clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Salt Lake Electric Ensemble brilliant minimalists

THE SALT LAKE ELECTRIC ENSEMBLE; "In C" (Salt Lake Electric Ensemble) ★★★★

HILARY DEMSKE, PIANO; "Henry Martin: Selected Piano Music" (Albany Records) ★★★★

HSIAO-MEI KU, VIOLIN, NING LU, PIANO; "Ma Sicong: Music for Violin and Piano, Vol. 2" (Naxos) ★★★★

These three CDs feature local artists playing works that show the diversity of music written in the past half century.

The performances are all superb, and the albums are worth having in one's collection — they'll add a nice touch of eclecticism to any music library.

Terry Riley's "In C" is a seminal work that ushered in the minimalist movement in the 1960s. And 45 years later, its impact is still immense and fresh today as it was revolutionary at its San Francisco premiere in 1965.

"In C" turned centuries-old musical concepts upside down and boiled musical structures to their bare essentials.

The work is repetitive — repetition, of course, being the core of minimalism. Riley built "In C" on 53 short phrases, each of which are repeated as often as the performers want before moving on to the next cell. The work ends when everyone has gone through the sequence of phrases at least once. Its instrumentation is open — it can be performed by any number of instruments in any combination.

The effect is intoxicating for its maddening repetitiveness, but rather than being lifeless, it is stimulating. The listener wants to hear what is next. "In C" is generative; one musical cell leads naturally to the next. And the logic is stunning for its simplicity. Basically, "In C" is just that — an hourlong cadence in C major.

The work has been performed in many instrumental combinations over the past five decades. The newly formed Salt Lake Electric Ensemble decided to realize their recorded version with six laptops along with a piano, vibraphone, marimba, glockenspiel and percussion.

They give a fabulous performance that captures the stunning originality of the work through constantly changing colors and sonorities. There is nothing gimmicky about their interpretation; it is honest and real.

The Salt Lake Electric Ensemble takes a work from the '60s into the digital age, and the transition is flawlessly executed and articulated. One can only imagine that Riley would have done something similar back then if he had the means at his disposal. This is a wonderful recording of a work that has proven staying power.

The CD can be purchased on the Salt Lake Electrical Ensemble website:

Henry Martin is an American composer whose music is defined by the use of divergent styles. He deftly combines jazz, pop and classical together, generally within classical forms, and the resulting mix is melodic and accessible.

The music Hilary Demske has chosen for her CD is demanding. It takes a pianist of rare technical finesse and musicality to make it work — and Demske, who teaches at Utah Valley University, is just such a performer.

She obviously relates to Martin's music. She plays these pieces as if they were written for her. She captures the intricacies and rhythmic variety of the scores wonderfully. Her playing is also very lyrical and effusively expressive.

Among the works on the album are several that stand out. In the Sonata No. 4, from 2000, one feels the spirit of Chopin within the realms of jazz. And Demske gives a finely crafted reading of this captivating piece that captures this duality wonderfully.

In the Inventiones from 1996-97, Martin tries to reinvent the J.S. Bach inventions and does so successfully. These seven pieces are more baroque than jazz, but they're infused with a hip attitude that makes them interesting and vibrant. Demske picks up on this and does a stellar job with them. Her account is lucid, articulate and lyrical.

One of the most interesting works on the CD is the 1980 "Four Jazz Scenes," which sounds like a mix of progressive jazz and Milton Babbitt (who, incidentally, was one of Martin's teachers). It's sophisticated music, and Demske plays it with passion.

Ma Sicong was a prominent Chinese composer who was the director of the Central Conservatory in Beijing for many years. Unfortunately, he got caught up in China's Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. But he managed to flee and came to the United States, where he spent the rest of his life. He died in 1987.

Sicong was trained in France, and his music reflects European and Chinese influences. It's romantic in its harmonic language, yet also distinctly Chinese in its intervals and melodies. The two elements are nicely meshed together.

Naxos' CD presents a good selection of Sicong's music for violin and piano. All of the pieces are traditional and accessible. Violinist Hsiao-mei Ku and pianist Ning Lu, who teaches at the University of Utah, give dynamic readings of these works that capture their rich expressiveness. Their playing is fluid, nuanced and radiantly lyrical.