Sunday, June 19, 2011

Vicky Chow: Opening a New Score

Speaking with the skilled young pianist about her involvement in the field of new music performance, it is easy to be smitten by the classically trained Juilliard and Manhattan School of Music graduate’s contagious enthusiasm and engaged by her personal insights. During the past two years she has been catching up on a lot of new music repertoire as the pianist/keyboardist of the new music ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars.

The innovative sextet consists of clarinet, keyboard/piano, cello, electric guitar, bass and drums. The unique interplay—the cello and grand piano are regularly amplified on stage— creates a composite sound world. Half rock band half amplified chamber group, the All Stars are renowned for their successful avant-garde initiative, engaging in new music collaborations with some of the most inspiring composers of our time.

Having collaborated with much of the new music A-list, including Steve Reich, Tan Dun, Ornette Coleman, Philip Glass and Meredith Monk, the band has been hugely successful in a variety of performance projects held at both high-end venues like Carnegie Hall and alternative, sometimes public, performance spaces.

The photos in this article were taken at the sound check of what has become one of the band’s most well-known collaboratives, the Bang on a Can Marathon, an annual, all-day extravaganza held at New York’s World Financial Center’s Wintergarden on June 19. The marathon was Initiated in 1987 by composers David Lang, Julia Wolfe and Michael Garden who wanted to create an all-inclusive “meeting of the bands,” breaking down the barriers between music genres. Co-presented by the River to River Festival and Arts at World Financial Center, in this year’s marathon, 150 performers and composers present a nonstop open house of new music.

Within the genre of new music, the All Stars are known for their eclecticism and their interaction of composition styles yet also for their distinct choice of instrumentalization as well as their performance dynamic level. In addition to performing themselves, the group and its members are also involved in producing and curating a variety of new music happenings. For Chow, the activism it entails is a lifestyle. Currently, she spends many of her evenings at New York’s Gershwin Hotel, where she runs her own new music series called Contagious Sounds.

A natural performer from a young age, Canadian-born Chow was invited to perform a demanding solo piano program at the International Gilmore Keyboard Festival at age 9. She went on to study at Vancouver Academy of Music, where her teacher, Lorraine Ambrose, recommended she continue her studies at Julliard, leading her to study under Professors Yoheved Kaplinsky and Julian Martin. Her arrival in New York was met with upheaval—more so than the minor disasters than accompany every move; Chow had come to New York just two weeks before 9/11. She was at the Juilliard library when the dramatic events of that day unfolded. Chow still remembers Julliard Director Polisi’s instructions to bring pillows to the underground theater room for safety in the event of further attacks. Of Chinese descent, she later volunteered at the World Trade Center, translating for Asian victims’ family members.

But there was another reason that, when upon entering Juilliard, Chow found herself stopped in her tracks. Kaplinsky, chairperson of the Piano Department at Julliard, realized that Chow had been tensing up at the piano and told her she needed to make big adjustments to her technique. Kaplinsky introduced her to the Taubman approach, which explores natural piano technique through an intensive retraining. “I had to learn to arrange myself with a constantly dueling conflict between thinking of what I had to think about in applying the technique and my opposing intuition,” she explains. But to her great delight, her playing improved in the process, making it all worthwhile. Her color and tone, her ability to gain an efficient control of the articulation she intended, opened up a whole new experience for her, she says. “I remember at one point, the fact that I was working with limited repertoire in order to gain the technique fully was so disheartening to me. When the yearly concerto competition in Juilliard was to be held with Bartók’s 1st piano concerto, I decided to take on the challenge. Veda [Kaplinsky] needed convincing, since a month before the competition I only had the 1st movement ready. But in a way she inspired me to push through, and when I won the competition, she was extremely proud of my accomplishment.”

Chow’s thorough exploration of the piano and her new relationship with her instrument whet her appetite for experimentation. Having been approached by the young Juilliard composer Zhou Tian to perform one of his compositions, Chow discovered a calling for the new and non-classical. “As I opened his score, it was clear to me that here was something happening that I had missed for a long time, during all my studies of music. While I loved music and loved performing, I did not exactly see myself spending the rest of my life repeating the experiences that classical music had provided me with. It was in the contemporary music, I found the excitement I was looking for.”

The constant learning of new scores, the exploration of new and unlimited experimentations within new music suited her curiosity and led her to rescind her application to Julliard and Mannes School of Music’s doctorial degree programs and enroll instead in Manhattan School of Music’s Contemporary Performance Program. Around the same time, she began performing with multiple young composer collectives from Harvard and New York Universities that she got involved with through another contact from Juilliard, her friend Alex Lipowski, percussionist of the new music Talea Ensemble.

Having found what she was searching for, Chow quickly became a powerhouse within the new music scene. Not only did she become a more versatile pianist, but she also developed a whole new set of musical abilities. “From a pianistic point of view, not only did my sight reading improve from all the creative work with the score I am doing, let alone by the enormous numbers of new scores I read all the time. One of the challenges is that you often have to rely on your own interpretations—even though the composer sometimes intermediates. That’s a very different experience than performing works of composers that have been performed over and over,” says Chow, also confirming that in the challenge lies the thrill of finding new articulation. “Experimenting is part of the experience of new music, and I have gained another set of skills in creating different sounds, influenced by other genres. It also frees your personality to be roughing up some feathers with different sound worlds providing the kind of grit I need.”
For more information about Vicky Chow go to

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Musical Healing

Jed Distler

The agony of having supported side by side the six-year battle of his beloved spouse of thirty years, Célia Cooke’s, illness and then having to endure her loss to cancer on March 30th of this year, pianist/composer Jed Distler looks to some old friends for solace and to his life in music.
An outgrowth of his need to heal is his recently released CD, “Meditate with the Masters”, produced during these recent hard times for the Musical Concept label. He sees his contribution as helpful in creating a “gentle ambiance, ideal for holistic and therapeutic treatments, or for intimate dinner gatherings and solitary afternoons at home… as well as for public situations, such as waiting rooms, airport lounges, restaurants…”
The hint of the familiar in each of the fifteen tracks that Distler titles after a renowned composer --after Schumann, after Chopin, after Distler, for example – (he includes himself nonchalantly in the list of pianistic masters with a dash of good humor) provides pianistically pleasant variations, composed in a traditional style with rhythmically soothing, unfussy piano treatments. One of my favorites is his folk-like treatment of Schumann’s ‘Von fremden Ländern und Menschen’ from Kinderszenen, infusing the beautiful Schumann theme within a new and original connective musical tissue. Some of the compositions suggest his great sensibility for jazz formulations, an area Distler is known for through his published Art Tatum and Bill Evans transcriptions for solo piano. These became renowned when pianist’s Jean –Yves Thibaudet recorded for the Decca label in 1997, “Conversations with Bill Evans,” arranged and transcribed by Distler.
Distler’s new music is often performed and recorded by star performers of the new music scene. “Three Landscapes for Peter Wyer, for toy piano,” recorded by Margaret Leng Tan on Point records was featured in three film scores, and his “Loose Changes” for two pianos was recorded by Quattro Mani on Bridge recordings. Pianist Jenny Lin and ‘ETHEL’s violinist Cornelius Duffalo (see my article ) are among the many artists he has been commissioned by.
“As a composer I am mostly inspired by a commission and deadlines. I am anchored in the pianist/composer tradition, but I don’t believe in any music snobbery, I try to be open minded. All good music is equal. Jimi Hendrix, for example will never be dated, while there are pieces of so-called “serious” music that I never want to listen to! For me music is about good communication and it is also about a lifestyle that includes a good work ethic, in order to maintain great technique, which is necessary to delivery. I read somewhere that the great jazz pianist Bill Evans said how technique was being able to do musically what you want to do, without having to worry about your hands. Better still, that other extraordinary jazz pianist Oscar Peterson once defined technique as the thing that made your ideas listenable. These thoughts help me try to entertain and communicate effectively with an audience,” says Distler.
He does not volunteer elucidation about his own compositions, feeling too close to it to comment, but rather leaves that to the musicians who perform them and who will establish his oeuvre. However, he prolifically comments on others, though, making his mark by way of his often-insightful music reviews, published chiefly in Gramophone and Distler is committed to making a difference in the world of music, engaging his many talents as lecturer, writer, promoter, presenter and pianist for various media and concert performances.
On the piano and as artistic director of ‘Composers Collaborative’, co-founded with his late wife Célia Cooke , Distler has performed and programmed other composers’ works and continues to create and to partake in music initiatives on Public Radio and in venues like the Cornelia Street Café. Last week’s ‘Serial Underground’, a new music series performed for several years at this intimate setting, brought me in personal contact with this seasoned musician’s expressive pianism for the first time. Dubbed “the subversive nightclub series” by TIME OUT NY, Distler followed a performance of a group called “Other Life Forms,” with some intimate renderings of Thelonious Monk pieces.
Reaching out to his audiences is an innate talent of Distler and he certainly does achieve what he has set out to do in exactly the way he describes it:”Communicating comes first, expressiveness follows.”
Since it is impossible to mention all the endeavors he shared with me on a long list, I am just going to point you to one of the many interesting projects taking place at the Cornelia Street Cornelia Café, the ComposersCollaborative Inc, presentation of “Mano-a- Mano” Piano Festival on August 21, 22, and 23rd as well as a promising undertaking of Thelonious Monk’s entire piano oeuvre, the resourceful pianist plans to perform right here on February 17, 2012, the 30th anniversary of Monk’s death.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Ethel’s violinist/composer Cornelius Dufallo treks without baggage

Photo: Ethel

Ralph Equality Farris, Mary Rowell, Cornelius Dufallo, Dorothy Lawson

until June 1st. 2011

When I met with violinist/composer Cornelius Dufallo, whom many know as a member of the very original, postmodern, somewhat premiere-focused group of string players called Ethel, he gave me the big news about the group straight away: Mary Rowell, one of Ethel’s founding members, will be leaving the group as of June 1st, to pursue different lifestyle choices and Jennifer Choi, of the same younger Juilliard Alumni generation as Dufallo himself, will be joining the group. So, in a way this article is bidding fare well to Ethel-violinist Mary Rowell and making a hello-shout to Jennifer Choi.
Eagerly answering an audition call for the then already-reputable Ethel-band when they had an opening, Dufallo joined the quartet six years ago. He describes the relationship with all members as excellent and really close. He remembers:”We clicked right from the beginning. Mary is going to be missed and will continue to be involved during the transition process, to make sure that Ethel will keep on going strong.”
What attracted Dufallo to Ethel’s core concept was the commitment to the imaginative programming of contemporary music, executed with great artistry as well as personal dedication.
Specializing in music composed after 1995 seems not to be an unusual undertaking anymore and especially not in the New York area and the few other Metropolitan centers around the country. Even the press, for the most part, is enthusiastic:

”New music is hardly scarce during the main part of the New York concert season, and spaces like issue Project Room, Galapagos and the Tank specialize in it year around. But spring and summer are a virtually nonstop parade of festivals celebrating the experimental,” says Alan Kozinn in his article about Ethel’s opening program of this year’s Tribeca New Music Festival at Merkin Hall (see Alan Kozinn’s review in the New York Times May 24th. 2011)
But only in recent times has such gusto, developed and persistently pursued by promoters, supported by internet advocates as well as educational and private institutions, not to mention the younger growing audiences, proven new music to be of such a high public esteem.
What seems to have made a real difference in the new appreciation compared to a former unwillingness of audiences and press and programmers alike may be the actual high quality of music making. This new batch of musicians brings to new music projects a unique versatility, a high quality of training, as well as an innovative and engaging, invigorating dedication.
It is hard to put a time stamp on development. Some movements just happen because the time is right. They happen through minor shifts that are not tremendously noticeable and just lead to the next level of being. Whether just grounded in its “Zeitgeist” or a symptom of a more reflective lifestyle, these changes bring reality to a new level of consciousness

Photo: Cornelius Dufallo

The more I talk to some of these talented musicians engaging in new music projects, the more I become impressed with their very thoughtful way of connecting their musical narrative to an activism, making an actual socio- cultural impact in the process.
Many employ their talents for educational needs, environmental issues and practical-oriented solutions for different worthy causes. Although the need to communicate verbally seems to be an imminent new development for many artists- and typically many of them are writers themselves, if not public relation managers in disguise- they take seriously the need to clarify and conceptualize. They link this aspect to a very direct, pro-active and entrepreneurial approach that explores a connecting drama of performance, music and life in very creative forms.

As we converse about such philosophical aspects of his music making, Dufallo, who received superb classical training with Julliard’s teaching coryphées as Dorothy DeLay, Robert Mann and Marcel Kawasaki, describes some of Ethel’s projects for the coming season:”Ethel has already done so well in the past and we continue to have great projects lined up, like the continuation of our “Present Beauty” project. This describes a program very much in demand, as we have toured it already throughout the country to great acclaim. It relates to the concept of beauty in the present moment, featuring music by composers of Philip Glass, Huang Ruo (see my article:, Julia Wolfe, Mark Stuart and Terry Riley. The connective tissue of the program’s music is that in one way or another, all these compositions relate to the concept of experiencing the beauty of the present moment and its meditative element represented in their music through differing musical elements.”
Another program Dufallo describes is: “Music of the Sun.” It is an exemplary outreach project, involving a unique collaboration with Native American flutist Robert Mirabal from Taos, New Mexico. The program revolves around different practices of tribal festivals and sun mythology of Native American culture, as originated or transmitted from Taos’ Peblos reservations. These will be presented in connection with some music from the concert music world, such as John Luther Adam’s piece:”Sky with Four Suns,” describing the seeming existence of multiple suns through specific light constellations – the so called “Alaska-effect.” Dufallo pauses and exclaims:” I would also like to mention our connection to the Native American community in Arizona, where we partake every September at the “Grand Canyon Music Festival” which, in coordination with local High school programs, we engage kids from the reservations in creating pieces for string quartets. It is an utmost meaningful experience. “
The close connection to nature and environmental forces becomes apparent in some of Dufallo’s own works which will be presented at this program, like his “Aphelion” for solo-cello. This work describes the point most distant to a planet’s orbit, symbolizing the state of human loneliness, but also evoking thoughts about other cosmological aspects and our relationship to the sun and the earth, our own planet. ”It is important that we keep on thinking about these connections”, he remarks. “Dorothy plays this beautifully”, he adds, as he talks about this composition, which is something he never formally studied, but keeps studying all along.
“Even though I have been composing since high school, it never occurred to me that I should study composition formally. I was much too busy practicing violin, since everyone was so good at it,” he explains talking about his Juilliard years. He gives programming a lot of thought:”Concepts within a concert program give the audience something to hold onto. It helps people to go with you on a journey. My music is not programmatic, but we are using a conceptual idea, around which each piece centers and connect the different pieces with one another. We are performing music that can be very challenging. Some of it is intense, loud, and fast. In our experience it has helped audiences to relate, to accept those different and new aspects of our music, when we present it in a context.”
There is also another aspect, about Ethel’s performances: Stage behavior becomes more casual, less formal, which helps break down barriers between the audience and the performers. By talking, laughing and joking with the audience, what’s become known in theatrical performance as the” fourth wall” is virtually eliminated, creating a milieu rather than a staged presentation.
“We still do play in concert-halls, they just have superior acoustics. However we do perform as well in clubs and we have recently also reached out to unusual public spaces, where we like to take spaces over for installations. For example, for the opening of the new Alice Tully Hall, we performed a newly commissioned piece by Phil Kline in the lobby of the venue. We also like to position ourselves into the performance space, playing from different corners in the room, creating a different stage experience. For our 2008 BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) performance of “Truck stop”, director Annie Dorsen helped us with the concept of putting together different disciplines. The idea was to find local musicians on road trips, learn some of their music while in those different communities, new music we have not heard before on instruments producing different sounds. In Hawaii for example, we found slack key guitar player Jeff Peterson and in Kentucky bluegrass Banjo-player, Dean Osborne.
We then brought the musicians here, as soloists and installed a recording studio on stage. The “performance” became a recording session that was witnessed by the audience. “
Independent of all Ethel activities, Dufallo also started a group called “ne(x) t works” in 2003, a collective of avant-garde composers. He wrote “Mindscape 2” for the MATA Festival in 2009. Another group he got involved with (his first) and actually co-founded was “flux” which got invited to perform at the Ojai Festival. “I remember when Jazz legend Ornette Coleman came to Juilliard and I was impressed with his creative thinking outside the box. He was so inspirational, so deeply committed to his individual approach, representing the very best in the arts, America has to offer.”

As a composer/performer it can be difficult to decide which role one wants to partake in:
“I do perform more of the music of other’s than my own. I sometimes get a little bit sick of my own music. My 2009 recording “Dream Streets” consists of all my own compositions, which I have performed on several occasions.
By performing other’s music, I learn. I do from time to time perform a classical repertoire as well; however I do not enjoy it as much as I do when performing contemporary music. New music does not have the same baggage that, let’s say, romantic music possesses. First of all, the missing link of “communication” is a drawback for me, as is the weighing down of all the historic interpretations, associations, teachings, in short all the filters innate to traditional repertoire. With contemporary repertoire, I feel a direct connection with the composer and there is also some input possibility. I can suggest things while working with the composer on the performance of a piece, there is a give and take and there is clarity, no guessing. That does not mean I don’t enjoy listening to traditionally classical music, I do love it and it is deeply familiar to me. But as a performer I prefer being involved with the here and now of contemporary music. That includes the use of technology and the inclusion of popular music, which always played into classical music as well. It may be a little more shocking that Electronics found their way into instrumentalisation, but I am sure that immediately following the harpsichord, the emergence of the fortepiano was no small stride either. Why should it all stop at a certain point in time, why should it not rather continue? We have to keep on moving and growing, therefore we have to keep on changing.”
Cornelius Dufallo:
Ethel’s website: