Richard Valitutto: nocturnes & lullabies

About

Pianist Richard Valitutto releases "nocturnes & lullabies", a collection of works organized around themes of transitional states between light, dark, consciousness, and unconsciousness. Featuring premiere recordings of music by Nicholas Deyoe, Rebecca Saunders, Philip Cashian, Marc Sabat, Maura Capuzzo, and Wolfgang von Schweinitz, Valitutto's poignant performances and poetic curation make this a unique and compelling release, containing works that explore a new virtuosity engaged with the delicate management of the piano's resonant properties.

Audio

On “nocturnes & lullabies,” pianist Richard Valitutto explores repertoire that engages with underlying themes of the night, sleep, life/death and consciousness/unconsciousness. He was interested in cultivating an aesthetic of “anti-virtuosity” during the period of gestation for many of these pieces (seven of which are heard here in their premiere recordings), a pursuit that is borne out in some fashion or another in the ways the works subvert conventional piano writing and often manifest experimentalist approaches.

Nicholas Deyoe’s NCTRN opens the recording with a punctuated chord cluster that immediately leaves only its resonance behind, deconstructing one of the piano’s cherished characteristics, its sustain. Ominous, dense middle register chords fill the texture, accompanied by unsettling percussive knocks from the instrument’s topmost notes which are muted by a putty preparation. Accented sonorities return periodically to assert a sense of anxiety and suspense. As the work progresses, Deyoe adds more lyrical passagework to the texture, expands the registral range, and introduces a persistent percussive rattle, but an existential sense of dread lingers over the entire work.

Rebecca Saunders’ shadow is an exhaustive study of the piano’s capacity for sympathetic resonance. She composes these acoustic “shadows” through punctuated chord clusters and subsequent filtering of the resonant pitches trailing behind with silent key depressions and releases, coupled with deft manipulations of the middle pedal. The aesthetic consequence of this exploration is a texture where strident chords are juxtaposed with sensual resonance and lyrically sustained passages. The virtuosity inherent within is not of a relentless motoric quality, but in the discipline of the razor- sharp shifts in character.

The central part of the album consists of four shorter character studies that focus the listening experience on their rarefied textures through limited musical materials:

Phillip Cashian’s early Nocturne explores resonance in a more conventional way, lingering on the sustain of mysterious chords and accumulating intensity through layered sequences. Harmonic verticalities grow on top of anchoring sonorities in the bass as floating melodic figures in the right hand create slow circular phrases.

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Marc Sabat’s Nocturne is dedicated to a composer whose music is heard later in the program, Linda Catlin Smith. He writes that the piece is a “study of metric modulations in a slow tempo.” Using polyrhythms as transitional elements much in the same way as a pivot chord might facilitate a harmonic modulation, Sabat’s work is a minimalist contemplation of subtly shifting tempo relationships.

Maura Capuzzo integrates two extended techniques that shape the sound world of the brief work, Portami con te nel mattino vivace — the use of the pedal mechanism as a percussive technique, and the strumming of the strings inside the piano (à la Henry Cowell). Capuzzo establishes a wide expressive and dynamic range encompassing these delicate effects alongside gentle, sustained lines and short, forceful bass notes and middle register chords.

Plainsound Lullaby by Wolfgang von Schweinitz is built on a unique timbral restriction; nearly all of the sounds are accented multiphonics played on the bass strings. A ritualistic, ceremonial effect is produced, tolling bells to accompany an invisible dance.

Linda Catlin Smith’s A Nocturne builds a narrative primarily from a polytonal collection of major and minor triads often heard in the extreme registers of instrument. Repetition with subtle variations plays an important role in the work, as the timing and placement of reiterated musical ideas takes on semantic weight as Smith slowly builds a rhetorical argument.

The final work on the album is Deyoe’s Lullaby 2, part of a series of lullabies, each written for a different instrumentation. With quotations of music by the metal band Death and from the slow movement of Schubert’s B-flat Sonata, sometimes referred to as a Totenwiegenlied or “lullaby of death,” Deyoe seems to suggest that the sleep his work intends to lull one into might be of the terminal variety. Opening with a tremolo on the piano’s highest B, Deyoe slowly adds new elements to the texture, first a sustained chord, then jaunty grace note figures surrounding the tremolo. Echoing his work earlier on the recording, NCTRN, we hear knocks on the fallboard of the piano as the ominous middle register chords assume a predominant role. Near the ten and half minute mark, the tremolo figure from the opening is restated in the low register, leading into a dialogue between more dynamic percussion figures, the original tremolo, and towering chords. After the piece’s cataclysmic climax, Schubert’s theme emerges from the fallout, both mournful and nostalgic, but Deyoe leaves the harmonic progression unresolved at the close of the piece — a composed stutter like the skipping of a turntable’s needle — ending the album with the lingering unanswered questions with which it began.

Valitutto has curated a profound programmatic journey with this collection, deemphasizing conventional piano virtuosity in favor of experimental approaches to the instrument, which he handles with powerful command and expressive depth. “nocturnes & lullabies” is a deeply Romantic statement crafted from modern materials, a grappling with the edges of mortality as heard through the intensely personal sound world of the piano.

– D. Lippel

  • Produced by Richard Valitutto and Nick Tipp
  • Recorded April 21-23, 2018 at Allegro Recordings, Burbank CA
  • Mixed, and Mastered by Nick Tipp for Soniferous Studios
  • Edited by Nicholas Deyoe, with additional editing by Marc Sabat on his composition
  • Steinway piano technician: Yasuyo Nakamura
  • Album design: Marc Wolf (marcjwolf.com)
  • Artist photo: Joshua Lipton
  • Front cover photo: Len D. C. on Unsplash
  • Back cover photo: William Daigneault on Unsplash

Richard Valitutto

Described as “a keyboard superstar” (The New Yorker), and “vigorously virtuosic,” “spellbinding” (LA Times), Grammy®-nominated pianist Richard Valitutto is distinguished for his tenacity and charisma in the performance and interpretation of musical works both new and old. With a focus on contemporary keyboard repertoire, both as a soloist and collaborative artist, he is particularly committed to a versatile, exploratory approach to the practice and performance of the continually-expanding palette of extended techniques for piano.

http://www.richardvalitutto.net/

Nicholas Deyoe

Nicholas Deyoe is a Los Angeles based composer, conductor, and guitarist, and is the Co–Founder and Artistic Director of the wasteLAnd concert series. His compositions combine uses of noise, delicacy, drama, fantasy, brutality, and lyricism to create a diverse sonic experience. He holds a Ph.D. in composition from UC San Diego where he studied with Roger Reynolds.

https://www.nicholasdeyoe.com

Rebecca Saunders

With her distinctive and intensely striking sonic language, Berlin-based British composer Rebecca Saunders is a leading international representative of her generation. Born in London, she studied composition with Nigel Osborne in Edinburgh and Wolfgang Rihm in Karlsruhe.

https://www.rebeccasaunders.net/

Philip Cashian

Philip Cashian was born in Manchester in 1963 and studied at Cardiff University and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama with Oliver Knussen and Simon Bainbridge. He is a sought after teacher and has been Head of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music since 2007.

http://www.philipcashian.com

Marc Sabat

Canadian composer of Ukrainian descent Marc Sabat has been based in Berlin since 1999. He makes pieces for concert and installation settings, drawing inspiration from investigations of the sounding and perception of Just Intonation and of various music forms—folk, experimental and classical.

http://www.marcsabat.com

Maura Capuzzo

Maura Capuzzo was born in Padua, and graduated in choral music and choral conducting, composition, and electronic music. Since 2011, she has been part of Collective Ritual, which deals with the provision and performance of Fluxus repertoire. She teaches at the Conservatorio Benedetto Marcello, Venezia.

Wolfgang von Schweinitz

Wolfgang von Schweinitz was born in Hamburg, Germany and is currently based in Southern California, where he assumed James Tenney’s teaching position in September 2007 as a professor at the California Institute of the Arts. Since 1997, his compositions have been concerned with researching and establishing new microtonal tuning and ensemble playing techniques based on non-tempered just intonation.

https://www.plainsound.org/WSwork

Linda Catlin Smith

Linda Catlin Smith grew up in New York and lives in Toronto. She studied music in NY, and at the University of Victoria (Canada). Drawn to an ambiguity of harmony and narrative, her work is informed by her deep appreciation of the work of writers and painters.

http://www.catlinsmith.com

Reviews

5

Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review

The tree falling in the woods idea holds true on the musical front, just as it always has. For New Music to exist in some validated or institutional sense there must be an audience of course. I hope I play some role in such things, originally as a consumer and physical presence on the scene, now as a writer, ever I hope also as a music-maker.

Today's selection exemplifies a good sort of "new" as a real contribution towards a special kind of solo piano music. Richard Valitutto is the pianist. The album goes by its title Nocturnes & Lullabies (New Focus Recordings FCR243). The label explains that this music concerns "themes of transitional states between light, dark, consciousness, and unconsciousness" or alternately-additionally night, sleep, and life/death Further the eight solo works contained in the program (seven or which are premiere recordings) engage the pianist in his striving for a kind of "anti-virtuosity," or more specifically directs him away from the sort of note-weaving typical of conventional piano playing-writing and concerned more with experimental goals, of widening the palette of sound colors and techniques obtained in the act of piano performance.

This program nicely opens and expands the sort of poetic piano Modernism of sound color one might trace from Ives, Cowell, Cage and his colleagues to George Crumb and his reflective pianism. All eight of the works on this album espouse a poetry of sound that invites a kind of expansive introspection. Tone clusters, mesmeric and sometimes ritualistic repetitions, thunderously or flashingly rapid single-note rollings, percussive dampened extreme upper register repeats, cavernous resonance and open sustains, inside-the-piano hand techniques, the enhanced use of aural space, the full syntactical recourse to all the available notes in all registers, an edgy Modern harmonic expansiveness that generally neither dogmatically favors consonance nor dissonance as a whole, those are some of the traits of the music at hand, all in the service of a thematic night of time and experience, of a nocturnal mood as we might look back upon it from John Field and especially Chopin onwards, only set free from typical cantabile stylings per se.

The full span of our Late Modern period comes into play in these works, from 1984 through 2015. Five of the eight works however are from the last decade.

The composers names may not be entirely familiar to you, yet the music shows us that each has a vision for the piano that intertwines as Richard Valitutto in effect curates wisely and judiciously, then performs each chosen work with a definite dedication and a dramatic musical proportionality. And so we are made aware of piano adventurousness from the likes of Nicholas Deyoe (two works included), Rebecca Saunders, Philip Cashian, Marc Sabat, Maura Capuzzo, Wolfgang von Schweinitz, and Linda Catlin Smith.

Heartily recommended for those wishing to remain fully versed in the most modern in solo piano music and for adventuresome souls in general. Well done!

-Grego Applegate Edwards, 3.10.20, Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review

— Grego Edwards, 3.10.2020

5

Composers Edition

Richard Valitutto Releases Album of Premiere Recordings ‘Nocturnes & Lullabies’ Featuring Cashian and Catlin Smith

Described as “a keyboard superstar” (The New Yorker) and “Vigorously virtuosic” (LA Times) the Grammy-nominated Richard Valitutto’s new release brings together a set of works he has been working on with his distinctive approach over the past decade. Here he talks with Composers Edition’s Dan Goren about the making of this extraordinary album.

Dan Goren: Congratulations on a tremendously atmospheric album, as if encountering you alone at the piano in a huge hall. We know in darkness our aural attention becomes more acute and your performances here of these works demand my attention in a similar way. Tell me about how the recordings were made.

Richard Valitutto: Thank you very much—it’s incredibly meaningful to receive such affirming feedback on this album, from you and from many other listeners. In particular, hearing folks’ responses to it has confirmed my hopes for the record, a vision which began in some form or another about six years ago.

In November of 2014, I had just commissioned and premiered Nicholas Deyoe’s NCTRN on a Piano Spheres Satellite Series concert at REDCAT. The program was called NAKHT (punning the German words for “night” and “naked”, as well as an esoteric reference to the Ancient Egyptian god of the dead) and was the first of several nocturnal programs I would perform. I was also of course, drawn to Deyoe’s earlier piano solo Lullaby 2, and I had performed several other pieces by him over the years (including another commission, Lullaby 4, which gnarwhallaby premiered at Carnegie Hall in 2013). I knew these works and many other “nocturnal” pieces I had been collecting—including both Linda Catlin Smith’s A Nocturne and Philip Cashian’s Nocturne—made for compelling programming that spoke to me and, as it would turn out, audiences as well. Being that both of Deyoe’s big solo works were unrecorded, as well as several others (including Cashian’s piece), I knew I wanted to create a recorded document that would capture the spirit of these programs and present what became the “nocturnes & lullabies” concept in a special way, hopefully altogether in an album format.

As I kept presenting partial or full programs of this material over the next couple years—including on such series as wasteLAnd and Omaha Under the Radar—I noticed that ambience and intimacy were a huge part of the program’s impact. Obviously, this is always the case with live music, especially acoustic “Classical” music, but if the space didn’t have a great acoustic, or had too much ambient noise, or the lighting was too severe, it really detracted from the energy and impact of the pieces to a particular degree. I suppose I’m also really drawn to the introspective, meditative side of concert experiences, both as a performer and an audience member. On the recording side of things, I’ll be frank: I was getting more and more disillusioned (or, perhaps better put, bored) with the traditional classical recording aesthetic, especially for solo piano. There are so many solo piano records out there that seem to have a single aesthetic goal simply to recreate the “clean” sound of an acoustic grand in a nondescript, medium-sized hall—usually pristine and warm, sure, but often lacking in personality and immediacy. In a simultaneously oversaturated and undervalued recording market, I really don’t see the point in that. Knowing I wanted something that presented these pieces in a way that heightened their intimacy, rawness, and fragility (as well as their occasionally terrifying power and intense sonority), I was picky about working with an engineer who was curious, artistic, and highly skilled, and my friend Nick Tipp was all of these things and more. It didn’t hurt that I had worked with him on a number of other recording projects, both as a performer and a production assistant, so we had a rapport, and I knew and was inspired by his predilection for progressive approaches to recording acoustic concert music.

Together, Nick and I planned the technical and artistic approaches to the recording over several weeks leading up to the sessions. On the artistic side, we talked a lot about the specific feelings and psychologies of each individual piece, getting really nuanced about the moment to moment shifts of feeling and texture, and what type of emotional and experiential journey the album as a whole should convey and evoke. This also partially informed the technical side of things, for which we discussed how many and which types of microphones would be used and where they would be placed in the studio. For a few sections of music, we ended up having as many as 10 separate tracks, capturing the piano strings’ resonances at varying distances and degrees, but also for recording the various auxiliary sounds and vocalizations I made for the pieces. Because of the wide-array of techniques and sounds called for in some of the music, for a couple pieces we even used an over-dubbing approach, capturing the strings’ sound from “normal” piano playing on one take, and then overdubbing the prepared piano, extended technique percussive effects, and, in one instance, my whisper-singing(!) towards the end of Deyoe’s Lullaby 2. While this approach complicates the recording logistics somewhat (more takes had to be done, we needed a click track at times, and editing takes longer, etc.) it actually saved some time in post-production. Most importantly, it enabled Tipp to mix and EQ the disparate piano sounds to their optimal capacity. Add onto that his amazingly curated mixing studio setup, ample reverb library, and fastidious and virtuosic skills at the board and with ProTools, and I was more than excited to know that these recordings would sound really special: a fresher, unique aesthetic approach to the solo piano record. This type of pop-music production approach was really exciting for what it could allow in the final product, presenting the pieces together as a collective in a recorded object, artistic in its own right, not merely some sort of simulacrum of an idealized “live” performance.

DG: There is of course a long tradition of piano Nocturnes, originating in nineteenth century Europe. What has been your relationship as a pianist with that heritage?

RV: Ever since I first started playing, I connected particularly deeply with the piano repertoire of the 19th-century, and some of my earliest favorite pieces were anything considered “conventionally” beautiful and/or brooding and in slow tempos: voilà, the Chopin nocturnes. Two of my go-to recital pieces in my middle and high school years were the Op. 9 No. 2 in E-flat and Op. 27 No. 1 in C#m—those pieces, along with some moody Rachmaninoff ones, were the closest I came to singing without opening my mouth. Part of what was initially so compelling to me about the project as a whole is precisely the connotative baggage the term “nocturne” carries with it and the sorts of inquiries and investigations it provokes. Obviously, for most people, Chopin immediately comes to mind, and if you’re a little more well-read you might also know about Chopin’s predecessor in the genre, John Field, and hopefully the later Fauré nocturnes, which are totally beautiful and amazing in their own right. What struck me as weird was that, at a certain point, I kept discovering one or a few pieces in so many modern and contemporary composers’ catalogs called “Nocturne” or with nocturne in the title, often for solo piano. Why that word? You don’t see many (or any) 20th- and 21st-century pieces called “Romance”, “Impromptu”, or “Bagatelle” or whatever. In some ways, you could point to Debussy’s Nocturnes for orchestra as responsible for the modernist shift from the Chopinesque genre’s focus on arpeggios and bel canto melody imitations. Other pre-modern and modern composers had a lot to do with the stylistic shift in “night music” as well: Bartók, Britten, Scriabin, etc. But I view this project—both the recording and various concert programs I’ve done which feature contemporary nocturnes and/or lullabies, as interacting with the heritage, at least conceptually, and not eschewing it. At first, I thought I wanted to include 19th-century pieces alongside the 20th/21st-century ones, but to my delight, I was finding so many great recent pieces, I often didn’t have the space to do that. I soon realized I didn’t want the programs to become all about inviting comparison across centuries, or demonstrating some sort of manufactured, myopic teleology for the genre: as if everything Chopin, Fauré, and others did was old-fashioned and out-dated and “thank god for modernism” and all that nonsense. There are some ways that a nocturne by Fauré for example, is way more immediate and relevant than one by, for example, Sciarrino or whoever.

DG: Your attention to the resonance is vital to your performance here to the poetry of Philip Cashian’s Nocturne. It’s the oldest work on the disc – what’s your relationship with/to it?

RV: Philip Cashian’s piece was one of the earliest I discovered in the research quest I described earlier. I knew a little about Cashian’s music having read through his wonderful duo for violin and piano Stobrod’s Violin with my friend (and then teacher), violinist Mark Menzies, while I was a student at CalArts. I found Cashian’s music attractive and enjoyable to play, so I guess I was just perusing his catalog and saw this early piece from 1984, and that hadn’t been recorded. I think most contemporary pianists’ interest is piqued to some degree if there is a possibility to get first recording rights to a piece, but that was just a small part of it for me. From the first gesture and resonant sonority in Cashian’s Nocturne, I knew it was a piece that I would enjoy playing and presenting on programs, and eventually, this album. In addition to performing it in the US, I even gave the Macedonian premiere, alongside the Deyoe and Saunders solos, at the Macedonian Philharmonic in December 2018.

DG: Nocturnes are often associated with uncertainty or disquiet. For me, Linda Catlin Smith’s A Nocturne distinguishes itself as the work which most embraces the nocturnal world and that seems reflected in the distinct recording quality here. Does this description chime with how you relate to it?

RV: Absolutely. Over the last few years, I’ve become totally infatuated with Linda Catlin-Smith’s music, in particular the way she communicates an effortless formal logic and poignant emotional content with minimal means and unassuming materials. Practically all of her pieces are mostly slow and soft, and generally quite peaceful, but they each have their unique character and raison d’être. But this piece, more than any other of hers I know, seems to have buried within its placidity and luminosity a particularly beguiling beauty, mixing some really complex emotions, that at times border on an almost existential dread. Recording this piece was one of the most memorable parts of the album-making experience, because it was the only sizable piece on the album that Nick Tipp and I recorded without an extra person in the booth to take notes and give feedback. So it was just Nick and I, basically doing complete take after complete take, like half a dozen, until finally at a certain point we both confessed to each other that we were having a really emotional experience. Like, we were both becoming more and more vulnerable and quiet energetically. Then came the only point in the tracking sessions where we just sat and really listened to a full take of a piece—not listening for cosmetic imperfections or mistakes or whatever—just feeling the music of the piece flow by and reacting to it emotionally. Then we did like a couple pickup takes of each page for safety, but I think the majority of what ended up on the album was just big sections from a couple complete takes performed in a pretty heightened emotional state. Once we got to mixing the track in Nick’s studio, I definitely remember how exciting it was when he started applying some markedly different reverbs and EQs for the various sections in Smith’s piece, which are obviously so different from each other in both mood and which register of the instrument they occupy. Interestingly, A Nocturne is the only piece that isn’t a premiere recording on my album: I had come to obsess over the piece in the recording by its dedicatee Eve Egoyan, on her album thethingsinbetween. Furthermore, I wouldn’t have known about her music at all, had it not been for my performing Marc Sabat’s Nocturne back in 2011, which is dedicated to Smith and which caused me to look her up in the first place. (Thanks, Marc!)

DG: It’s certainly a very intimate listening experience, something which I know from attending a concert of yours recently is an important part of your performance aesthetic. Making it was clearly a real labour of love and it’s a wonderfully distinctive album as a result.

— Dan Goren, 4.01.2020

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