Author Archive

Toshio Hosokawa
Landscapes
Mayumi Miyata, shô;
Munich Chamber Orchestra; Alexander Liebreich, conductor

Composer Toshio Hosokawa (b. 1955) has been featured once before on an ECM recording, as one of three composers programmed on a recital disc by Thomas Demenga. Landscapes is his first portrait disc for the imprint. It features a number of fine performers who are ideal advocates for Hosokawa’s fluid and multifaceted musical language. The Munich Chamber Orchestra, led by Alexander Liebreich, has become a featured ensemble on ECM’s New Series. The quality of their interpretations here readily support the notion of them remaining a ‘house band’ for the Manfred Eicher curated imprint.

Hosokawa’s work combines the influences of Darmstadt school second modernity with elements from traditional Japanese (and Chinese) culture, ranging from gagaku (courtly ceremonial music) and the employment of traditional instruments to examples from fine art: calligraphy and landscape paintings. In works like Ceremonial Dance and Cloud and Light, one is impressed with how seamlessly these various, at times disparate, elements are synthesized. This is particularly evident on Ceremonial Dance, where acerbic harmonies combine with sliding tones to fashion a hybrid of East/West techniques that sounds truly organic and self-contained. Cloud and Light works from a similar palette. But here there is also an interesting juxtaposition of delicate sustained shô and string chords and thunderous low register outbursts.

In addition to participating in Cloud and Light, shô (mouth organ) player Mayumi Miyata is also featured on two other pieces on the disc. Back in 1993, Landscape V was originally scored for shô and string quartet. This updated version for larger ensemble works equally well; both renditions are hauntingly eloquent tone poems. Miyata takes a solo turn on Sakura für Otto Tomek, a work filled with slowly evolving complex clusters of harmony. Sakura’s meditative ambience is shadowed with portentous overtones, creating a rich showcase for the singular and fetching timbres of the shô.

Hosokawa has long been respected in both Japan and Europe. Of late, given the strong reception given Matsukaze, his second opera, in Berlin, his stock has risen considerably in the Euro Zone. One hopes that more American conductors and ensembles will take notice of Hosokawa, a composer with a compelling individual voice developing an impressive body of work.

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So Percussion

Steve Mackey: IT IS TIME

Cantaloupe CD/DVD

CA21076

IT IS TIME features the music of Steve Mackey. Mackey decided to make a four movement suite in which each movement serves as a “mini-concerto” for a different member of So Percussion. In addition to solo turns, there’s also plenty of formidably scored ensemble interactions. The piece has a diverse instrumentation, employing found objects, traditional instruments, metronomes, and more exotic components such as steel drums.

Indeed, it seems to include everything but the kitchen sink (as evidenced by the video below!). One is glad that the package includes a DVD, as this is a piece that is a feast for the eyes as well as a bedazzling battery for the ears.

IT IS TIME is a meditation on the ephemeral nature of our existence. The fleet-footed passage of time is underscored by its metronomic pulse-driven memento mori. But rather than allowing this trope to become too melancholic, Mackey instead chooses an affirmative celebration of polyrhythmic activity, underscored by So Percussion’s ebullient virtuosity.

MP3: Steel Drums

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Snow White Turns Sixty
Gillian Hollis, soprano
Dale Trumbore, piano
Dissonant Gorgeous Productions CD/DL

In the call for scores for the Sequenza 21/MNMP Concert, we were smitten with twenty-something West Coast (by way of New Jersey) composer Dale Trumbore’s music. We’re thrilled that her string quartet How Will it Go is going to be performed by ACME on the concert (10/25 at Joe’s Pub: have you reserved your free seat yet?).

My own enthusiasm for Trumbore’s work recently received further confirmation when her debut CD arrived in the mail. Snow White Turns Sixty includes three of Trumbore’s song cycles, all of them settings of contemporary female authors. The musical language is post-romantic in tone, peppered with reference points ranging from high brow musical theater such as latter day Stephen Sondheim to the lush art songs of Dominic Argento and Daron Hagen. Occasionally, as in the song “Hazel tells Laverne,” one encounters a breezy jazzy cast, similar in temperament to that found in the cabaret songs of William Bolcom (but written for Gillian Hollis’ high soprano voice). Hollis sings with great flexibility, and never allows the punishingly high tessitura of some of the songs to deter her from poise-filled musicality. Trumbore performs the piano parts with a pleasing, delicate touch and in supportive fashion. While the disc strikes me as more gorgeous than dissonant, it whets my appetite for more music from this talented emerging composer.


Snow White Turns Sixty by Gillian Hollis & Dale Trumbore

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Jake Schepps
An Evening in the Village: the Music of Béla Bartók
Fine Mighty CD or digital via Bandcamp

 

Banjoist Jake Schepps crosses over into classical music on his latest release An Evening in the Village (out this week via Fine Mighty). Joined by a group of crackerjack country music performers, he explores the repertoire of Twentieth Century Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1881-1945). While at first glance this might seem like a curious cross-pollination, on further inspection bluegrass and Bartók share a number of affinities. Both are use traditional folk music as source material, both value syncopation and other rhythmic surprises, and both employ a pitch language that favors scales that depart from unadorned major and minor to instead explore other patterns.
In addition, one can readily see a kinship between the Eastern European  folk bands that performed the material that inspired Bartók and, apart from the banjo, the composition of a bluegrass ensemble. But Schepps does a fine job of performing this music convincingly on the instrument, and he ably leads his collaborators through the various metric shifts and dissonant surprises that populate Bartók’s scores. This is not adulterated Bartók; it’s the real deal, just re-orchestrated. That said, the CD’s musical equilibrium is equally supported by the spirit of bluegrass.
An Evening in the Village: The Music of Béla Bartók by Jake Schepps

released 04 October 2011
Musicians:
Jake Schepps: banjo
Ryan Drickey: violin
Matt Flinner: mandolin
Grant Gordy: guitar
Ross Martin: guitar
Ben Sollee: cello
Greg Garrison: bass
Ian Hutchison: bass
Eric Thorin: bass

All music by Béla Bartók, ASCAP except
Cousin Sally Brown: traditional, arr: by Jake Schepps, BMI

Produced by Jayme Stone
with Jake Schepps and Matt Flinner

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yMusic

Beautiful Mechanical

New Amsterdam Records CD

Ever since the inception of the New Amsterdam imprint, we’ve been talking about the “indie classical” phenomenon: The genre cross pollination between contemporary classical artists informed by indie rock and indie rockstars who are interested in concert music. While there have been a number of significant releases on New Am and other labels, Beautiful Mechanical the debut release of yMusic, may be the most synergistic example of this fertile crossover domain’s musicking yet.

My Brightest Diamond & yMusic | A Take Away Show | Part 01 from La Blogotheque on Vimeo.

yMusic is a Brooklyn based sextet of classically trained yet versatile musicians (personnel: violinist Rob Moose, trumpeter CJ Camerieri, cellist Clarice Jensen, vlutist Alex Sopp, clarinetist Hideaki Aomori, and violist Nadia Sirota). All of them have performed conventional concert repertoire, more avant-garde material, and their fair share of pop gigs and recording sessions. As such, they’re an ideal collective to collaborate with both classically trained composers and indie musicians.

The contributors have similarly eclectic backgrounds. Son Lux, who composed the title track, is also a classically trained composer. But his motoric, electronica-inspired take on chamber music in the title track sizzles with chart-topping energy. And while it asks a lot of the musicians, it never puts them in the position of playing something unidiomatic. Annie Clark (better known in pop circles as St. Vincent) spread her wings for the first time in a chamber music context, but the results are most compelling; her composition “Proven Badlands” is one of the standouts on the album. It ranges in sentiment from pastoral Americana in a Copland-esque vein to jazzy brass riffs to post-minimal ostinatos: yet all of these styles cohere in a fascinating postmodern collage with considerable momentum.

Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) not only works with yMusic on Beautiful Mechanical, contributing two cuts to the album; she also employs them on All Things Will Unwind her latest record for Asthmatic Kitty. We’ll be talking more about that record in another post, but you can check out a video below of one of Worden’s “indie art songs” that she performed with yMusic at last year’s Ecstatic Music Festival. Here, her instrumental compositions exude a fetching conflation of gentle whimsy and supple lyricism.

Gabriel Kahane’s “Song” does indeed lead with melody, which begins in conjunct fashion but gradually becomes more questing and wide ranging. Trumpet and winds are ultimately given long-breathed and intricately shaped lines that channel something of Les Six’s enigmatic use of an extended triadic vocabulary. Sophisticated stuff that belies Kahane’s succinct title.

Two of New Am’s mainstays, Judd Greenstein and Sarah Kirkland Snider, each contribute a work as well. Greenstein’s “Clearing, Dawn, Dance” is lithe, airy, and fleet-footed; it’s played with mercurial grace by yMusic. Snider’s “Daughter of the Waves” likewise takes a delicate, almost Impressionist approach, with ebullient cascades of sound along the way.

Few albums with such a diverse array of participants can boast uniformly high quality. But Beautiful Mechanical is the exception: a case in which many cooks leaven and thicken the broth. It looks to be one of contemporary classical’s noteworthy recordings of 2011.


Beautiful Mechanical by yMusic

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Drew Baker

Stress Position

featuring Marilyn Nonken, piano

New Focus CD FCR 116

Composer Drew Baker’s music is demanding stuff. Highly conceptual, viscerally physical, and often politically charged, it requires much from its performers. Baker is fortunate to have a staunch advocate in pianist Marilyn Nonken. She has championed his music, commissioning works and programming them frequently on her recitals. This New Focus disc demonstrates just how much she has internalized music that would fell many a less formidable artist.

Take the title work, which is named after the “vigorous interrogating techniques” that, during the past decade, proved to be one of many regrettable blights on the United States’ human rights record. The piece requires Nonken to have her arms extended to both registral extremes throughout, gradually stretching her hands to navigate wider intervals and thicker chords. Sensory assault – increasingly piercing amplification – and, live at least, sensory deprivation (the work ends with the lights out, imitating a detainee being blindfolded) are also part of the package. It’s an unnerving, deeply troubling piece about an equally squirm inducing topic. The most amazing thing to me about all this – Nonken asked for this piece: she’s a plucky pianist!  Asa Nisi Masa, another amplified work, features fists full of dense low register clusters, delivered in a battery of cannonades.

But, thankfully, Baker isn’t merely indulging a streak of danger music throughout the disc. National Anthem, another piece commissioned by Nonken, is a far more delicate affair. Yet it’s just as politically motivated as Stress Position. The Star-Spangled Banner is deconstructed, played in three different keys, in a slowly moving overlapping canon. What might seem like an Ivesian conceit is deployed in a more Feldmanesque fashion, to agreeable effect. Also quite appealing is Gray, another slowly developing piece featuring angular linear counterpoint and gently articulated yet dissonant harmonies, delicately shaded with careful attention to pedaling indications and keen awareness of the decay rates of various resonances. It’s played quite beautifully in this detailed performance by Nonken; she inhabits it with graceful poise.

Baker and percussionists Sean Connors and Peter Martin join Nonken for Gaeta, a work for two pianos and water percussion. I heard this piece’s premiere at the Guggenheim’s Works and Process Series back in 2006 and found it to be quite impressive.  One was awash in a plethora of water sounds, hand percussion, and prepared piano in a soundscape that was abundantly varied yet never overly busy. While Gaeta thrives in a live acoustic, the New Focus disc has done much to capture its shimmering sonic magic.

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Jason Eckardt

Undersong

Fred Sherry, cello; International Contemporary Ensemble; Steven Schick, conductor

Mode Records CD 234

Composer Jason Eckardt is one of a small but growing number of composers adopting the aesthetic viewpoint of “Second Modernity.” Briefly described, this approach involves a renewed embrace of abundant virtuosity, compositional and conceptual rigor, and dedicated exploration of new playing techniques and interdisciplinary applications in contemporary music. All of this may sound like a very intellectual approach to an artistic discipline. But Eckardt’s music is anything but sterile. Instead, it is kinetic and vigorous, as inspired by the enthusiasm for heavy metal with which he began his musical journey as it is by the top notch players who now champion his work.

Indeed, one couldn’t ask for better advocates in this repertory than the ones appearing on Undersound, Eckardt’s latest release Mode release. This group of pieces, based on Laura Mullen’s text of the same name, is thematically unified by the concepts of decrying oppression, corruption, and dispossession. Its cornerstone work The Distance features Mullen’s words sung by soprano Tony Arnold, who negotiates its high tessitura, extensive chromaticism, and angular melismas with a graceful fluidity that few other vocalists can muster in such challenging fare. Simply put, she’s a rock star in this genre. Her accompanists – stars in their own right – are members of the International Contemporary Ensemble, conducted by Steven Schick. Their performance exudes a confidence that belies the myriad challenges that they face when realizing Eckardt’s score.

ICE flutist Claire Chase is also featured in two other works on the disc. “16” references the sixteen regrettable words in G.W. Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address (those about WMD in Iraq): words that helped to later cause so many recriminations and, worse yet, casualties. Parlando techniques, breathy attacks, and stuttered mouth sounds turn the flute into a metaphorical mouthpiece for troubled communication. It is accompanied by percussive attacks and furtive gestures from a string trio. Chase’ playing bridges the gap between these deliberately halting sounding effects and fetching, albeit fleeting, snatches of melody, as if yearning for an eloquence that, in this score, is deliberately avoided.

Meanwhile, on Aperture, Chase is part of a Pierrot ensemble in a work that indulges both the noise and effects end of the sound spectrum as well as more pitch focused passages. Sustained single lines are pitted against pointillist excursions and busily angular sections. The whole creates a diverse, labyrinthine compositional architecture, full of twists and turns and engaging surprises.

Cellist Fred Sherry performs the glissando-filled and devilishly tricky solo  A Way (Tracing) with characteristic flair, attacking its quickly evolving formal terrain with mercurial suavity.

Undersong is a mind-blowing and aesthetics-expanding journey. Recommended.

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Ricardo Villalobos
Max Loderbauer
Re: ECM

ECM Records 2211

Using jazz as source material for electronica/remixing is nothing new. In addition to hip hop samples by crate-digging DJs, and several one off collaborative projects, labels have gotten aboard and opened their archives. Blue Note has released several remix albums while, for their Blue Series, Thirsty Ear frequently pairs electronica artists with avant jazzers. The former releases more or less ause jazz recordings as fodder for sampling/remixing, albeit iconic fodder. The latter are often engaging and collaborative in nature.

Re:ECM takes what I would consider to be still a third approach to jazz recorded sources. Drawing upon ECM Records’ capacious vaults of treasures, it unleashes two of today’s abundantly creative electronic musicians, Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer. Given wide latitude in their selection of material, the duo draw upon sessions by several fine jazz musicians on ECM’s roster, such as John Abercrombie, Stefano Bollani, and Paul Motian. The ECM New Series is also represented by contemporary classical composers Arvo Pärt and Alexander Knaifel.

The resulting two disc set of tracks is not made in the spirit of remixing choice ECM tracks in toto; nor is it meant to be a sample-fest that spotlights the artists rather than their sources. Instead, Villalobos and Loderbauer treat the recordings as compositional material: to be reworked and developed. Their approach is respectful; their manipulations made deftly and without the heavy-handedness one finds on some of the Blue Note remixes. Most striking here is the microscopic lens brought to details from the sources: breathy wind attacks, string noises on a harp, gently percussive articulations from a jazz drum kit. Indeed, some of Re: ECM’s best moments are accomplished via “addition by subtraction.”

While the artists themselves weren’t playing live for Villalobos and Loderbauer, there is a third presence on these recordings that bridges the gap between creators and recreators. Producer and ECM label head Manfred Eicher supervised the mastering of Re:ECM. Given his association with the source recordings the first time around, his involvement lends an air of authenticity to the proceedings. One can hear his presence as well. In virtually every respect, this sounds like an ECM disc: production values, sound world, ambience, and creative aesthetic.

Too many crossover projects end up feeling like a fish out of water. On the contrary, Re: ECM is the real deal. Here’s an idea: next time around, get Villalobos and Loderbauer into the studio with some ECM recordings artists. The possibilities are tantalizing!

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Revised cover artwork for Reich's new CD

Steve Reich

WTC 9/11, Mallet Quartet, Dance Patterns

Nonesuch CD

Now that we’ve gotten the cover art discussion out of the way – and Nonesuch has acquiesced to the concerns of those who felt the artwork exploitative and inflammatory – let’s consider the music on Steve Reich’s latest recording.

An interest found throughout Steve Reich’s output concerns spoken word recordings, which he has employed in a number of pieces, from his early phase compositions to his most recent multimedia works. One of his watershed pieces from the 1980s, “Different Trains,” was written for the Kronos Quartet.  It juxtaposes spoken word recordings detailing train travel in the US in the 1940s (Reich was frequently traveling from coast to coast to visit his estranged parents) with spoken word accounts of the treatment of deported victims of the Holocaust in transit to concentration camps.

“WTC 9/11” (2011), also for Kronos, employs similarly emotionally charged taped material, this time referencing the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers. Scored for three quartets (using overdubs), field recordings, and electronics, the piece’s outer sections are propelled by the jarring sound of a telephone’s “dead wire” signal, and also incorporate alarmed shouts of air traffic controllers and emergency first-responders. These are woven into the gestural fabric of the quartet’s music, which outlines each utterance with a melodic motif. Also incorporated are snippets of 2009 interviews with lower Manhattan residents, recalling their reactions to the tragedy and reflecting on how it has changed them.

The central passage is particularly evocative: the voices of Jewish officiants chanting and singing psalms over the remains of victims in the months following 9/11 interweaves with angst-filled sustained passages of string writing. One wishes that this area of the piece had been allowed more time to develop and register. Instead, Reich cuts it short, returning to the pensive and dramatically charged material of the opening to close out the work in portentous fashion.

In comparing it to its predecessor Different Trains, I would say that this piece takes a similar approach to the treatment of material. That said, its affect is entirely different. At around fifteen minutes long, “WTC 9/11” is a terser utterance than one might imagine as a response to an event with such far-reaching consequences. But in so crafting it, Reich has recaptured some of the blunt force trauma to our nation’s psyche in the days following the initial event. He’s also avoided some of the overt sentimentality that other artworks commemorating 9/11 have been unwilling to forgo.  It is this quality that gives “WTC 9/11” a potent dramatic heft that, though jarring at times, proves taut and unflinchingly eloquent.

Rhythmic drive and insistent pulsation underpin most of Reich’s music. A signature aspect of his style is the incorporation of polyrhythms, which he learned from his studies of African drumming. Reich has created a number of pieces for percussion ensembles or featuring percussion as a strong component. But the Mallet Quartet (2009) is a nod towards the continuing evolution of pitched percussion instruments; it’s his first work to incorporate the largest member of the mallet family: the five-octave marimba. Two of these populate the piece with layers of ostinato repetitions and thrumming, resonant bass thwacks. Meanwhile, two vibraphones supply shimmering chords and sustained lines. The piece juxtaposes these forces of wood and metal, pulsation and sustain, demonstrating that these two instruments can provide abundant variety and color. Engaging in nimble interplay, So Percussion’s rendition of this piece is informed by their years-long association with Reich’s music; they’ve also release an excellent rendition of his earlier work Drumming. When I saw them perform Mallet Quartet live at Carnegie Hall, they did so from memory. This intimate and comprehensive knowledge of the piece is reflected in its authoritative recording.

Reich himself appears, as part of the Steve Reich and Musicians ensemble, in the recording of Dance Patterns (2002). It was originally written for Ictus to accompany Thierry de Mey’s film Counterphrases of Anne Terese de Keersmaeker’s Choreography. Here, mallet instruments are joined by pianos. While the limpid counterpoint and fulsome polyrhythms found in the Mallet Quartet prevails here, the addition of concert grands adds richness to the harmonies; some of the piano writing takes on a positively jazzy cast. Vibrant and accessible, it may not be a watershed work like his pieces for Kronos, but it’s the perfect way to introduce Reich to a new audience. Maybe a passel of foreign film buffs will catch the minimalist bug!

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The Sad Park EP

Kronos Quartet; Michael Gordon, composer

iTunes-only DL

Michael Gordon’s musical reflection on 9/11, The Sad Park, is an interesting variant on another piece written for the Kronos Quartet to commemorate the terror attacks: Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11. Gordon’s source material is culled from spoken word recordings made by the teacher of his son’s Pre-K class: responses to the attacks as seen through the eyes of innocents.

But whereas Reich used taped voices of first responders and spoken-word reflections of its aftermath as recognizable, harrowing, landmarks, Gordon eschews using source recordings in an overtly referential, or even recognizable manner. Instead, with the assistance of composer Luke Dubois, they are digitally sculpted into ghostly apparitions; distorted to blur the excerpts’ message in favor of allowing their impact to operate on an emotive and sonic, rather than textual, level. Surrounded  by quartet writing in the post-minimal ostinato manner, as well as sustained, siren-like lines that form a kind of keening, mournful refrain, The Sad Park is an unsettling threnody.

It’s interesting to note that in NPR’s 9/6 blog post about The Sad Park, the responses in the comments section diverge widely. Some feel that it is an affecting piece, while others pillory its use of children’s responses as exploitative. I guess one can engender controversy without inflammatory cover art.

Composer Michael Gordon

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