Monday, July 13, 2015

ArtIfacts: Recent Chamber Works by Mara Gibson

Mara Gibson's music is all about sound. That is certainly not to say there is no form or melodic elements, but rather to say conventionality yields to the palate of sounds and even visual media available to the modern composer. Mara celebrates sound through the stretching the limits of an instrument or ensemble. Her work celebrates the creative process as well through the connection of words and music and the connection of physical elements and musical sound. In all her works on this CD of recent chamber works, moments of lyric intensity are interrupted by sounds that one might think is coming from another instrument or sound world. Never done just for shock or display, the new sounds propel the works along and become a part of the long stitched fabric. Thus a key to experiencing her music to the fullest is not to concentrate only on the short motifs but to look at the long view of a work... it becomes crystal clear.

Yes, her music is tough listening. This is not music to listen to while folding laundry, Lord knows I tried that and soon the laundry was forgotten. It requires concentration and an open ear, which opens a world of color, drama and sound. Since Mara Gibson lives and teaches in Kansas City, I have had many opportunities to hear her music live and often experienced their first performances. Her music is even more engaging and satisfying heard live as you feel as well as hear its power and motion.

The generously programmed CD begins with 2013's “Moments” for clarinet, viola and piano. Gibson's epic trio in three parts further divided into eight movements (“methods and “improvisations”) is inspired by a quote from Confucius:

“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” 

The piece starts with the viola and clarinet vaguely in unison. After this short introduction, their tones bend and separate as they go their own way. The piano's role is to comment and reflect on the other instruments musings while providing cohesion and framework. All three members have extensive, improvisatory solo “moments”. The clarinet's is melodic, even jazz edged. The viola explores the woody, earthy textures of its strings through extensive pizzicato. The piano grandly concludes the solo “moments” with a climatic cadenza worthy of Henry Cowell using both the piano's keys and the strings. The third part, “Experience,” serves as a coda, with the trio finally playing as an integrated ensemble. The music here had a tinge of bitterness and resignation but a also a certain final confidence and consonance.

Michael Hall, viola, Thomas Aber, clarinet and Robert Pherigo premiered this piece and give it a loving, compelling performance. Not likely to hear any better.

2014's "Flone", for flute alone, written for and performed here by Italian flutist Luisa Sello, is based on Bach's "Partita for Flute" BWV 1013. Atavistic fluttering and the pizzicato of tapped keys evoke earth sounds as the theme from the Allemande of the Partita emerges and takes flight. The theme is embellished until it climaxes and deconstructs into fragments, returning to the earth music of the opening. A most compelling and fascinating work and sure winner of the Most Cleverly Appropriate Title of the Year award.

“Canopy” for solo viola and mixed media was inspired by “Ferment,” a massive outdoor sculpture installation by Roxy Paine at the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City, and premiered by violist Michael Hall at the unveiling ceremonies in April 2011. The work has become one of Gibson's most performed works and receives its deserved CD premiere. “Ferment” is at once recognizable as a tree but also foreign and desolate in its cold, hard, metallic construction. Gibson’s substantial 15 minute piece has many of the same characteristics; the mixed media blending and contrasting its other worldly, metallic sounds with the warm wood of the viola. “Canopy” explores organic growth, long lines from the viola predominate while the media comments on and propels the soloist, alternating periods of stasis and growth finally reaching the fragile threads of a lone, barren tree’s highest, most delicate branches. “Canopy” is a most fascinating and colorful work, deserving of its many performances; the one here with the incomparable violist Michael Hall being as definitive as one can get.

“Map of Rain Hitting Water” (2006 rev. 2012), conceived for solo percussion and video (by media artist Caitlin Horsman), is inspired by the poem “Clarence Playing” by Wayne Miller....

By the song’s end, he reaches into a brief
Rapture of completion (as a child reaches
into a cabinet of sweets). Though,
Now he thinks perhaps the music’s
More like a map of rain hitting water—

...and the relationship between how words visually appear on the page and how they sound. Unfolding slowly and hypnotically, “Map” is just as enjoyable without the video (which can be seen here) as it is with the images. Compositions like this can often become meaningless Muzak. But Map, with mostly metallic percussion (with a persistent pulse of a woodblock and log drum) is always colorful and expressive, it slowly progresses and subtly draws you into its world. Brilliantly performed by Mark Lowery who commissioned it and for whom it was composed. The bright, clear recording brings out every nuance and shade of color in the percussion and associated sounds.

Two short works “Hands” and “Lullaby” (2006) for two pianos (fine performances from pianists Ya-Ting Liou and Blas Gonzalez) are movements from larger work titled “Duo”. “Hands” is a propulsive moto perpetuo of falling figures, starting in the lowest register and ending in the eerie highs. “Lullaby”, appropriate to its title, is a short, magical essay evoking a music box or two gently (and sometimes not so gently) tempting to leave reality and enter a world of dreams and suspension of time.

“E:Tip”, for cello and fixed media, is one of three works for varying ensembles inspired by the trajectory and refraction of an eclipse. “E:Tip” stretches the tones of the cello through time and space, ebbing a flowing through a cloud of sound created by electronically manipulating the droning of bullfrogs in a pond. Another successful example of Gibson's hypnotic and gently unfolding sound essays, wonderfully realized here by Alan Wong, cello.

Every work is worth a listen or twelve, each one always displaying Gibson's considerable, distinctive voice. Well recorded with excellent and intelligent notes and bios of the performers and composer, the CD is available through CD Baby, Google Play, Amazon, Spotify or in old fashioned hard copy by contacting the composer at

ArtIfacts is a labor of love, a festival of performers and a composer enjoying their craft and relishing their collaborations. And contemporary music is richer for the effort.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Nadia Shpachenko: Woman at the "New" Piano

Woman at the New Piano is an album with a surely cosmic purpose; a commemoration in music of an (almost) monumental (and now likely forgotten) event that thankfully did not come to pass. “In the year 2012”, pianist Nadia Shpachenko writes in the album notes, “the nation was swept by a fear that had not been seen since the Y2K transition of January 1, 2000." According to a Mayan calendar and accompanying legends, the world would end on December 21st, 2012 since the calendar went no further, or something like that. Waking up seemingly alive and in the same world as the day before, Nadia thought “let's celebrate and document this great transition! Let's write and perform new pieces which capture where we are, and where we are going. It's a whole new world, let's play it!”

Indeed this prodigiously talented, California-based pianist and teacher, has recorded a delightful and diverse program of brand new works she commissioned in 2013 from four outstanding composers, Tom Flaherty, Peter Yates, Adam Schoenberg and James Matheson. Released on the Reference Recordings FRESH! label, devoted to recordings of new artists and new repertoire. 

I was particularly interested in the four movement suite “Picture Etudes” by Adam Schoenberg for solo piano since I was very familiar with the orchestral version “Picture Studies” having attended the premiere with the Kansas City Symphony in 2012. But before I could program the machine to play those tracks, I was immediately immersed in the absorbing, colorful and animated sound world of Tom Flaherty's “Airdancing” for Piano, Toy Piano and Electronics.

Inspired by floating and falling images of cliff divers, giant squids and daredevil “Fearless Felix” Baumgartner's dramatic supersonic skydive from 39km above the earth, “Airdancing” is 8 minutes kinetic movement that takes you along on a falling, floating journey. The prominent timbre of the toy piano may first evoke the works of George Crumb and John Cage, but very soon dark and foreboding electronic percussion sounds contrast and then lighten to propel the work forward. Flaherty often integrates the instruments into a single entity and then just as suddenly unleashes them to go their separate ways, careening to a sweeping, swirling end that evaporates in to eerie silence.

Arresting, dramatic, exhilarating and sometimes briefly serene, “Airdancing” stretches the listener's imagination and challenges the ear while being accessible and frankly smile producing enjoyable. Reference Recordings' clear, detailed sonics bring out every nuance, never overwhelming the toy piano but also never distorting it to absurdity. Shpachenko clearly commands and loves this colorful work, and is more than ably assisted by Genevieve Feiwen Lee on the toy piano and electronics.

So after listening to “Airdancing” a few times, I skipped on to the Schoenberg (although taking the works in the CD's order is just as rewarding).

“Picture Etudes” and the related “Studies” draws obvious connections to Mussorgsky's “Pictures at an Exhibition”. Both works have piano and orchestra versions and musically reflect a series of paintings in a gallery. While Mussorgsky's pictures are of one artist, Schoenberg's inspiration came from paintings by a variety of artists in the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, MO. Four of the Ten orchestra movements were selected by the composer to make up “Etudes” If curious about the orchestra version, it has been recorded by Reference Recordings and the Kansas City Symphony for future release.

“Three Pierrots”, inspired by Bloch's “Die Drei Pierrots Nr. 2) is ironic, witty and pulsing with nervous, percussive energy. A lot of story and music in a short two minutes. Following is “Miró's World” a reflection on “Women at Sunrise” Joan Miró. Similarly spontaneous and rhythmically vibrant (even adding a part for a drum), “Miró's World” is playful and a bit jazzy, contrasting with the following “Olive Orchard” inspired by Van Gogh's same titled painting. Languid and romantic, “Olive Orchard” is simply beautiful music and the emotional core of the suite. Shpachenko never lets the music get mushy or sweet, Van Gogh's intensity and drama are never far from the surface. “Kandinsky” a musical portrait of Wassily Kandinsky's “Rose with Gray” serves as the finale to the suite. The percussion returns to accent the dry, starkly dramatic piano which sweeps and propels the piece to a crashing, sweeping conclusion.

Shpachenko makes a most convincing case for these portraits and we are unlikely to get such a definitive, affectionate recording soon. As with Mussorgsky, the piano only version gives the listener insight to the inner voices and the frame of the music while the orchestral can dazzle with color and power. Both are worth hearing.

Schoenberg also provides the concluding work on the CD. Also existing in an orchestral version, “Bounce”, for two pianos, is a ten minute playful romp inspired by the 100th anniversary of the “Rite of Spring” and the impending birth of Schoenberg's son. Danceable, fun, enjoyable and superbly executed by Shpachenko with Genevieve Feiwen Lee on the second piano.

Peter Yates' colorful “Pandora's box”, as the composer describes them, six movement suite “Finger Songs” ably demonstrates Shpachenko's range of technique. From sophisticated jazz in “Mood Swing”, misty landscapes in “Mysterious Dawn” and on to adolescent hijinks and light hearted fun with hints of Ragtime in “Gambol” and “All Better”, “Finger Songs” is an important addition to the contemporary piano literature, totally accessible, totally interesting and 100% fun to hear.

Tom Flaherty returns in “Part Suite-a” (to rhyme with partita), a decidedly darker and more introspective than “Airdancing”. A take-off on the baroque suite, the three movements are woven around characteristic elements of the passacaglia, sarabande and scherzo forms. The darker, complex “Passacagliatude” unfolds to a powerful essay from a simple bass ostinato. “Lullabande” is a sweet lullaby with the characteristic sway of the ancient dance. The concluding “Scherzoid” is a virtuoso, tumultuous, romp tinged just a hair with some drama.

The longest single movement in the program, James Matheson's “Cretic Variations” takes us on a kaleidoscopic voyage from a single repeated high note through contrasting variations to an ambiguous quiet ending. The title refers to the poetic cretic foot meter (long, short, long) which, as the composer notes may “..lend itself better to Dr Seuss than more serious poetic endeavors”. Matheson stretches and teases this inherently simple phrase to create a powerful, lyrical and demanding set of variations. Another work that can, and should, become a staple of recitals and programs.

Stellar performances, usual fine Reference Recordings sound throughout, informative liner notes and a most varied and energetic program make “Woman at the New Piano” a clear winner and a new favorite here.

Woman At the New Piano
Nadia Shpachenko, Piano
Genevieve Feiwen Lee, Piano and Toy Piano

Reference Recordings FRESH FR 711