Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Listening List: 6. Rodrigo Bussad

Rod's website: http://www.rodrigobussad.com/

I met Rod at the excellent soundSCAPE festival in Italy in summer 2012. He recently finished his master's at the University of Miami, and is just an all-around cool guy. I'm going to (finally) check out his orchestral work Depois da Chuva (after the rain), for which he got second place in the American Prize for Orchestral music, as well as his chamber piece Loin, which won the chamber division of the same. He submitted Loin to our Terminus call for scores, and I really liked it. But it's tough! I hope we can get around to it sometime.


Depois da Chuva



This piece is over 17 minutes, so there is a lot to take in. Foremost, however, is that Rod has a great ear for orchestration. There is a lot of ear candy, and it's all well-balanced and thought out. I hear a lot of Asian influence (Takemitsu, maybe Tan Dun, etc.), which seems appropriate to the theme of rain/water, so prominent with some of those composers. I'm also getting some Stravinsky and Morricone vibes. Those who know my work know that I'm partial (committed?) to slow music, so I enjoyed the outer movements most. I wasn't sold on the repeated triplet motive at the end of the first movement, though. The ametric textures, with little effects popping in here and there, sounded great to me and I would have been fine with a movement of just that. The middle movement is much darker and more intense, but with a lot of variety and drive that kept me "in it." Ironically, perhaps, I really liked the repetitive woodblock/timpani groove.

Loin



On listening again, I think this piece is pretty frickin' great. The texture and mood is somewhat "static" throughout, though the surface is anything but. Rod makes a great combination of sustained tones, extended techniques (especially multiphonics and harmonics), and vocal sounds. It's continually shifting. Each time I've listened to it, I've stayed intrigued and engaged. But for many people, this is going to be a tough listen. It reminds me of what I was saying to Georgia State students a few months ago -- ask yourself if you're a melody person, rhythm person, timbre person, etc., then focus on that. As a timbre/texture person, I find a great deal to appreciate here. Others might be lost, but that's their loss (see what I did there?).

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Listening List: 5. Connor Elias Way

Connor Elias Way's website: http://www.connoreliasway.com/

Connor recently finished his BM at Georgia State. We've worked together a few times on projects with Terminus Ensemble and Chamber Cartel. I decided to listen to a new-to-me piece and a piece I've heard a few times.

Panoramic - Chamber Orchestra



According to Connor's program note, the idea behind this piece is to musically portray a vista at varying distances. I really like that concept, and feel it works pretty well for the piece. The first three movements (first half) are beautiful, particularly this recurring harmonic crescendo effect. I wanted a little more timbral contrast from the melody (instead of just oboe, maybe some occasional doubling and highlighting with the other winds). The last two movements were less convincing to me. I liked the asynchronous texture created in the woodwinds but felt the brass rips were too jarring for the context. I would have liked a little more foreshadowing of the wind texture. While I liked the piece quite a bit, I feel it could be reconfigured, not necessarily in five separate movements, but in shorter instances where the viewer/listener focuses in on a faint texture, zooms out, then focuses on something else...

Harlequin - Pierrot ensemble



Harlequin was written for my ensemble Terminus, so I have heard it before. I'm glad I took the time to engage with it again, with score. This piece is one that definitely benefits from program notes. Connor was inspired by a 1923 Picasso painting [http://www.leninimports.com/pablo_picasso_gallery_ii_318_large.jpg], which features color only on the Harlequin's head, and a pencil sketch of his body. The concept for the work is to exploit the noisier timbres of each instrument until the B section, in which they finally play sustained tones (the B section is the "color" section...though many might find the A section more colorful!). I like both sections, and the contrast works very well. The pointillism of the main section gets a little long in the tooth; it's nicely off-kilter so it doesn't get monotonous, just a little too much of a good thing, I guess.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Listening List: 4. Cody Brookshire

The Listening List is a blog series in which I listen and critique two pieces by my composer friends. I was inspired by Rob McClure's similar series, "Music With Friends." For most pieces, I plan to listen twice, with scores where available, and jot down some initial thoughts. My intention is to force myself to engage more with my friends' music, not just to offer unsolicited feedback. After my first entry, I found that this blog will probably demonstrate me wrestling with my own thoughts and biases about music as much as it will review the work of contemporary composers.

Cody Brookshire's site: www.codybrookshire.com

Cody is a DMA student at the University of Georgia. I met him at a concert there, where he was performing some software that remixes MIDI data and sending it to a Disklavier. Neat stuff.

thy angels watch me... - prepared harp



I first heard this piece at UGA last spring (we didn't meet until fall). I had a good impression of it then and am happy to hear it again. In his program notes, Cody speaks of the contrast between comfort and unsettling feelings of being watched by angels. I think the mood of the piece captures that sentiment well. The harp is prepared with beads, which jangle sympathetically, mostly in the low register. It's fairly subtle, which is good. I like the pitch world, which emphasizes and juxtaposes minor triads and augmented triads. I think it could be spiced up rhytmically, as some sections settle into straight 16ths when they seem to beg for more push and pull.


Irreconcilable Differences - String Quartet



With this piece also, Cody is dealing with contrast. There are two clearly articulated ideas: what I would call the "folk song chorale" and the "pulses." They intersect and transform each other as the piece progresses. I like the concept and process but I felt that the piece meandered a bit too much, especially toward the end. Maybe some trimming here and there to cut out two minutes or so would make it feel more cohesive. I also felt that the voice spacing in the chorale could take some TLC; e.g. the viola and cello would sometimes be close together with a wide space below the violins. Definitely some potential here.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Listening List: 3. Courtney Brown

The Listening List is a blog series in which I listen and critique two pieces by my composer friends. I was inspired by Rob McClure's similar series, "Music With Friends." For most pieces, I plan to listen twice, with scores where available, and jot down some initial thoughts. My intention is to force myself to engage more with my friends' music, not just to offer unsolicited feedback. After my first entry, I found that this blog will probably demonstrate me wrestling with my own thoughts and biases about music as much as it will review the work of contemporary composers.

Courtney Brown's website

6 years ago or so, Courtney and I met up with Justin Woo and did some electronic jams with the idea of starting an electroacoustic band of some sort. Life got in the way so nothing came of it. She's currently in Buenos Aires on a Fulbright scholarship and working toward her doctorate at Arizona State. Most of her recent work has been in installation and sound art, both of which I'm very into.

Rwar! A Study in Sonic Skulls (2011-2013)
with Sharif Razzaque (engineer)


Rawr! A Study in Sonic Skulls from Courtney Brown on Vimeo.

This video documents the construction of an instrument based on a dinosaur skull. It's an interesting idea to research, I think. Sound can really conjure the daily life of these ancient extinct creatures. I was also intrigued by the clip of a piece in which the skull player duets with a tubist and both make "mating calls." They are working on a second prototype of the skull now, and I'm looking forward to hearing it in action.

Performance:


Rwar! A Study in Sonic Skulls @ 7 ate 9 from Courtney Brown on Vimeo.

This video shows the hadrosaur dinosaur instrument in practice. It seems mostly improvised, with computer playing back loops. The recording quality is not great, but you can still tell that the instrument has a primal, haunting quality. Would definitely like to hear a "studio" version sometime.

Telephone Tango (2011-12)


Telephone Tango - Laptop Orchestra of Arizona State - Nov. 19, 2012 from Courtney Brown on Vimeo.

This is a piece for laptop orchestra, a genre I've written and thought about quite a bit. Courtney doesn't use the laptops for sound processing; instead, the performers play percussive found objects, and the laptops are used to display dynamic scores and a visual metronome.

From what I gather, the leader plays an initial tango-derived rhythm, and variations are sent to each successive player. I appreciate the concept/process and have been continually intrigued by the possibilities of dynamic/generative scores. But I'm not sure I find this all that successful, mainly because the performance isn't that tight. I wonder how a percussion ensemble would fare. Variations seemed mostly additive or subtractive, and I wondered if there could be more augmentation, diminution, tempo changes, etc.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Listening List: 2. Michael Sterling Smith

The Listening List is a blog series in which I listen and critique two pieces by my composer friends. I was inspired by Rob McClure's similar series, "Music With Friends." For most pieces, I plan to listen twice, with scores where available, and jot down some initial thoughts. My intention is to force myself to engage more with my friends' music, not just to offer unsolicited feedback. After my first entry, I found that this blog will probably demonstrate me wrestling with my own thoughts and biases about music as much as it will review the work of contemporary composers.


Michael Sterling Smith - http://www.michaelsterlingsmith.net

Mike is one of my good friends from the University of Florida. He's currently working on his DMA at North Texas. I'm probably more familiar with his work than most of the people on this list. I'll give two recent pieces an extra listen.

Hyperflexion - String Quartet



Mimesis - Saxophone Quartet




These pieces complement each other rather well, so my assessment will include a lot of comparisons. Since saxophone quartet is often compared to string quartet in terms of range and timbral homogeneity, and since the pieces were written in succession, it seems only natural that there be some crossover of ideas.

This most striking similarity is Mike's use of scales. In both pieces, these are non-tonal scales, kind of combining modes (I did not deeply analyze them). Much of Hyperflexion is descending, while much of Mimesis is ascending. I really like in Hyperflexion (strings) how Mike pulls the idea of descending scales out of the ricochet bowing gesture at the beginning. Since the notes decrease in volume/physical energy, the parallel of descending pitch seems very natural. In fact, the only part of Hyperflexion I didn't find that successful was the contrasting section of ascending scales! I realize this is a transition to the higher register tremolos (after descending all the way to the cello's lowest note), but I wonder if that section was truly necessary.

In Mimesis, the ascending scales (and accompanying crescendi) make for a nice wash of sound in the busier sections. I also really liked Mike's judicious use of slap tongue in this piece. Particularly in the hall this was recorded, the slap tongues sound positiviely brutal and shocking. He never overuses them, saving them for key structural moments and the climax.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Listening List: 1. Chris Owenby

The Listening List is a blog series in which I listen and critique two pieces by my composer friends. I was inspired by Rob McClure's similar series, "Music With Friends." For most pieces, I plan to listen twice, with scores where available, and jot down some initial thoughts. My intention is to force myself to engage more with my friends' music, not just to offer unsolicited feedback. After my first entry, I found that this blog will probably demonstrate me wrestling with my own thoughts and biases about music as much as it will review the work of contemporary composers.


Chris Owenby - http://www.chrisowenby.com [site currently down]

Chris started studying at Georgia State just as I was leaving ('06 or so). He still lives in the Atlanta area, and is the Minister of Music at Kennesaw United Methodist Church. His site is currently down, so I did some reconnaissance and found some of his music on YouTube.

Black Riders and Other Lines - treble choir and piano

As a fan of Stephen Crane's poetry, I decided to give this piece a whirl. I did a set of 5 Crane poems years ago. The first thing that strikes me is Chris's affinity to the more religious poems and mine toward the bleak nihilistic ones! Besides our religious differences, I should note another major bias of mine: I am not a choral composer, and have little interest in the genre. Some of my critique will likely reflect this.







Chris has composed three songs from Crane's book of the same title. In the first, "Black Riders," Chris builds up a sense of dread throughout, though I found the text painting a little wanting. Some moments were rather serene when the words were describing spears and shields. The final chords finally give the sense of terror I was looking for.



The best effect of the second song, "In Heaven," is the use of speech. Little blades of grass stand before God and recount the merits of their lives. Chris has the singers speak ad libitum (with text he added, mostly derived from the Ten Commandments), which makes a nice murmoring crowd texture. I think it might have been more effective to use the soloist only on the lines spoken by the smallest blade of grass, rather than repeating the first two lines already sung by the chorus.



Overall, I think the songs are effective, and the harmony and textures serve the text well. While minor repetitions on descriptive words didn't bother me, I found myself wondering why there needed to be larger-scale repetition (entire lines or couplets). Crane's poetry is very terse and I feel that songs should reflect that. But then again, numerous minutes have been written on "Kyrie" and "Amen."




    Tapestry - clarinet, cello, piano

My bias clearly shows now, since I enjoyed this piece a lot more. I was already familiar with it: our mutual friend Brent Milam enthusiastically recommended this piece for Terminus Ensemble, so we programmed it last year.









I like how this one develops, and throws some surprises your way. It begins with rising quasi-canonic figures in the clarinet and cello. It's pretty abstract at the opening. But most of the piece is much more middle-period Stravinsky, with odd-metered ostinati and a lean texture. It has a good humor to it. Some moments I felt hints of "too many ideas" but that kind of kaleidoscopic effect is appropriate given the title.