Wednesday, May 28, 2014

About Chris McDonald and Bilbao

On Monday's blog I said I would follow up about Chris McDonald's installation in Bilbao. I looked online for details, but could find nothing. So I wrote to Chris and asked him for more information. His reply follows.

Thanks Chris for writing my blog for me today! I spent most of the day organizing CDs, the first step to reclaiming my beautiful studio, which has become cluttered beyond belief. (With the help of Elena I think we can actually get the job done.)

* * * * *
It was so great to see you and I found the concert (and followup dinner) to be a wonderfully stimulating Saturday evening.
  Really weird about the Guggenheim, isn't it?? I remember trying to find a link a while back and realizing Guggenheim Bilbao doesn't seem to have an upcoming events section. 
  The piece opens on Thursday so I imagine they will get its own section on this page:
  The piece is Ragnar Kjartansson's "The Visitors" and it is a nine channel video installation. I've been working with him as director of sound/music producer on his video projects for about five years now. We shot "The Visitors" in 2012 and I recorded the music and mixed it. We had about 2000ft of cable snaking through the mansion at Rokeby, the old Astor estate on the Hudson. All nine videos, each featuring a musician (almost all of them Icelandic) in a different room of the house, were shot simultaneously and they are synchronized for the exhibition. It's like being able to see into these rooms of the house at once and inhabit them all at the same time.
  They play an hour-long song that is wistful and occasionally brooding--and sometimes explosive, quite literally since Ricky Aldrich (the descendent who currently owns and runs the estate) occasionally sets off a Chinese cannon that his family plundered from the Forbidden City long ago in some awful mini war, I'm not sure which one. 
  It'll probably be at the NYC Guggenheim at some point or MoMA since both institutions own an edition. 
  But I'm here now in Bilbao! What a beautiful place. And my hotel is on Salazar Street! But it's named after a fifteenth century Spaniard and obviously not the Portuguese dictator.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Aurora Borealis meets Hiatus Pitch meets "'orgueilleux — in the Garden

The long-awaited concert of works by Wesleyan alumni composers took place over the weekend. Attendance was good, and the performers outdid themselves. I heard the first version of this concert last October. On Saturday, I was delighted how well the pieces hold up seven months later, and how much the performances had matured. I could write a substantial article about this concert, of course, but this is a blog. So I will limit myself to brief comments about each piece.

"Gathering Light" by Benjamin Broening — This piece exists in two versions, for violin solo and for violin with live electronics. The constraints of the concert were: no electronics. Sarah Washburn played the piece beautifully. It is a very strong work indeed, and got the concert off to a great start.

"Companion" by Ed Jessen (two speaking/singing pianists at two toy pianos, violin and cello) made a much stronger impression in Crowell Concert Hall than it did in the Trinity Chapel. It was possible to separate the two toy pianos quite a bit more. One was on each of the downstage corners, on a sculpture stand; violin and cello were upstage center, next to each other. The spatial separation liberated the drama of the piece. It starts as a quiet, if perplexing dialogue, but works itself into something of a miniature fury. Just as you think you may have figured it out, the piece is over...

Theme and Mutations for oboe and piano, by Brett Terry, benefited from having a better piano, and from the clearer acoustics of Crowell Concert Hall. Ling-Fei Kang (who is a superb oboist with the sweetest tone imaginable) and Elisabeth Tomczyk (a superb pianist who seems capable of playing just about anything, so long as it is new) played with clarity and elegance. I appreciated the spacing between the movements, which was longer and more pronounced than at Trinity.

Speaking of Brett, he kindly videoed the entire concert. I'll keep you posted as we get the various pieces uploaded to YouTube.

mensural canon for tri-partitioned body by Brian Parks is indeed a mensural canon, but with a twist. The three male voices sing a rising major scale, followed by a descending octave, in different rhythms. Janet Simone Parks, a beautiful dancer with technique to burn, dances the three parts as they are sung. One part goes with the legs, one with the arms, and one with the head. It is a tour-de-force. I thought it was just about perfect. I checked with the composer, and he informed me that more than "just about perfect," it was exactly correct. A sort piece, but a brilliant one.

Every time I hear "The Lonely Chant" by Walter Frank the stronger the impression it makes on me. It is exactly postminimalist, that is, it uses minimalist techniques in ways that minimalist composers would not use them. It is repetitive, but not systematically so. It is modal but ends ambiguously. It has clearly delineated sections, but they are unpredictable in their proportion. It uses the minimalist apparatus for an emotional end. Most importantly, it's not long! It also had the great virtue of being controversial. I spoke to people who enthusiastically said it was the best piece on the program, and to people who thought it was the worst. (No names, of course.) That's hard to do these days —write a piece of music that stirs up real contention.

"hiatus pitch" is a virtuoso piece for solo saxophone by Keith Moore. In this case "virtuoso" means "brutally difficult." Alto saxophonist Geoffrey Landman was more than up to the task. Extremes of register, extremes of speed, and above all, extreme dynamics — nothing seemed to phase him. I had heard this piece before, played by Taimur Sullivan. Geoff did it just as well! And Keith's elusive sense of rhetoric was well-communicated. A strong performance of a strong piece. (This work replaced Keith's organ piece, "Diary of an Organaut," which Brian Parks performed at Trinity. Crowell no longer has an organ, alas.)

"Aurora Borealis" by Liang Liang is a sumptuous work for violin, viola, cello and piano. It is the only work on the program that I felt did not benefit from the acoustics of Crowell, as opposed to the acoustics of Trinity Chapel. It was still a gorgeous, expressive work, and it was played with great authority and a sure sense of color. But the dryer, clearer hall worked to the disadvantage of some of the more complex sonorities.

I am a great fan of the work of Judy Dunaway, and the performance of "The Sound of Skin" only increased my admiration for her originality. Making music for balloons is no easy task. At Trinity the performance was a duo plus: Janet Simone Parks and Anne Rhodes getting wet in a kiddy pool and Orion Parks helping deliver balloons. (Orion is Janet and Brian's first child. She is four years old and growing up surrounded by avant garde art. Not a bad life.) The stone floor of the Trinity Chapel and all the beautiful dark wood was a great frame for what Janet and Anne did. But Anne, who now has her own first child, was not available, so the Crowell performance became a solo. At Trinity the balloons were in a large basket. In Crowell they were placed inside our beautiful Dowd harpsichord. A stunning visual effect, and a nod to early music that subtly reinforced some of the other pieces on the program.

"Frolic" by Anne Lemos Edgerton was the oldest and newest piece of the program, simultaneously. The oldest because it was originally written when Anne was in the GLSP program at Wesleyan, back in the 1970s. The newest because the revival of the piece last October inspired her to write an introduction, which was completed only two weeks before the concert! A lively and engaging work from start to finish, "Frolic," like other pieces on this program, has the great virtue of not being too long. A note to composers everywhere — oboe and cello together might not sound like an ideal combination, but believe me it is a great sound. Especially if you handle it as well as Anne does!

"L'orgueilleux" by Chris McDonald is a tour-de-force of wit and complexity for flute, viola and piano. Chris's career after Wesleyan has taken him more and more in the direction of pop music, mixed media and video art. (He left the day after the concert to supervise the installation of one of his most recent works in Bilbao — details to follow.) But he started off as a hard-core Tanglewood composer of twelve-tone music, and this example of him writing in that style (completed when he was an undergraduate student, not that long ago) holds up very well with the passage of time. I asked him if he was interested in writing more music in this style, and he replied "I'm thinking about it."

Last but not least, a chunk of Chris Jonas's monumental "Garden" for string quartet concluded the program. It's a sprawling, compelling work. You can hear the whole thing on the internet, and see the gorgeous video that accompanies it. "Garden" is a strong piece of music as well as a strong piece of mixed media, and it holds its own on the concert stage. The West End Quartet shone in this performance as well as the others on the program (Frank, Liang). I hope they keep all of these excellent pieces in their repertory!

After the concert Elena and I had dinner at Haveli India with Judy, Sarah and her family, Brett, Chris, Max and Gabriel. Conversation was lively and far-reaching. A high point was Chris's contention that all of the composers, and all of their pieces on this concert, were to some extent exemplars of modernism. That sparked a discussion that is another topic, for another time...

Friday, May 23, 2014

Wesleyan Alumni Concert tomorrow

Last fall I was invited by the Hartford New Music Festival to be one of two composers-in-residence, along with Michael Schelle. It was a blast getting to know Michael, and the festival was in all other ways a success as well.

There were two enormous perks of this festival. One was a commission to write a new orchestra piece, for the combined forces of the Hartford Independent Chamber Orchestra and The Generous Ensemble. (I write about this piece in one of my blog posts last October.) The other was to curate a concert of chamber works by Wesleyan alumni who had worked with me in one way or another — most of them were my composition students at one time, but I advised or read the masters theses of others, and we all made music together back in the day.

The concert was a terrific success, and I resolved to repeat the event at Wesleyan when Alumni Weekend rolled around this year. The time has come, and tomorrow, Saturday 24 May at 4:00 in Crowell Concert Hall at Wesleyan, the concert will be repeated. For the most part it is the same program, performed by the same musicians.

Wesleyan is well-known for having produced some important composers who work in electric media and computer music. But because of logistical considerations, it was decided that the concert last fall, in the Chapel at Trinity College, would be an all-acoustic event, no electronics. And that's the way the concert is tomorrow.

The result is an amazing variety of sounds and shapes. Virtually all of the composers involved also write for electronic resources as well as acoustic ones, so it offers a glimpse into another aspect of his or her work. The concert has a whimsical title, derived from the names of pieces on the program. Here's a list of performers, followed by the pieces and their composers. I'll write more after the event. If you're in the area, just slip into Crowell on Saturday afternoon and pretend you're a Wesleyan alum!

Aurora Borealis meets Hiatus Pitch meets 
L’orgueilleux — In the Garden
compositions by Wesleyan alumni

Crowell Concert Hall at Wesleyan University
Saturday 24 May at 4:00 p.m.

Performed by Megan Natoli, flute; Ling-Fei Kang, oboe;
Geoffrey Landman, saxophone; 
Elisabeth Tomczyk and Brian Parks, piano;
Janet Simone Parks, dancer; and the West End String Quartet

“Gathering Light” for violin solo
Benjamin Broening 
“Companion” for two speaking pianists at two toy pianos, 
violin and cello
Edward Jessen 
Theme and Mutations for oboe and piano
Brett Terry 
“The Lonely Chant,” for string quartet
Walter Frank 
“hiatus pitch” for saxophone solo
Keith Moore
“Aurora Borealis” for violin, viola, cello and piano
Liang Liang
“The Sound of Skin,” for any number of performers, 
balloons and water
Judy Dunaway
"mensural canon for tri-partitioned body" 
for solo dancer and three singers
Brian Parks
“Frolic,” for oboe and cello
Anne Lemos Edgerton
“L’orgueilleux,” for flute, viola and piano
Chris McDonald
Two movements from “Garden” — a string quartet
Chris Jonas

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

School is almost over!

I am shocked to realize that I have not written anything on this blog since last October. A semester of being the chair of the Music Department (last fall) and a semester of heavy teaching and lots of outside activity (this spring) has cut into my writing time. As a result, the second of the This Is It! series of my piano works, the third memorial concert for Phyllis, and an all-NB vocal music event earlier this month have come and gone, without a word on these pages in cyberspace! Not to mention the indoor version of CONVERGENCE that I conducted with WesWinds. Some exciting music making that should have been noted and discussed.

It's well beyond the time for making New Year's resolutions, but I'll make one anyway. More regular blogging! Last year I figured out I could write something three times a week, and I'm going to do just that. Starting Friday. Stay tuned for specifics...

For now, I'll list the programs.

The Third Annual Phyllis Bruce Memorial concert, with Kalia Kellogg and Stan Scott, consisted of my Chinese Love Poems, Stan singing Hindustani settings by Tagore, and Gitanjali by John Alden Carpenter. December 8, 2013 at South Congregational Church.

The second This Is It! concert (12 recitals comprising my complete piano works) consisted of an improvised prelude using Duckworth weights; the Chopin A major prelude; "A Prelude for Sam"; seven Friendly Fugues; "Memories of You" (version with Duckworth weights); A Partita for Virginia Ellen; and Introduction and "Variations." At Hubbard House and at Crowell Concert Hall, February 2014.

WesWinds, the Wesleyan Wind Ensemble, conducted by NB (my debut as a band director, loved it!). Works by Sousa, Hansson, Ticheli, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Chopin (!!!), Grainger and Bruce — a version of CONVERGENCE for band, prerecorded band, bagpipe solo, and lots of bells. May 6, 2014 in Crowell Concert Hall.

Vocal Music of Neely Bruce, with Kalia Kellogg, Christopher Grundy, and bassoonist Gary Bennett. Miscellaneous Songs for Low Voice; Chinese Love Poems (again). May 10, 2014 in Crowell Concert Hall, Wesleyan University.

This is a lot of performing, and a lot of my music to digest. I hope my friends and fans are not in overload about my compositions, because there are lots more coming through the pipeline.