Works by James Primosch, Stephen Albert, and Christopher Patton
Lucie Shelley, treble; Mary Mackenzie, soprano
21st Century Consort; Christopher Kendall, conductor
Albany Records CD Troy 1615
Washington’s National Cathedral might not be the first place one considers as the best to record chamber forces. But Cathedral Music, the 21st Century Consort’s new Albany recording, revels in the space. Soprano Mary Mackenzie’s supple rendition of James Primosch’s Sacred Songs and Meditations sounds clear as crystal. The song cycle collects ancient hymns and refashions them into a beautiful collection of graceful, often chant-inflected, melodies.
The intricate polyphony and antiphony of the title work, by the late Stephen Albert, is warmly acoustically attired. Like all of Albert’s work, the orchestration is sumptuous, providing an intriguing palette of colors that complements the primarily angular melodic gestures. Christopher Patton’s Out of Darkness provides a muscular closer, with clarinet cadenzas set against boisterous percussion and angular chordal punctuation. Conductor Christopher Kendall and company are to be commended for negotiating a host of balance challenges to craft a fine document of three compelling works.
There are several recordings out this year commemorating Steve Reich at eighty (Allan Kozinn provides more about this in an excellent WSJ article). I haven’t yet heard the LSO’s CD, but I agree with Kozinn’s assessment that both Third Coast Percussion and Ensemble Signal have provided us with stirring listening in their respective new entries into Reich’s discography.
Brad Lubman leads Signal in musically detailed and energetic performances of both of the pieces included on this Harmonia Mundi CD. The first, Double Sextet (2007),garnered Reich the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in Music. Originally composed for six musicians – the chamber ensemble Eighth Blackbird – to play against prerecorded versions of themselves, here Double Sextet is recast as a work for a dozen individual performers. Within each movement’s overall tempo, there are overlapping time strands operating at various tempi. The combination of these two factors – compositional and performative – allows for a virtuosic level of syncronization. This complexity of rhythm corresponds to the enhanced harmonic palette that Reich employs here, with many more “crunch chords” than is his usual wont.
Sure, Radio Rewrite does contain elements of two Radiohead songs: “Everything in its Right Place” and “Jigsaw Falling into Place.” Their appearances are ephemeral and one gathers that the songs’ influence is to be felt far more beneath the surface of the piece than is to be found in mere quotation; they stoke the motoric engine that buoys this energetic and engaging work.
Rhyolite is an abandoned gold mining town in southwest Nevada and also the title of a new LP album on vinyl from populist records. Featured on this record are works by Chris Kallmyer, Julia Holter and Lucky Dragons (Luke Fischbeck, Sarah Rara) . The pieces on this album are connected by a unique sound installation, a sense of remoteness, a constant blowing wind and the haunting landscapes of the deep desert.
Side A of the record contains Fence, Amargosa Desert by Chris Kallmyer. This is a field recording of a sound installation consisting of some 200 old glass bottles collected in Rhyolite and mounted on a wire fence to catch the desert wind. The fence was created in 2010 and recorded by Chris and Andrew McIntosh on May 24, 2013. The sound of this is more musical than might be imagined – much like flutes combined with a pipe organ. The bottles are not tuned to any specific pitch and many were deformed after over a hundred years of lying in the desert heat. As a result, a number of different tones are heard at once. The colors, although muted, are nevertheless very appealing and seem centered in the middle and lower registers. The wind activating this is barely heard above a low roar and the smoothly sustained tones gently rise and fall in volume accordingly. There is a definite aeolian character to this, but a mysterious and remote feel as well. At times there is a percussive sound as if one of the bottles is knocking against a fence post, and this adds a nice counterpoint to the otherwise fluid texture.
The tones from the bottles seem to be always changing – in volume, intensity or by slight variations in pitch and yet there is a timeless and settled feel to this piece, deliberate and constant, like the desert wind that animates it. This is the sonic equivalent of watching a fire with dancing flames. The Wind in High Places by John Luther Adams convincingly evoked the wind from music – Fence, Amargosa Desert succeeds in creating music from the wind.
Track 1 on Side B of the record is Why We Come to Californy sung by Julia Holter, in response to the recording of Fence, Amargosa Desert. A song from the dust bowl days, Why We Come to Californy was originally written by Flora Robertson and first published by Shafter FSA Camp in 1940. Ms. Holter recorded this in the open air of the native plant nursery that is part of the Theodore Payne Foundation in Sun Valley. Sounds of the open space accompany – a light breeze, birds chirping – the singing seems to be a natural part of the organic surroundings. The words are clear and precise with long, pure tones – not fast but deliberately meandering and without conventional melody. The tones are often extended and sustained – reminiscent of the sound of the bottles in Fence, Amargosa Desert.
This simple folk song has a strong connection to the environment, as Ms. Holter explained in the liner notes: “They were escaping the dust in Oklahoma – but I feel like there is even more dust here! The song is about the environment messing with you – or that you are messing with it. This was interesting to me because it’s also how I understand the desert.“ Towards the end of the piece the singing voice is heard in layers, and this adds a mystical element as well as a touch of sadness. The pitch control and a cappella singing in the open air was effective and the recording took in just enough of the ambient sounds to make the connection of the song with the environment. Why We Come to Californy rises from the ground like a ghost from the distant past.
The remaining tracks on Side B are five short electronic compositions by Lucky Dragons, also created in response to Fence, Amargosa Desert. These appear to be processed from the Fence recording, but with original electronic elements added. As Luke Fischbeck of Lucky Dragons explained: “I’m curious about the layer of meaning that can be added to the landscape. And if I can separate the two (landscape and sound installation)? For me it’s been a process of reducing the recording of the fence to essential elements to try to strip away the markers of the original landscape and pick out the sounds that are more intentional. To find the intentionality in it.”
This succeeds admirably. In the first of these tracks, Wind at more than one speed, we hear the rushing of a gusty wind predominating over the somewhat subdued sound of multiple bottle tones. Just 50 seconds long, Wind at more than one speed captures more of the natural than the musical phenomena, although both elements are clearly present. The next track, Wind on four reasonant poles, has more of a constant wind velocity that establishes a tighter connection between the bottle tones and the environment. The result is more coherently mysterious and evocative of the remote, wide open spaces. Organized glass follows and this is a fully electronic realization, with conventionally pitched percussive notes, like idealized bottles tapped with mallets. A nice rhythmic groove develops as this piece proceeds, neatly crossing the line from a simulation of the sound installation to a musical abstraction of it.
Wind as a series of events takes the abstraction further, with bursts of loud static mixed with pure, sustained electronic realizations of the bottle tones. It is if a thunderstorm is intruding on the quiet solitude of the desert. The final track of the album, Permanent melody, completes the absorption of Fence, Amargosa Desert into the musical realm. There are no wind sounds heard and there is a new smoothness and fluidity to the bottle tones with a more robust and pure timbre. The deeper tones, as well as the higher pitches are increasingly active and seem to contain more overtones. The mysticism is still strongly present but this is clearly an idealized realization of the aeolian sounds recorded in the field.
These five Lucky Dragons tracks examine the original Fence sound installation recordings from a number of important perspectives – from the natural to the abstract – documenting the ways in which nature and musical phenomena can inhabit the same perceptive space. Kudos to Nick Tipp, who once again provides the critical editing and mixing skills that bring out the subtle details. The excellent mastering was done by Gil Tamazyan at Capsule labs. Rhyolite is benchmark album that stands squarely at the crossroads of sound, the natural environment and musical perception.
Rhyolite is available as a vinyl LP and via digital download directly from populist records.
Tõnu Kõrvits, composer and kannel; Anja Lechner, violoncello; Kadri Voorand, voice;
Talinn Chamber Orchestra, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Tõnu Kaljuste, conductor.
Estonian composer Tõnu Kõrvits is presented to full advantage on his ECM Series debut Mirrors. Most composers would be leery of having a live concert (this one from 2013) represent the first entry in their discography. However, the performers recorded here are dedicated and superlatively prepared advocates. And the setting – the Estonian Methodist Church in Tallinn – couldn’t be more ideally suited to the ample resonance that makes Kõrvits’s music sing.
While Arvo Pärt is the most famous composer from Estonia in the West, his countryman Veljo Tormis is a compelling creator as well. Pärt has explored the Judeo Christian tradition throughout much of his oeuvre. Tormis’s work is deeply steeped in Estonian folk music. Given his own background as a folk musician, notably as a performer on the kannel (an Estonian zither), it is understandable that Kõrvits would gravitate towards Tormis as a mentor figure. In addition to Kõrvits’s own compositions, there are arrangements of songs by Tormis, as well as a piece based upon one, on Mirror. That said, one hesitates to unduly conflate the two of them, Kõrvits has an individual voice to share, even in his arrangements of Tormis. His sense of harmony is particularly special — it glints from one side of the divide between modal and chromatic writing to the other.
The star of the show is cellist Anja Lechner, whose gorgeous tone and technical command make her an ideal protagonist for Kõrvits’s intensely dramatic instrumental writing. The composer’s talents, coupled with Lechner’s, shine particularly brightly in the piece “Seven Dreams of Seven Birds,” in which the solo cello merges with vocal choir and strings. All manner of ensemble juxtapositions are demonstrated and Lechner’s effortless sounding upper register playing is marvelously displayed.
Kõrvits is a talent; one of the next generation of Estonian composers who, while paying homage to elder statesmen such as Tormis and Pärt, is carving out his own compelling voice. Mirror is well worth a sterling recommendation.
Images is a new CD of original piano music by Jennifer Castellano who has composed and performs all 14 of the tracks heard on this album. Ms. Castellano received her Masters in Music and Composition from SUNY, Purchase, NY, has received commissions to write orchestral works for the North/South Consonance Chamber Orchestra and has been a featured artist on Marvin Rosen’s WPRB Classical Discoveries radio program.
The 14 tracks on this CD are all short pieces – the longest just a little over three minutes – but all are carefully crafted with a sense of style and structure that make each a miniature showpiece. Cool Cats, track 7 is typical, starting with a slow repetitive line in the left hand and a wistful melody above. Midway through the mood brightens as the tempo increases and more notes are heard. A repeat of the opening completes the form and provides a timely sense of closure. The counterpoint and harmony are solidly constructed and sensitively played.
Other tracks express variously different feelings, but all share the same attention to detail. Track 2, titled Three, has an easy, jazzy feel with a nice descending bass line. Peaceful Pause, track 3, is just a little over one minute long yet packs a strong sense of dramatic grandeur, like looking out from the top of a high mountain or taking in the view from a tall skyscraper. Ms. Castellano is from the New York area and many of the tracks in the first half of Images charmingly conjure the landscape and scenery of city. It is easy to imagine these pieces as the soundtrack of a video: Central Park, the bridges and riverfront, city streets and towering buildings – all are implicitly present in this music.
The second half of Images, tracks 8 through 14, were inspired by a trip to the Holy Land. Prayer at Dawn, track 9, starts with a low, dark chord and series of slow notes that suggest a brooding feel. As this progresses the colors lighten somewhat, but the tone is all seriousness. By the River, track 10, begins with a simple flowing counterpoint and an introspective accompanying melody. The mood brightens midway and the complexity of the counterpoint increases before slowing gracefully to a finish. The Garden, on track 13, has a slow, discouraging feel mixed with sadness and regret – perhaps inspired by the story of the arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Other tracks, such as In the Beginning and Avian Adventures, have the distinctive feel of dance music with strong rhythms and clean melodic lines. Modern Dance, on track 5, has syncopated rhythms and a bluesy harmonic feel. Dancing on Water, the last track on the CD has a bright, upbeat melody played at a brisk tempo and projects a happy, expressive feel. Much of the music on this CD would be at home in the dance studio.
The recording and mastering by Shaul Dover also deserve mention: each note and chord are clearly heard and the audio is well-balanced. Images is a precisely crafted series of miniatures, meticulously played, that artfully evoke the composer’s surroundings, both at home and abroad.
Images is available from Amazon and iTunes starting June 20, 2016
Composer/conductor James Wood has long been one of the “go-to” British musicians when it comes to percussion writing. For a number of years, he led Darmstadt’s percussion courses. He’s also organized and led vocal ensembles, notably Schola Cantorum of Oxford and New London Chamber Choir. Thus, his latest CD on NMC, combining voices and percussion ensembles, is a near-ideal way to appreciate his work.
Tongues of Fire is based on the story of Pentecost. Originally composed for Yale’sGlee Club, the piece brings out a Pan-American sensibility in Wood’s writing. The voice parts, impressively performed here by the MDR Leipzig Radio Choir, are in South American Spanish dialect. Correspondingly, the percussion parts feature salsa and other Latin rhythms. While the trip from Connecticut to South America seems a long one, the overall effect achieved here is stirring.
The second work, Cloud-Polyphonies, written for the Yale Percussion Group, is based upon various cloud-like formations. In the first movement, wooden instruments replicated the cries and flight of starlings. The second movement features metallophones creating mysteriously floating cloud-like formations. The finale, for over sixty drums, builds a thunderous buffalo stampede.
Tongues of Fire is led by Wood; Cloud-Polyphonies by Yale’s Director of Percussion Studies Robert Van Slice. Both do an admirable job with challenging pieces. As a composer, Wood not only has chops to spare. His aesthetic is an imaginative and purposeful one, which helps the listener to find compelling through-lines in each of his works.
Irvine Arditti, violin; Ensemble Signal, conducted by Brad Lubman; ensemble recherché; Alberto Rosado, piano; Adrián Sandi, bass clarinet
Born in Tehuacan, Puebla, Mexico in 1957 and a resident of London since 1979, Hilda Paredes is one of the most prominent Mexican composers of contemporary concert music. Her latest recording on Mode presents five chamber pieces in riveting performances.
The title work, written in memory of British composer Jonathan Harvey, is a collaboration between violinist Irvine Arditti and Ensemble Signal, conducted by Brad Lubman. Like many of Paredes’s works that include stringed instruments, Señales features a great number of glissandos, both fingered and sliding. Wind instruments supply gusting, whistling glissandos too. This technique is complemented by long sustained notes and fast angular passagework. The piece also displays deft use of percussion, including vibraphone, marimba, cimbalom, and all manner of unpitched percussion.
Páramo de voces, for piano and tape, is performed here by Alberto Rosado. Acerbically nimble sections of melodic writing are succeeded by emphatic fifths and octaves. There is some playing of the interior of the piano and the tape part adds resonance and sustained flute-like timbres to the proceedings. The Pierrot plus percussion piece Homenaje a Remedios Varo, premiered by the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble but played here by ensemble recherché,is cast in five short movements, almost like character pieces. The opening has a Feldman-esque sensibility about it: pianissimo and slow, with ambling placement of intervals. Elsewhere, the piece is populated by whirling motion and trills, harmonics, and Paredes’s ever present glissandos. There is a gradual buildup to a piano cadenza, followed by an exuberant finale filled with fast passages for each ensemble member in turn.
Adrián Sandi performs the solo bass clarinet piece Intermezzo malinconcio with precision and energy. Percussive single note punctuations, repeated passages, pitch bends, and angular lines demonstrate this as a composition that distills the essence of many of Paredes’s gestural interests. Some nice microtonal inflections too. ensemble recherché returns for the disc’s final work, Recuerdos del Porvenir. The group asked Paredes to use a particular plainchant, “Gloria Tibi Trinitas,” upon which to base the composition. The chant moves from the surface in melodic presentations to eventually be subsumed into the piece’s background. Recuerdos del Porvenir is remarkable in its composer’s imaginative use of this economic motive, deriving a great deal from the chant yet retaining the highly gestural and chromatic environment of her style. This recording is an engaging portrait of a fascinating composer.
Kliment Krylovskiy, clarinet
Vanessa Mollard, violin
Riko Higuma, piano
Blue Griffin Records CD/download
Formed at Manhattan School of Music in 2006, the Zodiac Trio have been ambitious in their commissioning projects. Joined by guest cellist Ariel Barnes, on their second album Dreamtime they tackle a program consisting entirely of 21st century music.
The CD features two substantial commissioned works: Lamentations, by Richard Danielpour, and Andrew List’s Klezmer Fantazye. As one might well expect, both use the scalar patterns and gestural language of Klezmer, Danielpour in plaintive fashion and List with greater exuberance. On Aboriginal Dreamtime, List uses that culture’s creation myth as a starting pointing for an evocative piece. The group switches gears on John Mackey’s Breakdown Tango. Joined by Barnes, the Zodiac demonstrates ample virtuosity, playing with rhythmic verve and tight knit ensemble coordination.
Dreamtime is capped off with Across the Universe, a twelve-piece collection featuring one-minute pieces all inspired by signs of the Zodiac. It is a great way to put a distinctive stamp on the commissioning process (each piece responds to its particular sign thoughtfully and imaginatively) and to provide a “taster platter” of several composers’ styles. Standouts include Stanley Hoffmann’s lilting dance for Capricorne, James Romig’s delicately mysterious Virgo, John McDonald’s piquant Scorpio, and Francine Trester’s bumptious Aries.
One hopes that Zodiac will continue commissioning. Dreamtime demonstrates that they excel at bringing new compositions to life.
Works by Sarah Kirkland Snider, Troy Herion, Mark Dancigers, Asha Srinivasan, Missy Mazzoli, and Patrick Burke
New Amsterdam CD/DL
Pianist Michael Mizrahi’s sophomore album Currents is out this week via New Amsterdam Records. Below is the considerably charming video introduction to the release, featuring excerpts from Troy Herion’s Harpsichords.
The title track, by Sarah Kirkland Snider, is a real standout. It adroitly covers a wide swath of both emotional and technical terrain. Thus, it is an ideal solo vehicle for Mizrahi, a pianist who clearly treasures this collection of works, each one filled with abundant variety. And the way that he plays them, he’s likely to make many listeners treasure them too.
Matmos (the duo of M. C. (Martin) Schmidt and Drew Daniel) uses an unusual sonic palette for their latest Thrill Jockey recording, Ultimate Care II. The sounds of the recording are made with the Whirlpool Ultimate Care II model washing machine in the basement of their home in Baltimore, Maryland. In addition to a plethora of washing sounds – the spin cycle is quite striking – Matmos enlisted the aid of various artists –Dan Deacon, Max Eilbacher (Horse Lords), Sam Haberman (Horse Lords), Jason Willett (Half Japanese), and Duncan Moore (Needle Gun) – to treat the machine both as a percussion instrument and as a source for computer music manipulations. The clincher: many of them do their laundry at Matmos’s apartment!
Jaded listeners might presume that the results would be gimmicky; they are anything but. To the contrary, one is startled by the array of sounds elicited from the Whirlpool and the thoughtful organization thereof. Who knew that riveting electronica could be made in a laundry room?