Soul Shadows on Savant (CD Review)

Soul Shadows
Denise Donatelli
Savant CD

Los Angeles based vocalist Denise Donatelli, joined by pianist/arranger Geoffrey Keezer, presents a mixed program of jazz standards and “classy” pop songs on her third Savant Records release Soul Shadows. Some are adorned with strings, others feature small jazz combos, and most are given straight ahead treatment; a noteworthy exception is a bossa nova rendition of the Joe Sample penned title song. Donatello’s voice and phrasing are flexible, her interpretations suave and detailed without being fussy. Keezer’s arrangements are very finely constructed, keeping in mind and flattering Donatelli’s instrument while providing ample interest themselves. A CD that is consistently appealing and rewards repeated listenings, Soul Shadows is one of our favorite jazz vocal recordings of 2012.

Stile Antico Explore Holy Week (CD Review)

Passion and Resurrection
Stile Antico
Harmonia Mundi CD

November might seem like an unusual time to release a CD titled Passion and Resurrection. But Stile Antico’s latest recording for Harmonia Mundi is a welcome addition to their catalogue regardless of any dissonance with the liturgical calendar.

With one notable exception, the disc presents a mixed program of Continental and English Renaissance music. There is one 21st century piece – a setting of “Woefully Arrayed” by English composer John McCabe (b. 1939). Commissioned for Stile Antico, this first recording of McCabe’s piece is nearly as scintillating as the performance I heard of it in New York in 2011. That’s saying something, as I then found the work a gripping, even wrenching, depiction of Christ’s agony. Reiterated pileups of dissonant polychords create a visceral imitation of hammer blows, while sinuous lines offset the more rhythmically charged passages with a plaintive keening. It’s instructive to hear another setting of the poem by William Cornysh (1465-1523), in which paired imitations and melismas provide an entirely different, yet in its own way quite moving, musical outpouring of grief.

There are lively selections on the CD as well. Particularly fine is Stile Antico’s rousing renditions of Orlando Gibbons’s Hosanna to the Son of David and William Byrd’s In Resurrectione Tua. And one would be remiss not to mention the delicacy of Stile Antico’s version of O Crux Ave by Christobal de Morales as well as the sumptuous sound that the singers display in Thomas Tallis’s O Sacrum Convivium and Jean Lheritier’s Surrexit Pastor Bonus. What about the goose bump inducing purity of their intonation on  Dum Transisset by John Taverner? This is one of those few recordings that makes it exceedingly difficult to zero in on the standout moments. While one does wonder if their use of  ”hairpins” as a means of dynamic contrast is always stylistically correct – it seems perhaps a bit overdone on Orlando de Lassus’s De Monte Oliveti, this is a little quibble; one is certainly glad to hear the thoughtfulness and desire to make meaningful contrasts that are evidently part of their interpretative process. Even in the Advent and Christmas season, there’s room for listening to Passion and Resurrection.

Jörg Widmann: Elegie (CD Review)

Jörg Widmann

Widmann, clarinet; Heinz Holliger, oboe;
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie, Christoph Poppen, conductor

ECM New Series 2110

39 year old Jörg Widmann is a virtuoso clarinetist and one of Germany’s rising stars in the realm of music composition. Both of these aspects of his talents are on display in a new portrait disc released by ECM Records. Christoph Poppen, one of the label’s mainstays (another multi-talented musician – a fine violinist and conductor) leads the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie in a program that displays Widmann as a musician with a diversity of interests and a multi-faceted compositional toolkit to match.

The disc’s title work features Widmann playing a plethora of extended techniques, haloed by orchestral writing that is primarily atmospheric with occasional fierce outbursts. Messe, despite its moniker and movement titles mirroring the Ordinary of the liturgy, is for large orchestra sans voices. Fastidious attention is given to contrapuntal details in several “contrapuncti” movements. Elsewhere a juxtaposition of weighty tutti and long-breathed angular melodies provide some surprising textural shifts.

Fünf Bruchstücke (1997) are early works that feature clarinet and oboe. The latter duties are fulfilled by oboist/composer Heinz Holliger (another formidable double threat!). The two are given many opportunities to display the extended technical capabilities of their respective instruments. But it is the sense of cat and mouse interaction and the energetic elan that typifies much of the compositions’ demeanor that make them far more captivating than many a virtuoso showcase.

Widmann weds musicality and technical facility seamlessly. While the episodic nature of this program gives tantalizing glimpses of his potential, one looks forward to the composer/clarinetist expanding his horizons to larger formal designs on a future recording.

Alisa Weilerstein Meets Elliott Carter (Video)

When I heard about Elliott Carter’s passing on Monday, many thoughts went went through my mind, including wondering whether the composer had gotten to hear cellist Alisa Weilerstein’s exquisite performance of his Cello Concerto. Her interpretation on a new disc from Decca is a distinctive one, rivaling previous interpreters Yo-Yo Ma and Fred Sherry in terms of technical acumen and bringing a dramatic heft to the piece’s solo part that is most impressive. I hadn’t yet seen the video (embedded below) of a meeting this past summer of Weilerstein and Carter, in which the composer coaches her through some of the concerto’s trickiest passages. Alex Ross posted it yesterday on The Rest is Noise and I’m grateful to see Carter in a convivial mood, wit undiminished and with musical insights aplenty to share.

If you haven’t heard the recording, I strongly recommend it. Not only is Weilerstein’s performance of the Carter noteworthy, she, along with the Staatskapelle Berlin conducted by Daniel Barenboim, also presents a beautifully vibrant performance of the Elgar Concerto and a supple rendition of Bruch’s Kol Nidre.

Stifters Dinge on ECM (CD Review)

Heiner Goebbels
Stifters Dinge
ECM Records New Series CD

Stifters Dinge is a “soundtrack album” for a 2007 theatrical installation by composer/director Heiner Goebbels.The work features five mechanical pianos that were reconfigured to produce all sorts of sounds, pianistic and otherwise. Spoken word excerpts by famous figures — Claude Levi-Strauss, William S. Burroughs, and Malcom X — along with Bill Patterson’s mellifluous reading of a text by the work’s titular figure, Romantic era writer Adelbert Stifter, are joined by field recordings from far flung destinations: Greece, Latin America, and Papua New Guinea .

Photo: © Mario del Curto. Used with kind permission.

Integral to the work’s staging are elemental components: water, ice, smoke, stones, etc. These supply still another layer of the recording’s sound world. Often, as one finds with the crackling ice recordings heard during Patterson’s narration, these natural sounds take on a role supportive of the piece’s narrative. Elsewhere they seem to be part of its abstract musical fabric. The music itself is of similarly varigated design. The mechanical pianos sometimes make utterances closer to the realm of found sound and experimental electronics. These are mixed with more identifiably pianistic scalar passages. Chromatic clusters and, contrastingly, a bit of Bach’s Italian Concerto, make appearances.

Photo © Mario del Curto. Used with kind permission.

Of course, questions of identity are inevitably posed when confronting any work by Goebbels: what does this accumulation of disparate stuff mean? Does it cohere? I can’t answer the first question, as I’m certain that there as many pathways into Stifters Dinge as there are elements contained within it. And the second question is elusive too. Goebbels allows his materials to share the same space without forcing them into congruity. Instead, the listener (and, in the case of a live performance, viewer) is invited to engage with a design built out of elements that are in a variety of relationships with one another: sometimes in tension or opposition and at others in accord. And, one finds that when these simpatico sonic meetings happen, like oases in the midst of flux, they are often quite moving. Thus, Goebbels treats both the sounds with which he composes and the listeners who attend to them with a great deal of respect. Stifters Dinge may require much, even from a thoughtful listener, but it rewards them with an imaginative labyrinth of appealing sounds to explore.

Simian Mobile Disco: A Form of Change (review)

Simian Mobile Disco

A Form of Change EP

Wichita Recordings

Four tracks recorded during sessions for Unpatterns their 2012 full length (also on Wichita) comprise Simian Mobile Disco’s A Form of Change EP. Like the LP, there is a sense of space and, in places, ambiance afoot that opens up the sound spectrum;  Form of Change rids itself of a bit of the busier passagework found in their early recordings. This may cause the pieces to be a bit less visceral in impact; but the economy of means allows for one to position these pieces somewhere between downtempo dancehall and ambient IDM, a fertile ground that, prior to this year, wasn’t really in SMD’s bailiwick. The change of musical approach works handily.

Interview: Paging Mandolinist Chris Thile

Chris Thile. Photo: Danny Clinch.

Would you believe it if you got a telephone call telling you that you’ve just won the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, known as the “Genius Grant?” There are many stories about “the call.” One such anecdote: In 1982, when composer Ralph Shapey got the call, he thought it was a prank; he couldn’t believe that he would be given such a generous award with no strings attached.


One can understand the awardees’ surprise: after all, it isn’t every day that an artist, scientist, or author gets a half million dollars out of the blue. After highly secret deliberations, a representative from the MacArthur Foundation calls a recipient of a fellowship to tell them the good news: you’ve just been given a large sum of money to acknowledge what you do and, hopefully, enable you to engage in your work more fully for years to come.


As he relates in a conversation this past Wednesday, when the MacArthur Foundation called mandolinist Chris Thile to tell him that they planned to give him an award, Thile initially didn’t take the call. En route to a gig with his band Punch Brothers in Nashville, Tennessee, he saw a number come up on his mobile phone and decided not to answer.  Since this is election season, he thought a call from area code (312) – Chicago – might be someone reminding him to vote. Later, the caller left a message, indicating that they had a matter of ‘extreme importance’ to discuss with Thile. Guessing it might be someone who needed a mandolin player for a gig or a recording session, Thile didn’t immediately return the call.


At the gig, he got another message. This time, in addition to stressing the importance of the matter, the message also said, ‘don’t tell anyone about this.’ About then Thile went from disinterested to scared.


He says, “After all, in the movies, when someone says ‘tell no one of this,’ that’s usually when someone else is about to get shot! So, what did I do? Went and told someone – my tour manager, who offered to Google the number and see what the story might be. When he came back and told me that it was the MacArthur Foundation calling, I started to freak out.”


Thile was familiar with the foundation because Edgar Meyer, a musician he greatly admires, a frequent collaborator whom he considers a mentor, had won a MacArthur Fellowship.


“Two weeks after learning the news, I’m still surprised and humbled, still just coming to grips with this honor,” he says. “I mean I’m a mandolin player – I just hope I can blend in with the other recipients of the award. It makes me feel like I’ve got to step up my game in order to somehow become worthy of this honor.”


Self-effacing though he may be, Thile needn’t worry about his worthiness. Not only is he one hell of a mandolin player; he’s also a musician who has done a great deal to break down musical barriers and genre distinctions.

His prodigious exploits as a precocious musical youngster, followed by crossover appeal as part of the ‘Newgrass’ band Nickelcreek, work as a solo artist and with a host of collaborators – Meyer, Yo-Yo Ma, guitarist Michael Daves, and his current band Punch Brothers to name just a small sampling – demonstrate a work ethic that serves as a through line: Thile inhabits a stylistically versatile and keenly collaborative ambit.

The latest Punch Brothers recording, Who’s Feeling Young Now (Nonesuch, 2012), which Thile and the rest of the band are currently touring to support, is an object lesson in the mandolinist’s versatility. “Movement and Location” has an atmospheric alternative rock ambience, complete with a reverberant vocal hook, and is led by a propulsive mandolin ostinato and shadowy fiddle lines. “Flippin’ the Flip” is a hoedown tinged showcase for the whole band, while the title track features a funky groove and suave vocals and provides ample room for mandolin, fiddle, banjo, and electric guitar alike to strut their stuff in alternating solo turns. The band creates a layered and evocative sonic tapestry on a well-considered cover of Radiohead’s “Kid A” and assays a blustery barnburner of virtuosity on “New York City.” Those hankering for material with a more traditional folk/country vibe aren’t turned away either; “This Girl” and “Patchwork Girlfriend” find the Punch Brothers quite comfortable to craft arrangements with an acoustic bent and a wry sense of Nashville-tinged swing.


Although Punch Brothers are Thile’s current regular band, they comprise only a fraction of the musicians in his musical orbit. When asked about the range of collaborators with whom he works, whether this is a model he wants to sustain in his future activities, Thile replies enthusiastically, “I think it’s the way of the future for musicians. Recently, I got the chance to premiere my Mandolin Concerto with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. They were so open-minded, which made it a wonderful experience.”


What about mandolinists who, for Thile, fit the “genius” category? Again self-effacing, he makes it clear that, in mentioning artists whose music is a touchstone, he’s not comparing himself to them.


Thile says, “Listen first for the music that someone is making, not the instrument they are playing. An instrument is like a hammer: it’s a tool. The house is so much more than the hammer. The musicians I most enjoy listening to transcend boundaries; they transcend themselves when making music. There are so many that it is hard to mention just a few, but I get that sense of musicality when I listen to Edgar Meyer or Bela Fleck; Charlie Parker, Glenn Gould, and, more recently, Brad Mehldau and Hilary Hahn. In terms of mandolin players, again it’s hard to mention just a few. For starters, I’d say you’d have to mention Sam Bush, John Reischman, and Mike Marshall. And John Moore, a wonderful mandolinist who was one of my teachers and remains a great influence on me.”


It’s early days in terms of deciding what to do with the MacArthur Award, but it’s clear that Thile envisions possibilities for ambitious projects. He says, “I hope to have the chance to work with some of my favorite artists and to have the time to compose; to work on writing things with other musicians. I’d like to work together on some pieces that are, say, in lead sheet form – and some unfinished pieces that are in the idea stage as well. One thing’s for certain: winning this stokes the white-hot fire of creativity in me.”


In awarding a fellowship to Thile, the MacArthur Foundation seems to have chosen someone who, while possessing the skills of a virtuoso, is much more than a mandolin player. His speech is nearly as nimble as his fingers on the fretboard. It makes him an excellent advocate for the importance of music in our schools, our society, and our day-to-day lives. Thile’s enthusiasm for music is infectious.


Hirundo Maris

Hirundo Maris
Arianna Savall and Petter Udland Johansen
ECM New Series 2227 CD/Digi

Swiss soprano and harpist Arianna Savall pairs with Norwegian folksinger, Hardanger fiddle player, and mandolinist Petter Udland Johansen on Hirundo Maris (Latin for “Sea Swallow”), a recording on ECM’s New Series. They are joined by Sveinung Lilleheier (guitar, Dobro, backing vocals),  Miquel Àngel Cordero (double-bass, backing vocals), and David Mayoral (percussion, backing vocals) in an outing that combines folk material from multiple traditions (from both Northern and Southern Europe), early music instruments and performance practices, and improvised original pieces.

This is one of the recordings that we keep playing: at home, in the car on the way to work; I’ve even inserted it into a classroom lecture. Like many ECM releases, the overall ambiance is lovely: spacious yet detailed with each voice and instrument able to be pinpointed in the sound field with crystalline clarity.

The material is heavily weighted towards ballads, including particularly lovely versions of  ”The Water is Wide” and the Catalan traditional song “El Mestre:” a showcase for Savall’s lustrous soprano. But the program is punctuated by livelier selections too; the Sephardic song “Ya salio de la mar” and the Norwegian folksong “Ormen lange,” a terrifically syncopated tour de force for both Johansen and Mayoral. This is certain to be on many “best of” lists of recordings at the end of the year: ours included.


Dan Deacon: an App for America

Dan Deacon


Domino Records


America is electronic musician Dan Deacon’s third full length recording, and his first for the Domino imprint. It would be easy for someone uninitiated with Deacon’s previous work to assume that this is a “rah-rah” type of artistic statement, but those familiar with his usually dense and sometimes frenetic music are forgiven if they wondered if there was some tongue in cheek joke intended by the title.

There’s not: Deacon intends the album to be an exploration of his experiences as an American, albeit one of a more left-leaning, even countercultural, mindset than the artists who are usually found putting “America” in their albums’ titles. According to recent interviews, including one in the New York Times, Deacon’s initial response to the post 9/11 era was to feel disassociated from his national identity. Over time, realizing that, despite wrestling with or flat out rejecting many of the Bush era’s policies and value systems, and some that have persisted under the current president, Deacon found that he couldn’t escape an association with his country of origin, even when travelling abroad. America is a musical work based on this reintegration experience.

A somewhat puzzling aspect of the Times profile linked above: it emphasizes a narrative of Deacon as a burgeoning contemporary classical composer that seems to soft pedal his formidable capacities as a creator of effusive, if at times knotty, electronica by making it sound as if this aspect of his work might be moving into the rear view mirror. To be sure, Deacon has a sheepskin from SUNY Purchase in electronic music composition and credits on crossover events such as Merkin Hall’s Ecstatic Music series. That said, there’s no need for an either/or juxtaposition. Even in the midst of the album’s formidable “B side,” a four movement suite titled USA, Deacon hasn’t left his beats at home. What he’s done instead is to integrate them into a fabric that gives a nod to the wide dynamic spectrum of concert music and incorporates some of its instrumentation into a porous, even shape shifting, musical fabric. These are songs writ large, with an artist gaining greater depth of awareness, exploring nuances of arrangement, and striking a pose that serves as a sharp contrast to any homegrown jingoist ideas about music-making.

Alongside the release of America, Deacon has also released a free Dan Deacon app. Featuring a synthesizer loop program, spectrogram, dB meter, and links to other Deacon activities, it’s a fun addition to one’s smart phone or tablet. I’m lobbying for the designers to add the ability to take a picture of the spectrographs you create, which would make it very useful for composers.

Dan Deacon App video

Animal Collective: “Today’s Supernatural” (Video)

The video for “Today’s Supernatural,” a song from Animal Collective’s new recording Centipede Hz is, in many ways, reflective of the impressions one takes away from the LP itself. Boisterous, colorful, busily attired, kaleidoscopically varied, and dizzying in the juxtaposition of its gestural and stylistic vocabularies, Centipede Hz is both a confirmation of the long term overarching trajectory of Animal Collective’s music making and an upping of the ante of indie pop’s penchant for postmodern juxtaposition.

If 2009′s  Merriweather Post Pavillion was Animal Collective’s dalliance with the indie mainstream,  Centipede Hz finds them back in more musically challenging environs. Whether the band will continue further down this pathway of experimentation, or instead return to the (relatively speaking) more pop functional language found on Merriweather Post Pavilion, Animal Collective seems destined in the future to find still more ways to surprise its listeners.

Centipede Hz is available now via Domino Records.