Feldman/Satie/Cage: Rothko Chapel (ECM New Series 2378)

2378 X

Morton Feldman/Erik Satie/John Cage
Rothko Chapel

Kim Kashkashian viola
Sarah Rothenberg piano, celeste
Steven Schick percussion
Houston Chamber Choir
Robert Simpson conductor
Cage and Satie recorded May 2012 at Stude Hall, Rice University in Houston
Feldman recorded February 2013 at The Brown Foundation Performing Arts Theater, Asia Society Texas Center
Programme: Sarah Rothenberg
Tonmeister: Judith Sherman
Engineer: Andrew Bradley
Editing assistant: Jeanne Velonis
Mastered at MSM Studio, Munich by Judith Sherman and Christoph Stickel
Produced by Judith Sherman
An ECM Production
U.S. release date: October 23, 2015

To encounter a painting of Mark Rothko (1903-1970) is to stand not before but within it. The more one gazes, the more blended one becomes into its borderless horizons. This dynamic is duly obvious in Rothko Chapel, a nondenominational space hung with his canvases and where visitors, observes pianist Sarah Rothenberg, “actually inhabit the paintings from the inside.” After the chapel’s posthumous opening, composer Morton Feldman (1926-1987) was asked by philanthropists Dominique and John de Menil to pen a tribute, and thus the centerpiece to Rothenberg’s carefully assembled program was born.

Said program was originally presented by Houston-based Da Camera, an organization that Rothenberg has lead since 1994, and under the auspices of which she presented a 40th Anniversary Concert at Rothko Chapel in 2011. Translating the energies of this event into a studio experience transcends the qualities of a reproduction, for the musicians’ raw talents move so organically as to yield an original work of art with immersive qualities all its own.

Rothko Robinson

From the rumbling timpani that opens Rothko Chapel alone, one already knows that the composer must have been both admirer of, and friend to, the artist. That he was, and their penchant for debate and banter codes its way into every click of aperture as the nearly 30-minute piece unfolds. Then again, it might be more accurate to say that Feldman’s masterwork “infolds,” for like a thought compressed into pigment, it colors the mind with simple yet deeply planar contrasts. Other percussive elements shine as the underside to a viola’s burnished top. These two might seem oppositional, were it not for Kim Kashkashian, in whose rooted bowing one may hear the spirit of hues and forms that put Feldman’s cells in an inner tandem not unlike that of the Rothkos themselves. The presence of choir, then, surely manifests the darkness into which Rothko’s angles seem to forever recede. Feldman’s sounds are thus every bit as painterly as Rothko’s applications were sonic. Each follows its own frequency toward a common endpoint—which is to say, a point without end. Individual voices, bowed and throated alike, constitute not “solos” but single bands of fuller spectra. As Rothenberg details in her beautiful liner notes, Feldman recognized the logical impossibility of expressing stasis in music, even if one may feel an illusion of it, for as the choir ends in mid-impulse, leaving us suspended in the void of those permeating rectangles, it is all we can do to inhale the illusion before it leaves us.

In this context, the soundings of Erik Satie (1866-1925) and John Cage (1912-1992) are drops in an ever-expanding pond. Satie was a focal point of Cage’s contemplative life, and much like Rothko to Feldman served to enhance a diffuse and intimate science. Satie’s obsession with time, as Cage saw it, surely helped both composers to recognize the value of space. Cage’s Four2 (1990) and Five (1988), both for choir, train the ear on a different field of overlaps. The bleed-through of these voices is that of watercolor, touching the paper’s edge as if it were a new beginning all the same. Higher voices ring out with the announcement of a barely-risen sun, soaking the clouds with generative power and carrying over denominators of motivic cells until they are stretched beyond recognition. The multiplicity of singers yields a selfless quality, which finds fullest expression in ear for EAR (Antiphonies). This 1983 piece for choir and tenor soloist transmits wordless impulses into a meditation on emptiness.

The latter, in being framed by the first two of Satie’s four Ogives for piano, seems even more an exercise in balance: between flat and sharp, loud and quiet, inner and outer. Nos. 1, 3, and 4 of Satie’s Gnossiennes similarly daub the program, each spread until it touches another. Their appearance is all the more vivid for their gentle persuasions, touches of the wrist leading us down a path that crumbles behind us as we tread. Rothenberg’s approach to the keyboard assures that these famous pieces feel familiar on their own terms.

It has been fascinating to watch Cage’s 1948 In a landscape evolve through the New Series. This is its third appearance on ECM’s classical imprint, marking programs by Herbert Henck and Alexei Lubimov. Ending an album as it does here, it feels all the more natal. Its arpeggios are as profound as the C-major prelude of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, and here absorb the resonance of that canonical past with hints of an unknown future.

These composers, and the artists from whom they gathered inspiration, may have been the avant-garde, but in them was also something far older, as primal as it was primary, that spoke to creation as the lotus of ego and its sonorous destruction.

(To hear samples of Rothko Chapel, please click here.)

John Cage: As it is (ECM New Series 2268)

-> Cover*

John Cage
As it is

Alexei Lubimov piano, prepared piano
Natalia Pschenitschnikova voice
Recorded December 2011, Radio Studio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“turning from the tremendous lie of sleep
i watch the roses of the day grow deep.”
–e. e. cummings

The music of John Cage has an intimate, if sporadic, history on ECM, where its deepest proponents have been pianists Herbert Henck and Alexei Lubimov. The latter joins soprano Natalia Pschenitschnikova for this collection of early works. Both performers were fearless advocates of Cage in their native Russia at a time when Western music registered peripherally, if at all, on the Soviet radar. Since meeting Cage during the 1988 International Contemporary Music Festival in Leningrad, they have championed his music with a vitality that translates pristinely in the present recording. Here is the portrait of a jovial man who took pleasure in the edible, the empty, in the unpretentious.

JC1

The solo piano Dream opens the program with a meditation in the vein of Cage’s In a landscape, only with a more circumscribed palette. It is a painting in miniature, a raking of stones, an attunement to the way things are. It is at once an organic and calculated introduction into a universe dictated not only by chance but also by the hands of musicians, producers, and engineers. One can locate this triangulation elsewhere in Lubimov’s pianism, which infuses the occasional prepared piano piece with bells, pulses, and, somehow, solitude. Both The Unavailable Memory of and Music for Marcel Duchamp are quintessential examples of what the instrument can do, and Lubimov does a fine job showing that it is not a piano augmented but its own entity. Multifarious and adaptive, the music it produces is a dance without bodies.

JC2

While the solo repertoire included on this disc moves with the quality of cinematic tracking shots, accepting whatever comes into frame, the introduction of voice slashes the screen so slowly that by the time backlight seeps through, it’s already too late to repair. Cage would surely have welcomed the glow. James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake provides the texts for The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, which Pschenitschnikova navigates as though on the verge of tears. As Lubimov hits the piano in microscopic footsteps, words cease to matter and extend tendrils far beyond their semantic shelters. Unlike Cathy Berberian, who gave the piece her lusciously operatic flair, Pschenitschnikova strips her voice bare and finds fresh physicality in its nakedness. Even when singing wordlessly, as in A Flower or She is Asleep, her powers of illustration are no less potent. And when she does elicit meaning from lips and tongue, it is already fragmented. The poetry of e. e. cummings lends itself permeably to Cage’s aesthetic proclivities, and the performers adapt themselves in kind. Pschenitschnikova sings at the back of the room in Experiences No. 2, for example, to beautifully unsettling effect. The programmatic Five Songs (also setting cummings) show the playfulness that was integral to Cage’s character. With such titles as “little four paws” and “Tumbling hair,” they make much of the little things in life that grasp the scarcest rungs of memory. (The final “wheeEEE” of “hist whist” conjures up cummings’s goat-footed balloon man.) Even the Rubik’s cube of Gertrude Stein (Three Songs) becomes transformed in Pschenitschnikova’s affected interpretation. As does Nowth upon nacht, which mines Joyce in a string of single notes and the slam of a piano lid. It’s a gem in the Cage catalogue, one all the more difficult to perform for its brevity and compactness of expression. It hasn’t sounded this vibrant since Joan La Barbara recorded it for New Albion in 1990.

JC3

Always comforting about Cage’s music is its attention to inhalation, the storehouse of emotion from which issues his cellular melodies. We can hear this in the Two Pieces for Piano, which together form roots and stem. Like the Dream in variation, which ends the program by redrawing the circle until it becomes a sphere, they wait behind closed eyes for life to begin.

(To hear samples of As it is, click here.)

John Cage: Early Piano Music (ECM New Series 1844)

 

John Cage
Early Piano Music

Herbert Henck piano
Recorded December 2002, Festeburgkirche, Frankfurt am Main
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

Two years after his benchmark account of the Sonatas and Interludes, German pianist Herbert Henck returns to the music of John Cage for this refreshing program of early works. Henck’s prowess at the keyboard is matched note for note by tenderness, and in these pieces we find both in full order. His ability to render even the most serial works as lusciously as he does more readily accessible works like 1948’s In a landscape is nothing short of astonishing. Of the latter masterpiece he gives an endearing performance that thrums with drawn-out warmth under his touch—an intimate tapestry spread to reveal every tonal stitch blissfully intact.

Yet it is in the miniaturization of such works as The Seasons (1947), heard to great orchestral effect on the selfsame ECM disc, that one finds this artful program’s most enchanting moments. As with much of Cage’s instrumental music, it feels and flows like nature, is at one with certain understandings of universal design. And so, when we listen to a track like Winter, it does not feel like falling snow, or even the whipping winds of a blizzard, but speaks to a rather different sense of climatic change. Neither does Summer swelter. Rather, these pieces embody their elemental forces. From the scattered Preludes alone, we get a sense of the piece’s intense variation in styles, speeds, and modes of articulation, by turns rather mysterious and straightforward, uncompromised. This is music without form, but in being formless becomes ordered, unfolding at the speed of remembrance.

The five-part Metamorphosis (1938) presents us with some of the more playful moments in these selections, following linear melodies down halls of mirrors. Fleeting like the patter of children’s feet, it breathes over into an innocent finality. After the convoluted yet true-to-form little curiosity that is Ophelia (1946), the handful of piano pieces that concludes the album might come across as pedantic were it not for Henck’s distinctly “vocal” approach.

A worthwhile peek into Cage’s world that allows us to see a composer on the brink of finding his way, Early Piano Music is remarkable also for Markus Heiland’s engineering, which captures every nuance of Henck’s playing with a microscopically attuned ear.

John Cage: The Seasons (ECM New Series 1696)

 

 

John Cage
The Seasons

Margaret Leng Tan prepared piano, toy piano
American Composers Orchestra
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Recorded January 1997, SUNY Purchase Performing Arts Center Theatre A, New York
Engineer: Gregory Squires
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“The responsibility of the artist consists in perfecting his work so that it may become attractively disinteresting.”
–John Cage

The Seasons brings together not a few major firsts. It is the first ECM appearance for John Cage (reason enough to own this disc) as well as for longtime friend and interpreter, pianist Margaret Leng Tan. It also contains the premier recording of Seventy-Four, Cage’s first orchestral score, played and conducted by the very musicians to whom it was dedicated. The other compositions featured here date from before the composer’s allegiance to “non-intention” and indicate a mind priming itself for enlightened calm.

Seventy-Four (1992) was named for the number of musicians set to perform it and, with the assistance of Lou Harrison and Virgil Thomson in the scoring, was to be one of the composer’s last pieces. The musicians at the orchestra’s outer rim determine time signatures at their own whim, thereby eliciting a markedly different performance every time around its composed center. Its first strains reach our ears almost unexpectedly in a rendering that combines total abreaction with superb “breath” control. Like a wheel that never stops turning, it renews itself with every revolution. In many ways, such a piece showcases what an orchestra is truly capable of, what distinguishes it from other instrumental groupings as the fragile collective that it is. Certain colors stand out, such as those painted by a silvery violin and the fluttering cello toward the piece’s conclusion, both drowned in the overwhelming totality of its sound.

Although the current orchestral version of The Seasons (1947) differs significantly from that for solo piano, we find the same red thread running through its core. This “considered improvisation” was a commission for New York City’s Ballet Society and prompted at least one critic to herald Cage as one of the twentieth century’s greatest orchestral colorists. Working in both painterly and programmatic modes, each of its gestures leaves a delible mark. Winter may fall like a snowflake, but it is also subject to unexpected gales and flash blizzards; Spring is an earthquake enhanced by the delicate trills of its aftershocks; Summer is a shimmering mass of good intentions gone rancid in a blinding glare; and Fall curls up like a cosmic roly-poly into a tight defensive sphere.

Although the prepared piano is one of Cage’s most immediately recognizable innovations, there remains an innocence about its construction, stemming as it does from that incomparable urge to leave one’s creative signature, however fleeting, on the immediate environment. The prepared pianist’s manipulations merely accentuate the indeterminacy of the musical act through an audible catalogue. As a centerpiece of the Concerto for Prepared Piano (1950/51), it is like a box that has been broken and rearranged. The music is a fractal, becoming ever more microscopic toward the edges. Very little marks one movement from another, for the pauses between them are shorter than those integrated into the movements proper, nothing more than inhalations to greater heavenly circulations.

Because Cage’s world is defined so much by chance (or is it the other way around?), the alternate version of Seventy-Four that follows becomes a wholly new utterance, suitably cleansing our palates for the whimsical Suite for Toy Piano (1948), which conjoins not a few contradictory creative processes. On the one hand, we have an instrument that is not normally defined as such, an object that has been subjectively removed from its intended context. The musician must, in a sense, retrain herself when learning its rules, for anyone who has experimented with a toy piano at the “appropriate” age must incorporate an entirely new layer of formal training into what was once an informal desire. It is a delightful inversion of the classical paradigm that manages to hold its own throughout, so that when we hear the same piece suddenly re-imagined for orchestra, it almost seems to lose something of its musicality as it slips into a new aural skin. The fourth movement is particularly beautiful in its transposed form.

There are some who believe that recording Cage is an antithetical project, that committing just one of infinite possibilities to record destroys the beauty of its indeterminacy. And yet, as one who enlarged and ruptured the musical landscape like no other, Cage has found a comfortable home on The Seasons, one that I am sure welcomes any incidental sonic guests that may happen to drop by during the listening.

John Cage/Herbert Henck: Locations (ECM New Series 1842/43)

Herbert Henck
Locations

Herbert Henck piano, prepared piano
Recorded 1993 and 2000, Festeburgkirche, Frankfurt am Main

I remember seeing in my teens a documentary about John Cage (the title unfortunately escapes me), in which two seemingly bewildered elderly women are eying the auditory visionary in question as he darts around a concert hall with portable radio in hand. Rather than balk at him, as the viewer is led to expect, one of them simply smiles and says something to the effect of, “Oh look, there’s John, doing this thing.” This endearing moment stands out for me not only because of Cage’s ability to provoke childlike wonder in people of all ages and backgrounds, but also because “doing his thing,” as it was so aptly put, was for him a way of life. I like to think the same holds true for a pianist like Herbert Henck, whose fearless approach to making music is nowhere so explicit as on this timely double album.

The prepared piano is the quintessential Cagean innovation. It exemplifies not only his unwavering interest in play, but more importantly his infectious lucidity. I first heard the prepared piano on the essential Cage tribute album, A Chance Operation (1993, Koch International Classics). The pieces in question were the Three Dances, as played by Charles “Vision” Turner. That congregation of twangs, curtails, and jangles was a gamelan master’s most beautiful nightmare and unlike anything I had ever heard. Henck’s love for indeterminacy is as rejuvenating as his interpretations of the seminal Sonatas and Interludes found here. They are the most well known pieces for the “instrument” (though I am rather tempted to call it a “process”), which is saying much, considering that their fallibility is so markedly present in every utterance. Henck ensures that the pieces’ inner operations are never obscured. Some come across as intensely mystical (Sonata VII) through a depressed sustain. Others are more nervous (Second Interlude). Henck’s preparations encompass a thoughtful spread of percussiveness and vocality, and sometimes all of the above, as in the ritualistic Sonata IX. If favoritism has any validity here, then I humbly embrace the Fourth Interlude as my one and only. Sonatas XIV and XV are also particularly stunning in their crystalline fragility. This is the puppetry of music, the dead brought to fantastic life by a nimble touch.

Henck’s own improvisations, collected here as the Festeburger Fantasies and realized in the spirit of Cage, are like a torrent of pent-up energy suddenly released—a hodgepodge of extended techniques, augmentations, and preparations. Like a ballroom dance gone horribly, albeit enchantingly, awry, they are simultaneously coordinated and tangled amid limbs and unfinished steps. The solos come across as majestic elegies, while in the overdubbed duos Henck seems to wring out as much musical nectar as he can before those particular intersections of space, form, and time elude him. Here is a musician’s entire life compressed into an hour’s worth of unbounded expression.

I can only imagine the challenges such a recording presents to the engineer. Nevertheless, in the hands of ECM every conceivable nuance comes through, pitch perfect and severely organic.

Cikada String Quartet: In due tempi (ECM New Series 1799)

 

Cikada String Quartet
In due tempi

The Cikada String Quartet
Henrik Hannisdal violin
Odd Hannisdal violin
Marek Konstantynowicz viola
Morten Hannisdal violoncello
Recorded August 2001 at Sofienberg Church, Oslo

“My music is as I am.”
–Kaija Saariaho

On April 10 of this year, I had the pleasure of meeting Kaija Saariaho after a lecture given at Mount Holyoke College. Her talk covered a range of topics, including her reclaiming of “compositrice” as a self-referential term; the conceptual tendrils that had coalesced into her third opera, Émilie; and the ever-present role of electronics in her music. She also waxed nostalgic about her many influences. Of these, her deep admiration for Witold Lutosławski stands paramount. The Polish composer once told her, “I am the first audience. I need to step back and see if I would accept the music as a listener.” These sentiments have since charged her music with a chameleonic energy, an energy that stems directly from Saariaho’s beloved dreams. Nymphéa (1987), for string quartet and live electronics, is like a breath of spectral wind in the trees. It is a fitting introduction of her work to the ECM catalogue, and one can only hope the conversation will continue. Where Saariaho stands out among contemporary composers is her ability to maintain a dense auditory palette without ever lapsing into distinctly melodic territory. The note becomes movement, a smile, an ankle in the shadows of the trees, a glimpse of a flowing dress upon the water. Together, they become a handful of medicinal tears, cast like seeds onto a lake’s fertile surface. Each gesture of the quartet is magnified in a fiery reverb, as the musicians are bid to whisper verses by Arseny Tarkovsky (father of director Andrei). Shades of Crumb’s Black Angels and André Boucourechliev’s Archipel II comingle in a magical incantation. And, like a whisper, the resulting sounds lay just beyond our reach. At points it flirts with cacophony, a composition in fast forward. A violin cracks its adolescent voice, cradled by echoes of former ghosts, and inaugurates a lilting series of responses, ending at the edge of our conscious field of vision.

After such a mind-altering experience, John Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts (1949/50) wafts like a fragrance, familiar but forgotten. Its four seasonal movements consist of glassy block chords (what Cage called “gamuts”) in lateral formation, each casting a distinct shadow across the whole. Strings are played with minimal bow pressure, flowing with rapt neutrality until the last movement sheds its spring clothing. This makes for a fitting segue into Bruno Maderna’s more serial Quartetto per archi in due tempi (1955). Though one might not know it from this quartet (it is dedicated to Luciano Berio), Maderna much admired Cage and took it upon himself to pen one of the first analytical studies of his music. Here, slow and careful development leads to an increasingly fractured and nervous tale, rupturing into a more forcefully plucked affair before settling back into its quieter beginnings.

In due tempi is an album of transitory spaces, worth the price of admission for Nymphéa alone, after which the others seem to pale in comparison, yet which still provide more than enough intrigue for the open-eared listener. And while my bias obviously leans toward Saariaho, the album is, on the whole, a fascinating one. The Cikada Quartet, who made their label debut on Arild Andersen’s stellar Hyperborean, enact a clear, honed sound that works wonders with the chosen material. An overlooked New Series album, this deserves our full attention.