Who Has the Biggest Sound
If any composer is going to ask the musical question “Who has the biggest sound,” Paul Dolden is rightfully going to be on the short list of potential composers. The almost hour-long work Who Has the Biggest Sound is quite the whirlwind of sonic activity and stylistic diversity.
Relying mostly on high-quality samples instead of synthesized sounds, Dolden keeps a lot of humanity in the sound world. Rhythm and articulation are the only real means by which the artifice of his production shows through. One could imagine, for example, the overall sound world of “The Answer is Blowing in the Winds” being played totally acoustically but the hard edge to the attacks coupled with the dryness and clarity of the timbres makes it obvious to the ear that these are all processed sounds. This movement in particular comes across mostly like an instrumental version of Paul Lansky’s “chatter” pieces. Dolden’s journey through various ensembles at the start of the album hits its apex in the fifth movement “Who Can Play the Fastest?” Dolden started using rock instruments and tropes in the previous movement but in “Who Can Play the Fastest” he really, to be blunt, rocks the f—k out. It is glorious.
Unfortunately, Dolden kills this energy with the introduction of a narrator with hyper-exaggerated declamation while being mimicked in real time by instrumental samples. This overt asking of the music question brings an unwanted and unwelcome campiness to the piece and reduces most of the clean crisp instrumental samples into cheesy 90′s era MIDI samples. Who Has the Biggest Sound managed to have the right balance of levity and seriousness before the narrator started its aural mugging, the first 30 seconds of “My Hound is Out of Harmony” was going quite well before the narrator barges in, and for the rest of the piece Dolden seems obligated to pollute his otherwise engrossing creations with this whiny and irritating character. I love the idea of this musical question being posed by the “Center for Strategic Sound” but I think the implementation of the narration falls short. Humor is a tricky and subjective thing and something many composers avoid. Dolden’s attention to electroacoustic studio techniques reassures me that while he tries to be funny he takes his art seriously.
The Un-Tempered Orchestra fortunately presents its aural landscape without a verbal guide. Having composed diatonic melodies and harmonies, Dolden uses computer processing to retune and juxtapose his material through a wide variety of tuning systems. The end result is a blurred aural line between performance and processing; a work which in some ways could be played acoustically (from a timbre, rhythm, and instrumentation point of view) and a work which could only be done via intense computer analysis and transformation. I find “Orchestra 4” to be the most sonically satisfying, especially as female voices emerge from the elongated clouds of stretched notes. These six conjoined ruminations which form The Un-Tempered Orchestra never really build into a single shape or trajectory, at least not to my ear, but I nevertheless find the whole work compelling and the final cadential resolution rather satisfying.
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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, tags: alex mincek, CD Review, chamber music, franzon, instrumental, Jay Batzner, lara, mincek, rihm, String quartet
music by Mincek, Rihm, Franzon, and Lara
- Alex Mincek: String Quartet No. 3, “lift-tilt-filter-split”
- Wolfgang Rihm: Quartettstudie
- David Brynjar Franzson: On Repetition and Reappearances
- Felipe Lara: Corde Vocale
Mivos Quartet – Olivia de Prato and Joshua Modney, violins; Victor Lowrie, viola; Mariel Roberts, violoncello
String quartets are tricky business for composers and quartets alike. How does a composer compete with The Masters when writing new works? How does a quartet make a name for itself without performing works that haven’t been played a billion times already, especially since the realm of “contemporary music string quartets” is a pretty dense and tricky market already? Looking at its website, Mivos Quartet has a lot of exciting repertoire, programs, and opportunities to foster new music for string quartet. Their debut album Reappearances is a sonic dynamo of unrelenting musical power. The four quartets performed are staggering compositions in their own rights and Mivos’ interpretation and performance of each piece is absolutely transfixing. Okay, so maybe I’m gushing a bit. This is one of those discs that I cannot have playing while I’m writing about it. Usually I’m listening to the disc I’m writing about just to keep the sounds in my head. With Reappearances, I end up listening instead of writing.
Mivos hits hard right out of the gate with Alex Mincek’s String Quartet No. 3. Aggressive noise-based chords bounce around the group over a background nattering and gradually a straight-tone groove emerges in contrast. The counterpoints of texture and color are complicated and rigorous but still approachable and engaging through the palpable waves of musical gestures. It is a rough ride but Mivos’ sound is glassy, silky, and clean. The quartet makes sense of the abstract gestures and shapes the whole experience into quite an aural ride.
After the rough and tumble world of Mincek, Wolfgang Rihm’s Quartettstudie open with soothing and quiet shapes. These shapes unfurl into tendrils of counterpoint and texture and again Mivos can take complex thorny atonality and communicate its structure by drawing on more overt emotional states. Rihm’s music is also rich food upon which they can feed as it is full of contrast and drama with a solid emotional core.
On Repetition and Reappearances by David Brynjar Franzson is less active on the surface than the other works on this disc and Mivos works the silences around the moments just as expertly as the moments themselves. Franzson’s work is full of quiet murmurs, sporadic moans, and disconnected textures which all hang together according to the simple metaphor of the work’s title. Mivos uses a defter touch of tone on this particular composition given the stark and direct nature of the sparse musical moments.
Finishing off the disc with a bang, Felipe Lara’s Corde Vocale is hyper-colorful full of rich singular moments of arrival. Less a work of counterpoint and juxtaposition, Lara’s composition is more akin to aural surfing; the ideas build and grow around the listeners and then inevitably and inexorably crash down around them. Mivos performs this work as a single polyphonic hyper-instrument. This piece is a strong closer for the group and an excellent way to complete an auspicious debut disc. I’m excited about what they might release next.
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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, Jay Batzner, Piano, tags: Ben Hjertmann, CD Review, David Maslanka, David Rakowski, Ethan Wickman, Joel Puckett, John Griffin, Luke Gullickson, Mark Olivieri, Mohammed Fairouz, Nicholas Phillips, Piano, William Price
New Music for Solo Piano
Nicholas Phillips, piano
New Focus Recordings
- Spectacular Vernaculars – Mark Olivieri
- Occidental Psalmody – Ethan Wickman
- On the Drawing of Constellations – Ben Hjertmann
- Bill-ytude – Joel Puckett
- Piano Miniature #10, #12, #13 – Mohammed Fairouz
- Beloved – David Maslanka
- Back Porch Requiem for John Fahey – Luke Gullickson
- Playin’ and Prayin’ – John Griffin
- A Southern Pride – William Price
- Hotfingers – David Rakowski
Nicholas Phillips approached several composers looking for music inspired by the phrase “American Vernacular” and the end result is a strong balance of eclectic musical tastes framed within relatively conservative harmonic and formal frameworks. Mr. Phillips was aiming for a “classical crossover” disc at the start but he creates is a disc of fun and charming music which, while performed with a high level of technical and musical sophistication, doesn’t feel the need to take itself too seriously. There are serious works on the disc, no doubt, but the overall focus is on enjoyable works which sound as gratifying to play as they are to hear. If you want a disc which is trying to rant for or against a style or idiom, you want a different disc. This is merely a well-programmed and performed collection of music which is approachable and engaging to listeners from a broad range of backgrounds.
Several works highlight direct ties to “vernacular” roots. Mark Olivieri’s Spectacular Vernaculars draws on ragtime, “Stella by Starlight” and De La Soul but clearly uses these inspirations as jumping off points instead of as a cursory exterior. Bill-ytude by Joel Puckett achieves the same using Billy Joel and Elton John stylings. Playin’ and Prayin’ by John Griffin takes Christian worship music tropes on a rhapsodic adventure and Mohammed Fairouz alludes to Liberace and Tin Pan Alley in two of his three miniatures. Back Porch Requiem for John Fahey synthesizes guitar licks and gestures from Fahey as well as Mississippi John Hurt.
Other composers focus more on the “American” side of the “American Vernacular” inspiration. William Price’s A Southern Prelude asks the question of “what makes music not just American but Southern?” and Ethan Wickman’s Occidental Psalmody takes the visual inspiration from watching the ocean rise and fall and turns that into expanding quintal harmonies. Fairouz’s third miniature, “America never was America to me” reacts to the 50th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech filtered through the events of Trayvon Martin’s murder.
Hotfingers: Three Vernacular Nondances again shows David Rakowski’s flair for idiomatic and engaging piano writing. These three short works sound right at home among his piano etudes. Maybe I’m biased but I think every disc of American piano music should include something by Rakowski. David Maslanka’s Beloved doesn’t draw from any specific vernacular touchstone but rather keeps close to his other “remembrance” compositions. Perhaps the most removed from the “vernacular” idea, On the Drawing of Constellations by Ben Hjertmann is the least harmonically conservative and predictable. This work stands out on the disc for its unusual and captivating musical language and more ambient and environmental approach to its linear unfolding.
No matter the composers’ inspirations, Nicholas Phillips delivers solid and engaging performances which give first-time listeners all the overt connections they need and all the nuance that repeat listenings can uncover. American Vernacular is well worth checking out for anyone interested in current trends of contemporary American piano music.
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Music of Philip Glass and Mohammed Fairouz
University of Kansas Wind Ensemble
Paul W. Popiel, conductor
Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra (transcribed by Mark Lortz) – Philip Glass
- (Ji Hye Jung and Gwendolyn Burgett, timpani)
Symphony No. 4 ‘In the Shadow of No Towers’ – Mohammed Fairouz
The Naxos collection of “Wind Band Classics” has consistently delivered strong performances and this recording of two large-scale works by the University of Kansas Wind Ensemble under the direction of Paul W. Popiel is no exception. True, I am an alum from KU but I don’t think any of the praise I am about to extoll on this disc can be led back to some kind of Jayhawker loyalty. Everyone should be able to agree that the performances on this disc are top notch.
The Concerto Fantasy by Philip Glass is a bit of an odd work. Featuring the timpani can be quite tricky and while the performances by the timpani soloists are precise and impressive, I think that this piece rarely sounds like a fully completed composition. The timpani are certainly active in the piece but there is little to my ears which makes them foreground material. The recording is clean and clear and preserves the physical separation between the pair of soloists but at the end of the day the piece just sounds like an accompaniment lacking a focal element. Glass’ harmonic vocabulary seems even more conservative than usual and I found little to engage in either texturally or rhythmically. I am not overly familiar with the original orchestral version of the piece so I am in no way trying to compare the wind ensemble sound to the orchestra (see apples v. oranges, books v. movies, etc.). And honestly, the piece doesn’t intrigue me enough to track down more recordings of it.
My general dislike of the Glass is made up for, however, with Symphony No. 4 ‘In the Shadow of No Towers’ by Mohammed Fairouz. Inspired by the Art Spiegelman graphic novel of the same name, Fairouz delivers as powerful and evocative a work for wind ensemble as Karel Husa’s Music for Prague 1968. Beginning with “The New Normal,” this four movement symphony draws in a wide array of creative and affective ensemble colors but none more colorful as in the second movement “Notes of a Heartbroken Narcissist.” In this second movement, metal percussion, harp, piano, and double bass scrape and groan through a grey-inspired aural landscape. The not entirely playful third movement “One Nation Under Two Flags” portrays a “Red Zone” and “Blue Zone” through musical juxtapositions of a sort which would make Ives proud. The final movement, “Anniversaries” uses a ticking clock motive throughout to highlight the notion of passing time but also to imply a ticking time bomb. The composition rides this metaphor well by transforming a simple steady rhythm into something ominous and foreboding. Throughout the entire disc, the University of Kansas Wind Ensemble sounds fantastic. All the musical layers are clear and articulate but their precision does not come through sacrificing emotion and lyricism (such as it exists in either work). Rock chalk, Jayhawks!
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Composers Concordance Records
- Two Etched Marks (Katherine Crawford, David Morneau)
- Behind Corneal Gates (Mary Hubbell, David Morneau)
- My Husband (Eleanor Dubinsky, David Morneau)
- Cupid’s Song (Lana Is, Baraka Noel, and David Morneau)
- Music in Me (Melanie Mitrano, Rebecca Ashe, and Edward Morneau)
- Summer (Shabana Tajwar, Vladimir Katz, and David Morneau)
- Crumpled Sonnets (Katherine Crawford, David Morneau)
- My Song (Mary Hubbell and Vladimir Katz)
- Love’s Slave (Lana Is and David Morneau)
- Now I Love You Best (Melanie Mitrano, Edward Morneau, and David Morneau)
When a composer writes “songs” these days, what does that mean? Pop songs? Art song? Lieder? Songs are essentially everywhere due to the prevalence of vocal music in popular culture with instrumental works only existing in classical realms. If you’ve ever taught music appreciation and bristled at someone talking about a Beethoven piano sonata as a “song” then you know what I mean. If we can make a distinction, popular songs seem to be attached to the performer and not the composer. It might be a gross overstatement to say that when you talk about or focus on the composer of a song rather the artist who sings it you’ve entered the realm of “classical music” but that is the assumption I’m working from. Another way of stating this could be: is Morneau a composer or a songwriter? Some of you might enjoy drawing lines in the sand and parsing the deeper meanings inherent in the implied opposition of those terms.
Personally, I don’t enjoy such debates and definitions but this disc brings some of these questions to the surface. On one hand, this collection of songs is very much about Morneau’s composed musical intentions. Each song pairs a Shakespeare sonnet with a complimentary modern poem in a single unbroken musical fabric. Would anyone other than a Serious Composer try to set a Shakespeare sonnet? Several of these songs are sung by voices which would be at home singing Schubert, Schumann, and Wolf but the most haunting performances retain a more commonly heard pop/jazz technique. Electronics abound on the disc but usually in the form of keyboards, virtual instruments, and poppy sequenced rhythms. It seams like every time you think you know what world this disc is in, it changes just enough to make you question your assumptions.
More songs tend to fall more in the “composer camp” than “songwriter camp” if such lines must be drawn. “My Husband,” co-written with Eleanor Dubinsky, switches the music into full “songwriter” mode. Dubinsky’s dark and relaxed tone makes this torch song seem like it belongs on a different album altogether. “My Husband” is also the most hooky and ear-worm worthy song on the disc and I hope for more Morneau/Dubinsky collaborations in the future. Personally, I think the songs that are from the “songwriter” side are stronger than the “composer” works. “My Husband,” “Love’s Slave,” “Crumpled Sonnets,” and “Now I Love You Best” bring out the best of Morneau’s melodic writing and rhythmic drive and these specific performances hit the musical nail right on the head.
While the songs do feature a mercuriality in Morneau’s compositional abilities, the disc provides a chance for the singers to show depths as well. Katherine Crawford favors art-song technique in “Two Etched Marks” but strips away these classical touches on “Crumpled Sonnets.” I heard “Crumpled Sonnets” in an earlier version which included samples of ripping paper and I much prefer this disc’s version with just voice and synth. Mary Hubbell reverses the transformation that Crawford undergoes; Hubbell’s first song “Behind the Corneal Gates” is sung more lightly than her dramatic return in “My Song” and while a lot of that can be attributed to Morneau’s response to very different poetry it is always welcome to hear performer exhibit a range of characterizations.
The transitional moments between Shakespeare and each song’s paired poem are well handled and at times hard to hear. Often the singers shift their declamation just a touch to make a shift in the mood but sometimes it happens without my knowledge. My favorite of these moments has to be “Music in Me” sung by Melanie Mitrano with Rebecca Ashe, flute and Edward Morneau, guitar. Musically, the texture and harmony stay very Shakespearean and folksy. By the time you’ve tuned out a little you hear Mitrano sing “my vagina so engorged that I can feel it when I walk” (from the poem “Music” by Susan Maurer) and realize that you probably should have been paying attention to how you got here in the first place.
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Phaedra and Modern Love Waltz
music of Philip Glass
OgreOgress has been a key player in offering strong recordings of lesser known/recorded works by composers such as John Cage, Alan Hovhannes, and Morton Feldman. This Philip Glass disc is truly for the comprehensive Glass fan since it contains portions of Phaedra which were not included in the Mishima soundtrack and 21 different versions that Robert Moran arranged of Glass’ Modern Love Waltz.
Released as a DVD-A, the sound quality is exceptionally true-to-life. The music is beautifully captured and so is the space in which it was recorded which adds a great deal of depth to what could have been a sterile and flat studio recording. The string trio used through these five brief scenes from Phaedra (2, 4, 6, 14, and 15a specifically) maintains a lush and rich tone and keep the pulse energized without ever sounding mechanical and machine-like. The percussion blends extremely well with the trio when used and the guitar additions provide a bit of snap to the articulation without overshadowing the thicker bowed strings.
Modern Love Waltz, originally a short piano piece by Glass, was orchestrated into 35 different parts by Robert Moran and the rest of the disc is dedicated to presenting all of those 35 parts in 21 different modular performances. I am of two minds of this portion of the recording. On the one hand, I’m not sure how many times I need to hear this 4:25 piece of music. On the other hand, OgreOgress has paced out all the different versions of this piece so well that there is a gradual and almost imperceptible build from one track to another. By the time I hit track 16 which is only for piano and winds, the piece really sounded different to my ears. Each track stands on its own as a solid realization of the piece but the gradual increase in the ensemble size and instrument diversity makes for a fun ride. It turns out I can listen to this short piano piece many many times after all.
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music of Lansing McLoskey
- Specific Gravity 2.72 performed by the newEar ensemble
- Sudden Music performed by Rebecca Duren, soprano; Alan Oscar Johnson, piano
- Requiem v.2.001 performed by Stony Brook Contemporary Chamber Players
- Processione di lacrime (pavan) performed by Philipp A. Stäudlin, saxophone; Zoya Tsvetkova, violin; Scott Woolweaver, viola; Joshua Gordon, cello
- Quartettrope performed by Stony Brook Contemporary Chamber Players
I find myself at a slight loss when trying to describe the music of Lansing McLoskey. Elements of just about every major stream of contemporary American concert music get wrapped together in different amounts in different pieces. A little minimalism here, some neo-romanticism there, atonal expressionism woven throughout, and colorful orchestrations to wrap it all together. McLoskey’s musical eclecticism doesn’t suffer from a lack of focus; each piece hangs together according to its own rules. I was about to say that McLoskey seems to be the rare composer without an obsession but instead it seems more apt to say that McLoskey is pan-obsessive. An equal opportunity obsessor.
The opening work, Specific Gravity 2.72, splashes with color at first while a slow-moving and determined melody unfurls against the more extroverted material. The second movement, “November Graveyard,” replaces these waves of gestures from the ensemble with more subdued and resigned harmonies. The quiet and static aspect of McLoskey’s language is prominently displayed in Processione di lacrime for saxophone and string trio. A single harmonic sigh underlies the whole seven minutes while forlorn melodies emerge from the ensemble and then fade into the background. The saxophone might be seen as the “odd instrument out” here but the instrument is perfectly balanced in performance and composition.
One of McLoskey’s better known compositions, Requiem v.2.001, takes up the center of the disc. This one piece probably does the most to summarize the various aspects of McLoskey’s musical language. Punchy grooves underscore long melodies in the first movement. Thick harmonies and darker colors make for a moody second movement. The violin solo “Trope [virus]” is frenetic and edgy, heightened by the extremely nasal mute sound. “Eulogy” recalls the opening groove from the first movement but maintains the more aggressive and forward trajectory initiated by the solo violin movement. The final “Epitaph – Obit.” discards the energy using colors and harmonies similar to the second movement.
While the formal designs of McLoskey’s music isn’t always taken from a traditional model, his music maintains satisfying and recognizable dramatic shapes. The four song collection Sudden Music gives McLoskey a place to show his adept understanding and setting of text, creating lines and harmonies which, while a bit more reserved than the rest of the music on this disc, still sound like his harmonies.
The final work, Quartettrope, uses the Webern quartet for violin, clarinet, tenor saxophone, and piano as a touchstone for McLoskey’s own original work. The first movement starts with the full first movement of the Webern original with McLoskey fusing his music onto the end in true trope fashion. The second movement begins with original McLoskey material and progresses towards the second movement of the Webern. This is not commentary on the Webern nor an attempt at stylistic camouflage; it is extremely clear when and how McLoskey’s music stops and the Webern starts. The idea behind the piece is rather interesting and the execution is rather compelling. More than anything, Quartettrope summarizes the mercurial nature of McLoskey’s voice and his compositional craft to put it all together.
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Electronic Organ Works
Piece #2 (1999-2000) for electronic organ; Piece #3 (2000-2001) for electronic organ; Piece #1 (2000-2004) for electronic organ; 4/4 (2010); Piece (2010) for electronic organ and bongo drums (with Glenn Freeman on bongos)
While some composers might bristle when the term “minimalism” is applied to their music or try to distance themselves from the dread “M-word” by adding the prefix “post” or saying that their music is “inspired by” or “takes influence from” minimalism, there simply is no better term which provides a sonic context for David Toub’s sound world. The music on this disc is straight-up, unbridled, unabashed Glass-ian minimalism in the best possible way. I’m not sure if there are processes being worked out or if the changes are more intuitive but these pieces hit my ears the same way as Music in Fifths, Music in Similar Motion, or Music with Changing Parts. To be honest, Toub’s synth of choice (Ensoniq KS-32) has a more focused, less dated, and richer sound than what I hear in those earlier Glass recordings.
The three numbered pieces for electronic organ, presented in the chronological order in which they were finished, do a lot to draw you into Toub’s flavor of minimalism. Piece #2 is only 4’33″ (not sure how much one wants to read into that) and chugs along with a very rock-friendly bass line and open harmonic sound. Piece #3 is longer, about twelve and a half minutes, with a more disquiet set of harmonies and mellower instrument tone. Piece #1 is about double the length of #3 and strings together more drastic textural shifts using a lighter organ sound. Piece #1 is also the only one with internal cadential pauses marking changes in texture. The alternation of arpeggio activity and longer tension-building sustains creates an interesting formal shape.
I rather enjoyed the sustained sections of Piece #1 and hoped that one of the remaining works on the disc would eschew a pulse in order to focus purely on Toub’s ability to build and release harmonic tension. 4/4 maintains the ”pulse-first, build harmonies later” model but the metrical squareness becomes a great framework for Toub’s rhythmic and textural explorations. The final work on the disc, Piece for Electronic Organ and Bongo Drums, off-loads the pulse duties from the organ to the bongos so the organ can maintain sustained intervals. For my ears, the drums are a bit too loud and sharp for the mellower organ sound and I welcomed the 45 seconds without the drums (around the 9:15 mark). Overall, this is a well crafted set of pieces with rock solid performances and rich sounds.
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R. Andrew Lee, piano
Irritable Hedgehog Records
I’m fairly new to the Wandelweiser aesthetic and this disc of Eva-Maria Houben’s piano music reinforces a lot of what I have taken in from other sources. To call this sound world “minimalism” is accurate in the purest sense: there is extremely little material here. What is different, though, is that Houben’s language emphasizes silence over repetition. The resonance of the piano lends itself to long and heavy pauses and Houben’s treatment of the piano as a sonorous entity rather than one for frenetic button pushing is gratifying and nourishing. The slow unfolding of events in both piano works, abgemalt and go and stop let every sound resonate with the listener before going forward. Any connections between events can be gestated well before plunging on into the next event. Having said that, this is not music with an obvious formal through-line. If you are driven by hearing rhythmic processes play out over the course of a piece, you’d best look elsewhere. Houben’s music is languid in the purest sense; events happen, silence happens, and it is very possible that neither has anything to do with the other. A Zen approach is necessary: just listen to what is happening. Trying to guess what is going to happen or should happen takes you away from the piece as it is.
Abgemalt is the longer of the two works and for me the most perplexing. Over the first two minutes the same dark chord is struck and decays down to nothingness three times. That’s it. The silences clearly outweigh the sounds. The amount of space in the piece is equal parts haunting, meditative, and unsettling. Playing the disc for a colleague, she shook her head in bewilderment; is this all it is? The short answer is “yes.” The long answer is “yes,” too, but with the follow up question “what more do you want?” As Abgemalt unfurls for 40 minutes, one does begin to lose all sense of direction. Why do all these moments belong in this piece? Why are they in this order? How did Houben know when the piece was finished? These are all intellectual questions which can’t thwart the overall rightness to the sounds. Go and Stop is a little easier to digest. There is a formal process which is more readily grasped as harmonic alternations are interrupted and grow into longer and longer iterations. Abgemalt, though, keeps sucking me back in. I can’t just casually listen to this disc as background noise. The deliberateness turns the recording into foreground listening. My ears strain to hear more and more of the piano decay, as if something is going to change. I can’t just turn the piece off in the middle, either, just as I can’t turn off Piano Phase without experiencing a sudden and jarring jolt.
Houben has set up an aural ecosystem in her work and Lee’s touch and timing are sensitive and nuanced. I can easily hear the care and concentration that goes into these performances and I have no trouble picturing a stoic and deliberate performance on stage. Lee’s craft is not one displayed through senseless theatrics and pyrotechnics. He clearly has a mind for this music and the ability to transform extremely minimal amounts of material into captivating performances.
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music by Ingram Marshall
photography by Jim Bengston
While the audio to these two collaborative works has been available for some time, this Starkland DVD release is the first time that Ingram Marshall’s music and Jim Bengston’s photography for Alcatraz and Eberbach can be seen in its combined form. While I’m sure nothing could replace a live performance of these pieces, this DVD maintains all the rich immersive qualities of any good multimedia collaboration. Artistically, both works are a testament to the “difficulty of simplicity.” The ideas are direct, expertly executed, and immediately palatable while revealing more nuance upon repeated listenings.
I will fully confess to not being much of a visual person. I cannot speak at length about technical issues in the photography. I find the visuals to be stunning and affecting even though the presentation is just a cross-fade slideshow. By today’s technical standards that doesn’t sound too interesting but the instant anyone would try the “Burns Effect” on these images they would destroy the resonance these images make through their rather monolithic simplicity. Bengston has all the right images at the right times and clearly conveys motion throughout each piece.
Alcatraz, the longer work of the two, is understandably darker in tone and more disquieting than its companion. Having only experienced the audio version of this piece in the past, while I watched the visuals I was reminded that Marshall’s soundcraft was really only half of the work. I do not say that to diminish anything that Marshall did; quite the opposite. Alcatraz works quite well on its own as a purely audio experience. Or, at least, it did before I saw the photography. Now that I’ve seen how Bengston’s images inform and deepen my understanding of the work.
Marshall’s music is not generally known for wild and chaotic textures but Alcatraz relies on disquieted energy and anticipation in extremely Marshallian terms. The music channels the watery ride out to the island and keeps that churning sense of nervous energy until we enter the prison. Sometimes the frantic arpeggiations which accompany the images within the prison struck me as a little too joyous but it ended up always being rooted in nervousness and ominousness. As we go deeper and deeper into the prison the music becomes increasingly desolate and lonely. Hope only emerges again as we leave the building.
Eberbach is a metaphorical parallel for many reasons. The title refers to a German monastery in the Rhine Valley. Men isolated from society within the walls of a dark stone structure is clearly the connective tissue which binds these two works together. In Eberbach, however, the music never generates any amount of nervous energy and why would it? Calm plaintive environmental and atmospheric sounds are tinged slightly with manipulation as the photographs take us around and through the monastery. While Eberbach parallels Alcatraz in some respects, it is also an opposite. The form of both works is similar (starting outside, moving inside) but Eberbach does not end with an emergence back to the outside world. We are taken into the monastery and stay there. Marshall uses same/similar sound sources for the deep interior as he used in Alcatraz but with a completely different affect. Eberbach soothes while Alcatraz looms.
Both Alcatraz and Eberbach stand on their own but both clearly benefit from the juxtaposition of the other. This relationship is identical to how Marshall’s music and Bengston’s photography are simultaneously independent yet connected. They could be experienced apart from the other but clearly shouldn’t be. This is an excellent DVD with great reproductions of the visuals (the aspect ratio has not been tampered with and maintains the 35 mm size) and the audio is available in the original stereo mix as well as 5.1 surround.
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