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.

Feldman & Me

I’ve been listening to Morton Feldman’s second string quartet one movement at a time.

It’s similar to the strategy I undertook with Einstein on the Beach. The String Quartet (II) is nearly five hours long, and even with that kind of time on my hands, my media-saturated brain probably couldn’t take that much stillness in one dose.

feldman-2One difference, though. I listened to Einstein in order. I’m sampling the String Quartet in shuffle mode, absorbing one of the 13 movements per sitting. It’s helping me discern the “personality” of each movement. Any one of them could be described as a light, subtle pulse, but of course there are differences — the ocean-waves patience of “XII”; the slow, neon dissonance of “IX”; the irregular rhythms of “X” and its oddball ending.

Here’s a characteristic passage: the pastoral and relatively bright strokes that begin “III”.

 
You know how a line on a computer screen can be so thin that you can’t quite tell what color it is? I’m getting that effect with the string pulses. At times, they don’t sound like strings at all, but like tiny puffs of horns or woodwinds. That’s especially true during passages when the notes vanish quickly, dissolving into white space. My brain is left wondering what that sound was.

The piece certainly doesn’t sound like a traditional string quartet, but with that horn illusion at work, it doesn’t even sound like a quartet of strings

string2
Source: New York Classical Review.
I was pleased to find that each movement does not consist of 20 minutes of the same idea. Each one is a mini-journey unto itself, going through at least two distinct phases — the surprise pizzicato section near the end of “X,” with trilly, swirly violin punctuation, is probably my favorite moment. I also didn’t expect the occasional swirls of darkness interrupting the pervasive cloudy-light mood.

What I don’t have is a feel for the large-scale narrative. Is there a trajectory here, a series of moods you’re meant to be led through? I’m suspecting not. Maybe I don’t know Feldman well enough. Or … maybe I’m doing this exactly the way I should be.

The Pitter-Patter of Pianos

Daniel Brandt, Hauschka, Paul Frick, Gregor Scwellenbach, Earl Sarp, John Kameel Farah — Steve Reich: Six Pianos & Terry Riley: Keyboard Study #1 (FILM, 2016)

reichriley600x600The storms smacking the Bay Area today turned out to be the perfect weather for Steve Reich’s “Six Pianos.”

I hadn’t heard the piece before. I just happened to spot the new recording — on a CD by Berlin label FILM, paired with Terry Riley’s “Keyboard Study #1” — in the front-page carousel on eMusic. I gave it a try, and the endless percussive rattling of pianos became a fitting accompaniment for the bright gray sky and the splattering of raindrops on the window.

Why buy this version of “Six Pianos” as opposed to an older one? Here’s one reason: It was a way to thank FILM for their web page, where they let you hear the six individual piano parts and bring them into and out of the mix. (It might work only on the Chrome browser, however.)

It’s an enlightening chance to hear the simpler “viola chair” parts that get hidden in the fabric. (That’s my attempt at a viola joke. Don’t take it seriously.) I would assume each piano gets a share of the intricate stuff eventually, but in the first several minutes, Paul Frick and Erol Sarp are definitely working on the simpler parts.

In concert, even the smaller parts probably take immense concentration amid the shimmering repetition of the piece. (See Einstein on My CD Player.) But for this recording, it turns out each pianist recorded his contribution separately at home.

riley-film-recordings“Six Pianos” felt right for a rainy day, but of course, our brains can twist music to fit whatever setting happens to be around. Sultry jazz ballads seem great for a snuggly winter day, but they also remind me of the heavy air of a summer afternoon. “Six Pianos” might represent the bustle of Manhattan streets, as Pitchfork suggests, but today, it’s about the rain showers outside and the quietude inside.

Having said that, not every piece of music can fit every mood. Terry Riley’s “Keyboard Study #1” is more frenetic to my ears, and it’s missing that clean shimmer that a Reich piece produces. It’s an impressive and fun piece –performed solo by Gregor Schwellenbach, presumably with overdubs — but it didn’t accompany the storm as well as “Six Pianos” did.

Vicky Chow and the One-Bit Army

Tristan Perich [Vicky Chow, piano] — Surface Image (New Amsterdam, 2014)
Vicky Chow (Tristan Perich) -- Surface Image (New Amsterdam 2014)“One-bit electronics” refers to a speaker that either beeps or doesn’t. Only one tone is possible, and it’s on or off — much like the bell on an Apple II computer or IBM PS/2, if anyone remembers those.

Put a bunch of one-bit speakers in a room, set to different tones, and you’d have a programmable music box. Set those tones to a bright, minimalist major/suspended chord and play them really fast, and you’d have a hyperkinetic, jumpy music box — and a captivating, forceful musical experience, if you did it right.

Now add a pianist who can either augment or cut across the flow — and you’ve got Tristan Perich’s “Surface Image,” where pianist Vicky Chow does battle with (or leads the march of) 40 one-bit speakers all chattering away for a little more than an hour.

As you can see in the preview video, it’s an assault of bright, insistent tones blasting forth.

At its peak, the music is a maximal minimalism. It’s in your face, bouncing you around like a bumper-car ride. I think the piece is best experienced in one sitting — yes, your attention wavers, but as it does, your experience shifts from a pinpoint shower (lots of individual notes hurtling forth) to a shimmering haze (everything blurring together).

That first half really is fun, with Chow and the electronics playing in an upbeat frenzy with a stiff rhythm. It feels light even as Chow bears down on the keyboard, hammering away at marshmallow-puff harmonies or playing impressive runs against the speakers’ pulsing. The inevitable change of mood is a welcome break, though, one that’s key to molding the music into a story. It’s a story with a mostly predictable trajectory (hey guess what: it slows down in the second half), but it’s a good one, and the conclusion was not really what I’d expected.

The one-bit speakers are split between the listener’s left and right stereo speakers, so when they really get going, there’s an odd sensation of the left and right sides blinking on and off in opposite phases. (Fans of Bang on a Can, of which Chow is a member, might recall the Louis Andriessen piece “Hocketus.”) It’s an interesting effect that makes you wonder what the piece would be like in a live performance — especially one like the SF Tape Music Festival, with speakers around the room.

For a more academic yet still captivating example of one-bit electronics, in a venue where your exact location really matters, check out Perich’s 1,500-speaker microtonal wall:

Henry Plotnick Goes Blue

Henry PlotnickBlue Fourteen (Blue Tapes, 2014)

Henry Plotnick: Blue Fourteen (Blue Tapes)Often compared to Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley, Henry Plotnick is a modern composer using synthesizer loops to build dense pieces, packed with layer upon layer of fascination. He came to KZSU’s attention with his album Fields and is now back with a cassette and download release, blue fourteen. (That’s how the Blue Tapes label names its albums.)

Plotnick’s music verges on new age, I have to admit. For all its mystery, it’s got that calming-yet-upbeat mood, full of clockwork bell sounds, mostly in major keys. Still, I’ve really enjoyed his two albums and his willingness to explore long-form works. At this time of year, all the chiming sounds even make Plotnick a pleasant alternative to Christmas music.

Blue fourteen doesn’t rely on sheets of orchestral strings as much as Fields did — which I guess is another way of saying Plotnick has been expanding his vocabulary of sounds. Some catch my ear better than others. The foundation of “Izles” includes a couple of 8-bit loops that can get on the nerves after a while.

But his new strategies work, and they show off Plotnick’s strength in building and retracting layers to create a 10- or 15-minute story arc. “Wapati” is a particularly exciting piece, where Plotnick glitches up some of his samples, kind of like noise soloing, and even improvises on piano for a spell. I’m also partial to the organized chaos of “Mechanolatry,” where the loops don’t build a fully melodic form and the rhythms criss-cross unevenly. It’s perpetual-motion factory, happily clicking and whirring away.

Then there’s the scattershot feel of “Sun,” which keeps up the happy, floaty mood but in a series of disconnected rhythms, like multiple tracks colliding. It coalesces into a warm, soothing wash to finish the album.

Blue fourteen is a limited-edition cassette and a download; you can sample it on Soundcloud. You can read more about Plotnick on Wondering Sound, upvote him on the Dazed 100 poll (where readers have pushed him up to No. 25 from No. 94), and hear him live on KZSU’s 2015 Day of Noise on Sat., Feb. 7.

Aram Shelton Convenes the Octet

Aram SheltonOctet (self-released, 2014)

Aram Shelton: Octet. Source: Bandcamp; click to go thereIn 2002, jazzman Aram Shelton wrote “Octet,” a straight chamber piece for four horns, two cellos, and two basses. It’s a departure from his usual work with bands such as Ton Trio II.

He’ll be performing with a Bay Area version of the octet on Friday, May 16, at Le Qui Vive (1525 Webster St., Oakland), a show starting at 9:00 p.m. You can preview the music by listening to “Octet” and a companion piece, “Spring Time,” on Bandcamp. (You can also buy them there; just $5 for a 43-minute digital album.)

“Octet” is framed in minimalist tones, patient and bright. It builds on small, repeated motifs that gradually shift during the course of about 27 minutes. The steady cadence gets a break about midway, when it shifts into slower, looser playing — then it picks up the thread again, bouncing and bobbing its way along.

Minimalist pieces are meant to be a bit hypnotic (that’s always been my impression, anyway) and part of the magic is in zooming in on the details. In this case, you’ve got eight players to provide plenty of counterpoint, like lots of side conversations adding up to a whole. I’m reminded of a ROVA piece where many players were spread around a large room, and the audience was invited to sit in the middle. “Octet” would sound really good that way, with small sounds patiently prodding at you from all directions.

“Summer Time” carries a similar mood but eases up on the strict rhythm. The horns, in particular, play breathy jazz motifs that might even be improvised (or composed but with a more casual sense of rhythm applied). It’s an airy 17-minute piece that breezes past more quickly than you realize.

I’d recommend checking out the Octet at Le Qui Vive. It’s not an act that seems likely to be repeated much in the future. (And the opening act, featuring longtime jazzman Idris Ackamoor of The Pyramids, should be a treat, too.)

And if you’re more inclined to check out Shelton’s jazz work, Ton Trio II is playing at Duende (Oakland) on the following Friday, May 23.

A New Voice in Minimalism

Henry PlotnickFields (Holy Mountain, 2013)

Source: eMusic; click to go thereA mini-sensation at KZSU and KFJC in the Bay Area, and probably other college stations nationwide, Henry Plotnick has released an album-length keyboard suite that combines minimalist influences such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich. It’s compelling and bright, an admirable work. And Plotnick recorded it at the age of 11.

Piano/synth themes, washes of “strings,” and various sound effects combine to form what might seem, on the sruface, to be a new-agey symphony. Which by itself would be an accomplishment for an 11-year-old, but what sets it apart from the Mannheim Steamroller crowd is the insistent pulsing repetition that’s woven into most segments (hence the Glass/Reich comparisons) — it’s layers upon layers that build up slowly in each track, with counterpoint themes piling up to create the feel of a bustling department store at Christmas.

The melody can be a little cloying sometimes. “Field 1” opens with some straightforward major-key anthems, like a warmup (although it quickly shifts into more interesting keyboard patterns). The video-game-sounding melody on “Field 8” struck me as a bit trite, too — but as the counterpoint layers come in, the track becomes more wondrous.

Yes, I might be giving Plotnick extra points for his age. (And I hesitated to write about this at all, because I felt bad saying anything critical about an 11-year-old’s work. When I was 11, I barely knew how to program the TV remote. He’s writing symphonies. I don’t want to sap any of the joy he gets out of it. I honestly hope he doesn’t read his reviews, and I’m glad to find that he doesn’t seem to have a web site, although you can find a lot of him on YouTube, including this impressive hour-long piano improvisation.)

Whether he’s 11, 12, or 121, Plotnick has put together a professional album that works as one long concept. I like his sense of timing and drama in the transitions between the “Field” tracks. They don’t blend into each other either; it’s more that one idea stops and the next one starts without pause, and he’s engineered those spots well. Maybe it’s just something a radio DJ appreciates.

Plotnick can play, too. I liked the soloing of bells on “Field 3,” although they seem to fall behind the beat occasionally — which might be intentional, for all I know. “Field 5” puts analog/Moog-sounding synth in the lead voice, soloing in a rubbery, taffy-pulling way:

For a segment with a more challenging sense of harmony, there’s the intro to “Field 4,” where the strings and bass move at funny angles for a tense, foreboding framework:

Fields did quite well at KZSU in August and topped the station’s overall chart for one week in October. (That’s the overall weekly chart; Plotnick beat out Neko Case.) I had nothing to do with any of that; it was mostly the proselytizing of DJ Miss Information. I hope Plotnick isn’t in a hurry to do another album — he has to spend time being a kid, after all — but I’m more than happy to spread the word about what he’s done on here.

(Unrelated aside: Anybody remember a duo album with Harold Budd and Andy Partridge called Through the Hill? It’s got surface similarities to Fields, down to the geographic album titles and the pervasive use of keyboards. They’re very different projects, though. Fields is more dense and expansive — a wider field of vision, you might say, courtesy of the technological advances of the last 20 years.)