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Philip Corner - Pieces From The Past: By Philip Corner For The Violin of Malcolm Goldstein

Philip Corner - Pieces From The PastMalcolm Goldstein once described his philosophy towards life thus: "I just want it to be continually open, so that in death I'll just disappear. Leave no footsteps behind, no memorial. Just like a cloud, passing." And yet, even in the world of this forever free spirit, there were constants. One of the most essential of these, his life-long friendship with Philip Corner, is documented on Pieces of the Past, an album documenting an artistic relationship of mutual respect and inspiration in which the roles of composer and performer were as regularly questioned as they were clearly defined.

Certainly Goldstein, as he is happy to point out himself in the liner notes to this release, fed from performances of Corner's music as an impetus for his own compositional and improvisational work. The challenges they presented took his approach to the violin to a whole new level, leading him to the development of a variety of personal techniques. Many of them are on display here, most instantly appealing perhaps on hypnotic one-note meditation "Gamelan Maya", on which the violin lends color, rhythmical accents and texture to Corner's perpetually shifting and expanding piano pulses. And yet, the most impressive parts occur on the opening "Piece for Malcolm Goldstein by Elizabeth Munro", a composition which, with its microtonal oscillations, challenging glissandi and piercingly high pitches may not only exceed the limits of many listeners' tolerance, but also force them to reconsider traditional concepts of minimalism and richness.

On paper, this is nothing but a twenty-minute long almost uninterrupted line of sonic ink. And yet, in the moment of experience, it is all expression. Every note, every gesture, every melodic contour and curvature, the pressure of the bow on the strings, of the hand holding the bow and hitting the wood, the dynamic arches, the variations in pulse and vibrato, the endless gradations in tone from sweet cantabile to bestial grinding contains emotion, wisdom and meaning, there is not a single note here which Goldstein doesn't make his own, not a single decision which he leaves up to chance, not one instant where he falters or strays from his path. He is as perfectly in the moment as he is faithfully following the score and as a listener, the process of hearing him bring it to life is as breathtaking as watching Felix Baumgartner taking his parachute jump from space.

As displeasing as it may be to some people, this is music which leaves an indelible impression, which  stays with you. Goldstein may want to disappear completely in death. But with music like this, it's just not going to happen. - Tobias Fischer, Tokafi

Philip Corner’s 1962 Piece for Malcolm Goldstein by Elizabeth Munro is undeniably an extraordinarily difficult way to open a recording; it’s hard to imagine it luring people to listen through the entire track and beyond to whatever else follows it unless they are already hardcore devotees of uncompromising experimentalism. Yet that’s precisely what Pogus Productions has done on Pieces from the Past by Philip Corner for the Violin of Malcolm Goldstein, a CD retrospective which features a rare, long out of print track and four previously unreleased tracks from live performances. Positioning this stark music at the very beginning, however, provides an ideal grounding to help listeners understand the unusual nature of this extraordinary composer-performer relationship.

Corner and Goldstein both boast serious Uptown compositional credentials—both studied with Otto Luening at Columbia University in the late 1950s. But they were subsequently drawn into the equally rigorous world of the Downtown avant-garde just as the multidisciplinary Fluxus movement was starting to evolve John Cage’s indeterminacy into the realms of conceptualism and minimalism. A watershed opus that has gone down in history as the pivotal moment for this phenomenon in music is La Monte Young’s Composition 1960 # 10, whose score is simply the sentence: “Draw a straight line and follow it.” Just as Cage had opened the door for music to go literally anywhere in Imaginary Landscape No. 4, 4’33", and subsequent compositions, Young opened another door for music to go absolutely nowhere. And the way we create, perform, and experience music has never been the same since, even though most music still occurs in an arena that remains somewhere between anywhere and nowhere.

But what kind of music results if you follow a line that is not straight? Such is the gambit realized in Corner’s 1962 Piece for Malcolm Goldstein by Elizabeth Munro. As with Young’s seemingly unassuming work from just two years earlier, the music for Corner’s Piece is not notated in a conventional sense; rather it is simply one very long, unbroken line drawn on an adding machine roll that rises and falls, twists and turns. To further add to the indeterminate nature of the undertaking, Corner did not even draw this line himself but rather enlisted the help of visual artist Elizabeth Munro to execute one seemingly endless, continuous horizontal form. Transforming this image into music, as Goldstein has done on this nearly 21-minute live recording from a 1984 concert at Experimental Intermedia, is also almost an act of co-composition. And since he is also a composer of extended-duration works employing structured improvisation, as well as conceptual and indeterminate elements, he is an ideal collaborator. In addition, the violin, with its possibility for an infinite gradation of pitches, is the perfect instrument on which to convey an extremely meticulous sonic translation of every jagged contour and loop rendered by Munro’s hand.

While none of the other works by Corner on the present disc offer as fluid a continuity between conception, visual instruction, and sonic realization as Piece, the extremely wide range of violin sounds they each exploit reside in similar aesthetic terrain. The two Pieces for String Instrument, Nos. 3 and 5, both from 1958, already reveal Corner’s extreme tendencies; exaggerated portamenti and distorted bowings abound. But unlike his later continuous arcs of sound, the music here is very much a byproduct of the then contemporaneous zeitgeist of musical pointillism; each utterance feels like a self-contained sonic atom. The performance of No. 3 is here blended with Corner’s much later Gamelan Antipode/s (1983), which though notated on a standard G-clef using familiar-looking noteheads and dynamic markings, yields music that is in no way conventional. Admittedly, verbal instructions burst from the margins of the score to explicate the desired sounds that traditional music notation cannot transmit to a performer. The Gold Stone (1975), which is literally named for Goldstein (Stein = Stone), is another graphic score that leaves lots of room for improvisatory interpretation and takes full advantage of the violin’s limitless pitch spectrum creating a melody of infinite microtonal gradations. For the performance featured herein of Gamelan Maya (1980)—a live recording from Belgium in 1981—Goldstein is joined by Corner at the piano for what is arguably one of the most austere violin and piano duos ever attempted. Though Goldstein uses all kinds of extended techniques (an extraordinary wide range of bow pressure ranging from barely touching the string to digging into it full force, and he even sings along with his playing), he is basically playing the same note over and over again for about 17 minutes as Corner accompanies him doing the same.

While Pieces from the Past by Philip Corner for the Violin of Malcolm Goldstein is hardly a disc you’re likely to spin to create the right ambiance at your next dinner party, spinning it in such a setting might generate hours of provocative conversation. - Frank J. Oteri, New Music Box

"I've always been fascinated with the vision that some composers of our time devoted to works conceived in a non-traditional notation that is a textual code more about the emotional impact than the education of heights," writes flautist Manuel Zurria in the notes to this magnificent collection of five pieces by Philip Corner written (is that the word, then?) between 2000 and 2008. "A hypertext," Zurria continues, "sensitive to different and multiple levels of meaning and awareness. Philip Corner was among those who did such a sweet revolution." Amen to that, but it would have been nice if the booklet had reproduced all Corner's scores, such as they are. Not that that would explain what Zurria did with them: for that, one simply has to listen.

"for solo glissando instrument around a sustained drone tone" is a truly magical montage of flutes and various recordings Zurria made during a trip to Japan, including in the planes and trains along the way. Glissando is the name of the game again in Gamelan SITU, for three bass flutes and drones; it's another one of Corner's slow sweeps up through pitch space, not laboratory squeaky clean like Lucier, but ghostly and veiled, punctuated by temple clangs and chilled by distant spectral wind, the spirits of Horatiu Radulescu and Harley Gaber ascending Mount Fuji. Feelings (a music), whose score consists of "a text that says what you can do (but the opposite is also true, just to disorient you...)", is the most austere piece on offer here. "I imagined the sound result of this page without rehearsals, without any written or recorded traces of what it would have been," writes Zurria (rather curious, that past conditional). The piece starts out with him zipping and unzipping something (his instrument cases, perhaps?) before gurgling, clicking, grunting and whistling enthusiastically into his assorted flutes. Jim Denley would be proud of him, and I imagine several large aquatic mammals would be irresistibly drawn to him too if he made these noises in their vicinity.

By way of scherzo, Zurria's reading of Stravinski Could-be calls for "suoni ambientali e iPhone" (that sounds better in Italian), the former being more field recordings from Hong Kong and Greece intercut with strange bleeps and squiggles and percussive flutters (presumably from the mobile – but did we need the brand name, I wonder?). And there's more childlike wonder in the closing title track (whose score – which is reproduced in the booklet – is merely a drawing containing the title of the piece), collaging "raving and hysterical piccolos" with a squeaky plastic mat and a halo of fourth grade students' voices, and, masterly closing touch, one of those cheap toys that moos at you like a cow if you turn it upside down.

One of La Monte Young's most celebrated pieces, (Composition 1960 #10 (to Bob Morris)) consisted of the text: "Draw a straight line and follow it." Admirable advice, but I have to say I prefer a wavy line myself. And Philip Corner's Piece for Malcolm Goldstein by Elizabeth Munro is precisely that, a looooooong swooping, squiggling line Corner and Munro drew on a roll of adding machine paper in 1962 and which violinist Goldstein played at New York's Experimental Intermedia in 1984. Nearly 21 minutes long, it's a truly awesome virtuoso performance (though as you know when it comes to Malcolm, I'm biased), and one wonders why it's taken so long to appear.

Talking of lines, every time I hear Goldstein I can't help thinking of Picasso's amazing sureness of touch, revealed magically in Henri-Georges Clouzot's Le Mystère Picasso (1956). Especially how, without a moment's hesitation, he draws right over existing lines and in the space of a few minutes totally changes the work. Goldstein does something similar here, superimposing three different readings of Gamelan Antipode/s (1983) and adding Piece for String Instrument #3 (1958) for good measure. It's another long haul, at 18 minutes, but it's one hell of a trip.

After this, Gamelan Maya (1980) comes as something of a relief, but I wouldn't call it light relief. I seem to recall it was Stravinsky (could be) who commented on the sheer incompatibility of piano and violin, with reference to his Duo Concertant (1932). He could just as well have been talking about Gamelan Maya, in which the contrast between Corner's gently pulsing piano – a single note widening over the course of the piece to a major ninth – and Goldstein's unstable, scratchy, dithering bowing (complemented by his shigin-like chanting / singing) couldn't be more extreme. "Very passionate!" indeed, as the composer notes.

The Gold Stone
(1985), also from Corner's Gamelan series, was originally released on Goldstein's Sounding the New Violin back in 1991 (a reissue of this terrific set of pieces by John Cage, Ornette Coleman, Pauline Oliveros, James Tenney and Corner and Goldstein is long overdue). It's another 14-minute tour de force of violin playing, after which the Piece for String Instrument #5 (also 1958) forms a brief (three-minute) but equally stunning epilogue. And for those who claim this record is a tough listen, there's even a nice G major pizzicato chord a minute in.– Dan Warburten, Paris Transatlantic

With this one Pogus did an extraordinary job of musical archeology. A very hot release! This retrospective cd contains 5 compositions by Corner, composed between 1958 and 1985 in unbelievable performances by Goldstein. Corner is a multi talent, but composing is his main craft if I’m right. He studied with Luening, Cowell, Messiaen, and many others. He was part of the Fluxus movement from its beginning. Goldstein is a longtime friend of Corner and performs his music since the early 60s. Goldstein is a composer himself of chamber music and electroacoustic works, but I know him best as an incredible violinist. Four of the recordings on this cd catch Goldstein performing live, and have not been released earlier. Only the most recent composition, ‘The Gold Stone’, evidently dedicated to Goldstein, was recorded in the studio. Corner himself is present on only one piece, playing piano on ‘Gamelan Maya’. It has Corner playing continuously one note in a steady pulse with slight changes. In contrast, Goldstein plays very scratchy and irregular lines on his violin, and also chants from time to time. ‘The Gold Stone’ has Goldstein in another stunning performance. The playing of this extraordinaire performer goes directly into your nerve system, like in the opening composition ‘Philip Corners Piece for Malcolm Goldstein by Elizabeth Munro’. My God, is he good. His playing is continuously on the cutting edge. Passionate and truly amazing! Because of this, this release may be experienced as very demanding and heavy. That’s true. But above all, a meeting with music of such an intense and deep impact, is a very rewarding experience, making one grateful. - DM, Vital Weekly

Long-time friend and artistic collaborator Malcolm Goldstein is the man in charge of turning Philip Corner’s scores – notated (in peculiar ways) or less – into violin expressiveness of the unadulterated kind. The five compositions comprised by this disc run a temporal gamut that goes from 1958 to 1985; they’re all comparable to the picture of someone who, all of a sudden, meets an old sage who opens his/her eyes by indicating a path and, from that instant on, nothing is the same in that being. Goldstein’s supreme command of the bowed nuances is absolutely necessary in translating the equally essential directives of the composer to the ears of a listener. It’s music that literally follows lines (the opening “Philip Corner’s Piece For Malcolm Goldstein by Elizabeth Munro”) while expanding the borders of conceptualization. Gravelly sounds on the strings and cleaner range-jumping figurations might represent the psychological ups and downs that alter our quotidian; the stretching of unsteady pitches seems to call everybody to a moment of real concentration, an infrequent occurrence under the very bad presages elicited by the current years. The only track in which Goldstein is not alone – “Gamelan Maya” – sees the presence of his comrade at the piano, accompanying the violinist with scents of Palestine (not in the geographic sense, I mean Charlemagne). Yet the mesmerizing keyboard hammering is contrasted by the asymmetry of the melodic phrasing, and – again – once can’t escape the thought that, like it or not, all of this belongs to a single experiential container. - Massimo Ricci, Touching Extremes
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