Author Archive

ipsi sibi somnia fingunt coverKevin Parks and Joe Foster
ipsi sibi somnia fingunt

Available at:

It’s not that often that a CD (much less a self-released one) gets reviewed in Downbeat, in Wire, and over here at S21. And I bet it’s even less often that a cogent case can be made for its presence in all three publications. Kevin Parks and Joe Foster’s ipsi sibi somnia fingunt (henceforth ipsi), though, is just the CD to complete that trifecta.

ipsi is the result of a few weeks of improvising by Parks and Foster in Seoul. Across the disc, they use sounds sources ranging from a temple bell to open circuits to guitar and trumpet – all supplemented by a full battery of effects pedals. If you read that and immediately think “mess,” you couldn’t be more wrong. While the timbral palette may be what’s catching the ears of so many reviewers, it’s the musicality that’s keeping them (and me) listening. For those of you who need an argument that improvisation and composition are two sides of the same coin, ipsi offers a great one. (And, both relevantly and in the name of full disclosure, Parks and I are both students in the UVA Composition program).

Parks and Foster make it clear quickly that they know how to keep things focused. The first track, “Centralia, Pennsylvania,” achieves a slow burn befitting the title. Most music to which I’d attach the phrase “slow burn,” uses pent-up energy as a threat; an explosion always feels imminent. Foster and Parks, instead, create an uneasy, despairing flame. This is a fire that’s achieved an equilibrium. An explosion isn’t likely, but neither is a burnout. The end of the track manages to come as a surprise even after 10:30.

“Torso” finds the duo utilizing contact miking and lengthy reverb times to place listeners into an unreal space with no middle ground. The two extremes battle for the listener’s attention throughout, and their respective victories and defeats impart a nice structural arc. This piece provides perhaps the most electronic sounding music of the album, though a fair share of the glitchy sounds at the beginning are coming off much older technology: the aforementioned temple bell.

At over 27:00, “Derinkuyu” comes in as the lengthiest track of the album, but it also manages to be one of the most subtle. Here the sound sources are less varied; guitar is most prominent for a majority of the duration. Parks uses an E-bow, a slide, and a delay pedal to coax microtonal moments from the instrument. Simultaneously, different shades of noise periodically interject and occasionally take over a section of the piece. Many times throughout “Derinkuyu” Parks and Foster allow the music to gently swell, but they inevitably pull back just before the listener senses a climax; their restraint here is truly virtuosic.

Conversely, Parks and Foster let it rip with the album closer, “Takers Profs.” The first couple minutes hint at what’s to come with sounds (mostly from open circuits) darting in and out. At most points, there’s a drone holding thing together, but even it refuses to stay pinned down for too long. At about 3:00 in, just when it seems things are simmering down, they suddenly boil over. The intensity and the volume peak and dip from here on out, but it’s definitely more about the mountains than the valleys. Probably as a result, “Takers Profs” doesn’t quite have the structural coherence of the other tracks, but it’s nice to hear the duo let loose, especially since they rein it all relatively quickly.

With the multiple varieties of chops simultaneously on display, ipsi has a lot to offer listeners (and reviewers). Give it a good listen and you’ll probably come away thinking in new ways about improv, electronic music, and composition – even if you do regularly read Downbeat, Wire, and S21.

Comments No Comments »

Van Gogh

Michael Gordon
Alarm Will Sound
Alan Pierson, conductor

Cantaloupe Music

In Van Gogh, Michael Gordon takes his inspiration and his text from letters that Vincent wrote to his brother Theo. Gordon grafts Van Gogh’s intimate, direct words to the sort of post-minimalist/post-rock music (here performed by Alarm Will Sound) with which Gordon initially made his name. Indeed, Van Gogh is a bit of a musical time capsule. Though this is the first recording, work began on the piece in the late 1980s, with Bang on a Can still in its infancy.

It speaks to Bang on a Can’s influence that there are moments throughout Van Gogh that wouldn’t sound out of place on a heavily-orchestrated indie rock album released today. Several times during the six songs, Alarm Will Sound even gets rocking harder than lots of indie bands manage. There’s definite groove here, though perhaps not the kind Sasha Frere-Jones would approve.

This rockishness is sometimes a virtue and sometimes a vice in Van Gogh. At its best, there’s a nervous, itchy energy in the music that connects deeply with the subject matter of the letters. In another life, maybe Van Gogh could’ve fronted an arty emo band. Often, though, I couldn’t help wishing that Gordon had asked the strings to kick on a distortion pedal, or needled the three vocalists into scratching up their voices a bit. Similarly, the drum kit writing tends to drag the music down (except at the end of “Borinage”) instead of pushing it forward like in a good rock record.

Accordingly, the best parts of the disc for me come when the intensity steps back a bit. The last two songs, “Arles” and “St. Remy,” subdue the itchiness by backing off the tempo and stepping up the melodic and orchestral prettiness. Here it’s easy to appreciate Gordon’s lyricism. Now, did he get that from the rockers or the minimalists?

Comments No Comments »


Michala Petri, recorder
Danish National Symphony Orchestra / DR
Lan Shui, conductor

OUR Recordings

Movements features three pieces that place perhaps the most humble of instruments, the recorder, in the least humble of settings, the concerto. While the idea of a recorder concerto probably conjures up images antithetical to new music, Michala Petri, the featured soloist on this disc, is out to dispel those associations. To that end, Petri commissioned three contemporary composers and gave us a disc that features compositions for her instrument all written within the 21st century.

The first of these is Joan Albert Amargí³s’ Northern Concerto. Amargí³s’ bio references jazz and flamenco traditions along with the classical, and melodic influences from those worlds pop up throughout the concerto. I can’t say that the appearances of these influences always blend cohesively, but owing to the strength of the melodies, I didn’t mind too much. It’s an undeniably drinkable piece that takes some chances pitting the recorder against the full orchestra and largely succeeds. In fact, Petri’s recording earned the piece a Grammy nomination (scroll down to category 107).

Daniel Bōrtz’s one-movement concerto, Pipes and Bells, takes a completely different tack, focusing on the recorder’s distinctive timbre. Particularly nice is his opening pairing of the recorder and the bass clarinet with some brass stabs thrown in for contrast. At various places in the work the titular bells ring, again offering spectral contrast with the simple profile of the recorder’s pipe. Bōrtz also consistently gives the recorder plenty of space. The orchestra mostly provides a textural bath, occasionally churning itself into a crashing wave.

The final concerto is Steven Stucky’s Etudes. Like most good works of that title, the piece avoids sounding like any sort study. The three movements promise scales, glides, and arpeggios respectively. Those techniques are certainly delivered, but unobtrusively and always musically. Indeed, it’s here that the recorder sounds most at home with the rest of the orchestra.

With these three clever commissions, Petri offers a convincing argument that the recorder can achieve a place outside of its historical niche. Not once on the disc do Petri and her instrument sound out of place despite the new music context and the potency of the full orchestra. In fact, I’d imagine that these concertos would work quite well on any orchestra’s program.

Comments No Comments »

Argento Chamber Ensemble
Winter Fragments

Argento Chamber Ensemble - Winter Fragments

Undoubtedly, the Argento Chamber Ensemble titled their new CD (a collection of pieces by Tristan Murail) Winter Fragments because it contains a piece of the same name. It would’ve made an appropriate title regardless. In the five works presented on the disc, Murail’s music evokes a uniquely icy beauty. A lot like a barely frozen lake, Murail’s sound world is lovely to admire, but it keeps you at a distance. There’s nothing inaccessible about his writing (or Argento’s lucid performance), but an undercurrent of mystery and fragility keeps listeners sharply attuned.

The disc, appropriately, begins with the titular Winter Fragments, and it’s this piece that best represents the analogy. In fact, Murail attributes some of his inspiration here to his experience of winter living “north of New York” in a “land of lakes and hills.” This experience is rendered in the work as an eerie, stark stillness regularly interrupted by chilly, swirling gusts of varying intensity. Murail achieves this landscape by deftly using electronics to augment a quintet (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano). The acoustic and electronic elements are blended remarkably successfully.

The second track, Unanswered Questions for solo flute, only deepens the mystery (especially since if there’s an Ives reference in there, I can’t find it). A slow, thoughtful melody wanders – perhaps lost, but resigned to that fact. The performer here is Erin Lesser, and she delivers a fine, subtle performance. Clocking in at about four and a half minutes, it leaves me wanting more. Fortunately, Lesser returns in the next piece, Ethers. Here, though, she’s immersed in the ensemble, playing several different flutes, and performing extended techniques like singing one pitch while playing another. As you might suspect, it’s quite a contrast from Unanswered Question. The rest of the ensemble is similarly busy with extremely fluctuating tempi (climaxing with a frenetic section about two-thirds in) and unorthodox techniques of their own to realize. Murail provides a good description of what exactly underlies all the joyful noise here.

The next work, Feuilles í  travers les clolches, gives listeners a bit of a breather. I reviewed Argento’s live performance of the work at Merkin in February, and further listening confirmed that description for me. I will say, though, that the piece sounds much less still when extracted from that concert’s Expressionist context.

The CD concludes with Murail’s Le Lac, which calls for the largest ensemble of the five pieces and also lasts the longest. As the title (“The Lake,” in translation) suggests, we again see Murail deriving inspiration from nature, and in many ways the piece does resemble Winter Fragments. The mystery and fragility certainly remain, though it’s apparent that the weather has warmed up a little bit. Ultimately though, Le Lac doesn’t come off as program music. It’s not about the lake; it’s just from there. That’s a good thing, because it frees listeners up to appreciate Murail’s skilled writing (in particular, his orchestrational talents, which are best represented here), rather than to play spot-the-reference.

As a final note, Argento deserve commendation for delivering a CD that matches fine performance with fine recording and mixing. Murail’s works live in the details, and Argento have rendered them richly. It’s really one of the best recorded classical discs I’ve heard. Murail worked intimately with Argento, so perhaps the quality is due to his composerly input. But, conductor Michel Galante and fellow artistic supervisors Michael Klingbeil and Joshua Fineberg certainly deserve a hand.

Comments No Comments »