Written and directed by Richard Karpen

My good friend Richard Karpen recently asked me to write the notes for an upcoming NEUMA Records release of two of his compositions: Elliptic (Strandlines II) and Aperture IIAperture II was written for the JACK Quartet, and Elliptic for JACK Quartet and The Six Tones, a Sweden-based ensemble of guitar, dàn tranh (Vietnamese zither), and dàn bau (Vietnamese monochord). I hadn’t heard any of Richard’s recent music, the project interested me, and so I asked for the recordings and scores. Richard sent me the CD master recordings and the link to this YouTube video of Aperture II:

I was blown away by the beauty, the patience, and the intensity of the music and the performance. Elliptic (Strandlines II) was remarkable as well with its blending of Western and Vietnamese stringed instruments (no YouTube link for that—you’ll have to buy the CD).

But I was out of luck on getting the scores. “These works have no scores,” he wrote in an email, “But they are not improvised in the usual meaning of that word.” He was somewhat vague about it in his email, but went into more detail during a Skype interview. In these pieces and others he was looking for a way for the composition to still “be a piece”, but not have any notation. And so he worked out a way to coach the players into a particular structure that could be understood and repeated from performance to performance, but which doesn’t rely on particular pitch content, etc. He was quick to note that this is nothing new: “I discovered the pieces, not the way of working.” He compares it to Indian music and the films of Mike Leigh; I suggested that the music be billed as “written and directed by Richard Karpen.”

We discussed many more details about these specific pieces and the way they were composed. I tried to capture some of this in the notes, but not too much. I don’t like to over-specify things in liner notes and put too many inflexible ideas in people’s heads. I’ve known Richard for years, but this is the first opportunity I’ve had to write about his music, and it was a pleasure. The notes are here on the website, and the CD will be coming out later this year or early in 2016.

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