Monday, May 28, 2012

Jean Françaix realised the "making pleasure" which was the French music supreme purpose for Debussy. Françaix's works are typically French: they have charm and spirit, yet often irony, too. His style resides in his sense of humour, his big literary culture, and his relationship with occidental musical tradition. Asked about his own music, Françaix wrote: "I was told that my works were easy. Those who say that have probably never played my works themselves. My works are not considered contemporary music, but I am not dead yet." Françaix wrote his Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano in 1990 in celebration of the 300th birthday of the clarinet and based it's instrumentation on Mozart’s classic Kegelstatt Trio. Watch a performance of  Jean Françaix's Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano (1990) played by Julie DeRoche (clarinet), Rami Solomonow (viola), and Aglika Angelova (piano)  . . . one of this week's FEATURED NEW MUSIC VIDEOS.

Ruth Schönthal was an American composer and pianist of German birth whose eclectic music brought together elements as diverse as European Romanticism, Mexican folk song and Minimalism. Schönthal began her musical studies at the Stern Conservatory in Berlin when she was 5. In 1935, she was expelled, along with other Jewish students, at the insistence of the Nazis, and in 1938 she emigrated with her family to Sweden, where she enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm. In 1941, the family fled Stockholm; unable to obtain a visa for the United States, they went to Mexico City. In Mexico, Schönthal studied composition with Rodolfo Halffter and Manuel Ponce, and in 1946 she gave the premiere of her Concerto Romantico for Piano and Orchestra. Composer Paul Hindemith, who was in the audience, invited her to study with him at Yale. She graduated from Yale in 1948, and at first earned a living by writing advertising jingles and popular songs. But she also performed as a concert pianist and was highly regarded for her improvisatory skills. And she composed prolifically, often drawn to social, historical and religious themes. Her music found an audience in Germany, and in 1994 she was awarded the Heidelberg International Composition Prize for Women Composers. The same year, a biography, Ruth Schonthal: A Composer’s Musical Development in Exile, by Martina Helmig, was published in Germany, and later in an English translation. Listen to Ruth Schönthal talk about her work A Bird Over Jerusalem . . . it's our COMPOSER PORTRAIT for the week.

Composer Judith Zaimont writes about her Virgie Rainey - Two Narratives (2002): "While my earliest music is for the voice, in recent years I have not written quite so much for this medium, so the invitation to set Eudora Welty's words was especially enticing. Virgie Rainey portrays an independent, willful young woman, limned in reflection by her response to two emotional pivot points, one deeply saddening and the other rather frivolous. In Narrative One Virgie learns of the death of someone close to her and then proceeds, as if in a trance, down to the river to immerse herself (in quasi-baptismal sorrow). The tale is told in fragments of interrupted chant, mirroring Virgie's unconscious yet urgent journey by gradual and inexorable shifts to ever-faster tempi. Narrative Two is a delicious comic tale of Virgie's love-hate relationship with the piano - imagined in the opening phrase of Für Elise: the only music she ever played well - and her battle of wills with her piano teacher. Naturally, Beethoven distortions abound, set within a 'mock-opera' ambience." Listen to Narrative One from Judith Zaimont's  Virgie Rainey - Two Narratives  performed by soprano Wendy Zaro-Mullins, mezzo-soprano Jean del Santo, and pianist Timothy Lovelace. . . it's one of our PYTHEAS EARFUL for the week.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

French composer Regis Campo writes about his chamber piece Pop-art (2002), "The playing styles [in Pop-art] are more developed than usual, so sometimes the player strokes the instrument, at others it is hit, sometimes it becomes a toy and is even furtively kissed (although only the flute and clarinet). Thus the underlying development of the work, as serious and strict as can be, is totally masked by these various theatrical aspects." Indeed, Pop-art is highly theatrical and fun to listen to. Given these qualities and its Pierrot-esque instrumentation (flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano), it's surprising that Pop-art isn't programmed with greater frequency. There is something quite fresh about Campo's sound world.  This stems less from a unique stylistic perspective and more from a palpable buoyancy that permeates his musical discourse. Rhythmic activity is typically fast-paced and syncopated, propelling one idea effortlessly into the next (notes thanks to Watch a performance of Regis Campo's Pop-art performed by the Uusinta Chamber Ensemble . . . one of this week's FEATURED NEW MUSIC VIDEOS.

Rupture (2007) is a new dance theater piece by choreographer Jill Sigman and composer Kristen Norderval. Rupture is a feverish dream, a strange requiem, an Alice in Wonderland story in a time of disorder. Set in a charged landscape that includes hundreds of broken eggshells, the work weaves together the story of Sigman's acute calf injury with her travels in India, Berlin, and New Orleans to explore breaking and healing on personal, architectural, and global scales. Conceived as a solo with chorus, Rupture is danced by choreographer Jill Sigman with Toby Billowitz, Donna Costello, Hilary Maia Grubb, and Jennifer Sydor. The multi-media work is set to an original score for voice and electronics performed live by Kristin Norderval, with live video mixing by Katherine Liberovskaya, video editing by Jill Sigman and Lisa Niedermeyer and lighting and set design by Jonathan Belcher. Watch an excerpt from the Jill Sigman/Kristen Norderval collaboration Rupture . . it's our DANSES PYTHEUSES for the week.

When he died in June 1980, Allan Pettersson left a significant number of sketches and various other manuscripts. Some years later the German composer Peter Ruzicka, who was very interested in Pettersson's music, discovered a previously unknown Viola Concerto among these manuscripts. Not even Pettersson's widow knew of the existence of the work, which was written in 1979. As manager of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Ruzicka requested her permission to mount the premiere of the piece in Berlin, which took place eight years after the composer's death, in September 1988. The Romanian conductor Sergui Comissiona, a champion of Pettersson's music, was on the podium and the viola soloist was Yuri Bashmet. During his years as a performing musician Pettersson had been a viola player, and it is therefore not at all surprising that he wrote a concerto for viola. One may indeed wonder why the work was composed so late. In order to find a possible explanation, we must examine the character of the music. The center of gravity of Pettersson's output was in the symphonic arena, where he often combined massive formal construction with a correspondingly large orchestral apparatus. In contrast, the Viola Concerto can be seen as a dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra, and the texture as a whole is more delicate. This was by no means the first time in the history of music that a composer wrote a sort of transfigured summary towards the end of his life - one only needs to look at Richard Strauss and his Four Last Songs and Oboe Concerto. It may also be symbolicly significance that Pettersson "reserved" his own instrument for this occasion, and that he kept the existence of the piece secret. The concerto, which plays for roughly half an hour, has no beginning in the customary sense, but starts "in mid stream", with the aforementioned musical dialogue. As so often with Pettersson, the construction is in a single movement, and the solo part is extremely difficult - one could maybe call it "ungrateful" in that many of the difficulties remain hidden from the listener. The work ends as abruptly as it began, with a climax which is suddenly interrupted - Is it an exclamation mark? - A question mark??? (notes thanks to lendallpitts @ YouTube). Listen to a performance of Allan Pettersson's Viola Concerto" (1979) played by violist Nobuko Imai and the Malmo Symphony Orchestra, Lev Markiz conducting . . . it's one of our PYTHEAS EARFULS for the week.

Heather Schmidt's Lunar Reflections (2008) is a five movement work for violin, cello and piano based of five different full moons: Blue Moon, Pink Moon, Wolf Moon, Snow Moon, and Thunder Moon. The Blue Moon only comes once a year, being the 13th one in the lunar cycle. The fast, rippling, Pink Moon movement stands for sprays of April blossom. Wolf Moon is "darker", bringing to mind hunger and the darkness of January. The Snow Moon of February gives birth to beautifully ethereal music, like shimmering snow, and the Thunder Moon of July is of course loud, with rumbles and flashes emanating from all three instruments. Listen to a performance of the Blue Moon movement from Canadian composer/pianist Heather Schmidt's Lunar Reflections . . . it's this week's FROM THE PYTHEAS ARCHIVES.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Augusta Read Thomas' Rush (2004) for solo violin was commissioned by Saint Paul Sunday and American Public Media Radio for violinist Rachel Barton Pine, who premiered the work on the Saint Paul  Sunday radio program on April 17th, 2005. Rush, according to composer Augusta Read Thomas, "is a kind of rich fanfare which shows off the virtuosity of the soloist. I was thinking of coffee rush and sugar rush images when I composed this work, as well as the dazzling and profoundly nuanced technical skill of Rachel. She and I have worked together on many projects and it was a pure joy to compose this piece for her." Watch Rachel Barton Pine perform Augusta Read Thomas' Rush . . . one of this week's FEATURED NEW MUSIC VIDEOS.

Tobias (of ) has many goods words about Gernot Wolfgang's Albany Records release Common Ground . . . "One of the best little anecdotes of the past few months, which I can’t seem to forget, is the moment when my friend Fred Wheeler, who also regularly contributes to, in his interview with Marcos Fernandes, asked whether Marcos had ever experienced shivers down his spine from listening to experimental music – and received a laughingly delivered 'No!'. It appears as though even the greatest purveryors of sounds away from the mainstream are turning to other styles and genres when looking for emotional stimulation. The same feeling is mirrored by Austrian-born composer Gernot Wolfgang, who now resides in Los Angeles when I talked to him about Common Ground: 'The thing that I’m still missing in many contemporary music concerts is getting goose bumps from the presence of exciting rhythms, like what happens to me at good jazz concerts.' But how can contemporary composition ever connect with more than just a handful of people, when it lacks this element, which to many is the reason they fell in love with music in the first place? Well, writing a review of Gernot Wolfgang's Common Ground also means writing about ways of attracting new audiences and about finding the key to their – yes! – hearts. To Gernot the key has a name and it spelled G-R-O-O-V-E-S." Find out more about Gernot Wolfgang, and his Albany Records release Common Ground, and hear audio excerpts from the album  . . . it's our FEATURED RECORDING for the week.
. . . and read Tobias' full review  here

Composer Douglas Knehans writes about his orchestral work ripple (2002): "Ripple - when referring to sound - is defined as ‘to go on or proceed with an effect, like that of water flowing in ripples.’ In this work I have interpreted this meaning very literally in that the opening grid of full orchestral stabs sets up a rhythmic framework from which a hocketed treatment arises of winds and strings supported by the brass and  percussion. A secondary ripple is set in place with more playful ideas in the woodwinds. This material ‘ripples’ through the work in various guises: set contrapuntally in a very slow form in the middle section of the work as well as providing expressive focus when set for strings only about three quarters of the way through the piece. Of course the fast sections are always punctuated by this material set in its original scherzando form and serving to contrast the bold muscularity of the full orchestral hits punctuating the piece." Listen to a performance of Douglas Knehans' ripple by the Kiev Philharmonic . . . it's one of our PYTHEAS EARFULS for the week.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Jean Françaix wrote in an accessible, attractive style that often led listeners and commentators to ignore the depth and originality present in much of his music. The light, witty character of Françaix's music has caused some to dismiss it as frivolous. Others have decried the fact that his style remained static throughout his life. In reality, he had found all he needed and achieved his mature voice immediately. His orchestrations are always clear and sparkling, his forms precise and neo-Classical, his emotions reserved. Watch a performance of the first movement of Jean Francaix's Double Concerto for Flute, Clarinet and Orchestra (1991) . . . it's one of this week's FEATURED NEW MUSIC VIDEOS.

François Bayle, composer, theorist, pioneer in electronic music, coined the term acousmatic to designate music that does not result from a physical source. His works have been performed worldwide, and as director of Groupe de Recherches Musicales from 1975 to 1997, he presided over a major program of research, publications, concert production, and CD, DVD, and book publication. In 1974, he created the Acousmonium, a loudspeaker orchestra. Writing about Bayle's Morceaux de Ciels (1996) Gerard Denizeau muses, "One of the remarkable features of this magnificent piece lies in the fact that it often moves in four-track blocks; and always, initially, in pairs. As a result, the listener, aware of an overall sound over four poles, finds himself with no alternative but to mentally reduce to one source the turbulent sounds he hears on four tracks. François Bayle may be compared to a watercolorist who provides an infinite number of nuances but refuses, in the midst of his experimentation, to set things down in a definitive state." Listen to François Bayle's Morceaux de Ciels . . . it's our FEATURED SOUND ART for the week.

John Psathas, as well as being one of a few New Zealand composers who have made a mark on the international scene, is now also widely considered one of the three most important living composers of the Greek Diaspora. Raised in Taumaranui and Napier, Psathas is the son of Greek immigrant parents who arrived in New Zealand in the early 1960s. His music has been commissioned and performed by many great musicians and orchestras around the world. These include Michael Brecker, Dame Evelyn Glennie, Michael Houstoun, Joshua Redman, The New Zealand String Quartet, Federico Mondelci, The New Zealand Trio, Pedro Carneiro, the Takacs Quartet, The Netherlands Blazers Ensemble, the Halle Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic, the Melbourne Symphony, the BBC Scottish Symphony, the NZSO, and many others. Listen to a performance John Psathas' Summary of the Human Presence (2011) . . . it's our BANG, CLANG and BEAT for the week..

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

It was in 1973 that Copi (Argentinean born playwright Raul Damonte Botana, 1939-1987) published his Les quatre jumelles (The Four Binoculars), a play which is, like its predecessors (La Journee d'une reveuse, Eva Peron, etc.), part of the legacy of the Theater of the Absurd, which first appeared in the 1950s with the plays of Adamov, Beckett and Ionesco. Indeed, all these works share in the rejection of realism, a lack of plot and their focus on tragicomedy. As for the basics of Les quatre jumelles: in an imaginary Alaskan town, the Goldwashing sisters, gold diggers in search of work, meet the Smith sisters, with whom begins a relentless fight to the death. In this closeted burlesque, dominated by the figure of a towering transvestite, Copi plays casually with transgressions (drugs, the most trivial insults, etc) as stereotypes of the most minor genres (the juvenile delinquent Goldwashing sisters are worthy of the most out of date soap opera). From this source, more than thirty years later, Regis Campo draws his comic opera in one act - what some have called "a genre which reinvents the current trend in contemporary French opera". Watch an excerpt from Regis Campo's Les Quatre Jumelles, with "sopranist" Fabrice di Falco and Ensemble TM+, Laurent Cuniot conducting . . . one of this week's FEATURED NEW MUSIC VIDEOS.

Even if Luciano Berio's Circles (1960) - based on three poems by e. e. cummings - points to the major musical interests of its time, in particular the use of a text's phonetic traits, its truly innovative qualities lie in the way the study of simple development, based on a physical analogy between the phonetic and instrumental material, is carried out to the benefit of a deeper exploration of all aspects of linguistic and musical organization. In this sense, the text is a base line from which all else can be derived, and to which everything can be traced back. Circles is the result of a convergence between a type of literature that achieves a "musical" autonomy (Joyce's Finnegans Wake is one extreme case) and an explosion of traditional forms and a type of music which attempts, by means of the structures of spoken language, to win back the characteristics of all language, whether musical or linguistic [note thanks to Jacques Demierre]. Watch a performance of Berio's Circles, played by the Fredonia Retro Ensemble . . . it's our FEATURED SOUND ART for the week.

According to composer Nancy Bloomer Deussen, Carmel by-the Sea was originally the middle movement of a larger work entitled Rustic Sketches which was composed in 1987 for the Oakland Chamber Orchestra. Unfortunately, the Oakland Chamber Orchestra never actually performed the work, as the orchestra went bankrupt that same year, and eventually folded before the work's premiere. The Nova Vista Symphony, with conductor Emily Ray, gave the work its first performance in 1987. Deussen spent much time over her Rustic Sketches and eventually decided to revise its first and last movements. At the same time, she concluded that the middle movement was exactly right and could stand on its own as a separate orchestral work. Originally entitled At Water's Edge, she renamed it Carmel by-the Sea and added it to her works for orchestra. At its core, it is a musical watercolor that depicts the beautiful seaside town of Carmel by-the-Sea, California." Listen to a performance of Nancy Bloomer Deussen's Carmel by-the Sea . . . it's one of our PYTHEAS EARFULS for the week.

Iva Bittova is a Czech avant-garde violinist, singer and composer of Romani ethnicity. She began her career as an actress in the mid 1970s, appearing in several of Czech feature films, but switched to playing violin and singing in the early 1980s. She started recording in 1986, and by 1990 her unique
vocal and instrumental technique gained her international recognition. Since then, she has performed regularly all over Europe, the United States and Japan, and has made more than eight solo albums. In addition to her musical career, Bittova has continued acting and still occasionally appears in feature films. In 2003 she played the part of Zena in Zelary, a film nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2004 Academy Awards. Critics from all over the world try, often unsuccessfully, to classify
Bittova. Some say she is like Meredith Monk, others call up Laurie Anderson, or even Diamanda Galas. But Bittova - drawing from a well of pure natural talent and Gypsy-Jewish blood - is an individual, outstanding performer, composer and actress. "Though well-known from her entrancing recordings, Bittova is more of a marvel in person. Physically slight and wearing a red cocktail dress, she emits an incredibly improbable combination of sounds with pinpoint precision, as casually as most people would a folk song or nursery rhyme. Imagine Minnie Ripperton as a chattering fairy or Meredith Monk on helium gas. Always ... she seemed to operate from some musical ground zero - one that also puts you in touch with the most elemental purpose of music, and why you first came to love it" [notes thanks to The Philadelphia Inquirer]. Watch Iva Bittova perform her Divna Slecinka (A Strange Young Lady) (1996) with the Netherlands Wind Ensemble . . . it's this week's FROM THE PYTHEAS ARCHIVES.