Thursday, February 26, 2015

Talujon Percussion: A Rustle and a Bang along 25 years

Lots of contemporary music ensembles have a specialty.  From some ensembles, you can expect a keen ear for the eclectic "Fourth Stream" of downtown minimalism; from others, an expertise in the complex inner workings of American serialism; while others still can summon the most otherworldly sounds from their instruments in service of the more abstract works of the European avant garde.

Surveying the repertoire of Talujon Percussion Ensemble, one finds a perplexing diversity.  The ensemble—described by the New York Times as possessing an edgy, unflagging energy while performing frenzied explosions of percussion madness—is one we're excited to count among the internationally renowned artists in residence at this year's June in Buffalo.  Rather than a single stylistic specialty, Talujon seems to specialize in a stunning sensitivity to a wide span of compositional languages.  If you need an ensemble that can expertly execute staples like Clapping Music or First Construction, or players that can breathe new life into standards like Having Never Written a Note for Percussion or Credo in US, you'd be hard-pressed to find a stronger and more willing group—indeed, Talujon has skillfully performed all of these.  If you need an ensemble that can can blaze through modern classics like Xenakis's Pléiades or Steve Reich's Drumming with effortless fluency, Talujon can more than accommodate—in fact, the latter has become one of the group's signature pieces (listen below).  But perhaps the most exciting aspect of the group is the scope of their rep:  while many percussion ensembles try their hands at American favorites like Reich and Cage, how many also dive into the labyrinthine textures of French works like Manoury's Les Livres des Claviers or Grisey's monumental Le Noire do l'Etoile?  How many can match the visceral intellect of Xenakis with the delicate simplicity of Scelsi and Takemitsu—and perform each with equal relish and precision?  How many percussion ensembles commission works from both post-minimal pioneers like Julia Wolfe and sonic experimenters like Alvin Lucier?

One of the most affecting concerts I can remember was during the ensemble's 2010 residency at the Center.  After opening with a flawless execution of Drumming and stunning with the dynamic, full-spectrum energy of Wolfe's drumset quartet Dark Full Ride, Talujon turned to Sciarrino's Un fruscio lungo trent’anni, a piece whose instrumentation consists of shaken pine branches, stirred water, and scraped glass bottles, performed surrounding the audience.  Rich in silences and glorious near-silences, the piece displayed the breadth of Talujon's sonic sensitivity.  In retrospect, I can think of no better piece to follow Wolfe's intense percussive excursion.

This is the enigma of Talujon:  their specialty lies not in knowing the ins and outs of a single subset of the new music scene, but in seeking out exciting works from every corner of the globe, working with adventurous composers who are constantly finding new ways to expand the ensemble's sonic palette, and having a skillful command of their instruments (which of course, for percussionists, is practically any sound-producing body).

PI faculty member
 Tom Kolor
This skillful command is part of what makes it so exciting that Talujon will be a part of the second June in Buffalo Performance Institute (and that UB's Tom Kolor, a Talujon member, will be on the PI faculty).  Emerging performers of contemporary music can look forward to master classes and workshops with the ensemble, at which Talujon's insight and musical acumen is sure to help guide them toward a mastery of the many lexica of contemporary music.  Like Meridian Arts Ensemble (with whom Talujon will be performing a concert at JiB) Talujon is an ensemble of composers, and the group has premiered many works written by individual members or composed collectively as a group.  Well-attuned to the problems and pleasures of writing for percussion, they will certainly be able to assist emerging composers in getting their ideas across effectively.

2015 is an anniversary year for June in Buffalo, as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the festival and the 30th anniversary of David Felder's tenure as artistic director.  It is also an anniversary year for Talujon:  formed in 1990, the ensemble is celebrating its 25th year.  Showing no sign of stopping, Talujon will surely continue to expand the contemporary percussion repertoire, taking the field in new directions for years to come—starting with the works they'll premiere at this year's festival.  I think back to Sciarrino's Un fruscio lungo trent’anni, whose title translates to "a rustle along thirty years":  congratulations to Talujon, as they celebrate many rustles, bangs, and complex phasing polyrhythms along their twenty-five years.

—Ethan Hayden

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Steven Stucky: The Joyous Science

An entry in Ralph Waldo Emerson's Journals reads:
"In every week there is some hour when I read my commission in every cipher of nature, and know that I was made for another office, a professor of the Joyous Science, a detector and delineator of occult harmonies and unpublished beauties, a herald of civility, nobility, learning, and wisdom; an affirmer of the One Law, yet as one who should affirm it in music or dancing, a priest of the Soul, yet one who would better love to celebrate it through the beauty of health and harmonious power."
Emerson refers to his craft as one combining the seriousness, discipline, and rigor of the intellect with the more lyrical, abstract realm of the soul.  He describes his calling, "the Joyous Science," as a systematic and methodical pursuit of affirming the beautiful, true, and transcendent.  A variation of the phrase "the Joyous Science," was later used by Nietzsche as the title of a volume containing both scrupulous philosophical observations and an appendix of songs (Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, or The Gay Science, 1882).  This combination of intellect and passion, sentiment and sentience, is at the heart of the music of the composer we profile this week, Steven Stucky.

Steven Stucky at JiB 2012
Stucky's music often acts as a direct translation between the technical and the transcendent.  A recent example can be found in his 2011 orchestral work, Silent Spring.  Written for the Pittsburgh Symphony to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson's seminal work on conservation and ecology, the piece tackles the challenge of crafting artistic expression from empirical observations, or as the composer puts it:  "Silent Spring is almost all science. How to make music about that?"  However, by seeking out the 'eloquent lyricism' in Carson's writing, Stucky manages to create an orchestral tone poem that, in Emerson's words, 'delineates the unpublished beauties' of Carson's text.  Where Carson gives us data, Stucky gives us a non-representational expression of the same truth.  "My Silent Spring [is a] space in which to contemplate one’s own fears, hopes, and dreams."

The New York Times has described Stucky's music as being written in an "intricate, pungent yet transparent and, in the best sense, accessible musical language."  The composer's works have always been marked by an exacting precision, even while being less abrasive than some of the spikier works of the American avant garde.  Stucky once wrote, with regard to a program in which his music was performed alongside Elliott Carter's and (fellow JiB composer) Bernard Rands's:  "While [Rands's] music and mine sound softer-edged than Carter's, in fact behind the scenes he and I are two of the most careful, calculating craftsmen I know—to say nothing of Ligeti or Kurtág. We know, as Carter knows, that technical finesse and intellectual control are indispensable tools for communicating feeling."  For Stucky, the complexity is often in the details, expressing itself in virtuosic orchestration, subtle melodic turns, and a willingness to carefully and continuously sculpt musical material until all traces of the rigorous work of composition disappear behind the music's "beauty of health and harmonious power."

This is a feature that is evident in the composer's collection of choral pieces, Cradle Songs (1997).  Recorded on the Grammy-winning Chanticleer album, Colors of Love, the first of these pieces, "Rouxinol do pico preto," is so delicate, ethereal, and harmonically captivating, it's easy to miss the compositional virtuosity on display.  For instance, consider the focus on the text's sibilants and the way they are positioned to mark the beginnings of each phrase with rhythmic clarity and hypnotic precision.  You can hear this piece below, performed by Canada's Musica Intima.

We're excited that Stucky will be among the many internationally-renowned composers who will on the faculty at this year's June in Buffalo festival.  The winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for his Second Concerto for Orchestra, Stucky served as resident composer and new music advisor at the Los Angeles Philharmonic for over two decades, and is permanently employed as Composer-in-Residence of the Aspen Music Festival and School.  He taught at Cornell University, where he founded Ensemble X, until last year, when he joined the faculty of The Juilliard School.  He has written commissioned works for many American orchestras and ensembles, including the New York Philharmonic, Dallas Symphony, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Berkeley Symphony, Washington Choral Society, and the New York Virtuoso Singers.  Well known for his expertise on Lutosławski’s music, he has been recognized with the Lutosławski Society’s medal and an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his monograph on the composer, Lutosławski and His Music (1981).

Stucky maintains humility despite his renown, stating once that he belongs "to that great throng of composers who spend their whole lives trying to be almost as good as Massenet."  He sees himself as an artist well aware of historical precedent, "standing on the shoulders of those who have cleared the path ahead."  And to a younger generation of composers, he is himself an important part of that history.  For this reason, we're excited to have him at this year's festival, so emerging composers can learn from his exacting expertise, benefitting from the path that he himself has cleared, and learning from him the art of the Joyous Science.

—Ethan Hayden

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Meridian Arts Ensemble: At Home in the Grit

It is hard work being a contemporary music ensemble.

No one knows that more than the Meridian Arts Ensemble, the foremost brass quintet in the contemporary music scene today.  The Meridians have been playing angular, complex, exhilarating music since 1987.  Having performed over fifty premieres on four continents, the NY-based brass quintet have maintained a reputation for presenting difficult, adventurous works to diverse audiences.

Over the coming weeks, Edge of the Center will be profiling the many internationally-renowned artists who will be participating in this year's June in Buffalo festival, and we're excited to count the intrepid Meridian Arts Ensemble among them.  

The Meridians began to receive critical and popular acclaim in the early nineties, particularly for their arrangements of the music of Frank Zappa, a composer with whom they worked closely.  To this day, they remain one of Zappa's foremost interpreters, and suites of Zappa arrangements appear on four of their nine recordings:  from 1991's Smart Went Crazy, with its agile maneuvering through "Dupree's Paradise" to Ear, Mind, I's lush helping of "Lumpy Gravy" (1998).  But the Meridians' repertoire expands far beyond Zappa's oeuvre—they are equally proficient with music of the American academy (Charles Wuorinen, Ira Taxin), works from the downtown scene (Elliott Sharp, Nick Didkovsky), music of Central and South America (Tania León, Hermeto Pascoal), klezmer (Frank London), jazz fusion (Randy Brecker, Herbie Hancock) and Baroque and Renaissance music.

Despite their broad palette, the Meridian's concerts never seem unfocused or too broad in scope.  Their repertoire remains united by centering on works by extraordinary—and often unknown—composers.  The group tends to favor collaborating with composers informed by both unorthodox rock music and the spikier edge of the avant garde (e.g., David Sanford, Kirk Nurock).  The Meridians are as engaging playing a well-executed program of classical works at the Library of Congress as they are wailing at a European Jazz Festival (and, in fact, their recent concert DVD shows them doing both with effortless agility).  Many times, when a classical ensemble plays rock or jazz arrangements, there seems to be an awkward element of irony involved, like the ensemble is "slumming", briefly stepping into the grit for novelty's sake.  But the Meridians are at home in the grit, equally well-versed in the vernaculars of Babbitt and Beefheart.  This extensive fluency is a testament to the ensemble's strong, dauntless musicianship.  It is a common cliché in music writing to praise a group by saying they are difficult to categorize or define, but with the Meridians, one has no difficulty in summing them up in a single phrase:  they're simply excellent musicians.

Below is a recent video of the ensemble performing an excerpt of Andrew Rindfleisch's In The Zone (2009).

It's great to have the Meridians at June in Buffalo, especially on this anniversary year.  The ensemble has been an important part of the festival's history, regularly returning to play exciting new brass works.  In 2001, the ensemble made up the core group of the JIBBRASSWORKS project, a large 23-player brass band that performed works of excruciating complexity and stunning beauty, including Xenakis's Khalperr and LaMonte Young's For Brass.

Meridian trumpeter (and Performance Institute Faculty) Jon Nelson offers the following thoughts about the group's first June in Buffalo, and about Meridian's general approach to performing new works:
I think our first June in Buffalo was 1990 or so. David Felder probably heard that we were a young and scrappy brass group that wasn't like all the others… he was right.  I suppose at that time, our two biggest mentors were Zappa and Babbitt.  Both of those guys aspired to excellence and carried a lot of irreverence.  We liked that.  That kind of summed up  (and still does) our mission as a group.  We have steered away from what's in fashion in New Music (if there could be such a thing), and have always gone for music that makes a bold statement.  We didn't chase "famous" composers for commissions, but rather sought out composers who would write for brass in a way that was unlike all brass pieces written before.  Its riskier when you play with the unknown.  Regarding interpretation, its our job to be the filter through which the music can be transmitted truthfully and accurately. Then you let the audiences make up their own minds.  That's a Boulez thing:  realize the piece clearly and let it do its work.  So that's what we have tried to do in the commissions, recordings, and in working with young composers.
At this year's festival, Meridian will play a concert with Talujon Percussion Ensemble at which the group will perform David Felder's dynamic Canzonne XXXI (1993) and Charles Wuorinen's recent Brass Quintet (2009).  In addition, trombonist Benjamin Herrington will join pianist Eric Huebner and percussionist Tom Kolor to play Wuorinen's Trombone Trio (1985) at a Performance Institute concert early in the week.  In addition, the Meridians will perform two concerts of works by June in Buffalo participant composers.  With several composers in the ensemble—including Nelson and hornist Daniel Grabois—the Meridians will be more than able to engage with these emerging composers, and help them execute their ideas in the most efficient and effective ways.

It is perhaps Zappa himself who sums it up best, when he said simply of the Meridians, "Go and see 'em."  So at this year's June in Buffalo, come and see 'em—and if yer a composer, write for 'em too!

—Ethan Hayden

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Martin Bresnick: Music of the extra inch

It begins with a crash.

The opening of Martin Bresnick's BE JUST! reveals the composer's adept skill at crafting evocative musical material, and then immediately subverting it.

It begins with a crash, but this crash is not nearly as ominous or seductive as the motoric texture that emerges in its wake.  Only in Bresnick's music can such a crash be undermined by a simple string of repeated piano and vibraphone notes, intermittent violin harmonics, and dizzying clarinet fragments.  Over the course of the four-minute piece, this steadily driving texture is stabbed, interjected, and flipped on its head.  When it is finally interrupted by the crash with which the piece began, it quickly coalesces and re-emerges, building to fearsome and defiant climax.  Named for the would-be inscription from Kafka's "In the Penal Colony", the piece weaves a narrative of increasing struggle, and of a momentum which is continuously disrupted.

Over the coming weeks, Edge of the Center will be profiling the many internationally-renowned artists who will be participating in this year's June in Buffalo festival.  This week, we look at faculty composer Martin Bresnick.

Bresnick's work is often hard to pin down.  While there are undeniable aspects of (post-) minimalism, these are often capsized by a densely chromatic harmonic lexicon.  Yet this very chromaticism often dissolves into more open, Copland-esque sonorities.  As Kyle Gann notes, Bresnick's music has a thorny elegance, "His gestures can be murky at the same time that his pitch logic, often couched Brahmslike in hovering thirds and sixths, can be luminously transparent."  While his work often features lively—even joyful—rhythmic exuberance, there remain dark undertones, as if his work is haunted by a kind of 21st century American expressionism.

Bresnick perhaps acquired this stylistic eclecticism from György Ligeti, with whom he studied in the early 1970s.  The similarities are fitting:  while Ligeti was inspired from sources as diverse as West African drumming, American minimalism, Hungarian folk music, and the European avant garde, his music never smacked of musical tourism or cultural appropriation.  Likewise, Bresnick's music always only sounds like Bresnick.  Whether he is writing works inspired by Kafka texts, or Indigenous American folk songs, he maintains a flexible compositional language that is at once consistent and diverse.  "I had to develop a method of composition that would be sufficiently free but also sufficiently integrally-made so that it could support anywhere I wanted to go."

While never overt or polemical, Bresnick's work often hints at a progressive political perspective, which has been at work in the composer's output since the beginning.  "It's true that my music is often concerned with the insulted, the oppressed, the downtrodden—the Sancho Panzas rather than the Don Quixotes, the horse of Alexander the Great rather than Alexander himself."  Bresnick here refers to Bucephalus, his second string quartet, written in 1984, named for the general's famous steed.  The work alternates between extremes of ferocious double-stop attacks, spikily disjunct, sinewy gestures, and briefer glimpses at a transcendent ethereality.  As composer and Bresnick student Christopher Theofanidis observes, this is characteristic of Bresnick's work:  "Behind the music is this Beethovenian rigor.  You struggle to get where you’re going, and although unexpected moments of grace come up, it’s the struggle itself that is fundamental."

Bresnick is widely respected as a composition teacher, and is perhaps as renowned for his teaching as he is for his music.  Among his students are composers as varied as film composer Marco Beltrami, recent Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Puts, orchestral composers Theofanidis and Daniel Kellogg, jazz pianist Jack Perla, and, perhaps most famously, members of the Bang on a Can collective (David Lang, Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, Evan Ziporyn).  As reviewer Joshua Kosman puts it, "If there is no very obvious Bresnick style, there is no Bresnick school either."

As a teacher, Bresnick is at once pragmatic and intellectual—his expansive knowledge of music history, literature, and philosophy allow him to consider the more abstract, scholarly aspects of art, while maintaining an ebullient, down-to-earth practicality, never losing sight of the essential components of compositional craft.  David Lang has compared studying with Bresnick to a kind of musical therapy:  "He’ll listen to you and then ask you the question that makes you think one inch farther than you’ve thought so far.  He’s not telling you what to write, but asking you to think more carefully about what you were doing already."

Some writers have been quick to draw comparisons between Bresnick and Nadia Boulanger, the French pedagogue who rigorously trained an earlier (and equally varied) generation of American composers (including Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, Philip Glass, and Quincy Jones).  Refusing such analogies, Bresnick instead sees himself as more of a Camille Pissarro, the early Impressionist painter (and Jewish anarchist—a detail not overlooked by Bresnick) who engaged in mutual influence with younger artists like Gauguin, Degas, Monet, and Van Gogh.  "Even after all these years I don’t see myself as somebody on a mountaintop with a bunch of tablets," Bresnick remarks in a profile by Steve Smith.  "I see myself as one of the chosen, wandering in the desert.  I’ve just been out there longer.  When people come to me for teaching, I think they see that this is a person who has blood on his clothes and has been torn up a bit in his struggle, just as they struggle to achieve something."

We're excited that Bresnick will be joining us at June in Buffalo this year, encouraging the next generation of composers to think one inch farther, and continuing to engage with them in the struggle.

—Ethan Hayden