Monday, March 17, 2008

Singing bridge, with electronics

I first heard Frances White's music on a compilation album from an annual electroacoustic music competition in France. Cultures Electroniques 5 from 1991 contained Valdrada, a purely electronic piece as well as Still life with piano for piano and tape. I sought out the score for Still life, which became the first piece for piano and tape I ever played. A few years later, another prize-winning piece on Cultures Electroniques 10 cemented her position of respect with Winter Aconites, for chamber ensemble and tape. Winter aconites are small yellow flowers that spread across forest floors, one of the earliest harbingers of spring. I eagerly anticipated Centre Bridge, her first solo CD, released last fall on Mode Records, and have not been disappointed in the slightest. The five works on this CD continue in the same quiet vein as her earliest works which I had heard on the Cultures Electroniques.  Four of the pieces use instruments and tape, and the fifth piece is a rendition of an interactive installation she made in 1990.

Two of the pieces on the new CD are named Centre Bridge, and an essay in the liner notes by James Pritchett explains that this is a singing bridge across the Delaware River between New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Both pieces use field recordings from the bridge as part of the electronic backdrop. For the earlier of the two pieces, White transcribed and transposed the sound of the bridge for two shakuhachi, who call to each other across the sound spectrum. In a concert performance the two instrumentalists are on opposite sides of the stage, and in this recording the two voices (both played by Elizabeth Brown) are on opposite sides of the stereophonic field. The second recording, for string quintet and tape and subtitled Dark River, uses a bridge form very clearly, with water sounds on either end and a deep, quietly moving, complex drone in the middle. Centre Bridge (Dark River) is the highlight of the album, straddling the line between quiet menace and tranquillity. There is also a version of this piece for a string orchestra and electronics, where I imagine the senses would be heightened.

White occupies a unique place in contemporary composition. Inspired by a deep reverence for nature, her compositions move very slowly, with the instruments in an oblique relationship to the electronics, which are themselves often field recordings in various stages of recognition. Even the early piece Winter Aconites used small bell-like tones to represent the fields of bulbs and flowers that populate the early spring forest, and these sounds occur on this album as well. Pritchett points out that White has a "bulb series" of pieces that includes Winter Aconites and Like a Lily (for viola, double bass, and tape) from this album, and it's easy to hear the continuity between the pieces. Both of the Centre Bridge pieces use water sounds, and the piece A Veil Barely Seen, for viola and tape, is puts the viola in the middle of a stream for the entire duration. Like a floating leaf, the soloist takes a voyage through a dream-like sonic landscape, surrounded not only by the water sounds but also similar bell tones to the bulb works.

Centre Bridge is available as a download from emusic and iTunes, or as a CD from various outlets. Pritchett's essay is available with the CD (including French and German translations) and at White's web site (English only).

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Takemitsu — film composer

Netflix has the DVD of Charlotte Zwerin's 1994 documentary about Toru Takemitsu's Music for the Movies. Interleaving interviews with excerpts from the movies, it shows Takemitsu as much more than a composer, often taking the role of sound designer for the entire movie. He had a much more collaborative role than most film composers, often spending time on the set when the movies were being filmed instead of the more typical behavior of not seeing any of the movie until it is nearly complete. Interview subjects included Takemitsu and several directors, including Masaki Kobayashi, Nagisa Oshima, and Hiroshi Teshigahara. All of the directors commented on Takemitsu's collaborative role for a larger scope of their films.

The documentary brought to light a couple of interesting trivia. Takemitsu always wanted to write music for comedies and lighter movies, but never got the opportunity. But there is a brief excerpt of an light-hearted animated film, Love, which uses the electronic music Ai. I was familiar with this piece from an old LP of Takemitsu's electronic music, and seeing the clip with the soundtrack was decidedly odd. There are also some details on the sound design for Kobayashi's ghost story film Kwaidan, where for various scenes Takemitsu used the sound of wood being split and otherwise destroyed. He always took great care to place the sounds in unexpected locations. Kwaidan was also the first instance of using Japanese instruments in soundtracks, even for Japanese movies. It also highlighted Takemitsu's use of studio manipulation of the sounds, even when the original was based on musical instruments, in order to heighten a particular scene in a film.

The documentary concludes with a beautiful segment on Japanese gardens, which Takemitsu loved and used as a model for several of his concert works. The Smithsonian Institution produced an Emmy-award winning documentary on Japanese gardens, entitled Dream Window, which unfortunately does not appear to be available on DVD. Zwerin also used a clip of a blizzard of flowers from Shinoda's film Under the Cherry Blossoms. Takemitsu discusses how he placed sounds in the same way as features are placed in the gardens, using the single distinctive sound to demarcate the surrounding silence.

Zwerin has done a number of other music documentaries, including the famous documentary about the Rolling Stones at Altamount, Gimme Shelter (with the Maysles brothers), and Clint Eastwood's documentary about Thelonius Monk, Straight, No Chaser. The DVD includes no extras, not even previews for other films in the series (which include Bernard Herrmann and Georges Delerue). But the documentary is successful in creating an interest in seeing the original films, many of which are available on DVD, as well as enhancing the experience of the music.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Piano and electronics

One of the advantages of living in a university community (at least when the university has a good music school) is the occasional concert that would be deemed insufficiently attractive for commercial establishments outside of the largest metropolitan areas.  Such was a concert last night of Soundscapes: New music for piano & live electronics by University of Arizona piano faculty member Michael Dauphinais and visiting composer and sound designer Stephan Moore.  Their program consisted of two world premieres, separated by a brief intermission to change around the electronics setup, and it displayed two completely different sides of a wide spectrum of possibilities for the piano and computer. Moore and Dauphinais also gave a lecture and demonstration earlier in the day that was more geared toward the dance students (Moore's current day job is Sound Supervisor and Music Coordinator for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company), but was as fascinating as the concert was later in the evening.

The first piece on the program was Moore's recent composition Moving Target, a relatively straightforward piece using piano as input to multiple digital delays.  The pattern was fairly slow, and the pianist started playing solo with a bit of rubato.  After a few repetitions of the pattern, he started the processing on the computer, which gradually started playing in sync with the pianist.  The processing required no additional intervention, but changed programmatically during the piece, creating at different times clouds of sound, cascading runs of notes, or chords which phased in and out with the live piano.  Some of the more unusual effects involved detuning the echoed notes, which made the piano sound more like a gamelan.  The basic rhythm stayed fairly constant, but near the end the pace quickened a bit and got more melodic, almost sounding like Steve Reich at a couple of points.  The pianist played with a click track, and during the lecture he said that his dog could play the piano part, but the difficulty was staying in sync with the click track — one false step and the whole edifice would come to a chaotic mess.  Needless to say, that didn't happen in the performance, and Moving Target was an excellent piece in the minimalist vein. 

The second half of the program was a long suite (twenty-three pieces) by composer and blues guitarist John King, 23 Rubai'yat. Some of the pieces have been performed before, but this was the world premiere of the suite as a whole. The contrast with Moving Target could not have been more pronounced.  The piano writing was highly virtuosic, much more complex, and the processing was sophisticated and varying, requiring Moore to play live electronics during the piece.  The piano music reminded me of Frederic Rzewski, with brash modernist gestures, fast repeated note passages, loud and forceful writing covering the entire keyboard. Several of the pieces were call-and-response duets between the solo piano and the electronics, where the piano would drop out and leave some kind of bizarre resonance from the computer.  Repeated note passages would spawn shimmering, dizzying accompaniments.  A rubai is a kind of poetry in A-A-B-A form, which perhaps coincidentally is a blues form, and some of the piano pieces definitely showed the family resemblance. One in particular was a completely over the top blues piano piece, with the processing making it sound like an unearthly orchestra.  King used every trick in the book, including glissandi, the sostenuto pedal, trills at opposite ends of the keyboard, and no doubt a couple of new ones as well.  Although a few of the pieces were slow and reflective, for the most part the intensity didn't let up for the duration of the set.  Dauphinais' performance was complete bravura, very impressive. 

I wasn't sure what to expect from this concert, as there aren't a lot of recordings for piano and electronics.  There are a fair number for piano and tape, but the electronics part in these pieces is static.  David Tudor has a famous recording of Cage's Variations II, and Stockhausen's Mantra uses ring modulators to modify the sounds of two pianos.  But most avant-garde piano artists use extended techniques, perhaps with amplification for the small, inside piano sounds, but not the kind of processing I heard last night.  Perhaps the closest is Evan Parker's Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, where half of the group plays acoustic instruments and the other half of the group processes the sounds.  During King's piece, although Moore wasn't breaking a sweat the way Dauphinais did, there was definitely eye contact and coordination between the two musicians.  I had an opportunity to see the score after the lecture, and the electronics score was the piano score with additional cues on which Max/MSP patch to use, often several cues per piece.  Moore has done some sound design for King, so it's entirely possible that he wrote some of the patches, but I didn't get the impression (from viewing the score) that he was creating or modifying any circuits in real time.  My expectations were probably set by more improvisational artists, such as Günter Müller and Marcus Schmickler. In any case, the concert was fascinating and inspirational, and I hope to pursue similar directions in my own music in the near and distant future. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Silent Music

Lately I've been reading a new collection of essays from academia entitled Silence, Music, Silent Music. The title suggested a certain amount of interest, but for the most part the dozen essays seems to have been designed primarily to help associate professors get tenure. I skipped the two essays on film sound because I decided long ago that I wouldn't pursue an interest in film as an art form (mainly because the camera movements in experimental film make me nauseous, and I would hate to study an art form only in its most commercial forms). Half of the essays discuss Christian mysticism, including three that discuss St. John of the Cross, an early mystic and poet who wrote specifically, albeit allusively, about silent music. Two essays dealt with Cage, one in relation to Susan Sontag and one in relation to William James. I've never had much interest in either of Cage's designated foils, so I read both articles without much engagement. Two articles discussed Olivier Messiaen, which would have been great except that one of them was also a St. John article. While it is an interesting question as to how much of the composer's intention is required knowledge for the listener, if the question is worth answering (I'm not entirely sure it is), it will vary for each composer and each listener. I don't share Messiaen's Catholic beliefs, nor do I share his sound->color synesthesia, so an article that blends these two qualities limits its audience. I also object strenuously to the suggestion which permeates the book that most people listen to tonal music exclusively.

One of the articles about Messiaen discussed one of his early organ works, Le Banquet céleste, brought a couple of insights on static music that are worth noting, if not necessarily unique or groundbreaking. The author selects this piece because Messiaen wrote it specifically for the communion period during mass, when the congregants one by one approach the alter and participate in the sacrifice at the heart of the rite, and spend the rest of the time in quiet prayer and contemplation. The piece is appropriate for this part of the service. It begins and ends in near silence. The organ can sustain indefinitely and without any perception of human intervention (as opposed to the strings, which can sustain, but always with a slight variation when the bow changes direction). Messiaen's harmonies were specifically designed to counteract the linear resolution of tonal music, to create a suspended, floating effect, suitable for slowing the perception of time and creating a space for contemplation.

These insights pertain to many contemporary sound artists whose work bears a certain relationship to silence, and one of the major drawbacks of this collection is that these artists are completely overlooked in favor of the very narrow western art music tradition. For example, many sound artists use microtonality; does microtonality disrupt the feeling of forward motion that we might otherwise get from tonal music? Work like Thomas Koner's has such a broad harmonic spectrum that there is no pitch center at all, just a wave of sound. A consideration of silent music that omits somebody like Francisco López, Bernhard Günter, or Richard Chartier isn't really trying. Recently I listened to López's Untitled #89, which slowly builds to a roar like the inside of a jet engine, then abruptly falls silent for the last third of the piece — merely one example among many. A great deal of sound art is designed to color the silence (which, as Cage taught us, doesn't really exist except as an abstract concept), to provide a different sort of sonic atmosphere.

But on the other hand, silence in concert music (that is, any music intended for concentrated listening) is a blessing because it allows time for personal reflection, hopefully based on whatever the music has said up to that point. For several of the authors of the essay collection, silence brought to mind a Christian meditation (a welcome corrective to the more strident religious messages brought to us by mass media). If my background sends me in a different direction, so be it. Its virtue is its emptiness — silence accepts all questions, but provides no answers.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Chamber Music Winter Festival

Last night, the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music demonstrated why they are such a vital part of classical music programming here in Tucson, with a superb concert, with all works by 20th century composers. The concert was part of their week-long winter chamber music festival, so each work on the program has a different instrumentation. It's a very successful formula, and provides a much more varied evening than the more typical concert which has the same four or five players for the whole evening.

The opener was an early work for baritone and string quartet by Samuel Barber, Dover Beach, based on a poem by Mathew Arnold. The Borealis String Quartet provided an ethereal and elegiac setting to Arnold's anti-war poem. Baritone Christopheren Nomura prefaced his beautiful performance with a few words about the poem, as relevant today as it was when it was written 150 years ago.

One of this year's festival themes is music from Australia. They have commissioned a piece by Ross Edwards, and several pieces by Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe are on various programs. To go along with the Australian theme, one of the more unusual performers this year is didgeridoo player William Barton, who has performed a fair amount of Sculthorpe's work (including a work for didgeridoo and orchestra, Earth Cry, which has been recorded and released on Naxos). Last night, he joined the Borealis String Quartet for Sculthorpe's 12th string quartet, which was originally written for the Kronos Quartet and who specifically requested the addition of a didgeridoo part. The piece started with the cellist bounding onto the stage and starting to play small noises, almost like sound effects. Then the other members of the quartet came toward the stage from the lobby, first violin playing glissandi, second violin playing hoarse croaking, the whole thing sounded like morning in a swamp. When the didgeridoo played with the quartet, the whole group made a fabulous and full textured drone sound, but there were times when either the quartet or the didgeridoo would play by themselves. Although there were some melodic parts, overall the piece was more textured and odd. I wish I could hear it again, although the piece was based on the music from the aforementioned Earth Cry.

The first half closed with a work for violin, piano and percussion by Paul Dresher. Dresher is a west coast composer who mostly writes for the theater and dance, often in a style similar to minimalism. Double Ikon was originally written for the Winant-Abel-Steinberg trio, who have recorded the piece on the New Albion label. The piece, with its interlocking patterns between the three instruments, was great to hear live. Bree van Reyk, from the Synergy Percussion Group (also from Australia), played a variety of instruments, from a glockenspiel, marimba, vibes, a drum and a couple of cymbals. The colors combined wonderfully with the piano, played by Kevin Fitz-Gerald, and Ian Swensen's violin. Swensen also gave a brief introduction to the piece while van Reyk was setting up her kit, and included a heartfelt thanks to the audience for supporting the chamber music festival. The piece was energizing, and you could tell from the little glances between the performers how good a time they were having.

After the intermission was an intense late romantic piano quintet by Ernst Bloch. His Quintet No. 1 was composed in the early 1920s, expanded from a cello sonata. It's the first time I've ever heard quarter tones played with the piano, with extended passages where the piano played a tremolo and the strings were able to depart from the rigid even tempered scale that the piano so often enforces. The work, in three movements, never let up its intensity, even in the slow movement, and it was full of the same kind of late romantic melodies in late Brahms or Alban Berg's piano sonata, stretching tonality to the limit. The first violinist was Lara St. John, who more commonly appears as soloists for orchestral concertos, and she spoke briefly and glowingly about the piece during an introductory comments. The moderator asked why the quintet wasn't played more often, and she said, "Because it's hard." The group looked exhausted and exhilarated when they were done, a superb accomplishment.

One of the questions from the audience (okay, it was from me) to Ms. St. John was for repertoire that she played that was written in her lifetime. In addition to the Shostakovich concerto, she is releasing a world premiere recording in the near future of a concerto by Magnus Fiennes (if I caught the name correctly). She also intends to commission other new works for violin and orchestra. One of the real strengths of the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music is their commissioning program, where new works are included in the annual winter festival. I love the commitment to new music, and as last night's program demonstrates, the commissions are not simply bolted on to a collection of nineteenth century German works.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Toru Takemitsu

For some time I've pondered how to write about Toru Takemitsu, a composer whose scores have been ready to hand on my piano for several years, and whose music continues to grow in personal importance. I first heard his music from the stunning fourth side of a two-LP set by Seiji Ozawa and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra where the headliner was Olivier Messaien's Turangalila Symphony, released in 1968. Although I'd never heard of Takemitsu before, his November Steps, a quasi-concerto where two soloists played biwa and shakuhachi, traditional Japanese instruments, quickly became one of my favorite pieces. I sought out his piano music, and even managed to locate an obscure Japanese release of his music for Gagaku, the traditional Japanese classical music, along with a record of his electronic music and some chamber music.

I now realize this was a skewed introduction, as Takemitsu wrote relatively little music for Japanese instruments, solo piano, or electronics. But clearly something about his music spoke to me, and the more I learn about it and listen to it, the more deeply and personally I feel it, and the larger he grows in my personal pantheon.

English-language readers are very well served by an exemplary book about Takemitsu's music written by Peter Burt, and a short anthology of Takemitsu's essays has been translated as well under the title Confronting Silence. Most of the essays are quite short, and the set includes articles ranging from biographical and philosophical to more technical articles about music. In a sense, they were like his piano gestures. There was enough to contemplate in one or two articles at a time, best left to resonate for a couple of days before returning for the next. We can only hope that some of the additional literature about him in Japanese, as well as more of his own writings, are translated in the near future.

One of the most defining characteristics of Takemitsu's music is how gorgeous it is, simply in terms of the sound. He wasn't guided by systems or outside scaffolding, although he knew what about various structuring techniques and used them when he wanted. His composition is more intuitive. He wrote not only concert music, but a lot of music for film, television, and the theater. Although much of this music remains unpublished, several CDs of film music have been released (but only in Japan — some of these CDs go for more than a hundred dollars on Amazon). A lot of the music borders on pastiche, but it demonstrates Takemitsu's mastery of orchestration, using effects that often showed up much later in his concert music.

His staging often has ritualistic elements that set it outside the concert music norm. I was fortunate enough to see the percussion group Nexus perform his percussion concerto, From me flows what you call Time, with the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra (who doesn't get enough credit for all the 20th century music they program). The five percussionists were each dressed in a separate color and had their own sets of instruments located at all points around the orchestra. Two of the players in the front corners controlled huge arrays of chimes that were hung from the ceiling, at some distance from the stage, with long ribbons colored the same as their outfits. Nexus describes this setup in some detail in a PDF at their web site. None of this comes across in the recordings, but his scores for larger ensembles often have some kind of stage direction which will make their live performance even more riveting than a typical orchestral concert.

His music also appeals to me because it's generally slow, and, at least in the concert music, doesn't follow any of the standard formal models that are prevalent in most western concert music. No minuets, scherzi, or rondos here. While I wouldn't go so far as to call his music static, to me it sounds like Japanese calligraphy looks — sonic brush strokes with little recurring elements, suspended in a resonant field for peaceful contemplation. Several of his works take inspiration from gardens and nature, not in any imitation like in Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, but with a more introspective approach, often explicitly like walking in a garden. Burt goes into some detail on his close encounters with John Cage, whose influence gave him permission to continue down a path uniting eastern and western musical influences (as Cage did with his lifelong interest in Zen Buddhism). But his later music shows a gentle and romantic streak, balancing sound and silence beautifully and inexhaustibly.

I will write more about Takemitsu's piano music in a future post, as well as more about his wild, modernist streak that I missed the first time around, but which shares many common themes that I've written about elsewhere, with aleatoric and graphic scores, mobile forms, as well as more about his complex relationship with nature. A considerable amount of his music is available at emusic, and some of the early Japanese releases are available at the DGG web shop.