MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Listening to Iceland

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With just a few hours here and there over the years spent during layovers at Keflavik Airport, I have yet to make a proper excursion to Iceland (and that most certainly is on my list). But for the time being there’s the composer Anna Thorvaldsdottír.

Her recent release on Sono Luminus, titled In the Light of Air, might seem like another “soundscape” to the casual ear: a cinematic evocation that comfortably conforms to the images we’ve filed away for a specific place on the planet.

A lot of Sibelius gets talked about this way, and it’s happened to John Luther Adams and Alaska as well. But — as with Sibelius and JLA — that’s only a superficial point of entry with Thorvaldsdottír. If these are soundscapes, they’re filled with surprises that question the clichés.

The pregnant repetitions of notes, eerie glides along the strings, the harp’s piquant fall: they all become strangely, even disturbingly, alluring, their gathered patterns distilling an unusual blend of calm and unease: Thorvaldsdottír awakens slumbering mysteries.

Scored for viola, cello, harp, piano, percussion, and electronics, In the Light of Air is a suite comprising four movements: “Luminance,” “Serenity,” Existence,” and — the longest of the four — “Remembrance.” Thorvaldsdottír builds lucid but unpredictable textures using this lovely instrumentarium, with each player eventually emerging as a soloist against the context of the others. The result touches on the archaic, with early musicy drones, but also brings to mind a sci-fi adventure Morton Feldman might have imagined.

Thorvaldsdottír conceived In the Light of Air as an installation integrating music and a lighting design that reacts to both the playing and the breathing of the musicians: the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), who premiered the work at the Reykjavik Arts Festival on May 25th 2014.

“Internally I hear sounds and nuances as musical melodies and enjoy weaving various sounds together with harmonies and lyrical material,” says the composer. “Structurally I like working with perspectives of details and the unity of the whole and the relationship between the two.”

Thorvaldsdottír additionally designed an installation of metallic ornaments tom complement her music — known as klakabönd (“a bind of ice”) in Icelandic — which were realized by Svana Jósepsdóttir. Here’s a video that gives at least a little flavor of that experience:

Filed under: CD review, new music

Terry Riley at 80, on 20 Fingers


“That’s the sort of thing that’s always interested me: things where you can’t quite figure out what you are hearing,” says Terry Riley — and the maverick composer’s curiosity hasn’t abated a bit over the years.

Today Terry Riley has reached the milestone age of 80. “In addition to his artistic legacy — a long and varied creative record that includes some of the most notable works in the history of minimalism and post-minimalism — Riley must hold some kind of record as the happiest and least stress-afflicted musician now working,” writes Joshua Kosman in his recent profile.

A new release from the piano duo ZOFO offers an intriguing perspective on the work of this Minimalist pioneer (who played jazz piano early in his career).

Eva-Maria Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi — the pianists who comprise ZOFO (decoded as a visual pun for “20” plus “fingered orchestra”) — started their collaboration with a performance of “Cinco de Mayo” from The Heaven Ladder, Book 5, a collection of the native Californian’s pieces for piano-four-hands originally commissioned by Sarah Cahill.

“There is nothing quite like hearing the full eight octaves of a piano sounding in all its orchestral richness,” according to Riley. “ZOFO realizes the full potential of four-hand playing. They think and play as if guided by a Universal mind.”

Riley was so impressed by what ZOFO had done with “Cinco de Mayo” that he encouraged them to take on the rest of his four-hand piano oeuvre, which consists of the four other piece in The Heaven Ladder, Book 5: “Etude from the Old Country,” “Jaztine,” “Tango Doble Ladiado,” and “Waltz for Charismas.”

To expand this body of work into a full-length CD, Nakagoshi made arrangements of two additional pieces, consulting and collaborating with the composer: “G String” and “Half-Wolf Dances Mad in Moonlight” (both string quartets). Zimmermann meanwhile made a four-hand arrangement of “Simone’s Lullaby,” a solo piece from Book 7 of The Heaven Ladder originally written for Gloria Cheng. ZOFO commissioned Riley to write a short additional piece, “Praying Mantis Rag.”

Regarding the role of improvisation in Riley’s aesthetic, Zimmermann says: “For me to see Terry perform also played a big role in how I approached this recording session. He is so totally free when he performs, improvising over his own ideas. It’s so much about the moment and the essence of the music. This is so healthy for me as a perfectionist….”

Filed under: American music, anniversary, CD review, piano

Current Playlist: Aschenmusik


It’s always interesting to see which composers turn out to be soul mates — especially when the affinity crosses barriers of time and cultural expectations.

The extraordinary Swiss musician Heinz Holliger — oboist supreme, composer, and conductor — has followed the traces of Robert Schumann throughout his life, always with revealing and sometimes surprising results. This new release from ECM weaves together music by Schumann (viewed, so to speak, from an oboist’s perspective) and one of Holliger’s own Schumann homages, Romancendres (2003) — an attempt to rescue his predecessor’s burned Romances for Cello and Piano “from the ashes” (hence the current album title, Aschenmusik).

ECM has recorded this Holliger composition before (on another intriguing program that includes the Swiss composer’s overlayering of texts by Hölderlin for a reimagining of Schumann’s Gesänge der Frühe, from 1853, the same year as the burnt Romances). But Aschenmusik, released to celebrate Holliger’s 75th birthday this year, also showcases his breathtaking musicianship as an oboist. The entire CD is dedicated to Holliger’s late wife, the harpist Ursula Holliger, who died in January of this year.

Granted, the tracklist is somewhat peculiar, juxtaposing Romancendres (for cello and piano) with Schumann rarities as well as other pieces arranged for oboe or cello. So we have the Six Studies in Canon Form, Op. 56 (1845), for oboe d’amore, cello, and piano; the Three Romances for Oboe and Piano, Op. 94 (1849); the Intermezzo from the “FAE Sonata” in A minor, WoO 2 (1853), reworked for oboe d’amore and piano; and an arrangement of the Violin Sonata No. 1 in A minor, Op. 105 (1851), substituting cello for violin (thus suggesting a sonic coherence with Holliger’s own cello-piano piece).

But listening to the whole program — and late nights seem especially amenable to this music for some reason, I find — gives the impression of a very personal encounter with Schumann, an encounter that seeks to go beyond the myths.

Holliger observes (in an interview with Claus Spahn included in the booklet) how his own views of Schumann have changed over the years, with regard to the Romances for example: “25 years ago I wanted to show that [they] are not only romantic and poetic, but very precise and elaborate in their workmanship. Today I can treat them with greater license. Their linguistic character is more important to me. I try to play them like three completely different poems.”

Indeed his variety of expression is captivating, abetted by sensitive accompaniment at the keyboard from Austrian pianist Anton Kernjak. One of Holliger’s main insights here is that “in trying to write tightly structured music [Schumann] intensified the poetic.”

Aschenmusik prompts reflections on the distance between a composer’s imagined creations and what makes it to “the real world” of pen and paper, manuscript — and then what relation later generations have to these artefacts. Music history is full of stories of composers revising, frustrated by first performances, or rejecting works wholesale and consigning them to the flames.

But in the case of Schumann’s lost Cello Romances, it was those who loved him who thought they were doing right by destroying his work: Clara Schumann, acting on the advice of Brahms, thought she was “safeguarding” her husband’s reputation by suppressing this and other works from his final lucid period. The fear was that the music would be perceived as showing evidence of a deteriorating mind — which in fact became a self-fulfilling prophesy in the case of the rediscovered Violin Concerto, whose reception has been complicated precisely by this bias surrounding the score.

Holliger points out that his Romancendres — performed together with the warmly expressive principal cellist of the Zurich Tonhall Orchestra, Anita Leuzinger — does not aim “to reconstruct a lost Schumann work,” though his “initial impetus was to rebel against this barbaric act of destruction.”

My idea was that Schumann’s entire life is contained in the ashes of the burnt Cello Romances, That’s why I wrote the four middle movements of “Romancendres” from the viewpoint of a dying man whose entire life passes through his mind in fractions of a second at the moment of his death.

Filed under: CD review, Schumann

Current Playlist: Music of George Walker


An update: Here’s another (unnumbered) volume in the Albany Records series featuring George Walker‘s music. (The label also has a series focusing on Mr. Walker as pianist.

Highlights are Music for 3 (1971) and his Piano Sonatas No. 3 (1976) and No. 5 (2003), along with several songs to the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Robert Burns, and others.


Albany Records has added a fourth volume to its laudable series of recordings of music by George Theophilus Walker. At 92 (going on 93), Mr. Walker remains an active composer and was recently nominated for New Jersey’s Hall of fame — he resides in Montclair — and if he wins, it would make a lovely addition to his accolades. They just happen to include a slew of honorary doctorates, AASCAP’s Aaron Copland Award, induction into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame … oh, and a Pulitzer, which he received in 1996 for his Whitman-inspired Lilacs.

These are sensitive but rigorous performances and give a wonderful spread of Mr. Walker’s career, from Antifonys for String Orchestra (love the title), originally composed in 1967 for double string quartet, and the Pulitzer-winning Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra to several compositions that prove Mr. Walker’s creative energy has not dimmed.

I’m especially attracted to the 2012 work Sinfonia No. 4 (“Strands”), which I recently heard as part of the National Symphony’s innovative New Moves series. (My notes on the piece are here.) To be honest, the account on this CD is a good deal richer and more compellingly shaped than what I heard in the live performance. Conductor Ian Hobson, leading Poland’s Sinfonia Varsovia, not only gets the solemnity and idea-dense intricacy of this music but knows how to articulate its drama, its transitional energy.

Mr. Walker explains that the guiding idea behind the title “Strands” involves an “interplay” of thematic material that’s both severely compact and, with the subtle introduction of two quotations from spirituals, visionary and affirming. Given the task of writing a short “concert opener” with this commission, he chose a complex, densely argued soundscape over an easy crowd-pleasing rouser. It’s powerful stuff.

I hadn’t realized Mr. Walker originally wrote Lilacs with Vinson Cole in mind. Mr. Cole has had an illustrious career at Seattle Opera — I’ve heard his exquisite tenor on several occasions — but he was “unable to sing the part” at the world premiere in 1996 by the Boston Symphony under Seiji Ozawa. They had commissioned Lilacs as a brief work for a concert to commemorate the legendary tenor Roland Hayes. Mr. Walker therefore was asked to reconfigure the piece for a soprano, Faye Robinson, who sang the solo part in the premiere. (Geoff Gehman has the whole story here.)

On this recording Albert Rudolph Lee provides the originally intended tenor solo, singing this demanding, high-lying part with emotional fervor and conviction. As for the “eight minutes” originally stipulated by the commission, we’re fortunate that Mr. Walker followed his muse and composed a characteristically eloquent piece of 14 minutes (divided into four sections), the whole packed with gripping ideas and fragrant sound colors.

Further evidence of Mr. Walker’s phenomenal creative drive at an advanced age is found in Movements for Cello and Orchestra, another product of his 90th year (2012). Dmitry Kousov is the splendid protagonist in this inventive rethinking of the cello concerto format.

For more information on this American treasure, Ethan Iverson has conducted an interview at dothemath.

(c) 2014 Thomas May – All rights reserved.

Filed under: American music, CD review, new music

Current Playlist: El Maestro Farinelli

As I try to work through some of the titles that have grabbed my attention from the most recent pileup of CD releases:

El Maestro Farinelli with countertenor Bejun Mehta and Pablo Heras-Casado conducting the Concerto Köln. I have yet to hear anything routine from the amazing Spanish conductor. These performances of music by little-heard Baroque opera composers (including Porpora, Hasse, de Nebra, Jomelli, Corradini, Marcolini, and Traetta; there’s also a C.P.E. Bach Sinfonia title “Fandango”) show off the many-faceted Maestro Heras-Casado’s early-music expertise.

The guiding idea behind the program is to retrieve works Farinelli produced during the years he served as an imperial impresario in Madrid and Aranjuez — works long since fallen into oblivion. (Apparently many of these composers’ orchestral scores were destroyed in a palace fire in the 19th century.)

Mehta sings only two numbers (one a brief zarzuela duet with a decidedly non-“HIP” overdubbing of his voice for both parts) but channels all the mystery and charisma of an 18th-century Klaus Nomi for the compelling Porpora aria (“Alto Giove, è tua grazia,” from Polifemo). I wish there were more vocal music here.

Heras-Casado and the players bring stylish, pointed energy to the instrumental selections — the bulk of the material here — but my first impression is that too much of the program may be the 18th-century equivalent of easy-listening music, perky and caffeinated as it is. But what’s wrong with guilty pleasures? (Note: This is Heras-Casado’s debut for Archiv Produktion label just relaunched by Deutsche Grammophon.)

Filed under: Baroque opera, CD review, conductors

Jenny Lin Plays Solo Stravinsky


What a refreshing listen: I’m getting quickly addicted to the Taiwan-born pianist Jenny Lin’s new release, which is the latest to come out on Arkiv Music’s Steinway & Sons label. It’s devoted to Stravinsky’s music for solo piano — along with a delightful mini-Firebird suite of three movements arranged by Guido Agosti for keyboard.

Yes, over the past year my ears have been oversated and oversaturated with Stravinsky’s orchestral music, especially the three big Russian ballets. But Lin has put together a nifty program that brings a fresh focus to the Russian’s musical thinking and evolution.

Lin’s crisply incisive attacks and sheer sense of fun are all part of a style shaped by musical intelligence and determination. And her playing shines light on Stravinsky’s concept of counterpoint as well as the ingenuity of his rhythmic inventions.

In his excellent booklet essay, Ben Finane quotes Stravinsky on his first forays into the jazz idiom, as manifested in the delirious Ragtime for 11 Instruments (1918), included here in a version transcribed by the composer:

My knowledge of jazz was derived exclusively from copies of sheet music, and as I had never actually heard any of the music performed, I borrowed its rhythmic style not as played, but as written. [so much for oral versus literary tradition.] I could imagine jazz sound, however, or so I like to think. Jazz meant, in any case, a wholly new sound in my music, and ‘L’Histoire’ marks my final break with the Russian orchestral school in which I had been fostered.

Pieces like the Piano Sonata of 1924 offer a fascinating glimpse into Stravinsky’s rethinking of Baroque and Classical elements — not just by way of cheeky “allusion,” but as knowingly perverse swervings from the paradigm. So, too, with his quasi-Bachian counterpoint and ornamentation that, to borrow Finane’s apt phrase, are “tempered with a saboteur’s delight.”

(c) 2014 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: CD review, piano

Rising Up with Meredith Monk

Meredith Monk; photo by Masimo Agus

Meredith Monk; photo by Masimo Agus

Songs of Ascension is one of Meredith Monk’s creations of the past few years. If you don’t know her incomparable music yet, this is a wonderful place to start exploring it.

Monk’s unclassifiable art is grounded in a unique understanding of the flexibility of the human voice. She loves to create new contexts in which to fathom its expressive depths. The result is music that sometimes sounds as if it had been quarried from an archeological dig or beamed in from a distant future. Both impressions emanate from Songs of Ascension, the tenth project Monk has recorded for ECM since her path-breaking Dolmen Music was released three decades ago. That discography charts her intrepid forays “between the cracks,” as Monk likes to put it, where different ways of perceiving the world through art converge.

On one level, Songs of Ascension encapsulates Monk’s aesthetic outlook over a long career, one in which the voice serves as a guiding thread for her interdisciplinary performance pieces. But it also reveals the undiminished curiosity of her artistic quest by incorporating the expanded musical language Monk has evolved over the past decade. With Possible Sky (2003), her first work for orchestra, Monk began to apply her intuitive sense of the voice as a complicated instrument to larger ensembles, teasing out the feedback between singers and instrumentalists in ways that rethink the very bases of composition.

Songs of Ascension represents an ambitious example of this development in her work. One stimulus for the work was Monk’s encounter with poet Norman Fischer’s translation of the Psalms into a Zen-infused language. His imagery led to further reflections on the trope of worshipers ascending a mountain and pausing periodically to sing a psalm of praise. A simultaneous invitation to collaborate with visual artist Ann Hamilton further clarified her evolving musical images, adding a site-specific dimension. Hamilton’s project involved performing while ascending a new tower the artist had designed in Sonoma County, California, inside which a pair of staircases that resemble a double helix spiral upward. In this form Songs premiered in October 2008.

To explore her fascination with the connection between worship, transcendence, and images of ascension, Monk interweaves a fabric drawn from her recent experience writing for string quartet and the signature extended technique of her own vocal ensemble (with the added contributions of The M6 and the Montclair State University Singers). Other threads she includes are woodwinds, an array of percussion, and a blend of Western and Eastern sonorities (with a prominent role for the harmonium-like shruti box, which is associated with Indian music).

In place of a libretto the “text” consists of unpredictable patterns of abstracted phonemes, fluid vocalise, and shaman-like incantations. Yet even as non-sense replaces the logic of language, the vocalizations by Monk and her collaborators seem to imply the origin of speech rather than the disintegration of Babel.

The effect is especially enchanting at the beginning of the piece, which the string quartet inaugurates with sustained whispers of just a few pitches: a gentle fog which rises to reveal the echo of human voices. These “clusters” (in Monk’s terminology) set the stage for the sprouting of song, the blossoming of harmony. The interlinked sections are the first two of 21 that comprise Songs. Monk’s titles cue us in to recurrent patterns—and are also provocatively enigmatic (why are the seasons out of order, and why are winter and autumn instrumental-only while summer and spring include voices?).

Monk’s continual intercutting of highly varied textures builds a sense of larger-scale momentum. The section “mapping,” for example, suddenly introduces a new tone of festive tintinnabulation, while the gliding swoops of strings and voices in “falling” convey the curious sense of whimsical archaism that tempers the more meditative sections crisscrossing through the work. The range of Monk’s vocal idiom is literally breathtaking: a strangely beguiling repertoire of aviary microtones, robust yodels, insectoid whispers, and (in the penultimate “fathom,” a lengthy solo for Monk as she accompanies herself with a shruti box), dusky, low-range chanting. The final number, “ascent,” makes for an inspiring conclusion to the adventure, its layered sonic tapestry suggesting an endless procession/quest as solo lines leap in ecstatic figures from the drone-like foundation.

Though the original Songs of Ascension was conceived as an “immersive experience” with video and site-specific movement, Monk’s music is thoroughly evocative on its own terms. ECM’s engineering gives the music rich, warm resonance and even manages to convey something of Monk’s spatial acoustic. The recording was made in 2009 at the Academy of Arts and Letters in New York. The booklet includes a smart essay by composer Kyle Gann and a color-photo essay from the premiere in Hamilton’s tower. Songs is further confirmation of the musical treasure we have in Monk, who shows no signs of slowing down.

(c)2014 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: American music, CD review, new music

CD Review: Hochman/Homage to Schubert

Benjamin Hochman

Benjamin Hochman; photo by Jürgen Frank

I haven’t yet had the pleasure of encountering Benjamin Hochman in live performance, but I come away from his new release, Homage to Schubert, with a remarkably vivid sense of what he brings to the competitive scene of today’s young pianists. This is his second solo album and debut recording for the AVIE label, and it amply reveals Hochman’s qualities as an interpreter as well as the creative and original programming style that appears to be a signature.

A native of Jerusalem now based in New York, Hochman counts Claude Frank and Richard Goode among his mentors. He made his New York debut in 2006 with a Met Museum recital juxtaposing Bach, Berg, Schubert, and a newly commissioned piece. A similar imaginative leap ties together his program here: two lesser-known Schubert sonatas and a pair of contemporary pieces “commenting” on the Austrian’s legacy — by György Kurtág (Hommage à Schubert) and Jörg Widmann (Idyll und Abgrund), respectively. Hochman performs on a Steinway and benefits from the tasteful production and engineering (Eric Wen and Dennis Patterson).

Of course there’s lots of powerful competition even when it comes to these less-familiar Schubert sonatas. Paul Lewis, the spiritual scion of Alfred Brendel, has recently staked an irresistible claim to this territory, and Mitsuko Uchida is another eloquent advocate. (She also began linking Schubert’s piano music with Schoenberg back in the ’90s.) A fundamental attraction of Hochman is that he allies a natural sympathy for Schubert’s brand of musical thinking with superbly balanced technique, all the while effacing any temptation to showboat or force a newfangled reading onto these scores.

In other words, Hochman’s overall stance toward Schubert himself is pretty traditional, while smartly allowing the “moderns” sharing his program to provide a contemporary angle. It’s a daring and subtle strategy, and one that rewards the listener. Which is by no means to imply that there’s anything even remotely stodgy or routine here: Hochman initiates the proceedings with the gorgeously spun lyrical flow of the Sonata in A major D664 (from 1819), his control of the pulse so mesmerizing that it seems as if this music has always been going on — a stream we’ve been graced to chance upon.

Hochman is fully alert to the potential of Schubert’s wild contrasts. That’s the premise, after all, of pairing the gentle, smaller-scale A major with the hugely ambitious and even aggressive Sonata in D major D850 (the so-called “Gasteiner,” after the spa town where it was written in 1825, the year Schubert sketched most of the “Great” C major Symphony). Yet Hochman doesn’t overload these contrasts with melodrama, but lets the few outbursts in D664 take us by surprise within the larger context.

At several points I could almost imagine D664 versus the “Gasteiner” as a precursor for Schumann’s Eusebius (especially in the melancholy appoggiaturas of D664’s Andante) and Florestan dichotomy. But what excites me the most about Hochman’s deeply satisfying approach to D850 is his implicit understanding of the Schubert-Beethoven connection. By this point, Schubert’s acquired admiration of the German composer had begun inspiring a new level of ambition (he was a Beethovenian convert).

Hochman seems to hint at the uncanny echoes of late Beethoven, as in the “Gasteiner”‘s widely wandering second movement, where one passage of reiterated chords suddenly approaches the radiance of the Arietta in Beethoven’s Op. 111. But he avoids any impression of Schubert as an imitator or epigone: these moments occur as genuine Schubertian epiphanies within a remarkably different musical landscape.

Between Schubert and Beethoven, there is an almost diametrically opposed sense of drama, as Hochman points out in his excellent booklet essay, alluding to Brendel’s famous image of Schubert “the sleepwalker” in contrast to Beethoven “the architect.” That groping around unforeseen corners to alight on a new vista that is so characteristic of Schubert is especially apparent in the weirdly mercurial variants of the finale’s rondo theme as Hochman performs it.

As for the contemporary homages, Hochman has chosen two utterly distinct ways of thinking about Schubert. Kurtág’s lapidary piece (lasting about a minute) distills the contradictory ingredients that make up Schubert into an intense poetic reverie — a musical life that flashes before our ears.

The German composer Widmann — who is just 7 years older than Hochman — has meanwhile written a miniature suite of “six Schubert reminiscences” in Idyll and Abyss (originally conceived as a companion work to the great final B-flat Sonata D960). Teasing direct references to cadences and phrases slip a reflective scrim over the distance between Schubert and us. Alternately playful and disturbing, Widmann’s suite rudely juxtaposes the many sides of Schubert’s personality, purposely emphasizing the paradoxical nature of a genius that encompassed sweet melody, leisured reflection, and savagely violent outbursts. Widmann and Hochman leave it up to the listener to put the pieces together.

(c)2013 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: CD review, new music, review, Schubert

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