08 Cage Speaking PercussionJohn Cage – The Works for Percussion 4: Works for Speaking Percussion
Bonnie Whiting
mode records mode 296 (CD and Blu-ray disc; moderecords.com)

American new music and improvising percussionist Bonnie Whiting is carving out a career as a “speaking percussionist.” And what better repertoire to collect on her new album than the iconoclastic, prolific and influential American composer John Cage’s groundbreaking scores that require speaking or singing and percussion?

The main program falls into three Cagean periods. Two early career songs bookend a combination of two mid-1950s works for speaker and percussionist. Music for Two (By One), and a realization of Cage’s late period Music for ________ (1984-1987) for solo voice and percussion, follows. The album closes with a 2011 Allen Otte composition which incorporates several Cage works.

On the face of it, the two songs – The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs (1942) and A Flower (1950) – seem the most conventional fare here: melody with piano accompaniment. While they are usually performed by a separate singer and pianist, Whiting performs the two parts together with ease and grace. It’s a performance ethos she traces to Cage’s openness to having some of his works combined and performed simultaneously. The songs, however, are more non-conformist than they first appear. The instrumental parts are tapped and struck with fingers and hands on a closed piano. The voice is also severely restricted. While Cage’s 1930s composition teacher Arnold Schoenberg famously employed all 12 conventional semitones as a structural feature of his later compositions, Cage, on the other hand in The Wonderful Widow, uses three tones. A Flower’s vocal melody is constructed of four pitches with a fifth added only near the end. Were these songs at least partly a result of Cage rejecting a dominant, demanding father figure?

In Whiting’s relaxed, naturalistic yet precise performances the songs feel almost lullaby-like, equally timeless and emblematic of the 20th-century avant-garde.

By the way, I recommend the Blu-ray version that comes with this release. The visual cues and energy in Whiting’s assured performances bring the Cage works, particularly the two long percussion text scores, alive in full colour.

09 Elision EnsembleThe Wreck of Former Boundaries
Elision Ensemble at 30
HCR/NMC HRC13CD (elision.org.au)

Celebrating 30 years of engagement with complex and challenging aesthetics, Australia’s Elision ensemble has released The Wreck of Former Boundaries, a live recording featuring their 2016 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival performances of the eponymous work by Aaron Cassidy, and How Forests Think, by Liza Lim.

In his bountiful 33-minute work, Cassidy writes remarkable musical situations for Elision’s consummately nimble cast. His diagonal consideration of instrumental colour facilitates their concentration on not just the notes, but continuous timbral flux expressed through idiomatically applied glissandi, pressure variance, embouchure tension and dynamic changes. In the liner notes, perhaps with benefit of hindsight, Cassidy describes the work as a double trumpet concerto, although elsewhere he calls it six stand-alone pieces that can be performed independently. It projects, however, as a fluid stream of restless, stratified solos and duos with infrequent, disjunct episodic interjections from the ensemble. Crispy, familiar electronics pursue contours of similar profile to the instrumental writing, prodigiously applied in the potent latter third of the work.

Lim’s How Forests Think reflects on anthropologist Eduardo Kohn’s nuanced idea of forest ecologies as intersecting communities and social networks (human and non-human). Musical identities share succulent attributes, supporting, absorbing and transferring them across the Chinese sheng and ensemble parts. Whereas Cassidy revels in anxiously winding materials through self-referential guides, Lim’s understory focuses on a different manner of complexity, nourished by outward-pointing substrata that creep and trail across the work. The result is polyreferential and broad, in vocabulary and scope, with deftly probed textures propagating a vital, bifurcating soundscape.

10 PendereckiPenderecki – Double Concerto; Piano Concerto; Trumpet Concerto
Jakub Haufa; Marcel Markowski; Szymon Nehring; Aleksander Kobus; Polish Sinfonia Iuventus Orchestra; Krzysztof Penderecki
Dux Recording Producers DUX 1345

What becomes of revolutionaries when, inevitably, with the passage of time, they become members of the establishment? Well, if you were Krzysztof Penderecki, you would be paying a tribute to the past. Now 84, the once-iconoclastic Polish composer, who stunned the musical world with his 1969 opera The Devils of Loudun and charmed it with the 1961, UNESCO-prize winning Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima, Penderecki today is more reflective and less innovative, but certainly not any less masterful.

Though the Double Concerto references Brahms in its form, the music is firmly in the Bartók corner. Powerful and sinewy melodic lines, especially those of the cello (originally scored for a viola) emanate freshness and the unmistakable delight of a newness of style. This is full-on, shivers-down-the-spine stuff, exciting, dangerous and hypnotic. The Piano Concerto and the Concertino for Trumpet are more standard expressions of this musical lion-in-winter, yet still bears his clear signature. All of the performers are very young, including this recently formed orchestra of Polish musicians under the age of 30. Their enthusiasm in performance is contagious, adding yet another dimension to this fine CD. A must for Penderecki fans and a not-at-all-bad introduction to his works for those ten people in the world who do not know him yet.

01 Hommaga a BoulezHommage à Boulez
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra; Daniel Barenboim
Deutsche Grammophon 479 7160

The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is named after an anthology of poems by Goethe, inspired by a translation of the Persian poet Hafez. Goethe’s late work was a symbol of reciprocity between Occident and Orient, between Latin and Persian, Christian and Muslim, and German and Middle Eastern cultures. Co-founder Daniel Barenboim approached the 1999 formation of the Seville-based youth orchestra with similar intentions, bringing together musicians from Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Spain, to promote principles of coexistence and dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. In 2006, filmmaker Paul Smaczny made a documentary about the group entitled Knowledge Is the Beginning.

Having performed with Boulez since their 1964 concert of Bartók’s Piano Concerto No.1, (when Barenboim was 21) he chose to honour their working relationship with the 2-CD Hommage à Boulez, released in March 2017, a year after the composer’s death. The release of the recording coincided with the opening of the Pierre Boulez Saal, a Frank Gehry-designed chamber music hall in the Barenboim-Said Akademie in Berlin, which included the first concert of the newly formed Boulez Ensemble. The first CD contains live performances of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra playing at the 2012 Proms in London, and the second includes their performances of pieces from Boulez’ 85th birthday celebration at the Berlin Staatsoper Unter den Linden in 2010.

Although Boulez conducts the live recording of Le marteau sans maître (at least his fifth recording of the piece, and second with contralto Hilary Summers (check out her website!)), I was most interested to hear a recent recording of Boulez’ music that wasn’t conducted by him, since the composer controlled the majority of recordings of his music. Considering the performances alone, this is a fantastic recording. Add to it that this is an orchestra made up of young musicians in an ensemble with admirable intent, and the recording is that much more impressive.

Barenboim conducts an energetically perambulant performance of the 49-minute Dérive 2, for 11 instruments. Jussef Eisa’s virtuosity is immediately evident in his live recording of Dialogue de l’ombre double, for clarinet, live electronics and pre-recorded tape, with off-stage piano providing resonance of the live clarinet sound projected from a speaker into the soundboard of the piano and redirected to the loudspeakers in the hall. The IRCAM live electronics team handles the computational side of this performance, as well as Anthèmes 2, demonstrating the most sophisticated instrument/computer interactions produced at IRCAM’s Paris research and creation facility. Hassan Moataz El Molla contributes a clear and elegant reading of Messagesquisse, for cello solo and six cellos. In their entirety, the flexible and colourful interpretations presented on this hommage support Stravinsky’s anecdote that Boulez is “Webern’s music sounding like Debussy.”

05 Prepared PianoWhat Are They Doing To That Piano?
Kate Boyd; Karolina Rojahn; J. Bradley Baker; Robert A. Baker; Stephen Gosling
Navona Records NV6100 navonarecords.com

Compiling this boxed set to document the history of post-20th-century piano must have been somewhat of a challenge for producer Bob Lord and Navona Records. But vexed they were not, judging by the results of What Are They Doing to That Piano? This boxed set of works for prepared piano shows how far ahead of the contemporary classical music game Lord and his label really are. It is only fitting then that this compilation begins at the beginning, with a stellar recording of the music that began it all: John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes. This cycle of pieces was written between 1946 and 1948, and together represents one of Cage’s major contributions to the music of the 20th century. This “prepared piano” cycle was created for an instrument invented out of necessity: unable to fit a percussion ensemble onstage to accompany a dance performance, Cage modified a piano to produce “a percussion ensemble controllable by one player.” Among modern pianists, Kate Boyd’s performance of Sonatas and Interludes remains a benchmark one, just as Greta Sultan’s recording of John Cage’s Études was before that.

In Sonatas and Interludes, Cage exploits a wide array of sonorities, some bright and bell-like, others more delicate and subdued. Rhythmic motifs and patterns recur, producing an incantatory and hypnotic quality close to that produced by the gamelan, the percussion orchestras of Java and Bali. As Cage himself suggested, “control” was key. And Kate Boyd appears to have mastered the markings on Cage’s vertical score with cultured musicality and fastidious pianism. This performance replaces brute power with pellucid textures and a kaleidoscope of brilliant colours. Grinding motoric rhythms are superseded by an infinitely calibrated kinaesthetic sense of terrifying intensity. Transitions of tempo occur with the natural inevitability of a living, breathing organism. The precise dimensions and shapes of Cage’s structures appear in sharp focus. Such wizardry continues unabated into In a Landscape as Cage’s musical narratives, for all their wealth of detail, unfold with undistracted purpose. In all of this, Boyd’s dazzling virtuosity is never an end in itself but the servant of her vivid imagination.

If Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes is the anthemic torchlight of the prepared piano, then Stephen Scott’s Ice & Fire is one of the most significant pieces in this ongoing relay of Olympian proportions. It is almost impossible to imagine the true extent of how tight a fit it must have been to accommodate ten players around the well of even a 9-foot grand piano. However, fit they not only did but also have brilliantly executed Scott’s music to a nicety. Afternoon of a Fire and Vocalise on “In a Silent Way” sit at opposite ends of the Scott-spectrum. The former work is framed around American Indigenous, music and the latter conjures the ghost of Miles Davis’ repertoire from the 1970s; a veritable Mecca for moderns. In these and the eight other pieces, the Bowed Piano Ensemble takes a leap, intellectually, musically and instinctually, as they match Stephen Scott’s invention and originality throughout.

Sidney Bailin’s pieces 16-2-60-N-5 develop from beguiling, elegant threads, which are sewn together by his electronic manipulations with Karolina Rojahn’s arresting pianism, evoking stimulating mental pictures of mysterious narratives. And while Rojahn reappears with J. Bradley and Robert A. Baker to deploy an astonishing array of colours on Felt, Stephen Gosling breathes luminosity into Gheorghe Costinescu’s music on An Evolving Cycle to complete this glorious 5-disc set. More than that, though, these “new” works themselves deserve wider performance lives beyond this beautiful beginning provided them by Lord and Navona Records.

02 Harrison concertosLou Harrison – Violin Concerto; Grand Duo; Double Music
Tim Fain; Michael Boriskin; PostClassical Ensemble; Angel Gil-Ordóñez
Naxos 8.559825

This splendid CD contains two masterworks by Lou Harrison. I’m a long-time fan of Harrison and his mentor Henry Cowell, who introduced Harrison to both world music and John Cage, with whom Harrison would co-compose Double Music. (I was privileged to meet all three.)

In the first two movements of his Arabic-tinged Concerto for Violin and Percussion, the violin weaves sinuous melismas over punctuating percussion. They were composed in 1940 and revised in 1959, when Harrison added the finale, which offsets their fervent lyricism with a spirited belly-dance. Throughout much of the 20-minute concerto, Tim Fain has to play in the violin’s upper register; he does so, brilliantly.

The five-movement, Indonesian-influenced Grand Duo for violin and piano (1988) lasts 35 minutes. New to me, I found every minute enthralling. The violin’s long lines suggest a suling flute floating over the gamelan-like piano accompaniment provided by Michael Boriskin. A long, misterioso Prelude is followed by the up-tempo Stampede and gentle A Round. Air, the longest movement at nearly 11 minutes, is deeply downcast, similar in mood and impact to a Shostakovich Adagio. The Duo ends with the brief Polka, a lighthearted Europe-Indonesia hybrid. A great piece!

Double Music (1941), for which Harrison and Cage each independently wrote the music for two of the four players, is a long-standing percussion staple. Gil-Ordóñez’s meditative seven-minute interpretation takes over a minute longer than my swinging, Cage-conducted LP version. Different, but effective.

Heartily recommended!

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