Posts tagged ‘modern classical’

Schoenberg and an Art Journey

schoenberg06-cut

Intrigued by a review in BBC Music magazine, I gave this album a try: Schoenberg’s String Quartets Nos. 2 and 4, by the Gringolts Quartet (Bis, 2017).

The quartets were written 30 years apart and document different phases in Schoenberg’s 12-tone composing. The Art Music Lounge blog provides a good review with historical context.

Both BBC Music and Art Music Lounge describe the Second quartet as more accessible than the Fourth. But to me, it’s the opposite. That’s partly because the Second quartet includes two movements with a soprano — in this case, Malin Hartelius — singing lines of poetry by Stefan George. I’ve yet to develop a good ear for classical art-singing; to me, it sounds wandering and aimless. By contrast, the jumpy twelve-tone lines of the Fourth quartet sound fun and even catchy — even though an ordinary listener might call them “aimless” too. It’s probably the result of all the post-Schoenberg modern jazz and improv I’ve listened to.

So my mind wandered during the Second, and I started getting curious about that album cover art. Where did it come from?

schoenberg-2-4I could have made a good guess if I’d thought about it. In fact, as I discovered in a web search, this piece has been used as cover art a few different times — such as the album Signs, Games & Messages: Works for Solo Violin by Bartók and Kurtág (Resonus, 2016) by violinist Simon Smith.

It’s also on the cover of a book: Poetics in a New Key — essays by, and interviews with, poet Marjorie Perloff.

It’s hard for me to resist a connection like this, so later, I got curious about Kurtág’s Signs and started listening to samples of Simon’s interpretation. I didn’t recognize the music, but after a while, I began to remember I already owned something else of Kurtág’s. I riffled through my digital collection and found Kim Kashkashian’s viola version of Signs.

That’s when I remembered. I don’t like Signs.

Several listens to Kashkashian’s version left me cold — which I hate to say, because I’m a fan of hers, and because Kurtág is still living and, charmingly, records and performs piano duets with his wife. How can you not love that?

Still, Signs doesn’t click with me. It’s a set of miniatures — an evolving set that Kurtág is still adding to, so recordings vary depending on which handful of pieces the soloist picks. That aspect is intriguing. But the miniatures themselves feel like incomplete doodles. I’m not able to channel them together into a “story.” Maybe it’s just that Kurtág and I just aren’t on the same wavelength.

My dislike of Signs matters to me, though.

In a 2009 essay for The Guardian, Christopher Fox makes an interesting point about Schoenberg’s legacy. The Second string quartet was powered by Schoenberg’s emotional state, as his marriage was falling apart. That doesn’t mean every geometric arrangement of 12 tones is going to produce something great, as Fox writes:

The subsequent institutionalisation of the techniques he developed in those decisive months has produced hour upon hour of greyness … Atonal harmony and fragmented melody are still powerful expressive tools, as film composers demonstrate whenever their directors need a musical equivalent for psychological distress, but as the habitual texture of contemporary classical music their routine use has stripped them of meaning.

gringolts006-cut

Gringolts Quartet.

Even though he has a point, I can honestly say I enjoy some of those gray expanses. For example, I went to explore Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 3, just because it isn’t on the Gringolts album. Art Music Lounge describes the Fourth quartet as “much more accessible than his Third Quartet, at least trying to follow a cohesive melodic line much of the time” — so I couldn’t resist diving into the potential incohesion of the Third quartet.

But you know what? I liked it. It’s engaging — bouncy and rhythmic, with small spurts of repetition to help ground the listener and create a sense of progression. And I’m confident that this isn’t just me being pretentious, because — as with Signs — I’ve discovered that it’s possible for me to not like modern music.

(What about the First quartet, you ask? Apparently it’s tonal — in D major. Eh, maybe some other time.)

Oh, as for that minimalist, curvy-pointy cover art … it’s by Wassily Kandinsky. Yeah, I shoulda known.

Kandinsky is credited in the album’s liner notes, which I own in digital form but didn’t think to consult until later. There’s even a connection to Schoenberg:

“In January 1911 in Munich, Kandinsky attended a concert with music by Schoenberg, including String Quartet No. 2. Much taken by the experience, he wrote to the composer later the same month: ‘You have realized in your work that which I, admittedly in imprecise form, have so long sought from music. The self-sufficient following of its own path, the independent life of individual voices in your compositions, is exactly what I seek to find in painterly form.”

January 15, 2018 at 9:52 am Leave a comment

Exploring Helmut Lachenmann

solo

Once in a while, I like to dip into UbuWeb: Sound. Part of the Ubu online collection of avant-garde art and video, it was originally conceived as a library of sound poetry but now encompasses a generous spectrum of experimental music, too.

I cherish the idea that these mostly out-of-print works have a home, but I have to admit, I also revel in the obscurity of it all. So much art from so many unfamiliar names. So much history! It’s a playground for hipsters of the avant-garde: “I was into Laurie Anderson back when she was doing actual songs! On vinyl!” (Check out “It’s Not the Bullet That Kills You, It’s the Hole.”)

So one day — the day I found that Laurie Anderson page, actually — I decided to spin the big wheel. Push the cursor blindly, investigate a name. It could have been someone extremely famous like Phillip Glass or Don Cherry. But I lucked out and got a modern classical composer of great renown who had so far escaped me: Helmut Lachenmann.

His purview is “musique concrète instrumentale,” meaning the extramusical sounds that can be squeezed out of musical instruments. His pieces are like noise sculptures, full of extended playing and improv-like atmosphere. The sound of “a beetle on its back,” the Guardian says, quoting the instructions from one of Lachenmann’s pieces.

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Ubu’s collection includes two of his works, from a 1986 recording on the Col Legno label; it’s still available on eMusic. A string quartet called “Gran Torso” fills the space with creaks, scrapes, bow bouncing, and the occasional wisp of an open-stringed tone. I can see how pieces like this might have informed works like Elliott Sharp’s “The Boreal.”

Even abstract noise can be used to carve a trajectory, a pacing, as “Gran Torso” does. The activity ebbs and flows in a storytelling fashion. It’s enjoyable.

The secon piece is “Saut für Caudwell” for two acoustic guitars, played in clackety percussive style that I would have mistaken for violins. It gets into a snappy rhythm with the guitarists chanting in German — simple stuff, a 1/4 time signature in a sense. That’s followed by a dynamic segment of springy, scraping sounds.

Exploring elsewhere, I’ve found that when Lachenmann’s aesthetic is applied to an orchestra, the result is pretty much as I expected — lots of sparse abstract sounds, but a wider variety that comes at you from a multitude of directions. I’m also trying to get into his solo piano piece, “Serynade,” which combines moments of fluid virtuosity; sudden, shrill bursts; and long bouts of silence.

I know there’s a whole world of musique concrète to discover, but for now, I’m happy exploring Lachenmann’s corner of it. His work essentially involves extended techniques on acoustic instruments, a milieu I’m more than familiar with, but I’m finding fresh aspects to his music. Despite the abstractness of it all, I think I can feel a common style and personality in the pieces I’ve heard so far.

Here’s a performance of “Serynade” by Mexican concert pianist Anna Paolina Hasslacher. It’s also on her Soundcloud page, but I like the way this camera angle reveals the techniques involved.

November 28, 2017 at 11:07 pm Leave a comment

Tim Daisy: The Drums of October

Tim DaisyOctober Music, Vol. 1 (Relay, 2014)

daisy-octoberIn addition to being a first-call free-jazz drummer on the prolific Chicago scene, Tim Daisy is also a composer. For October Music, he’s sketched duets to play with seven hand-picked partners, pieces seemingly built to play off their strengths. It’s got some serious moments but overall feels like an opportunity to just enjoy making some music with friends.

Many of the sessions come in a jazzy vibe — especially “Writers,” a spirited free-jazz romp with Marc Riorden on piano. It quickly gets into a sprint, with Riorden’s knotted piano improvising racing against Daisy’s fleet, subtle drumming. The composed theme, when it emerges, is a skeleton staircase of rising notes, setting the stage for a second round of high-energy improvising.

“Roscoe St.,” with Dave Rempis on baritone sax, seems like a nice reflection of Roscoe Mitchell’s many facets, a combination of burly, swinging saxophone and warbly experimental sounds. “For Jay” likewise slips through a few mood changes, from a sprited jazz-improv duet to a more careful space where James Falzone’s clarinet paints images of stillness against some astoundingly fast vibraphone — Daisy showing off some serious high-precision rolls on the sustained notes.

Other pieces opt for a modern-classical sound. “Some Birds” features Katherine Young, who’s explored the outer limits of the bassoon. It’s a calm chamber piece with vibraphone, presented with care, as if you were watching the assembly of a delicate and carefully balanced structure. “Near a Pond” is a studious piece where Jen Clare Paulson plays some sad, folky melodies on viola but also gets a moment of scratchy, whispery experimentation, adding to the overcast feel. It all culminates with a surprisingly vibrant marimba solo.

Vibraphone takes center stage on “For Lowell,” with Jason Adasiewicz at the hammers, playing bright, cool splashes against the palette of Daisy’s drum kit. “Painted,” with Josh Berman on cornet, is a reflective ending, played at a decently chipper clip but with lots of white space, created mostly from Daisy’s restraint on the drum kit. It’s not exactly sad, just very thoughtful.

You can find a more of Daisy’s composed or improvised musical ventures on Bandcamp. Here’s a dash of the aforementioned “Writers,” with Marc Riorden on piano:

April 9, 2015 at 11:06 pm Leave a comment

Ken Thomson’s Slow/Fast

Ken Thomson and Slow/FastSettle (NCM East, 2014)

Source: ktonline.net, click to go there

Source: ktonline.net, click to go there

I’m familiar with Ken Thomson because of Gutbucket, the sharp-attitude quartet that uses his sax as an offensive weapon. Their shows are full of exciting, pinpoint jazz, but they’re also raucous events, more rocking than a lot of rock shows, with Thomson drenched in sweat before the set is half over.

Slow/Fast isn’t like that — and yet, it’s still got Thomson’s personality and presence. The group, shaped like a jazz quintet, is a showcase for Thomson’s compositions, which occupy that zone straddling jazz and modern music. The writing is full of elegant and complex melodies, sometimes seasoned with a warm, jazzy solo.

Some pieces almost feel like games, built up from an exacting geometry. I want to say “minimalism,” but it’s closer to proggy jazz; in either case, the hallmark is a not-quite-regular construct of time signatures.

As an example, “Welding for Freedom” starts off with a scripted dialogue of sax and trumpet statements, short blips like a puzzle. Then it bursts into this pretty, flowing theme — a not-quite-waltz — and gives way to a warm and blossoming trumpet solo from Russ Johnson.

“We Are Not All in This Together” likewise pairs bass clarinet and single-note guitar in unison stop/start lines, tracing a winding path accompanied by slow, earthy bass from Adam Armstrong.

That gives way to a spider-fingered guitar solo by Fender, backed only by Armstrong’s bass and Fred Kennedy’s drums — a sublimely jazzy segment.

“Settle,” the bright and forceful title track, is the only one that reminds me of Gutbucket. It features Thomson in a darting solo against a hyperactive rhythm section: Armstrong’s brisk walking bass and Kennedy’s light, fast cymbal taps. It’s got fuzzed-out guitar and an aggressive stance overall, and the Spanish-tinged, two-horn theme is bold and dramatic. (The whole track is up on Soundcloud — be warned that the audio starts automatically.)

Finally, one of my favorite moments of zen on Settle comes during “Spring,” where a long bass solo gives way to the butterfly-flapping theme as played by Thomson and Johnson. The fingerwork is quick and sounds difficult, but the mood is airy and slow, very much evoking the feeling of a sleepy spring meadow.

February 21, 2015 at 10:44 pm Leave a comment

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:

January 24, 2015 at 3:22 pm 1 comment

Opera As an Immersive Experience: Invisible Cities

The Pulitzer Prize winners were announced yesterday, but it’s one of the runners-up that I’m most excited about.

It’s Christopher Cerrone‘s opera, Invisible Cities:

I’ll give away the punch line before you watch the video: The opera is performed in a public place, with cast and audience wandering about together, all connected on wireless headphones to hear the concert. Discovering where the action is, or stumbling onto the plainclothes players, is part of the whole experience.

The premiere run, in the fall of 2013, got some rave reviews and sold out every show, according to the rider. Yes, there’s a rider [21-page PDF] — they’re hoping to take this opera on the road.

Still from the <i>Invisible Cities</i> promo video.Those performances spanned two weeks at Los Angeles’ Union Station. It’s a large, elegant place — not the size of Grand Central, which would hopelessly swallow the performance, but still large enough to provide physical distance and separation. The opera was spread out, compelling the audience to wander and explore.

Part of the trick is that the opera performs during the evening, while the station is operating. My guess is that a ticket buys you the headphones, but if you’ve legitimately got a train to catch, or you just want to gawk, you get the show’s visual aspect for free.

While I’d love to see Invisible Cities in the Bay Area, I can’t think of a good location, offhand. A transit station is ideal due to the natural bustle that would surround the opera and hide some of the “offstage” performers. But Caltrain’s San Francisco station is open-air and too small — an aspects of off-stage mystery would be lost. The San Jose station actually seems bigger (it’s an Amtrak stop, too) but still not big enough, and it doesn’t have a layout that would provide a good, dynamic experience.

There’s always BART. Annnd…. I think that discussion ends right there.

So, if you live somewhere else, keep an eye out. Invisible Cities might come to your town, and you won’t even know it until the dancers spring up from that row of seats and Ashley Faatoalia‘s whispered tenor starts gently pressing at your ear.

April 15, 2014 at 9:07 pm Leave a comment

Banging on Cans: How the New New Music Won Out

Bang on a Can All-Stars, 2000s version

Bang on a Can All-Stars, 2000s version.
Source: bangonacan.org; click to go there.

It wasn’t until about 1995 that I really tapped into avant-garde music, so I have a romanticized image of the 1980s “downtown” scene. I arrived for the tail end of that era. The Knitting Factory was feeling the decay that would eventually transform it into a rock club. John Zorn and other avant-jazz stars were starting to become accepted by the critics (if not the general jazz public). Still, with lots of recent history to catch up on, I had a terrific adventure backtracking the careers of folks like Tim Berne, Bobby Previte, and Jim Black.

Bang on a Can emerged from that era as well, but not quite from the same direction. Liner notes to Industry (Sony Classical, 1995) describe the 1987 debut of the Bang on a Can festival as an attempt to create a polyglot musical direction, one that bridged the tuxedos of uptown new-classical with the black T-shirts of the downtown scene.

It must have been an exciting time. I’ve certainly heard of Bang on a Can, and I’ve played the music on KZSU, but I’ve never really listened to much of their output. I recently amended that by cozying up with two earlier Bang on a Can All Stars CDs: Industry and Cheating, Lying, Stealing (Sony Classical, 1996)

Bang on a Can: Industry (Sony Classical, 1995)

Industry.

Those recordings come from an intermediate stage, when the Bang on a Can Festival was lesser-known to the wider world but accepted enough to drive a recording deal with Sony. For me, the CDs were a good lesson in the group’s aesthetics and goals. In the past decade, I’ve heard a lot of new-classical music that seems to fit the Bang on a Can mold, where minimalism, virtuosity, and even improvisation collide, and now I know at least one force that helped get that message out.

Pounding It Out
In particular, a lot of new music is loaded up with percussion, sometimes to lend a rock-like heartbeat, sometimes to just plain bash and thrill. Industry shows how strong that trend already was prior to the ’90s. “Lick,” by Bang on a Can co-founder Julia Wolfe, opens the album with strident blips that build into something like a rock rhythm (Mark Stewart’s electric guitar certainly helps push that suggestion). Built of various types of pounding that eventually emerge in melodic forms, it’s an engaging piece that grabs me like a good jazz track would. “The Anvil Chorus” is simply all percussion. David Lang composed the piece, then left Steven Schick to pick just which junk-percussion items would be making the sounds — a nice idea that acknowledges the importance of percussion and the wide flea market of sounds waiting to be tapped.

Bang on a Can: Cheating, Lying, Stealing (Sony Classical, 1996)

Cheating, Lying, Stealing

Two compositions take some inspiration from the early Soviet practice of trying to replicate pounding, steaming factory sounds in music. One is “Industry,” a somber Michael Gordon piece performed by cellist Maya Beiser. But the one that’s particularly effective is Annie Gosfield’s “The Manufacture of Tangled Ivory.” It uses a sampling keyboard where some notes are “tuned” to industrial clangs or to muffled, prepared-piano clacking. That lends a percussive sound to the keyboard solo that starts the piece — and then, when the ensemble kicks in like a fast conveyer belt, the percussive piano, guitar, and bass sounds augment the outright percussion for what, indeed, comes across like the sound of a factory.

Pianist Lisa Moore gets another percussive turn on Frederic Rzewski‘s “Piano Piece No. IV.” While it’s got some rich melody and some serious classical-music flutters and runs, it’s also full of pecking, poking, and two-handed jackhammering. A regally lyrical passage might give way to a sudden near-tuneless pounding — followed by a very tuneful pounding in the higher registers, like a small spoon delicately cracking an egg.

Another element often found in modern classical music, and even in improvisation, is process. Louis Andriessen‘s “Hocketus” has two identical sextets playing one chord at a time in strict alternating patterns: Team A plays, then holds silent as Team B plays. On the CD, one sextet is in each speaker, so you get the ping-pong effect of the music bouncing back and forth, eventually in rapid patter that creates long rhythmic phrases. After several minutes, the music feels purely percussive. The exact notes being hit become secondary to their timing; by altering which instruments’ sounds dominate, Andriessen creates different sounds, but you’re not trying to follow any melodic thread, not until the saxophones start building one in the end.

Lincoln Center presents "Bang on a Can: 25 Years" at Alice Tully Hall on April 28, 2012.  The performances included: Gamelan Galak Tika perfoming Evan Ziporyn "Tire Fire" Asphalt Orchestra Bang on a Can All-Stars with Mira Calix, Christian Marclay and NIck Zammuto performing "Field Recordings (2012) Credit: Stephanie Berger

Bang on a Can founders Gordon, Wolfe, and Lang, at the 25th anniversary concert in 2012. Photo by Stephanie Berger; source: bangonacan.org — click to go there.

I’ve seen Andriessen’s name but never realized he was such a patron saint for Bang on a Can’s cause, a composer “versed in the European modernist tradition but [who] recognized that rock ‘n’ roll existed,” as Wolfe, Gordon, and Lang (Bang on a Can’s founders) write in the Industry liner notes. To me, as a latecomer, Bang on a Can itself has always been a touchstone for new-classical music; it’s strangely refreshing to think of the outfit as the spunky new kid looking for sympathetic ears out in the classical world.

Just Rock, Dammit
At the root of it all is a desire to just plain rock out, as the Bang on a Can founders state on Cheating, Lying, Stealing:

In classical music, you’ll have this amazing musician, but he sits in a chair or stands still. There’s no visual element, no show. In rock bands, it’s all show. Since we began the Bang on a Can festivals in 1987, we have merged and synthesized these worlds, putting together programs of seemingly contradictory pieces: gutsy, funky, highly energetic, sound-world stretching music that takes in influences from rock, jazz, folk, world music, and technology.

The track where those principles particularly shine is “Arapua,” by Hermeto Pascoal — an exciting, screeching free-jazz tumult that lets the band really tear it up while never fully giving way to abandon. It’s driven by big piano chords and some searing electric guitar, including a whole patch of chord strumming that plays out like a solo. Evan Ziporyn goes nuts on bass clarinet above the tumult. That’s how it’s done!

It’s a comfort to listen to this music and read these liner notes knowing that Bang on a Can’s ideas and experiments won out in the end. Artists have embraced the idea of letting classical music absorb modern influences rather than the other way around, and the resulting works are rich and plentiful — you just have to find the right places to look. The Bay Area’s Switchboard Music Festival, which I’ve mentioned here but never actually attended, would be a perfect example. Now I can’t wait to go.

December 29, 2013 at 6:00 pm 1 comment

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