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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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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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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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
WTC 9/11, Mallet Quartet, Dance Patterns
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
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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Trinity Wall Street, the “Ground Zero Church” in New York City, commissioned a work from Robert Moran to commemorate the 10th Anniversary of September 11, 2001. The result, Trinity Requiem, is one of the most moving musical settings I’ve heard associated with 9/11.
Set for children’s choir, harp, cellos, and organ, it utilizes an elegantly simple, yet abundantly appealing musical language, combining soaring vocal lines, sumptuous pan-tonal harmonies, and flowing ostinati accompaniments to create a comforting, contemplative mass setting entirely appropriate to this occasion. The forces assembled by Trinity Church are uniformly excellent: recording a subdued, poignant performance of considerable musicality.
Respectful of those still in mourning, yet preferring an affirmative demeanor to doleful lament, Trinity Requiem is a beautiful piece that one hopes will remain in the repertoire. It transcends the nature of many occasional pieces to speak with an eloquence and sensitivity that is truly special.
Robert Moran Trinity Requiem CD by innova Recordings
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Slagwerk Den Haag
For his latest recording for the Cantaloupe imprint, Michael Gordon chose an unusual and cohesively elemental instrumental palette. The percussionists of Slagwerk Den Haag use only one kind of instrument: simantras – 2″X4″s – carved to different sizes to correspondingly vary the indefinite pitch and timbre. Given this winnowed orchestration, one might imagine that the results are monochromatic. Timber is anything but.
Instead, listeners are treated to an astonishing array of playing techniques, from a pitter patter of ricocheting attacks resembling rain fall to passages that accelerate and slow down to thunderous unison thwacks. Gordon’s penchant for polyrhythms and rhythmic canons keeps the musical textures varied and buoys a fascinating narrative that remains instense throughout the piece’s fifty-five minute long duration.
Not only is this release musically pleasing, it’s easily one of the coolest packaging designs for a CD we’ve seen in a while. Instead of a jewel case, the CD and liner notes are packed in a wooden box -that weighs about a pound! Seeing performance details carved into the side of a wooden box is much for aesthetically pleasing and, I’d imagine, environmentally friendly, than plastic tray inserts.
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Gibson, piano and sine wave drones
Avant Media CD
Composer Randy Gibson’s 50 minute long Aqua Madora, for sine wave drones and piano tuned in just intonation, is an exquisitely lovely piece. Gibson uses his studies of tuning systems, composition, and singing with LaMonte Young and Marian Zazeela as a jumping off point – even going so far as to tuning some of the intervals (particularly seventh scale degrees) in homage to these masters of early minimalism.
As touching as this tribute is, especially at a time in which the importance of Young’s work is not nearly as widely known as it should be, Aqua Madora is not just about expressing gratitude for knowledge transmitted between teacher and student. In collaboration with Ana Baer-Carrillo and Dani Beauchamp, Gibson spent a long time refining this piece as a multimedia work containing film and dance.
One needn’t have these visual elements to enjoy the suppleness and subtleties of Aqua Madora’s music. Gibson’s play with intervals that sound “out of tune” to those accustomed to equal temperament is particularly sensitive. He allows the tangy appearances of these notes to color the drift of harmonic progressions and provide fascinating variants that add a tinge of the unexpected to scalar passages.
Aqua Madora V-ii-2008 21:07:26" – 21:54:40" (NYC) by Randy Gibson
An aside: I wasn’t the only one in the house to be floored by the piece. Our tabby cat, Happy, comes running every time I put it on, and blisses out between the speakers. While I’m not trying to make a partisan statement in the temperament wars using inappropriate anthropomorphism, it’s worth noting that she seldom gets this excited by music in equal temperament!
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Frkwys Vol. 7
David Borden, Daniel Lopatin, Laurel Halo, Samuel Godin, James Ferraro, synthesizers
The seventh edition of the RVNG’s Frkwys series features intergenerational electroacoustic collaboration. David Borden, one of the pioneers of analog synthesizer performance and founder of Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece, the first all synth ensemble, teams up with some of the young pups of indie electronica, members of bands such as Ford and Lopatin, Oneohtrix Point Never, and the Skaters.
While, traditionally, these two eras’ musicians may not share the same marketing demographics, they do share a love for vintage gear: for the warmth that analog keyboards can impart. Another mutual interest is ensemble improvisation. This common ground was extensively explored in a two-day marathon of recording sessions. On the Frkwys release, listeners are treated to unadulterated cuts, sans overdubs. But Borden and company do fine “without a net,” creating imaginative soundscapes. At times ambient and at others verging into more experimental terrain, the prevailing language here extols a minimal harmonic field, slowly evolving textures, and a plethora of drones.
Apart from the twelve and a half minute long “People of the Wind, Pt. 1,” most of the cuts are under ten minutes in duration. If one had a quibble about the release, it might be that this collective could use more time to stretch out and develop their ideas. Maybe a future meeting will allow side-long compositions to emerge. But in the meantime, there’s some heady music making to be heard from this initial encounter between analog improv’s old school and emerging wing.
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