Between 2005 and 2008 with support from Other Minds, Bay Area pianist Sarah Cahill organized a series of three day-long concerts at the historic Swedenborgian Church in San Francisco. The concert series was called A New Music Séance. Each performance was lit by chandeliers powered only by candles and warmed by a roaring fireplace. Cahill was assisted in the performances by a duo of violin (Kate Stenberg) and piano (Eva-Maria Zimmermann). The repertoire was entirely modernist, with the “séance” concept presuming to establish a communion between a selection of current composers and their “musical forebears” (as the printed programs put it).
Founded in 1995 by Charles Amirkhanian and Jim Newman, Other Minds is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of “new music,” applying that term to not only living composers but also predecessors known for significant departures from the beaten path. Amirkhanian characterizes the repertoire focus of Other Minds as composers who “mostly are individualists who have made a point of doing things their own way.” With the introduction of the Other Minds record label, that focus has extended from organizing concerts to providing recorded explorations of those composers. In that spirit I have, in the course of this year, examine two representative examples of such composers, Carl Ruggles and George Antheil.
At the end of this past October, Other Minds released Scenes from a New Music Séance, a collection of performances by Stenberg and Zimmermann of composers whose music was performed in the A New Music Séance series. The living composers are represented by three world premiere tracks, Amirkhanian himself, along with Ronald Bruce Smith and Amy X Neuberg. Zimmermann does not perform on the Amirkhanian and Neuberg tracks, on both of which Stenberg performs with pre-recorded media. The “forebears” then cover a period from 1923 (Antheil) to 1966 (Henning Christiansen).
Many of these selections definitely make a case for the rugged individuality of the composers. The Antheil sonata, which requires that violin and piano be accompanied by two drums (performed by Amirkhanian) in the final measures, is more representative of his self-proclaimed “bad boy” reputation than any of the selections in the earlier Other Minds collection. At the other end of that “spectrum of forebears,” Christiansen’s meditation on the concept of Arcadia has all the provocative qualities of his past association with Fluxus.
On the other hand each of the living composers works from some relatively recognizable legacy from the past. In Neuberg’s case that past involves a composer who is still alive. Her “Nonette” involves Stenberg performing with eight tracks of recordings of herself. This is very much in the tradition of the “counterpoint” compositions of Steve Reich; but Neuberg steers the idea in a new direction with an imaginative approach to adding harmony and rhetoric to the implicit contrapuntal foundation of nine independent tracks (one of which is a “live” performer).
Most important, however, is that both Stenberg and Zimmermann give their all to each of the composers represented on this CD. My only criticism is relatively minor, in that there seems to be little sense of any overall journey in the ordering of the selections. To be fair, however, if each composer was selected on the basis of his/her individuality, one cannot really anticipate any overall coherence when they are gathered together on a single recording. At best that recording may provide a “rock tumbler effect,” in which those individuals bounce against each other; and, over the course of time, both they and the listening experiences they enable become more polished.