Matthew Sharp cello Orchestra X / Nicholas Kok conductor The Continuum Ensemble, Ensemble X / Philip Headlam conductor Quartet X
Tim Harries bass guitar Errollyn Wallen voice
NMC Recordings NMC D221
A composer, vocalist, and pianist, Errollyn Wallenwears many hats and works in a plethora of styles. Photography, a disc devoted to her orchestra music, demonstrates that polystylism in exuberant abundance. References to Bach, Britten, and Vaughan Williams appear alongside moments that remind one of Duke Ellington. Wallen’s Cello Concerto alone mixes Impressionist harmonies, modernist angularity, touches of modal jazz, and ebullient virtuosity. The solo part’s challenges are handled with assuredness by Matthew Sharp, an artist who plays the cello with particular sweetness in its upper register and fleet trills (technical demands incorporated by Wallen). Conductor Nicolas Kok shapes the sometimes intricate counterpoint found in the orchestral writing with crystalline clarity.
Philip Headlam leads the Continuum Ensemble in The Hunger, a muscular piece with brawny brass fanfares, explosive interjections from percussion, and darkly hued interludes for the whole ensemble. It is some of Wallen’s weightiest and most portentous writing for instruments to date.
The title work, on the other hand, beams with vivacity. The first movement’s burbling ostinatos give way to the second movement’s stately fugato texture. The third movement, at first lyrically reflective, fills with ominous pile-ups of dissonance. Wallen has said that the final movement revolves around the type of modality in favor with the English pastoral school. So it does, but she puts her own stamp on it with a bustling dance over a drone that closes out the piece in exuberant fashion.
Wallen herself joins Quartet X and bass guitarist Tim Harries for In Earth, a gloss on Purcell’s famous aria from Dido and Aeneas. The piece features a long introduction populated by extended techniques and glissandos. Gradually, the famous ground bass and melody emerge from these textures, followed by Wallen, singing sotto voce, in a supple and poignant rendition of the aria. Certain melodic passages are fragmented and extended, making for a fascinating kaleidoscope of materials. Photography often deals with music of the past, but Wallen brings it vividly into communication with music of the present.
The initial release from Spoken Records is titled Greetings from here: Audio Postcards in Transition, by Pauline Gloss. An independent literary label, Spoken Records explores the aural and textural implications of language that is “… twisted, bent, warped, broken in service of new ways of comprehending.” Each of the nine postcards in this album are spoken messages from Pauline Gloss to a named correspondent. Created over a period of just two weeks, they are short and confessional in nature – dealing with trans-identity, mental illness, heartbreak and living in a new city. Greetings from here is in the Text-Sound tradition – containing no formal music – but is nevertheless charged with emotion and meaning that extend far beyond the words. As Pauline Gloss wrote: “I was speaking directly from a moment, a landscape, a well. The document as a whole might be read as an attempt at a personal geography in time.”
All of the tracks on this CD are short – from 2 to 5 minutes – and were uttered directly into a laptop microphone. The intentionally low-tech feel adds to the immediate and intimate atmosphere. All of the tracks begin with the words: “Greetings from “, followed by the title of the track. The first of these begins “Greetings from Nylons and a Straight-Jacket,” and you immediately notice that the speaking voice of Ms. Gloss is a deep baritone. Although only lightly alluded to in the liner notes, this is because Ms. Gloss is transgender. Three speaking tracks are mixed together in Nylons and a Straight-Jacket – one is just a series of repeated numbers, but the others describe the unpacking and ordering of possessions in the new apartment. There is a sense of uncertainty here, and the challenges of unfamiliar living arrangements seem to weigh heavily. Midway through, the subject turns to nylon stockings; how they should be worn and how they don’t always fit well. It is at this moment that the unexpectedly deep sound of the voice, the anxiety about relocation to a new place and the banal problems of wearing nylons all combine to elicit a most unlikely affinity and with it a strong empathy with the speaker. We become connected in a way that transcends the literal meaning of the words.
Other tracks on the CD describe different feelings and situations – but all deliver a similar poignancy. Folded Emotions, track 2, is wistful and affectionate, describing the gift of a folded crane made from a foil cigarette wrapper. There small talk about meeting again and how much Albert, the correspondent, is missed. Naming the Unnamable, track 4, is something of a rant about how Pauline’s name is misunderstood or mispronounced by strangers in a way that seems to question her very identity; a compelling insight into a battle most of us never have to fight.
In The Clear Sighted Telephone, a postcard addressed to a friend, Pauline acknowledges that she had just been in a facility as a result of a psychotic break, and that in this distress she imagined that there was a telephone where she could could talk to any of her friends. Her name, Pauline, was taken from the bible she was reading there – from the story of the apostle Paul, blinded on the road to Damascus – and in this new vision there arose a new reality. Track 6, Typewritten in Stone, is accompanied by the sound of a typewriter and a separate track singing Only the Lonely. The words describe being envious of a woman who is magnetically attractive – and seemingly never lonely. Conversely track 7, Valentines Day Reclaimed, deals with finding an unlikely sense of community at the local Thai restaurant among strangers who spoke no English, but whose warm acceptance of Pauline held off the loneliness of that day, if only for a few hours.
Track 8, Pre-Heartbreak Heartbreak, describes an emotional attachment that Pauline has developed for another girl in the outpatient program who is also in crisis. The sound of the run-out grooves from a vinyl record play in the background. Pauline feels helpless yet deeply involved – unable to spare any emotional energy for support of another. There is a real sense of despair here – an ending before the thing has even begun. All of the tracks on this CD bring us face to face with the burdens our culture has imposed on those whose gender and identity are a work in progress – and this recording is a gift of great courage and unmistakable sacrifice.
Greetings from here is a truly extraordinary album, placing the listener in completely new emotional terrain. This is powerful material, bearing witness to a complex and unguarded vulnerability that most of us can hardly imagine.
Greetings from here is available directly from Spoken Records. and is also downloadable.
Björk’s most recent studio album has already received two releases: Vulnicura and the “unplugged version” Vulnicura Strings. Each has their virtues, but Vulnicura Live brings the best aspects of both, darkly hued electronica and sensuous strings respectively, together with singularly emotive performances by the singer. Thus, one could make a case that Live is even more appealing than the studio albums. It outlines her recent breakup and recovery from it with an on the surface display of feelings that many other singers could learn from — if they dared to be as vulnerable as Björk.
On the electronics side, Björk receives aid from Arca and Haxan Cloak. The textures that they weave are a pensive counterweight to the sonorous strings, allowing them to be underpinned with an anguished mixture of beats and synthetic textures just as appealing as they are at times distressing. The strings, supplied by members of Alarm Will Sound and New Heritage Orchestra, keen with abandon when called upon as an amplification of the singer’s grief. Correspondingly, they bring warmth to the proceedings’ latter half, in which Björk begins to share songs of resilience and recovery.
So, is this the breakup album you’d recommend to a friend on the outs with their ex? That all depends on their own proclivities – are they up for the ride? Björk presents grief and resiliency in equal measure and finds her own way to catharsis by Live’s conclusion. My take? It’s an object lesson that will likely help empower many in the throes of distress. That, in addition to its many musical merits, makes Live one of Björk’s most vital offerings to date.
Eirik Hegdal, saxophones/clarinettes; Trygve Seim, saxophones; Thomas T Dahl, guitar; Rob Waring, vibraphone/marimba; Harmen Fraanje, piano/fender rhodes; Olavi Louhivuori, drums; Mats Eilertsen, bass
In his debut as a leader on ECM, Rubicon, bassist Mats Eilertsen fronts a formidable septet of musicians with whom he has collaborated on many previous sessions. To be fair, many of the tracks on Rubicon feature subsets of the larger group, but the overall musical effect is filled with fascinating textures regardless. Apart from a single tune by pianist Harmen Fraanje and a group-composed piece, the compositions here are all by Eilertsen. He proves to be as adept a creator as he is a performer.
It is particularly interesting to hear Eilertsen interact with the comping instruments, Thomas T. Dahl’s guitar, Rob Waring’s vibraphone and marimba, and Fraanje’s piano and Fender Rhodes. There is a sense in which the bass’s walking lines set up another whole layer of harmony, allowing chordal interjections to be interposed with linear excursions by all three aforementioned players. This sense of “walking harmony” and the rhythmically propulsive quality in Eilertsen’s playing is equally savory when juxtaposed against the playing of the two saxophonists on the date, Eirik Hegdal and Trygve Seim. Seim is well known to ECM listeners; Hegdal makes his debut. The enveloping quality of their duets is stirring and it makes for formidable counterpoint against the rhythm section.
photo: André Løyning
Album opener “Canto” begins with a winds cadenza, accompanied by marimba, after which Eilertsen makes his presence known and Fraanje supplies a wistful solo. Eilertsen’s subsequent solo is pristine in its lyricism and drummer Olavi Louhivuori provides subtle interjections. “March” may be a slow-paced composition, but it has an adroit buildup and memorable melodic material. Waring’s vibraphone playing is marvelous. “Lago” begins sparely, with a duet between Fraanje and Eilertsen that only gradually cedes some territory to the saxophone. Fraanje shapes his solo with technical poise and a keen sense of pacing, later further developing its melodic material alongside the saxophones.
“Wood and Water,” co-composed by Eilertsen with Waring and Hegdal, features the latter musician playing clarinet. It begins misterioso, but in two minutes travels to considerably more jocular terrain. Short and sweet, but one wishes this trio played on longer. More expansive is album standout “September” which is given its motor by a riff first stated in the vibraphone and then taken over by the bass. The vibraphone takes on a more linear role, joined by saxophone and guitar on overlapping melodies. Both guitar and vibraphone are given ample room to solo and eventually are joined in ensemble passages by the saxophone. All of this builds to the piece’s climax, followed by a denouement that returns the proceedings to the simple ostinato riff from the opening in the vibraphone, gently coaxed to its conclusion by the other ensemble members. Whether the band is given room to develop material or are directed to take a more aphoristic collective approach, Eilertsen’s Rubicon has many moments of noteworthy music-making.
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.