Thursday, November 4, 2010

Piano and classical drones

When I set up this blog nearly four years ago, I envisaged the Classical and the Drone as twin poles between which I would concentrate my humble observations. The intersection of these two worlds certainly exists, for example La Monte Young and Alvin Lucier, but the last time the two came together around here was about a year ago with Sunn O)))'s drone metal combined with classical instruments. I have recently discovered Peter Adriaansz, a younger composer from Holland who's also the artistic director of The Hague Percussion, firmly in the classical world, whose work in the past couple of years combines piano and drones in a way that I find inspirational for my own music.

I originally encountered Adriaansz through Xavier Pestova's repertoire list of music for piano and live electronics. His score for Waves 1-4, for piano, ebows, sine waves, and live delay, was posted on his site, a fascinating and thought provoking excursion which led me to my local guitar shop for my first ebow. Since that time, I reviewed Richard Lainhart's recent CD Cranes Fly West, which uses a grand piano and nine ebows (Adriaansz, in this score, only calls for three), which increased my interest level. And earlier this year, the Dutch Ensemble Klang released a CD of seven of Adriaansz's Waves, including one of the solo piano works and six further excursions into drone piano in combination with reeds, trombone, percussion, violin, and electric guitar. As far as I can tell, it's the first CD release of any of his music, hopefully a harbinger of future installments.

Adriaansz's works page contains thirteen Waves, divided into four sets, and two of the four sets are performed here in their entirety, each movement recorded in a single take. Waves 5-7 open the album and were written for the Ensemble Klang during a period where Adriaansz had done some work with microtonality and was now furthering his investigations into vibration and resonance. Wave 5 divides the ensemble into generating and responding instruments. The piano and ebowed guitar generate tones that are further sustained and modified by the reeds, brass, and percussion. Wave 6 devolves around a single pitch, adding microtonal variations of specific proportions on either side, generating elusive beating harmonies, especially at a fairly good volume. Wave 7 sets up a quiet ebowed drone before it's interrupted by monumentally deep bass notes on the piano, trombone and low reeds. The low fundamentals elicit lots of overtones, making this one a very rich sound world. Higher partials are added explicitly as the piece progresses, with the piano articulating slow octave arpeggios that provide a faint rhythmic anchor in the harmonic blaze.

The second complete set is Waves 11-13, originally written for Peter van Bergen's Loos Ensemble, and played here by two reeds, percussion, guitar, ebowed piano, and violin. Adriaansz has put up a sample score for Waves 11-13, so it's a little easier to see what's going on, and Adriaansz has also posted article with a fair amount of detail about the pieces. Waves 11 is all sustained sounds, dreamlike with surges but no attacks. Waves 12 is highly punctuated with dissonant piano chords and resonant gongs, whose overtones are carried by the sine waves and other sustaining instruments. And in Waves 13 the piano chords are spread out into individual notes stretched across three octaves, spawning subtle moving harmonies.

Between the two sets of Waves, the ensemble programmed a set of three miniatures written in a more conventional style, Nu descendant un escalier. They reminded me strongly of the classic Hat recordings of the Maarten Altena Octet, so I was little surprised to see in Adriaansz's work list that three of his pieces were in fact commissioned by and written for Altena's ensemble (sadly unrecorded as far as I can determine). The album closes with one of the first set, Waves 3 for amplified piano, sine waves and live delay.

Work in microtonality often leads to electronic solutions, and Adriaansz has developed an unusual hybrid of live electronics with the Klang Ensemble. The album has a guest credit of Juan Parra on live electronics on these three sets, and it sounds like it includes a long digital delay to prolong the already stretched tones. Several of the Waves include a part for fixed and moving sines, which further color the harmonies. In practice, the sines draw out an emphasis in the overtones of the acoustic instruments and contribute a sheen to the harmonic overtones. In addition, the acoustic instruments are amplified, which provides another opportunity to place them into an overall context.

As a glance at his scores will demonstrate, Adriaansz has discovered new ways to communicate his microtonal works through an open notation that focuses on the essential chromaticism that he seeks, while deferring specific timbres and entrances to the performers. One of its ancestors is Cage's time bracket notation, where an event is simply given a range of time in which it occurs. Adriaansz uses the metaphor 'live sculpting,' which suggests a mobile, shifting perspectives over a fairly sparse sonic field, but provided a freedom to the musicians to create the complete sound in its own time.

In addition to the usual sources, Waves is available through the Ensemble Klang's web shop where, powered by Bandcamp, all the tracks are available for streaming in their entirety. The sales blurb says that the CD comes with a booklet, which encouraged me to purchase the CD rather than the download. However, the download that came after the CD purchase had a PDF of the booklet in the zip file, but I don't know whether it's present on the download alone purchases. The booklet is all in English and includes an article about Adriaansz written by Bob Gilmore, an interview between Adriaansz and the Ensemble Klang's Artistic Director and fellow composer Pete Harden, and short bios of the composer and the ensemble. Adriaansz writes about the Wave series in an article in English, How I Became A Convert, on his use of microtonality.

Monday, November 1, 2010

A seasonal performance

Our first high cultural event of the season was last night at the University of Arizona's UAPresents, violinist Robert McDuffie and the Venice Baroque Orchestra playing the Seasons Project: Antonio Vivaldi's Four Seasons in the first half of the concert, and Philip Glass's second Violin Concerto, entitled The American Four Seasons. McDuffie commissioned the concerto with exactly this pairing in mind, but during the early sketches, McDuffie and Glass differed on which of the concerto's four movements corresponded to which season. Rather than make a statement in the titles, the movements are simply numbered one through four. McDuffie and the VBO are touring the US with this program through November 19, a great opportunity to hear Glass's new concerto in its intended context.

The Venice Baroque Orchestra consists of five first violins, four seconds, three violas and cellos, a double bass, a lutenist, and a keyboard player who played harpsichord in the Vivaldi and a Yamaha MO-8 synthesizer in the Glass. The string players all stand in a semi-circle (except for the cellists, the only ones seated), and there was no conductor for either piece. Everyone was dressed in black, very elegant. Seeing the entire ensemble standing piqued my curiosity and suggested that this concert would have more immediacy and excitement than I usually expect from a classical concert, that the performers approached this in the spirit of a pop concert.

I'm not familiar with the Vivaldi concertos, but the performance was beautiful and most likely a bit idiosyncratic. I thought it was a very romantic performance, more flexible tempi than I expected, even though the VBO is considered a period orchestra and probably plays with more rather than less historical information. It's a typical Baroque convention to mark piano and forte in the score, so perhaps the romantic swells in volume were a contemporary interpretation. The string writing for all parts was masterful, with the sections displacing and complementing each other. I especially liked the solo passages, where McDuffie would start by himself and then be joined by two or three other players. In one passage, the leaders of the first and second violin section seemed to echo McDuffie's melodic lines, slippery little fragments of sound whose shape and timbre seemed centuries ahead of their time.

One of the other common subgroups was a trio with the lute player and the lead cellist. The lutenist was seated front and center, much more prominent and audible from our seats than the harpsichord, so it played a more important role in the continuo, at least from our seats. The lutenist was really having fun, a joy that communicated through all the performers. One of the movements was a song for the lute and strings, and McDuffie pulled out a chair and sat down, stretched out his legs, and listened with a beatific smile on his face.

The individual movements were very dramatic, with the standing orchestra's rhythmic swaying keeping the overall mood light and upbeat. But a side effect was that they would finish a fast movement with a dramatic flourish, which elicited an enthusiastic round of applause. The program didn't break the concertos into movements (although I later gleaned from the notes that each concerto has three movements, fast-slow-fast), so I completely lost track of which concerto they were playing. I don't think it mattered to them, and contributed to the effect that this was more of a pop concert than a classical one.

If everybody was just out having a good time during the first half, the second half was more serious. Gone was the lutenist sidekick, leaving McDuffie alone on center stage. The auditorium did not use a spotlight, and since he was further forward as a soloist in the Glass work, his eyes were completely hidden in shade by the stage lights, which were all overhead. A tall man in black, with no eyes visible, suggestive of the uncanny in his Halloween evening performance! And even in his fast movements, Glass's music doesn't dance the same baroqueries, so the performers body language was more serious as well.

But as beautiful as the Glass concerto was, I missed a conductor, most noticeably during a fast passage in the first movement where the keyboard seemed a bit out of sync with the strings. The orchestra spent much more time making significant eye contact with each other than they did during the Vivaldi, which made me think they weren't entirely comfortable with the piece. Fortunately I never felt an uncertainty after the first movement, so maybe someone was having a bad night. The work is written for strings and synthesizer, but as far as I could tell the timbre of the synthesizer never changed. It sounded like an electric piano, and it was used for punctuation and rhythmic precision, the keyboard music that Glass has written since his earliest work.

Since the concerto has no cadenza per se, Glass wrote a prologue and three songs for solo violin, which can either stand alone or between each movement of the concerto. McDuffie has been playing this piece for a while, and his performance throughout had great depth and feeling. Glass has already released a recording of McDuffie and the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop, who played the concerto's European premiere in April 2010. But this tour is a great chance to hear the work live, an unusual opportunity and a great concept. The remainder of the tour is on the US West Coast and then some dates in New England. I encourage anyone close to one of these shows to check it out.