Tigran Mansurian Requiem on ECM Records (CD Review)

Tigran Mansurian

Requiem

RIAS Kammerchor; Anja Petersen, soprano; Andrew Redmond, baritone;

Münchener Kammerorchester, Alexander Liebreich, conductor

ECM New Series 2508 CD

 

On the cover of this CD’s booklet is a picture from 1917, 100 years ago, of deportees from Turkey travelling through the desert to Aleppo in Syria. One thinks, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

 

Tigran Mansurian’s Requiem is written to commemorate victims of the Armenian Genocide, which took place in Turkey from 1915-’17. It is a calamity that affected his own family and one that he has long wanted to address, albeit with some trepidation. In the copious liner notes, which include thoughtful essays both by writer Paul Griffiths and the composer, one learns that the tension of writing a Requiem using liturgical Latin while coming from the tradition of the Orthodox Church proved a significant challenge, both compositionally and culturally. How could Mansurian depict and honor the struggle and emotional condition of the Armenian people while using such decidedly Western material, with the weight of luminaries such as Mozart, Berlioz, and Verdi behind it?

 

 

 

The struggle to address this situation has proven well worth it. Mansurian’s solution is ingenious. Like Fauré, he is selective with the text, omitting much of the Dies Irae sequence (what remains is absolutely chilling). Mansurian also realized that the great Requiem masses from the 18-19th centuries often sounded as if their protagonists’ singing was “less like a prayer, more like a demand.” That would not do for depicting the mindset of Armenian Christians. Thus, Mansurian chose to try to reflect the Orthodox tradition in a Latin mass. He did so in two ways. The first was to incorporate melodic material, often modal or synthetic scales, that represent Eastern liturgical and folk music. The second was to include chanting reminiscent of Orthodox monodic singing, but with the Latin words as its textual basis.

 

These incorporations make the piece timeless in its sound world. Sections of chant, both in the tenors and in alternim sections between men and women’s voices, present haunting scalar passages that resonate with Eastern music. Two brief solos – one for soprano Anja Petersen and the other for baritone Andrew Redmond – are memorable parts of the Tuba Mirum and Domine Jesu Christe movements.

 

Despite the comparatively modest forces – four-part chorus (with no divisi) and strings – the texture does not rely solely on the spareness of chant. Indeed, there are moments of exceeding richness. Like so many Requiem masses, the key of d-minor, with a number of modal variants and splashes of D-major as well, is prevalent. Polychords press into bare triads (there is even a moment of C major amidst the plethora of minor key successions). The orchestration is particularly vivid, so much so that you don’t mind having strings accompany the “Tuba mirum” sans brass. Conductor Alexander Liebreich leads the combined forces of RIAS Kammerchor and Münchener Kammerorchester in a pitch perfect performance that is austere and emotive in just the right moments.

 

It is, of course, too soon to tell if Mansurian’s Requiem will be a piece for the ages. It is certainly a deeply touching and sensitive reimagination of a text that some may feel has long since been ossified by its own traditions. Perhaps more importantly, in addressing genocide and refugee crises from a century ago, Mansurian holds up a mirror to our own time and dares us to be unflinching in our gaze. For that alone, it is a work of great value.

Lei Liang: “Luminous” (CD Review)

Lei Liang

Luminous

The Formosa Quartet, Aleck Karis, piano; Third Coast Percussion, Daniel Schlosberg, piano; Michael Lewanski, conductor; Mark Dresser, contrabass solo; The Palimpsest Ensemble, Steven Schick, percussion, conductor

New World CD

Luminous, composer Lei Liang’s latest CD for New World, is among his most imaginative releases yet. In an email exchange, Liang cited fruitful artistic partnerships as central to his inspiration for the five works on the CD. Percussionist/conductor Steven Schick is central to the project. The percussion solo Trans, written for Schick’s fiftieth birthday also incorporates an effective use of audience participation: 100 or so people were given small pairs of stones to knock together, creating a sheen, like ardent rainfall, that provides a backdrop of sound to Shick’s virtuosic playing of a multi-instrument kit.

 

Another piece that features percussion is Inkscape. Written for a consortium of ensembles, this piano/percussion work is performed here by Third Coast Percussion and pianist Daniel Schlosberg and conducted by Michael Lewanski. The piece moves from a diaphanously mysterious saturation of soft dynamics and textures to a more fragmented, stentorian presentation. Thus, Liang puts two of the most important aspects of any percussion piece – those of texture and dynamics – in opposition, crafting an overall formal design that is quite elegant. The end of the piece takes these juxtapositions and presents them in smaller chunks, allowing the listener moments of reverie only to be thrust again into fortissimo passages.

Verge Quartet is, in part, based on Mongolian folk music, its gestural language as well as its folksongs. That said, it is no pastiche piece. The folk influences are integrated into Liang’s overall compositional approach, not as an East-meets-West hybridization, but in truly organic fashion. One could compare his approach in Verge Quartet to those of  Béla Bartók, György LigetiUnsuk Chin, and Michael Finnissy, composers who make the incorporation of folk material a seamless yet integral part of their respective musical languages. The Formosa Quartet plays the work with brilliant energy and carefully detailed authenticity.

Alec Karis is an authoritative pianist on the solo work “The Moon is Following Us,” demonstrating the capacity to evoke all manner of dynamic shadings and varied phrasing with nimble accuracy. Starting with brash repeated clusters, the music gradually moves through assorted ostinatos to a shimmering palette of added note chords. Neo-impressionist touches, such as harp-like arpeggiations and quickly unspun treble register melodies, gradually soften the hard-edged modernism of the opening into a more fluid sound world.

The title work is a concerto for double bass, written for the contemporary music virtuoso (in both of notated and creative improvised music) Mark Dresser. Schick conducts the Palimpsest Ensemble, the new music group in residence at University of California San Diego, where both Liang and he teach, in this challenging and ambitious composition. In the album’s liner notes (excellently curated by the BSO’s Robert Kirzinger), Liang writes of Luminosity:

“The instrument’s rich spectra embody ‘voices’ that encompass extreme opposites—lightness and darkness, angels and ghosts, paradise and inferno—unified by a singular vibrating body. The composition explores these voices in a few large sections, starting with bowing on one string that produces multiphonics, double-stop bowing, and pizzicati. It concludes with the threading technique (attaching the bow from beneath the string), which allows the performer to bow multiple strings simultaneously. The last section is subtitled ‘The Answer Questioned’ as an homage to Charles Ives and György Kurtág.”

This summer, Liang’s Gobi Canticle will be premiered at the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood. I very much forward to hearing it.

Thursday: Sarah Cahill plays Harrison at LPR

Pianist Sarah Cahill appears at LPR on April 6th at 7 PM as part of her tour celebrating the music and birth centenary of composer Lou Harrison. She and I touched base earlier this week as she was preparing for her trip to the Northeast.

 

Hi Sarah. Thanks for taking time to talk with Sequenza 21. Which was the first Lou Harrison piece you played? When were you first aware of his music?

 

I don’t remember the first piece I played, but I became interested in him because of my fascination with Henry Cowell and Ruth Crawford and that circle of early 20th century American experimentalist composers.  And in the Bay Area, where I live, there’s a profound affection and devotion to Lou Harrison everywhere.  He taught at Mills College for many years, and lived fairly close by, in Aptos, and worked with many musicians I’m close to, including Larry Polansky, Robert Hughes, Jody Diamond, Willie Winant, Phil Collins, Julie Steinberg, and many others.

 

What was it like working with Harrison on his pieces? Tell us about the piece that you premiered.

 

I premiered a piece called Festival Dance for two pianos, with the pianist Aki Takahashi, at Cooper Union in 1998.  It’s a piece Lou Harrison wrote in the 60s and had never been played.  He was such a gracious person, always kind-hearted and relaxed.  He wanted us to emphasize the melodic line.

 

At LPR, you will be playing ‘Party Pieces.’ What was the collaborative process like in this composition – how did the “exquisite corpse” concept play out in the musical domain?

 

Lou Harrison, Virgil Thomson, John Cage, and Henry Cowell met frequently in Lou Harrison’s loft on Bleeker Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues in about 1944 or 1945.  Lou Harrison explains it best: “Each composer present would write a measure, fold the paper at the bar line and, on the new fresh sheet, put only two notes to guide the next composer in his connection.  The next composer would write a bar, fold at the bar line and leave two more black spots and so on.  It seems to me that we would begin simultaneously and pass them along in rotation in a sort of surrealist assembly line and eagerly await the often incredible outcome.”  Last month I visited the Lou Harrison archives at UC Santa Cruz, with Lou’s great friend, composer/conductor/bassoonist Robert Hughes, and made copies of some of the manuscripts with my cell phone.  I’ll give copies to the audience at my concert on Thursday evening.

 

What are some of the other pieces you are playing at LPR?

 

I’m starting with two unpublished Lou Harrison pieces, Range-Song and Jig, that pay homage to his teacher and friend Henry Cowell, who was in San Quentin at the time, with Cowell’s famous chord clusters.  Then a movement of Cowell’s own Rhythmicana, dedicated to Johanna Beyer, so then I’ll play a short piece from Beyer’s Dissonant Counterpoint.  That will lead to the Conductus from Harrison’s Suite which he wrote while studying with Schoenberg (with a twelve-tone row).  Then a short piece by James Cleghorn, who was Harrison’s friend who suggested he take classes from Henry Cowell.  His son Peter Cleghorn will be in the audience to introduce that piece.  Then a pair of pieces, both composed in 1946 for a performance by the choreographer Jean Erdman: Lou Harrison’s The Changing Moment, not heard in New York since 1946, and John Cage’s Ophelia.  Both compositions reveal some of the emotional disturbance and identity crisis that affected both composers at the time.  Then a movement of Frank Wigglesworth’s Sonatina, and ending with the wonderful Summerfield Set that Harrison composed in 1988.  At LPR I have to stick to a sixty-minute program– otherwise I could go on and on and on with Lou Harrison and his circle, because there are lots of fascinating connections.

 

Tell us about the concerto? What was Harrison’s approach to orchestration in this piece primarily Western in conception, or does it incorporate non-Western instruments/allusions/tuning, etc.?

 

Lou Harrison’s Piano Concerto is one of the great concertos of the 20th century.  It’s gorgeous and epic and should be played a lot more often.  The piano is retuned in a Kirnberger tuning, as are sections of the orchestra.  There’s a great battery of percussion.  

 

What else is going on for you this season?

 

Later in the year I’m playing Lou Harrison’s great Concerto for Piano and Javanese Gamelan a few places around the country, and also playing a program of his piano works on three different instruments– equal tempered piano, tack piano, and piano in Werckmeister 3– in Tokyo and Fukuoka, at the invitation of the extraordinary composer Mamoru Fujieda.  I’m learning Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen for next year, and Takemitsu’s Quotation of Dream (Say Sea, Take Me!) to perform at Interlochen in July.  And next month I’ll get to play Lou Harrison on Maui and the Big Island, along with Tania Leon, Ruth Crawford, George Antheil, and many others, at the invitation of a marvelous composer, Robert Pollock, who runs a concert series there.

Thanks again.

Thank you!

Sarah Cahill’s April-May 2017 Lou Harrison Tour Schedule

(Fall 2017 Lou Harrison tour dates will be announced in May 2017)

 

Solo Recital | Le Poisson Rouge | NYC
April 6, 2017 at 7pm
Link: http://lpr.com/lpr_events/lou-harrison-centennial-sarahcahill-april-6th-2017/

MicroFest North: Iconoclasts at 100 | Center for New Music | San Francisco, CA
May 7, 2017
Link: http://centerfornewmusic.com/calendar/

FULL: Harrison | Berkeley Art Museum | Berkeley, CA
May 10, 2017 at 7pm
Link: http://www.bampfa.berkeley.edu/program/full-2017-music-performance

Lou Harrison Centennial Celebration | New Music Works | Santa Cruz, CA
May 14, 2017 at 3pm and 7pm
Link: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2721368

Solo Recitals | Ebb and Flow Arts | Hawaii
May 20-21 2017
Link: http://ebbandflowarts.org/

Friday: Ueno Opera at Sawdust

At National Sawdust on Friday April 7th at 7 PM, Opera Cabal presents the premiere of Ken Ueno’s new opera Aeolus. Joined by vocalist Majel Connery and Flux Quartet, Ueno performs throughout the opera. His fascinating blend of vocal techniques includes microtonal inflections, megaphone-amplified directives, and throat-singing. Electronics, video projections, and an architecturally conceived set design converge to make Aeolus a potent multimedia concoction. I recently caught up with Ken as he was in the thick of preparations for the opera.

Hi Ken. Thanks for taking the time to talk with Sequenza 21.

 

Why are you calling this an opera instead of some other genre? As you well know, multimedia theater pieces are called all sorts of things…

 

Following the examples of Monteverdi, Mozart, and especially Nono, “opera” seems to be an open enough label, if we need a label, so I hope it’s appropriate for this piece.  But you’re right – I don’t really know what to call it. It doesn’t have a regular narrative. It features two voices that are in distinct contrast to bel canto singing. But I am attached to the possibilities Prometeo opens up, so if Nono’s is an opera, then, Aeolus, can be an opera too, right?  Aeolus does feature a suoni mobili (Nono calls the movement of sound the main drama in Prometeo) characteristic in that, in the guise of Aeolus (the ruler of the winds), I move around the hall, directing my non-semantic vocalizations with a megaphone to articulate the architecture, the space, as an instrument.

You’ve mentioned that there are autobiographical elements in the libretto. Since it is fairly nonlinear in terms of narrativity, would you like to share how some of your own history fits in?

 

Memory is non-linear.  Spaces between texts and texts in memory become islands in search of a place in time, an ostensible home, which the idea of a Penelope represents.  My biographical circumstance is that my family moved around so much during my formative years that I don’t have a normative sensation of a home. So, the idea of a home is a mythic space for me, one I’ve also begun to associate with not only a place, but also specific people with whom I shared lived in those spaces that felt like places to which I belonged. That’s also, I think, why James Joyce resonates so powerfully in me. If there is a main narrative in Aeolus, it’s the counterpoint between the semantic and non-semantic in search of a home.

 

If I may, here’s an excerpt of a draft I’m writing for something else, which elaborates on this:

 

My own language acquisition parallels Dedalus’ in that the trajectory from babbling to fluency did filter out a palette of sounds that were extraneous to language. As a baby, I remember understanding language before I could actually speak. I remember both the frustration of not being able to communicate, as well as the tiny victories when I somehow managed to reach out and get through – sometimes purely through the inflections of non-semantic vocalizations, maybe combined with clear physical gestures like pointing or shaking my head.

When I was four, my family moved to Switzerland, and apart from speaking Japanese with my family I was a mute child again, unable to speak the local French. The burgeoning richness of my internal life was frustrated by this communication setback. Around that time, I was given a portable Aiwa tape recorder and started to make non-linear musique concrète, playing with snippets of sounds of my little world in exile. Listening to those recordings now, through auto-archaeology, I discover not only that I was vocalizing non-semantically, but that I was singing multiphonics. I was babbling, testing the limits of my vocal repertoire, expanding the repertoire of sounds my body could make. Unhinged from semantic obligation, I was freely playing at making sounds for the pure sake of making sounds, developing a series of dexterous moves ancillary to spoken language – to logos. I remember how it felt. The complex vibrations of the multiphonics reverberated in my body, shaking my bones. It was soothing. I learned to make a variety of sounds that registered different feelings. They felt like different weights of the world. Not being able to speak the local language, not having any friends, I was performing, rehearsing for my future self. The future will rationalize the past. When I read James Joyce as a teenager, the tropes of alienation and exile, and the distance between language as sound and language as semantic medium, all resonated with me.  

Tell us about your collaborators.

 

Majel Connery is my singer.  Though classically trained, she has a beautiful lyrical voice, that reminds me of Elena Tonra from Daughter or Beth Gibbons of Portishead. But that’s really unfair. I should not be naming names or comparing her to anyone else – she has a great voice, she is a primary referent in her own right. When I heard her voice and imagined what it was capable of, I knew I wanted to write songs for her. Songs that would carry the semantic exposition in Aeolus. She’s been very generous with me in trying out sketches of my songs in different keys, etc., so that we can get to the right voice/word combination to get to the pathos that I want to express. Majel is also a brilliant project leader. She is Opera Cabal. She is our fearless leader and most responsible for all of this happening. A visionary!

 

Thomas Tsang is a brilliant architect with whom I have been collaborating for ten years.  We met as fellows at the American Academy in Rome, and we’ve collaborated on installations ever since. As an artist, he brings a fully-fledged multidisciplinary edge to architecture. He questions traditional outputs and bravely creates installations, events, workshops that challenge us to rethink the history of specialization in our related fields.  The full vision for the opera is to have a space that he designs that is something more than a set or venue, something more integral to the expression of the piece. We are working towards that.

 

Erin Johnson is a video artist with whom I have been collaborating over the last few years. She’s an all-round creative force. Many of her works thread the line between video art, installation, performance art, curation, and community engagement. She naturally problematizes categories in her artistic output. She curated a work of mine last summer – Fortress Brass, a site-specific piece that took place on boats and then at Fort Gorges in Portland Harbor, in Maine. Erin made videos for four of the scenes in Aeolus, for scenes with voice-overs. Voice-overs take the place of dialogue in Aeolus (a move that I first began to experiment with in my first opera, Gallo). Being pre-recorded, the voice-overs inhabit a different time/place: it serves a distancing function.

 

I am also lucky to be working with the renown Flux Quartet. Specialists in the extreme demands of new music, breathtaking in their courage and inspiring. I am blessed to have this team.

 

What are some of the electronic elements in the piece?

Mostly, the electronics are backing tracks for the pop songs.  In one scene, I perform with a Max patch that the brilliant designer/composer Ilya Rostovtsev made for me. The patch lets me use my iPhone as a controller for algorithmic drums.

 

What does lateral bowing sound like? You’ve become a big fan of it … how did you first discover it as a technique?

 

I like lateral bowing because it sounds like breath – the link between my vocal practice, my body, and the embodied choreography of sounds that I notate for instrumentalists to perform.  I first came up with lateral bowing, when I was experimenting on a viola during the composition of my viola concerto, Talus.

 

What’s next for you?

 

I’m lucky to have pieces upcoming for talented friends: a piece for five-string baroque cello for Elinor Frey; a solo trumpet + electronics work for Andy Kozar; a solo cello piece for Jason Calloway; a saxophone piece for Vincent Daoud; a trio for Kim Kashkashian; and a long overdue piece for piano for Kathy Supove (and some other things too).

Hayes Biggs played by Thomas Stumpf (YouTube)

Pianist Thomas Stumpf’s latest Albany Records recording features composer Hayes Biggs’s first Piano Prelude, The Secret the Silent Lazarus Would Not Reveal. Based on the poem, “The Afterlife,” by Billy Collins, it is a virtuosic traversal of the piano’s low register, featuring sepulchrally jazzy chords and ominous angular melodies.

Stumpf’s Reflections on Time and Mortalitya two-disc set, also includes pieces by Chopin, Debussy, Janàcek, Bartók, John McDonald, and Yehudi Wyner.

Goldfrapp: “Ocean” (YouTube)

Photo: Alison Goldfrapp

Goldfrapp’s new LP, Silver Eye, is out March 31st via Mute. A more synth-filled adventure this time around, which one can hear on the album’s leadoff track “Ocean.” While not all of their tour is confirmed as yet, there are dates (below) in the New York and Philadelphia areas.

Silver Eye Tour Dates:
20th March – O2 Academy, Oxford – SOLD OUT
21st March – The Junction, Cambridge – SOLD OUT
23rd March – The Leadmill, Sheffield – SOLD OUT
24th March – BBC 6 Music Festival, Glasgow – SOLD OUT
27th March – Roundhouse, London – SOLD OUT
24th April – Theatre Of Living Arts, Philadelphia
26th April – Brooklyn Steel, New York
27th April – Brooklyn Steel, New York 
8th July – Blue Dot Festival
14th July – Latitude Festival