Public art at WWU

Richard Serras Wrights Triangle (1978)
Richard Serra, Wright's Triangle (1978)

When I drove up to Vancouver a couple of weeks back for the Ives Ensemble performance I turned out to have left home too early.  I wasn’t going to be able to check into my hotel into 4pm and it was looking like I’d arrive around 2:30.  I realized this right as I was nearing Bellingham, which is less than a half an hour to the US/Canada Border.  Western Washington University is located in Bellingham and this university was very familiar to me as it was the closest University to where I grew up. I was involved in debate in high school which required a lot of research and the WWU library was a frequent destination. Additionally I attended an intensive debate camp there for several summers.  So I knew that they had extensive public art there and I’d just read on  a “best PNW art” that the Richard Serra there was one of his first major commissions. I recall a number of occasions during debate camp that we’d lie on the bricks inside the double triangles of this large sculpture, escaping the other students for some time.  Since that time I’ve become rather taken with Serra’s art after seeing his new piece at Seattle’s Olympic Sclupture Park and seeing his episode in the Art:21 series. This confluence of events caused me to amend my plans and spend a couple of hours with WWU’s public art.

Nancy Holt , Stone Enclosure: Rock Rings (1977-78)
Nancy Holt , Stone Enclosure: Rock Rings (1977-78)

It was a perfect late winter day for rambling around a university campus looking and photographing art – clear, sunny and crisp. I drove up to the campus visitor’s center where I was able to pick up a nice guide to their public art (which you can check out online) and purchase a two hour parking permit. I parked in a centrally located lot and set out on the South Campus walking tour.  One of the great features of public art is that unlike most galleries you are free to photograph it.  There has been a few recent cases of artists or institutions trying to secure some sort of control over this but it is a fools game. In the main most public art is installed by the public, for the public and its imagine also belongs to the public.  One of the major attractions to me of public art is that a given piece can succeed as a subject, a framing device,  for its textural properties and so on, far beyond its qualities in and of itself.  As I wandered around Western checking out the various pieces I’d attempted to document them as a piece of art but to also investigate their various properties as a subject for photography. The most enjoyable pieces of course succeed in both aspects and likewise the least enjoyable fail at both.  Nancy Holt’s Stone Enclosure: Rock Rings is one of those that I both enjoyed in and of itself, its form of interlocking rings evoking such structures as Stonehenge while its external form and rough stonework ancient burial structures such as those at Brú na Bóinne in Ireland.

Robert Morris  Untitled (Steam Work for Bellingham), (1971, Installed 1974)
Robert Morris, Untitled (Steam Work for Bellingham), (1971, Installed 1974)

Right nearby Stone Enclosure: Rock Rings was Robert Morris’s Untitled (Steam Work for Bellingham) which was basically an enclosed square of stone from which steam was supposed to emanate.  While it is unfair to judge it not in operation I think that it raises questions of its implications in this state.  This is another factor to be included along with those listed by the artist: “Chance and environmental factors such as sunshine, wind, and fog affect the forms of the artist’s material of steam.”  From a distance though the piece does open up, almost looking like a gray Jackson Pollock lying amongst the grass. See the online guide for an image of it in full steam.  These first few pieces were located on the outskirts of the central campus area but now my walking tour turned toward the center of campus were there are several sections with a pretty high density of artworks.  I didn’t spend too much time with Bruce Naumann’s Stadium Piece as its evocation of the seating area of a sports stadium didn’t do much for me (but see the picture of it at night in Westerns online guide) but not too far away were Beverly Pepper’s Normanno Wedge (1980) and Normanno Column, (1979-80) which I found a lot more appealing. While not startling one as a reinvention of public art, these fit beautifully into the campus environment and their concern with more elemental forms contrasts nicely with the trees that would have once filled this valley and as an abstraction of the totem poles of the regions original inhabitants.

Lloyd Hamrol, Log Ramps, (1974; reconstructed 1983 and 1995)
Lloyd Hamrol, Log Ramps, (1974; reconstructed 1983 and 1995)

Most of these pieces that I’ve encountered so far are all ones I was fairly familiar with, though it was nice to reacquaint myself with them from my current context.  While I was somewhat interested in art as a teen my appreciation and knowledge has certainly grown over the years.  In-between the two Pepper pieces was a new installation, Tom Otterness Feats of Strength (1999) which I had not previously experienced. This charming piece of art was a dozen or so cartoony figures engaged with various rocks in in various contexts in an open plaza.  The tiny-ness of the figures contrasted with the obvious weight and scale of the rocks directly demonstrates the strength and the whimsy belies a metaphor of man’s interaction with the bones of our planet.  The plaza where these figures were located was a bit off of the main drag and seemed to accumulate students talking on cell phones who no longer even see the art.  Just around the corner from this area is Lloyd Hamrol’s, Log Ramps, another familiar piece that honestly I’ve never been overly taken with.  it is four large triangles forming an open pyramid, made up of rough hewn logs painted a uniform dark brown.  While the logs may evoke the PNW’s copious forests and timber industries and the simple forms perhaps the betrayal of nature this has never been a piece that has said much to me. On this day a student was perched on one side of it reading a book and talking on his cell phone.  Another feature of public art (I think of all of the people sitting in the shade of the Calder in the Olympic Sculpture Park) and one that this piece has certainly provided ample opportunities for.
Richard Serra, Wrights Triangle (1978)
Richard Serra, Wright's Triangle (1978)

Just around the corner from Log Ramps is the Serra that original inspired this visit.  A piece I am quite familiar with, this time I was looking at it as a thing in and of itself and not as a structure located at this confluence of campus paths. It feels almost constrained in-between the buildings here, almost serving the traffic flow purpose of an island in a residential street.  The openings at each corner are easy to slip into, but not mammoth and on the inside of the sculpture there is a double wall on one edge of the triangle.  The wall serves as canvas to the sun as pictured above and also (also) the the graffiti of the students which you can see only as a faint residue.  The paths were aswarm with students as I reached this point, out on a nice day at the end of classes or moving between the northern and southern sections of campus but inside I was alone and cut off from their activity.  This triangular sculpture isn’t one of the epically huge Serra’s but it fits right into its space and is definitely one of the highlights of Westerns collections.
Alice Aycock, The Islands of the Rose Apple Tree Surrounded by the Oceans of the World for You, Oh My Darling (1987)
Alice Aycock, The Islands of the Rose Apple Tree Surrounded by the Oceans of the World for You, Oh My Darling (1987)

Taking the path to the west from Wright’s Triangle,  you come to the unwieldy named The Islands of the Rose Apple Tree Surrounded by the Oceans of the World for You, Oh My Darling by Alice Aycock. Another piece I was heretofore unfamiliar with, I liked this one a lot. A strangely shaped and compared to most sculptures, quite flat cement object embedded in the ground. It evokes a fountain and it indeed seems to be able to sculpt water and yet it isn’t a fountain. The cryptic symbols and patterns on its surface provide much to ponder and also are brilliant subjects for carefully cropped photos. Near this piece was Meg Webster’s, Untitled (1990) which I can’t recall having seen before, but considering that it was a depression in the ground overgrown with vines, I perhaps may have just never noticed it. I wasn’t overly impressed on this occasion, an example of a piece that fails as an object and as a subject, you’ll have to turn to the online guide for an image of it.

Isamu Noguchi, Skyviewing Sculpture, 1969
Isamu Noguchi, Skyviewing Sculpture (1969)

Backtracking to the Serra, I then took the main path to the campus’s Red Square which contains Isamu Noguchi’s  Skyviewing Sculpture. One of the earliest additions to the collections and one of the most visible being located in the central square this is certainly one which I’ve known and liked for a long time.  I’ve always been rather attracted to geometric solids and platonic ideals constantly drawing spheres, hypercubes and other shapes in my youth. I particularly enjoyed cutout solids like this and I certainly recall appreciating the elegance of this piece even as a surly teen.  Likewise this is another great subject for photography as it casts great shadows and has many pleasant edges and features for unique framing’s. Like Noguchi I also enjoy circular windows and their framing potential. Around red square and environs are several other pieces two of which again evoke totem poles; Scepter, the third sculpture installed on campus from WWW alum Steve Tibbetts and Norman Warsinske’s Totem, the second piece in Westerns collection.   Against a wall that leads away from red square is another Norman Warsinske piece, the mandala like Wall Relief.  In a secluded square, past Totem is the large rusted steel India, installed in 1976 by sculpture Anthony Caro. This piece is like a pile of steel, haphazardly stacked, perhaps as a discard or in the process of clearing a space. Later someone, perhaps an exploring kid or a bored night watchmen, stacks them up a bit, then losing interest they remain that way to rust away.  The connection to India is not immediately clear, though the guidebook indicates that it is a reference to the layered nature of much of the architecture on the sub-continent. This is one of those pieces that really revel in its dimensionality and offers unique perspectives from all angles. In the waning light of my visit, its angles and shadows added an extra element.

Anthony Caro India (1976)
Anthony Caro India (1976)

The tour is now on its northern extents and the pieces are a bit more spread out.  On the edge of a secluded field a ways past India is the sculpture that sticks out most in my mind from my youth. Richard Beyer’s The Man Who Used to Hunt Cougars for Bounty (1972).  This stone sculpture of a man with what looks like a large bear in in his lap has his head thrown back in emotion was know colloquially as “man fucks bear”.  Just look at it. Walking across the field one encounters a large metal box that one can walk through, Donald Judd’s Untitled (1982).  A metal box with dividers inside it that angle as one walks through it so that it either narrows or widens depending on your entry.  A bit of a walk from here on the far northern end of the tour is Robert Maki’s Curve/Diagonal (1976-79).  This curved sheet metal piece works beautifully with the shadows and light and while I only saw it in the late, late afternoon, it clearly would change aspects throughout the day.

Mark di Suvero, For Handel (1975)
Mark di Suvero, For Handel (1975)

As I began to loop back to where I had parked I walked past Western’s largest and probably most iconic sculpture, Mark di Suvero’s For Handel. This large red knotted steel girders perhaps evokes all that people disdain in perceived excesses of modern art and in and of itself I find this piece rather empty. However it interacts in the space that it has been place in quite a few interesting way. The play of the sunlight upon it and shadows its casts, its framing aspects of the buildings that surround it and most strikingly its bright primal colors against a stark blue sky. Apart from this it is a great subject for photography with all of its various angles, shapes and framing elements. di Suvero’s love of music and the placement of this piece near the music hall gave this piece its rather hard to fathom dedication to Handel. I was now running seriously behind time and would have to hustle to get up to Vancouver for the concert. Still I spent a few minutes with the remaining pieces that lined my path back to my car. There were two pieces installed just inside the library entrance, Scott Burton’s Two-Part Chairs, Right Angle Version (a Pair) a rather uninspiring (and uncomfortable looking) pair of rough hewn granite chairs.  Just up the libraries stairs from these was the much more interesting clock like Mindseye by Mark di Suvero working in a much smaller scale then his epic Handel. Back outside and walking behind the library was Mia Westerlund Roosen’s Flank II (1978). This piece is basically two triangular prisms made of concrete enclosed in a copper casing stacked on each other.  The effects of time on the piece are by far the most interesting aspects of the piece as its form and placement don’t do much for me.

The light was definitely well faded at this point and I was about an hour past the time on my parking permit so I made my way out of Western at a pretty fast clip. I did swing by  James FitzGerald’s Rain Forest, which was WWU’s first sculpture which was deep in the shadows and my photos didn’t come out. There is a good picture of this fountain (actually running as well which it wasn’t on this day) in the online guide. After this I quickly left campus and made my way up to Vancouver for the show. I made it with about five minutes to spare.  There were I think four pieces in Westerns vast collection that I didn’t see, these were all out in more far flung locations which would have cost me too much time to have seen. Another reason to return to this magnificent collection. You can see all of my photos I’ve uploaded from the collection in my WWU Public Art group on Flickr.

By the arts building is a little patio bordered by a small cove of trees.  This area had numerous instances of  student art, my favorite of which was this Andys Goldsworthy like piece in the trees.
By the arts building is a little patio with kiln's on it, surrounded by a small cove of trees. This area had numerous instances of student art, my favorite of which was this Andy's Goldsworthy-like piece in the trees.

The Return of Ulysses

William Kentridge mania has swept the Seattle area art blogs that I follow. For good reason for the most part as at this point in time he has a show at the Henry Art Gallery, recent prints at Greg Kucera Gallery, a performance at UW and first and foremost a staging of his production of Montiverdi’s Return of Ulysses with Pacific Operaworks. Getting caught up in this mania I checked to see if tickets were available on Saturday and they were so I rather impulse bought one and headed out to the show.

Return of Ulysses Staging

The show was at the historic Moore Theater which really was the perfect venue for this sort of thing. Built in 1907 this theater has the old rococo charm of its classic theater and vaudeville roots which seemed to blend seamlessly with the stage setting. The stage was basically setup in three layers in a semi-circle with a stage on the bottom, the musicians on the middle level and the third level a balcony in front of a screen upon which Kentridge’s animations and drawings were projected. The visual information that was available to the audience was overwhelming. The characters in the opera were represented by puppets which were fantastic creations of the Handspring Puppet Company whose puppeteer was right there on stage with their puppet. Additionally a each character had the singer who usually flanked the puppet on the other side and usually manipulated one of the puppets arms.  So each character (except for the gods who were represented solely by a singer) had three separate parts to it and at times the stage could be pretty crowded with them all.

Ever present was the musicians, who for this early music aficionado are fascinating to watch.  Arrayed in the semi-circle illustrated above from left to right they were: baroque harp, arch lute, chitarone/baroque guitar, viola, baroque violin, viola de gamba and baroque ‘cello/lirone. The Montiverdi score is really entrancing, quite a bit of it was interplay between the harp and lute often with the ‘cello or viola de gamba providing an almost drone like continuo.  All of the performers are part of Seattle’s very engaged early music scene and thus the size of the ensemble, the tunings, the performance techniques and the instruments were all appropriate to the music.  Music from this period does not suffer from the same type of excesses that mark opera from the romantic periods especially in vocal techniques. The singing is much more akin to what you’d find in say a Bach Cantata or polyphonic chant. The size of the orchestra doesn’t allow for the huge overtures and bombast of this period either, the music is much more delicate and as it is all strings of a particular character.  There really is a balance between the singers, who do not engage in the vocal flights of fancy one typically associates with opera and the instrumentalists who do not have over endowed sections to simplify and over emphasize their sounds. I really loved the music for this, the layers of plucked tones from the lute(s) and harp, the drones from the ‘cello and viola de gamba and the rare melodic interventions of the violin and viola.  This served well to remind me that the Montiverdi selection in my CD files is a bit thin. The music direction from Stephen Stubbs was impeccable and I’m inspired to seek out some of his early music recordings.  Pacific Operworks who performed the opera is a new company started by Stubbs and in conjunction with the Seattle Academy of Baroque Opera focuses on chamber operas and related historical performances. Based on this, their inagurale production, they are clearly a welcome addition to the city.

The next layer was the projected animations and drawings from William Kentridge.  These served a number of purposes from backdrop and stage setting, to commentary.  In some instances it would be a scrolling landscape, road or hallway and the puppets would perform in front of it giving a sense of movement and represent well the travel that was involved.  Most interesting though was the use of the animation as an illustration of the abstract concepts that the opera was engaging.  The play begins with Ulysses on his deathbed surrounded by representations of Time, Fortune and Love. Projected during this was images of surgery, abstract drawings that could evoke such things as time, thought, feelings of frailty and of course abstractions that their just wasn’t sufficient time to unravel. At other times metaphors from the characters would be illustrated such as flowering plants, vines and growing trees as Penelope’s three suitors ply her with these analogies in an attempt to persuade her to turn her affections from the long absent Ulysses to one of them.  Certain images would repeat sometimes permuted other times directly to underscore recurrent themes and ideas.  Over the hour and forty minutes or so of the opera I’d say there was nearly an hours worth of original material, most of it black and white animated images (as opposed to layered cell animation). I was really taken by a lot of this animation and am now very curious to see more of Kentridge’s art in this style.

Finally there was the actual story of the opera which as inmost modern opera productions was available to use via super-scripting – a small monitor above the stage where the lyrics would be presented in English in real time. The story of course is familiar to anyone who has read Homer – Ulysses returning from the Trojan wars was waylaid by the gods and wandered for many years. During this time his wife Penelope is besieged by suitors who wish to win her hand and gain Ulysses kingdom. Ulysses finally making it back to Greece  learns of this situation and added by Athena  appears in his court in the disguise of an old man in order to assess the situation. Finding Penelope has remained true to him he slays the suitors, reveals his identity and reunites with his wife. A multi-layered story with ideas rooted in man’s mortality, the nature of fate, faithfulness, the nature of power and so on.

All in all between reading the text, watching the stagecraft, keeping an eye on the animation and watching the musicians and listening to the music I can’t think of the last time I have been so completely engaged in a performance. Even the narrow and uncomfortable Moore theater seats were barely able to arise to my attention so enveloped as I was in this abundance of stimuli.  This is definitely one of the best and most engaging things I have seen in a long time and while it was rather expensive it was well worth it. This is a rare event and they are only doing five performances here before moving the staging to San Francisco. For any of my Seattle area readers I highly advise catching one of this weekend’s performances.

Happy National Pi Day!

Today, March 14th (3.14 ha!),  is National  Day. Enjoy!


Ives Ensemble in Vancouver

Ives Ensemble
Ives Ensemble

On Thursday March 5th 2009 I took the day off from work and drove north to Canada to see the Ives Ensemble.  They’d been brought into Canada by  Contiuum Contemporary Music for their SHIFT Festival of Canadian and Dutch music.  Having a largish group flown in from the Netherlands for a festival seems a bit extravagant so working with various Canadian arts organizations they scheduled a few more dates across Canada.  Vancouver New Music was one of these organizations and they managed to bring them to Vancouver as part of their Sonic Tonic series for the final date of their tour.

VNM almost always has an “artist chat” an hour before their concerts and tonight was no exception.  I managed to make it to the ScotiaBank Dance Centre just a few minutes after 7pm and about 5 minutes before the chat began. The entire ensemble was in a semi-circle of chairs in the front of a dance studio complete with an entire mirrored wall. VNM director Giorgio Magnanensi, who is now sporting a great and wild beard, began by asking them the details of their tour.  Most of the questions were fielded by John Snijders, the founder of the ensemble, but at various times several of the members would chime in.  They spoke of the SHIFT Festival and how it commissioned new works from Canadian and Dutch composers and about the concerts and workshops they did in Toronto.  This sounded like a very interesting cultural exchange and I think a very positive type of event for new music, especially in the commissioning and performing of new works.  The Canadian composer they chose for the commission was Allison Cameron and Giorgio told us an anecdote about him getting flack from the CBC for programming her music in a festival back when she was a lot less well known. There was also a series of questions from the audience about female composers and their level of representation.   On the question of female representation John gave what I think is the most sensible answer: it all comes down to the quality of the composition, there is no issue w/r/t the sex of the composer. This led to several questions about compositions written especially for them and John told us that they rarely get unsolicited compositions mainly because they are very picky on what they choose to play. He then brought up that when playing festivals the programmers really want “World Premiers” and that this leads to an issue where a piece is often only played that one time, as after that performance they need the next world premier.  He said that for them they have found that many pieces benefit from repeat performance:

“Returning to a piece you find that it has become a part of you – comfortable.”

One of the other members then chimed in to say that playing a piece many times is “Honest to the piece” and that it matures and you discover more. This sparked a question from the audience about which pieces tonight were particularly “well played” pieces and they answered that the Viola in my Life was but not the other Feldman, the Xenakis was a newer piece for them and obviously the the Cameron was being a commission. But the rest of them they had played many times, greater then ten times each.  All in all a very interesting chat, very interesting to hear about the various experiences that working in an ensemble like this engenders.

About a half an hour after the chat ended the concert began just a little but after 7pm.  I had scored a seat front row center and the acoustics at this distance was pretty incredible, I could hear all the nuences of the instruments loud and clear.  The first set began with Straight Lines in Broken Times composed by Christopher Fox.  This piece is I believe what they call “post-minimalism”, in that it is made up of fragments of many different styles and was scored for piano, clarinet and violin.  While segments of it were made up of almost Glass-like short repeated phrases others evoked classicism and still others evoked various folk traditions with one bit having a distinctly Klezmer-ish sound. The most interesting part of this piece was a section where the clarinet dropped out, then a couple of minutes later the violin leaving just solo piano for a few measures before they came back in.  Not really my kind of thing, but it aptly demonstrated the skill and touch of the ensemble.  They left the stage and then these three, plus a cellist came back out to play the first of four Postcards by Allison Cameron.  This composition, Four Postcards, was designed to be played in as part of a program and each of them was stylistically diverse and only a couple of minutes long. I came to wonder if they were actually written for this specific program as they seemed stylistic informed by the other pieces.  Like the Fox the first Postcard was rapid little fragments from the quartet, each of them working little independent rhythmic structures.  There was very short violin solo in which it played longer tones in contrast to the rest of the piece. I wasn’t very taken by this piece either and I was becoming a bit depressed. Fortunately the Feldman piece that followed restored my spirits, though at around 8 minutes left me wanting.  Four Instruments (1975) is scored for the same quartet as Feldmans final piece, Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello and has much of the same feel as that piece. It was amazing to watch the ensemble settle down, almost visible changing gears as shifted into Feldman mode.  The vibrato was gone, the bow strokes flat and affectless, piano notes suspended. Really fantastic and when it ended so soon I felt a sense of loss. How I wish this set had been just a performance of Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello.  This was followed by the second Postcard, which was very similar to the first, made of short little energetic fragments from the same line up of instruments. This time though there was a short piano solo as opposed to the violin, but like that it was less frenetic then the rest of the piece.  The final piece of this set was Gerald Barry’s  Piano Quartet nr. 1 scored for piano, violin, viola and ‘cello. This piece was incredibly frenetic, the only piece that had to have a page turner for the violist (primarily, also turned a page or two for the ‘cellist) and also the longest of this set.  Frankly I didn’t enjoy it at all, it just seemed like an exercise in excess.  Fast repeated, short sounds broken up by various, equally fast solo sections.  There were a number of folk reference; an almost ragtime piano and the piece concluded with a very direct nod to Irish reels and jigs (though the ensemble didn’t really nail the trad ornamentation).  The musicians didn’t seem to be enjoying themselves much as they played the piece, but this is one of the pieces they often play.

There was followed by intermission, in which I had a cup of red wine and took a look at the CDs the ensemble had brought with them. Alas they didn’t have any of the hat[Now]ART CDs that are OOP, all the ones they had were readily available and were quite expensive.  Shortly thereafter I was back in my seat for the second half of the concert which opened with the third Postcard. This was my favorite of the Postcards and the one were I began to suspect that these were tied to this specific program (or perhaps for the Ives Ensembles typical repertoire).  It was for the same instruments with bass clarinet replacing the standard clarinet. It began with long mournful ‘cello lines that was then joined with longer tones from the bass clarinet.  This piece had a much more Feldman-esque feel then the frantic insect-like nature of her earlier postcards.  It wasn’t all long slow lines though, the piano added a nice bit of spiky counterpoint to these as did the ‘cellist at one point by plucking his strings.  The Viola in My Life 2 followed and was by far the highlight of the evening. Once again the ensemble shifted into slow gear and once again displayed their incredible touch for this music.  The violist was of course front and center, standing up for this piece, and was joined by the violin, clarinet, flute, percussionist and the pianist on celesta. It was fascinating to watch this piece, which I’m quite familiar with, unfold, the percussionist gentle shaking stuff in his hands at first then later gentle tapping a snare with his hands and occasionally bring out a few notes on the vibraphone.  The celesta was rarely used, almost like another percussion instrument, adding a single ringing chord every so often to sublime effect.  The viola of course was front and center with its mournful melodic phrase brought in again and again in various permutations.  Really wonderful, again I longed for a whole evening of Feldman from this ensemble.  This piece brought the greatest audience reaction including a spontaneous “Bravo!” from one of the members.  The violist got an extra, well deserved, round of applause.  The group returned for the final Postcard with the same lineup as the last but this time there were two additional performers carrying books and candles. They lit their candles and sat on the floor on either side of the musicians.  After initial longer tones (the solo as it were) from the bass clarinet the group played short little fragments, but they were soft and sedate sort of in-between the styles of the first and third. These little segments were clearly to be played and repeated as long as the readers kept reading. They blew out their candles, first the reader on the right and then a minute or two later the reader on the left, as they finished whatever prescribed bit of reading they had to do and then the piece ended. This was my second favorite of the Postcards a really nice sounding piece with a clever bit of indeterminacy. The final piece was Plektó composed by Iannis Xenakis for flute, clarinet, piano, percussion, violin and ‘cello.  I’ve heard a decent amount of Xenakis’s chamber works but this piece was new to me. Like a lot of his pieces it was pretty aggressive and bombastic. The percussion was a big floor tom, a huge bass drum and little tom-toms and these were heavily worked. The piano was also literally pounded and at one point there was a near call and response between the piano and drums. The other instruments created this swirling miasma of long tones often creating dissonance and almost beating tones between them.  The piece was right on the edge I felt, a lot of the drum work was almost cheesy but the dissonances and the contrasts between the various elements kept my attention. It was definitely an exciting specticle to see live.  This concluded the set and they ensemble left to much applause.

Eventually waving away the appluse, John Snijders introduced the encore, Langzame Verjaardag (slow birthday) which was a piece written by Louis Andriessen for the groups 20th Anniversery.  This piece featured all of the ensemble but Snijders who stood off to one side. He descibred the piece as a “canon in unison where each member can enter at will”.  This piece was really nice, slow long tones, unfolding and overlapping and eventually fading away as each member finished their part. Eventually it was just the flautist who played three or four phrases before he to was done. A really nice ending to a great evening of music.

Next Up

Ives Ensemble

5 March 2009| 8pm
Scotiabank Dance Centre, 677 Davie Street
Tickets $20/$15
Artist Chat 7pm

Press Release:

Founded in 1986 by the Dutch pianist John Snijders, the internationally acclaimed Ives Ensemble consists of a steady pool of seven to fourteen musicians. The ensemble is well known for its performances of non-conducted 20th century chamber music, and in this rare Vancouver appearance will perform a program of works by Morton Feldman, Iannis Xenakis, Gerald Barry, Christopher Fox and Canadian composer Allison Cameron.

This is one of my most anticipated concerts of the year, I never really thought I’d get a chance to see the Ives Ensemble live.  Their performances of Feldman and Cage that have been released primarily on the HatART label have been my favorite versions of many of the pieces. Especially with Feldman their touch and interpretation has been impeccable.  The program for night (found here on their website) has them performing Feldman’s Four Instruments and The Viola in my Life 2 along with Xenakis’ Plektó and three pieces from composers whose work I’m not familiar with.  Of course I’d have loved an all Feldman programme, but any chance to see his music performed live, especially by such a fantastic ensemble is not to be missed. Feldman is rarely performed in the Pacific NW, but there has been more played in the last year then in the 10 before it.  Last year I was able to see Dale Speicher perform The King of Denmark as part of a percussion recitial, a “Morton Feldman Marathon” at the Seattle Art Museum and Stephan Drury performing Palais de Mari along with an Rzewski piece. I can’t say how pleased I am to see the trend continue.  Xenakis is rarely performed here as well so that is also a welcome addition to their programme.

As for the three composers I’m not familiar with, well one always hopes for a new discovery.  Gerald Barry, reading his Wikipedia entry, is from Ireland was a student of Stockhausen and Kagel and is praised for the “thematic development in his music”. Hard to glean much from that, perhaps the heavy thematic componants indicated he’s part of the neo-classicists, his relatively mainstream acceptance he seems to have could be further evidence of that. Christopher Fox who is perhaps more well known for his writing on music; I’ve read a few things of his but can’t recall hearing any of his music, seems equally hard to pin down.  In his case its more that he dabbles in many areas so it depends on the piece played.  Finally Canadian Allison Cameron, who also appears to work in a variety of formats and has been played quite a bit.  On this site I was able to listen to some samples and while they were all too short to make much of an impression were intriguing.  It should be interesting to hear works live from three composers new to me and I certainly am looking forward to the whole evening.

Since this concert was on a Thursday, a three hour drive from here I decided to take a couple of days off from work and spend some time in Vancouver.  Vancouver is probably my favorite city on the West Coast and I love to spend time there  As I usually do I’m going to visit the Vancouver Art Gallery which has two exhibitions that look intriguing: How Soon is Now and Enacting Abstraction. The Vancouver Art Gallery is pretty unique in that it typically devotes each of its three floors to a single exhibition and there isn’t permanent galleries devoted to their collection. The exhibitions they put on are often made up from their collection along with borrowed works to allow you to really get a broader perspective on the topic. They do seem to do exhibitions such as Enacting Abstraction that are topically vague and allow them to leverage their collection. I’m always curious about current activities in art, so How Soon is Now with its focus on British Columbia artists is definitely intriguing.

Along with these planned activities I’ll probably wander around some of Vancouver’s funky neighborhoods checking out the interesting bookstores, record shops and art galleries.  If any readers know of any activities going on Friday or Saturday night that are must see let me know.

Lazy Sunday Listening

The last few weekends have been completely filled with the SIMF and it was with some relief that I had nothing going on this weekend.  But it turned out that on Saturday the Seattle based Elysian Brewing Company was having a Winter Beer festival that included Anchor Christmas Ale. Anchor brews a different beer every winter as their Christmas seasonal and I’ve drinking it since 1992. This winter due to some change in distribution in the Pacific NW only a fraction of the normal amount was delivered here which promptly disappeared.  So for the first time in 16 years I hadn’t been able try it. Thus an option to sample it, even better on tap (which is a rare occurrence outside of California),  was not to be missed. Having gone to Elysian’s various beer festivals in the past I knew it’d be better to show up early so I made to their Capitol Hill brew house by 1pm for lunch.

It is the use of the essence of different trees each year that makes Anchor Christmas unique and always interesting. Obviously some years are better then others and this one seemed maybe middle of the pack.  As it warmed though it revealed more character with definite notes of pitch and a nice almost chalky body.  I followed this with a sampler of six 3 oz shots of Elysian’s own Bifrost that had gone through various secondary conditioning from Oak Casts to old bourbon barrels. These were all interesting if not spetacular with the one aged in used French Oak barrels probably being my favorite. I followed this with a second Anchor which went down even better.  I followed this with a trip to Dissonant Plane to pick up some CDs they’d been holding for me: Toshi Ichiyanagi’s Drip Music and the Source: Music of the Avant Garde set. Due to the lingering effects of all those beers in the afternoon all I ended up having the energy to do upon arriving home was doing some internetting followed by watching bad movies on TV.

Sunday I awoke feeling fine, with nothing planned and no interest to even leave the house. After a leisurely morning online with a pot of coffee I spent the afternoon in various music related activities.  I first put on the Source set and listened to a number of the tracks that I’d wanted to hear in CD quality.  I was of course familiar with the material from the UbuWeb downloads but this set is made up of high quality transcriptions of a mint set of the records (the original source tapes long lost apparently).  The pieces that had always been my favorites, Larry Austin’s Accidents, David Behrman’s Wave Train, Alvin Currin’s Magic Carpet, Robert Ashley’s Wolfman all sounded great and the record transcriptions added an additional layer of faint record sound that captures some of the experience of listen to the original LPs. The booklet inside includes a short bio on all of the composers as well a description of the piece which is usually from the original Source article.  Source was an amazing magazine (definitely check out the Wikipedia Source article if you are unfamiliar with it) and it is great to have this resource out there.  Apparently Douglas Kahn is writing a book with Larry Austin (co-editor of Source) to be released on the Univeristy of California Press described as “sourced” from the magazine. I have to say for those of us who were unable to get copies of the magazine this is something to look forward to.

For the last few years I have increasingly come to enjoy the electronic and tape works from the Japanese composer Toshi Ichiyanagi. The Obscure Tape Music of Japan label (and it’s various sub-lables) has been unearthing a number of interesting compositions of his the most recent of which is Drip Music which includes a manga by Yoji Kuri. The piece was written and performed in 1974 and the tape sat in some drawer since then until this release. I gave this piece several listens throughout the day (and again today as I write this) and it is yet another piece where Ichiyanagi works with primitive electronics, in this case a ring modulator yet avoids a lot of the stereotyped sounds that have become so cliched from this period.  He is processing piano and pushes it to the edge of feeding back on numerous occasions evoking Tudor playing Cage’s Variations II or Austin’s Accidents at times.  One other occasions it flirts with the cheesy Dalek inflicted archetypal ring modulator sound seriously flirting with cheese but never going all the way.  An intriguing, griping, fascinating piece.  Still though if you are new to Ichiyanagi get Obscure Tape Music of Japan vol.5 “¢ Music for Tinguely first, that contains my favorite things I’ve heard from him to date.

The rest of the afternoon and into the evening I spent with John Tilbury, reading another hundred pages or so of his incredible Cardew biography whilst listening to his new recording of Morton Feldman‘s Triadic Memories. I got this album a earlier in the weekend and have probably listened to it three times through by this point. I’d put on disc one while reading in bed and then disc two as I’d drift off to sleep. i was very impressed with this performance, in which Tilbury really lingers over the gentle chords and repeated patterns of one of my favorite Feldman pieces. I’d listen to Tilbury’s early recording of this piece in his fantastic All-Piano set so many times that I’d come to anticipate the spacing between chords and figures at various points in the piece.  But listening to this on Sunday, played on the stereo in my living room that it really opened up. Parts where the half-depressed sustain pedal would create this faint background wash that the unhurried chords would float over were revealed as were the tiniest sounds of barely pressed keys and even of the pedal. I wasn’t blasting it either, keeping the volume to about what a grand piano ten feet from me would sound like.  A really well done recording and an incredible performance. The Howard Skempton piece that follows is a really nice piece but it came across as too loud after the long, sedate gentle Triadic Memories. Apparently at this concert it was played first and that I think would have been preferred in this instance as well. This recording is must get, doubtless to be one of the very best things put out this year.  As far as I know ErstDist is the one place to get it in the US right now.

One of Andy Goldsworthys Snowballs in Summer
One of Andy Goldsworthy's Snowballs in Summer

After all of this listening it was now evening and I paused to make dinner (tacos, mmmm). After that I spent the evening with some single-malt and watching the Rivers and Tides Special Collectors Edition.  I began with the the new short documentary on the bonus disc which was about Andy Goldsworthy’s Snowballs In Summer. I liked this documentary but it is more in the vein with the short films included on the Rivers and Tides disc and not as fine a film as Rivers and Tides itself.  It spends a lot of time on the workmen unloading the snowballs, which did bring a lot of thoughts to my mind about how so many “large” sculptural works depend so much on others, but I wished that it had covered the whole lifespan of the snowballs. He filled each of them with different objects (pine cones, hair, elderberries, sticks and so on) and as they melted these became revealed. But the doc only went to them being about half way melted. I’d like to have see the whole day covered and maybe a time lapse on one of them. Also watching the people interact with them and interviews with random people was interesting. Several people who weren’t out looking for them were really taken by them and there were several comments from people how they liked the art being out of the galleries and “not elitist”. Other interviewees were on a hunt for them and saw them all. Some of the more interesting footage was in the morning and the various people heading to work and such would walk by and then a hand would shoot out to verify that this was a big ball of snow. But they’d always just keep on walking. Anyway a nice piece but not really cause to replace an existing copy of the film. It does come in a very nice slip case with the discs in little hardbound book that contains, along with the two discs, about a dozen pages of photos mostly of Andy working with the film crew in the frame. The other thing on the bonus disc is an ~45′ interview with the filmmaker which had several interesting parts to it and by the time it was over I felt compelled to rewatch the original film which was as great as ever.  A nice way to cap what had been a relaxing and engaging rainy day.