25 November 2012

Sväng’s Arrangements of Chopin for Harmonica Quartet

Sennheiser e608

W   e use a special bass harmonica microphone manufactured by Suzuki. This mic is attached directly to the body of bass harmonica, so it gets really close to the source of the sound. The mic module is as long the instrument, and there are several electric condenser mic capsules in it. The capsules are engineered to have different frequency responses depending on their location in the bass harmonica, according to register. The mic has an built-in preamp operating on battery power. Because the capsules are omni-directional condenser mics, the mic module is very prone to feedback on-stage. It feeds back really easily in the monitors and sometimes also on the main PA. To solve this problem, we use in-ear earbud monitoring and very careful equalization on the bass harp.”
  — Sväng.
F   or diatonic and chromatic harmonicas, we use handheld Audio Technica ATM350s. The mic is held between player’s left-hand fingers, but there are seldom problems with any handling-related noises. Microvox has its own belt clip preamp with volume control knob.”
  — Sväng.

O nly recently I came across Sväng’s 2010 recording of their arrangements of Chopin piano etudes, mazurkas, and polonaises. Sväng—the award-winning harmonica quartet from Finland—was commissioned by the La Folle Journée de Nantes festival to create these arrangements. Eero Grundström and Jouko Kyhälä, two of the group’s members, responded to this challenge with dazzling facility, adapting and orchestrating Chopin in such a way that the ethnic texture and musical intent of the originals are honored and preserved and yet new and interesting possibilities are revealed.

I n much the same manner as Chopin wrote the bulk of his compositions while living on ‘foreign’ soil, so too this work by Sväng feels deeply ‘transnational’.

T he arrangements have the motorics of festival dancing and outlawry, and all the confessional intimacy of close friends. The tuba-like bass lines alternately convey polka-like or gypsy-like feel. We have klezmer/ladino clarinet figures in here, rendered by harmonica with awe-inspiring technique. Story-telling, pneumatic phrasing of free-reeds clasped to emphatic lips, the music hovers between conserving traditional values and surrendering to pressures for assimilation into an alien culture.

T here are sad songs of separation, improvised deployments of non-standard instrumentation in service of musical ideas that hail from another culture. The collection co-opts Chopin, infusing it with Baltic jazz sensibilities.

T he informality of the recordings makes you want to get up and dance and join in song. The arrangements of the mazurkas are all bright and uplifting.

    [50-sec clip, Chopin - Mazurka Op. 68/2 arr. Eero Grundström ; (track 1), 2010, 2.4MB MP3]

M ore than anything, the effect is a ‘caravan’ soundscape—like a great kumpania—a nomadic band of families, traveling with horses and sleeping in the rough. The sonic ‘wagons’ in this caravan are elaborately carved and fantastically painted; the outlook of Sväng is heterogeneous, with a strong sense of the whimsical and the absurd.

T he music evokes nostalgia, but nostalgia for what? A return home? No. This is a musical pattern of chronic displacement; of families who have winter digs but are of uncertain origins; of clans who have no permanent place and few possessions. Or maybe you feel a resemblance to the saudades and fatalism of portuguese fado. Or you listen, as you might listen to a ribald uncle telling aphorisms. The fascination in which he holds you derives from his concision, which stuns... and also from his wit, which throws you down. The Disenfranchised and Appropriated become the Appropriators!

T he engineering and production values achieved at Studio Kyhättö do great credit to the arranging and performing on this disc. The sound has great warmth and intimacy, with just enough reverb/chorusing for liveliness. (For harp players who wish to learn about the miking equipment and techniques that Sväng utilizes to such advantage, have a look at their website.)


17 November 2012

DiDonato, Sinkovsky, Il Complesso Barocco Bring Down the House

KC Star, (c) 2012 Jill Toyoshiba

W   e singers tend to boast that our careers offer the best form of psychotherapy in existence, for we are allowed to work out the bulk of our inner demons courtesy of the larger-than-life drama queens we encounter on the stage—divine ladies who weep, love, moan, and avenge more grandly and stylishly than in any other art form.”
  — Joyce DiDonato, 2012.

T he Joyce DiDonato/Dmitry Sinkovsky/Il Complesso Barocco performance last night in the Harriman-Jewell Series was really phenomenal. Many extraordinary, seldom-heard works by lesser-known Baroque composers, like Antonio Cesti (1623-1669), Geminiano Giacomelli (1692-1740), Giuseppe Orlandini (1676-1760), and Giovanni Porta (1675-1755). Extraordinarily dramatic and vivid vocal and instrumental interpretations. Extraordinarily tight and responsive interactions between the ensemble members and Ms. DiDonato throughout.

A scending cadences, each with the forte dynamic they require, imparting a strong sense of closure. Descending cadences to pianissimo, imparting a sense of sorrow with aspiration. The sort of gestures that Hatten once characterized as “yearning” (see links below).

F ormalized emotion—a dialectic of ‘drama queens’—DiDonato rations her body movement, reserves it mostly for recitative passages, while her body is relatively still during arias: her regal rhetoric is well-suited to these stories of queens and princesses. The arias ‘frame’ the dramatic recitatives, not the other way round (that is, ‘decorative’ arias, see Taruskin, p. 25).

M ost online reviews from performances on their current tour do focus, understandably, on Ms. DiDonato’s singing. But, my God, this ensemble! Gorgeous! And, my God, Sinkovsky! Prodigious!

W hat strings is Dmitry Sinkovsky playing!!? Silver-plated, copper on gut? Pirastro Eudoxa? Chorda? Sensuous with a glint, a sound that is a perfect match for DiDonato's rich mezzo-soprano voice!

T he wound G-string was common on violins in the 18th century. Beyond 1840 and already far beyond plain gut strings, composers were writing things that were, essentially, only playable with a wound G string. With modern strings, we’d lose this rich, complex sound of very thick gut strings. We’d lose the consort timbre within the violin family. We’d lose the diversity of articulation, and we’d lose subtleties of this 17th and 18th Century sonic architecture.

T o a software engineer like me, the musical score is an object-oriented ‘method’, procedural code executed on an instance of an object-class that may or may not grant all of the behaviors specified by the arguments passed to it. But Dmitry Sinkovsky and Il Complesso Barocco accomodate all args, all flavors!

T he range of Dmitry Sinkovsky’s articulation is especially interesting, because it allows him to imitate the singer’s diction, with diverse ‘consonants’ beginning each violin-syllable (or bow stroke) and diverse glottal and quasi-labial and -dental and -fricative sounds to match each of DiDonato’s vocal gestures. Through the centuries, the imitation of the human voice has always been an ardently sought goal for instrumentalists. Sinkovsky totally owns this! (He has even mastered American folk-fiddlish, jiggy “hoe-down” technic, which he improvised to humorous effect at DiDonato’s prompting for one of her encores, to the raucous delight of her hometown Kansas City audience!)

S inkovsky’s pulsatile, fluid bow-and-whole-body gestures, dance-like, match DiDonato’s operatic arms-and-whole-body gestures. Sinkovsky’s bow stroke is Transitional Period? Russian? Energized ‘non-legato’, at any rate! Because of the ‘give’ of the bowhair, the bow does not emit full sound immediately at the onset of the stroke, but only after some pressure has been exerted and some bow excursion has occurred—the momentary softness followed by a crescendo in each stroke.

H e plays fast passages with energy abounding but with still a roundness to his sound and supple articulations. A player trained in a modern, pressure-on-the-bowstick style feels immediately that baroque bow does not give the attack of a modern bow—it’s more from the wrist and fingers. But Sinkovsky’s Baroque bow attack is astonishingly sharp—more so maybe than would be achieved with a modern bow. Our jaws were agog for 2 hours in gob-smacked amazement.

A re these tempi faster than normal, or are we just glad to see you all? Was the room hot, or was it just you? :)

N ext up for these artists is Carnegie Hall tomorrow.

14 November 2012

Experiencing ‘Map of Rain Hitting Water’ in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy


W   hen at last Justine arrives, he’s at the piano
     the hammers strike and rise
 with his fingers, and the pedal’s damp
   shifting carries through the instrument
as waves echo through the frame of a ship...
Now he thinks perhaps the music’s
More like a map of rain hitting water—
He’s moving closer to her without moving;
And how wonderful to be held from her
   at last by nothing but the song's duration—”
  — Wayne Miller, ’What Night says to the Empty Boat’, p. 73.

I ’d first listened to Mara Gibson's new 16:30 work commissioned by Mark Lowry of newEar Contemporary Music Ensemble in July. The DVD has Mark performing vibraphone, log drum, woodblock, gong, tam-tam, songbird whistle, cymbal, and miscellaneous percussion, accompanied by video imagery and film by Caitlin Horsmon. Bob Beck rendered a high level of engineering and production values achieved in this recording.

T he beauty of the chromatic intoning of vibraphone, punctuated by tolling woodblock, drum, and, less frequently, other instruments captured my interest from the first listening. The glisses and pitch-bent post-processed sounds of the vibraphone acoustically paralleled the imagery, the lateral motion of water in the foreground and in the distance; the water droplets in air, falling under gravity in parabolic arcs; the globules of water separating from a stream; the intercalating pastel cloud layers.

B ut now several months later—having just last week returned to the midwest after a period at our home on the East Coast, and having driven through some of the areas of hurricane-caused power outages and natural devastation—these textures and narrative arcs of ‘Map of Rain Hitting Water’ evoke different meanings for me. The watery surfaces now seem ominous and obscure what lies beneath.

T he reflections imply sky and sun, but these seem untrustworthy. The eddies and vortices imply structure and hidden currents, turbulence: the violence and indifference of Nature to humanity.

T he speed of the current makes abundantly clear how rapidly we will be swept away, annihilated, pointlessly. The accelerando/ritardando phrasing imparts a large-scale 2+ minute hypermeter to the piece.

N o animals or other sentient creatures are seen anywhere in Horsmon’s imagery here... bulk matter only, liquid and air. The abruptly changing frame-rate... declares a capriciousness of our frame of perception, together with Nature’s propensity to precipitous, emergent change, against which our human wishes and needs are respectively futile and irrelevant.

T here is midway through the film a montage of stop-action stills, with different transparency/saturation settings, calling into question what is motion. It brings to mind horror film sequences built up out of successions of freeze-frame stills.

T he very high-speed video of the water droplets, together with digitally-stretched contrast and/or edge-sharpening, gives heightened perception of the separateness of the individual [droplets].

W e have here a sort of ‘video-monitor-as-painter’s-canvas’ effect... a palimpsest of successive masks and over-writing of previous images and surfaces.

T he film draws our attention to the very thinness and 2-D nature of our existence in the biosphere, between the sky and the depths of water.

I n fact, most of the film is of deep water: the first 5:45 is sky; second 6:00 is water; third 4:45 is water hurled into sky—with gradual transitions between these segments.

T he piece conveys feelings of loneliness and alienation that arise from our understanding that we are alone in the universe and insignificant in its workings. Underneath the performer’s punctuated observations and soliloquy about fate and the stream of events that occupies our attention while we are alive is a certain forboding, a fear of nothingness.

T hat we are in some inescapable way alienated from Nature is an old concept, going back at least to Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th Century. It is also a notion that coheres with our current environmental problems, insofar as our estrangement from Nature involves a hubris that forecloses upon developing an awareness and regard for how we depend upon Nature, in such a way that we would stop harming Nature.

R elinquishing whatever agency I have in the presence of the bulk matter around me reveals my beholdenness to the agency of other humans who are living now and who will take care of me in my dying days and who will outlive me, and the susceptibility of my remains and the residue of my life’s work to the agency of all creatures and natural processes that persist beyond my tiny lifetime.

T he harsh contrast and unblinking lens of the camera—together with the continuous, unflinching sound of the music—announce the abject hopelessness of our achieving any anonymity in the flesh, or participating in any genuine reciprocity with Nature.

S uch existential worries are absent when reciprocal trans-corporeality involves the definitely spiritual, or “more than human”, or involves an ambiguity or reversibility afforded by the hardly-human-at-all, or as-minimally-human-as-possible, as in Wilderness or Zombieness.

O ne can make some sense then of this piece’s assertion that we might be estranged from the flesh without that meaning either that such estrangement puts us really outside the flesh, or that landscapes including sky and water are themselves not fleshy. We are estranged, every bit as much as sky and water are patently fleshy.

T his is a superb composition, an excellent film, a beautiful performance, an excellent recording—sufficient to propel an evening’s meditation and beyond.


10 November 2012

Xenakis Matters

 Xenakis, photo (c)1999 Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

T   he Demiurge (1) creates from an intuition of Good; (2) takes disorder and friction and waste and makes it orderly and efficient, so far as is possible to do; (3) places Reason within the soul, and the cosmic soul within the cosmic body; (4) models the cosmos on the form of a generalized sentient lifeform, i.e., an animal with moral standing; (5) creates the cosmic body on principles of geometric proportionality; (6) creates the world soul out of population-level sameness and difference; (7) blends these into a durable alloy; and (8) divides the alloy into useful, value-generating harmonic intervals.”
  — Plato’s ‘Timaeus’, quoted by Eric Lewis in Kanach, p. 81.
U   nlike Schoenberg, who controls and organizes his music at the level of the individual note, Xenakis works at the level of the whole population [of all notes, taken together, as a sound-mass].”
  — Brian Kane, in Kanach, p. 97.

T he new book, ‘Xenakis Matters’, the latest in the multi-author, multi-volume series edited by Sharon Kanach and published by Pendragon, provides a superb and many-faceted view of the enduring impacts of composer-artist-architect-engineer Iannis Xenakis, who died in 2001. Sharon Kanach is Vice-President of Centre Iannis Xenakis in France and Founder and President of the Xenakis Project of the Americas of the Brook Center at CUNY. She served as Xenakis’s assistant for two decades prior to his death in 2001.

 Sharon Kanach

X enakis was an iconic, formative influence on me, even though I encountered him and his teaching only for a short while in 1972. Xenakis was then still on the faculty at Indiana University at Bloomington in 1972... IU with its beautiful-and-powerful-and-then-new Control Data 6600 computer, sylvan wooded paths of the campus, and its quiet, clear-flowing limestone creek so incongruous with the intensity of the University and the minds gathered there.

S pringtime 1972 was, I suppose, before many of us recognized that the Sixties were over. It was when students at the University of Minnesota were protesting the War and barricading Washington Avenue with piles of lumber set on fire, an incendiary deconstructionist action undertaken not far from the School of Architecture where I attended Xenakis’s lectures.

S pring 1972 was when my life still straddled music and engineering equally—and when Xenakis, his music, his cross-disciplinary, fusion-avid compositional methods and materials, and his talks and writings were the epitome of innovation—his compelling, unifying vision a convergence of nature, science, engineering, and art.

H is mathematical models as automatic generating functions—not only for making music but for representing it—where equations accomplished this in a manner so much more compact than mere notes on paper could ever do: so crystalline, the beauty of this.

T   he idea becomes the machine that makes the art .”
  — Sol Lewitt.

H is programmatic transformations of acoustic forms and found-sounds—embodying a mode of creativity beyond pitch and rhythm and traditional music pedagogy—a random and happenstantial process can nonetheless have statistical self-similar or fractal properties across the ensemble of parts/voices and across time, and can manifest and evoke specific, real meanings.

C   an order be established from noise? Well, your music was the first to discover this.”
  — philosopher Michel Serres, remark during Xenakis’s PhD thesis defense.

H is physicality and love of ‘immersive’ media and sonic productions—in which the raw and elemental and cranked-up challenged us to (re-)discover the boundaries between Nature and the human.

H is famous book, ‘Formalized Music’, wherein he referred to some of his work as the musical equivalent of the “phenomena of a political crowd... protesters forming a human ‘river’, and their shouted messages propagating from front to back, comprehensible to an observer situated at a distance from the crowd but often not coherent, as such, to individuals within the crowd”.

I ’ve spent the 40 years since then in very different ways than I would have imagined, most of them doing software engineering. But the maieutic* debt that I owe to Iannis Xenakis as an important teacher in my life is great. [*uncovering through analysis; eliciting knowledge by provoking or questioning; assisting-in-coming-into-being; midwifing]

I  suppose only as we get older do we really begin to appreciate/apprehend the entire cycle of Life. There is a sense of totality to life and its review, a summing-up. The emphasis is on the ‘examined life’, on how we assess our life and how we have lived it, and assess what truth we have synthesized from the events that have accumulated, from our own efforts and decisions, and from the acts of others and how they have filled and inhabited our lives.

A  powerful mixture of emotions—happy memories; regret; guilt; 40 years’ longing and loss—is part of what this book caused to well-up in me—part of what will lead me to read and re-read this volume in years to come. The poignancy of what is remembered so vividly across the decades is staggering. I become reattached to my past as it is reanimated by these authors on these pages.

S ignificant for many readers besides me, though, is how this book works as historiography—revealing how life crystallizes itself in the artifacts that remain in us, emblems of the impact that others have had on us.

I n hindsight, it’s impossible to exaggerate Iannis’s importance to my development, as a person and as an engineer. While insisting on holding students to high standards, he also took an active, personal interest in each one’s well-being. Puckish and provocative, but always seeming to accurately gauge the limits of each. Xenakis’s legendary generosity/hospitality/charity is part of his legacy and, no doubt, a major reason why he is remembered so vividly by so many people, even ones like me who only encountered him briefly.

R emembering now Iannis Xenakis’s smiling face, remembering his exuberance and enthusiasm—how he confided his uncertainties about what some of his music meant, while he simultaneously professed that each motive and pattern did have meaning(s), however ineffable those meanings may be; how he excitedly expressed his ideas and showed his students how to make them work, or, at a minimum, how to believe sufficiently in the possibility so that they fearlessly strived to make it happen—redeems me a bit from my long history of sinning by transience and forgetting.

G   enuine problems are... both necessary and impossible. Possibility arrives right when you no longer expect it. That is what an ‘event’ really is.”
  — Alain Badiou, quoted by Olga Touloumi in Kanach, p. 101.

I n summary, reminiscence can be dynamic and creative—it can be productive of new discoveries; reminiscence does not have to be reductionistic or static—and I thank Sharon Kanach and her co-authors for this gift.

A ll of the essays in ‘Xenakis Matters’ are engaging and a joy to read. Each essay advances the scholarship regarding the composer’s ideas and influence. And each conveys the kindness, humanity, and something of the humor and kindly nature that are what I remember of him. Robert Wannamaker’s chapter (pp. 127-141), especially, on math exhorts composers to emulate Xenakis’s use of ‘discretion’ in humanizing the combination of mechanical/programmatic musical elements with human ones, to achieve a synthesis that can touch the heart and move us in valuable or even life-changing ways.

M   usic is a mathematical exercise, disguised in such a way that the mind does not realize it is counting.”
  — Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

I  love this book—for reasons noted above, universal as well as personal. Whether or not you have personal memories of Xenakis as an excellent human being, you will, I’m confident, love the book too.

Recording of Pianist Yuji Takahasi performance of Xenakis’s ‘Herma’
I   n 1963 I became [Xenakis’s] composition student. When I showed him my piano piece, he pointed to two sections in the piece and offered me a big eraser... I can still feel the notes of ‘Herma’ at my fingertips. Performing ‘Herma’, I discovered the gravity-free state of sound. It was the feeling of lightness, rather than the violent movement other people surmise from the pianistic virtuosity of the work... I hear through those hundreds of notes—and I sense from them at unexpected moments—something like a voice of the inexplicable.”
  —  pianist Yuji Takahashi, quoted by Roger & Karen Reynolds in Kanach, p. 13.
 Takahashi album cover