Juan Pablo Contreras
Silencio en Juárez
Albany Records has released a new CD of chamber music by Juan Pablo Contreras – Silencio en Juárez – consisting of three new works and featuring two prizewinning compositions. The music of Juan Pablo Contreras has been widely performed in Mexico and reflects a contemporary Latin perspective on culture and events. This is most evident in the title piece of the CD, written in remembrance of 15 teenagers murdered at a birthday party in Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican border town opposite El Paso, Texas.
Silencio en Juárez (2011) is scored for violin, clarinet, piano and unfolds in four movements starting with Madre Dolorosa. This begins with a quiet, mysterious opening in the strings and the violin in very high pitch, doubling the cello. A solemn piano chord sounds and the sad melody continues, invoking a mixture of sadness and menace. Now a warm, loving feeling for a few phrases is countered by more tense piano chords. The piece morphs into a definite feeling of anxiety, louder and more pronounced. The orchestration is very well crafted here – each instrument produces just the right effect and there is an abundance of sound coming from just four players. Madre Dolorosa has an uneasy and troubled feel – the perfect prelude.
Corrido, Movement II, is bouncy and raucous music – as if we have walked into a bar where the customers are pleasantly drunk. A send up of a familiar Mexican folk song, this movement is nevertheless very effectively written – a bit of comic relief – and no doubt meant to describe the birthday party that figures in the actual event. The ensemble here is excellent and while the music sounds offhand, it is precisely scored and played.
Movement III, Liturgia, has an entirely different tone. Dark and somber piano chords sound, like church bells tolling in the distance. A plaintive melody in the cello feels like a desperate prayer. A haunting clarinet solo is heard, and a graceful violin entrance adds a measure of sadness. A loud and dissonant tutti passage becomes a cry of mourning. The sorrowful violin returns accompanied by the dark, processional piano chords that slowly fade to silence.
La Injusticia, Movement IV, has a busy, strident feel, filled with complexity and detail. Staccato phrases in the clarinet and violin interweave among syncopated piano passages as if describing some needlessly complex process. Clamorous clarinet phrases mix in with slower stretches, but a distinct level of tension remains. A hurried feel to this at times – at 4:30 there is a more coherent and settled feel – but an overall sense of uneasiness is reinforced by the sudden ending. The music seems to be saying that justice delayed by never ending procedural issues is truly justice denied.
Silencio en Juárez is masterfully written chamber music – it won the 2013 Brian M. Israel Prize – but more than that it is an honest attempt by the composer to deal with deeply troubling issues in contemporary society.
La más Remota Prehistoria is the second work on this CD and the title translates to ‘The Most Remote Prehistory’. The four short movements of this piece are based on a poem by Dario Carillo and performed by the Claremont Avenue Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Kyle Ritenauer. Juan Pablo Contreras sings the solo tenor part.
A somber bassoon solo followed by flute, strings and then voice open the first movement. There has a primal feel and a bit of wistfulness as the (translated) text begins: “Sense your warmth, it has become cold space disputed by the blue shadow, between the rock folds, and subtle inspiration with which I write.” This is sung in Spanish and it is as if we are hearing long dead fossils in the rock lamenting their fate. A sense of sadness and longing is nicely captured in the writing, orchestration and the smooth vocal line.
The second movement turns darker still giving off a bleak, melancholy feel. The measured tempo adds to the drama and the elegant expressiveness in the tenor line reinforces the sense of mourning. The third movement, however, is all motion and energy and the text here is about swirling torrents of sediment, adding to the prehistoric imagery. The final movement returns to the slow, sorrowfulness of the opening, but with a sense of resignation in the voice. Flute trills suggest birds – who might have evolved from the dinosaurs – and the piece concludes with passionate singing and a flute solo in the last few bars that is beautifully poignant.
Despite its unusual subject matter, La más Remota Prehistoria is a touching work that is artfully composed and orchestrated.
The final work on this CD is Angel Mestizo (2013), a concerto for harp and chamber orchestra that won the 2014 Arturo Marquez First Composition Contest. This work is in four movements and traces the adoption of the European harp as a cultural touchstone, starting from the Spanish conquest through the subsequent metamorphosis of Mexico into a dominantly mestizo society. The first movement, La Conquista, opens with sharp, percussive sounds that are full of energy and movement. The harp is heard in solo passages, bringing a calming interlude to the militaristic uproar and a short flute solo adds some soothing pastoral imagery. Rattling drums and bold horn calls trade back and forth with harp and flute, as if a battle is raging across the spacious landscape. A sudden flurry of syncopated rhythms concludes this movement.
The second movement, Veracruz, has a slow and lushly exotic feel with the clarinet, percussion and marimba giving the impression of a hot sun blazing overhead. The harp was first brought to Mexico by the Spanish to the port of Veracruz and there is a lingering sense of conquest and conflict in the music here, sharp at times, as in the first movement. The harp passages, especially lovely and empathetic in the final measures, seem to be trying to heal the divide between the indigenous people and their European conquerors.
Cadenza Criolla, movement III, follows and this opens with a series of strong harp arpeggios. The harp plays alone and there are bright passages but also the sense of a darker undercurrent spilling over from the opening movements. ‘Criolla’ is a term used to describe someone of Spanish ancestry born in Mexico. The latter half of Cadenza Criolla consists of snatches of a folk melody, signifying that the harp is being appropriated by the newly emerging society.
Movement IV, Son Jarocho concludes the work and as the harp cadenza finishes there is a sudden, lively outburst of contemporary folk music. This has a loud and festive feel, but is interspersed with occasional suggestions of the drums and militaristic music from movement I. The harp is heard in solo passages throughout, mostly hopeful and joyous, but also reflecting the sense of the tension that persists in this complex culture even hundreds of years after the the trauma of conquest.
Angel Mestizo is an ambitious work, taking in the history of Mexico and the evolution of its social order – using the harp as the musical focal point was a brilliant choice. The playing by the Claremont Avenue Chamber Orchestra and harpist Kristi Shade is superb. The scoring and orchestration – here and in all the pieces on this CD – are fully formed and mature beyond the years of the composer. The music of Juan Pablo Contreras would be a fine addition to the repertory of any American chamber orchestra seeking to connect with a contemporary Latin audience.
Silencio en Juárez is available from Albany Records and also by download at iTunes.
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Manhattan in Charcoal
Jacob Miller – Libretto
Manhattan in Charcoal is a newly released CD from Composers Concordance Records and distributed by Naxos. This is a chamber opera with the libretto written by the poet Jacob Miller and music composed by Gene Pritsker. The story is about “The life and loves of an artist in New York City in the early days of the 21st century who is struggling to find his way…” Manhattan in Charcoal is a powerfully dark work whose strength is equally derived from the poetry and the music.
The first movement starts with The Village Feels Empty and the music evokes just the right atmosphere – a sustained trombone tone with a moving bass line underneath. Woodwinds and brass hold higher, dissonant tones, while a running piano scale is heard cutting through the texture. Now violins add a dark shadow, and the image of a rainy night in Manhattan is complete. The narrator – librettist Jacob Miller, perfectly cast – begins his story.
The story line of Manhattan in Charcoal is about a painter – the Artist – who is struggling to make an impression in the uptown galleries while at the same time maintaining a balanced relationship with his girlfriend Beatrice, who is jealous of his devotion to his art. The music in the opening scene reflects this tension, but dissolves into warm harmony when the Artist invites Beatrice to look outside the window. They sing “Art is everywhere, Beatrice – come look at the streets…” Later the Artist tries to assure Beatrice with the words: “But there is and has always, been only you.” – this is sung as a lovely duet and it seems as if Beatrice is almost convinced.
Meanwhile the Artist, always struggling for money, begins his latest work, ‘Manhattan in Charcoal’ – envisioned in paint at first, but later reduced to a more affordable charcoal and paper. Outsider Art opens Movement 2, and the music to describe this slowly unfolding process is heavy and complex as the Artist struggles to adapt to the unfamiliar technique. As the drawing nears completion, plans advance to show it in a gallery and when this occurs the Narrator describes the exhibition, backed by a wonderfully jazzy groove that projects success and sophistication.
A lively piece opens Movement 3 – Art Dealers Dance – and this captures the mundane and banal demands of those who simply want to make money from the success of an artist. Just the Way I Draw is all horns, woodwinds and brass – bouncy and light – the perfect allegory for the airy pronouncements by the critics. The Artist has gained some notoriety from ‘Manhattan in Charcoal’, but his sudden celebrity has attracted the attentions of another woman, and Beatrice senses a rival. This leads to the crisis and denouement of the opera. In the final scene the libretto and music are masterfully matched in a beautiful collage of woodwinds, voices and percussion that is very moving.
The lead singers in this recording – baritone Charles Coleman as the Artist, and soprano Lynn Norris, as Beatrice, give a skillful and precise reading of the sometimes angular and uneven phrases. The accompanying musicians provide a polished and well-balanced support, effectively evoking the many different moods that are woven through this work.
This opera is described in the liner notes as “… the life and loves of an artist in New York City in the early days of the 21st Century…”, but there is no plot device having to do with cell phones or email. Rather, Manhattan in Charcoal is the timeless story of artists and lovers, beautifully told here in poetry and music.
Manhattan in Charcoal will be released in May 2015 and the CD will be available from Naxos.
A short video featuring some of the music is here.
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Michael Vincent Waller
The South Shore
From XI Records comes The South Shore, a new double CD release by New York-based composer Michael Vincent Waller. Totaling some 138 minutes, The South Shore is the most comprehensive musical statement from Waller to date – his two previous albums of piano music were much less ambitious in scale. With a style that runs to miniatures and other smaller forms, The South Shore features a total of 31 tracks. This new collection includes a number of different instrumental ensembles that greatly add to the possibilities for new colors and texture. This is a definite enhancement and brings an added dimension to Waller’s carefully constructed pieces. Released in latter weeks of a difficult winter, hearing the warm and sunny pieces of this album is like a weekend in the south of France.
With such a profusion of music, here are some observations on selected tracks.
From disk 1, Atmosfera di Tempo, on track 2, is an example of how an ensemble of several instruments – in this case a string quartet – can give a greater sense of intimacy and empathy to the underlying structure. This piece begins with a repeating figure in the violin supported by the cello. The others join in, to create a warm, contented feeling with just a slight tinge of sadness that strings can bring out so well. The theme is repeated with variations, sometimes gentle and lush and at other times more insistent and stark. The subtle shadings and sensitivity evident in this piece are a credit to the four players.
Per La Madre e La Nonne on track 4 features a string trio, with a light, bright sound to open. The violin leads with a repeating melody with an effective counterpoint in the lower strings. Variations follow and the close ensemble adds to the sweet feeling in this piece. Written for the composer’s mother and grandmother, Per La Madre e La Nonne is sturdy enough to carry the emotions invested in it yet delicate enough to clearly render the finer details. Towards the end the cello carries the melody with the others in counterpoint, and this gives a somber, almost brooding feel. The ensemble here -by Pauline Kim-Harris, Daniel Panner and Christine Kim – is excellent.
Pasticcio per meno è piú, track 5, is a solo piano piece played with great sensitivity by Nicholas Horvath. A simple running melody above is supported by warm chords underneath and the feel of this is very impressionistic. The gentle touch on the keyboard nevertheless produces a wonderfully luminous sound and the overall effect is to be transported to a sunny day in the south of France. A variation at 4:00 has a more purposeful color, but Pasticcio per meno è piú concludes by reinstating the softer opening.
Nel Nome di Gesú on track 10 opens with a powerful series of strong, chant-like passages repeated by Christine Kim’s cello. The organ line by Carson Cooman adds an expansive component and the result is a feeling of the monumental combined with a comforting sense of familiarity. It is like sitting in a strange church but feeling as if at home. The second movement of this piece is track 11 and the cello, with darker tones plays the melody below the organ, now registered with a lovely flute sound. There is a plaintive, almost mournful feel to this that is nonetheless very beautiful. Both movements of Nel Nome di Gesú are well balanced and quietly touching.
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In the Sea of Ionia
Southern California composer Daniel Lentz has a new CD of piano music, titled In the Sea of Ionia, recently released by Cold Blue Music. Los Angeles pianist Aron Kallay performs all four pieces on this album, totaling over an hour of accessible and inviting music.
The opening track is 51 Nocturnes and this begins with a series of descending chords and a light melody that immediately puts the listener at ease. Arpeggios in the bass appear, accompanied by a simple melody that seems to float above. Now stronger chords are heard in the middle registers with counterpoint below. The simple melody returns briefly, turning gently to introspection. By 4:20 there is a darker feel but this soon turns lighter again. 51 Nocturnes proceeds in this way with short bursts of different colors and textures; sometimes dramatic, sometimes mysterious, sometimes energetic but always returning to a warm, inward-looking sensibility. The playing of Aron Kallay has just the right touch for each of the many moods here and he sustains the last chord of the piece for exactly the right amount of time.
The second track is Pacific Coast Highway and this opens with an intriguing series of steady rhythms played against each other, suggesting the flow of traffic along an open highway. Some lovely harmonies are heard as the different melody lines interact. In one section there is a stronger feel, like the surf pounding on the beach – a feature that actually occurs along some sections of the roadway. A strong sense of motion and journey are evident in Pacific Coast Highway and this piece nicely evokes the iconic Southern California experience.
Dorchester Tropes follows, a work that was commissioned by Dr. Richard Marcus, a resident of Dorchester, Massachusetts thus giving the Santa Barbara-based Lentz the opportunity for an extended visit and some New England inspiration. The piece consists of four movements, the first of which is titled Messatossec. This has a dramatic opening that turns delicate with some lovely textures and tones. There is a pleasant feel to this, with a definite sense of home and place.
Ponkapoag Bog is the second movement and opens with a quiet, pleasing melody that soon gives way to a faster, more animated section providing a lively contrast. A precisely played syncopation adds to the sense of lightness and joy between the more peaceful stretches. Strong chords and a low rumbling texture appear as well, but the piece always circles back to the inviting and welcoming.
Moswetuset, the third movement, begins with a series of arpeggios underneath a relaxing melody. This is appealing music, drawing the listener into its circle of light and warmth. At 2:30 the notes are falling like a series of spring raindrops, full of optimism. A somewhat more dramatic sound follows with strong chords, as if watching a late afternoon sunset. The tempo slows and the piece tapers off to a settled finish.
The final movement of Dorchester Tropes is Pocapawnet and this has a a series of forceful chords heard in an almost dance-like rhythm. The syncopated melody bounces happily along until a smoother, more elegant section appears, followed by more syncopation. There is a sense of expressiveness and joy that comes through both the playing and the notes.
The final piece on the CD is the title track, In the Sea of Ionia. This has a gentle, languid opening that turns suddenly rapid, full of movement with syncopated lines weaving joyfully back and forth. The slow, drifting feeling soon returns, like a lazy summer day at the beach. Now faster again, with a happy, energetic feel – good control in the playing here. As with 51 Nocturnes, In the Sea of Ionia oscillates between purposeful intensity and leisurely relaxation. Sometimes it evokes a soft summer rain or a quiet, reflective moment and at other times it is a joyful gallop The harmonies and rhythms compliment each other nicely in each of the various sections and the playing is both accurate and heartfelt. The final three minutes feel like a dash headlong down to the sea, and this is wonderfully played by Aron Kallay.
This CD is a lovely collection of accessible and engaging music that draws the listener in with welcoming sounds.
In the Sea of Ionia (CB0042) is available from Cold Blue Music.
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John Luther Adams
The Wind in High Places
Cold Blue Music has released The Wind in High Places, a new CD of string music by 2014 Pulitzer prize-winning composer John Luther Adams. The album consists of three pieces: The Wind in High Places, a 3-movement work performed by the JACK Quartet, Canticles of the Sky, a 4-movement piece for four cello choirs as performed by the Northwestern University Cello Ensemble and Dream of the Canyon Wren, by the JACK Quartet.
The first movement of The Wind in High Places is titled Above Sunset Pass and this begins with high, needle-like violin tones riding above sustained lower pitches. There is the feel of wind whistling through rocks in remote isolation. Sunset Pass, Alaska is, in fact, one of the most isolated places in North America; a low point in the Brooks Range that opens onto the Arctic Coastal Plain deep in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The overwhelming sense of removal from civilization in this place might produce a certain intimidation, but that is not what we hear in this music. The initial feeling of a vast remoteness is gradually replaced by a warm, introspective sense of place that is both welcoming and intimate. The harmonies are ruggedly beautiful and precisely played by the JACK Quartet, especially the very highest pitches that are the most evocative. Above Sunset Pass, with its pastoral sensuality and primal harmonies offers the listener an invitation to dwell in this wild place on its own terms.
Maclaren Summit follows and this has a busier feel with a series of fast, sharp passages in the higher registers, like snow swirling along a ridge line. There is an ethereal feel from the continuous motion in the violins, pleasantly complimented by a slightly more rugged texture in the lower strings. This feels like more mountainous terrain and is almost pointillist in its depiction of the snowy landscape. The playing here is very delicate and has just the right touch, as if the air itself is moving the strings. With its roiling and crisscrossing passages, Maclaren Summit manages to evoke the intensity of a snow squall without any of the menace.
Looking Toward Hope is the third and final movement of The Wind in High Places and this begins with a low, steady cello, now mixed with higher sustained tones. This has a craggy feel, like looking at a rugged mountain face. The texture is rich and warm throughout, evoking a feeling of grandeur. All three movements of The Wind in High Places offer the listener a peaceful alternative to the adversarial and often politicized relationship with nature that we moderns have inherited from a problematic past.
The four movements of Canticles of the Sky follow, as performed by four cello choirs – some 48 players – all members of the Northwestern University Cello Ensemble directed by Hans Jørgen Jensen. Sky with Four Suns is the first of these and begins with warm, deep tones in the bottom registers, building up on thirds and fifths. Lovely harmonies rise up like a cathedral tower, beautiful and lush, with a bright upper line arcing overhead. The feeling is a bit like that sense of the mystical one hears when an orchestra is tuning. The notes rise in volume and pitch, with a powerful fulness of texture, and then slowly decrescendo back to the lower tones and a peaceful finish.
Sky with Four Moons is next and this movement opens on a single sustained high tone, soon joined by lower pitches, almost as an inversion of the first movement. The volume swells as the piece progresses and a deep rugged sound is heard as the tones reach the lower registers. The pitches reascend, becoming quieter at the finish. This movement has a slightly more remote and distant feel, as a quiet night sky might appear.
Sky with Nameless Colors follows, again opening on a sustained high note with tones added in close harmony above and below. This develops a thicker feeling, especially as the pitches settle in at the bottom. As the piece progresses the texture thins out to a somewhat brighter feel as it ends quietly on a single note.
The final movement of Canticles of the Sky is Sky with Endless Stars and this begins with a low, deep tone that builds upward in a dark harmony. There is a somber feel to this, like a dirge played very slowly on a pipe organ. The volume builds as tones are added, rising upward to a higher, brighter register that brings out a feeling of expansiveness. As with the other movements this concludes by way of decrescendo and a thinning out of the harmonies to a single tone.
The final track on the CD is Dream of the Canyon Wren as performed by the JACK Quartet and this has a more surreal quality than the previous pieces. This opens with a series of low repeating figures in the cello that are followed by similar passages in the violins. The sound is suggestive of a series of dreamlike bird calls. Silences follow, and then a flurry of fast figures in the higher registers that devolve into lower, slower echoes. This pattern continues, slowing to a low, gauzy wash before concluding on one last high-pitched burst. Dream of the Canyon Wren is perhaps the most abstract of the works on this CD and the playing by the JACK Quartet is meticulously precise.
The music of The Wind in High Places precedes Become Ocean, the 2013 symphonic work that won Adams the Pulitzer last year. But this album of string music is cut from the same cloth, perfectly expressing the gentle sensibilities that inform a highly sympathetic view of nature. In a recent Facebook posting John Luther Adams wrote: “That’s been my lifelong obsession… Place as Music. And Music as Place.” The Wind in High Places is compelling evidence of just how completely he has succeeded.
The Wind in High Places (CB0041) is available from Cold Blue Music.
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From Jon Brenner comes a new album of dance music appropriately titled dance suite. Jon is a Seattle based composer and musician who specializes in extremely new and extremely old music and the four tracks of dance music are an intriguing blend of old forms, new electronic realizations and a distinctive appreciation of counterpoint. All the tracks on dance suite have the same instrumentation: two guitars, piano and electric piano, harpsichord, two synthesizers, electric bass and piccolo electric bass. The result is an engaging sound that provides a good variety of densities and textures.
first dance is the opening track and this has a formal, almost Baroque feel to it despite a lively tempo. The guitar and keyboard realizations fill out the sound and enhance the chamber-music atmosphere. There is an alternately steady and syncopated bass line that forms a solid foundation for a series of pleasing harmonies and progressions above. The instruments play off one another in vivid counterpoint and the overall sense is a satisfying combination of profusion and movement
second dance follows and this has a stronger, more aggressive opening with a faster tempo and driving beat in the bass. This track has a sharper edge – as provided by the distortion guitars – yet it develops a nicely sustained groove. second dance is somewhat reminiscent of the music of Steve Moshier, with a similar precision and interlocking of all the moving parts.
third dance (sarabande) is on track 3 and with its slow tempo this piece has more sedate and elegant sensibility. A syncopated rhythm repeating in the bass is joined by a rich, contrapuntal melody and strong, but somewhat somber harmonies. There is a sense here of wistfulness combined with nostalgia – a longing for a brighter time. The ending is especially poignant as the keyboard trails off slowly into silence.
The final track is fourth dance (fandango) and this has a purposeful, march-like tempo supported by a steady beat in the bass. There is a bit of a heroic feel to this, and a melody line that arcs nicely over the powerful rhythms below. fourth dance has a spirited quality, full of energy and pleasing counterpoint and the piece concludes effectively on a single beat.
dance suite is an intriguing combination of contemporary sounds informed by historical forms and processes – always new but never foreign.
dance suite is available for download in several high-resolution formats here.
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Michael Vincent Waller
Seven Easy Pieces
Seven Easy Pieces is the second EP of solo piano music this year from Michael Vincent Waller, released December 2, 2014. Marija Ilic performs this suite of miniatures as recorded by Lawrence de Martin at the Spectrum Studio in New York, NY.
Track 1 is Miniatures (2014) – III. Return from The Fork and this begins with a series of simple repeating phrases that continue with slight variations over a descending bass line. This breaks into an appealingly complex melody and the contrast with the descending chords gives an open, expansive feel. The playing here is accurate and with a sensitive touch.
Miniatures – II. Vocalise follows and this features a quick, syncopated melody over strong descending chords in the lower register. There is a sense of purposeful activity here, almost dance-like and with a pleasing pace and rhythm.
Miniatures – I. Golden Fourths is next and has a rapid, agile melody line played over a solid, repeating bass chord progression. Nicely ornamented in spots – all crisply rendered – this miniature has an almost Baroque feel.
Track 4 is Miniatures – IV. Couplet and this is in a slower tempo with a more dramatic feel. A nice counterpoint develops that accentuates the darker atmosphere. Nicely complex and developed in last minute with a flowing, liquid feel.
Miniatures – V. Drops of Light follows and begins with single notes in the higher registers, echoed by a single note in low or middle. Now a descending bass line highlights a series of luminescent notes in melody. ‘Drops of Light’ exactly captures the feel of this piece and the playing by Marija Ilic was equally radiant.
Miniatures – VI. Requests is on track 6 and at 40 seconds is the shortest of the miniatures. Requests is a series of light arpeggios that have the feeling a harp glissando. There is a sense of brightness and space to this.
Miniatures – VII. Octagonal Etude is the concluding miniature and opens with a series of strong single notes followed by short silences that allow the harmonics to rise and mix in unsettling combinations. The dissonances present provide a sense of uncertainty in this last piece.
Seven Easy Pieces is the natural follow-on to Five Easy Pieces released earlier this year. This latest release has a somewhat more cohesive feel than its predecessor and manages to owe more to traditional forms while at the same time sounding entirely contemporary. Seven Easy Pieces is another step by Michael Vincent Waller towards new music informed by historical methods.
The mastering was by Cory Allen at Altered Ear, Austin, Texas and the cover art is Untitled, (2014) by Peter Geerts.
Seven Easy Pieces is available for download here.
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COHEN: Variously Blue; Sea of Reeds; Yedid Nefesh; Grneta Variations. Grneta Ensemble; Jennifer Choi, violin; Maria Lambros, viola. Navona NV5979. 70 minutes.
Gerald Cohen Writes pleasantly engaging music for clarinets, either in featured roles or as equal partners in chamber settings. Sea of Reeds, a collection of chamber compositions for clarinet(s). piano, and (usually) a string instrument, shows the instruments and players off to good effect.
Cohen’s music is eclectic, but it wears that eclecticism lightly–his individual voice always comes through. The influences includes jazz, blues (of the twelve-bar variety), klezmer music, and mainstream American Modernism, with expanded tonal resources, open harmonies, and syncopated rhythms. The pieces are well-written and clearly constructed.
The playing, by the Grneta Ensemble (clarinetists Vasko Dukovski and Ismail Lumanovski and pianist Alexandra Joan) with violinist Jennifer Choi and violist Maria Lambros, is outstanding–one of the virtues of Cohen’s music is how well the instruments sound and how flattering it is to the players. Navona’s recorded sound is lucid and warm.
Most listeners will find something to like here, and more than a few clarinetists will find something they will want to play.
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Michael Jon Fink
From a Folio
Cold Blue Music
From Los Angeles-based Cold Blue Music comes a new CD by Michael Jon Fink titled From a Folio, featuring Derek Stein on cello and the composer at the piano. Michael Jon Fink has a distinguished 30+ year career as a composer and his music has been performed at the Green Umbrella series of new music concerts by the Los Angeles Philharmonic as well as a number of other venues and festivals throughout the United States and Europe. The long arc of his composing career has allowed Michael Jon Fink to refine his style of understated eloquence through simple musical materials, and From a Folio is a fine example of just how much this can achieve.
All of the tracks on this CD are short – running from two to a little over three minutes. All but one of the tracks use the same combination of spare piano rhythms accompanied by the cello. The first track, Invocation, is typical – the piano provides a steady, purposeful line of single notes in a rising, repeating sequence. The cello follows the piano, but in an unexpected register – high but not shrill – and the cello ends each passage on a sustained tone that compliments piano figure. This simple structure is unhurried and restful. Good control of intonation and pitch by Derek Stein is critical – the cello is almost never heard in its lower, warmer ranges.
Heiroglyph is next and this has a more mysterious feeling in the piano passages. The rhythms are a series of straightforward, deliberate notes. The cello follows with soft, sustained tones that add to the enigmatic atmosphere. Melos follows and here the piano weaves its line of single notes around very simple cello tones. More complexity is heard in the piano as this piece unfolds, but by the finish it has resumed its restrained character.
Aftersong, on track 4, is a completely different piece consisting of just the cello in a series of slow, dramatic tones that have been recorded separately but are heard together in this track. This has a sense of lonely isolation and is played with great feeling by Derek Stein who also performs with Gnarwhallaby and wildUp, two Los Angeles groups known for a much more animated and energetic sound – this CD is evidence of a softer, more introspective side to his playing.
The remaining tracks – From a Folio, Over and Exit – return to the original combination of piano and cello. From a Folio, track 5, suggests a questioning feel in the quiet piano chords. The cello answers by way of single, sustained tones that are masterfully infused with emotion. Over is a more solemn piece, with a tinge of sadness. Exit, the last track, opens with a series of luminous piano notes that seem to hang suspended in the air. The cello shortly picks up the same notes, sustaining them while the piano replies in quiet counterpoint. The cello, again in a high register, repeats the opening theme as the piano adds a few short arpeggios. The solitary sound of the cello plays out as the track concludes.
From a Folio is the perfect title for this CD. Each piece is one of a series of brilliant jewels as if cut from the same stone. From a Folio by Michael Jon Fink is music that is simple, yet essential – an elegant vessel of deep expression.
From a Folio CB0039, is available from Cold Blue Music starting October 14, 2014
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Who Has the Biggest Sound
If any composer is going to ask the musical question “Who has the biggest sound,” Paul Dolden is rightfully going to be on the short list of potential composers. The almost hour-long work Who Has the Biggest Sound is quite the whirlwind of sonic activity and stylistic diversity.
Relying mostly on high-quality samples instead of synthesized sounds, Dolden keeps a lot of humanity in the sound world. Rhythm and articulation are the only real means by which the artifice of his production shows through. One could imagine, for example, the overall sound world of “The Answer is Blowing in the Winds” being played totally acoustically but the hard edge to the attacks coupled with the dryness and clarity of the timbres makes it obvious to the ear that these are all processed sounds. This movement in particular comes across mostly like an instrumental version of Paul Lansky’s “chatter” pieces. Dolden’s journey through various ensembles at the start of the album hits its apex in the fifth movement “Who Can Play the Fastest?” Dolden started using rock instruments and tropes in the previous movement but in “Who Can Play the Fastest” he really, to be blunt, rocks the f—k out. It is glorious.
Unfortunately, Dolden kills this energy with the introduction of a narrator with hyper-exaggerated declamation while being mimicked in real time by instrumental samples. This overt asking of the music question brings an unwanted and unwelcome campiness to the piece and reduces most of the clean crisp instrumental samples into cheesy 90’s era MIDI samples. Who Has the Biggest Sound managed to have the right balance of levity and seriousness before the narrator started its aural mugging, the first 30 seconds of “My Hound is Out of Harmony” was going quite well before the narrator barges in, and for the rest of the piece Dolden seems obligated to pollute his otherwise engrossing creations with this whiny and irritating character. I love the idea of this musical question being posed by the “Center for Strategic Sound” but I think the implementation of the narration falls short. Humor is a tricky and subjective thing and something many composers avoid. Dolden’s attention to electroacoustic studio techniques reassures me that while he tries to be funny he takes his art seriously.
The Un-Tempered Orchestra fortunately presents its aural landscape without a verbal guide. Having composed diatonic melodies and harmonies, Dolden uses computer processing to retune and juxtapose his material through a wide variety of tuning systems. The end result is a blurred aural line between performance and processing; a work which in some ways could be played acoustically (from a timbre, rhythm, and instrumentation point of view) and a work which could only be done via intense computer analysis and transformation. I find “Orchestra 4” to be the most sonically satisfying, especially as female voices emerge from the elongated clouds of stretched notes. These six conjoined ruminations which form The Un-Tempered Orchestra never really build into a single shape or trajectory, at least not to my ear, but I nevertheless find the whole work compelling and the final cadential resolution rather satisfying.
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