Thursday, May 28, 2009

According to David Gutman, Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1 occupies a special place in his output. The product of 1917, the year of Revolutions, it had its belated premiere in Paris in October 1923. The score is remote from conventional expectations of Romantic and virtuoso display. The work is scored with a precise economy of means, so that lean, translucent textures predominate despite the prominent part for tuba. As if the opening melody (conceived as early as 1915) were not magical enough, its recapitulation on solo flute (pp dolcissimo) with harp, muted strings and lightly running tracery from the soloist is quite ravishing, matched by the more elaborate return at the end of the finale. The central movement, a mercurial scherzo, gives the soloist ample opportunities for high jinks. Everywhere the flow of ideas is so spontaneous that the music seems to create its own form, an alloy of innocence and sophistication."

Written 50 years after Prokofiev's Concerto, Alfred Schnittke's score for the film The Commissar (1967) comes from a completely different sound world. The film itself traveled a tragic and rocky road before receiving the special prize of the jury and the Silver Bear at the Berlinale 1988 and four professional Nika Awards (1988). It was shot in the political climate of the post-Khrushchev thaw. From the outset of the production, censors forced the film director Aleksandr Askoldov to make major changes: 1967 was the year of the 50th anniversary of 1917 October Revolution and the events were to be presented in the Communist Party-mandated style of heroic realism. After making the movie, director Askoldov lost his job, was expelled from the Communist Party, charged with social parasitism, exiled from Moscow and banned from working on feature films for life. He was told that the single copy of the film had been destroyed. Mordyukova and Bykov, major Soviet movie stars, had to plead with the authorities to spare him of even bigger charges. The film was shelved by the KGB for twenty years. In 1986, due to glasnost policies, the "Conflict Commission" of the Soviet Film-makers Union recommended the re-release of the movie but the censors refused to act. After a plea from Askoldov at the Moscow Film Festival, the film was reconstructed and finally released in 1988. Check out the first scene - this week's Pytheas Sighting ...

Sit back, close your eyes and take in a Pytheas Earful of Elaine Fine's Serenade for Oboe and Strings (2007) [sorry, no longer available], presented at the University of Illinois and made available thanks to U of I's Media Center.

And don't be put off by the setting - an empty room with music propped up a clarinet case - for this week's FROM THE PYTHEAS ARCHIVES performance of the first of Stravinky's Three Pieces for Clarinet (1919). It's the music that counts!

Explore, Listen and Enjoy!
Vinny Fuerst
Pytheas Center for Contemporary Music

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Franz Waxwan's score for Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard won an Academy Award in 1950 for best film score. This "classic black comedy/drama is one of the darkest film-noir stories about 'behind the scenes' Hollywood, self-deceit, spiritual and spatial emptiness, and the price of fame, greed, narcissism and ambition" (Tim Dirks, AMC filmsite). Waxman's genius can be heard in the final scene from the movie - one of this week's New Music Videos.

This week's Featured Recording highlights two works by Morton Feldman: Rothko Chapel (1971) and Why Patterns? (1978). Regarding Rothko Chapel, Dániel Péter Biró writes:
"Morton Feldman composed Rothko Chapel as a tribute to his friend, the American painter, Mark Rothko. In 1971, at the request of the Menil Foundation of Houston, Texas, Rothko created an environment in which his 14 monumental paintings played a central role. These paintings act as objects on which all visitors to the Chapel, religious or non-religious, could use for meditation. The life and work of Morton Feldman was very similar to that of Mark Rothko. Both were of eastern European Jewish heritage; both were involved in creating a new form of abstract art; and both were motivated to discover the mystery of perception within art." Hear an excerpt from Rothko Chapel at Pytheas.

For those of you who haven't stumbled upon it, Pytheas has a Contemporary Music Concepts and Ideas Page, with information helpful to the understanding of contemporary composers and their music.

Here's an example of what you'll find there . . .
Experimental Music - A term introduced by composer John Cage in 1955. According to Cage "an experimental action is one the outcome of which is unforeseen" and he was specifically interested in completed works that performed an unpredictable action. In a broader sense, it has come to mean any music that challenges the commonly accepted notions of what music is. There is an overlap here with "avant-garde" music. David Cope describes experimental music as that, "which represents a refusal to accept the status quo."

And lastly, FROM THE PYTHEAS ARCHIVES brings us an excerpt from the dance work Amelia (2002) with music by David Lang and choreography by Édouard Lock. Lock says the piece is simply “about” pure dance; and indeed, it is a showcase for his distinctly individual choreographic style.

Explore, Listen and Enjoy!
Vinny Fuerst
Pytheas Center for Contemporary Music

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Vancouver is known as the "home" of acoustic ecology, due principally to the pioneering work of the World Soundscape Project. In the early 1970's, the World Soundscape Project, under the direction of R. Murray Schafer, launched a research project on the soundscape of Vancouver including the publication of a book and a recording. In the early 1990's, the School of Communication of Simon Fraser University, with the guidance of Barry Truax, undertook a "revisitation" of the Vancouver soundscape, including a research project to re-record the acoustic environment of Vancouver and compare changes in the soundscape over the years. This week we present a little snipet from Soundscape Vancouver (1996) which will change the way you listen to the world...

As part of the effort, here at Pytheas, to help make a connection to contemporary composers and their music, check out THE COMPOSER SPEAKS ON THE WEB. This new feature brings together web video and streaming audio of composers talking about themselves, their music and their ideas. This expands our current bi-weekly COMPOSER PORTRAIT feature, making these resources accessible in three ways:

(1) on individual COMPOSER PAGES
(for example at Glass on Glass)

Many people are familiar with Sergei Prokofiev's orchestral Suite from Lieutenant Kijé (1933). What most people do not know is that this music originated as the film score to Aleksandr Fajntsimmer's film of the same name. The plot is a political satire on the bureaucracy of Emperor Paul I of Russia, and can be seen in full - in 12 parts! - as this week's PYTHEAS SIGHTING - Contemporary Music on Film.

FROM THE PYTHEAS ARCHIVES brings us back to a performance by Nico Muhly (piano) and Nadia Sirota (viola) of selections from Muhly's film score to The Reader (2008).

Explore, Listen and Enjoy!
Vinny Fuerst
Pytheas Center for Contemporary Music

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians (1974-76) is often hailed as one his best pieces of music. Lasting over an hour, themes are built up in repetition, incorporating subtle changes along the way. It slowly and gradually evolves into a work filled with wonderfully intricate, yet simple rhythms that make the whole work a dynamic and exciting experience. A variety of instruments are used - notably clarinets and bass clarinets, metallophone, marimbas and voices. With these sounds Reich constructs beautiful sweeping chords that carry the listener effortlessly from beginning to end.
"On Sonic Encounters: The New Piano (Mode Records) - the current Pytheas Featured Recording - Margaret Leng Tan plays works for prepared piano by John Cage (the father of the prepared piano), Alan Hovhaness, George Crumb, Somei Satoh, & Ge Gan-Ru. The prepared piano was created by John Cage in the 1940's to save space and the cost of hiring multiple percussion musicians, while at the same time creating new sounds using items inserted into the piano or re-tuning the piano. In the later 20th century, some composers took up the practice to create certain tonalities or soundscapes that only the prepared piano could provide. On Sonic Encounters Alan Hovhaness and George Crumb are west meeting east; Somei Satoh and Ge Gan-Ru are east meeting west - all creating a multi-cultural modern classical expression not to be missed”. - John Dooley
Again, our COMPOSER PORTRAIT this week features George Crumb as he visits his home state of West Virginia for an interview with West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

FROM THE PYTHEAS ARCHIVES brings us back to an intense performance by Jerome Ducharme, 2004 Guitar Foundation of America winner, of the Finale from Jacques Hétu’s Suite for Guitar, op. 41 (1986).

Explore, Listen and Enjoy!

Friday, May 1, 2009

This week our first featured NEW MUSIC VIDEO is Aaron Jay Kernis' "Lament and Prayer" (1996). According to the composer, "Lament and Prayer marks the end of a series - the other bookend, so to speak - of a group of works motivated by my reaction to war and suffering, to genocide, especially in terms of the Holocaust, and to what we know has been going on in Bosnia. Upon completing Lament and Prayer, I intend to put these emotional concerns to rest for a while. Ever since my Symphony No. 2 of 1991, which was partly a response to the Gulf War crisis, I've been writing pieces related to war. In fact, I quote a number of these pieces throughout Lament and Prayer. The dedication in the score reads: 'In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II and the Holocaust'. The image I often had in mind while composing Lament and Prayer was that of a cantor and a congregation. The music proceeds as statement and response in much of the first part, which is very chromatic, rather severe-sounding and intense the prayer is mostly quiet, and spun from a very simple, long line with pulsing harmonies underneath - just the hint of the minimalist elements that occasionally crop up in my music. On the surface it is mostly peaceful, and the last part comes to a resolution, closing this chapter of my work. Things on this globe are even more precarious than when I began this series in 1991. I have to detach and leave the world conflicts out of my music for a while."

Composed in 2002 for the Waging Peace Through Singing competition Greg Bartholomew's The 21st Century (A Girl Born in Afghanistan) is our second featured featured NEW MUSIC VIDEO. The The text is adapted from the Nobel Lecture given on December 10, 2001, by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who was awarded the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize. The work was premiered by the William & Mary Choir, under the direction of Dr. Constance DeFotis, at the College of William & Mary's Charter Day celebration on February 8, 2003. "It's a message of desperate significance," Dr. DeFotis said of the piece. College President Timothy Sullivan called the performance "brilliant and beautiful." The piece was also selected as a Finalist in the 2003 Briar Cliff University New Choral Music Competition, where it was performed in concert on May 2, 2003, by the Briar Cliff University Chamber Choir under the direction of Dr. Mark Simmons. "It is a very, very powerful piece!" says Brenda C. Kayne, director of the Euphonia! Choir.

In our COMPOSER PORTRAIT this week George Crumb visits his home state of West Virginia for an interview with West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Finally, each week FROM THE PYTHEAS ARCHIVES will take us back to past Featured Items (in case you missed any!). This week we revisit Francis Poulenc's Concerto for Two Pianos (1932) ~ full of wit and diverse in its influences: Mozart, the concerto grosso, jazz, silent film music, French music hall music, and even Balinese gamelan. Check out this classic, imaginatively filmed performance!

Explore, Listen and Enjoy!