Thursday: League of Composers at Miller Theatre (7:30 start time)

On Thursday, May 25th at 7:30 PM, the Orchestra of the League of Composers, directed by Louis Karchin along with conductor David Fulmer, will present a program of works by Arvo Pärt, Fred Lerdahl, Lisa Bielawa, and Sheree Clement (a new piece commissioned by League of Composers/ISCM) at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. Tickets are $25/$15 for students/seniors

Below is my program note for the concert, which should supply some background in advance of the concert.

 

Program note: Season Finale: Orchestra of the League of Composers/ISCM

By Christian Carey

 

One of the fundamental ways in which the League of Composers fulfills its mission is by programming a diverse selection of music. As with past “season finale” concerts given by the League’s orchestra, tonight’s program encompasses works from the United States and abroad in a variety of styles. Commissioning and highlighting new work is a particular focus; the concert includes a world premiere (written by Sheree Clement and commissioned by the League).

 

The concert begins with Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, one of Arvo Pärt’s important first forays into the tintinnabuli style for which he has become best known. The composer’s style has often been described as minimalism (“holy minimalism” by opportunistic broadcasters and less-than-kind critics), but this strand of repetition-based composition is quite different from American varieties. Rather than being based primarily on unfolding repetitive processes, like the approach taken early on in music by Glass and Reich, or being based on the omnipresent ostinatos of post-minimalists such as John Adams and Michael Torke, Pärt’s approach is based on melodic formulations: canon and monodic stepwise melodies set against bell-like triadic sonorities. While the materials themselves are simple, they are variously combined in an accumulation of gestures that is anything but.

 

Whereas Pärt’s piece doesn’t include a single accidental, Sheree Clement’s Stories I Cannot Tell You, revels in a labyrinthine chromaticism. There is also significant attention paid to timbre: a panoply of orchestral combinations and colors supply this work with still more intricacy and mystery. The portentous quality of repeated notes from a bass drum delineates and unifies the piece’s three connected movements. While the composer avows that Stories is not specifically programmatic, her program note is filled with visceral images and powerful emotions – which are equaled by the music’s expressionist quality – descended from Schoenberg yet firmly on 21st century footing.

 

Originally composed for American Composers’ Orchestra and the pianist Anton Armstrong (who also performs the work on this program), Lisa Bielawa’s Start is the last section of The Right Weather, a four-part work whose movement titles derive from the key words of a quote from Aleksandr Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin: Roam, Wait, Beckon, Start. It is not a minimal work per se, although it shares some features with minimalist compositions. Start uses the aforementioned trope of American minimalism – the ostinato – as the motor in a variegated postmodern atmosphere. In addition to local ostinatos, there is an overarching repetitive process at work as well, a fascinating structural device that starts as a repeated single note in the slow section midway through the piece. Gradually, this “big beat” accumulates more and more pitches until it is a rearticulated chord and then – in one of the piece’s culminating gestures – an emphatically presented cluster. In a craftily enigmatic close, we are treated to an echo – a triad with a split third – presenting both major and minor in countervailing tension.

 

Fred Lerdahl supplies his own 21st century reset of a 20th century style; in this case, neoclassicism. Composed for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Time and Again is a lithely scored but powerfully articulate piece. Initially, this music was sketched for truly Spartan resources: as a duo for violin and cello called Give and Take. While there is an element of “theme and variations” here, the material isn’t exactly reiterated. Rather, continual transformations, particularly in the rhythmic domain, take place. Three large sections of development speed and slow the material in myriad ways, creating an unpredictable whorl of gestures. The coda builds a sustained unison to a cadence that is deflected by one final, puckish flourish.

Composer Christian Carey is an Associate Professor of Music at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. He edits the contemporary classical website Sequenza 21 (christianbarey.com).

Required Reading: The Spectral Piano

The Spectral Piano

Book review

The Spectral Piano

From Liszt, Scriabin, and Debussy to the Digital Age

By Marilyn Nonken, with a chapter by Hugues Dufourt

Cambridge University Press, 192 pp., 2014/2016 (paperback edition)

By Christian Carey

Recently reissued in paperback, pianist/author Marilyn Nonken’s book The Spectral Piano is a fascinating examination of the history of piano music beginning in the mid-1800s that leads to its use in a spectral context from the 1970s to the present. Nonken’s thesis is that the employment of the piano to imitate the harmonic series so prevalent in contemporary spectralism is a venerable practice; that composers have long sought to subvert the equal-tempered tuning of the piano with various manners of spacing and subterfuge in order to align it more closely with the deployment of overtones found in nature.

Nonken is particularly successful in this pursuit. She connects the music of Liszt, Scriabin, Ravel, Debussy, Messiaen, Boulez, and others to the project of proto-spectralism. The author is also convincing in her positioning of recent American composers, such as Joshua Fineberg (a composer whom she has championed on recording) and Edmund Campion, and British composers James Dillon and Jonathan Harvey, as heirs to the traditions of spectralism. Nonken also excels at making connections between technological advances in measuring acoustic phenomena and parallel advances in proto-spectral and spectral music.

As a matter of course, French spectralism of the 1970s-90s occupies a central role in the book. Discussion of Tristan Murail, Gérard Grisey, and Hugues Dufourt, the latter of whom contributes a chapter, “Spectralism and the Pianistic Expression,” appended at the end of the book, provides a thought-provoking survey of these composers’ spectral works. In turn, the students of this first generation of spectralists, most of whom studied at IRCAM, such as Magnus Lindberg, Kaija Saariaho, Philippe Hurel, and Marc-Andre Dalbavie, are presented as “hybrid spectralists;” heirs to a tradition, but one that they have sought to expand through the addition of non-spectral elements from new complexity, second modernity, electroacoustic, and other areas of compositional activity. A curious omission from this section is Georg Friedrich Haas, whose work flow and friction for sixteenth tuned piano four hands is organized using principles of spectralism.

In The Spectral Piano, Nonken brings to bear both her extensive knowledge of piano literature as an estimable performer of both contemporary and earlier works, as well as an impressive scholarly acumen. The result is a volume that will cause much rethinking of traditional piano music and exposure to a new and vital repertoire. Now that the book has been made available in paperback, it is a must-have for the libraries of composers and pianists.

Daniel Corral – Refractions (CD Review)

Refractions

Daniel Corral

Populist Records CD PR012

Jeremy Kerner, electric guitar; Isaura String Quartet; Corral, music box and laptop

LA-based Populist Records has released another treasure trove of unusual ambience. Daniel Corral’s Refractions, featuring the composer on music box laptop alongside electric guitarist Jeremy Kerner and the Isaura String Quartet, captures a compelling ambient composition. Delicate strains from guitar and strings are offset by bell-like interjections from Corral’s music box and swaths of sustained sounds from his laptop. The piece begins with all of these various textures and gradually is winnowed down to the music box, supplying minimal punctuations and offset repetitions in a slow ritardando until the piece’s delicate denouement and eventual close. Given the deliberate limitation of resources and lassitude of pacing, this slowly evolving piece of music is spellbinding in its execution. Rather than foregrounding the incremental shifts of material, the listener is encouraged to bask in a wash of sounds, varied and lovely timbres that are deployed with enough independence to seem to have minds of their own.

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Ross Gay Songs Premiere Tomorrow at New Music Gathering

Soprano Sara Noble

Tomorrow (May 13) at 1:30PM in Kobacker Hall, my Ross Gay Songs will be premiered by soprano Sara Noble and pianist Nadia Shpachenko as part of  New Music Gathering 2017 , held this year at Bowling Green State University (Bowling Green, OH).

Pianist Nadia Shpachenko

Program note

Three Ross Gay Songs were composed while I was recuperating in Tennessee from cancer surgeries. Looking for something uplifting to read, I went to Anne Patchett’s bookstore Parnassus and was instantly drawn to the vibrant colors on the cover of his book Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. What I found on the pages within was poetic ‘music’ that nearly sang off the page, providing me with much joy and consolation: and ideas for several songs. ode to drinking water from my hands mirrors a childhood memory of my own, learning to use a water pump in my grandparents’ garden. wedding poem is an example of the vivacious and poignant connection to nature that Ross Gay, who maintains orchards and community gardens in Indiana, finds central to most of his work. ode to the flute is pithy yet filled with evocative imagery. These texts are used with the kind permission of the poet and the songs are dedicated to soprano Sara Noble.

  • Christian Carey (2017)

Matt Mitchell plays Tim Berne (CD Review)

matt mitchell - forage

Matt Mitchell

FØRAGE

Screwgun Records

 

In recent years, saxophonist and composer Tim Berne has frequently collaborated with pianist Matt Mitchell, most notably in Snakeoil, a quartet in which the two are joined by clarinetist Oscar Noriega and percussionist Ches Smith. Thus, Mitchell approaches Berne’s music from a unique and intimate vantage point, one ideal for the first solo interpreter of Berne’s intricate compositions. On FØRAGE, the pianist incorporates Snakeoil tunes as well as other Berne works to craft an imaginative and exhilarating program.

 

“PÆNË” opens the recording with material from The Shell Game, Berne’s 2001 release for Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series, on which the saxophonist performed with keyboardist Crag Taborn and drummer Tom Rainey in a trio called Hard Cell. The original rendition of the excerpted composition, “Thin Ice,” opens with spacey synths playing a decidedly angular version of a chord progression in straight quarters. Taborn is joined by an altissimo register sax solo that then moves suddenly downward into a wide-ranging post-bop excursion; all of this is reinforced by Rainey’s questing and aggressively punctuated drumming. Mitchell’s version distills the essence of “Thin Ice,” interpreting its 6/8 section with an imaginative gloss on all three musicians’ approaches from the original recording. Thus, the synthesizer’s chords are put into the middle and upper register of the piano in less rangy spacing. Rainey’s drumming is imitated by syncopated soprano register verticals. What was Berne’s melody glides between these two formidable layers (plus additional comping and bass notes to boot), supplying a gradually revealed essay of considerable interest.

 

On “TRĀÇĘŚ,” Mitchell reinterprets “Traction,” material from The Sublime And., a 2003 live release by another Berne band called Science Friction, a quartet with guitarist Marc Ducret joining Berne, Taborn, and Rainey. The most relentless cut on the album, it features incendiary lines from Ducret in tandem with a fierce ostinato from Berne that eventually evolves into a mayhem of upper register howls and bristling leaps. It is remarkable how, sans the amplification employed by Ducret and Taborn, Mitchell is able to create such a sizzling version of “Traction.” The pianist’s approach leaves little from the original to the imagination, encompassing a plethora of polyrhythms and unabating riffs as well as pointed soloing of his own. Even though inherently it is repurposed for the solo medium, the intensity of the original crackles here, never more so than in the endless, forceful rearticulations of the coda. “RÄÅY” also interprets music from the Sublime And.: here the piece is “Van Gundy’s Retreat,” a tune that in the original version combines an ebullient romp with passages of mysterious sostenuto. Mitchell employs “Van Gundy’s Retreat” as the latter half of “RÄÅY:” It begins with “Lame 3,” an established Berne composition that is slated for reinterpretation on the next Snakeoil recording. While rhythmically intricate like most of Berne’s work, it demonstrates a melodic delineation that is distinctive and memorable.

 

Mitchell amply demonstrates that he has made various regions of Berne’s voluminous catalog his own. Crucial as he was to its gestation, it is equally fascinating to hear him reinterpret the Snakeoil material. Both “ÀÄŠ” and “ŒRBS” consist entirely of compositions from the Snakeoil albums on ECM, and “CLØÙDĒ” combines “Spare Parts” from the first (2012) album with a reprise of the aforementioned 6/8 section of “Thin Ice.” In these compositions, one sometimes hears Mitchell channeling his bandmates’ solos and accompaniment, allowing their spirits to be present in his music-making. However, just as often, the pianist takes things in different directions, lingering over a riff or harmony here, inventing a new countermelody there. Thus, Mitchell untethers his playing from the more circumscribed role he undertakes in Snakeoil.

 

Even Berne aficianados are likely to be stumped by some of the material here, including a previously unrecorded cut, “Huevos Expanded,” the basis for “SÎÏÑ,” a fetching, impressionist tinged ballad that serves as the album’s closer.  Here Mitchell fashions undulating ostinatos and deftly pedaled passages to create whorls of colorful harmonies, buoyed by a gentle waft of swing. The piece serves as a reminder that, while at times the thread between them is tenuous, Berne’s work is not solely avant-garde in character; it also evinces connections to the modern jazz tradition.

 

As a whole, FØRAGE leaves one eager to take a two-pronged approach: first, delving further into Berne’s catalog to reevaluate his music afresh; second, to reacquaint oneself with Mitchell’s own compelling body of work. It is also exciting to learn that more things are afoot with Snakeoil. In the meantime, FØRAGE supplies a potent combination of  captivating compositions and abundant musicality. Recommended.

 

 

 

 

 

Linda Catlin Smith on Another Timbre (CD Review)

Linda Catlin Smith

Drifter

Apartment House and Bozzini Quartet

Another Timbre at105X2

 

Born in the US and residing in Canada for more than a quarter century, Linda Catlin Smith has become a fixture on that country’s cultural radar. She has been welcomed and feted as one of Canada’s own. For instance, she is only the second woman to win the Jules Léger Prize for Chamber Music and has had a long association with the ensemble ArrayMusic, whom she served as Artistic Director. Several recordings have been released of her music, but last year’s Dirt Road won her critical acclaim and belated notice in the United States, ending up on many critics’ “best of year” lists (mine included). Released by Another Timbre, Dirt Road was merely a foretaste of that label’s commitment to Canadian music. Another Timbre has recently released a set of five recordings in its Canadian Composers series (another batch of five is due later this year). Catlin Smith features prominently, with the double disc Drifter serving as Volume 1 in the series. Other composers include Martin Arnold, Isiah Ceccarelli, Chlyoko Szlavnics, and Marc Sabat.

 

Drifter’s program is performed by two chamber groups: Apartment House and Bozzini Quartet. The “drifting” in question is not itinerant hitchhiking, but rather the placid tempo pathways frequently chosen by Catlin Smith. The piano trio Far from Shore, played here by Philip Thomas, Anton Lukiszevieze, and Mira Benjamin, is a case in point. Slow, soft music for the trio, often reminiscent of Morton Feldman’s approach (one that Catlin Smith acknowledges as a signature influence on her work) abides alongside passages of colorful piano chords. The spectrum moves from inexorably repeated constrained sets of pitches, to chromatic counterpoint, to whole washes of sound. The intuitive sensibility that Catlin Smith claims as her approach in preference to any dogmatic systemization clearly allows her to move through constantly changing musical terrain, all the while maintaining an organic sense of each piece. How does she manage this? An interview in the booklet accompanying the Canadian Composers set quotes her as saying,”Listening. Lots of listening.” One could do worse as a composer in any style to listen as carefully as Catlin Smith does.

 

Cantelina (2013) for viola and vibraphone, played by Emma Richards and Simon Limbrick, presents another of the composer’s interests, one in heterogenous instrumental pairings. Both here and in the Piano Quintet ( 2014), another of Catlin Smith’s predilections, exploring tightly knit counterpoint in close registral positions, is featured. The overlapping in Cantilena is quite fetching (it is a combination that should be explored by more composers and one I’ll keep in my own hip pocket) and it is equally affecting when writ large in the quintet. The title work is also for a seemingly challenging combination, piano and classical guitar, played by Philip Thomas and Diego Castro Magas, but Catlin Smith’s gentle daubs of coloristic harmony and unequal ostinatos work beautifully in this duo context as well. Mon Qui Tremblais (1999), played by Thomas, Benjamin, and Limbrick, has a pulse-driven piano part that is joined by sustained violin and bowed pitched percussion. An interesting notational device is used: rather than writing out all the notes and rhythms, the composer specifies that the musicians silently read a Rimbaud poem and use its speech rhythms to shape the musical work (for instance, the percussionist gets his attack points from the accented French syllables).

 

Bozzini Quartet appears in two string quartets by Catlin Smith. Folkestone (1999) pits a persistently high violin line against blocks of slow articulated, syncopated chords played by the other three members (these have an almost accordion-like quality in their spacing). Gradually, other lines emerge from the texture, with the cello playing a poignant solo dissonant with the rest of the harmony. The chordal passages begin registrally to disperse, bringing the locus of activity closer to the violin’s sustained flautando melody. Mid-register lines now break free and the chords move in double time for a brief stretch before ceding the terrain to widely spaced and again slowly articulated harmonies. This alternation of patterns includes still more elements to be introduced: pizzicatos, duets, flashes of quartal harmonic brilliance, and a bass-register cello melody made truly weighty by the registers it has balanced against before. Clocking in at more than 32 minutes, Folkestone is a substantial and thoroughly captivating composition. Gondola involves members of the quartet coming in and out of unison and a gentle boat-rocking pacing that Catlin Smith describes thus:”The title loosely refers to its slight undulation or floating qualities – a subtle motion or disturbance of the surface, like trailing the hand in water.”

 

Evocative imagery for truly evocative music-making. Drifter is an album (a double-album at that) worth savoring.

 

 

 

David S. Ware and Matthew Shipp on AUM Fidelity (CD Review)

DavidSWare+MatthewShipp-AUM

David S. Ware and Matthew Shipp

Live in Sant’Anna Arresi 2004

AUM Fidelity CD 100

 

Tenor saxophonist David S. Ware passed away in 2012, and he is sorely missed on the ecstatic jazz scene that he was pivotal in creating. While Ware’s discography is extensive, AUM Fidelity has released one more recording, Live in Sant’Anna Arresi 2004, which presents the saxophonist in an entirely different context: a duo setting with longtime collaborator pianist Matthew Shipp. Given their close and longstanding association, it would at first seem improbable that this was their only duo outing. Thus, all these years later, it is a gift to have it available for posterity.

 

While both Ware and Shipp were able to improvise comfortably in many settings, they knew each other’s musicality intimately: there is an almost telepathic connection between the two that is demonstrated here. An example: While many pianists would need to be careful to stray clear from a saxophonist’s main registers, Shipp is able to navigate close-knit counterpoint with Ware, often in the lower octaves, that never swamps or constrains his lines. Rather, it seems to exhort even more power from Ware’s solos. Nor is Shipp an accompanist to the saxophonist; he is an equal partner in shaping the musical narrative, at turns propulsive and reflective.

 

The two main selections of the date are titled “Tao 1” and “Tao 2.”  This is entirely appropriate, as the yin and yang of ecstatic jazz discourse, the kinetic and the lyrical, are both present in these wide-ranging essays. The shorter “Encore” distills fervent energy that unleashes like a coiled spring, bringing the concert to a rousing conclusion. It is somewhat bittersweet to realize that there won’t be any more opportunities to hear these musicians in a duo context; it is still hard to believe that Ware is gone when his spirit looms so large in the ecstatic jazz milieu. Live in Sant’Anna Arresi 2004 is a moving and engaging release that is among AUM Fidelity’s finest to date. Recommended.