Lucid Culture


Richard Hagopian and Band Sell Out Symphony Space with Their Otherworldly Armenian Sounds

It’s hard to think of a more likeable ambassador for the thrilling, chromatically charged sounds of Armenian music than Richard Hagopian. During his sold-out show Sunday night at Symphony Space, the virtuoso oudist took a moment to proudly reflect on how just about every household in the global Armenian diaspora had at least one of his longtime band Kef Time‘s albums. Otherwise, Hagopian’s sense of humor was more self-effacing. As he explained, he joined his first band at age nine: “We weren’t very good, but the older people thought we were,” he grinned. His next gig came at eleven, playing with a group whose members were about seven decades older, an early immersion in the kind of obscure treasures that he’d bring to a global audience over the decades to come.

A record-setting two-year run with Buddy Sarkissian’s showband on the Vegas strip led to the birth of Kef Time and endless touring: meanwhile, Hagopian ran a music venue in his native Fresno. This concert also featured his son Harold, an equally brilliant musician, doubling on kanun and violin and served as emcee, giving his dad a chance to reflect on his career and explain the songs both for the Armenian and English speakers in the audience. Ara Dinkjian played guitar, sometimes doubling the melody line, other times supplying what were essentially basslines when he wasn’t anchoring the music with brisk chordal rhythm. Percussionist Rami negotiated the songs’ tricky 9/8 and 10/8 time signatures with a hypnotically kinetic aplomb, playing both goblet and frame drums.

Considering how much Turkish-language material there was on the bill, Harold Hagopian reminded that there’s no more cognitive dissonance in an Armenian listening to Turkish music – or vice versa – than there is for a Jew to listen to German music. The quartet opened with a couple of lush, windswept classical pieces, the first by blind oudist Udi Hrant Kenkulian, the group often playing the same lickety-split, spiky, microtonally-spiced phrase in unison. Being on the Silk Road and culturally diverse, the music of Armenia is something of a cross between Arabic and western sounds - while in Arabic music it’s usually the microtones that make it so haunting and otherworldly, in Armenian music it’s often the passing tones, neither major nor minor in a western scale, which enhance its enigmatic magic.

Hagopian opened a couple of later numbers with pensive improvisations – otherwise, he fired off wild flurries of tremolo-picking, flying joyously through the songs’ bracing modes. His son has a similar, wickedly fast, precise attack on the kanun, switching to violin for the later part of the show and getting to show off his command of tersely resonant, atmospheric lines. Several of the vocal numbers had an ironic humor: Hele Hele, a folk song – about “a guy who likes a girl but who can’t get to first base with her,” as the senior Hagopian put it – along with an insistent “dragon dance” inspired by Indian music, and Her Hair Was Blonde, the sadly swaying lament of a New Jersey immigrant whose first choice of fiancee has just been promised to another guy with more money.

Nane Suyu, an elegant tribute to one of the first jazz oudists, Chick Ganimian, was more subdued. After that, the band picked up the pace with Nihavent Longa, a tribute to to another legendary oudist, George Mgrditchian. They ended with Drumsalero, a vaudevillian fanfare of sorts in tribute to Sarkissian – an innovator known for employing a full kit’s worth of goblet drums onstage – which gave Rami a chance to cut loose in between jaunty riffs from the rest of the band.

The World Music Institute, who put this bill together, has a similarly enticing program coming up at Symphony Space on May 7 at 7 PM. Titled Strings of the Black Sea, it features Crimean Tatar violinist Nariman Asanov, Brooklyn accordionist Patrick Farrell, Cherven Traktor’s Bulgarian gadulka fiddler Nikolay Kolev and Christos Tiktapanidis on the pontic lyre. Tickets are $30 and available both at the box office and through the WMI. Here’s what most of this cast of characters sounded like playing this same program four years ago.

April 15, 2014 Posted by | concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dave Douglas and Chet Doxas Take It to the River

[republished from Lucid Culture's Americana-fixated sister blog New York Music Daily]

What’s become clear from the past decade’s Americana explosion is that whether people admit it or not, pretty much everybody likes country music. And more and more musicians, whether they genuinely enjoy it or not, seem hell-bent on trying to capitalize on that. Groups that would have been stone cold top 40 or Warped Tour punk-pop back in day have traded in the drum machines and Strats for banjos and mandolins. And a lot of jazz people are following suit. Some of it’s good to hear – and some of it’s pretty dubious.

When you consider an artist from a previous era like Bob Wills, it’s a reminder of how much less of a divide between jazz and country there used to be. What trumpeter Dave Douglas and reedman Chet Doxas are doing on Riverside, their turn in an Americana direction, is as much a toe-tapping good time as it is sophisticated. But it’s 2014 jazz, not western swing. They take their inspiration from reedman Jimmy Giuffre, who was jazzing up riffs from country and folk music fifty years ago. And they’re not afraid to be funny: there’s only one aw-shucks cornpone number on the new album, but there’s plenty of subtle, tongue-in-cheek drollery throughout the other tracks. The group, which also includes Doxas’ brother Jim on drums and former Giuffre sideman Steve Swallow on bass, kick off their North American tour for the album at the Jazz Standard Tuesday and Wednesday, April 15 and 16 with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is 25 and worth it.

Although the grooves on the album are more straight-up than you might expect from your typical current-day jazz outfit, the band doesn’t always stick to a 4/4 beat and Jim Doxas finds plenty of wiggle room when they do. The two-horn frontline will typically harmonize and then diverge, both Douglas and Chet Doxas approaching their solos with judicious flair: as is the case with every Douglas project, this is about tunes rather than chops. Swallow is the midpoint, sometimes playing chords like a rhythm guitarist, other times grounding the melodies as the drums or horns will go off on a tangent. And he opens the warmly wistful, aptly titled jazz waltz Old Church New Paint with a solo that begins as swing and then segues into the old folk song Wild Mountain Thyme.

A handful of tracks, like the shuffling, ragtime-tinged Thrush and the joyous song without words Handwritten Letter, blend New Orleans and C&W into contemporary themes. The lone Giuffre cover here, The Train and the River mashes up bluegrass, gospel and jazz, while Big Shorty is a swinging platform for high-energy soloing from the horns. Front Yard and Back Yard are a diptych, the initial warmly summery tableau giving way to a devious party scenario with all kinds of lively interplay among the band. There’s also a tiptoeing blues number, Travellin’ Light, Douglas playing with a mute to raise the vintage ambience. The album closes with a brooding, hauntingly bluesy, shapeshifting tone poem of sorts. In its own quiet way, it’s the album’s strongest track and most evocative of the clarity and directness that Douglas typically brings to a tune, and Doxas’ sax is right there with him. The whole album isn’t up at Douglas’ music page yet but should be as soon as the album releases tomorrow.

April 14, 2014 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Personal As Political: Ulrich Hartung Uncovers the Hidden Meaning in Schubert’s Winterreise

If you’re in a quirky mood, or want to jumpstart your brain, you can always resequence album tracks. And if you’re tired, or just lazy, you can always hit “shuffle play.” But would you consider reversing the order of the movements of, say, a Beethoven symphony, in concert? As a joke, maybe.

But what if rearranging the order of an iconic suite brought a hidden meaning to light? That’s what baritone Ulrich Hartung did with Schubert’s Winterreise suite Friday night at the Liederkranz Society, revealing it as not only a classic of proto-existentialist tunesmithing but also as a thinly veiled political broadside. Over the years there’s been a tempest in a teaspoon over how the suite should be performed: in the order that Schubert followed (the traditional way), or in the original sequence of Wilhelm Muller poems that the composer set to music? Hartung chose the latter and let the songs validate his claim, in the process raising the suite’s already haunting intensity several notches. What became inarguably clear only a few songs into it was that Schubert’s music follows precisely the same trajectory as the lyrics.

We often forget the brutal repression that so many classical composers toiled under. In the extensive program notes for the concert, an excerpt from his doctoral dissertation, Hartung reminded that both Schubert and Muller were subject to routine censorship under the pre-1848 dictatorship. Was it possible that Schubert shuffled the deck a little to get it past the censors? It would seem so. Schubert hasn’t been remembered as a freedom fighter: one simple move by Hartung, and the numerous others in his camp, changes that view considerably.

The suite has come down to us tagged as a Herrmann Hesse-like depiction of alienation and lovelorn angst, and that’s how it reads on the surface. “Fremd bin ich einzegogen, Fremd zieh ich wieder aus [I arrived a stranger, I left a stranger]“, Hartung sang with elegant restraint but also haggard bravado to open the suite. By the end. he’d reached the point where Muller’s protagonist is out on the ice with the hurdy-gurdy man, pondering if he should beseech the guy – who’s probably drunk and homeless – to play these songs. Awash in moody nocturnal ambience, Hartung maintained a steely, resolute calm that he only rose from occasionally during the performance, singing and then playing crystalline, resonantly measured lines on alto sax at the end. The cruel surrealism was shattering.

The foreshadowing on the way there made that conclusion all the more powerful. Especially during the opening songs, a subtly sarcastic, anthemic sensibility rose to the surface, pianist Juan Pablo Horcasitas playing Stefan Kozinski’s arrangement with a gracefully deadpan matter-of-factness, joined by Eric Lemmon on viola, Lenae Harris on cello, Lis Rubard on horns and Shelly Bauer on reeds. A handful of suspiciously jaunty waltzes are interspersed among Schubert’s lustrously terse balladry, Hartung and Horcasitas teaming to raise their sardonic edge, letting the subtext and symbolism speak for themselves. Antiwar and antifascist imagery appeared everywhere, Hartung’s precise, cantabile diction especially helpful for those in the audience with limited command of German. In so doing, he gave every reason for reading the traveler’s exhaustion and emotional depletion as an exhile in his own land railing against the occupation. The brief, next-to-last song in Muller’s sequence is Mut (Courage): on the surface, it reflects on abandonment, but on a political level it’s a call to arms. So many composers from throughout the ages have had to battle with repressive regimes: it’s time to acknowledge Schubert for his contribution.

April 11, 2014 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tragedy and Transcendence with the Choir and Orchestra of St. Ignatius Loyola

The high point of the Mozart Requiem, as generations of concertgoers and fans of biopics know well, comes midway through the mass where Mozart realizes that he’s going to die. A cynic would say that Mozart, ever the egotist, saved his best for a self-penned obituary, but the music transcends that. It’s horrifying without being macabre, one of the most chilling existential moments in the classical repertoire. Wednesday night, in the wondrous sonics of their Upper East Side home base, the massive Choir and Orchestra of St. Ignatius Loyola left the audience literally gasping when they reached that moment. Getting there was almost as intense and thrilling. Despite the fact that much of the crowd was obviously familiar with the work, people were exchanging stunned glances in amazement at its angst-ridden power and the ensemble’s pinpoint, precise command of it.

Hearing the orchestra and 37-piece choir up close reminded what a hodgepodge it is – and how difficult it is to perform, with all the dynamic shifts, Mozart’s shivery strings and elegant foreboding up against Franz Sussmayr’s pedestrianly pleasant passages added after Mozart’s death to complete the work as a fullscale Catholic mass. But music director K. Scott Warren and his mighty group were up to the challenge, the explosive vocal bursts of the towering Dies Irae passage giving way to the pensively dancing Andante and then the ever-present, achingly imploring Rex Tremendae section on the way up to the central crescendo. The soloists – soprano Tami Petty, mezzo-soprano Sara Murphy, tenor John Tiranno and bass-baritone Kevin Deas all stepped up with power and steely focus when their moments arrived.

Getting to the Mozart was a lot of fun too. The concert opened with baroque composer Heinrich Schutz’ remarkably forward-looking, tersely elegaic Seven Last Words of Jesus Christ, a partita for chamber ensemble and fifteen-voice choir plus soloists. Standouts among the performers included but were not limited to baritone Elliott Carlton Hines, with his gretty, plaintive edge; Elisa Singer, whose soprano delivered spine-tingling range and power; contralto Heather Petrie, who dazzled with her split-second ability to shift between registers; and tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson, who raised the ante with equal parts color and poignancy.

And the fun maxed out with an unrestrained, joyous performance of Bach’s Jesu, Meine Freude, BWV 227. This piece is a little more straightforward than the typical Bach cantata, which allowed for the group to make an unselfconsciously dancing hymn out of it; that might sound like an oxymoron, but in this group’s hands it seemed perfectly natural and impossible to resist, through a stiletto staccato fugue, lilting sways, mellifluous volleys of arpeggios, a bit of a bittersweet nocturne and then its concluding ode to joy. Throughout this piece and the rest of the concert, the sound was seamless yet balanced to a minute degree, keening highs against brooding lows, awash in lustre and rapture, further enhanced by cathedral’s magnificent sonics.

April 9, 2014 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Valerie Coleman’s Bustling Compositions Spring to Life at Symphony Space

If anybody deserves a lavish three-hour “composer portrait” concert, it’s Valerie Coleman. The esteemed Imani Winds flutist and founder got just that at Symphony Space in a program featuring her bandmates along with the Da Capo Chamber Players and other musicians. Coleman’s compositions bustle without being busy. They’re electric with color and rhythm, reflecting the New York milieu she represents. Balancing that kinetic energy is a somber side steeped in history, infused as much with the blues and gospel music as with classical and the avant garde. And as serious and in-your-face as her music can be – very in-your-face, if she feels like it – she can also be uproariously funny. There were several moments of LOL vaudevillian jousting during the performance that made for considerable relief from the intensity that permeated the rest of the show. Ultimately, Coleman’s music is deep, and the performers seized that and brought out all the rich color in a series of diverse chamber works as they flashed by, or resonated with a gritty, irony-drenched gravitas.

The night’s most spine-tingling moment of many might have been the tightly spiraling interplay between Coleman and clarinetist Michiyo Suzuki midway through an unselfconsciously haunting, Langston Hughes-inspired trio work (one of a half-dozen on the bill) with pianist Dmitri Dover. Or it could have been the Da Capos’ world premiere of Lenox Avenue, a fascinatingly boisterous cityscape that does for Harlem what Respighi did for Rome. The rousing, minutely jeweled closing partita Tzigane for Wind Quintet also delivered plenty of chromatically-charged thrills, notably from the Imanis’ Toyin Spellman-Diaz’s oboe, set up by longer, more expansive, suspenseful interludes.

The Imanis delivered an alternately rapt, darkly reflective and celebratory take of Coleman’s triptych, Afro-Cuban Concerto for Wind Quintet. Coleman said before the concert that she envisioned her ensemble as having more of the spirit of a brass band than a “light and fluffy” group, and this reaffirmed that she doesn’t have to worry about the latter ever being the case. The world premiere of Rubispheres, for the wind trio of Coleman and her bandmates – propulsive bassoonist Monica Ellis and the similarly incisive Mariam Adam on clarinet – followed a similar, dynamically charged trajectory, echoed later in the program by the DaCapos’ take of the blues-infused suite Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes. All three of those richly ambered, reflective works made a powerful contrast with the unfettered joie de vivre that had taken centerstage for so much of this fascinating and rewarding program.

April 7, 2014 Posted by | Music, Live Events, Reviews, New York City, music, concert, concert, review, classical music, avant garde music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The American Composers Orchestra: Cutting Edge Sounds from Across the Decades at Carnegie Hall

The American Composers Orchestra’s main mission is to whip new material into shape so as to entice other enterpising orchestras to play it. A daunting task, but one they’ve tackled gamely since the group’s inception back in the 90s. The group’s appeal is bittersweet: along with many tantalizing premieres that other orchestras will pick up, the ACO also plays a lot of material that you’ll never hear again. And that they’ll never play again, which makes their job so much harder considering that they have to learn so much of their repertoire, such that it is, from scratch. Friday night’s Carnegie Hall performance was typically eclectic and more historically-infused than usual, featuring an old standard of the avant garde that’s lived to claim its place, more or less, in the standard repertoire; a rarity from Mexico; two new works utilizing wavelike motives, the second much more successfully than the first; and a suite of new songs by the orchestra’s main man Derek Bermel.

They opened with a rather twistedly fascinating rarity, Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas’ 1932 suite, Alcancias (literally, the title means “piggy bank;” figuratively, it can also mean “bullet” or “pimp”). The middle section was an uselfconsciously pretty pastorale lit up with a lyrically panoramic solo by oboeist Kathy Halvorson. On either side of it was a frantic, Keystone Kops pastiche of snippets of folk tunes, ragtime and vaudeville, so blustery that the pageantry seemed suspiciously forced. A satire, maybe?

The evening’s piece de resistance was the New York premiere of Gabriela Lena Frank‘s Manchay Tiempo, a chilling, Bernard Herrmann-esque depiction of waves of fear inspired by childhood exposure to a documentary about terrorism in 1970s Chile, where her mother grew up. Frank flaunts her multiculturalism fearlessly: no idiom is off limits. That fearlessness extends to subject matter and emotional content as well, in this case a series of slow, menacing glissandos and murderously creeping crescendos, a knife’s-edge depiction of terror in the night, noir in the purest sense of the word. The surreal, off-center, tone-bending “is this really happening” ambience finally faded down to an unexpected calm at the end, a terrorized child finally drifting off to sleep. It’s impossible to think of a more gripping piece of music performed on a New York stage this year.

Gunther Schuller‘s Contours was considered radical when it debuted in 1958. More than half a century later, the composer’s vision has been more than validated: it’s still pretty cutting-edge. Conductor George Manahan, poised on his heels, was clearly having a good time with Schuller’s long, suspenseful crescendos, jazzy rhythms and bracing post-Ives lyricism and so was the orchestra. The program concluded with Bermel’s new suite of Eugenio de Andrade songs, delivered guardedly and methodically in a cool alto by Luciana Souza, building tension and intensity almost imperceptibly through deft manipulation of a series of circular, often hypnotic, yet equally kinetic themes.

One upcoming ACO series of concerts that’s been regularly promising is their Underwood readings of new works by up-and-coming composers at the DiMenna Center this coming June 5 and 6.

April 5, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New York Festival of Song Transcends Category

For almost three decades now, the New York Festival of Song has staged many concert series around town that fall loosely under the category of art-song. Some of the material is on the operatic side, some veering toward cabaret, occasionally venturing toward art-rock or further to the edge of the avant garde. While the most recent one last week was staged at the National Opera Center, both the bill and the performance were characteristically eclectic.

Composition-wise, it was no surprise that the high point of the evening would be a triptych of text from Hamlet, brought to life with a vividly acidic austerity by Amy Beth Kirsten. Soprano Justine Aronson gave it an aptly grim, arioso rendition over brilliantly diverse pianist Thomas Sauer‘s haunting, bell-like resonance. The night’s funniest moment was a snarkily ridiculous portrait of a paparazzi (or someone who seems to want to be one) written by jazz piano luminary Fred Herschalso performed by Aronson and Sauer. Aronson later brought  richly nuanced, poignant vocalese to a setting of an Elizabeth Bishop poem by composer Russell Platt, pianist Michael Barrett adding a nocturnal lustre.

Harold Meltzer, who’d organized the night, was also represented by an unorthodox series of chamber ensembles featuring both acoustic guitar and mandolin: his circular, Reichian riffs and spacious phrases were the bill’s most modern elements. Aronson and Sauer delivered a dynamically-charged, crescendoing triptych by James Matheson whose idioms spanned from the baroque to the neoromantic. Mezzo-soprano Mary Nessinger took a Scott Wheeler setting of Wallace Stevens straight into grand guignol. And toward the end, Aronson again teamed with Barrett for a droll litany of “ark luggage” (flea powder and champagne included on the list) by David Lang.

The next concert in NYFOS’ current season is at Merkin Concert Hall on April 14 at 8 PM, a Spanish-inspired bill with music of Shostakovich, Taneyev, Wolf, Schumann, Granados and others, sung by soprano Corinne Winters and tenor Theo Lebow, with Barrett or Steven Blier at the piano. There’s also a spring gala at Carnegie Hall and the more informal, theatrically-infused ongoing series uptown at Henry’s Restaurant at 2745 Broadway.

April 3, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Lysander Piano Trio Revels in Beauty at Carnegie Hall

The history of classical trio music for keyboard and strings spans from flat-out jamming, to a sort of proto-concerto form with the piano as a solo instrument supported by violin and cello, to more intricately arranged composition where the individual voices intermingle and share centerstage. While Thursday night’s sold-out Carnegie Hall concert by the Lysander Piano Trio hewed mostly to the middle of that ground, it served as a vivid platform for pianist Liza Stepanova’s stuniningly nuanced sense of touch and ability to bring a composer’s emotional content to life. Even by rigorous conservatory standards, she’s something special. With an attack that ranged from a knife’s-edge, lovestruck determination throughout Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 8, to a lushly nocturnal sostenuto glimmer on Schubert’s Adagio in E Flat, Op. 148, she caressed the keys, but also let them grow fangs when the music called for it. It is not often when a pianist’s most stunning moments are her quietest: that Stepanova pulled off that feat amidst all sorts of stormy virtuosity speaks to her technical skill, but more to her ability to use that skill to channel the innermost substance of a diverse array of material from across the ages.

John Musto‘s 1998 Piano Trio gave the threesome a chance to revisit some of their performance’s earlier, Schubertian lustre and triumph, but also anticipation and suspense, through the sweepingly melancholic third movement and jaunty, cinematic concluding passages, spiced with a breathless chase scene and allusions to noir. The world premiere of Jakub Ciupinski’s The Black Mirror, an attractively neoromantic diptych, offered an opportunity to take flight out of a sumptuous song without words to a somewhat muted revelry.

All the while, Itamar Zorman’s violin and Michael Katz’s cello provided an aptly ambered, seamless backdrop, until Brahms’ Piano Trio in C Major, Op. 87, where both finally got to provide something more demanding than accompaniment, in graceful counterpoint through lush cantabile, an intimate fugue morphing into a jaunty waltz and then the Beethovenesque, concluding ode to joy. Yet the best piece on the bill actually wasn’t even on it, at least at the start of the show. It was the encore, a fiery, searingly chromatic, kinetic dance by noted Israeli composer Moshe Zorman (Itamar’s dad) based on a traditional Yemenite melody. This had the most virtuoso passages for the strings, the violin’s rapidfire volleys anchored by a tersely misterioso cello bassline. the night’s most visible demonstration of chemistry between the group members. All things being even, it would have been nice (ok, this is being a little greedy) to have had more of a taste of the kind of electricity this violinist and cellist are capable of delivering: maybe something by Ravel or Rachmaninoff?

April 3, 2014 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pioneering Pianist Nancy Garniez Explains Her Commonsensical, Paradigm-Shifting Discoveries in Tonal Refraction

Nancy Garniez’s latest achievement is a groundbreaking discovery in the field of sonics as they relate to memory and performance, which she calls Tonal Refraction. The iconoclastic, individualistic pianist has built an unselfconsciously brilliant career spanning both the worlds of classical and the avant garde. She’s commissioned new works from notable composers like Ursula Mamlok and several others. She continues to coach both professionals and casual players. Her blog is infused with a crushingly sardonic wit, and her commentary on the state of classical music is spot-on. She also happens to be mom to Rachelle Garniez, the multi-instrumentalist chanteuse and Jack White collaborator who might just be the most consistently brilliant songwriter working in any genre today. But ultimately, Tonal Refraction may be Nancy Garniez’s most lasting legacy. In anticipation of presenting her findings at the International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition in Seoul, Korea this summer, she graciously took some time away from her teaching and research to answer a few questions.

Nancy Garniez: If I have learned anything from Tonal Refraction it is that the race to produce quantities of notes with minimal attentiveness, risks distancing players from any sense of real satisfaction in their music making, whether amateur or professional. I am now teaching players of all instruments, all levels, how to adjust their attention to include the elements that trigger the strongest, most reliable responses: I call it Music Inside and Out.

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: My rudimentary understanding of Tonal Refraction, as you describe it, is that in this new system pitches are associated with color rather than musical notation in order to better enable performers to hear what they’re playing or are about to play. What’s wrong with standard notation? Is color really more memorable than, say, that leger line above B that says “middle C?” Could it simply be that some people respond to color better than notation – or vice versa?

NG: It is perhaps better to think of Tonal Refraction as a process rather than as an alternative to standard notation. The process begins with the individual matching her feeling about a specific pitch to a color, tuning it, as it were, in this visual medium. Sometimes it is a favorite note, sometimes a problematic tone in a specific composition. Usually -but not always – the people involved have no previous association of color with sound. So it is important that the color is generated by the maker of the Refraction, not given as part of a method. In this sense it is a reverse notation since the color corresponds to a level of emotional response based entirely on experience of actual sound rather than being an equivalent to standard notation.

LCC: How about people like me who come from the world of improvised music where the cues are typically audio rather than visual?

NG: I have not worked with people like you, probably because the audio/visual coordination in your case – and Rachelle’s! – is so entirely different from that of a person who is reading music.

LCC: Throughout history, there have been umpteen methods for notating sound, although I’m not aware of color being one of them. One method that comes to mind is the shape-note system popular in the US in the late 1700s and early 1800s. What do you think of that?

NG: These are all evidence of the complexity of rendering the auditory in some other means to facilitate memory or execution…there will always be experimentation along these lines.

LCC: Why Tonal Refraction and not Tonal Reflection? Or is that just a matter of semantics?

NG: The word “refraction” is taken from Proust, who uses it to describe what happens to sensory memory when it is altered by layers of subconscious emotion, association, etcetera. I find it extraordinary that, upon Googling Tonal Refraction, I discovered “refraction” on page 38 of a theory treatise, Tonality and Transformation, by Steven Rings, University of Chicago. He uses the word in ways quite parallel to mine, though not with the literary association, rather with the prismatic image of the coloring of tone by experience. His work is based on the same thinker who inspired and informed my entire life as a teacher, Viktor Zuckerkandl, a psychologist, philologist, musician, who was at the Institute for Advanced Studies back in the 50′s, and whose book Sound and Symbol goes into these intricacies thoroughly, brilliantly, and hopefully, from the standpoint of how to make a meaningful life teaching music.

Incidentally, he met Robert Hutchins on a trans-Atlantic sailing and taught music at St. John’s College in Annapolis – thus he was passionate about music and the human race, not the conservatory subspecies. The second volume of his work is called Man, the Musician.

LCC: One thing that struck me immediately about Tonal Refraction is that it emphasizes the individual. After all, we all perceive sensory input differently, whether that’s audio or visual or tactile or any other kind of stimulus. How specifically is Tonal Refraction tailored to individuals?

NG: Here you are right on the money. The idea of my putting forth my own Tonal Refraction of a composition is not to stimulate your disinclination to go along with it, but rather to come up with your own images in both sound and sight.

LCC: What specifically does Tonal Refraction empower a musician to do that can’t be achieved through simple practice, or exercises, or ear training?

NG: I am amazed at the changes this technique has wrought in my listening, my playing, my teaching. The use of a code of related colors suggests interest in overtones as well as discrete pitches. And I haven’t even mentioned the grid: Tonal Refraction uses two potent elements: First, color for pitch relatedness: I can tell right away by the individual’s selection of colors whether or not she hears tones in relation one to another. Sometimes the power of color to show this is overwhelmingly clear in a way that has nothing to do with music theory or ear training. In one stunning instance, pointing out to a professional pianist how arbitrary his colors were for the C major scale began a conversation about how he hated overtones (they are, after all, inconsistent and therefore quite dangerous on the piano). Having never been taught to be aware of them he blanked them out with audible humming while playing. He no longer does so.

Second, the grid for tonal space decisions – that’s the vertical axis – plotted over a visualization of a time constant, which is the horizontal axis. As an example of tonal space, you might take the opening notes of Fur Elise: Beethoven alternates E and D# several times, starting with the E. These tones are so close together as almost to sound like a single tone with a wide pitch band. I would probably visualize that by changing color within one horizontal bar. But on page 2 the alternation begins with D# and the tones (D# / E) are clearly marked as separately articulated pairs, thus increasing the distance between them, as I understand that marking. I would indicate that by showing them adjacent horizontal bars. In other words, whereas they would be played on the same piano keys in both cases, the auditory distance would not be equivalent and I could emphasize that in my visualization.

;LCC: What is the physiological basis for Tonal Refraction?

NG: I am sure there is one and have perhaps found people to investigate this further. It is a matter of response in time. Musicians experience time in minuscule increments; during countless milliseconds we make more decisions than we can possibly track. Some of these decisions are based on emotional reactions to sounds themselves, as opposed to the composition as an entity. We know about this because of such responses as unbearable muscle tension, the humming I described above, focal dystonia — all of which I have “treated” using Tonal Refraction.

One of my former students, a neuroscientist, has connected me with a colleague, Daniella Schiller, who is working on the neuro-physiological fear response: animals, including humans, respond to fear physically before they are aware of the cause of their fear–it is so immediate a sensory event. Dr. Schiller, having tried Tonal Refraction, agrees that there are profound similarities between these types of event except that music unleashes a veritable torrent of response.

When I first began working with Tonal Refraction a student showed it to a colleague at Albert Einstein College of Medicine who referred me to the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function at Beth Abraham Health Services in the Bronx, a facility for treatment of long-term neurologic disease. Dr. Concetta Tomaino, the Music Therapist with whom Oliver Sacks worked for decades, set me to work with several patients. I undertook this experiment as a volunteer and, after three sessions, achieved results “unlike anything we have seen in music therapy.” in Dr. Tomaino’s words.

Preferring the artistic life I did not continue in that setting.

LCC: Was there a particular problem or issue that sent you off on the road to Tonal Refraction? What initiated this journey of discovery and where did it lead you?

NG: I fell in love with the sound of the piano at age 3 or 4; it was a neighbor’s piano across the hall from our apartment. I had never seen a piano or heard anyone play one. It invaded my imagination; I loved the sound. We moved away, the choir director made my father buy a piano, and I began lessons at 7. It was a huge disappointment – no magic! So I played incessantly but never practiced. Until Mozart. That book of sonatas contained sounds that matched my feeling for the instrument — not all the sounds, just some, here and there. Of course, the discrepancy was baffling and I could not articulate it. For complicated reasons I was unable to pursue the standard training and career of a pianist, though it is the only thing I ever really wanted to master. Then, at age 57 a new invention of physical therapy gave me, for the first time in my adult life, unfettered use of my left arm, so I programmed a solo recital to include the Mozart that had so puzzled me at age 12. In the middle of the night I awoke sure that now I could SHOW people what it was about that music that had stayed with me so clearly. And thus it happened–out of the experience of childhood. It is one of the reasons I take teaching children so seriously.

LCC: Can I play devil’s advocate again and ask if Tonal Refraction has the potential to do much good, why hasn’t it already been adopted in the music education community? Or has it? Are there other people doing what you’re doing, or on the same track at least?

NG: Parental pressure for short-term achievement is calling the shots with increasing authority these days. Competition is all. The commitment to it is deeply entrenched.

LCC: Can I play devil’s advocate again and ask why, when we have Youtube and Soundcloud and a gazillion other places where we can learn stuff by ear, and if we get lost we can rewind, do we even need written notation? After all, an awful lot of people who play music, some of them very well, can’t read it…

NG: I refer back to my story of discovering those particular sounds in Mozart. I had no clue who he was or what it was but I knew I was not alone in the world. Had the music not been printed for me to stumble across all by myself on my piano none of the above could have happened, though I deplore the reliance of the classical music community on visual analysis rather than on auditory vitality – the recording industory has also been subservient to that order of priorities.

LCC: As you know, in Hindu mythology, certain pitches as well as certain colors are associated with the various chakras in the human body. I’m not aware of what if any mathematical correlation there might be between sonic and spectral frequencies in that system. Is there one in yours? In other words, does the correspondence between pitches have a mathematically corresponding color shift?

NG: These are issues that Zuckerkandl treats very beautifully. My work relies on the variability of acoustical events and the perception of them. In this respect it is not attractive to most theorists seeking mathematical formulas, though I feel the work is inherently mathematical. My brother, a mathematician, saw that right away, though he knows nothing about music.

LCC: I should say “congratulations” for being selected to present your findings at the upcoming International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition in Seoul this coming August. What specifics are you going to unveil there?

NG: Thanks!! No one is more surprised than I at the proposal having been selected. The proposal seems to address many of your questions quite directly: “The study aimed to determine whether individuals could be made aware of their involuntary experience of tone relatedness, demonstrated by Viktor Zuckerkandl (Sound and Symbol) to be integral to the musical life of persons with or without training; and, if so, whether it would make any difference.

Seventy-two individuals, including professional musicians, amateurs, listeners, and children, were seen for three weekly sessions of 1 ¼ hours. Session I: Each was asked to identify a tone that had particular meaning for them, then to choose out of hundreds of colored pencils a color to match that tone. Proceeding then to relate that tone/color either to a scale, or directly to the tones in a specific composition of their own choosing, the individual drew the tones on a grid, as if depicting vibrations. With the horizontal axis of the grid corresponding to time measured objectively, the vertical axis registered degrees of rise and fall as perceived by the inner ear, i.e., subjectively, often deviating significantly from standard notation. Continuing to depict the composition the individual worked in silence, relating to the score without relating physically to an instrument or actual sound. Session II: A continuation of the work. By Session III 67% of individuals already registered a clear response, generally manifested in improved reading; and better, more confident coordination in instrumental or compositional performance. Of this group 13% presented acute physical or psychiatric symptoms; with the exception of only one individual in this sub-group, the results were dramatically restorative.

For 30% of participants the process seemed to have no evident relevance while, for 3%, the first two sessions evoked such psychological pain as to preclude completing the study. Representative samples of work from all three groups will be shown. This research has direct implications about relating visual to auditory experience. Whereas failing to account for the difference between fully resonating sound and the discrete symbols of standard notation risks alienating the reader from innate musical sense, a system that translates auditory experience into visual terms may restore the connection.”

LCC: Being familiar with your blog, I’ve noticed that you have a prophetic streak. You’ve been a champion of live performance and live recording versus studio recordings, and you’ve also gone to bat for community-based performances and ensembles, both ideas which have validated themselves in recent years. To what degree, do you think, or would you venture to say, is Tonal Refraction an “I told you so” moment?

NG: It’s good of you to say that and thanks for reading the blog. After a while I got used to being a bit ahead of the pack, having noticed already in the 50′s that recordings and television were going to pose problems in terms of attentiveness and sound quality, which influenced my approach to programming. My teaching has always been experimental, including some far-out work in ensemble and in piano at Mannes Preparatory Division until the influx of Eastern Europeans in the 80′s wiped away all trace of what was creatively American in approaches to music education. I had to stop even pretending to accomplish anything against the Sovietization of classical music. Alas. But I still have acive contact with some extraordinary young musical minds. Most of my support has come from your generation and younger with the exception of a few highly perceptive artist teachers here and there.

LCC: Thanks for the enlightening chat! I’d like to remind those of you in New York that Nancy Garniez also puts on a very enlightening piano salon in a welcoming, intimate Upper West Side space: the current focus of these early evening house concerts is Beethoven sonatas and the fine points of the composer’s rhythms. Details may be found here.

March 31, 2014 Posted by | classical music, interview, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stormy Surprises from the Greenwich Village Orchestra

There are plenty of joyous, exciting orchestras in town, without even mentioning the kind of electricity that the New York Philharmonic can generate. Recent concerts here by the Park Avenue Chamber SymphonyEast Coast Chamber Orchestra and Spectrum Symphony have all been high-voltage, and the Chelsea Symphony across town can always be counted on for an entertaining performance. But the Greenwich Village Orchestra seems to have a little more fun than anybody else.

Their concert this past Sunday on Irving Place didn’t start out that way. Conductor Barbara Yahr led them gracefully through Samuel Barber’s Adagio, to open on a somber note. There’s only one way to play that piece – it’s funeral music, and you either do it that way, or you do it wrong. Yahr and orchestra took care to take no chances and the music was better off for it.

They brought the volume up, slowly and methodically, with Barber’s Violin Concerto, from 1939, the year after the Adagio was written. And the first two movements made a fantastic segue because they sound like a continuation of it. Guest violinist Hye-Jin Kim met the lush sonics with a judiciously silken tone, handing off to the ensemble on more than one occasion with a perfectly measured dignity and grace, the results were so seamless. But the third movement was as electric as anyone could have hoped for and Kim dug into it with relish. When she wasn’t sprinting through rapidfire volleys of chromatics, she had a grin on her face, tapping out the rhythm on her hip, lost in the sway of the music. Kim has gone on record as dedicating herself to illuminating the emotion in what she plays, and she nailed the triumph and surprise in this one, over the lively, balletesque pulse that seemingly appears out of nowhere. Behind her, bassist Jeff Rozany and oboeist Shannon Bryant contributed lushly fluid intros that stood out in contrast.

Here are two theories about Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, both of which could be wrong. For starters, the symphony is such a hodgepodge – if a brilliant one – that it seems that the composer was emptying the tank, fleshing out every idea that might have been kicking around his songbook. Was there a doubt that he’d survive World War II – or survive Stalin? That’s hardly implausible. Another theory relates to subtext, that what Prokofiev is saying, other than rejoicing in telling the Nazis to take a hike, is that now that we’ve sent one bunch of fascists packing, it’s high time we got our own house in order. Whatever the case, what’s inarguable about this work is that its multi-facetedness makes it very difficult to play. Yahr’s approach was to raise the bar and the volume as high as it would go, right out of the gate, setting up all kinds of suspense for when the triumph dies down and the distantly ominous foreshadowing begins. Yahr remarked beforehand that there are passages of “pure evil” in this, and she’s right – the caricatures of mechanistic Nazis and various fascist buffoons, staggering with the weight of the low brass and the timpani, are brutal. That surrealism left a vivid mark, through the stormy conclusion, which was almost too giddy to be true – yet unshakably true to the composer’s vision

The GVO’s next concert, on May 18 at 3 PM, is an especially high-voltage one, with an eclectic Spanish-tinged program that spans the emotional spectrum: Copland’s El Salón México; Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol; Ginastera’s Estancia suite, and largescale arrangements of Piazzolla tangos.

March 31, 2014 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 132 other followers