On Repeat: Sakamoto; Kasten-Krause + Pavone; Longobardi

Recent favorite listens

I’m getting back in the habit of posting brief mentions each Sunday of my favorite listening from the week prior:

▰ It’s hard not to think about death when listening to the new Ryuichi Sakamoto album, 12, since the Japanese legend has been fighting Stage 4 cancer, and his recent livestream has been described as potentially his last concert. In addition, earlier this month his fellow co-founder of Yellow Magic Orchestra, Yukihiro Takahashi, died at age 70 (Sakamoto is a year older). It’s a gorgeous album, and a somber one, as well, with echoes of Erik Satie, Angelo Badalamenti, and even William Basinski, thanks to frequent elements of glacial soundscapes, notably on the opening cut. Sakamoto has at least one more release due out this year, his score for the film Monster, directed by Hirokazu Koreeda (whose Shoplifters was scored by the third co-founder of YMO, Haruomi Hosono).


▰ The first track to appear from the upcoming collaborative album, Images of One, by Tristan Kasten-Krause (double bass) and Jessica Pavone (viola) is the record’s final of four, “On Axis.” Despite the instrumentation’s broad range in timbre and audio spectrum, it becomes admirably difficult to tell where one part ends and the next begins, so simpatico is their exploration of such contemporary classical modes as stillness, atonality, and silence.


▰ Luca Longobardi, based in Italy, mixes widely spaced tones with crackly sound design in this understated live performance. I recommend his Instagram for glimpses into his creative process, including work that went into his forthcoming album, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik – Recomposed.

Scratch Pad: AI, Liminal, Reading

From the past week (or so)

I do this manually each Saturday, usually in the morning over coffee: collating most of the little comments I’ve made on social media, which I think of as my public scratch pad, during the preceding week. These days that mostly means post.lurk.org.

▰ This hold music is like if an AI had been asked to make the worst possible album of Miles Davis’ Warner Bros. years and to leave out the trumpet parts.

▰ Let’s get liminal, liminal — I wanna get liminal — let’s get into liminal

▰ RIP, David Crosby. Hard to describe how much the Byrds influenced my early listening: the harmonies, the song structures, the tuning.

▰ If you have some (fiction) book recommendations, please send ’em my way. Thanks. Start of the year. I have a long list, and it’s pretty full up of sci-fi and thrillers/mysteries and classics, but I’d sure appreciate suggestions for recent-ish literary novels that don’t have as their topic (1) writers/writing and/or (2) the love lives of middle-class professionals. Bonus points if you can avoid using the words “devastating” and “stunning.”

▰ Third novel I finished reading this year: Take No Names by Daniel Nieh. I read it because I’d seen him mentioned alongside Fonda Lee, whose Jade trilogy I super dug, and it got a solid mention in the New York Times. It’s the second book in a series (same main character, and numerous secondary ones), but I had no difficulty jumping in because the narrative makes regular mentions of what happened in the previous one. It’s about a Chinese-American on the run after his dad is killed in the first book (he’s a suspect, even though he didn’t do it). He ends up in Mexico, initially trying to sells some goods, but then engaging in a crazy black ops situation that is quite out of scale with what preceded it. I found the trilingual aspects — English, Chinese, Spanish — rewarding, especially the Chinese material (nuances of translation, nifty bits of cryptography). The fight scenes were quite detailed without losing their sense of momentum (as is the case with Fonda Lee’s work), and overall there’s some pretty darn good writing, both descriptive and dialogue (especially in the case of a secondary character who becomes prominent pretty early on). I’ll probably go back and read the first book, Beijing Payback, at some point. Mostly I’m looking forward to what’s next.

▰ Sudden flashback: it’s the year 2000, and I wake to so much email in my inbox that by the time I am done deleting all the spam a whole new hoard of spam has arrived, and then a third round of spam deletion is necessary before I can actually begin to get to my non-spam email. The rest of the day it’s like swatting flies continuously.

▰ Belated notes on second novel I finished reading this year: Lauren Belfer’s And After the Fire, recommended by a new acquaintance because it involves Bach. It tells the story of a secret Bach composition that contains anti-Semitic language. The music is discovered when a WWII vet dies, leaving it to his niece, the central character in the novel. We also meet a few Bach scholars, and descendants of Bach himself, and their social and professional circles, including Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn, as the story jumps back and forth in time. The Bach piece turns out to be a hot potato (a sort of anti-MacGuffin), passed down through history by people who don’t know what to do with it — they don’t want to destroy it, since it’s by Bach, and they don’t want to circulate it, since the text is unambiguously odious. The writing reminds me of big-picture science fiction, right down to awkward depictions of courtship in the romantic subplot, and the emphasis on people sitting around having lengthy philosophical conversations. It’s almost like “hard” scifi, with occasional musicological and theological deep dives (Michael Marissen, the author’s husband, is a Swarthmore professor of music and author of Bach & God, which explores anti-Semitic matters in Bach’s works) substituting for nanotechnology and artificial intelligence.

▰ Belated notes on first novel I finished reading this year: The Mother Code by Carole Stivers, a PhD in biochemistry who brings her scientific background — emphasis apparently on medical diagnostics — to her chosen futuristic scenario, one in which a global plague set off by the military wipes out most of humanity, and all that seems to remain are some kids rapidly bioengineered to survive in our newly poisoned ecosystem, and the robots designed to “mother” them. It was sorta fun that the plot eventually spends about half its time a few blocks from where I live in San Francisco.

The Keyboard Is a Landscape

A premiere for a dozen pianos

This is a photo I took on Wednesday evening, September 14, in Golden Gate Park, not far from where I live in San Francisco’s Richmond District. The occasion was the premiere of Fall and Fly, a new piece of music composed by Benjamin Gribble for a dozen pianos. The funny thing is that after the performance, several people I spoke with said the same thing. They’d assumed in advance, as had I, that the pianos would surround the audience: that we’d walk amid a landscape of keyboards and hear different things depending on our location. Instead, the pianos were grouped together in an arc, forming what felt like, in effect, one single 1,056-key instrument.

I shot this image just before the piece began. For the performance, its composer took a seat at the first piano on the left (the one fully in view above the hat that’s on top of a tripod). Gary Kamiya, Agneta Falk, and Rebecca Solnit spoke at the opening, though the sound system was such that depending on where you sat, you might not have heard much of what they said. From today, the 16th, through the 20th, the same dozen pianos will be placed throughout the Botanical Garden, and anyone can walk up and play a bit. There are also some scheduled events. Details at sfbg.org/flowerpiano. It’s a mixed blessing that this weekend there is much-needed rain in the local weather forecast.

Current Favorites: Fahey, Hsu, Richter/Vivaldi

Heavy rotation, lightly annotated

My weekly(ish) answer to the question “What have you been listening to lately?” It’s lightly annotated because I don’t like re-posting material without providing some context. I hope to write more about some of these in the future, but didn’t want to delay sharing them:

▰ More power to drummer José Medeles for this upcoming tribute to John Fahey, featuring guitarists Matt Ward, Marisa Anderson, and Chris Funk: Railroad Cadences & Melancholic Anthems. Three tracks online so far, and each hits the murky, crepuscular, Fahey-ian mark in its own way. Medeles is based in Portland, Oregon.

▰ There’s one track up so far from Yenting Hsu’s forthcoming Flash 須臾. “Unknown 未知” mixes industrial, textural, and droning sounds into a single, focused, contemplative track. Mesmerizing. She’s from Taiwan. The label is the London-based Ash International.

▰ Hard to believe its been a full decade since Max Richter reworked Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons as part of Deutsche Grammophon’s Recomposed series. He’s newly revisiting the music. There are several videos up on his YouTube channel, including this one, featuring violinist Elena Urioste and the musicians of Chineke! Orchestra:

Easing into Max Richter

A conductor leads the way

The conductor Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser pulled a fascinating fast one on his audience at the San Francisco Symphony on Saturday night. Or perhaps more to the point, he pulled a slow one. He was leading a crowd-pleasing collection of short pieces, a dozen total divided in half by an intermission. Midway through the second half of the program, he was due to introduce Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight.” The orchestra had just finished “Duel of the Fates” (minus the choral part), a John Williams cue from the first Star Wars prequel, A Phantom Menance.

To ease from the heavy drama of Jedi/Sith fighting to Richter’s ambient post-classical composition, Bartholomew-Poyser returned to something he had talked about earlier in the evening, how great music can connect to — can express — powerful human emotions. But unlike with, say, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet (which the conductor naturally associated with the teenage experience of first love), after the Williams he seemed to go off on a tangent. He talked about how teens often feel “stressed,” and he recommended a “box breathing” exercise to center and calm oneself. Then he led the audience in the breathing exercise, and after cycling through it, he cued the orchestra to begin, while continuing to moderate the audience’s inhalations and exhalations, and the pauses in between. By the time the first few notes of “On the Nature of Daylight” were heard, the audience was fully in step with the piece’s glacial, peaceful pacing. He had prepared us physically and emotionally for what we were about to hear. It was quite a remarkable moment, especially because the audience didn’t know what was going on until after the music had begun.

It might help to understand that the audience on Saturday was largely middle school and high school students, there for a special Teen Night, which served up a range of greatest hits (by Holst, Rossini, Stravinsky, and Tchaikovsky), adjacent modern favorites (Richter, Williams), and less familiar contemporary spotlights (John Adams, Kev Choice, Anna Clyne, and Arturo Márquez, plus Bartholomew-Poyser himself), as well as George Walker, who fits in none of these categories, but whose gentle Lyric for Strings was quite lovely, and a fine pair to the Richter. Bartholomew-Poyser was an able ambassador for the young audience, and I dare say conductors for adult audiences might consider a similar introduction.