Monday, February 27, 2012

Elliott Carter has written about his song cycle Mirror on Which to Dwell (1975): "When I agreed to write a cycle of songs for the ensemble Speculum Musicae I decided, first, that it should be for soprano and chamber orchestra. The poems of Elizabeth Bishop impressed me because they have a clear verbal coherence as well as an imaginative use of syllabic sounds that suggest the singing voice. I was very much in sympathy with their point of view, for there is almost always a secondary layer of meaning, sometimes ironic, sometimes passionate, that gives a special ambiance, often contradictory, to what the words say. The order of the songs is entirely mine, alternating as they do between considerations about nature, love and isolation. A Mirror on Which to Dwell, a line from the poem Insomnia is the title I chose partly because it seemed to characterize the general world of the poems, partly because I wanted the music to be a mirror of the words and partly because Speculum Musicae commissioned the work in honor of the U.S. Bicentennial. Watch a performance of Anaphora, the first song in Elliott Carter's Mirror on Which to Dwell, with soprano Jo Ellen Miller and the East Coast Contemporary Ensemble, Jeffrey Means conducting . . . one of this week's FEATURED NEW MUSIC VIDEOS.

Mario Verandi is an Argentinean born composer, sound and media artist. He primarily works with new technologies as an aid to exploring and expanding the boundaries of sound, space, perception and meaning. A distinct characteristic of his work has been the exploration of the poetic and evocative potential of concrete and environmental sounds and their incorporation in sound compositions, audiovisual installations, live performances and radio art pieces. His works have received prizes and awards in the Bourges International Electroacoustic Music Competition (France), Musica Nova Competition (Prague), CIEJ Electronic Music Awards (Barcelona), Prix Ars Electronica (Linz), Stockholm Electronic Art Awards (Sweden), SGAE Electroacoustic Music Competition (Spain) and the European Bell Days Composition Prize (ZKM, Karlsruhe). He has a long-standing interest in interdisciplinary projects and as a result has created music and sound designs for art installations, dance, theatre, films and the radio. Verandi has collaborated among others with the American visual artist Catherine Ferguson, German choreographer Helge Musial, Polish theater director Grazyna Kania, German visual artist Corinna Rosteck, Berlin-based visual artitst Lillevan, Russian visual artists Igor and Svetlana Kopystianski, and German film-maker Harun Farocki. Listen to Mario Verandi's Klangbuch der imaginaeren Wesen (2007) . . . it's our SOUND ART for the week.

Composer Kaija Saariaho writes: "Grammaire des Rêves/Grammar of Dreams (1988-89) was born from my curiosity about the relationship between human voice and instruments, a subject which I had put aside for many years. As the title of the piece indicates, another source of interest was the structural life of dreams. Different ideas concerning the research of dreams (for example, how our moving body affects our dreams, changing their directions or interrupting them; in this piece the harp is imagined as a collection of restless limbs, which by their movements direct the musical flow), are drawn to the background during the compositional work, or are transformed into purely musical form. Another interest was to search for a fusion in this rather heterogeneous ensemble. For this reason the musical texture is maybe more simple than in some other of my recent pieces, and the more radical textural changes have been replaced by vibratos, trills, glissandi, dynamic evolutions and other gestures, used here as imaginary matrices, through which the instrumental parts are ‘filtered’. The major part of the text is a collage from the texts of Paul Eluard. Some longer fragments have been used from his poem Premierèment. Listen to Kaija Saariaho's Grammaire des rêves/Grammar of Dreams . . . it's one of our PYTHEAS EARFULS for the week.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Elizabeth Vercoe has been a composer at the St. Petersburg Music Festival in Russia, the Cité International des Arts in Paris and the MacDowell Colony, and held the Acuff Chair of Excellence at Austin Peay State University in 2003. She has received numerous awards and commissions, along with grants from the Artists Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. To Music (2003) is a short, atmospheric solo for flute in four contrasting sections. At times the music is virtuosic, occasionally calling for multiphonics and other special effects. The titles of the four sections are taken from the haunting poetry of the Russian writer, Anna Akhmatova, a poet deeply interested in music. The work was commissioned by flutist Lisa Vanarsdel and written for her and the Laurels Flute Project. Watch a performance of Elizabeth Vercoe's To Music played by flutist Peter Bloom . . . one of this week's FEATURED NEW MUSIC VIDEOS.

American composer Dominick Argento is best known as a leading composer of lyric opera and choral music. Among his most prominent pieces are the operas Postcard from Morocco (1971), Miss Havisham’s Fire (1979), and The Masque of Angels (1963), and the song cycles Six Elizabethan Songs (1957) and From the Diary of Virginia Woolf (1974), the latter of which earned him the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1975. In a predominantly tonal context, his music freely combines tonality, atonality and a lyrical use of twelve-tone writing, and Argento is particularly well-known for his sensitive settings of complex, sophisticated texts. As a student in the 1950s, Argento divided his time between America and Italy, and his music is greatly influenced both by his teachers in the United States and his personal affection for Italy, particularly the city of Florence, where he spends part of every year and where many of his works have been written. He has been a professor (and, more recently, a professor emeritus) at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, and he frequently remarks that he finds that city to be tremendously supportive of his work. He has also developed close professional relationships with several prominent singers, notably Frederica Von Stade, Janet Baker, and Hakan Hagegard, and some of his best-known song cycles were tailored to their talents. Hear Dominick Argento talk about his life and his music - part of Minnesota Public Radio's series The Composer's Voice . . . it's our COMPOSER PORTRAIT for the week.

As a body of music, David Raksin's score for The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) has been lurking around record collectors' circles for decades - Raksin himself recorded a suite distilled down from its most important sections for the RCA Red Seal label in the early '70s, and it has been frequently mentioned as one of the finer instrumental scores to come out of the MGM studios. The music itself varies between deliberate period-style writing, intended to evoke the Hollywood conventions of a bygone age, and some very clever adaptations, such as a Tchaikovsky pastiche entitled "Ilyich All Over". The latter stretches tonality on the reeds, horns, and strings in all manner of unexpected directions without ever losing the audience or releasing you from the irony-laced arc of the story [notes thanks to Bruce Eder @ AllMusic]. Listen to David Raksin conduct his Scherzo, from The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) . . . it's one of our PYTHEAS EARFULS for the week.

The Chamber Concertos are typical of Elliott Schwartz's gleefully eclectic style, the presentation of the many facets of which is facilitated through his espousal of a deep and wide-ranging use of "collage" technique. What this means in practical terms is that the music presents a kaleidoscopically shifting assemblage of layers of material, which can range from literal quotations of classical or romantic models in their original tonal language to reminiscences of the styles of earlier music (of many kinds) to frankly atonal, abstract and complex gestures. The Chamber Concerto II was composed in 1976 and is scored for solo clarinet and nine players. This wonderful little concerto (the shortest of the first six) might remind the listener of an old story with an updated ending. The delightfully puckish clarinet in this work is ultimately subdued by a passing funeral. This story might be titled, "Till Eulenspiegel in New Orleans" [notes thanks to Stephen Guy Soderberg, BMOP/sound]. Listen to a performance of Elliott Schwartz's Chamber Concerto II (1976) played by clarinetist Paul Martin Zonn and the University of Illinois Contemporary Chamber Players, Edwin London conducting . . . it's this week's FROM THE PYTHEAS ARCHIVES.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Alexina Louie is one of Canada’s most highly regarded and most often performed composers. Her uniquely personal style blends both East and West, and draws on a wide variety of influences - from her Chinese heritage to her theoretical, historical and performance studies. Her music has been widely commissioned and performed by Canada’s leading orchestras, new music ensembles, chamber groups and soloists. Louie's mini-opera Toothpaste (2001) was created for television with librettist Dan Redican, and has been broadcast in over a dozen countries. The six-minute opera is about a marriage that crumbles over the wife's mistreating a tube of toothpaste, much to her husband's dismay. Using the power of operatic emotion to express a seemingly innocuous (and hilariously Pythonesque domestic squabble), it slyly demonstrates the powerful, hidden emotions behind the fight, as it quickly transforms itself into a total melt-down of the relationship. Watch Alexina Louie's Toothpaste, with soprano Barbara Hannigan and tenor Mark McKinney . . . one of this week's FEATURED NEW MUSIC VIDEOS.

Bernadette Speach's work as a composer embraces a variety of styles, including solo, chamber and orchestral compositions, and her works have been played by numerous performers in venues across the world. She has performed as pianist throughout her life in a variety of capacities: as soloist; with her husband, guitarist Jeffrey Schanzer as the Schanzer/Speach Duo; and in both improvising and chamber ensembles. She has been the recipient of numerous awards and commissions, and her music is recorded on Mode Records, and published by Kallisti Press. In addition to her composing, Speach's efforts as an administrator, fundraiser, board member, presenter and educator continue to bring the work of a broad range of artists to audiences in the New York metropolitan area and beyond. Watch Tiny Temple (2009), a collaboration between Bernadette Speach and choreographer Anne Burnidge  . . . it's our DANSES PYTHEUSES for the week.

Christopher Marshall was born in Paris, France (of New Zealand parents), educated in Australia and New Zealand, and is currently Adjunct Professor of Composition at the University of Central Florida, in Orlando. Because of his wide cultural background - French, New Zealand, Australian, as well as living several years in Samoa, his music moulds diverse influences into a distinctive personal style marked by memorable melody and rhythmic ingenuity. Marshall’s orchestral, wind ensemble, chamber and choral music has been very widely performed and broadcast particularly in the United States and Europe. It's music that is accessible, idiomatically written and often exhilarating in its rhythmic ingenuity. It also places great emphasis on expressive memorable melody and frequently delights in integrating diverse stylistic elements. Listen to Christopher Marshall's Synergy, from "Three Aspects of Spring" (1995) . . . it's one of our PYTHEAS EARFULS for the week.

Jack Anderson ( writes of Out of Place (2008), a collaboration between choreographer Wendy Osserman and Czech violinist and vocalist Iva Bittová . . . "Wendy Osserman's choreography and Iva Bittová's music made Out of Place a journey to a haunted place of ghosts, spirits, werewolves, and spells somewhere in Eastern Europe where venerable Slavic and Yiddish traditions mingle and the air is filled with scraps of old ballads and fragments of almost-forgotten, yet still disquieting, folk tales. Bittová did much to maintain a sense of mystery. She can fiddle and sing at the same time, blending folk, classical, and jazz styles, her voice sounding delicate one moment, gruff and throaty the next. Some of her music was live. But she also performed in counterpoint with recordings. And this production revealed that her movements can be as impressive as her music, for her stage presence made her resemble a village story-teller, or clairvoyant crone. Osserman and her dancers collaboratively created what could be described as a plotless suite of musical and choreographic episodes, each with its own neat little title." Watch Sea (2008), from "Out of Place" . . . it's this week's FROM THE PYTHEAS ARCHIVES.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Walter Piston was a leading light among those mid-twentieth century American composers who opted to explore traditional musical forms and language. Although he was perhaps better known as a teacher and the author of a widely used book on harmony than as a composer, Piston's music displays superb craftsmanship within his selected neo-Classic-Romantic idiom. Piston wrote his Piano Quintet in 1949 on commission from the University of Michigan. The sense of elegance and calm that opens the work seems to flow from the French roots of the composer's studies with Nadia Boulanger; indeed, the spirit of Piston's work at times recalls the chamber music of Gabriel Faure. His treatment of his thematic material is more a matter of textural variation rather than formal development; the music is by turns flowing, staccato, and stormy, the piano taking a concerto-like solo role throughout. In the finale, a jittery syncopated rhythm creates a jazz-like atmosphere, interrupted by a contrasting central section [our thanks on this note to the AllMusicGuide]. Watch a performance of Piston's Piano Quintet played by pianist Leonid Treer and the Miami String Quartet . . . one of this week's FEATURED NEW MUSIC VIDEOS.

During the second half of the 20th century Manuel Enríquez was the predominant personality on the Mexican musical scene, not only as a composer, but also as an administrator, teacher, diffuser and active member of the most prestigious cultural institutions in the country. His dynamic presence, and abundant musical activity for three decades, made him a  pillar in Mexican music. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1971, and went to the Center of Electronic Music at Columbia University to experiment with Electronics and to study the new resources afforded by contemporary technology. He considered electronics to be just another tool for the contemporary composer. And because of his desire to keep up with new tendencies in composition, he attended the renowned international courses of Darmstadt where he made contacts with the great European avant-garde composers: Berio, Xenakis, Stockhausen, Penderecki and Ligeti. Between 1975 and 1977, Enríquez lived in Paris, commissioned by the Mexican government to promote Mexican music in Europe. He gave recitals (he was also a renowned violinist) in Vienna, Paris, Bonn, Warsaw, Bourges, etc. This intense activity also included lecturers on new music in Mexico and helped to make known Mexican composers in Europe. In many ways Enríquez was a pioneer in the field of new execution techniques and in specializing in contemporary repertoire. Yet his most important field remained composition. Heir to the school of Bernal Jimenez, he quickly broached new directions that included poly-tonality, dodecaphonism, alleatoric and electronic music. His extensive catalogue of nearly 150 works, includes all genres of instruments, sporadic encounters with vocal music, electroacoustic music, and music with purely electronic sounds and multimedia. Listen to Manuel Enríquez's Viols (1971) . . . it's our SOUND ART for the week.

Concert musician (oboe and English horn), piano accompanist and composer Ayser Vançin is passionate about poetry and literature, finding inspiration from the poet-humanists. Her deep embrace of words and notes is a bridge between East and Occident. Among her compositions are works for ensembles including winds, with or without piano. Her latest works for musical theater include: Nuage Amoureux (Cloud of Love), D'Exil en Exil (Of Exile in Exile) [on text and emotive poems of Nazim Hikmet], Regard Noir, Langue de Feu (Black Gaze, Tongue of Fire) [on text of Senghor], La Rencontre Aragon-Hikmet (The Aragon-Hikmet Meeting) [on texts of these writers], Voyage Poetico-Musical en Orient Express: Paris-Istanbul (A Poetic-Musical Voyage on the Orient Express: Paris-Istanbul) [show route, literature and music, a bridge between France and Turkey], Chants de la Vigne (Songs of the Vine) [an intoxicating spectacle of poetry and music bacchanalia around wine], Chants des Hommes (Songs of Men) [a show of words and notes about universal writers and poets] and a delicious spectacle of songs [texts from Verlaine, Aragon, Hikmet, Supervielle, Maeterlinck, Lent, Molin, Vian, Ungaretti] called Vers a Chanter, Vers Enchantes (Towards Singing, Towards the Enchanted) featuring singer Mathieu Chardet. Listen to a performance of Ayser Vançin's Les plaintes d'un Icare (2004) . . . it's one of our PYTHEAS EARFULS for the week.

Swedish composer Stefan Klaverdal is from Stockholm and studied composition with Maurice Karkoff and Hans Gefors, among others. He graduated in 2003 with a Master of Arts in composition from the Malmo Academy of Music. He is one of his generation's most active and performed composers and his music has been performed countless times in Europe and elsewhere. In recent years, his focus has been on purely vocal and instrumental pieces in combination with live electronics. A prominent and long-standing feature of Klaverdal’s work is cross-genre collaboration, especially his music for dance performances and for dance and art films. He was originally a singer, and strives to reproduce these lyrical and human qualities in his compositions. With live electronics as an active extension of his own voice, he paints acoustic-electronic landscapes from a palette of passion, drama and beauty. Listen to a performance of Stefan Klaverdal's piece for alto saxophone and computer Prayer of a King (2004) . . . it's this week's FROM THE PYTHEAS ARCHIVES.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Wolfgang Rihm has emerged as one of the most respected German composers of his day, with credentials that appeal to avant-garde and not-so-avant-garde audiences alike. Though the music in his corpus can be brash, brooding and explosive by turns, as would be expected for 'serious' contemporary music, its range is encompassing enough, and the compositions put together with such happy coincidence of inspiration and craft, as to provide the audience with many potential points of entry. It is a body of work in which different pieces appeal to different people for different reasons, and probably not every piece appeals to everyone. This stylistic variety of Rihm's work – he never seems to remain on the same trajectory for more than a handful of works, rather veering off wildly in reaction to whatever takes his fancy at the time – is a feature that has been seen as a negative one by some. How should one rightly assess a composer whose adherence to the force of whim has overtaken the serious responsibility of having a clear, homogenous style, a style that becomes gradually more developed as the composer matures over the years, moving towards the flowering of a late style (yawn… sorry) at the end of his or her career? It might be said that the only consistency with Rihm has been the inconsistency of his approach, but it is worth noting that that is a consistency all the same, and perhaps quite a strong one. For others, as mentioned, the stylistic heterogeneity of Rihm's work (which nonetheless displays some of the same formal concerns over the course of its diverse works) can only be a good thing. There is an obvious delight for Rihm in the explorative nature of the creative process – the composer as one who ventures along the outposts, using the occasion of the work to cast off in different directions, exploring the space made available by the musical work, all the while anchored by a concern for surprise, adventure and craftsmanship. A Romantic image, of course, but one suited to a music that could be characterised as very much continuing in the Romantic tradition (to be over reductive about it) [notes thanks to Liam Cagney /]. Watch an excerpt from a performance of Wolfgang Rihm's In-Schrift (1995) by the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester with Claudio Abbado conducting . . . one of this week's FEATURED NEW MUSIC VIDEOS.

John H. Beck has been a member of the faculty at the Eastman School of Music since 1959. He received his bachelor’s degree (1955) and master’s degree (1962), as well as Performer’s Certificate from Eastman. He retired from Eastman in 2008 and continues as Professor Emeritus of Percussion and teaches a class in The History of Percussion. Beck's career as a performer and teacher includes posts as percussionist, timpanist, marimba soloist with the United States Marine Band (1955-59); principal percussionist with the Rochester Philharmonic (1959-62); and timpanist for the Rochester Philharmonic (1962-2002). He has made numerous solo appearances, including performances with the Eastman Wind Ensemble and Philharmonia Orchestra, Syracuse Wind Ensemble, Chautauqua Band, Rochester Chamber Orchestra, Corning Symphony, Rochester Philharmonic, Memphis State Wind Ensemble, Pennsylvania Festival Band, and Filharmonia Pomorska, Poland. He has also contributed articles to the Grove Dictionary of American Music and the World Book Encyclopedia. His Encyclopedia of Percussion (published by Routledge) is in its second edition. Among the honors Beck has received include being named the Mu Phi Epsilon Musician of the Year (1976); the Monroe County School Music Association Award (1996); Eastman’s Eisenhart Award for Excellence in Teaching (1997); and the Arts and Cultural Council of Greater Rochester Award for contributions to the arts (1999); and he was inducted into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame in 1999. At the Eastman School's 2003 Commencement, Beck was awarded the Edwin Peck Curtis Award for excellence in undergraduate teaching. Since retirement in 2008, he has been awarded the Distinguished Service Award from the New York State School Music Association  (2009), The President’s Award from Rowan University  (2010), the Lifetime Achievement Award from KOSA International Percussion (2010) and the Life Time Achievement Award from Giornate della Percussione, Fermo, Italy (2010). Watch a performance of John Beck's Interactions for Timpani and Sound (1996) played by timpanist Robert Ford . . . it's our BANG, CLANG and BEAT for the week.

Born Vancouver, British Columbia, Alexina Louie is one of Canada’s most highly regarded and most often performed composers. She began piano studies, and at seventeen became an Associate of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Piano Performance. Louie continued her piano studies at the University of British Columbia where she also attended the composition classes of Cortland Hultberg, graduating in 1970 with a bachelor’s degree in music history. She went on to post-graduate work at the University of California at San Diego with Robert Erickson and Pauline Oliveros, completing an M.A. in composition in 1974. For the rest of the decade, Louie taught piano, theory and electronic composition at the City Colleges of Pasadena and Los Angeles. She has lived in Toronto since 1980, where she works as a freelance composer for concert, dance, television and film. Alexina Louie is the daughter of second-generation Canadians of Chinese descent, and her uniquely personal style blends both East and West, and draws on a wide variety of influences - from her Chinese heritage to her theoretical, historical and performance studies. Her music has been widely commissioned and performed by Canada’s leading orchestras, new music ensembles, chamber groups and soloists, including the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and pianist Jon Kimura Parker. Her awards and honors include the prestigious M. Joan Chalmers National Music Award, the Canadian Music Council's "Composer of the Year" for 1986, SOCAN Concert Music Award, Canada Council "A" Grant,  the Jules-Leger Prize for New Chamber Music, numerous "Juno" nominations for Best Classical Recordings, Composer in Residence with the Canadian Opera Company, and the Order of Ontario, the province’s highest and most prestigious honour. Listen to a performance of Alexina Louie's Winter Music (1989) featuring violist Steven Dan and the Vancouver New Music Ensemble . . . it's one of our PYTHEAS EARFULS for the week.

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 founded, with Alvin Curran and Richard Teitelbaum, the famous ensemble Musica Electronica Viva (MEV). MEV combined free improvisation with written music and electronics. These experimentations directly led to the creation of Rzewski's first important compositions, so-called "process" pieces, which combine elements of spontaneous improvisation with notated material and instructions. His 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. During the 1980s, Rzewski produced a number of surprising twelve tone compositions that (happily) provided fresh ideas of what could be done with serial systems. The 1990s saw him revisiting, via scored music, some highly spontaneous approaches to composition that recall his inspired experiments of the late 1960s. 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. Rzewski's People United Will Never Be Defeated! (1975) is a landmark in American piano literature. The work comprises 36 variations on a protest song of the same name by the Chilean composer Sergio Ortega. Almost every bar is laden with pianistic virtuosity, yet the listener is carried through some very complex music in a wholly natural way. The variations themselves all symbolize the different phases and aspects of a struggle: from angry, highly-energized modernism, via melancholic references to blues, calculated dense polyphony and nostalgic folk-music to written-out free jazz passages. Watch a performance of Frederic Rzewski's The People United Will Never Be Defeated! played by pianist Bobby Mitchell . . . it's this week's FROM THE PYTHEAS ARCHIVES.