issue 28 :: October 2017

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Modern Composition Reviews

Chaya Czernowin, Anthony Coleman, Ana-Maria Avram & Iancu Dumitrescu, Horatiu Radulescu, Ryan Choi, International Contemporary Ensemble, Mario Diaz de León, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Elliott Sharp, Joanna Brouk, Gloria Coates Charles Cohen
Chaya CzernowinPnima...ins Innere (Mode Records) DVD

While we await an official CD/DVD release of Czernowin’s 2017 opera Infinite Now, let’s rewatch her ponderous stage work Pnima...ins Innere, a wordless and spooky drama of an old man and young boy in a dilapidated room, confronting specters of the Holocaust. Off stage vocalists moan and cry giving voices to the two characters. The old man begins horrified and confused as to his presence in the room: why is he here? What can he do? What has he done to survive? Why can’t he leave? The boy enters, obvious and playing with a stick, bringing video projections that cover the room. Is the boy the man before the horrors of the war? Is he the new generation who can’t comprehend what happened so long ago? (the liner notes state the boy is the man's grandson, but this is not evident in the production, and I think it works better not knowing this). The two meet... can they communicate? The man can’t stand the horrors he endurred and exits—to where?—leaving the boy alone in the room. The music performed by the Munich Chamber Orchestra with live electronics and a handful of soloists, including Anthony Burr on clarinet and Mary Oliver on viola, seethes with intricate textures, startling silences, snaky entanglements with the vocalists. I am remind to revisit the work of Legit’s Aventures and Nono’s later works. The work is beautiful and chilling, I think you can find a version of the just the music, but the video, I think, is an integral part of the work. A long interview with Czernowin concludes the disc, discussing the genesis of the work.
Anthony ColemanYou (New World Records) CD

Following Pushy Blueness (2006), Lapidation (2008), and The End Of Summer (2013), enters Coleman’s next collection of creative chamber music compositions. Like his previous collections, the groups are all different, from a somber projection of the brass sextet, to two different piano solos played by Coleman (see interview this issue), to three different ensembles. Each piece has a distinctive mood to it. “Atropine” for piano, vibes (and other percussion), violin and cello weirdly shakes through jumbles of notes, as if each of the instruments are fighting to change the piece, and sometimes joining in a common direction. The sparse, floating solo piano work “Oogenera” is perhaps my favorite, slow and slyly tickling the ears, sometimes forgetting to be slow, a chord pounded out, a series of notes rush pass. The title track for sextet of piano , saxophones, clarinet, cello, percussion, possesses a more unified path, but still weirdly fragmented, Doug Wieselman’s clarinet used to great effect. Sections start and stop, lost in a maze. Coleman uses juxtaposition, flase starts, sections that sound together connected by baffling interludes that make me want to go back and figure out how one part turned into another. There is a wonderful complexity of simplicity thoughout the record: look at Amy Sillman’s artwork which adorns the cover. What is it? I see shapes and colors, but... it’s a perfect artwork to accompany these unique sound works.
Ana-Maria Avram & Iancu DumitrescuLive in Israel & Live in Israel - CD (II) (Edition Modern) CD & CD

* Ana-Maria Avram and Iancu Dumitrescu have presented their extraordinary music in Israel a few times, and these related releases document two performances in 2011, performing with the same group of Israeli musicians, and guest Stephen O’Malley from Sunn O))). The music over both discs continue their radical cauldron of composition, ultra-subtle textures from acoustic instruments, explosive eruptions of noise, unusual additions from computers or electronics. Both of their works feel like they are forever attempting to achieve a perfect mystical union of instruction and performance, relying on bass clarinetists, double-bassists, cellists, percussionists and other instruments to activate their familiar but still exciting pathways. In addition to the usual cast of chamber instruments, accordion and no-input mixing board are used in these performances. So much is asked of the musicians, so many extended techniques are demanded out of the instruments, their concerts for musicians outside of their Hyperion Ensemble must be a crash course in arcane sound procedures. It’s not enough to play the notes written, but there is always a particular effect to the playing, often made in chaotic conjunction with the other players. Dumitrescu’s “Plutonian Frenzy (Free Music)” doesn’t sound “free,” still the intense bowing of strings, high-pitched squeals, rumbling percussion are used, paced to slowly seethe and startle. Some of the pieces we have heard before on other releases; here Dumitrescu’s computer music projection of “Galaxy” pairs with O’Malley’s electric guitar, blurring the boundaries between the two. We are offered two versions of Avram’s “Textures Liminales,” one for ensemble with computer and one with just the computer music. Is one better than the other? No, unless you want to focus on the computer music part, a bubbling mass of heavily-processed blips and whines. There is so much activity that goes on in their records, words seem inadequate.

Either/Or @ Columbia University, rehearsing Dumitrescu’s “Black Holes’ Collision” March 2016

Ana-Maria Avram passed away early August, 2017. I do not know any details of what happened. I feel privileged to have worked with her over the years in correcting the interviews I transcribed with her and Iancu, being able to ask a few follow up questions. She was always generous with her time. Meeting her and Iancu in person for the first in New York in 2016 was a pleasure; they were as happy to see me as I was to see them. As a musician and a fan, it is always gratifying to find out that the people whose music I admire are also people I admire. I was going to interview Ana-Maria or both of them during our stay in New York, but they were feeling sick from the travel and change in climates; we could always do an interview via Skype or email. That interview never happened. Say nasty things about Facebook if you will, but I feel it is useful for developing friendships across oceans. I will miss her musings and concerns for her pets and wildlife around their home, and miss her spirit and musical energy. Luckily for us, her music has been well-documented and is rich enough to sustain repeated listenings for years to come.

Horatiu RadulescuPiano Sonatas & String Quartets 1 (Mode Records) CD

The only Radulescu I have in my collection is the LP on Editions RZ that feature his sound icons, pianos turned on their sides and bowed. I’ve heard more of his music in passing, but this record, the first in a series to release all of his piano sonatas and string quartets, is the second on my shelves. The string quartet, No. 5, titled “before the universe was born,” is a beautiful arrangement of harmonics and piercing shards, the four instruments creating a single chaotic mass of shimmering microtones. Perfect and crystaline, and immense in size and structure. The string quartet comes with a mystical prose poem of 29 linesThe biggest difference between the two piano sonatas are the titles of each’s subsections, No. 2 has short titles, and No. 5 has long poetic, e.g. “The Path Into The Light Seems Dark.” Both seem to fill similar rythmic and harmonic territories, I am not sure I could discern between the two pieces, they both seem to flow between patterns of notes. It makes sense to include these two on the same disc, if you were initially concerned about the non-consecutive numbers of the sonatas appearing on the same release. The complete set of string quartets and piano sonatas will prove to be a monumental achievement.
Ryan ChoiThree Dancers (Accretions) CD

* Playing the baritone ukulele in an intense flurry of percussive planks, Choi makes the instrument sound more like a banjo or detuned guitar. Derek Bailey and Philip Gayle are the two players who leap into my mind as I listen to these three pieces. A jazz-like virtuosity simmers throughout. A strange knocking percussion (“wooden box” claims the liner notes) during “Apollon at Eros” (overdubbed? foot-tapped?) contributes a claustrophobic echo. The title track concludes an equally frantic and spasmodic climax. These dancers must be miming epileptic fits. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Choi’s Chagallish cover drawing is the score for one of these pieces. The music almost over stimulates my ears.
International Contemporary EnsembleOn the Nature of Thingness (Starkland) CD

* I’ve written this before, but one of the rewarding aspects of Monk Mink Pink Punk is receiving records from around the world, records I probably would never notice otherwise, and I do hope that my readers will themselves listen to music they would not otherwise listen. Take a chance on something new! This record featuring works by Phyllis Chen and Nathan Davis is a perfect example. Both composers are fascinated by stretching the tones of the piano and related instruments into new territories, as well as adding untraditional instruments into the chamber ensemble. First, Chen’s lyrical pieces: “Hush” is a quiet etude for pianos and toy piano played by Chen and Cory Smythe that cannot help but recall Cage’s work for the piano in the 1940s. Like Cage’s inventive and deceptively simple works, rhythmic patterns and clangy sounds frolic among Chen’s more elaborate melodic runs. The piece ends with a lullaby on glockenspiel-like notes (the toy piano? a music box?). Her “Shimers” expands the duo into a quintet, with everyone playing tuning forks in addition to clarinet, violin, toy glockenspiel, toy piano. It is a wonderful whismy or new textures. Both Chen and Davis offer pieces for solo instrument with tape or live electronics, flute in one case and bassoon in the other. Davis’s “On Speaking a Hundred Names” for bassoon played by Rebekah Heller uses a small echo effect to suggest two different players. the echos are most pronounced during an unusually foghornish smiddle section and a slow drone ending that uses overtones to mimic a digeredoo.The closing piece is Davis’ “On the Nature of Thingness” for a chamber ensemble of thirteen, most doubling on jaw harps, Soprano Tony Arnold either sings or speaks poetry or Kurt Schwitters-easque nonsense chanting. “What is Dada? Only the heart of words!” This collection covers a lot of ground and manages to escape being just another set of modern chamber pieces.
Mario Diaz de LeónThe Soul Is The Arena (Denovali Records) CD

I was happy to meet de León after the New York concert of Iancu Dumitrescu in which he played electric guitar on the closing number “Unstable Molecules.” The three pieces on his own record combine chamber instruments with synthesizers and other electronics in creative ways that will appeal to people with multi-genre listening habits. “Luciform” stresses the differences between Claire Chase’s flute and almost morbid electronic drones and a fast-paced fluttery electric organ sound. Unpredictable and exciting, the piece brings up feeling of loss and regret to me. The shortest work, “The Soul is the Arena” for Joshua Rubin’s bass clarinet and synthesizer, is the noisiest, with electronic pulses bordering on the annoying and with a greater connection between the two instruments. At times it seems they are playing from the same scored part. The two soloists return with other chamber players for the twenty-minute “Portals Before Dawn,” opening with piano and winds dancing around an electronic drone. These drones, sometimes taken up by the acoustic instruments, form the backbone of the work. Slow moving and funneled through narrow harmonic pathways, small motifs stand out, at times resembling a work by Ravel that has been shattered and hung off the drone spine. De León’s previous record of compositions, made with some of these same performers, appeared on Tzadik Records, which is perfectly fitting with his eclectic and bold style merging melodic material with modern electronic sounds.
Karlheinz StockhausenAus Den Sieben Tagen (Zeitkratzer Productions) CD

“Aus Den Sieben Tagen” was a series of text works Stockhausen composed in 1968 that call upon musicians’ intuition and interpretation skills. These are the notorious pieces that call upon the musician to “Play a vibration in the rhythm of the universe” and “Live completely alone for four days / without food / in complete silence, without much movement / Sleep as little as necessary / Think as little as possible.” These pieces predate by a year the formation of Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra, who would compose works with similar instructions, but by 1968, text scores were old hat to the Fluxus group, John Cage and others. These unusual pieces of Stockhausen were, however, not the jubilant sarcastic neo-Dada of Fluxus, nor the communal group identity of the Scratch Orchestra, but were a serious, mystical exploration of sound and composing sparked by a mid-life crisis. The chamber group Zeitkratzer, who have previously performed Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, as well as records devoted to the works of John Cage, James Tenney, Alvin Lucier and others, team with Keiji Haino to perform short versions of five of these pieces. Haino performs as a vocalist here, breathing, growling and grunting. How to judge performances of these pieces? That’s not the “vibration of your smallest particle!” The rich, rewarding music bubbles and flows from these ten musicians, some of whom performed these same pieces, with similar time lengths on a 2011 Zeitkratzer recording without Haino. I assume this one with Haino is the one you want to hear, improvising on the extended techniques they know, sometimes playing closely together. The short “Intensität” explodes with screams and poundings. The longest piece, “Setz Die Segel Zur Sonne” slowly builds into a mass of rumbles and drones as the players try to play the instruction “Play a tone for so long until you hear its individual vibrations.” They never “arrive at complete harmony / and the whole sound turns to gold / to pure, gently shimmering fire,” this is more of a hard boil, tones and clusters bubbling off, but not at all a disappointment. You can also get a seven CD set of all the pieces in this work on Stockhausen’s private record label.
Elliott SharpThe Boreal (Starkland) CD

* The prolific Sharp composes a string quartet, a piano solo, and pieces for two larger ensembles for us. “The Boreal” played by the JACK quartet instructs the players to use special bows strung with tiny ball chains one may find connected to a bath tub stopper. This extreme form of con coglioni bowing creates an intense saw-like buzz. The work moves from this technique to insistent bowing on single notes, sometime mixing long slides on the strings with the percussive buzzes, never sitting among any of these moods for long. It’s a wonderful balance between extreme and more normal sounds. “Proof of Erdös” (a reference to the prolific mathematician and number theorist) expands the string players to twelve and focuses on the insistent, fast bowing of single notes, at times making beautifully structured chords. Both of these works were a pleasant surprise to me, not having heard any of Sharp’s works for years. A smart, inventive feeling runs through them. The three part piano solo “Oligosono” played by Jenny Lin opens with muted (through simple preparations) notes before sudden ringing chords surprise us. Much of the piece pounds out insistent repetitions of a few notes, as if trying to strike the perfectly-played note. In “On Corlear’s Hook” the piano continues from “Oligosono” with more nervous repetitions before meeting a large ensemble, the Janácek Philharmonic Orchestra. The brass-heavy group soon takes over with overly dramatic static chords erupting in our ears. This drama soon overpowers the piece, us, and the record. There are a few nice textures amidst all the bluster, but this mostly tired me, unlike the other three delightful works.
Joanna BroukHearing Music (Numero Group) 2xCD

Reissuing material released on cassettes in the early 1980s, including the similarly titled Healing Music and Sounds of the Sea, both from 1981, this collection displays’s Brouk’s quiet, thoughtful sonic meditations. Part a minimalist embrace of simplicity and part New Age dreamy reverbs, these pieces for solo piano and flutes float through simple chord forms, gently caressing our ears with subdued and pretty waves. Most of these pieces could easily fit within a tai chi or meditation class. But these are not the numbing fare of an Windham Hill record. “Playing in the Water” features a simulated call and response between flute and dolphin, the uncredited dolphin’s shrill squeals contrasting with the warm full sound of the flute. A few pieces explore synthesizers; “Diving Deeper, Remembering in Love,” and “Aurora” both have drone accompaniment to the the foreground flute and “Fire Breath” is a more out-there composition of science-fiction buzzes, blurbles and doppler-shift whines. “The Creative” also uses synths in conjunction with ringing, struck gongs to illuminate an eerie, otherworldly landscape. Maggi Payne is the only musician here whose name I recognize, playing flute on the the multi-part “Mary’s Watch.” With a few wordless vocal pieces, this shows Brouk’s range of creativity, or rather, musical creativity, as she did other things including poetry and visual arts. A well-deserved retrospective for a nearly forgotten composer and musician.
Gloria CoatesAt Midnight (Tzadik) CD

Coates has been composing for decades, specializing in an enticing avant-garde style that focuses heavily on microtones, sliding tones, and open strings. Her lucid ideas flow through many symphonies and string quartets, feeling too smart and clever to be on five CDs on the Naxos label, a budget classical music imprint. But if Tzadik can release the work of Charles Wuorinen and Milton Babbitt, certainly there is room for Coates’ crafted textures. The Naxos string quartets and symphonies are all I have heard, and the Tzadik release greatly expands the range of her work, including more traditional orchestra pieces, solo piano works and a work for two guitarists. “Dark Energy,” the first part of a 1975 suite, begins as dramatic Hollywood film music, a shocking revelation that she could compose such a work (similar to when I first heard Jani Christou’s early “Phoenix Music”) But the work ends with a beautiful violin solo, evoking Eastern European folk music. The second movement, “Mirror Manifolds” (a reference to a mathematical trick to turn complex, possibly six-dimentional, shapes into more manageable forms) embraces Coates’ slowly sliding string works, like someone slowly pressing a finger on a turntable playing Scelsi’s “Anahit.” The four-part work for piano solo, “Where the Eagle Flies” from 1971 surprises with slow, somber chords, deft, complex runs, and sudden silences, sometimes sounding like Charles Ives, sometimes like music from China. “Lunar Loops” for two acoustic guitars are fastly plucked while being tuned/detuned, like she is trying to describe a cloud of bees flying overhead, or maybe mathematical data, like the trajectories of bees flying overhead. “The Silver Eyed Soul” beautifully features emotive and explosive sections for piano and doublebass, never hinting at what turns it will take. Coates’ singular work should be more well-known.
Charles CohenA Retrospective (Morphine Records) CD

The only thing I knew about Cohen was from looking at the pricey LPs of his work that appeared at End of an Ear records. The packaging of the records implied he was a creative musician with a wide-ranging palette. For some reason I assumed he played cello (maybe I was thinking of Charles Curtis?). No, he plays mostly the Buchla Sound Easel synthesizer, and unlike the experimental chamber music I was expecting, these pieces, mainly from the years 1972 to 1983, produce series of proto-techno grooves, more interesting and varied than what this genre would become. Made for dancers, art shows and small theater works, and similar to the early sound works of Laurie Anderson, not totally noise or experimentation, but not pop/dance music by any stretch. At times the synthesizer invokes tuned hand percussion, and in “Conundrums,” these sounds have watery overtones. Two pieces were composed during a brief stay in El Paso, Texas (where Bill Thompson originates; maybe the very young if not neonatal Thompson heard these machine-like electroisms on local radio?) and these, along with “Tubbs,” play with layers of various percussive rhythms, seemingly all synthesizer generated. The simulated koto in “Sonomana” creates a delicate atmosphere, punctuated by by explosive fake cymbal crashes and ringing pseudo-bells. Some nice drones soak through “The Middle Distance” and “In Search of Sugary Foods,” but Cohen is more interested in harmonic and rhythmic ideas. A playful aspect permeates many of these pieces, like the bubbling pseudo-flute in “Blue Krishna.” Is it kitschy? Or just playfully using an ancient Chinese mood (or what us Americans think is a Chinese mood)? These works are a bridge between the harmonic studies of Subotnik’s Silver Apples... and Herbie Hancock’s Future Shock.
Reviews and photos by Josh Ronsen.
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