05 modern 06 gamelan cageGamelan Cage – John Cage’s prepared piano pieces on Balinese Gamelan
Sanggar Ceraken of Bali
Sargasso scd28075 (sargasso.com)

This album is another example of Italian gamelan recording producer John Noise Manis’ passion: the reinterpretation of 20th century modernist Western music by various kinds of gamelan groups. Here nine Cage prepared piano works from 1940 to 1948 were arranged by American ethnomusicologist Andrew Clay McGraw for Ceraken, an ensemble of dedicated young Balinese musicians led by composer I Made Subandi. They were then recorded in the idyllic rural setting of an “open-air pavilion overlooking the terraced rice fields of Batuan village” in southern Bali.

In his well-researched liner notes McGraw wonders whether Cage’s 1940s invention of the prepared piano was influenced by gamelan music. There is no evidence for such a causal relationship. Cage’s unexpected sole work scored for gamelan came late in his life when Toronto’s Evergreen Club Gamelan commissioned Haikai (1986). Interested readers can find my account in “John Cage, Master of Silence” in The WholeNote, September 2012.

McGraw argues that rather than gamelan, “more important for Cage’s prepared piano phase was the interwar flowering of percussion and percussive music.” On the other hand Cage’s piano preparations, “almost always transform the string from an harmonic to an inharmonic vibrating body.” This key observation links the sounds of the prepared piano to the bronze gongs and keys of the gamelan which are designed to produce inharmonic overtones. It is because of this sonic family resemblance that many listeners “think of the gamelan (and sometimes assume a direct line of influence) when hearing the inharmonic, noisy, but definitely pitched sounds of Cage’s prepared piano.”

McGraw worked intensely for weeks through the Cage scores with the Ceraken musicians, learning them by heart. They produced striking transformations, rendering them with a fresh percussive sonic palette as well as with Balinese-mediated choices of tempo, expression and ensemble performance practice. Moreover the creative team chose their instrumentation from seven very different gamelans. Lending complexity to the arrangements: none of the sets were “tuned to the other and there were very few coinciding tones between them.”

The musical results range from experimental and exploratory sounding, as in the “microtonal” sections of Daughters of the Lonesome Isle, to the musically substantial Bacchanale. The latter, stocked with 16th note hemiolas characteristic of Balinese kotekan, was a favourite among many of the musicians. Sounding just as convincing in an arrangement for Balinese gamelan as it does on its original instrument, it’s my favourite too.


adams dr atomic symphonyJohn Adams –Harmonielehre, Doctor Atomic Symphony, Short Ride in a Fast Machine
Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Peter Oundjian
Chandos CHSA 5129

When over 30 years ago John Adams introduced his brand of minimalism to the listening audiences, nobody could have predicted the staying power of the young composer. With the consecutive successes of Shaker Loops, Grand Pianola Music, The Chairman Dances, Nixon in China, The Wound-dresser, Death of Klinghoffer, the Pulitzer-prize winning On Transmigration of Souls and triumphant premiere of Doctor Atomic in 2005, Adams now is a part of the standard repertoire for orchestras worldwide. Enter RSNO, under the artistic direction of Oundjian. Doctor Atomic Symphony, a 25 minute extract of themes from the opera, belongs firmly to the “later” output of Adams. Less minimalistic, with no bare-bone structure and easily identifiable tempi laid out in a score, it presents a challenge. As Anthony Tommasini wrote in December, 2007 for the New York Times: “the tremulous surface of the orchestral music is deceptively calm, allowing the vocal lines to dominate. Just below, though, the orchestra teems with fractured meters, intertwining contrapuntal elements, fitful bursts and Mr. Adams’s most tartly dissonant, boldly unmoored harmonies.”

It is that ambiguity that trips up Oundjian, as the score seems to get away from him until the quasi-vocal lines of Huw Morgan’s trumpet lead the Oppenheimer aria Batter My Heart to its thundering conclusion. The earlier works are somewhat easier to conquer and fare much better – especially Short Ride which delivers on its Honegger-esque (Pacific 231) perpetuum mobile idiom. A worthy recording of important contemporary music.


05 modern 01 bright angelBright Angel – American Works for Clarinet and Piano
Kimberly Cole Luevano; Midori Koga; Lindsay Kesselman
Fleur de Son Classics FDS 58019

Kimberly Cole Luevano has placed a document before us that celebrates the strength of American composition for clarinet, and in particular, by happenstance apparently, the no-longer remarkable presence of women in the ranks. The remark is made only because there is and continues to be an under-representative ratio of recordings of women composers to men. Bright Angel reflects that the status quo is shifting, for the better. All the composers presented, and all the performers as well, are women.

American composition is an impossibly broad category, and yet there is probably a future doctoral thesis accounting for the unifying elements. In one category at least, there is the mythologized western frontier, viewed through the contemporary lens. The title composition, by Roshanne Etezady, is a musical reflection of the architecture of Mary Jane Colter, who in the early 20th century, according to the liner notes, “often faced hostility in the ‘man’s world’ of architecture,” and who helped develop a “quintessentially American” style. The music references some of her structures built in the Grand Canyon and in the music you hear that American-made sound of openness and grandeur.

Joan Tower’s Fantasy and Libby Larsen’s Licorice Stick bookend the collection, sandwiching the real heart of the matter: Nattsanger, by Abbie Betinis. A beautiful song cycle in Norwegian (alas, translations only available online at the composer’s website), there is fascinating and mysterious loveliness here, especially in the fearless voice of soprano Lindsay Kesselman. Toronto-based Midori Koga exercises her powerful new-music chops in support of her collaborators, and the performances are rich and assured. Cole Luevano certainly has a consistent controlled sound to hinge her flawless technique. Preference in tone quality is a personal matter for us all, and mine is for less edge than I hear on this recording. I don’t think it was a wise choice to open the disc with the Etezady, where this quality dominates from the outset.

Max Christie

05 modern 02 american piano concertosAmerican Piano Concertos
Xiayin Wang; Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Peter Oundjian
Chandos CHAN 5128

Over the years, American composers have contributed to the piano concerto genre as significantly as their European counterparts; this Chandos recording with concertos by Barber, Copland and Gershwin featuring pianist Xiayin Wang with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Peter Oundjian is a fine cross-section of American music spanning a 35-year period. Wang studied at the Shanghai Conservatory and later at the Manhattan School of Music, where she earned her bachelor’s, master’s, and professional studies degrees. A winner of numerous prizes, she’s since earned an international reputation as a recitalist, chamber musician and orchestral soloist.

Samuel Barber has long been regarded as one of the most romantic of American composers. His Pulitzer Prize-winning concerto from 1962 is a true study in contrasts, with more than a stylistic nod to Bartók and Prokofiev. Wang’s formidable technique is clearly evident in the frenetic first and third movements, but the lyrical “Canzone” demonstrates a particular sensitivity with just the right degree of tempo rubato.

While Barber’s work is music by a veteran composer, the piano concerto by Aaron Copland was the creation of a youthful 26-year-old, and is very much a product of the jazz age with its bluesy themes and jazzy rhythms. As in the other two works, Oundjian and the RSNO produce a lush and confident sound, very much at home with this 20th century repertoire.

If Copland’s concerto was somewhat influenced by the music of the 1920s, Gershwin’s was even more so. This concerto is clearly stamped “Broadway, 1925.” Wang has a particular affinity for this music, already having recorded Earl Wild’s Gershwin transcriptions, and here she embraces the syncopated rhythms and lyrical melodies with great panache.

An Asian soloist with a Scottish orchestra led by a Canadian-born conductor performing American music may seem an unlikely combination, but the result is some wonderful music making. Samuel, Aaron and George would all be proud!

05 modern 03 hindimith concertosHindemith – Complete Piano Concertos
Idil Biret; Yale Symphony Orchestra; Toshiyuki Shimada
Naxos 8.573201-02

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the death of Paul Hindemith (1895–1963) Naxos has released a double-disc anthology of his works for piano and orchestra in performances by the Turkish-born pianist and frequent Naxos collaborator Idil Biret and the student ensembles of Yale University under the direction of Professor Toshiyuki Shimada. It is a logical pairing as Hindemith taught from 1940 to 1953 at the prestigious Ivy League school and had previously served in the 1930s as a consultant to the Turkish government, helping to establish the national standards and infrastructure for classical music education.

The earliest work represented here (from 1923), Piano Music with Orchestra (for Piano Left Hand), was commissioned by the affluent Viennese one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein. Unfortunately the pianist greatly disliked it and refused to perform it, though by contract he retained the exclusive rights to do so (the same impasse occurred with a work he commissioned from Prokofiev). The score was considered lost until the year 2001, when a copy was discovered in the Wittgenstein family archives. The ever-prolific Hindemith was likely none too concerned, for the lavish $1,000 fee in US dollars he received at the height of the German hyperinflation crisis (equivalent to 30 million marks at the time) enabled him to renovate and move into his dream home, a four-story 14th-century tower in Frankfurt.

The Kammermusik No.2 for piano, string quartet and brass (1924) is a much stronger work, brimming with the saucy inventiveness and powerful brass writing typical of the brilliant Kammermusik series of concertante works for diverse instruments. The same can be said of the innovative instrumentation of the intriguing Concert Music for Piano, Op.49 for two harps and brass (1930). The Yale brass section takes to this music like ducks to water, though all three performances suffer from sloppy co-ordination between the instrumental groups. Whether this is the fault of poor communication between the conductor and pianist or some quirk of the acoustics of the cramped Woolsey Hall stage I cannot say.

The Four Temperaments for piano and strings (1940) began life as a ballet score and is the most often performed of all the works here. Here again an underpowered string orchestra ( in instrumental shorthand, as observed in a YouTube video posted by Ms. Biret) playing in a 3,000 seat convocation hall fails to provide the sonic weight Hindemith routinely demands, though the performers themselves are quite capable. The album closes with the mechanistic Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1945), the finest moment of which occurs in the surprising final pages with an arrangement of the lively old medieval melody “Tre Fontane.” Perhaps we could consider this retreat into the past as a coded reference to his gothic ivory tower in Frankfurt, now bombed and incinerated.

While the dispirited Bartók and embittered Schoenberg struggled to survive in America, Hindemith’s influence in the United States was profound and his music was widely performed there. By the time of his death however the larger world of composition had turned its back on him. Perhaps it is time to once again grant this grand old lion his due and acknowledge the power, nobility and impeccable craftsmanship of his music; this anthology would be a good place to start.

05 modern 04 sound dreamingSound Dreaming – Oracle Songs from Ancient Ritual Spaces
CD and 5.1 DVD audio format discs wendalyn.ca

Toronto-based Wendalyn is a composer, vocal performer and sound energy practitioner. In this thought-provoking release, her improvised vocalizations recorded in ancient temples in Malta and Crete provide the initial soundscapes to which she has later added environmental, instrumental and vocal layers.

Wendalyn provides clear and succinct liner notes which describe her personal emotional and subsequent musical responses to her temple journeys. These greatly aid in understanding the composer/performer’s esthetic and provide the listener a welcome tool to listening and appreciating the six tracks. Chant-like in nature, her music has an extremely calming effect. Her voice is clear, her pitch is exact and production quality is high. The initial track “Stone Mysteries” features long syllabic tones (such as ooohs) and subtle static changes of pitch and quivering vibrations. There is a welcome addition of water-like sounds of the Egyptian Rebaba (played by Randy Raine-Reusch) and melody- driven changes in the second track “Sirens of the Deep.” “Serpentine Dance” has the opening vocal breath rhythms juxtaposed against tambourines and a cicada chorus. This sets up the most interesting track of the set, in both its spontaneous response to the Crete temple, and compositional expertise.

At times the chants and musical ideas drag on for too long, and her inspirational musings seem too farfetched to be believed. But this is an interesting aural foray into the world of an inquisitive and honest artist searching for and finding her own inner sound.

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