September 24, 2020 by Ron Schepper
David Ludwig and Katie Ford: The Anchoress XAS Records
As old a tale as The Anchoress is, the contemporary resonance of the one-woman opera by composer David Ludwig (b. 1974) and librettist Katie Ford (b. 1975) is impossible to ignore. In medieval times, hundreds of women (men too, but they were outnumbered four to one) volunteered to become anchoresses, mystics secluded within church-attached cells whose anchorholds included two windows, one opening onto the sanctuary to enable participation in the Eucharist and the other to the outside world to allow villagers to consult the anchoress on spiritual matters. She thus held a rather unusual position, one that honoured her with a particular status but also, in a sense, imprisoned her. Such sacrifice, however, enabled the anchoress to be protected from the kinds of domestic violence, sexual assault, and disease others might have been vulnerable to. Though it was created in 2018, the work eerily predates the current pandemic, with its attendant focus on self-isolation as a survival tactic, and, of course, domestic violence and sexual assault are sadly still with us today. In Ford's words, “All of us now know more about seclusion and enclosure than we likely ever wanted to know.”
Issued on PRISM Quartet's XAS label, this premiere recording of the monodrama features Hyunah Yu, an American soprano born in South Korea, in the title role accompanied by the quartet's saxophones and the early-music ensemble Piffaro, The Renaissance Band; the half-hour piece is followed by Three Anchoress Songs, a short work Ludwig composed while he was developing the larger one and performed by Mimi Stillman on flute and piccolo and PRISM's tenor saxist Matthew Levy.
The complexities of the anchoress's role engendered a similarly complicated portrait from Ford, a poet who's appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and other august publications and teaches creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. Her anchoress is calculating, thoughtful, angry, and bitter, facets that emerge as we eavesdrop on conversations conducted at her window and listen in on her inner roamings. The Philadelphia-based Ludwig, whom NPR deemed one of the world's “Top 100 Composers Under Forty,” amplifies Ford's characterization by having the soprano perform the work using a panoply of vocal techniques, from sprechstimme and vocalise to lyrical musings and dramatic outpourings. Enhancing Yu's performance, a solo recorder acts as a doppelgänger of sorts in shadowing the voice and punctuating its expressions. Like others in Piffaro's arsenal of Renaissance-period instruments (theorbo, lute, sackbut, dulcian, krumhorn, shawm, percussion), the recorder helps establish the spirit of the earlier time.
The work's ceremonial tone is established immediately with Yu's intoning “What Is My Life?” against a stern backdrop of funerary music, the movement signifying the anchoress's transition from her former life to the living grave of her anchorhold. Following it, PRISM's saxophones introduce “Once a Woman Went Down the Hill” with fluttering figures, after which the vocal and instrumental elements alternate between lyrical and turbulent passages. A regal stateliness informs Piffaro's backing of Yu during “What Are We to Make of Visions Lit?,” even if violent saxophone stabs otherwise punctuate the presentation. A similar stately folk character infuses “A Woman of the Village,” Yu progressing from spoken word to a moving vocalise.
Sonically, the work's most diverting moment occurs during “One Night in Particular” when furious strumming, shouts, and saxophone flurries generate, in the composer's words, “twelve seconds of chaos” after Yu's “your own terror” utterance. Considerably unlike it is the prayerful “When I Woke Up Sighing,” highlighted by Yu's high-register command. At times PRISM and Piffaro accompany her separately; at other times, the units blend, the result always effective regardless of the contrasting timbres of the groups' instruments. As strong as their contributions are, the recording primarily hinges on the soprano's performance and in that regard Yu is unfailing, her traversing of the emotional extremes associated with the anchoress wholly convincing.
Though Three Anchoress Songs is dwarfed by the larger work, it's not without appeal or substance, especially when the interplay between Stillman and Levy is so artfully handled. Even with the vocal dimension absent, the piece's connection to The Anchoress is audible in the winding patterns essayed by the woodwinds and the tonal character of the three songs. One final surprise comes at the end of “Rondeau,” where the transporting lyricism of the piccolo and saxophone are replaced by the performers briefly singing Machaut's rondeau “Doulz viaire gracious.” By CD standards, the thirty-eight-minute duration is modest, yet concision works in the release's favour. There's something immensely satisfying about a presentation that sees a compact, eight-part opera accompanied by a related work that's even more modest. Experienced together, the two offer a thoroughly rewarding and complete experience.
Ron Schepper... Link
No New Abnormal
A Subtly Harrowing, Incredibly Timely Musical Parable From David Serkin Ludwig and Katie Ford
by delarueIn the west, extrasensory perception has typically been associated with women. Those believed to be clairvoyant were typically shunned or banished….or worse. Among women in Europe in the Middle Ages who weren’t gruesomely murdered for ostensibly possessing a well-developed sixth sense, one option was to be walled up inside a church. Townspeople could come and consult the mystic through a small window, her only connection with the outside world. In their new cantata The Anchoress – streaming at youtube – composer David Serkin Ludwig and poet Katie Ford relate an incredibly timely and understatedly disturbing narrative about one woman so confined.
In the title role, soprano Hyunah Yu demonstrates as much remarkable clarity as range: she’s not one to let the challenges of hitting the notes get in the way of telling a story. Behind her, the looming resonance and mysterious microtones of saxophone ensemble the PRISM Quartet contrast with the lively flurries of Renaissance ensemble Piffaro. Informed by minimalism and spectral music as much as the baroque works he frequently quotes here, Ludwig’s themes are dynamic and dramatic if usually on the quiet side.
Priscilla Herreid‘s dancing, leaping, occasionally shrieking recorder is a persistent contrast with the sustained clouds of massed saxes. Terror is more of an omnipresent threat than actually front and center, for the most part, although when it is Yu and the ensembles make that ineluctably clear. Ford’s tale begins as Yu’s stricken narrator starts to come to grips with the prospect of never again being part of the outside world. It ends as you would expect, considering the circumstances. Some details are left to the listener to fil in, because Ford has built ommissions into the text, as if it had been censored, in “A time of great mortality.”
A theft, an injury while making an escape, and an angry mob are involved, or at least alluded to, through sudden swoops and dives over a more-or-less persistent calm. Ludwig and Ford wrote this before the lockdown, so this isn’t specifically a parable of the perils of being unmasked in a world of psycho maskers. But it’s hardly a stretch to read it that way.
After the story has run its course, the ensembles conclude with an instrumental triptych: puffing winds in contrast with stillness, a cantabile Debussy-esque interlude and an increasingly ghostly conclusion. As accessible and profoundly relevant as this is, it should reach an audience far beyond the avant garde.
Many choral ensembles are firmly centered on performing the music of the past: either the early-music repertory prized by such groups as New York’s Tenet or Boston’s Blue Heron, or else the big masterworks that come from what might be called the choral long nineteenth century, from the capacious Baroque of Handel’s “Messiah” to the mid-twentieth-century Impressionism of Duruflé’s Requiem. But, over the past decade, cutting-edge choral music seems more important than ever, and two choruses that New Yorkers love have new releases showing it off.
The first comes from the Crossing, a youthful Philadelphia group conducted by Donald Nally, which makes regular visits to such Gotham venues as the Metropolitan Museum and Trinity Church Wall Street. Now they’ve shepherded a new work by the notable British composer Gavin Bryars, “The Fifth Century,” onto the ECM label. Bryars, who is seventy-four, is a senior British minimalist whose work has sprung from his early experiences as a jazz improviser and from his close involvement with the rather recondite experimentalist movement that flowered in Britain in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. More recent associations with such groups as the superb Hilliard Ensemble have kept him busy as a choral composer, and the absolute security of his style is the strongest selling point of this new album.
Written for the Crossing and the saxophone quartet Prism, “The Fifth Century” offers seven settings of poems by the seventeenth-century English clergyman and mystic Thomas Traherne. As Traherne’s soft-grained but ecstatic verses balance the scholarly with the emotional, Bryars’s music mixes melancholy and joy to an almost too perfect degree. All of the music is slow, and very seldom loud; the saxophones sing out long, doleful tunes, or gurgle softly and sympathetically while the chorus intones Traherne’s words in ravishing but ethereal timbres. Harmonic surprises are exceedingly rare, as the gently cantering train of vowels and consonants runs on into the distance. It’s deeply meditative music, but with a certain New Age tinge. It’s tautology time: if you like this sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing you’ll like. (A pair of Petrarch settings, in Italian, closes the disk on a lighter, but stylistically similar, note.) Variety, however, is the hallmark of “Black Mountain Songs,” a release on New Amsterdam Records that celebrates the extraordinary creativity at Black Mountain College, in North Carolina, where the postwar American avant-garde was incubated through the transformative genius of figures such as the composer John Cage, the choreographer Merce Cunningham, and the artist-pedagogue Josef Albers. The project was designed by the composer (and rock musician) Bryce Dessner and Dianne Berkun Menaker, who is the inspired leader of the extraordinary Brooklyn Youth Chorus, an ensemble of teen-age girls and boys for whom contemporary music is daily bread.
Originally staged as a choreographed pageant at bam’s Harvey Theatre, in 2014 (the late Harvey Lichtenstein, bam’s dynamic director, was a Black Mountain alumnus), “Black Mountain Songs” earned a rave review in the Times—and when you hear the astonishingly secure performance of the young singers, who have been tasked with executing some formidably complex choral textures, you immediately understand why. But when divorced from the production the unevenness of the selections is inevitably apparent. Amid much pleasant but meandering music by Dessner and Richard Reed Parry, the contributions of Nico Muhly and Caroline Shaw immediately stand out. Muhly takes the cake with “Fielding Dawson in Franz Kline’s Studio,” a febrile account of artistic ferment that shivers with deftly controlled excitement; Shaw’s “Its Motion Keeps,” based on words from the nineteenth-century hymn book “The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion,” sets a prim, plain text (“My days / My weeks / My months . . .”) against the clock-like plucking of a solo viola that soon brakes out into lustrous arpeggios. Dessner fills time; Muhly and Shaw shape it as a force. But Parry’s “Spaceship Earth” (inspired by Buckminster Fuller) has a dogged sort of poignance to it, and Jherek Bischoff’s “Childhood’s Retreat” (which sets to music a poem by Robert Duncan) is a blast of merry fun.
Russell Platt is the classical-music editor of Goings On About Town. ... Link
PRISM Quartet Color Theory With So Percussion and Partch Derek Johnson, adapted electric guitar (Future Lilacs); Stratis Minakakis, conductor (Future Lilacs, Skiagrafies) XAS Records; CD, DL
The four members of PRISM Quartet, an award-winning ensemble based in New York City, Philadelphia, and Ann Arbor, have been singleminded in their pursuit of new sonic and stylistic frontiers for their mutual instrument of choice, the saxophone. But that’s not to suggest that Timothy McAllister, Taimur Sullivan, Matthew Levy, and Zachary Shemon have been close-minded in matters of ensemble integrity. Alongside strictly four-part inventions, PRISM has engaged in eye- and ear-opening collaborations with other artists and ensembles, including prominent jazz saxophonists such as Steve Lehman, Dave Liebman, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Greg Osby, Tim Ries, and Miguel Zenón; the ensemble Music from China; esteemed choir The Crossing; and early-music consort Piffaro.
Disparate though all these projects might be, what they all share in common is an enviable combination of integrity, individuality, and instant appeal – no mean feat, given some of the more rigorous creative modes PRISM has investigated. Those qualities are amply evident on Color Theory, issued April 14 as the second release from the quartet’s new label, XAS Records (distributed by Naxos). Without question one of PRISM’s most elaborate undertakings, the project finds the foursome working with So Percussion, another pioneering quartet devoted to breaking new ground and forging new alliances, and Partch, a West Coast percussion ensemble that focuses on the Seussian microtonal instruments created by maverick composer Harry Partch.
The common thread among the three pieces on the album – Blue Notes and Other Clashes by Steven Mackey, Future Lilacs by Ken Ueno, and Skiagrafies by Stratis Minakakis – is the notion of saxophones and percussion used as raw materials to build a new repertoire inspired by and based on the notion of musical colors. Ueno took the concept a step further, calling for the physical transformation of one of the saxophones and adding an electric guitar in altered tuning to the mix. Derek Johnson, a skillful and versatile Bang on a Can associate, handles the guitar assignment; Minakakis is also present, serving as the conductor on his own piece and Ueno’s.
Instant verdict: Mission accomplished. The PRISM players not only produce a positively beguiling range of tonal colors and shadings on their own, but also mix and mingle with their percussive cohorts in consistently rich and imaginative ways. In “Deep Hymn,” the opening movement of Mackey’s Blue Notes and Other Clashes, written for PRISM and So Percussion, you’re drawn in instantly by tones of hushed, pealing mystery, and then disoriented thoroughly by metallic tones that flex and wobble like rubber – a gorgeous mix of hushed saxophone and steel pan. What’s especially gripping about that moment is that it’s not merely alien; it’s alien and undeniably beautiful, music that goes straight from the ear to the heart.
Mackey sustains those qualities in the seven movements that follow, each named with an evocative adjective and a musical term. “Rustic Ballad” (perhaps despite its title) mixes buoyant sax phrases and martial beats before slipping into a slinky groove and a wriggling melody. Keening and lilting saxes dance over a stuttering beat in “Off Waltz,” grounded with earthy marimba. Shimmering vibraphone and robust marimba preface radiant steel pan, airy melodica, and smeared saxophone in “Pale Lament,” swelling and ceding like waves, then joining in ardent song.
“Mottled March” is furtive and whimsical by turns; “Dappled Grooves” mixes yearning wind figures and spacious pulsations, culminating in a herky-jerky power ballad. Airy gestures from saxophones and percussion alike flit and wheel in “Dirty Branle,” swelling suddenly and quickly to a boisterous torrent. The closing “Prismatic Fantasy” presents a flurry of disparate gestures, swirling, fusing, dissolving, and recombining in seductive sequence; the ending, which arrives without fanfare, is both understated and satisfying.
Both Ueno and Minakakis opt for long spans rather than discrete segments in their works for PRISM and Partch. Ueno – whose creative span runs from solo improvisation and the rugged intricacies of Central Asian multiphonic throat-singing to rigorously constructed symphonic works and opera – found inspiration for Future Lilacs in “Futures in Lilacs,” a 2007 poem by Robert Hass sparked in turn by Walt Whitman’s iconic “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”
Opening with a stinging guitar note played obsessively on alternating strings to produce shifting overtones, Ueno gradually introduces the unconventional Partch instruments – diamond marimba, “Castor” and “Pollux” canons, kithara, chromelodeon, adapted viola, cloud chamber bowls, and bass marimba – their unconventional tonal and timbral qualities at once disorienting and inviting. The saxophones make their presence known some three-plus minutes into the piece, notes bending and slurring in accord with Partch implements and roiling guitar alike. Ueno compels the PRISM players to make full use of their horns’ capacity to sputter, hiss, and clack, and further deploys what he calls a “hookah sax”: a tenor saxophone with seven feet of rubber hose inserted between its mouthpiece and body – a method made famous by the seminal New York City noise-improvisation trio Borbetomagus.
Like much of Harry Partch’s music as well as certain Asian traditions that have informed Ueno’s compositional style, Future Lilacs has a ceremonial quality, its players sounding fitfully as if ordained by ritual. Rollicking and meditative in alternation, the music sustains its initial fascination; Ueno’s techniques are novel, but never mere novelty, serving expressive purposes consistently throughout this haunting work.
Minakakis, too, found inspiration for his approach to mixing PRISM and Partch in literature: specifically, Goethe’s 1810 book Theory of Colours, which summarized the poet’s view of the nature of color and how humans perceive it. A 2016 concert review in The New York Times reports that Minakakis also cited certain late-period works by Beethoven, upon which Goethe’s treatise may have cast a shadow.
Skiagrafies (Greek for “shadow etchings”) commences with a singular mix of whisper-soft baritone saxophone with Partch’s adapted viola and bowed cloud chamber bowls, an instantly striking gesture that conjures an eerie gloaming. The music proceeds, wraithlike, through subtle, striking shifts; the effect is something like watching shadows cast by clouds while the sun arcs slowly across the sky, the resulting permutations continually waxing and waning in intensity. As the end approaches, the saxophones muster their force, as if attempting to fly free of gravity’s pull before quietly succumbing to the inevitable.
Throughout Color Theory the performances by all players involved are vital and engaging. Recorded at Rittenhouse Soundworks in Philadelphia, the album – engineered by Peter Tramo, produced by Matthew Levy in collaboration with his PRISM colleagues and the individual composers, and mixed and edited by Levy – captures honestly and vividly what must have been an especially demanding series of sessions. Factor in a handsomely designed package with authoritative notes by John Schaefer, and the result is a completely commendable production.
PRISM Quartet performs with Joe Lovano at Le Poisson Rouge on June 4 at 7pm; www.lpr.com
JUNE 17, 2016
In Gavin Bryars’s “The Fifth Century,” a haunting work for choir and saxophone quartet that had an eloquent New York premiere at Trinity Wall Street on Thursday evening, the word “eternity” was clearly audible when intoned by the sopranos at the start of the fourth movement. The syllables of the word were then sung with stately grace before resurfacing later in the section.
The rest of the text, often submerged in densely beautiful polyphony, mostly sounded indistinct during the performance by the Philadelphia choir the Crossing and the Prism Quartet, conducted by Donald Nally.
While many contemporary composers strive to set texts clearly, particularly when writing in their native language, that didn’t seem to be Mr. Bryars’s intention when he chose excerpts from “Centuries of Meditations,” a set of paragraphs by the 17th-century English poet and theologian Thomas Traherne that examine topics of Christianity, philosophy and happiness.
Instead, Mr. Bryars created a meditative space where mood took precedence over clarity. The first sentence of the opening movement — “We see the heavens with our eyes, and know the world with our senses” — unfolded over several minutes, creating a sound world in which following a narrative proved less important than luxuriating in rich harmonies and reflective flow. Vowels were so elongated amid the layers created by the 24 voices of this superb choir that it proved almost impossible to follow along with the text provided in the program book.
Each section of the work — written as an eulogy to Jeffrey Dinsmore, a founder of the Crossing who died in 2014 at 42 — began with a saxophone prelude. The soprano saxophone often echoed the women’s voices. At other times, the quartet created a gentle drone that underpinned the elegiac intertwining of the polyphonic vocal lines.
The first half of the program included “Hymns From the Western Coast” for saxophone and choir by the Estonian composer Tonu Korvits, set to Swedish translations of Estonian folk songs. The writing often proved evocative, such as in the second verse, “Alas, my ship is sinking.”
The folk influences seemed particularly strong in the third section, “For skippers and boatsmen,” which concluded with a declamatory “Heja! Hoja!” The overall mood of the Christian-themed texts, with colorful saxophone accompaniment, was decidedly more earthbound than in Mr. Bryars’ poignant lament.
A version of this review appears in print on June 18, 2016, on page C2 of the New York edition with the headline: Hints of Eternity on Wall St.... Link
By CORINNA da FONSECA-WOLLHEIM JUNE 14, 2016Two years ago, an English high-tech company drew a flurry of media attention when it invented Vantablack, the “blackest black” ever created, made of a light-guzzling material so dark it looked like a void. New colors are mixed all the time, of course, though they rarely get the sort of fanfare that greeted the French artist Yves Klein’s deep shade of ultramarine, IKB, in 1960, or the accidental invention of mauve by the Victorian chemist William Perkin.
In music, too, composers and players are continually working to come up with new tone colors. In two concerts last week at Roulette in Brooklyn, the Prism Quartet, a saxophone ensemble, produced an intriguing palette of sounds that included tone colors never heard before.The concerts, presented under the title “Color Theory,” were fashioned as a sort of laboratory in which to explore the notion of color in music. The program included three commissioned works by different composers illustrating the complex, and subjective, nature of color in music.
For each concert, Prism teamed up with one other group: on Tuesday, So Percussion, and on Sunday, Partch, a Los Angeles-based ensemble that performs on the instruments invented by the composer Harry Partch to produce a wider palette of microtonally spaced pitches. Among those instruments are outlandish cloud-chamber bowls that look like hanging glass sculptures. Those bowls and a baritone saxophone, for example, created a blend, never tried before, that resulted in a delicate sandy-edged golden hum.Introducing his “Skiagrafies (Shadow Etchings)” from the stage, the composer Stratis Minakakis said he had been inspired by Beethoven’s exploration of tiny gradations at the ultraquiet end of the volume spectrum at the end of his career. During that time, Beethoven is known to have read Goethe’s treatise on color theory, which includes detailed observations of colored shadows.
The shadow world of “Skiagrafies” proved to be an alluring haze, grown out of that opening whisper-blend of a soft baritone saxophone note; it splintered into multiphonics that seemed to be enveloped, as in a translucent bubble, in the sustained warmth of a cloud-chamber bowl that was bowed across the rim with a double bass bow. This chord set the color scheme for the ensuing music with its soft, mournful saxophone ululations.According to the concert’s organizers, this was the first time the Partch instruments had been combined with a quartet of saxophones. After Sunday’s performances, the symbiosis seemed promising.
The composer Ken Ueno said he had decided to pay homage to Partch in his own response to the color commission by further adapting his instruments. For his “Future Lilacs,” he explained from the stage, he introduced “hacked” instruments of his own invention to the ensemble. One was a juiced-up electric version of Partch’s guitar, tuned to G on all strings, and a tenor sax turned into a “hookah sax” through the insertion of a seven-foot rubber tube between the instrument’s neck and body.The rubbery sputter that this exotic-looking instrument now emitted added to the dynamic contrast between organic and inorganic sounds in “Future Lilacs.” The work opens with a dynamic rock-charged section in which the electric guitar worries away at a single note with microtonally altered impulses, then settles into a languid postlude that again makes beautiful use of the ethereal cloud-chamber bowls.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Prism and So Percussion presented Steven Mackey’s “Blue Notes and Other Clashes.” In introductory remarks from the stage, Mr. Mackey, an electric guitarist with a strong background in blues and rock, said he had been inspired by the “blue note” in jazz, “the right wrong note that hurts so good.”In eight short movements, Mr. Mackey brewed up heady concoctions, with needling dissonances sometimes subtly, sometimes sharply roughing up the musical textures. “Deep Hymn” grew out of the hum of a prayer bowl with quiet, sustained saxophone chords warmed by metallic percussion sounds. The marimba and steel drums injected a tropical note into “Rustic Ballad”; “Off Waltz” combined a sultry Scheherazade-like riff with a deep groove.
But Mr. Mackey’s evocative titles, combining a word from the visual arts with one from music, showed how subjective the perception of tone color remains. One movement dominated by a blend of saxophones with vibraphone and steel drums seemed to me a beautiful study in growing density and brilliance, its golden shimmer brightening with the addition of high notes in the soprano saxophone. The title of this gleaming gem? “Pale Lament.”A version of this review appears in print on June 15, 2016, on page C7 of the New York edition with the headline: Can You Hear That Crazy Forest Green, Man?... Link
NEW YORK--In remarks introducing Vamp (2016), composer Anna Weesner recalled her father characterizing the saxophone as “a vulgar instrument,” an assessment hard to fathom after hearing the sophisticated gloss that the PRISM Quartet gave her new piece, just one of six world premieres the saxophone foursome presented on March 20 at Tenri Cultural Center, a small, high-ceilinged gallery space in New York's Greenwich Village. Weesner uses a repeated motif—framed by well-timed pauses—to create a pulsing heartbeat, and the timbres produced by this one were uncannily diverse, often evoking other instruments, such as clarinet, trumpet, or bassoon.Composer Kyle Bartlett uses a catalog of extended techniques in the five sections of her entertaining Unfolding (2016), including airless key clicks, for a light percussive effect. (The third movement, “Clockwork,” deploys these exclusively.) In the second movement, titled “Vulgarly” (perhaps acknowledging Weesner's father's comment), mechanical rhythms are interrupted by brief outbursts of flutter-tonguing (a sound similar to a tremolo) and slap-tonguing (sharply glottal popping sounds), turning instruments that are usually all about melody into ones about texture instead.
North Carolina-based composer and educator Ben Hjertmann describes his Awake, Alive, Amok, Ajar (2016) as “a work on the verge of losing control.” Its emphatic lines—brightly lit with occasional rhythmic ostinatos—converge like four uninhibited conversations, as if four people were all arguing their points simultaneously. At times the lines are anchored by a rhythmic groove; at others they dissolve into pitchless puffs of air. The result was appealing, as if Steve Reich had somehow crossed paths with John Coltrane.
I look forward to the day when this is not news, but the fact that three of the composers represented on the program are women deserves noting. The third and youngest, Jane Lange, is a student at the Walden School in New Hampshire, where the quartet has had a long relationship, and she is the latest winner of Prism’s annual commissioning contest. SomewhatMusic, Mostly Noise(2016) could be retitled, “somewhat noise, mostly flat-out lovely.” It begins with a striking group glissando, descending as if in slow motion, and then travels through a landscape of short, microtonal slides. (It reminded me somewhat of Charles Ives's song, “Like a Sick Eagle,” in which the singer gently slides from note to note through quarter-tones.) The sheer tonal beauty is beguiling, but Lange's end result—a “sighing” effect—is even more striking.
Side Streets (2016) by Jay Reise, professor of music composition at the University of Pennsylvania, is a tribute to jazz saxophonist and composer Jimmy Giuffre (whose popular 1947 tune, Four Brothers, was written to show off the saxophones in the Woody Herman Orchestra). After a complex opening chord, again showing the PRISM crew's refined balance, Reise alternates soaring lines with bursts of peppery, jumping rhythms, leading to a gently elegiac close. His warm chordal harmonies were perhaps the afternoon's most explicitly jazz-influenced, and somewhere, Giuffre was probably smiling down in approval.
Founded in 1984, PRISM has become highly regarded for its performances, educational efforts, and commissioning—to date over 200 works by a wide array of award-winning composers. The superb artists who make up the quartet—Timothy McAllister (soprano), Zachary Shemon (alto), Matthew Levy (tenor), and Taimur Sullivan (baritone)—could not have been more committed throughout the afternoon, wearing their virtuosity lightly and showing the premieres in the best possible light. If any of this could remotely be considered “vulgar,” we could use a lot more of it.
The afternoon ended with Stratigraphy (2016) by James Primosch, also on the University of Pennsylvania faculty. Introducing his piece, Primosch mentioned he was inspired by geology—the word refers to the analysis of strata—and by spectralism, after reading pianist Marilyn Nonken's book, The Spectral Piano: From Liszt, Scriabin, and Debussy to the Digital Age (2014, Cambridge University Press). Also director of piano studies at NUY's Steinhardt School, Nonken has long been at the forefront of contemporary piano music, and has commissioned many new works. Here, as a guest with the ensemble, she offered clean, expertly balanced keyboard sound, often in delicate tracery—a welcome counterpoint to the saxophones. Primosch makes maximum use of the instruments' contrasting timbres, framing the quartet with the piano—the latter often at the extreme ends of the keyboard. Each of the six movements has its beauties, but I was most struck with “Game of Pairs” (a nod to Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra), and the motoric sparkle of “Geochronologic.”
Most instruments within the realm of Western classical music have a long and elaborate history, their origins veiled in a certain amount of mystery. Violins, flutes, cellos, oboes — all have long lines of ancestry and plumed pedigrees, all have pedagogues and pedagogies. As a result of this long history and the deeply ingrained traditionalism inherent in classical music culture, new instruments often have difficulty establishing themselves within the repertoire, forced to overcome the prejudices and obstinate attitudes of the elder instruments. This is certainly the case with the saxophone, whose origin — in sharp contrast to earlier instruments — is a clear and specific part of the historical record. Invented by Adolphe Sax in 1840, the saxophone has since become most famous for its prominence in jazz music, played virtuosi such as John Coltrane and Charlie Parker.
But in addition to the saxophone’s well-known affiliation with jazz, the last several decades have seen the rise of saxophone in the classical music sphere. Soloists and chamber groups of enormous ability dazzle audiences with newly composed music for their instrument — and perhaps there is no more famous classical saxophone ensemble active today than the Prism Quartet, who will be performing in Ann Arbor Saturday.
“The Prism Quartet formed in 1984,” said Timothy McAllister, soprano saxophonist for the quartet and associate professor of Saxophone in an interview with The Michigan Daily. “At the time, they were all graduate students at the University of Michigan here, all under our great mentor, the professor emeritus of Saxophone Donald Sinta.”
While the quartet originally formed as a group of students seeking to advance their education through competition, it soon grew into something with a greater sense of purpose.
“They formed to perform locally and also to compete in local and national chamber music competitions — they ended up doing really well, and won a few major competitions, which led to a more serious plan and mission for the group,” McAllister said. “Very quickly the group started to get involved with commissioning new music — contemporary music by living composers, namely those associated with the University of Michigan here, faculty (and) recent graduates.”
In the years following its founding, Prism was a major force in the promotion of the saxophone as a serious chamber music ensemble rivaling the traditional string quartet, a heterodoxy which soon distinguished them from the crowd.
“The idea of the saxophone quartet being something out there that would rival the traditional chamber music models — I think that was much more a pioneering effort on behalf of Prism,” McAllister said. “(Because ensembles like the string quartet) have so much more history, (Prism) worked very quickly to make up that ground, just by getting today’s most important composers to write for the saxophone quartet.”
Since its founding, Prism has had several member changes. McAllister himself was hired in 2000, the third soprano saxophonist to be a member of the ensemble. Today, the quartet is comprised of McAllister, Taimur Sullivan on baritone, Zachary Shemon on alto and Matthew Levy — the only remaining founding member — on tenor.
“We’ve always hired from ‘Michigan aesthetic,’ which is quite singular, both born out of the playing styles of Donald Sinta himself and his teacher Larry Teal, who was the first professor of saxophone anywhere in the United States,” McAllister said. “The first professorship in that field started here at Michigan. We’re very proud of that.”
Prism has long been associated with the University, and in the past few decades has served as a model to saxophone students in the School of Music, Theater & Dance.
“I did four degrees here at the University of Michigan, in the music school, and I knew for myself I grew up knowing about the Prism quartet, I came to college here knowing its history and its trailblazing status,” McAllister said. “That was an inspiration for all of us who were in the (saxophone) studio at the time.”
For the concert on Saturday, Prism will be working with several creative collaborators. Renowned jazz saxophonists Diego Rivera and Andrew Bishop will be joining the ensemble for performances of “Improvisations” by Chris Potter, “Found” by Matthew Levy and John Coltrane’s ballad “Dear Lord,” arranged by Dave Liebman.
“We wanted to really collaborate with some really fantastic local jazz musicians, because the program called for that,” McAllister said. “The goal has been to show this merging of the classical tradition with the more academic jazz tradition, and basically to show the middle ground, to create a collaboration that demonstrates both sides of the instrument as a single organism.”
The program’s primary featured piece is “Improvisations” by Chris Potter — a legendary jazz saxophonist — which was composed for the quartet, the concept being that the composer/performer would join the quartet to play in their own piece. When the piece was premiered it was played by Prism, Potter and Ravi Coltrane, the son of John Coltrane. On this week’s program the piece will be performed with Rivera and Bishop.
“The whole concert is quite a collage of a lot of our activity. It showcases some of our more serious classical pieces, it showcases some heavy concert jazz music and it has some transcriptions,” McAllister said. “So it’s kind of a nice survey of our legacy, of the kind of activity that we’ve embarked upon for the whole history of the group but also in the more recent history of the group.”
In the upcoming concert, Prism will also be premiering a new piece by William Bolcom, a Pulitzer prize winning composer and professor emeritus in Composition at the University. Bolcom’s work, “Schumann Bouquet,” is a transcription of piano music by the Romantic era composer Robert Schumann.
“We wish for no major composer living composer to leave this Earth without at least considering writing for saxophone quartet,” McAllister said of the quartet’s mission. “And if we can have a place in getting those people to write for our medium, great; if we can be at the forefront of getting their attention, great … but we really actively seek out the leading figures of our time.”
Those who attend Prism’s Saturday concert will witness a broad collection of musical styles, as it is a program designed to break the oft-found stylistic unanimity common in classical music concerts.
“There can be such a chameleon-like quality to the instrument so much that from piece to piece, style to style, genre to genre, you will feel that each of those is genuine, and almost complete identifiable with the saxophone,” McAllister said. “And yet each piece will sound different.”
SHAUN BRADY, FOR THE INQUIRER POSTED: Saturday, June 13, 2015, 3:01 AM
The Painted Bride hosted a celebration of the saxophone Tuesday night. The PRISM Quartet welcomed two of the most celebrated performers in modern jazz for a show blurring the lines between jazz and classical music. In this latest installment in the Heritage/Evolution series, PRISM's season finale added Chris Potter and Ravi Coltrane to the mix.The show opened with two pieces by PRISM founding member and tenor player Matthew Levy. The pastoral "Found," written in honor of the composer's second wedding anniversary that night, began with Coltrane playing solo. PRISM entered with gentle pules and choral swells. Their lush harmonies provided an evocative, impressionistic palette for Coltrane (tenor) and Potter (soprano).
Originally written in 1998 for a project with jazz drummer John Riley, "Real Standard Time, Planet X" was presented in a new arrangement. The intent of the piece, Levy explained, was to imagine a meeting between Arnold Schoenberg and George Clinton, a melding of serial music and funk. Baritone player Taimur Sullivan provided the latter, laying down a groove to anchor the piece's snarled polyphony, spurring knotty soloing from the guest artists.Potter and Coltrane then left the stage for "Your Gentle Heart," a tender lament written by former PRISM member (and longtime Rolling Stones sideman) Tim Ries in memory of a friend's daughter killed in a car accident.
The centerpiece of each of the Heritage/Evolution performances has been the premiere of new compositions written for the ensemble by their jazz-world guests. Despite being the son of a sax legend, Coltrane instead invoked his mother, pianist Alice, in the harmonies of his contribution to the set, "Tones for M." Like Levy's "Found," the piece reveled in the density and richness possible in the massed woodwinds. Whatever its inspiration, Coltrane's piece ultimately proved a spotlight for the instrument, leaning heavily toward the jazz end of the scale and culminating in a thrilling tenor duel between the composer and Potter.Potter has experimented in his own work with more complex orchestrations, as in the cinematic electro-acoustic sound of his latest CD, Imaginary Cities.
His contribution was the evening's highlight, a complex piece titled "Improvisations" that arranged and harmonized a series of his own improvisations, recorded in a dressing room in Osaka, Japan. In a post-show discussion, Potter explained that the piece realized a long-held desire to flesh out his improvisations with the voicings and harmonies he hears in his head while playing.Immediately recognizable as Potter's distinctive voice, the five movements of "Improvisations" - which actually contained no improvisation in their final form - surrounded labyrinthine melodic lines with countermelodies and layered orchestrations, or passed molten flurries from one quartet member to another, expanding the range of Potter's soloistic imagination.... Link
By KARL ACKERMANN, Published: February 5, 2015
Not quite as well-known as the World Saxophone Quartet or the Rova Saxophone Quartet, the PRISM Quartet practices a unique approach to this category of ensemble playing. In part, PRISM takes a more direct aim on improvisation as opposed to the more blended method of WSQ or the openly free style of Rova. More idiosyncratic is the evolution of the quartet over three decades. When tenor player Matthew Levy founded the group in Michigan, its original mission was specific to a fault; performing the classical works of twentieth-century French composers. Early on, the prominent composer William Albright—whose musical interests ranged from ragtime to atonal—recommended a more avant-garde direction. It was advice that that Levy embraced and now PRISM's evolution comes closer than ever to the definable jazz world on Heritage/Evolution, Volume 1.
The current quartet line-up consists of Timothy McAllister on soprano, Taimur Sullivan on baritone, alto player Zachary Shemon and Levy, the only original group member. The two-disc set also features compositions and performances from Steve Lehman, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Miguel Zenón, Dave Liebman, Greg Osby and former PRISM member Tim Ries. It's as superb a collection of modern, top-shelf saxophonists as one could find on a single release. The guest roster's collective jazz pedigree moves PRISM from third stream to improvisational jazz without abandoning the quartet's classical roots altogether.
The compositional credits on Heritage/Evolution, Volume 1 are spread out among the guest performers with Mahanthappa and Osby each providing a single contribution but—in aggregate—well over thirty minutes of excellent music. Mahanthappa's "I Will Not Apologize For My Tone Tonight"—the best song title in recent memory—opens with long, fluid lines that lead up to choppy phrases that weave circuitously toward a Tom Waits-like burlesque of swirling reeds. Like the succeeding composition, Zenón's "The Missing Piece," the arrangements consist of melodic fragments; proxies for unlabeled movements, their pace rising and falling as they transition.
Ries' "Name Day" pulls in a number of global influences from Middle-Eastern, klezmer, and bolero mixed in with harder swing elements. He and the quartet are joined by Zenón allowing the six players to independently change direction while keeping the sound full. The five-part suite, "15 Places at the Same Time"—by Steve Lehman—incorporate moments of unruly dissonance and free improvisation—especially on "Solo" and "Radical Alignment"—loosely stitched together through the unbroken set. Osby's "Covenant of Voices" and Liebman's "Trajectory" occupy almost forty minutes of the second disc and the pieces are by turns animated, warm and spiked with surprising innovation. The album closes beautifully with John Coltrane's "Dear Lord."
It is the intention of the PRISM Quartet that Heritage/Evolution, Volume 1 is just that—the first volume in a new experiment that tests the musical boundaries of the saxophone family. The quartet has in the past worked with the ensemble, Music from China, producing two highly unique albums. Another collection, Pitch Black (Innova, 2008), includes spoken passages from prison inmates and street preachers as well as Billie Holiday and Chet Baker. In some cases, PRISM loops and manipulates the voices making them surreal instruments. Experimentation is a way of life for this group and on Heritage/Evolution, Volume 1 they have a phenomenal album filled with illusion, atmosphere and great music.
How better to celebrate three decades of saxophone virtuosity than with more saxophones? On June 11 at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia, the PRISM Quartet wrapped up “Heritage/Evolution,” its 30th anniversary series, with newly commissioned compositions by David Liebman and Greg Osby. The show was the third in a series featuring new pieces penned by jazz composers for the classical sax quartet, which formed at the University of Michigan in 1984. Previous concerts debuted works by Rudresh Mahanthappa, Steve Lehman, Miguel Zenón, and former PRISM member Tim Ries.
The World Cafe Live concert began with four brief pieces by composer Jennifer Higdon from a 1996 suite titled Short Stories. Each piece highlighted a specific element of the quartet’s playing, from the swirling, intertwining lines of “Chase” to the pointillist round-robin of “Stomp And Dance.” The short works had the feelings of etudes, with a rigidity that stood in stark contrast to the pieces written by the jazz composers featured on the evening’s bill. Still, the quartet’s technical brilliance was on vivid display.
Liebman and Osby joined the quartet for “Serial Mood: Reflection,” a piece featured on PRISM’s latest CD, People’s Emergency Center (Innova), and written by Matthew Levy, the quartet’s tenor saxophonist and sole remaining founding member. In this arrangement, PRISM’s now muttering, now swelling, now zig-zagging lines served as backdrop for improvisational excursions by Osby (on alto) and Liebman (on soprano, as he remained throughout the performance). As a segue into those saxophonist’s works, the piece served as an ideal spotlight on PRISM’s longstanding attempt to blur the lines between the jazz and classical worlds. Both jazz saxophonists’ compositions were surprising for anyone who’s followed the two artists’ careers. Osby rose to prominence as part of the M-Base movement, imbuing jazz with angular modernity, but his “Covenant Of Voices” was lush and unexpectedly gorgeous; Liebman is a longtime Coltrane disciple comfortable with the breadth of jazz from bop to free, but his “Trajectory” felt steeped in 20th-century classical rigor.
Osby explained that “Covenant Of Voices” was inspired by the haunting sounds of the Bulgarian Women’s Choir. The piece didn’t mimic the sound of the choir, but it did corral the collected saxophonists into rich, evocative harmonic masses. It began with the composer playing solo, a short, dusky fanfare that trailed away, leading to soft, watercolor ebbs and flows by the quartet. Liebman entered for a soprano solo over PRISM’s softly surging motifs, turning the piece into a melancholy lament. Osby followed, moaning where Liebman keened.
The evening’s second half was given over entirely to Liebman’s work, beginning with an arrangement (by Liebman’s wife, Caris Visentin) of “Breakaway,” a movement from his multitracked 1985 suite The Loneliness Of A Long Distance Runner. The web of sax lines supported the composer’s fiery solo, replete with grunts, gasps and overblowing. He followed with another piece from the same year, “A Moody Time,” a strident and stormy depiction of depression that nevertheless ended with the optimistic uplift of a buoyant vamp, with Liebman and Osby trading solo statements back and forth. The evening concluded with an evanescent Liebman arrangement of Coltrane’s “Dear Lord.”
The highlight of the program came in the form of Liebman’s commission for the occasion, “Trajectory,” which gave the members of PRISM license to improvise within specific cells or in predetermined rhythmic patterns. The piece determinedly explored the various combinations possible within the quartet, beginning with baritone saxophonist Taimur Sullivan and altoist Zachary Shemon parrying flurries, only to quickly be subsumed by Levy and soprano player Timothy McAllister taking their own turn, with various other pairings following. A trio playing clockwork unison lines then became the full quartet providing long tones for another Liebman solo, then trading short bursts and blasts with Osby contributing to the brusque call and response. The stringent piece ended tenderly, seeming to drift off into the air like breath through their bells.
This June 11 show proved to be a celebratory ending to a successful series that had begun two months earlier on the same stage with pieces far more characteristic of their composers. Mahanthappa took tongue-in-cheek inspiration from a viral video for his piece, “I Will Not Apologize For My Tone Tonight,” which exploited the instruments’ flexibility to capture the YouTube hit’s combination of passion and confusion. Lehman’s “15 Places At The Same Time” was a prismatic explosion of his own instrumental voice, splitting his individual language among the various members. While Mahanthappa and Lehman didn’t contribute to each other’s pieces, they did perform a piece from Dual Identity, the group they colead.... Link
The PRISM Quartet is a saxophone quartet led by Matthew Levy. Over the years, Levy and his band mates—Timothy McAllister, Zachary Shemon and Taimur Sullivan—have commissioned many modern compositions for them to perform. After all, the repertoire for soprano, alto, tenor and bass saxophones is probably pretty limited despite the relative successes of the World Saxophone Quartet and the 774th Street Quartet. Their double album People’s Emergency Center showcases original work by Levy himself. Writer John Schaefer gives Levy quite the hand-slapping in his portion of the liner notes: “But while championing so many of his colleagues, from the internationally renowned to the young and emergent, Levy has done a great disservice to a contemporary American composer with a distinctive voice: namely, Matthew Levy.” Yeesh!
It only takes one listen to People’s Emergency Center to understand from where Schaefer is coming. First of all, this 88-minute album does not lean on a stylistic center. When you pop one of the discs into your computer, whatever software you use will identify the music as “jazz”. In truth, jazz is just part of the picture here. Levy’s compositions sail far into contemporary classical territory too, leaving room for the occasional drone or world music influence. And even within the “jazz” label these songs don’t stick to just one subgenre. There’s the blanket term “post-bop” at work, things with a little more traditional swing to it, and some far out modern jazz as well. The other thing that makes People’s Emergency Center so special is the guest list. Former member Tim Ries returns to contribute soprano sax and rising jazz star Rudresh Mahanthappa provides some alto. The inimitable Jason Moran plays the piano, Richard Belcastro covers the sitar, Ben Monder does the guitar thing and Jay Anderson, Bill Stewart and François Zayas round out the rhythm section on bass, drums and percussion respectively. You can’t enlist help like that and expect everyone involved to just sleepwalk their way through some anonymous jazz session.The album’s first disc is debatably the more exploratory of the two. It has two selections from Levy’s score for the documentary Been There. This is where you’ll find the 13-minute title track dedicated to an neighborhood organization in Levy’s hometown of Philadelphia. The music is too abstract to be called jazz yet too boppy to be referred to as anything else. “Gymnopedie”, riffing off of Erik Satie’s made-up term, justify the 20th century claim that jazz was “America’s classical” music. “Lyric”, which runs longer than fifteen minutes, could fool the lay listener into thinking it was a Stravinsky piece. It’s on the second disc where Levy puts the swing back into his group with the 12-minute “Refraction”, another odd yet snappy piece of music that probably doesn’t rely on the tired old chart method. “Brown Eyes” sounds like a band winding down the after party after a wild night at the Cotton Club. After that comes doo-wop with “Mr. Bobs and Lori Ann” with a smooth performance by Ries. Serious compositions often tell stories. On People’s Emergency Center the individual tracks don’t tell stories so much as they act out 12 independent novels. All you need is one listen to the cyclical, sometimes minimal opening track “Awakening” to know that a) this will be a most unusual album and b) it’s going to be quite remarkable too. No matter what style you nail the PRISM Quartet and People’s Emergency Center to, this album should go down not only as one of 2014’s finest releases but also as one of the most unforgettable works of chamber music for years to come.
"Whether it's rhythmically striking, sonically challenging, or a charming tune, it is genial music offered warmly to a real world filled with real people who want something good to hear."
WRTI's Kile Smith, host of Now Is the Time, recommends...
Saxophonist and Prism Quartet founder Matthew Levy has spent his career getting other composers played; now the spotlight's on him in a new CD, and what a brilliance it reveals.
Call the Prism Saxophone Quartet contemporary-classical, call them avant-jazz, even call them omnivorous, but whatever you call them, they've been setting the gold standard for three decades. 2014 is in fact their 30th anniversary, and in that time, while centered in Philadelphia, they've been everywhere, stretching styles while inhabiting classical, jazz, world, and rock idioms.
Prism has commissioned more than 150 works, but in People's Emergency Center (Innova) they turn the entire two-disc set over to Matthew Levy.
People's Emergency Center is the first movement of Been There, and is also the name of a shelter helping women and children in West Philadelphia. It and the second movement, Gymnopedie (the word Erik Satie coined for his most famous piece), are culled from Levy's music for a documentary about the shelter. The Prism four (Timothy McAllister, Taimur Sullivan, Zachary Shemon, and Levy), bass, drums, guitar, and former Prism member Tim Ries on soprano saxophone all create magic with swirling precision.
Levy's voice is at once vernacular and otherworldly, steeped in jazz but living in—as Henry Cowell would have it—the whole world of music. Serial Mood seems to ponder that post-Schoenberg world of harmony, and in doing so reveals a tasty secret known to Dizzy Gillespie, Gunther Schuller, and a few other hep cats: If you play 12-tone music with a hard, swinging beat, it sounds for all the world like be-bop.
That's one of the unexpected treats that Levy offers. Another is the overarching spirit of generosity—to the listener and to each player. All the music of his I've heard exhibits this. Whether it's rhythmically striking, sonically challenging, or a charming tune, it is genial music offered warmly to a real world filled with real people who want something good to hear. An excellent example is Brown Eyes, which here employs the whole band, but which Levy first had played in public in a smaller version. The occasion of the premiere? His wedding.
[Been There and Brown Eyes were featured on Now Is the Time, May 10, 2014.]
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BY MARK STRYKER, FREE PRESS MUSIC CRITIC
The concert hall can be a rather dour place of pomp and circumstance, though not when William Bolcom's music is on the program. Of all our contemporary symphony composers, he offers the most winsome marriage of wit and consequence, of humor integrated into music of durable substance.
To be sure, Bolcom's Concerto Grosso for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra, given its world premiere Friday morning by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, is not the composer's most profound work. Instead, he has delivered a frisky gambol, a 20-minute divertissement that pulsates with vernacular rhythms, clever melodic turns and true affection for the saxophone -- and for the Prism Quartet, for whom the piece was written.
Bolcom mostly treats the quartet en masse, letting the saxes volley back and forth with the orchestra or alternately wail above it. The opening movement showcases the saxophones' darting virtuosity then ends in a bluesy sway. The second movement is a sumptuous ballad, the third a ballroom waltz.
Most entertaining of all, the finale suggests a swing-band blitz. The saxophones scamper through syncopation, coloring their sounds with juicy vibratos and goosing the music with slap tonguing, nutty staccatos and other inflections. The Prism Quartet's members -- Tim Ries, Michael Whitcombe, Matthew Levy, and Taimur Sullivan -- avoid the effete cliches of the classical saxophone. They play with grit, brio and take-no-prisoners accuracy.
Conductor Jahja Ling never quite sounded comfortable with Bolcom's idiom, though, and the DSO felt stiff. The dance music never took flight in Copland's "Appalachian Spring" either, though Ling revealed an ear for its lyricism. Ling sounded most at home leading an unusually brazen, volatile reading of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony.