The Chord Catalogue, Within Fourths/Within Fifths
music of Tom Johnson and Samuel Vriezen
Samuel Vriezen, piano
Edition Wandelweiser Records
In the interest of “full disclosure,” when I saw that Samuel Vriezen had begun a Kickstarter to fund his recording of Tom Johnson’s The Chord Catalogue I signed up and pledged money immediately. If you know me you probably know that I am a big fan of Johnson’s music and I was familiar with Johnson’s own recording of The Chord Catalogue. On the surface one might question if a second recording of all the 8178 chords found in a single octave was warranted but Vriezen’s technique brings out a new understanding of the composition. Yes, “all” Vriezen is doing is playing every combination of notes within an octave (first all the 2 voice combinations, then 3 voice, then 4, until the single 13-note cluster ends the piece) but Vriezen rides a peculiar edge between “all chords sound the same” and highlighting the rising chromatic lines which bring about an inherent amount of harmonic tension. Vriezen’s touch and blistering speed take the simple concept from a pedantic list into one of the most sustained examples of harmonic tension since Tristan und Isolde.
Vriezen’s articulation of the sinewy rising chromatic lines in each segment of The Chord Catalogue is then unwound and brought down for Vriezen’s own composition Within Fourths/Within Fifths. Vriezen describes the work as every combination of pitches a perfect fourth or fifth away from neighboring voices. The internal theory doesn’t de facto make a good composition, of course. Vriezen’s work does stand on its own as a slow and steady progression through expanding sonorous harmonies. The openness of the chords is the perfect tonic to the sheer density of the Johnson. The mad rush through chromatic lines is replaced with an almost complete lack of direction. Vriezen’s composition shows that there is still a lot to be done with fourths and fifths without making chords that sound like they belong in the TV theme of 70s cop shows.
No Comments »
music of Keeril Makan
performed by International Contemporary Ensemble
- Mercury Songbirds for alto flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion
- Husk for flute, oboe and harp
- Afterglow for piano
- Becoming Unknown for flute/bass flute, clarinet/bass clarinet, trumpet and double bass
- Mu for violin
- After Forgetting for clarinet, piano, percussion, violin, and cello
performed by ICE:
Eric Lamb, flutes; Joshua Rubin, clarinets, James Austin Smith, oboe; Gareth Flowers, trumpet; Erik Carlson, violin; Kivie Cahn-Lipman, cello; Randall Zigler, double bass; Nuiko Wadden, harp; Cory Smythe, piano; Nathan Davis, percussion; Erik Carlson and Adam Sliwinski, conductors
Some of the first music I heard by Keeril Makan was rough, aggressively dissonant, and full of tense and explosive energy. Afterglow, the new release of Makan’s music performed by International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) tones down the savagery and highlights Makan’s control of timbre, color, and gesture. The title track, a solo piano work, obsesses on sympathetic string reactions to simple repeated tones for almost four and a half minutes. As elegantly as Afterglow builds and adds material, part of me wishes that the piece kept that opening texture for the full 14 minute duration. Cory Smythe’s performance truly revels in the stillness and quietness of the resonant strings and the recording makes me yearn to hear the piece live.
Mu, the only other solo work on the disc, is for prepared violin and structured using an open form. Erik Carlson paces the glassy sounds and long notes well and assembles a coherent and engaging performance (although a brief one, only about 3 minutes). Husk, for flute, oboe, and harp, also emphasizes coloristic gestures and resonance over a short time frame. Again, the composition is full of poignant pauses and space to let the harp strings resonate. The woodwind writing is proto-melodic and mostly consists of long sustained tones which shift timbral space between the flute and oboe. As one would expect from ICE, the performance is vibrant.
Three longer chamber ensembles bookend and center this recording. Mercury Songbirds combines more aggressive and spikier arrivals against a subdued and omnipresent piano drone. Becoming Unknown is the most conventionally tuneful work but these melodies are fragmented, twisted, and just as soon as they build any strength they begin to decay away. I was especially drawn to the touches of trumpet in this otherwise woodwind-dominated texture. The final work on the disc, After Forgetting, has in some ways the most expected formal design on the disc which makes it rather unexpected. A constant droned pulse permeates and drives the piece forward while melodic gestures and arrivals fit in, around, and against it. The traditional harmonic touches soften the dissonance a bit and as the pulse fades out the work resumes the haunting beauty found on the rest of the disc. The abrupt final cutoff of the piece took me by surprise; I was convinced it was an error in the recording. Overall, ICE plays with a spectacular affinity for shape, color, and gesture. Their sound is a perfect fit for Makan’s music.
No Comments »
Simon Thacker’s Svara-Kanti
Slap the Moon Records
Simon Thacker, guitar; Japjit Kaur, voice; Jacqueline Shave, violin; Sarvar Sabri, tabla
- Thacker – Dhumaketu
- Osborne – The Five Elements
- Riley – SwarAmant
- Korde - Anusvara – 6th Prism
- Thacker – Svaranjali
- Thacker – Multani
- Thacker – Three Punjabi folksongs
- Thacker – Rakshasa
The rich diversity of musical influences available in this world can yield truly inspired works which weave multiple threads into a single aural “rope” or works which use cursory cultural details out of the desire to sound “exotic.” Happily, Rakshasa is a work in the first category, bringing together musical elements into an attractive musical package.
Thacker’s compositional output on the disc reflects this polycultural synthesis with a delightful blend of traditional sounding Indian music with very Western harmonic progressions. Shave’s violin playing clearly draws from traditional Indian practices but to my ears her sound is only a slight nudge away from American fiddle technique. Kaur’s voice is bright and clean without ever becoming irritatingly nasal. Sabri’s tabla playing is direct, focused, and provides ample forward momentum when present.
As I am not an expert in music of India, I can’t speak much about the traditions surrounding the influences of each composition. The notes provide a wealth of guidance on all of these issues but I never found much need to refer to them in order for specific tracks to make sense. Everything on the disc makes sense as it is and left few questions that led to a need for research.
If I could point to a single track that represents the core of the music, I would choose Thacker’s compositions Svaranjali. The scales and rhythms used throughout this propulsive work are right on the edge of traditional ragas and something you might find on a Bela Fleck album. It isn’t that Thacker has “cleaned up” Indian rhythmic and pitch vocabulary to fit Western classical guitar tradition, Thacker instead draws on elements of both musics to shape a fiery and groovy piece.
No Comments »
Neither Anvil Nor Pulley
music of Dan Trueman
performed by So Percussion
So Percussion: Eric Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski, Jason Treuting
Neither Anvil Nor Pulley
- Another Wallflower [from Long Ago]
- 120 bpm [or, What Is Your Metronome Thinking?]
- A Cow Call [Please oh Please Come Home!]
- Feedback [in Which a Famous Bach Prelude Becomes Ill-Tempered]
- Hang Dog Springar [a Slow Dance]
Trueman’s percussion/laptop quartet Neither Anvil Nor Pulley derives its musical core from fiddle tunes and string timbres. While a percussion ensemble might seem like an odd choice of instrumentation for string sounds, So Percussion is the perfect fit for Trueman’s musical ideas. Neither Anvil Nor Pulley is a perfect example of composer/performer collaborations. The score is almost inconsequential in terms of specificity and exactness. Instead, the pages contain a mixture of precision and vagueness which allows So Percussion to inhabit and interpret the piece. Since music notation wasn’t of primary importance to performers in the folk fiddle tradition, it seems wholly appropriate for rote/community learning to be the foundation upon which this album was constructed.
The first, third, and fifth movements are the most true to the fiddle inspiration. Each movement begins with a “drop the needle” on a turntable (a real turntable is needed, even among the four laptops) and So Percussion provides accompaniment and interaction with the recordings. A lot of the instrument choices and dynamic shaping is left up to the performers and So, as always, makes every choice sound like the right one.
The rest of the movements are substantially larger and contain more elaborate drawn-out formal shapes. The second movement, “120 bpm,” transforms through chaotic/structured clicking into sustained string samples being triggered by tether controllers. This transformation is smoothly done and even though I never could have predicted that the movement was headed in that direction the formal shape feels perfectly balanced. “Feedback,” the fourth movement, is a show-stopping aural exploration of the famous G major Prelude from the first cello suite by Bach played via feedback excitation of a concert bass drum. The rhythm of the original piece is stripped away entirely which makes the score seem more like a Schenker sketch of the work then realized over the course of 16 minutes. Philosophically, it reminds me of 9 Beet Stretch or Call Me Maybe slowed down 1000% except this is done acoustically. Again, you might not think of a percussion quartet as the perfect instrumentation for this kind of sonic treatment of the material but So Percussion frequently demonstrates that they make the unexpected sound perfect.
The computer/percussion interaction goes along with the piece’s larger philosophical idea about the man/machine relationship (I’ve been using a lot of slashes in this review, haven’t I? I’ll stop). The computer doesn’t really SHOW the user what it does (as opposed to an anvil or a pulley). In that way, the integration of the laptops within the percussion quartet is extremely well balanced. Just listening, one is never sure if it is “live or Memorex.” And, after following the score, I can say the same confusion holds. Furthermore, this recording is not physically available; downloads only. But Trueman and So have gone the extra mile to make a physical release matter. You can get the recording with a recycled LP, a speaker driver, or even a tether controller like those used in “120 bpm.” Given the amount of creativity and artistic thought that went into the creation and performance of Neither Anvil Nor Pulley, it is encouraging to see the same level of interest go into the packaging of the work.
No Comments »
Music of Mohammed Fairouz
- Tahwidah – Mellissa Hughes, soprano; David Krakauer, clarinet
- Chorale Fantasy – Borromeo String Quartet
- Native Informant – Rachel Barton Pine, violin
- Posh – Christopher Thompson, baritenor; Steven Spooner, piano
- For Victims – David Kravitz, baritone; Borromeo String Quartet
- Jebel Lebnan – Imani Winds
If you can’t tell by the star-studded cast of performers on this disc, a lot of people like performing the music of Mohammed Fairouz and with good reason. This Naxos release gathers recordings of some of Fairouz’s recent chamber works (only Tahwidah and Chorale Fantasy date before 2011). Overall, the music is focused and dramatic, emotively powerful, and full of rich harmonies and sumptuous melodies. Fairouz does wear his influences on his sleeve and his borrowings from the classical canon and Middle-Eastern traditions mix well into an authentic and unique voice. Chorale Fantasy, for example, sounds very much like the slower harmonic sections of Shostakovich’s 8th quartet pressed through a colander of Arabic modes.
Tahwidah for soprano and clarinet is a prime example of Fairouz’s emotional and lyrical style. On one level, the music is lithe and sensual and without reading the text I figured it was a juicy love song. The text, while rich with omnipresent love metaphors, is actually being spoken by a mother to her son at his funeral. A second listening brought out the darker and elegiac qualities while still resonating the ideas of eternal love.
The solo violin sonata Native Informant also collects moments of supreme elegy alongside playful and fiery energy. Each of the five movements maintains a specific character throughout and most of these characters are simple and straightforward. “Lyric Sketch” is just that. “Rounds” is a peppy and zippy Arabic dance. In “For Egypt,” Fairouz crafts a haunting and woeful piece. While “For Egypt” has the gravitas to end the piece, the last two movements liven things up a bit. “Scherzo” is a cosmopolitan blend of Arab-inspired tunes which morph into and out of Tin Pan Alley-inspired tunes. The last movement, “Lullaby of the ex-Soldat” is another slow lyrical movement with a plaintive arpeggio motive in the middle. And of course Rachel Barton Pine sounds amazing throughout (I have yet to hear her play otherwise).
Vocal music is also served up on this disc. The brief song cycle Posh takes three poems from Wayne Kostenbaum’s collection Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films: “Ballade of the Layette,” “Blue Sea Songs,” and “Posh.” Of the three, my hands-down favorite is “Blue Sea Songs” which centers on a dreamt collection of Ned Rorem songs. Fairouz does a great Rorem impersonation (musically, anyway, I don’t know about personal). While Rorem-via-Fairouz is delightful, Fairouz’s own language serves the voice well with harmonic and orchestrational support. Christopher Thompson earns the fach “baritenor” well with a deep, rich, and powerful lower range and a light, floating, unstrained high register. For Victims is darker, thicker, and more intensely dramatic. David Kravitz navigates the David Shapiro text quite well and the blend between Kravitz and the Borromeo String Quartet is well done.
The final work on the disc is the colorful and charming Jebel Lebnan for wind quintet performed by the Imani Winds (again, when have they ever sounded less than amazing?). Each of the short character pieces, inspired by events from the Lebanese Civil War, is richly orchestrated and uses color and rhythm to their maximum. The spiky and chunky “Bashir’s March” shows obvious Stravinsky influence. The solo flute “Interlude: Nay” is the perfect transition into the bassoon solo which begins “Lamentation: Ariel’s Song.” “Dance and Little Song” try to be cheerful but have a dark and moribund underlayer that keeps the music from being truly joyous. The last movement, “Mar Charbel’s Dabkeh” closes off the disc with another Arab-inspired round dance.
No Comments »
music of Tom Johnson
performed by Carol Robinson, Tom Johnson, and Dante Boon
Maria De Alvear World Edition
Tom Johnson’s music is very much like magic. I don’t mean necessarily that his music is magical more that his music works in the tradition of close-up or “micromagic.” As is often the case in close-up magic, the magician is telling you in no uncertain terms what he/she is doing without ever really revealing HOW any of it happened. The end result is a compelling “I can’t believe that just happened” experience and this is the area that Tom Johnson’s music occupies. Pieces like Failing: A Very Difficult Piece for String Bass or Narayana’s Cows include a narrator which explains, in no uncertain terms, how this piece works. An Hour for Piano or The Chord Catalogue relegates this information to program notes and such (the notes for An Hour for Piano should be read while listening to the piece; an internal narrator, if you will). The magic in Johnson’s music comes when he does exactly what he told you he was going to do but not HOW they are compelling and captivating.
Music and Questions is a prime example of how straightforward Johnson’s music can be. Five bells, all arranged in half-steps, are played in every possible permutation of single strikes. Between each permutation, Carol Robinson asks a simple question. The questions always relate to the listener’s experience of the piece and how the listener relates to the questions or the music. She also announces each section by stating which of the five bells are being struck first. That is it. For 23 minutes. No rhythmic motive to trace, no groove elements, no fancy orchestrational tricks, no surprise emotional outbursts, just a clinical exploration of 120 bell tones. It might be cliche to refer to this as a Zen listening experience but I honestly have no other words for it. There is absolutely nothing boring about this music but my brain tells me the music should be boring. That is the magic.
Music with Mistakes puts Robinson in the role of narrator and basset horn soloist. Listener engagement is key with Johnson and Music with Mistakes brings foreground listening to an audience that might otherwise expect to “zone out” during a typical process-oriented “old school” minimalist piece. Instead of the constant interruptions for questions, though, Music with Mistakes starts with the statement that melodic material will be played multiple times but only once without mistakes. The listener is to try to hear the mistakes. Arts organizations are constantly looking for ways to “engage the audience” with their repetitive concerts of warhorse literature. Johnson builds audience engagement into each piece. That is the magic. What is even better is that Johnson includes the answers at the back of the liner notes.
Same or Different operates under a similar basic principle as Music with Mistakes. Thick piano chords are played but the underlying question is: are they the same or are the different? A motive is played and the repeated: are they the same or are the different? This game lasts for about 27 minutes and it is some of the most active listening I’ve done in a while. I would love to give a copy of this disc to Edwin Gordon just to see how he does.
Since the music is, at its core, so simple and direct it is hard to say anything about the performances. Is there a word for this kind of virtuosity that puts the performers in a quasi-game where their detachment is a the primary fundamental skill? In the last two pieces, Carol Robinson and Dante Boon have to play their pieces without giving anything away. They have to make micro-changes and repetitions into a cheeky game of “did I or didn’t I” for considerable lengths of time. Not only is Johnson inviting the audience to hyper-scrutinize each micromotion of the performers he also gives them an extremely thin veil to hide behind. The whole disc is a delight to listen to. That is magic.
No Comments »
Song from the Uproar
Abigail Fischer and the NOW Ensemble
New Amsterdam Records
- Abigail Fischer – Isabelle Eberhardt
- Celine Mogielnicki, Amelia Watkins, Kate Maroney, Tomas Cruz, and Peter Stewart (other voices)
- Sara Budde, clarinet & bass clarinet
- Logan Coale, double bass
- Mark Dancigers, electric guitar
- Michael Mizrahi, piano
- Alexandra Sopp, flute & piccolo
- Steven Osgood, conductor
Missy Mazzoli’s opera Song from the Uproar is proof positive that opera is alive and well in the world. A true 21st century production incorporating a lean number of performers and simple yet hauntingly effect electronics, Song from the Uproar also draws upon the basic core of operatic storytelling: expressive emotional content. While the musical foundation of Song from the Uproar is postminimalism, Mazzoli’s music has a gloriously expressive surface to pair with Uproar’s rhythmic/harmonic engines.
The opera works exceedingly well as one continuous hour-long work but the piece also breaks into component “numbers” rather nicely. I have found myself listening to “You Are the Dust” quite a lot, actually, with its gorgeous melodic line, pulsating electric guitar delay and high double bass. Abigail Fischer’s voice on this particular track, and throughout the whole opera, has a dense mournful quality. Fischer’s sound is as complex as her character. There is a lot of heavy drama in the story and it would be easy to focus on the bleak and mopey tragedies Isabelle Eberhardt experienced. Fortunately, Mazzoli is a lot smarter than that. The excitement Eberhardt felt on her adventures spawned moments like “I Have Arrived,” a mostly instrumental segment brimming with bright and infectious energy. Mazzoli treats the small ensemble of flute, clarinet/bass clarinet, electric guitar, double bass, and piano in such a way that maximizes color and sonic potential. You’d swear that there are a lot more people playing. Mazzoli has worked with NOW before and that familiarity with their sound pays off well. Similarly, musical ideas in Song from the Uproar have been explored by Mazzoli before in other pieces. One such example is that the final scene of the opera appears as “The Diver” on Victoire’s Cathedral City album. The time and attention Mazzoli has put into crafting this opera shows.
I went ahead and got one of the “Deluxe Limited Editions” available from Mazzoli’s Bandcamp page. The whole package includes the complete libretto with additional imagery from filmaker Stephen S. Taylor and a DVD, not of a staged performance, but rather an abstract accompanying film also created by Taylor. Taylor uses old black-and-white film to create a sort of “visual sense memory” of Eberhardt’s life and world. A sample of this footage can be found in the video for “You Are the Dust.” I enjoyed the progression of visual imagery as it evolved throughout the opera and Taylor’s choices flexed between “on the nose” and “abstractly poetic” in a compelling way. Still, I want a video of a fully staged performance of Song from the Uproar. It deserves one.
No Comments »
death speaks performed by: Shara Worden (vocals), Bryce Dessner (guitar), Owen Pallett (violin), Nico Muhly (piano)
depart performed by: Maya Beiser (multi-tracked cello), Elizabeth Farnum, Katie Geissinger, Alexandra Montano, and Alex Sweeton (voice)
For my ears, one of most striking features of David Lang’s music is its austerity. I have heard interviews with Lang where he speaks about eschewing a specific emotional context for his music and writing music in which the listener provides their own unique emotional response to the work. In other words, Lang tries not to manipulate the listener directly but rather create an aural space in which the listener affects themselves via the music. How well does that tactic work with such an emotionally charged idea as “death speaks?” Quite well, indeed.
The text for the five movements are all drawn from Schubert lieder in which Death speaks to the living. Lang translated the text and worked it to meet his needs as he did with Little Match Girl Passion a few years back. Shara Worden’s voice rides the edge of emotional detachment by giving just the slightest hints of tenderness. Worden’s voice is a testament to “complexity through simplicity.” She does not sing overtly virtuosic melodies; the overall shape of her lines is fairly static but she embues each phrase with subtle power and resonance. Lang’s sparse but constant instrumental textures are extremely colorful and provide a great balance between stasis and activity. The second movement, “I hear you” has vigorous bass accents but otherwise the music simply floats and drifts in consistent yet irregular clouds.
depart achieves the same affectless-affect as death speaks but adds a wonderful edge of tension via the sustained harmonies. Beiser’s cello is omnipresent through the veil of detached voices and as the harmonies build, tension mounts. At times, Lang sits on dominant-functioning harmonies but not once is such a chord resolved in a conventional manner. Lang holds your hand through the build-up of harmonic tension and walks you to the Precipice of Expected Resolution. Once staring over the cliff, though, Lang backs slowly away through a different route and leaves you (or me, anyway) feeling bewildered. But the music keeps going and I’m following him towards the precipice again…
No Comments »
performed by R. Andrew Lee
Getting a copy of this recording for review reminded me of my all-time favorite CD review, Chuck Klosterman’s review of Chinese Democracy by Guns n’ Roses. I find it especially relevant when Klosterman states that reviewing the disc “…is not like reviewing music. It’s more like reviewing a unicorn. Should I primarily be blown away that it exists at all? Am I supposed to compare it to conventional horses? To a rhinoceros? Does its pre-existing mythology impact its actual value, or must it be examined inside a cultural vacuum, as if this creature is no more (or less) special than the remainder of the animal kingdom?”
Dennis Johnson’s November is the minimalist example of Klosterman’s situation. Spoken about in hushed, revered tones, November seemed to be a work on par with any other lost/imaginary work of art you’d care to name. Hearing this piece is, to my brain at least, similar to hearing the supposedly lost “first” symphony of Mahler and finding it to be as sophisticated as his ninth. Or seeing what could have happened if David Lynch had actually directed Return of the Jedi as Lucas originally had in mind. November is a piece of epic epicness; the minimalist unicorn circa 1959.
There is little about the construction of the piece that I can say which would add much to Kyle Gann’s stellar research and reconstruction efforts. At almost 5 hours exactly in duration, Lee’s performance shows us a world where minimalism was driven forward by time instead of pulse. The busy nattering process of old-school minimalism is not in play; events merely unfold at a slow and spacious rate. November is surprisingly easy to listen to for its full duration. The opening minor third returns at appropriate but not predictable times. The dissonance and consonance interplay is captivating and clear. Full chords are surprising rare; single tones and intervals dominate the glacial unfurling of events. When larger harmonies finally do coalesce, they are striking and new but they are right. November is a work about harmony as much as it is about time and Lee’s performance elucidates the harmonic drama and narrative throughout the entire duration.
This recording is also a testament to humanity. Most big-time works of minimalism, especially early works, seem to treat the performers as machines dutifully assembling the music as it comes by on a conveyor belt. Expression and interpretation are eschewed for rhythmic precision and crisp bright timbres. Early minimalism is many things but I doubt many would use the term “lush.” November comes alive under the fingers and musical abilities of R. Andrew Lee. Every note, every chord, every ninth that still doesn’t resolve even after 4 hours, every moment is in its perfect place. November is not something like “Clapping Music” where as long as you put the right notes in the right order the piece takes care of itself. November needs a deft mind and Lee delivers. The piece is not a technical challenge of the fingers but rather a challenge of the performer’s interpretation and mental endurance. Given such few musical materials and so much time, there are rather few pianists who I think could pull this off. Some could work with these materials for 30 minutes, maybe an hour, but the ability to bring forth five hours of music in such a compelling-yet-accessible way is nothing short of a miracle. An earlier draft of this review included a “loaves and fishes” reference at this point but I think it best if I leave it out.
So the piece that should have never existed finally does and it exists in as definitive of a performance as possible. What more could we ask for except R. Andrew Lee’s next release?
No Comments »
music of David T. Little
David Adam Moore, Newspeak, Todd Reynolds
David T. Little’s Soldier Songs is one of the most exciting recordings I have experience in 2013 and while the year is yet young I am confident this disc is going to stay in the cultural consciousness for the foreseeable future. Broken into three large sections (Child, Warrior, and Elder), Little has crafted a song cycle of a grand scope. The complicated and contradictory emotions involved with serving in the military is a topic that many have approached and this recording handles it all with bewildering perfection. Little’s music is intensely dramatic and emotional without becoming histrionic or sentimental and while this work has a distinct point of view, its message(s) are far from simple propaganda.
David Adam Moore’s voice is riveting throughout the disc as he transforms through the various stages (physically and emotionally) via his subtle and nuanced performance. Moore is called upon to sing falsetto, shout, and growl and does all of these things with powerful musical abilities.
Musically and emotionally, Soldier Songs does everything right. Little’s craft coupled with Moore’s abilities and Newspeak’s tight and precise energies join together into a particularly resonant work. The libretto, adapted from interviews with veterans, provides haunting and realistic vignettes about being on the ground during war time.
Overall, this piece, this performance, taps into Truth. The music is a vehicle for a larger message but one that is too complicated for words alone. This is a fantastic disc, released today.
No Comments »