Listening List: Krauss, Muller, Wubbels, Zaldua

This week's selections live in a sound world of austere beauty, my favorite kind. I begin with Morgan Krauss's child of the mandrake for alto flute and voice. This piece is like a strange vapor of vocal fry and alto flute emanating from the mouth of a well. The approach to text setting, in which only bits of discernible language make it to the audible surface while the remaining words become enmeshed in the surrounding texture, is one of which I've always been fond. Here is a haunting performance by Frauke Aulbert and Shanna Gutierrez:

Next is Otto Muller's Violin and Nails (Sketch) which, as the title indicates, is scored for a traditional violin and an instrument the composer built that he refers to as a "nail fiddle." The resulting sounds are extraordinary. Otto and I attended Northwestern together years ago and, upon hearing this piece, I wrote to him to learn more about the nail fiddle. His response revealed a whole philosophy behind creating instruments from everyday materials:

"They (nail fiddles) are quite fickle and ephemeral in terms of intonation, which is kind of why I like them. I've also been making cigar box viols, garden hose trombones, etc. I started to feel like, if the sound world that I'm interested in is at the edge of the techniques and intended capacities of traditional instruments (and not necessarily the "cutting" edge, but just the edge), why not create instruments that yield these sounds (and only these sounds) in the hands of amateurs."

To that end, Otto, who teaches at Goddard College in Vermont, recently started a group called the Rural Noise Ensemble. They describe themselves as, "A collective of composers, musicians, and makers investigating uniquely rural sound worlds and musical practices." These practices include the use of invented instruments. I truly look forward to hearing more from both Otto and the Rural Noise Ensemble.

Before I get to the next recording, a quick related note of interest. Last weekend I had the pleasure of hearing the Mivos Quartet perform a reduced version of being time by Eric Wubbels.  To my knowledge, a recording of this work is not yet available. It is, however, a piece that should be on your radar. The full-scale version is scored for "string quartet and electronic sound" and is described on the EMPAC site as follows:

"Titled being time, the piece is an audio variation on the psychological experience of time. Extending nearly an hour, it moves from sections of extreme slowness and static sustains to high-energy plateaus of dense, saturated sound textures. In the final sequence, quadraphonic electronic sound pushes the performance into an altogether new dimension, creating vivid psychoacoustic illusions by using extremely high sine waves."

The version presented last weekend was much shorter (around 25 minutes) and did not include the electronic component. Even so, the temporal experience in this truncated arrangement was striking, leaving me with the sense that far less time had elapsed. I can't wait to hear the full-scale version. Check out images of Wubbels's beautiful hand-drawn score for being time on the EMPAC site.

As we await future performances and recordings of being time, let's revisit an older work, beata viscera for flute, clarinet, trumpet, piano, percussion, violin and cello (excerpt presented below). The composer's program notes about this work are quite interesting and end with the following:

"Fundamentally, this music grows from a refusal to acknowledge the apparent separateness of the individual instruments, or even the individual people playing them. Instead, they're related like the fingers of a hand, or the limbs and organs of a single body."

The idea of fusing multiple timbres into a singular entity relates to the last piece on the list, Alistair Zaldua's Contrajours for piano and electronics, about which the composer writes:

"The title refers to a technique in photography where the main image is almost totally obscured by having been photographed against the main source of light: 'against the day(light)'. My intention wasn't in hiding anything; the blind spots in this piece attempt to describe the proximities or disconnections between electronics and pianist whilst conceiving of both as a singular instrument."

Enjoy and be sure to check back next week for more suggested listening.

Video: JACK Quartet Play Xenakis

The JACK Quartet recently performed the complete Xenakis String Quartets on the Bowerbird concert series in Philadelphia. Videographer Bob Sweeney filmed the concert and posted separate videos of each piece on his Vimeo account. I have compiled and embedded the set below. On a related note, I highly recommend reading JACK Quartet cellist Kevin McFarland's "Second-Generation Interpretation of Iannis Xenakis' String Quartets," published as part of the Performing Xenakiscollection.

The JACK Quartet recently performed the complete Xenakis String Quartets on the Bowerbird concert series in Philadelphia. Videographer Bob Sweeney filmed the concert and posted separate videos of each piece on his Vimeo account. I have compiled and embedded the set below. On a related note, I highly recommend reading JACK Quartet cellist Kevin McFarland's "Second-Generation Interpretation of Iannis Xenakis' String Quartets," published as part of the Performing Xenakiscollection.


The Unique Virtuosity of Lucier's Carbon Copies

ICE will perform three concerts of Alvin Lucier's music at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art this weekend. Included in the series is Carbon Copies, which ICE succinctly describes in their program notes:

"Three musicians gather field recordings from an exterior environment. These recordings are played through loudspeakers to the audience and through headphones to the musicians: a percussionist, a saxophonist, and a pianist. Slowly, the loudspeakers fade out while the sound in the headphones remains. The performers attempt to emulate the natural sounds from the field recordings in real time; the effect is that the field recordings fade imperceptibly into their instrumental simulacra."

The goal of seamlessly integrating the acoustic sounds into the field recordings defines the supreme challenge of this work. I speak from the experience of having participated in a performance of Carbon Copies several years ago. The difficulty begins with creating a field recording that one can precisely emulate. Regardless of location, it is highly likely that the recording will feature some degree of non-pitched or indefinitely pitched material. This fact alone forces the performer to consider the entire breadth of timbral possibilities for the instrument.

In preparing for my performance of Carbon Copies, I ventured around Chicago looking for interesting sounds both obvious and obscure. I remember standing beneath the tracks and recording the El train passing above. Ultimately, I settled on a recording I made by holding the mic out of my car window while driving down Lakeshore Drive. My attempts to match the resultant muffled wind sound involved standing in the crook of the piano with the damper pedal permanently depressed and shaking a square piece of metal flashing (like a mini thunder sheet).

Of the many performances I've been a part of over the years, that one continues to stay with me. I honestly want to try it again because I came away feeling less than satisfied with the result. What appeared initially to be a very simple concept proved extremely challenging. Lucier was present at the dress rehearsal and performance and he emphasized the point that we were not there to capture the atmosphere of the combined field recordings, but to reproduce the sounds as precisely as possible. He chastised the saxophonist for playing slap tongue sounds that clearly did align with the recording (a directive that was sadly ignored in the actual performance).

The experience furthermore drove home the point that, like many Lucier works, virtuosity in Carbon Copies is defined by one's ear. Can the performer pick up the subtleties of the recording? Can the performer translate those subtleties via all sonic parameters (timbre, rhythm, pitch, etc.)? The elegance of the piece's setup hides the fact that Carbon Copies demands a high level of dedicated preparation. It is a test of musicianship that is unique and well worth experiencing.

Ensemble Dal Niente Brings Professor Bad Trip to Chicago

The impulse to merge the worlds of popular and art music proves alluring to many composers. However, there are numerous issues that arise including whether or not one can achieve aesthetic cohesion.

The music of Fausto Romitelli (1963 - 2004) navigates this problem in a compelling way. This is due in part to the intense physicality of his music. His use of electric guitars and effects pedals do not come off as a cheap nod to popular genres, but instead complement the aggressive and chaotic textures to which these instruments are applied.

The Ricordi web site provides the following quote from the composer:

"At the centre of my composing lies the idea of considering sound as a material into which one plunges in order to forge its physical and perceptive characteristics: grain, thickness, porosity, luminosity, density and elasticity. Hence it is sculpture of sound, instrumental synthesis, anamorphosis, transformation of the spectral morphology, and a constant drift towards unsustainable densities, distortions and interferences, thanks also to the assistance of electro-acoustic technologies. And increasing importance is given to the sonorities of non-academic derivation and to the sullied, violent sound of a prevalently metallic origin of certain rock and techno music."

For those in and around the Chicago area this week, you have the rare opportunity to experience a live performance of Romitelli's music. Ensemble Dal Niente will take on Professor Bad Trip (1998 - 2000) at 7:30 this Thursday at Mayne Stage in Rogers Park (pre-concert talk will take place at 6:30). Scored for a  mixed ensemble of winds, strings and percussion (including electric guitar and bass), Professor Bad Trip is a piece that is uncompromising in its technical demands. Speaking to the difficulty of the violin part in particular, Austin Wulliman, Dal Niente violinist, remarked, "As far as the individual challenges are concerned, Lesson One (the first movement) is basically a violinistic tour-de-force. It's highly virtuosic writing, but very cleverly laid out in almost all cases. He clearly laid out the chords on the fingerboard very carefully, although he seems to have very little regard or care about making string players navigate high positions constantly."

Technical difficulties, however, did not seem to overwhelm Wulliman's initial impression of the piece: "The number one reason Dal Niente programmed Professor Bad Trip is that each individual ensemble member that heard it was immediately carried away by and totally blown away by its sonic impact. We knew we had to play it as soon as possible."

I suspect that many people, regardless of musical tastes and allegiances, will likely be impressed by the visceral intensity and expressive force of Professor Bad Trip. For a preview, check out this clip of Ensemble intercontemporain performing Lesson II (electric cello cadenza at 3:35).

A Sampling of New Music YouTube Channels

YouTube, Vimeo and other video sharing sites provide a critical tool for the dissemination of contemporary music. Many pieces that are not available via commercial recording can be found on these sites. Additionally, ensembles are using this resource to educate and expand their audience base. Below are three ensemble channels that I find particularly compelling. Of course there are many more out there, and I encourage you to share your favorites in the comments section at the bottom of the post.

ELISION Ensemble

I've chosen to begin with ELISION Ensemble because their YouTube Channel presents an impressive array of videos that are of the highest quality visually and aurally. Every video expertly deploys multiple cameras in a manner that provides an intimate look at the physical realization of the score. This is clearly exhibited in the video below, an excerpt from Liza Lim's solo cello work Invisibility (2009) performed by Séverine Ballon (note the use of a serrated or "guiro" bow - see Tim Rutherford-Johnson's blog for more).


In addition to posting performances, MusikFABRIK's channel offers instructional videos that deal with extended techniques. In the example below, flutist Helen Bledsoe demonstrates and discusses the production of air and percussive sounds. The video includes notation examples with verbal descriptions in French, German and English. These videos are a wonderful resource for composers and performers alike.

Third Coast Percussion Ensemble

Video is an especially effective medium for percussion as illustrated by this Chicago-based ensemble's channel. In the example below, Third Coast performs the third movement (Sextour de sixxens) of Phillippe Manoury's Le Livre des Claviers (1987-88). The sixxen, an instrument first developed for Xenakis' Pléiades, has an incredibly rich, resonant sound that defies description. See and hear for yourself: