint-Saens, and Dallapiccola. Sorabji’s employment of the theme serves multiple ends. It gives a nod to its presence in works by predecessors, particularly in Rachmaninoff’s piano music, it serves as a contrapuntal motive that is treated with a near-encyclopedic array of variants, and, judged by the voluble praise-filled postscript appended to the work, as an object of Christian devotion. Sorabji made an initial (201-page long!) pass at a set of Dies Irae variations in the 1920s. They were to be dedicated to the recently departed composer and pianist Ferruccio Busoni, but the piece was withdrawn in favor of the 1949 version recorded here, dedicated to Busoni’s pupil the pianist Egon Petri (1881-1962).
True, eight hours is a long time to fill with a very familiar melody, but Sorabji creates a startling array of presentations, sometimes only employing the head motive and at other times the entire sequence. Elsewhere, it is submerged in other material, only to triumphantly rise up when called to the surface. Character pieces such as Hispanica, Marcia Funebre, and Quasi Debussy demonstrate imaginative deployments of the sequence in myriad styles. Trying to play “spot the influences” will provide the listener with glimpses at a panoply of creators, including Busoni, Liszt, Alkan, Debussy, Beethoven, Bach, Messiaen, and Rachmaninoff, to supply just a partial listing. None of these reference points is overarching; it is remarkable how adroitly Sorabji distills their essence into his own distinctive language. An enormous passacaglia with 100 variations takes up a disc-and-a-half worth of the recording and the piece concludes with an eighty-minute long fugue that successively builds from two-voice counterpoint to six, followed by a stretto on steroids that rousingly concludes this magnum opus.
Jonathan Powell’s traversal of Sequentia Cyclica is authoritative. The program notes are some of the finest I have read in a long while. His performance is deftly nuanced, technically assured, and powerfully rendered. It is a benchmark that will provide a tough act for future interpreters to follow, but hopefully his performance editions will encourage them to do so regardless. Powell’s dedicated work on behalf of Sorabji makes the composer’s legacy seem assured.
(Those looking for a more theoretical explication of Sequentia Cyclica are directed to Andrew Mead’s excellent article Gradus ad Sorabji in the Winter 2016 issue of Perspectives of New Music).
Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose, conductor
BMOPsound CD 1069
David Felder has taught for a number of years at SUNY Buffalo, running the June in Buffalo Festival and mentoring countless contemporary composers in the school’s illustrious graduate program. His own works are multi-faceted, incorporating muscular gestures, modernist harmonies, innovative timbres, and, oftentimes, electronics. Felder’s recent music is given sterling performances on two CDs, one of his chamber music on Coviello and another of his orchestra piece Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux on BMOPsound.
The Coviello disc consists of three works that feature violinist Irvine Arditti. Its centerpiece, Jeu de Tarot, a chamber violin concerto based on seven of the twenty-two main tarot cards, reveals a mystical side to Felder’s music. Each movement is an interpretation of the character on its card – The Juggler, the Fool, the High Priestess, et cetera. Thus, the musical surface is multifaceted, unspooling a variety of characteristic textures. Arditti performs the solo part with laser beam incisiveness and Signal supplies comparable clarity, performing the piece’s interlocking rhythms with impressive coordination. Some sections of the piece, such as its finale “Moonlight,” explore a mysterious ambiance akin to Expressionism. Here, Arditti’s tone takes on a supple quality. He dovetails with the winds to provide intricate counterpoint.
The Arditti Quartet contributes Netivot, a work for strings and electronics, to the disc. On Felder’s website, you can see the optional video component, which adds another layer to the piece. By itself in two channels, there is considerable antiphony and with this setting one can only imagine how immersive the piece must be live. The recording also has an SACD layer which allows for surround listening, an engaging adventure that gets the listener closer to being there.
At times, string harmonics and pizzicatos meld with synthesized parts. Elsewhere, the strings and electronics trade registers. The overall effect is one of extensive integration of the elements into a “super-instrument” that swirls colorfully. Irvine Arditti concludes the disc with a solo piece, Another Face. Motoric ostinatos, mercurial leaps, and microtonal inflections contribute to an overarchingly variegated impression. Arditti plays with virtuoso technique and a questing manner.
Joined by soprano Laura Aiken and bass Ethan Herschenfeld, Boston Modern Orchestra Project performs one of Felder’s most prominent pieces, Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux. This is the second recording of the piece; the other is by Ensemble Signal with members of SUNY Buffalo’s Slee Sinfonietta. Each is an assured rendition, with BMOP stressing the dramatic sweep of the piece while Signal focuses with granularity of detail. The texts Felder employs in Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux are by Réne Daumal, Robert Creely, Pablo Neruda, and Dana Gioia. Most are Daumal’s, whose work Felder discovered via Buffalo-based writer Kathleen Frederick Rosenblatt’s biography of the polymath author. Felder does interesting things to treat the texts. He intermingles electronics with the vowels of the Daumal to create an ethereal quality. One of the two movements featuring Creeley’s poems emphasizes its sibilants, the other maps the consonant attacks onto the percussion, creating an intriguing sound world. Gioia’s poem is treated to the piece’s most stentorian and angular writing, clearly distinguishing it from the other texts.
Felder was a chorister with the Cleveland Orchestra in his teens but has only recently begun to set text. His vocal writing is ambitious, operatic in scope and compass. The piece opens with a series of spectral chords, over which Aiken’s voice soars, effortlessly managing pianissimo dynamics and altissimo high notes. She is worthily matched by Herschenfeld’s resonant low notes and seamless legato phrasing. The first section culminates in a rapturous duet in which the vocalists both navigate their upper registers fluently. In the section “Fragments (from Neruda),” an impressively thunderous tutti orchestral passage is matched by clarion singing from Aiken. A rousing duet rendition of Daumal’s “Stanza 3b” matches the Neruda’s intensity, and “Stanza 4a” is treated to a sepulchral solo by Herschenfeld in which he is accompanied by intertwining brass. He goes still lower on “Stanza 4b,” shadowed by sustained chords that move from strings to brass. Then, the vocal line is mimicked in counterpoint by the lower brass. Timpani thrumming is juxtaposed against choral-like passages as the piece moves into an instrumental postlude in which a clamorous buildup of drums heralds the final entrance of Aiken, her arcing solo haloed by trumpet glissandos, ascending to her top register and then plummeting down to conclude the piece.
Throughout, BMOP plays impressively. Rose shapes the piece beautifully and provides a detailed account of its myriad details. Hopefully, Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux will be followed by more vocal music from Felder. It is a formidable entry into his catalogue of works. Recommended.
Christian Carey is editor at Sequenza 21 and an Associate Professor of Music Composition, History, and Theory at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey (www.christianbcarey.com).