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Los Angeles Percussion Quartet

Beyond

Works by Daniel Bjarnason, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Christopher Cerrone, Ellen Reid, and Andrew McIntosh

Sono Luminus 2XCD

Los Angeles Percussion Quartet performs on one of the most compelling releases of early 2017. Beyond (Sono Luminus, June 16, 2017) is a double-disc helping of new works for percussion ensemble by Daniel Bjarnason, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Christopher Cerrone, Ellen Reid, and Andrew McIntosh. All of these composers are up and coming stars in the new music world. Both Reid and Cerrone are New Yorkers (Reid is now based in NY and LA) who have taken Los Angeles by storm in recent seasons with opera and orchestra projects. Bjarnason and Thorvaldsdottir are Icelandic composers who both have a strong connection to the West Coast. McIntosh is very strongly identified with the LA scene, as a composer, string performer, and the guiding force behind Populist Recordsone of the most interesting experimental labels out there (here is my recent review of a Populist release by Daniel Corral).

One of the fascinating things to hear on Beyond is the way in which each composer translates their musical approach to the percussive idiom. Thus, Bjarnason’s penchant for dynamic and scoring contrasts is demonstrated in Qui Tollis, a composition equally compelling in both its pianissimo and fortissimo passages. Thorvaldsdottir’s Aura maintains its creator’s fascination with pitched timbres and colorful clouds of harmony; these are deployed with a deft sense of ensemble interplay. Cerrone imports acoustic guitar and electronics in the five-movement suite Memory Palace. The places he references are familiar to New Yorkers, from the pastoral hues of “Harriman” to the tense ostinatos of “L.I.E.” (Long Island Expressway, for those of you who have the blissful fortune to be unaware of this stress-filled commuter highway), and his depictions ring true. Fear-Release by Reid presents a dramatic use of unfurling cells of rhythmic activity alongside pensive pitched percussion. Its coda for metallophones is particularly fetching; after all of the built up tension of the piece’s main body, it serves as a kind of exhalation.

The culminating, and most substantial, work on the recording is McIntosh’s I Hold the Lion’s Paw, a nine-movement long piece some three quarters of an hour in duration. Much of its composer’s music concerns itself with microtones and alternate tunings – he is experienced in playing both Early music’s temperaments as well as contemporary explorations of tuning. Thus it is no surprise that McIntosh’s pitch template for I Hold the Lion’s Paw is an extended one. However, this is just one aspect of a multi-faceted piece, which also makes extensive use of low drums and cymbals for a ritualistic colloquy. Still more ritualized, taking on an almost sacramental guise, is the pouring of water and striking of ceramics filled with water. Every percussionist I know loves an instrument-making assignment and McIntosh doesn’t disappoint: DIY elements include aluminum pipes, cut to fit. None of the elements of this significant battery of instruments seems out of place: despite the use of water, I Hold the Lion’s Paw is no “kitchen sink” piece. On the contrary, it is a thoughtfully constructed and sonically beguiling composition. Several excellent percussion ensembles are currently active: Los Angeles Percussion Quartet is certainly an estimable member of this elite cohort.

17 hours ago | |
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Thelonious Monk

Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960

Saga/Sam Records/Universal

2xCD, LP, and digital formats

Thelonious Monk, piano, composer, arranger; Charlie Rouse, tenor saxophone; Barney Wilen, tenor saxophone; Sam Jones, double bass; Art Taylor, drums

Since its arrival at our house, this release has been in heavy rotation. After it seems as if everything that the famed modern bebop pianist Thelonious Monk put to record had been issued, a treasure like this surfaces: the pianist’s soundtrack for Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the 1960 Roger Vadim film adapting Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ famous 1782 novel. Buoyant versions of Monk classics such as “Rhythm-a-Ning,” “Well You Needn’t,” and “Crepuscule with Nellie” are abetted by excellent soloing from two tenor saxophonists, Barney Wilen (in whose archives these recordings resided) and Charlie Rouse, a frequent partner of the pianist’s. Monk’s playing, varied here in approach from succulent balladry to rousing uptempo soloing, spurs on the rhythm section of bassist Sam Jones and drummer Art Taylor to ever more complex coordinations. A previously unissued cut, the gospel number “By and By” by Charles Albert Tindley, receives a particularly sensitive reading. The recording contains a bonus disc that features alternate takes and a quarter hour of the group rehearsing and discussing “Light Blue.” To top it all off, the sound is excellent. Heartily recommended.

2 days ago | |
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Parks trio color

Aaron Parks Trio left to right : Billy Hart, Aaron Parks, Ben Street Photo: © Bart Babinski / ECM Records

On Friday, June 16th from 7:30 to 10 at the New York jazz venue Smalls, pianist Aaron Parks celebrates the release of Find the Way, his second release on ECM as a leader (and third overall). On 2013’s Arborescence, Parks appeared on the label as a solo artist, crafting improvisations in a live setting that were gently sculpted but nevertheless stirring selections. This time out, Parks plays in a trio; he has a versatile and well-versed rhythm section at his disposal and to his credit, the pianist adopts an attitude of collaboration, encouraging each artist to take a turn in the spotlight. He is joined by eminent jazz drummer and frequent ECM recording artist Billy Hart and bassist Ben Street, a musician with many avant-jazz credentials who also plays in Hart’s quartet.

Aaron Parks - Find the Way

With energetic tom fills and textural cymbal playing, Hart particularly stands out on “Hold Music,” one of eight originals on the recording (the only cover is the title song, a chestnut that isn’t a household name, but ought to be). On “Song for Sashou,” Street supports a supple quasi-bossa, gliding in and out of register with Parks’ comping to underscore both rhythmic elements and a fetching countermelody.

There’s a painterly quality to the tune “Adrift.” It serves as a point of departure from the washes of sound that Parks evokes in his solo playing. These are now incorporated into a multifaceted context with a rhythm section’s underpinning. Still, the title is an accurate one; even with drums and bass, there is a delicacy of approach here that prevents the music from feeling too strongly grounded. Often Parks takes neo-impressionist approach. “Unravel” flirts with Ravel in its extended chord arpeggiations and revels in delightful offsets in the interplay between the hands. “The Storyteller” pits Parks’ stacking of extended chords against bluesy right hand licks. Meanwhile, Hart makes space for fills to spur things onwards and Street plays multi-register melodies, once again finding a melodic role for the bass to navigate. “Alice,” with aching suspensions and deft filigrees in its intro, followed by a rousing colloquy for the trio, is a particularly memorable composition and one that demonstrates that there is a bit of welcome steel in the midst of this trio’s buoyant demeanor. Find the Way is a big step forward in the development of Parks’ already potent musicality – one imagines that this will be a memorable gig!

6 days ago | |
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On Thursday, June 8, 2017 the Santa Monica Public Library presented the Los Angeles premiere of Breadwoman: Variations and Improvisations in the MLK Jr. Auditorium.

Breadwoman has a long and colorful history, reaching back to her first incarnation by Anna Homler in the 1980s. The late Steve Moshier created the synthesized accompaniment and in 2016 the original reel-to-reel tapes were remastered by the RVNG record label in New York. A Breadwoman and Other Tales CD was released last year to wide acclaim in publications such as Pitchfork, The Wire and the Los Angeles Times. A good-sized crowd turned out on a weekday evening for this rare presentation of performance art and music.

The liner notes of the Breadwoman CD state that: “Breadwoman is a guide, a storyteller and an observer of human events. She communicates with gestures and songs in a language that is both mysterious and familiar. Breadwoman is so very old that she stands outside of time. Her territory is that of the interior, where there are no distinctions and all things are whole.” The strong interest in the 2016 CD has prompted Ms. Homler to organize a new live performance and the result was Breadwoman: Variations and Improvisations.

For this concert Ms. Homler was seated behind a microphone and shiny silver table filled with all manner of whistles, rattles, noisemakers and various other found percussion pieces. Maya Gingery as Breadwoman sat still on a chair completely covered by a gray shroud, awaiting the start of the performance. At the foot of the stage, Jorge Martin presided over a vast array of patch cables, mixers, amplifiers and analog synthesizers. All of the pieces in this hour-long performance were performed continuously with no interruptions. This began with Yesh Te’, a gentle invocation sung by Ms. Homler while Breadwoman was seen to be moving and coming to life under her shroud. The electronic accompaniment was similarly subdued, and full of deep sounds – at times Ms. Homler sang, played a tin flute or rattled racks of beads to add some variety to the texture. Her vocals resembled some long-lost Central European language – the words could not be understood, nor were they meant to be – but the sounds and cadences were highly evocative of a primal culture.

Ee Chê followed and here there was a strong percussive beat in the electronics while the singing became stronger and more assertive, as if part of some ritual incantation. At this point, Breadwoman had completely removed the shroud and, although still sitting in her chair, was fully revealed. Her heavily layered clothing and face, obscured by the bread-like headgear, brought to mind a homeless woman such as might be seen in many Los Angeles neighborhoods – the anonymous look and slow movements evoked an immediate and timeless empathy. Breadwoman gathered in some long loaves of bread from the floor before her, and using these as canes, slowly rose to her feet. All of her movements were slow and deliberate as if the weight of a thousand past generations were weighing down on her old body. The choreography, pace and drama of Breadwoman’s movements corresponded perfectly with the music and electronics; even as she was buried in the costuming and makeup, Ms. Gingery couldn’t have been more convincing. Fittingly, Jorge Martin’s analog synthesizers seemed to be closely following Moshier’s original tracks.

More evocative music followed. In one segment, Breadwoman took up what looked to be two large cups and seemed to be splashing the contents on the ground, perhaps in a rite of fertility. The electronic beat was solid and the singing of Ms. Homler was like that of a mystical incantation. Breadwoman later lifted two large rattles and shook them while turning slowly around. It was as if we were witnessing some age-old ritual with Breadwoman as a venerable high priestess.

In another segment deep tones coming from the electronics were accompanied by the sounds of a forest at night. Crickets, frogs and larger, more ominous critters seemingly lurked in the darkness while Breadwoman remained passively seated. Heavy breathing was heard, with indistinct voices and the sounds of running water. Ms. Homler took up various items of found percussion and the clicking, grinding and growling sounds added to the sense of predatory danger. Breadwoman remained stoically seated, making only a few slow movements, as if resigned to the organic dangers of primal life.

The final segment was brighter in tone, the sound of some small bells dispelled the ambient tension and a low drone in the electronics was accompanied by Ms. Homler with a chant. This was taken up by voices in the electronics as Breadwoman rose and faced skyward. The feeling was communal and mystical, as if we were present at the dawn of human spirituality. A low drone in the electronics added a sense of importance to the proceedings as Breadwoman raised a long loaf of bread upward as if acknowledging a higher power. The chanting vocals faded to silence with Breadwoman standing in motionless reverence as the performance came to a conclusion.

The loud and long applause that followed was intended the performers, of course, but also for the artistic concept of Breadwoman as a tangible representation of our distant human past.

The Breadwoman and Other Tales CD is available from RVNG Records and Amazon.

Photo courtesy of  Elaine Parks.

7 days ago | |
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Kronos Quartet, with Sam Amidon, Olivia Chaney, Rhiannon Giddens, and Natalie Merchant

Folk Songs

Nonesuch CD

From its earliest recordings, which included transcriptions of jazz, Kronos Quartet has cast their net wide. The group’s repertoire encompasses music from the world over and from numerous composers in a variety of styles. To remind myself of Kronos’ earlier days, I put on their “Landmark Sessions” recordings of Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans. And what a reminder it was, pointing up the fluid nature of the quartet’s ability to shift tone and rhythmic feel to accommodate nearly whatever they approach.

On Folk Songs, their latest CD for Nonesuch, Kronos are joined by an all-star cast of vocalists – Sam Amidon, Olivia Chaney, Rhiannon Giddens, and Natalie Merchant – in a collection of American folksongs from various traditions.  The arrangements – skilfully wrought by Nico Muhly, Donnacha Dennehy, Jacob Garchik, and Gabriel Witcher – deploy the skills sets of the guests, including instrumental contributions, Amidon’s guitar and Chaney’s harmonium and percussion, to good effect. The aforementioned fluidity of the quartet affects the way that they serve as collaborators in the various selections. Amidon’s neo-folk adoption of Appalachia is well-served by fiddle tune melodies and straight tone chords. Merchant’s soulful voice is matched by chocolatey timbres and poignant phrasing. Frequent Kronos collaborator Dennehy’s contribution, an arrangement of the traditional Irish song “Ramblin’ Boy,” is an ideal vehicle for the supple singing and exuberant playing of Chaney. An arrangement by Garchik of Delta Blues vocalist Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words” is a suave and winning instrumental interlude. Giddens is a marvel, her beautiful singing winsomely swinging in two originals inspired by traditional blues: “Factory Girl” and “Lullaby.” While Kronos is currently busy with a multi-year commissioning project (titled “Fifty for the Future”), such thoughtful music-making in an entirely different vein is most welcome.

9 days ago | |
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Mariel Roberts

Cartography

New Focus Recordings CD/DL

Mariel Roberts

Cartography

New Focus Recordings CD/DL

Cellist Mariel Roberts’ second solo album, Cartography, provides a stylistically diverse set of pieces that are all played compellingly and with earnest commitment. Eric Wubbels’ gretchen am spinnrade’ has little to do with Schubert apart from taking the spinning wheel as its motivation. Indeed, spinning gestures abound, but they are hyperkinetic in terms of speed and demeanor (Wubbels plays the piano with almost daemonic fury). Roberts is required to retune her cello, employ microtones, and scratch strings with her fingernails. The propulsive sections are on the edge of assaultive, and when the piece takes a breather and moves into more atmospheric territory, the listener may well realize that their shoulders are around their ears. That said, it is a most impressive work, from the standpoint of virtuosity and extended techniques and in the dynamic interplay between the performers.

Cenk Ergun’s Aman is quite different. It relies first on percussive effects, with clocklike pizzicatos moving from higher register to low open strings. Grating string sounds are set against electronics, some of which take on an old-school analog cast while others play off the percussive sounds in the cello. Again, pacing is key. Where Wubbels seemed eager to take listeners to the edge, Ergun places his sounds carefully and purposefully, allowing each one to settle before the next follows, creating a fascinating blend of acoustic and electric sounds. The long denouement, where Roberts finally gets to play some bowed sounds, replete with microtonal haze and delicious slides, is a welcome surprise.

Spinner, by George Lewis, begins emphatically, with double stop glissandos, tremolandos, and slashing gestures. Despite its modernist demeanor, it is actually the most conventionally scored piece on Cartography. While the elements are ones that appear in plenty of contemporary repertoire, without electronics or fingernail scratches to adorn them, Lewis incorporates this vocabulary into a spiraling form (hence the title) that allows for discontinuous development; it is a fascinating compositional design. Indeed, ‘spinner’ is my favorite work thus far of his in the concert tradition. 

There are relatively few notes in Daneil Brynjar Franzen’s The Cartography of Time, a sprawling amplified work more than twenty minutes in duration. But each note is wrung of every bit of resonance, making it seem to truly matter. Against the pitches is an exaggerated whoosh of unpitched string sound, providing a rustling and airy background. Partway through, the piece abandons lower notes for high harmonics, which reverberate intensely. Then the two are combined to great a ghostly duet. Then still another, yet higher, set of harmonics enter, making a registral trio. The slow fade that ensues is one to savor.

Roberts thus treats us to a program in which there are works that use material sparingly and those that exude abundance. Cartography is an engaging listen from start to finish. One might ask how she can top it, but then her first album, 2012’s Nonextraneous Sounds, engendered similar questions, so watch out for what Roberts has yet in store for us!

10 days ago | |
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Pianist R. Andrew Lee has released a new EP on Irritable Hedgehog. It is a recording of composer/improviser Ryan Oldham’s Inner Monologues (Venn Diagram of Six Pitches). The hexachord in question is presented in slow-paced fashion, appearing throughout the keyboard in configurations of varying densities. There certainly are links between Oldham and the Wandelweiser Collective and Morton Feldman in terms of the slow unfolding and deft touch with which material is deployed. One also might infer nods to both Linda Catlin Smith and Tom Johnson, the first in terms of a willingness to allow the proceedings simultaneously to drift and grid to an underlying pulse; the second via the process-based treatment of pitch and spacing. Inner Monologues is both an impressive and beguiling work.

As is so often the case, Lee is a dedicated advocate and compelling performer, cannily exploiting the resonance of the instrument, never pushing the proceedings but instead trusting the piano’s decay to be a guidepost, and exhorting the listener to live in the space of that decay far longer than is customary. When I recently heard Lee’s performance of a piece by Jürg Frey at New Music Gathering 2017 in Bowling Green, Ohio, he demonstrated a similar patient intensity that is perfectly suited to experimental and post-minimal repertoire. See and hear him in person when you can. But in the meantime, let his Irritable Hedgehog releases be a valuable stand-in for the live experience.

10 days ago | |
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Beauty Will Be Amnesiac Or Will Not Be At All

Immediata (Digital)

Anthony Pateras

On Beauty Will be Amnesiac Or Will Not Be At All, composer/pianist Anthony Pateras and composer/sound artist Jérôme Noetinger join forces to create an hourlong work for Synergy Percussion and improvised electronics. Its conceit is a clever one: the piece is of similar scope to Iannis Xenakis’ work Pleïades and utilizes a similarly gargantuan battery of percussion instruments, over 100, notably Xenakis’ 17-pitch microtonal metallophones, the Sixxen. These are used to particularly fine effect in the accumulating washes of sound in the piece’s first movement.

Jérôme Noetinger

Pateras’s notated music and Noetinger’s electronics blend well together, with an emphasis on merging their respective sonic terrains rather than juxtaposing them. Along with many textural diversions, the percussion combines pulse-driven mixed meter passages with polymetric sections of considerable complexity. Noetinger finds his way inside this space admirably, teasing out contrasting rhythmic figures of his own and adding layered textures with refreshing subtlety. That said, his electronics cadenza in movement four is a standout. Haloed in a soft-mallet gong roll, he employs static to mirror the hypercomplex rhythms found in the previous movement’s percussion parts. Added to this is a duet of sustained high pitches, whose call and response fleshes out the frequency spectrum. Drum rolls return, piano this time, to reassert the place of unpitched percussion in the proceedings.Synergy performs with dedication to the subtlest details of Pateras’s score and with responsive attention to Noetinger’s contributions as well. Thus, the recording is a truly successful amalgam of notated and spontaneous music-making.

11 days ago | |
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On Saturday, June 3, 2017 Music@Boston Court hosted Broken Rivers, a concert of piano trio music presented by the composer collective Synchromy. Pianist Vicki Ray, Cellist Timothy Loo and Alyssa Park on violin performed no less than eight pieces, including three premiers. Also featured were compositions selected from a call for scores that drew over 240 respondents. Narration for several of the pieces was provided by actor Ray Ford. Only a few vacant seats remained in the Branson performance space with the audience looking forward to a full program.

The first piece was the premiere of a new version of Broken River Variations by Nick Norton. This began with a strong flowing feel from repeating figures in the piano and cello. The violin entered with long sustained tones above but the overall sense was of an rapidly rushing river or stream. About midway through the pace diminished significantly, and the repeating figure in the piano was confined to the higher registers as if the river had become deeper and slower with just a few small ripples on the surface. The violin then took up the rapid figure while the cello and piano remained in the lower registers. The balance of sounds coming from the trio was admirably managed in both the score and the playing. Broken River Variations artfully captures the character of a river in different places, and so eloquent was the music that this piece could well have been extended to describe still more of the river’s course.

Tarantella Carbine, by Caroline Louise Miller followed, a piece for solo cello and electronics. This began with a series of chirps and other anxious tones emanating from the speaker, answered by cellist Timothy Loo with a series of squeals and trills. Further tension was added by the electronics from a string of ominous beeps and the cello responded with a flurry of strong passages that brought to mind the vivid expressionism of the early 20th century. The mood turned darker still from a run of deep pizzicato notes and then a sequence of low solemn tones in the cello. More scratching and scraping sounds in the electronics provided a good contrast here, enhancing the sense of anxiety. Tarantella Carbine is complex and difficult cello piece that fittingly captures our present angst, and a challenging one for both the performer and the listener.

The west coast premiere of fold by fold, by Michael Gilbertson followed, and this was one of the pieces selected from the Synchromy call for scores. Narrator Ray Ford explained that Gilbertson’s inspiration for writing this piece came from a painting by an acquaintance – who had subsequently died of bone cancer at a young age. Accordingly, fold by fold opened with slow, solemn chords in the strings and single notes or short chords in the higher registers of the piano. The feeling was introspective and sad, but never melancholy. As the piece progressed some lovely harmonies in the strings were heard, joined by the piano in an engaging counterpoint. Later, an active, repeating figure appeared in the violin and this was matched against sustained tones in the cello below. The flow and texture of this piece were impressively scored and played – the sound often seemed bigger than just a trio. fold by fold came to a quiet finish, a fitting musical tribute to a friendship ended too soon.

East Broadway, by Julia Wolfe was next, and for this Vicki Ray returned to the piano accompanied by only a boom box which began the piece by issuing a series of steadily repeating rhythms that sounded distantly mechanical. The piano joined in with a fluidly recurring melody in the higher registers that added a bit of humanity to the mechanized feel from the electronics. The pace of all this was frenetically fast, and brilliantly captured the lively wit and free form spectacle of the New York street scene. Ms. Ray kept up with all of it, and East Broadway lurched to an appropriately fitful conclusion amid much applause.

Wake the Dead by Dante De Silva followed, and this was preceded by a narrative reading from Ray Ford about death and burial, setting a pertinent tone. Wake the Dead began with several deliberately sharp chords in the strings, separated by silence. This was heard again, a bit faster, as the piano entered with an active repeating figure, adding to a purposeful feel. The strings soon joined in this, interweaving layers of busy notes in a complex tapestry. As the piece continued, this compound texture gave way to dark, deep tones in the piano which combined with pizzicato figures in the strings to create a more subdued and mysterious feel. A change back to the shifting syncopated passages and a lively rhythm highlighted the precise playing of the trio and the evocative quality of the score. At just this point, however, the tempo slowed dramatically, and some lovely sustained harmonies were heard in the strings along with a simple counterpoint in the piano. The feeling was peaceful and serene, like a sleepy lullaby, as the piece glided to a quiet close. Wake the Dead is beautifully written and this was a warmly performed depiction of what will always remain unknown.

Following an intermission, gone into night are all the eyes by Thomas Kotcheff was performed by the piano trio in three movements. This opened with a bit of poetry read by Ray Ford, accompanied by quiet passages in the cello. As the poem ended, pizzicato in the cello and sustained tones in the violin were accompanied by rapid piano figures ending in brisk trills. The cello and violin then took up a duet, with only scattered piano notes heard and this resulted in a somewhat remote and lonely feeling. More trills in the piano introduced some tension, but a strong melody in the strings evoked a sense of the lovely and the mystical as the first movement faded to a close.

The second movement was more complex and dynamic, with a quicker tempo and a purposeful feel. The ensemble playing here was accurate and precise given the busy syncopation and a doubled melody line in the strings; a nice contrast with the opening movement. Towards the finish, strong cello notes were answered by the violin as this movement faded to silence. The third movement was slower with a quiet harmony in the strings that suggested sadness. The piano then took up the somber melody as a solo in the lower registers with the violin and cello entering to create some beautiful harmony. More piano followed and then a violin solo and a stronger tutti section that felt darkly mournful. A slightly brighter feeling emerged from an ascending scale figure and this combined with more warm harmonies in the strings at the finish. gone into night are all the eyes is a beautiful work, well founded in its structure and strong emotional exposition.

Well-Spent, by Eve Beglarian was next and this was a solo violin piece accompanied by a recording of a violin from the speaker. Inspired by the notebook of Leonardo Da Vinci, for this piece Alyssa Park tuned her violin down half a step. Well-Spent began in a flurry of double-stopped notes from the violin amid a solid outpouring from the speakers. At times it seemed that the sound was coming from all directions and in all registers, like being caught in a swiftly flowing stream. As the piece progressed, a slower melody emerged in the recording that formed a cantus firmus around which Ms. Park wove a compelling counterpoint. More sounds boiled out from the speakers and the intricacy of the playing by Ms. Park was impressive. At the finish the melody from the recording began to slur downward in pitch, fading out at the close. Well-Spent is an intense experience in tuning and rhythm, adroitly played by Alyssa Park.

The final work on the program was the US premiere of the atrocity exhibition, by Anton Svetlichny, a composer based in Russia. This music was probably the most technically challenging piece  selected from the call for scores, having meter markings of 10/16, 12/16, 6/16, 7/16 or 4/16 that alternated between measures, and a bright tempo based on rapid sixteenth note passages. Appropriately, Ray Ford began with a reading from J.G. Ballard’s poem of the same name. the atrocity exhibition then began with a sharp repeating piano figure and the strings responded with a needle-sharp, syncopated accompaniment. The notes were harsh and dissonant, producing an immediate sense of anxiety and stress. The piano managed to hold the ensemble in a tight rhythmic groove while the complex figures in the strings evoked a sense of disconnection with reality.

As the piece progressed, the cello takes up the repeating figure and the piano answers in counterpoint. A cello solo full of trills and glissandos follows that adds greatly to the disorienting feel. As the piece drew to a finish the repeating figure was taken up by the entire ensemble and the sense of frustration and futility was complete. The score required all the players to end end on the same pulse – a specification made all the more demanding given the rapid tempo and the changes in metering with almost every measure. This was accomplished with perfect precision, however, and the atrocity exhibition was received with a standing ovation and loud cheering.

Broken Rivers brought new and established pieces for the piano trio together in a single concert program that united cutting edge composition with musicians capable of exceptional technique. Another landmark event for new music in Los Angeles.

12 days ago | |
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On Tuesday, May 30, 2017 Tuesdays@Monk Space hosted a concert titled Vicki Ray and Richard Valitutto present New Song. Every seat was filled in the cozy Koreatown performance space with an audience looking forward to an evening of contemporary art songs from some of the finest musicians and composers in Los Angeles.

Four Elemental Songs (2014), by Vicki Ray was first and this consisted of four short movements based loosely on the natural elements of air, fire, water and earth. Elissa Johnston was the vocalist, accompanied by the composer at the piano. Luftpause, the first movement, began with a light, airy strumming of the piano strings that was soon joined by Ms. Johnston singing in German to create an alluring, mystical feel. The simple piano gestures involved just a few conventional key strokes, and Ms. Ray often reached into the piano touching or plucking the strings to achieve additional effects. Luftpause ended on a quietly gentle note, in great contrast to the strident opening of the second movement, Fire Song. Rapid trills in the piano plus the shifting and changing phrasing recalled the dancing flames of a fire. Ms. Johnston’s strong singing heightened the drama, perfectly capturing the powerful text by Susan Stewart.

Siren Song followed, adapted from a poem by Margaret Atwood, and based on the familiar myth of mermaids luring sailors to a watery death by beautiful singing. Ms. Ray again reached into the piano, producing an unexpected series of notes that sounded more like a harp or guitar. In fact nowhere in this movement were conventional keystrokes heard and the unorthodox sounds nicely complimented the mysteriously beguiling vocals. Siren Song was masterfully realized but equaled in inventiveness by the last movement, Pritam Basat, which began with a thumping, percussive effect in the lower piano keys. The rolling, rhythmic character of the music felt south Asian, in keeping with the Sanskrit text “My beloved dwells in the cave of my heart.” As the piano grooved along, forceful vocal passages arced overhead to provide a strong finish. Four Elemental Songs is a remarkable combination of extended piano techniques and solid singing that brings a fresh perspective to the venerable art song form.

The west coast premiere of kennen schon nicht mehr (2017), by Nicholas Deyoe followed and for this soprano Justine Aronson joined piano accompanist Richard Valitutto on the stage. Written for the performers and based on poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, kennen schon nicht mehr began with a simple descending scale in the piano, followed several quiet chords. This was soon supplemented with a bit of dissonance and a series of dark, thick chords that created a faint sense of the ominous. The vocal entrance by Ms. Aronson was deliberate, but subdued, matching the pensive tone of the text: “We don’t know what we spend: All that’s named is past and each being Invents itself at the last second And will hear nothing.” The words were sung in German, and this added to the expressive feeling as the piece proceeded along its somber path. About midway through a series of solemn piano chords in the lower register rang out like church bells, further darkening the mood, while sustained tones in the voice soared overhead with a beautiful combination of strength and fluidity.

As the piece concluded, the church bell tones returned, but with a more hopeful feel from a masterful adjustment to the original chords. “Now we wake up with our memory And fix our gazes on that which was: Whispering sweetness, which once coursed through us. Sits silently beside us with loosened hair.” kennen schon nicht mehr is ideally matched to the sentiment of the text, and to the formidable talents of the performers for whom it was written. Every nuance of language and music was expertly portrayed in this highly evocative work.

FAQs (2014) by Evan Ziporyn was next, and this world premiere was performed by Vicki Ray and tenor vocalist Timur. FAQs is a lighthearted look at the Frequently Asked Questions section of crowd-source funding websites, with their typical phrases such as “How does it work?” or “Where does my money go?” comprising the text. This begins with an active line of rapid piano notes filling the air with a busy and somewhat unfocused feel. The vocal line “How does it work?” enters with earnest straightforwardness, and is then repeated, but the accompaniment continues noodling along as if oblivious to the question. This musical disconnect perfectly captures the often unsatisfactory nature of website information, even as Timur’s questioning voice becomes more dramatic and insistent. Further questions follow: “Is this secure?” comes deliciously close to that unnerving uncertainty we have all experienced when shopping on-line. “Where does my money go?” provoked a chuckle from the audience from it’s obvious double meaning. FAQs is a skillfully balanced mixture of whimsically ardent piano playing and contrived operatic melodrama, all lightened by just the right amount of wit.

Two pieces by Ted Hearne followed. The first piece, I am Sick of Feeling (2017), is based on the poem Jakob by Dorothea Lasky and performed by Richard Valitutto with Justine Aronson. A series of simple repeating chords opens this, while the voice enters with evenly sung words and regular tones that completely drain all the energy from the text: “I am sick of feeling. I never eat or sleep.” A sense of heartbreak and emotional numbness filled this piece as it progressed, and although never boring, was appropriately featureless and flat in the articulation by both Valitutto and Aronson. Only a slight uplift in feeling was detected as this piece came to its quiet close. The heartache and sadness so strongly manifested in the text of I am Sick of Feeling was quietly realized in both the music and the performance.

For the second piece, Everyone Keeps Me, Vicki Ray took her place at the piano and the composer sang the baritone vocals. Based on a poem of the same name, again by Dorothea Lansky, Everyone Keeps Me is upbeat and expressive with lines like “And everyone keeps me from my genius Because genius is not human.” Hearne’s smooth singing and the strong accompaniment combined in this accessible and slightly bluesy piece that moved nicely along with an amiable groove. Everyone Keeps Me was ably performed and had all the energy and charm of a popular song – but without over-simplification or excess.

After an intermission, the balance of the concert program was given over to the daunting Got Lost (2007-8) by Helmut Lachenmann. Soprano Stephanie Aston and Richard Valitutto took the stage with the advantage of having performed this piece previously in 2015. The opening minutes are filled clicks, hissing, whooshes and other breathy sounds from the voice – ably expressed by Ms. Aston – with soft piano notes underneath. After several minutes, some humming, and a bit of whistling, marked the first musical sounds in the voice while Valitutto was kept busy employing a number of extended techniques inside the piano. Strings were strummed or plucked by hand as well as stopped, adding a significant percussive element to the texture. As the piece continued, the singing was at times very powerful, and Ms. Aston occasionally turned and issued a strong fortissimo note directed into the piano, activating the strings in sympathetic vibration. The close confines of Monk Space made these gestures especially effective, and the ghostly echoes were easily heard well out into the audience.

As Got Lost progressed, the singing became more musical and and the piano passages more complex and agitated. The dynamic control and strength of Ms. Aston’s voice was especially impressive given the wide variety of sounds and tones required. The piano playing was no less remarkable and with the various percussive elements in the score it often seemed as if Valitutto was playing two different instruments on the stage. The performers were both reading from the full score – and did not seem to need visual communication – yet successfully  navigated  the many layers and interweaving passages. As the piece built up to its conclusion, the tension and anxiety increased, with crashing tone clusters and a series of strong sustained notes in the voice at the finish. Got Lost requires a strong virtuoso effort on the part of both performers who did not disappoint, and their efforts were received with extended applause.

Based on the attendance and response to this concert, contemporary art song would appear to be thriving in Los Angeles.

16 days ago | |
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