Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Composer Osvaldo Golijov writes, "I wrote Tenebrae (2002) as a consequence of witnessing two contrasting realities in a short period of time in September 2000. I was in Israel at the start of the new wave of violence that is still continuing today, and a week later I took my son to the new planetarium in New York, where we could see the Earth as a beautiful blue dot in space. I wanted to write a piece that could be listened to from different perspectives. That is, if one chooses to listen to it 'from afar', the music would probably offer a 'beautiful' surface but, from a metaphorically closer distance, one could hear that, beneath that surface, the music is full of pain. I lifted some of the haunting melismas from Couperin's Troisieme Leçon de Tenebrae, using them as sources for loops, and wrote new interludes between them, always within a pulsating, vibrating, aerial texture. The compositional challenge was to write music that would sound as an orbiting spaceship that never touches ground. After finishing the composition, I realized that Tenebrae could be heard as the slow, quiet reading of an illuminated medieval manuscript in which the appearances of the voice singing the letters of the Hebrew Alphabet (from Yod to Nun, as in Couperin) signal the beginning of new chapters, leading to the ending section, built around a single, repeated word: Jerusalem." Watch a performance of Osvaldo Golijov's Tenebrae by the Odeon Quartet . . . one of this week's FEATURED NEW MUSIC VIDEOS.

In writing about his dance film Blue Yellow (1995), director Adam Roberts writes, "Sylvie Guillem, the celebrated ballerina, asked Jonathan Burrows and I to make a dance film. The film would be included in a prime time experiment to be called Evidentia, funded by BBC 2 and France 2. The film is called blue yellow after the Mattisse’s painting Intérieur jaune et bleu, 1946. This colour scheme inspired my design and much of the pictorial composition. Inevitably, being neither a dancer nor a choreographer, I felt rather removed from the choreographic process, and so decided that I should reflect this is the form of the film. I also wanted to consolidate ideas I had first tried out on a film called Very, where I had explored and made overt the very fragmentary nature of my untutored, subjective experience of dance. The aim would be to make it a task for a viewer of the film to imagine the space and the continuity of movement – so that the dance, if it exists at all, exists and is held in the mind of the viewer. The filming took two days, and the editing about a week. Kevin Volans suggested using a section of one of his string quartets which we cut up an interspersed through the film. At first we laid out the sections at regular intervals, but, as with all editing, human judgment finds some coincidences more pleasing than others. Hugh Strain at De Lane Lea sound studios achieved a perfect sound mix, foregrounding the music, as if it were, “this side” of the door. In broad terms, the film tries, by means of patterning and rhythm, to maintain interest in what is glimpsed through a door, and sometimes allows a pause long enough but unobtrusive enough to satisfy a kind of longing, even if such stolen moments must only ever be brief. Watch Blue Yellow with dancer Sylvie Guillem and music by Kevin Volans . . . it's this week's DANSES PYTHEUSES.

"Elliott Schwartz's music combines so many disparate elements that it moves beyond eclecticism into its own genre - multifaceted yet self-contained. Schwartz's music is virtuosic for the performer, challenging to the listener, yet, for the most part, he eschews the spiky Modernist shield that less secure composers use to dissuade all comers. His work combines tonal and nontonal elements, improvised and fully notated passages and unusual instrumental effects (plucking the inside of a piano, stratospheric squeals for the woodwinds, and so on) in an idiosyncratic manner that is Mr. Schwartz's own." (Tim Page/The New York Times) Hear a performance of Elliott Schwartz's Souvenir (1978) for clarinet and piano, featuring clarinetist Jerome Bunke and the composer as pianist . . . one of this week's PYTHEAS EARFULS.

"Manuel de Falla wrote his Harpsichord Concerto (1926) for Wanda Landowska, the pioneering Polish-French harpsichordist who had been urging her contemporaries to write new music for her chosen instrument. In this Concerto for six solo instruments, 'the composer felt no constraint to conform to the classic form of the concerto for a single instrument with the accompaniment of the orchestra,' Falla wrote in a note for the premiere. This austere, stripped down style – of 'the esthetic which is ascetic,' in Alexis Roland-Manuel’s words – is similar to that of contemporary works such as Stravinsky’s L'histoire du soldat, Symphonies of Wind Instruments, or the chamber symphonies of Schoenberg." (John Henken/Los Angeles Philharmonic). Hear a performance of Falla's brilliant Harpsichord Concerto . . . this week's FROM THE PYTHEAS ARCHIVES.

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

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

How does composer Nikolai Kapustin view himself? . . . "I was never a jazz musician. I never tried to be a real jazz pianist, but I had to do it because of the composing. I’m not interested in improvisation – and what is a jazz musician without improvisation? All my improvisation is written, of course, and they become much better; it improves them." According to pianist Leslie De’Ath, "Kapustin's piano music is technically formidable, and as a pianist he possesses a technique to match. He remains the definitive interpreter of his own music, not just by virtue of the truism that he composed it, but also because his own recordings are astonishing feats of technical and musical accomplishment". Experience this firsthand by watching Nikolai Kapustin perform his Impromptu, op. 66, no. 2 (1991) . . . one of this week's FEATURED NEW MUSIC VIDEOS.

While relearning an old favourite piece, To the Earth (1985), for 4 terracotta pots and voice by composer Frederic Rzewski, percussionist Fleur Green discovered a poem she had written while working on the piece years ago:

In this earth where man makes and makes and makes, and quite often makes a mess,
we sometimes forget the earth has already made.

Perhaps we have forgotten that nature is violent and destructive enough
without us having to make more.

While we are making war with ourselves, we forget that nature alone is violent,
and a battle of elements.

While we are making objects of beauty for ourselves,
we forget that nature alone is beautiful and something to admire.

Have we forgotten reality is violent, depressing, intriguing and beautiful enough
to overwhelm?

If we are no longer touched by the beauty of a change in season,
no longer touched by the unique landscape that presents itself to us
silently every day,
and if we no longer rejoice in the ‘gentleness and cruelty of nature’,
then perhaps we need reminding.

Watch a performance of Rzewski's To the Earth by percussionist Bonnie Whiting Smith . . . it's this week's BANG, CLANG AND BEAT - New Music for Percussion.

George Crumb writes of his piece Processional (1983): "Like much of my music, Processional is strongly tonal, but integrates chromatic, modal, and whole-tone elements. The descending six tones stated at the beginning present the basic harmonic cell, subsequently elaborated by varied cluster combinations and permutations. Although Processional is essentially a continuum of sustained legato playing, tiny melodic fragments (which intermittently emerge and recede) provide contrast in articulation. I think of Processional as an 'experiment in harmonic chemistry' (Debussy's description of his Images for piano) - the music is concerned with the prismatic effect of subtle changes of harmonic color and frequent modulation. While composing the work, I felt no need for the resources of the 'extended piano' and limited myself to the contrasts of texture and color available through the conventional mode of playing on the keys. However, I subsequently did construct an alternate version which does in fact include a minimal use of non-keyboard effects (the choice between the two versions left to the pianist). The title of the music was suggested by the music's obsessive reiteration of pulse (sempre pulsando, estaticamente) and broad 'unfolding' gestures. Perhaps the music suggests more a 'processional of nature' rather than any sort of festive or sombre 'human' processional. Listen to a performance of George Crumb's Processional . . . one of this week's PYTHEAS EARFULS.

In Alvin Lucier's I am sitting in a room (1969), several sentences of recorded speech are simultaneously played back into a room and re-recorded there many times. As the repetitive process continues, those sounds common to the original spoken statement and those implied by the structural dimensions of the room are reinforced. The others are gradually eliminated. The space acts as a filter; the speech is transformed into pure sound. All the recorded segments are spliced together in the order in which they were made and thus constitute the work. In this fascinating exploration of acoustical phenomena, Lucier slips from the domain of language to that of music in the course of the repetitions of a simple paragraph of text. Listen to Alvin Lucier's I am sitting in a room . . . this week's FROM THE PYTHEAS ARCHIVES.

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

Monday, March 14, 2011

Composer/pianist Frederic Rzewski's Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues (1979) is an accessible, if disturbing, rumination on both industrial mechanization and a 1920's folk/blues song of the same name. The work slowly develops from a simple rocking two note figure into a low-register-driven juggernaut that, to those who have experienced it first-hand, replicates the clamorous workings of a cotton mill. A nervous pastoral interlude begins after the manically industrial opening section, which could possibly represents a weekend's rest after a hard week of work. However, all is not restful, as the pastoral melodies become more and more dissonant and manic. Watch a performance of Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues by pianist Ralph van Raat . . . one of this week's FEATURED NEW MUSIC VIDEOS.

In 1968, Jerry Goldsmith caught massive critical attention with his landmark, controversial soundtrack to the post-apocalyptic science fiction epic "Planet of the Apes" (1968), which was one of the first film scores to be written entirely in an avant garde style. When scoring "Planet of the Apes", Goldsmith used such innovative techniques as looping drums into an echoplex, using the orchestra to imitate the grunting sounds of apes, having horns blown without mouthpieces, and instructing the woodwind players to finger their keys without using any air. The score went on to garner Goldsmith an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score and the music now ranks as #18 on the American Film Institue’s top 25 American film scores. Watch the ending scene of director Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes . . . it's this week's PYTHEAS SIGHTING.

Karl Henning fell in love with the sound of the clarinet at age 10 and has been learning, practicing and creating music ever since in pursuit of the Muse. He has studied with composers Jack Gallagher, Paul Schwartz, Nancy Garlick, Judith Shatin, Walter Ross, Douglas Hargrave, Charles Wuorinen and Louis Andriessen. After his doctoral work, Henning lived for four years in and near St. Petersburg, Russia, where he studied the canals, bridges, cathedrals, white nights and starry winter skies of St. Petersburg. This was a period of informal arts study which he feels in many ways equal in importance to his years of formal musical training. Henning has served at different times as Interim Choir Director and Composer-in-Residence at the Cathedral Church of St Paul in Boston, where he composed a 40-minute unaccompanied choral setting of the St. John Passion (2008). Hear a performance of his Heedless Watermelon, part of his flute and clarinet work entitled "Three for Two" . . . one of this week's PYTHEAS EARFULS.

According to composer Adrienne Albert, "The notion of writing a piece based on the findings of an Austrian mathematician who observed the increase and decrease in the pitch of sound when the source and observer are getting closer or further apart came to me while traveling through Italy and hearing the myriad sirens passing by through the dense traffic. The motif descends by a minor second returning to the original harmony combined with the repeated minor seconds portraying the incessant sounds of car horns. The melodic lines portray the vibrancy and sensuality of the people in contrast to the craziness around them". Listen to a performance of Adrienne Albert Doppler Effect (1998) . . . this week's FROM THE PYTHEAS ARCHIVES.

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

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Kaija Saariaho's ballet "Maa" (1991) was commissioned by the ballet of the Finnish National Opera and the work's mixing and manipulation of sounds was carried out in the Finnish Radio Experimental Studio. The ballet does not have a plot as such, rather it is built around thematic archetypes such as doors, gates, stepping into new worlds, journeys, and the crossing of waters. Both scenography and music are shrouded by deliberate mystery and characterized by a lucidity and minimalism of gesture. Its openness and approachability makes it an ideal introduction to the poetry of Saariaho's music. The work's abstract, non-narrative plot is fertile soil for her musical thinking. As in her earlier radiophonic work "Stillen", she avoids telling a story, choosing instead to handle the germinal themes of traveling, remoteness, yearning and communication in a dream-like way through the medium of association. Number symbolism also plays its own role in injecting significance into "Maa" - the group of players numbers seven, and each of the work's seven main movements divides further into seven subsections. The music to the ballet's seventh section, can be performed as a separate piece entitled Fall (1991), and we feature it this week in a performance by harpist Consuelo Giulianelli . . . one of this week's FEATURED NEW MUSIC VIDEOS.

According to Lynn René Bayley (Fanfare Magazine), "No one ever said life was fair, and this is probably truer in the arts field, where name recognition and assessment of quality are engendered more by promotion and institutional affiliation than by talent. A case in point is Nancy Van de Vate, without question one of the most talented and original composers of our time, whose name is barely known in this country though she is extremely well respected in her adopted country of Austria. The composer of pieces ranging from the tone-clusterish orchestral works "Journeys" and "Dark Nebulae", remarkable chamber works such as "Seven Fantasy Pieces for Violin and Piano" and "Music for Viola, Percussion, and Piano", a number of concertos and the superb opera "All Quiet on the Western Front", Van de Vate wrote "Where the Cross Is Made" during a time in her life when she was facing a personal crisis. She was distraught but felt the need to work in order to feel normal, and so she kept returning to the score over a period of time, reworking it as she had time, not really knowing whether the finished product would be as good as she hoped or not. Remarkably, "Where the Cross Is Made" (2003) is a masterpiece, building in rhythm, harmony, and melody through an almost unbroken wave of sound initiated by a syncopated figure, propelling the opera to its inexorable conclusion." Read more about Nancy Van de Vate's Where the Cross Is Made, and listen to an excerpt from the opera . . . it's this week's FEATURED RECORDING.

Swedish composer Anna-Lena Laurin writes complex orchestral music with very strong melodic and rhythmical components. Her music is imbued with a dark, dramatic, as well as a light and lyrical/romantic tone language. She has received numerous grants, prizes and enthusiastic reviews, as well as appreciation from the Swedish Queen Silvia for her 2002 album "Sang till mormor". Born in Halmstad, Sweden, Laurin started playing classical piano at the age of seven and continued with music in different directions and styles on various instruments, but mainly as a pianist and vocalist. She began her professional musical career as a pianist and singer in different jazz ensembles, but now works exclusively as a composer, with a very busy schedule and new commissions coming from symphony orchestras, chamber orchestras or soloists. Upcoming commissions are a concerto for Hakan Hardenberger, Camerata Nordica and Terje Tönnesen. Her works include the much publicized "String Quartet No. 1" (2004) and "Autumn Fields" (2008) for violin and piano (or string orchestra), her "Concerto for Flute, Strings and Harp" (2009), the orchestral "Piece from the Silence" (2006), and "Shards of Time" (2010) for solo piano. Laurin's influences are from composers and musicians of many different genres and epoques and she has composed works mixing different genres - such as "The Painter (2009) for symphony orchestra, trumpet and jazz group, "Iphigenia" (2009) for symphony orchestra and improvising jazz soloists, and "Colours" (1997) concerto for trumpet, jazz trumpet, chamber choir and jazz group - an hour long trumpet concerto specially composed for trumpet soloists Hakan Hardenberger (who commissioned it) and Anders Bergcrantz. Listen to a recording of Laurin's Meadows from her "Piece from the Silence" (2006) . . . this week's PYTHEAS EARFUL.

Even before he finished orchestrating the score, composer Bela Bartok began to doubt that he would ever see his ballet "The Miraculous Mandarin" (1919) staged. In fact, the performance history of "The Miraculous Mandarin" is marked by such formidable struggles that the score didn’t receive the acclamation it deserved until after the composer’s death. The premiere of "The Miraculous Mandarin", in the conservative city of Cologne in November 1926, caused an uproar. Audience members walked out, the conductor was officially reprimanded by the city's mayor, and the work was subsequently banned. But Cologne wasn’t at the heart of the music world, and it wasn’t the composer’s hometown; so the incident passed without making international headlines. The work wasn’t staged in Budapest until 1946, after the composer’s death, and a quarter of a century after the score was finished. A production in Budapest was announced in 1931, as part of the celebration honoring Bartok fiftieth birthday, but it was canceled after the dress rehearsal, when officials got wind of the work’s subject matter. Another performance scheduled for 1941 was opposed by the clergy. The problems were both the graphic, intense music and the story — a violent and erotic tale with implicit social criticism (from comments by Phillip Huscher written for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra). Watch an excerpt from Bartok's ballet The Miraculous Mandarin in a performance by the ballet of Angers Nantes Opera . . . this week's FROM THE PYTHEAS ARCHIVES.

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

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Eric Whitacre is quickly becoming one of the most popular composers and conductors of his generation, inspiring and motivating a new generation of singers and musicians. The "unearthly beauty and imagination" (Los Angeles Times) and "emotional directness and intensity" (American Record Guide) of Whitacre’s music create a visceral, impassioned response in audiences and performers. In 2008, the all-Whitacre choral CD Cloudburst (released by the British ensemble Polyphony on Hyperion Records) became an unexpected international best-seller, topping the classical charts and earning a Grammy nomination. The BBC raves that "what hits you straight between the eyes is the honesty, optimism and sheer belief that passes any pretension. This is music that can actually make you smile." Watch a performance of Eric Whitacre conducting his Sleep (2000), performed by the VocalEssence Chorus, the Ensemble Singers, The St. Olaf Choir, and the Minnesota High School Honors Choir . . . one of this week's FEATURED NEW MUSIC VIDEOS.

Lawrence Dillon has produced an extensive body of work, characterized by a keen sensitivity to color, a mastery of form, and what the Louisville Courier-Journal has called a "compelling, innate soulfulness." Increasingly in demand, Dillon has received commissions in the past year from the Emerson String Quartet, the Ravinia Festival, the Cassatt String Quartet, the Mansfield Symphony, the Boise Philharmonic, the Salt Lake City Symphony, the Daedalus String Quartet, the University of Utah and the Idyllwild Symphony Orchestra. In 1985, he became the youngest composer to earn a doctorate at The Juilliard School, and was shortly thereafter appointed to the Juilliard faculty. Dillon is now Composer in Residence at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. This week we are privileged to present an exclusive interview with Lawrence Dillon by the Pytheas Center's director, Vinny Fuerst. He talks about his life as a composer, his current compositions and activities, and his thoughts on contemporary music . . . it's this week's COMPOSER PORTRAIT.

Frederic Rzewski is among the major figures of the American musical avant-garde to emerge in the 1960s, and he has been highly influential as a composer and performer. He first came to public attention as a performer of new piano music, having participated in the premieres of such monumental works as Stockhausen's Klavierstück X (1962). In 1966, he co-founded the famous ensemble Musica Electronica Viva (MEV). MEV combined free improvisation with written music and electronics. These experimentations led directly to the use of a so-called "process piece," which also combines elements of spontaneous improvisation with notated material and instructions. Rzewski's improv-classical hybrids are some of the most successful of the kind ever produced thanks to the fervent energy at the core of his music. During the 1970s, his music continued to develop along these lines, but as his socialist proclivities began to direct his artistic course, he developed new structures for instrumental music that used text elements and musical style as structuring features. Rzewski's music is among that which defines postwar American new music. He has consistently given the exuberant boyish pleasures of a composer like Copland within the rigorously experimental framework of a composer like Cage. Often unapologetically tonal and fun, Rzewski's music cuts right through the frequent churlishness of avant garde music. The Pytheas Center this week highlights Frederic Rzewski with a FEATURED RECORDING - Fred (on Cedille Records) - and a PYTHEAS EARFUL - Squares (1978). Explore, Listen and Enjoy!

Dan Locklair is one of America's most widely performed composers. His compositions include symphonic works, ballet, opera, and numerous solo, chamber, vocal and choral compositions. His awards have included annual ASCAP awards, a Kennedy Center Friedheim Award, and the top Barlow International Competition Award, and he was named Composer of the Year in 1996 by the American Guild of Organists. His many commissions have come from such organizations as the Knoxville Symphony, the Binghamton Symphony, the American Guild of Organists, the Mallorme Chamber Players and the Bel Canto Company. Listen to a performance of Locklair's Toccata, from In Mystery and Wonder (2004) performed by organist Alan Morrison . . . this week's FROM THE PYTHEAS ARCHIVES.

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