Shuffle Bach Viola

Does anybody else wonder if classical compositions can work modularly?

I know it’s a silly question. I understand that those allegro and andante movements are sequenced to tell a story, in an abstract sense, whether it’s a roller-coaster of a symphony or through your usual fast-slow-fast sonata. But if you took the fast introductory movement of String Quartet No. 4 and replaced it with the fast introductory movement of String Quartet No. 6, would you even notice? Would the (probable) change of keys matter? Might it even be better?

From the few experiments I’ve done, the answers seem to be “yes,” “probably not,” and “no.” In other words, the exact selections of movements does matter, and when you do the kind of substituting I suggested above — well, even if the original piece didn’t seem to completely “flow,” the new version tends to flow even less.

kashkashian-bachSo, along comes Kim Kashkashian’s recording of Bach’s cello suites (ECM, 2018), upshifted for viola. It’s not the first time a violist has done this, but Kashkashian’s rendering, aside from being novel for simply being new, has a lightness that makes it attractive, an frictionless glide like the footfalls of ballet. I can see why so many artists have recorded the complete suites: The six suites are divided into six movements each, for an attractive symmetry, and of course, every movement is oh so unavoidably Bach. There’s a suggestion of orderly self-similarity that just feels satisfying, in a math-geeky sense.

And it also made me wonder. How interchangeable are the pieces of these suites? All six seem to follow similar patterns, after all.

So, I tried building my own viola suites by hitting shuffle play. Even if an ear-pleasing fast-slow-fast pattern didn’t emerge, the parts should still make some sense together, right?

No, not right. I gave it three tries, and the first one showed why this is such an improper use of Bach.

I. Strategy: Shuffle play, stopping when it feels “done”
A) 6.5 [Suite No. 6, movement 5] Gavotte (D major)
B) 6.4 Sarabande (D major)

The gavotte movement was a bright midtempo, a cautiously optimistic opening. That worked. But it was followed by a slow movement in the same key. Fast-slow is a natural progression, but this just felt laconic. The lack of key change actually hurt; the slow movement felt like a lazy deceleration. I think the problem is that the gavotte is setting itself up to be followed by something even faster — which of course is exactly how the original suite is written. Faced with immediate failure, I had to hit Stop. Grade: D (fittingly enough).

II. Strategy: Shuffle play until “done.”
A) 3.2 Allemande (C major)
B) 1.2 Allemande (G major)
C) 3.6 Gigue (C major)

That’s a little more like it. The “Allemande'” movements are regal: formal but still lighthearted. They aren’t meant to be openers, because that’s what the Prelude movements are for, but I thought 3.2 did the trick well. That the same mood carried into 1.2 wasn’t a problem; it felt like a reasonable continuation, and maybe the key change from C to G added some new color. The gigues are crowd-pleasing conclusions, so 3.6 felt like the right time to call it. Grade: B+.

That was fun, but both mini-suites were awfully “mini.” I’d hoped to last for something like eight movements, not three. One problem was that the lack of minor-key movements was driving me batty. There’s only so much upbeat Bach or Mozart that I can take before I have to go crank some gloomy Schnittke for balance. So, I gave it one more go with slightly different rules, and I lucked out:

III. Strategy: Four movements no matter what
A) 4.6 Gigue (Eb)
B) 6.1 Prelude (D)
C) 5.1 Prelude (C minor)
D) 2.2 Allemande (D minor)

The gigue, meant to be a closer, made for a bouncy, crisp opener, but it clashed mightily with the D major Prelude, because the latter piece just screams “intro segment.” Interesting how music has that language, like the cadences of a speech: Certain rhythms and timing work better in certain situations. But by the end of the Prelude, I acclimated. It was like when the first song on a rock album is the hit single, and the second song is a less intense one that feels like filler… but over time, that second song ends up being your favorite.

With movement three, I finally got a minor key, and in the perfect spot for toning down the mood. I didn’t even notice the key change to C minor. In general, I hadn’t found the key changes very jarring; the only problem I had was with the lack of key change in that first  attempt. The C minor Prelude ends with a gentle sigh that would have been a good way to conclude a suite — but the rules said I had to add one more segment, so, into the D minor Allemande we went. More of a minor key. It didn’t feel like overkill, but it did mean the suite would end with a gray sky, not a happy field of flowers. And it did just that, dying out with quiet understatement that felt like an interesting artistic “choice.” Grade: A-.

I’d envisioned doing a lot more of these, but having found two permutations that I liked, and one that I really didn’t like, I figured it was time to call it quits. Maybe next, I’ll build a truly modular suite: Movements 1 through 6, in order, but each taken from one of the six suites selected at random. (Should repetition be allowed, or should it be one movement from each of the suites? Hmm.) First, though, I think I’ll show the old man some respect and try to dig into some of these suites in the proper order. They’re written that way for a reason.

Navigating Meredith Monk

As the DVR recorded the Tony Awards for my daughter, who was working Sunday evening, I was absorbing music theater of a different kind: Meredith Monk’s opera Atlas.

I’m not exactly a Meredith Monk devotee, but Atlas was a nice surprise. Like Einstein on the Beach, it’s built from bright and downright pleasant musical phrases (repeated in groups of four, versus Einstein‘s groups of 40 minutes). But it feels more operatic. Atlas has concrete characters and a storyline, with the action occurring through mostly wordless singing. Sometimes it’s melodic; sometimes it’s vocal swooping, shrieking, half-spoken bird calls — different vocal quirks that emerge based on what the scene and story are calling for. Experimental vocals aren’t always my thing, but I mostly enjoyed Atlas.

The catalyst for listening was a New York Times article about the Los Angeles run for Atlas, happening this week. The performance is special in itself, because this thing ain’t exactly Hamilton. It sounds like Atlas hasn’t re-emerged since debuting in Houston in 1992. But what makes the upcoming show interesting is that Monk isn’t directly involved. Normally, her operas are only partially scripted and involve a lot of intuition in the casting and rehearsals, with Monk overseeing what I suppose is the loose “feel” of the project. This time, all the big decisions are up to Yuval Sharon, with Monk being kept in the loop but not directly involved.

Monk’s process sounds new-agey, but listening the ECM recording of the opera, you can tell where it comes from. There are “normal” melodies and harmonies, and many downright pretty segments filled with “ahhs” and “da-da-da-das.” But some scenes brim with abstract vocal sounds — improvised, not formally scripted, but not chaotic. The right people are playing the right parts, and they’re building a cohesive scene, but it must be largely improvised, and from what I’ve read, I would also guess that the exact sounds are tailored for each performer’s voice. (The operatic precision of the voices really does matter. It elevates the whole project.) This seems like the kind of work that won’t work unless the performers are collectively in the right frame of mind. The L.A. production is apparently the first time the vocal parts were written down; the Houston cast learned their parts by ear. No wonder Monk is normally so closely involved.

Like EinsteinAtlas has a clean, pared-down sound and pleasant, airy tonalities. It’s certainly different and minimalist but doesn’t feel like the kind of avant-garde meant to send the audience screaming to the exits. [Note to self: An opera built from angry yelps and shouting, where the sound of the audience departing loudly in disgust is actually part of the composition…]

Bits of dialogue appear here and there. “Choosing Companions” has travelers introduce themselves to the main character (a female explorer) in plain speech, then reveal character traits in vocal wandering. For one man, it’s kind of a clumsy, meandering “aah,” as if his brain is stalling during a job interview. I hope it’s meant to be a comic moment, because I did laugh. Another character launches into a scripted tune that the heroine joins in on. He must be a better fit.

Some feature operatic tones sung in what might as well have been composed form. “Loss Song” plays like a through-composed piece, a quiet break featuring vocals and harp. It’s pretty and straightforward and would make a nice standalone piece during a college radio show.

I get the feeling that on stage, Atlas uses the singers’ more abstract sounds to convey elements of character, in-the-moment emotion, and setting. There’s some shrieking in the segment titled “Ice Demons,” for example — no big surprise. And the visual aspect probably helps convey a sense of story. Probably. The L.A. production puts some or possibly all of the action inside a massive sphere, with video projections on the outside. Audiences might walk out puzzled, but I do think they will come away with a sense of a story amid all their questions.

Discovering Joe Harriot

I didn’t give Joe Harriott enough credit when I first encountered his brand of free jazz. That’s partly because Harriott’s “free” albums also include lots of straight bebop, sometimes with complex themes, sometimes not. But I also got snobby. Harriott’s concept of freedom doesn’t come with the splatter factor of Cecil Taylor or Ornette Coleman.

Harriott deserves better. Playing in the early ’60s, he had visions of abandoning the reliance on chord changes, using composed themes not as a backbone but as a springboard into unguided improvisation. Such ideas are the norm in my listening world, but for musicians accustomed to bebop, it required a deeper type of listening, and of course, an open mind, which is why two of his band members left when Harriott proposed the idea.

My introduction to Harriott was Ken Vandermark’s Straight Lines (Atavistic, 1999), an album of Harriott covers, but it wasn’t until this year that I took the time to delve into that chapter of history. I did some side-by-side comparisons between Harriott’s originals and Vandermark’s versions — an empty gesture, considering the bands came from different background, but still fun. Vandermark, playing with most of the Vandermark 5, holds back the skronk to re-create Harriott’s milieu.

vandermark-harriott-400Harriott’s free-jazz didn’t dominate his early albums, so a track like “Straight Lines” comes across a little staid. But it’s a nifty, jumping composition. Harriott and trumpeter Shake Keane are terrific at playing that stuff, and they add lots of frills — little blasts across one another’s solos and the drum solo — that make for an exciting number.

Harriott’s free ideas are more fully realized on “Shadows,” which uses a short composed line but is otherwise freely improvised. It’s an exercise in restraint, played at a brisk pace but with a consistent feeling of stretched time. I especially like the contributions from Keane (who, according to bassist Coleridge Goode in the video trailer above, was vital in bringing Harriott’s vision to life) and drummer Bobby Orr, both of whom seem to really “get” the vibe, contributing small segments to help build the overall sound.

 
Vandermark’s version is more creeping, with quiet bass featuring heavily. Jeb Bishop’s trombone and Vandermark’s clarinet paint sparse hints of swing, emulating Harriott’s methods.

 
Compared with Harriott’s band, Vandermark’s players are a lot more practiced at group improvising — they’ve grown up doing it. But Harriott’s band produced some solid results. Sometimes they were still grasping for the right wavelengths, but passages like the six minutes of “Shadows” channel the future of this music.

Jimmy Giuffre did it better, I have to admit. He was brilliantly executing ideas of freedom and abstraction, with results that went largely unheralded at the time. (I’ve been listening to his live stuff circa 1961 — astounding to think that it’s from 1961.) Not many years later, the liner notes for Bobby Hutcherson’s Dialogue would extoll the composer’s “no solo” idea for the improvised title track. It’s a good track, but I’m glad to know that Joe Harriott planted a flag there a few years earlier.

One last word, about instrumentation. Vandermark’s band doesn’t include a pianist. Harriott’s quintet did, and in some ways, the piano was the weak link, still tied to chords. It feels like Pat Smythe and the band were still fleshing out the piano’s role — how could the instrument fit into this world of freedom without causing chaos? Can the pianist find a new way to “comp?”

I don’t think Smythe fully worked out the formula, but he was trying. I’ll point to his work on “Idioms.” The song gave him a chord progression to follow, and while that creates a sense of rigidity, it also seems to inspire some abstract ideas in his brief solo. Here’s the relevant excerpt; the full track is here.

 

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Smythe, Harriott, Keane, Orr, Goode. From http://henrybebop.co.uk.

Visual Art Interlude

molnar-frag1

There’s a YouTube post of Pauline Oliveros’ “Bye Bye Butterfly” that’s illustrated with a piece by Vera Molnar.

I liked the art, so I went to find out more about Molnar. She began her career as a traditional artist, and in 1968 she brought her fascination with geometry and shapes into the world of computers and plotters. Even back then, there were rich possibilities to be had, especially if you toss pseudorandom numbers into the mix.

I’ve always been intrigued by that kind of art. I tried my hand at very primitive visual ideas in BASIC on an old IBM PC, toying with random lines and colors, honing the rules to make them fit an idea rather than just displaying chaos. (The results were not nearly as artistic as I’m making them sound.)

As computers, screens, and interfaces have progressed, so has the art. I saw one piece a few years ago — can’t recall the artist’s name, sadly — that consisted of a crowd of circles moving on a custom-sized video screen. The circles were packed tightly, rebounding off one another, and every circle had a radius drawn, like the hour hand of a watch, indicating the movement of direction at that particular moment. It was dynamic and unpredictable, and fascinating — not just for the way it looked, but for the concept, the process.

Anyway. The Molnar piece that started this train of thought is titled “Interruptions.” And if you don’t know “Bye Bye Butterfly,” it’s an early example of Oliveros’ electronic music, one that I hadn’t heard until after she died in 2016.

On a further tangent, learning about Molnar led me to the work of Aurélie Nemours. I find I’m particularly fond of her piece, “N et H 3292,” pictured here.

Can You Handle This Much Accordion?

One instrument I never even considered getting “into” was the accordion. Not only is it associated with old, corny music, but it also creates chords with a squelchy sound that I don’t find so attractive.

Pauline Oliveros plays accordion, of course, but that’s different. Then again, it also tells you that the accordion can do more than polka.

The turning point for me was classical accordionist Bjarke Mogensen, whose solo album Winter Sketches (Orchid, 2011) got me interested in the instrument’s musical possibilities and emotional range. It’s been a few years, and while I haven’t become an accordion fanatic, I’ve found myself wondering what else Mogensen has done.

So I checked out The Song I’ll Never Sing (Decapo, 2012), a program combining solo pieces with string duets and an accordion duo. The common thread is the pen of Danish composer Kasper Rofelt.

mogensen-thesong.jpg

I don’t know what really counts as virtuoso playing on an according. But the fast, accurate flurries on the “Vivace Corrente” movement of Concert Studies for Classical Accordion, First Book (2008-2009) sound great to me, as do the rapid-fire moments in the “Twilight Toccata” movement of Shadow Pieces. In the latter case, it’s the quiet, spattery passages that impress and thrill the most, not the big-flourish chords.

 
But I wonder if there’s a touch to the slow, gentle playing, as there is with a saxophone or piano. On the list of moments that should impress me, what about the thin, shimmering notes that open the track “Midnight?” What about “Nightsong 2,” played with violinist Christina Åstrand, where Mogensen lays down atmospheric chords, softly painting the background?

What’s kept me interested in Mogensen is his experimental side, which Rofelt indulges on pieces such as “Quasi Statico,” using drones and quavers to move into Oliveros territory, sounding almost like an analog-synth impersonation. In a different vein, “Light Falling,” pairs Mogensen with cellist Toke Møldrup for a tense and often subtle 10-minute piece that sometimes feels like a nighttime chase scene, sometimes like an over-the-top stage drama.

 
Then there’s the sparse, moody “Charybdis, played by MYTHOS, the accordion duo of Morgensen and childhood friend Rasmus Kjøller. It’s tense and aggressive, sometimes feeling like the instruments are chasing each other.

And it made me wonder whether Kjøller had any other output I could find. His career couldn’t just consist of being the “other” accordionist in MYTHOS, right?

alstedI found him on Agnete’s Laughter (Dacapo, 2013), an album of electronics and experimental-vocal pieces by composer Birgitte Alsted.Her liner notes describe him as a newcomer whose “official debut” was in 2013, in which case it makes sense that his resume doesn’t seem as long as Mogensen’s.

Amid the album’s array of ghostly, abstract electro-acoustic work, Alsted added a solo accordion composition: The 12-minute “Melancolia.” It’s full of icy drama and grand, slow emoting — and, in its latter half, soaring crescendos like this one:

 
Kjøller’s playing seems to hit higher and lower notes than I’ve heard on Mogensen’s albums. I don’t know if that’s a function of the type of accordion he’s playing or my own tin ears.

I do find I need a break from the accordion after a long listen. This isn’t going to become an all-consuming obsession. But I’ve enjoyed this little detour — and I haven’t even gotten to the real jazz/improv accordion heroes, Guy Klucevcek and Rüdiger Carl.

Milford Graves Victory Lap

It’s good that we celebrate the great figures of jazz as they depart this earth one by one — but it’s important to celebrate the living legends, too. Muhal Richard Abrams got a little more time in the spotlight before making his passage last fall, which was good to see.

Milford Graves has received a few such waves of deserved attention, including one that seems to be going on now. He was the cover story in Wire magazine’s March 2018 issue, he’s recently been interviewed by Bomb, and he was the subject of a recent New York Times profile with the news hook being the Milford Graves Full Mantis documentary that recently screened at SxSW.

It helps that Graves simply makes for good copy. He’s accessible and eccentric, and his studies in biology fit somewhere between credible science and in-credible ideas of new-age psychology and mysticism. He’s a fascinating character and seems downright friendly, to boot.

But at the core of it all is the music. Through the Bomb writeup, I got curious about a couple of recordings from 1966 — two halves of a duet concert with Don Pullen, titled In Concert at Yale University and Nommo. The two albums sport just five pieces between them, each titled “P.G. I” through “P.G. V.” I’d been aware of Graves’ role in the early days of free jazz, but I’d never listened to any of that work before. Now seemed like a good time.

It’s good stuff. Pullen is splashing about on the piano with purpose and verve, while Graves is a fountain of sound — minus the snare drum, I think, as noted in this NYT passage:

He had radically remodeled his drum kit, ditching the snare drum and taking the bottom skins off his toms, getting a soupier resonance. He said the snare’s stiff-toned sound fit its European military origins better than it did his music. “The potential of how you can manipulate a vibrating drum membrane is much greater,” Mr. Graves said. He suggested that jazz drummers who use the snare might simply be “following orders without questioning those orders” — his idea of a grave sin.

I’m loving these recordings for the density of attack. I guess you could criticize it as singleminded, but it does feel pure, in a way. This is who Don Pullen and Milford Graves were at the time, and this is what they wanted to say.  They do tone it down just slightly on “P.G. II,” the longest of the five pieces. They pace themselves, each player taking occasional breaks to let the other one fill the space.

Context has a lot to do with my enjoyment of these pieces, I think. It was 1966, and while Graves denigrates attempts to attach political meaning to the music (see video at bottom), it’s hard not to ignore that there was a lot being said at the time. Right or wrong, most of us are going to feel like this music is tinted by the surrounding energy of the era.

R-1451172-1226737105.jpegWhile I was at it, I figured it was a good time to dip a little further back, to the classic 1965 ESP disc Percussion Ensemble.

A glance at the album cover will tell anyone that the ensemble is actually a duo — with Sonny Murray, so it isn’t just any duo. I find it interesting that I didn’t pick up on that. Listening blindly to a digital copy, I was picturing a four-person ensemble, with one or more players sitting out for certain phases. No idea why. The album is built on short storms of sound, executed with precision. You could call it an extended drum solo, but it’s more fun to consider it as a study in the musicality of percussion. And today, it’s a slice of history.

But part of the point here is to not dwell on the past. I want to spend some time with Graves’ more recent output. He has two solo albums on TzadikGrand Unification (1998) and Stories (2000) — and a trio with Anthony Braxton and William Parker titled Beyond Quantum (2008) that I remember being well received. But I think the place I’ll go first is the duo with John Zorn, recorded as Volume Two of Zorn’s 50th Birthday Celebration series (2004). Every concert I’ve heard from the series has been joyous, and considering Graves and Zorn apparently play together annually, this one promises to be a lot of fun.

What’s nice is that the attention around Graves isn’t a one-time thing. The 2013 Vision Festival included an opening night celebration of his career, featuring him playing with three separate groups. Don Mount posted the concert on YouTube; here’s a starting point, with Roswell Rudd.

Finally, here’s Graves in his own words, from a Q&A session after the world premiere of Full Mantis.

More Buenos Aires Improv

I discovered saxophonist Pablo Ledesma through his recent duo album with pianist Agustí Fernandez, which I wrote up in March, and I decided to seek out more of his work.

So, here’s Ledesma in a quartet setting (“Cuarteto Orillas”), tacking long-form improv. It’s a 2015 performance at the Buenos Aires Jazz Festival. I’m particularly keen on the bassist, Mano Hurtado — he’s well amplified so you can pick up his agile sound.

The group explores briskly for a sustained period in the beginning, leading into a slow section, around the 10-minute mark, that’s still colorful and far from passive. Hurtado gets an early short solo that shows a lot of color, and I really dig his work on the straight jazz segment that starts around 19:00.

That segment leads into an explosive duet between Ledesma and drummer Javier Puyol. On the more serious side, there’s a regal movement around 40:00 that leads to a florid, elegant piano solo. The 57-minute performance culminates in a frenzied passage with the camera trained on Puyol, Ledesma, and Hurtado, the last two blowing especially hard.

It’s staggering to think there are so many musicians in the world pursuing creative music, many of them in corners I’ll never reach. That’s true of every kind of music, certainly, but this kind of improvised jazz — let alone the noisier kind, and noise-oriented improv — appeals to a smaller audience. That these lines of communication reach so far is a wonderful thing.