Monday, June 30, 2008

The Black Vortex

Recently I've been listening to three (out of twelve) of Andrew Liles' Vortex Vault recordings, released on Beta-Lactam Ring. Liles' discography is huge, and includes recent stints with Nurse With Wound and Current 93. His earliest recordings are from the mid-1980s, but I didn't run across him until his 2001 release on the Infraction label, based in Ohio and home to some of the more interesting ambient music. His first album that really clicked with me was The Dying Submariner, subtitled "A Concerto for Piano and Reverberation in Four Movements", and its companion The Dead Submariner, which used bowed guitar instead of piano. Both albums are wonderful drone pieces in our regular rotation, with The Dying Submariner being among my personal inspirations for its source in the piano.

I was thus very curious to hear the installments of the Vortex Vault, which Liles describes as "in part a collection of unreleased, unearthed and dusted down material from the vast Andrew Liles archive of unused studio material," and which appears in Beta-Lactam Ring's Black Series. In addition to Liles, this series also features releases by Maeror Tri, Silverman, Aidan Baker, and a host of other artists. The releases I've seen all have very dark cover art, with similar colored obis, are limited editions, and have the CD enclosed in a special black wrapper inside whose only marking is the words "Black Series" and the number of the limited edition. Liles' albums in the series all have different hand shadows and sets of Chinese characters on the cover. Based on information from Liles' web site, the albums were released in consecutive months over the course of a year. I'm not sure if there is a logical order to the Vortex Vault; I have parts two (Black Hole), three (Black Beauty) and twelve (Black End).

Black Hole is perhaps the most conventional of the three, thirteen short instrumentals. Liles doesn't use as much reverb and other effects as many ambient artists, even on his "ambient" pieces (such as An Uneventful Afternoon), which gives the album a more human touch, not as many machines taking the various musician roles. Often there is a simple melody line, repeated over and over, with other instruments or noises in the background. Bad Vibes Waiting Room, for example, uses something like a bass guitar to play a simple two-bar melody, with occasional melodic and textural variations throughout. He combines this melody with vibes and some very spare noises. Three minutes and it's over, without wearing itself out or spinning out to something new. This pattern affords considerable variety, whether he uses loops from old records (Hello Pharoah), melodramatic soap-opera gestures on electric organ (Sequential Dreaming) or even sequencers that wouldn't be out of place on a Klaus Schulze album (Humiliated). The tunes range from soft drones (An Unspoken Narrative Regarding Institutional Abuse) all the way to a semi-African jungle rhythm (Without Anaesthesia). Because each piece is so short, the album almost seems like a sketch book, which is of course the theme of the Vortex Vault as a whole.

Things take a decidedly weird turn on the third volume, Black Beauty. For one, although there are still a couple of short tracks that would have fit nicely on Black Hole, there are two much longer tracks, each clocking in at sixteen minutes. In addition, some of the music is considerably more abstract here. The opening track, Dead Roses, is a wispy electroacoustic piece, with a couple of instrumental reference points with some percussion and a few trumpet licks, but which otherwise would fit comfortably with some of the more subdued work of the French-Canadian acousmaticists on the Empreintes Digitales label. On the longer tracks, he has time to show how his drones and melodies transform themselves into each other over time. For example, on All Things Bright and Beautiful and Corrosive, percussion scrapings and boomings with extended resonance mingle with garbled and otherwise treated vocal sounds, finally joining with a melodic loop played on a gamelan. The other long track, George the Chemist, uses slow loops combined with more constant and ominous drones, with a loop played on flute and percussion floating in the middle.

The last volume, Black End, goes even further off the deep end. Liles shows his penchant for black metal (a "black" phrase that somehow didn't get used for a title in the series) in the track As On a Dung Hill, a truly morbid poetry reading by R. K. Faulhaber recalling the lyrics of the more obsessed black metal artists. Liles has expressed a love of metal in interviews, and we also get some deranged surf guitar (played by irr. app (ext.)'s Matt Waldron) of Kojack Without The Hat. Most bizarre is the last item on the disc, a thirty-nine minute excursion entitled Kay-Loong-Meu-Tuk (The Begining of the End of the End of the Begining of the End) [sic], which is divided into 95 tracks ranging in length from …  well, it's hard to say. For the two shortest tracks, iTunes reports the time as "not available" and reports the two longest tracks at more than 15 hours. There's some serious f***ery going on in the CD's table of contents. Also notable is that Black End is the only Vortex Vault CD that is not available at emusic, Amazon, and iTunes. The piece itself is quite lovely, moving through watery field recordings, drones, a minor-key melody looped on the cello that segues into Auld Lang Syne on bagpipes, sampled choirs and orchestras, power tools, all combined in a fitting epic to close the suite.

What comes across through the three Vortex Vault albums that I've heard is a dissatisfaction with any individual genres, but a healthy curiosity and exploration, a refusal to get pinned down in any single area of music. I come away from this set with the highest admiration for Liles, and I look forward to hearing more of his music in the future.  The Vortex Vault is available from the usual suspects, or directly from Beta-Lactam Ring.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

SICPP, one week later

I've been home from SICPP for a week now, which is starting to be enough time to digest whatever I learned from the experience. I've had a desire to attend for several years, but the desire firmed into a goal when Drury last January announced that Kondo was the composer-in-residence. I learned a couple of pieces better than I ever had before, performed one in a master class and the other on a public stage (a first as a pianist, although I performed on guitar in my salad days). I worked directly with a composer of international stature, a bright spot on any resumé. But on the last day, during the final Iditarod concert, I took a dinner break at the half-way point, only to have the exhaustion of the week catch up to me. I thought about my 7am flight, asked myself whether I really wanted to stay up until after midnight, and returned to my hotel and crashed (Matthew Guerrieri caught the Iditarod's second half and reports on it here).

One of the consequences of SICPP's shift from solo piano to chamber music (a telling measure of its success in new music pedagogy) meant that I had more free time on my hands than most of the other students. Combined with a lack of my usual distractions (free wifi was nearly impossible to find, except at the coffee shop where I got a large dark roast every morning), I had time to reflect on my personal goals as a musician, and notice how different they are from my SICPP colleagues. Professional musicians work very hard, long hours, not always playing music they like, seldom having the luxury of adequate rehearsels. But even further, if I have taken to heart Cage's dictum of music to sober and quiet the mind, and if a lot of new music that I admire has this same goal, there was precious little time for the mind to stay quiet, or to look around for divine influences when it got there.

There have been a couple of articles around the blogosphere since my return that address this point as well. David Harrell points to emusic blogs and a recent Atlantic article to identify "content fatigue" as the feeling of being overwhelmed by too much new music to process. The effort to slow down and listen is a major reason why I started this blog. A lot of the new music at SICPP wore Morton Feldman influences on its sleeve — even the Kondo piece that I played was reminiscent of Feldman. But one of Feldman's characteristics is the total immersion required for his late works, which start at 30 minutes and, for works like his second string quartet or For Philip Guston, can last hours (and after four and a half hours at the SICPP Iditarod, I don't think I could sit through a performance of either one). One of the composition students, Marti Epstein, brought See, Even Night, a lovely Feldmanesque piece for clarinet, viola and piano, which was performed in the first half of the Iditarod. I would like to have wallowed in this piece, listening to the three instruments softly float around each other. But immersion is another luxury that professional musicians don't often get, because there is so much music to be played.

The inevitable downside is that my musical niche becomes smaller and smaller. Glenn at Coolfer and David Harrell have both commented recently on the long tail, pointing to the long-term unprofitability of niche music. Music I admire is released in editions of 500 or less, and this takes over a year to sell out. I still have over a dozen unopened CDs on my desk (although a number of them were acquired in Boston — what a treat to find a brick-and-mortar store that actually has music I'd want to hear!) because the collector want more bright shiny things, but the listener wants to take time and savor each individual work. So now that I'm back from Boston, I will settle once again into my niche, post some reviews on this blog (which I've sadly neglected during my work towards SICPP), and spend my piano time relearning some Bach, sight reading and improvising. I am in no hurry today.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

SICPP, day five

Today's master class was led by composer-in-residence Jo Kondo and focussed exclusively on his works, several of which are being performed in tomorrow's Iditarod concert. Most of the works are for small chamber groups, most of whom performed today. First up was Elder's Hocket, for piano, vibraphone, flute and clarinet. Kondo has written several hocket pieces, using a technique of passing a melody around through several instruments. Here, the piano and flute are paired against the vibraphone and clarinet, and one of the first changes that Kondo made was to rearrange the instruments on stage better to clarify the relations.

Next, I had the opportunity to play High Window, and I must humbly confess that nearly all of the decisions I had made about the piece, and documented in this blog, were the exact opposite of Kondo's interpretation. Where I had opted to separate the chords, Kondo wanted them connected. Even though Kondo said in his program notes that the piece was a chorale, I had not detected a melody. Apparently I hadn't tried hard enough, and Kondo described each chord as hanging down from the top note (except for the handful of chords played in a slower tempo, which he wanted built up from the bottom), and the melody should sing. This was a constant theme through his comments on many of his pieces, that there was a clear melody that should be brought out. Another student played his solo piece A Short Summer Dance, but her work required much less correction than mine. In fairness, he was extremely gentle and constructive with his comments, treating the issue as merely a difference in interpretation. The ultimate test is what sounds the best, and I believe the piece does sound better with Kondo's suggestions. High Window was probably the closest work to Feldman's that anyone played today.

We moved to the percussion room for a performance of Luster Gave Her the Hat And He And Ben Went Across the Backyard for three marimbas. It's a process piece, similar to Steve Reich's compositions, and the wonderful title is a quotation from William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. Then we heard A Shape Follows Its Shadow for two pianos, or, as Kondo phrased it, for one piano and double keyboard. The intent of the piece is to sound like a single piano is playing, with the performers playing the same chords with different articulations, so that the resonance is picked up by the second piano. Although the piece is very slow and sparse, there is a melody here that he wanted brought out as well.

One of Kondo's earliest pieces is Standing for any three instruments of different families. This is a hocket piece as well, and the intent of the piece is for the melody to travel between the instruments. The grouping here was for piano, harpsichord and celeste, and Kondo asked for the celeste to be changed to something else because the sound cannot be dampened, and the piece requires sharp and clear articulations. There's very little room for interpretation here — once the piece starts, it basically continues in the same rhythm, with each pitch change signifying a downbeat.

We had a little time left in the class, so Kondo took questions from the participants, and his answers were fascinating. The first question asked for clarification on his stated art of ambiguity, and he responded with a long anecdote on how Standing was composed. He seems to consider this piece as his opus one, with few earlier compositions still acknowledged. With Standing, he made a conscious effort to get away from his training, so he created an arbitrary scale of around fifteen notes, selected an order randomly with throws of dice, then added a regular pulse to the notes chosen. During the composition, he introduced a bias toward certain pitches and intervals, which tended the piece towards a kind of tonality, and the sounds were grouped according to the perception of this tonality, but it's not a tonality that anyone else would recognize as such, hence creating a pitch-based ambiguity. In other pieces, such as A Short Summer Dance, the ambiguity is in the overall structure; in others, the ambiguity is rhythmic, and so forth. His works are always going somewhere, even if the goal is not clearly stated, more of a nomadic wandering.

He talked about his influences for a while. He is constantly surprised that he gets so much credit for being influenced by traditional Japanese music because he heard very little of it until he was in his twenties. Most of this music he heard in his childhood was westernized. He did read a lot of Japanese literature and philosophy, so perhaps some common attitudes originated there. As for minimalism, the only piece he had heard before writing Standing in 1973 was Steve Reich's Piano Phase, which was performed in Tokyo in 1970. Otherwise, his exposure to minimal music came on his first trip to New York in 1979. One of the few pieces with an overtly Japanese influence is Strands II, a piece for multiple pianos all playing in unison (a version for three pianos will be at tomorrow's concert). He got the idea from Gagaku, which usually has only a single dancer, but which for important occasions will use up to four dancers performing exactly the same dance. He found that this gave the dance a certain added weight, and wanted to achieve the same effect with the piano.

His biography mentions his work with tape and electronics, but this was all in the youthful phase that he no longer acknowledges. He was selected to work at the NHK studio, where Stockhausen composed Telemusik, and created a number of collage pieces. One of the few works that he has retained was very similar to the percussion piece Under the Umbrella, and he wrote it all out on paper and gave it to an engineer to make the realization. He prefers to work with live performers and to arrange them on stage, which can dramatically change the sound of a piece. He told a story about Feldman, who came to a rehearsel of one of his larger chamber pieces and made suggestions about placement, which is now an important part of his aesthetic.

This post is already getting quite long, so I'll only say a few words about tonight's concert. Billed as the SICPP Percussion Spectacular, the program comprised mostly solo percussion work from SICPP faculty and Callithumpian Consort percussionists. Nicholas Tolle played Kondo's Pendulums, a relatively sparse and slow work loosely based on a striking clock motif. Mathias Reumert played two pieces, a virtuosic Bone Alphabet by Brian Ferneyhough and a remarkable work for a plexiglass percussion device entitled Edges by Christina Viola Oorebeek, which seemed very spontaneous but was actually very precisely notated. The score even contains detailed instructions on how to build the instrument. Scott Deal played a declamatory piece for drum set and vocals with the text from the workers from a furnace factory in Birmingham, Alabama (now a museum), Tapping the Furnace by Dorothy Hindman. Inspired by the terrible working conditions in the factory for the descendants of slaves, the music had African rhythms that started quite loud and assertive, but got progressively quieter as the work progressed. The sole piece on tonight's program that didn't use percussion was Kondo's Trio (The Moor) for piano, viola and bassoon, and the second half of the program was devoted to Steve Reich's Sextet for two keyboards and four percussionists.

One other personal note. Since I got some coaching on Kondo's High Window, I will be playing this piece during tomorrow's Iditarod rather than the Feldman duet. The concert will run late, and since I have an early flight on Sunday, this will be the final dispatch from the 2008 SICPP (although I hope to write something up about the Iditarod next week). It's been a real blast hanging out with wonderful musicians, full of energy and talent, and seriously committed to new music.  Many thanks to everyone at NEC who made this such a wonderful experience.

New music for guitar

Amidst all of the SICPP happenings, my latest review in furthernoise has been published, José Luis Redondo's La Reponse est aux pieds.

Friday, June 20, 2008

SICPP, day four

Steve Drury taught the final piano master class of the week this morning, which included John Cage's Two Pieces from 1946 and Gyorgi Ligeti's Etude No. 5 (Arc-en-ciel). The Cage pieces have both a graceful feel and a touch of the avant-garde austerity, and Drury gave us several guidelines for these pieces based on his years of working directly with Cage. The Ligeti is almost sentimental in nature — Drury described the piece as "Bill Evans playing a Chopin nocturne at 4 AM" — full of lush, romantic chords "that your mother would like."

Then Louis Goldstein took everybody upstairs for a fascinating discussion of piano preparations in connection with a student working on Cage's Sonatas and Interludes. Cage is very specific about distances from the dampers to the preparations, and Goldstein (who has recorded the piece — Drury says it's the best recording available) said that he spent lots of time converting the measurements to get the equivalents for his piano, and deemed the effort worthless. What matters is how the preparations sound, which will be different on every piano, and which the pianist must judge for him or herself. Cage is also fairly specific about using screws or bolts. Goldstein doesn't really hear a meaningful difference between them. Cage sometimes specifies that preparations include bolts with loose nuts that create rattles, but pianists have to be careful about the sympathetic vibrations causing unwanted sounds. We discussed various preparations in addition to the ones in this particular piece. In Zorn's piece on last night's program, Drury used gaffer's tape, kind of like duct tape, to mute the high strings. There are also historical questions about preparations. Cage calls for weather stripping in some of his early works, written when he was still in Seattle. Weather stripping technology has changed considerably since the early 1940s, and there is some doubt about what material was used for weather stripping in that time and place (Seattle being extremely rainy, and building solutions being tailored to the region). Weather stripping today is a thin tape with adhesive on one side, which is an inappropriate material for piano preparations.

The concert was, like Tuesday's, a mixed set of chamber music played by Callithumpian Consort members and solo piano work from Louis Goldstein. All of the pieces were new to me except for one of the Kondo chamber works, and, like a lot of contemporary music, difficult to absorb in a single listening. In the first half, piano faculty member Yukiko Takagi and flautist Jessi Rosinski played Toshio Hosokawa's Lied, which started with a soft melody, grew increasingly complex and noisy, then returned to the opening material again. Goldstein played two piano pieces, a relatively conventional and lyrical twelve-tone sonata by James Ronig, and a more erratic piece, Rendering, by Stephen L. Mosko. Mosko's piece changed tempo often, sometimes stopping altogether while Goldstein plucked a single note from the inside, then taking off again with another odd gesture.

After the intermission, Takagi returned with percussionist Jeffrey Means to play Jo Kondo's Aquarelle, composed in 1990. A fairly unadorned melody passed back and forth between the two performers, with Means playing vibraphone most of the time, with occasional interludes on cowbells or with more complex scoring. The second piece was Kondo's Retard for unaccompanied violin, played by Ethan Wood, which used microtones to create unusual harmonies, but kept to a relatively slow pace, similar in that regard to Aquarelle, despite its earlier composition (1978).  But Aquarelle had more of a sense of contiguous lines, whereas Retard seemed to epitomize Kondo's stated preference for individual sounds: “I am interested in words more than in sentences, in sentences more than in paragraphs, in paragraphs more than in a whole page. Thus, it could be said that in music I am more concerned with each sound than with the phrases they create.”

The final piece on the program was another trio by Helmut Lachenmann, temA for soprano, flute and cello, played by Jennifer Ashe, Jessi Rosinski, and Benjamin Schwartz. I was unfamiliar with Lachenmann's music before this week, but it has been a real revelation. He gets the most unusual sounds from the instruments, finding ways for all three of these instruments tonight to get nearly identical timbres, then each instruments goes off in unique sonic gestures. I look forward to learning more about his music in the coming months, it is simply amazing.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

SICPP hump day

Steve Drury led this morning's master class through a discussion of George Crumb's A Little Suite for Christmas and Karlheinz Stockhausen's Klavierstück IX. George Crumb's music is famous for the variety of sonic effects that he gets from his instruments, so we all got up on stage to see specific information about how to play the inside of the piano. For example, the student who played the Crumb brought in tailor's chalk to mark the strings — it's very thin and is the easiest to clean up. Drury recommended using the tips of one's fingers to play harmonics rather than the heel of the hand because it provides more control over exactly what gets played, which is very important in Crumb's work. We also discussed what to do when the middle pedal doesn't work on a piano and how to find one's way around the inside of the piano (another hint: use small labels that are easily detachable, because the dampers are the most fragile parts of the piano and should never be marked permanently).

The Stockhausen is one of my favorite pieces, and one which Drury has recorded. Amazingly, the student who played the piece had only been working on it a week, and the only way we could tell was that it wasn't quite up to tempo (meaning she played around 140 beats per minute rather than the prescribed 160)! The piece is not only a study in contrast between order and chaos (or order and freedom, depending on one's perspective), but techically it is an etude for using the pedals (like the Crumb, for that matter).

My partner and I got some coaching on the two piano Feldman pieces, including some debate about whether to play them on one or two pianos (we've decided on two so that we can both use the pedals independently). From hallway conversations I see that I am not the only student at this session who finds more of an emphasis on chamber music than in past years. A number of students here are repeaters, and the change in emphasis is pronounced even over last year. It is a tribute to Drury's success at getting together musicians and composers, established and novice, for this educational experience.

Drury also gave the evening recital, a set of four pieces that spanned the entire range of contemporary piano language. The opening work was Nacht Klänge by Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa, a sparse and short work of hard notes generating unusual resonance on various other open strings. The second piece was Jo Kondo's A Dance for Piano "Europeans", the only piece on tonight's program that was entirely played on the keyboard. It reminded me a little bit of the Satie nocturnes that Aki Takahashi played on Monday, but Kondo later said that the piece was a Schoenberg study, specifically on Schoenberg's Klavierstücke, op. 33.

The two last pieces were massive and imposing studies on alternate piano resonance. Helmut Lachenmann's stunning Serynade covered so much sonic territory, starting with big clusters whose resonance slowly diminished to a single note through a gradual dampening of the strings, through all kinds of gestures that triggered strange pedal harmonics. The final piece for the evening was a recent work by John Zorn with the odd title Fay Ce Que Vouldras, sort of old French for "Do What You Will." Drury moved the music stand to the center of the piano so he could get to the strings, which included not only playing the strings directly, but the application of glass (a large two-cup measurer) and some other kind of mute. It showed that Cage's piano preparations aren't dead, that it's still an active device that produces new and interesting results. I followed Zorn's music for many years in projects like his various soundtracks, Masada (a jazz project based on Jewish melodies) and Naked City (a thrash-rock combo), but it has been a while since I heard something new from him. His composition tonight showed considerable drama and lots of unusual sonic techniques, a very impressive piece.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

SICPP, day two

Day two at the New England Conservatory's Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice (SICPP). Aki Takahashi taught the master class this morning, which included three selections from Giacinto Scelsi's Suite No. 10, Toshi Ichiyanagi's Piano Media, and two works by Morton Feldman, Last Pieces and Extensions 3 (which Takahashi played in last night's recital). All four works were impressive, and Takahashi's comments were both directed at the performers and included anecdotes about the composers. Scelsi composed at the piano by awaiting divine inspiration, then turning on the tape recorder and having his assistant transcribe the results. He compared the last piece in the suite, a thundering and violent work, to a sword fight in complete darkness. Ichiyanagi heard a professor use a computer to play Mozart, so he wrote Piano Media in response, in an attempt to simulate very fast and mechanical playing. It's an extremely difficult piece, with the right hand playing a constant motoric rhythm while the left hand plays various cycles of different lengths. Takahashi had three days between the completion of the composition and its first performance! The student who performed Feldman's Last Pieces, where the duration of the notes is unspecified, played completely by memory, such a beautiful performance that Takahashi was left momentarily speechless. But for both Last Pieces and Extensions 3 she talked about Feldman's use of the half pedal to keep the pieces in a cloud of sound, almost comparable to sound masses in pieces like Herma by Iannis Xenakis (whom Feldman very much admired).

I mentioned yesterday that the focus of the program is on collaborative works, and today I got some scores for some of Feldman's works for two pianos. Another student and I will pick a couple of these to play for Saturday's iditarod, probably Piano Four Hands from 1958, one of Feldman's quiet, regular and very calming pieces. A couple of his two piano works are graph pieces, where he used graph paper to indicate a high, medium or low register and how many notes were to appear in each. Universally regarded as requiring more than three days rehearsel.

The evening concert was more chamber music tonight. The opening piece was Brian Ferneyhough's Terrain, a mini-concerto for violin (played by Callithumpian Consort member Gabriela Diaz) and chamber ensemble (the rest of the Consort) and conducted by Steve Drury. Ferneyhough's music is uncompromising, massively difficult for all players, and the ensemble played the piece superbly. Then SICPP faculty member Louis Goldstein played a new work by Andrew Estel, Scrape the Colour, based on a poem by H.D. The piece was impressionistic, full of quiet clusters and soft runs, reminding me almost of Debussy. But any tranquillity was dispelled by a world premiere by composer Nicholas Vines, Terraformation, played by Yukiko Takagi. Like the Ferneyhough, massively difficult and highly virtuosic, the four-movement sonata has a few quiet moments in the third movement (a passacaglia entitled Cyanophyte Primares) but otherwise was very intense, full of dramatic gestures, very difficult to absorb in a single sitting. Takagi looked exhausted and relieved afterwards, justifiably so, given the performance she had just given.

After the intermission, SICPP pianist Steve Olsen joined clarinetist Michael Norsworthy and cellist David Russell for a performance of Helmut Lachenmann's Allegro Sostenuto. The ensemble worked with Lachenmann when he was in residence at Harvard this past spring, and this was the second time this year they have performed the piece. It was quite simply stunning. Full of small, delicate sounds and all kinds of extended techniques from all three players, it is the epitome of the kind of work that should be heard live. Seeing the players interact and hearing the unusual sounds that cannot be duplicated in a recording, the full house got a real treat tonight. There was a discussion on Kyle Gann's blog a while back about new music ensembles wanting midi files for new pieces. Lachenmann would be out in the cold today.  It would be unimaginable to render Allegro Sostenuto as a midi file.  The piece was a perfect ending to another day in what is becoming an increasingly humbling, albeit exhilarating experience.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

SICPP, day one

This week I'm in Boston for the annual Summer Institute for Contemporary Piano Performance (aka SICPP, pronounced 'SICk PuPpies') festival at the New England Conservatory — except that its success has gathered a larger contingent of new music performers and composers, and the festival has expanded beyond the boundaries of eighty-eight keys to encompass percussion and voice, and it now entitled the Summer Institute of Contemporary Performance Practice. Led by new music maverick Stephen Drury, the piano faculty also comprises Louis Goldstein and Yukiko Takagi, with special guest Aki Takahashi. Jo Kondo is the composer-in-residence, and there are a number of composer attendees among the forty-some-odd attendees. Most of the instrumentalists have come to perform in small chamber ensembles, which will be performed at a lengthy concert on Saturday afternoon (which Drury calls the SICPP iditarod), an appropriate conclusion for all the sick puppies.

Drury assured the pianists that their instrument still forms the core of SICPP, demonstrated by a daily piano master class. He led today's class, where students played A Chance Happening by Mike Winter, two Techno Etudes by Karen Tanaka (both contemporary Los Angeles composers), Helmut Lachenmann's early work Five Variations on a theme by Schubert, and I played Takemitsu's Rain Tree Sketch II. Although Drury led the classes, Louis Goldstein and most class members contributed to the discussions.

One of the highlights of the festival is the nightly concert programs, which led off tonight with a recital by Aki Takahashi. Reputed to have been Morton Feldman's favorite pianist, the program included several works that were written for her (and which she played from what looked like original manuscripts). She opened with three gentle nocturnes by Erik Satie, lovely pieces that all sounded similar to each other. I was only able to distinguish the pieces when she turned the pages on her score (she played with music for all the pieces on the program). Her second piece was an amazing rendition of an early Feldman work, Extensions 3. Feldman's trademark soft notes wandered around for a while, sometimes briefly settling into obsessive repetitive patterns. There were a couple of loud and fast passages near the end, suddenly bringing the listener's attention back to the music in an immediate and visceral way.

The next pieces were by two of our grand masters, composers with recent associations with SICPP, Christian Wolff (who was present for the concert) and Frederic Rzewski. She played a relatively recent Wolff work, Pianist: Pieces, a suite in five sections. There were no program notes, and I'm not familiar with this set, so it is difficult to say to what degree the works are determined. Many of Wolff's early piano works leave the pitch values undetermined, but from a distance, it looked like a conventional score. The sections contrasted with each other, sometimes emphasizing melodic lines, or more modernist textures. Rzewski's piece was from the Hyper Beatles collection that she recorded in 1990, A Short Fantasy on "Give Peace a Chance". The signature melodic figure appears in various guises throughout, culminating in a straightforward and beautiful harmonization. It seemed like an appropriate statement for the times.

The next two pieces were by Japanese composers, Les Yeux Clos I by Toru Takemitsu and Tango Mnemonic by Jo Kondo. Takemitsu's piece is from his modernist period, complex gestures across the keyboard. Kondo's piece is quiet and elliptical, barely recalling the dance for which it was named. For the program's conclusion, Takahashi was joined by three string players (violin, cello and bass) and conductor Drury for a beautiful and committed performance of Morsima-Amorsima by Iannis Xenakis. The work, composed in the early 1960s, was sparser than many of the more familiar Xenakis compositions, full of string glissandi, notes that started on one instrument and resonated through the others. It was a superb conclusion to a great concert.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Open performers

Open forms is one of the most significant new developments in composition since World War II, where notable aspects of a score are left unspecified. The transition was subject to a lot of polemics in the early years, as different composers and schools tried to differentiate their work from the (usually less worthy) efforts of their contemporaries. An early example of an open form is Karlheinz Stockhausen's Klavierstück XI, composed in 1956, which had 19 fully composed fragments spread over a single large page, played in whatever order they caught the performer's eye. Purely graphic scores existed even earlier (such as Earle Brown's December 1952). Europeans liked the pattern of fragmentary composition (or maybe it was just piano composers), with works for piano like Henri Pousseur's Caractères, Pierre Boulez' Troisième Sonate pour piano, among others.

There are lots of ways to open up a composition, and figuring out how to group a bunch of fragments was only the beginning. I recently encountered a Thomas DeLio's book on the subject, Circumscribing the Open Universe. Compiled in 1984 and dealing exclusively with American composers, the book collects five essays from the early 1980s with an introduction, covering the following five compositions: Variations II by John Cage; Durations 3, #3 by Morton Feldman; For 1, 2, or 3 People by Christian Wolff; in memoriam... Esteban Gomez by Robert Ashley; and Music for Pure Waves, Bass Drum and Acoustic Pendulums by Alvin Lucier. DeLio's descriptions of the works are uniformly illuminating. He provides illustrations of the scores, including the composers' instructions for interpreting the unusual notations.   

Only the Feldman is printed on staff paper — the others are all graphic or text scores.  Feldman's piece is open because after the initial note, each player is free to go at their own speed.  Wolff dispenses with notes altogether and composed gestures and group interactions in a unique notation.  Ashley's piece, for any quartet, slowly evolves a reference sonority, varying pitch, intensity, timbre and density through careful listening.  Although there is a simple graphic with the piece, most of the information is in the accompanying text.  Lucier's piece exists both as a concert piece or as an installation and is an exploration of the properties of pure sound.  Again, although there are some diagrams with the piece to show how the pendulums interact with the drums, the score is basically text-based.  Cage's piece, which David Tudor recorded using contact microphones and the inside of the piano, is nothing more than some dots and lines on clear lucite, which the performer uses to create a score.  Of all the pieces discussed here, it's more of a recipe for making a score than a score itself.

The essays all illustrate some aesthetic principle from another field (such as literature or plastic arts), then show how it applies to the musical work in question. DeLio's choices of related artworks is highly personal and frankly, leaves me in a state of puzzlement. Confronted with a work in open form, we naturally seek a metaphorical explanation for our response because the work is unlike the standard classical works that often follow a traditional unidirectional flow. Boulez compared his third piano sonata to a walk through a city, where everyone will take a different path. Mobiles are also a common metaphor for works like Stockhausen's Klavierstück XI because of the comparison with Alexander Calder's mobile sculptures.

But DeLio illustrates Christian Wolff's piece with Bruce Nauman's Performance Corridor, emphasizing that both works "externalize the experience of art." I have not seen Nauman's work except on video, but even there I felt claustrophobic and paranoid, and the commentary at the site above places the work in the context of surveillance and Big Brother. Wolff's composition seeks new forms of musical communication that are diametrically opposed to Nauman's unidirectional monitor, which forces the viewer into a straight line with no possibility of seeing anything but blank walls and his or her own wanderings.

I registered similar concerns in his discussion of Feldman. Durations 3 on the page is composed of chords played simultaneously by the three instruments, but the performers are permitted to move at different tempos (this is what makes the work open), so listeners may not hear the chords as such. DeLio's metaphor for this piece is the very creation of the work of art, as if all of the sketches and drafts are on display as part of the piece. As an observation, this doesn't differ much from the gradual perception of form in many static pieces, which appear out of nowhere, often starting from silence or a single sonority. But his analysis shows how well the form is prepared, which seems contradictory to its creation ex nihilo. In addition, the continuities that DeLio describes assume that the performers all play more or less together, which they do on Michael Vogt's recording on ReR, but not on the Turfan Ensemble's recording on Mode. DeLio's analysis illuminates how Feldman may have composed the piece, but in performance the traits that he highlights may become blurred.

Some of my confusion about DeLio's analyses stems from his adoption of the composer's perspective.  Typically, an analysis approaches a piece from the perspective of an ideal listener, bringing about audible details of a piece and showing how they fit into the big picture.  A listener can grasp the form in most nineteenth century classical works relatively easily, and many work conform to a standard form (such as a theme and variations, sonata form, rondo, etc.). But in most cases, the open form work does not present itself to the listener as such — it's only on multiple listenings of different versions that the open nature becomes apparent. Stockhausen actually specifies in the instructions to Klavierstück XI that "this piano piece should if possible be performed twice or more in the course of a programme," and many pianists have obliged by including multiple versions on a single CD. For works on a larger scale, or works whose openness is deeper than simply what catches the eye, multiple performances may be neither possible nor desirable.

The real audience of an open work is the performer, who must make decisions that performers ordinarily don't need to make. Wolff's piece is all about performer coordination and interaction, even allowing for certain actions to be taken in response to unintentional sounds (i.e., mistakes), which the more standard classical technique doesn't acknowledge. Similarly, Ashley's piece requires four performers (instrumentation unspecified) to listen closely to each other and modify their playing according to the rules defined in the piece. The source materials in Cage's Variations II are so rudimentary that a considerable amount of planning and forethought must precede any performance. DeLio's analyses target the process of composition and illuminate the work of the composer, but the nature of an open work is to target the performer. Typically an invisible conduit between the genius of the composer and the willing audience receptacles, the performers in open works must change their ways of preparing, listening, and even playing their instruments.

Stockhausen recognized this essential nature of open form in works like Spiral for a soloist, instrument unspecified. In Spiral, the performer finds events on a short wave radio and responds to them in various prescribed manners, culminating in the direction to "transcend beyond the limits of the playing/singing technique that you have used up to this point and then also beyond the limitations of your instrument/voice.… From this point retain what you have experienced in the extension of your limits, and use it in this and all future performances of Spiral."

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Unread books?

TerminalDegree (via Musical Perceptions) has a blogospheric meme of the top 100 books marked as unread by LibraryThink, a web-based social book organization site. There are some really great books on this list, which makes me want to check out some of the ones I haven't read.  

The meme is to bold the books I've read, underline the titles I read for school, and italicize the books I started and didn't finish. School was a long time ago, but I was a French major, and there aren't a lot of French books on this list.  I spent many years in a superb book club in Cincinnati (connected with Christ Church Cathedral) where we read a lot of these, which I marked with an asterisk.
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
  • Anna Karenina
  • Crime and Punishment
  • Catch-22*
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude*
  • Wuthering Heights
  • The Silmarillion
  • Life of Pi: A novel*
  • The Name of the Rose*
  • Don Quixote
  • Moby Dick*
  • Ulysses
  • Madame Bovary* (read in college and again in the book club)
  • The Odyssey
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Jane Eyre
  • The Tale of Two Cities
  • The Brothers Karamazov
  • Guns, Germs, and Steel
  • War and Peace
  • Vanity Fair
  • The Time Traveler's Wife*
  • The Iliad
  • Emma
  • The Blind Assassin
  • The Kite Runner*
  • Mrs. Dalloway
  • Great Expectations
  • American Gods
  • A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (most irritating book in living memory)
  • Atlas Shrugged
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran*
  • Memoirs of a Geisha*
  • Middlesex*
  • Quicksilver
  • Wicked: The life and times of the wicked witch of the West (at first I bolded this, but what I read (and loved) was the book on which Wicked was based, Was by Geoff Ryman.)
  • The Canterbury Tales
  • The Historian : a novel
  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
  • Love in the Time of Cholera*
  • Brave New World
  • The Fountainhead
  • Foucault's Pendulum
  • Middlemarch
  • Frankenstein
  • The Count of Monte Cristo
  • Dracula
  • A Clockwork Orange
  • Anansi Boys
  • The Once and Future King
  • The Grapes of Wrath
  • The Poisonwood Bible*
  • 1984
  • Angels & Demons
  • Inferno
  • The Satanic Verses*
  • Sense and Sensibility
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray
  • Mansfield Park
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
  • To the lighthouse
  • Tess of the D'Urbervilles
  • Oliver Twist
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
  • Dune
  • The Prince
  • The Sound and the Fury
  • Angela's Ashes: A memoir*
  • The God of Small Things*
  • A People's History of the United States : 1492-present
  • Cryptonomicon
  • Neverwhere
  • A Confederacy of Dunces*
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything
  • Dubliners
  • The Unbearable lightness of Being
  • Beloved
  • Slaughterhouse-Five
  • The Scarlet Letter
  • Eats, Shoots & Leaves
  • The Mists of Avalon
  • Oryx and Crake
  • Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed
  • Cloud Atlas
  • The Confusion (along with Quicksilver, part of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle.  Volume 2 (System of the World) isn't on this list, so I guess everyone is successfully reading the middle third.)
  • Lolita
  • Persuasion
  • Northanger Abbey
  • The Catcher in the Rye
  • On the Road
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame
  • Freakonomics: A rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An inquiry into values
  • The Aeneid
  • Watership Down
  • Gravity's Rainbow
  • The Hobbit
  • In Cold Blood: A true account of a multiple murder and its consequences
  • White Teeth
  • Treasure Island
  • David Copperfield