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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It’s a long way from Brooklyn to Big Sur, isn’t it? Well, New York based composer (and Philip Glass Ensemble member) David Crowell’s work Eucalyptus suggests that the distance can be bridged with a single overtone series. This spectral imbued piece for saxophones allows for frequency pile-ups to suggest an aromatic evergreen grove just off of a Northern California beach: still within earshot of the crashing surf. And if you don’t like having this Big Sur inspired programme get in the way of your sonic immersion, it is a lovely and warm aural bath all by itself.
Crowell likes using consorts of instruments, homogeneous groupings (apart from occasional electronic manipulation). Thus, the saxophones of Eucalyptus and its jazzy post-minimal counterpart Point Reyes give way to the mallet instruments of Kaleidoscope. Here, the composer enlists the assistance of percussionist Brian Archinal, who populates the piece with a striking textural makeup of overlapping ringing ostinati.
Archinal is also on hand for “Throw Down your Heart,” a work inspired by a documentary in which Bela Fleck described the African roots of the banjo. It features the amadinda, a twelve foot long marimba played by up to six people. Indeed, the piece’s busily corruscating mallet-played melodies remind one of an entire shop of banjos and mbiras (thumb pianos) being played all at once. Here, as elsewhere, Crowell’s use of layering encompasses the cannily composed with just the right taste of aleatory to allow for a bit of improvisational sounding organicism to zestily season a distinctive sound world.
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This Was Written by Hand
Piano Music by David Lang
Andrew Zolinsky, piano
Cantaloupe Music CD
Wed, the audition piece for the David Lang 2011 Competition, is featured on This Was Written By Hand, David Lang’s latest CD, a recital disc recorded for Cantaloupe by pianist Andrew Zolinksy. It is one of eight “Memory Pieces” included on the disc. This group serves as postminimal “Characterstucke,” an attractive and mercurial group of contrasting miniatures.
Then there is the touching title work. One of Lang’s most organically constructed pieces, it was, indeed, written by hand and intuitively constructed. A meditation on the ephemeral nature of life, it captures a similar poignancy to Lang’s recent vocal work “Little Matchgirl Passion,” but writ smaller, more intimately. To both this and the Memory Pieces, Zolinsky brings a fluid grace and subtlety that abets the spontaneous, almost improvisatory, character of the material.
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Please welcome a new contributor to Sequenza 21: Andy Lee: pianist, academic, and writer.
Eve Egoyan, Piano
Works by Ann Southam
Centrediscs CMCCD 17211
As musicians we are trained to listen with a critical ear, to automatically dissect, analyze, and evaluate each musical performance we encounter. Knowing that one will have to write about a musical experience brings all this training to the forefront, or at least it should. That didn’t happen for me—at least not initially.
My problem, if you can call it that, was that Ann Southam’s piano music was so beautiful and Eve Egoyan’s interpretation so exquisite, that I didn’t want to listen critically; I wanted to lose myself, disengage my analytical mind, and simply enjoy. In time I was able to cobble together notes for this review, but even after several hearings I must say that this desire to become lost in the music remains ever-present. What follows is my evaluation, such as it is, but if I haven’t yet convinced you to purchase this recording, I’m not sure that anything else I could write will.
Returnings represents perhaps the last musical statement of the phenomenal Canadian composer Ann Southam (1937-2010). She chose the pieces and their ordering for this CD in the last year of her life, and the album also includes the last two pieces she wrote, Returnings I and Returnings II: A Meditation. These pieces, along with Qualities of Consonance (1998) and In Retrospect (2004), were all written for the Eve Egoyan. (I might also add that the image on the cover is original artwork by Southam.)
The CD works marvelously as a whole, to the extent that you might find yourself hard-pressed not to consider this one single composition. Each of these four pieces seems to grapple with its own internal conflict: consonance and dissonance, minimalism and dodecaphony, or restraint and restlessness. What makes this conflict work, and what draws the listener, is that these conflicts never resolve. Southam merely presents these seemingly disparate ideas one against another and lets them be, never allowing one to dominate, and to great effect.
The second piece on the album, In Retrospect, is very reminiscent of a later work (also recorded by Egoyan), Simple Lines of Enquiry (2007). A single twelve-tone row is presented across the keyboard in small sections, and with generous use of the damper pedal, these tones are allowed to interact with one another and slowly build into chords. The pacing and balance of tone that Egoyan provides is spot on. The delicacy of her interpretation tells you that this is a pianist listening intently to every single sound she creates, and that each note is placed in a precise moment in time.
The third track is Qualities of Consonance, by far the most overtly virtuosic work on the CD. It is grounded in serene chords and ostinati, but is frequently interrupted by rapid passagework. Here, the conflict is seems to be presented by two separate pianists, as Egoyan contrasts these two elements extremely well. While her sensitive touch has been well noted in other recordings, here we are given a taste of her technical prowess and adept articulation. Yet this is never virtuosity for its own sake, as each gesture is executed with a clear sense of line.
That said, if there is any weakness on this CD, it is this piece. Despite the Egoyan’s exuberance of the difficult passages, I felt like there was more room for rubato and dynamic contrast in some of the lines of the more serene sections. Likewise, from a compositional standpoint Qualities of Consonance lacks the cohesion of so much of Southam’s other music, making it feel disjointed at times. That said, this remains a remarkable CD, and looking for weaknesses is a bit like deciding which is your least favorite 20-year-old scotch.
The first and last pieces on the album, Returnings I and II, are quite similar to one another. Here, the conflict is between a gentle rolling bass ostinato supporting consonant chords and another twelve-tone row. The row is presented at the outset of both pieces before the ostinato enters, at which point the notes of the row are presented between chords of the right hand. The effect is marvelous, as at times the row adds depth to the harmony and at other times clashes against it. Again, this conflict is never resolved, but allowed to play itself out, and the overall effect becomes one of great calm despite the dissonances that arise.
This sense of calm pervades all four pieces, and I cannot but help think of Southam’s passing when I listen to this CD. Her ability to find beauty in the unresolved dissonance and to allow things to be as they are seems like a beautiful metaphor for life. La vita è bella, and without caveat. It saddens me to think that this will be the last collaboration between two such talented artists, but as Egoyan writes, “each time I perform her music, Ann returns as a radiant resonance, with us, forever.”
I’ve no doubt that many more Southam recordings will be produced in the coming years, but as this contains her last compositions, performed by the pianist for whom they were written, I cannot help but feel a sense of finality when the album ends. I will listen often to this truly beautiful CD, and each time raise my glass to Ann. May she rest in peace.
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Critical Models: Chamber Works of Mohammed Fairouz
Katie Reimer, piano; Claire Cutting, oboe; James Orleans, double bass; Jonathan Engle, flute; Maarten Stragier, classical guitar; Vasko Dukovski, clarinet; Rayoung Ahn, violin; Michael Couper, alto saxophone; Thomas Fleming, bassoon; Lydian String Quartet
Dorian Sono Luminus CD
Composer Mohammed Fairouz is one of a number of twenty-something contemporary classical composers who revel in the postmillennial polyglot atmosphere, where frequent shifts of stylistic demeanor are worn as badges of courage rather than markers of indecision. But writing convincingly in one style is challenging enough: chops-wise, a composer has to be loaded for bear in order to bring off the many signatures polystylists seek to incorporate.
Critical Models, a portrait CD featuring Fairouz’s chamber music, reflects a composer with a fertile mind and considerable technical acumen. An omnivore, if a somewhat conservative one, Fairouz tends to favor neoclassical models: Stravinsky and Hindemith are frequent touchstones. One can hear their spectres in “Litany,” a bucolic piece for double bass and wind quartet. There’s also more than a whisper of Schoenberg in the angular passages of “Lamentation” for string quartet, a work played on the CD with particular ardor by the Lydian Quartet.
Perhaps via osmosis from his own studies at Curtis and New England Conservatory, Fairouz is fond of emulating the Postwar American conservatory set – Persichetti, Mennin, and Schuman – in their explorations of pandiatonism, mixed meters, and dissonant counterpoint. One particularly hears these referents in his Six Piano Miniatures, idiomatic works that, apart from the poignant final movement, “Addio,” seem slighter than others on the disc, with the possible exception of the serviceable but often plodding Airs for solo guitar.
The title work is more formidable. A duo for alto saxophone and violin, it adroitly surveys each of the aforementioned stylistic categories singly in separate movements. Also included is a movement entitled “Catchword” that cannily references Nonwestern music. In each of these stylistic portraits, Fairouz seamlessly adopts a different compositional persona. While his versatility is admirable, one still awaits a thorough synthesis of these various demeanors into a durably individual voice.
On Thursday 1/19 at 8 PM, Fairouz presents “Resistance: Chamber and Vocal Music of Mohammed Fairouz” at Weill Recital Hall. Performers include Imani Winds, the Transatlantic Ensemble, soprano Mellissa Hughes, and clarinetist David Krakauer.
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Reto Bieri, clarinet
Works by Berio, Carter, Eötvös, Holliger, Sciarrino, and Vajda
ECM New Series CD 2209
One of the best recital discs I heard in 2011 did not feature an instrument typically associated with the genre. Contrechant is a disc comprised of all contemporary works performed by Swiss clarinetist Reto Bieri. All solos: no piano accompaniment or contributions from other instrumentalists. But the proceedings are hardly monophonic or monochromatic. Even Luciano Berio’s Lied (1983), which opens the disc with a phrase or so gently articulated “song-like” melody, does not remain a “single line” piece for long: this texture is complicated by repeated note ostinati and wide-ranging leaps. While Lied isn’t as hypervirtuosic as the clarinet Sequenza, it proves to be an elegant introduction to the rigorous material that will be found on the disc, as well as the formidable technical skill and focused interpretative powers possessed by Bieri. Indeed, Contrechant is a showcase for the clarinet’s versatility and its extensive repertoire of extended techniques.
A case in point is “Lightshadow-trembling,” by Hungarian (now residing in the US) composer, conductor, and clarinetist Gergely Vajda. The piece spends a great deal of its duration requiring the clarinetist to perform pedal tones in conjunction with a compound melody and copious trilling, creating a far denser texture than many listeners would assume possible when presented with the mislabel “single line instrument.” After this sustained, breathless (or, rather, circular breathed) flurry, late in the piece, Vajda allows the clarinetist to attack single sustained notes: the resultant starkness is startling. This was the first piece I’ve heard from Vajda: I look forward to hearing more.
One of Vajda’s teachers, the acclaimed composer and conductor Peter Eötvös, contributes a very different work: Derwischtánz. It is lyrical and questing, with beautiful runs that start in the chalumeau register and cascade up to long, sustained, pianissimo notes in the instrument’s upper register to end each phrase. A few trills at the work’s close seem to serve as foreshadowing for Vajda’s later perambulations.
“Let me die before I wake,” by Salvatore Sciarrino revels in extended techniques, such as multiphonics and whistle tones. But these never seem gimmicky; instead they give the clarinet an otherworldly, “sci-fi” ambiance that is quite haunting. Virtuoso oboist and composer Heinz Holliger knows a thing or two about wind instruments. His Contrechant (2007) cast in five short movements, takes up where Sciarrino leaves off, putting the clarinet through its paces, including extraordinary measures: slap tonguing, extended glissandi, vocalizations, microtones, and altissimo register squalls. It is a bracing, yet dramatically compelling, ultra-modernist composition. More reflective, although still possessing considerable angularity and a wildly shifting demeanor, is Rechant (2008), a through-composed companion piece.
This is Bieri’s second recording of Elliott Carter’s Gra (1993), one of the ‘early’ works of the now 103 year-old composer’s ‘late’ period. It is one of a number of relatively brief single movement piecess that Carter penned during the 90s and 00s and, I believe, one of his best. In Gra, for the most part Carter eschews the special effects employed by the aforementioned composers; he instead displays absolute command, both of the instrument’s idiomatic capabilities and of a rigorously compressed harmonic and gestural language. The piece’s exquisite pacing and, for Carter, relatively new found directness of expression, make it one of the great works for solo clarinet. Since his first recording of the piece, Bieri’s interpretation has grown, is ever more sure-footed and specific in all of its details: I’m glad he recorded it a second time. Let’s hope ECM invites him back to make another CD. Pairing him with one of the label’s many talented pianists could make for a deadly duo disc.
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Spectropol Records is a small outfit dedicated to short runs of adventurous music, including xenharmonic (microtonal) composers, electroacoustic experimenters, avant improv performers, ‘out’ instrument builders, and those specializing in field recordings.
Where can one reasonably locate Daniel Stearns? On Golden Town, his latest full length release, he readily fits most of the categories above. Combined with distressed soundscape recordings – bleak windswept places seem to be a frequent environment – are brittle whiffs of guitar drones, tendrils of electronics, edgings of psych-tinged noise, and deep rumbling bass. Stearns calls these “waking dreams,” but I’m not sure one would describe the visions unleashed alongside his potently dystopian pieces to be anything short of spooky nightmares. Still, while you may want to bring a flashlight along, “just in case,” Stearns’s Golden Town is a weirdly appealing, often engrossing, sonic experience.
GOLDEN TOWN by daniel stearns
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by Martin Bresnick
So Percussion; Lisa Moore, piano
Cantaloupe Music CD
It takes chutzpah to base a musical composition around an iconic piece of visual art. Francisco Goya’s Los Destastres de la Guerra (“The Disasters of War”) is a book of etchings that captures the human toll of combat (as well as its toll on the rest of creation) with a visceral impact that has seldom been equaled. Using it as the basis for a musical piece, even going so far as to use Goya’s own phrases for movement titles? A composer who does so better bring the goods or they will likely be dwarfed by comparison. Fortunately, Martin Bresnick’s Caprichos Enfaticos is eminently capable of complementing its powerful source material. Indeed, it’s one of his most affecting pieces to date, one in which there is a fluid progression from traditionally inspired material to more dissonant and abstract expression.
A particular reference point is a chain dance that originated in Provence, called the farandula, or farandole. Its 6/8 phrases are juxtaposed with bellicose marches played on snare drums and interspersed with ruminative and achingly piteous interludes for piano and pitched percussion.
Cast in eight movements, the piece mirrors the trajectory of Goya’s etchings from a semblance of order and civilization to chthonic brutality. In successive iterations, the gestural language of the farandole and folk-like thematic material is overwhelmed by a noisier environment: populated with a diverse battery of percussion instruments and a correspondingly chaotic phraseology.
In live performances, Caprichos Enfaticos is accompanied by video projections created by Johanna Bresnick and based on the Goya works. So Percussion and pianist Lisa Moore inhabit the music with a persuasive, commanding, and detailed performance on record: one can only imagine its powerful impact coupled with Goya’s artworks in a live setting.
Not only was chutzpah an ingredient of this project, but so was a seamless collaborative spirit. Meet the Composer commissioned this piece for So Percussion and Moore, and it is a truly inspired partnership. One hopes that it is merely the beginning of a long musical relationship.
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Everybody’s Pain is Magnificent
New Amsterdam Records
Grey McMurray and Caleb Burhans have been performing together as itsnotyouitsme since 2003. In the past five years, they have released three recordings. Their latest, Everybody’s Pain is Magnificent is a sprawling double album set of material. It celebrates the gradual developing soundscapes and lushly ambient sonics that are signatures the group’s sound. Unlike many ill-fated double albums, which run out of steam or seem padded, EPiM requires the extra time to develop its sweeping musical architectures and allow the listener to luxuriate, bathed in the music’s honeyed harmonies and finely spun textures. It’s been in heavy rotation in these parts this Fall. If you haven’t heard it, you are missing out on one of 2011’s most rewarding ambient treasures.
Below, the band shares a ‘wintry’-sounding video of a recent live performance.
everybody’s pain is magnificent by itsnotyouitsme
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