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Carlsbad Music Festival Day 2: Calder Quartet

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The Calder Quartet has been the resident ensemble with the Carlsbad Music Festival for all of the event's eight year history, and it fell to them to conclude the Festival with an early evening performance on Sunday. The program featured three selections: one relatively new, one very new, and one with a metaphorical "wet paint" sign still affixed.

The program opened with the newest quartet by Thomas Adès, "The Four Quarters," which premiered in March of this year in New York and Los Angeles, with the Emerson Quartet. The Calder Quartet has an ongoing working relationship with the composer: they included a beautiful rendering of his "Arcadiana" on their self-released debut.

"The Four Quarters" connects its four movements roughly to times of day:they bear the titles "Nightfalls," "Morning Dew," "Days," and "The Twenty-Fifth Hour." A single listening was not enough to really assess the piece, other than to know that it would be worth hearing again. It comes at its themes from odd angles and is filled with technical minefields. The second movement is almost entirely an exploration of ridiculously speedy pizzicato passages for all four players. The fourth movement, my research tells me, is in the thankless time signature of 25/16. Whatever is really going on, the piece was never dull and often very appealing through its thicket of difficulties. The Calders took it on with confidence and aplomb.

Next on the program was the first section of the Quartet No. 3 ("There Must Be Some Way Out of Here") by Jacob Ter Veldhuis, aka Jacob TV. Composed in 1995, it moves at a pace as leisurely as the Adès was occasionally frantic, with long arching drones sliding hypnotically against one another like a slow swell in mid-ocean. A lovely, moving piece.

After an intermission for equipment setup, the Calder returned to present the world premiere of Jacob Cooper's "Bad Black Bottom Kind," commissioned by the Festival after its selection as the winner of its annual Composer's Competition seeking new work by composers under age 35. The title of the piece derives from a snippet of the lyric to "The Mercy Seat," the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds song written from the point of view of the condemned in the electric chair. As that origin suggests, the piece is not inclined to pleasantries. The four instruments are amplified and the sounds of each are separately processed and digitally distorted. To the credit of the Carlsbad audience, only a very few were driven from the room by what was unquestionably the most willfully difficult piece of the weekend.

For the most part all four players saw away at once, each with his own sustained rhythm moving in a small range. There are solo passages for the cello and the viola, also consisting of sustained rhythmic bowing. As the composer himself noted, the piece is loud (although markedly below typical arena rock volumes) and it is rather long. 

Listening to "Bad Black Bottom Kind" is rather like having one's head stuck inside a jet turbine for 30 minutes, while the turbine is fed through a saw mill. It is a piece that can certainly be praised as intellectually interesting, but while I certainly do not regret having heard it, it did not leave me wishing either that it had gone on any longer or that it could be experienced again soon. 

It did make the 2-hour drive home seem much more restful, though.

Thus ends my experience of the Eighth Annual Carlsbad Music Festival. As I hope these reports have conveyed, it was overall a marvelous and pleasurable event filled with rewarding and exhilirating sounds. Matt McBane and all those who work with him on this project deserve no end of praise and gratitude for pulling it off, and if 2012's programming is remotely on the level of 2011's, I'm hoping to be back down there this time next year.


Photo-illustration by the blogger. More professional documentation of this Festival day can be found in this Facebook gallery.


Carlsbad Music Festival Day 2:
Build, with Florent Ghys

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Composer Matt McBane, a Carlsbad native now relocated to New York, is founder and guiding spirit of the Carlsbad Music Festival, but he seems not to have taken unfair advantage of that position over the years to tout his own music. This year, he brought his performing group, Build, to play a Sunday afternoon Festival concert.

Build's instrumentation encompasses three string players—violin, cello, bass—plus piano and drums. McBane is the violinist, and sole composer. 

Build's usual bassist was unavailable to join the group this weekend, so Matt McBane took the occasion to invite transplanted Frenchman Florent Ghys to fill in, as well as to play a brief solo set prior to Build's performance.

Florent Ghys is not stranger to this blog: you can find references to him here and here, for instance. He has a new recording just out from Bang on a Can's Cantaloupe Records, Baroque Tardif, which was my soundtrack of choice for much of the drive to and from the Festival. Ghys performs largely solo, with the aid of a computer, looping and overlaying plucked and bowed lines against one another, sometimes singing, sometimes mimicking speech patterns with his bass, sometimes revealing the potential fo the bass as a percussion instrument. My chief complaint here would have to be that he was limited to only three pieces Sunday afternoon.

Build's set focused on material from Place, which was released in early 2011 on New Amsterdam Records, with one selection from the group's prior collection and one as-yet unrecorded composition, "56." Many of McBane's compositions seem inspired by working out a stylistic challenge or intriguing structural idea—let player x's part stay constant while the others shift and cycle around it, for example, or let's explore the expressive possibilities of pizzicato—and "56" is a good example of the appealing music that can come out of that process: it involves playing 7-beat phrases against 8-beat phrases, with the two coming in to synchrony (do the math) once every 56 beats. The musical ideas within those phrases make for a propulsive piece, much more surprising and interesting than the dry mathematics of it might suggest. I have embedded a sampling of Build music below, including "Ride," a piece that succeeds on pure good feeling: if Twin Peaks had been a quirky romantic comedy instead of a tale of dark and dreadful things, "Ride" could have been its theme.

I already enjoyed the music on Place, but it gets better when played live. That was particularly true with "Swelter," a three-part suite for piano, drums and cello, inspired by the composer's move from Carlsbad to New York and his first encounter with the particular suffering attendant upon an Eastern summer. The central movement is one of my favorite Build pieces, with the piano capturing the simultaneous eurgency and stifling languor of a humid urban summer with chords that suggest some unsuspected link between Debussy and Gershwin.

As I put it on Twitter: Matt McBane and Build are the very model of a cool postmodern chamber group.


sampler by Build


Photo-illustration by the blogger. More professional documentation of this Festival day can be found in this Facebook gallery.

Carlsbad Music Festival Day 1: My Brightest Diamond

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After singing Sarah Kirkland Snider's Penelope earlier in the evening, Shara Worden returned to the Carlsbad Musical Festival stage to close out Day 1 of the Carlsbad Music Festival in her guise as My Brightest Diamond.* In a festival actively interested in the interstices where socalledclassical and socalledpopular musics overlap, this was the program that leaned furthest toward the latter realm and the audience reflected it, with a goodly proportion of younger MBD fans joining the older-skewing core Festival goers.

When My Brightest Diamond first came to notice with the release of Bring Me the Workhorse in 2006, the standard take on Shara Worden was that she was a "classically-trained" singer who combined the theatricality of Kate Bush with the urgency and underlying darkness of PJ Harvey. Not bad, as overgeneralizations go. The assessment needed revision soon after when Worden released A Thousand Shark's Teeth. Although it came to market after Workhorse, the songs on Shark's Teeth were largely recorded in the same sessions. The later-released songs, while they still found the occasional use for heavy electric guitar, evidenced a more complex aesthetic and larger ambitions. One song in particular, "Apples," is a little gem of Joycean epiphany that continues haunt me as the catalyst for a "blog post I've been meaning to write for years but have never gotten a handle on" on the subject of ostensibly "pop" music that aspires to, and shares the concerns of, art song. [Also, Shara Worden's delivery of the phrase "and we ate them" in that song makes me smile every time.]

Saturday night's set was devoted to the songs from Ms. Worden/MBD's forthcoming All Things Will Unwind, which was recorded with the contemporary chamber ensemble yMusic—which itself has a terrific collection of new instrumental music, Beautiful Mechanical, releasing this week. Bowed strings and woodwind instruments are privileged on these songs over guitar, and the seeds of exploration of form and theme begun in earnest on Shark's Teeth seem to have come to full flower in this collection.  

yMusic was not present on Saturday. The performance was supported by a group that overlapped to a large extent with the earlier Penelope ensemble. The Calder Quartet swapped out a violinist and a cellist from the group in favor of their other violinist and violist. Drummer-percussionist Ted Poore provided a rich, supple rhythmic foundation in both ensembles.

  • Digression:
     How can you tell that you are at a contemporary classical performance and not a rock show?

    A: Everyone including the drummer follows a score.

Shara Worden is a live performer of tremendous gifts: she has the fearsome intelligence and theatricality of, say, Peter Gabriel, somehow combined with the air of the most charming and welcoming of hosts, topped by a sparking enthusiasm reminiscent of the best second grade teacher you ever imagined. Early highlights among the new songs included "We Added It Up"—which comes complete with a timely reference to neutrinos in the chorus—and the haunting "Reaching Through to the Other Side" (embedded below).

I expect to return to these songs in more detail once I've had a chance to listen to the new album next month, but I can say now that if singable social-consciousness still had a place on the radio, we could look forward to hearing "High Low Middle" for years to come. Starting from the observation that "when you're privileged you don't even know your privileged; when you're not, you know," it manages to channel the spirits of Woody Guthrie and Cab Calloway in the same song, which is no small feat.

Returning for an encore accompanied by Ted Poore at the drum set, Worden grabbed a Stratocaster (without a strap) for "Golden Star" and "Inside a Boy," letting loose a torrent of crunch and distortion, often while adopting the one-legged stork posture once favored by Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson. (Worden needed the raised knee to keep her Strat from falling to the ground.) It left the audience, as they say, wanting more, and was a ringingly affirmative ending to a distinctive and variegated day of top-drawer music.

Reaching Through to the Other Side by My Brightest Diamond

* My Brightest Diamond is to Shara Worden as King Crimson is to Robert Fripp: a "band" name in which the core writer/performer is the only constant over time.


Photo-illustration by the blogger. More professional documentation of this Festival day can be found in this Facebook gallery


Carlsbad Music Festival Day 1: "Penelope"

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As Saturday's Carlsbad Music Festival events moved from strength to strength, the early evening brought the West Coast premiere of Sarah Kirkland Snider's Penelope, with singer Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) and an ensemble under the direction of Christopher Anderson-Bozzoli. The players included members of Ms. Worden's band and half of the Calder Quartet, among others.

Penelope is a song cycle with texts by poet Ellen McLaughlin, in which a man (not Odysseus) returns home after twenty years in an unnamed war. He is badly injured and has suffered trauma and brain damage, leaving little memory of who he has been or what he has done. His wife (not Penelope) takes him in. In an effort to restore him, she reads to him from The Odyssey

I have made no secret of my enthusiasm for this piece. I wrote a detailed review at the time of its release and it was, by several lengths, my choice for #1 recording of 2010. Consequently, the central pleasure of this performance for me—apart from the pleasure of finally meeting the composer and, later, the singer—lay in hearing it removed from the controlled environment of the recording studio.

Penelope proves to work very well as a live piece. The only drawback to live performance may lie in the brief delay between sections, as the players shuffle their scores. (The recorded version, of course, flows from section to section more directly.) It is a small, small matter. The necessary electronic atmospheres, and a few recorded backing vocal tracks, are easily supplied with an Apple laptop, and the rest of the work was handled by the skilled live players. Shara Worden has been singing this material long enough now that it is difficult to imagine anyone better suited to it. She is a thrilling performer, her dark toned voice teasing out every nuance of McLaughlin's text and settling solidly in to Snider's string and woodwind-leaning score.

Familiar as I am from repeated listenings to the recorded version, the cycle still proved fresh and revelatory as ever. The remainder of the audience, most seemingly hearing it for the first time, received Penelope and her performers with warm and generous enthusiasm.


Photo-illustration by the blogger. More professional documentation of this Festival day can be found in this Facebook gallery.

Carlsbad Music Festival Day 1: Vicky Chow

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Following straight on from In CBang on a Can All-Stars pianist Vicky Chow presented a varied and enlivening program of late-20th and early 21st century works in the Carlsbad Theater. Florent Ghys, who has been turning up everywhere so far at the Carlsbad Music Festival, served here in the role of page turner.

The first six pieces were performed in uninterrupted sequence emulating, as Ms. Chow explained, an iPod playlist or mixtape, music heard much as she might shuffle through it while traveling around New York City. The series began with Nico Muhly's popular, pastoral "A Hudson Cycle," written as a wedding gift for a friend of the composer, followed by an urgent and penetrating reading of Caleb Burhans' "In Time of Desolation," a piece jointly mourning the deaths of composer Luciano Berio and Burhans' father. David Lang's deceptively languorous "wed" followed in turn, leading to John Adams' "China Gates," its cycling surfaces glistening under the pianist's fine touch. The oldest piece on the program, John Cage's Satie-influenced 1948 "In a Landscape," passed as in a dream before the sequence concluded with one of the two newest pieces, Ryan Francis's fascinating "Etude: Digital Sustain" (2008-2010) which, its title notwithstanding, is built on use of the piano's sostenuto pedal rather than any digital manipulation. 

Etudes for Piano - Digital Sustain by Vicky Chow

Manipulation of one kind or another was the hallmark of the next two pieces. Daniel Wohl's "Aorta" (2010) combined the piano with electronic accompaniment in a give and take exchange inspired when a performance of Schumann was interrupted by a radio. Over a series of sections an electronically distorted prerecorded piano interacts with, pushes against, or combines with the live performance. The resulting piece has a compelling, edge of the seat quality, as one waits to hear what will come next.

Daniel Wohl - Aorta (2010) for piano and electronics by Vicky Chow

Analog manipulation in the form of the "prepared" piano is at the core of Andy Akiho's bravura "Vick(i/y)" The preparation is simple: eight strategically placed dimes transform eight of the piano keys to produce gamelan-like bell sounds. The pianist plays largely standing up, working both the keyboard and the interior of the piano. It is as much a piece to be seen as heard, and is great fun. Here is a video performance of the first part of the piece:

The program concluded with Evan Ziporyn's "In Bounds," a freewheeling exercise in stamina, speed, dexterity and gumption that was met with the most enthusiastic applause of the afternoon. It was a fittingly explosive climax to a varied, rich and thoroughly satisfying display of world-class contemporary pianism.


Photo-illustration by the blogger. More professional documentation of this Festival day can be found in this Facebook gallery

Carlsbad Music Festival Day 1: In C


The main program for this year's Eighth Annual Carlsbad Music Festival began at noon on Saturday when much the same collection of musicians as had filled the previous evening's Village Music Walk regathered in the courtyard at the Village Faire center for a performance of Terry Riley's In C. To refresh the reader's recollection, here is a snippet of what I have said previously about this piece: 

Like the wall drawings of Sol LeWittIn C exists principally as a set of instructions. (The score and instructions can be downloaded as a PDF here.) A group of musicians, the size and makeup of which is whatever the players decide it will be, work their way in sequence through 53 brief musical motifs, all in the titular key of C. Riley sees 35 as the optimal size of the ensemble, but allows for wide variation. Each player may repeat each given segment for as long as he or she wishes before moving to the next. Throughout, at least one player maintains "The Pulse," a steady stream of eighth notes played on the high C's of a piano or mallet instrument. The piece ends when the last player stops playing the last segment. While the element of spontaneity makes every performance different, the core structure produces performances in which the essence of In C is almost always recognizable. When Terry Riley unleashed it on the world, it served as catalyst for much of the music—Philip Glass, Steve Reich and more—that is typically, lazily, lumped together as "minimalism."

The Carlsbad In C began with all musicians in a circle before the central fountain, but began moving about in the space almost immediately. Over the course of it, those players who were mobile—the cellists were obliged to stay put, but the two basses were surprisingly nimble—roamed from place to place, including up the stairs to the surrounding balconies, regrouping in new formations as fancy struck them. Some in the audience stayed in motion as well, while others stayed put and just let the musical waves break over them.

Perhaps in keeping with Carlsbad's laid back beach town nature, this was a stretched out and leisurely In C, lasting a few minutes beyond an hour. It was compelling from beginning to end, and served as a stimulating musical palate cleanser for what was to come.

Below, an In C photo gallery: 

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Photos by the blogger. More professional documentation of this Festival day can be found in this Facebook gallery

Carlsbad Music Festival: The Prequel

I am weekending in the beach town of Carlsbad, California, in northern San Diego County so as to attend the Eighth Annual Carlsbad Music Festival. The Festival proper will begin at noon today—with a site-specific, peripatetic performance of Terry Riley's In C—but last night provided a preview and warm-up in the form of the annual Village Music Walk, with free performances scattered about the village of Carlsbad. The nature of the event is such that one cannot see and hear everything, so here is a sample of what was seen and heard by one bloggische attendee.

The evening launched with members of percussion ensemble red fish blue fish holding forth at the Carlsbad train station with the first movement from Steve Reich's Drumming. The group was at the depot all evening, playing particularly in between events at other venues. The unending appeal of rhythmically smacking at things could be seen in the number of young children who clearly thought red fish blue fish was the best thing going. (See the photo concluding this post.) 

The Festival is the creation of composer-violinist Matt McBane, who is also performing this year at the head of his group, Build. The focus at Carlsbad is on the conjunction of "classical" music with "every other kind of" music, and Build exemplifies that conjunction with a lineup of violin, cello, bass, drums and piano, playing music (all by McBane) that might be what you would get if the Dave Brubeck Quartet had apprenticed under Copland and Pärt. The group performed in the tight space of the Foundry Gallery next door to the station. For this weekend, the bass role has been assumed by French composer-bassist-looper Florent Ghys, of whom more below. Build and Ghys will be playing a joint performance in the Festival's main venue on Sunday afternoon.

Next on my agenda was a stroll to the It's a Grind coffee bar for a short set by MandoBasso, the mandolin-bass pairing of Bill Bradbury and Gunnar Biggs. These gentlemen specialize in traditional and original pieces in the folk and Celtic line, but also ventured out in to a lengthy and mesmerizing improv session with Biggs soloing over his own looped bass continuo and Bradbury's mandolin moaning soulfully under tender ministrations of an e-bow. Knowing nothing of the pair before I wandered in, they proved a very pleasant surprise.

IMG00672-20110923-1918Space was tight in both the gallery and the coffee bar, but not nearly so tight as it was for the last two performances I attended, both in the confines (apt term) of Spin Records, a proper record store full of proper records, i.e., 12-inch disks of vinyl with grooves incised upon them for the production of sound. First up at Spin was a solo performance by Jonathan Moerschel, violist with the Festival's resident ensemble, the Calder Quartet. (The quartet's cellist played a set elsewhere, and the entire quartet appeared in the Forge space, but I did not see those performances.) Remarking on the relative sparsity of the solo viola repertoire, Moerschel performed a Hindemith sonata and Vincent Persichetti's Parable XVI, on which he is toiling in this photo.


The viola at least has the advantage of being compact. Fitting a violist and music stand in to the cramped space at Spin was relatively easy. Not so simple the task of fitting Florent Ghys with his bass, and the computer and speaker equipment needed for him to do what he does. Overcoming falling speakers, low ceilings, and related difficulties, M. Ghys managed to provide the evening's most purely enjoyable performance, drawing wide grins and loud applause from an audience largely unfamiliar with his work. I will have more to say about him following Sunday's performance (solo and with Build), but it was no coincidence that my listening of choice on the drive down here yesterday was Ghys's new Canteloupe Records release, Baroque Tardif.

This was much harder than it looks:


And that was the end of this blogger's musical evening. Today, after In C, brings full performances in the main venue of the Carlsbad Village Theater (top) with Bang on a Can pianist Vicky Chow, Sarah Kirkland Snider's Penelope (my bar none absolute favorite work of 2010), and Shara Worden/My Brightest Diamond. 

Meanwhile, just dance....


All photos by the blogger. A rather more professional portfolio of photos of these same events has been posted to Facebook, here.


Don't Cry for Me, Tatiana
[Eugene Onegin, Los Angeles Opera]


Most "national" poems are bloodthirsty affairs. The Iliad? Wholesale slaughter. The Aeneid? Survivors of the preceding wholesale slaughter book a cruise and launch some slaughter of their own. The Chanson du Roland? Slaughter, with a big climactic horn solo. Beowulf? Monsters; mead; more slaughter. But ah! the Russians! Bless them, the Russians' national poem is Pushkin's Eugene Onegina rambling, episodic, Byronic tragicomedy of manners with only one pointless death in it.

Los Angeles Opera has opened its 2011-2012 season with a production of Tchaikovsky's adaptation of Onegin in which the women are strong, the men are good looking, and the orchestra and chorus are well above average. 


Tchaikovsky co-wrote his own libretto for Onegin, jettisoning much of Pushkin's wit and a good deal of subsidiary structure in order to focus on the four key sequences in the plot. In Act I, we meet the Larina sisters living on their family's estate in the Russian countryside: Olga the lovely flighty one and Tatiana the lovely pensive-romantic one. Olga's suitor/beloved, the poet Lensky, introduces them to his great good friend, and their new country neighbor, Eugene Onegin. Tatiana is pierced to the quick with love for the brooding new fellow in town and rashly pours out her heart to him in a letter. He spurns her more or less politely, but with cold firmness. In Act II, Onegin attends a great party on the estate for Tatiana's name day. To soothe his ennui, Onegin compounds his callous lack of concern for Tatiana by intermeddling between Olga and Lensky, ultimately driving Lensky to demand satisfaction and a duel. The two friends meet in the snowy woods the following morning and Onegin shoots the poet dead. Wracked with guilt and still utterly bored with most everything, Onegin spends the interval between acts II and III traveling abroad. He returns after several years to St. Petersburg where, at yet another ball, he espies the beautiful and inspiring young wife of his relative Prince Gremin. Surprise! It's Tatiana. The scales fall from Onegin's jaded eyes and he sees what he has missed. He declares his love and begs Tatiana to forgive and reciprocate. Although she confesses that she still loves him, Tatiana too is firm: she will be true to her husband and the life she has found with him, even if it is a life of routine. Onegin must go and never trouble her again. She leaves him as do we: alone and miserable, and likely still bored to tears.

Strong emotion rules the day in Tchaikovsky's Onegin, and nowhere is that more true than in the orchestral writing. It gushes, it mopes, it rollicks, it yearns, it simmers, it despairs. The LA Opera orchestra under James Conlon goes wherever the composer takes it, lavishly but never goopily.

Among the principals, this production is dominated by the two sisters, particularly Oksana Dyka as Tatiana. Dyka sings thrillingly, particularly in her extended monologue as she crafts her fatal letter to Onegin. She is a model of noble self-abnegation as she sends Onegin packing, rounding off a performance that is enough in itself to justify the evening. As the more bubbly and unfettered Olga, Ekaterina Smenchuk sparkles and beams. It is a pity that neither Pushkin nor Tchaikovsky returns to Olga after Lensky issues his ill considered challenge.

The character of Onegin is slightly more sympathetic and three-dimensional in Pushkin than he is in Tchaikovsky. Until he blooms in his misery in his final meeting with Tatiana, Tchaikovsky's Onegin spends nearly all of his time sulking and declaring how tedious it all is. While he comes to life in earnest as the opera concludes, through most of this production Dalibor Jenis is only called upon to stalk about with the posture and demeanor (and apparently the tailor and hairstylist) of Disney's Beast. He makes all that he can of what Tchaikovsky gives him, but one senses the composer preferred almost every other character to his protagonist. 

This production is an import originally mounted at Covent Garden, and comes with its share of eccentric design choices. Midway upstage, a shallow waterway runs from one side to the other, to be crossed by wading or on small bridges. In Act I, splashing about in it is how Olga and Tatiana remind us that they are Young and Full of Life. In Act III, it freezes and becomes a pathway for skaters. On several occasions, it just gets in the way, particularly when the very large chorus joins the cast downstage for Tatiana's name day party.

Behind the water hazard, a rolling hillside beckons, green and lush in Act I, snowbound in th wintry second half. The entire scene is framed by, well, frames. On occasion, the characters are called upon to pause, or move very slowly, toward the rear where, with the help of a very supple lighting scheme, we are reminded of Millet or of Casper David Friedrich.

Onegin is not a perfect opera, but its weaknesses are not great and are largely dramatic rather than musical. There are long stretches of unapologetically gorgeous Romanticism throughout the score, and the players and singers in this production make it all worth hearing. The abundant snow in this production is bracingly refreshing to gaze upon at the end of a hot, late summer day in Southern California.

Hop in the troika: three performances remain through October 9.

Photos: Robert Millard, used by kind permission of Los Angeles Opera.


The Ladies of the Canyon in the Deep Dark Woods:
Snow White Turns 60
[Dale Trumbore, Gillian Hollis]

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that the world is not exactly beating down the doors in its desire for new recordings of freshly composed art songs by thus far not quite established composers.

I have been known on occasion to be game to support such quixotic projects, however, so earlier this summer I made a contribution via Kickstarter to support the recording of Snow White Turns 60, a collection of poetry settings by composer Dale Trumbore sung by soprano Gillian Hollis with the composer at the piano.

And now, as of today, it's out into the world. And as a supporter, I had the pleasant task of venturing up into the heart of Beverly Glen this past Sunday to attend the CD release celebration, including a performance of excerpts from the collection.

The CD encompasses three song cycles, each setting texts by contemporary women poets: Sara Teasdale Songs with four texts by (can you guess?) Sara TeasdaleSnow White Turns 60, setting twelve poems by nine poets, all deriving from fairytales; and This Thirst in the Lungs, three poems by Robin Myers.

I like this collection, very much, but I have to allow that it is definitely not for everyone. That is a reflection on the audience and its tastes and that universal truth I alluded to in the opening sentence: only a small and self-selected segment of music listeners will even for a moment entertain the notion that This Way Pleasures Lie. Even within the "classical" audience, those who want to hear new music for piano and vocal soloist occupy a sliver of a sliver of the pie chart. 

Not that there's anything willfully difficult or off-putting about the music or performances, mind you. Far from it: Gillian Hollis is a fine young dramatic soprano and has the welcome gift of singing English in English so that it can be understood by English speakers, with clarity, economy, and dramatic point. She has a potent set of top notes to boot which, to the composer's credit, are trotted out in these songs only when they can be most effective. Hollis was very appealing as a performer in person on Sunday afternoon, which is unfortunately an experience that audio recording cannot really convey. Some enterprising or established opera company should give her the opportunity to stretch into a part.

Dale Trumbore's approach as a composer of art song is not imitative of, but is of a piece with, the skilled vocal writers of the 20th century: Britten, naturally, looms large, with a soupçon of Bernstein here, a dollop of post-Salome/pre-serialist Vienna there. It is not a pedigree at which to sneeze. Through this series of songs, she shows off an admirable array of approaches and techniques. She can even be funny without pounding the joke into the ground, which is a skill to be embraced and applauded.

The fairy tale songs at the core of this selection, the Snow White Turns 60 cycle, serve as a fine calling card for Dale Trumbore's compositional skills. The poems themselves are nearly all of above average quality, even though they are working ground already well trodden by the likes of Anne Sexton, Angela Carter, and the ever looming FreudundJungianischkeit spirit of Bruno Bettelheim. With music, they emerge in a series of nightblooming tableaux that hold the attention while instilling an urge to look over one's shoulder. Highlights of the group include the title song, which revisits Snow White, longtime-rescued princess, moving into her AARP years and self-actualizing with gusto as her prince fades toward the ineffectual; "Where's Wolf?", in which Ms. Hood is, it seems, stood up by the hirsute feller with whom she was hoping to relive the wild self-abasement of her youth ("I'm on time!" "I won't settle for mannered inoffensiveness!"); "Gretel," reimagining the act of pushing weird ladies into ovens as a sort of Intervention exercise; "Hazel Tells Laverne," in which a Howard Johnson waitress flushes her amphibious chance at princesshood down the loo; and the concluding "Kinder- und Hausmärchen" [the German title of the Grimms' classic collection], which suggests that strangeness, not normalcy, is the true way of the world. 

The concluding trilogy of compositions based on Robin Myers poems achieves through focus and stillness a potency equal to the sheer oddity of the tales that have come before. Each poem—in particular "Union Square Station," with a churning rumble at the lower end of the piano—is a Joycean epiphany or Borgesean aleph, the capture of great things in a tiny space of time and circumstance. 

So then: this CD shows off two women of significant skills, as creator and performer, and serves notice that they are deserving of your attention. Your attention will be repaid. The Kickstarter participants helped this along with their cumulative contributions, everyone else should certainly lend an ear. This way pleasures lie.


Snow White Turns 60: Hollis Sings Trumbore is now available on iTunes, and on Amazon, and through CD Baby. All of those links lead to downloadable versions; physical CDs should become available in the near future. (The evidence of my own eyes proves that those discs exist: I have one right here, signed by Mss. Trumbore and Hollis.)



By way of a lagniappe, here is a song that does not appear on the CD, a Dale Trumbore setting of Edna St. Vincent Millay's "The Philosopher." This dates back to 2009, and is a bit more purely song-like than most of the Snow White material, as might be expected with a poet as devoted to meter and rhyme as Millay. There's a fleeting hint of after hours Sondheim on the breeze. I submit that this is worth rather more than the buck (US$1) that it would cost you to download it:


Still More

By way of a second lagniappe, Gillian Hollis takes a barefoot run at a little beer hall show tune whipped up by a once-popular Austrian tunesmith:


And Yet Again More...

Dale Trumbore's "How It Will Go" for string quartet—which was originally composed for, and has been performed by, the Kronos Quartet—will be performed by members of ACME [American Contemporary Music Ensemble] in New York on October 25. Non-New Yorkers can listen to it here.

The Snow White Turns 60 project is among several examples cited in "The Children of the Revolution", a post at Out West Arts surveying the uses of New Media in the cause of New Music. Definitely worth the reading, and Ms. Trumbore serves as poster girl for the cause.

Postscript: Thanks as well to Twitter-enabled new music publicist/marketer/consultant Maura Lafferty for her seemingly boundless proselytory energy and for some thoroughly pleasant conversation on Sunday afternoon.


The Brash Chords of Redhage
[Jody Redhage: of minutiae and memory]


The history of recorded music is spotted with record labels that, however briefly, achieve a level of reliability such that the listener can safely purchase nearly anything the label releases and be confident that All Manner of Thing Shall Be Well [if what that label Does is what you Want to Hear]. Motown achieved this blessed state for a time in the mid-60s, as did Stax/Volt; the early hungry days of David Geffen's Asylum label would qualify. There are doubtless many who could make a pitch for certain periods at Verve or Blue Note or others as achieving that sort of peak in jazz. None can say how long it will last, but New Amsterdam Records seems to be in the thick of one of those fortune-favored eras. The label's 2010 releases dominated my personal year-end assessment, and its 2011 roster is bidding fair to do the same. I have fallen far behind in writing these up, but there's no time like the present to start remediatin' the backlog.

Jody Redhage has the distinction of having been the very first artist released under the New Amsterdam imprint, in 2007. Her second New Amsterdam release, of minutiae and memory, is recently out, and it does nothing to detract from the remarkable roll of fine, fine music that New Amsterdam has been unfurling.

Jody Redhage is a double threat: a cellist who sings. (She can legitimately claim to be a triple threat, adding "composer" to her credits, but she has not included any of her own compositions on this newest release.) Her playing and singing is tricked out, in many cases, with digital and electronic accompaniment or treatments. The end result is generally mesmerizing, immersive and nutritious.

Although each of its eight pieces by eight different composers can stand alone, of minutiae and memory works best as a whole. The album sequencing is practically perfect: two tracks' worth of warming up and throat clearing followed by six more pieces, each with its particular facet of excellence.

Joshua Penman's "I Dreamed I Was Floating" serves as the entryway to the collection, clear lines in the cello in an echoing space centering the listener and allowing the player to limber up a bit. The transition to Anna Clyne's "Paint Box" is abrupt, marked by a loud, close-mic'd intake of breath. "Paint Box" depends more than most of the other pieces here on electronic fiddling-about, with Redhage's speaking voice chopped and spliced whilst it chats about colors and repeats, inexplicably, the word "clockwise." To my ears the piece, better in theory than in the actual listening, is the least satisfying in the collection.

All is immediately forgiven, however, with Paula Matthusen's "of memory and minutiae," a thing of wonder and astringent beauty. Beginning with Redhage singing an unaccompanied Swedish prayer text, the cello and ambient electronic enhancements move in to create an enveloping meditative atmosphere redolent of piercing cold, stillness, stone, and crystalline stars. One holds one's breath as in the presence of old souls, not wanting to disturb, hoping the moment can extend and extend and extend. Redhage moves on from strength to strength with Wil Smith's "Static Line," a highly effective drone-piece. Long and, yes, static lines on the cello layer over one another, with the action occurring in the phasing of tones and overtones in the interstices more so than in the lines themselves. At unexpected moments, startling patterns emerge and fade. The piece is like a haunted Rubik's cube in aspic, working itself as if without human aid.

And then: Missy Mazzoli. Mazzoli is the most established "name" among the young composers represented here and her "A Thousand Tongues" does not disappoint. It is recognizably a Mazzoli piece, with the bed spring keyboard parts and the sense of simultaneous urgency and concentration that are among her signatures. When Jody Redhage begins to sing midway through, everything roots down and presses on to whatever lies ahead.

The traditional yearning voice of the cello returns to center stage in Ryan Brown's "The Light By Which She Ascended," which surrounds extended keening lines with ambient street noise, reminiscent of (and, it must be said, superior to) the best of Max Richter. Stefan Weisman's "Everywhere Feathers" shifts attention back to Jody Redhage as singer: a contemplation of life and the life to come sung over a rising, rotating Bach-evoking chordal progression. Finally, the collection settles in toward silence by way of Derek Muro's "Did You See Me Walking?", in which cello and voice work largely in unison, musing on a solitary walk through small-town mist, into which they eventually disappear. The arc is complete, and this listener at least is well satisfied.

Listen here, then do what is right and buy this collection from your preferred supplier of Good Music.