Matmos (the duo of M. C. (Martin) Schmidt and Drew Daniel) uses an unusual sonic palette for their latest Thrill Jockey recording, Ultimate Care II. The sounds of the recording are made with the Whirlpool Ultimate Care II model washing machine in the basement of their home in Baltimore, Maryland. In addition to a plethora of washing sounds – the spin cycle is quite striking – Matmos enlisted the aid of various artists –Dan Deacon, Max Eilbacher (Horse Lords), Sam Haberman (Horse Lords), Jason Willett (Half Japanese), and Duncan Moore (Needle Gun) – to treat the machine both as a percussion instrument and as a source for computer music manipulations. The clincher: many of them do their laundry at Matmos’s apartment!
Jaded listeners might presume that the results would be gimmicky; they are anything but. To the contrary, one is startled by the array of sounds elicited from the Whirlpool and the thoughtful organization thereof. Who knew that riveting electronica could be made in a laundry room?
A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke is a duo outing featuring keyboardist (and recently hired Harvard Professor) Vijay Iyer and trumpeter elder statesman Wadada Leo Smith. The most striking aspect of the duo’s approach is their willingness to cede each other space in the proceedings. Thus instead of the rapid call and response we frequently hear from jazz duos, here there are often successive solos which mine connected musical territories.
The central part of the album is an extended suite titled A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke. Dedicated to Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990), it finds the duo exploring a variety of textures. In addition to piano, Iyer breaks out electronics and a Fender Rhodes, leavening the proceedings with a judicious use of each. Smith frequently explores the stratospheric range of his instrument, punctuating his solos with trills, staccato outbursts, and overblowing. When the two come together in closer colloquy, the intervening soloing morphs into an impressively rich stack of piquant harmonies and imitative gestures.
The CD closes with a truly beautiful composition by Smith, “Marian Anderson,” named after the celebrated African-American contralto. Along with the album opener, Iyer’s “Passage,” it brings out a different demeanor from the musicians: lyrical, less angular, and more directly collaborative. While one certainly appreciates the approach on the central suite, offsetting it with these two tunes is an elegant touch.
Composer Tyshawn Sorey’s latest recording is of a massive two-hour long suite for Double Trio. The Inner Spectrum of Variables finds Sorey conducting a group of longtime collaborators. Sorey has said that his approach to conducting serves as homage to Butch Morris, whose ensemble leadership was called “conduction.” He also contributes the percussion parts to the recording, ranging from textural excursions to thunderous swing.
Given its leader’s voluminous list of stylistic interests, it is no surprise that The Inner Spectrum of Variables is persistently eclectic. With four string players and a pianist in the mix, there is a great deal of opportunity for Sorey to explore his more classically-based approach to composition and improvisation. But the group can turn on a dime and play folk music seemingly from the world over, or get into a fluent post-bop groove. Despite the work’s considerable duration, the amount of quick changes of demeanor can be head spinning. That said, the return of discrete sections helps to provide an overarching structure that undergirds the proceedings. And unlike previous Sorey compositions, long swaths of lyricism abound here: an appealing addition to his already formidable compositional kitbag. Recommended.
On the Albany CD Beasts, Collage New Music, directed by David Hoose, presents three vocal chamber works by Wellesley College professor Martin Brody. In his liner notes, Brody says that each of the pieces provide, “imaginative identification with something or someone outside one’s self as a catalyst of self-transformation.”
In the title work, featuring laser beam accuracy from soprano Elizabeth Keusch, the focus is on animals: the spider, the octopus, deer, mice, and a werewolf. Millenium Sightings uses the apocalyptic writings of 12 century monk Joachim of Fiore as its starting point, interweaving these with works by Abraham Abulafia and Miraji. Accompanied by bell-like timbres, mezzo soprano Janice Felty sings these angularly melismatic settings with strong declamation and a refined sense of tonal shadings. The Tree of Life shows Brody at his most expansive, combining texts by Ovid, James Merrill, John Ashbery, Richard Wilbur, and Robert Lowell. Mezzo soprano Pamela Dellal displays an impressive lower register, superb dynamic control, and unflagging stamina in these demanding settings. Throughout, Collage and Hoose are estimable accompanists, providing space for the vocal line while exploring the various interesting textures Brody has provided for them.
One quibble, for the publishers, not for Brody: many didn’t not allow reprints of their texts in the liner notes booklet. It would seem that this would serve both poets and composers by showing off their collaboration. One wishes publishers wouldn’t be so parsimonious with permissions.
This collection of choral music by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt celebrates his eightieth birthday. It is programmed to emphasize his interpretations of Marian texts such as the Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis, and O Antiphons, all of which are central to his choral output. It also includes an excerpt from the totemic Kanon Pokajanen, his largest choral work, as well as shorter excerpts such as The Deer’s Cry and I am the True Vine. (The latter is particularly beautifully performed.)
Aquarius, a group of twenty-four voices, seems “right-sized” for these works, with enough voices to provide the requisite heft and majesty where necessary while still being able to create diaphanous pianissimo passages elsewhere. Conductor Marc Michael De Smet does an exquisite job of shaping phrases, balancing chords, and, a very important consideration in the performance of Pärt, pacing the proceedings. I will be on the lookout for their complete recording of Kanon Pokajanen.
Not so long ago, a composer portrait CD consisting entirely of solo marimba music would have been unthinkable. Idle Fancies, a new Bridge Recording of Paul Lansky’s complete music for marimba, demonstrates that the composer, despite being a non-percussionist best known for his contributions to electroacoustic music, really knows his way around mallet instruments too. The three substantial works here, each different in character and demands, provide plenty of variety; something that, given the instrumental palette on display, is no mean feat.
Spirals (2013), vide the title, surveys a panoply of chromatic harmonies in swirling, constant movement. Three Moves are a simultaneously virtuosic and charming set of character pieces. The title work is a collection of six pieces. Lansky adopts the detailed ostinati found in his post-minimal music as a foundation on which to build interesting variations. Some of the movements incorporate additional percussion instruments. Used judiciously, at times these supply the proceedings with non-pitched punctuation; at others with a Gamelan-like ambience.
Marimba player Gwendolyn Dease is a superlative advocate for Lansky’s music, bringing out every nimble run and nuanced dynamic with accuracy and artistry. One can readily hear why he entrusted her with this project. Though this may be it for Lansky’s marimba scores, perhaps we can look forward to another large-scale work for percussion instruments, written, of course, for Dease.
The Hilliard Ensemble
David James: countertenor; Rogers Covey-Crump:tenor; Steven Harrold:tenor; Gordon Jones: baritone
Begun in 2001 and composed over a ten-year period, Machaut-Transkriptionen is one of composer Heinz Holliger’s most imaginative and attractive works to date. Using pieces by medieval composer Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377) as a jumping off point, Holliger refashions the original material for three violas and the voices of the Hilliard Ensemble (now, alas, disbanded). They are employed in startling ways, encompassing frequent dissonances, extended techniques in the strings, vocal clusters, and alternate tunings.
The cycle begins with alternations between Machaut’s original vocal works and string trios that are recompositions of the same selections. A gradual morphing of roles eventually brings the voices into the contemporary sound world of the strings. In some of the pieces, there is a coexistence between lines from Machaut and Holliger’s original ideas. In others, Holliger uses techniques and formal designs from Machaut pieces as compositional groundwork for otherwise far flung fantasies.
The CD is capped off by a stirring quarter of an hour: a redesign of Machaut’s Complainte for voices and violas. It is here that all of the techniques found in the preceding selections are brought to together to craft a work that, on its surface, bears little resemblance to medieval music. But the spirit of the Ars Nova period in which Machaut composed, with its enthusiasm for experimentation and, for its time, great abstraction, clearly motivates Holliger, with fascinating results. Recommended.
A live recording from 2013 made in Providence, Rhode Island, Used, Broken, and Unwanted demonstrates to good effect the wide-ranging timbral palette and drone-based structures that artist Laura Cetilia explores. The title track makes use of repetition, not in the symmetrical fashion of process-driven minimalism, but to create an undulating undergirding for the wisps of vocal and cello melodies that sporadically emerge. This elegantly segues into the exquisitely fragile “Thrum/Pin.”
“Plucked from Obscurity” makes efficacious use of pizzicato; the electronics with which it contends range from the bell-like to the percussive. Particularly lovely is the delicate album closer “Tears of Things,” in which the main, initially pizzicato-driven, ostinato is gradually supplanted by sweeping guttural electronics and an accumulation of upper register sustained notes.
In the surprisingly burgeoning field of cellists who sing, Cetilia is a distinctive one. Alternately penetrating and atmospheric, Used, Broken, and Unwanted is a stimulating listen throughout.
Looking Back – Flute Music of Joseph Schwantner
Innova Records (Innova 919)
Jennie Oh Brown, flute; Jeffrey Panko, piano;
Karin Ursin, flute and piccolo ; Janice MacDonald, flute and alto flute; Susan Saylor, flute and bass flute
Joseph Schwantner has written a substantial body of work featuring flutes. On her Innova recording Looking Back, flutist Jennie Oh Brown provides superlative performances of several of these compositions. Brown’s interpretations are vividly detailed, presenting the various nuances of Schwantner’s scores in enthusiastic and vital fashion (one is recommended to flutist and composer Cynthia Folio’s liner notes; they provide excellent analysis and detailed descriptions of both compositional and technical aspects of the pieces at hand).
The title work, composed in 2009 and dedicated to the memory of legendary flutist and teacher Samuel Baron, is a case in point. The first movement is a challenging duet with the estimable pianist Jeffrey Panko. They revel in contrapuntal dialog and cascading virtuosic doubled lines. The middle movement is a solo, which involves various extended techniques, including overblowing in the altissimo register, singing and speaking into the instrument, and stabbing accents. The final movement “Just Follow …” builds a lattice of ascending scalar interplay between flute and piano, sending the music aloft in a final valediction.
Black Anemones, another duo,revels in sumptuous harmonies, punctuated by piano octaves, with melodies that feature the flute’s lower register, played in sultry fashion by Brown. The short work Soaring has a more dissonant palette, with upper register punctuations and fleet-fingered runs culminating in a dazzling passage of repeated notes and a final flourish.
The flute quartet Silver Halo ups the ante and reprises the various playing techniques found in the other works, with several more added for good measure. Schwantner is a master colorist: the abundant variety of timbral combinations and imaginative doublings found in Silver Halo amply attest to this. Brown plays beautifully, and she is abetted by excellent colleagues: Karin Ursin, Janice MacDonald, and Susan Saylor. A compliment disguised as a minor quibble: one wants more! The disc clocks in at less than three quarters of an hour; it might have been nice to include another chamber work with flute. That said, Schwantner and Brown provide us with plenty to consider and savor: Looking Back is a winner of a recording.
In the Alaskan Inupiaq language, Ilimaq means “spirit journeys.” One can readily hear how John Luther Adams seeks to embody the many facets of the spirit journey on his album of the same name: the shamanic, the dream state, the heroic quest, et cetera. Powerful drumming from Wilco percussionist Glenn Kotche is juxtaposed with atmospheric, at times ominous sounding, electronics from Adams. Kotche is a marvelous collaborator; throughout his playing is rhythmically sure and dynamically supple.
Given that there are two participants, instead of the full symphony orchestra found on Adams’s recent Become Ocean or the bevy of percussionists who populate his signature work Inuksuit, it is impressive how comparatively epic the scope and soundscape of Ilimaq are. This more intimate piece can go toe to toe with some of the composer’s largest works, and that’s saying something. Ilimaq is one of 2015’s finest releases: recommended.