Archive for the 'contemporary US' Category

Alden Ashforth – Byzantia: Two Journeys after Yeats

Alden Ashforth - Byzantia: Two Journeys after Yeats LP front cover
Alden Ashforth - Byzantia: Two Journeys after Yeats LP back cover
Alden Ashforth - Byzantia: Two Journeys after Yeats LP side 1

Byzantia is an avantgarde music jewel on Orion Master Recordings, a baroque and classical music label founded by Giveon Cornfield in Canada in 1962, later relocating to Malibu, CA, in 1967. The label published Aaron Copland’s piano music, soloists like Jean-Pierre Rampal or Yehudi Menuhin, as well as avantgarde music LPs such as James Nightingale’s Pandorasbox, as featured in a previous post. A selection from the 600 Orion releases until 1988 is currently being reissued by Canadian label Marquis Classics.

A composer, jazz researcher and educator, Alden Ashforth was born in New York around 1930. He studied music in New Jersey with various teachers, among which Roger Sessions and Milton Babitt. In the early 1950s, he produced jazz and blues sessions with New Orleans musicians, such as the Emile Barnes 1951 Dauphine Street Jam Session, or the Kid Clayton 1952 sessions, both published by Folkways in 1983. In 1969, Ashforth became director of the UCLA electronic music studio. Along other US composers such as Virgil Thomson, John Cage or Milton Babitt, Ashforth contributed a waltz to the concert of contemporary waltzes by contemporary composers organized in San Francisco in 1979, later released as a Nonesuch LP in 1980. Starting 1980, Ashforth taught composition at Princeton University and UCLA. Ashforth’s song cycle Aspects of Love was also published by Orion (ref. ORS 79335).

In both sections of Byzantia, inspired by W. B. Yeats’ poem Sailing to Byzantium, the music emerges from a background of electronically-produced bird songs, as well as river and ocean wave sounds. More abstract synthesizer parts – some produced by the composer’s own amplified brain waves, like Alvin Lucier’s Music For A Solo Performer (1965) – gradually develop in conjunction with sustained organ notes and Moog traits. The composition maintains this perfect balance between radical, abstract sound experiments and melodious passages involving nature or real instrument imitations (trumpet, bells). The music is not pure meditation, though, and the pairing of organ tuttis and Moog fortes at times produce devastating washes of sound. While not a poem set to music, Alden Ashforth’s Byzantia certainly pays homage to the Irish poet with a music retaining some of the refinement and poetry of the original.

01 Sailing To Byzantium (20:00)
02 Byzantium (18:32)

Alden Ashforth, synthesizer (Buchla, Moog), biofeedback, tape
James Bossert, organ

Total time 38:32
LP released by Orion Master Recordings, Malibu, CA, ref. ORS-74164, 1974


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Electronic Art Ensemble – Inquietude

Electronic Art Ensemble - Inquietude LP front cover
Electronic Art Ensemble - Inquietude LP back cover
Electronic Art Ensemble - Inquietude LP side 1

New York experimental music collective Electronic Art Ensemble was founded by Gregory Kramer and Clive Smith around 1980. The two had met at NYU where they both got their M.A. in Composition in 1978. In the mid-1970s, Kramer was performing solo behind a battery of analog synthesizers and oscillators as Electric Music Mobile. He later collaborated with Robert Moog on the development of new instruments and was a Buchla synthesizers representative (Moog contributes liner notes to this LP). In 1977, Kramer founded non-profit art organization Harvestworks, who later contributed to the birth of the Tellus audio cassette magazine. A member of Conversion band, trumpet player Clive Smith managed Studio PASS from 1977 to 1983. Other members of the EAE were film music composer Stephen Horelick (who composed the music of horror movie Madman, 1982, and the Reading Rainbow TV series, 1983), and Russel Dorwart. The EAE quartet toured extensively throughout the northeastern United States and Canada during their lifetime (e.g. Presott Park Arts Festival, Portsmouth, NH, 1981 ; Experimental Television Center, Buffalo, 1982 ; Plexus Performance Space, NYC, 1983).

Unlike the Canadian Electronic Ensemble, the Electronic Art Ensemble weren’t focusing on synthesizers, but rather on electronic means to process various instruments including guitar, trumpet or prerecorded tapes in addition to synthesizers. The role of sound engineer Russel Dorwart seems key in this respect, and he might be credited for the great originality of the ensemble, which is to sound like a real band with interplay between players, to the extent where everything sounds live, even drum machines (cf. beginning of tr.#3). The LP doesn’t claim to be a live recording, yet is sounds as such, thanks to dynamic, not-too-polished level controls, unexpected live interventions or simply soloing instrumentalists responding to each other. Obviously intended as a manifest, the opening track starts with this most shocking thing in the context of avantgarde: a guitar solo! This highly hybridized music also involves fine tape manipulation and sound processing, regular synthesizer chords playing, or musique concrète sounds (onomatopeia, cats). At times, I am reminded Joel Haertling’s intermedia and electroacoustic music project Architect’s Office. Another point of comparison would be French INA-GRM’s Trio Electroacoustique. But I can’t say I came across many examples of this kind of music, especially as early as 1982.

01 Three Bursts Set Out (9:14)
02 Inquietude 2 (2:56)
03 Sentences (With Interruptions) (6:20)
04 Inquietude (3:04)
05 Cauldron (8:08)
06 Hudson (6:30)

Gregory Kramer, synthesizers, elec. organ, piano, voice, percussion
Clive Smith, electric guitar and bass, trumpet, tapes, processing
Russel Dorwart, sound engineer, mix, electronics, tapes
Stephen Horelick, synthesizers, drum computers, processing

Total time 36:15
LP released by Gramavision, New York, 1982


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Dreamtiger – East-West Encounters

Dreamtiger – East-West Encounters LP front cover
Dreamtiger – East-West Encounters LP back cover
Dreamtiger – East-West Encounters LP side 1

Dreamtiger was a British contemporary music ensemble led by composer Douglas Young and featuring pianist Peter Hill, flutist Kathryn Lukas and cellist Rohan de Saram, among others [see my Wikipedia article for details]. Despite the prestigious cast and the number of concerts and tours they performed between 1974 and 1984, Dreamtiger left surprisingly few traces on the web and in reference books. Published in 1982, East-West Encounters was the ensemble’s unique LP – a marvelous collection of Eastern-influenced works by 20th century composers, including masterpieces that found their way in the classical canon–, based on Dreamtiger’s 1980 U.K. tour repertoire.

The enchanting Balinese Ceremonial Music of US composer Colin MacPhee (1900-1964) is an adaptation of gamelan music for two pianos inspired by his intermittent stays on the island between 1932 and 1938 [on MacPhee, see previous post]. MacPhee’s intimate knowledge of Balinese vernacular music is palpable throughout this colorful microtonal reverie in three parts (Pemoengkah, Gambangan, Taboeh Teloe). Balinese Ceremonial Music was first recorded by the composer and Benjamin Britten at the piano on a Schirmer’s Library of Recorded Music 78rpm disc published in 1941 – see video below.

Douglas Young‘s Trajet/Inter/Lignes for solo flute and small percussion was premiered in 1981 by flutist Kathryn Lukas. The latter’s nuanced and sensible approach brings incredible presence and liveliness to these rarefied, aural ideograms. Undertaken in 1986, Peter Hill‘s complete recordings of Messiaen’s piano music for British label Unicorn-Kanchana are a reference for the warmth and humanity they brought – sounding more like André Jolivet and less Darmstadt, if you get the idea. This 1982 version of Cantéyodjayâ, is different, less authoritative and 2mns longer than the 1986 version. Finally, the Dreamtiger ensemble offers a fine rendition of the classic Vox Balaenae, George Crumb‘s poetic evocation of whale songs.

  1. Colin McPheeBalinese Ceremonial Music (10:30)
    Douglas Young, Peter Hill, pianos
  2. Douglas YoungTrajet/Inter/Lignes (13:49)
    Kathryn Lukas, flute
    Douglas Young, percussion
  3. Olivier MessiaenCantéyodjayâ (13:42)
    Peter Hill, piano
  4. George CrumbVox Balaenae (The Voice of the Whale) (19:30)
    Kathryn Lukas, flute
    Peter Hill, piano
    Rohan de Saram, cello

Total time 57:30
LP released by Cameo Classics, Manchester, UK, 1982


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Colin McPhee: Tabu-Tabuhan, c/w Elliott Carter: The Minotaur

Colin McPhee-Elliott Carter LP front cover
Colin McPhee-Elliott Carter LP back cover
Colin McPhee-Elliott Carter LP side 1

Canadian born, U.S. composer Colin McPhee (1900-1964) studied music and composition in Canada before traveling to France to study with Paul Le Flem in Paris (1924-26) and relocated to New York to study with Edgard Varèse, a.o. McPhee lived in Bali from 1931 to 1935 with his then wife, anthropologist Jane Belo, where he immersed himself in the island’s musical world and conducted extensive research on vernacular music. He later wrote an influential book on this experience, A House in Bali, 1946, published 1964. Of the many 20th century composers inspired by gamelan, from Debussy to Benjamin Britten to Lou Harrison, McPhee was the first to get a first hand experience of how the music sounded in situ.

Below, a silent film shot by Colin McPhee in Bali:

When he composed Tabuh-Tabuhan in 1936, for orchestra and percussion inspired by Gamelan music, McPhee was living in Mexico. The piece was premiered by Carlos Chavez and the National Orchestra of Mexico City that same year, but a U.S. premiere only occurred in 1953 at Carnegie Hall, thanks to conductor Leopold Stokowski. A record ensued in 1956, the present Mercury MG-50103 (not to be confused with the Roger Sessions: The Black Maskers, c/w Colin McPhee: Tabuh-Tabuhan LP, Mercury, ref. SR 90103). Tabuh-Tabuhan‘s first and last movements are based on repetitive motifs on percussion, mostly played on piano, celesta, xylophone, marimba and glockenspiel. The enchanting, dreamy central movement incorporates a flute melody heard in Bali. You can hear an excerpt from a 1998 version of the piece on Acousmata. Fellow blogger Pliable did a comprehensive post on McPhee and Bali in 2007.

Elliott CarterBased on the Greek myth of Theseus in the Labyrinth, Elliott Carter‘s The Minotaur is the incidental music to a ballet conceived in collaboration with George Balanchine, premiered in 1947 in New York by the Ballet Society, with Leon Barzin conducting. Elliott Carter (born 1908) later wrote a version of the score for two pianos which was published in 1956. On this LP, a few sections from The Minotaur‘s original orchestral score were set aside to accommodate with the LP side length’s limitations. The Minotaur belongs to Carter’s early compositions, after he studied with, among others, Walter Piston in the US and Nadia Boulanger in France, 1932-35. In 1947, his style was still under the influence of Igor Stravinsky and Medieval music. Horns, strings and percussion are used to convey an atmosphere of tragedy, speed and anxiety, as befits a play about murder, bereavement and pain.

Colin McPhee – Tabu-Tabuhan (1936)
01 Ostinatos (6:31)
02 Nocturne (5:13)
03 Finale (5:04)
Elliott Carter – The Minotaur (1947)
04 The Minotaur – Suite from the Ballet (26:25)

The Eastman-Rochester symphony orchestra
Howard Hanson, conductor

Total time 43:13
LP released by Mercury, ref. MG-50103, USA, 1956


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Alan Hovhaness/Komitas Vartabed – piano music

Alan Hovhaness/Komitas Vartabed - piano music LP front cover
Alan Hovhaness/Komitas Vartabed - piano music LP back cover
Alan Hovhaness/Komitas Vartabed - piano music LP side 2
Alan Hovhaness/Komitas Vartabed - piano music LP insert 1

Possibly disillusioned by his experience with several Metro Goldwin Mayer LP releases of the late 1950s, US composer Alan Hovhaness (see previous post) launched his own label in 1963 as a way to regain total artistic control over his recorded output. Poseidon Society lasted 10 years and published 15 discs of Hovhaness’ music, all with the same, generic black and white drawing on the front cover. With all the distribution and promotion burden that such venture implies, Poseidon Society recalls Harry Partch’s Gate 5 Records of the 1950s.

Released around 1965 and oddly pressed in mono, this disc, #7 in the series, pairs some piano music by Armenian composer and priest Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935) and a piano sonata by Hovhaness himself, both played by the later. Komitas’ music (note: Vartabed means Bearded Man, that is, priest) is inspired by Armenian folk tunes, the score and interpretation clearly retaining some of the rusticity of the original folk instruments and melodies. This is simple, pastoral music that doesn’t require advanced skills from the pianist – indeed, some of these short pieces seem to be played with 2 fingers only.

Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935)Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935)

[Komitas] lost his mind around 1917 because of the tragedy of the Armenians. The piano pieces I recorded recently are all his piano music. They are these wonderful six dances. They were written, I believe, just before he lost his mind. When they found him after the war he didn’t know who he was and they had to take him to an asylum in Paris. He stayed there until his death in 1935, but there was a long period there when he was unable to work or do anything. He didn’t even know who he was.
[from 1971 interview]

While during the 1940s Hovhaness had researched Armenian music, in the 1960s he was exploring the Far East traditions. In 1959, he visited India, studying South Indian music in Madras ; he lived in Japan from 1960 to 1962, where he studied Gagaku and Ah-ak, the ancient court music of Korea ; in 1965, he visited Moscow and Leningrad, and later Tiflis, Baku and Erevan. The elegant, exotic-sounding Fantasy for Piano on this disc is derived from Indian raga music (compare with Kartik Tivedi Indian Raga Music On Piano).

01 Alan Hovhaness Fantasy for Piano (19:28)
02 Komitas Vartabed Six Dances for Piano (15:40)

Alan Hovhaness, piano

Total time 35:10
LP released by Poseidon Society, USA, 1965?


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Eric Salzman – Wiretap

Eric Salzman - Wiretap LP front cover
Eric Salzman - Wiretap LP back cover
Eric Salzman - Wiretap LP side 1

Among many other skills as a writer, teacher and music producer, US composer Eric Salzman, born 1933, has always been interested in music compositions including stage performance, actors and vocal acrobatics.  Salzman’s 1st LP, The Nude Paper Sermon, published 1969 by Nonesuch, already included an actor. In 1970, Salzman created the QUOG Music Theatre company to perform his work and that of other composers in search of actors able to perform music, and musicians able to perform as actors.

♫ Released by Finnadar in 1974, Wiretap was Salzman’s 2nd LP and includes works from the 1960s and the ’70s. Helix, written for QUOG in the early 1970s, is a chamber piece for 3 singers, clarinet and guitar. The simple but touching vocal parts borrow from madrigal and plainchant, to which Tony Elitcher’s beautiful clarinet adds a nice counterpoint. The singers also use a multitude of small bells they constantly agitate near the end of the piece, which is rather quiet all the long. Wiretap is an electroacoustic montage based on Daniel Nagrin’s obscure utterings, yaps and moans. It does sound at times like the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey – minus the Richard Strauss tone poem, but is also close to Henri Chopin’s sound poetry. Larynx Music is a wonderful piece for soprano, guitar and 4-channel tape, with a certain variety throughout, thanks to 3 distinct sections: 1) syllabic phonemes and onomatopoeias with sparse guitar accompaniment, 2) phonemes with music concrète sounds, 3) wordless ballad with more musique concrète sounds. As the title implies, Queens Collage is a collage of sounds from one of Queens College’s music festivals, where Salzman was a teacher between 1966–8. The piece is based on rehearsal recordings, interviews of students and attendees alike, sounds and noises from the whereabouts, etc. The source recordings are submitted to various studio treatments and sound processing, and then assembled into an environmental soundscape. The record is produced with Ilhan Mimaroglu.

01 Helix (19:35)
02 Wiretap (7:37)
03 Larynx Music (9:42)
04 Queens Collage (12:15)

Total time 49:08
LP released by Finnadar, N.Y.C., 1974


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Alan Hovhaness – Saint Vartan Symphony

Saint Vartan Symphony LP front cover
Saint Vartan Symphony LP back cover
Saint Vartan Symphony LP side 1
Hovhaness with wife Elizabeth Whittington

The Saint Vartan Symphony, premiered in NYC in 1951, belongs to Alan Hovhaness‘ so-called “Armenian” period (1943-51), when the US composer, born 1911 in Massachusetts to an Armenian father, explored the rich heritage of Armenian music traditions, with works like Lousadzak, 1945, or the opera Etchmiadzin, 1946. During the 1940s, working as an organist in an Armenian church in Watertown, MA, Hovhaness got to know the Armenian modes and monody, as well as the pioneering work of composer Komitas Vartabed. In 1951, Hovhaness had relocated to NYC and got in touch with the Armenians Anahid Ajemian and George Avakian working for Columbia, Mercury and MGM Records, for which he would release several LPs.

In Saint Vartan, the ancestral form of the symphony have been atomized to accommodate for short traditional dances (“Bar”) and songs (“Yerk”). Thus, with its 24 short movements, the symphony is closer to a set of preludes or variations than a regular symphonic work. Moreover, most parts are written for very small ensemble, up to a mere duet on some parts, with or without string section, while the full orchestra only appears  in the finale. A surprising feature on some tracks is the use of a “walking bass”, adding a kind of pulse to the music’s substratum, as well as saxophone – unusual additions from outside the classical canon. The symphony alternates between joyous, pastoral dances and mourning laments, as if to evoke the joys and sadness of the various episodes of the Christian Armenian people’s fight against the Zoroastrian Persian invader, in 451 AD. In any case, the Saint Vartan Symphony gets rid of the traditional 4 movements of the classical, Italian symphony canon: allegro/adagio/scherzo/allegro. In a final analysis, though the music is based on traditional songs and academic orchestrations, the whole is a highly hybridized form of music only comparable to Lou Harisson’s gamelan excursions.

Part I
01 Yerk (1:40)
02 Tapor (1:00)
03 Aria (3:04)
04 Aria (2:05)
05 Aria (1:19)
06 Bar (1:42)
Part II
07 Tapor (2:41)
08 Bar (:43)
09 Bar (1:46)
10 Estampie (1:26)
Part III
11 Bar (:30)
12 Bar (1:08)
13 Aria (1:52)
14 Lament (2:36)
15 Estampie (1:20)
Part IV
16 Yerk (To Sensual Love) (2:05)
17 Aria (To Sacred Love) (3:40)
18 Estampie (2:15)
19 Bar (2:20)
20 Aria (:37)
Part V
21 Bar (:34)
22 Bar (:47)
23 Bar (:35)
24 Estampie (3:39)

The M.G.M. Chamber Orchestra
Carlos Surinach, cond.
William Masselos, piano
Vincent J. Abato, saxophone
Neal di Biase, trombone
Theodore Weis, trumpet

Total time 41:30
LP released by M-G-M Records, USA, [1956?]


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Wayne Siegel ‘Autumn Resonances’

Autumn Resonances front coverBarry Truax with Wayne Siegel, 2003Autumn Resonances side AAutumn Resonances LP back cover

  1. Autumn Resonances (26:05)
    For piano and delays
    Wayne Siegel: piano
  2. Domino Figures (18:36)
    For 42 guitars
    Guitarists from the five Danish Academies of Music
    Erling Møldrup: conductor

Total time 44:41
LP released by Paula Records, PLP 21, Give, Denmark, 1983

Between 1974-77, American composer Wayne Siegel (b. 1953) studied composition with Per Nørgård in Aarhus, Denmark, where he then settled to work as a composer. In the 1980s, he was appointed administrative director of the West Jutland Symphony Orchestra and in 1986, director of the newly-founded DIEM, the Danish Institute of Electroacoustic Music, in Aarhus (see offical web presence). Though Siegel is not considered a Minimalist composer as such, some of his works include phase patterns and simple, repetitve melodic lines, as is the case in the present LP.

AKG-TDU7000 stereo digital delay unitOn Autumn Resonance, composed 1979, Siegel uses the technical possibilities of the newly launched AKG TDU 7000 stereo delay unit (pictured left). The device is set to produce 2 different delays through the right and left speakers. During the first 10 minutes, the piano is on atmospheric mode, the delays creating a bath of enchanting sounds around the listener while the pianist plays fast chord successions on high pitched keys. Starting at 10:50, a short sequence of staccato notes create strong rhythmic patterns based on vivid delay effects. At this point, the piece reminds Steve Reich’s ‘Piano Phase’ (1967) and its rapid, pulse-based lines. The whole passage is quite intoxicating. A ritardando at 16:30 brings us back to the former enchanting piano layers.

‘Domino Figures’ is perhaps more a sound installation than a proper music composition. Simple acoustic guitar chords are passed from player to player with a 1 beat delay, creating a slowly evolving, impressionistic mass of chords. The classical guitar properties (plucked, detached notes and long resonances) disappear in favor of a new sound organism with completely different characteristics: sustained notes, massive sound, spatial effects. The transformation is as radical as, say, Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room.



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