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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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/

Sara Gazarek & Josh Nelson: “Blackbird”

duo-photo-dream

Vocalist Sara Gazarek teams with pianist Josh Nelson on the forthcoming recording Dream in the Blue (Out 8/5/16). Below is a video of their performance of a medley of the Beatles’ “Blackbird” and the jazz standard “Bye Bye Blackbird.”

 

Upcoming Tour Dates:

August 1 / Birdland / NYC*

August 12 / Blue Whale / Los Angeles, CA

August 17 / Mezzrow NYC / NYC

August 26 / Triple Door / Seattle, WA

September 3 / Riverfront Jazz Festival / Stevens Point, WI

September 4 / Fox Jazz Festival in / Wenasha, WI

*notes full band performance w/o Josh Nelson

Program for 5/28 Concert

Hope to see some of you tomorrow at 5 PM at the concert being given at All Saints Church in Princeton. Five world premieres in one show – what joy, what luck!

Program

*All selections composed by Christian B. Carey, unless otherwise noted

Spiritual Variations I & II

Tom Colao, organ

Je suis aimé de la plus belle Text by Cle ment Marot

Sara Noble, soprano

Selections from Nocturnes Composed by Cortlandt Matthews

i. on a particularly clear night

ii. a streetlight manifesto

iii. a Mulder meditation

Jessica Moreno, mezzo-soprano and Sergey Tkachenko, piano

He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven Text by W.B. Yeats

Fiery Sunset

Psalm 103

Megan Ihnen, mezzo-soprano and Graeme Burgan, piano

Thomas Cunningham, piano

Megan Ihnen, mezzo-soprano and Sara Noble, soprano

-intermission-
Anniversary

Lullaby

Reunion

Solo 2

From Blue Symphony Text by John Gould Fletcher

Lullaby Vocalise

Thomas Cunningham, piano

Ian Good, piano

Sara Noble, soprano and Graeme Burgan, piano

Three Kenyon Settings Text by Jane Kenyon

Song

Otherwise

Let Evening Come

Megan Ihnen, mezzo-soprano and Graeme Burgan, piano

Hymn: Add one more seat to the table Text by Kay Mitchell

*All are invited to join in the singing of this hymn*

Michael Mizrahi’s “Currents”

currents.jpeg

Currents

Michael Mizrahi, piano

Works by Sarah Kirkland Snider, Troy Herion, Mark Dancigers, Asha Srinivasan, Missy Mazzoli, and Patrick Burke

New Amsterdam CD/DL

Pianist Michael Mizrahi’s sophomore album Currents is out this week via New Amsterdam Records. Below is the considerably charming video introduction to the release, featuring  excerpts from Troy Herion’s Harpsichords. 

 

The title track, by Sarah Kirkland Snider, is a real standout. It adroitly covers a wide swath of both emotional and technical terrain. Thus, it is an ideal solo vehicle for Mizrahi, a pianist who clearly treasures this collection of works, each one filled with abundant variety. And the way that he plays them, he’s likely to make many listeners treasure them too.