Björk sings Tavener

We were saddened to learn of the passing of John Tavener, English composer of concert music based on the Christian Orthodox liturgy.

John Tavener composed “Jesus Prayer” specifically for Björk Guðmundsdóttir’s voice.

She posted the following message on her website: “John tavener : i feel honoured that i got to know him … and that he wrote one song for my voice … incredibly pure composer

condolences to his family

warmth,
björk.”

Program Note – Ionisation

Ionisation

 

Scientists describe ionisation as the process in which, by gaining or losing electrons, atoms or molecules come to possess a positive or negative charge. For his percussion ensemble work Ionisation (1931), Edgard Varèse uses this scientific principle both as the work’s title and as an extra-musical idea that impacts its form. For much of the piece, the composer explores instruments of indefinite pitch (drums, cymbals) or rapidly shifting pitch (sirens and the lion’s roar): the noise spectrum. It is only at the very end of Ionisation that, structured as dissonant chordal verticals, pitches from the 12-tone chromatic scale are significantly used. The listener can judge whether the addition of notes to noise is designed to give a positive or negative jolt.

 

The principal building blocks of the piece are small rhythmic cells that permute and develop, at one point or another appearing in most of the instruments’ parts. There is also a significant exploration of antiphonal sounds: the thirteen musicians specified in the score each have a motley assortment of instruments to play, thus treating listeners to a widely spaced and diverse palette of timbres.

 

No musical composition is created in a vacuum. When writing Ionisation, Varèse was influenced by a number of preceding pieces and artistic movements: Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps (1913), Dada, George Antheil’s Ballet Mechanique (1924), Amadeo Roldán’s Ritmica No. 5 (1930), and, of course, by the noise concoctions and sound art manifestos of Italian futurists such as Filippo Tomasso Marinetti and Luigi Russolo. But this debt has been more than abundantly repaid. Indeed, Ionisation has served as a musical touchstone for numerous subsequent pieces by composers such as John Cage, Lou Harrison, Nicholas Slonimsky, James Tenney, Charles Wuorinen, and Frank Zappa. In many ways, Ionisation was the percussion ensemble’s “Declaration of Independence.” Certainly, New Jersey Percussion Ensemble wouldn’t be the same without it.

 

-Christian Carey (www.christianbcarey.com)

 New Jersey Percussion Ensemble plays Ionisation, as well as works by Kresky, Saperstein, Carey, and others, at William Paterson University on November 25 at 7 PM. 

Il Pergolese (CD Review)

ilpergolese

Il Pergolese

Maria Pia De Vito, voice; Francois Couturier, piano;

Anja Lechner, cello; Michele Rabbia, percussion and electronics

ECM CD 2340

The works of eighteenth century composers such as Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi have been subject to all manner of reinterpretation by contemporary artists in myriad styles: jazz, gospel, bluegrass, rock, and so forth. Neapolitan composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736) hasn’t thus far been popular among those reworking baroque music. That may change with the release of Il Pergolese, a collaboration between vocalist Maria Pia De Vito, pianist Francois Couturier, cellist Anja Lechner, and percussionist Michele Rabbia that is emotive, imaginative, and stylistically fluid.

Pergolesi is best known for composing vocal music – operas and sacred music both (his Stabat Mater setting is particularly fine). De Vito’s singing of the evocative “Ogni pena cchiú spietata,” with its hauntingly repeated minor triads, sits astride baroque opera and pop chanteuse traditions, making the hybrid nature of this project clear from the outset.

Many of the arias from Pergolesi’s operas have been resurrected as staples of the repertoire studied by voice students, who treat them like “art songs” – recital repertoire – rather than presenting them in a theatrical context. Sometimes these “songs,” taken too lightly, are put before students out their depth. Thus it is particularly heartening to hear Lechner lead a beautifully soulful rendition of “Tre giorni son che Nina” on Il Pergolese, which serves to rehabilitate it from the aforementioned lowly fate of freshman recital fodder.

Rabbia’s ambient electronics halo De Vito’s melismatic, rhythmically free, and folk music inflected version of “In compagnia d’amore I;” in places her delivery is reminiscent of Cathy Berberian singing Luciano Berio folksong settings. Lechner and Couturier join Rabbia on “In compagnia d’amore II,” an interpretation more tilted toward ecstatic jazz than modern classical, with ardent soloing from the pianist, pizzicato cello lines, and articulative, rather than steadily pulsing, percussion gestures. Another fascinating selection is the exploration by De Vito and Couterier of material from the Stabat Mater, translated into Neapolitan to better show its roots in and connections to local traditions and music-making. Purists might balk, but this is a respectful and musically inventive homage to an underappreciated composer.

–        Christian Carey

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

Where to begin …

Someone asked me where to start with recordings of the Britten song cycles. I would say always start with the source: Britten/Pears. Then anything recorded with Graham Johnson. Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, Phillip Langridge, and Robert Tear are also important to hear. I go back and forth on Bostridge. Are there more? Of course, but these will keep you busy for a while.