Monthly Archives: November 2011

The Body Electric presented by Oni Buchanan, a Center for New Music Concert

Center for New Music Concert: November 17, 2011

“The Body Electric”

Presented by Oni Buchanan, piano

            The title of this concert actually provides a wonderful introduction to what the concert really was.  The music programmed was almost entirely a synthesis of electronic and piano music.  The pieces were performed to a tape track accompaniment with live music presented by Ms. Buchanan on the piano.  The scene that greeted the audience was almost that of a rock concert, with large speakers set to either side of the stage, a couple of standing microphones set up to amplify the piano and a separate microphone to the side.  An extra piano bench was set up next to the piano with a laptop on it and large speakers were set to the sides of the stage.

The program consisted of six pieces, one of which was a collection of three smaller etudes.  There were no program notes handed out, but the Center for New Music website included program notes on its website.  The notes and other information about this concert can be found on their website by following this link www.uiowa.edu/~cnm/.

The artist’s biography states that she is not only an accomplished pianist with a M.M. from New England Conservatory and an active performing career, but is also a published poet with an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop.  She likes to perform contemporary works, especially those of women composers.  On this concert, four female composers and only one male composer were represented.  All five of the composers are still living and composing. Four have personal websites that I have listed below and the other, Mei-Fang Lin has several sites with biographical information, though none seem to be her official website.

Missy Mazzoli –   www.missymazzoli.com/

Carolyn Yarnell – http://carolynyarnell.com/

Cindy Cox – http://cacox.com/index.html

Jacob Ter Veldhuis – http://www.jacobtv.net/

The two works by Missy Mazzoli, Isabelle Eberhardt Dreams of Pianos and Orizzonte are somewhat similar in sound.  Isabelle Eberhardt is a piece that draws to mind the programmatic music of the Romantic period.  The harmonies were clearly triadic, though not following any tonality.  A taped accompaniment provided constant evocation of the dream while the piano provided a rhythmic counterpart emphasizing the character’s movement.  The piece uses quotations of Schubert’s A Major Sonata that would be hidden to the listener unfamiliar with Schubert’s writing.   Orizzonte, though not programmatic like Isabelle Eberhardt, is also to a taped accompaniment track that also allows most of the rhythmic interest to stay with the live performer and the piano.  The harmonies are, again, triadic though not tonal.

Interaction, by Mei-Fang Lin, was a piece that begged the listener to decide whether the electronic accompaniment was trying to imitate the piano, or the piano trying to imitate the electronics.  The opening of the piece sounded almost like recorded wind chimes that the live performer attempted to imitate on the piano, but throughout the piece it became clear that the two instruments were almost having a conversation.  For this piece, the title truly described how the two different media uniquely came together to create a dialogue.

The third piece on the program, Carolyn Yarnell’s The Same Sky, seemed to have one of the most interesting uses of modern electronics.  It was supposed to be performed with taped accompaniment, live piano, and video projected on the inside of the lifted lid of the piano.  However, for this performance, the video was unavailable.  Not much reason was given for why there was no video, just a quick word from Ms. Buchanan telling the audience it should be there but would not be for this performance.  Though I’ve never seen the piece performed before, I distinctly felt that the video would have added a great deal to this piece.  Without it, the piece felt a little long and somewhat stagnant, though imagining an endlessly moving sky inside the piano seemed to make a little more sense of the music.  Unfortunately, my imagination had a hard time continuing to project this image and the actual video would have made the performance seem more complete.

Ms. Buchanan played three piano etudes from Cindy Cox’s larger set entitled Hierosgamos: Studies in Harmony and Resonance.  These etudes were the only pieces on the program that did not include electronics.  They were fairly short and each had a very distinct character.  Especially the second and third of these etudes that Ms. Buchanan played seemed to invoke memories of Charles Ives’s piano works.

The final piece on the concert was by far the one that engaged the audience most.  It was by the Dutch avant-garde composer Jacob TV whose music is known as “boombox music.”  He is known for using sound clips of American TV programs to create melodies that are then reinterpreted by classical instruments, like the piano.  This piece was to an infomerical for a product that claimed to help people lose weight by electrically shocking the abdominal muscles to stimulate the muscles.  The concept was very unique, fun, and it allowed the audience to really get involved in the music.

For more information on the performer, Oni Buchanan, visit this link to her website, www.onibuchanan.com/ .

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Oasis Quartet

On November 10, 2011, the Oasis Quartet presented a concert in the University Capital Centre Reictal Hall. The hall was filled with many students following a masterclass with the Oasis Quartet for the University of Iowa’s saxophone studio under the direction of Dr. Kenneth Tse. The ensemble provided a varied program of music transcribed and written for saxophone quartet. A welcoming and casual ambiance was created by the members of the ensemble with spoken introductions and a genuine thank you to Dr. Tse for his invitation to perform at the university and work with the students of the saxophone studio.

According to the biography provided in the program, these four gentlemen, Nathan Nabb, James Bunte, Dave Camwell, and James Romain, share a goal of “interpreting dynamic repertoire at the highest level.” This was evident from the first note of the performance. These artists are dedicated to exploring all walks of the standard and transcribed repertoire and this particular program did not disappoint! Also impressive to note that each of these performers enjoy solo artist careers regionally, nationally, and internationally as chamber musicians, orchestral musicians, solo recitalists, and adjudicators.

The program was relatively short, but left nothing to be desired in exploring a multitude of styles and expression. The intonation and cohesion of the quartet was exceptional. Not generally being a fan of the soprano saxophone, I found Mr. Nabb’s tone smooth and melodic throughout the concert, despite an occasional the instrument’s tendency to be shrill in the altissimo range. Perhaps due to balance for the ensemble, I felt Mr. Romain’s baritone saxophone playing to be somewhat reserved. Considering a very similar voicing to a string quartet, I found his sound to be less commanding than normally expected from a cellist. The middle voices provided by alto saxophonist, James Bunte, and tenor saxophonist, Dave Camwell, were rich and sonorous. Overall, the blend and balance of this quartet was exceptional: individual sounds entwined into a block of sound in all the right places and voices came out of the texture in the most subtle and enticing manner.

Concert Repertoire

String Quartet No. 12 in F Major (American), Antonín Dvořák

Dvořák’s penchant for using folk themes is not missed in this transcription of string quartet for saxophone quartet. Throughout each movement there is always a sense of some lilting Irish or Celtic tune, or a spiritual. This piece truly lives up to its subtitled name: American. Although the same kind of interplay between two violins is not quite the same as voiced by a soprano and alto saxophone, the lines blended almost seamlessly throughout the work. Some interesting transcriptional items of note were the use of flutter tonging in the third movement and extended tremolo passages in the fourth movement. Not being familiar with the string quartet version of this work, these extended wind techniques may be an attempt to recreate string techniques such as double stops or plucked strings. Regardless of that fact, the dexterity and abandon with which the quartet performed this work was inspiring.

Pitch Black, Jacob ter Veldhuis

For this selection an iPod was employed and the members of the quartet donned their headphones and ear buds. Throughout the audience there was a collective look to the program notes to reveal what was in store. Jacob TV, as he is affectionately known, is a Dutch Composition Prize winner noted for his exploration into what have been termed “boombox” works. This particular piece is based on an interview with jazz-trumpeter Chet Baker. The work starts with Chet Baker speaking and then in the most fascinating manner his speech becomes the music. Through reiteration of text on a skip track, use of sound bites, the natural fluctuations of his vocal timbre in speech, and non-verbalized vocalizations a melody is created. The quartet wove in and out of being an accompaniment to the spoken text of Mr. Baker to building upon a single word into a riff of big band jazz saxophone section in full swing. Like many, when I see the performers putting on their earphones and see that we might be getting an electronic sampling, I become leery and inwardly groan thinking I am probably going to detest what is about to occur. Here, I was pleasantly surprised. This piece was jazzy, fun, emotionally moving, and I found myself completely rapt. Having never heard of Jacob TV before, I’m interested to learn more about his catalogue of works. A definite success for this ensemble in opening the eyes and ears of musicians and concert-goers alike!

Quatuor, Florent Schmitt

This enchanting piece by the French composer Florent Schmitt provided a real showcase for each member of the quartet. There was a definite neoclassic feel to the piece while still having a playful dabble into the realms of polytonality and atonality. Each voice had its chance to come out of the texture of the ensemble and shine. Particularly beautiful was the trading off from voice to voice in the third movement concluding with the alto leading into the soprano in a soaring melody. This work was very beautiful to hear, but not all that memorable, in no part due to the workings of the quartet members.

Recitation Book, V. Durch Adam’s Fall, David Maslanka

Another new composer to add to my research list, David Maslanka’s work was enthralling. This particular movement opened with a fanfare flare. When I read the title all I could recall was some choral arrangements of this text used during Advent lessons and carols services. However, this interpretation of that religious text was exciting. It was like the fanfare signified God descending into the Garden of Eden to punish Adam. This moved into a chase-like section where I felt I could picture Adam running to try and escape God’s wrath. A beautifully sustained soft tone by the alto saxophone lead into a lament of such agony played beautifully on the soprano saxophone. Adam is repenting and begging for forgiveness. Plaintive sonorities follow allude to Adam’s resolve of the punishment received. Finally the fanfare returns with a menacing quality; which left me wondering if it was God ascending back to the heavens, or was it the procession out of Eden? A programmatic work that left me wanting more! I only hope that the Oasis Quartet records the entire piece in time so I can enjoy the other movements.

For more information about the Oasis Quartet, individual ensemble members, and upcoming performances, please see this link:
http://www.oasisquartet.com

For more detailed program notes for Thursday’s concert, please see this link:
http://performingarts.uiowa.edu/oasis-saxophone-quartet/

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11-6-2011 Center for New Music Composers Workshop Concert

The Center for New Music’s Composers Workshop concert on Sunday, November 6, at 7:30 p.m. featured some of the latest solo and chamber instrumental compositions of the UI’s graduate student composers. In most of the works on the program, it was clear the composers were really striving to explore the use of extended techniques, utilizing extremes of range, unusual instrumental combinations, pitch bending, and artificial harmonics. The two pieces written for unusual instrumental combinations were Aaron Perrine’s “Bridge Suite” for saxophone and cello and Yunsoo Kim’s Duo for bass trombone and trumpet. In Perrine’s piece, the cello’s double-stops and forte passages combined with the dynamic sensitivity of Nathan Bogert really impressed me, resulting in a performance where one could hear both instruments equally well despite the more powerful nature of the alto saxophone. The trumpet and bass trombone duo had a challenging bass trombone part, often requiring the player to play in the extreme ranges of the instrument. Kim utilized many extended techniques possible on the bass trombone, including multiphonics (where the player sings one note while buzzing another – resulting in two pitches being heard at once) and the use of a variety of smears and glissandi. Kim explored a variety of timbres on the bass trombone, but to my surprise, wrote a more conventional trumpet part.

Extended techniques and exploration of the timbres of string instruments were a big part of the three string quartet works on the program: Sundown, by Zach Zubow, Chiasma, by Matthew Smart, and String Quartet #1 by Brian Penkrot. The piece was an excellent musical depiction of the sun drifting away, and I loved the idea of each player letting go of their note one by one, as if the sun were drifting away in the distance. In this piece and Chiasma, it seemed as if the composers were more interested in sound and harmony, instead of melody and motivic development. Particularly in Brian Penkrot’s String Quartet #1, there were so many glissandi, pitch bends, artificial harmonics, and other unconventional string sounds that I was kept in constant anticipation at what new sound or extended technique would be next.

In contrast, the program also included pieces like Leonid Iogansen’s “Tango…” for two violins, Jason Palamara’s “crawly” for violin and guitar, and William Huff’s “Prosodic Units” for unaccompanied flute, which placed less emphasis on extended techniques. “Tango…” was reminiscent of the work of Bartok and even some of the composers of the Second Viennese School. The guitar and violin duo “crawly” was a fun piece and I felt that the music, depicting the composer’s experience upon waking up at 3 a.m. and thinking he saw something moving, fit the title well. William Huff’s Prosodic Units was a nice addition to an already established repertoire: unaccompanied flute solos. Placed second to last in the program, this piece placed little emphasis on extended techniques and left room for the performer to express herself.

At least five of the eight composers on this program did not seem content in using instruments conventionally, but wanted to use the instruments to create to create sounds that would fit their musical ideas. I think it was good that these up-and-coming composers were willing to take the risk of being experimental and in exploring the different sounds that are possible with our traditional orchestral instruments. Even as an audience member working on a master’s degree in music, I must admit that my interest was greatly heightened in hearing instruments used in ways that I am not used to hearing them. As one who has conducted some research on how to increase interest in live classical music in America, the excitement of new, experimental music that creates sounds seldom heard from traditional instruments could be a draw for potential audience members as it greatly heightened my interest during the program. At the same time, I also appreciated the fact that three of the eight composers were also willing to emulate past styles in creating their own work. Doing so provides a refreshing balance to too much experimentation and extended techniques and prevents experimentation becoming an end in itself. It was good to see both adherents of both the new and the traditional at this concert.

To read the program notes from the evening’s program, visit http://www.uiowa.edu/~cnm/46.111106.html. Some of the composers from the evening’s concert maintain personal websites or blogs, and these links are provided below:

http://www.aaronperrine.com/

http://www.zachzubow.com/home.html

http://brianpenkrot.blogspot.com/

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Four Guys and Three String Quartets – The JACK Quartet at Riverside Recital Hall

I arrived at last Sunday evening’s concert following a three-day fever-induced stint in bed, but boy, did I wake up! The Jack quartet is well known as an up-and-coming ensemble devoted to contemporary music, and it is a reputation they deserve. John Pickford Richards, Ari Streisfeld, Christopher Otto, and Kevin McFarland are all accomplished composer-performers independently, and got together to spell JACK just a few years ago. They have quickly established themselves as heavyweights in the new music scene with residencies at major Universities and summer festivals such as Lucerne and New Music on the Point. You can follow their work and travels on Twitter (I can personally recommend it!) at: http://twitter.com/jackquartet

Sunday’s concert at Riverside Recital Hall concluded their week-long residency at the University of Iowa. Throughout the week they collaborated with the UI dance department, composer Payton MacDonald and choreographer Trisha Brown to present a stirring program at Space Place Theater. They also read the works of graduate student composers in the School of Music, giving students a useful forum to hear their own new compositions and the work of their colleagues. At the end of the week was a program all their own consisting of Ives’ Second String Quartet, Jason Eckardt’s “Subject”, and Horatiu Radulescu’s Fifth String Quartet,”before the universe was born”.

The Second Ives’ quartet is a personal favorite of mine. Although I’ve heard recordings, this was my first opportunity to experience the music live. It is a thorny, complex work, aptly described in JACK’s program notes as, “typical Ives rage against what he perceived as the effeminacy of standard string quartet performances.” The three movements are subtitled “Discussions”, “Arguments” and “The Call of the Mountains”, and Ives’ notes in the score that the piece is, “for 4 men–who converse, discuss, argue … then walk up the mountain side to view the firmament!” It is precisely that argument that first possessed me with this quartet. It is guttural and physical in its relationship between layers of quotation, conflict and resolution. The JACK quartet played the work with expertise and confidence. I got the feeling they knew it very well and had a profound intellectual understanding of the music. They work almost effortlessly, an incredible quality of their music-making, but I wonder if seeing them sweat a little would have made the performance more effective.

Eckardt’s “Subject” is a new work commissioned just this year by the Quartet. It is an interesting study in sensory perception and the effect of alternating sound deprivation and overload on the audience. In contrast to the Ives, there was almost no traditionally-informed tonal narrative on which to hang one’s hat. In this piece sound is explored as a weapon. For me, the experience bypassed cerebral activities entirely and hit me with instantaneous reflex. The players were cool and collected throughout, like an impersonal narrator.

In the Radulescu I discovered a composer who’s works I’d like to spend more time with. The piece calls for all four players in scordatura (the tuning of strings to pitches different from the standard stacked fifths) and it is based on spectral transformations of the cellist’s lowest string. The work abounds with extended techniques that expand the timbral palate of the string quartet medium. At no point in it’s 30+ uninterrupted minutes of music did I hear a sound that, if blind-folded, I would have recognized as a string quartet! It was a beautiful journey in sonic environment I’m not likely to forget.

This is not the first year the JACK Quartet has been in residence at the University of Iowa, and I sincerely hope it will not be the last! Their virtuosity is impressive and they perform fresh, engaging works begging relevant questions about the history and future of the string quartet as an expressive medium. You can learn more about the ensemble and hear clips of their work at: www.jackquartet.com

-Meg Karls

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Hometown Favorites in the Old Capitol Senate Chamber

Center for New Music Concert

October 30, 2011

2 PM, Old Capitol Senate Chamber

Wolfgang David and David Gompper

Sunday afternoon’s concert featured a number of “hometown favorites,” as it were: Professor David Gompper as performer and composer (website here); alumnus Dr. Christopher Gainey as composer (website here); and former Visiting Professor Jeremy Dale Roberts as composer (info here). Their three pieces were framed by works by well-known composers Ernest Bloch (first on the program) and Sergei Prokofiev (the closing piece). Wolfgang David, too, is a familiar performer at the University of Iowa, including his premiere of Gompper’s Violin Concerto in October of 2009. For the sake of brevity, this entry will consist of commentary regarding the “books” of the program, rather than the “bookends,” especially as those by Gainey and Gompper were premieres.

David and Gompper have been working together for 11 years, and their previous work can be seen here (with some more canonized repertoire, Mozart!):

In every concert, be it tonal, post-tonal, or somewhere in between, I try to pay attention to the contrasts, moods, and characters presented in the music. Regardless of pitch content, the music expresses something, and it is the job of the performers to make that known. As an audience member, it’s my job to pay attention to the clues I hear and see in the performance. Important too, is the interaction between the instruments (in this case, piano and violin), and the performers (the people, specifically). How do they communicate? How do they make room for one another? Complement one another? Do they work in tandem? Call and response? The possibilities are endless, and I hope to tease out these two dimensions, among others, throughout this entry. For program notes and biographies, click here.

Second on the program was Salmagundi Farrago (2011), by Gainey. While this piece was certainly post-tonal, the movement names are more recognizable: I. Aria; II. Fugue; and III. Passacaglia. Many composers, Schoenberg and many others included, have utilized older genres and musical forms while still breaking from tonality. The first movement was true to its name, Aria, and began with a lovely, melodic violin line with sparse, high piano accompaniment. Throughout the piece, the piano reminded me of a music box, light and rhythmic. Consistent in each movement, too, was the interaction between violin and piano, in which the violin played broad, sweeping melodies while the piano supported it with faster, more rhythmic lines. The Fugue was true to its name, contrapuntal, with the violin introducing and the piano then following after. The music was pointillist and exact, as if it fit into a grid. David played harmonics (a common theme throughout the program) and pizzicato. The third movement, indeed, was a Passacaglia, and according to his notes, Gainey alluded to “famous passacaglias from Webern, Bach, Britten and Schoenberg” throughout.

Gompper’s Calling Cards (2011), “an imaginary narrative—the gentleman caller wooing the lady of the house and the unexpected series of responses,” in his words, was premiered next. Not surprisingly, there was, indeed, a great deal of interaction between the violin and piano: call and response, and little phrases that seemed almost speech-like. The duo communicated a full variety of expressions: some phrases trickled and died out at the end, while some rushed hurriedly, impatiently. The violin was sometimes playful, at others pastoral and sentimental, even joyful, at times flippant, and yet others, earnest.  These many moods went to the wayside for the thickly textured, rhythmic, exuberant end.

Roberts’ piece followed after the intermission. Entitled Tristia, 6 lyric pieces for violin and piano, the piece consisted of three movements: Appassionato; with élan first, followed by Presto; still and Semplice; feroce. David expressed a variety of moods in this piece as well, beginning the piece with a cadenza. I noticed that each movement (for the most part) swelled in the middle, agitated and heavy, and then dissolved, relaxing into contemplation, subtlety, and eventually silence.

David and Gompper provided the audience with a full variety of moods and musical interactions Sunday afternoon, and they certainly provided me with much to write about!

Kery Lawson

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