Daniel Okulitch, baritone
The New American Art Song
Songs by Ricky Ian Gordon, Jake Heggie, Lowell Liebermann and Glen Roven, accompanied by the composers
The first solo record by Canadian baritone Daniel Okulitch is an impeccable portrait of his voice’s warm and earthy elegance. Through sets of songs by Ricky Ian Gordon, Jake Heggie, Glen Roven and Lowell Liebermann, Mr. Okulitch’s voice comes across as richly dark, sensitive and – above all – clear. The songs themselves are very good and lovely as well, but do not necessarily display a wide swath of the landscape of contemporary American song. With this fact stated, I want to stress that each cycle has beautiful, poignant moments and are scrupulously written…they are just cut from a similar cloth in terms of their musical materials. Because the composers actually accompany Mr. Okulitch on the recording, I was particularly attentive to the interplay between the piano and vocal parts. The role of the two musical characters varied greatly between and within each group of songs, providing – along with the transient moods of the texts – the listener with welcome volatility and contrast against the stylistic consistently of the works and Mr. Okulitch’s undeviatingly sterling performance.
Dominating the CD is Glen Roven’s from the Underground, a set of fifteen songs each with an isolated personality and texture, yet united by Mr. Roven’s mostly triadic and diatonic musical fabric. The piano imitates the vocal line in many of the songs, strengthening the reflection of, “[Mr. Roven’s] personal feelings about each poem”, which he describes is his goal when writing art songs. Repetitive rhythms in the piano accompaniments, combined with humorous texts gave some songs, like “This is Just to Say”, the flavor of musical theater music (an affect that reappears in other cycles on this disc). Though I enjoyed the whole set, I felt the song “Come to the Edge” was the most beautiful – perhaps perfectly constructed – thanks to the absolutely engrossing way the vocal line pairs with the piano. Mr. Okulitch’s part begins quietly, accompanied by timorous pandiatonic clusters in the piano, the two musical bodies simultaneous build momentum, energy and scope until the vocal line climaxes and the piano part spills into a valley of lush extended triads, marking the most important moment in the poem.
The musical hints at musical theater I noted in from the Underground are also apparent in the album’s first cycle – Ricky Ian Gordon’s Quiet Lives. To me, all songs are theatrical and narrative, so I am not surprised – in a contemporary music world typified by the fusion of popular and traditional motifs – that the clear phrasing and persistent rhythms of musical theater songs have bled into the already closely related genre of ‘art song’. Like all the composers on the album, Mr. Gordon has written some stunningly beautiful songs fueled by very interesting texts with the exact personality of each song remaining pretty variable. Contrastinglt to from the Underground, the piano is limited to a strictly accompanimental presence and does not often double or imitate the vocal line. Conveniently, the cycle’s extremes in mood appear adjacent to each other. “As Planned” features a sarcastic text discussing the unpredictable consequences of drinking too much vodka, with the air of mischief shared in the piano’s tongue-in-cheek, cabaret-style waltz. The following song, “Kid in the Park” is the cycle’s most reflective, with a piano part that hints, with the most extraordinary subtleness, to slow, R&B ballads (I could very well be imagining such a connection exists). The tempo and chordal accompaniment leave Mr. Okulitch plenty of room to draw the listener into the text’s account of the challenges facing urban youths.
The two remaining cycles both stood out to me with their more coherent character/mood (thanks, no doubt, to their relative brevity in comparison to the aforementioned works), and subtly cultivated drama. Lowell Liebermann’s Night Songs, probably the most traditional sounding of the disc, paints a delicate and convincing portrait of the introspection that so often accompanies the setting of the sun. This is particularly apparent in the set’s first two songs – “Good Night” and “She Tells Her Love Half Asleep” – whose repetitive accompaniments and melodies firmly establish a musical world haunted by the stillness of moonlight and stars. Jake Heggie’s Of Gods and Cats had, by far, the most memorable texts of the whole album. The first, “In the Beginning”, retells the biblical creation through the perspective of a cat engaging with quotidian experiences such as drinking milk and falling asleep in a paper bag. Closing out the pair is “Once upon a Universe”, which describes what God was like as a child, destroying his toys much to the chagrin of his mother. Of course, the text is not so engrossing on its own accord: Mr. Heggie sets it both impishly and austerely, with the piano part adding masterfully timed moments of levity to an otherwise reverent portrayal of poet Gavin Geoffrey Dillard’s comical musings.
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Line Upon Line Percussion
Line Upon Line Percussion
In a contemporary music world where percussion is stereotyped as high-volume and high-action, Austin-based percussion trio Line Upon Line’s first CD boldly focuses on something other and speed and volume: color. Featuring the work of four local, Texas composers – James D. Norman, Steven Snowden, Zack Stanton and Ian Dicke – the self-titled album is a remarkably diverse journey in sound and expression. Each work revolves around contrasting, evolving relationships in timbre and employ a variety of pitched and unpitched, commonplace and specialized percussion instruments. Exquisitely produced and performed, the album is limitlessly captivating and stimulating thanks to the deft, elegant work the composers and the constant variety of colors present in their pieces.
James D. Norman’s Redshift (2010), the album’s first track, crystallizes the aforementioned emphasis on timbre: from its explosive outset, a crucial dialogue emerges between wooden and metallic sounds. As his program note explains, Mr. Norman armed each member of the trio with the same materials – “six metal plates, six wood planks (tuned to the same pitches for each player)”. This allows him to create multiple layers of essentially the same sound and develop fascinatingly detailed variations on a consistent foundation of timbre. Another consistent element in the work is a persistent rhythmic/melodic idea that repeats heavily, but with increasing irregularities as the work moves forward. To my ears, the agent for this variation is a distinct metallic sound – what Mr. Norman calls a, “modified crash cymbal” – that breaks the rhythmic energy of the aforementioned rhythmic/melodic idea over the course of the piece, causing it to restart itself and seemingly precipitating the turbulent and thrilling evolution this tightly-knitted work undergoes from beginning to end.
The next piece on the CD – Steven Snowden’s A Man with a Gun Lives Here (2010) is the only work of the four I had already seen performed. My language is intentional I watched a DVD of the performance, much of which is deliberately choreographed to add an extra level of drama and to connect to the work’s back-story. The title refers to the signal system hobos developed during the Great Depression to inform wanders about dangerous and generous residences; moreover, the scoring of the piece – three percussionists play on and around a single bass drum – is deliberately aimed to suggest hobos gathered around a trash can fire. Although I loved the piece the first time I heard it, I worried, without the visual element, the music would not mesmerize me as much as it had before. This was not the case in the least. In fact, losing the ability to see the performance heightened my awareness of Mr. Snowden’s subtle decisions about timbre, foreground/background and the temporal spacing of the music. These qualities, on their own, project a compelling dramatic tale of action and reaction and inter-ensemble conversation united by the highly original and ominous way the trio exploits the shared bass drum.
The written description of Zack Stanton’s Echoes of Veiled Light (2009) epitomizes the unabashed boldness with which Line Upon Line and their collaborators approached this project. “When line upon line approached me about writing a new piece for them, they had a terrifying request: ‘write us a quiet piece’”. To me, this account demonstrates the trio’s understanding of their supreme expressive ability and the resulting composition, with its beguiling delicacy, meets their challenge with unquestionable success. The work has a twinkling, metallic sheen to it, using unpitched and pitched instruments to construct a chrystalline web spangled with unobtrusive harmonies that meld seamlessly with the other sound elements of the work. I was very fond of the way Mr. Stanton used pitch in Echoes because his harmonies are very affective, not stylistic, along the lines of the low piano clusters in Varese’s Ionisation and – to be a little more obscure – the droning trumpet in Donald Sur’s Red Dust. The pitched material adds inviting, soothing warmth to an accompanying texture of cymbals, gongs and bongo drums that, otherwise, would seem a little stoic.
The final piece on the album is Ian Dicke’s Missa Materialis, a musical response to Austin’s ‘Cathedral of Junk’, a massive environmental folk art exhibit created by artist Vince Hannemann. Mr. Dicke calls the work a “soundtrack” for the art, employing a variety of traditional percussion instruments and found objects over the course of five movements. The extra-musical framework for the piece is twofold: the found objects – namely plastic bags and water bottles – represent the environmental destructiveness of our material culture, and the pitched material, form and title mimic the traditional Latin mass. These influences emerge in different, intriguing ways – the fourth movement, ‘Plastic Deity’, climactically features the smashing of bottles and bags directed by an imperious egg timer, while the work’s infrequently appearing melodies (including contrapuntal singing by the trio!) are heavily referential to, if not direct quotes of Medieval chant. Overall, the work has the feeling of post-apocalyptic ritualism, made uncommonly memorable by Mr. Dicke’s bizarre ‘instruments’.
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ChromaDuo’s recent release Hidden Waters is an impeccably produced/performed exploration of a wide range of contemporary guitar music. Equally showcasing guitarists Tracy Anne Smith and Rob MacDonald’s lyrical and athletic playing, the CD features divergent works by three living composers: Roland Dyens, Stephen Goss and Christopher William Pierce. Overall, the album’s contents are subdued, with highly rhythmic, energetic tracks and musical ideas emerging intermittently and satisfactorily as if all the tracks were one giant, convivial, through-composed exploration of the guitar’s expressive range.
The breadth of style and musical mood I’ve applied to the entire album exists on a smaller scale in its first featured composition, Stephen Goss’ The Raw and the Cooked (Le Cru et Le Cuit) (2004). This piece is a set of seemingly unrelated miniatures, all of which share a reference to some other music. As Goss puts it in the liner notes, the transparency of the stylistic allusions vary, “[t]hese borrowings can be near the surface (the Raw), or hidden deep in the texture of the music (cooked).” More apparent is the energetic direction of the work, which opens with a fast, loud, groovy – heavily scented with the feel of New Orleans-style jazz – movement, “Hot”, and then immediately recedes into a more introverted and laconic sound world. It isn’t really until the seventh movement, “Hotel Kepinski”, that the steady rhythmic pulse of the opening music is reestablished, though – at first – weakly. This higher musical energy then builds through the next movement – “Tango Brawl”, the site of a tongue-in-cheek Astor Piazzolla quotation – and culminates in the work’s Arabic-influenced closing movement, “The Ajman”.
Mr. Goss shows his ‘softer’ side with the album’s next composition, Still at Sea (2009), which, with its more consistently intimate sound world, begins to establish the album’s introverted/extroverted dialogue I noted in the introduction. The work is rather beautiful, and has a very impressionistic, contemplative affect, much like the guitar music of Maurice Ohana, though not nearly so dissonant. This mood is broken by the work’s final movement, “Fire Water”, which features an ostinato in one guitar paired against a mostly chordal, fricative line in the other. The driving energy of the ostinato does subside at moments, relating to the lyricism of the preceding movements, yet this music functions very much like a fast, violent interruption to the CD’s prevailing sense of reflection and subtlety.
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Oasis Quartet: Glass, Gotkovsky, Escaich
Oasis Saxophone Quartet
Innova Records #744
The saxophones of the Oasis Quartet bound through the full range of expression and energy in their new self-titled release on the Innova label. Armed with Ida Gotkovsky’s Quatour (1983), Thierry Escaich’s Le Bal (2003) and a 2007 arrangement of Philip Glass’s String Quartet No. 3 (Mishima), the Oasis Quartet spans the Atlantic, compellingly illustrating strong traditions in saxophone quartet repertoire. The group’s members – James Bunte, Dave Camwell, Nathan Nabb and James Romain – unite the CD’s stylistically divergent content with their collective crispness, obvious instrumental mastery and subtly executed interpretations.
Classifying this CD’s contents as traditional shouldn’t surprise anyone: the saxophone has French origins and its players of historically rely on transcriptions to fill in gaps in their repertoire. As the album’s liner notes describe, even Thierry Escaich’s Le Bal is based on traditional forms – the dance suite. The work is raucous and expansive, slithering between energetic and mysterious sections over its twelve-minute duration. Appropriately, Le Bal is united by a surging rhythmic momentum. When this driving energy finally explodes in the work’s home stretch it sounds as if the piece spirals out of control into oblivion.
Ida Gotkovsky’s Quatour is a large, five-movement work that displays Oasis quartet’s expressive flexibility within an, “approachable and attractive” musical landscape. In addition to the assonant remark I just quoted, the liner notes highlight Gotkovsky’s use of unison passages to create clear textures. Indeed, parallel movement of all kinds appears throughout the work’s foreground and background passages. Observed alongside Quatour’s predilection for ostinati and limited polyphonic passages, it is clear one Gotkovsky’s principle goals is to establish a crystal clear hierarchy between melody and accompaniment. The piece’s bombastic fifth movement, “Final”, challenges this trend with an unprecedented section of wild, independent counterpoint. However, Gotkovsky compensates for this textural outlier with three closing minutes of nearly all unisons melodies or chorale-like harmonic progressions.
The most well-known offering on the CD is obviously Oasis’ adaptation of Philip Glass’ String Quartet no. 3, taken from Glass’ 1985 film-score for a biographical film on Japanese author and activist, Yukio Mishima. Like many of Glass’ other film scores – I am specifically thinking of his soundtrack to Notes on a Scandal – the String Quartet no. 3 is primarily composed of triadic arpeggios, simple, repetitive phrase structures and unbalanced rhythmic layers often playing with competing duple and triple feels.
The harmonic language, though characteristically sparse, tends toward swift major-minor transitions, which, when set in the rhythmic landscape of work, reminded me heavily of John Adam’s score for Nixon in China. A big difference between the two is Glass’ melodies, simple and languid, floating above the babbling triadic latticework below. I doubt I would have made this connection listening to the original instrumentation because the sound of Oasis’ saxophones immediately led my inner ear to associate the work with Adams’ love of flashy brass and wind parts.
On that note, I think Nathan Nabb’s arrangement works really well, and even surpasses the original version in my opinion. The difference is most striking in the third and fourth movements, the first of which is fast-paced and syncopated and the second begins with an extremely slow and reserved mood. Of course, strings and saxophones can achieve the plaintive affect of the fourth movement, but – despite Glass’ use of double stops – a string quartet does not pull off the third movement’s edgy mixed-meter rhythmic minefield as successfully as Oasis’ saxophones.
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Open Graves with Stuart Dempster
Prefecture Records, PREFECTURE004
The ominously lit photo on the cover of Flightpatterns – a recent release from Open Graves, a West Coast-based improvisation duo – depicts the uniquely overriding characteristic of the album: where it was recorded. Gas lamps and candles cast soft glows on a variety of percussion instruments resting inside an enormous abandoned water cistern in Port Towsend, Washington, the site where Open Graves’ Jesse Olsen and Paul Kikuchi teamed with renowned trombonist Stuart Dempster for this suspenseful and dark series of improvisations.
The album’s liner notes identify, “a wide range of traditional and invented instruments” and, “unusual acoustic environments”, as two of Open Graves’ strongest artistic pursuits. Yet, it seems the idea for using the cistern as a recording space may have come from their collaborator. Allaboutjazz.com’s Mark Corotto implies as much in his February 2011 review of Flightpatterns, noting that Dempster’s 1995 recording, Underground Overlays From The Cistern Chapel (New Albion), started a trend of site-specific improvisations, to which Flightpatterns may simply be the latest contributor. The sonic fingerprint the performance space lends the album’s four tracks is captivating and indelible, casting a translucence over the music as if we are looking at the sound through wax paper, or listening underwater. Again, Corotto speaks to this rather eloquently in his review, writing, “time must be slowed, giving a protracted feel to the performance. Dempster’s long drawn-out trombone notes act as a blanket…so lovely, that you might find yourself holding your breath.”
To me, the effect of the cistern’s reverberations on the music was twofold. The constant level of echo blurred the lines of musical phrases, much like how shadows projected on a distant cave wall distort an object’s original shape and identity. These resonant acoustic conditions produced music beautiful in a way I had never heard before. Everything sublimely bled together, softened out by the airspace inside the cistern. Olsen, Kikuchi and Dempster’s instruments melded together, moving as one amorphous musical body through time, shaded multifariously as the album went along by a constant variety of percussion sounds.
Unfortunately, I felt the obvious intransigence of the cistern’s acoustic undermined much of Flightpatterns’s wonder and beauty. Around three-quarters of the way through the disc my ears were plane tired of the ambience. At its worst, I was reminded of my first forays in electronic music where I sheepishly swathed all my musical layers with the same EQ or reverb, denying the individuality of my components to speak through this acoustic surface. I was pained as Flightpatterns wrapped up because I knew Olsen, Kikuchi and Dempster’s virtuosity and musical sensibility are absolutely admirable, but had been largely washed out by the unwavering sonic environment of the recording.
Despite this qualm, I highly recommend the disc to all lover’s of improvised music and supporters of unconventional music presentation. Olsen, Kikuchi and Dempster have hit on an interesting thread in the world of contemporary music with Flightpatterns, even if they just hit a double instead of a grand slam. I’m talking about site-specific performances and other musical-environmental integrations. Again, I’m drawn to the world of electronic music where Roger Reynolds, for example, tediously designs spatial elements into his electro-acoustic scores and has been involved in many site-specific performances including a November 2010 event at the National Gallery in Washington, DC. Michael Gordon’s smash multimedia orchestral work, Decaysia, and the recent series of New York Philharmonic concerts at the Park Avenue Armory also illustrate the grandeur certain kinds of physical space can lend a live performance of contemporary music.
Flightpatterns demonstrates the potential value of designing albums around special acoustic environments. Immediately, the album’s intrigue and surface appeal blossoms in light of of Open Graves’ imaginative use of the empty water cistern as a recording studio. Despite the evident danger of casting the music in a monochromatic reverb throughout the length of the disc, Flightpatterns is a bold exploration of physical and musical resonance. Alluring and chilling at once, the CD’s tracks will undoubtedly leave you with aural goosebumps as the blurred identities of Stuart Demptser’s trombone and Open Grave’s multi-instrumental accompaniment will press the boundaries of your music-listening imagination.
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The Salt Lake Electric Ensemble Performs Terry Riley’s “in C”
The Salt Lake Electric Ensemble
One of the earliest examples of minimalism and process music, Terry Riley’s seminal 1964 composition in C is beautifully recast in the Salt Lake City Electric Ensemble’s 2010 recording, “The Salt Lake Electric Ensemble Perform Terry Riley’s in C”. SLEE’s version for “laptop orchestra” is dominated by the synthesized timbre of contemporary dance music, and garnishes Riley’s concept with the flavor of Ratatat and other mainstays of the electronic rock genre. Led by Matt Dixon, the 8-man group relies on overdubbing and sophisticated music software to produce a vibrant electro-acoustic aural tapestry weaving together a variety of percussion instruments and computerized elements.
The album’s liner notes contain a brief summary of the work’s performance instructions – the piece has 53 numbered phrases of differing lengths, the performers play through these in order but are free to repeat the phrases as many times as they wish. Above this explanation was a reflective and compelling quote from the composer, “Essentially my contribution was to introduce repetition into Western music as the main ingredient without any melody over it, without anything, just repeated patterns, musical patterns.” In many ways, in C is a picture-perfect representation of Riley’s mindset: given the simple melodic and harmonic elements he employs, phrase repetition is the most dramatic musical variable in each performance.
With this said, I was intrigued SLEE included these words from Terry Riley in the recording’s liner notes. To me, Riley’s mantra implies dissolving the traditional musical hierarchy, replacing a directional structure of melody and accompaniment with constant repetitions and an abstract form. The heterophonic texture that dominates SLEE’s interpretation of in C reflects the anarchy and freedom that undertone Riley’s philosophy; yet, the work has a clear direction. Bear in mind the performers are required to play through the 53 phrases in order. Much like Morton Feldman’s Why Patterns?, leadership in the performance is obscured by the fact that every player is moving at a different rate, nevertheless it is clear Terry Riley – and Feldman – imagined a firm structural gravity pulling the piece from its beginning to its end.
The Salt Lake Electric Ensemble’s recording of in C honors the work’s underlying momentum with changes in color and varying rhythmic backdrops in the acoustic percussion parts, which for most of the piece sound like rock drum beats. I am not sure how the unpitched percussion parts fit into the scheme behind in C, but I felt the style of the drum parts – in particular – was responsible for the hue of dance music I mentioned before. SLEE’s version of in C feels more like electronica than minimalism and highlights the conscious or accidental similarities between minimalism and many styles of popular music. The coloristic change from beginning to end is even more dramatic, insofar as the performers incorporate more and more computer white noise, the kind of sound I’ve heard from placing a contact microphone on a computer while it is processing data. Similar to the percussion parts, there is no mention of how these free sound elements are reconciled in Riley’s score; though, these elements are critical to the work’s formal clarity.
These characteristics seem like a fitting modern tribute to Riley’s spirit of indeterminacy and repetition. Although the Salt Lake Electric Ensemble’s performance of in C is not traditional, the work itself is meant to challenge tradition, at least the traditions of the time in which it was written. Ironically, with the large selection of recordings available, it seems in C is becoming canonized as it approaches 50 years of existence. The piece born to countermand the melodic traditions of Western music is gaining a reputation similar to the 19th-century masterpieces orchestras and soloist love to re-record and re-perform with the hopes of lending their own special fingerprints to the music. Consider this CD from the Salt Lake Electric Ensemble a wilder interpretation of a classic in the minimalist canon, displaying the longevity of Riley’s style alongside this unusual group’s broad spectrum of musical expression.
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The Music of Poul Ruders: Volume 6
Bridge Records #9336
Poul Ruders has been present on my listening radar for a couple years, but I hadn’t really dived into his music until I listened to this CD. From the album’s contents – Piano Concerto No. 2, Bel Canto for solo violin, Serenade On The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean for string quartet and accordion – and the other works of Ruders I’m familiar with – Fairytale and the second Piano Sonata – it is clear he possesses a uniquely compelling musical sensibility. Both cumulatively and individually, the works on this CD demonstrated a Ruders’ flawless dramatic sense and his ability to convey his rhetoric with a wide and sincere range of musical expressions.
The album’s first composition, Piano Concerto No. 2, stood out to me so strongly, it has become one of my favorite piano concertos – at least as a knee-jerk reaction. This work seems particularly concerned with sonic color and does not attempt to develop a traditional soloist-ensemble dialogue. For example – instead of conversing with the orchestra – the piano pulls its accompaniment more and more quickly through time (in the first movement) and then uses the timbres of the orchestra to inflect intimate and bold passages (in the second movement). Beyond its world-class piano writing, the Piano Concerto No. 2 explores timbre in a clever and fresh way, namely in the second movement where Ruders melds the sounds of the piano and orchestra into a colorful monster of musical lyricism and force.
The remaining works on the CD are starkly subdued beside the scale of the Piano Concerto No. 2. Bel Canto, for solo violin, is the next composition on the album and is cut from the same cloth of musical intimacy as the primary material in the Piano Concerto No. 2’s second movement. The piece is deliberately beautiful and, as a result, drifts into the sound world of neo-romanticism yet it retains Ruders’ ineffable aural fingerprints. Bel Canto is unabashedly beautiful, but Ruders doesn’t abandon the melodic and textural spontaneity that is present in many of his more intense pieces. Here, in the place of the crashing brass chords or wild changes in orchestral colors we hear in Fairytale, Concerto in Pieces, and the second Piano Concerto, Ruders decorates Bel Canto’s folk-inspired melodies with dissonant double stops and left-hand pizzicati, transforming what could be trite or saccharine into pure Poul Ruders.
The CD’s final composition, Serenade on the Shores of the Cosmic Ocean, is similarly subdued in tone to Bel Canto but is much more earnest and even wild at times. The unusual instrumentation – accordion and string quartet – made my roommate cock and eyebrow when he saw the CD on our dining table, but it is an impressively compatible timbral marriage, at least in Ruders’ hands. According to the liner notes, Ruders based this work’s title on Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and designed the music’s coloristic sphere to insinuate an upward gaze, perusing the night sky. Serenade summates the dense stylistic topography outlined in the CD’s first two compositions by mashing together frenetic chromaticism, dark amorphous harmonies and pure diatonicism. More the once, Ruders finds textures and techniques that meld the accordion and strings together, creating a unified ensemble sound I did not expect. Some moments bring the instruments back to reality, so to speak, like the fifth – dubbed “Stardust” – which gradually applies increasingly dissonant suspensions to an accordion background that starts out as a clear resemblance to a street corner organ grinder’s music, but slowly melts away into abstraction.
Despite sudden, brief explosions of instensity, Serenade on the Shores of the Cosmic Ocean is mostly mysterious and subtle. With respect to this album’s entire contents, Ruders’ ability to produce such compelling yet clearly delineated musical imprints from one piece to another is undeniably laudable, particularly given the expansive musical palette on which he draws. I find it particularly respectable that – although he may drift towards widely accepted musical categories – Ruders’ musical idiosyncrasy wards off all but the most indirect “-isms”.
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Almost New York
Pogus Productions P21057-2
Almost New York represents the latest chapter in Alvin Lucier’s migration away from the world of experimental electronic music, a move he began in the 1980s. Mr. Lucier chronicles the challenges he faced achieving working with acoustic instruments in the CD’s liner notes, ultimately discussing the microtonal impulses at the heart of the music featured on this album. The four works on the recordings two discs – Twonings, Almost New York, Broken Line and Coda Variations – are thoughtful explorations in extreme subtlety. The slow transformation typifying these pieces comes as no surprise reading the end of Mr. Lucier’s prose introduction to the CD: one of his principal inspirations was the natural out-of-tune-ness symptomatic to performances of Morton Feldman’s protracted String Quartet #2, “by the end…the instruments have drifted a little out of tune – there being now time to re-tune during a live performance – acquiring a patina that comes with age.”
Twonings, the CD’s first track, exemplifies the techniques Mr. Lucier applies in the album’s other compositions. The work is written for cello and piano and explores the slight discrepancies in pitch between the piano’s equal temperament and the assigned just intonation in the cello part. The notes for this work specifically site the, “acoustic phenomena” and “audible beating” that should result from the music’s attempted unisons. Indeed, the performance serves this goal with loyalty: cellist Charles Curtis and pianist Joseph Kubera deliver the music in a disciplined manner devoid of traditional expressivity, which makes the friction between the two instrument’s tunings more dramatic.
The album’s title track, Almost New York, sadly seems like the kind of piece I wish I could witness in a concert. Written for one flutist rotating between five flutes, this piece uses pure wave oscillators to create a kind of synthetic drone against which the flutist plays long tones. After each note, the performer is supposed to switch to a different type of flute, walking around the performance space as he or she cycles through instruments. Clearly, this is the kind of thing you want to be in the room for, but sound engineer Tom Hamilton simulates the spatial effects very well with panning. Like Twonings before it, Almost New York focuses on the microtonal differences between multiple voices, in this case the flute and slowly sliding up and down oscillators. Flutist Robert Dick delivers a performance similar in its sparse character to that of the previous track. As we have seen, of course, this style is important to Mr. Lucier’s compositions given the subtle ideas he transforms over the course of each work.
The third tack, Broken Line, is the most rhythmically active of the whole album and is scored for Vibraphone, piano and Flute. Rhetorically, however, the work is a duo inasmuch as Joseph Kubera’s piano and percussionist Danny Tunick‘s vibraphone are used in tandem as a fixed-pitch wall against which the extended glissandi Robert Dick’s modified flute constantly abrades. Broken Line essentially represents a role-reversal from Almost New York as the flute challenges the fixed intonation of the piano and vibraphone. The most concise work on the CD at 12:21, Broken Line’s instrumentation alludes to Morton Feldman’s Why Patterns?. Though it possesses a different process than Mr. Feldman’s work, Broken Line is a similarly persuasive advocate for moment-form music and – thanks to its rhythmic activity – is the most accessible representative of this compositional style on the album.
Mr. Lucier’s connection to Morton Feldman’s music and philosophy coalesces in Almost New York’s final track, Coda Variations, which is based on the solo tuba coda from Mr. Feldman’s Durations 3. Mr. Lucier’s Variations takes the eight notes and double fermata from Durations and, “[subjects them] to seven sets of permutations of sixty three notes each.” The variations incorporate special microtonal fingerings on the tuba developed by the performer, Robin Hayward, and composer Marc Sabat. As you can see, Coda Variations plays on the same subtle theme of intonation as the rest of the album, but presents the changes in a slowly unfolding melodic line, not in the vertical dissonances of the earlier tracks. This makes listening to Coda Variations an exercise in concentration, much like it must be performing a composition that develops so subtly over such a long period of time.
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Robert Dick and Thomas Buckner
Flutes and Voices
I could never have predicted what Flutes and Voices sounded like because, before listening to Robert Dick and Thomas Buckner’s improvisations, I had been deprived of the instrumental and vocal sounds, noises and effects principally composing the sound world of this recording. It would be cheesy to label the album, “not for the faint of heart”, but I cannot deny the extreme abstraction one explores while listening to it. With that disclaimer out of the way, I must emphasize how incredibly delightful Mr. Dick and Mr. Buckner’s musical daring is to experience. Their style of improvisation removes the listener from any expectation or familiarity with either instrument and delivers one’s ears to a new expressive universe, spiraling out of control for much of the time.
There are no elegant flute passages or arias on this recording, nor words nor any discernible melodies except for a few points. A seasoned improvisatory vocalist, baritone Thomas Buckner uses the human voice in an anti-establishment manner hard to put into words. There is some humming and overtone singing, but the sounds he produces are too vibrant, too fleeting, and too multifaceted for a single moniker. He mixtures gasps and grunts, whispers and croaks and the sound of spit along with tongue clicking, snoring, daffy-duck noises and pretty much every unexpected oral sound you’ll hear from a baby’s nursery to a retirement home. The album’s fifth track, “The Bird Scene Says Yes” may be the tamest – at least vocally speaking – inasmuch as Mr. Buckner sings in a pseudo-language of vowel songs and follows a melody that is similarly reminiscent of folk music. Yet, his voice is constrained for the duration, seemingly coming from the back of his throat. This allows this track – the most tuneful of the album – to fit into the expressive palette of the rest of the works.
When I realized this, the careful structuring that must have been considered – subconsciously, at least – I became extremely impressed with Mr. Buckner and Mr. Dick’s musical insight. Upon discovering the CD contained a series of improvisations, I had ignorantly assumed I would regret not being witness to their creation, as if the energy of the performance would compensate for the music’s presumed lack of formal logic. The balance I’ve described in Mr. Buckner’s vocal performance suggests more of a musical structure than I had thought possible, simultaneously proving me wrong and making the music more fascinating.
Composer and flutist Robert Dick’s performance is equally wild and varied as Mr. Buckner, thanks in part to Mr. Dick’s invention, the Glissando Headjoint. This device allows Mr. Dick to produce extended glissandi and pitch bends unlike anything I had heard on a flute. The resultant microtonal/chromatic slides join a host of other flute extended techniques including key clicks, tongue pizzicato, tongue rams and many others. Mr. Dick also sings into his flute, and produces vocal sounds along the lines of Mr. Buckner’s performance, sometimes switching between those grunts and flute playing, so it seems like there is an extra performer in the booth. Like Mr. Buckner’s performance, Robert Dick’s flute playing includes some more traditional flute sounds, runs and the like, but these moments appear in such an unusual context – sandwiched between abundant bizarre sounds – there is no sense that track has been violated by the presence of a distinguishable flute note.
As alien as Flute and Voices becomes as a result of the unusual sounds produced by its creators, the limited post-production carries the music to an even more distant realm of expression. Once I noticed there was a lot of panning going on, I was curious about overdubbing, but – after listening to the CD multiple times – I am convinced the tracks are pretty raw. It is even possible they were recorded with a stereo microphone and the performers moved from one side to the other to create a “live” panning effect. Nevertheless, I am confident these improvisations are presented very close to how they would sound in concert, though I enjoyed being able to imagine the unearthly sources for the strange sounds I heard. Perhaps, being able to see Robert Dick and Thomas Buckner might spoil the wonderful foreignness of their improvisations’ sound world.
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Frozen Heat #FH1001
Houston-based Composer/Pianist Kris Becker’s recently released album Inventions presents an overwhelmingly wide spectrum of musical genres, it is hard to believe one mind is responsible for all of it. Within, listeners will find rock songs, jazz ballads, and finely crafted style studies of J.S. Bach surrounding the over-arching jazz-infused neo-romanticism that seems to be at the heart of Mr. Becker’s musical personality. Proudly fusing popular idioms with beloved sounds from art music’s past, Inventions is a daring cross-genre musical endeavor; and, though it may overload your ears with variety, Inventions is a pleasantly memorable, moving and successful achievement.
All the music on Inventions is expertly performed, elegantly produced and solidly composed, making is undeniably evident that Kris Becker is a uniquely talented musician. There is very little to criticize in terms of pure content: nearly every track, regardless of genre, succeeded both as a representative of its given style and an isolated musical object. The two rock songs, “Feel the Truth” and “Try”, were well done and absolutely convincing on a musical level: they sounded like rock songs written by rock musicians, not a composer’s vain attempt at rock music. More impressive were the two alternate recordings of the song “If Ever Two Were One”, the first of which was done in a sultry, slow jazz style and the second was totally transformed into an art song a la Ned Rorem. Both Mr. Becker and his vocalist Sarah Welch amazed me with their fully persuasive metamorphosis from one style to another, which made these two tracks among the hallmarks of the entire album.
The rest of the tracks on the CD are solo piano compositions performed by Mr. Becker. Though not highly chromatic or modernist in any way, these works reflect a variety of influences and allude to a deep love of 19th-Century classicism, all types of Jazz and niche popular styles, such as musical theater. To this end, these compositions almost act as a commentary on the rock and jazz songs that start the album, almost like Mr. Becker has chosen to distill and abstract those formalized styles through his virtuosity at the piano.
The first of these pieces is Fanfare for Life, a highly rhythmic, moto-perpetuo work with sweeping harmonies and a step-wise melody set against blurry pan-diatonic ostinati. Both in content and form, Fanfare for Life typifies the pseudo-improvisatory, neo-tonal style I think is very close to Mr. Becker’s heart. Though allusions to jazz and neo-classicism are strongly present themes on this album, it is undeniable after that the mood and character of Fanfare for Life are closely tied to Mr. Becker’s truest impulses. In fact, the next work on the CD, Four Curiosities, ‘composes out’ many of the musical ideas set forth in Fanfare for Life, whether a focus of poppy syncopated rhythms in the first and last movements Anticipation and Groovin’ or melding a love of Baroque and Jazz music in the bluesy second movement Passacaglia.
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