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October 30, 2008

Gordon Mumma: Music for Solo Piano (1960- 2001)

By Dan Warburton
Paris Transatlantic

Those of you who know Gordon Mumma only for his pioneering 1960s work with electronics – from the earwax-melting Dresden Interleaf 13 February 1945 and Megaton For Wm. Burroughs to the raw cybersonics of Hornpipe – ought to know that, prior to his groundbreaking work with the Sonic Arts Union he did in fact study "traditional" composition and performance in the 1950s with Ross Lee Finney in Ann Arbor and George Exon at Interlochen. A talented pianist, he's well versed not only in the contemporary repertoire – performing much of it in a duo with Robert Ashley back in the 60s – but also in Bach, Scarlatti, Haydn, Schoenberg, Webern and Bartók. This fine twofer from New World, beautifully produced and complete as ever with informative liner notes, may be entitled Music For Solo Piano 1960 – 2001, but only two of the works it contains date from the early 60s – the Suite for Piano (1960) and Large Size Mograph (1962) – even if seeds of the later piano music, notably 1997's Jardin, were planted back in the composer's formative years. The music is intimate, introspective and condensed – which could, once more, come as something as a surprise to those who only know of Mumma's work from the period of the ONCE Festival and the Sonic Arts Union – and reveals a remarkable ear for pitch and fondness for time-honoured contrapuntal techniques. But this is no exercise in neoclassical nostalgia: Mumma's take on serialism is as fresh in the Eleven Note Pieces & Decimal Passacaglia (1978) as it is in the thorny Suite, and when he chooses an extant work as a model – the Minuet from Haydn's Symphony No. 47 in the second piece of 1996's Threesome – there's not an inkling of postmodern irony. There's enough set theory in the Sushihorizontals (1986 – 96) to keep a graduate class busy for several months, and, best of all, you can really hear how it works. Dean Vandewalle's performances are terrific, at one and the same time meticulous in their exploration of dynamics and timbre and touchingly lyrical. Now there are two words I bet you never thought of using to describe the music of Gordon Mumma… get yourself a copy of this posthaste and think again.

Michael Byron: Dreamers of Pearl

By Dan Warburton
Paris Transatlantic

Dreamers of Pearl is a 53-minute work for solo piano in three movements, individually entitled "Enchanting the Stars", "A Bird Revealing the Unknown to the Sky" and "It is the Night and Dawn of Constellations Irradiated". If those titles tempt you to load up the convertible with plastic pyramids and gaudy crystals and drive out to Pahrump Nevada to await the arrival of the Martians (don't take any doves along), think again. Michael Byron might be associated with the second wave of California minimalism – moving away from strict process-based music towards what I once described elsewhere as "solid state" – and much of his earlier work was luminously tonal, but Dreamers of Pearl is about as close to New Age ear candy as those "funny looking little critters" in Mars Attacks were to being ambassadors of interplanetary peace and love. The work's roots in minimalism are evident enough though, especially in the second movement, which moves through its clearly defined harmonic fields as patiently as Reich's Music for 18 Musicians, but the actual surface of the music is constantly changing, rhythmically irregular, and often tough and angular. Byron's music is fully notated, and the handsome 20-page booklet contains numerous extracts from the score which reveal its considerable metrical and harmonic intricacies (particularly in the first movement, in which the pianist has to negotiate a different key signature for each hand!), but sounds fresh enough to have been created in real time – one wonders at times whether he's hit upon a way of getting his music software to transcribe and print out a recording of an improvisation, so naturally do the notes lie under the fingers. As such, Scelsi's solo piano music comes to mind, as does La Monte Young's Well Tuned Piano, a transcribed score of which wouldn't look all that different from Dreamers of Pearl in places. One wonders also whether Joseph Kubera, whose performance of the work is absolutely stunning, has learnt the piece by heart – which would be quite a feat – as it seems well nigh impossible to commit any of its myriad local details to long-term memory. But you could probably say that of the Ligeti Etudes too, come to think of it – and Byron's music, like Ligeti's, is instantly recognisable, perceptually challenging, beautifully proportioned and deeply satisfying. Check it out.