Linda Catlin Smith
Apartment House and Bozzini Quartet
Another Timbre at105X2
Born in the US and residing in Canada for more than a quarter century, Linda Catlin Smith has become a fixture on that country’s cultural radar. She has been welcomed and feted as one of Canada’s own. For instance, she is only the second woman to win the Jules Léger Prize for Chamber Music and has had a long association with the ensemble ArrayMusic, whom she served as Artistic Director. Several recordings have been released of her music, but last year’s Dirt Road won her critical acclaim and belated notice in the United States, ending up on many critics’ “best of year” lists (mine included). Released by Another Timbre, Dirt Road was merely a foretaste of that label’s commitment to Canadian music. Another Timbre has recently released a set of five recordings in its Canadian Composers series (another batch of five is due later this year). Catlin Smith features prominently, with the double disc Drifter serving as Volume 1 in the series. Other composers include Martin Arnold, Isiah Ceccarelli, Chlyoko Szlavnics, and Marc Sabat.
Drifter’s program is performed by two chamber groups: Apartment House and Bozzini Quartet. The “drifting” in question is not itinerant hitchhiking, but rather the placid tempo pathways frequently chosen by Catlin Smith. The piano trio Far from Shore, played here by Philip Thomas, Anton Lukiszevieze, and Mira Benjamin, is a case in point. Slow, soft music for the trio, often reminiscent of Morton Feldman’s approach (one that Catlin Smith acknowledges as a signature influence on her work) abides alongside passages of colorful piano chords. The spectrum moves from inexorably repeated constrained sets of pitches, to chromatic counterpoint, to whole washes of sound. The intuitive sensibility that Catlin Smith claims as her approach in preference to any dogmatic systemization clearly allows her to move through constantly changing musical terrain, all the while maintaining an organic sense of each piece. How does she manage this? An interview in the booklet accompanying the Canadian Composers set quotes her as saying,”Listening. Lots of listening.” One could do worse as a composer in any style to listen as carefully as Catlin Smith does.
Cantelina (2013) for viola and vibraphone, played by Emma Richards and Simon Limbrick, presents another of the composer’s interests, one in heterogenous instrumental pairings. Both here and in the Piano Quintet ( 2014), another of Catlin Smith’s predilections, exploring tightly knit counterpoint in close registral positions, is featured. The overlapping in Cantilena is quite fetching (it is a combination that should be explored by more composers and one I’ll keep in my own hip pocket) and it is equally affecting when writ large in the quintet. The title work is also for a seemingly challenging combination, piano and classical guitar, played by Philip Thomas and Diego Castro Magas, but Catlin Smith’s gentle daubs of coloristic harmony and unequal ostinatos work beautifully in this duo context as well. Mon Qui Tremblais (1999), played by Thomas, Benjamin, and Limbrick, has a pulse-driven piano part that is joined by sustained violin and bowed pitched percussion. An interesting notational device is used: rather than writing out all the notes and rhythms, the composer specifies that the musicians silently read a Rimbaud poem and use its speech rhythms to shape the musical work (for instance, the percussionist gets his attack points from the accented French syllables).
Bozzini Quartet appears in two string quartets by Catlin Smith. Folkestone (1999) pits a persistently high violin line against blocks of slow articulated, syncopated chords played by the other three members (these have an almost accordion-like quality in their spacing). Gradually, other lines emerge from the texture, with the cello playing a poignant solo dissonant with the rest of the harmony. The chordal passages begin registrally to disperse, bringing the locus of activity closer to the violin’s sustained flautando melody. Mid-register lines now break free and the chords move in double time for a brief stretch before ceding the terrain to widely spaced and again slowly articulated harmonies. This alternation of patterns includes still more elements to be introduced: pizzicatos, duets, flashes of quartal harmonic brilliance, and a bass-register cello melody made truly weighty by the registers it has balanced against before. Clocking in at more than 32 minutes, Folkestone is a substantial and thoroughly captivating composition. Gondola involves members of the quartet coming in and out of unison and a gentle boat-rocking pacing that Catlin Smith describes thus:”The title loosely refers to its slight undulation or floating qualities – a subtle motion or disturbance of the surface, like trailing the hand in water.”
Evocative imagery for truly evocative music-making. Drifter is an album (a double-album at that) worth savoring.
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Photos: Karli Cadel
Ensemble Signal Plays Johannes Maria Staud
Composer Portrait at Miller Theatre
April 8, 2017
By Christian Carey
NEW YORK – Austrian composer Johannes Maria Staud was given a prominent residency with the Cleveland Orchestra back in 2008-’10. Apart from this, he has not gained nearly as much notoriety in the United States as he deserves. His is one of the most fluent and and multi-faceted of the European “Second Modern” school of composition. A recent Composer Portrait concert, given at Miller Theatre by Ensemble Signal, demonstrated at least part of Staud’s considerable range as a composer. As usual, Signal, conducted by Brad Lubman, were most persuasive advocates, consummately well-prepared for every challenging turn that confronted them.
Syndenham Music – Composed for the “Debussy trio” of flute, harp, and viola, this piece was both inspired by the Debussy sonata for that combination and by the artwork of Pisarro. The latter catalyst was acquired during Staud’s time living in England; he stayed in Syndenham, in the London suburbs, where Pisarro painted, and wrote Syndenham Music for the Aldeburgh festival. Bent notes, percussive attacks, and microtonal inflections, especially prevalent in the harp, are balanced by soaring flute lines and harp glissandos straight out of the Impressionists’ playbook.
Black Moon – With close to a dozen music stands spread across the stage, one knew that this would be an involved and extensive piece. Bass clarinetist Adrián Sandí handled the myriad extended techniques – multiphonic passages, glissandos, microtones, percussive sounds, and altissimo wails – with poise and suavity. His performance embodied a seeming effortlessness that belied the endurance test supplied by the score.
Towards a Brighter Hue – Written for solo violin, this piece had its own long line of music stands (Ensemble Signal might consider iPads for their soloists). Olivia de Prato played Towards a Brighter Hue with impressive intensity and relentless energy. As it was the most aggressive of the pieces on offer, this was just what the composer ordered. However, after the hyperkinetic slashes of the coda, a curt altissimo gesture also afforded this piece a little wink at its conclusion; it seemed designed to afford the listener a sigh of relief (and, in this audience, a few chuckles) to alleviate the tension.
Wheat, Not Oats Dear, I’m Afraid – The famous line from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem provides Staud with the title for a septet with a bit of sly levity. Thus, typical gestures of post-Lachenmann modernity are paired with exaggerated exhalations from the entire ensemble, as well as more than a few microtonal chords and bent notes from the winds that provide a kind of analog to maudlin bluesiness.
Par Ici! – Written during a residency at IRCAM, the culminating work on the program is based on Le Voyage, a Baudelaire poem. Twelve notes on the piano are retuned a quarter tone high (so that’s why none of the previous works included it!) to create a sound spectra that is then replicated by most of the rest of the ensemble. A tension between pitched percussion, which doesn’t use the quarter tones from the spectra, and piano, creates a suppleness of harmony that blurs the edges of the proceedings. Rather than levity, here we are treated to an earnest approach, with a muscular catalog of gestures: one that Staud takes in many of his larger pieces. In Par Ici!, his focus on technical and instrumental combinations creates attractive gestural and textural palettes that are deftly deployed.
Thanks to Miller Theatre and Signal for tantalizing use with a panoply of his chamber works. Dare one hope that some of his orchestral music might be heard in New York next? Paging Jaap van Zweden …
RIAS Kammerchor; Anja Petersen, soprano; Andrew Redmond, baritone;
Münchener Kammerorchester, Alexander Liebreich, conductor
ECM New Series 2508 CD
On the cover of this CD’s booklet is a picture from 1917, 100 years ago, of deportees from Turkey travelling through the desert to Aleppo in Syria. One thinks, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”
Tigran Mansurian’s Requiem is written to commemorate victims of the Armenian Genocide, which took place in Turkey from 1915-’17. It is a calamity that affected his own family and one that he has long wanted to address, albeit with some trepidation. In the copious liner notes, which include thoughtful essays both by writer Paul Griffiths and the composer, one learns that the tension of writing a Requiem using liturgical Latin while coming from the tradition of the Orthodox Church proved a significant challenge, both compositionally and culturally. How could Mansurian depict and honor the struggle and emotional condition of the Armenian people while using such decidedly Western material, with the weight of luminaries such as Mozart, Berlioz, and Verdi behind it?
The struggle to address this situation has proven well worth it. Mansurian’s solution is ingenious. Like Fauré, he is selective with the text, omitting much of the Dies Irae sequence (what remains is absolutely chilling). Mansurian also realized that the great Requiem masses from the 18-19th centuries often sounded as if their protagonists’ singing was “less like a prayer, more like a demand.” That would not do for depicting the mindset of Armenian Christians. Thus, Mansurian chose to try to reflect the Orthodox tradition in a Latin mass. He did so in two ways. The first was to incorporate melodic material, often modal or synthetic scales, that represent Eastern liturgical and folk music. The second was to include chanting reminiscent of Orthodox monodic singing, but with the Latin words as its textual basis.
These incorporations make the piece timeless in its sound world. Sections of chant, both in the tenors and in alternim sections between men and women’s voices, present haunting scalar passages that resonate with Eastern music. Two brief solos – one for soprano Anja Petersen and the other for baritone Andrew Redmond – are memorable parts of the Tuba Mirum and Domine Jesu Christe movements.
Despite the comparatively modest forces – four-part chorus (with no divisi) and strings – the texture does not rely solely on the spareness of chant. Indeed, there are moments of exceeding richness. Like so many Requiem masses, the key of d-minor, with a number of modal variants and splashes of D-major as well, is prevalent. Polychords press into bare triads (there is even a moment of C major amidst the plethora of minor key successions). The orchestration is particularly vivid, so much so that you don’t mind having strings accompany the “Tuba mirum” sans brass. Conductor Alexander Liebreich leads the combined forces of RIAS Kammerchor and Münchener Kammerorchester in a pitch perfect performance that is austere and emotive in just the right moments.
It is, of course, too soon to tell if Mansurian’s Requiem will be a piece for the ages. It is certainly a deeply touching and sensitive reimagination of a text that some may feel has long since been ossified by its own traditions. Perhaps more importantly, in addressing genocide and refugee crises from a century ago, Mansurian holds up a mirror to our own time and dares us to be unflinching in our gaze. For that alone, it is a work of great value.
Violin Concerto, String Quartet, Time Alone
Baird Dodge, violin; Chicago Symphony, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen;
Color Field Quartet
Laura Strickling, soprano; Thomas Sauer, piano
On his latest CD for Yarlung, composer James Matheson presents strong essays in both the concerto and string quartet genres. His String Quartet, played in vibrant fashion by Color Field Quartet, is filled with overlapping scales and glissandos, post-minimal ostinatos, and impressionist harmonic colors. Thus, it presents as a postmodern response both to composers such as Ravel and Debussy and more recent figures such as John Adams and Aaron Jay Kernis.
There is a similar variety of instrumental color in Matheson’s violin concerto. Its conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, is described in the liner notes as a great champion of the piece, helping to arrange for its recording (a live tape of the Chicago Symphony). The muscularly motoric violin part, played here by Baird Dodge, is formidable. The violin soloist is required to execute limpid runs clear up into the stratosphere of the instrument’s compass. In addition to its impressive solo part, the concerto’s orchestration has a cinematic sweep that is most engaging. The second movement, Chaconne, features a gradual build by the soloist, with the part starting down near rumbling cellos and basses and concluding within striking distance of high flutes (which seem to mimic gestures from movement one in slow motion). The concerto concludes with Dance, a moto perpetuo in which the violinist faces off with a boisterous orchestra (which ends on the supertonic!).
The songs are idiomatically set, but I was left wishing for a less diffident performance than the one provided here. They were written for Kiera Duffy; perhaps we can hope that she gives them a hearing soon.
Matheson’s musical language is appealing in its variety. He is also a creative orchestrator, parsing multiple threads of activity yet always providing music with a clear surface.
Alan Gilbert conducts the New York Philharmonic in Esa-Pekka SalonenCello Concerto with Yo-Yo Ma and BerliozSymphonie fantastique at David Geffen Hall, 3/15/17. Photo by Chris Lee.
Yo-Yo Ma Premieres Salonen Concerto in New York
March 15, 2017
NEW YORK – One of the most eagerly anticipated New York premieres of 2017 was Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Cello Concerto, written for Yo-Yo Ma. It had been presented shortly before by the Chicago Symphony, and buzz had grown around the piece based on positive reports from the these concerts. At David Geffen Hall, the New York Philharmonic showed that the Chicagoans hadn’t cornered the market: they had much to offer in this engrossing work. Outgoing Music Director Alan Gilbert made a strong impression with a sensitive and detailed reading of the Salonen concerto. The composer was on hand before the performance to give an image-filled talk from the stage.
Opening in a chromatic environment, with stacks of bitonal chords (C+D# diminished noteworthy among them), hazy string tremolos are set against motoric patterns from winds, muted brass, and pitched percussion. The cello solo at first plays along with the cello section, then in counterpoint with it: a mournful melody that starts out in the cello’s medium upper register and works its way down to the open A string. The orchestra part juxtaposes the modernist palette of the opening with post-minimal repetitive gestures: sostenuto interludes from the strings also take part in the proceedings, giving the impression of the cello solo on steroids. The movement ends with the cello wending its way down from its upper register to the lower half of the cello, ending on the G-string. A low D# from bass clarinet and an icy vertical from the strings accompany it into a void where time seems to stop.
After a blazing brass crescendo, the second movement is often placid, with long stretches of fragility and transparency. A noteworthy feature is the concerto’s first (and primary) use of electronics. Loops are employed to project small sections of the cello part throughout the hall, building an army of ghostly apparitions out of the solo part. While there has been much more extensive incorporation of electronics in various pieces for orchestra, the sound of these loops whirring around Geffen Hall was impressive.
The third movement has been called by Salonen a nod to the musicianship Yo-Yo Ma has garnered with the Silk Road ensemble. To create a multi-cultural effect, and to buoy the dance rhythms that populate the closing movement, Philharmonic percussionist Christopher Lamb was on hand to play a vigorous part on bongos and congas. This isn’t the only duet Ma engages in. He is also given stretches of music to interact with other players, such as the contrabassoon and alto flute in movement two. That said, the pairing of percussion and cello brings out an intensity in the solo part. Cadenzas pile up alongside vigorous tutti, until at the last …
There’s “that high note” that is the penultimate gesture in the work (It is followed by electronics – loops from the second movement that burst into activity around the hall). It is a Bb7 (the last B-flat at the very top of the piano). In an interview with Alex Ross in the New Yorker, Salonen said that he originally pitched the note an octave lower, but Yo-Yo Ma said he could go even higher: hence, Bb7.
I was curious: how many other works for cello go this high (or higher)? I’ll admit, I crowdfunded the answer. A quick question on Facebook yielded several responses from friends that the cello has indeed been employed this high and even higher (B7 and C8). Cellist and composer Franklin Cox was kind enough to explain to me that even though the notes are past the end of the fingerboard, by squeezing the string against it, one can elicit these stratospheric pitches. Cox has written them, and Joseph Dangerfield cited Curve With Plateaux, a work by Jonathan Harvey ,that goes all the way up to C8. Andrew Rindfleisch shared JACK’s performance of his second string quartet, in which Jay Campbell plays A7, Bb7, and C8. Pianist Gloria Cheng nominated Thomas Adès’ Lieux retrouvés. Several people mentioned Matthias Pintscher and Salvatore Sciarrino (I haven’t tracked the scores down yet to verify this).
My sometimes curmudgeonly friend Andrew Rudin complained that these composers were trying to make the cello into a violin, but what I heard at David Geffen hall was nothing like the altissimo register of a violin. In some ways, it wasn’t about the extreme highness of the sound; apart from the harmony surrounding it, I don’t think it mattered that the pitch was Bb7 or C8; it seemed eminently attainable – and sustainable – by the soloist. What was remarkable was the long ringing quality it made – like a singing sword on steroids. Here’s hoping that someone – preferably our New Yorkers (while Mr. Gilbert remains with them) records this work ASAP.
The Formosa Quartet, Aleck Karis, piano; Third Coast Percussion, Daniel Schlosberg, piano; Michael Lewanski, conductor; Mark Dresser, contrabass solo; The Palimpsest Ensemble, Steven Schick, percussion, conductor
New World CD
Luminous, composer Lei Liang’s latest CD for New World, is among his most imaginative releases yet. In an email exchange, Liang cited fruitful artistic partnerships as central to his inspiration for the five works on the CD. Percussionist/conductor Steven Schick is central to the project. The percussion solo Trans, written for Schick’s fiftieth birthday also incorporates an effective use of audience participation: 100 or so people were given small pairs of stones to knock together, creating a sheen, like ardent rainfall, that provides a backdrop of sound to Shick’s virtuosic playing of a multi-instrument kit.
Another piece that features percussion is Inkscape. Written for a consortium of ensembles, this piano/percussion work is performed here by Third Coast Percussion and pianist Daniel Schlosberg and conducted by Michael Lewanski. The piece moves from a diaphanously mysterious saturation of soft dynamics and textures to a more fragmented, stentorian presentation. Thus, Liang puts two of the most important aspects of any percussion piece – those of texture and dynamics – in opposition, crafting an overall formal design that is quite elegant. The end of the piece takes these juxtapositions and presents them in smaller chunks, allowing the listener moments of reverie only to be thrust again into fortissimo passages.
Verge Quartet is, in part, based on Mongolian folk music, its gestural language as well as its folksongs. That said, it is no pastiche piece. The folk influences are integrated into Liang’s overall compositional approach, not as an East-meets-West hybridization, but in truly organic fashion. One could compare his approach in Verge Quartet to those of Béla Bartók, György Ligeti, Unsuk Chin, and Michael Finnissy, composers who make the incorporation of folk material a seamless yet integral part of their respective musical languages. The Formosa Quartet plays the work with brilliant energy and carefully detailed authenticity.
Alec Karis is an authoritative pianist on the solo work “The Moon is Following Us,” demonstrating the capacity to evoke all manner of dynamic shadings and varied phrasing with nimble accuracy. Starting with brash repeated clusters, the music gradually moves through assorted ostinatos to a shimmering palette of added note chords. Neo-impressionist touches, such as harp-like arpeggiations and quickly unspun treble register melodies, gradually soften the hard-edged modernism of the opening into a more fluid sound world.
The title work is a concerto for double bass, written for the contemporary music virtuoso (in both of notated and creative improvised music) Mark Dresser. Schick conducts the Palimpsest Ensemble, the new music group in residence at University of California San Diego, where both Liang and he teach, in this challenging and ambitious composition. In the album’s liner notes (excellently curated by the BSO’s Robert Kirzinger), Liang writes of Luminosity:
“The instrument’s rich spectra embody ‘voices’ that encompass extreme opposites—lightness and darkness, angels and ghosts, paradise and inferno—unified by a singular vibrating body. The composition explores these voices in a few large sections, starting with bowing on one string that produces multiphonics, double-stop bowing, and pizzicati. It concludes with the threading technique (attaching the bow from beneath the string), which allows the performer to bow multiple strings simultaneously. The last section is subtitled ‘The Answer Questioned’ as an homage to Charles Ives and Gyo¨rgy Kurta´g.”
This summer, Liang’s Gobi Canticle will be premiered at the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood. I very much forward to hearing it.
In the spirit of, ummm, hope and change, my composer friend Rodney Lister has written a wonderful new song.
See the whole score.
On April 4, 2017 Tuesdays@Monk space presented Sarah Cahill in a MicroFest concert titled Happy Birthday Lou Harrison!, marking the centennial year of the influential composer. Aron Kallay, Yuri Inoo and Shalini Vijayan were also on hand as was Bill Alves, who introduced his new book “Harrison – American Musical Maverick.” A capacity crowd gathered to hear Ms. Cahill, currently on an extended tour featuring Harrison’s early work as well as later pieces.
The concert began with 1st Concerto for Violin and Percussion (1959), performed by Yuri Inoo on percussion and violinist Shalini Vijayan. This consisted of three movements, the first of which started off with a strong beat and purposeful violin line. The Asian influence so typical of Harrison’s music are clearly heard in this work, first performed in 1959 but apparently dating back in some form to 1940. The intimate acoustics of the Monk Space amplified every detail, but the playing was always confident and precise. The second movement, Largo, is more sedate, with a flowing violin line and simple percussive beat, it retains the exotic flavor. The final Allegro movement features rapid, syncopated figures in the violin and a strong, driving rhythm. Shalini Vijayan shaped these passages into a smoothly sinuous melody, masterfully drawing out the beauty inherent in this music.
Sarah Cahill next took the stage to perform three early piano pieces. These were found in the Mills College library and are not among Harrison’s published works. Range-Song (1939) has a slow and steady feel, augmented by the presence of expressive tone clusters that were a tribute Harrison’s mentor Henry Cowell. Jig (1939) has a somewhat faster rhythm, syncopated and dance-like, as well as dense chords that alternate with a simple melody line that effectively heightens the vivid harmonies of this complex, but uncomplicated piece. Dance for Lisa Karon, the last piece in this group, was written in 1938 specifically for a professional dancer. Harrison, like John Cage, found work at this time playing and composing for dance companies and the original score was discovered only recently in San Francisco. Strong, complex statements mixed with more straightforward sections again serve to enhance emotions powered by the often dense harmonies and thick textures. Although these are early works, all feel fully formed and typically Harrison.
Varied Trio (1986) was next, and for this the happily-named Varied Trio, a Los Angeles-based new music group consisting of Aron Kallay, Yuri Inoo and Shalini Vijayan, took their places. Varied Trio unfolds in five short movements and the first of these nicely showcased Harrison’s esteem of Javanese gamelan forms. A lovely sound rose up from the plucked piano strings and vibraphone to create a delicately beautiful foundation for the soaring violin line. The tranquil atmosphere was enhanced by a simple, steady beat in the percussion and the Asian influence was clearly evident. The second movement was driven by a more animated rhythm in the percussion and supplemented by a sharp pizzicato in the violin. The piano joined in counterpoint, complimenting the precise blend in a texture that was highly active, but always reserved and dignified. The third movement was styled as an elegy and the playing was appropriately solemn and introspective – especially in an expressive violin line that was fittingly sad – but never melancholy. Movement 4 was a rondeau homage to the French painter Fragonard, a favorite of Harrison. While there was no percussion in this movement, the sunny optimism and welcoming feel were augmented by a simple melody and the excellent playing of Aron Kallay on piano and Shalini Vijayan on violin. The nostalgic sensibility was warmly sentimental, but never saccharine.
The final movement was clearly a product of Harrison’s time playing for dancers. A swirling feeling of exhilaration was clearly heard in the rapid passages and lively rhythms. There was a detectable Asian flavor to this, but mostly it celebrated invigorating physical movement. The clean playing and fine coordination between the musicians in Varied Trio was rewarded with extended applause.
After intermission, Sarah Cahill returned to the piano to perform Conductus from Suite (1942). As Bill Alves explained, Harrison had moved to Los Angeles specifically to study the 12-tone technique with Arnold Schoenberg. Although Schoenberg was notoriously tough on students who attempted this, Harrison succeeded in making a good impression. Conductus dates from this period and is a surprisingly credible effort in this rigorous style. A complex and lively feel nicely captures the Second Vienna School – the phrasing alternates between well-shaped fast and slow passages, without any sense of forced process. Ms. Cahill performed Conductus with careful attention to detail, reflecting the high level of craftsmanship that Harrison had committed to it.
Omnipotent Chair (1940) was next and violinist Shalini Vijayan took the stage along with Yuri Inoo and Aron Kallay on percussion. The five movements of this piece were varied, but all had that distinctive Asian influence so characteristic of Harrison. The percussion often dominated in busy, complex passages as a strong violin melody arced smoothly overhead – the balance of these opposing elements being carefully maintained in both the score and the playing. By the the third movement, the pace was was slower and simpler – a quiet gong adding a touch of the mystical. The fourth movement had an active dance-like feel. A nice groove developed in the percussion that was taken up by the violin; Harrison was surely in familiar territory here. The last movement returned to a slower tempo and the steady drum beat was nicely complimented by the playing of some light bells, ably handled by Kallay. The blend of percussion and melody was perfect and conjured a bit of mystery as the piece faded to a quiet finish.
The three movements of A Summerfield Set (1988) completed the concert program and for this Sarah Cahill returned to the piano. The opening movement, while rapidly paced and full of repeating phrases, was open and sunny. A slower stretch provided some introspective contrast before returning to a recap of the active opening. The slower second movement was a bit more pensive and uncertain, and there was an echo of Harrison’s 12 tone influences. A nicely balanced melody and counterpoint – expertly played by Ms. Cahill – rounded out this movement. The final movement was faster and brighter – like a breezy day on a sunny beach or like a day of vacation in the country.
A Summerfield Set dates from later in Harrison’s career and is almost conventional in its optimistic sensibility. This made a nice bookend to the earlier works heard, providing an enlightening overview of Harrison’s long career. Ms. Cahill and the Varied Trio were greeted with enthusiastic and extended applause at the conclusion of the program. Hearing the music of Lou Harrison invariably leaves you wanting to hear more – and the performances in this centennial concert powerfully confirmed his greatness.
Sarah Cahill continues her extended tour and is scheduled to perform Harrison’s music in New York, Boston, The Bay Area, Cleveland, and Hawaii.
MicroFest continues the tribute to Lou Harrison with events at UCLA on April 21, Harvey Mudd College on April 23, Boston Court on May 12 and at the Harrison House in Joshua Tree on May 14.
Pianist Sarah Cahill appears at LPR on April 6th at 7 PM as part of her tour celebrating the music and birth centenary of composer Lou Harrison. She and I touched base earlier this week as she was preparing for her trip to the Northeast.
Hi Sarah. Thanks for taking time to talk with Sequenza 21. Which was the first Lou Harrison piece you played? When were you first aware of his music?
I don’t remember the first piece I played, but I became interested in him because of my fascination with Henry Cowell and Ruth Crawford and that circle of early 20th century American experimentalist composers. And in the Bay Area, where I live, there’s a profound affection and devotion to Lou Harrison everywhere. He taught at Mills College for many years, and lived fairly close by, in Aptos, and worked with many musicians I’m close to, including Larry Polansky, Robert Hughes, Jody Diamond, Willie Winant, Phil Collins, Julie Steinberg, and many others.
What was it like working with Harrison on his pieces? Tell us about the piece that you premiered.
I premiered a piece called Festival Dance for two pianos, with the pianist Aki Takahashi, at Cooper Union in 1998. It’s a piece Lou Harrison wrote in the 60s and had never been played. He was such a gracious person, always kind-hearted and relaxed. He wanted us to emphasize the melodic line.
At LPR, you will be playing ‘Party Pieces.’ What was the collaborative process like in this composition – how did the “exquisite corpse” concept play out in the musical domain?
Lou Harrison, Virgil Thomson, John Cage, and Henry Cowell met frequently in Lou Harrison’s loft on Bleeker Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues in about 1944 or 1945. Lou Harrison explains it best: “Each composer present would write a measure, fold the paper at the bar line and, on the new fresh sheet, put only two notes to guide the next composer in his connection. The next composer would write a bar, fold at the bar line and leave two more black spots and so on. It seems to me that we would begin simultaneously and pass them along in rotation in a sort of surrealist assembly line and eagerly await the often incredible outcome.” Last month I visited the Lou Harrison archives at UC Santa Cruz, with Lou’s great friend, composer/conductor/bassoonist Robert Hughes, and made copies of some of the manuscripts with my cell phone. I’ll give copies to the audience at my concert on Thursday evening.
What are some of the other pieces you are playing at LPR?
I’m starting with two unpublished Lou Harrison pieces, Range-Song and Jig, that pay homage to his teacher and friend Henry Cowell, who was in San Quentin at the time, with Cowell’s famous chord clusters. Then a movement of Cowell’s own Rhythmicana, dedicated to Johanna Beyer, so then I’ll play a short piece from Beyer’s Dissonant Counterpoint. That will lead to the Conductus from Harrison’s Suite which he wrote while studying with Schoenberg (with a twelve-tone row). Then a short piece by James Cleghorn, who was Harrison’s friend who suggested he take classes from Henry Cowell. His son Peter Cleghorn will be in the audience to introduce that piece. Then a pair of pieces, both composed in 1946 for a performance by the choreographer Jean Erdman: Lou Harrison’s The Changing Moment, not heard in New York since 1946, and John Cage’s Ophelia. Both compositions reveal some of the emotional disturbance and identity crisis that affected both composers at the time. Then a movement of Frank Wigglesworth’s Sonatina, and ending with the wonderful Summerfield Set that Harrison composed in 1988. At LPR I have to stick to a sixty-minute program– otherwise I could go on and on and on with Lou Harrison and his circle, because there are lots of fascinating connections.
Tell us about the concerto? What was Harrison’s approach to orchestration in this piece primarily Western in conception, or does it incorporate non-Western instruments/allusions/tuning, etc.?
Lou Harrison’s Piano Concerto is one of the great concertos of the 20th century. It’s gorgeous and epic and should be played a lot more often. The piano is retuned in a Kirnberger tuning, as are sections of the orchestra. There’s a great battery of percussion.
What else is going on for you this season?
Later in the year I’m playing Lou Harrison’s great Concerto for Piano and Javanese Gamelan at MIT and at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and also playing a program of his piano works on three different instruments– equal tempered piano, tack piano, and piano in Werckmeister 3– in Tokyo and Fukuoka, at the invitation of the extraordinary composer Mamoru Fujieda. I’m learning Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen for next year, and Takemitsu’s Quotation of Dream (Say Sea, Take Me!) to perform at Interlochen in July. And next month I’ll get to play Lou Harrison on Maui and the Big Island, along with Tania Leon, Ruth Crawford, George Antheil, and many others, at the invitation of a marvelous composer, Robert Pollock, who runs a concert series there.
Sarah Cahill’s April-May 2017 Lou Harrison Tour Schedule
(Fall 2017 Lou Harrison tour dates will be announced in May 2017)
Solo Recital | Le Poisson Rouge | NYC
April 6, 2017 at 7pm
MicroFest North: Iconoclasts at 100 | Center for New Music | San Francisco, CA
May 7, 2017
FULL: Harrison | Berkeley Art Museum | Berkeley, CA
May 10, 2017 at 7pm
Lou Harrison Centennial Celebration | New Music Works | Santa Cruz, CA
May 14, 2017 at 3pm and 7pm
Solo Recitals | Ebb and Flow Arts | Hawaii
May 20-21 2017
At National Sawdust on Friday April 7th at 7 PM, Opera Cabal presents the premiere of Ken Ueno’s new opera Aeolus. Joined by vocalist Majel Connery and Flux Quartet, Ueno performs throughout the opera. His fascinating blend of vocal techniques includes microtonal inflections, megaphone-amplified directives, and throat-singing. Electronics, video projections, and an architecturally conceived set design converge to make Aeolus a potent multimedia concoction. I recently caught up with Ken as he was in the thick of preparations for the opera.
Hi Ken. Thanks for taking the time to talk with Sequenza 21.
Why are you calling this an opera instead of some other genre? As you well know, multimedia theater pieces are called all sorts of things…
Following the examples of Monteverdi, Mozart, and especially Nono, “opera” seems to be an open enough label, if we need a label, so I hope it’s appropriate for this piece. But you’re right – I don’t really know what to call it. It doesn’t have a regular narrative. It features two voices that are in distinct contrast to bel canto singing. But I am attached to the possibilities Prometeo opens up, so if Nono’s is an opera, then, Aeolus, can be an opera too, right? Aeolus does feature a suoni mobili (Nono calls the movement of sound the main drama in Prometeo) characteristic in that, in the guise of Aeolus (the ruler of the winds), I move around the hall, directing my non-semantic vocalizations with a megaphone to articulate the architecture, the space, as an instrument.
You’ve mentioned that there are autobiographical elements in the libretto. Since it is fairly nonlinear in terms of narrativity, would you like to share how some of your own history fits in?
Memory is non-linear. Spaces between texts and texts in memory become islands in search of a place in time, an ostensible home, which the idea of a Penelope represents. My biographical circumstance is that my family moved around so much during my formative years that I don’t have a normative sensation of a home. So, the idea of a home is a mythic space for me, one I’ve also begun to associate with not only a place, but also specific people with whom I shared lived in those spaces that felt like places to which I belonged. That’s also, I think, why James Joyce resonates so powerfully in me. If there is a main narrative in Aeolus, it’s the counterpoint between the semantic and non-semantic in search of a home.
If I may, here’s an excerpt of a draft I’m writing for something else, which elaborates on this:
My own language acquisition parallels Dedalus’ in that the trajectory from babbling to fluency did filter out a palette of sounds that were extraneous to language. As a baby, I remember understanding language before I could actually speak. I remember both the frustration of not being able to communicate, as well as the tiny victories when I somehow managed to reach out and get through – sometimes purely through the inflections of non-semantic vocalizations, maybe combined with clear physical gestures like pointing or shaking my head.
When I was four, my family moved to Switzerland, and apart from speaking Japanese with my family I was a mute child again, unable to speak the local French. The burgeoning richness of my internal life was frustrated by this communication setback. Around that time, I was given a portable Aiwa tape recorder and started to make non-linear musique concrète, playing with snippets of sounds of my little world in exile. Listening to those recordings now, through auto-archaeology, I discover not only that I was vocalizing non-semantically, but that I was singing multiphonics. I was babbling, testing the limits of my vocal repertoire, expanding the repertoire of sounds my body could make. Unhinged from semantic obligation, I was freely playing at making sounds for the pure sake of making sounds, developing a series of dexterous moves ancillary to spoken language – to logos. I remember how it felt. The complex vibrations of the multiphonics reverberated in my body, shaking my bones. It was soothing. I learned to make a variety of sounds that registered different feelings. They felt like different weights of the world. Not being able to speak the local language, not having any friends, I was performing, rehearsing for my future self. The future will rationalize the past. When I read James Joyce as a teenager, the tropes of alienation and exile, and the distance between language as sound and language as semantic medium, all resonated with me.
Tell us about your collaborators.
Majel Connery is my singer. Though classically trained, she has a beautiful lyrical voice, that reminds me of Elena Tonra from Daughter or Beth Gibbons of Portishead. But that’s really unfair. I should not be naming names or comparing her to anyone else – she has a great voice, she is a primary referent in her own right. When I heard her voice and imagined what it was capable of, I knew I wanted to write songs for her. Songs that would carry the semantic exposition in Aeolus. She’s been very generous with me in trying out sketches of my songs in different keys, etc., so that we can get to the right voice/word combination to get to the pathos that I want to express. Majel is also a brilliant project leader. She is Opera Cabal. She is our fearless leader and most responsible for all of this happening. A visionary!
Thomas Tsang is a brilliant architect with whom I have been collaborating for ten years. We met as fellows at the American Academy in Rome, and we’ve collaborated on installations ever since. As an artist, he brings a fully-fledged multidisciplinary edge to architecture. He questions traditional outputs and bravely creates installations, events, workshops that challenge us to rethink the history of specialization in our related fields. The full vision for the opera is to have a space that he designs that is something more than a set or venue, something more integral to the expression of the piece. We are working towards that.
Erin Johnson is a video artist with whom I have been collaborating over the last few years. She’s an all-round creative force. Many of her works thread the line between video art, installation, performance art, curation, and community engagement. She naturally problematizes categories in her artistic output. She curated a work of mine last summer – Fortress Brass, a site-specific piece that took place on boats and then at Fort Gorges in Portland Harbor, in Maine. Erin made videos for four of the scenes in Aeolus, for scenes with voice-overs. Voice-overs take the place of dialogue in Aeolus (a move that I first began to experiment with in my first opera, Gallo). Being pre-recorded, the voice-overs inhabit a different time/place: it serves a distancing function.
I am also lucky to be working with the renown Flux Quartet. Specialists in the extreme demands of new music, breathtaking in their courage and inspiring. I am blessed to have this team.
What are some of the electronic elements in the piece?
Mostly, the electronics are backing tracks for the pop songs. In one scene, I perform with a Max patch that the brilliant designer/composer Ilya Rostovtsev made for me. The patch lets me use my iPhone as a controller for algorithmic drums.
What does lateral bowing sound like? You’ve become a big fan of it … how did you first discover it as a technique?
I like lateral bowing because it sounds like breath – the link between my vocal practice, my body, and the embodied choreography of sounds that I notate for instrumentalists to perform. I first came up with lateral bowing, when I was experimenting on a viola during the composition of my viola concerto, Talus.
What’s next for you?
I’m lucky to have pieces upcoming for talented friends: a piece for five-string baroque cello for Elinor Frey; a solo trumpet + electronics work for Andy Kozar; a solo cello piece for Jason Calloway; a saxophone piece for Vincent Daoud; a trio for Kim Kashkashian; and a long overdue piece for piano for Kathy Supove (and some other things too).
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