Monday, January 23, 2012

CD Reviews: ONCE Festival, Dessa, John Luther Adams

I wrote this a month or so ago; a review of some CD's I'd picked up from the public library -- but didn't get around to posting it. It turns out that today is John Luther Adams' birthday, so here it is.


I found this in the library while looking up music by a particular composer (I have forgotten whom). This is obscure in the extreme: badly recorded, sometimes badly played, but generally pretty interesting (though usually not beautiful) music from the now more or less defunct atonal avant-garde styles. This is truly music from a bygone era; even the aesthetics of “experimental” music were different back then. This was an era of loudness and harshness – an obnoxious squeak and honk was considered much more profound than a melody or a sonorous chord. Obviously this trend would soon bleed into mainstream popular music, where it still exists, if robotically, in the form of heavy metal. …All music is a little mellower now. (I have noted this change before, even in performances of the same piece: compare the first 1967 recording of Takemitsu’s “November Steps” with more recent versions.) Another curiosity is that the separate strands or sub-genres don’t seem to be as clear; I could not tell my listening whether I was hearing serialism, aleatory music, free improvisation, or something else. Nowadays these forms are quite distinct… Anyway, I would recommend this to anyone interested in the history or experimental music, mostly as a period piece. There are some astonishing instrumental sounds here (particularly some of the piano and electronic pieces) but don’t expect sound quality – the monaural recording (in an acoustically dead space) gets pretty oppressive by the end. At least the last three pieces on the last CD are in stereo…


This is the antithesis of the ONCE Festival music. One was music just learning to be loud and rough; this is music that is usually thought of as loud and rough being transformed into something beautiful and fairly still. Yes, this is hip-hop with an attitude of tranquility (!) It avoids the cliché’s of tranquil music that are so annoying in “new age” and easy listening, but is still mainstream enough to be given a spot on NPR’s “All Things Considered” (it probably won’t make it onto pop radio, though).

Dessa’s poetry consists of gritty (maybe fictional) slices of life, though with a notable absence of the negativity that pervades hip-hop. There is also an obvious lack of those juvenile shock techniques – the misogyny, racism, profanity, etc., that are so often found in rap lyrics. Probably some (younger) listeners will criticize this music as “weak” because it doesn’t include any of this (I’ve heard that concerning Mars Ill) but to me it signifies the realization that there’s music behind that stereotypical attention-getting.

And what of that music? On one level, it’s obviously of the hip-hop genre (even if its aesthetic is rather aberrant) – the beat is there, the samples are there, the rapping is there. On another level, though, it’s not hip-hop at all: Dessa’s soulful voice often wanders into jazzy melody in the middle of the rapping (in fact, the rap and jazz vocals are juxtaposed with such skill that it’s often nearly impossible to tell exactly when one ends and the other begins). But the curious difference comes from not only from the vocals but the choice of backgrounds – samples include harps, jazz vibraphones, frame drums, classical piano, and a tango band. It’s all quite pretty, a thousand miles away from edIT or M.I.A. Fortunately, though, it never quite crosses the line of becoming “just” pretty (as in Enya or Kitaro) – and therein lies the beauty. This is one genre leaving behind the worst of itself, and successfully experimenting with being something different, without lapsing into the worst of another genre.


I’d heard of John Luther Adams before; not to be confused with the other composer John Adams (or those other two John Adamses, the presidents…) Again, a spot on NPR helped me sort them out.

John (Luther) Adams is also called a minimalist, though that label has of course lost much of its meaning in recent years. One could also call him a composer of uncompromising, in-your-face ambient music (!), which I know is an oxymoron but it describes his compositions. The present CD, “Red Arc, Blue Veil” was, I assumed, a single large work in four movements, with the first two pieces for two pianos, the third for two percussionists, and the last for all four. The first piece is in the manner of Somei Satoh; trills and tremolos crossfade, possibly with the help of digital delay, creating a galaxy of harmonies. The second is a mathematically precise interplay of polyrhythms; for the most part it seems like four against five but there are also passages of five against six. Each piano plays a chord, for a specified number of times, in a certain rhythm, then moves on to the next – but the two pianos (intentionally) don’t match up. Interestingly, it doesn’t all become a jumble. The listener can clearly hear both parts and feel both rhythms as well as hearing their interactions. A fascinating piece, though perhaps a little long for what it does.

The third piece presents bass drums in a similar interplay of rhythms. The effect is like a giant abstract taiko improvisation; all I can say is that I can’t really follow the cross-fading of the thunderous rhythms but the whole thing is just a lot of fun (something that’s sometimes missing in experimental music). Lastly, the final piece returns to the “Satoh” music, though now augmented with a vibraphone and a glockenspiel. The end leaves the listener refreshed, having taken a voyage through the loudest possible interactions of rhythms, and then returned to the familiar sonority of ambient harmonies.

All four of these are “one idea pieces” (as Oliver Knussen had said of certain orchestral works), but they play off of similar ideas, so I had assumed that they were intended to be played together. I was surprised to discover, when reading online reviews of the CD, that these are in fact separate pieces written at different times during the composer’s life. Two things can be said about this (and they are two sides to the same coin): one, that the composer is stuck in the same vein and keeps repeating himself, and, two, that he shows a remarkable continuity of vision. A third possibility is, of course, that these are pieces from an extended cycle written over a long period of time, and that John Luther Adams has also written a number of completely different pieces. I’ll have to hear more before I decide which of these (or all of them) are true.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Seattle Improvised Music Festival One-Minute Solos Concert has been rescheduled

This concert, originally scheduled for Thursday night (1/19/11), has run into snow problems and been rescheduled for February 2nd, still at 8:00, still at the Chapel performance space at Good Shepherd Center. There may be a change in a few musicians, though I will still be playing. My apologies if this messes with anyone's plans.

Monday, January 16, 2012

January 16th: Happy Birthday to Gavin Bryars and Brian Ferneyhough

A new feature in this blog: happy birthday to composers and other musicians whose music I’ve enjoyed, or been challenged by, or have personal stories about…

Jan 16 – Brian Ferneyhough and Gavin Bryars

I’ve no particular stories concerning Ferneyhough’s music, except to say that it’s worth a listen. I first encountered it on a “Perspectives of New Music” CD a couple of years ago from the Seattle Pacific University library, in the form of a piano piece called “Lemma-Icon-Epigram”. My first reaction was that it sounded just like Stockhausen (either a plus or a minus depending on one’s stylistic bent). That remains my impression, though the piece shows a progression into deeper resonances in a manner that is quite unlike what the older composer would have done. Perhaps more interesting to non-pianists: on the CD “Flutes without Borders” by Carin Levine, there’s a rendition of Ferneyhough’s Carceri d’Invenzione IIc (flor flute and tape) that shows that complex, dense serialism is definitely not dead. The tape part consists of a multitudinous barage of flutes of all shapes and sizes and sounds, and the result is scintilating clusters of jewel-like notes. (By the way, one used to say “for flute and tape”, but the “tape” parts are now usually digital, so what does one call it? A friend of mine, another musician, opts for “canned” sounds…)

On the other end from Ferneyhough’s concentrated mathematical music, Bryars’ pieces are extended, slow, ambient, and atmospheric. This would make sense, since apparently he studied with John Cage and Morton Feldman (or, of course, someone who studied with these two might rebel against their influence and do something entirely opposite!). Anyway, I first encountered “The Sinking of the Titanic” in the 1980’s on a now-defunct pirate radio station that was wont to play experimental music – this same piece has turned up remixed by Aphex Twin on the “24 Mixes for Cash” double CD. Looking up Bryars for this blog entry, I discovered another piece that I’d heard before but never knew was by him – the poignant “Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet”. I recommend reading the story behind it too…

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Upcoming Concert: Seattle Improvised Music Festival One-Minute Solos, next Thursday (1/19/12), 8:00 PM

I’m going to be playing in this (thanx Bruce and John!). I’ll be playing the piano for sure, and maybe bring along my hammer dulcimer. Anyone interested in hearing my particular contribution (small as it is – only one minute) to this concert can check it out. Huh? Only one minute? What’s the point? It’s a mosaic of sound – if every piece is only one minute, then what you get is a collection of miniatures, a book of sonic haiku. And since it’s all improvised, some pieces will undoubtedly spin off of the previous pieces (and some won’t). Spontaneous, in the moment, and a lot of fun.

Here’s the vital info:

Thursday, January 19, 2012, 8 PM.
A number of local musicians improvise solos, each lasting one minute, in support of the 2012 Seattle Improvised Music Festival this February. There may also be duets, each also lasting one minute.

$10-25 suggested donation; $25 or more will get you a pass for the entire festival
(February 8-12)

Chapel Performance Space
Good Shepherd Center, fourth floor
4649 Sunnyside Ave. N, Seattle

Performers include:
Alex Guy, Andrew Olmstead, Begin Scaresth, Beth Fleenor, Brad Hawkins, Bruce Greeley, Colin Pulkrabek, Cynthia Marie, Emily Westman, Eric Rynes, Evan Flory-Barnes, Greg Campbell, Ivan Arteaga, Jim Knodle, John Teske, Kathryn Olson, Mara Sedlins, Maria Mannisto, Michael Owcharuk, Natalie Mai Hall, Neil Welch, Paul Hoskin, Robert Blatt, S. Eric Scribner (me), Schraepfer Harvey, Tamiko Terada, Wilson Shook, and more

We are still accepting musicians, so if you have an interest in performing a solo, please contact john [dot] teske [at]

Portions of this posting from the Seattle Improvised Music Festival website.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

January 12th: Happy Birthday to Morton Feldman

A new feature in this blog: happy birthday to composers and other musicians whose music I’ve enjoyed, or been challenged by, or have personal stories about…

Jan. 12 – Morton Feldman

A couple of days ago a message popped up on my Facebook page saying “Happy Birthday, Uncle Morty!” and a picture of Morton Feldman. I looked it up – yes, January 12th; two days late.

Feldman’s style has been called minimalism, though its aesthetic is a thousand miles away from Philip Glass or Steve Reich. My own experience with Feldman’s music (live) was at a concert in the Seattle Public Library some years back – a chamber ensemble played several of Feldman’s two-hour pieces in a room full of color-field paintings. The visual and auditory aspects of art were shown to be related here; Feldman’s slow, quiet musical gestures perfectly matched the expansive, quiet paintings. A group of music fans sat on provided chairs (though there weren’t enough; about half of the audience sat on the floor), listening intently. Other museum patrons, not aware that a concert was taking place, wandered around looking at the paintings, commenting to each other and occasionally glancing at the musicians with puzzled expressions. Many of these museumgoers, after walking around a while, sat down with the rest of the audience and listened to the music. In the end, the intense calm created its own atmosphere.

A couple of days later I happened to be teaching a high school music class and mentioned this concert – the students wouldn’t believe that there had been a concert in a museum…

PRIZE PACKAGE AT AN INFORMAL “SAYS-YOU” TOURNAMENT THAT I PLAYED IN: Michael Feldman “Whad’Ya Know” game kit, “Crippled Symmetry” CD by Morton Feldman, and a DVD of the movie “Young Frankenstein”, starring Marty Feldman.

I have a solo piece in the manner of Morton Feldman, the fourth in a set of pieces based on Japanese woodblock prints. It is the longest in the set, and consists of a series of phrases to be played 5 to 9 times, and improvisations (with or without meter) on given pitches. It is all very slow, very quiet, and does not present any recognizable harmonies or melodic material until the end. Like the way I perceive Feldman’s work, it is intended to be both intense and calm, and worth deep concentration. I don’t know whether I’ve succeeded (it is, after all, a piece derivative of another’s style) but readers of this blog can judge for themselves. Click this link and scroll down to "Ukiyo-e part 4" (under "Piano Solos") to hear it.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Eric Whitacre, Dana Reason, Dean Moore, and unexpected musical xenophobia

A new feature in this blog: happy birthday to composers and other musicians whose music I’ve enjoyed, or been challenged by, or have personal stories about…

Jan. 2nd: Eric Whitacre, Dana Reason, Dean Moore

(A disclaimer: I’m putting Dana Reason and Dean Moore in one paragraph at the end not because I consider them to be less important musicians – that is absolutely not the case! – but because I happen to have an anecdote about Eric Whitacre’s music…)

I first heard Mr. Whitacre’s music when I was assistant-teaching a high school symphonic band class. The regular teacher was gone to a meeting, and there was a student teacher who’d been given free reign what to do that day (the band had just finished a major concert, and more or less had a free day as well). He had decided to try a new piece by one of his favorite composers – Eric Whitacre.

He played me the piece first on iTunes. I was surprised because it was a choral piece, though I soon realized it was “symphonic” enough to have an orchestral arrangement as well. The piece was “Cloudburst”, and it was a bit of tone painting as descriptive as Smetana’s “Moldau” or Philip Glass’ “Train”. Partway through the piece, percussion suddenly came in, and the entire chorus (or band) started snapping their fingers randomly – the result sounded as much like rain as was possible indoors.

I listened as the band played the piece, and added my part in the percussion (tam-tam and bass drum) – the percussion parts were improvised. If the idea sounds like a cliché, it certainly could have been (and to be frank, Mr. Whitacre’s music borders on the commercial); but his writing was an interesting enough polyphonic interweaving of impressionistic chords to prevent this.

My enthusiastic response to the piece turned to shock and surprise, however, when one of the students (a girl who’d been playing the clarinet) approached both of us afterwards and said, “That was totally weird. Don’t make us play it again.” Both of us groaned a startled “huh???” but the other teacher recovered quick enough to inform her that it only sounded weird because she was unfamiliar with the style, and he gave her a quick overview of the history of late 20th / early 21st century classical music. I just gaped at her (the student) in disbelief…

The same occurred about ten minutes later. The band was putting away their instruments, and another student (this time a boy) approached me and asked if I’d like to hear one of his compositions. I said certainly, and he sat down at the piano and began to play a quick, heavy-handed, sharply dissonant piece that sounded much like some of Luigi Nono’s harsher works. Another boy came over and announced pointedly, “Give it up; nobody likes to hear your so-called music.” As the pianist immediately stopped playing, I again grunted an amazed “huh???”. I hadn’t particularly liked the piece up to the point where he’d stopped, but I certainly recognized at least this part to be the beginning of a surprisingly well-made composition for that of a high-school student. This time it was I who recovered quickly enough to tell the insulter that it only sounded like “so-called music” because he was probably unfamiliar with the style, and I gave him a quick lecture about Schönberg and Varèse (with examples from my iPod).

This story has no conclusion. I don’t know if these two students changed their minds or at least accepted modernism and post-modernism as legitimate types of music (the other students in the class didn’t seem to have any difficulty with either piece). I went to the public library and checked out a CD of Whitacre’s music (all of it choral music) and was rather entranced by its juxtaposition of jazz and impressionist chords with a timbre and texture reminiscent of Palestrina. Second or third listenings have dimmed this impression somewhat (some of the pieces are rather formulaic); but, this is a composer who just turned forty and so one can assume that his best music is yet to come.

Two other musicians of note (pardon the pun) have January 2nd birthdays: Dana Reason and Dean Moore. I don’t have any particular anecdotes regarding their music, but I’ve heard both in concert and both are among the most inventive of today’s improvising musicians. Ms. Reason plays the piano (I’ve written a review of one of her concerts and one of her CD’s). Mr. Moore plays percussion; specifically, gongs – a Dean Moore concert is a stage full of gongs of all sizes, sending ethereal resonances into all corners of the performance space. He doesn’t just strike them, of course; gongs make a variety of sounds when they are scraped, rubbed, or bowed, as well as being hit by different kinds of mallets or sticks. I had the privilege to play a concert with Dean, part of an early version of some of the “StormSound” pieces (also with Stuart Dempster, Mary Kantor, and Neal Kosaly-Meyer). Later I discovered that one of his recordings fit into another of my “StormSound” pieces as if he’d been listening to my piece while he played it. I have a version of it on my iPod with his recording added – but since I haven’t gotten his permission to use his part, I won’t let anyone else hear it, yet…