with electroacoustic music by John Downey and Jenny Kallick
Libretto by Jenny Kallick
Navona Records CD/DVD
Pulitzer prizewinning composer Lewis Spratlan, abetted by electronics from John Downey and Jenny Kallick, crafts an elegant meditation on creativity in the chamber opera Architect. It is based on the ideas and life story of 20th century Philadelphia architect Louis I. Kahn. The avant electronics palette of Downey and Kallick is well integrated into the score: Spratlan balances elements of traditional orchestration with a conspicuous amount of percussion that helps to bridge the divide between the acoustic and electronic elements.
Three singers are called upon to play five roles; in addition to the title character there are the Guide, the Engineer, the Healer, and Woman. Spratlan is known for the quality his vocal music – his opera Life is a Dream was the winning work for the aforementioned Pulitzer. While the demands of Architect on the singers are significant, the composer always writes so well for the voice that they sound terrific. He also knows how to pick an excellent cast of singers. Baritone Richard Lalli and tenor Jeffrey Lentz both bring vivid characterization and musicality to their respective roles. Soprano Julia Fox exhibits laser beam accuracy and evenness of sound throughout a wide range, even when the vocal lines she is required to sing are quite angular. The Navona release, generously stuff with information and extras, is an ideal complement to the multidimensional view of the creative life provided by the opera.
In the early 90s, I sang a small role in Jacob Druckman’s opera Medea in the Juilliard Opera Center’s semi-staged production of it. I was struck by its synthesis of old and new, and demanding yet felicitous writing for the voice. Later I worked with Druckman at the Aspen Music Festival and saw him again in a masterclass at Boston University. At the latter he seemed unwell, but retained his charisma and sense of humor. Little did I know that he was terminally ill with cancer; he passed away some months later. Although my contacts with Druckman were brief, I miss him. Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s portrait disc devoted to Druckman is a pleasing way to renew, or begin, one’s acquaintance with his potent music.
Druckman died a decade and a half ago, yet his influence is still palpable for contemporary classical composers. In the 1980s, his work exemplified the modernists’ version of postmodernism. Contemporary dissonances coexist with past practices; many of his compositions incorporate influences ranging from mid-century Americans such as Copland at his most modern, late Romantic masters such as Strauss, whose orchestrations he often praised, and early baroque opera. Indeed, several of his pieces recompose the latter material, leaving it recognizable but significantly changed and thoughtfully re-orchestrated. Two of these works, a suite of material from Charpentier’s Médée (hear a stream of a short excerpt from the suite on our blog’s Tumblr page) and an aria by Francesco Cavalli, appear on BMOP’s Druckman recording. Conductor Gil Rose and the group do a fine job giving both the “old” and “new” sensibilities of Druckman their due, in one piece mimicking aspects of a period ensemble and in the next hefting a sound three times that size.
All of Druckman’s work, whether it contains pre-existing material or not, displays a singularly incisive yet colorfully deployed harmonic language. And one is struck again and again by his masterful orchestrations. That Quickening Pulse is the perfect curtain-raiser; an orchestral overture that shimmers and thums with passionately played percussion, corruscating wind and brass lines, and icy string verticals, leavened with still more (pitched) percussion. Both low and high brass chorales articulate formal divisions, leaving skittering lines from the other sections as a written out echo chamber in their wake. Nor Spell Nor Charm is a fetching, indeed beguiling, work that started out life as a song for mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani; after her own terminal illness, it became a memorial work that retains the beautiful lines Druckman imagined the singer would perform, but set instead for orchestra (with a vintage eighties Yamaha synthesizer featuring prominently).
The disc’s title composition features vocalist Lucy Shelton, who is called upon to sing in four different languages: Ovid in Latin, folk conjurations in French and Malay, and a snippet from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde auf Deutsch. The narrative shifting through this cultural and linguistic kaleidoscope is the story of Lamia, an unfortunate Queen from ancient Libya whom the gods transform into a child-eating daemon. It has resonances with another long-time interest of Druckman, the story of Medea, and presages some of his later work using that tale. It also features spatial notation in places, allowing for a certain amount of rhythmic flexibility. Shelton is an excellent interpreter of Druckman’s music, capturing its emotional volatility, earthy incantations, and soaring climaxes with vocal assuredness and consummate expressivity.
It is hard to choose among BMOP’s many excellent recordings: call this one something of a sentimental favorite that comes highly recommended.
Pianist Gloria Cheng’s first CD release, from 1995, was a recording of Messiaen’s music for Koch. Her interpretations of the French composer’s works have only grown richer with time, as evidenced by her latest recording, The Edge of Light, for the Harmonia Mundi imprint. The centerpiece of its program is the Preludes. Composed in 1929, they were only performed privately until their debut in a 1937 recital. Of course, Debussy’s Preludes loom large and undoubtedly influenced Messiaen. That said, it is extraordinary how refined and singular the younger composer’s aesthetic is by age 21.
We get a taste of the birdsong that will figure prominently in a great deal of Messiaen’s music. For instance, he replicates the cooing of a dove in “La Colombe.” Elsewhere, the wind is depicted in “Un reflet dan le vents.” Sometimes the natural world is eschewed in favor of the subconscious or inward-turned expression-filled emotional terrain, as on the beguiling “Les son impalpables du rêve.” Cheng seamlessly inhabits each of these moods, finely executing the multi-faceted textures and playing styles that evoke them. The Calder Quartet joins Cheng for Messiaen’s brief and mercurial Piéce for piano and string quartet (1991), a late work that captures a wide range of emotions, from brittle and incisive to languidly mystical, in just three-and-a-half minutes.
The quartet’s lower half, Jonathan Moerschel and Eric Byers, also collaborate with Cheng on Kaija Saariaho’s trio Je sens un deuxième Coeur. Cast in five movements and composed in 2003, it sounds like an extension of Messiaen’s “color chords,” suggesting that these complex harmonies presaged spectralism and other explorations of resonance and timbre undertaken later in the 20th (and into the 21st) century; its second and fourth movements remind one more than a little of punctilious passages in the aforementioned Messiaen quintet. Not only does it pair well with Messiaen, the trio is a dazzling work in its own right.
Cheng also presents debut recordings of two of Saariaho’s solo piano pieces, both written in the last decade. Prelude is filled with limpid gestures and post-Impressionist harmonies; but these are given a strong tinge of postmodernism, set as they are against muscular arpeggiations and strongly articulated verticals. The Ballade seems to operate a bit less in conversation with the early 20th Century. It pits sonorous bass tolling against feverously repeated notes in the treble register. When its own arpeggiations arrive, there is a more portentous sensibility found in the Ballade’s gestures and harmonies. Cheng rendering of these disparate pieces is both fluid and fluent. This is my favorite recording of hers to date, and that’s a tall order. Recommended.
Maria Pia De Vito, voice; Francois Couturier, piano;
Anja Lechner, cello; Michele Rabbia, percussion and electronics
ECM CD 2340
The works of eighteenth century composers such as Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi have been subject to all manner of reinterpretation by contemporary artists in myriad styles: jazz, gospel, bluegrass, rock, and so forth. Neapolitan composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736) hasn’t thus far been popular among those reworking baroque music. That may change with the release of Il Pergolese, a collaboration between vocalist Maria Pia De Vito, pianist Francois Couturier, cellist Anja Lechner, and percussionist Michele Rabbia that is emotive, imaginative, and stylistically fluid.
Pergolesi is best known for composing vocal music – operas and sacred music both (his Stabat Mater setting is particularly fine). De Vito’s singing of the evocative “Ogni pena cchiú spietata,” with its hauntingly repeated minor triads, sits astride baroque opera and pop chanteuse traditions, making the hybrid nature of this project clear from the outset.
Many of the arias from Pergolesi’s operas have been resurrected as staples of the repertoire studied by voice students, who treat them like “art songs” – recital repertoire – rather than presenting them in a theatrical context. Sometimes these “songs,” taken too lightly, are put before students out their depth. Thus it is particularly heartening to hear Lechner lead a beautifully soulful rendition of “Tre giorni son che Nina” on Il Pergolese, which serves to rehabilitate it from the aforementioned lowly fate of freshman recital fodder.
Rabbia’s ambient electronics halo De Vito’s melismatic, rhythmically free, and folk music inflected version of “In compagnia d’amore I;” in places her delivery is reminiscent of Cathy Berberian singing Luciano Berio folksong settings. Lechner and Couturier join Rabbia on “In compagnia d’amore II,” an interpretation more tilted toward ecstatic jazz than modern classical, with ardent soloing from the pianist, pizzicato cello lines, and articulative, rather than steadily pulsing, percussion gestures. Another fascinating selection is the exploration by De Vito and Couterier of material from the Stabat Mater, translated into Neapolitan to better show its roots in and connections to local traditions and music-making. Purists might balk, but this is a respectful and musically inventive homage to an underappreciated composer.
In recent decades, there’s been a move in some American academic circles to put more separation between the disciplines of music composition and music theory. It seems especially curious to those of us who have, to greater or lesser degrees, modeled our careers and aesthetics on our forebears, adopting the “composer-theorist” approach (some of us even adopt the “composer-performer-theorist” tag, but that’s another story for another day). Happily, academics like Dmitri Tymoczko thrive, pointing out that a hyphenated or, more properly, interdisciplinary existence is still amply possible without compromising one’s standing in either or both disciplines.
Tymoczko is one of the best known scholars discussing geometric modeling in music theory; his “The Geometry of Musical Chords” was the first music theory article published in Science Magazine; his first book, A Geometry of Music (Oxford University Press, 2011) is thought-provoking and, given its subject matter, surprisingly accessible: It has engendered a great deal of discussion in music theory circles. However, Tymoczko teaches at Princeton University in the Composition Area; while many important theorists have studied at Princeton, there is no Theory Department in the Graduate Music program, only Composition and Musicology.
On his first CD, Beat Therapy (Bridge, also 2011), Tymoczko flexed his third stream muscles, presenting a program of concert works influenced by jazz including improvised solos. Crackpot Hymnal, his second recording for the Bridge imprint, features fully notated chamber pieces played by estimable ensembles: the Amernet and Corigliano Quartets and the Illinois Modern Ensemble with pianist Daniel Schlossberg. The pieces address crossover, or polystylism, though, for the most part, instead of jazz, popular and rock styles interact with folk and modern classical music. Given Tymoczko’s early background playing popular music, and his subsequent theoretical writings that point out the ways that geometrical modeling of scales and chords is applicable to the analysis of both classical and popular music, his exploration of similar issues in his compositions makes perfect sense.
He has a bit of fun as well with this idea of similarity of collections between disparate styles. In the album opener, The Eggman Variations (2005), a quintet for pianist John Blacklow and the Corigliano Quartet, the first movement, titled “Pentatonia,” overwhelmingly employs pentatonic collections. But is the listener guided to hear them as aspects of Asian folk music, Impressionist chamber music, or box riffs by a guitarist in a garage band? Depending on where you are in the piece, it could seem to be any one, or several, of these archetypal references to a five-note scale. Alongside the glissandos one might expect, permutations of chordal extensions (7th chords, 9th chords, et cetera), populate the piece’s second movement, “Bent.” “A Roiling Worm of Sound” (what a fantastic title) mixes multiple layers of ostinato repetitions into an ebulliently undulating whole.
Another aspect of polystylism that Tymoczko embraces in these pieces is the ever-expanding condition of our varied digital music libraries, with the concomitant use (abuse?) of the shuffle button on our iPod, iTunes, or other digital delivery system. With a few clicks of a mouse or remote, listeners can leapfrog throughout music history and a plethora of musical geographies. Typecase Treasury (2010), another piano quintet for Kevin Weng-Yew Mayner and the Amernet Quartet, is a seven-movement suite of miniatures that revels in stylistic juxtaposition. It is neoclassicism versus post-minimalism in “Where We Begin.” “Hurdy Gurdy” channels Nancarrow in its not-so-well oiled musical motor and bluesy cast. Sheared off blocks of angular rhythms and deliberately schmaltzy chords inhabit “Crackpot Hymnal” in a quirky coexistence. You can imagine what happens in “This One was Supposed to be Atonal.” The composer describes “Russian Metal” as “Shostakovich orchestrating Black Sabbath,” which is a nice summation for this simmering aural snapshot. “Intermezzo” explores polytonality and harmonics in an appealingly piquant scoring that seems to take Bartók as its starting point. “Anthem” brings the piece to a close in rollicking fashion, bringing back some of the material from the opening, but transformed into a kinetic finale.
This Picture Seems to Move (1998), is also played by the Amernet Quartet. Even though it is a relatively early Tymoczko work, one can already hear a penchant for juxtaposition. Its first movement’s title, “Twittering Machine,” is a Paul Klee reference; obviously, it significantly predates our default assumptions about “twittering” today. It pits a modernist rhythmic language against a neoromantic harmonic palette. The work’s other movement, titled (after Boccioni) “Those Who Go,” features a beautifully brooding quasi-tonal melody alongside five-against-three pizzicatos.
The recording’s final piece, Another Fantastic Voyage (2012), is a chamber piano concerto. Schlossberg and the Illinois Modern Ensemble supply a rousing performance of the piece, which is filled with abundant virtuosity for the soloist and hairpin turns and tricky rhythms aplenty for the sinfonietta. Its title references Asimov, and one can image the subtitles being the names of short stories by Ray Bradbury. As the three movements’ monikers – “The Mad King,” “Changeling,” and “An Evil Carnival” – suggest, this is a piece in which Tymoczko is willing to explore darker thematic terrain. It is also where he best demonstrates a flair for the dramatic.
Once again, we hear the composer unwilling to take received norms – the formality of the concerto form, for instance – at face value. Instead he seeks to subvert our expectations of what a piano concerto does by placing it inside the inspirational context of genre fiction. Of course, the piano concerto is one of the classical forms that is longest in the tooth, and there are a significant number of 20th and 21st century works that seek to deconstruct it. That Tymoczko is able to find still another way to reframe the concerto design is no mean feat. If you are one of those who distrust the “hyphenated” contingent of composer-theorists, assuming their music is overly cerebral and lacking immediacy, take a listen to this piece. When one hears its vividly orchestrated and vibrantly paced carnival ride closer, all bets are off. You’ll likely think twice before making extravagant claims about “interdisciplinary types” again.
When I wrote about Felder’s flute concerto Inner Sky (1994, rev. 1999)) in a concert review of Tanglewood’s 2011 Festival of Contemporary Music, I mentioned how much I looked forward to hearing the piece again on its (then in preparation) recording. What I didn’t mention at the time: my concern that it would be difficult to capture the many details of the piece on record. Enter blu-ray audio.
Indeed, David Felder’s music is perfect to demonstrate the capacities of blu-ray audio. Musical climaxes feature piercingly fierce highs and rumbling lows. Elsewhere, shimmering diaphanous textures, frequently blending electronic and acoustic instruments, surround one immersively in this multi-channel environment. By the way, if one doesn’t have access to blu-ray, the recording package also includes an audio CD.
One of the magical things about Inner Sky, not just as a demonstration of an audio platform but as an expertly crafted composition, is the use of register to delineate the structuring of the three main facets of the piece: its solo part, the orchestra, and the electronics. Over the course of Inner Sky, flutist Mario Caroli is called upon to play four different flutes: piccolo, concert flute, alto flute, and bass flute. Moving from high to low, he negotiates these changes of instrument, and the challenging parts written for each of them, with mercurial speed and incisive brilliance. Even though all of the orchestra members are seated onstage, we are also treated to a spatialization of sorts through the frequent appearance of antiphonal passages. This ricochet effect is more than matched by the lithe quadraphonic electronic component. Featuring both morphed flute sounds and synthetic timbres that often respond to the orchestration, it is an equal partner in the proceedings.
Tweener (2010) a piece for solo percussion, electronics, and ensemble, features Thomas Kolor as soloist. Kolor is called upon to do multiple instrument duty too, using “analog” percussion beaters as well as a KAT mallet controller. An astounding range of sounds are evoked: crystalline bells, bowed metallophones, electronically extended passages for vibraphone and marimba. The percussionist’s exertions are responded to in kind by vigorous orchestra playing from University of Buffalo’s Slee Sinfonietta Chamber Orchestra, conducted by James Baker. The Slee group flourishes here in powerful brass passages, avian wind writing, and soaring strings. The brass pieces Canzonne and Incendio are also played by UB musicians in equally impressive renditions. These works combine antiphonal writing with a persuasive post-tonal pitch language that also encompasses a plethora of glissandos.
The Slee Sinfonietta again, this time conducted by James Avery, gets to go their own way on Dionysiacs. Featuring a flute sextet, the piece contains ominously sultry low register playing, offset by some tremendous soprano register pileups that more than once remind one of the more rambunctious moments in Ives’s The Unanswered Question. What’s more, the flutists get to employ auxiliary instruments such as nose whistles and ocarinas, adding to the chaotic ebullience of the work (entirely appropriate given its subject matter).
Clarinetist Jean Kopperud and pianist Stephen Gosling are featured on Rare Airs, a set of miniatures interspersed between the larger pieces. These works highlight both musicians’ specialization in extended techniques and Kopperud’s abundant theatricality as a performer. Pianist Ian Pace contributes the solo Rocket Summer. Filled with scores of colorful clusters set against rangy angular lines and punctuated by repeated notes and widely spaced sonorous harmonies, it is a taut and energetic piece worthy of inclusion on many pianists’ programs.
Requiescat (2010), performed by guitarist Magnus Andersson and the Slee Sinfonietta, again conducted by Baker, is another standout work. Harmonic series and held altissimo notes ring out from various parts of the ensemble, juxtaposed against delicate guitar arpeggiations and beautifully complex corruscating harmonies from other corners. Once again, Felder uses register and space wisely, keeping the orchestra out of the guitar’s way while still giving them a great deal of interesting music to play. Written relatively recently, Requiescat’s sense of pacing, filled with suspense and dramatic tension but less inexorable than the aforementioned concerti, demonstrates a different side of Felder’s creativity, and suggests more efficacious surprises in store from him in the future.
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.
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.
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 .
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.
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.
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.