Winter Music

In a January without snow, there’s not much excuse not to get out of the house. And after what amounted to a long, languid pause from Christmas through the first week of the new year, there are enough enticing events to plan for that no one, myself included, will be able to make it to all of them. No matter how much we want to. Pick and choose from below, these are all highly recommended:

Through January 29: New York Guitar Festival — the 2012 installment of this annual event should be a crowd-pleaser. The centerpiece is new music from the likes of Dan Zanes, Lee Ranaldo, Nuke & Gase and My Brightest Diamond, playing new music alongside silent films from Buster Keaton. There’s also a concert honoring Jim Hall, the Alternative Guitar Summit, and more.

January 9: This date inaugurates a new series at Housing Works, “Safe Space,” which connects classical musicians and writers in performance and conversation. The opening event brings you Jonathan Biss (who both plays and writes about Beethoven wonderfully) and Adam Haslett, while future events will have Jeremy Denk and Nadia Sirota. The ticket is $12, not only a great value but a great cause: all sales benefit the venue and the work to ameliorate AIDS and homelessness.

January 12: A double-bill at Roulette of the Quasar Saxophone Quartet and Jason Kao Hwang leading his ensemble Local Lingo. The quartet is playing music from Luc Marcel, Xenakis and a piece from composer Jean-Francois Laporte that uses custom woodwind instruments he built for the performance. They’re also playing a work by Hwang, an excellent improvising violinist and intriguing composer. He has two strong, recommended discs out this past year, Crossroads Unseen, with his quartet Edge (Hwang, Taylor Ho Bynum, Andrew Drury and Ken Filiano), and Spontanous River, with music Hwang has written for a chamber orchestra sized string ensemble. Each displays his virtues as a musician and composer. Edge plays knotty, dexterous instrumental lines with a danceable sense of groove and rhythm, while the music on Spontaneous River is a finely crafted and very satisfying combination of freedom and structure, it’s an especially impressive recording. Local Lingo is a monster band, with Sang Won Park, William Parker, Thomas Buckner, and Joe McPhee, and they’ll be playing music setting the poetry of Lester Afflick, Fay Chiang, Steve Dalachinsky, Patricia Spears Jones and Yuko Otomo.

January 13: This is the day the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art reopens, and following that is a series of intriguing concerts of American music, part of Limor Tomer’s fascinating programming. On the 20th, the Asphalt Orchestra marches through the Met and on the 22nd, Thomas Hampson brings his wonderful “Songs of America” program to the museum.

January 22: How to choose? If Hampson is not your tea, go hear Matt Haimovitz and Christopher O’Riley bring their Shuffle.Play.Listen recording — one of the best discs of 2011 — to the Highline Ballroom.

January 27: Stan Kenton remains both important and controversial — just ask David Hajdu — for his at times radically bombastic anti-jazz attitude, all while making jazz. Like him or not, Kenton was necessary, taking chances, often succeeding, and challenging jazz’s smug assumptions about itself. His Centennial passed in December, and it will be celebrated in a series of concerts, the first one at the Manhattan School of Music.

January 27 – February 3: There’s another Centennial this year, and landmark one, that of the birth of John Cage. There will be performances and new record releases all year, and the first big event is the Juilliard FOCUS! 2012 festival, devoted to Cage. These six free concerts join the music of Cage with his most vital peers, like Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison.

January 27 – February 6: The Composers Concordance Festival, nearing thirty years of production, spans the Hudson and a series of concerts that explore songs, the blues, ensemble music and electronics.

January 31: Philip Glass is turning 75 this year, and the celebrations, of which there are a few, begin with this concert at Carnegie Hall. The America Composers Orchestra, with Dennis Russell Davies returning at the podium, will be premiering Glass’ Symphony No. 9 and bringing Aro Pärt’s “Lamentate” to New York City for the first time.

January 31: Johann Johannsson’s sombre and lovely new recording, The Miner’s Hymns, comes to you live at the Winter Garden, with a showing of Bill Morrison’s accompanying film.

February 2: Simone Dinnerstein will be playing music from her upcoming release at Miller Theatre. She’s a Brooklyn favorite, and deservedly so because of her work with music in the community, but she’s also the real thing, a great pianist and one of the finest contemporary Bach players.

February 4 – March 28: The Ecstatic Music Festival returns after it’s winning initial series. Judd Greenstein has put together another exciting combination of new music of all kinds; contemporary classical, pop, rock and … other …. ?

February 12: Almost a year of trials and tribulations for New York City Opera will come to a point, of one kind or another, at the opening night of their new season. La Traviata at BAM will be quickly followed by Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna and Cosi fan Tutte. That is, of course, if the season actually gets started — the takeaway from this article is the closing quote: “City Opera’s death rests squarely on the shoulders of Chuck Wall,” chairman of the City Opera board.

February 14: With the impish irreverence that only Steven Blier can bring to the recital stage, NYFOS returns on Valentine’s Day with “A Modern Person’s Guide to Hooking Up and Breaking Up” (Description), repeated on the 16th.

February 23 – 26: The Tune-In festival returns to the Park Avenue Armory. Last year’s was one of the finest concert events of recent years, and this year’s is an ambitious tribute to Glass. The highlights are concert performances of two works that were not only essential aesthetic and intellectual breakthroughs for him but are important masterpieces of the late 20th century: Music in Twelve Parts and Another Look at Harmony.

February 28: It’s a reunion for Joan Jeanrenaud and the Kronos Quartet, at Zankel Hall, where she will be playing music with the group from their new CD, Music of Vladimir Martynov. There will be four premieres, including what’s promised to be a major new work from Donnacha Dennehy.

Open Up Your Golden Gates

In the depths of a fairly cold winter, Juilliard gave us a a mix of shaggy and urbane visitors, bringing us some word of a mild and sunny land to the West – California! This was the Focus! 2009 festival, dedicated both to music from California over the last 100 years and to the argument of what makes for California music. Each proposition, intertwined, amounted to a mixed bag of success and failure, inspiration and mistaken notions. But it was free, so who’s complaining?

I’m not complaining, I’m listening and thinking and discussing. This is personally an important topic for me. I started becoming a composer in New York, under the tutelage of the late, great and sorely missed Meyer Kupferman, but I began to develop as an individual musical personality in California, in great part due to the influence of California music. There is such a thing, there is music that demonstrates and markedly different aesthetic than East coast music. While the roots of it are firmly set in a geographical place, there is no guarantee that a composer living in California will make California music, no is there a need for a composer who wants to make California music actually live in the state. Now that it has long been with us in the culture, it’s much more a state of mind. Of course, the pleasures of living on the West coast can certainly be stimulative.

The introductory essay in the program by Joel Sachs states emphatically that there is a California music, but then goes on to explain that it is ‘everything imaginable, and more.’ Well, no, it isn’t. This is a misguided way to argue a legitimate point, and musically the festival had more than a few moments of making the case that non-California music fit the bill. It doesn’t. The history of people, places and times shows that after the Nazis seized power, a flood of European composers fled to the West coast; Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Darius Milhaud, Ernst Krenek and Hanns Eisler among them. Many of them became teachers, and thus helped make music in California. But of this list – the most important names – not a one of them could be called a California composer. They were representatives of various schools of Late Romantic and Modern music in the 20th century, music that had an enormous influence on the East coast establishment but which, like the waves, broke into ephemeral spray on the aesthetic coastline of the Pacific. The festival presented solid, well-crafted Modern music in the Euro-America vein by composers who live in California – Kurt Rhode, Wayne Peterson, Andrew Imbrie, Elinor Armer – and it was all a disappointment, like having a party to which no one comes. No, California music is not everything imaginable, it is not strict atonality or dissonant Modernism. It’s also not a cliched of do-your-own-thing grooviness, it’s not simplistic nor purely tonal. It’s not a school in terms of technique, it’s a style in terms of outlook and values.

As Charles Ives is the father of American music, someone consciously striving to carve an entirely new national aesthetic out of the raw materials of his country, so Henry Cowell is both his immediate descendant and the next logical step in the process, Cowell is the son who himself begat California music. He looked to the West, which should be natural in California, because much of the state is not even on the North American plate, it is literally part of Asia. It also overlooks the seemingly endless expanse of the Pacific ocean, an enormous and enormously inviting emptiness that seems to demand that artists make it all new again. That’s California, where people come to renew and reinvent. And where important and absolutely American art is invented – how could we have Noir without San Francisco and Los Angeles?

Cowell reinvented music in many ways as both composer and teacher. As the latter he published the New Music Quarterly, which spread knowledge of non-European music to an audience of musicians and composers, and as the former he made music that had been completely rethought from the very basics. He ignored 500 years of accreted knowledge in music and started from scratch with basic musical gestures collected from around the world. Using the fundamental instrument of Western music, the piano, he made music by brushing the strings, by pounding fists and arms against the keyboard. A selection of his piano works was given a powerhouse and sympathetic performance by Euntaek Kim who was absolutely in tune with Cowell’s sheer musicality, the idea that any melody or rhythm can be shaped in a performers hands into something that sounds like the very best music possible – if you watch 30 Rock and see Alec Baldwin make everything he says funny just through his delivery, you’ll know what I mean. Kim’s rolling fists on the keyboard, and sense of phrasing and dynamic focus sounded as familiar and even comforting as possible, as if tone clusters are what the ear thirsts for. There is something completely liberating about the idea that beautiful music can be made with fists on the keyboard, and Kim clearly found it deeply inspiring, playing with verve, sympathy, skill and power. His performance of Cowell was the answer, both limiting and unlimited, to the question of what is California music. Cowell’s language, too, is immediately and clearly American. He’s like Hemingway, saying “we talk this way” in our country.

The whole festival cohered around this point, for or against. The music by composers who live in California was admirable, but seemed stolid and dull. The music by California composers was incredibly fresh and cleansing to the ear, like Haydn. It was transparent in means and modest in affect and pulled the delicious slight of hand of showing you how it’s done while marveling you at the same time. This gives it it’s great emotional power as well, the sensation that there is a way out of aesthetic culs-de-sacs, that there is hope. Even the music that did not entirely succeed but was quizzical about the possibilities and its own nature was exciting to hear. The conscious Asian elements in Paul Chihara‘s Logs and Grand Alap-“A Window in the Sky,” from Chinary Ung, were liberating and refreshing; there are clearly fertile possibilities in the wedding of the abstract, i.e. non-social, basis of Western music with the non-Western musical view of time, which is neither linear nor progressive. There are earlier examples of this in the work of Debussy, Colin McPhee and some of Britten, and these possibilities were adopted and carried far by the wonderful Toru Takemitsu, still an underrated figure of the 20th century. This in general is one of the real possibilities for the future of Western music, and Peter Sellars has pointed this out, expressing the idea that the proliferation of students from Asian countries at Western conservatories signals a renewal of the great tradition of Western music through cultures to which it is still new. I believe him, and California music is the proof. It can be hard to see from the East, and it was hard for me to get used to when I moved to the West, but there is an Asian history of this country and continent, just as there is a European one. Geography focuses the mind, however, and like Saul Steinberg’s famous New Yorker cover, it’s almost impossible to see from Manhattan. But in California, eyes are drawn inexorably westward, and the peopling of California by the Spanish, Japanese, Chinese and Russians is in the names of the land.

After Cowell, the next logical step in the California aesthetic, and in many ways Ives’ figurative grandson, was Lou Harrison. After ‘traditional’ training and composing, including working with atonal systems, Harrison set out to make music that he simply liked, based on the music he like to hear, including Chinese opera. Even more than McPhee, he brought gamelan ideas to Western structures and techniques and produced a vast, varied and idiosyncratic body of work (Harrison and his partner Bill Colvig built their own instruments, he was a student of Esperanto and he created his own fonts). Another highlight of the festival was a performance of his Varied Trio, by Ariana Kim on violin, Chihiro Shubayama on percussion and Sharon Bjorndal playing piano that was absolutely the finest I’ve heard. This is a work that comes out of a synthesis of Western and Indonesian music, combining pentatonic scales, non-tuned ringing percussion and archaic European dance forms to create a work that is varied in its emotional scope and powerfully moving in its beauty. Kim’s playing of the extraordinary melody of the first movement was exceptionally expressive; she has a gorgeous tone that is clear, full and a balance between sweet and bitter and is apt for this music. Harrison’s work again refocused the ear and mind on the true point of the festival, and gently and forcefully demonstrated the fundamental nature of California music.

The big news and big name in overall event was, of course John Adams, who seems to be in New York constantly attending numerous events and premieres. Lucky us, because he’s not just the leading American composer, he is a composer who’s works will be performed for the next few hundred years, that is their quality and the importance of his voice. The capper to the event was a concert performance of his opera The Death of Klinghoffer, which I will discuss in an upcoming post. In concert, Harrison was followed by the world premiere of Adams’ String Quartet, performed by the St. Lawrence String Quartet. It is excellent in the way of Adams’ best work – and his work has been consistently excellent lately. His voice as a composer is now both familiar and new. The piece starts off with a rollicking tempo and attitude, as the ensemble passes around the type of choppy, rhythmic phrase that we except in Minimalism. But that is a style that Adams has long ago incorporated as merely an element, and slowly he adds lines of increasing length and chromaticism, in the grand Romantic tradition that moves and satisfies him. There is a rise in activity, expression and tension, before the long first movement comes to a quiet close. The second, and final, movement begins with a dramatic quiet, a pulling back that builds suspense for what we expect to be an intense finale, and the music fulfills that promise. Antiphony in all the voices builds to a peak of tremendous energy and brings the work to a close with an explosive upward movement. Adams captures a quality of verve and emotional satisfaction and depth that sneaks up on the listener – every moment is exciting to listen to and so the listening experience really moves along, and before you know it he’s snuck up on you with something fairly profound. His recent orchestral work Guide to Strange Places is like this, it seems to be meant simply to entertain, but when it ends you realize that he’s had a real effect on the emotions. I think what makes this work is Adams’ unique and important way of combining Process, as in Minimalist music, with Resolution, as in Romantic music. The Process part is endlessly listenable, seductive in the way of the beauty and interest of colors and timbres, while the Resolution part is the essential power of music, the building up of tension directed towards an ultimate release which is the great contribution of Western music to the world. Beyond the sheer quality of his work, Adams is showing there is a way out of the fragmentation and didactic dead-ends of the 20th century, and that makes him I believe the next towering, essential figure in the art, after Stravinsky. And this way he found was possible, again, only in California, to which he fled in great part to escape the schools-of-thought confines of the East coast musical establishment and where, as he describes in his memoir, he came to find his voice while driving into the Sierras, listening to Wagner. Looking across the Pacific, he could see around the curvature of the globe to find what he sought in the Old World. He just had to get to the newest world first.