Posts tagged ‘new music’
Dave Douglas & Monash Art Ensemble — Fabliaux (Greenleaf, 2015)
You might get scared by the first strains of “Forbidden Flags,” which opens Fabliaux with regal horns indicating the start of a knightly joust or a Shakespeare play.
But there’s jazz to be had here, nestled into a setting of new chamber music. The Dave Douglas you know and love is in there as well. He’s teamed up with the Monash Art Ensemble, an Australian collective that commissions new works including a 2014 album recorded with George Lewis, to create a jazz/new-music mix, the work of a creative big band with flair.
The regal opening and the medieval album cover are nods to Fabliaux‘s inspiration, the 14th-century French composers of the Ars Nova. (Wrong century for Shakespeare.) The concept here is not about the sound of 14th-century music; it seems to be more about building off the rhythmic ideas like hocketing or specific types of counterpoint. The music produced by the ensemble — comprised of four quartet ensembles (strings, brass, winds, percussion) plus electronics — flashes through a variety of tempraments and sounds, in the end producing something that really could sit in the jazz section.
“Forbidden Flags” soon gives way to more big-band-sounding harmonies backing a trumpet solo (Douglas himself, I assume). “Legions” has the horns charting bold big-band chords behind the opening electric piano solo and the cool 7/8 rhythm.
“Tower of the Winds” uses quirky woodwind melodies to re-create a ’50s-style soundtrack for walking down a sunny Manhattan street. Later, it mashes the winds and brass into some complex intertwining that sets up dynamic drum and electronics solos.
Most pieces move like clockwork with the slick, precise, sound of well-executed charts, but Fabliaux is also full of creative soloing. “Legions,” for instance, packs some bright, engaging solos from sax, trumpet, and violin.
The composing is packed with twists; not every piece is a big-band chart. “Whirlwind” is a post-minimalist experiment, built of little repeating riffs mixed together in queasy harmonies and not-quite-overlapping cycles. The start of the piece lives up to the title. “Gears” has a tumbling feeling of out-of-phase rhythms, a giant machine that seems chaotic and lumbering but is really working under its own logic.
Even though Fabliaux is a Dave Douglas composition, I’m left feeling like it’s more a Monash album than a Dave Douglas album. It’s a good introduction to the ensemble, anyway, and leaves me interested in hearing what else they can do.
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)
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.
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.
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.
Nightshade is essentially a new-classical quintet, performing compositions that reserve large spaces for improvisation. But while you get frequent episodes of scribbly improv — furious crackles and scrapes on John Finkbeiner’s electric guitar, for instance — there’s still a concert-hall studiousness to the music. It’s not something that would come off well in a bar.
It was a treat, then, to see the group perform at Old First Church in San Francisco last month. The church hosts chamber music concerts regularly, from the very traditional to the new and outbound (like this one, from 2009).
Old First was a natural habitat for Nightshade. Sounds thrive and resonate there; they can be relished and absorbed. The resonance isn’t echoey, it’s more of a magnifying effect — you can hear everything, from the quietest musical details to the frustratingly loud rustling of your own jacket as you scratch your arm.
Nightshade’s sound relies on a lot of vibraphone (Kjell Nordeson), played in sleek and modern lines. There’s no true lead voice, though; clarinet (often bass clarinet, from Cory Wright), guitar, bass (Mezzacappa herself), and subtly tinged electronics round out the group. The written themes often follow dreamy, glassy melodies, striking onto a few jazzy moments before opening up into solos or improvising.
The electronics are a surprisingly subtle touch. Tim Perkis isn’t just thrown in there to make noise. He’s handed a score like any other player and abides by it. Now, his part must have a higher level of improvisation (or at least randomness) than the others, but still — it’s a gentle addition, arriving at specified times, blending into the group aesthetic. There’s a lot of potential in that approach.
The most aggressive melody on the CD (and in the concert) is/was “Regard de L’etoile,” taken from a suite of Olivier Messiaen piano pieces. It comes across stern and jazzy. Mezzacappa also put a Zappa song, “The Eric Dolphy Memorial BBQ,” into the band’s repertoire. It’s got lots of vibes, of course, and some slash-and burn moments for Finkbeiner. I seem to remember both having a spikier, more aggressive sound live than on the CD, which I’d attribute to the usual difference between recording a clean-take CD (it’s “classical,” after all) and performing live, in the moment.
Most of the album consists of Mezzacappa compositions, and they’re terrific. “Delphine,” is introduced on the CD by a quiet, bubbling improvisation before moving into the placid, glassy composed lines. It flows at a careful, liquid pace. “Cosmic Rift” likewise starts in improv territory, this time chaotic, aided by generous electronics, and shifts to a crepuscular tick-tock melodies that the band improvises around. It moves like a quirky classical music, with dark improvising flitting about the margins.
The Dec. 18 concert of Polly Moller‘s works was terrific fun. Most of the pieces were based on instructions and improvisation, and many took their concepts from nature, pagan mythos, and… for lack of a better word, I’ll say “magic.”
Pictures taken during the show came out rather fuzzy, since I was sitting in the back. Amar, over at the Catsynth blog, has a better camera and knows how to use it; he might eventually post some pics beyond what I could do.
I’d previously mentioned the show here. And here, now, is a rundown of the program:
The Flip Quartet (2006). The first piece happens to be the hardest to describe. Four improvisers stand at four tables, each representing a compass direction (N,E,S,W) and an element (earth, fire, air, water, not necessarily in that order). Each table is ornamented with various objects for soundmaking — among them: glass, whistles, metal, books to read from, and even a guitar. All four players perform for a set amount of time, then they pause and rotate. (Photo below by Michael Zelner, michaelz1 on Flickr, taken from a 2009 “Flip Quartet” performance.)
I wish I’d taken notes on how the five movements differed (they played a second time at their original positions, making for five movements). The first seemed quietest and more tentative — in fact, the piece is supposed to be amplified so that the performers can focus on quiet sounds. Some of that did come into effect — the fire table had a book of matches, and the act of striking a match and shaking out the flame sounded interesting over the amplifier. In the third movement, the guy at table 3 tried snapping matches in half. He stopped after only two, probably thinking he wasn’t being heard — but the second match’s snap came through clearly. Nice idea.
Part of the exercise, I think, is to see how different improvisers react to the same sets of materials. It’s almost like the piece is challenging them to produce their own sounds out of, say, metal chains and bowls, or innocuous pitchers of water.
Duo No. 1 (2008, premiere). Written for Gino Robair, who played all manner of objects, this duo traces the life cycle of a moth, and the score consists of a diagram of that life cycle, with some dynamic markings (basically showing that the piece is meant to be very, very quiet in the middle). Robair was accompanied by Krystyna Bobrowski on sliding speaker instrument: a tube, the length of which she varied for different sound timbres, altering and accentuating the sounds Robair was feeding into the mic. The piece was quiet but propulsive, and you really could trace events from the breaking of the chrysalis to the final flight into a flame.
Penelope (2010, premiere). Solo piccolo piece for Amy Likar, and possibly the program’s only through-composed piece. It combines sparse piccolo flurries, timed foot stomps, and a breathy “yes” frequently blown into the mouthpiece, all representing Penelope’s monologue that ends Ulysses. There was no set meter, so the piece was unpredictable and the foot stomps irregular: just one continuing flow, much like stream-of-consciousness writing. Very nice.
Three of Swords (2009). The most difficult of the pieces, for both performer and audience. It’s solo performance art, with the performer (Sarah Elena Palmer) alternately emitting improvised vocal sounds, conducting a tarot reading, and tuning up what sounded like a shortwave radio. Long pauses, particularly for the tarot-card turning, made this one hard to pull off, but the audience stayed reverently quiet. I liked the effect but came away feeling like I didn’t “get” this one.
Alcyone (2010, premiere). By contrast, this piece told a straightforward story: the Greek legend of Alcyone, who calms the winter seas for seven days while incubating her eggs on the waves. A quartet (two saxes, bass, percussion) played tumultuously as Alcyone (mezzo-soprano Laura Malouf-Renning, darkly costumed and carrying a nest of Xmas ornaments) arrived and, with a touch, quieted each player in succession, the overall sound slowly receding. Alcyone then got a long monologue/aria, stern and dramatic — I’d be curious if it was actually in Greek, or some language, or whether the syntax was improvised. She ended the piece by cueing each player to return to noisy tossing and turning. A nicely theatrical piece, and the liner notes say Moller is planning seven more, based on Neo-Pagan holidays.
Genesis (2006-2010). A piece for 12 improvisers (with Moller, as conductor, included in that count) and a 13th player: Matt Davignon on electronics, representing the new universe. The concept is clever: the 12 players were arranged in a spiral, with Davignon at the center. Moller walked the spiral, cueing each instrument to play, dronelike, according to scored parts that suggested patterns but didn’t give specifics. Davignon eventually joined in and took over. The sum was a powerful and almost calm sound, surging and receding. (UPDATE: Polly notifies me I’m off by a number: It really is a piece for 12 improvisers, including the conductor and the New Universe person. And, in fact, they were missing a person for this performance — I hadn’t bothered to count them all, I’ll admit.)
What’s it mean? The latest models in string theory and M theory, at least according to the PBS shows I’ve seen, say the universe is 11-dimensional and occupies a cosmic membrane, called “brane” for short. A further-out postulate is that multiple branes might exist, with their collisions causing the Big Bangs that create universes like ours. Cool, huh? So, Davignon represented the new universe birthed by the actions of these 11 other dimensions
(and the role of the conductor is, I presume, an exercise left to the listener).
Again, it was a visual piece, theatrical. Unlike “Alcyone,” the music here tells only a fraction of the story; you have to experience this one live. Davignon’s new universe wasn’t the obvious, ferocious outpouring of a big bang, but more of an audio primoridal ooze, feeling its way outwards into newfound, unfilled dimensions. That was an interesting choice, one that wouldn’t have occurred to me but set the perfect mood.
All told, a wonderful evening of thought-provoking music. Great to see all these musicians in action together, too.
The scores were available for sale, and quite nicely packaged and presented. “Alcyone” comes in black binding; “Duo” is an elegantly rolled-up scroll. The picture below doesn’t do them as much justice as I’d hoped.
Click here for the full playlist for Friday, March 5, 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m.
I started with the intention of playing just a little bit of Other Minds-related music. (See here and here.) I wanted to show off the new ROVA/Nels Cline and something from Carla Kihlstedt, and figured I’d wrap it up with Kidd Jordan.
But upon searching our awesome KZSU music database (zookeeper.stanford.edu, or better yet, try this out), I was able to about double the amount of stuff I had to play. Here’s the rundown.
* ROVA & Nels Cline Singers — “Trouble Ticket” — The Celestial Septet (New World, 2010)
… Album comes out March 15, but ROVA had early copies on sale at the show. They’ll be there tonight as well, I’d assume. More on this later.
* Minamo [Carla Kihlstedt/Satoko Fujii] — “Kuroi Kawa – Black River” — Kuroi Kawa – Black River (Tzadik, 2009)
… More on this one later, when I’ve given it a full listen. Chamber-like duets of violin and piano, with occasional bouts of violence.
* Kidd Jordan, Hamid Drake, William Parker — “Living Peace” — Palm Of Soul (AUM Fidelity, 2006)
… Ecstatic jazz. Jordan doesn’t just blow fast; the opening is a keening, moaning lament; then things heat up over the next 14 minutes.
* Gyan Riley — “Yubalation” — Food for the Bearded (New Albion, 2002)
… Hadn’t encountered Riley before. His classical guitar has the density of John Fahey and the beauty of Spanish guitar. I picked a track that teams him up with viola and percussion, but he’s fascinating solo as well.
* Tom Johnson — “The 1287 Five-Note Chords [excerpt]” — The Chord Catalogue (XI, 1999)
* Tom Johnson — “The 78 Eleven-Note Chords” — The Chord Catalogue (XI, 1999)
… Couldn’t resist. Johnson is big on using combinatorics as a compositional tool. For instance, his “Combinations” for string quartet, one of the pieces being performed tonight, assigns notes so that each member plays one of four notes, and they cycle through all possible combinations. The Chord Catalogue is of similar mind, but quite extreme: It’s every possible chord in one octave. Played in order. I recall a review in an avant-garde-friendly magazine, and even they had a hard time dealing with this one! I love the idea — seriously love it, and if someone pitched it to me, I’d be all in favor of it. And to play the piece perfectly requires intense concentration on the player’s part. But I don’t know if I have the stuff to listen start to finish.
Luckily, Johnson adds pauses (assigned at mathematically chosen spots) but it’s still monotonous. And written, when you consider the pauses are pre-planned. What’s amusing, when you play the 11-note chords right after the five-noters, is that Johnson had to slow down markedly in order to play them.
* Tom Johnson — “Eighty-Eights” — Music for 88 (XI, 1991)
… A combinatorics piece that’s easier to take: Solo piano, where each of the 88 keys is used exactly once. But Johnson divides the keyboard into sections and patterns, so that you get melody, tempo, and mood variations as the piece progresses.
Rather than describe the show in sequence, I’m just going to cut to the end: Carla Kihlstedt was terrific, and Lisa Bielawa‘s Kafka Songs is a very interesting and involved piece. It consists of seven segments, each one a violin-and-vocal combination to be performed solo (written with Kilhstedt in mind).
Each song opened with Kihlstedt reciting the short Kafka text. That was good, because it let us catch the mood of the text and mentally encapsulate it, enhancing the mood of the music that followed. It also guaranteed that we knew what the text was; as with most vocal classical works, Kafka Songs stretches syllables into long tones, making it difficult to keep track of sentences or even words.
The piece began life as a single song and gradually expanded into seven movements. That explains why the first two songs seem to be the most athletic. There’s a lot of bow trickery, such as having Kihlstedt draw the bow for one note and pluck a left-hand note on another string (something I think I’ve seen her do in concert, but it’s still a good effect).
Not that things calm down after that opening. “Ghosts,” the fourth song, consists of ukelele-like strumming, if the ukelele were a harsh, forceful instrument. It was hard on the strings; Kihlstedt had to retune before moving on.
It does not look like an easy piece. I don’t know if “counterpoint” is even the right word to describe the diverging vocal and violin paths; they swoop and cross like independent diving birds. And the violin parts show off Kihlstedt’s rich mix of techniques well.
As for the rest of the program: Varied, and challenging in a good way.
Eva-Maria Zimmerman played a short 53-year-old piano piece by 87-year-old Chou Wen-chung (pronounced “soo-wen-sung” by Other Minds Artistic Director Charles Amirkhanian). Titled “The Willows Are New,” it made impressive use of the high register, putting those skinny high notes to menacing use, like poisoned darts alongside the dark, bombastic low-register cannons. The piece comes to a quiet ending where the high notes are their usual, quiet selves, but most of it is dark and spiky. (Test my memory: Listen to the piece on Wen-chung’s site.)
A longer Wen-chung piece, Twilight Colors, was performed by a double trio of Left Coast Chamber Ensemble members — three strings and three woodwinds. It was a dynamic piece in three or four movements, full of serene overlapping lines and frequent passages of fun intensity. There were some sublime moments where a gently drawn-out note from one instrument would be handed off to another imperceptibly — bass clarinet into cello, or low flute into low violin.
The concert opened with the 30-minute Streichquartett II by Jürg Frey, performed by Quatuor Bozzini, a Montreal-based string quartet. It’s a minimalist piecewith an engaging premise: All four members play unison whole notes, using the edges of their bows so that the tones are a scratchy whisper. Tones change from one note to the next, creating a series of drifting chords that start mostly sublime, but drift toward more dissonant territory. It’s a bit of an endurance test. But one thing I appreciate about minimalism is the commitment to a structure that, even for quiet pieces, is sometimes daunting in scope.
In addition to this being my first Other Minds festival, it was my first time at the Jewish Community Center. I didn’t know the place was so huge. At least one class was taking place in a remote corner of the first floor. There’s also a cafe that includes wine, beer, ice cream, and, if the hour is early enough, food.
Other Minds 15 continues with shows on March 5 and 6 at 8:00 p.m. Check out the program.
Time to get psyched about another Other Minds festival — the 15th, and the first that I’ll get to attend. It runs for three nights, starting tonight, in at the Jewish Community Center at 3200 California, in Pacific Heights (northern SF, near the Presidio).
The festival collects musicians and composers from around the world for performances of new music. It seems scaled down from the more elaborate programs that used to be held downtown at Yerba Buena … but then, it occurs to me that because I’ve never gone, I can’t really back up that statement.
In fact, because I’ve never gone, I can say with equal confidence that this will be the best Other Minds festival ever. Ever!
On the Sequenza21 site, Polly Moller has a good Q&A with Lisa Bielawa, whose “Kafka Songs,” for violin/vocal will be performed tonight by Carla Kihlstedt. The piece was written for Kihlstedt and has had the seasoning that comes with multiple performances: “Carla has taken these songs with her through so many twists and turns of life, they really do just keep growing and deepening,” Bielawa says.
Bielawa was also featured in an SF Chronicle article yesterday. Nice to see the festival get some big-paper exposure.
There’s what appears to be an outright jazz-improv spot on the Friday night bill. Saxophonist Kidd Jordan will appear with William Parker (bass) and Warren Smith (percussion). Jordan has recorded some great ecstatic jazz, including some quartet work with Fred Anderson (sax) by his side — specifically, I’m thinking of the CD Two Days in April (Eremite, 2000).
I became a fan of the Del Sol String Quartet after catching one of their concerts on a whim. (They’re based here.) Lively, vibrant interpretations of new classical music. On Friday, they’ll be performing String Quartet No. 2 by Paweł Mykietyn.
Kihlstedt returns in spirit to close out the Saturday evening program: Her composition, “Pandæmonium,” will be debuted by the ROVA Saxophone Quartet. That just sounds so cool I could burst. (Bonus: According to the ROVA site, the composition is “is a one-of-a-kind piece of tactile art made from individually sewn cloth graphic scores.”)
Sadly, it looks like Thursday is my big chance to catch any of Other Minds 15. I’ll learn a little about composers Jürg Frey and Chou Wen-Chung, and of course I’ll get to experience that Bielawa piece. It should be a really good evening.