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Sean McCann

Various Artists

Cellar Vol. 1

Recital

The Recital label has issued a new CD titled Cellar, Vol. 1 and producer Sean McCann has assembled a talented group of composers and performers from around the world. Rob Magill and Celia Hollander (California), Michael Vincent Waller (New York), Alec Livaditis (Georgia), James Rushford and Joe Talia (Australia) all appear on this 76 minute CD of live recordings,  intended to be heard continuously, as if in concert.

Track 1 is Living in Specific Worlds (2015) by Rob Magill. This piece was created with tape machines, percussion and keyboard instruments and opens with a brief burst of applause, as if in performance. A series of various media sounds are heard from the tape – TV soundtracks, radio station snippets – along with musical instruments, whistles, etc. These generally overlap, cutting in and out for about 10 to 15 seconds. Occasionally a single sound is heard, but it is more often like being in a room where the channels of several televisions or constantly being changed. There is not much continuity or context here, but the variations in density and texture hold the attention of the listener. Feelings shift as different stations are heard – sometimes a familiar sound, sometimes something strange and without any context. Towards the finish the sounds of a video arcade are mixed with more snatches of TV programming, adding yet another layer to process. Living in Specific Worlds is an active and searching piece, a cogent metaphor for the demands on our attention in an information-saturated world.

Live in the Lobby (2015) by Alec Livaditis follows on track 2, and is an improvisation for solo cello. This begins with a run of playfully zany pizzicato notes and then a series of slow, darkly arco passages in the lower registers, full of distortion. The continues along very expressively before fading to a few seconds of silence. The pizzicato notes return – a bit more poignant now, and with a distinctly Asian feel – fading once more to silence. Arco again, heavy with drama, and a nicely moving line with deep, rich tones. This morphs into a slightly distorted and more nervous series of sustained notes that add a sense of tension and uncertainty before fading into the final silence. Live in the Lobby was actually recorded in a lobby in Atlanta and is an emotive and impassioned work, nicely realized around the edges of the range of the cello.

Michael Vincent Waller contributed two vibraphone pieces, ably performed by Caleb Herron. The first of these, Dreaming Vibes (2016) is on track 3 and opens with a slow, dreamy arpeggio that repeats, quietly evoking a simple, mystical feel. Slight variations follow, including moving the pitch up a step. Single notes are heard after each arpeggio, adding an air of dark mystery. Less than five minutes in duration, Dreaming Vibes floats comfortably along, immersing the listener in a warm bath of tremolo.

Vibraphone Studio (2012) followed and this has a more declarative tone with its strong sequence of single notes. This has a more wistful, introspective feel and contains some good counterpoint. Simple chords and a straightforward structure facilitate reflective contemplation, like standing outside on a winter night – cold, still and with the stars shining down. As the piece continues there is a dreamy, dance-like sequence and in later passages there is a bit more movement and activity, but this never strays very far from introspection. Vibraphone Studio is a quiet, meditative journey, nicely performed with an artful touch.

In keeping with the idea of a virtual concert, INTERMISSION, on track 5, is exactly that. Silence for a few moments, followed by a soft hissing, then the sound of liquid filling a glass. Gradually, the sounds of people talking are heard – with much lively discussion – just as if one were in the concert hall lobby. The chime of bells sounding the hour is a nice concluding touch.

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Trygve Seim

Rumi Songs

ECM CD 2449

 

Tora Augestad, vocalist; Frode Halfti, accordion; Svante Henryson, violoncello; Trygve Seim, tenor and soprano saxophones

 

Coleman Barks is the best known contemporary English translator of the works of 13th century poet Jelaluddin Rumi (1207-1273). His work is the inspiration for saxophonist Trygve Seim’s off-kilter yet musically engaging Rumi Songs, a collection of present day lieder with a medieval Persian twist. The ensemble assembled for this project is an unorthodox grouping, with Seim on saxophones, mezzo-soprano Tora Augestad serving as vocalist, accordionist Frode Halfti, and cellist Svante Henryson.

 

The combination of textures that the group summons to accompany Augestad’s winsome vocals is abundantly varied but invariably pleasing. Halfti, in particular, brings a mercurial set of tone colors to bear, shadowing Seim and/or Henryson to craft beautiful amalgams of sound. Seim brings a strongly melodic sensibility to his solos, often doubling what was previously uttered by Augestad, but with the addition of tasteful filigrees. Although his sonorous tone sometimes anchors the low end, Henryson doesn’t just function in a bass-line role, but often revels in supplying countermelodies to fill in the proceedings. While it is an unexpected treatment of his poetry, Rumi is well served here by imaginative compositions in compelling arrangements.

 

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Hilda Paredes
Cuerdas del destino
Jake Arditti, countertenor; Irvine Arditti, solo violin; Arditti String Quartet
Aeon Records CD AECD 1439

Hilda Paredes provides a family portrait on Cuerdas del destino, her latest CD. The works are written for violinist Irvine Arditti, her husband, countertenor Jake Arditti, her son, and the Arditti Quartet, with whom she has enjoyed more than twenty years of artistic partnership. This CD is also significant in that it celebrates the Arditti’s fortieth anniversary.

The title work is Paredes’s second quartet. It is filled with ricochets of pizzicato and playful grouped glissandos set against pensive harmonics. Canciones lunáticas, settings of Pedro Serrano, expands this sound world to include tremolando. Jake Arditti’s voice is pitch perfect, with a strong upper register. Imitating the interplay of the strings, he brings out consonants, particularly sibilants.

Irvine Arditti plays the solo work In Memoriam Thomas Kakuska, an homage to the violist of the Berg Quartet, with exquisite attention to the detailed score. Paredes has said that the piece’s exploration of short motivic utterances iss meant to reflect Kakuska’s sense of humor; his contrasted sense of gravitas is depicted in the work’s piquant harmonic language.

Two versions of Papalote, a setting of Rocío González, are provided here. The first, for voice and violin, was written when Jake Arditti was still a boy treble as a father-son duo. The second is for countertenor with the full quartet. Once again, the voice part adopts or resembles many of the techniques performed by the strings: glissandos, terse accents to go along with pizzicato punctuation, and high, floating lines of tremendous purity to balance with harmonics and sostenuto legato melodies. The overall effect is mesmerizing.

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Scott Wheeler

Portraits and Tributes

Bridge CD

 

Scott Wheeler, composer

Donald Berman, piano

 

Boston composer Scott Wheeler is a prolific creator of large-scale compositions. However, his latest Bridge CD, Portraits and Tributes, reveals a different side of the composer: the author of occasional pieces. Twenty-seven pieces devoted to friends and family, anniversaries and birthdays, reveal Wheeler’s comfort in an array of styles, ranging from Copland-esque Americana to ragtime. The latter style plays an important role in this collection: Wheeler seems to love ragtime with an enthusiasm rarely heard since William Bolcom’s principal works were in wide circulation. I’m particularly fond of those pieces, such as “Bleeker Study,” that blend styles – it channels both Kurt Weill and early Arnold Schoenberg with equal skill. The gentle “Cowley Meditation” is also a nice contrast to the plethora of rags here.

 

Donald Berman is the fleet-fingered pianist who plays all of the works on the CD. Like Wheeler, he has chameleon like tendencies when it comes to interpreting various styles. Any collection of occasional pieces is bound to vary in quality to a certain degree, but Portraits and Tributes is surprisingly strong and, perhaps even more crucially, entertaining from beginning to end.

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Errollyn Wallen

Photography

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 Wallen wears 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.

 

 

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Pauline Gloss

Greetings from here

Spoken Records

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.

 

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Björk

Vulnicura Live

One Little Indian CD

 

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.

 

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Mats Eilertsen

Rubicon

ECM Records CD

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.

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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.

 

 

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Cathedral Music

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.

 

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Steve Reich Played by Signal

Steve Reich

Double Sextet (2007) and Radio Rewrite (2013)

Ensemble Signal, Brad Lubman, conductor

Harmonia Mundi CD

 

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.

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