Kafka, Kihlstedt, Concerto

One year after marveling at Lisa Bielawa‘s “Kafka Songs” at the Other Minds festival — almost in time for the next Other Minds festival, actually — I’m finally realizing that “Kafka Songs” has been available on CD for years. Call me slow.

Bielawa more recently worked with Kihlstedt and violinist Colin Jacobsen on a double violin concerto, performed with Colin Jacobsen. On this piece, as on “Kafka Songs,” Kihlstedt’s voice and violin are put to use simultaneously, creating a role that’s rare in classical music and probably challenging to pull off.

First, to the part many of you knew all along: “Kafka Songs” came out on A Handful of World, (Tzadik, 2007),  paired with two of Bielawa’s vocal works.

At Other Minds in 2010, Kihlstedt introduced each of “Kafka’s” seven movements by reciting the text to come — an important step for those of us who’ve always had trouble interpreting the words in classical singing. That’s not on A Handful of World; you’re flying blind. On the plus side, this keeps the mood of the piece intact — there was a bit of fourth-wall breaking in Kihlstedt’s introductions — but I liked that touch with the live version. It made us consider the texts as well as dwell on the music.

As I recall from last year, there’s a definitive character to each of the segments — the flutter of a bouncing bow, on “Lost,” or the massive intervallic leap that recurs on “A Handful of World,” set up each time by three quick notes, a poise-and-jump reflex. Each is like a little study in a different violin technique, accompanied by slow, airy singing drawn from the gray skies of Kafka’s world.

The suite has some of the emotional weight you’d associate with Kafka, and yet it’s not too heavy. The gentle, fading riff that ends the piece even has some lightness to it.

(Side note: The Kihlstedt photo above, shot by Harold Carr, is from the very performance I saw, at Other Minds 15 in March 2010.)

“Double Violin Concerto,” included on In Medias Res (BMOP/sound, 2010), is more about the orchestra — that is, it’s about the soloists, but I found myself getting snared into the sound of the full orchestra, sometimes at the expense of listening to the actual lead violins. It’s a patient, moody piece, and the soloists’ fireworks are subtle. On “Portico,” the calmly sad opening movement, the soloing is almost camouflaged by the gossamer background strings.

Kihlstedt’s vocal soliloquy comes in the second movement of three, “Song,” wandering slowly against a repeated arpeggio (you can’t help but recall that Bielawa once sang in the Phillip Glass Ensemble). It’s another movement with a slow mood, but more tense than “Portico,” more suspenseful. The mood bursts open when Kihlstedt’s song — taken from Goethe’s Faust — winds up dramatically, calling up the entry of some circusy brass to quickly end the movement.

There’s some lovely very-high-register dialogue in the third movement, “Play Within a Play.” For a couple of passages, the two violins toss phrases back and forth, as if completing each other’s sentences. Late in the movement, they ally in a series of unison and near-unison phrases, finally teaming up with the orchestral strings sometimes answering with the same theme. This movement, taking up about half the total concerto time, was where I could really savor the sounds of the two soloists.

The Double Violin Concerto gets a brief mention in this NY Times review, from which the photo below was cribbed.

Upcoming Shows: Sept. 20-29+, 2010

UPDATE 9/24: OMG, the People & Thingamajigs festival, mentioned at the bottom, made it onto cable TV news. Check out The Rachel Maddow Show, and look into Kent Jones’ stuff.

It’s one of those times where a lot of interesting shows have clustered. You can keep up with Bay Area creative music shows at BayImproviser or Transbay Calendar — they use the same calendar database.

Here’s a summary of some upcoming events, including an unusual number of multiple-show appearances. All shows are eveningish (8 or 9 p.m., usually) unless noted. 

The Lost Trio — The longstanding Bay Area trio that turns pop songs into jazzy takes that aren’t cheesy. They also cover Monk, Ellington, and country tunes, creating solid platforms for peppy jazz exploration. (Previous mention here.)

    • Mon. 9/20, not really The Lost Trio but the same sax & drums paired with a guitar, at The Ivy Room (see below)
    • Mon. 9/27, The Ivy Room (San Pablo Ave. @ Solano Ave., Albany, really close to Berkeley)
    • Wed. 9/29, NOON concert for SFJazz (Levi Strauss Plaza, San Francisco, free!)

Marco Eneidi — Alto saxophonist Eneidi is back from Vienna again, with a couple of exciting programs on his itinerary. (Previous blog entries here and here.) The second pairs an Eneidi ensemble with Kihnoua, the malleable Larry Ochs group that just might be performing in bare-bones trio form this time. (Previous entry on Kihnoua.)

    • Thu. 9/23, quartet with Ava Mendoza (guitar), Lisa Mezzacappa (bass), Vijay Anderson (drums), plus electronics/noise acts, at First Church of the Buzzard (2601 Adeline @ 26th, Oakland)
    • Fri. 9/24, quartet with Vinny Golia (woodwinds), Mezzacappa, Anderson; plus Kihnoua, at Community Music Center (544 Capp St., San Francisco)

Wrack — Kyle Bruckmann first convened this group in Chicago, and he’s now bringing the idea with him to the West Coast. With viola, bass clarinet, and oboe, Wrack puts a distinctively different sound on its chamber jazz improvising. It’s more tart, slightly sour. You can easily hear that the instrumentation isn’t the usual, and on CDs, it’s been a terrific experience. Wrack plays twice by themselves and once with ROVA.

    • Fri. 9/24, College of Marin (Lefort Recital Hall, at Sir Frances Drake and Laurel streets, Kentfield)
    • Sat. 9/25, Trinity Chamber Concerts (2320 Dana Street, Berkeley)
    • Fri. 10/1, Community Music Center (544 Capp St., btw. 20th/21st, San Francisco)

Other Minds — I don’t know who Dane Rudhyar was, but if Other Minds is this interested, so am I.  They’ve put together a Rudhyar program that’s getting a couple of dates:

    • Mon. 9/27 at Swedenborgian Church (2107 Lyon St., SF)
    • Wed. 9/29 at Valley Presbyterian Church (945 Portola Rd., Portola Valley)

Coltrane Tribute — It’s Coltrane Birthday season, and I would assume there’s a concert or two every year around the Bay Area that I’m not aware of. This time, though, one of them lands in the Luggage Store Gallery, a regular improv spot. Dan Plonsey, Steve Horowitz, and Vinny Golia will represent on the saxophone, and there’ll be readings as well.

San Francisco Composers Chamber Orchestra — The classical new-music group convenes again. Serious music in a neighborly atmosphere. The theme this time is “Animal Vegetable Mineral,” and the slate includes pieces by the late Jorge Liederman, the non-late Terry Riley, and SFCCO members.

Music for People and Thingamajigs — The 13th installment of this annual festival celebrating not only experimental music but creative, new instruments. The Thingamajigs folks are a bona fide nonprofit group that takes to the schools, teaching children the joy and education that can be found in building instruments and messing around with sound.

Other Minds: Kafka Songs

So, I really did make it to the first night of the Other Minds festival. Very nice experience.

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.