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.
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.
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.
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.