Frank Gutch Jr: Tania Stavreva; Sometimes It Takes a Choir; Plus Them Damn Addictive Notes

Time to bust outta this place, amigos.  Time to strike out into the unknown— well, lesser known— and visit city cousins, because we are definitely heading toward the city.  No Hoi Polloi allowed where we’re going—  nothing but royalty and coronation balls.  I would make a joke here but lowering standards is beneath us today, okay?  Today hamburger is not on the menu.  More like foie gras— to the more common among us, goose liver.  Not just any goose liver, though.  This is, like I said, foie gras, a mixture of specially fattened goose liver to please the palate if the mind.  And of the ears.

First off, let me tell you that rock music was not the blue plate special when I was very young.  Not in white bread Oregon.  We received a steady diet of tin pan alley and Hollywood with a side dish of Country & Western and it was tasty on the high end, bland on the low.  The young amongst us will hardly recognize the musical personages of the time— Bing Crosby (okay, that is probably an exception), Rosemary Clooney (my heart still does flips when I hear her version of Hey There). Ernest Tubb, Red Foley, Perry Como and so many others.  No real R&B.  Not early on.  Radio in the Pac Northwest had not gotten that far yet.

We did have classical broadcasts on radio, though, and if you took band or chorus in school you were sometimes exposed to the composers as well as certain artists— Rubinstein and Heifetz and Horowitz and what seemed at the time to be an endless string of greats.  These days, they are buried by a media so broken by genre that we can find few of those more than worthy.

I will bet that few of you knew this is Grieg.

I came across Ms. Stavreva through Bongo Boy, an organization put together by, I believe, Monique Grimm and musician Gar Francis as an alternative to the staid and dried business-as-usual post-digital music companies.  Their ears seemed to be open and their minds less cluttered than the record company standard bearers leeching off today’s (and yesterday’s) talent.  They listened.  They responded.  They seemed to care.  As far as I know, they did.  They still do.  Their support of Ms. Stavreva has been unwavering.  In the end, I caved.  I watched a video they posted on the Net and heard something exceptional.  This:

I was, at first, stunned.  While many of you probably think of the three B’s (Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven) when it comes to classical music, my ear had stepped beyond those as early as the fifth grade.  I was lucky in that I was incorporated into the junior high by then (the school was small and the band was desperately in need of a bass drummer) and the band instructor, Mr. Paul McLain, was a believer in the classics as a base.  I learned the three B’s, as did those of who paid attention, but I felt the urge to learn more.  Before I knew it, I was bouncing around the alphabet scarfing up music by the major composers before diving headlong into what would become my real love— modern composers.

Oh, it began innocently enough.  A little Leroy Anderson and Aaron Copland, a bit of odd pieces found on Boston Pops’ albums.  I was a fanatic devotee of Leonard Bernstein’s Young Peoples Concerts and slowly began hearing names like Shostakovich and Barber and Ives and even Stockhausen and Cage, though I was by then readying myself for college.  The music was magnificent and the times glorious because while all of youth had rock ‘n’ roll, only a small percentage of us knew The Moderns, as many of us called them.

The first piece I remember being totally captivated by was Copland’s Fanfare For the Common Man, and that courtesy of a Walter Cronkite-driven TV program  called You Are There which I watched whenever I had the chance.  Oh, the majesty of that piece!  The power!  And behind it, the excitement of sharing history, or an adaptation of history, if you will.  Little did I know that Rodeo was just around the bend and then a much-too-short string of works for ballet and even opera.  That led to Anderson and his “pop classics” which were essentially hit tunes, such as Sandpaper Ballet and The Typewriter and Sleigh Ride and the lesser known adaptation of folk classics to classical format. The Irish Suite and The Scottish Suite.  From there the sky was the limit.  Samuel Barber trapped me with his Adagio for Strings and for a short time music revolved around him, and then Charles Ives somehow slipped in there and the music began becoming more intense and more magical and I began scouring the lists for more and Halsey Stevens found a place and that’s when I really started experimenting.  The Harry Partch Ensemble begat Karlheinz Stockhausen begat John Cage and I was on a whirlwind trip through wonderland— rock ‘n’ roll filling the kid in me, light jazz and soundtracks feeding a need to expand, and modern composers coming up on the rail.  Yes, it was a race, and an exciting one too.

Which is why, I believe, I am so drawn to Tania Stavreva.  She toes the line without toeing the line.  She brings not only a dedication to her art, she revels in it.  The piano, to her, is not just a musical instrument, it is a percussive one, something many of us either don’t know or have forgotten.  Yes, the piano is a percussive instrument.  Some may consider it a stringed instrument, but one must face the fact that the notes are produced by hammers which strike the strings.  When I hear her in the above video, I can feel the percussion.  I feel the vibration too, but it’s the percussive effect which makes the difference.

And it is not just the keys producing the music.  Watch what she does at live concerts on occasion— on her own compositions!

And Stavreva is hardly a purist.  Perhaps I enjoy that part of her, for the purists are the ones who build walls around themselves, limit their involvement.  Take, for instance, this piece performed and written by Stavreva and electronics whiz Jon Ososki.

There is intensity even in the softer parts.

There was a time I might have discounted Tania Stavreva, though I hope I would have done it for good reason.  I don’t know.  I attended a Harry Partch Ensemble concert in Seattle once.  I found it completely fascinating— the dancing, the home-made instruments, the disregarding of musical tradition.  I feel the same about musicians creating what we used to, in the record business, call New Music.  Not because there was a genre at that time (most of the works were filed under classical( but because there was no genre which covered the wide expanse of sound and emotion.

Not everyone is going to get this music, I know, but I keep hoping that some ears and minds will be open.  Tania Stavreva is a good place to start the journey if you are at all interested.  You can hear more of what she has to offer both on YouTube and on her own site, which you can access by clicking here.

… and Sometimes It Takes a Choir…..

During my brother-in-law’s last visit, I heard words coming out of his mouth which completely caught me by surprise.  He asked me if I had ever heard of The Portland State Chamber Choir and, after whipping my head a few times to make sure I heard him correctly, I said no, why?  Turns out they had the #1 Classical album on Billboard Magazine to which I immediately replied, g’wan.  Sonofagun if it didn’t turn out he was right.  I mean, Portland State University is a big school, student-wise, and a major one at that, but a #1 album?  So we headed into the computer room to do a bit of research.  This is the first thing we heard.

The composition is by one Eriks Esenvalds, a key to my liking this group as much as I do.  Not only is the music modern, it reflects works by other choirs heard in my past.  A number of years ago, in fact, public broadcasting aired a Christmas special featuring a number of choruses and choirs from mainly colleges and I was floored.  Not by the standard Christmas music but by works I had no idea even existed.  Old works.  Ancient works.  It was a night of musical wonder for me.  Works by composers long forgotten outside of deep music and academic circles.  Songs which showed not only the glory of the season but the glory of God, for back then God was the reason for all.  Think Handel’s Messiah.  Think music and voices like this:

The connection to Esenvalds (and a critical one) came about this way, according to choir director Ethan Sperry:

I was at the National Choir Director’s conference; it was the spring of 2011, and a choir from Latvia came and performed. It was the best choir I had ever heard in my life, and they were singing a piece I had never heard by a composer I had never heard of, named Eriks Esenvalds, called ‘A Drop in the Ocean.’ I was immediately like, ‘We need to do this.’

He wrote ‘A Drop in the Ocean’ in memory of Mother Theresa. It begins with Mother Theresa’s favorite prayer, which is ‘Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.’ And it’s beautiful unison chanting by the sopranos. And then he tries to obscure it, as if it’s going on far away. So some of the choir are whistling; some are doing these weird breathing effects. Then the tenors and basses change into yelling out the things that she’s fighting against in the prayer. So ‘where there’s misery, let there be hope,’ they’ll yell ‘misery’ or ‘pain,’ ‘despair,’ ‘hatred.’

And you literally feel the world that she lives in: here’s this fragile little melody and all around her are these horrific forces. And then everything explodes into this very loud moment, and then everything gets replaced by her most famous saying: ‘My work is nothing but a drop in ocean, but if didn’t put that drop in the ocean, the ocean would be one drop the less.’ And the same melody that was obscured in the beginning returns completely transformed, and I think it’s a parable for her life: her prayer turns into her drop in the ocean.”  

Serendipitous, actually, when you consider that the works of Esenvalds have been the highlight of the choir’s output of the past few years.  Most of their albums, all acappella, are collections of works by various composers, many pushing the limits of music and voice.  The fact that the latest, The Doors of Heaven, is all Esenvalds and has reached #1 says a lot.

There quite a few choirs out there, I am slowly finding out.  Previous to this ensemble, I became enraptured by a Southern California group— The Silver Lake Chorus.  They have a tendency more toward the Pop side than does the PSCC, but they are pretty much in the same ballpark.  I find this song to be overwhelming.  It was written specifically for TSLC by Justin Vernon (Bon Iver).  In fact, more than a few songs have been written specifically for the chorus.

Tegan and Sara wrote this for them:

And I wrote this one for them.  Wait a minute!  What?!  Of course I can’t write a lick, but I sure as hell wish I could.  How cool would it be to have a composition sung by choirs such as these?  Very very cool.

Now, how about them…


Every once in a long while a band comes along which drags me back to very important parts of my life, musically, and this band calling itself Greta Van Fleet has really done it!  If the rest of their new album, Black Smoke Rising, is anything like this song (Flower Power), I’m in!  Flashes of early Brinsley Schwarz and I am sure other late sixties and early bands.  Good, good stuff.  Special thanks to We The People‘s Wayne Proctor for finding this.

In case you are wondering who the hell was Brinsley Schwarz, that was the band which launched Nick Lowe.  Listen to this all the way through and you will  hear what I mean.

I have been trumpeting radio station KSHE in St. Louis for years and they are finally catching up.  If you want to know what real radio was/is, check out this documentary when it is up and running.

I remember Sons of Bill.  Boy, do I remember them.  They were just making inroads as a band when I stumbled upon them quite by accident a number of years ago.  The beginnings of my obsession with Charlottesville and its music scene.  Where I found Danny Schmidt, Devon Sproule, Paul Curreri, Joia Caldwell and so many others.  Where music lived.  Where the Wilson boys lived— Sons of Bill.  They have done all right, I suppose, but I wonder why they didn’t blow the socks off at least the Southeast or maybe the whole East.  Why they didn’t sweep the whole of America off its feet.  Why they didn’t all go solo and make real marks.  I am reminded now and again how fickle the music world is.  These guys shoulda been contenders.

Ron Gallo has a good sense of humor, if nothing else.  His new album, Heavy Meta, has regurgitated Put the Kids to Bed into the world.  I would have liked it in the sixties.  I like it now.  I need to hear the whole album, just to see if this is a fluke.

Something tells me the new one by Mike Barnett is going to be one musicians will go for.  With a title like Portraits In Fiddles,  it will be a musician’s dream.  What I’ve heard has me coinvinced.

From Darling West.  A beauty of a song performed beautifully.  It won a Grammy in Norway (and for good reason).

I am not really sure what I think of Brother Roy, but I dig the video and love the saxes and organ.  I have a feeling this will grow on me.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Soft Fangs.

Greta van Fleet is rocking the UK pretty hard right now.  The US is next.  Hell, it might already be happening.


Frank’s column appears every Tuesday

Contact us at

dbawis-button7Frank Gutch Jr. looks like Cary Grant, writes like Hemingway and smells like Pepe Le Pew. He has been thrown out of more hotels than Keith Moon, is only slightly less pompous than Garth Brooks and at Frank bottle capone time got laid at least once a year (one year in a row). He has written for various publications, all of which have threatened to sue if mentioned in any of his columns, and takes pride in the fact that he has never been quoted. Read at your own peril.”

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