Aerial Clarinet

François HouleAerials (Drip Audio, 2006)

houle-aerialsClarinetist François Houle will be down from Vancouver on Thursday, March 14, to perform “Aerials” at the Center for New Music (San Francisco). The solo improvised performance should be a nice chance to hear the clarinet fill the room and explore the acoustics of the Center. It’ll be followed by a duet where Zachary Watkins processes and feeds back the sound, turning Houle’s clarinet into an ensemble.

“Aerials” is not a set of specific songs, but an improvisational project Houle developed during a five-week residency in Italy, after nurturing the idea for years.

Houle explains more in this All About Jazz article from 2006. Aerials is a foil to Double Entendre, the album where Houle performs new-classical works solo with the aid of overdubs. (I gave it a mention in 2011.) For Aerials, his inspiration was John Carter, and his goal was to “make a strong musical statement.”

That, he did. Aerials could have been an exploration of every-sound-possible, but Houle edited his explorations to give the album a pervasive mood. It’s celebrates the room’s reverb but also its stillness; it’s an inviting sound that doesn’t let the air drag, even in the most reflective pieces.

“Liege” has the sound of a Native American flute, yet it wiggles and wanders, as if the clarinet were taking a drink. The last melody in this sample is the motif with which Houle started the piece; he returns to it, turning “Liege” into a kind of improvised song.

“Tuilerie” gets into a varied wandering, reminiscent of Evan Parker’s long sax solos of circular breathing. It’s rich in detail, with Houle jumping all over the clarinet’s range.

On the more sad and melodic side, “Pour Sidney” flows like a film noir ballad.

Read more about Aerials — the album and the process behind it — at Misterioso.

Elliott Carter, 103

I’m glad I read below the fold on today’s NY Times website. Because down below all the big election news, down in the arts section, was the simple headline: “Master of Complexity” and a photo of Elliott Carter. It could only mean one thing.

At age 103, Elliott Carter has finally passed away. The Times obit stresses the fact that he continued composing throughout his life and was present not only at his own centennial birthday, but at a few celebratory concerts in the years afterwards.

RIP, you badass. Here’s the Times‘ obituary.

Elliott Carter Makes Billboard Top 200

A couple of years ago, I was marveling at Elliott Carter being still alive and still working at 100. In December, I did a blog entry marveling at his turning 102.

But the surprises aren’t done. Carter has now reached the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart.

Yeah, the same chart that hosts every schlocky band that does MTV appearances and Disney soundtracks.

The news is a little bit old, but in case you don’t know: It’s actually Bruce Hornsby’s live double-CD, Bride of the Noisemakers, that’s made the charts, and it happens to include a composition of Carter’s.

This was a revelation to me. I always knew Hornsby had better than bar-band chops and an affinity for jazz. I just never associated his thick Americana chording with anything more — serious? cerebral?

Really, I’ve associated him with musicians on the smooth-jazz end of the spectrum, like Pat Metheney and The Yellowjackets, because that’s who he was hanging out with in the ’90s. And indeed, “Talk of the Town” on Bride pulls out the soprano sax and the synths — but it’s also got some playful, edgy tricks. Strange breakdowns and an angular piano segment that made me smile.

Carter’s spotlight is during the introduction to “Talk of the Town.” That introduction starts with some kind of horn, possibly trumpet, played in such a warbled and slow-motion fashion as to be unrecognizable. Then Hornsby cuts in with crazed hunt-and-peck piano that includes parts of Webern’s “Variations II” and Carter’s “Caténaires.”

The crowd loves it. How are they to know they’re supporting new classical music?

Here’s a quote, taken from Hornsby’s May 18 press release:  “I’m also extremely pleased that the classical composer, Elliott Carter, at 102 years old, is now represented on the Billboard charts, with our excerpt of his piece, ‘Caténaires.'” A canned quote, to be sure, but I love that he namechecked Carter.

“Catenaires” got its recorded premiere on a recent CD by Ursula Oppens. Built of feverish 16th notes, it’s a jigsaw puzzle that’s been kicked off the table. Here’s Sean Chen doing the kicking.

Being 102 = Badass

It’s hard to believe it was two years ago that I played a couple of Elliott Carter compositions on KZSU to celebrate the composer’s 100th birthday. But it must have been, because he turned 102 last weekend, on Dec. 11.

One hundred two. If anything qualifies one as a badass of classical music, it would be living to age 102, having someone perform a concert of your recent works (those done after age 99), and actually making plans to travel to the concert.

Two years ago, Carter claimed to be composing every day, and it might still be true. Just listen to this podcast interview by Paul Steenhuisen, conducted a month ago. Forgive me for saying so, but when someone’s 102, you don’t expect them to be this lucid, this focused, this energetic in their speech (meaning, the physical act of speaking). Carter’s perceptiveness is clear early in the interview, as he dishes insights into Xenakis and the way a composer gets to know his/her own musical systems.

“I can’t say that I ever really wanted to write very complicated music, but it gradually came out that way,” Carter later tells Steenhuisen (who is, himself, a composer). Carter says his music has gotten simpler later on, a comment I recall reading two years ago. But the stuff is still interesting.

The podcast isn’t 51 straight minutes of Carter, by the way. It’s closer to a magazine entry, centering on a discussion with Carter but peppered with musical excerpts and some interviews with other people.

Hat tip to Chamber Musician Today, which noted Carter’s birthday in this entry by Raymond Bisha, who works for the music label Naxos. He includes a plug for Naxos’ Carter CDs, but that’s forgivable, partly because Naxos’ output is so vast that they pretty much have to have something by Carter in there. Bridge has also put out quite a bit of Carter’s work, including recent pieces, and Cedille recently released Ursula Oppens’ CD of Carter’s piano pieces.

It turns out that Carter didn’t make it to that 102nd-birthday concert in Toronto. This, of course, makes him no less of a badass. Go listen to that podcast; forward to about the 24th minute, where Carter discusses the importance of human nuance in performance. I’d love to be able to dial up that kind of passion when I’m 102.

sfSound Microfestival, Day 3

domenico sciajno, marina peterson, gene coleman at sfsoundNot that I attended Days 1 or 2, but: On a spur-of-the-moment decision, I managed to catch the final night of this weekend’s sfSound microfestival. Con: A rainy drive to San Francisco. Pro: Easy, easy parking in the Mission District on a Sunday night.  And great music, of course:  Some nice improvising, a mind-enriching earful of Elliott Carter, and a couple of very intriguing composed pieces.

Each night of the microfestival was focused on guest musicians passing through town, which is how Lê Quan Ninh and Michel Doneda were available for that KZSU live performance on Friday. Tonight was the trio of Domenico Sciajno (electronics), Gene Coleman (bass clarinet), and Marina Peterson (cello).

I’m going to talk about the program out-of-sequence, thusly: Those three ended the first half of the program with two improvisations, Sciajno providing a backdrop of sine waves and subtle metallic sounds that sometimes percolated enough to become the lead instrument. I liked that; the electronics didn’t stick out and stab forward like they can in these settings.

Peterson stuck a patch of paper (or light plastic?) on her cello strings to produce some interesting tones. Coleman’s bass clarinet had some of its best moments with strong flurries of staccato pops and blips.

I liked the second of their improvisations best, and that was even before the trio hit one sublime moment, a simultaneous dead STOP, behind which was a lone, subtle, high-pitched sine tone from Sciajno that lived on afterwards. As that tone lingered, Peterson and Coleman began exploring quiet harmonics.

Sciajno and Coleman got an extra treat with this performance by having their compositions played by sfSound members. Coleman’s “Black in White” opened the program, a trio for cello, clarinet, and koto. The koto is presented with “sound models” rather than strict notation, meaning the player’s interpretations will help craft the exact sound of the piece. Tightly scripted passages are interspersed among slower, improvisatory segments; Coleman says the piece derives from astronomy: “The explosions are like stars or nebulae, surrounded by vast amounts of space.”

Sciajno’s “Korzo” for octet was a graphic score, implying heavy amounts of improvisation on all sides. Moods ranged from very quiet to brash and raspy, and maybe it was just me, but it seemed Matt Ingalls‘ clarinet and Coleman’s bass clarinet, on the far left and far right sides, propelled much of the action. Two cellos and Coleman, all seated to the right, also combined for a nice droning segment that might have been in the score, or might have just welled up organically.

sfsound performs elliott carter's triple duoElliott Carter’s 20-minute “Triple Duo” opened the second half with a different sound. For all its avant-gardeness, Carter’s music still has elements of “regular” classical music, especially in the strings: lots of vibrato, long unison notes that quickly rise in volume for dramatic effect, etc. Each of the three duos (piano/percussion, clarinet/flute, and violin/cello) seemed to get a quick monologue early on, but deeper into the piece, the interplay gets more complex and cross-pollinated. The whole thing builds to a thrilling, shrill unison note, followed by a couple of phrases as epilogue before ending abruptly. The sfSound folks really hit that note; the effect was fantastic (more so than the recording of “Triple Duo” that I happen to be listening to right now). Kudos to the players and conductor Mary Chun for that.

The program closed with sfSound and the three guest performers combining on a group improvisation, with saxophonist John Ingle taking the lead.

sfsound en masse