Posts Tagged ‘Cantus Arcticus’

kissed by the wild

November 14, 2009


Zachary Cooper: Caterpillar Secrets (premiere)
Peter Hamlin: Visions of Ice (premiere)
Olivier Messiaen: Le rouge-gorge (The Robin) from Petites esquisses d’oiseaux
Olivier Messiaen: Par Lui tout a été fait (By Him everything was made) from Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jesus
Chan Ka Nin: I Think That I Shall Never See….

The Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble describes their fall program – Kissed by the Wild – as “music inspired by the natural world”. That idea is embodied in both the concept and form of the music itself. It’s also carried out in the woody, expansive resonances of the cello and piano, and the myriad of chirping, warbling, voicings coaxed from the clarinet and flute of the VCME’s talented performers.

I sat next to a man named Jim at last night’s concert. With an apologetic half-shrug he bashfully described himself as ‘old fashioned’ when we talked at intermission, after I asked what he had thought of the first half: Cooper’s colorful Caterpillar Secrets, and Hamlin’s starkly contrasting Visions of Ice. I was thinking maybe Mozart or Bach, but it turns out that Jim’s tastes run more toward Leadbelly and traditional folk roots. “But,” he added, “I really liked this.” So did I.

It’s always especially exciting to be in the audience for the premiere of a new piece, much less two, as filled up the entire first half of this concert.  These two new works were complementary yet completely different in character. The sunny lyricality of Cooper’s whimsical Caterpillars was very soon matched by the cool, sharp, whispering soundscape of Hamlin’s Visions (inspired – and accompanied by – his wife Chris Robbins’ detailed closeup photos of eight different ice formations). Like the first frigid breeze that whips the leaves from the branches at the end of an Indian summer afternoon, Visions‘ presence was punctuated by gusts of glissandi from the alto flute and clarinet, alternating and combining with the cello’s plucking and raspy bowing, all accented with Peter Hamlin’s real-time electronic replay.

Visions‘ musical geneology is loosely rooted in the specialized genre of compositions exemplified by landmarks like Alan Hovhaness’ And God Created Great Whales (for orchestra and taped whale song) and Einojuhani Rautavaara’s marvelous Cantus Arcticus (with pre-recorded bird song captured near the Arctic Circle). Both of these pieces were conceived in the early 1970s (1970 and 1972, respectively) – not coincidentally, at the very same time newly awakened eco-awareness marked the downbeat for the environmental movement, the first Earth Day (1970) and the worldwide Earth Art movement.

Where Visions branches off from the genre is in its technique: the electronic overlay is an organic product of real-time creation, not pre-recording. The composer, Peter Hamlin, had a small table set up in front of the stage, facing the performers, just to the left. The table held an assortment of electronic recording and processing equipment, along with a music stand holding his copy of the score. At key dramatic moments in the 8-movement piece, Hamlin layered electronically-enhanced instrumental passages into the mix, recorded just a few bars before and played back right away to add another instrumental texture to the experience. The effect was evocative and surprisingly subtle, giving the pieces a cinematic depth: think of Iceland’s frozen beauty in Cold Fever, or Warner Herzog’s remarkable documentary from last year, Encounters At The End Of The World. In Hamlin’s work, the ensemble itself replaces the birds and whales of the earlier Hovhaness and Rautavaara pieces to represent the ever-changing infused ‘natural’ element.

Hamlin’s Visions of Ice is a celebration of the oncoming season’s austerity. Rather than taking the easy route and merely reflecting its most obvious surface characteristics of darkness and cold, Hamlin’s musical landscape works both on the panoramic and more detailed scale to affirm that wintertime is anything but lifeless. You just have to know how to appreciate its subtleties.

Michael Arnowitt’s solo piano tour-de-force was the highlight of the second half, with compelling and powerful performances (from memory – no easy accomplishment) of two formidable Messian works, and Cha Na Kin’s I Think That I Shall Never See…., inspired by the Joyce Carol Oates poem. Over the years I’ve heard Michael play jazz, Mozart, and a lot of nice but fairly standard concert fare. He always plays well, expressively, and brings a lot of himself to the music. But I’ve never heard him play with the intensity and purpose with which his Messiaen was infused last night. His performance was driven, his interpretation of Messiaen in turns feverish and inspired, and ponderous and introspective. In other words: just as it should be for the emotional complexity and tension of these pieces.

Kissed by the Wild is a program inspired by the natural world, but also seems to emerge from it organically as surely as the first flakes of winter are followed by coiled verdant tendrils growing and waiting to break through the crusted snow of early spring.

The VCME is Steven Klimowski, clarinets; Berta Frank, flutes; Bonnie Thurber Klimowski, cello; Paula Ennis, piano; with special guest pianist Michael Arnowitt for this performance. The second of the two “Kissed by the Wild” performances is happening tonight at the Flynn Space, 8pm.

trading fours: this week’s listening

July 25, 2009

“Trading fours” is an occasional series you’ll see here featuring four recommended recordings on a theme from any music genre. Leave a comment – send me your four picks, explain what the theme is and why you chose them. I’ll do the rest. (See previous post for the details on this project.)

I’ll get the series started with a set that can best be described as “Things I listened to this week”. In both of my jobs (as music director at VPR, and interning at Cumbancha/Putumayo World Music) and in my weekly show at the Radiator, I’m really fortunate to have exposure to a lot of different kinds and styles of music. As a result, the week’s listening often encompasses everything from jazz and classical to more eclectic sounds (electronic music, prepared instruments)  to new tunes from all different parts of the world. Here’s a pretty typical week of listening:

DJ Frane: Journey to the Planet of Birds

DJ Frane's "Journey to the Planet of Birds"

#1 – DJ Frane’s “Journey to the Planet of Birds” – I was turned on to this amazing, complete musical vision by a friend at Cumbancha. It’s an artfully crafted (more than 300 samples!) electronic tapestry, all on themes of birds and space and spaceflight. It even includes John Glenn’s magical “thousands of luminous fireflies” audio from that moment in February, 1962 as Friendship 7 ventured into the dark side of the planet, and Glenn saw the light particles (ice crystals) swarming his capsule. This is a beautiful recording, and a snapshot “of an era”, in a sense, even though it’s only a year or so old. Things are changing fast in the area of music rights and just as quickly it’s becoming about impossible to create a new work from sampling as liberally as DJ Frane does here.


Rautavaara's "Cantus Arcticus"

#2 – Rautavaara: Cantus Arcticus, Op. 61 – Early this week as I listened to DJ Frane weaving his spell with the “Birds” I was reminded of another piece, by Finnish sound master Einojuhani Rautavaara. His Cantus Arcticus, Concerto for Birds and Orchestra (written 1972) is an equally complex and enchanting work whose “samples” include shore larks, and migrating whooper swans. Sometimes I like to listen to this CD when I’m driving. Between its birdsongs and wide open sound landscapes, it has a soundtrack kind of feel. Perfect for watching nature roll by outside. (I’m not saying that it doesn’t deserve more concentrated listening as well; it does.) Bonus listening on this particular recording (with the Lahti Symphony and conductor Osmo Vanska) – the monunemtal “Angel of Light” Symphony #7, one of Rautavaara’s finest works. Outstanding.

Coltrane's "Meditations"

Coltrane's "Meditations"

#3 – John Coltrane’s “Meditations” – Following the tracks through from the opening (“The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost”), through the middle section (“Compassion”, “Love”, “Consequences”) to the end (“Serenity”) is nothing less than a full-circle spiritual reckoning. The fuller, louder and more demanding companion piece to Coltrane’s “First Meditations” (recorded two months earlier that same year, 1965), this one adds Pharoah Sanders and second drummer Rashied Ali to the classic quartet for a largely free-form exploration on themes of redemption and personal reconciliation. [PS – It’s been said before, but it can’t be said often enough: engineer Rudy Van Gelder is a genius of mythic Mozart proportions and talent.]

Kimi Djabaté's "Karam"

Kimi Djabaté's "Karam"

#4 – Kimi Djabaté’s “Karam” – From Guinea-Bissau and carrying on the centuries-old tradition of West African griots, Kimi Djabaté’s music leans heavy on the vocals in soulfully rhythmic tunes. The voice is definitely the thing with this one. It’s been riding around with me for a few weeks, but now that I’ve had a chance to really get into it, I can tell you the more I listen the more I appreciate some of the other (non-vocal) aspects of it: like the gentle, woody, melodic percussion that drives many of the songs. Like the sweetly singing kora. And the transparency of instrumental textures – you can really pick out the individual voices and follow them through each piece. Full disclosure: “Karam” will officially be released on Tuesday (7/28) this coming week. I’ve had a copy of it and I’ve been able to listen to it for a while now because I’m an intern at Cumbancha, and this CD is the first release in the new Cumbancha “Discovery” series. The further truth, though, is that I would be listening to this release and loving it even if I had no association with the label. (I would have just had to wait longer to come across it on my own.) “Karam” is special.

So there you have it, getting the conversation started with the first recommendations in the new “Trading Fours” series. Pick a theme and leave me a comment here with your top four music picks.

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