Entries tagged with “kronos quartet”.


Morton Feldman Music for Piano and Strings Morton Feldman Music for Piano and Strings volume 1 (Matchless Recordings)
The Smith Quartet
with John Tilbury
Live at the Huddersfield Festival of Contemporary Music, 2006

Ian Humphries (violin); Darragh Morgan (violin); Nic Pendlebury (viola) ; Deirdre Cooper (cello); John Tilbury (piano)

1. For John Cage [1982] (1:31:14)
2. Piano and String Quartet [1985] (1:29:30)

Almost all Feldman’s music is slow and soft. Only at first sight is this a limitation. I see it rather as a narrow door, to whose dimensions one has to adapt oneself (as in Alice in Wonderland) before one can pass through it into the state of being that is expressed in Feldman’s music. Only when one has become accustomed to the dimness of light can one begin to perceive the richness and variety of colour which is the material of the music. When one has passed through the narrow door and got accustomed to the dim light, one realises the range of his imagination and the significant differences that distinguish one piece from another …

Feldman sees the sounds as reverberating endlessly, never getting lost, changing their resonances as they die away, or rather do not die away, but recede from our ears, and soft because softness is compelling, because an insidious invasion of our senses is more effective than a frontal attack. Because our ears must strain to catch the music, they must become more sensitive before they perceive the world of sound in which Feldman’s music takes place.  – Cornelius Cardew(1)

I’ve mentioned many times here and elsewhere that John Tilbury is my favorite interpreter of Morton Feldman’s piano music and the piano music is my favorite of Feldman’s work. The solo piano pieces, especially his last few pieces, are masterpieces but I’d also accord such plaudits to a number of Feldman’s chamber pieces.  The Music for Piano and Strings series on Matchless features a number of such pieces and the first volume begins the series incredibly strong with two of his best as well as personal favorite pieces.  Feldman often used the piano in his chamber pieces, sometimes in a similar way as to the solo piano pieces, but at other times in rather different ways, using a wider variety of techniques and trading off foreground and background roles with the other instruments. To understand what I mean by this one has to consider how strings are used in these pieces.

When many of these pieces were first performed, Feldman requested that the string players use “˜leather mutes’. However we now have very light and excellent plastic practice mutes available to the same effect, more reliable and easier to use. Another score marking employed by Feldman is an instruction to have the hair on the bows as loose as possible, the aim being that, since the majority of his work is incredibly quiet this is the easiest way to create this dynamic. Ironically, with the resurgence of period performance and easy access to baroque bows, we have performed and recorded this repertoire with these bows. The benefits are multiple and, most importantly for us, the lightness of these bows helps both physically in playing music that can routinely be 80 minutes in length, and musically as their arc-like shape lends well to the wonderful melodic and harmonic contours of Feldman’s string writing. – Darragh Morgan(2)

Darragh Morgan (as well as Cardew above) describe the overall features of softness and sound orientation. For strings as we read above they play with mutes, bowes with loose hair (or Baroque bows as the Smith Quartet rather brilliantly uses) but also “For us, in performing and recording these pieces, we felt that a “˜vibrato free’ style of playing created a type of musical purity akin to Feldman’s own intentions. Of course this also complements John Tilbury’s delicate pianistic touch.(2) These restrictions seem to be standard among all (or at least the bulk) of  Feldman’s pieces for strings.  Beyond this, there is how he uses the pitches from the string players, that is the harmony that he chooses to employ.  It would take a far greater expert than myself to really breakdown the use of harmony in Feldman’s music but there are some interesting features that reveal themselves from purely listening to the music. When there are multiple string players Feldman utilizes them in multiple ways but one of the most common is to have all the players play as one, each generating a pitch that may form into a chord across the instruments, or they may all play the same note.  Some of what he seems to be going for is microtonal, but I suspect not deliberately, more just on the slight imperfection in playing.  At other times it will be as if all of the members are playing separately, each doing their own thing with sounds in various pitches coming in and out of the soundfield. In the liner notes for the recent release of Feldman’s Trio on Mode (which I wrote about here) they quote Feldman as saying over the course of a long piece you more or less go through your whole bag of tricks, you try it all and you can hear this in these pieces:

“In writing a long piece, I would make curious moves, but only for the moment. Decisions that I would never think of, say, in composing a twenty-minute composition. You want a piece to be logical? Well, you’re not going to sit down and have a ten-course meal of logic; you’re satisfied with just an hors d’oeuvre, a little logical hors d’oeuvre served to you by a famous waiter! You want a piece to be beautiful? OK, give them a moment of beauty — how much more do you need? So what happens in a long piece is that soner or later you go through the whole parameter of possiblities, and everybody’s going to get something out of it, I’m sure. The form of the piece is more like a novel — there’s plenty of time for everything.” – Morton Feldman (4)

But Feldman doesn’t go through all of the available tricks from musical history, no he goes through all of his tricks. And at times, even in a long piece he’ll severely restrict himself: in Piano and String Quartet the piano only plays arpeggios, for an hour and a half in this recording. Feldman varies the arpeggios throughout the piece, their pacing, the weight of the individual notes the space between the figures, but he’s only using one technique. Of course there is also the strings which sustain this, though they also don’t explore the entire range of his techniques for strings as he does in his String Quartet peices, no it is the interplay of these five instruments in this piece that allows for just restricted material. This for me is what really distinguishes Feldman’s chamber pieces: it is the sound of the instruments playing together, the way that he approaches that seems completely unique.

Feldman’s use of extended string techniques can blur the timbral separation between cello and violin, creating unified sonic events exploring the qualities and possibilities of the combination of instruments – for example, utilizing the resonance of the piano and the sustaining qualities and dynamic control of the strings. – Mode Records Trio page

The above quote from Mode puts so well something I’ve been struggling to describe here and as I said is really to me the essence of Feldman’s chamber work. In the pieces on this disc. The way that a note on the piano dies away and then the dry bowed violin resonates with that decaying sound. The almost organ like tones of a chord built up from all four players of the string quartet playing with that gasping sound of vibrato-less bowing, combined with soft tinkling piano notes slowly revealing themselves as the chord fades away. The Smith Quartet, whom I was not at all familiar with prior to this recording, handle these pieces incredibly well. There is the right softness, dryness of tone and commitment to Feldman’s intentions. The use of the baroque bows to elegantly solve one of Feldman’s conditions to me shows innovation and flexibility and the sonic results prove that this isn’t just for their own benefit, but is the best solution to the problem. I look forward to spending more time with this quartet, first in the rest of the Music for Piano and Strings and then exploring more of their work.

From ancient China there is a description of a vibrato technique: Remarkable is the ting-yin, where the vacillating movement of the finger should be so subtle as to be hardly noticeable. Some handbooks say that one should not move the finger at all, but let the timbre be influenced by the pulsation of the blood in the fingertips pressing the string down on the board a little more heavily than usual.

Such extreme sensitivity of touch is of the essence in a performance of Feldman’s music. In the piano pieces the depressed key is gently eased back to position to minimise the obtrusive sound of the key mechanism, time is allowed for the minutest of harmonics to resound, and at the end of the phrases fingers steal away from the keys noiselessly. – John Tilbury(1)

What more is there to say John Tilbury’s performance of Feldman? Tilbury gives his highest accolades to Cornelius Cardew and David Tudor for their performances of Feldman(1) and I certainly can’t disagree with his assessments of their performances of Feldman’s early pieces. But it is not just for the lack of them having played Feldman’s later pieces that Tilbury is the one I want to hear on these pieces. His touch, his light foot on the sustain pedal (a technique he got from Cardew(3)) his extreme sensitivity to the sound and most of all his deep commitment to these pieces are I think unrivaled.  For a long time I’ve wanted to hear the chamber pieces with Tilbury tinkling the ivories and I can’t say how excited and grateful I am that Matchless is putting this set of recordings out. I recall being in Vancouver participating in a workshop with John Tilbury on Cardew’s Treatise (read about this here) and while we were sharing an elevator he was telling an anecdote about playing various Feldman chamber pieces in California. I completely forget what the point of his anecdote was but it involved the playing of For Philip Guston and my one thought at the time was “Why wasn’t this recorded, I want to hear For Philip Guston with John on the piano!”.  While the Music for Piano and Strings sets won’t include all of Feldman’s chamber pieces with piano, it certainly contains a large subset of them and among these my absolute favorites.

For John Cage [1982] (1:31:14)

One senses a connection to jazz in Feldman’s subtly emotive chords. And beyond that, in the music’s “touch” and “swing”. The touch is in the minimising of attack (Baroque bows are used on this recording). The swing is in the rhythmic dislocation, a feature from the beginning but pursued most exhaustively in the long works of the last years, For John Cage being a prime example.
– Howard Skempton(5)

This is the third recording of For John Cage that I’ve heard and while I’ve only listen it a few times so far it has quickly become my favorite.  For John Cage is scored for piano and violin and thus the piano is of utmost importance. This also is the longest version I’ve heard by far and while this never a priori means it is better in this case I think it is important.   I’ve always felt that there was a sense of urgency to the piece (especially in the almost frantic seeming violin in the opening notes) from the other recordings that I have and I always assumed that was an aspect of this composition that was a bit different from much other later Feldman. But with almost twenty-five more minutes to the piece then my previous favorite version of the piece that sense of urgency becomes a lot less frantic. In fact it becomes more typical of the tensions that you find at various times in Feldman’s pieces (amongst all of his tricks as I quoted earlier). There is a variance to the dynamics in Darragh Morgan’s violin that is more superb then anyone else I’ve heard on this material. He’s always at Feldman’s famous ppp but within that dynamic seems to subtly shift the volume all of the time even within a bow stroke. It could be that this is what creates that shimmering quality to the strings that I noted earlier. Tilbury’s piano is at its most bell like here, perhaps just the smallest amount of extra pressure on the sustain adding just a bit more of a ringing character to it. The interplay between the piano and violin is fantastic in this piece, there is a section near the beginning where the piano plays two notes and the violin responds with its own pair of notes in a call and response that comes across more as two timbres of a bird call. In a later section after focusing almost completing in the far upper register of the piano and violin a single low piano key is struck and repeated and those low tone reminds us of the entire range of sound and dynamic and as played here it is so warm and fat that it is like finding a perfect garden in an arid wasteland. These moments are Feldman’s brilliance in composition and the way the sound is thanks to the incredible touch of Tilbury and Morgan not to mention the excellent recording from Sebastian Lexer.

Speaking of which Richard Pinnell (of The Watchful Ear fame) posted this on IHM a few years back:

Last year at a performance of Morton Feldman’s For John Cage piece in a church in Huddersfield a car crashed in the road immediately outside the venue entrance. The loud bang was followed by a multitude of sirens and other noise. It seemed to me that at that point the slow, gradually shifting music sped up, the momentary interruption shifting the fine balance of the musicians. For John Cage indeed…

Which of course is about this very performance!  He mentioned this again to me in a recent email which sent me looking for this quote to share here.  In my reply to his email I said I’d have been tempted to leave those sounds in it being For John Cage after all (which you see Richard echo a bit here) and in his reply he mentioned that Sebastian Lexer had digitally erased all evidence of this from the recording. This is certainly the case and the recording sounds amazing.  I can’t say I’ve noticed the slight speed up that Richard mentions, but I did notice at one point that the space suddenly seemed flat, that is to say the natural sound of the instruments reverberating in this space seemed different then it had before.  I honestly wasn’t even listening for this when I first noticed it, in fact I was reading a book and my attention suddenly shifted back to the music as it had clearly changed. Not an incredible difference and depending on people sound environment and stereo may not be too noticeable at all but I’m sure this aspect was a bit altered by scrubbing those other ambient sounds. But it is a tremendous job and I’m quite thankful that the effort was made giving us this pristine and incredible version of this piece.

Piano and String Quartet [1985] (1:29:30)

Piano and String Quartet is like breathing; and like dying. The matter is of life and death.
– Howard Skempton(5)

Piano and String Quartet begins with this series of slow arpeggios from the piano, played mostly alone and in between them various short stretches of bowing from the strings, sometimes alone other times in concert. There is more time given to this piece than the other two versions I have (Kronos at ~80′ Ives somewhat short at ~72min) though not dramatically so. But that the extra ten minutes over the Kronos version does slow things down just enough more to really emphasize aspects of the piece – these arpeggios are so spacious and the time allowed for them to decay before the strings come in really lets you hear the resonance of the piano. The piano part is entirely these sustained arpeggios at various tempos, sometimes so slow as to sound like a meandering scale or even isolated single notes. The task of the pianist is to bring these to life, to capture the way that Feldman uses repetition: clearly playing the same thing but with subtle variation so that the structure remains hidden. Mark Swed in his liner notes for the Kronos Quartet/Aki Takahashi recording of this piece puts it perfectly:

Feldman also liked to compare his long pieces to Asian rugs, for which he had a passion. Finding that the most interesting were irregular in their symmetries, he kept his patterns of chords, notes, motives or sounds carefully arrenged so that their repetitions would be reconizable as repetitions, their patterns not discernible, the memory disoriented.” (6)

There seems to almost always be a shimmering sound of this resonance interacting with the beautiful bowing. In a recent post about the Kronos Quartet I mentioned how their sound had a bit more dynamic nature to it then the version of the piece from the Ives Ensemble and I have to say the Smith Quartet also has that ethereal quality to the strings. It clearly isn’t a vibrato technique (unless it is that which is transmitted by the blood itself that Tilbury describes in the quote above) but is clearly some quality of their performance. Perhaps it comes from playing super softly at a level below with the Ives Ensemble does (which is still plenty soft) or perhaps it is subtly shift the volume in the course of a bow stroke, the slight change in pressure reverberating slightly. The strings so often play as one in this piece, the bows slowly arc out in a soft chord, then pausing briefly and then returning over the strings somehow even softer. As the sustain pedal is always pressed on the piano these gentle movements, like breathing really, always begins over this residue of the previously played arpeggio and this interaction is beautiful and endlessly fascinating.

As I reported in the aforementioned Kronos post this was the first Feldman piece I ever heard and I can’t deny that its one of my favorites. Pretty much for the reasons I’ve given above: the piano and the way its used contrasting with the way Feldman uses strings, is just so compelling to me. It’ll take a lot of listens before this approaches the amount I’ve given to the Kronos and Ives versions but the piano is so glorious and the strings are as good as any I’ve heard. This easily catapults right to the top of my favorite recordings of this piece, though the Kronos/Takahashi version is right up there (Feldman more or less wrote the piece with them in mind, it certainly can be thought of as the reference version). This recording I think will reveal how wonderful this piece is to those who may not have previously been as taken with it as it aptly demonstrates this as one of Feldman’s major compositions.

This DVD is a real bounty, it would be akin to two double CD sets of music. While initially I was somewhat resistant to getting music on DVD I have to say I really love hearing the pieces uninterrupted.  On this disc the pieces were recorded at DAT quality (48kz/24bit) and while they sound really good, they do not quite approach the amazing sound of the recently reviewed Mode Trio disc which was recorded at DVD-Audio quality (96khz/24bit) as well as in surround.  No complaints really from me, these sound superb and I for one am not setup for surround sound anyway. The downside of DVD releases for me is that I like to put Feldman on as I go to sleep and I am not equipped to play Feldman in my bedroom. Maybe when I get a Blu-Ray player for the living room I’ll put my old DVD player in the bedroom.  Anyway this release is essential for all aficionados of Morton Feldman, John Tilbury, the Smith Quartet or just stunningly wonderful music.  My highest recommendation.

Sources
1) On Playing Feldman, by John Tilbury from the For Bunita Marcus liner notes. LondonHALL, 1993
2) Feldman for Strings by Darragh Morgan, from the Music for Piano and Strings liner notes. Matchless Recordings 2010
3) Cornelius Cardew – A Life Unfinished by John Tilbury. Copula, 2008
4) Trio liner notes by Sabine Feisst. Mode Records 2010
5) Liner notes by Howard Skempton, from the Music for Piano and Strings liner notes. Matchless Recordings 2010
6) Morton Feldman Piano and String Quartet performed by the Kronos Quartet with Aki Takehashi, Liner notes by Marc Swed 1993

Forthcoming

More great new music in this area coming out over the next couple of months. Most exciting of course are the next two volumes in the Morton Feldman Music for Piano and Strings from Matchless.  The next one is particularly exciting for me as it contains Patterns In A Chromatic Field and Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello. I’ve mentioned earlier how much Feldman’s piano music means to me, but I also adore how he uses the cello and love it in the pieces where it stands out. So you’d think that Patterns, being cello and piano would be an all time favorite and I do like it a lot, but I’ve never been satisfied with any of the recordings I’ve heard. So I have a high hopes for this one (though I have to say I’d really like a Rohan de Saram/John Tilbury recording of the piece). Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello is, I think, my favorite Feldman chamber piece. The hatART version of the piece is one of the Ives Ensembles absolute best, but alas its out of print and I’ve only had a lossless rip of it (this is on Hat’s re-release schedule and I definitely will purchase it when it comes out). Anyway can’t wait to hear the take on this piece from this really excellent group of musicians. Volume 3 features a number of the short pieces but also another version of Trio.  As reported earlier I have been quite taken by the recently released DVD of this piece on Mode so I will certainly enjoy hearing another take on it.

Morton Feldman Music for Piano and Strings volume 2 (Matchless Recordings)
John Tilbury, Smith String Quartet

Patterns In A Chromatic Field; Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello

Morton Feldman Music for Piano and Strings volume 3 (Matchless Recordings)
John Tilbury, Smith String Quartet

Piece for Violin and Piano; Extensions 1; Projection IV; Durations II; Vertical Thoughts II; he Viola In My Life; Four Instruments; Spring of Chosroes; Trio

Additionally there are two  releases  coming out on April 16th (probably coming sooner then the above) I recently found out about that have me interested. Discs of James Tenney and John Cage from Zeitkratzer Productions. The “Old School” series will also  include releases by Alvin Lucier and Morton Feldman coming later in the year. I’m not very familiar with this ensemble and how their take on these pieces will be but there are certainly some very good performers in the group that I am famalair with: Frank Gratkowski, Hayden Chisholm,Franz Hautzinger ,Reinhold Friedl, Maurice de Martin,  Burkhard Schlothauer,  Anton Lukoszevieze,  Uli Phillipp, Ralf Meinz, Matt Davis, Hilary Jeffery directed by Reinhold Friedl.

Zeitkratzer [Old School] James Tenney (Zeitkratzer Productions)

Critical Band; Harmonium #2; Koan: Having Never Written A Note For Percussion

Zeitkratzer [Old School] John Cage (Zeitkratzer Productions)

Four6; Five; Hymnkus

Kronos Quartet in Kirkland

Last night I saw the Kronos Quartet perform at the Kirkland Performance Center in my hometown. I can’t really stress how important to my musical development the Kronos Quartet have been nor how far I’ve really moved away from what they do.  I’ve always listened to classical music; in elementary school I used to scour the Anacortes Public library for their classical music LPs and when I “graduated” from elementary school among the list of predictions from my fellow classmates was “classical music snob”.  While I did of course eventually add rock and then jazz to my listening I always maintained an interest in classical music and I’d argue my love for long form symphonic works informed what I liked in those other musics.  I mostly listened to the canonical composers with only the “radio friendly” 20th century composers (Shostokovich, Stravinsky, Sibelius, etc) making an appearance. In college I gradually became interested in modern composition the most important event in this was a friend lending me a CD of string quartets by Lutoslawski, Cage, Pendericki and Mayuzumi. I think he lent me this as it was the only Cage he had which I was becoming interested in, but while I liked all of the quartets  it was the Lutoslawski that really grabbed me at that point. Wanting my own copy of this piece I took my meager college budget to Rainy Day Records and scoured their meager classical section. They didn’t have a lot of 20th century composition but they did have a number of discs by the Kronos Quartet include an EP of them playing the Lutoslawski.  I picked this up and the rest, as they say, was history.

Kronos Quartet play Lutoslawski's string quartetSo much music that became very important to me was introduced to me by picking up various Kronos discs: Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Zorn, Tan Dun, John Lurie, George Crumb, Arvo Part Henry Cowell, Harry Partch, John Oswald, Henryk Gorecki, Elliot Sharp as well as those I knew but being just a kid had few recordings of like Anton Webern, Alban Berg, Demitri Shostokovich and Thomas Tallis. Of course many of these composers I’d prefer versions by other ensembles and most of them I’ve more or less since moved on, but they all led me to where I am now. Of course no other discovery brought to me by the Kronos Quartet was more important to my current listening then their recording of Morton Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet.  At the time I was buying their releases as they’d show up and I must have bought this one pretty much as it was released in 1993 (my prime period of Kronos collecting was 1992-1997). I recall finding this one immediately beautiful and hypnotic, it fit in with the ambient music I was also exploring at this time.  But the low volume of the recording was always a bit of a hindrance for me, I felt it wasn’t as well recorded as some of their other pieces. It got shelved for a while but would be returned to as my interest in the experimental composers arose a few years later.

Morton Feldman Piano and String QuartetMorton Feldman and the Kronos Quartet have a quite interesting history, something worth thinking about for those who tend to dismiss the ensemble.  Feldman worked directly with them and scored his epic String Quartet (II) for them though they “only” ever performed a 5 hour version of the piece. These days the Ives Ensemble and the Flux Quartet have performed the entire piece in its 6 hour glory. I recently came across a recording off the radio of Feldman’s first String Quartet performed by the Kronos Quartet that I’ve found to be extremely informative. It is the third recording of the piece I’ve gotten and by far the longest, clocking in at 20 minutes longer the version of it I have by the Ives Ensemble.  But most interesting is difference in the sound of the violins. Feldman specifies a lack of vibrato and his strings often sound dry and grating with the occasional changes in this for effect. Kronos does this as well but there is a resonance to their playing that the Ives players don’t quite seem to use. Perhaps it is a very light vibrato or other bowing technique that is like the string equivalent of half depressed sustain pedal that Cardew felt was the key to Feldman’s piano works. After getting this recording and listening to it on my high end stereo I revisited the Piano and String Quartet which I had not played since getting a copy of the Ives take. Played on this stereo, where its low dynamic range wasn’t nearly an issue, it revealed the same thing as that String Quartet recording, a level of dynamic to the play, that while very subtle and soft really brings out a lot more in the music. Very soon I’ll have a fourth version of this piece with my favorite interpreter, John Tilbury, on the keys and if the Smith Quartet is as good as Kronos on the strings that should be the definitive version of this piece.

While Feldman is the most important composer that Kronos led me too, it is hard to deny the importance of Terry Riley and John Zorn for years of my life. Riley led me to other minimalists and the whole modern ecstatic drone, freak folk and the like which was a big part of my listening from the late ninety’s to about the mid aughts. I’m still on the Aquarius Mailing list from that period as they were best purveyors of such material. John Zorn led me to so much music, though in all honesty I never actually bought a ton of his music. First the ex-pat Downtowners, Wayne Horvitz and Bill Frisell, both now living in Seattle who introduced me to the post-downtown scene that was thriving here from say 1996-2006. This was my primary interest in music for years and I can’t even begin to say how many concerts I saw in Seattle of this ever widening sphere of music. Somehow it got wired into the Jam Band scene and became completely uninteresting, but there was a period where I thought it was some of the most creative music I’d seen. Most importantly though I got onto the Zorn Email list in its prime and from there I got introduced the most modern of improvised music that really captured my interest for all of the aughts. From there I spiraled back to the experimental composers, found other modern composers such as Lachenmann, Nono, Xenakis, Scelsi et al and that brings me about to where I am now. Obviously a highly compressed history there but trying to sort of stay on topic here.

Kronos Quartet Sun Rings performance

I first saw Kronos Quartet perform in Meany Hall at the University of Washington in maybe 2000? I saw them again there a couple of years later, premiering Terry Riley’s  Sun Rings so it must have been 2000-2001.  By this point I had mostly lost interest in them, they had moved away from the music that interested me.  They became increasingly interested in various world composers and while I think there is much great music to be found exploring the dusty corners of the world I just haven’t been all that taken with the compositions they’d commissioned. Additionally I was tending toward preferring other ensembles for many of my favorite pieces of theirs. But finally being gainfully employed and living in the Seattle area I couldn’t miss the chance to see an old favorite. I remember quite liking that show though I can’t find a record of it online and don’t recall what they played. I was pretty into Riley and Zorn at that point and the odds are they played some of both. It was definitely my interest in Riley that brought me to see Sun Rings which had interesting moments but made me realize that I really like early Riley and just wasn’t that taken by his Requiem for a Dreamcurrent output. Since that show (2003) the only Kronos I’ve paid any attention to was their soundtrack for Requiem for a Dream which I quite liked and Fountain which I liked a bit less. I pretty much had stopped paying attention to them and was thus surprised to see them working with Trimpin in that great documentary I saw last year.  I would definitely have gone to see that performance.

At some point last year I discovered that the Kronos Quartet were going to play at the Kirkland Performance Center which I should say is about a mile from where I live.  I’ve lived in Kirkland for three years now and within five miles of it for the last decade and have never visited the Performance Center. Mainly its because they tend to cater to that older demographic with the safe material that it seems to demand.  An opportunity to finally visit the center seeing a group that used to love and figure would still be at least enjoyable was not one to pass up.  I almost forgot about it though, but luckily Christopher DeLaurenti wrote it up in his The Score column in the Stranger reminding me just in time. I bought tickets online which I was able to just print out and leaving work slightly early (7:30 show? – just try to tell me they aren’t catering to an older demographic) I went home and then walked to the venue.  The Kirkland performance center has a 400 seat auditorium and I have to say it is very nice. The acoustics were great, the seating had a steep rise off the stage providing great sight lines from my back of the hall seating (the online chart was confusing, I thought I was buying a front row seat, turned out to be the back row. Worked out okay though, it sounded fantastic there). There was some brief announcements and a bit of history of the group (started in Seattle BTW) and the show began.

Kirkland Performance Center

Kronos Quartet: Tailor Made
Kirkland Performance Center
Kirkland WA USA

Set I:
Bryce Dressner
Aheym (homeward)
Missy Mazzoli
Harp and Altar
Terry Riley
Good Medicene Minimal Americana nit my fav Riley
Alkesandra Vrebalov
…hold me, neighbor, in this storm…

Honestly I don’t really want to write all that much about the music. None of it really appealed to me, it is pretty much exactly as I said above. This program was “Tailor Made” for the Kirkland Performance center and I don’t know if was targeting this demographic or if its just how they are but the program was pretty toothless. There was a lot (a lot) of pieces with tape accompaniment, Harp and Altar, and …hold me, neighbor, in this storm… from the first set and Cafe Tacuba from the second and this almost always were in such a way as to extend the ensemble as opposed to how historical tape accompaniment is used. In Harp and Altar there was vocalizations throughout which initially almost sounded like string effects and blended nicely but then became really pronounced and chopped and just sounded like bad pretentious pop. For …hold me, neighbor, in this storm… there was field recording type of material but also Muslim-ish singing and other vocal aspects. The Riley piece, from his epic Salome Dances for Peace, is one of those later Riley pieces I’m not so taken with. It was like Americana with repeated motifs so Minimalist Americana. It was one of the better pieces all told, but pretty bland. The first piece Aheym (homeward) was probably my favorite from this set. It had a very propulsive sound all of the strings playing in unison. After some time of this various instruments would break off and add various contrasting sounds. It was somewhat cinematic with distinct episodes but it was pretty engaging throughout.

Set II:
John Zorn
Selections from The Dead Man
Hamza El Din
(realized by Tohru Ueda)  Escalay (water wheel)
Traditional
(arr. Jacob Garchik) Smyrneiko Minore
Café Tacuba (arr. Osvaldo Golijov) 12/12

E1: Tusen Tarkon (sp?) Swedish
E2: Egyptian tango

There was a short break in which I took the opportunity to check out the rest of the performance center. It doesn’t have much of a lobby and it was pretty packed with people getting away from their seats for a bit.  There wasn’t much to do so I fairly quickly returned to my seat. The break wasn’t too long and then the second set began.  The Zorn piece it opened with, God help me, was probably the most interesting that they played sonically. Zorn used a lot of extended techniques, especially those favored by Lachenmann. So scritchy bowing brunched against the strings, bowing the back of the instrument, whipping the bows in the air and so on.  It was typical Zorn though, with lots of short quick segments, short little quotations and a cartooney feel.  Zorns compositions rarely do much for me and it was the sounds that I enjoyed the most here. Oddly the piece was played for laughs and as the ensemble would dramatically turn the page of the score after a minute of intense noise making the audience laughed everytime. It ended with whipping the bows in the air, generating clouds of resin which slayed the audience. The following piece, Escalay, was another rather cinematic piece with a pretty droney characteristic. I honestly don’t remember much about it beyond that but it was okay if unmemorable.  Smyrneiko Minore is an old Greek song that Harrington had encountered on an old recording. So musically it was pretty straightforward Greek folk music with the violins alternating on playing the vocal parts.  Short and to me not that interesting.  The last piece was made for Kronos by Café Tacuba a Mexican band that plays Latin Dancey pop music and it more or less had a tape of a full band playing, plus some field recording type of material that they played with. Pretty lame overall, but not my kind of music in general.  They played two encores, one a Swedish song that I’m just guessing on the spelling, that was simple and melancholy and an Egyptian Tango that was, well an Egyptian tango arranged for string quartet. After this there was a short Q&A with questions from the audience. Not much of interest was asked though.

So that was the Kronos Quartet in Kirkland. I’d say that’s about it for Kronos performances for me unless they do something unexpectedly interesting. They really seem to have become toothless as they have gotten older, using the world music, backing tapes and arranging pop tunes for greater accessibility. I certainly respect what they are doing, slipping the occasional interesting and challenging piece over on the audience but it doesn’t seem to be the driving passion for them. There is an issue that I recall being raised in an artist chat I saw with the Ives Ensemble last year about commissions and world premiers:

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.

The Kronos have played over 600 pieces many of which were written for them and I wonder if they are susceptible to this issue. They are always trying to play new material and world premiers and things written just for them that a lot of it seems to go by the wayside.  But worse to me is that so much of their material is just slight and seems calculated for popularity. Bollywood pieces? Arranged pop albums? World music? this is all a pretty far cry from Feldman, Crumb, Gorecki, Lutoslawski et al. I’ll always appreciate them for their introduction to so much great music and that really was the point of this post, but they are clearly playing for someone else now.

Among the great treasures of Seattle is sculpture, instrument inventor, composer, etc Trimpin. As with any installation artist, unless you are a jet setter, it is hard to see much of his work in person and in his case in particular it is quite difficult to gather much of a sense of the scope of his work.  This is because there are no catalogs, no recordings and little documentation in general of his work. That is until the release of a new documentary film Trimpin: The Sound of Invention, which is now making the rounds of the festival circuit.  Happily for me the Seattle International Film Festival is one of those festivals an they are showing the film several times throughout its three week run. 

I made the trek into Seattle Saturday May 23rd to catch the film, only realizing that morning that this coincided with Folk Life the epic four day free music festival in Seattle Center.  Seattle Center also houses the SIFF Theater where the film was being shown and the combination of Folk Life and SIFF meant it was going to be crazy. So I left extra early to insure that I’d make it there in time to get a good seat.  A backup on the freeway on the exit to the Seattle Center had me plenty concerned that it was going to be exceedingly difficult but it turned out to be the result of an accident at the exit ramp.  I was able to park right in a garage right across from the SIFF theater (at a fairly high parking cost) and was almost two hours early.  That was fine as Folk Life was a fine distraction and I also wanted to get lunch before the film.  This I did and I walked through Folk Life a bit which is always entertaining. You see they allow anyone to busk almost anywhere during the festival and as you walk around all varieties of sound intermingle and compete with each other and the sounds of thousands of people engaged in conversations, transactions and the like. Always sonically rewarding. I didn’t spend too much time there, I wanted to be certain of a good seat (they give precedence to SIFF members so sometimes the number of good seats for non-members is nearly non-existent (and yes I suppose I should be a member, but I find film festivals almost the worst way to see a film so I usually only see a couple per SIFF). 

I only waited around for about a half an hour before being let in, though I was in the wrong spot for a while and thus was not as far to the front of the line as I should have been. I got a good seat though, in the middle fourth row back. SIFF Cinema is not a huge screen so that is not too far forward. One or two rows back is probably the best seats in the house but this was within the good range.  The festival organizer introduced the festival and the film to us and then director, Peter Esmonde took the stage.  He only gave a few words before the film primarily admonishing us to listen as well as watch and to thank a lot of people. The lights dimmed, we were treated to about 7 minutes of trailers and finally the film.

Trimpin's perpetual motion machine

The film mainly devoted time to exploring the creative process and followed Trimpin through junkyards (shout out to the late, lamented Boeing Surplus!), galleries, concert halls and his workshop/studio.  It worked in historical material in service to this goal in that he mostly spoke of his upbringing in the Black Forest region of Germany in terms of musical, mechanical and important events that later influence his work and process. Woven throughout the film was the development process and finally a performance of a collaboration with the Kronos Quartet called 4 Cast: Unpredictable. Watching him work was among the best aspects of the film, observing him work out this completely original ideas of turning junk into machines that made sound. One moment that I particularly loved was the accidental discovery of this beautifully haunting glass armonica as he was polishing with a rag the glass tube from a television set. He had this hung and was using them as sound projectors for reed instruments that were in the tube like next of the glass.  As he was polishing one of these he pulled the rag out and it generated a sustained tone like running your finger on a wine glass. He was immediately captivated and iteratively worked out exactly how to replicate it. Then he tried running his finger on it ala a wine glass to similar though a bit duller results. Finally he dug around the copious piles of stuff in his studio and pulling out a bow proceeded to bow the glass device to beautiful results.  This is a a highly creative mind at play and discovering something that who knows how he’ll apply?  They showed the finished installation with the TV tubes and it did not utilize this effect.

 

4 Cast: Unpredictable

4 Cast: Unpredictable

 

The film also spent time covering Trimpin’s lack of interest in many of the trappings (or traps?) of the art world: he has no representation, or an agent nor as I alluded to earlier has he spent much effort on documentation.  He wants to do his work and move on to the next thing.  But his installations are permanent, durable, completely hand made and interactive. Getting to see a bunch of these, which you’d have to travel all over to see was fantastic.  As was the bits we got to see of this performance with Kronos which only happened once and has not been documented beyond this film. (though see the pictures here an some video footage here).  The first Trimpin piece I ever saw was the huge fountain of guitars in the EMP and the process behind putting this together was also covered in the film.  Trimpin, who tells a good anecdote, detailed his meeting with EMP founder and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen as not a traditional public art pitch. The guitars at the top of this mammoth fountain of guitars would play music via these robotic devices that Trimpin constructed and Paul Allen inquired who would get up there to tune these guitars. Trimpin, flustered on the spot replied that they’d tune themselves.  Paul Allen, who heretofore had failed to even look him in the eye, looked up from his dossiers and uttered an awed “Wow”.

 

 

 

Trimpin had come to Seattle from his clearly beloved Black Forest because he said he had better junk.  The stuff you can find in Boeing Surplus and the other junkyards that feature castoffs from Seattle’s aerospace, shipyards and other high tech industries certainly provide that (though sadly most of these resources are now gone).  His experiences in the Black Forest, home of the cuckoo clock industry and where every beerhall, shop and coffee house would have a unique music making devices (usually based on music box type technologies) clearly set him on this track.  The bespoke nature of those instruments, their mechanical nature with their exposed mechanisms and memories etched in physical objects clearly directly anticipate his sculptures. But his move from the pure pragmatic aspects of those machines, to the abstractions of his, plus his embrace of the Cagean notions of sound as music makes his the tremendous artworks that they are.  These machines are really compositions that play themselves, or are instruments that the audience is vital for it to actually sound.  Trimpin heard the great player piano composer Nancarrow on the radio and his world opened up.

 

 

He hadn’t heard music of that density and complexity, music that was acoustic and yet required mechanical means to exist.  It was like the music machines of Bavaria being put to use on modern, creative and wholly originally music.  Trimpin eventually would meet Nancarrow and work with him, transcribing Nancarrows deteriorating piano rolls into midi and saving the music for all of us.  Kyle Gann’s great article for American Mavericks series on builder composers covers this territory a lot better then I can.  It is important to note that Trimpin’s restless imagination never stayed stuck with antiquated technology, an issue that actually hindered Nancarrow from realizing some of his more ambitious later projects.  The film showed him working with mechanical and pneumatic instruments, reading punch cards and the like in his earlier works. But his later works are all controlled by Apple laptops, use Midi and custom control software and his assistants include computer programmers, roboticists along with sculptures and machinists.

This film is right up there with Rivers & Tides as one of the best art documentaries that I have seen. In many cases it is because of the subject matter, Trimpin, like Goldsworthy, is about process and there is an ephemerality to their work that lends itself to film.  But beyond that it is the artistry of the filmmakers to not try to force their own narrative, to create a “story” but to focus explicit on the creative process.  This film was being projected right off of a dvd which is fully setup with menus and extras and everything. I think that after its time on the festival circuit it will certainly be made available on dvd. I urge you to see it if it plays near you, but otherwise definitely plan on picking up this dvd.

After the film there was a brief Q&A with the filmmaker and Trimpin moderated by the SIFF organizer. I folded in bits from that into the above but the most interesting questions were on his reluctance of documentation.  To which Trimpin replied it was the issue of reproduction, that since his sculptures acoustically generated the sounds they were inherently spatial and that stereophonic recording couldn’t capture that. Once 5.1 systems were everyday he said he felt that a better reproductions could be made.  He was then asked why he allowed the film to be made which didn’t really get a direct answer but they talked about the rules they put in place for the project. These namely involved the lack of forcing any sort of agenda from the filmmaker on Trimpin. He’d be allowed to film and tape whatever but nothing would be done to accommodate that and there would be no artificial scenes, retakes and the like.  This I think was pretty essential to the film.  

Anyway they wrapped this up fairly shortly and told us there would be a reception and panel discussion at 4pm the Lawrimore Project a local gallery about 5 miles away.  They also mentioned that they’d be showing outtakes from the film and had some of his scores there to view.  Well all of the sudden my plans of wandering around Folk Life for the rest of the afternoon changed and I had to make my way to this. Christopher DeLaurenti local musician, writer of whom I’ve written before gave me directions to this rather out of the way gallery and I was off.  Took some time to make my way across town but made it I did about ten minutes or so before the panel discussion.  I acquired a much needed pale ale (it was very hot on this May weekend) and checked out the art hanging in the gallery.  Their current exhibition is on Scores a top near and dear to my heart. There were some interesting things hanging but I’d need more time with them to say much.

 

Left to Right: Charles Amirkhanian, Trimpin, Christopher DeLaurenti, Jacob McMurray and  Scott Lawrimore

Trimpin, Christopher DeLaurenti, Jacob McMurray and Scott Lawrimore

 

The panel was made up of Charles Amirkhanian,  composer and producer of Other Minds fame, the aforementioned Christopher DeLaurenti, Jacob McMurray a Curator at the EMP, Beth Sellars – Curator, Suyama Space who put on many a Trimpin exhibition and of course Trimpin himself.  It was moderated by Scott Lawrimore of the Lawrimore Project. The panel was quite interesting, it began with discussion on the relationship between Trimpin’s art and composition with digressions into Nancarrow, Cage Antheil and the like.  As I’ve mentioned before Trimpin tells a good anecdote and we got several of those. He talked about seeing a concert (I’ve spaced on the composers name) in Amsterdam which featured multiple orchestras on barges in the canals, bells from the churches and sounds basically coming from all over the city. The density of sounds and the extreme spatialization of them highly impressed Trimpin. But it was hearing Nancarrow on the radio that he felt that that density, complexity and layered structure could be captured in a more finite system. This was instrumental on Trimpin’s moving into the more abstract musics that his sculptures would make.  He also talked of attending a music conference (In Denver IIRC) with Cage and others where he finally got to really talk with other composers (which he said just didn’t happen).

There was really too much covered in the panel to really go into, but one thing that brought up some serious regret was talking about the Year of Trimpin in 2005. This year+ long showing of Trimpins works in 11 galleries all around the NW (extending as far as Montana) was probably the best opportunity to see a lot of his works. Something I missed back in the day. After much discussion it was opened up to audience questions and proving the rule that in open Q&A you are always going to get some idiotic question the very first one was asked about how much he was influenced by urban culture. Specifically how much “crunk, beatboxing, rapping” and the like influenced his work. Anyone who had seen the film knew that he followed his own muse and while his stuff is not disconnected to the world around him there is no Crunk involved.  The second aspect of this dude’s question though on engagement with the world was taken into an interesting direction and Trimpin talked about the political nature of his works. In this regard many of his works are political but not always overtly so. As always I find that a lot more effective then in your face political art which has small impact and even less longevity.  One of Trimpins more overtly political projects involved 24 bobbing chickens used as a random number generator to create new random speeches using words culled from 8 years of GW Bush’s Saturday radio addresses.  Chris DeLaurenti pointed out three urban/political connections in Trimpins work: reuse/repurposing of the detritus of modern society, the non-commercial aspect of it which, as Kyle Gann has pointed out, is inherently a political act and the inherent accessibility of his art some of which demands interaction with the audience to work at all.

Overall a great panel with tons of good information. After this they showed some outtakes from the film in one room while there was a reception with food and drink in another.  The later attracted the MFA’s in throngs but it was the scores hung on the wall that got my attention. I couldn’t find many images of them on the net (the best at this Henry Gallery page) but they were fascinating.  A mixture of subverted traditional notation, midi/mechanical notation, colors, images all colleged together some in an almost Rauschenberg level of complexity. Real artworks as well as being scores.  To this graphical score geek I was entranced by these.

But I did also watch all of the outtakes (which were clearly “bonus features” on the dvd) the most interesting was of a visit to the Instrumentarium where Harry Partch’s instruments are stored.  There was a great segment of Trimpin in the back room of the museum with the curator as he played and demonstrated all of Partch’s unique creations. Trimpin was clearly enthralled and like a kid in a candy store.

Anyway this was a great afternoon of art and film and talking with interesting people about interesting things. I learned a lot and was highly inspired by a lot of what I saw and heard.  I definitely want to see more of Trimpin’s art and will seek it out whenever I travel.

See all of my pictures from the panel here.

Further explorations:
1) Trimpin: The Sound of Inventionmovie blogimdb page, SIFF Page
2) Trimpin on Wikipedia
3) Trimpin page at Other Minds
4) American Mavericks series on builder composers, Kyle Gann
5) Trimpin installation at the EMP
6) Trimpin installation at SeaTac
9) Kronos Quartet
10) Trimpin on Youtube
11) Conlon Nancarrow on Wikipedia
12) Lawrimore Project
13) Christopher DeLaurenti
14) Other Minds
15)  EMP
16) Instrumentarium