Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Mason Bates' Mothership (2010) is an energetic work that imagines the orchestra as a mothership that is "docked" by several visiting soloists, who offer brief, but virtuosic, riffs on the work’s thematic material over action-packed electro-acoustic orchestral figuration. The piece follows the form of a scherzo with double trio (as found in, for example, Schumann's Symphony No. 2). Symphonic scherzos historically play with dance rhythms in a high-energy and appealing manner, with the "trio" sections temporarily exploring new rhythmic areas. Mothership shares a formal connection with the symphonic scherzo but is brought to life by thrilling sounds of the 21st Century — the rhythms of modern-day techno. Mothership received its world premiere at the Sydney Opera House by the YouTube Symphony on March 20, 2011, and was viewed by almost two million people live on YouTube. See that premiere performance of Mason Bates' Mothership conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas . . . one of this week's FEATURED NEW MUSIC VIDEOS.

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, pieces such as Les moutons de Panurge, 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. 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. Listen to Frederic Rzewski talk about his life and music in Rzewski Visits America . . . it's our COMPOSER PORTRAIT for the week.

Based on seven grossly sardonic - yes, macabre - poems by Howard Nemerov, each of Tina Davidson's Seven Macabre Songs (1979) is intended to be a poem as well, created, as Davidson says, with a "tightness, a scarceness of development and the intensity of line inherent in a poem." But tightness gives a false impression of the extroverted spirit of these unique songs. Sound effects such as forearm rolls, harmonics, and the lucking and strumming of the inner strings create weird and wonderful images - a lot of haunting, fun exhibitionism" [notes thanks to Fanfare Magazine]. Listen to a performance of Tina Davidson's Seven Macabre Songs . . . it's one of our PYTHEAS EARFULS for the week.

The extraordinary religious feeling of Alfred Schnittke's Symphony No. 8 (1994) is no doubt a product of the decade of illness that preceded its composition. Schnittke had a series of strokes beginning in 1985 and refused to surrender to them, continuing his career and producing a notable quantity of excellent new music until his death in 1999. The composer acknowledged that this led him into contemplation of subjects beyond this world, and brought to the surface both his Christian faith and his Jewish heritage [notes thanks to Joseph Stevenson/All Music Guide]. Listen to a performance of Schnittke's Symphony No. 8 . . . it's this week's FROM THE PYTHEAS ARCHIVES.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

It's hard to see an explicit connection between Michael Torke's The Yellow Pages (1985) [from The Telephone Book] and the well-known phone book section of the same name, except that they both achieve great diversity through the repetition of certain basic ideas. It is light, busy music, with dynamic rhythms and a pleasing sunny quality. Torke keeps the one and only theme in mind throughout the work; the chords underlying the material vary, and so does the actual statement of the melody, but it is always recognizably similar music. Each of the various instruments has its moments of prominence and silence, and each gets a chance to elaborate on the theme in its own way. The music moves from key to key often enough that the ear does not suffer fatigue. In the end, perhaps the title refers to the catalog of possibilities for the opening theme - The Yellow Pages seems like a complete compendium of the various modifications the theme could undergo, from A to Z [notes thanks to the All Music Guide]. Watch a performance of Michael Torke's The Yellow Pages played by members of the ONIX Ensemble . . . one of this week's FEATURED NEW MUSIC VIDEOS.

Dutch composer Ton Bruynèl studied from 1952 to 1956 with Wolfgang Wijdeveld at the Utrecht Conservatory, at the same time taking private composition lessons with Kees van Baaren. From 1957 he concentrated on electronic music, establishing his own studio, where he composed Reflexes (1961), based on manipulations of a recorded drumbeat. His Mobile, for two soundtracks, was awarded a prize during the Gaudeamus Music Week in 1966. Since then he has sought to refine the combination and blending of synthetic and acoustic sounds. For his achievements in this field his Chicharras and Adieu petit prince won prizes in 1986 at the Festival International de Musique Electroacoustique Synthèse in Bourges. Bruynèl has been interested in combining electronic music with other art forms. One such work, Signs (1969), a collaboration with the artist Gérard van den Eerenbeemd, was played and exhibited at the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum. Listen to Ton Bruynèl's Reflexes . . . it's our FEATURED SOUND ART for the week.

Ricardo Romaneiro was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil and currently lives in New York City. He earned his undergraduate degree in composition at the Manhattan School of Music under the tutelage of Richard Danielpour, and following private studies with Samuel Zyman completed his Master of Music degree at the Juilliard School, studying with Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Christopher Rouse. Romaneiro seeks to synthesize his interest in electronic music with his background in classical composition. His music has been commissioned and performed by ensembles and institutions such as the Metropolis Ensemble, the Museum of Modern Art's Summergarden Series, Wordless Music, the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, the New Juilliard Ensemble, Quintet of the Americas, the Colorado Ballet, and the Sacramento Ballet. Listen to a performance of Ricardo Romaneiro's Ventos (2007) . . . it's one of our PYTHEAS EARFULS for the week.

Mark Gresham is an American composer whose music is rooted in traditions of neo-romanticism, yet explores modern and eclectic influences with a passionate lyricism that is sensitive to word, history, and sense of place. His compositions have been performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Youth Orchestra, Bent Frequency, Thamyris, Georgia State University Percussion Ensemble, the Atlanta Symphony Brass Quintet, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, the National Lutheran Choir, the New York Concert Singers, the Emory University Concert Choir, the Plymouth Music Series, the Candler Choraliers, and the choir of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul (Boston), among others. Gresham began writing music in his teens, when he also studied conducting with Michael Palmer (associate conductor with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra). In addition to being a composer and conductor, Gresham is a writer and music journalist. His book of interviews, Choral Conversations, is scheduled for re-release in an expanded second edition, and he has been a contributing writer for Creative Loafing-Atlanta since 2002, winning an ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award in music journalism in 2003. Listen to a performance of Mark Gresham's Mortal Coils . . . it's this week's FROM THE PYTHEAS ARCHIVES.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Olga Neuwirth's "Torsion"  Olga Neuwirth's Torsion (2002) for bassoon, ensemble and tape is a mindblowingly virtuosic piece and a catalogue of every extended technique possible on the instrument: circular breathing, multiphonics, microtonality, etc. The tape part generally amplifies the breath-like characteristics of the bassoon part, but the climax of the work occurs as the tape suddenly presents an authentic recording of 1920s klezmer music on clarinet, a touch very representative of the Austrian Neuwirth, who has generally followed in Helmut Lachenmann's style of musique concrete instrumentale, but never lost her love for cabaret [note thanks to Christopher Culver,]. Watch a performance of Olga Neuwirth's Torsion with bassoonist Adrian Morejon and the Talea Ensemble, James Baker, conducting  . . . one of this week's FEATURED NEW MUSIC VIDEOS.

Nir Shalev (at the blog Commentary Track) writes about Martin Scorsese's 1999 film Bringing Out the Dead: "This is my personal favorite Martin Scorsese film and it boasts a terrific performance from Nicolas Cage, who performs with realism instead of being over-expressionist, terrific performances from the rest of the cast, and a terrific soundtrack that contains popular songs from the 1970s to the 1990s - as well as an original score by the great Elmer Bernstein. There are a lot of different feelings that we go through from having even a single viewing of the film. This isn't a plot-driven film, but a character-centered piece that contains a beginning, middle, and an end, and a raw infinite emotion that grows with every viewing." Watch an excerpt from Bringing Out the Dead - the film's end, and end credits, underlain with Elmer Bernstein's moving score . . . it's our PYTHEAS SIGHTING.

Although a late bloomer, Italian composer Goffredo Petrassi developed into one of Italy's most significant composers of the mid to late twentieth century. Launching his career in the 1930s with music on par with contemporary works by Hindemith and Stravinsky, Petrassi eventually became interested in certain twelve-tone techniques without casting his lot with the serialists. His music is dynamic and colorful, although emotionally reserved by the standards of his countrymen. He first gained notice as a composer in 1932 with his prize winning Partita for orchestra. He focused on orchestral music through most of the 1930s, in 1934 completing the first of his signature works, the eight Concertos for Orchestra. Around this time, Petrassi also turned his attention to choral music, melding polyphony with modern harmony in such works as Salmo IX (1936) and his Magnificat (1940). Unlike most Italian composers up to that time, Petrassi had little interest in theater music, aside from four minor incidental scores and nine film scores. From the late 1950s on Petrassi's music became increasingly athematic, concentrating on timbral effects using short patterns of intervals, particularly in a series of solo and chamber works from 1969 through 1981 [note thanks to James Reel, AllMusic]. Listen to a performance of Goffredo Petrassis Fanfare per tre trombe in do (1944; rev. 1976) . . . it's one of our PYTHEAS EARFULS for the week.

Leslie Gerber asks: "What the heck is a Heckelphone? As you might guess from hearing that it's played by an oboist, it's a double-reed instrument pitched lower than an oboe and higher than a bassoon, invented at the turn of the century. It never became popular, and aside from Paul Hindemith's Trio you'll probably never hear another one. It's well known that Hindemith spent a great deal of compositional effort to write works for instruments that do not have much contemporary repertoire. Listen to his efforts for the rarely heard Heckelphone in his Heckelphone Trio, op. 47 (1928) . . . this week's FROM THE PYTHEAS ARCHIVES.

Monday, April 2, 2012

 Neil W. Levin, at the Milken Archive of Jewish Music, writes, "In composing her String Quartet No. 3 (1997), which is subtitled In Memoriam Holocaust, Schönthal was fully reticent about the artistic as well as ethical dangers inherent in trying to represent through music the calculated annihilation of European Jewry. 'I always wanted to stay away from the Holocaust,' she explained in a 1999 interview, 'because I didn’t want to trivialize it. Some composers use it,' she lamented, referring to the continual opportunistic efforts to exploit the event for personal career attention - a phenomenon that seems to be on the rise even at the beginning of the 21st century. 'They make decorative material out of it - cheap stuff.' Still, Schönthal realized that art is too powerful a medium to eliminate this subject altogether from consideration as a vehicle - not so much of depicting the Holocaust, but of ensuring its perpetual remembrance. 'The challenge here is that when you want to convert something into art with an agenda like that, ultimately it still must be art - it still must be a work on its own.' She feels that eventually she found a way in this work, by using the quartet as a representation of four different personal experiences and reactions, including the most significant and telling element of all: nothing and nothingness. One of the defining features of the Germans’ collective murder of European Jewry - one that in many ways distinguishes it from all previous massacres, perpetrated horrors, and even attempted genocides throughout history - is that the Jews’ death was essentially for no purpose, to no advantage to its enemies, and to accomplish no objective - for nothing. 'Nothing -this is a moment the quartet captures,' Schönthal emphasized. " Watch a performance Ruth Schönthal's  String Quartet No. 3, In Memorian Holocaust performed by Alfred Pfleger and Georg Schrofl (violins), Serkan Gurkan (viola), and Irene Frank (cello) . . . one of this week's FEATURED NEW MUSIC VIDEOS.

Piano Spheres (Los Angeles, California, USA) supports and encourages the composition and performance of major new works for the piano. It expands the piano repertoire by commissioning new music and sustaining a concert series of the highest artistic quality which focuses primarily on pieces by contemporary composers. In its concerts, Piano Spheres provides a context for these new works by including lesser-known music by established composers whose compositions influenced the course of piano music. To find out more about Piano Spheres at their website . . . they're our FEATURED ENSEMBLE.

Of Corsican descent, Henri Tomasi was born in 1901 in Marseilles, where he studied before entering the Paris Conservatoire. There he was a composition pupil of Paul Vidal, winning the Prix de Rome in 1927. He also studied with D’Indy. He established himself as a conductor and as a composer for the theatre, with a series of concertos that displayed his very considerable powers of orchestration. He wrote his Ballade for Saxophone (1938) for his friend Marcel Mule, one of the leading saxophonists in France. In form and inspiration the work follows the tradition of the fourteenth-century ballade of the medieval troubadours, with the solo saxophone taking the rôle of the clown. The work is based on a poem by Suzanne Malard, Tomasi's wife. Listen to a performance of Tomasi's Ballade for Saxophone played by saxophonist Hayrapet Arakelyan, and Hochschule für Musik und Tanz, Köln . . . it's one of our PYTHEAS EARFULS for the week.