A painter of figures in rooms
NMC Recordings (digital EP)
American-born and UK-based composer Aaron Cassidy created the vocal ensemble work A painter of figures in rooms for Ex Audi as part of the New Music 20×12 Cultural Olympiad. It continues his research into extended tablature notation. Using this approach, details of the physicality of performance are specifically addressed, perhaps even more so than more traditional musical features. In a vocal ensemble work, this means that issues such as vowel space, approach to breathing, mouth and lip position, and gesture feature prominently.
While this notational approach would, at first glance, seem to leave room for significant variances between performances, Cassidy’s body of work occupies a distinctive and recognizable sound world that suggests a clarity of utterance conveyed by the tablature. When comparing his vocal music alongside Crutch of Memory, a recent disc of instrumental works recorded by the Elision Ensemble for Neos, certain qualities of sound surface as stylistic touchstones. Cassidy’s notation allows for an exploration of sliding between pitches, timbral adjustments, and fine gradations of microtones that would likely be cumbersome to notate in traditional Western fashion. Thus, while extremely complex and requiring a great deal from the performers, the resulting music takes on elemental concerns in organic fashion. The visceral vocalisms and muscularly effusive gestural profile of A painter of figures in rooms belie the notion that music in the “new complexity” or “second modern” vein is primarily an intellectual exercise. Instead, it often suggests uninhibited sensuality.
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Widmann, clarinet; Heinz Holliger, oboe;
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie, Christoph Poppen, conductor
ECM New Series 2110
39 year old Jörg Widmann is a virtuoso clarinetist and one of Germany’s rising stars in the realm of music composition. Both of these aspects of his talents are on display in a new portrait disc released by ECM Records. Christoph Poppen, one of the label’s mainstays (another multi-talented musician – a fine violinist and conductor) leads the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie in a program that displays Widmann as a musician with a diversity of interests and a multi-faceted compositional toolkit to match.
The disc’s title work features Widmann playing a plethora of extended techniques, haloed by orchestral writing that is primarily atmospheric with occasional fierce outbursts. Messe, despite its moniker and movement titles mirroring the Ordinary of the liturgy, is for large orchestra sans voices. Fastidious attention is given to contrapuntal details in several “contrapuncti” movements. Elsewhere a juxtaposition of weighty tutti and long-breathed angular melodies provide some surprising textural shifts.
Fünf Bruchstücke (1997) are early works that feature clarinet and oboe. The latter duties are fulfilled by oboist/composer Heinz Holliger (another formidable double threat!). The two are given many opportunities to display the extended technical capabilities of their respective instruments. But it is the sense of cat and mouse interaction and the energetic elan that typifies much of the compositions’ demeanor that make them far more captivating than many a virtuoso showcase.
Widmann weds musicality and technical facility seamlessly. While the episodic nature of this program gives tantalizing glimpses of his potential, one looks forward to the composer/clarinetist expanding his horizons to larger formal designs on a future recording.
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ECM Records New Series CD
Stifters Dinge is a “soundtrack album” for a 2007 theatrical installation by composer/director Heiner Goebbels.The work features five mechanical pianos that were reconfigured to produce all sorts of sounds, pianistic and otherwise. Spoken word excerpts by famous figures — Claude Levi-Strauss, William S. Burroughs, and Malcom X — along with Bill Patterson’s mellifluous reading of a text by the work’s titular figure, Romantic era writer Adelbert Stifter, are joined by field recordings from far flung destinations: Greece, Latin America, and Papua New Guinea .
Photo: © Mario del Curto. Used with kind permission.
Integral to the work’s staging are elemental components: water, ice, smoke, stones, etc. These supply still another layer of the recording’s sound world. Often, as one finds with the crackling ice recordings heard during Patterson’s narration, these natural sounds take on a role supportive of the piece’s narrative. Elsewhere they seem to be part of its abstract musical fabric. The music itself is of similarly varigated design. The mechanical pianos sometimes make utterances closer to the realm of found sound and experimental electronics. These are mixed with more identifiably pianistic scalar passages. Chromatic clusters and, contrastingly, a bit of Bach’s Italian Concerto, make appearances.
Photo © Mario del Curto. Used with kind permission.
Of course, questions of identity are inevitably posed when confronting any work by Goebbels: what does this accumulation of disparate stuff mean? Does it cohere? I can’t answer the first question, as I’m certain that there as many pathways into Stifters Dinge as there are elements contained within it. And the second question is elusive too. Goebbels allows his materials to share the same space without forcing them into congruity. Instead, the listener (and, in the case of a live performance, viewer) is invited to engage with a design built out of elements that are in a variety of relationships with one another: sometimes in tension or opposition and at others in accord. And, one finds that when these simpatico sonic meetings happen, like oases in the midst of flux, they are often quite moving. Thus, Goebbels treats both the sounds with which he composes and the listeners who attend to them with a great deal of respect. Stifters Dinge may require much, even from a thoughtful listener, but it rewards them with an imaginative labyrinth of appealing sounds to explore.
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Arianna Savall and Petter Udland Johansen
ECM New Series 2227 CD/Digi
Swiss soprano and harpist Arianna Savall pairs with Norwegian folksinger, Hardanger fiddle player, and mandolinist Petter Udland Johansen on Hirundo Maris (Latin for “Sea Swallow”), a recording on ECM’s New Series. They are joined by Sveinung Lilleheier (guitar, Dobro, backing vocals), Miquel Àngel Cordero (double-bass, backing vocals), and David Mayoral (percussion, backing vocals) in an outing that combines folk material from multiple traditions (from both Northern and Southern Europe), early music instruments and performance practices, and improvised original pieces.
This is one of the recordings that we keep playing: at home, in the car on the way to work; I’ve even inserted it into a classroom lecture. Like many ECM releases, the overall ambiance is lovely: spacious yet detailed with each voice and instrument able to be pinpointed in the sound field with crystalline clarity.
The material is heavily weighted towards ballads, including particularly lovely versions of ”The Water is Wide” and the Catalan traditional song “El Mestre:” a showcase for Savall’s lustrous soprano. But the program is punctuated by livelier selections too; the Sephardic song “Ya salio de la mar” and the Norwegian folksong “Ormen lange,” a terrifically syncopated tour de force for both Johansen and Mayoral. This is certain to be on many “best of” lists of recordings at the end of the year: ours included.
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America is electronic musician Dan Deacon’s third full length recording, and his first for the Domino imprint. It would be easy for someone uninitiated with Deacon’s previous work to assume that this is a “rah-rah” type of artistic statement, but those familiar with his usually dense and sometimes frenetic music are forgiven if they wondered if there was some tongue in cheek joke intended by the title.
There’s not: Deacon intends the album to be an exploration of his experiences as an American, albeit one of a more left-leaning, even countercultural, mindset than the artists who are usually found putting “America” in their albums’ titles. According to recent interviews, including one in the New York Times, Deacon’s initial response to the post 9/11 era was to feel disassociated from his national identity. Over time, realizing that, despite wrestling with or flat out rejecting many of the Bush era’s policies and value systems, and some that have persisted under the current president, Deacon found that he couldn’t escape an association with his country of origin, even when travelling abroad. America is a musical work based on this reintegration experience.
A somewhat puzzling aspect of the Times profile linked above: it emphasizes a narrative of Deacon as a burgeoning contemporary classical composer that seems to soft pedal his formidable capacities as a creator of effusive, if at times knotty, electronica by making it sound as if this aspect of his work might be moving into the rear view mirror. To be sure, Deacon has a sheepskin from SUNY Purchase in electronic music composition and credits on crossover events such as Merkin Hall’s Ecstatic Music series. That said, there’s no need for an either/or juxtaposition. Even in the midst of the album’s formidable “B side,” a four movement suite titled USA, Deacon hasn’t left his beats at home. What he’s done instead is to integrate them into a fabric that gives a nod to the wide dynamic spectrum of concert music and incorporates some of its instrumentation into a porous, even shape shifting, musical fabric. These are songs writ large, with an artist gaining greater depth of awareness, exploring nuances of arrangement, and striking a pose that serves as a sharp contrast to any homegrown jingoist ideas about music-making.
Alongside the release of America, Deacon has also released a free Dan Deacon app. Featuring a synthesizer loop program, spectrogram, dB meter, and links to other Deacon activities, it’s a fun addition to one’s smart phone or tablet. I’m lobbying for the designers to add the ability to take a picture of the spectrographs you create, which would make it very useful for composers.
Dan Deacon App video
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Thierry Pécou: Tremendum
Ensemble Variances and Percussions Claviers de Lyon
Harmonia Mundi’s third release of music by French composer Thierry Pécou (b. 1965) features the “carnival concerto” Tremendum (2005-’10) as its centerpiece. The version presented on this recording was revised to highlight the considerable talents of its interpreters: Percussions Claviers de Lyon. The influence of Brazilian carnival is overt, with boisterous syncopated rhythms clamoring for attention amid whistles and mallet percussion in a jubilant, dancing celebration. Cast in two movements Arbre des Fleurs (2010) for percussion quintet retains the carnivals sense of relentless energy and occasional whimsy, but the dissonance quotient is upped to create a spicier harmonic palette. More angst-filled too, and effectively so, is Soleil-Tigre (2009) for cello and piano, a piece that contains the ostinati which are Pécou’s signature; but these contend with the cello line’s throbbing, angular melodic gestures.
Paseo de la Reforma (1995-2011, perhaps the latter date implies a revision of an earlier piece?) is relentless in its reiteration of jazzy riffs. There is elegance in the instrumentation of the work, but the repetitions don’t transform as interestingly as the material tends to do in his more recent works. Another earlier piece, Danzón for solo flute, incorporates microtones, key clicks, harmonics, and multiphonics seamlessly in a pliant dance with considerable charm. Manoa (2005) features bass flute, employing a considerable array of technical extensions, in another composition that brings together traditional dance rhythms with gestures of the avant-garde: a microcosm of Pécou’s considerably wide ranging domain.
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Kawabata Makoto & à qui avec Gabriel
Kawabata Makoto is best known for his work with the group Acid Mothers Temple, a post-psych noise rock collective that can melt paint off of walls with the amplitude of their recordings. When the guitarist joins forces with accordionist and vocalist à qui avec Gabriel for the album Golden Tree (Important Records), he creates an entirely different sound world.
The album consists of three extended duets; one, “Solid Torus,” lasting in excess of half an hour. Balancing with long held tones on the accordion, the guitar lines provide an uneasy counterpoint that, while less subdued than the torrents of fuzzed soloing one hears on AMT releases, is no less focused. Indeed, there is a sense that the energy Makoto is keeping in reserve could at any moment be unleashed; released like a tightly coiled spring. Instead, most often balance is sought by both parties, with guitar harmonics and the occasional feedback flirtation blending with the accordion’s treble register drones and ephemeral clusters. à qui avec Gabriel also has a beautiful soprano singing voice, which she sometimes lends to the proceedings in sustained lines and repeated tones. Golden Tree is at its most beguiling when vocalized tones, sustained guitar lines, and accordion drones dovetail together in an intense dovetailing of dolphin-like song.
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Tomas Fujiwara and the Hook Up
The Air is Different
482 Music CD 482-10719
Pictures of Tomas Fujiwara’s grandparents, dressed elegantly and exuding warm yet somewhat reserved countenances, grace the cover and sleeve of his latest CD: The Air is Different. The jazz drummer and composer helms this, the second recording of his “Hook Up” group, which includes guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Trevor Dunn, tenor saxophonist Brian Settles, and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson. The Air is Different is in an outing that blends contemporary chamber jazz with fleeting references to trad jazz and Twentieth century neoclassicism. Thus, it embodies both reflection on the traditions of one’s elders and the resolve and courage that their example gives to descendents to forge their own pathways; Fujiwara’s inclusion of family photos is no mere dedicatory happenstance.
Compositions like “Lineage” and “For Ours” present tight structures and duetted thematic melodies that often reference their progenitors; in homage, not parody. Plummy tone from Finlayson and supple, dynamically nuanced drumming from Fujiwara prove particularly distinctive in these pieces. Meanwhile, listeners are treated to a strong and urgent polymetric groove (and shredding solos from Halvorson and Settles) on “Double Lake, Defined,” and free play with a raucous rhythmic underpinning and bracing dissonance on “Cosmopolitan, Rediscovery.”
The CD’s final two selections — “Smoke-Breathing Lights” and “Postcards” — are a bit more extended; allowing the quintet to change demeanors, soloing roles, and accompanying textures a number of times. It’s in these variegated landscapes that Fujiwara and the Hookup shine most brightly, sensing the shifts in one another’s playing with the near-prescient perception. This is no ESP; it is hard won acquaintance that comes from the chameleon like exchange of roles occurring nearly nightly on a variety of Brooklyn bandstands among these, and many other, frequent collaborators in the ecstatic jazz tradition.
Standing on the shoulders of avant jazz giants, and not afraid to occasionally look over their own for inspiration, Fujiwara and company make exciting music together.
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John Luther Adams
Four Thousand Holes
Scott Deal, Percussionist;
Callithumpian Consort; Stephen Drury, director and pianist
Cold Blue CD CB0035
Callithumpian Consort; Stephen Drury, director and pianist
Mode CD Mode 240
Alaskan (by way of New York) composer John Luther Adams was long known as the “other Adams” of contemporary concert music, overshadowed by Californian (by way of Massachusetts) John Coolidge Adams, composer of the operas Nixon in China and Dr. Atomic and the Pulitzer prizewinning On the Transmigration of Souls. The balance of recognition seems to be shifting, as the Alaskan Adams has created several large scale works that have raised his public profile, such as the spatial percussion piece Inuksuit and museum installation (with an accompanying book) The Place Where You Go to Listen. Adams frequently speaks of “creating ecologies of music.” Both of the aforementioned pieces are based on aspects of Alaska: the former the traditional music of its native inhabitants and the latter shifts in the region’s weather patterns and tectonics (with an implicit demonstration of the impact of climate change on its environs).
Boston’s Stephen Drury and the Callithumpian Consort, whom he directs, are staunch advocates of JL Adams. Two recent recordings present different aspects of his music-making, as well as still more contrasting facets of his adopted state. The tintinnabulation of percussionist Scott Deal’s vibraphone and chimes, Drury’s piano (which plays major and minor chords throughout), and a haloing electronic aura courtesy of the composer mimic the shifts in light and many crags found in a wilderness’ varied terrain. Within the half hour duration, Adams never allows this limited palette to grow stale; he continually refreshes the sound world with shifts of tonality and varied interactions between percussion and piano. Its companion piece …And Bells Remembered… takes the tintinnabulation still further. Alongside Drury, five percussionists use both mallets and bows to craft a slowly evolving tolling of bell sounds both high and low. Is it meant as a memento mori or as a secularized ritual or meditation? We aren’t told in the booklet’s aphoristic notes, but we are left with an incandescent sonic shimmering that again indicates a sweeping vista to the mind’s eye.
Many composers have incorporated birdsong into their music. Perhaps the most famous of these is the French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-92), who was an amateur ornithologist and travelled the world to collect birdsongs; they appear in most of his compositions. Even Messiaen’s transcriptions of these arias of the animal world are somewhat limited by Western ideas of notation: they occur at a precise moment in the piece that is studiously indicated as a conventional (if complicated) rhythm. Adams has taken the incorporation of birdsong materials further in conception. Rather than prescribing when they are to occur, he gives the musicians phrases (transcribed in the field) as well as detailed indications of the habits and movement patterns of the various species which sing them. Thus, the musicians are tasked with accommodating their playing to approximate the birds’ preferences and the space in which they reside; not the other way around. Thus, creating an ecology of music involves much more than what’s printed on the page: it requires empathy, study, and imagination. While Messiaen is to be commended for paving the way towards this aim, songbirdsongs dispenses, insofar as is possible, with human expectations of formal trajectory and “pretty Polly” mimicry, instead replacing it with something wild, unfettered, and, in the performance captured hear, often enthralling.
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Garth Knox, viola & fiddle
with Agnès Vesterman, cello & Sylvain Lemêtre, percussion
ECM Records CD 2157
Dance music in multiple forms, from the saltarello, a Venetian dance dating back to the Fourteenth century, to Breton and Celtic folk music, as well as transcriptions of medieval era compositions, Renaissance era consort music, and contemporary fare, are featured on Saltarello, violist Garth Knox’s latest ECM CD. Among the early music slections, Particularly impressive is a Vivaldi concerto, performed in a duo arrangement for viola d’amore and cello. Its interpreters, Knox and Agnès Vesterman, take this continuo less opportunity to accentuate a supple contrapuntal interplay between soloist and bass line. Equally lovely is a piece that combines music by Hildegard andMachaut in a kind of medieval style mash-up. Also stirring is this duo’s version of John Dowland’s most famous piece, Lachrimae, perhaps known best in its incarnation as the song “Flow My Tears.”
Knox, who is a past member of both Ensemble Intercontemporain and the Arditti String Quartet, also performs the disc’s newer material with consummate musicality: he also has the bedeviling habit of making virtuosic writing sound far too easy to play (his poor violist colleagues!). Knox’s own composition, “Fuga Libre,” combines jazz rhythms and neo-baroque counterpoint with ever more complicated harmonic tension points and several instances in which Knox demonstrates various extended playing techniques. Meanwhile, Kaaija Saariaho’s Vent Nocturne, an eerily evocative and tremendously challenging piece for viola and electronics, is given a haunting, sonically sumptuous rendering.
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