The Georgia Tech Guthman Musical Instrument Competition, 2016

guthman poster scaled

On March 3, 2016, the Center for Music Technology program at Georgia Tech (the Georgia Insitute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia), held the finals of its eighth-annual Guthman Musical Instrument Competition, as a public performance. This event is both international and world-renowned. Designers of musical instruments compete for cash prizes and recognition by going through an extensive multi-day interview process with a panel of judges, culminating in the evening concert for the finalists.

This was my first time attending this event, world-famous among those who develop new musical instruments. Several instruments that have appeared in the competition over the years have gone on to become mass-produced, commercial products. On the other hand, many instruments and their creators are in it for something entirely different — they hand-build one instrument for their own use. And this leads to the Guthman competition’s multiple-personality problem.

Is this an event to foster technological innovation, or is it a competition for individual performers to show off their unorthodox skills using impractical instruments that you couldn’t imagine anybody else wanting to play? It’s both. The range of instruments and performers were so wide that I cannot understand how the judges could select winners. Regardless, this dichotomy made for a great evening of avant-garde musical entertainment.

One instrument was entirely acoustic, others acoustic with simple pickups or contact microphones. Other instruments made use of digital sounds and cutting-edge computer software in artificial intelligence, algorithmic composition and the like, in combination with novel implementations of hardware such as motion-capture cameras, wireless controllers, lasers and optical sensors.

The judges for the competition were the great jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, American music journalist Allan Kozinn, and Marcelo Wanderley, professor of music technology at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

The Ferst Center seats over 1,000; the hall was full of curious Georgia Tech students, who cheered on and warmly encouraged this very motley crew of inventor-musician-madmen, some of whom must have spent their last €0.10 to get here from the four corners of the globe.  Everybody felt entertained and enlightened.

Now on to the amazing instruments and performances, most of which inspired a well-deserved sense of wonderment from the audience.

A general comment: You can find information about each of these instruments online, but even recent photos and videos you see may not reflect the state that the instrument was in at Georgia Tech. I get the impression that each of these inventors was constantly modifying and tweaking their prototypes right up to performance time.

Yaybahar, Görkem Şen, Turkey

Second Place Award
Audience Award: Best Instrument

Yaybahar
Yaybahar

This imposing instrument, which is entirely acoustic, creates its own deep reverberation, while the performer plays it both as a pair of bass drums and as a fretted, bowed instrument with about the dimensions and range of a Turkish bağlama or saz. The neck of the stringed instrument is coupled through two long, loose springs to the two bass drums which provide both resonating chambers and acoustic spring reverb. Görkem Şen spun out enchanting, haunting, wistful melodies that set the stage for the evening.

The Sound Space, Greg Beller, France

Judges’ Award: Technical Excellence

The Sound Space
The Sound Space

Greg Beller performed as a human beat box. He created percussive and melodic sounds with his voice into a head-mounted microphone, sampling, triggering and modulating the sounds in real time using his body’s gestures in three-dimensional space. This was sensed by a motion-capture camera and triggered by controller buttons on gloves on each hand, with computer software that handles all this behind the scenes. His performance was entertaining and humorous and warmly received.

Claudeatron Mk IV, Claude Woodward, Australia

Claude Woodward is a veteran tinkerer with the soul of a street busker. His enigmatic clear Plexiglas hand-held instrument enables him to perform expressive melodies by manipulating wheels and buttons, controlling parameters in virtual instruments in Apple’s MainStage program for the Macintosh. He was really into the performing shtick, cranking out a medley of show tunes and operatic themes with a wild, wooly vibrato on what might be called an information-age theremin. He explains it all in his demo video above.

Kalichord Strum, Dan Moses Schlessinger, California

An earlier prototype of the Kalichord Strum: This is NOT the instrument in the form that it was being performed at the Guthman competition.
An earlier prototype of the Kalichord Strum: This is not the same instrument in the form that it was presented at the Guthman competition.

Dan Moses Schlessinger is an engineer with the Sennheiser microphone company. The Kalichord is his home-brew array of piezoelectric sensors that can be plucked and strummed by one hand while notes are played on a keyboard with the other hand. The latest prototype is in a wooden box that sits on a table. Behind the scenes is a computer-based physical modeling virtual instrument which creates string sounds, processed through the Max/MSP music programming environment. The Kalichord could enable a keyboardist to mimic the performance of a guitar, but he went beyond that, starting out with New-Age harp and zither sounds and ending with an endearing attempt to crank out a classic 70s Motown riff.

Stimulierte Emissionen Klingen, Leo Bettinelli, Argentina  and Austria

Third Place Award

Stimulierte Emissionen klingen
Stimulierte Emissionen klingen

Leo Bettinelli came from the Andes and crossed the Alps. His instrument (it means “stimulated emission sounds” in English, but that takes us no closer to understanding its function) is a two-meter-square vertical two-dimensional array of laser beams and photo sensors creating a grid of eight beams on a side, which define 80 different sensor points. It is played by a performer waving his hands, feet or any other part of his body inside the grid to trigger sounds and musical phrases. The laser grid is interfaced to an Arduino microcontroller kit and thence to computer-based sound generation. Playing it seems to be as much of a dance as a musical performance.

La Diantenne, Dianne Verdonk, Netherlands

diantenne

Possibly the simplest instrument in the competition was played by Dianne Verdonk, who is also a cellist and bass player. Her latest prototype is simply a sheet of metal with a contact microphone which Verdonk plays by striking the center with her hand or with a mallet while warping the shape of the sheet. This is a variation on the old “musical saw” or the device used in theater sound effects for centuries to simulate the sound of thunder. Verdonk, however, uses her instrument to skillfully produce slow, sonorous bass lines with deep, sweeping portamento and mysterious overtones. Verdonk was the only performer in the competition to sing while playing, making her own statement about do-it-yourself instrument building for a singer-songwriter. She won no award, but I cast my ballot for her in the category of audience award for best performer.

Electric Mbira, Josh and Wes Keegan, Colorado

The mbira, also known as the African thumb piano or the kalimba, is a folk instrument with a long history. The Keegans, doing business as Colorado Soundscapes, were the only finalists with an instrument which they manufacture and sell, rather than the one-offs or prototypes every other participant was playing. But the format of the live concert presentation let them down. For eight minutes one of the Keegans stood on stage and played his mbira held motionless in his hands, which is not a visually exciting thing to do, and the audience was at a loss to understand why this instrument was significant. But when I looked them up afterwards, I realized that they have re-designed and re-engineered this folk instrument, crafting every component in unique ways to make it more professional and reliable. They have carved a wooden soundboard that acts like tuned speaker cone; they have designed and custom-machined an original mechanism for precision-tuning the tone bars which seems to be innovative. Many craftsmen make mbiras, but the Guthman competition recognized the Keegans for their refinement of the design. I suppose you could call it the Fender Stratocaster of mbiras.

MotionComposer, Andreas Bergsland and Robert Wechsler, Norway

Special Recognition Award

Motion Composer
MotionComposer

Robert Wechsler is a dancer from New York who got his start with Merce Cunningham. Andreas Bergsland is a professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. As they say, “The MotionComposer is a hardware-software device being developed for persons with disabilities. It allows anyone a clear sense of musical expression through creative gesture and movement.” Wechsler added, “We even work with people who can only move their eyes.” To demonstrate their system, they brought out a “local kid” named Eirc Naindouba. Eirc appears to be about twelve years old and lives with a condition that I am guessing is cerebral palsy. Eirc performed from his wheelchair. I gather that he and his family are immigrants from an African nation who live in Atlanta. Details are scant, but from what I can gather, the MotionComposer operates using motion capture from a single camera box, with three-dimensional range, without the need for any physical sensors attached to the performer. The performer’s gestures trigger what I gather to be a computer-based real-time algorithmic composition system with pre-determined musical phrases mapped to different kinds of gestures that the performer can trigger. It also seems to take its tempo and rhythmic phrasing from cues in the performer’s gestures. I think MotionComposer was truly inspiring and empowering; it was given special recognition by the judges.

Golf club sitar/tabla and associated hybrid instruments, Ken Butler, New York

First Place Award
People’s Choice “Most Unusual”
People’s Choice “Best Performance”

Ken Butler and one of the many instruments he entered under the title "Golf Club Sitar/Tabla"
Ken Butler and one of the many instruments he entered under the title “Golf Club Sitar/Tabla”

Ken Butler closed the show and blew everybody away. I was amazed but also baffled by every minute of his performance, which largely defies description. He was certainly the most interesting performer, to the point that his instruments seemed to be an incidental detail compared to his musicianship. He swept the awards. His performance was howlingly funny and, well, baffling. What he did was to rapidly work through short performances on a series of instruments which he crudely home-made from found items, literally junk with strings and contact microphones attached, in the finest American tradition of the gut-bucket bass or the homemade slide guitar. He played astonishing melodies and percussion interludes, running everything through a Fender vacuum-tube guitar amplifier and grungy guitar pedals for that essential lo-fi vibe. This culminated in a percussion solo played on an ordinary toothbrush with a contact microphone scrubbed across his teeth, and then clamping down on the contact microphone inside his mouth and drumming out a solo with his fingers on his balding head. Forget all the computer software and the motion capture technology. Country-rocker Mack Davis had a song in the 70s that went, “Poor boy don’t need electronics to make no rock and roll. Poor boy got boogie woogie born right in his soul.” The Guthman judges agreed.

Semi-finalists (not performing in concert)

Contriverb, Ed Potokar, New York — Judges’ Recognition Award
The BladeAxe, Romain Michon, California
Pocket Operators, Teenage Engineering, Sweden
Kinefy, Federico Visi et al, England
The Big-Eared Scrambler, Greg Hendler and Mark Crowley, Georgia Tech
Reflexive Looper, François Pachet et al, France
Exp.Inst.Rain, Balam Soto, Connecticut
mi.mu gloves, Imogen Heap et al, England
The Spiral of Fifths, Ruben Dax, Massachusetts
The SolidNoise Ensemble, Jiffer Harriman et al, Colorado
ShohamMX, Amit Shoman, USA
Acoustic Additive Synth, Krzysztof Cybulski, Poland
ACPAD, Robin Sukroso, India
Instrument 1, Artiphon, unspecified location

Comments and criticisms

There were things about the event that I found frustrating.

My biggest problem is that the judges and the organizers knew all about the competitors and their instruments, but the audience had to scrabble for clues. For instance, what is the most basic thing you would want to know about a performer at an international musical event? Where that person is from. But this information was not made obvious to the audience. The printed program gave short “Entrant Biographies” but each one was free-form and there was no editing for consistency in the information provided. I was interested in the instrument “La Diantenne” played by musician Dianne Verdonk, but neither the program nor anything said on stage revealed what I was only able to infer by listening to her accent as she spoke briefly in English: she is from the Netherlands.

The most annoying thing about the event, for me, was the moderation by John Biggs, New York-based journalist for TechCrunch, who approached the entire event as a stand-up comedian who made endless little jokes but couldn’t be consistent in imparting useful information about each instrument and performer.

Each of the nine finalists gave an eight-minute performance on their instrument. Each one was amazing and beautiful, but during each performance I had a nagging what-the-heck-is-that-thing-and-what-am-I-listening-to? feeling. Then the moderator would come out and ask the performer to sum up in one or two sentences what it was we had just heard and how the instrument worked. This was always inadequate. I’m telling you that I had to go home and look up further information about each of these instruments on the Internet the next day in order to adequately understand myself what it was that I saw and heard the night before.

There was no good reason for this. The event organizers could have provided a proper introduction for each performer and instrument, printed in the program or presented verbally and with slides on the numerous projection screens on stage. They could have succinctly explained the principles involved and pointed out the innovations before the performance took place. This would have increased the audience’s appreciation for what they were hearing, and it need not have been tedious.

Setting aside my complaints, this was an exciting evening of the wild and wonderful, showing us the possibilities in the future of musical performance. People travel from across the nation and across the world to participate and to observe. I would recommend that you check out next year’s competition if you are able.

Arietha Lockhart and Todd Skrabanek, February 17, 2015

Arietha Lockhart and Todd Skrabanek
Arietha Lockhart and Todd Skrabanek. Photo by Sid Hetzler.

Arietha Lockhart, Soprano and Todd Skrabanek, Piano
February 17, 2015, 7:00 pm at Inman Park Church, United Methodist, Atlanta, Georgia

  • “Our World” and “Las estrellas” (2014) from Worlds of Beauty by Amy Leventhal
  • “Of Being” (2013) and “Caedmon” (2001) from The Believers by Mary Lynn Place Badarak
  • “A Man Who Showed the Way” (2007)  by Douglas Tappin
  • “Little Lamb” (2015) by Mary M. Boyle; text by William Blake (1757-1827)
  • “Love Ritual” (2009) by Dr. Sharon J. Willis
  • “Let There be Peace on Earth” (2007), Travis Vaughn, III
  • “Laughing Monkeys of Gravity” (2003) by Curtis Bryant, text by Stephen Bluestone
  • “Hold On” (2007) and “Soon I Will Be Done” (2004) by James V. Cockerham
  • “from Isaiah 40” (2014) by Michael Kurth

In a historic but bare church sanctuary in need of renovation, backed by a little upright piano, Atlanta coloratura soprano Arietha Lockhart gave a Tuesday-night recital of recently-composed pieces by Atlanta composers. She was accompanied by the prodigiously-capable Todd Skrabanek (known as “The Skrabanek Philharmonic” for his ability to pull an orchestra’s worth of textures out of a single acoustic piano). It was the kind of rather impromptu recital where most of the members of the audience are the composers themselves and their friends and families. But a range of interesting music was performed nonetheless.

A couple of stand-out pieces were notable for their comedy. “Love Ritual” by Dr. Sharon J. Willis is a five-movement monologue of a vain, coquettish contemporary young woman relating her story of meeting a man, instantly being infatuated with him, and fretting obsessively over his failure to call her on the phone for a couple of days. Ms. Lockhart obviously enjoyed slipping into this role, with a lot of sly winks, visual and musical.

“Laughing Monkeys of Gravity” is Curtis Bryant’s setting of four poems by Stephen Bluestone on the films of iconic comedic movie stars: Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, The Three Stooges, and Charlie Chaplin. The performance of voice and piano was all the more impressive when I spoke to the composer and learned that he originally composed this piece for a “Pierrot Lunaire” sextet: soprano, flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano. This performance was a piano reduction. Todd Skrabanek bore up admirably under the challenge.

The recital concluded with the premiere of “from Isaiah 40” by Atlanta Symphony Orchestra bassist and composer Michael Kurth.  He wrote an art  song that nonetheless keeps a “contemporary worship” feel, down-to-earth yet ascending to the absolute heights of pitch and expression that a coloratura soprano can create. Ms. Lockhart provided the ideal vehicle, soaring on the eagle’s wings in song.

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Sonic Generator in Atlanta

MetropolisposterLast night I, along with a huge crowd sitting on lawn chairs on the plaza of the Woodruff Arts Center, witnessed one of the most important performances ever staged in Atlanta, Georgia with regard both to cinema and to contemporary classical music. The ensemble Sonic Generator, with Parisian conductor Bruno Ferrandis, and audio engineer Frédéric Prin, played a live accompaniment to the recently-restored full-length 2-hour-and-28-minute version of Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou’s monumental silent film Metropolis, first released in 1927. What Sonic Generator was playing is a score by Frenchman Martin Matalon, first composed in 1995 and revised and lengthened after 2010 to incorporate about 20 minutes of interstitial footage that was long lost from earlier cuts of the film and only recently restored. This was the first American live performance of the new score.

You really missed something special if you were not there. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a coming together of cultural forces that make me proud to say I live in Atlanta and participate in its fine arts scene.

The performance and production, three years in the planning, was sponsored not only by Sonic Generator’s usual benefactor Georgia Tech (the university more properly known as the Georgia Institute of Technology), but also by the Atlanta offices of the international governmental organizations the Alliance Française and the Goethe Institut, and finally by Flux Projects of Atlanta, in celebration of 50 years of cultural cooperation between France and Germany. Monumental and auspicious indeed.

I’ll leave it to the reader to look up more information on Metropolis, what the film has to say in terms of science fiction, philosophy, politics, economics, spirituality and religion, and above all, the Roaring Twenties and what came after. Go ahead now; this blog post will still be here when you get back.

I would also recommend if you are reading this that you get yourself a trial subscription to Netflix’s streaming service and watch the film on your computer. It can be found at this link, at the time of the posting of this blog entry.

http://movies.netflix.com/WiMovie/Metropolis_Restored/70132372?trkid=2361637

Today, after last night’s performance, I went back to my computer and watched the full restored film streaming on Netflix, where it’s been available for at least the last year. It’s presented on Netflix with the original 1927 orchestral score by Gottfried Huppertz. More on that later.

The concert at the Woodruff Arts Center started while the sun was still up, at 8:00, when I was delighted to hear Jessica Peek Sherwood performed Steve Reich’s minimalist opus Vermont Counterpoint on three flutes of different range, playing along with a pre-recorded ensemble of many other flutes. This was followed by my favorite Steve Reich composition, Electric Counterpoint, expressively played by Indiana guitarist Derek Johnson, along with the backing tracks of 11 guitars and two bass guitars originally recorded by Pat Metheny in 1987. Each of these pieces are about 15 minutes long, in three movements, and for this reviewer, they encapsulate everything that was the best of the style called minimalism. Electric Counterpoint is particularly (or I might say “comparatively”) tuneful and melodic, with a recognizable and distinctive chord progression (although it’s not a functional harmonic progression in the sense of classical music theory) and a sunnily-disposed and emotionally uplifting final movement. Of course it would be amazing to hear either of these pieces performed entirely live rather than with one soloist and backing tracks, but this is almost never done due to the logistics that would have to be involved.

At about 8:50, after numerous thank-yous, introductions, and short speeches by international dignitaries with charmingly heavy accents, the sun set and the film began.

Here were the performers:

  • Jessica Peek Sherwood, flutes (from piccolo to bass flute; five instruments in total)
  • Ted Gurch, saxophones (from soprano to baritone)
  • John Warren, clarinet (all the way down to contrabass clarinet)
  • Mike Muszynski, bassoon (and contrabassoon)
  • Kevin Lyons, trumpet
  • Douglas Lindsey, trumpet
  • Nathan Zgonc, trombone (and I believe bass trombone but I couldn’t quite see)
  • Charae Krueger, cello
  • Joe McFadden, double bass (with low-C extension)
  • Mark Miller, fretless electric 5-string contrabass guitar
  • Derek Johnson, electric guitar
  • Diedre Henson-Agustin, harp
  • Tom Sherwood, percussion
  • Charles Settle, percussion (including concert marimba, orchestral chimes, timpani)
  • Paul Vaillancourt, percussion
  • Wiley Sykes, percussion

I don’t know exactly who played what in the percussion section, but I must point out that one percussionist made a great deal of skillful use of the Indian tablas, and also played an array of exotic gongs with which I’m not familiar, as well as a jazz hi-hat.

The score by Martin Matalon had as its basis a pre-recorded electronic track that provided at various times mechanical clockwork percussion sounds, swooping portamento monophonic synthesizer leads that were reminiscent of Rick Wakeman or Keith Emerson, some atmospheric sound effects, and at one point electric organ chords. Conductor Bruno Ferrandis, who was brought in because he has done this amazingly difficult score before, of course had to keep the orchestra in sync with what was in his headset. And in settings like this, the front-of-house sound mixing engineer, Frédéric Prin, has almost as much to do as the conductor himself. The orchestra was heavily amplified and individual instruments were brought out at different times and processed with electronic effects. The top-flight sound system was well-designed and transparent when it needed to be; the audio, while quite loud to those sitting up front, was well-distributed around the plaza, certain architectural echos notwithstanding. The film was projected digitally on the exterior wall of the High Museum, drive-in-theater style.

Matalon’s score is very demanding, thoroughly atonal and through-composed, and must have required superhuman powers of marathon concentration from every musician involved. Not a lot of extended or unusual playing techniques were employed. What stood out time and again was the orchestration of the bass instruments. Frequently, prerecorded bass synthesizers weaved in and out of the fretless electric contrabass guitar playing slippery sliding figures right alongside the more percussive plucked upright bass, the contrabass clarinet, the contrabassoon, and the bass trombone, and the lowest notes of the bass flute in between.

Now I get to the difficult part of my blog. At the risk of pissing off a number of musicians whom I deeply admire, and whose performance I enjoyed listening to and felt privileged to witness, I have to say that I did not like Matalon’s score and I did not think it was an effective accompaniment to this monumental piece of visionary filmmaking.

I have to back up and give a retrospective of all the uses this film has been put to from its release in 1927 until Matalon’s revised score in 2010, a span of 83 years. A film made near the end of the silent movie era, it was originally cut at 2 hours and 28 minutes. It was apparently screened in Germany accompanied by a live orchestra playing a score by Gottfried Huppertz, in the Wagnerian mode, with the conventional use of leitmotifs and grand, sweeping melodies. Of note are the movie’s scenes in the Yoshiwara Club, a symbol of the divide between the haves and have-nots of industrialized society. For those scenes Huppertz uses the jaunty European jazz of the 1920s, their interpretation of what was coming from composers like George Gershwin in the USA. (You can purchase the restored film with a newly-recorded version of the Huppertz score on DVD, or watch it on Netflix.)

Immediately after the first screenings of Metropolis, however, its international producers and distributors cut the film down (“eviscerated” would be a better word) to a 91-minute version that basically ripped up the H. G. Wells-influenced dystopian plot and reduced it to an hour and a half of what were still stunning, unprecedented special effects and startling futuristic images. Doubtless, audiences around the world saw the film with whatever improvised accompaniment was provided by pianists or organists in silent movie theaters.

In the 1980s and after, the 91-minute cut of the movie was reissued to theaters and on VHS with different musical accompaniments, the most celebrated of which was the score put together by disco producer Georgio Moroder, with an ensemble of rock stars. Since the international copyright of the original film fell into dispute, it seems that several composers and orchestras around the world tried their hands and creating original scores that were mostly used only in live performance. You can read the confusing history of all this at the Wikipedia article on the film.

Martin Matalon wrote his score in 1995, for performances accompanying what I understand to be a 2-hour cut of the film. After the newly-restored 2-hour-28-minute version was released commercially in 2010, Matalon revised his score to fit it.

I do not fault Martin Matalon, with his pedigree of work with IRCAM (the world-renowned Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique Musique of France) in wanting to deconstruct everything and compose a fresh 1990’s score with no precedent. However, to this music critic, I cannot see that his score accomplished the goal of providing a successful programmatic accompaniment to the film’s images or its narrative. Watch the film and imagine the perspective of viewers seeing it for the first time in 1927, while you listen to it with the ears of a 2013 music lover who understands contemporary classical music and the avant garde, and to me it just doesn’t work most of the time.

In fact as the film progresses through its three sections (labeled “Prelude”, “Intermezzo” and “Furioso”) the score seems to drift progressively further out-of-sync with the film, thematically and also temporally. The movie starts out with scenes of the dehumanization of workers made to be slaves to giant rhythmic clockwork machines, and in the beginning, elements of Matalon’s score represent this.

If Matalon, through his freely atonal and contrapuntal idiom heavy on complex percussion, is making use of anything motivic, it is lost on this listener. And those scenes in the Yoshiwara club could have used something leaning toward jazz dance music with some recognizable chord progressions. On frequent occasion the composer achieves remarkable things texturally and with regard to orchestration with those notable combinations of bass instruments from different families. The writing and playing in the percussion section could be lauded as a tour-de-force if the whole thing hung together thematically, which to me, it never quite does.

By the conclusion, which involves apocalyptic scenes of massive frantic crowds and riots, explosions, the flooding and destruction of a city — the score grows thin, sparse, and eerily detached in a way that seems to contradict and impede the frantic, massive momentum of the film. Then, bafflingly, at the peak of the violence onscreen, and to no beneficial effect, the orchestral score stops dead and falls silent for about a minute and a half while the film rips along, before the music comes back in and limps to a quite unsatisfying conclusion.

Somehow I think I run the risk of being accused of damning with faint praise, but in conclusion let me say that I was not disappointed by this production. The film is monumental, historic, and amazing in its own right, and stands up very well and is beloved by audiences 85 years later. The assemblage of international cultural forces necessary to mount this production in Atlanta was laudable in every respect. (and I loved hobnobbing with the German and French folk that I met there, and trying to speak a bit in their languages, which I studied years ago.) The musicians were the best that Atlanta has to offer, on the cutting edge, augmented with the out-of-towners necessary to pull of such a hugely demanding project. Everybody played amazingly well. It was innovative and challenging and satisfying in places. While I feel that Matalon’s score just doesn’t jibe with the visuals, I might enjoy it on its own merits if I were to listen to a recording or see a concert performance without the film playing above it. But one way or another, it was a night to be remembered in Atlanta, probably never to be repeated.

Hearing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons for the First Time, Again

On Saturday, March 16, 2013, the New Trinity Baroque Orchestra performed an all-Vivaldi string concerto concert at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta.

First up was all four concertos in Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. This performance was astonishingly good. I used the word “stupefying” to describe it to a friend. The audience was ecstatic — embarrassingly over-enthusiastic— and cheered riotously at the end of each of the four concertos.

As good as it was, I don’t intend to write a review of the performance, but more to write the thoughts that it evoked about why I love Baroque music in historically-informed performance.

All of us who like this music have heard old music from bygone eras played on modern instruments by a large orchestra of players focusing on modern performance techniques. That’s certainly how I heard Vivaldi’s Four Seasons the first several times I heard it. New Trinity Baroque’s performance was the first time I had heard all four Seasons concertos performed in the same program by an early music chamber orchestra, and it was a revelation. It was truly like hearing it for the first time, as if all the previous recordings or performances I had heard merely hinted at what the music was all about. The husband of a friend of mine in the audience said, “That’s the first time I’ve heard the Four Seasons really interpreted, as opposed to just played.” This experience is common to all early music chamber groups if they are any good.

It’s quite amazing that New Trinity’s small chamber ensemble — only three violins, one viola, one cello, one bass, harpsichord and chittarone, and of course with no amplification of any sort, in a small church, in front of an audience of 90 people could, well, rock that hard. Hey, I grew up on hard rock music and Rolling Stone magazine. I made a colleague chuckle when I described this performance of New Trinity’s by saying “the entire ensemble just killed.” That’s the sort of language most in my generation would reserve for the stand-up comedy of Eddie Murphy or a rock concert by Prince. But I must be honest in saying that from my point of view, that’s the best way I can explain a concert of classical music played that effectively. I went on to describe this New Trinity Baroque concert by saying, “stupefying virtuosity, carefully rehearsed and meticulously executed, yet full of emotion and passion.”

One of the things that New Trinity Baroque reminded me of is that Vivaldi wrote some astonishingly evocative programmatic music, or tone poems, with The Four Seasons. Symphonie Phantastique? La Mer? Forget about it. Maybe Scheherazade is in Vivaldi’s league.

Most of the effects of what Vivaldi created, in my opinion, get lost when you hear them played by a “modern” orchestra. Here is why.

Early music takes some getting used to, for an audience comfortable with “modern” orchestras that play modern instruments. The differences are particularly stark with the string instruments.

The group I work with, the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra, some years ago suffered a bad review of an otherwise okay concert written by an inexperienced, practically clueless music reviewer. She kept using the word “sour” to describe the strings’ sound, and implied that the instruments were never in tune anywhere in the concert. What she didn’t realize was that the instruments were perfectly in tune, and so was the music they were playing: the problem is that she was used to hearing a “modern” string orchestra where the players all use modern steel-stringed instruments and use a great deal of vibrato on all the notes they play. That vibrato, the rapid, small fluctuations in pitch around each central note, which is a characteristic of string playing in the last 125 years, makes all the pitches and intervals “blurry”, and smooths out and sweetens the sound. But this is not the sound that Bach and Vivaldi had at their disposal, so they didn’t write music for these kinds of timbres.

When Baroque music specialists play strings, it is on instruments with strings of sheep gut, not steel, and they use very little if any vibrato. They orient the intonation of the pitches and intervals in their playing decisively toward pure intervals, what we call meantone tuning, or just intonation, and not to the one-size-fits-all compromises of equal-tempered tuning used by the modern piano and guitar. In the modern era’s equal-tempered tuning, the intervals of major and minor thirds in a chord are wide of the mark and cause audible “beating” of clashing overtones. They are all quite out-of-tune compared to the pure intervals you can achieve on the fingerboard of the violin, viola, cello and bass, and in the human voice. The player with “modern” technique adds a generous dollop of vibrato to blur the distinctions in intervals even more.

With a Baroque string ensemble, all the intervals are stacked up purely in tune, with little or no vibrato to make anything drift or wobble. And sheep-gut strings, when bowed, create a different timbre, a different combination of overtones than steel strings do. Some people describe the timbre of a Baroque string ensemble as “pungent”, though I don’t like that characterization. I’ve heard one vocal musician who was not accustomed to early music tell me that singing in her choir with a Baroque orchestra accompanying them actually gave her a slight headache, because she was not yet accustomed to the stark, pure sonorities.

With The Four Seasons, each movement is accompanied by a sonnet that explains what Vivaldi is trying to convey. I had forgotten how heavy and violent the “Summer” concerto is supposed to be. Vivaldi tells us it’s about a farmer watching a heavy thunderstorm erupt into a hailstorm. Standing, pelted by hailstones, he watches as it ruins his wheat crop. New Trinity Baroque pelted out a fusillade of sharp sounds that, while perfectly consonant and tonal and measured, just as Vivaldi composed it, would startle the most jaded hard-rock music fan right out of their seat. Music doesn’t have to reach decibel levels that would damage your hearing in order to make all your nerve-endings fire. It just has to be played right.

Similarly, Vivaldi write passages in the “Winter” concerto that are absolutely sharp, spiky, and spine-tingling. You can feel the frost creeping over your windowpanes while you shudder in the cold. In the terraced crescendos of the opening of the first movement, pure, sharp intervals stack up one on top of the other, creating layers of palpable tension hanging in the air, until the lead violin bursts out with peals of cold sonic energy.

When modern-style string players try to interpret this on modern instruments, it can sound too smooth and blurry, too sweet. A small ensemble of gut-stringed instruments cannot “cut through the mix” and project like modern-style steel-stringed instruments; yet in Vivaldi’s setting, they can be far more cutting and clear and effective and energized than a much larger ensemble of modern instruments swathed in vibrato. You just have to experience it to appreciate the difference.

Now of course an effective performance of Baroque music has a lot more to it than just intervals and intonation. There are many expressive and interpretive techniques that skilled musicians bring to the task of revitalizing this music in what they call the historically-informed performance style. Any musician who plays this music will tell you that they are in the middle of a lifetime of learning to play expressively in more ways than I can convey in one essay. New Trinity Baroque’s performance this time around reminded me of one salient aspect of historical performance. There are many more.

I’m not implying that Baroque music and its resources are inherently superior or more effective in musical expression than a modern symphony orchestra playing music from the late 19th or 20th centuries. Far from it: music that more recent composers wrote to make use of the resources of more recent orchestras works most effectively when played by the same sort of orchestra playing the same sort of instruments that the composer wrote it for. So from Mahler to Philip Glass, you want a modern symphony orchestra. Those musicians wrote for those timbres and sonorities, and for instruments that could handle all those key modulations and remote tonalities and complex chordal dissonance. But for Bach and Vivaldi and Telemann, and even Mozart, you are missing a lot if you fail to experience them in meantone tuning played on instruments like those played in those peculiar times, played by musicians who study how to try to get back to the composers’ original intent.

As I’ve often said, no matter what kind of music I’m listening to — and if you know me you know that I’m equally passionate about rock, jazz, and all forms of contemporary commercial music as I am about classical music — you know that I like to get back to the roots of whatever music I’m presented with. When I heard the amazingly daring bebop jazz improvisations on the “standards”, I wanted to know where those tunes came from, and that’s when I went back toward the direction of the earliest decades of Broadway and writers like Irving Berlin. Before that, I had heard Walter Carlos’ Switched-On Bach in my early teens, more than ten years after it was recorded and released, and that is when I woke up to Baroque music. I heard these wonderful interpretations on the Moog synthesizer, and they excited me for what they were. But it set me on a journey to learn about the source of that music, its roots — and that led me to early music and historically-informed performance.

I feel that I can appreciate any style of music and any group of musicians as long as they are intelligent and skilled, and earnestly understand and live and breathe the music they play at its most basic level of interpretation. This is why I love groups like the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra and New Trinity Baroque, and I feel so privileged to have them perform right in my home town.

Peter Gabriel’s new blood Suite, Conclusion

I cannot help but reflect that the original recordings of most of these songs were popular before the students in the KSU orchestra were born. It seems that very few of them were familiar with the material (may I use the word urtext?) before the charts were put in front of them for a few days of rehearsals. There were many old-timers like myself in the audience for whom these songs hold profound memories and evoke a deep emotional response. (Go back and re-read assistant dean Samuel Robinson’s program notes in the previous blog page, if you don’t understand what I mean.) Furthermore, divorcing the lyrics and melody from Gabriel’s own performance of these orchestral pieces thrusts the performers further away from “getting it” and understanding that millions of fans across the world held Gabriel’s music to be deeply moving, even in a spiritual way. To cut to the chase, the orchestra didn’t play all thirteen of these pieces convincingly, but that in no way diminishes my admiration for everyone involved for tackling such a difficult and rewarding musical project in such an unexpected setting.

The obvious template for Gabriel and Metcalfe’s work is orchestral minimalism, influenced by Philip Glass and Steve Reich, as Gabriel explains in the bonus materials of his new blood DVD. This comes naturally from the original studio recordings of these songs in the 1970s through 2002, when Gabriel, very much influenced by classical minimalism at the time, used analog sequencers and drum machines, and later on increasingly sophisticated digital music technology, as the bedrock for many of the compositions. Ostinatos of metronomic sequences and counterpoints, often in odd time signatures, were overlayed with live drums, percussion, guitar, bass, and piano, and in the early days Gabriel’s own flute.

Each of the pieces in the new blood suite sound quite different, but most of them start with a quiet dynamic, with the musicians given the task of reproducing complex patterns transcribed from the original sequenced electronic sounds. This task often fell to the tuned percussion, employing a lot of hocketing between parts to cover what was originally composed with contrapuntal layers of monophonic synthesizers. It’s a big challenge to ask a percussion ensemble to play like a robotic handbell choir, while the movement and breath of the piece is conveyed by the other parts of the orchestra under the conductor’s baton. Yet it was not only the percussion section that had to deal with this. Minimalist melodic figures hocketed between instruments showed up in every section of the orchestra at various times. The ability to pull off this ensemble juggling act tended to dictate which pieces succeeded in performance and which did not.

I’ll digress a moment to comment on the presentation: the score necessitated amplification to be performed successfully. Joseph Greenway, the student sound engineer, was working almost as hard as the conductors, bringing soloists or small ensembles up in the mix at key points, and balancing sections off of each other in ways that would simply not work entirely acoustically. This is in the tradition of late 20th-century orchestral works, with another nod to Glass and composers like John Adams. Mr. Greenway and his team did a seamless job of pulling this off, although to my ear, when amplified, the cello section sounded dry and thin.

The concert opened with “The Rhythm of the Heat,” whose original version appeared on the Security album in 1982. This strong opening unleashed the dark and menacing undertone in many of Gabriel’s songs, with one long crescendo thrusting forward the length of the piece as the strings furtively skittered out col legno patterns and the huge bass drum and brass drove the point home.

In the course of the new blood suite, the student orchestra got a thorough workout in late-20th-century extended performance techniques, especially the strings, being called upon for col legno, Bartok snaps, all kinds of unusual harmonics and left-hand techniques, more than I can catalog. This was no easy evening of playing orchestral classic rock behind a cranked-up rock band, as might have been said about the KSU Orchestra’s performance with the band Kansas at the Cobb Energy Center last year. (Of course I was there and I loved every minute of it; it just represented the conventional approach, which Gabriel didn’t see as suiting his aims).

The next piece, “Downside Up”, from OVO, 2002, is one of the least-well-known tunes, as OVO was not a commercial pop album. The low brass struggled to bring their part together. The piece concluded with a spirited and improvised jazz solo by bassist Britton Wright.

“San Jacinto”, from Security, 1982, started with intricate, delicate and somewhat polyrhythmic tuned percussion ostinatos and brought out Steven Bicknell on piano (he also played celesta later in the program). I could hear the orchestra struggling to come to grips with it, as it worked through another slow crescendo to a wistful ending.

“Intruder”, from Gabriel’s third solo album in 1980, is another of the darkest and most sinister of Gabriel’s works. As he mentioned in his own commentary, Gabriel’s template for this orchestral arrangement was the work of screen composer Bernard Herrmann in Alfred Hitchcock’s films: he was pointing straight to the “shower” scene in Psycho (1960).

The orchestra approached this piece timidly, struggling to seize it and imbue it with terror. A valiant viola solo was under-amplified and lost its impact. By the end, they’d managed to create a satisfyingly chilling conclusion.

“Wallflower”, from Security, 1982, is a delicate, wistful piece that Gabriel stripped down to nothing but piano and a quartet of two cellos and two violas (Robert Marshall, Zac Goad, Kyle Mayes and Rachael Keplin) until the rest of the string orchestra very quitely swept in underneath the amplified quartet and piano at the last moment to create a beautiful, serene mood.

“In Your Eyes” from So, 1986, is one of Gabriel’s best-known songs, and also in his live band version one of the longest and most slowly-developing records that ever got played on pop radio in the 1980s or 90s. The original is replete with Senegalise drummers playing deep rhythms, sharp jangling cross-picked acoustic guitar, and most memorable for a passionate descant by counter-tenor Youssou N’Dour, sung in the Serer language. For the new blood arrangement, Gabriel and Metcalfe simply took out every bit of the percussion and any sharp attacks and recast the piece for strings only, in what I can only describe as a Brian Eno-approved “oblique strategy” of swirling melody like feathers in a gentle whirlwind. The KSU strings perfectly captured the mood on this one.

The first half of the concert concluded with “Mercy Street”, from So, 1986, when out came two singers: Jonathan Stewart, to sing the Peter Gabriel part, and Chani Maisonet to provide the counterpart to a meditative melody. Once again, it was apparent that everybody here understood how to convey the beautiful mood of what Gabriel described as the piece that his fans appreciated the most in his concerts over the years.

The intermission ended with the strings marching into the hall from the back and riffing on a demented marching-band arrangement of Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”, from 1986, for a bit of comic relief. The orchestra then launched into the epic “Red Rain”, from So, 1986, richly orchestrated throughout, and played with true confidence.

“Darkness”, from Up, 2002, was a piece less-well-known to Gabriel fans. This was another example of Gabriel’s selection of something that was not a “hit” but worked perfectly within the context he constructed for new blood.

The plaintive and heart-rending “Don’t Give Up”, from So, 1986, well-remembered for the contribution of singer Kate Bush on the original, was one of Gabriel’s enduring classics, again well-suited to the wistful, melancholy textures that the orchestra spun out in the highest point of the concert.

“Digging In The Dirt”, from Us, 1992, however, did not gel. It required hard-rocking syncopated rhythms, serious as a heart attack, that the arranger was asking an orchestra to pound out without the help of a drum kit or drum machines. Nobody seemed able to rise to the challenge.

“The Nest that Sailed the Sky”, from OVO, 2002, provided a short, ethereal interlude that brought the orchestra to its conclusion, bringing out the singers again for “Solsbury Hill”, from Gabriel’s first solo album in 1977 — certainly some of the best lyrics Gabriel ever wrote. I can attest that any ensemble playing any arrangement of this quirkiest of songs, almost all in 7/4 time with contrasting emphasis between groups of 3 and 4 in different sections, would have difficulty keeping it rocking like it needs to rock. I’m most sorry to say that the singers took a frivolous approach to a spiritual piece of music whose message they just didn’t seem to understand or convey, in unfortunate contrast to their moving, heart-felt rendition of “Mercy Street” in the first half.

At the end, though, the orchestra earned their standing ovation. Every musician in the production was challenged, stretched, and grew in their musicianship from the application of an unlikely collection of arrangements of obsolete pop songs of the sort that don’t get played on the radio much anymore, revealing the enduring appeal of Gabriel’s music. Bravo.

Peter Gabriel’s new blood Suite, Part Two

Part Two of my review of the Kennesaw State University Orchestra’s performance of Peter Gabriel’s new blood suite.

Here are the program notes from the printed concert program.

A note from the Assistant Dean of the College of the Arts

I have been an ardent fan of Peter Gabriel for over thirty years. I began listening to him as a college student in the early ’80s when I stumbled across a used copy of Security at my local record store. Since that time, I have followed each step of his career, each new album he recorded, with admiration and anticipation. Of course, it was as a live performer that Gabriel truly shone. I will never forget the first time I was able to see him live, during the So tour of 1986-87. The concert was equal parts theatrical spectacle, fantastic rock show, and spiritual experience. I remember, particularly, when he performed “Mercy Street”, a song dedicated to Anne Sexton. The lights, music, and performance all combined to enhance the impact of an already emotional piece, and I can still feel the goose bumps on my arms as the song ended.

So, it is against this backdrop of nearly thirty years of avid fandom, that I welcomed the news of Gabriel’s newest project with great excitement. Early press about new blood and the New Blood Orchestra was very positive, and due to the “miracle of the internet,” I was able to hear some of the recordings before it was released I eagerly pre-ordered the CD from a very popular online media outlet, and through some happy circumstance (kismet, fate), received two copies of the CD. I decided to pass the extra copy on to my friend and fellow classic rock fan, Michael Alexander. I didn’t know if he would like it, but it seemed to be the right thing to do as the piece is entirely orchestral. As with many such seemingly innocent acts, I could not have predicted the direction that this was going to take.

Where Mike got the gumption to contact Peter Gabriel’s organization about the possibility of KSU performing new blood, I will never truly know. What I do know is that all of a sudden a dialog began about how we could make this happen at Kennesaw State. I watched with utter amazement and joy as Mike copied me on his email correspondence with folks in the “Peter Gabriel Administration.” My favorite exchange involved Mike presenting three options for the performance, the first of which involved Gabriel performing with our orchestra, to which my dignified response (in blind copy) was, and I quote, “Option 1! Option 1! Option 1!” Sadly, Gabriel’s schedule did not allow for this, but it is a mark of his significant generosity that he agreed to allow us the rights to perform new blood, making tonight a reality. Beyond my utter fanaticism and excitement about the fact that we are now going to be connected to one of my absolute heroes in a very tangible and intimate way (this is, after all, the first time that this work will be performed in its entirety by anyone other than the New Blood Orchestra), there are other reasons why tonight is important to me personally and, I think, to the students about to perform for you.

For me, Peter Gabriel has always been one of those musicians who is utterly unafraid to take chances in order to serve his art. He is constantly striving to say something of significance; to walk a line that is both consistent with who he has always been as a musician and artist, and at the same time stretch out into new areas and break new ground. This spirit of curiosity, commitment, craft, fearlessness and drive is something that our faculty constantly strives to inculcate in our students. Our students have much to learn from the example that he has set. There is a deeper dimension to him that is important to recognize as well. Gabriel has long been someone who has seen a greater role for his art than just as entertain- mint. His commitment to social issues, awareness of the intricacies and complexities of the world, and his willingness to use his talents in the service of a greater good represent the best of what musicians and artists can achieve. (See, for example, his work with WOMAD [the World of Music and Dance], Real World Studios, Amnesty International, and the Witness Project, not to mention the subject matter of many of his songs.) Again, this is an ideal that we, as educators, wish our students to strive for; to see something larger and more important in what they do than just playing to make people happy — we want them to be fully engaged in the world around them and to seek ways to effect positive change. After all, artists with integrity endure.

Of course, it’s important to recognize that there is another purpose to this specific artistic endeavor we undertake this evening; one that, I think, is entirely consistent with the spirit of Gabriel’s work. Proceeds from this concert will be used to enhance the scholarship opportunities available to our students. The commitment you’ve made as audience members will make it possible for many of these young musicians arrayed on the stage before you to pursue their dreams where they otherwise couldn’t. Our students are different from many who pursue careers in the arts. They largely do not come from privileged backgrounds. They do not have endless resources to support themselves throughout their college careers. They have chosen a path that is not greatly valued in the larger society, and, for the most part, do not stand to earn incredible salaries upon graduation. And our world will be a better place for the decision and sacrifice that they have made in the face of great odds. What they do they do out of passion, dedication, and commitment, all of which are values present in the work and life of Peter Gabriel. So it is apt, I think, that we present this concert for you this evening, not only because it is a unique musical experience, but because it is part of something larger. I am reminded of the lyrics of one of Gabriel’s most popular songs, “In Your Eyes”. This is a love song, but the spirit of the lyrics seem fitting. So, with great apologies for the liberties with Gabriel’s lyrics, let me conclude by saying: “In your eyes, we are complete; In your eyes, we see the doorway to a thousand churches; In your eyes, the resolution of all the fruitless searches. Thank you for your support of this unique event and of our students.

Samuel Robinson, Assistant Dean

new blood

The idea of working with an orchestra began with the Scratch My Back project. This was a song exchange concept, i.e. you do one of mine and I’ll do one of yours. Initially I had thought of working with home-made instruments, but as I explored the sounds we could use, I didn’t find the range of tone and expression that was clearly available in existing instruments that had been developed over time, with years and years of improvements.

I had never really explored an orchestra as the sole sound palette for a record, and that seemed very fresh. Although I had lots of ideas of what it could be, I didn’t have the breadth of knowledge or experience with the full range of orchestral instruments to do the job as well as I wanted, so I began checking out arrangers. I really liked the work of John Metcalfe who had been working on a project at our studio, and had been doing some very interesting live composing for a project The Bays and The Heritage Orchestra. We met and discussed favorite composers and approaches. I then asked if he could arrange a couple of tracks with me and loved the results.

My intention was to work outside of traditional rock arrangements or instrumentation, for us to be bold, innovative and to work with dynamics and extremes where possible, i.e. still and stark at one point, fat, fleshy, and emotional at another. The process was to discuss what each track needed, and then John would prepare a first draft, which we would bounce around a few times before settling on a final version. As this project evolved it grew into something different from anything else I’d done or heard, and I really wanted to take it out live — on its own terms and not as a support for “Scratch” — which we did.

There are fairly radical takes on some familiar and less familiar songs. We are proud of what we have done on this record. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did making it.

–Peter Gabriel

KSU Instrumental Ensembles

We are proud to present Peter Gabriel’s new blood to you this evening. This marks yet another milestone for the instrumental program at KSU in that we are the first university to be given the rights to perform this music. It also marks our continuing effort to give our students a wide breadth of experiences that will prepare them to be versatile musicians committed to great art, in whatever shape or form it may appear. A concert like this does not happen without a lot of help. We owe huge “thank-yous” to the staff of the Bailey Center and especially Joseph Greenway, who was a driving force in the lights and sounds you will experience tonight. We also want to thank Peter Gabriel for taking on such a bold project and his amazing management team, who were so supportive of us having this opportunity.

Tonight’s concert is also important because the proceeds go to supporting scholarships and opportunities for our students. We have remarkable students and we owe them the very best. They will be leading the cultural experiences in our region for years to come. Please consider making an additional generous donation to the Mattie Borders Proctor Fellowship for Undergraduate Instrumentalists, which supports these activities.

We are so lucky to have the opportunity to work in a great place with great students and colleagues. Thanks for sharing this experience with us tonight.

Michael Alexander, Director of Orchestras
David Kehler, Director of Bands

Personnel

Flute/Alto Flute/Piccolo

Catherine Flinchum
Dirk Stanfield

Oboe

Alexander Sifuentes

Clarinet

Kadie Johnston
Tyler Moore

Bassoon

Sarah Fluker

Horn

David Andres
Kristen Arvold

Trumpet

John Thomas Burson
Justin Rowan

Trombone

David Lennertz
Michael Lockwood

Bass Trombone

Joseph Poole

Tuba

Melinda Mason

Percussion

Katelyn King
Erik Kosman
Michael Standard
Harrison Ude

Piano

Steven Bicknell

Violin 1

Emily Ahlenius
Jarred Cook
Saraha Hoefer
Grace Kawamura
Danielle Moeller
Jonathan Urizar
Anneka Zee

Violin 2

Rachel Campbell
Michah David
Amanda Esposito
Terry Keeling
Meian Butcher
Joshua Martin
Kimberly Ranallo
Brittany Thayer

Viola

Justin Brookins
Ryan Gibson
Hallie Imeson
Rachel Keplin
Kyle Mayes
Aliyah Miller
Perry Morris
Alishia Pittman
Samatha Tang

Cello

Kathyrn Encisco
Rachel Halverson
Zac Goad
Robert Marshall
Avery McCoy

Bass

Jarod Boles
Jared Houseman
Matthew Richards
Neal Rodack
Nicholas Schoelfield
Nick Twarog
Britton Wright

Vocals

Chani Maisonet
Jonathan Stewart

Sound Engineer

Joseph Greenway

Next up, my review, in Part Three.

Peter Gabriel’s new blood Suite performed by the KSU Symphony Orchestra, Part One

Review of

Peter Gabriel’s new blood Orchestral Suite

Kennesaw State University Symphony Orchestra and Wind Ensemble

Michael Alexander and David Kehler, conductors

Bailey Performance Center, Kennesaw State University

Thursday, January 10, 2013. 8:00 pm

new blood

Composed by Peter Gabriel

Arranged by John Metcalfe

Program

  • The Rhythm of the Heat
  • Downside Up
  • San Jacinto
  • Intruder
  • Wallflower
  • In Your Eyes
  • Mercy Street
  • Red Rain
  • Darkness
  • Don’t Give Up
  • Digging In The Dirt
  • The Nest that Sailed the Sky
  • Solsbury Hill

Tonight I attended a fascinating concert by the KSU Orchestra, a suite of pieces that stretched and challenged all of the 58 student performers in unexpected ways, from an unconventional source.

Peter Gabriel’s new blood suite, which was presented by Gabriel with a professional orchestra in a globe-hopping tour that spanned months, has never been performed outside of Gabriel’s direct involvement until now. The KSU music faculty took it upon themselves to contact Peter Gabriel’s organization and obtain clearance to do their own production, for one performance only.

A couple of years ago rock star Peter Gabriel commissioned John Metcalfe to work with him in arranging a number of his songs, spanning 25 years of recordings, into an orchestral suite which he could take on tour, singing with the orchestra in a decidedly non-conventional context. What I mean by that is they dispensed with the way that countless classic rock acts have approached performing with an orchestra. They made a decision not to use any rock band instruments or rock musicians, not to use any electronic instruments or pre-recorded tracks, and they decided to make each piece in the suite sound completely unlike any of the others, by means of the techniques of 20th and 21st-century orchestration. Moreover Gabriel made an exceptionally wise choice not to orchestrate his “greatest hits”; he chose a suite of pieces with a few titles that even his most ardent fans might find obscure. He selected the pieces from his body of work that seemed to him would sound the best when adapted to a symphony orchestra. All of these turned out to be the right decisions.

He also decided to record and present, on a bonus CD in an album package, entirely instrumental arrangements of each of these pieces without anyone singing the melody and the lyrics. These arrangements, largely without melody and song, put the focus on the orchestration and the moods.

Tonight at the Bailey Performance Hall at KSU, directors Michael Alexander and David Kehler took turns with each successive piece, challenging their students to accomplish some prodigious musical achievements on what appears to be very little rehearsal. In the concert program, Assistant Dean Samuel Robinson waxed rhapsodic in a two-page essay about his lifelong admiration for the music of Peter Gabriel, and how important it was to various music faculty members to expose their students to these works.

Peter Gabriel covered a significant amount of territory in musical growth and innovation in twenty-five years. In 1975 he left behind the baroque complexity of his band Genesis, one of the most popular rock bands in England and Europe at the time, spent a lot of time in the United States, and started over with a sound that had more to do with punk than the folk-infused progressive rock for which he was known. Almost immediately expanding upward from his own new stripped-down, dark and angry sound, his music quickly came to incorporate intricate electronic music elements through the programmed sequences of electronic synthesist Larry Fast. Throughout the rest of his solo career, Gabriel’s compositions continued to incorporate sequenced and programmed technological elements, including plenty of drum machines, incorporating more and more sophisticated electronic music technology as he went. At some point in a strange juxtaposition he also began to incorporate world music, especially African drumming and singing from Senegal. But at no point, except perhaps for the instrumental soundtrack that he composed and performed for the motion picture The Last Temptation of Christ, did his music depart from being recognizable as rock music, played by a live rock band.

Adapting this sort of material into the form of the symphony orchestra — that’s where the fascination starts.

I happen to know musician Larry Fast, so when I heard that the KSU Symphony Orchestra was performing new blood, I wrote to him to ask him his opinion on the work. Larry said, “I was very impressed with the orchestral arrangements. Some were new, but interesting takes on the originals. But for some the orchestrator studied the original synth parts and just nailed them perfectly. I saw the two tours and really enjoyed them.”

Next up, my review of the KSU concert. I’ll have as much to say about the pieces themselves as I will about their performance of them.

New Trinity Baroque performs Bach’s B minor Mass

Posted Sunday, March 6, 2011. Some corrections have been added since.

The stars aligned in Atlanta last week for something that will certainly never be repeated again.

On Sunday, February 27, the Atlanta Sacred Chorale, with a 22-piece modern orchestra, performed Bach’s B minor Mass at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts at Emory University. Then five and six days later, the New Trinity Baroque orchestra and the Georgia Tech Chamber Choir performed Bach’s B minor Mass with period instruments and Baroque tuning less than three miles away at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church. Today the New Trinity Baroque performs again in Birmingham, Alabama.

I attended the February 27 performance of the Atlanta Sacred Chorale and the March 5 performance of New Trinity Baroque. I’ve seen both a modern and a historically-informed production of the full B minor Mass in the same week in the same town. That will never happen again in my lifetime, anywhere.

Now I volunteer with the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra, the other Baroque orchestra based in Atlanta, Georgia. New Trinity Baroque and the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra don’t view each other as rivals, since they share so many musicians, both those who live in Atlanta and those who are flown in from out of state, to fill out their rosters. And the B minor Mass requires more players in the orchestra than just about any other work in the Baroque repertoire.

Here are my personal impressions.

What can you say about the greatest magum opus of the Baroque era and a lasting member on the short list of the greatest orchestral and choral musical compositions of all time? And to hear it played and sung in the authentic Baroque manner, rather than with a “modern” interpretation with modern tuning and instruments? It was a landmark experience for this armchair musicologist. Bach is deeply spiritual, and as a believer myself, this music speaks to me on such a deep level that I feel like I’m right in tune with what Bach was thinking and feeling in 1749.

Martha Perry, based in Bloomington, Indiana and affiliated with the Indiana University School of Music, was the concertmaster. Other Atlanta Baroque Orchestra regulars performing were: Elena Kraineva, viola; Anna Marsh, bassoon; Martha Bishop, bass; Janice Joyce flute; Ute Marks, violin. Our friend Wanda Yang Temko was the soprano soloist.

(Martha Bishop and Ute Marks are considered regular members of the New Trinity Baroque.)

Last Thursday, New Trinity Baroque director Predrag Gosta reported that they had sold 500 advance tickets to the first two shows. Tickets were $29 per person. Reports are that they had 220 paying audience members, not counting guests and comps, on Friday, March 4 at St. John United Methodist Church in Atlanta. Last night, Saturday, at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal, they had an audience of around 350; the place seats 400. Today, March 6, they are performing at Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama, and that concert is free to the public.

The performers report that rehearsals commenced on Tuesday, March 8, and that they were all flying home on Monday, March 14.

Atlanta music critic Pierre Ruhe was there, and before the concert I spoke with him to thank him for the interview with the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra’s new Artistic Director Julie Andrijeski that he published. He said, “I’ll come and review the next Atlanta Baroque Orchestra concert that features dance.” Hmm.

As for the performance, the conductor on this night was Predrag Gosta, yet each concert is being performed under a different director(!) and so far it seems that Georgia Tech Chamber Choir director Jerry Ulrich and Mr. Gosta had considerably different styles and tempos. Before the concert, Ute Marks commented, “Ulrich was more labored and drawn-out. Predrag is going to be more direct and quicker.”

I would describe the sanctuary at St. Bart’s as intimate and close, and if you haven’t seen it, it’s not a traditional sanctuary space at all. The sound is good, but I’d characterize it as warm, meaning that it lacks some high-end definition and clarity. The orchestra ensemble sounded on the lush (for Baroque) side as a result. The choir was arrayed in a blended formation, not divided into four sections, which I found quite surprising given the needs of the demanding contrapuntal texture throughout Bach’s work.

According to the program, this was the Southeastern United States premiere on period instruments of the new 2006 Joshua Rifkin edition of the Mass in B minor.

The Georgia Tech Chamber Choir had about 40 voices. Most all are undergraduates and none of them are music majors. Given that, they performed very well; Jerry Ulrich must be a formidable director indeed. I must say, though, that I saw the Atlanta Sacred Chorale perform Bach’s B minor Mass just six days earlier at Schwartz Hall at Emory University, and this extremely accomplished amateur chorale of older, more mature singers is better, with a more even sound but also with excellent articulation and clarity of those startlingly difficult contrapuntal sections.

With regard to the orchestras in the two concerts, I’m reminded that I’m making a comparison between a choir and orchestra with “modern” instruments and a choir and orchestra with “period” instruments and performance practice, which are totally different musical approaches that cannot be directly compared. I will add as a footnote that one of the performers in the “modern” orchestra with the Atlanta Sacred Chorale was Atlanta Baroque Orchestra Resident Director Daniel Pyle, who brought his portable Baroque acoustic pipe organ, transposed up to modern tuning to match the other instruments in that ensemble.

Vocal soloists:

Wanda Yang Temko is widely known and beloved in Atlanta, and always expresses joy and vitality in her solos. This was unfortunately in contrast to tenor Adam Kirkpatrick. He sang adequately but with a rather heavy Romantic-sounding tone, and just did not look like he was having a good time doing it. Afterwards, I was told “This is the first time that Adam has ever performed in Baroque tuning.” That says to me that he is, although possessing quite a pedigree as a soloist, not experienced in historically-informed performance in the Baroque period at all, and it showed in his singing style. Contrast this again with well-known Terry Barber, countertenor, who was revelatory. His Agnus Dei was the high point of the entire concert, and he used his ease and facility across the entire alto range to beautifully express everything Bach gave him to say. I don’t have much to add about Paul Max Tipton, young and up-and-coming baritone. Nothing against his fine singing; it’s just that in my opinion, compared to the other solos Bach wrote for this piece, I don’t think the bass-baritone solos offer as much opportunity for vocal expression. Faint praise, I know; but when you’re tapped to sing bass in one of the greatest musical compositions of all time, what’s not to like about that?

One thing I’d like to commend Predrag Gosta on is his decision to take the time to bring individual instrumental soloists to stand in front for each movement, despite the crowded conditions and the need to keep everything moving forward due to the extreme length of the piece. This enhanced the connection between the instrumental soloists and vocal soloists in the exquisite duets, and brought out the individual instrumental characteristics against the tendency of the hall to blend the ensemble sound together a bit too much. Somehow nothing seemed labored or drawn-out in Gosta’s direction. Gosta also transported things from movement to movement and section to section often without any breaks at all, and somehow there were only a couple of stops to retune in the entire presentation.

Instrumental soloists included: Martie Perry, concertmaster; Karolina Bäter, flute; Mariane Pfau, oboe/d’amore; and Paul Hopkins, corno da caccia.

After the concert, Martie Perry was calmly triumphant, yet visibly exerted. “It’s a lot of extra work for the orchestra to deal with three different conductors–especially for the concertmaster,” she said.

Things were wrapping up at St. Bart’s around 10:45 pm, and the orchestra and choir had to depart for Alabama at 10:00 am. I wish I could road trip out to see them again, but hopefully somebody will post a review online.

Conclusion, Comments, and Upcoming:

It’s one for the record books. The Atlanta Sacred Chorale gave their performance of Bach’s B minor Mass at Schwartz Hall at Emory University on Sunday, February 27, while New Trinity Baroque gave their performance of the same work on Saturday, March 5 less than three miles away at St. Bartholomew’s. Pierre Ruhe commented to me “Atlanta’s fine arts scene is more fragmented than any other city. Nobody knows what anybody else is planning to do.” I know that these things have to be planned far in advance, but I hope that local leaders of the various performing ensembles could make a better effort to communicate and plan together and not remain in their own separate spaces with only a vacuum between them.

The Atlanta Baroque Orchestra intends to book their next concert on the same weekend as the next New Trinity Baroque concert. New Trinity are performing “Mozart meets Haydn” in one performance only on Saturday, May 21 at 8:00 pm. The Atlanta Baroque Orchestra concert, whose title is as yet unannounced, is the next afternoon, at Roswell Presbyterian. Martha Bishop commented on how she wished that she could work with the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra this time, but had to make a prior commitment to New Trinity. Well, I hope that any sufficiently motivated concertgoers will attend both concerts. St. Bart’s and Roswell Presbyterian are an easy 30-minute drive apart, mostly a straight shot on Georgia 400.

I should add that on Sunday, March 13 at 3:00 pm, I’m singing tenor with the Michael O’Neal Singers at Roswell United Methodist Church in their production of Brahms’ German Requiem (in a newly-prepared English translation by the late Lara Hoggard). This concert will feature 150 singers and a 42-piece orchestra. There are some parallels between Bach’s B minor Mass and Brahms’ Requiem. Both are landmarks of Christian music on the concert stage, and both are considered the magnum opus of their respective composers, each of whom are considered among the most important and influential composers not only of their own style period but also in the entire history of Western music.