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Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Gene Pritsker, Maggots and Other Chamber Music


I've found the music of living composer Gene Pritsker to be progressive in the best sense, striving forward and fearlessly eclectic, originally wayward and waywardly original. Type his name  in the search box above and you'll see a fair number of reviews I've penned on his music. A new release by Gene is generally an event to my mind. That is especially true with the latest, Maggots and Other Chamber Music of Gene Pritsker (Composers Concordance Records COMCON0057). It is filled with adventure and daring, never content to stay in one place. 

It accents Classical Modernity by touching on multiple style sets. A fulcrum point is the central six movement "Berlin Suite," which takes up and updates Jazz inflected theatre music as practiced in pre-Nazi Germany by Weil, Krenek, Hindemith, etc. and given a forward push into the today we musically breathe in-and-out daily.

From there we get some very contemporary present-day equivalencies via Jazzed-Pop-Rock, Romantic-meets-Hip-Hop electrically inflected sounds and even a beautifully oblique Indian laced hybrid with sitar and string quartet on "The Most Incorrigible Vice." And that too has some strong roots in the anything-goes gestures in New Music with all manner of influences presented for our happy ears from a 21st Century analog to a Lou Harrison or a Frank Zappa.

Each of the generally short but concentrated works here, nine in all with two in multiple movements, each show a remarkably fluent ease of genre vocabulary that combines with the exploratory experimentalism of High Modernism as we know it, as it all sparkles and glitters with a translucency and poignant lucidity.

Free your mind of expectations and let the universal revisionism of everything possible take shape with continually surprising juxtapositions. This is music that in ordinary hands might be deemed "clever," but this is too good to be merely gesticular or anecdotal. It makes advanced and exceptional music out of a bold recombinatory logic.

Heartily recommended.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Chris Opperman, Chamber Music From Hell


Some music has clear forbearers yet covers its own ground in happy and original ways. One such is a recent album by composer Chris Opperman entitled Chamber Music From Hell (Purple Cow PCR-009). It's about a post-human world and its music. Robotic AI dialog of a haunting nature frames the musical program and gives us an alienated universe both chilling and poetically singular. 

The majority of compositions have a High Modernist tang, an orchestra texture similar in kind to Frank Zappa's later Synclavier Electronics, Then there is some stirring solo electric guitar and band on "Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?" featuring Mike Keneally on guitar, Opperman on Synclavier and a game rhythm team of Kurt Morgan on bass, Ryan Brown on drums. It reminds of classic later Zappa jams but then has its own distinct way.

Throughout the purely electronic blends with  a Rock presence and in the end one is very impressed with the outcome. The AI personas, some anyway, seem taken aback by the automatons in charge who have snuffed out their masters in an act of humane-ness. The music explores the drama of empty loss, I guess you could say, the chilling emptiness of the never-more.

A highlight is surely the finale, a 15-part "Cribbage Variations" (2017), a long intricate chamber work based on a tone row from Webern. The chamber ensemble amalgamates organic instruments with their synthesized equivalents, with some actual trombone and piano in parts that extend in good ways the aural palette.

The for-once-and-for-all virtual landscape that replaces humanity altogether seems much less fantastic, much less unbelievable than it might have in 1950. That atmospheric once you experience the unprecedented lockdown of the Pandemic seems analogous to what one may well be missing in the bricks-and-mortar decline, the increasing loss of society-as-experienced. Opperman creates a Futurism of AI characters and synthetic flowering that makes sense, amplifies the story line and gives us a High Modern chamber newness that owes such to the modernist past yet updates the possibilities for expression in this plunge into a virtuality existence we all know increasingly well, even though of course we are still INSIDE it all ourselves..

The music is original and ultra-expressive, varied and moving, filled with the futurist now, New Music of true distinction. If it follows in Zappa's footsteps it does so with originality. Very recommended.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Ives, Hauer, Stravinsky, Pepples, Satie, In Memoriam Paul Zukofsky; Aaron Likness, Andrew Zhou, Pianos


The virtual menagerie of musical fare that becomes available to a music reviewer like myself is in the times we now occupy not as near limitless as it perhaps once was. It is a matter of the Pandemic and the economic vagaries along with a music world that must adjust to a different situation and we do not necessarily know how that will end up of course. So all the more reason to take note and perk up when something quite excellent comes your way.

I must say that has happened with a new and very absorbing release In Memoriam Paul Zukovsky (CP2 128). It is a recording of the repertoire chosen by Paul Zukovsky for his last concert program at SUNY, featuring the twin pianos of Aaron Likness and Andrew Zhou. The concert was given the title "Mechanistic Music" and understandably that is key but with room for contemplation, as Maestro Zukofsky made us think and so here too for his parting gesture.

It all began when Paul Zukovsky became interested in the two-piano Craig Pepples composition "Monkeys at Play" (2013) and sent it to pianist Ursula Oppens who in turn suggested he introduce it to the piano duo of Aaron Likness and Andrew Zhou. And so began the process of formulating the program represented by this release and its general mood.

The Peeples work is given its world premiere recorded performance here and a fine thing it is. There is a wonderfully abstract mechanistic mood as we might expect. It is charming in its delightfully rugged, jagged presentation throughout its 20-minute sounding. It is delightfully brittle and the duo brings out its exploratory zeal just as we might hope for.

What ultimately became Zukofsky's  2017 memorial program gradually took shape as Zukovsky entered a last terminal stage of ill health. So the recording represents the final choices, which includes the rather obscure but no less absorbing "Zwolftonspiel" (1956) by Josef Matthias Hauer, here in its first recording.

Especially welcome is the Ives not well-known but no less wonderful "Impressions of the St. Gaudens in Boston Common" (1915) for a single piano (for the recording, Likness). There is the wonderfully mysterious Ives here and then a vague, poetic periodicity that we can feel as mechanistic, atypically so because Ives is Ives always. Beautiful music!

The wonderful Stravinsky 1944 "Sonata for Two Pianos" sounds as fresh as ever in the duo's hands. It is a vital reading and a major gem in the program.

And we conclude on a genuinely robotic yet most lively version of Milhaud's two-piano arrangement of Satie's "Cinema" From Relache (1924). We revel in this wonderfully toy-ful, playful reading that rivals the very best.

The subtlety of what Zukofsky groups together under "mechanistic" makes for something to contemplate. The Satie and Pepples are rather more overtly mechanistic than the Hauer, Ives, or Stravinsky. It is no doubt much to do with rhythmic density, and with Satie, repetition, but the Likness and Zhou dynamism and insistently urgent drive make it all a beautiful thing, The gleam of the shiny futuristic machines are not entirely about predictability, surely, but the presence of some future present presence as much as anything. The prescience of the earlier composers and the futurist nod of the later ones come together to make us think, to make us smile, to resurge through our aural senses with a considerable pleasure, all that.

Highly recommended.

Friday, September 18, 2020

John Luther Adams, Lines Made By Walking, JACK Quartet


John Luther Adams over time has impressed me as one of the singular voices, one of the true originals in so-called Minimalism and Radical Tonality today. The wonderfully accomplished JACK Quartet expands our grasp of the composer with a program of two string quartets on Lines Made By Walking (Cold Blue C80058). Featured are two recent works, the title work from 2019 and "untouched" from 2016.

The subtle beauty of these Adams works are in the way they self-create themselves. not through mesmerizing or trance inducing but rather creating clockwork overlaps that serve to create mobiles in sound--a sort of geographics of aural space for the title cut and a lingering intervalic immersion in fundamentals that point to a timeless origin in "untouched." As with the best Adams works there is a pronounced organic natural ambiance to be savored and the JACK Quartet show us they know how to project the whole in a magically living resonance or sonic luminescence and transcendence.

It is another very worthy Cold Blue release, a triumph of great performances and cutting-edge composition. If you want to get a handle on what is very new in New Music out there it is a CD you'll want to have and hear in depth. Kudos!

Thursday, September 17, 2020

PEP, Piano and Erhu Project, Volume Three, Nicole Ge Li and Corey Hamm


A most unusual and rewarding Vancouver-based duo called PEP, or The Piano and Erhu Project, returns for a Volume Three (DMR Discs TK 474). It is the potent and accomplished pairing of Nicole Ge Li on the traditional Chinese bowed erhu and Corey Hamm on piano. Their artistry is nothing short of superb and the choice of works genuinely inspired.

Something remarkable is the intensive focus mostly on Western Modern Classical possibilities, much of it in the realm of the new. 

There are a number of specially commissioned works. They are notable and memorable. Somei Satoh, Lucas Oickle, and Gao Ping's six movement "Ho Yan" from 2017 has tremendous rhythmic vitality and a very attractive and dramatic Chinese-meets-Modern-Classical orientation. The piano is partly prepared and at times keys are dampened to get a percussive frisson going that is taken up in turn dramatically by Nicole Ge Li, Other movements have an expressive pungency, rhapsodic heat and/or a lyrical corner that contrast well as a sequence. 

Another high point of the commissions is the Michael Finnissy "Sorrow and its Beauty," which soars meditatively and with a probing poignancy. It haunts and the erhu tone color shines with luminescence thanks to Nicole's expressive brilliance.

Marc Mellits' "Mechanically Separated Chicken Parts" is a rousing minimalist oriented romp that invigorates as it moves with a most pleasing zeal.

Chatman's "Remember Me Forever" combines stunning prepared piano sonics with a very rich-toned erhu part that straddles global possibilities with poetic genuineness.

The program reaches its penultimate stage with Gabriel Prokofiev (Sergei's grandson) and a nicely constructed and songfully projective "Three Pieces for Erhu and Piano" (2015). Lyrical passages contrast with rhythmically energetic sojourns that put the duo through its paces ravishingly.

A fantastic way to end is with Sergei Prokofiev's erhu-piano rendition of his Scherzo from the "Sonata for Flute" (later he did a version for violin and piano). The intricate solo part and beautifully energized piano seconding come through remarkably well and confirm Nicole Se Li as a true world-class virtuoso and Corey Hamm as a worthy counterpart. This is excitement made vitally alive!

The program chimes in as a whole most remarkably. I will leave it to you to explore the pieces for yourself--I should also mention another one by Marc Mellits  All are worth your time surely and good examples of the Tonal Modern world that is part of the current scene. Nicole Ge Li and Corey Hamm make a vivid impression as they impress with their high artistry from first to last.

It is in every way a superior program and a marvelous showcase for the artists and the works the two make their own. It is as fine a meeting of East and West these days as you might hear, really a landmark disk. Li and Hamm give notice--they are not to be missed. Kudos!

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Larry Polansky, These are the Generations

It is sometimes easy to forget but every composer's oeuvre in an avid listener's cycle came to present itself to her/him more or less one or two works at a time. Each piece of one's avid listening is a kind of praxis that maintains itself by the experience of hearing and re-hearing. So with Larry Polansky (b. 1954) for me. If you type his name in the blog search box above you will see I have previously heard and reviewed two volumes of his music on these pages. I liked them much. They were post-Minimal works in a Radical Tonality vein, well done.

I am happy to report a new volume just out, These are the Generations (New World 80819-2), a furtherance of the Polansky opus with six works that span the period 1985 (initial version of two works) through to 2019. Not all, but many are mainly diatonic and they also occupy a sort of post-ambient space, too.

The title work "Eleh Tol'd'ot (These are the generations..)" (985/2017) is one of the more remarkable of all the works here. It is a most pleasingly elaborate sonance for four marimbas.

My personal favorite, "22 Sounds" for percussion quartet is a wonderfully contrapuntal carpet for tuned drums, metallic instruments, etc. It gives us endlessly engaged, continual event making and I am happy to put it on often right now.

The "five songs for kate and vanessa" (2019) is a lyrical foray of a touching tonal ritual essence for Kate Stenberg on violin, Vanessa Ruorolo on cello and for two of the five movements, Amy Beal on piano. Each movement occupies its own space--either somewhat startlingly (with "corner cows" and its folk lyric) or as slowly and painfully beautiful (as in "courante"). The finale, a timeless folkish "jig" gives us something to reflect upon as the concluding movement.

I will forgo any more of the blow-by-blow descriptions of every work because they each form wholes that have a specially personal quality--and they are of course best experienced as music. I've given you an idea so you might know what to expect and that I hope is sufficient.

Polansky refuses to be pigeonholed in this program. Every work follows its own muse. The sum total makes for a fine listening experience indeed. I recommend this by all means.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Gyorgi Ligeti, Desordre, Etudes Pour Piano, Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano, Eric Huebner

Desordre is the title given to pianist Eric Huebner's  album of Ligeti works (New Focus Recordings FCR 269). So then, "disorder."  It's all about several multi-part works that mark Ligeti's early '80s change in stylistic focus. The liner notes to the current album describe how Ligeti had tried to return to Hungary from exile and establish himself as a composer rooted in Hungarian identity.

When that did not take he changed his aims decidedly with the 1982 "Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano,"  which went in a sort of deliberate multi-directionality that included a re-thinking of Romanticism to suit Ligeti's intentional  diffuseness, suggested at first blush with the 19th century poet Eichendorff and the sounding of a natural horn from a mysterious fairytale of forest and storybook expression. It related to Ligeti's experience of hearing the alpenhorn in the mountains of his childhood. It captured a feeling of homesickness, suggest the liners,  more so than one of national pride or feeling for the homeland, instead a feeling more of displacement, perhaps.

The chronologically following two books of "Etudes Pour Piano" in turn were inspired by the piano works of Chopin, Scarlatti, Schumann and Debussy. It was from the pianistic and virtuoso qualities of their concepts of playing that Ligeti found new inspiration, something that these magnificent Etudes reformulate in their own very original way.

And so we have in this program very poetic and pristinely clear performances of some extraordinarily complex and widely influenced works. The liners mention in addition to what I've brought up above the additional influences of Eastern European folk, plus Jazz harmonic and piano stylistic aspects from Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk. Finally we feel the weight of sensory-motor mechanics as a nexus of piano and pianist with compositional inerventions that heighten drama and create a marvelous sense of motility that has its own original kind oi virtuosity and still sounds completely Modern in the capital /M/ way.

Pianist Eric Huebner and his associates for the trio--Yuki Numata Resnick on violin and Adam Unsworth on horn--all furnish the realization of this extraordinary music with a sure sense of meaningful phrasing, of a gestalt wholeness that makes perfect sense of the totality of expression.

Very recommended.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Quinsin Nachoff, Pivotal Arc, Nathalie Bonin, Molinari String Quartet

Musical creativity when going right is like a liquid that flows outward and downward from a starting point, filling in where there is space for it. So that is the case for the music of Quinsin Nachoff on his recent album Pivotal Arc (Whirlwind Recordings WR4761). It features three compositions that dwell nicely in the interstices between Progressive Jazz and New Music.Classical. What makes it especially worthwhile is the easy-going compatibility between the two forms, mediated by a kind of folk-world melodic flow and a creative immediacy that marks it as something new.

Quinsin plays a very limber and lively tenor sax which we hear most winningly on the title work. That piece also gives productive solo time to bassist Mark Helias and drummer Satoshi Takeishi, and so also vibraphonist Michael Davidson. All this is set against some very adventuresome writing for a big band/chamber orchestra of winds and strings conducted by JC Sanford.

The big band gets into a folk dance, Piazzola-like idiom and also a sort of advanced straight post-funk in a Dave Holland or M-Based related furtherance that allows violinist Nathalie Bonin to shine forth in a nicely wrought solo part. Beautiful stuff! The middle movement is a lovely landscape that the composer notes rightly is "where Berg meets Ellington!"

Finally we get an edgy String Quartet played with precision and enthusiasm by the Molinari String Quartet.

What startles then pleases is the breadth of absorption of multi-stylistic strands into a convincing series of wholes. There is a fully "authentic" and uncompromising nexus of both styles and performances are top notch. And the end results are fully original and well worth repeated hearings.

It is one of the best examples of what used to be called "Third Stream" that I've heard in a long while. Kudos to all involved!

Ian Venables, Requiem, Gloucester Cathedral Choir, Jonathan Hope, Adrian Partington

Living composer Ian Venables composed his Requiem (Somm Recordings 0618) in several stages between 2017 and 2018, initially at the request of his friends Bryce and Cynthia Somerville to commemorate their late mother Doreen. It was performed by the Choir of Gloucester Cathedral under Music Director Adrian Partington. The world premiere recording that we consider here features the same choir and director in a nicely recorded and moving performance.

The work shows a natural sympathy towards the satb sound possibilities and a general diatonic, lyrical manner which is well constructed and appealing. Organist Jonathan Hope realizes the instrumental part with subtlety and warmth  This is music that revels in consonance and concordance--yet it does not strike one as particularly backward looking.

As a bonus there are four additional short sacred choral works that supplement the program and further our ear pleasure--compositions by John Sanders (1933-2003), John Joubert (1927-2019), Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) (edited by Venables) and a final Venables capstone work that springs forward rhythmically and sends us off in happy ways..

This is a beautifully performed program. Kudos to the soloists and choir, kudos to the director, to the organist, to all involved. It is not a program of ultra-Modern things. Nor is it a deliberate stepping back. It is the very successful determination to craft a straightforward lyrical consonance that stands on its own feet and can take us on flights to musically memorable and uplifting heights.