Wednesday, January 31, 2007

NPR embraces postminimalism!

Last week, I would have been happy to write "NPR embraces John Adams," but my consciousness has been raised. NPR has been running a series on their news shows called "Crossing the Divide," about how everyone should get along and make nice. My favorite part about the series was that NPR has been using a snippet from John Adams "The Chairman Dances" as a rather arresting theme song. Composer and critic Kyle Gann lists the piece as an example of postminimalism, and in a rather long post, explains why he applies the postminimalist label to quite a bit of modern music. The post has drawn plenty of comments, but see also composer Jeffrey Quick's observations.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Cleveland Orchestra (finally) recording again

The Cleveland Orchestra will begin recording again after a seven-year absence reports Donald Rosenberg in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, although it's not clear yet when recordings will start coming out or whether the orchestra will release any music written by living composers. The first work, already recorded, isn't exactly a bold programming choice -- Beethoven's Ninth. The article says the orchestra doesn't have a record contract yet but is talking to Deutsche Grammophon and EMI Classics.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

O rare Ben Johnston

Composer Ben Johnston has become a hot item on the new music blogs. NewMusicBox has posted a long interview with Johnston conducted by Frank Oteri (curiously, you can't find the interview if you start at the home page) and reprints an essay, "How to Cook an Albatross." Johnston has a new book out, "Maximum Clarity and Other Writings on Music."

Words are fine, but my main interest in music, so I'd like to take the opportunity to recommend one of my latest purchases on Emusic, "Ben Johnston: Music for Piano" by pianist Phillip Bush. The combination of Johnston's just intonation tuning and melodies and Bush's playing makes for an album that's unusual but also very listenable. (If you like Thelonius Monk's "sweet and sour" melodies, you might find the album interesting.) I was encouraged to download a copy for myself by the rave reviews posted by other Emusic listeners; I agree with the fellow from London who called it " a most strange, beautiful and compelling sound."

Downloading the Emusic version means you don't get the liner notes, but see Bush's Ben Johnson blog posting.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Warning: Explicit music

One of the most vivid and interesting novels I've read in the last couple of years is FROST THE FIDDLER by pianist Janice Weber. It's a good read if you like witty, well-written fiction about classical music.

The plot concerns a secret agent who is also an acclaimed violinist. There's quite a bit of fairly explicit eroticism in the book. Those passages are an example of Weber's artistry. If you think it's easy to write interesting passages about sex, you haven't read much modern fiction.

But my favorite passages are what might be called the "explicit music," the passages where Weber writes about classical music and what it's like to play it. There's a very funny scene (chapter 4) where a recording engineer tells the heroine, Leslie Frost, that he and the record producer he works with have recorded Beethoven's Fifth Symphony 30 times.

Asked why he records the same piece over and over, the engineer replies, "The beer. Harry and I will only record the piece in countries with great beer." The engineer drinks his beer and adds, "We hate Beethoven."

The irony is that while for classical music folks Beethoven's "Fifth" may be what "Stairway to Heaven" has been for rock listeners, the piece you can't get away from, the passage may not make much sense for younger readers. How many people under 30 in the U.S. have heard the Fifth all the way through, from beginning to end? It can't be many.

And here's a bit of black humor for you modern classical music fans: The gang Frost battles in Weber's novel secretly smuggle data by including hidden tracks on CDs of music by an obscure modern composer. The CDs offer perfect cover since nobody notices or listens to them.

I've spent a lot of time the last couple of months listening to two excellent Weber CDs, her recordings of Leo Ornstein's piano music and her performance of Ornstein's piano quintet, so I've been getting a pretty complete Weber experience.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A wheelbarrow by any other name....

Cleveland homeboys eighth blackbird (they all went to Oberlin, close enough for us to claim them) reveal that before they settled on their name (after a Wallace Stevens poem), they considered other names, such as "red wheelbarrow" (after the Walter Carlos Williams poem) and "tastes like chicken" (no literary citation offered, but perhaps a tribute to the hazards of touring.)

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Duckworth recording becoming available

American composer William Duckworth has written more than 200 pieces, but the amount of music available on recordings is frustratingly small. Bit by bit, though, more of his work is becoming available. Percussionist Joseph Gramley is re-releasing his 2000 album, "American De-Construction." The longest piece on the album is Duckworth's "Meditation Preludes." The release also has pieces by Steve Reich, David Lang, Paul Smadbeck and Dave Hollinden. The re-release doesn't seem to be available yet -- at least on Amazon -- but the original is on Gramley's web site, which also offers a 6 minute, 21 second stream of the "Meditation Preludes" and sound samples of the other pieces.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

CCS premieres Taddie, readies Plain

Went to a Cleveland Chamber Symphony concert Sunday afternoon at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, and noticed that the pieces I liked were by the two composers I'd never heard of. The orchestra played Charles Ives' "Symphony No. 3," which was OK, and Tan Dun's "Concerto for Orchestra: Yi," which had a lot of colorful clangs and thuds but didn't really cohere for me as a piece. But "Amazonia II" by David Taddie was exciting and the "Concerto for Recorder & Chamber Orchestra" by Gerald Plain was beautiful. The Taddie was the world premiere of a brand new piece by a Cleveland native.

The CCS is recording the Plain concerto on Monday. Mark George, board president of the symphony and the band's piano player, says the orchestra has already recorded "The Bird of Four Hundred Voices" by the late Dennis Eberhard, a prominent Cleveland composer, for the same release, which will come out next year.

Emusic has eight Cleveland Chamber Symphony albums. I can recommend "The New American Scene III." I downloaded "New American Soloists" after the concert but haven't had time to listen to it yet.

Addendum: Jeffrey Quick weighs in with a long review. He liked the Taddie, too, wasn't so thrilled with the Plain. Like everyone else in the known universe, he likes Charles Ives better than I do.

More: Donald Rosenberg, the Plain Dealer's classical music reviewer, discusses the concert in the Tuesday paper. He's not the world's biggest fan of the Plain piece, either. If the academics and the newspaper writers don't like it, does that mean Plain's concerto is destined for immortality?

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Cleveland Composers Guild announces new concerts

Cleveland composer Jeffrey Quick, the webmaster for the Cleveland Composers Guild, has posted new dates and information for a series of concerts planned for the Cleveland area. The member links page (biographies and information for Cleveland area composers) also has been refreshed and enhanced. I've also posted the dates on my concert calendar.
Kyle Gann cutting new album, writing new book

Composer and writer Kyle Gann reports on his blog that he has just finished a two-day recording session with pianist Sarah Cahill for his upcoming album on the New Albion label. No release date has been announced yet. In the meantime, Gann includes a link to an eight-minute rough edit of a piece from the new album, and a previous collaboration with Cahill, "Long Night" is available on Emusic.

Meanwhile, the Poughkeepsie Journal reports that Gann has received a $40,000 grant for his book, "Music After Minimalism."

"Gann said the funds will enable him to take a semester off to work on the book, which focuses on composers such as Glenn Branca, William Duckworth and John Luther Adams," the news item explains.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Duckworth announces new recordings, performances

Composer William Duckworth has announced that two new recordings of his music will be issued this year.

With help from Duckworth, Japanese electric violinist Ritsu Katsumata has created "Sea of Dreams" a 20-minute version of Prelude 6 from Duckworth's "Time Curve Preludes," perhaps his best-known piece. The album will be released in May, but excerpts are available now here. ("Time Curve Preludes" is widely available at the various music downloading services such as iTunes, Emusic etc.)

"Beyond that, the Japanese marimba virtuoso Mika Yoshida is planning to release my 'Writing on Water' for live and prerecorded marimbas later this year, but I don't think a definite date has been set yet," Duckworth writes. This will apparently be the first-ever available recording of the work.

Duckworth and his collaborators, the Cathedral Band, will be onstage performing "The Myth Retold" at 8 p.m. MST Feb. 24 at Second Stage West in Phoenix; the performance will be available as a video and audio stream at Cathedral.

Duckworth and Nora Farrell are going to Tokyo in March for "for 3 concerts and 3
workshops focusing on cell phones as musical instruments."

Later in the year, it's off to Australia for iOrpheus a "public opera" which premieres Aug. 31 at South Bank Parklands in Brisbane.

"It is expected to include 2000 participants. Nora and I will be there for 3 months
to plan and carry out this project," Duckworth explains.

More information later as these various events draw closer.
Brilliant band recording Plain piece

The Cleveland Plain Dealer publishes a nice piece by Donald Rosenberg on Sunday's Cleveland Chamber Symphony in Berea, Ohio. The story includes the news that the chamber symphony, the top new music group in the area where I live, is about to record Gerald Plain's "Recorder Concerto." (Plain's an American composer, but I can't find an official web site or even a decent biography to link to.)

Rosenberg's piece has one mistake: The symphony's new CD, nominated for a Grammy, isn't on Naxos, it's on a Las Vegas record label TNC Recordings.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Sandow: Classical music era ending

Greg Sandow has been putting up a series of posts on why he believes "the classical music era may be ending," including statistics on the aging and disappearance of the audience, the financial crisis at institutions such as our major orchestras and changes in the culture. He seems to see a shift in the classical music establishment similar to what happened to jazz in the 1940s, when the big bands largely went away and jazz lost much of its mass audience.

More evidence for such a shift: Phillip Bush notes in a posting late last year that no matter what is happening to the big, expensive orchestras, small groups are prospering. "But whatever your view is on the proper role of the American orchestra in the 21st century, it is undeniable that at the moment I write these words, in the United States today we are truly living in a golden age of the string quartet as a professional music entity. Never before have so many quartets made a decent-to-good living in this country, and never before have so many quartets existed who play at such a high technical and artistic level."

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Michael Brecker, Alice Coltrane die

Breaking bad news from New Music reBlog: Alice Coltrane and Michael Brecker have both died. Sad news for jazz fans and music fans in general.
Oh, I forgot that masterpiece

Pianist Phillip Bush reports (Jan. 12 entry) that a CD of the music of Michael Sahl has just been released that he had completely forgotten he'd worked on.

I'm sure I won't soon forget Bush's interesting "Ben Johnston: Music for Piano" album, about which more soon. In his Oct. 12, 2006, entry on Ben Johnston (Bush says the recording of Johnston's No. 2, 3, 4 and 9 string quartets by the Kepler Quartet is the "CD of the Year"), Bush mentions his own Johnston album, and complains "Yes, I think the disc has gone out of print .... but folks are working on it."

In fact, it's still "in print" on Emusic, the music downloading service. I bought it yesterday on Emusic, which is a great source for cool CDs which otherwise have become unavailable. I listened to the album as I was fixing lunch Sunday and it's fascinating.
Aesthetic tip

Has anyone else noticed that listening to modern classical music works great with watching football with the TV sound turned off? You don't need to hear the announcers to follow the game, and football is less distracting from the music than trying to read or write while you listen.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Stockhausen's rep gets rehab

This is old news, but it was new to me, so I'll pass it along: Karlheinz Stockhausen apparently isn't an American-hating worm after all, as was widely reported after 9/11.

As you may recall, after Arab terrorists murdered 3,000 Americans, the German composer was quoted as saying the attack was a huge work of art composers couldn't match. When the comment was widely reported, Stockhausen was quoted as having to climb down while under attack and "clarify" he didn't mean to suggest killing Americans was so cool, after all. The way the clarification was quoted made him sound almost as bad as the original statement.

Thanks to a blog posting from Joseph Drew, it's now clear Stockhausen's original comment was badly misrepresented at the time. It turns out that Stockhausen (who Drew says is "deeply religious") had described the attack as an artwork by Lucifer, a bit of context left out in the press reports I saw.

Drew has links to back up his interpretation of the event. Also, Drew actually studied with Stockhausen in Germany, so he would seem to know the guy and the way he thinks better than your average avante garde, trumpet playing New York City musician.

"A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes." (Mark Twain).

Thursday, January 11, 2007

12-hour Cage performance set in Cleveland

The last time New York musician Joseph Drew performed John Cage's ASLSP (As SLow as Possible), he made the piece last for nine hours.

That was too fast.

Drew is performing the piece again in Cleveland on Feb. 6, and this time he'll spend half a day on the work.

The free performance, scheduled from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 6, will be held on the organ of Epworth-Euclid United Methodist Church, 1919 E. 107th Pl. in Cleveland, Ohio.

The performance is in "artistic solidarity" with a performance taking place in Germany over the next 639 years.

Drew, a member of the ANALOG Arts Ensemble, is a graduate of Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio. His previous performance, over a mere nine hours, took place at ANALOG's ARTSaha! festival.

"Listeners came and went over the course of the event. Students did their homework, some people ate their dinners in the hall, or took a nap. The organ's timbral possibilities create a really exciting, almost limitless, range of choices. When you get one of those sonorities going on a particular setting, the interaction between the overtones can sound otherwordly. One person in the Omaha audience asked me on a break if I had some kind of sound processor switched on," he said. (Audio from the last hour of the performance available here.)

"As you can imagine, if you've looked at the score, the sonorities last for minutes at a time. When you get inside the piece as a performer, it actually wasn't a lot of time per sonority; so, I'm looking forward to the chance to stretch it out a bit," he said.

I was confused about the upcoming performance. Did Drew mean he would "conduct" the piece, and supervise a rotation of other musicians?


"It's just me playing the piece for 12 hours," he said.

Drew, playing trumpet, also will lead the ANALOG ensemble in a concert at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 3, at Church of the Saviour, 2537 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Tickets are $8 for adults, $5 for students, available at the door.

A press release explains:

"ANALOG arts ensemble performs a narrative recital titled Ordo Superman, after the legendary morality play by Hildegard. Premiered in 1192, Ordo Virtutum tells the tale of a Soul defended against the Devil by a troop of Virtues, such as Humility,and Chastity. Hildegard's chants will be performed by members of the Church of the Saviour Chancel Choir, while Drew performs an intoxicating mix of contemporary solo works, many written expressly for him. Included in the program will be two rarely-heard works from Karlheinz Stockhausen's massive seven-opera cycle LICHT, along with the music of Pauline Oliveros, Laurie Anderson, and Radiohead."

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Free music: Kyle Gann

I discovered Kyle Gann mainly through my interest in William Duckworth; Gann apparently is the world's leading authority on Duckworth's music (see my Dec. 18 post.) But reading Gann's comments made me curious about Gann himself, and I went from his blog to his official site, and discovered that it contains a great deal of Gann's music, freely downloadable as MP3 files. Gann's site is amusingly unhindered by modesty. I tried some of the files and found out Gann's music is very listenable, indeed. I'll download "Long Night," his only work available at, when my monthly subscription renews in a few days.

I've been reading Gann's book, AMERICAN MUSIC IN THE 20th CENTURY. (By reading, I mean jumping around and reading about various composers who interest me, while skipping over the music theory stuff which I don't understand.) The book includes an entry on one Kyle Gann. My guess is Gann is probably a leading authority on Gann, too, so let's quote the entry:

"Another composer heavily influenced by American Indian music is Kyle Gann (the author, born 1955 in Dallas, Texas) whose works are also drum-driven; specifically, he has developed a rhythmic language of changing tempos from the beat-shifting music of the Hopi, Zuni and Pueblo Indians. In this respect his ensemble music (such as "Astrological Studies," 1994) is similar to Michael Gordon's, but smoother, more consonant, and more melodic, in a style once referred to by the "New York Times" as "naive pictorialism." Oddly (since postminimalism provides such a clear context for microtonal perception), Gann is the only totalist or postminimalist composer working in just-intonation tuning; his electronic works use purely tuned pitch systems of up to thirty-seven pitches per octave. An example is "Custer's Ghost to Sitting Bull" (1995), on a text imagined as spoken by General George Custer after the Little Bighorn debacle."

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Fine guide to 2006 jazz

I'm assuming music lovers like jazz as well as classical, so let's sneak in a jazz post. Jim Wilke, host of the NPR show "Jazz After Hours," has posted his "best of" list for 2006 jazz CDs. The guy has excellent ears, and I look at his list every year.

"Jazz After Hours" is heard late night Friday and Saturday on many NPR stations -- ideal late night listening for romantic couples, although Wilke seems to miss this marketing angle. I was able to keep listening to the show after I moved from Lawton, Oklahoma (KCCU) to the Cleveland, Ohio, area in 2003 (WCPN). The web site posts a list of stations at the web site.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Don't miss the Cleveland Chamber Symphony

I've added several events to my Cleveland Modern Classical Calendar. In particular, I want to point to the Cleveland Chamber Symphony concert at 4 p.m. Sunday Jan. 21 at Gamble Auditorium on the Baldwin-Wallace campus in Berea. It's a free concert, and the symphony will be fired up from its Grammy nomination last month. The Cleveland Chamber Symphony recently announced that composer Marta Ptasynska has been selected for its Public Commissioning Initiative.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Classical music is hot!

Alex Ross notes (via a tip relayed by Troy Peters) a Nielsen SoundScan press release on recorded music sales in 2006. Overall sales were up in 2006, with a small decline in CD sales made up for by a sharp increase in downloadable music sales. But the most interesting news is that classical music showed the biggest category gain, up 22.5 percent. New Age music was the biggest loser, down 22.5 percent. Rap music also fared poorly.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Year's best lists

A couple of the year's best listings have caught my eye. Robert Gable at aworks provides a top ten list of "mind-bending recordings this year" and says Player Piano 1: Conlon Nancarrow Vol. 1. by Jurgen Hocker is "probably the best CD of the year." Alex Ross likes Peter Lieberson's "Neruda Songs" (which also gets a very strong recommendation from Donald Rosenberg at the Cleveland Plain Dealer) and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra recording of Magnus Lindberg's Clarinet Concerto, which is available on Emusic.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The role of the blogs

Alex Ross noted in a recent posting that Entertainment Weekly had published a massive "best of" end of the year issue without mentioning classical music. I noticed that, too. And I noticed that "The Week" magazine published a list of obits for 2006 that didn't mention Ligeti. And I noticed that the two local "alternative" magazines published year-end music issues which mentioned jazz as well as rock but which didn't mention classical music at all. And I've noticed that NPR's "Fresh Air" interview show seldom mentions modern classical music (Steve Reich was a very rare exception) although it doesn't show the same animus toward jazz. Many other examples could be offered.

It's interesting to contrast the miserable support structure for modern classical music with various ways jazz fans are supported and nurtured. When I became more interested in jazz a few years ago, I discovered there were national broadcasts of jazz that promoted recordings of modern musicians (NPR's "Jazz After Hours") for example, magazines such as "Downbeat" which made it easy to keep up, and recordings that somehow didn't need grants from foundations and the government to persuade record companies to issue them. (Would a "Downbeat" for modern classical fans be able to circulate and stay in business?)

I think what this illustrates is that classical music fans cannot rely on the "top down" model of classical music news and criticism -- articles in publications such as the "New York Times" and "New Yorker" which rely on critics such as Ross. I hasten to add that such criticism is very important and I myself follow it religiously. When the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Donald Rosenberg mentions modern classical music, I try to note it here. But with the decline of circulation at newspapers, and the limited amount of news they can cover, and the limited number of people they can reach, newspapers and magazines can't do the job alone. There is a role for blogs, which can provide "grassroots" coverage. Even small blogs such as this one!

Monday, January 01, 2007

Alex Ross corrects the record

Critic Alex Ross offers this wonderful clarification on his blog: "With deep regret I had to inform them that this is not in fact a picture of Messiaen with a bird on his head, nor to my knowledge are there any pictures of Messiaen with a bird on his head."
RIP Daniel Pinkham

Last month's death of composer Daniel Pinkham was noted by Cleveland area composer and blogger Jeffrey Quick.

"I never liked Pinkham's music as much as I would like to. It often seemed to me that his pitch choice was a bit sloppy for his expressive ends, as if he were deliberately avoiding the most effective choice because it was a traditional choice," writes Quick, who himself writes church music. "But he was an inspiration to all of us who believe that liturgical music is not dead, and that new music doesn't have to be an act of penance. And he definitely died with his boots on, with a premiere less than a day pre-mortem."