Kristin Lee, violin
Conor Hanick, piano
Andrew Cyr with Metropolis Ensemble
Many of us have attempted to train ourselves to lucid dream. Lying in our beds, we’ve tried to wrangle our thoughts into those of control, discipline, and predictability. Some, if not most, nights, though, we are left with bizarre, alien-like episodes that seem perfectly normal only until we wake up.
Somehow, though, despite our attempts at control, these beautifully strange dreams can stick with us, long after we’ve forgotten the story we tried to construct ourselves.
And, somehow, Vivan Fung’s new album Dreamscapes feels a lot like this. While only one piece on the five track album has the word “dream,” her abilities as a composer can take over the subconscious of the listener in any setting.
The Canadian-born composer’s works span from prepared piano pieces to string quartets, but she somehow finds a way to make each form sing new tones. Combining distinctive sounds of Western music with those of gamelan and other non-Western timbres, she equals something from a direction neither cardinal nor previously done. Dreamscapes is certainly no exception.
Like trying to control dreams, attempting to predict the direction of Fung’s works is futile. Throughout the album, with her Violin Concerto, her prepared piano pieces Glimpses, and her piano concerto “Dreamscapes,” melodies change instantaneously into rapid textures, otherworldly plucks of piano strings reverberate off of passing drones, and Americana brass back up gamelan-influenced violin lines. But the album is about more than mixing and contrasting—it’s about Fung’s ability to invent an entire world from a certain web of sound, and her knack for knowing exactly how to disintegrate it.
The album opens with Fung’s stunning Violin Concerto. Inspired by Javanese gamelan, the piece is a distinctly gamelan theme running through settings from around the world. Kristin Lee, the soloist who worked closely with Fung, does an impeccable job being both virtuosic and accurate with the demanding passages, and the Metropolis Ensemble (conducted by Andrew Cyr) moves well together, bouncing, traveling, and being able to release pressure all at once. Throughout the first half of the concerto, Lee is in control; she guides the orchestra and audience into desolate, high register moments, into chugging, brass-filled areas, all the while exploring the landscapes the orchestra reflects with the reminder of the concerto’s pelog scale influences. Almost exactly half-way through, the violin drops the orchestra, letting it quickly dissipate as the violin seems to travel down its range, leaping sideways to build, piece by rearranged piece, a museum of styles. It builds to a climax, navigating through the gamelan scales with violent tremolo. When the orchestra arrives, it becomes the leader with animal kingdom brass and distant strings lurking in the now-familiar scales. Lee comes back in focus with almost Chinese-sounding melodies, gliding over the orchestra with more grace than was introduced. Like the listener has learned, though, no one mood stays for long, and the concerto feels impressionistic for a few minutes before it releases again into period of thinness. The ending, identical to the beginning, is a palette cleanser and a mirror, so pristine it reflects the multifaceted body that preceded it. As the strings glissandi up, the violin holds out until a small gong-like instrument is played, letting go of every sound before it, seeming to resonate for minutes.
“Glimpses,” the second group of pieces on the album, uses a gamelan-like prepared piano to provide exactly that, glimpses, into three very differently woven moods. The first movement, “Kotekan,” is titled after a gamelan style of fast, interlocking parts. With some notes ringing with a hollow sound, some vibrating against metal, and some shaking like strict percussion, Fung slowly builds a syncopated fabric, each tone bouncing off the next, each release as important as the contact. “Show,” the second movement, fills the dents from the previous movement with a fluid, sometimes impressionistic wave still spiked with the textures of the prepared strings. The third movement, “Chant,” mentally abducts. Like a flying object, the piece passes by deep, resonating, buzzes from the strings as abstract strumming, wood knocking, and echoing phrases gently create a narrative to follow.
While “Glimpses” pulls us in each direction, tugging by the arm to each new window of sound, the album’s powerhouse “Dreamscapes” for piano and orchestra becomes an entire comprehensive world. Conor Hanick, the pianist for both “Glimpses” and “Dreamscapes,” plays the inside of the piano with as much dedication and confidence as he does the keys, allowing the listener to fully accept the strange, distinctly Fung atmosphere that quickly constructs itself after the opening sounds. The piece begins with surprising fervor that holds out, transitioning through micropolyphony, jazzy spells, and the exact theme from “Glimpses” movement “Kotekan,” which on strings sounds strangely regal. Like dreams, though, each setting is accepted. No matter how out of place a section seems through words, the listener’s subconscious is taken over by Fung’s ability to weave each theme, each melody, each cluster of tones into the same environment that the listener is fully immersed in. Hanick plays a large part in this hypnotizing quality. His playing, especially in sections with undefined structure and simmering mixing of tones, is restrained and resists the temptation to become over-powerful in the delicate balance; he is also able to release off of these moments into commanding periods. After an orchestral sigh, around two-thirds into the piece, the direction of the piece becomes steeper, denser, and more urgent. Eventually, everything begins to spread out as old themes are resurrected in simple versions. As the world we have come to know disintegrates, an alien-like glimmer resonates behind the still tentative piano, which eventually dissolves.
Many composers fuse genres. Many composers build worlds. And, naturally, many composers have dreams. But what sets Fung apart is her ability to take over the subconscious of the listener, to build a world so captivating that even the strangest of transitions happen seamlessly. Lucid dreaming may seem enticing, but being taken away to Fung’s world would probably take the cake.
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Brooklyn Rider, Christopher Tignor, Beethoven
In a Circle Records
http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/seven-steps/id500064073 (available in-sore and online retail outlets April 10)
Whether conscious or not, it is difficult not to mentally prepare for the music you hear. You might be in an audience or listening to music on your iPod, but chances are your eyes will try to find the name of the upcoming piece on the program or screen. If you just heard a piece from the 20th century, seeing Brahms’s or Schumann’s name will most likely cause an involuntary shift in perspective, preparation for a different time period and genre.
So when I listened to Christopher Tignor’s piece “Together Into This Unknowable Night,” composed in 2008, transition to Beethoven’s monumental String Quartet No. 14 opus131 naturally, I knew the quartet and album they came from were special.
The quartet is Brooklyn Rider, and the CD is their recently released Seven Steps. The unforgettable group from New York, composed of Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen on violin, Nicholas Cords on viola, and Eric Jacobsen on cello, definitely lets the concept of “variety” run through their veins: not only do their albums include selections from different times and genres, but they’re as collaborative and creative as they are interpretive—they work with other musicians, Colin Jacobsen often writes music for the quartet, and Seven Steps’s title track is the group’s first collaborative composition.
Brooklyn Rider’s Seven Steps uses Beethoven’s showstopper as just that—but instead of the contemporary pieces simply filling space, they are magical themselves and work with the colossal piece. The number seven figuratively appears in multiple forms throughout the CD. The Beethoven quartet is seven movements, “Seven Steps” is divided into seven parts, and the number seven relates not only to Beethoven’s later life, but life in general (Buddha allegedly took seven steps at birth).
It’s rare when the programming of a body of work contributes almost as much as the music itself, and this aspect of Seven Steps is a sort of lesson. Sounds don’t have to be thought of as “old” or “new” and heard as such. Brooklyn Rider reminded me that when music is being played, it’s always in the moment, no matter what century it was created in. Maybe this seems obvious, but in a forward-thinking and trend-obsessed world, it is often forgotten. Seven Steps engulfs the listener in the music and pure fun of listening to it. The labels we have been trained to remember and assign melt away.
The bulk of the album is Beethoven’s opus 131. The piece is known for its enormity (in both size and importance), but Brooklyn Rider’s successful interpretation is sincere and approachable. The piece’s movements range from a melancholy fugue to a high energy scherzo with a theme difficult to stop humming after a listen. The sounds that wriggle into the deepest parts of the brain put the listener inside the work, deep inside the conversational movements. Brooklyn Rider’s attitude pairs well with this. While listening to the quartet, you can almost see their eyebrows rising and their moving shoulders interacting with each other. This approach is refreshing–you feel like a part of the action instead of an onlooker. However, there are moments, such as the calm, descending transitions in the second movement, when the organic feel of Brooklyn Rider sounds odd with the tight and particular structure of Beethoven. There are phrases that sound too casual, too linearly thought out.
The CD starts with the title track, “Seven Steps.” It’s not surprising the piece was composed by Brooklyn Rider—the immediate folk influences, the suspenseful bow bounces, and the overarching sense of collaboration make you grin and brace yourself for what’s coming next. It’s incredibly easy to listen to, probably because it was partially improvised. While the different sections have widely different themes and flavors, none adhere to a certain “genre,” and it becomes its own type of music. “Seven Steps” is like a person, quaint in some ways, intense in others, with countless personality traits.
“Together Into This Unknowable Night” by Christopher Tignor, the second track on Seven Steps, brings the quartet into a cloud of similarly-moving lines. The sounds, metallic and adventurous to calm and melancholy, are backed up by distant percussion and sampling. While each instrument is recognizable and can be separated in the listener’s head, the piece feels much larger. The emotion produced cannot be taken in one dose. There is not much variance in the structure of the strings, and this can get redundant if you try to focus on the quartet separate from the meditative nature of the entire work. The section that causes a gaping mouth (in the good way) is the last few minutes, when the strings are exhaling, dissolving into the distance, and the recorded voices echo in the distance. The piece is human, but also celestial.
Music never goes unlabeled, and these groupings often cause perspectives to change when listening to pieces from different genres or time periods. By doing this, we restrict sounds from living with each other and from mingling the “old” with the “new.” Brooklyn Rider’s CD Seven Steps breaks these culture and time barriers by giving us a collection of music that not only is performed exquisitely and is exhilarating to listen to, but redefines the aspects of periods. Sure, Beethoven’s opus 131 is a colossal, classical period work, but it blends instinctively with contemporary pieces. Brooklyn Rider may be creating the new attitude and role of today’s string quartet, but they’re also showing us how to simply listen, without presumption.
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Susanna Phillips (soprano)
Myra Huang (piano)
I’m pretty sure French vocal music wouldn’t be considered the type of music one would blast in one’s car. Well, I was. Until I listened to, and most definitely blasted in my car, Susanna Phillips’s debut solo album Paysages.
Easily one of the best solo vocal albums of the year, Paysages gives the listener more than a collection of songs; within it is music so purely fluid, breathtaking, and surreal that a listen is more of a journey to a separate world than an addition to an existing one. Phillips has included three composers on the album: Debussy, Fauré, and Messiaen. While all three are French, lived in similar time periods, and use comparable sounds occasionally, each composer brings out a different perspective in their choice of texts and music, and Phillips takes advantage of this. She is able to take each song, which posses unique destinations and atmospheres, and create a true collection, something that is varying but connected.
The first six tracks on the album are Debussy’s “Ariettes oubliées,” or “forgotten songs,” composed between 1885 and 1887. The song cycle is said to have marked Debussy’s evolution from a more traditional composer to one of his own style. Like many of Debussy’s pieces for voice, the vocal lines are natural and feel as if they permanently reside along with the clouds of ambiguous sound the piano creates. The poetry for this collection, by Paul Verlaine, reaches insightful observations through painting-like images (“It weeps in my heart like the rain over the village. What is this exhaustion that penetrates my heart?”).
Phillips latches on to Debussy’s liquid phrases and seems effortless from the moment she allows her voice to flow out to the last trickles of sound. “C’est l’extase,” the first track on the album, is a wandering yet determined. Included are sounds ranging from calm phrases to cries that curve like feathers in air. In contrast, “Chevaux de Bois” is like a train on a track with its steady pace and subtle sforzandos. Myra Huang, Phillips’s accompanist, handles the piano parts perfectly as well. Because of Debussy’s finesse with the instrument, the piano parts are pieces in and of themselves (such as the arpeggios in “Green”). However, with the balance that Huang offers, they allow the voice to be in the appropriate position at each moment.
Messiaen’s “Poémes pour Mi,” with their more dissonant, east-of-France-inspired sounds, show both the musical atmosphere in France after Debussy (though it originally was not accepted fully) and Phillips’s ability to make their slightly unsettling timbres beautiful in their own way. The vocals of Messiaen (written by the composer himself for his first wife, nicknamed “Mi”) are more introverted than Debussy’s and Fauré’s choice of poetry. The music reflects this; the dissonance of the piano and the repetitive tones of the voice seem more like a conversation with oneself than a presentation to another. “Paysage” begins with a ghost-like flutter and includes murmurs of rain-like piano. “Epouvante” is sly and angry. The piano is mushy and assertive, and Phillips’s cries and partially-a cappella statements are chilling. Along with Phillips, Huang gives Messiaen’s pieces the creepy, echo filled accompaniment they need. Because Fauré and Debussy’s songs have generally more soft and delicate sounds, “Poémes pour Mi” give the album just the right amount of angst.
Rounding out the broad representation of French composers on Paysages is Fauré, the composer who resided in the transition from Romanticism to the 20th century’s modernism. The four songs by Fauré on the album aren’t a cycle, but give the listener a sense of his finesse with voice and Phillips’s ability to stand out in these iconic French songs. The poetry from Charles Jean Grandmougin and Romain Bussine is gorgeous and subtle (Reading Grandmougin’s words from “Adieu” is definitely a bonus of the album). “Les Roses d’Ispahan” has a piano part that is almost a perfect blend of Schumann-like Romanticism and glassy impressionism. The classic melody of “Nell” gives Phillips’s the opportunity to take her voice in multiple directions and in a conversational, natural style. “Après un rêve” pairs a simple, solid piano accompaniment with heart-wrenching vocals.
“Adieu,” the last track on the album, is delicate and discusses how everything is subject to change. In it, Grandmougin’s words are (in English), “But alas! The longest of loves are cut short!” I’d like to think that Grandmougin writes about Phillips’s and Paysages–it’s an album that, no matter how long it could go on, can only have one downfall—the moment it stops.
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Waves Breaking on Rocks
Aki Takahashi – piano
Ari Streisfeld – violin
John Duykers – tenor
Santa Fe New Music:
David Felberg, Ikuko Kanda – violin
James Shields – bass clarinet
John Marchiando – trumpet
Lynn Gorman – harp
Madeline Williamson – piano
Jeff Cornelius, Angela Gabriel, Jim Goulden, David Tolen – percussion
John Kennedy – conductor
Humans are quite remarkable when it comes to determining sizes. We can estimate how many people it will take to complete a job. If blindfolded, we have the skills to determine whether we are in a large amphitheater or small room. We can estimate the size of an airplane by its approaching sound. But music is the ultimate deceiver, isn’t it?
Hypothetical and literal size are beautifully separated in the newly released album of music by Peter Garland (b. 1952), Waves Breaking on Rocks. The album consists of his piano work, “Waves Breaking on Rocks (Elegy for All of Us),” and his piece for tenor and chamber ensemble, “The Roque Dalton Songs.” Garland is an American composer whose works have often been considered post-minimal.
Waves Breaking on Rocks pairs two very different compositions. The topic of deceptive “sizes” of the pieces spawns from the size of their instrumentation: “Waves Breaking on Rocks (Elegy for All of Us)” is for solo piano while “The Roque Dalton Songs” employ many musicians—but their impressions reflect the opposite. The piano work is expansive and watery, conjuring large images and panoramic landscapes. The songs for tenor travel in a narrower path—tribal in their percussion, gospel-like in their tone pairings, and purposefully targeted, they give off a small, focused vibe. Both of the pieces benefit from their aural sizes, and create an album of sounds that is attention grabbing and varied. Deceiving isn’t always a bad thing.
“Waves Breaking on Rocks (Elegy for All of Us)” is a suite of elegies. Divided into six parts, the suite commemorates six different people that Garland has lost in his life. It is composed almost entirely of chords, and creates more of a space than a linear narration. Each section might not get stuck in your head, such as a certain sentence from a lost one might not, but the overall ambiance of that person can be surfaced with subtle things, and this piece creates those moods.
Pianist Aki Takahashi could not have performed the piece better—she keeps the serene lines of the suite flowing and consistent with the stories being told. The last piece in the suite, “Waves Breaking on Rocks 2/Autumn (Again),” shows her control and ability to avoid even slight dynamic rises that would break the tranquility of the piece.
The suite begins with “The White Place,” referring to the limestone formations in Abiquiu, New Mexico called Plaza Blanca, and commemorates the photographer Walter Chappell. Beautifully piercing, monumental chords set up the foundations for each phrase of the piece and are followed by smaller, controlled hills of hushed tones. The entire suite utilizes ostensibly simple chords, but when listened to they create a dreamy story that is complex in the way nature is seamlessly intricate.
Through each of the pieces, the chords unravel into wandering and separated lines. Significant change comes in “A House in Island Bay,” composed for poet Alan Brunton. The listener is reminded of small rocks rippling on a lake as still as glass. It progresses to the intense solidity of previous chords. The last two sections of “Waves Breaking on Rocks” are Americana in their own ways—“Sierra Madre,” composed for composer Lou Harrison, is homey and nostalgic and is the only section to use violin, and appropriate and comfortable addition. “Waves Breaking on Rocks 2/Autumn (Again)” is a still and jazz-tinged piece, and is almost impossible to listen to without stopping for a minute (or five minutes and forty six seconds) and being absorbed by it.
“The Roque Dalton Songs,” the second collection on the album, is a collection with much more of a landing spot than “Waves Breaking on Rocks.” Though the instrumentation is larger, it is less expansive, and this isn’t a bad thing. The listener’s brain follows the music in a more direct line—if “Waves Breaking on Rocks” was a walk in a meadow, “The Roque Dalton Songs” are a hike through a specific path. Roque Dalton was a Salvadorian poet and revolutionary who was executed during El Salvador’s civil war. Five of Dalton’s poems were set to music by Garland in this piece. The poems range from free verse to dialogue to prose (“he was a really super cool guy” is probably my favorite line), and they seem very human, like Dalton can be seen scribbling the words onto paper right in front of you.
The chamber ensemble, Santa Fe New Music, is comprised of percussion, harp, piano, trumpet, bass clarinet, and violins. The ensemble is successful in layering the very obvious sheets of sound—the percussion, piano, and harp construct a stable foundation, the bass clarinet and trumpet create the walls, and the violins occupy the figurative room of sound. The tenor John Duykers keeps a triumphant tone throughout the entire collection, and conquers the sometimes out-of-the-blue high notes. The music keeps a dance rhythm, resolving itself at the end of each phrase, and doesn’t really break free of this except for the second piece, the smooth and sly “Como La Siempreviva,” and inside the fourth piece, “History of a Poetic.” The final piece, “Como Tú,” employs the harp in a refreshing way by retaining the previous piece’s dance like feel. However, it makes it more of a sensual one, like a dance between two people in privacy.
A piano is one object. A chamber ensemble is many. But sound is one idea, and Peter Garland’s album Waves Breaking on Rocks enforces that. Deceived or not, these are waves worth listening to.
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Flickers of Mime/Death of Memes (2 discs)
What do you get when you combine Kubrick moods, outer space, Middle Eastern vibes, clouds of metal timbre, and a lot of talent in mixing those ingredients? Something similar to a disc by Alexander Berne. How about combining the primeval, the creepily serene, and the sense of slow motion. You’ll get the same thing.
Now, coalesce both of those, and you’ll get an illustration of the arc of human nature woven into an ambient collection. Or, more accurately, you’ll get Alexander Berne’s new album Flickers of Mime/Death of Memes.
Flickers of Mime/Death of Memes is the third collection of works by Berne and his Abandoned Orchestra. Berne is a composer from New York who has primarily immersed himself in the jazz scenes of America and Belgium. He is a saxophonist and has also invented a new wind instrument, one he calls the “saduk,” a mixture between a saxophone and a duduk.
Flickers of Mime/Death of Memes is an album divided into two discs. The first, Flickers of Mime, is meant to symbolize what a mime might create using its bare movements. Many of the tracks off this disc include very 80s-space sounding, sustained notes, such as “Flicker I” and “Flicker VII,” while many others include eastern scales and timbres. However, these tracks are not obviously themed. Each is soon invaded with other ambient sounds that help the disc do what it was meant to do; through each of the “flickers” on the first disc, a different world, structure, or mood is built. Despite some of the celestial sounds, Flickers of Mime/Death of Memes does not use any synthesizers or the like. “Flicker VIII” sounds like calm, Middle Eastern-sounding club music, and can be compared to songs by Mocean Worker with its sassy wind motifs paired with loose piano phrases. “Flicker X” is a whirlwind of sounds that the listener arrives at in linear ways, like passing each one in a car. While each track is one train of thought without much individual development, the way the flickers are lined up in the album creates one leg of the arch that is Flickers of Mime/Death of Memes. “Flicker XI,” the last track on the disc, is eerily similar to “Flicker II,” but with faded glances back at previous flickers.
The second disc, Death of Memes, is meant to be the second leg of the arch—the one that recedes back to the ground. One would more literal apocalyptic sounds on a disc that illustrates the downfall of a society. But the pieces on the disc are mostly loosely primitive, like the aftermath of said apocalypse. While Berne’s album’s first disc focuses on the construction of aural formations, the second one is the destruction of those. The perspective is also different on the two discs. Flickers of Mime is, hypothetically, meant to come from the hands of one man. Death of Memes describes the downfall of a large mass, like a city. Many of the tracks on the disc are much more subtle, such as “Meme III,” a piece of unfettered yet serene piano accompanied by ambient drones. “Meme I” is one of the only tracks that moves slightly in the realm of more aggressive dystopia, with subdued timpani and other percussion.
Alexander Berne’s Flickers of Mime/Death of Memes is an album that doesn’t fall into the whirlpool that ambient music, or music of the sort, sometimes can—monotony. Because of the well thought-out relationships between the two discs, Berne has constructed a body of work that works together in ways not only aurally, but conceptually. It offers a new way of looking at the arch of humanity; the arch that we ourselves, as humans, might never understand.
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Iceland Symphony Orchestra, CAPUT Ensemble, Justin DeHart
So much of music is meant to paint pictures of specific themes, images, or moments in life that the composer wants to recreate. Lyrics are written to songs that exemplify certain days, or orchestral compositions are often given a paved path in which they are meant to take the audience, as if guiding them into a narrow passageway of the composer’s brain. This practice of recreating moods on purpose and shaping them into sound is the large majority of music-making. But sometimes there are those sounds that are planned to be unplanned. The composer didn’t sit down and say, “Measure 87 is where the audience will hear the bird take off.” Instead of sounds that map out certain twists and turns, there is that music that is meant to build tangible spaces through its abstract, changing nature. This type of music that is meant to be almost a stream of conscious perspective instead of a controlling narrative is refreshing, and Anna Thorvaldsdottir has created music like this in her new album Rhízōma.
Rhízōma is a collection of works by Thorvaldsdottir, the Icelandic composer who focuses on large soundscapes and dense masses of sound. Rhízōma is Thorvaldsdottir’s debut album, but she has had works performed by the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra and other ensembles, has been performed at festivals such as Nordic Music Days, and had her composition “Hrím” awarded as composition of the year at the Iceland Music Awards in the past. It is surprising that Rhízōma is Thorvaldsdottir’s first album—her body of work is enough to fill a handful of CDs.
Thorvaldsdottir’s album certainly holds true to her described preferences of composition. Rhízōma, whose title is a word referring to a stem that produces roots, is an album full of music that seems to be collected right off the surface of tundra. When one listens to the album, the sound can almost be seen seeping from a frosty mountain range or frozen lake (I guess it helps that she’s from ICEland… haha?). The album is full of soundscapes that fill the head of the listener, but they aren’t too abstract that one feels as though they are listening to an orchestra tuning. Their bare nature makes them incredibly intriguing, something that is difficult to achieve, as it is a thin rope to walk on.
Many of the album’s sounds are made up of Penderecki-esque, suspenseful moods. A constant bass line lays the chilled foundation of some pieces, such as the beginning of the chamber ensemble piece “Streaming Arhythmia” performed by the CAPUT Ensemble. Spikes of violin strokes bounce around the orchestra in this piece over the bass line, creating a tangible space out of the sound, much like echolocation. However, “Streaming Arhythmia” isn’t only occupied by hanging-by-a-thread string sound clouds. A war-like percussion interlude invades the space, and when it’s gone, the strings lurk in the background like watchful animals. Rhízōma’s other chamber work, “Hrím” (referring to the growth of icicles), is chilling. Though it has no protruding bass lines, it reminds one of Ingram Marshall’s “Fog Tropes,” or, more generally, a lake covered with a layer of fog. Thorvaldsdottir is obviously talented—she can paint these open and echo-filled pieces, but she does not lose the interest of the listener as so many of these bare pieces often do.
“Hidden,” the 5-movement piece for percussion on piano by Justin DeHart, is a piece composed gamelan-like percussion and mysterious moods. The piece includes decisive plucks of the piano strings that snuggle up right against indecisive, frightened trickles of the higher-register strings. On the album, “Hidden’s” movements are split up between the other works. It acts as almost a palate cleanser to the denser orchestral/chamber works, but also can be a focus on its own. The piece does not have any clear development—this is obviously intended, but with exception to the last movement, “Past and Present,” all the movements seem to employ the exact same collection of strikes to the piano.
“Dreaming,” the album’s piece for orchestra performed by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, uses similar techniques as the other pieces. These sounds and waves would get tiring, but “Dreaming” benefits from the use of stronger melody lines (small, but significant in comparison) and more of a sense of weaving than blurring. Singular lines of percussion or flute pulses become cornerstones of the work, and it’s odd but influential too see simple sounds like this become so powerful.
Thorvaldsdottir’s Rhízōma is an album that paints an incredibly vivid picture of who Thorvaldsdottir is as a composer. Her moods, thicknesses, and textures are exposed completely, something that is important to a debut album. Rhízōma succeeds in following in the footsteps of composers such as Penderecki and Ligeti, but also treads in its own side of the tundra by creating creamier and slightly less atonal works. This music doesn’t tell obvious stories of specific moments, but rather constructs the feelings of landscapes and situations. And even though it doesn’t ever get too horror movie-esque, you probably don’t want to be listening to this in the dark.
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Lara Downes: 13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg
J.S. Bach, Fred Lerdahl, Jennifer Higdon, Bright Sheng, Lukas Foss, Derek Bermel, Fred Hersch, C. Curtis Smith, Stanley Walden, Ryan Brown, Mischa Zupko, David del Tredici, Ralf Gothoni, Dave Brubeck
Just like the Hubble Telescope can now see the universe around 200 million years after it was created, almost any given major cultural trend or event can be seen duplicated years after. In reality, overwhelmingly powerful telescopes certainly aren’t needed to see these reoccurrences. After a while, it’s easy to get tired of the sequence, especially when these identical ideas are thought of as new and cutting edge. There are always exceptions to the dry cycle; or, rather, occurrences that take the cycle itself and shape it into something completely different.
One of these occurrences appears on a CD released September 13th called “13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg” performed by the pianist Lara Downes. Not only is this collection of music a gorgeous album of piano playing, but it’s also a significant reinvention of one of most classic and respected anthologies of piano pieces. The “Goldberg Variations” themselves, especially Gould’s multiple renditions of them, stand on some of the highest pedestals in the gigantic museum of musical legends. So, logically, one would either have to blow Gould out of the water or make something magnificent and different in order to stand out among the height of these pedestals. Lara Downes, with the help of 13 others, has done that.
“13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg” is a set of new pieces inspired by the aria of the Goldbergs, the piece that is the subject of the original variations themselves. Thirteen composers were commissioned to write these solo piano works by the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival in 2004, where they were originally played by the pianist Gilbert Kalish. From baroque tinged to unmistakably Chopin to fugal, the variations on the Goldbergs take the listener’s lens on the iconic pieces and throw it into an entirely different realm.
The project was inspired by the poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens, a minimalist and mind-blowing portrait of perspective. The fifth stanza of that poem includes the basic idea of the “13 Ways” project:
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
Instead of taking the aria itself and simply placing it in a different genre’s template, the composers took those inflections and innuendos and created pieces that reflected them in unique lights.
Remember the game “telephone?” One person would think of a phrase, they would whisper it to the person next to them, and it would go along a line of people. The last person it reached would have to repeat the phrase, but it often got morphed during the passing into something that still adheres to the original phrase but has its own meaning and mood. Well, the results of these 13 composers feels similar to that, only the composers weren’t oblivious to the starting point. They were, in fact, the opposite of oblivious.
On one side of the spectrum, there are the composers that stayed with the general baroque feeling of the Goldbergs. Fred Lerdahl’s “Chasing Goldberg” uses the original melody of the aria and places it inside an energetic form—it jumps around the piano like releasing 100 bouncy balls into a racquetball court. Jennifer Higdon’s “The Gilmore Variation” feels like a loosened yet alert and playful version of Bach, but inserted are several unique transitions that one probably wouldn’t encounter in Bach’s time. One can feel the influence of the aria’s melody, but Higdon’s melody goes off on its own as well.
Then there are the pieces that move a little further on the genre spectrum. Bright Sheng, the Chinese-American composer, wrote a piece in fugal form, unlike the aria, which is a sarabande. The piece, appropriately called “Variation Fugato,” begins seeping with tension, hanging only on singular outlines of fifths that begin to intertwine with other voices and eventually resolve. C. Curtis Smith’s “Rube Goldberg Variation” (who doesn’t love a little wordplay?) moves further off the aria scale as well. The moods in Curtis Smith’s piece are dark, Edgar Allen Poe-esque, and definitely don’t sound like the aria—at first. However, when in succession with all these other lens-bending works, the innuendos and inflections are visible.
There are too many variations on the Variations to mention at length, though all of them contribute to the experience of listening to the recording. Derek Bermel’s “Kontraphunktus,” besides being labeled with the best tongue-in-cheek title on the album, is a piece constantly searching for a landing spot, but seems to be frantically looking the entire time in dissonant ways. Both Fred Hersch’s “Melancholy Minuet” and David del Tredici’s “My Goldberg” give neo-romanticism looks on the project. William Bolcom’s “Yet Another Goldberg Variation” is all for the left hand. And yet, they all still seem to at least be looking up at the Goldbergs like children, because they are, in a sense.
Downes’s playing on the recording is perfect for a recording of this type. She has a personal connection with the Goldbergs; she was “a little girl in my father’s big chair, listening to Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of the Goldbergs, wondering at the twists and turns of Bach’s creation and Gould’s imagination.” Her emphases in each piece seem just right—they’re not too pronounced and overzealous, something that shouldn’t happen when tipping the hat to Bach, but shape the pieces in a ways that brings them full circle. Her skills were certainly tested; from Lerdahl’s staccato to Dave Brubeck’s jazzy “Chorale” (a piece Downes’s added to the recording, along with another Foss piece and the “Sarabande” from Bach’s French Suite V), she adapts and also keeps a centered pace throughout.
Some people, after hearing about the “13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg” project, might say superior things like “nothing will ever compare to Gould” or “you can’t mess with the classics.” But Downes and these 13 (plus one) composers didn’t try to recreate Bach’s original “Goldberg Variations.” They didn’t use the Hubble Telescope and copy the image. They studied it, saw how it evolved, and shifted their perspective.
This was also published on Neo Antennae.
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