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August 12, 2009

Scott Fields Interview (Free Download)

Scott Fields
Music and Language

Composer and guitarist Scott Fields (b. 1956), alongside his work with mobile-like formal structures and rigorous, often guided, improvisations for large ensemble, has worked extensively on the creative use of text for composition. Most recently, he released Samuel on New World Records. The three compositions are based on a short monologue and two late pantomimes of Samuel Beckett. In his first New World podcast, he talks from his home in Cologne, Germany about the winding path from his youth in Chicago to his present work in Germany as an expatriate. He also provides some insight into the “songs without words� that make up his New World release.

James Mulcro Drew: Animating Degree Zero

By Frank J. Oteri
New Music Box

It has often been said that the United States in the 20th (and now the 21st) century produced a greater number of composers than at any other time or place in human history. With so much material out there—not only from the standpoint of geography and media, but also style and pedigree—it is well-nigh impossible to hear it all. As a result, tons of neglected repertoire is still awaiting discovery. Although valiant efforts have been made by many independent record labels to shine light on (or rather amplify the sound of) music by otherwise overlooked American composers, few have done so as broadly and as consistently as New World Records, so the arrival of a new release from them is always something to stop and listen to. And while everything they release is notable, about once a year they issue something which is truly astounding, begging for the history of American music to be rewritten. A couple of years ago it was the three-CD set of music by African American minimalist/post-minimalist Julius Eastman (1940-1990) whose works for multiples of the same instrument throb with power and majesty. Last year it was the first-ever recording devoted exclusively to the music of Johanna M. Beyer (1888-1944), who seemed to be writing Elliott Carter's string quartets twenty years before he did. This year it's the first CD of music by James Mulcro Drew (b. 1929), who luckily is still alive to hear his music treated so devotedly by the Amsterdam-based Barton Workshop, led by expatriate American trombonist James Fulkerson.

Drew certainly has the pedigree—a one-time student of pioneering American serialist Wallingford Riegger, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in the '70s and his music was championed by Gunther Schuller at Tanglewood. And yet a cursory listen to the six works featured here on Animating Degree Zero, five of which were composed this decade, reveals a composer whose inclinations are more akin to the uncategorizable experiments of the American maverick strain. Equally inspired by modernism, conceptualism, and a wide range of vernacular traditions, Drew has forged a compositional language that is completely his own and which is difficult to make generalizations about.

The composition which gives the disc its title, Animating Degree Zero (2003), is a subdued jazz-tinged ten-piece ensemble work for an expanded Pierrot configuration featuring a pair of wah-wah trombones. But for Bonaroo Breaks (Street Funeral Music) from 2003, the sound world of New Orleans funeral processions is the starting point for a raucous modular composition for two trombones and percussion. On the other hand, 12 Centers Breathing (2001) for viola and percussion, and Solemn Acts in Rain (2002), the one work here scored for a standard instrumental combination (violin and piano), seem more akin to the spare and ambiguous sonic landscapes of Morton Feldman.

The one older Drew piece included in this collection, The Lute in the Attic (1963) presents yet another compositional persona. And considering the importance of theatre in Drew's output, it is also surprisingly the only texted work on this disc. A surreal setting of a poem by Kenneth Patchen which requires the vocalist to speak, sing, shout, and everything in between, Lute in the Attic, whose graphic score was featured by John Cage in his famous anthology Notations, is simultaneously surreal and folksy. While it was performed at its premiere by a soprano, it is presented here in a commanding performance by baritone Charles van Tassel. The most recent composition included here, In Memoriam J.C. Higginbottom (2005), is a tribute to the great Dixieland jazz trombonist whose signature gutbucket sonorities James Fulkerson hauntingly conjures here in performance through use of a 90 second digital reverberation.

All in all, New World offers a wonderful introduction to James Mulcro Drew, one that has been long overdue and continues their track record of annual mind-blower. In the personal wish list department, it would be amazing if their next rediscovery were either Hans Barth, a one-time piano duet partner of Charles Ives whose 1/4-tone piano concerto was championed by Stokowski, or Vera N. Preobrajenska, a forgotten Bay Area iconoclast who seems to have attempted a synthesis of Partch's corporeality and serial procedures independently of Ben Johnston. But whatever it may be, more opportunities to expand the canon of great American composers are sure to come from New World. Stay tuned.

James Mulcro Drew: Animating Degree Zero

James Mulcro Drew, Chamber Music at Extreme Temperatures
Chamber Music Today

In thermodynamics, an adiabatic process is any thermodynamic process in which no heat is transferred to or from the surrounding space. The term 'adiabatic' literally means impassable, coming from the Greek roots ἀ- (‘not’), διὰ- (‘through’), and βαῖνειν ("to pass"). It means a total absence of heat transfer.

At temperatures near 0°K, nearly all molecular motion ceases and the entropy change ΔS = 0 for any adiabatic process. Pure substances can (ideally) form perfect crystals as T→0.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In this wonderful recording we have members of the Barton Workshop performing several works that James Drew composed between 2001 and 2005.

At very low temperatures in the vicinity of absolute zero, matter exhibits many unusual properties including superconductivity, superfluidity, and Bose-Einstein condensates.

At [musical] temperatures close to absolute zero, quantum [musical] particles begin taking on new 'collective' properties. Delinquent waves begin to act in concert. At low temperatures where everything occurs in slow-motion, the true nature of the most basic constituents of the ensemble are revealed. I wonder whether it could be measured... wonder whether quantum phenomena like the 'observer effect' occurs outside the subatomic world, in the world of macroscopic processes like human beings playing and listening to music. According to the second law of thermodynamics, all physical processes in the Universe can naturally flow only from a state of greater energy to lesser energy.

Throw a stone into a lake, and the ripples it makes eventually die out. My cup of hot coffee can [left by itself in a setting where the ambient temperature is lower than the coffee] only get cooler, not hotter.

But near absolute zero the particles comprising an object behave differently. Although the ensemble 'atoms' are still part of a 'gas', they behave more like atoms of a metal--like one smeared-out single entity, similar to experiments with rubidium gas by Eric Cornell and Carl Wieman at the University of Colorado Boulder in 1995, for which they won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2001. The James Drew expressions form what I think is a musical equivalent to a Bose-Einstein condensate--a peculiar property of atoms slowing down so much that they are zen-like, almost at rest.

The sonic attributes that I'm referring to can be heard in each of the compositions on this disc... the 'direct sound duration' of each note, as contrasted with indirect sounds and their durations and decay. Listen to the sympathetic resonance between notes and the quadratic effect, especially in the piano part [when applicable].

In the piano, a very high soundboard Q-factor shortens high frequencies' durations. The piano's soundboard mechanical impedance affects the global sound duration of the instrument, and, for the instrument performed and recorded on this disc, the high impedance yields longer-duration sounds, slower decays. The tones blossom after the initial attack, and sympathetic resonances bring the ensemble of waves in-line. Electron-cloud-like, metallic.

On hard [piano key; viola; etc.] attacks, the nonlinear part of the string response increases, producing frequencies with twice the values of the normal ones. The quadratic effect influences the loudness of this nonlinear response, and, when the score has such low entropy [close to musical absolute zero], the nonlinearities are very prominent--and are probably related to the superfluid Bose-Einstein condensate-like quality of the collective, coalescing, long-range musical effects that are created here. Similarities to quantum software algorithms (see writings by Matt Hastings at LANL, and others), in terms of process and in terms of how you go about measuring statistical physics properties of music like this...

Drew was born in 1929 and studied with Wallingford Riegger and Edgard Varèse. He taught at Northwestern University, Yale University, UCLA, Cal State, and other institutions. He has performed with and co-founded several musical groups, including the Crossfire Mission Orchestra in the late 1960s in New Haven (radical performances, often behind barbed wire), the Mysterious Traveling Cabaret, the American Music Theater in California, the Blast Opera Theater. In his quasi-retirement he has undertaken concerts and arts education work with the Grey Wolf Project. Barton 'Zero' disk is simply excellent.


By Christian Carey
Sequenza 21

On io, Flutist Margaret Lancaster performs a program that spans nearly three quarters of a century. Despite this, most take the 1930s Ultramodernist tradition in American music as a point of referral.

Written in 1936, Johanna Beyer’s “Have Faith� is a brief, angular piece that presents the nightingale’s song in a fetching, somewhat spiky, costume; it is sung with pure tone and detailed care by Beth Griffith. This segues directly into the title piece, by Lois V. Vierk. Lancaster is joined here by Larry Polansky (playing electric guitar) and Matthew Gold (playing marimba). The material encompasses many of the slides and inflections of Gagaku, a subject of extensive research by the composer. Lancaster thrives with Eastern flair in the subtleties and characterizations demanded by the score. Meanwhile, Polansky and Gold articulate vibrant ostinati and pulsating drones. Thus, the piece supplies an East-meets-West, traditional music plus Downtown amalgam that is simultaneously distinctive and appealing.

Premiered in 2008, the most recent work on the CD is Joan La Barbara’s Atmos. Although written for multiple instruments and “sonic atmosphere� as a theatre piece, it still shows off Lancaster’s considerable dramatic flair as an audio-only presentation. La Barbara revels in the sounds of breath, manipulating both live performer and recordings to create a wide range of “wind shadings.� Other effects include percussive attacks, key clicks, and all manner of vocal utterances. La Barbara’s piece may be more directly influenced by Cage than Cowell or Seeger, but it is welcome for its inclusion as a stunning showcase for Lancaster regardless.

Another echo of the Ultramodernist school is James Tenney’s Seegersong #2 (1999). Tenney (1934-2006) used Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Piano Study in Mixed Accents as a basis for the piece, extending Seeger’s ideas about tempo flexibility (perpetuo mobile) to encompass some of the investigations into large-scale rhythmic design that engaged him during his late career. While all of this precompositional conceptualizing may be fascinating to insiders, the aural result is widely appealing: a skillfully written, artfully shaped solo flute piece. Lancaster affords it the precision its tricky rhythmic shifts require, all the while maintaining a sumptuous tone.

The CD closes with Larry Polansky’s five-movement work for solo piccolo entitled Piker. Taken from a reference in a 1935 letter by Marion Bauer to Ruth Crawford Seeger (“You’re no piker! But please drop me a card from somewhere!�). Generally, one might think that five movements of solo piccolo is four too many, but Polansky varies the part enough to keep things quite interesting, including microtones, devilishly difficult polymetric twists and turns, distressed Shaker tunes, and percussive foot stomps. Truth be told, Lancaster is joined by Polansky and Gold on the final movement of the piece, so it’s not strictly a solo work. But for many, it takes an artist of Lancaster’s caliber to make piccolo diverting for twenty minutes; a task she accomplishes handily here.

You're a Grand Old Rag: The Music of George M. Cohan

By Jack Rummel
Ragtime Music Reviews by Jack Rummel

This is the third “concept� recording that Rick Benjamin has tackled along with his Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, the first two being “Black Manhattan� (music of early Black musicals) and “From Barrelhouse to Broadway� (music of Joe Jordan), and each one has been not only a musical treat but also a wonderful slice of history. This tribute to the music of George M. Cohan contains 33 pages of carefully researched material, which could pose an interesting question: Is this a CD of great music accompanied by extensive liner notes, or is this a mini historical treatise complete with musical examples? Both aspects are so well done, one would be hard pressed to choose.

Benjamin stresses that, while there have been numerous tributes to Cohan’s music over the decades, this is the first-ever to utilize the period arrangements of an “Eleven & Piano� orchestra, the standard theater orchestra of the day. For ragtime fans who have been used to hearing ragtime orchestras ranging in size from 5-15 players, this will be a very familiar sound; for those encountering Cohan played by Eleven & Piano for the first time, it will be an educational but rewarding experience.

The PRO is a highly disciplined unit, thoroughly skilled at performing with verve and sparkle. Benjamin listened carefully to early recordings by Cohan, conducted extensive auditions and settled on baritone Colin Pritchard as having the voice and delivery that most emulated Cohan. He also recruited soprano Bernadette Boerckel, with whom he had previously collaborated. The result is as close as Benjamin believes possible to a re-creation of what the song and dance man must have presented in his musicals to audiences during the early twentieth century.

The PRO’s mastery of tempos and dynamics has become a well-established tradition and it’s all captured in pristine recorded sound. Much of Cohan’s music is still known and loved today (who among us cannot hum parts of Give My Regards to Broadway, You’re a Grand Old Flag or Over There), but much needs rediscovery and this deserving tribute by Rick Benjamin and The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra is deserving of a place in your library.

The Stroke That Kills

By Jay Batzner
Sequenza 21

Here is what I think: I think that every teenager who walks into a music store and wants to buy their first electric guitar should instead be given a copy of this disc. They are to listen to the disc every day for two weeks. When the time is up, if that youngster doesn’t want to play any/all of the pieces on it, they should not be allowed to buy a guitar.

Seth Josel has programmed tremendous music and played it with conviction, power, and subtlety. Until It Blazes is slow paced and hypnotic. I never knew I could be so enthralled by “sol-me-re-do� but the gentle delay and growing distortion kept me captivated. The three Strum City pieces are just that: continuous strumming over changing amounts of harmony and distortion. My only complaint is that the most energetic work comes first, making the other two less satisfying from a dramatic trajectory perspective. A minor quibble, if you even consider it valid.

Slapback, my favorite work on the disc, is raw and muscular. The improvisatory style walks you through the structure of the piece. It sounds like a King Crimson lick at first but the motive builds, grows, and evolves in extremely satisfying ways. David Dramm’s The Stroke That Kills is an electric adaptation of a guitar trio (all played by Josel) and channels the propulsive nature of Flamenco rhythms.

Gustavo Matamoros wins the prize for the weirdest piece. Stoned Guitar/TIG Welder lives up to the “stoned� moniker (the work requires the guitarist to “With a stone, trace the strings of the guitar slowly from bridge to nut�). Spacey and ambient, the work doesn’t sound much like an electric guitar (which is the point). If Segovia says that the guitar is like an entire orchestra, then Matamoros and Josel show that the electric guitar contains the entire electronic sonic experience. You could hear Genesis P-Orridge singing “Hamburger Lady� over this piece.

Tom Johnson’s Canon is quirky, chunky, and highly segmented. The form of the piece feels the same way as Fiday’s work: the careful working out of material. Johnson’s music, here and elsewhere, is incredibly conscious of craft and fortspinnung. This work is rigorous and stimulating without being pedantic or professorial.

This disc does make me want to instill that “Josel Bill� waiting period on electric guitar purchases. We need more music like this and more performers like Seth Josel.