Monthly Archives: October 2012

Jackets off: a casual approach to new music

When I heard that Tony Arnold (soprano) would not be performing in Sunday’s concert, I was disappointed not to get the chance to see her in concert.  However, the Center for New Music was able to put on another impressive and enjoyable program with very little notice, erasing any trace of disappointment from my mind.  This concert featured guest artist Michael Norsworthy on clarinet and UI’s own David Gompper on piano, performing a diverse array of works composed from 1969 to 2007.

The concert took place in the Old Capitol Senate Chamber, a plush and intimate venue.  Because of this, Mr. Norsworthy was able to take off his jacket and address the audience informally, sharing anecdotes and explaining what to listen for in each piece.  Although he is a fixture in the new music world, he took great care to make the concert accessible to those who may be less than familiar with or appreciative of contemporary styles.

The opening piece was a relatively well known minimalist work by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt called Spiegel im Spiegel (mirror in the mirror) for clarinet and piano, and it exemplifies Pärt’s Tintinnabular style.  The title is meant to evoke the image of infinite reflections created by two mirrors facing each other.  It features a diatonic pitch collection with exclusively tonic harmony.  The clarinet plays long tones in stepwise motion, and the tonicity is occasionally reinforced by a bass pedal in the piano part, with steady arpeggiations in triple time above (think Moonlight Sonata).  I have heard this piece performed on cello before, and really enjoyed the smooth, meditative tones that the clarinet version added.

The next two pieces, Gerard Grisey’s Charme and Bruno Mantovani’s Bug, stood in stark contrast to the easy, contemplative opening.  Charme has been called a spectral work, though Grisey preferred the term “liminal” to describe the threshold between the conceptual and the actual as it pertains to musical parameters.  Bug is a programmatic piece about a computer virus, although Mr. Norsworthy explained that he envisions a “mosquito on crack.”  I am not sure how the pitch material was generated for either piece, but both were largely gestural, incorporating extended techniques such as multiphonics, key clicks, blowing air through the instrument and pulsing dynamic changes.  Both works were obviously very difficult but performed with astounding facility.

The piano was brought back for the conclusion of the first half, Michael Finnissy’s Clarinet Sonata. Finnissy, a composer in the New Complexity School, wrote this piece (and several others) for Michael Norsworthy.  Finnissy derived the pitch material for the piano from Beethoven’s piano sonata op. 110., although it was retrograded and not aurally recognizable.  There was no apparent pulse or tonality, but the texture was organized into lyrical phrases and occasionally, tonal-sounding dyads emerged.  The performers helped to engage the audience with their expressive movements and sensitive phrasing.

The second half of the program was comprised of just one piece, Tierkreis (Zodiac) by Karlheinz Stockhausen.  Norsworthy explained that Stockhausen was an eccentric person who believed he was from outer space, and this piece reflects his interest in the cosmos.  Each of the twelve short movements corresponds with a different sign of the Zodiac.  It is not a tonal piece, but uses motivic development to characterize each sign, like a modern Carnival of the Animals.  My favorite movement was Taurus, which opened with a bass groove in the extreme low range of the piano punctuated by clusters in the extreme high range.  The extended techniques in this piece were not prolific but were very effective and unique.  For example, at one point Gompper silently depressed a cluster of keys with his forearms as well as the damper pedal, and Norsworthy played with his bell in the piano, creating a really interesting aesthetic with sympathetic vibrations.  This piece shattered all my preconceived notions of Stockhausen’s music, and I was completely delighted by it.

The sensitivity, care, virtuosity and wit displayed in this program invited the audience in, ensuring that each member’s understanding of new music was enriched in some way.  If you ever have a chance to see Michael Norsworthy in concert, by all means take it.

I hope that Ms. Arnold is able to return to campus soon, but until then, we wish her the best!

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“Explosive virtuosity”, indeed.

The Boston Globe hit the nail on the head with their review of the JACK quartet.  This dynamic group has a unique mission with an educational emphasis— to promote new music, expand the string quartet repertoire, and broaden and diversify the potential audience for new music.  In my opinion, Mission: Accomplished.

The quartet began their concert with Georg Friedrich Haas’ String Quartet No. 5, performed with the members of the quartet stationed in the four corners of the hall.  After attempting to crane my neck to watch the performers, and unable to decide whom to focus on, I resigned myself to let go of my visual sense and focus on the aural effect of work.  The setup produced a “surround sound” effect.  The four parts are similar in register and feature frequent shimmering tremolo, pizzicato, harmonics, and chromatic figures as well as extended bowing techniques.  The similar registral placement make the listener crave the rare cello moments in the low register that add some depth and bass to the sound.  This is the type of music where the cracking of knuckles, the rustle of programs, and the sighs of the audience cease to be a distraction and become a welcome addition to the music.  While program notes may have been helpful for the audience to understand this music, I believe that the JACK achieved their desired effect— for the audience to let go of their preconceived notions and enjoy a unique, strictly aural experience.  The quartet’s exceptionally clear tone and flawless intonation were essential in executing this effectively.

not forgotten is a set of six movements built on solos.  The first and last movements are always Giverny and Now.  The middle movements, however, vary in order by performance.  As Reynolds writes in his program notes, “Why should music not be, as life is, not entirely predictable?”  I believe that this philosophy adds a Cage-like aesthetic to the work due to its sampling in indeterminacy.

Iannis, centered around the second violinist, was the first middle movement to be performed.  This movement, based on Xenakis’ Second String Quartet, is also influenced by the Aegean Sea and sounds reminiscent of the “glittering wave patterning of the waters that surround Greece.”  I particularly admired Ari Streisfeld’s great physicality in this movement, which made his extended techniques appear natural.  Ponticello and playing without full pressure into the string produced a Doppler-like or whale song effect, which reminded me of Hovhaness’ And God Created Great WhalesRyoanji is centered around the cellist.  It is almost devoid of pitch and utilizes 9 noise sources, including bowing the bridge, tailpiece, peg box, col legno, vertically rather than horizontally down the fingerboard, and percussively rapping against the instrument.  This movement is inspired by the raked sand of Zen gardens.  Toru features the viola’s sweet, mournful sound and is the first movement to utilize its C string.  Inspired by Takemitsu’s film scores, its lyricism is punctuated by “startling interruptions in the form of auditory wasabi.”  The final solo movement, Elliot, features the first violinist.  This movement emphasizes string crossings and is inspired by Elliot Carter’s “riotous” third string quartet.

John Cage’s Four emphasizes silence.  The very quiet dynamic range, long bows, and pauses create a sense of stasis.  The prevalence of the open D string creates a sense of tonal centricity around D.  Between movements the artists trade music across the quartet.  This music is an additive, rather than developmental, form.

Lachenmann’s third string quartet contrasted with Cage’s work by featuring extremely fast bow speeds and follow-throughs to project the variety of harmonics and false harmonics.  I particularly enjoyed the cello part in this movement.  This work also featured glissandi and mutes and produced an airy, static-y effect similar to white noise.  Vibrato speed was instrumental in building intensity.  This quartet demanded incredible bow control in all aspects, including distribution, speed, placement, and sounding point.  It also featured extended bowing techniques including bowing diagonally across the fingerboard, peg box, and tailpiece.  A purposefully slightly out of tune octave places Stravinsky-esque plucked chords place the audience in a state of discomfort and unease.

The quartet’s standing ovation for this performance was well deserved.  Even for those that are not familiar with or particularly fond of new music, it is clear that the JACK quartet’s technical and communicative skills are exceptional and that they have a great passion and dedication for their repertoire.  I sincerely believe they may have changed a few minds about new music along the way.

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An Evening of Electronic Music

On Sunday October 21, 2012, the University of Iowa Electronic Music Studios presented a captivating recital of electronic music.  I will admit, until this recital I had never heard electronic music performed in a concert setting, so naturally I was a somewhat nervous.  I did not know what to expect.  I was absolutely blown away.  The music was fascinating especially because of all the different sounds achieved with very minimal use of traditional instruments.  Most of the pieces on the program sampled sounds found in everyday life, which I believe helped make this recital more accessible to people not accustomed to electronic music. 

The program started with Unhinged by Stephen David Beck.  This piece was originally written as a study piece for his students.  His students and him went around their campus and recorded various different sounds.  In the end, they decided to use samples of a squeaky door opening and a dysfunctional elevator door slamming.  I really liked the juxtaposition of the high frequencies from the squeaky door and the low frequencies from the slamming elevator.  The sounds are delivered through different methods, which distort the original samples and turns them into floating, weaving lines.  The squeaky door transforms into sounds reminiscent of a fire engine sirens, and the slamming elevator morphs into a rushing train.  The second piece on the program was Densité by Benjamin O’Brien.  In this piece, Benjamin O’Brien sought to convey the interactions between the density of samples and the dimensions of the space they were realized in.  Throughout this pieces sounds of rain, rattling glass, church bells, banging pipes, marimbas, and tambourines can be heard all twirling together.  The following piece was Memoir of a Daydream by David Ikard.  This piece was by far my most favorite of the entire performance.  Listening to this composition with my eyes closed, I truly felt like I was transported to somewhere else.  I felt like I could actually see the daydream happening.  The piece is presented in a stream of consciousness style.  It starts out with water splashing, and then sounds of a baby laughing, taking a bath emerges.  Slowly the atmosphere transforms into what sounds like a meadow.  Buzzing insects, crunching grass, thunder, rain, and far off train whistles all can be heard.  Slowly, the piece ends in a cyclical fashion, ending with the same sound of splashing water, which started the piece.  The fourth piece on the concert was Three Acousmatic Miniatures by Daniel Weymouth.  This piece is comprised of three small movements titled “A Breath for Rob”, “ No Rest”, and “having to do with motion”.  Inspired by Rob Voisey’s “60×60” project, each movement is approximately sixty seconds long.  “A Breath for Rob” is a tribute to this and features sounds from a production of Macbeth.  “No Rest” is comprised of samples of piano and metronomes, and “having to do with motion” is made of birdcalls and people talking.  The next composition was There Are Ghosts by Brian Hernandez.  This piece was set to a video with images of hallways, doors, and glimpses of a man talking.  Brian Hernandez has stated that piece is about a soul wandering as it hopes to re-enter the living, but eventually forgets what it once was.  Naturally, this piece was a little more out of the ordinary than the other pieces, and the sounds reflect the eerie character.  Sounds of chimes, white noise, moaning, and a man whose voice has been altered electronically give this composition an unnatural quality.  The video and the music definitely make the piece together.  It would not have been near as strong if it were just music or video.  The sixth and final piece on the program was Emergence by Hubert Howe.  Unlike the rest of the program, which was presented in stereo format, this was presented in a four-channel format, meaning that the music alternated between four different speakers set in various locations throughout the room.  It made it feel like the music was travelling throughout the room.  The main purpose of this piece was to have many different independent pitches sounding and travelling to different speakers, which gave the impression of changing fundamentals.  The piece employs up to thirty-two different harmonic partials.  It is really quite interesting the tricks it plays on the ears.  At different times I thought I could hear whole-tone scales, pentatonic scales, and other various modes. 

This concert was an amazing experience for me. It was a great performance for electronic music aficionados and neophytes (like me!).  I loved every moment and the wide range of sounds, which were so captivating and different from a typical classical music concert. I can honestly say I would love and hope to attend another recital by the University of Iowa Electronic Music Studios!

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Life, Love, Loss and Dreams: A Poetic Evening of Female Contemporary Composers of Song

Professor Katherine Eberle gave a faculty recital on October 17th at Riverside Recital Hall.  The recital’s program was themed to include only music from contemporary female composers of song.  Most of the text for each piece was originally set as poetry prior to being set in song by the composers.  Dr. Eberle opened the recital by educating the audience on the theme of the recital and noting that very few recitals feature compositions by contemporary female composers.  It is clear that the theme of this recital is a subject passionate to Dr. Eberle with research and performances of this type of music stemming back as early as 1994 with her article entiled “From a Woman’s Perspective.”

The recital proceeded in three sets each focusing on a specific set of experiences in the human condition.  The first set featured an eight movement work by Juliana Hall entitled Letters from Edna: 8 songs on Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay.  These songs were originally letters written by poet Edna St. Vincent Millay to various people in her life including, lawyers, friends, sisters, publishers and a letter to her mother.  The texts were truly simple everyday life conversations.

Beyond the comedic nature of the text, Dr. Eberle enhanced the music through wonderful facial expressions which resonated with each member of the audience.  Notable too was the function of the piano in the work.  The piano was not merely an accompaniment but a character in the music.  The piano was Edna’s thinking process through each moment as she crafted the letter.  As Dr. Eberle’s part became reflective, energized, or, contemplative so too did the piano as if the piano was pondering what to say next in each letter.

The second set of pieces in the recital dealt with the subject of loss.  Homeless by Lori Laitman was written as a reflection of the scourge of homelessness on society.  The opening lines “beautiful savage” though taboo challenged everyone in the recital hall to rethink the societal stereotypes of the homeless population.  Echo, again by Laitman, was a piece reflecting on the loss of a loved one.  The final piece was a movement from the chamber piece Raspberry Island Dreaming by Libby Larsen.  The movement, “Where The River Bends” comments on the loss of childhood.

The final set on Dr. Eberle’s recital was a collection of six songs by Judith Cloud.  Each one of these texts centered on themes of love and dreams.  The opening piece of this set, Song and Music, was especially vivid.  Dr. Eberle commented that she envisioned a bride and father having a conversation in the back of a church before walking down the aisle.  The piano opened the work with the pounding of chords reminiscent of church bells.  Dr. Eberle’s eyes set the tone prior to singing with an expression of anticipated wonder and fear.  Though I am writing this post two days following the recital, I can still close my eyes and picture Dr. Eberle’s characterization of the music.

What truly intrigued me throughout the entire recital was the musical presentation of the piano and voice.  Not being a vocalist, I will do my best to describe the sounds I heard.  Each piece seemed (for lack of this author’s known musical vocabulary) in the style of Sprechstimme.  However, the piano and vocalist were tonally independently of each other for most of the recital.

Dr. Eberle’s singing seemed to have governing factors other than pitch.  Her vocal contours seemed determined by the speed and excitement one may naturally deliver as if having a conversation.  Because of this independence that was not quite talking on pitch and not quite tonally grounded I can only think of Sprechstimme as a similar musical term.

The experience of a recital at Riverside Recital Hall was truly wonderful.  I seldom experience this hall for its intended purpose as it was only hours earlier I was in the building rehearsing the 240 member Hawkeye Marching Band.  The recital was phenomenal and a true celebration of contemporary female vocal composers.

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An Uplifting and Memorial Night

            The Concert Band and Symphony Band of the University of Iowa performed their opening concert on Thursday, October 4th at the Iowa Memorial Union Ballroom where both bands featured a few remarkable pieces. As well, Concert Band featured a couple of guest conductors which were Kevin Kessler and Steven Riley who are graduate students at Iowa. The program was filled with marching and memorial pieces that raised the audience to their feet and a surprise at the end.

             The Concert Band opener was a short and sweet piece by James Curnow called Fanfare and Flourishes for a Festive Occasion. The brass indeed flourished with their majestic melody while the woodwinds repetitively trilled underneath them for the grand arrival of a concert. This piece was a great opener to a partly marched themed program. The following piece, A Jubilant Overture by Alfred Reed featured energetic runs that represented the joys of spring and the broad, singing melodies symbolized the enthusiasm of youth which DMA candidate, Kevin Kessler guest conducted the piece. Then it was Steven Riley`s turn to guest conduct Sarabande and Polka by Malcolm Arnold. The two dance pieces were an addition to Arnold`s Eight English Dance`s that was set to the ballet Solitaire. The woodwinds slowly breezed through the Sarabande while the trumpets danced through fast, complex rhythms of the Polka. The Polka was a nice uplift to the slow, lyrical Sarabande.

              The last marching piece for Concert Band was by John Philip Sousa called Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. This piece is unique for Sousa`s marches because there is a harp part and was performed by the largest band Sousa ever conducted, 6200 members. The contrasting march style of accented attacks to the smooth soaring section was well heard with the booming acoustics in the Ballroom. The final selection Yosemite Autumn by Mark Camphouse was a memorial piece for his mother-in-law, Daphna Lodean Wilson.  California`s Yosemite National Park inspired the piece. The beauty of nature was brought out with the piece’s contrasting styles of a warm tone in the melodic line that reminded me of sunlight beaming through the trees. Then there was a minor, dark section of clouds hovering over the park, back to the optimistic melody which the band well-played through distinctive dynamics.

            The last half of the program, Symphony Band opens with Procession of the Nobles, “Cortege”: from the opera Mlada by Nicholai Rimsky-Korsakov. This opera-ballet piece was filled with an intricate brass and woodwind melody that repeated, while the percussion kept a marching pulse. My attention was compelled towards the constant driven pulse that the band never let up on. The Procession of the Nobles was the last suite of an arranged five numbered suite in the opera-ballet. The next selection, Lincolnshire Posy by Percy Grainger is described by him as “a bunch of musical wildflowers” based on folksongs of Lincolnshire, England.  I could picture the different musical wildflowers with contrasts between the legato and staccato notes. Then I heard the sense of an optimistic sailor theme through-out each movement whether it was in the trumpets, piccolo or clarinets.

Next there was, From Glory to Glory by Kevin Walczyk which was commissioned by the Midwest International Band and Orchestra Clinic to honor the life of Heather Reu. The piece`s melodic and harmonic structure are from pitches based on words and folksongs relating to Heather`s life. The woodwind’s and percussion’s simple repetitive line reminded me of a clock when the texture builds upon complex rhythms. The final piece and my favorite out of the program is J’ai été au bal (“I Went to the Dance”) by Donald Grantham. This piece was a surprise because it contrasted the march and memorial styled pieces but stayed in the theme of folksongs. It began with a sweet, singing melody within the woodwinds that the brass turned into a jazzy celebration of popular/folk music styles of Louisiana such as Cajun music and brass band tradition of New Orleans. Towards the end, the rhythms grew more and more complicated with notation of 3+3+2 and one of the Cajun songs “The Flames of Hell” was well represented with the flurry of sixteenth note runs and accented brass beats.

The Concert Band and Symphony Band had an amazing performance of marches, folksongs and memorial selections. The ballroom was filled with energy after each March, especially after the last piece by Symphony Band.  The audience rose to praise the bands excellent work.

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From violins to laptops, post-tonality knows no limits.

The CNM (Center for new music) ensemble, performed on Sunday September 30th at the University of Iowa Riverside Recital Hall, featuring the music of composer Stephen David Beck.  The program also included pieces of contemporaries John Aylward, Jose-Luis Hurtado and Neo-Classicist Igor Stravinsky. At a first glance at the program it already seemed like an exciting evening was about to begin.

The first set was an exclusive presentation of some of Stephen Beck’s works. The first one, Meditations on Hiroshima (1993), composed for vocals, flute, classical guitar and two percussionists conveyed exactly what the title suggests; a relaxing atmosphere filled with micro-tonality. Oriental music naturally defies the rules of traditional western music and this piece was no exception. Soprano Janet Ziegler does a great job interpreting this piece. The vocal part is full of ornaments and hovers around the pitch center in an intricate manner, exploring the possibilities that micro tonality can offer. The complexity of this piece combined to its exotic character astonished every member in the audience.

Eine Kleine Yiddisher Spaß for trumpet and piano starts in a playful manner, almost circus like. The use of a plunger on the trumpet emphasizes this ludic characteristic of the piece. No big surprises in this piece as far as tonality. What makes this piece interesting is the way it goes from one atmosphere to the other. Changes in dynamics, tempo and tonality set up passages to modal, more intense areas. These changes keep happening over and over, from a Cabaret style to something that almost sounds like a tango, and finally to something that resembles a marching band. If the transitions weren’t so well planned and executed this piece had the potential to become a complete freak show from top to bottom.

The next piece was my debut as an audience for laptop music. I can say it was a different experience and the curiosity on how this is composed and “played” made it interesting. Six laptops triggering melodic and rhythmic motives, all varying from one another. I was pleased to hear it for a couple of minutes and imagine where else it could go, and it got to a point where the constant repetitive motives and timbres start to affect the way you hear things. For instance, the higher the pitch of the sequenced sound (seemed like plucked strings), the more it sounded like a glockenspiel. Definitely something to experience.

After the intermission a quartet played John Aylward’s Functions of Consciousness for clarinet, violin, cello and piano. Under the conducting of Bert Van Herck, the quartet played amazingly well. In the opening gesture, there’s a variety of textures produced by each instrument. This introduction already tells the audience that a tonal center shouldn’t be expected. As the music goes on, the melodies played in counterpoint gain a lyrical quality yet maintaining its atonality. Melodic motives are repeated and inverted over and over. I’d guess confidently that Bartok was an inspiration for this piece.

Terréne by José-Luis Hurtado for three percussionists and a flute was the next piece in the program. It seems like the composer strived for exploring different sounds and textures with this work. The percussionists use bows on cymbals, vibes and on Styrofoam to get squeaking sounds, while the flute is playing sparse atonal melodies while singing through the flute. Eventually the percussion parts start to get busier and there’s a dialogue between the snare drums played by two percussionists. What I found interesting is when this organized chaos ceases the flute brings in melodies that are variations of the melody in the beginning (same pitch center). In between phrases the flutist shouted some rhythms that seemed like a citation to the call and response on the snare drums in the previous section. This music will get your full attention.

To conclude the night the whole CNM Ensemble gathered together to play Stravinsky’s Suites For Small Orchestra 1 and 2. On Suite n° 1 we hear what was left from the Romanticism in his style but starting to break away from the traditional sense of harmonies and melodies . On the second Suite, we hear some of the same characteristics from Suite n° 1. This could be easily fitted as music for a ballet.

The Sunday night concert represented well what post-tonal music can sound like. From late Neoclassic style to music produced by machines, the audience could experience a good variety of what has been produced since the post-tonal period.


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