Entries tagged with “Chamber Music”.


Olivia Block in the Chapel

Olivia Block in the Chapel

On Friday May 15th Olivia Block put on a performance of her music both solo tape music and several chamber music pieces.  In all honesty I’ve never really been all that taken with Block’s music, it comes across to me as overly, for lack of a better word, simplistic.  That is to say that it is not made up of simple elements, in the main I can get behind that, but that that it is so directly representation. Her last solo album Heave To I think is a prime example of this.  That album was about the sea but it was simply made up of sounds that sure are of the sea, things that people could easily associate with the sea but never captured the essence of the sea, that primal and mysterious connection we have with the sea.  It’s like using a black cloaked figure with a scythe in your film to represent death- direct, obvious lacking subtly.  That being said there aspects I’ve enjoyed in her music and it can work well as background music.  Seeing her live in Seattle is not a frequent occurrence (this could be the first time for all I know) and in this instance she was debuting some chamber music so I felt it was worth checking out.

As usual a Friday evening show meant a dash from work and what with being busy there and some bad traffic it was even more stressful then normal.  But I made it there about fifteen minutes before show time so once again it all worked out.  There were three piece played, the first solo the second just the chamber group and the final piece (after a short break) was Block with chamber group.

1) Untitled solo piece (~15 min)

The first piece was Olivia solo and she began by setting up some sounds from cassette decks and possible other sound sources. These sounds were loops of crackly sounds, hollow metallic sounds and various washes and creaks. After a bit of this she moves to the piano and adds various sounds mainly from manipulating the strings directly with other objects. Metal on metal, a mallet on the strings, a small piece of sheet metal dropped onto the strings.  Sometimes these sounds were sampled and immediately looped creating a much more denser wash of sounds at this point.  The climax of the piece was this generated density upon which she layered on a tape of a group chanting to which was added massive drums.  This was definitely the loudest portion of the piece (though not overwhelming in any way) and quite dense to the point that only certain sounds rose above the undifferentiated mass. The piece more or less concluded after this peak by her taking this apart so that only the original sounds remained.

To me this piece came across as an exercise in exploring an technical idea, there were some neat sounds but there was wasn’t anything there.  As I’ve found with a lot of Blocks work it the sounds could have been given more space as well.

Righthand half of the Chamber group

Righthand half of the Chamber group

2) Stupid Afternoon (~15 min)
The next piece, whose title comes from a Wallace Stevens poem (Hibiscus on the Sleeping Shores unless he used that line often), was for a chamber ensemble in which Ms. Block did not take part. In this instance it was performed by Tiffany Lin, piano; Paul Taub, flute;  Jesse Canterbury, clarinet; Lori Goldston, cello; Tari Nelson-Zagar, violin; Sarah Bass, viola; and Julia Tai, conductor.  Lots of sounds, short phases coming and going, having a feel almost of busier mid century classical music with structure more akin to minimalisms use of short phases. Perhaps it is like minimalism without the direct repetition.  The gestures from the musicians were in the main traditional with little obvious extended techniques used.  A rising phases, a short series of chords, a single short blown note and so on.  Toward the middle of the piece there were a couple softer moments with longer tones that worked much better but all too soon the gabbiness was back.

Block introduced this piece saying that while she has always composed it is only recently that she’s been working on paper writing this kind of compositions. Listening to this piece I found this very easy to believe, it had a lot of features that you’d encounter among student composers, a lack of restraint realized in that most of the players played most of the time as if she didn’t want to leave anyone out. Ultimately I wasn’t very taken with the piece at all.

Violin, Viola and Piano

Violin, Viola and Piano

3) Untitled chamber piece (~25 min)
This piece was not introduced nor is there any writeup about it on the Wayward Music blog posting. The chamber musicians were playing from a score and there also was a box placed on a music stand in the front of the stage that all of the musicians could see. The ensemble was the same as before except there was no conductor (except for perhaps the box!) and Olivia was at (well mostly inside) the piano instead of Tiffany Lin. The piece was for tape, and chamber ensemble and was a traditional tape piece in that it was started and just ran its course throughout.  The piece began with Block inside the piano manipulating the strings in a quite sparse manner on her own. After some time the strings came in all three of them bouncing their bows on strings shortly followed by the winds just blowing air through their instruments. The tape slowly came up around this point with a crackly wash that built up a bit into the hollow sound of of wood knocking against wood in water.  The piece constantly built and at one Block played outside the piano a number of descending tones. Not really a scale per se, more as if one just randomly played a note lower down the keyboard then the one previously played.  This was pretty disengaging.  Eventually the tape became built up to a roar and Block was pounding the keys and the others were not playing.  This was really dense with huge pounded chords atop the wash of the tape and the density only increased as the entire ensemble came in playing continuously sustained tones. This one on for four or five minutes (max) and eventually petered out leaving just the tape playing for a short time and then it was done.

According to the Wayward Music page for this show this piece is “a loosely scored/partially improvised piece for prepared piano and electronic sounds which uses the complexity of overtones and rich timbres from low amplified piano tones. The physicality of performance is emphasized through the repetition of gestures for extreme durations.”  The partially scored aspect was clear in that the tapes were created beforehand and that the actions on the piano were by their nature somewhat indeterminate and during the peak of intensity their certainly was lot of physicality that definitely could have been from repeated activity, it was a little hard to tell from the audience but she was either repeatedly working the keys or inside the piano. I found the scoring for this piece to be more to my liking then the previous – more diversity of sound that had a fresher feel with less emphasis placed on everyone playing all the time.  Yet Blocks playing and the tape once again overwhelmed the proceedings with their continuous sounds.  While I’d certainly never argue that there is only one way to do this kind of music, that silence and space is a prerequisite I think that in the case of the pieces performed they would have been a lot stronger had this been the case.  There were moments in all of the pieces played tonight, the first third of this one in particular that were fantastic but none of them were consistent throughout.  All told as much problems as I’ve had with Blocks tape pieces I think that they are definitely a lot stronger then her chamber work.

For more of my pictures from this evening, click here.

[update 05.19.09]
So I got an email from Olivia with some factual corrections which I have applied to the text above.

Ives Ensemble

Ives Ensemble

On Thursday March 5th 2009 I took the day off from work and drove north to Canada to see the Ives Ensemble.  They’d been brought into Canada by  Contiuum Contemporary Music for their SHIFT Festival of Canadian and Dutch music.  Having a largish group flown in from the Netherlands for a festival seems a bit extravagant so working with various Canadian arts organizations they scheduled a few more dates across Canada.  Vancouver New Music was one of these organizations and they managed to bring them to Vancouver as part of their Sonic Tonic series for the final date of their tour.

VNM almost always has an “artist chat” an hour before their concerts and tonight was no exception.  I managed to make it to the ScotiaBank Dance Centre just a few minutes after 7pm and about 5 minutes before the chat began. The entire ensemble was in a semi-circle of chairs in the front of a dance studio complete with an entire mirrored wall. VNM director Giorgio Magnanensi, who is now sporting a great and wild beard, began by asking them the details of their tour.  Most of the questions were fielded by John Snijders, the founder of the ensemble, but at various times several of the members would chime in.  They spoke of the SHIFT Festival and how it commissioned new works from Canadian and Dutch composers and about the concerts and workshops they did in Toronto.  This sounded like a very interesting cultural exchange and I think a very positive type of event for new music, especially in the commissioning and performing of new works.  The Canadian composer they chose for the commission was Allison Cameron and Giorgio told us an anecdote about him getting flack from the CBC for programming her music in a festival back when she was a lot less well known. There was also a series of questions from the audience about female composers and their level of representation.   On the question of female representation John gave what I think is the most sensible answer: it all comes down to the quality of the composition, there is no issue w/r/t the sex of the composer. This led to several questions about compositions written especially for them and John told us that they rarely get unsolicited compositions mainly because they are very picky on what they choose to play. He then brought up that when playing festivals the programmers really want “World Premiers” and that this leads to an issue where a piece is often only played that one time, as after that performance they need the next world premier.  He said that for them they have found that many pieces benefit from repeat performance:

“Returning to a piece you find that it has become a part of you – comfortable.”

One of the other members then chimed in to say that playing a piece many times is “Honest to the piece” and that it matures and you discover more. This sparked a question from the audience about which pieces tonight were particularly “well played” pieces and they answered that the Viola in my Life was but not the other Feldman, the Xenakis was a newer piece for them and obviously the the Cameron was being a commission. But the rest of them they had played many times, greater then ten times each.  All in all a very interesting chat, very interesting to hear about the various experiences that working in an ensemble like this engenders.

About a half an hour after the chat ended the concert began just a little but after 7pm.  I had scored a seat front row center and the acoustics at this distance was pretty incredible, I could hear all the nuences of the instruments loud and clear.  The first set began with Straight Lines in Broken Times composed by Christopher Fox.  This piece is I believe what they call “post-minimalism”, in that it is made up of fragments of many different styles and was scored for piano, clarinet and violin.  While segments of it were made up of almost Glass-like short repeated phrases others evoked classicism and still others evoked various folk traditions with one bit having a distinctly Klezmer-ish sound. The most interesting part of this piece was a section where the clarinet dropped out, then a couple of minutes later the violin leaving just solo piano for a few measures before they came back in.  Not really my kind of thing, but it aptly demonstrated the skill and touch of the ensemble.  They left the stage and then these three, plus a cellist came back out to play the first of four Postcards by Allison Cameron.  This composition, Four Postcards, was designed to be played in as part of a program and each of them was stylistically diverse and only a couple of minutes long. I came to wonder if they were actually written for this specific program as they seemed stylistic informed by the other pieces.  Like the Fox the first Postcard was rapid little fragments from the quartet, each of them working little independent rhythmic structures.  There was very short violin solo in which it played longer tones in contrast to the rest of the piece. I wasn’t very taken by this piece either and I was becoming a bit depressed. Fortunately the Feldman piece that followed restored my spirits, though at around 8 minutes left me wanting.  Four Instruments (1975) is scored for the same quartet as Feldmans final piece, Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello and has much of the same feel as that piece. It was amazing to watch the ensemble settle down, almost visible changing gears as shifted into Feldman mode.  The vibrato was gone, the bow strokes flat and affectless, piano notes suspended. Really fantastic and when it ended so soon I felt a sense of loss. How I wish this set had been just a performance of Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello.  This was followed by the second Postcard, which was very similar to the first, made of short little energetic fragments from the same line up of instruments. This time though there was a short piano solo as opposed to the violin, but like that it was less frenetic then the rest of the piece.  The final piece of this set was Gerald Barry’s  Piano Quartet nr. 1 scored for piano, violin, viola and ‘cello. This piece was incredibly frenetic, the only piece that had to have a page turner for the violist (primarily, also turned a page or two for the ‘cellist) and also the longest of this set.  Frankly I didn’t enjoy it at all, it just seemed like an exercise in excess.  Fast repeated, short sounds broken up by various, equally fast solo sections.  There were a number of folk reference; an almost ragtime piano and the piece concluded with a very direct nod to Irish reels and jigs (though the ensemble didn’t really nail the trad ornamentation).  The musicians didn’t seem to be enjoying themselves much as they played the piece, but this is one of the pieces they often play.

There was followed by intermission, in which I had a cup of red wine and took a look at the CDs the ensemble had brought with them. Alas they didn’t have any of the hat[Now]ART CDs that are OOP, all the ones they had were readily available and were quite expensive.  Shortly thereafter I was back in my seat for the second half of the concert which opened with the third Postcard. This was my favorite of the Postcards and the one were I began to suspect that these were tied to this specific program (or perhaps for the Ives Ensembles typical repertoire).  It was for the same instruments with bass clarinet replacing the standard clarinet. It began with long mournful ‘cello lines that was then joined with longer tones from the bass clarinet.  This piece had a much more Feldman-esque feel then the frantic insect-like nature of her earlier postcards.  It wasn’t all long slow lines though, the piano added a nice bit of spiky counterpoint to these as did the ‘cellist at one point by plucking his strings.  The Viola in My Life 2 followed and was by far the highlight of the evening. Once again the ensemble shifted into slow gear and once again displayed their incredible touch for this music.  The violist was of course front and center, standing up for this piece, and was joined by the violin, clarinet, flute, percussionist and the pianist on celesta. It was fascinating to watch this piece, which I’m quite familiar with, unfold, the percussionist gentle shaking stuff in his hands at first then later gentle tapping a snare with his hands and occasionally bring out a few notes on the vibraphone.  The celesta was rarely used, almost like another percussion instrument, adding a single ringing chord every so often to sublime effect.  The viola of course was front and center with its mournful melodic phrase brought in again and again in various permutations.  Really wonderful, again I longed for a whole evening of Feldman from this ensemble.  This piece brought the greatest audience reaction including a spontaneous “Bravo!” from one of the members.  The violist got an extra, well deserved, round of applause.  The group returned for the final Postcard with the same lineup as the last but this time there were two additional performers carrying books and candles. They lit their candles and sat on the floor on either side of the musicians.  After initial longer tones (the solo as it were) from the bass clarinet the group played short little fragments, but they were soft and sedate sort of in-between the styles of the first and third. These little segments were clearly to be played and repeated as long as the readers kept reading. They blew out their candles, first the reader on the right and then a minute or two later the reader on the left, as they finished whatever prescribed bit of reading they had to do and then the piece ended. This was my second favorite of the Postcards a really nice sounding piece with a clever bit of indeterminacy. The final piece was Plektó composed by Iannis Xenakis for flute, clarinet, piano, percussion, violin and ‘cello.  I’ve heard a decent amount of Xenakis’s chamber works but this piece was new to me. Like a lot of his pieces it was pretty aggressive and bombastic. The percussion was a big floor tom, a huge bass drum and little tom-toms and these were heavily worked. The piano was also literally pounded and at one point there was a near call and response between the piano and drums. The other instruments created this swirling miasma of long tones often creating dissonance and almost beating tones between them.  The piece was right on the edge I felt, a lot of the drum work was almost cheesy but the dissonances and the contrasts between the various elements kept my attention. It was definitely an exciting specticle to see live.  This concluded the set and they ensemble left to much applause.

Eventually waving away the appluse, John Snijders introduced the encore, Langzame Verjaardag (slow birthday) which was a piece written by Louis Andriessen for the groups 20th Anniversery.  This piece featured all of the ensemble but Snijders who stood off to one side. He descibred the piece as a “canon in unison where each member can enter at will”.  This piece was really nice, slow long tones, unfolding and overlapping and eventually fading away as each member finished their part. Eventually it was just the flautist who played three or four phrases before he to was done. A really nice ending to a great evening of music.

Ives Ensemble

5 March 2009| 8pm
Scotiabank Dance Centre, 677 Davie Street
Tickets $20/$15
Artist Chat 7pm

Press Release:

Founded in 1986 by the Dutch pianist John Snijders, the internationally acclaimed Ives Ensemble consists of a steady pool of seven to fourteen musicians. The ensemble is well known for its performances of non-conducted 20th century chamber music, and in this rare Vancouver appearance will perform a program of works by Morton Feldman, Iannis Xenakis, Gerald Barry, Christopher Fox and Canadian composer Allison Cameron.

This is one of my most anticipated concerts of the year, I never really thought I’d get a chance to see the Ives Ensemble live.  Their performances of Feldman and Cage that have been released primarily on the HatART label have been my favorite versions of many of the pieces. Especially with Feldman their touch and interpretation has been impeccable.  The program for night (found here on their website) has them performing Feldman’s Four Instruments and The Viola in my Life 2 along with Xenakis’ Plektó and three pieces from composers whose work I’m not familiar with.  Of course I’d have loved an all Feldman programme, but any chance to see his music performed live, especially by such a fantastic ensemble is not to be missed. Feldman is rarely performed in the Pacific NW, but there has been more played in the last year then in the 10 before it.  Last year I was able to see Dale Speicher perform The King of Denmark as part of a percussion recitial, a “Morton Feldman Marathon” at the Seattle Art Museum and Stephan Drury performing Palais de Mari along with an Rzewski piece. I can’t say how pleased I am to see the trend continue.  Xenakis is rarely performed here as well so that is also a welcome addition to their programme.

As for the three composers I’m not familiar with, well one always hopes for a new discovery.  Gerald Barry, reading his Wikipedia entry, is from Ireland was a student of Stockhausen and Kagel and is praised for the “thematic development in his music”. Hard to glean much from that, perhaps the heavy thematic componants indicated he’s part of the neo-classicists, his relatively mainstream acceptance he seems to have could be further evidence of that. Christopher Fox who is perhaps more well known for his writing on music; I’ve read a few things of his but can’t recall hearing any of his music, seems equally hard to pin down.  In his case its more that he dabbles in many areas so it depends on the piece played.  Finally Canadian Allison Cameron, who also appears to work in a variety of formats and has been played quite a bit.  On this site I was able to listen to some samples and while they were all too short to make much of an impression were intriguing.  It should be interesting to hear works live from three composers new to me and I certainly am looking forward to the whole evening.

Since this concert was on a Thursday, a three hour drive from here I decided to take a couple of days off from work and spend some time in Vancouver.  Vancouver is probably my favorite city on the West Coast and I love to spend time there  As I usually do I’m going to visit the Vancouver Art Gallery which has two exhibitions that look intriguing: How Soon is Now and Enacting Abstraction. The Vancouver Art Gallery is pretty unique in that it typically devotes each of its three floors to a single exhibition and there isn’t permanent galleries devoted to their collection. The exhibitions they put on are often made up from their collection along with borrowed works to allow you to really get a broader perspective on the topic. They do seem to do exhibitions such as Enacting Abstraction that are topically vague and allow them to leverage their collection. I’m always curious about current activities in art, so How Soon is Now with its focus on British Columbia artists is definitely intriguing.

Along with these planned activities I’ll probably wander around some of Vancouver’s funky neighborhoods checking out the interesting bookstores, record shops and art galleries.  If any readers know of any activities going on Friday or Saturday night that are must see let me know.