Jacob Greenberg: Bright Codes

About

Jacob Greenberg’s first solo disc for TUNDRA features his exciting commissions for piano and harmonium, premiered at venues such as Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and Miller Theatre. Four deeply realized collaborations with composers Dai Fujikura, Amy Williams, IONE, and Nathan Davis have produced works tailored to Greenberg’s technique and imagination as a multi-keyboard player. The pieces for harmonium showcase the unusual possibilities of that atmospheric instrument.

Audio

All pieces on this disc of premiere recordings were written for Jacob Greenberg between 2013 and 2021.

The small portable variety of harmonium is a core element of Indian classical music, and is a modification of the large European instrument invented in the 1820s. The foot pedal bellows of the European model became a hand pump for the instrument that was imported to the Indian subcontinent; the internal brass reeds that receive air are the same in both versions. Two models of harmonium are used for this recording: a Delhi-style twin-reed instrument (male, bass) and a Kolkata-style triple-reed instrument (female, male, bass). Though notated Western music for the Indian instrument is rare, the harmonium shows an unquestionable affinity for the avant-garde, and is a rich medium for experimentation by today’s composers.

Dai Fujikura writes that composing for Jacob Greenberg “allowed me to go somewhere within myself I have not visited before.” His White Rainbow for harmonium is the result of mutual exploration of the instrument by composer and performer. Equally expansive and sensitive to nuances of color, the piece is inspired by the natural phenomenon of a white rainbow—also called a fogbow—that is caused by the small droplets inside a cloud. The bows have only weak colors or are colorless. The novel harmonium techniques like sudden changes of registers, use of the ghostly octave coupler, and rhythmic pulsing with the jaali mute evoke the piece’s atmospheric subject. Bright Codes for piano took shape over four years, with each quiet miniature composed individually, yet intended to be played continuously with the others, without pause, in any order.

Amy Williams’s Fünf Worte for harmonium and voice, featuring the soprano Tony Arnold, is a set of five intimate miniatures, each of which explores one—and only one—German word. Cineshape 4 for piano explores virtuosic perpetual movement and repetition. It is directly modeled on the structure and certain narrative elements of the film Run Lola Run (1998). Like the film, the piece starts in exactly the same way three times, but develops in starkly different ways.

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The author and poet IONE’s The Memory of Now, for harmonium with sonic vocals performed by the composer, is a text score that invites musical improvisation in a ritual manner. As the voice intones directions for interior reflection, it reacts spontaneously to the resulting sounds that portray states of memory. The effect is a unique chamber music partnership. IONE writes, “The player or players are invited to listen to external and internal sounds without judgment, while allowing momentary states of being to flow freely.”

Nathan Davis’s Ghostlight evokes a small, single bulb that shines on the dark stage when a theater is closed and unoccupied. In this piece, the piano’s light preparation is with objects on or between the strings of certain notes to create microtonal beatings and gong-like sounds. The piece’s journey generally descends from the highest register to the lowest, a measured crescendo. A free section is followed by a stately chorale; then a rhythmic groove climaxes with thunderous bass rattlings. Seedling, for harmonium and electronics, explores the ability of the instrument to seamlessly blend with shimmering electronic sounds, especially with its quivering tremolo mode of playing. The composer writes that the harmonium’s brass reeds conjure “the sonic baggage of pasts both real and imagined.”

All works commissioned and initiated by Jacob Greenberg

Recorded at Oktaven Audio, Mt. Vernon, NY, between January 2017 and August 2021, Steinway piano

Bhava harmonium (1, 6 – 10, 12, 14), Paul & Co. harmonium (12). Olddelhimusic.com

Editions: Ricordi (Fujikura), Anderson Place Music (Williams), PoPandMoM Publications (IONE), Mytoeses Music (Davis)

Produced by Jacob Greenberg

Recording Engineer, Session Producer: Ryan Streber, oktavenaudio.com

Digital Editing, Mixing, Mastering: Ryan Streber

Assistant Editor: Charles Mueller

Supplemental recording by Ralph Loza at Experimental Sound Studios, Chicago, IL, ess.org

Design: Jessica Slaven, jessicaslaven.com

This recording of Ghostlight first appeared on Starkland’s “On the Nature of Thingness” CD, ℗ Starkland

Special thanks to Hinda Greenberg, David Greenberg, Nic Dillon, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. This recording is for J. White.

Randy Ezratty and James Rosenfield provided essential funding for Dai Fujikura’s Bright Codes. Cineshape 4 was co-commissioned by the International Contemporary Ensemble for the 50th anniversary of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Seedling was commissioned by Winsome Brown and Claude Arpels in honor of Covell Dorn Brown, through the International Contemporary Ensemble’s First Page initiative. iceorg.org.

  • Tony Arnold, soprano screecher.com
  • IONE, author and poet iodreams.us
  • Dai Fujikura, composer daifujikura.com
  • Amy Williams, composer amywilliamsmusic.com
  • Nathan Davis, composer nathandavis.com

Jacob Greenberg

Pianist Jacob Greenberg's work as a soloist and chamber musician has received worldwide acclaim. A longtime member of the International Contemporary Ensemble, he has performed throughout the Americas and Europe. His solo concert series, Music at Close Range, shows his equal commitment to classics of the repertoire.

Recent highlights include a guest performance of works of György Kurtág at the International Summer Courses in Darmstadt, Germany, under the composer's guidance; concerts at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival; Boulez’s Sur Incises with the Seattle Symphony; and solo and concerto appearances with the International Contemporary Ensemble at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival. Live performances have been heard on WQXR New York, BBC Radio 3, WFMT Chicago and Radio Netherlands.

As an orchestral player, Mr. Greenberg has appeared with the New York Philharmonic, Israel Philharmonic, and Australian Chamber Orchestra. He performs often with the Chicago Symphony’s MusicNOW. A leading pianist of modern song, he has toured extensively with soprano Tony Arnold; their 2013 recording of Olivier Messiaen's Harawi has been singled out by critics. Mr. Greenberg is also recognized as a coach for contemporary opera.

In addition to his solo albums for New Focus Recordings, which feature works from the Baroque to many new commissions, he has recorded for the Nonesuch, Sony, Bridge, Naxos, Mode, Kairos, Centaur, Tzadik, and New Amsterdam labels. Mr. Greenberg is an award-winning record producer, and has completed discs for major domestic and international labels. He is the director of the International Contemporary Ensemble's in-house TUNDRA imprint. As a composer, he makes recorded pieces with spoken and sung texts. His podcast, Intégrales, explores meaningful intersections of music and daily city life.

Mr. Greenberg is on the faculty of the Tanglewood Music Center, and has taught at Hunter College, City University of New York, The Juilliard School, and the State University of New York at Buffalo. He is a graduate of Oberlin College, where he earned degrees in music and religion, and he completed his master's and doctoral degrees at Northwestern University, where he studied with Ursula Oppens. Please visit jacobgreenberg.net.

http://www.jacobgreenberg.net

Reviews

5

Vital Weekly

This one may be a bit of a fringe case to be discussed on Vital. A classically trained pianist who plays pieces composed by other people. Well. But what caught my eye was the harmonium work. So I gave it a listen.

Greenberg is an experienced pianist, but also other keyboards. He teaches at a university, making his living, I guess but has an extensive catalogue of performing with orchestras, most USAmerican, but also from Israel and Australia, and solo, building a profile of modern composer renditions. One special aspect is his continuing collaboration with Soprano vocalist Tony Arnold. More about this later.

He kicks this CD off with two compositions by Dai Fujikura. The first uses an Indian-type harmonium (with a hand- in place of a foot-pump). This is a long track, moving between layers of harmonium sound and more delicate passages, finally dissolving into single notes. It would have profited from deciding for more one or the other, exploring the sound more than the notes (as a composer would tend to do, as opposed to an improvising artist). As such, the piece moves from sound layer to intimate sounds too quickly and often. Still, it is a welcome new addition to the sound sphere. Bright Codes is a 4-movement piece by Fujikura that reminds of Poulenc and Bartok mixed with Reich. Sometimes it even resonates a bit of an Impressionist atmosphere. However, four short parts achieve its goal better than the first.

Amy William is the composer of the five-word cycle Fuenf Worte that sees the collaboration with Arnold on this release. Every part uses a single German word. Sounds very eclectic and intellectual - until you read the words ... somebody knew what they were doing here. So the word 'Fingerspitzengefuehl' or even better 'Verschlimmbessern' get their classical music treatment. Probably for the first time ever. And, hey, the harmonium is back! it intricately illustrates and comments on the respective word, creating a comical backdrop. A really pleasant surprise after having dreaded another soprano vocals contemporary classical attack. Needless to say, the track 'Kuddelmuddel' really made my afternoon. The fourth piece, also by Williams, is modelled on the cinema film 'Lola Rennt' and uses very rhythmic deep piano notes (somewhat similar to what we hear from Hania Rani recently) very effectively contrasted with expressive piano set between Debussy and Keith Emerson.

The composition by IONE again uses the harmonium, this time with a mostly dissonant backdrop to the composers own voice speaking her poetry. And finally, we find two pieces by Nathan Davis. The first on the piano (aha: we recognise the pattern) offers one of the more virtuoso pieces on the CD. It has some elements of string preparation but nothing that would obscure the musical intention and is well placed in the 10-minute musical journey. Seedling, finally, entices the harmonium to produce some ambient-like sounds that build - not in layers, as this is not overly sound-processed - but intensity, in stretches creating a drone-like feeling.

Overall, an enjoyable release that for once adds some humour and smiles and new sounds to contemporary classical music.

— RSW, 12.14.2021

5

textura

A perusal of the discography page at Jacob Greenberg's site credits him with piano on almost every recording he's released as a solo artist or appeared on as a collaborator or member of ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble). Two recent New Focus Recordings sets, for example, 2019's Neo/Classic and 2018's Hanging Gardens, feature him playing acoustic piano exclusively. That makes his latest collection, Bright Codes, all the more enticing for featuring Greenberg on harmonium and piano; enhancing its appeal is the fact that all of its pieces were written for him between 2013 and 2021. The project couldn't, in other words, be more personal.

Issued on ICE's in-house Tundra imprint, the eighty-minute set—equivalent in old-school terms to a double-album release—is an eclectic affair featuring material by Dai Fujikura, Amy Williams, IONE, and Nathan Davis. In writing the pieces for Greenberg, the composers naturally crafted them with his particular strengths in mind. Self-produced by the pianist, the material was recorded between 2017 and 2021 at Oktaven Audio in Mt. Vernon, New York. The inclusion of harmonium gives the recording a character dramatically unlike his other recordings and the pieces on which it appears a meditative, drone-like quality more associated with Eastern than Western music. Stated otherwise, its presence aligns seamlessly with Greenberg's inclinations and intrepid sensibility.

The album's tone is established by Fujikura's White Rainbow in being a harmonium-only performance. Titled after the white rainbow (also called a fogbow) that results from small droplets within a cloud, the piece exudes a gentle, luminous quality in keeping with the phenomenon after which it's titled. Advancing methodically, it unfurls in slow, wave-like movements, with gleaming harmonium timbres that could be mistaken for an accordion's. While the four piano miniatures of Fujikura's Bright Codes sonically relocate us within a comparatively familiar classical milieu, they reflect as explorative a compositional mindset as the titular setting.

Arranged for harmonium and voice, Williams' Fünf Worte comprises miniatures also, though in this case the five have soprano Tony Arnold concentrating on a single German word in each instance. Naturally the combination of the two elements makes for an arresting presentation, but it's the connection exemplified by the long-time collaborators—her singing's pivotal to Hanging Gardens, for instance—that's makes the performance so gripping. Whereas “Fingerspitzengefühl” and “Kuddelmuddel” are playful, “Verschlimmbessern” opts for brooding mysteriousness. Like Fujikura's pair, Williams' Cineshape 4 shifts the focus to acoustic piano after Fünf Worte, in this case a twelve-minute excursion the composer patterned after Run Lola Run (1998). The film famously begins its story the same way three times but has it develop differently with each telling, a form Cineshape 4 replicates. Similar to the film, the music is in constant motion, though passages do arise where it briefly slows, almost as if it's catching its breath before starting up again. Strangely enough, moments also emerge that take on a swinging, boogie-woogie feel.

Author and poet IONE perpetuates the album's experimental character in The Memory of Now, a trippy meditation that sees Greenberg fully engaged with the harmonium's potential and the composer intoning phrases (“sound, sound, the sounds of now … until a memory arises…") conducive to invoking free-flowing, spontaneous expressions in the dialogue. Bright Codes ends with two long-from settings by Nathan Davis, Ghostlight for lightly prepared piano and Seedling for harmonium and electronics. In the first, its title a reference to the sole bulb that shines on the dark stage of a closed theatre, objects were placed on or between some of the instrument's strings to produce microtonal pulses and gong-like sonorities that form a streaming backdrop to the piano's trajectory from highest to lowest registers. Particularly ear-catching is the intricate tapestry that gradually assembles as the piece advances towards its declamatory climax. Seedling ventures even further afield in merging the harmonium with electronic sounds, the softly shimmering and at times quivering result conjuring the image of tremulous micro-entities gracefully buoyed by the breeze.

It's safe to say Bright Codes won't dislodge Adele's new release (or whatever else is occupying the slot this week) from the top of the charts, but Greenberg's operating, of course, in an entirely other sphere. It's bold exploration, not commercialism, that drives him, and one comes away from the recording appreciative of the integrity embodied by this adventurous and uncompromising artistic undertaking.

— Ron Schepper, 12.23.2021

5

AllMusic

Pianist Jacob Greenberg is a longtime member of the International Contemporary Ensemble and released his solo debut album, Bright Codes, on its in-house Tundra label. All of the pieces here were written for him. Only two of the seven works included, one of them the title work by Dai Fujikura, are for a conventional solo piano; Nathan Davis' Ghostlight is for a "lightly prepared" piano. On the rest of the pieces, Greenberg plays an instrument that may well be unique in the annals of avant-garde music: a harmonium. This is stripped of its folk overtones (and its Indian origins) and placed in the role of an intermediary between the acoustic piano and the electronics that appear in several pieces. In IONE's The Memory of Now, the harmonium interacts with stochastic "sonic vocals," while in Amy Williams' Fünf Worte for harmonium and voice, it plays a more conventional keyboard role. In Davis' Seedling, the harmonium becomes a kind of acoustic-electronic instrument with haunting effect. The overall effect is of an experimental but wide-ranging attempt to extend the sonic realms of keyboard music, and while the album is clearly not for those lacking sympathy for avant-garde music, it will intrigue most others.

— James Manheim, 1.29.2022

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