FEATHER & STONE
With so much of new music coming out of smaller groups it is refreshing to hear the new CD from populist records FEATHER & STONE by wild Up, a 40 member Los Angeles-based ensemble directed by Christopher Rountree. With 8 tracks totaling some 66 minutes, this CD is an important example of what a larger sound can bring to the new music scene. According to the liner notes “These live recordings spanning a year of Los Angeles-born music exemplify our ethos of exploration. … Sometimes brutal, sometimes serene – but always as grass roots grow: earthy, communal and deep.” FEATHER & STONE is aptly named and contains a powerful mixture of tranquility and intensity painted in bright colors on a big canvas.
The first track, stand still like the hummingbird dives right into the big band sound with a wonderfully bluesy opening that features a nicely doubled voice and bass line. Brian Walsh on alto sax delivers a convincingly agile bebop solo amid a swelling horn section that evolves into a series of lush brass chords. A strong percussive beat is added as this section rolls rapidly along. A trombone passage announces the start a sweet, lingering sax solo that is eventually accompanied by a lovely wash of horns. Stand still like the hummingbird darts about, changing direction and speed, much like a hummingbird in flight – always in motion, even when stationary. As the alto sax slowly trails off, the entire group suddenly breaks into the Charlie Parker tune Ornithology. This develops a nice groove with wild Up in full voice. The playing here is a satisfyingly tight ensemble, nicely navigating a cloud of rapidly moving notes at the end of the section. The alto sax emerges again and is joined by high, sketchy violin sounds that combine with a final zen-like vocal chord at the finish.
Written by artistic director and conductor Christopher Rountree, stand still like the hummingbird fully engages the big sound of wild Up and showcases the virtuosity of the players, especially Brian Walsh. The often-familiar musical materials add to the accessibility of this piece and, as the title suggests, this opening track clearly belongs to the FEATHER theme of this album.
A new anxiety, written by Nicholas Deyoe, is on track 2 and surely this represents the STONE portion of the CD title. Opening with a quiet combination of cymbals and strings, a sudden crash of instruments in full cry quickly ratchet up the tension to something between surprise and panic. This continues like a long scream, with pounding percussion followed by a jarring drone that ultimately predominates. More chord crashes and a sawing sound in the lower strings carry the tide of foreboding relentlessly forward. A new anxiety proceeds in this manner – shifting and changing in direction with unsettling textures and disquietude, often when least expected. Now there is the sound like an air raid siren, now more intense tutti chords. Something like an industrial jig saw is heard and a riotous percussion passage accompanies this brutally gnawing sound. The deep voice of a bass clarinet adds a touch of mystery, and there is the gradual emergence of a series of broad chords in the winds that provide some relief. The trombones pick up the theme but are soon replaced by the menacing snort of some unseen beast. The snorting slowly fades – then suddenly stops – concluding the piece.
This is high energy music that takes dead aim at your serenity and succeeds, aided and abetted by the intense and precise playing of wild Up. With a new anxiety, Nicholas Deyoe continues to add to his sharply drawn vision of urban dynamism and insecurity.
The reference piece for this CD is track 3, Oiseaux exotiques by Oliver Messiaen and this is the perfect choice for extending the feather theme. Birdsong was a powerful influence on Messiaen and, according to Peter Hill of the University of Sheffield, “…Messiaen continued to regard birdsong as music – and divinely inspired music at that – a belief that led for a time to an obsession with truth-to-nature. Against this background, Oiseaux exotiques proves to be a landmark, the work in which Messiaen the musician began to regain the upper hand over Messiaen the ornithologist.” The short, rapid runs of notes by woodwind, brass and percussion are carefully observed by wild Up, the twittering of the bird-like passages are precisely realized with an almost conversational feel. Richard Valitutto, with an accurate but light touch on piano, acts as an intermediary as the woodwinds, percussion and brass swirl about in an intricate flurry of notes. The balance between all the dazzling musical forces is well struck here and this is a real credit to recording engineer Nick Tipp, who must have had quite a lot to deal with given the many parts and textures of this piece and the necessity of recording it in a concert venue. Oiseaux exotiques by wild Up is a lively and finely realized performance of a complex and historically important work.
Mothlight by Archie Carey is next and this is a short piece, just over three minutes . It begins with a series of slowly varying glissandos in the upper strings that produce a lazy, siren-like sound that is joined by swelling tones in the bass. This gives way to light drumming and breathy whooshes of air through a flute that evoke the feathery wings of a large moth knocking about the porch light. A drone in the low strings adds to the picture. Perhaps this is too much of a metaphorical interpretation, but mothlight is convincing nonetheless, and a creative use of extended techniques to project a vivid image.
Track 5 is dante quartet by Odeya Nini and this begins with light, mysterious sounds in the upper strings, soon joined by flute trills and the braking sound of a subway car, complete with squeals and screeching. Silence for a few moments and then the woodwinds return, this time in a series of rapid bird-like arpeggios. More subway sounds and a disquieting sequence of chords from the piano and cello follow. The piece proceeds in this way; silence, industrial sounds and then the occasional tranquil phrase or organic bird call. Now come long, soft chords joined by the distant squawking of gulls and the soft rattle of gravel and machinery. The piano enters with a lovely flowing melody, soon picked up by the oboe, flutes and cello, bringing a welcome respite. As this continues it is interrupted with a series of lightning fast riffs by horns, percussion and woodwinds until the piece quietly ends as it began. Dante quartet seems undecided as to its point of view, oscillating back and forth between nature and industry, in a series of mixed passages separated by silences. More stone than feather, this piece is nevertheless effective in the portrayal of contrasting moods.
Still not a place to build monuments or cathedrals by Andrew Tholl follows and this starts out with a strong, distorted and discordant entrance by two guitars. The percussion joins in with a loud boom, pounding away like the sound of canon fire. Intense, chaotic and seemingly out of control, the guitars proceed wildly until a series of strong declarative chords in the brass restore order. The guitars – Andrew Tholl and Chris Kallmyer – fight back with a furious reply but are again overwhelmed by the brass; barbarians subdued by the forces of empire. The battle continues with a tremendous volley of drums that ends suddenly with soft guitar notes floating quietly out into the silence. This truce is only temporary, however, as the guitars decompose into more chaos accompanied once more by loud drumming. As before, this is subdued by intimidating – but orderly – brass chords. Just as the forces of reason seem to prevail, disorder wells up from below, putting the outcome into doubt once more. The brass again shout out, this time at maximum volume, finally deciding the issue as a slow trail of quiet guitar notes slowly fade away at the finish. Still not a place to build monuments or cathedrals vividly captures the elemental struggle between the forces of reason and chaos, the battle flowing back and forth with furious energy and intensity. The resilience of the forces of chaos and the thin margin of victory by the voices of reason as described in this piece are themselves a telling comment on our present condition.
Perhaps the most feathery piece on the CD is this nest, swift passerine by Chris Kallmyer. Opening with the sounds of squawking geese and song birds calling over the lapping waters of a quiet lake, there is the immediate feeling of the tranquility and peace that only nature can provide. A lovely cello drone creeps in, and this is soon accompanied by smooth, repeating chords in the horns and bass. A light chiming is heard, adding a transcendental dimension that completes the sense of pure serenity. More drone-like tones appear in the lower strings and by about midway through the piece a series of beautiful soft trumpet and cello solos are heard. The pace accelerates somewhat and the higher strings add just a bit of tension – also reflected in the more agitated sound of the birds in the background. This builds in the woodwinds but at the end there is just the sound of the chirping birds. The long, lush tones of this nest, swift passerine are perfectly fitted to its intended sense of pastoral peacefulness and the playing here is appropriately quiet and restrained. This track makes a fine contrast to the excitement present in the other pieces on this CD.
The final track on this CD is bird of paradise in paradise by Archie Carey. This begins with a sexy alto solo that has a definite jazzy feel. This is soon joined by the clarinet, trumpets and trombones playing long, sustained chords. A continuous, high violin note that adds a bright sparkle to the polished sound coming from the brass. Some nice work in the trumpets and trombones give these passages just the right relaxed feel. The name ‘Ellington’ crossed my mind. Sedate, almost languid, this continues along until the sax solo returns and the background wash morphs to a more insistent and questioning tone. This eventually devolves into a high drone in the strings that slowly fades at the finish. Bird of paradise in paradise is a warm and elegant piece that exploits the full color palette of the brass and woodwinds.
FEATHER & STONE is an important album if only because it brings together a critical mass of talented Los Angeles-based musicians to provide a prominent platform for music written for the larger ensemble. The playing here is extraordinary and the music well-matched to the capabilities of wild Up. Chris Rountree and populist records have done a remarkable job in making all of this happen with such impressive results.
FEATHER & STONE is available from populist records, here.
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From three-time Grammy Award winning producer/engineer Marc Urselli and Stridulation Records comes CRÆSHER, a CD album of experimental noise created entirely from the combination of sine waves and mathematical algorithms. According to the album notes, “The goal became to create an experimental form of ambient-noise WITHOUT ANY sort of recorded sound… Some of these pieces follow cyclical evolutions while others morph in time arguably in accordance with absolute randomness.“ Following a Greek mythology theme the tracks have Greek letters for titles and the CD was released on March 14 (3/14) as a tribute to the transcendental number pi.
A surprising amount of variety results from seemingly simple materials and a deterministic creative process; each track has a distinctive character. The first track, α, opens with a sound like the roar of a jet passing overhead and the good panning technique gives a sense of movement and direction. A metallic, mechanical sound enters, and the overall result is a sense of observing something unusual happening in the skies. β, the second track, starts off with a low humming that changes in volume once or twice a second, producing a rhythmic feel. This track has a more immediate and local sound – you have the feeling that something is rotating right in front of you.
Other tracks bring new textures and images such as #10, ι, which has a series of lovely ringing tones that create the feeling of being inside a kaleidoscope. The rhythmic groove creates a circus-like feel to this that is quite appealing. Track 5, ε, features electronic sounds – beeps and boops – that are reminiscent of a pin-ball arcade. Θ, track 9, has low mysterious tones and a repeating figure that perfectly evokes the feeling of being in a strange place in a foggy night. Track 4, δ, has tones that seem to shoot across your hearing, like standing by a freeway while cars go whizzing by. And ϛ, track 6, has a large scale feel that opens with a low pulsing tone, now with a fast clicking above and a rapidly whooshing helicopter-like sound that fades in and out . It is like watching a giant spaceship landing – as if you are in an overwhelming presence.
Still other tracks have a more industrial feel. λ sounds distinctly like being inside a pipe with a running liquid – the panning here gives a convincing sense of gurgling movement. Other tracks are simply unrelenting such as η, with only the high whining sound of an electric drill that seems to be coming through your bones, or κ, a continuous beeping combined with a jarring ringing sound that conveys an alien harshness.
All of the tracks on CRÆSHER add up to over 50 minutes separately, but they were designed to be cross-faded together such that the total length comes to a little less than 39 minutes of continuous playing. Included with the CD is a bamboo wood enclosure with laser-engraved lettering and a laser-cut CD holder – no plastic was used to make the CD case.
CRÆSHER is an experimental work that shows what can be conjured from simple tones, mathematics and some very creative sound engineering. Described by Urselli as “self-incestuous noise inception” because of the iterative nature of its creation, this CD is nonetheless a marker in the ongoing exploration of synthetic tone creation and self-directed composition. Can noise be art? Judging by contents of CRÆSHER it would seem so. Each track creates a distinctive atmosphere and evokes a mental picture in the listener, and this is the basis of all artistic communication. If you want to hear what is happening at the intersection of art and engineering, CRÆSHER is worth a listen.
CRÆSHER is available from Stridulation Records here.
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[exhibit a], recently released by populist records, is the first CD to feature gnarwhallaby, a Los Angeles-based new music ensemble. With 16 tracks by 8 different composers, [exhibit a] is a noteworthy introduction to the versatility that gnarwhallaby brings to the performance of late 20th and early 21st century music. Consisting of Brian Walsh, clarinet, Matt Barbier, trombone, Derek Stein, cello and with Richard Valitutto on piano and melodica, gnarwhallaby delivers remarkable precision, energy and passion along with a studied and controlled sensitivity to the music of American and European contemporary composers.
[exhibit a] opens with Half a minute it’s all I’ve time for (1972) by Morton Feldman. Just 47 seconds in total, this track contains the sounding of just four mysterious chords dominated by the clarinet and piano, and separated by silence. We are definitely in Feldman territory, but It feels as if these chords have been lifted from a larger mosaic – a few fragments to be held up for closer examination. The ending track on the CD has the same title and the same short chord sequence, but you must listen to the entire 16 minute playing time – mostly silence – to appreciate the full intent.
D-S-C-H , by Edison Denisov is next and this opens with a high, sharply struck piano note followed by a series of jagged passages from the trombone, piano and cello. The piano sounds its note again and the process repeats. The playing here is very precise and appropriately animated and the feeling is like watching a pinball machine.. At about half-way, the pace slows with a series of longer phrases in the cello, trombone and clarinet; the piano now picks up the spiky theme. This piece finishes quietly with the piano continuing to sound short, rapid bursts of exclamation. The ensemble playing by gnarwhallaby here is agile and and focused and nicely negotiates the complex and often rapid-fire interplay between the parts.
[exhibit a] contains five tracks by Nicholas Deyoe, a Los Angeles-based composer from his series titled FLUFF (2012). These were written for gnarwhallaby and range from 20 seconds to a few minutes in length. FLUFF No. 5 is 22 seconds of upward scales in the trombone – almost practice like – that are surrounded by warm sounds in the cello and clarinet. FLUFF No. 7 features a high trill in the trombone with the clarinet and cello supporting with short passages and sustained tones that remind one of a mosquito-filled summer night. FLUFF No. 1 features a low trombone trill that could be a motorcycle racing away into the distance while screeching from the clarinet and cello combine to capture the classic urban moment of a changing traffic light. This theme continues in FLUFF No. 8 but now the trills and screeching produce that instant of sheer terror just before two vehicles collide. FLUFF No. 11 is the longest of the series at 2:42 and begins with a low creaky groan in the cello and trombone with clarinet notes that dart in and around the rumbling texture. This has a menacing feel, as if some malevolent force is gathering just out of sight. The five FLUFF tracks each encapsulate a moment in miniature, and are played with just the right combination of energy and attention to detail.
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Dave Seidel: ~60 Hz
Dave Seidel is a New Hampshire-based composer and performer who works primarily in electronic music. The title, ~60 Hz, refers to the approximate frequency of the sine wave tones that begin two of the three works that comprise this CD. 60 Hz is also the frequency of our 110 Volt AC power outlets. and although the pieces created here use other frequencies and combinations, 60 Hz becomes a touchstone for the entire album.
That Dave has chosen to work with pure wave forms presents challenges to both the creator and the listener. Mixtures of sine waves obviously lack the variety of timbres we normally expect when standard acoustic instruments are played. Pure wave forms normally tend to have a very sterile sound, but various frequencies and mixtures can produce a more distinctive feel, especially when used in the artful combinations offered here. Certain ratios of sine wave frequencies can sound alien and metallic, or they can feel rich and warm. When two frequencies are quite close, zero beating occurs and this is another element that can be employed by the artist. I actually loaded the MP3 files of ~60 Hz into Audacity, a freeware sound editing program, in order to see the wave forms of each piece as I listened.
The first track is titled Permutation and opens with a pure 60 Hz hum to start. This tone is very pure, yet surprisingly deep and warm – unlike the 60 Hz buzzing that you often hear creeping into bad cables in a cheap sound system. A second wave is added directly onto the 60 Hz hum as the piece progresses, is layered by another, then a third at pleasing harmonic intervals. Eventually this settles out to two frequencies of about 400 and 300 Hz sounding together and riding on the 60 Hz base tone with the third tone of some 700 or 800 Hz joining in. This produces a clean sound, but not alien or unsettling. The overall effect is the pleasing throb of well-maintained machinery, humming confidently along. A slight variation in the loudness between the different wave forms and a changing of their frequencies slightly impart a sense of motion. More layering occurs as new tones enter and depart, with zero beating arising in a way that adds to the sense of forward movement. There is ultimately a return to the simple 60 Hz hum, and this fades away at the finish. This track has a pleasantly alien feel, not harsh despite the use of pure tones. Permutation is a warm wash with a bit of an edge, and sufficient variety to be engaging.
Accretion, the second track, also starts with a deep 60 Hz hum. Two low sine waves follow, with zero beating between. A third frequency is added, somewhat higher, producing a more metallic feel. This combination of zero beating at a low frequency and the addition of a steady higher tone produces a feeling of motoring forward. The higher tone now moves up in pitch, as if increasing in speed. The zero beating now increases in volume, almost overwhelming the higher tone and chopping into it. The use of zero beating here to shape the overall texture is nicely done. Now the beating tones become lower, a sense of down shifting. The higher tones become gradually softer while the lower beating tones predominate – as if something is passing out of sight. Finally there is just just a soft metallic hum that slowly fades away at the finish. There is a definite sense of journey in this piece, of going somewhere and arriving.
The final piece, Variation, begins with a 120 Hz steady hum to start. The volume now changes, increasing and then decreasing quickly to a brief silence, the sound rising and falling about twice a second or so. This period varies as does the maximum amplitude of the tone. There is a sort of broken, choppy feel to this, and these amplitude variations increase in tempo, introducing a beat that seems to have its own rhythm. Then the two sine waves waves start to zero beat – as well as oscillating in volume – adding more punch to the rhythmic line. The zero beating eventually smooths out around the12 minute mark, but continues to vary in amplitude, only not as quickly. This gives a sense of calming after the prior choppiness. The piece finishes with the original 120 Hz tone slowly decreasing in volume, then changing to a 60 Hz steady hum that gradually fades away. Variation is well named, given the varieties of volume modulation that this piece exhibits. The overall feeling is of watching some life form pulse and shimmer, as if attempting to communicate, then falling into stasis.
That such elementary sonic materials can be made to evoke such feelings is a real achievement. It is easy to produce irritating tones or 1950s science fiction sound effects, but ~60 Hz is a fine example of the artistry that can be inspired by the palette of the humble sine wave.
~60 Hz is available at the Irritable Hedgehog website.
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Scott Worthington: Even the Light Itself Falls
Ensemble et cetera
Recorded in 2012 and released last year by Populist Records, Even the Light Itself Falls is an 86 minute masterpiece from Scott Worthington. Flawlessly performed by ensemble et cetera, this music is a quiet, reflective vision informed by space, stillness and the ocean reaching to a far horizon. The liner notes set the scene: “The Pacific Ocean. A long drive. The view atop a mountain.” Even the Light Itself Falls brilliantly captures this iconic West Coast experience.
Ensemble et cetera consists of clarinet, double bass and percussion, but these few voices actually work to the advantage of the music – simple, direct, open and with silence as an integral component. Curt Miller on clarinet provides some amazing playing, especially in the first part of the piece. The sounds from Scott Worthington’s double bass are profound, even while outside the usual context of this instrument, and the solitary bell tones produced by percussionist Dustin Donahue become the signature of this piece.
Even the Light Itself Falls opens with a series of haunting clarinet calls – almost bird-like but filled with a beautiful longing reflection. This feeling is reinforced with solemn bell tones that sound at intervals as the passages progress. The double bass joins in to provide long, sustained tones that give continuity or sometimes in echo of the clarinet. Often there are short silences, as if to let the sounds settle in the ear. The music unpacks itself gradually, the passages are often similar but never quite the same, even if one of the instruments has a repeating phrase. The overall effect is a powerful combination of serenity and introspection – it is as if we are indeed looking far out to sea from a high mountain top, hawks wheeling above, the ocean waves rolling in to the beach below.
About halfway through, the feeling becomes briefly animated with more percussion and all the instruments sounding at once. This serves as a transition to the second half in which the high clarinet calls are replaced by longer, more somber tones combined with repeating figures in the bass. The feeling as the second half proceeds is like that at dusk, a time of lengthening shadows and gathering darkness. The bells are now heard in groups and patterns, like stars appearing in a darkening sky. As Scott Worthington mentions in the liner notes: “Even as the sounds ebb and flow, there is a constant pull toward stillness.” The last two minutes are a lovely mixture of deep bass trills, matched in the clarinet and bells – the last rays of the sun slipping over the horizon.
The title of this CD – Even the Light Itself Falls – was taken from an essay by Jean-Luc Nancy, “On the Threshold”, from a scene describing the death of one of the characters. This music is anything but sad, but the title aptly describes the vast realities of nature that confront us, as when watching the sun set into the ocean; we sense our insignificance and yet at the same time feel connected to a larger grandeur. Listening to this music places us squarely into this transcendental experience.
Even the Light Itself Falls is available by download from Populist Records.
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Michael Vincent Waller: Five Easy Pieces
Gumi Shibata and Jenny Q. Chai
Five Easy Pieces is a new CD of solo piano music by composer Michael Vincent Waller. The five tracks in this album are uncluttered and introspective, offering an inviting entry into Waller’s accessible style. The pieces on this CD are cast from familiar materials and played with exemplary care, allowing the listener to fully concentrate on the many emotions and feelings imparted by the music. Gentle and approachable, this is music that inspires both concentration and contemplation. Gumi Shibata performs on all the tracks save the last, which is played by Jenny Q. Chai.
The first track on the CD is L’anno del Serpente (2013) and this begins with an uncertain, pensive feeling in the melody that is accentuated by a rising bass line. The tempo is deliberate and the texture is effectively fashioned from repeating lines with simple harmonies. The piece proceeds by way of variations on the opening theme with the first variation offering a bit more complexity and a nice counter melody in the bass. At no time does the piece feel rushed but moves along purposefully so that by the second variation it becomes forcefully declarative. The melody transitions to a flowing, forward-moving series of lines and closes with a quiet passage that leaves the listener in a satisfyingly reflective mood.
L’anno del Serpente is followed by Ninna Nanna (2013) and this piece opens with a gentle, questioning feel that is reinforced with a repeating, bell-like melody. The tempo is unhurried and this allows the sonorous intervals in the harmony to fully ring out. A slight syncopation provides a sense of languid motion as the piece progresses. The first variation increases the tempo, adding density with more notes and counterpoint and this provides a nice contrast to the opening section. The second variation returns to the slower pace of the opening and here the repeating tones become almost hypnotic, the harmonies seeming to hang in the air. The final notes at the close hover above like a fine mist.
The next two tracks are titled Per Terry e Morty I and II (2012) and refer to Terry Jennings and Morton Feldman respectively. Part I begins with strong, direct quarter notes in the melody and a repeating line in the bass that produces a sense of searching and uncertainty. A slight tension is introduced as counterpoint moves into the upper registers so that part I seems to close in a question. Part II has a middle eastern feel right from the beginning, with a simple melody above and strong chords below to form a powerful declarative line. Now counterpoint by way of a repeating figure above leads to a restatement of the opening with the addition of a descending line. Softening, slowing and then a return to tempo that restores the original color, followed by a strong chord at the finish. These two tracks provide an interesting contrast, especially part II with a strong exotic flavor.
The final track of Five Easy Pieces is Acqua Santa (2013) played by Jenny Q. Chai. Dark, deep notes open and the mysterious feeling is enhanced with a moving line above, alternately accelerating and slowing. A repeating line emerges, syncopated against the melody which serves to further deepen the mysterious feel. As the piece proceeds a series of solitary notes gather themselves into a halting cluster of full bodied chords, followed by a long arcing line that reestablishes the forward momentum. Finally, a sweet melody appears that accelerates, then slows turning introspective again. Acqua Santa closes with an abbreviated recall of the mysterious opening.
Five Easy Pieces, like much of Waller’s music, seems to look forward and backward simultaneously. The sounds are recognizable and familiar – especially in an album consisting of solo piano music – but the studied simplicity and use of repeating figures owes much to the vocabulary of late 20th century minimalism. The result is a mixture that should appeal to even the most determined critic of contemporary music.
Five Easy Pieces is available on iTunes here . More ways to download and listen are here.
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with throbbing eyes
Red Fish Blue Fish
Stephanie Aston / Brendan Nguyen
with throbbing eyes is an album of music composed by Nicholas Deyoe, heard in three different performance contexts: string quartet, percussion ensemble and voice accompanied by piano. According to the Populist Records website: “Nicholas Deyoe’s debut album with throbbing eyes is a collection of chamber works composed between 2009 and 2011, each exploring the dominant themes in his recent music: noise, delicacy, drama, fantasy, and brutality.” This CD was released in early 2012 but is worth looking up if you were not aware of its release.
The album opens with Images from a sleepless night performed by the Formalist Quartet. This piece is variously haunting, discordant and unnerving with high spiky pitches from the violin to start and long, slow tones in the lower strings. The sense of restlessness in the beginning of this track will be familiar to all who have experienced night time tossing and turning, waiting for sleep to come. The lines wander and search about, never quite settling in; it is 3 AM and your mind is still running in circles
The second half of the piece, however, is much slower and almost lethargic – exactly like those mornings when you try to waken from a short, deep slumber after a mostly sleepless night. The low, creaky cello line and high, seemingly vaporous violin tones combine to perfectly evoke that morning-after feeling. The playing of the Formalist Quartet is precise, highly crafted and equal to the images portrayed here. Both sections of this piece together are just 3:45, but perfectly capture the title.
The second track – again performed by the Formalist Quartet – is for every day is another view of the tentative past. This is a 32 minute piece, divided into several sections separated by short silences. The opening is tense and uncertain, filled with bits of dissonance and long questioning tones. The feeling here is bleak and lonely, often sharply punctuated with single pizzicato notes. At other times the feeling is aggressive in the lower registers or repetitive in the viola and violin. At 6:40 the sound becomes more animated and strident, then slows again, and finishing with a loud, tense chord. At 8:40 we hear more energetic interplay among the strings with the texture becoming more dense and pressing. Furious violin passages ensue ending in a sustained high pitch that is nicely played at pianissimo and very effective against a rough, dark drone sounding in the cello.
At 16:08 another series of strong flourishes are heard that congeal into several short, rough chords – there is a feeling of anger now. At 18:40 the tempo slows noticeably, as if the anger in the previous section has spent itself. Slow, quiet sounds are heard, again against the high, sustained violin tone and soon the feeling becomes more reconciled and restful. By 23:00 the pace becomes yet slower and the soft chords now seem tired – the feeling here is one of weariness.
At 25:30 the strings gather themselves, rallying with a bit more energy. The high pianissimo violin remains, a thread connecting the various sequences. The piece ambles along again, now resting, now questioning, but this is soon replaced with slower, mysterious sounds rising up from the lower strings. The piece becomes gradually softer and more distant, drifting quietly out of sight at the finish.
for every day is another view of the tentative past is challenging listening by any standard, but this music is like a carefully woven tapestry that gives up its secrets with closer inspection. The controlled and disciplined playing of the Formalist Quartet is critical to the success of this, but attentive listening to this work more than repays the effort. I can’t remember a piece that revealed more on the second or third hearing. For all its complexity and intricacy, this will be a very satisfying listening experience for those who are willing to make the effort.
The third track is wir aber sind schon anders, a percussion piece performed by Red Fish Blue Fish. The translation of the title is “we are, however, different” and this begins with a quiet repeating phrase using a floor tom and vibraphone. Solemn and deliberate, like a procession in the darkness, it changes slightly but continuously as it proceeds along. This track is also separated into sections by short silences. Various percussion pieces enter and exit including bass drum, tympani, bongos and Thai gongs – but always in good balance. The vibraphone and glockenspiel give this piece a sense of luminous mystery while the drums punctuate the phrases or provide a steady rolling accompaniment.
wir aber sind schon anders is subtle and nuanced – even when the bass drum or congas are sharply struck. The range of contrast and variety of texture are a pleasure to hear – it draws the listener in and is like looking at a medieval wood carving with wonderfully intricate detail. The playing is excellent and precisely follows the changing contours of this piece – a fine example of how much variety can be conjured from carefully scored percussion.
The last group of pieces on this CD are collectively titled 5 McCallum Songs and these are a series of love songs for soprano and piano performed by Stephanie Aston and Brendan Nguyen. The text of the first of these, Love Poem I, provides the album title: “I want you to look at me with throbbing eyes, I want you to watch me through you.”
This is spare music, with solitary piano chords tolling like clock tower chimes and some really lovely singing that seems to float airily above. The words of the text are plainly heard, intimately sung and well-matched to the music. The feelings conveyed by these pieces are variously anxious, wistful, plaintive, frustrating, yearning, angry – all of the emotions that are part of the subject. The accompaniment by Brendan Nguyen is nicely understated in a way that gives the singing by Ms. Aston plenty of expressive room. 5 McCallum Songs are the most direct and accessible pieces on this album and are all highly listenable.
This is a CD that will challenge the listener but whose carefully embroidered details and intricate constructions make the effort very worthwhile. with throbbing eyes is available from the Populist Records website.
The Formalist Quartet is:
Andrew Tholl, Andrew McIntosh, Mark Menzies, Ashley Walters.
Red Fish Blue Fish is:
Ross Karre, Brian Archinal, Bonnie Whiting-Smith, Dustin Donahue
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Clocks and Clouds
In a Pentagonal Room
From far-away Anaphoria comes music by Kraig Grady in a new album titled Clocks and Clouds, In a Pentagonal Room. This features Kraig playing the Meta-Slendro Vibraphone and Terumi Narushima on the Meta-Slendro Harmonium, a vibraphone and pump organ, respectively, that have been modified specifically to the microtonal pitch requirements of the five pieces on this CD. The live recordings, produced by Eva Cheng, took place in a pentagonal reverberation chamber with no parallel walls to better capture the acoustic possibilities inherent in these pure harmonic tunings.
A Wish Resounding from a Well, the first track on the CD features the Meta-Slendro vibraphone and begins with lightly delicate cloud of notes in the higher registers. Bright and mystical, the interplay of these tones add to the sense of a shimmering atmosphere. This does sound like the inside of a well and the instrument effectively leverages the acoustic properties of the reverberation chamber. Lower and middle tones ring out forcefully as the piece progresses offering a solid counterpoint to the airy wishes hovering in the upper registers. The piece ends with a slowly dissolving series of tones that seem to float upward and out of sight. This piece nicely balances the acoustics reminiscent of a well with the ephemeral nature of a rising wish.
The second track is To Search for Traces and begins with steady tones from the harmonium mixing together in a gentle, questioning wash of sound that is soon joined by a line of single tones from the vibraphone. The combination of the long, soft harmonium pitches and the percussive notes of the vibraphone combine effectively to create a sense of movement and journey. The harmonium finishes on a lower pitch and the vibraphone seems to increase in tempo and this leaves the listener with a feeling that the search continues even as the playing has concluded.
Reflections in a Mirrored Cavern is track three, and spare, solitary vibraphone notes begin this piece. Soon the notes are sounded in pairs and the intermixing of the tones closely related in pitch produce a shifting, surreal sound. More notes are added, and now beating between the tones produces new sounds, adding to the unreal atmosphere. The decay time of sound in the pentagonal chamber can be as long as 12 seconds and there is a sense of reflection and interference of tone patterns that accurately evokes a sense of multiple shimmering images. This piece is a fine example of how the interactions of tones sounded together can be used creatively given the right acoustic environment.
Track four is Illuminated Mist and here the vibraphone begins with a sparkling splatter of high notes that is soon joined by a high pitched tone in the harmonium. This is followed by sustained low pedal tones in the harmonium that are especially effective in reinforcing the sense of mystery. The vibraphone creates a fine mist of notes and overtones that, grounded by the harmonium, give the piece its descriptive title. The harmonic interactions, at once exotic and reassuring, beget a sense of unfolding wonder at an imaginary landscape. Like walking around your neighborhood in a heavy fog, this piece is artfully mysterious and familiar at the same time.
The final track is titled Dawn Crossing of the Bridge and starts with simple, light vibraphone phrases accompanied by long, low harmonium tones that suggest a slow dawning presence just over the horizon. As with Illuminated Mist, this combination of vibraphone and harmonium textures are very effective in building a sense of place and mystery. As the harmonium sounds sustained tones in the upper registers, a feeling of the sun rising is achieved and the movement in the vibraphone line reinforces the the forward sense of motion. This piece ends quietly having accurately described not only the crossing of a bridge, but also a crossing from darkness into light.
Clocks and Clouds is a delicate, sensitive work that explores the landscape of alternate tuning in a completely convincing way. This is the album to send to your friends who may be skeptical of mictotonal music. This album makes a quiet – but convincing – argument.
Clocks and Clouds, In a Pentagonal Room is available at the music page of the Anaphoria website.
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Here and There
Music for Piano and Electronics
Brian Belet / Jim Fox /
Jeff Herriott / Tom Lopez /
Ed Martin / Phillip Schroeder
Jeri-Mae G. Astolfi, piano
Innova Recordings has assembled the work of six composers in this CD of music for piano and electronics, performed by Canadian pianist Jeri-Mae G. Astolfi. Released in early 2013, this album contains works written between 2006 to 2012 and combines the fine playing of Ms. Astolfi with varied atmospheric electronic and processed sounds.
Crystal Springs (2011) by Philip Schroeder is the first track on this CD and is inspired by the Arkansas landscape of brooks, streams and mysterious caves. This piece begins with booming bass chords that are created from electronically manipulated bass, cymbal and sounds from the inside of the piano. These are combined with piano trills in the middle and solitary notes in the upper registers. This effectively conjures a running, liquid feel combined with the deep darkness of an underground cavern, as if we are following a subterranean stream.
The piece is constructed in three parts and with each part the mysterious dark sounds in the lower registers increase and the watery sounds are reduced. The second section has a more animated and less of a flowing feel and is dominated more by the bass chords – as if we are traveling deeper and the water is splashing downwards. By the third section we hear long bass tones accompanied by slow, languid chords, then single notes sounding in the middle registers – a feeling of going deeper still. The low tones are more comforting now and by the conclusion of the piece there is the sense of arriving at a distant, unexplored place filled with a quiet serenity. The electronic processed sounds and the skillful playing of Ms. Astolfi combine here to produce just the right balance of mystery and beauty.
The second track is Swirling Sky (2011) by Ed Martin who describes this piece as inspired by “…peaceful moments spent lying in the grass, gazing at cloud formations drifting above.” This music contains a series of mystical, swirling sounds powered by light arpeggios in the upper registers combined with a sense of majesty in the lower chords. At 4:30 the feeling turns dark and powerful, like a storm approaching full of rain and thunder. Electronic effects provide a sense of rushing wind as the piece slowly winds down to a gentle finish. Swirling Sky was composed for Jeri-Mae G. Astolfi whose sense of imagination adds to this already imaginative work.
Track three is green is passing (1999, rev. 2006) by Jeff Herriott. Jeff explains that “The initial version… opened with pulseless material that would become typical of my later work. In 2006, when I reworked the piece for a performance by pianist-composer Dante Boon, I retained this opening structure but changed the piece’s development to better suit my evolved musical style.” The opening is indeed simple and spare, consisting of soft passages with just a few notes. It proceeds in a slow and stately manner, like a person speaking quietly with well-chosen words. There are pauses between the short phrases, allowing the notes to reverberate, and this evokes a sense of suspense and questioning. At other times there is a definite feeling of warmness – turning almost wistful and nostalgic. The piece ends with a long sustained note that seems to melt into the air. Ms. Astolfi’s playing provides the delicate and sensitive touch critical to this quiet piece.
The fourth track is by Brian Belet, titled Summer Phantoms: Nocturne (2011) and this completely lives up to its name. The piece opens with deep, scary sounds, like the throwing of a knife in the dark or a large blade cutting through the air. Piano notes, often dissonant, add to the tenseness. The electronics here are particularly effective and atmospheric. Brian explains: “The fixed media part is made up of piano sounds (string scrapes, hand-dampened tones, soundboard strikes and isolated tones) that I processed through Spectral Analysis, Sum of Sines, Time Alignment Utility and additional stochastic algorithms…” For all of that, the effects are genuinely chilling and not artificial or overly analytical. The piano weaves its line skillfully in and out between the electronics and the balance between the two sustains the tension. This piece convincingly portrays things that go bump in the night, and could well be the sound track for a horror movie.
Track 5 is Confetti Variations (2012) for piano and fixed media by Tom Lopez. According to the liner notes by the composer, this piece “…entailed shredding Brahms and Feldman piano music into brightly colored fragments, firing the sparkly bits into the air, and listening to them rain down on field recordings.” Accordingly, the piece starts out with a rousing segment of Brahms accompanied by the sounds of a fuse lit and burning – followed by explosions. More loud Brahms follows and a spectacular fireworks display is heard overhead. This gives way to distant thunder and rapid piano playing alternating with soft wind sounds and a quiet Feldmanesque piano section. Now a downpour is heard and the piano jumps from rapid, loud playing to quiet simple chords. The sounds of booming surf follow with gentle piano passages alternating with energetic Brahms. The plunk of a rock thrown into a stream is heard and the water seems to be moving more slowly now. Soon we are in a full-blown rain forest complete with sounds of birds and the croaking of frogs. This tranquil setting is leisurely accompanied by the piano and the buzzing of bees. The occasional piano notes and a few simple chords bring us to a quiet ending. The piano playing by Ms. Astolfi here is impressive as she switches seamlessly between the two styles – Brahms and Morton Feldman being two of her favorites. The field recordings are of a convincing and vivid fidelity. This track is an imaginative mix and demonstrates the creative possibilities of piano music combined with field recordings.
The final track is titled The pleasure of being lost (2012) by Jim Fox and is also for piano and fixed media. This piece was written for Jeri-Mae Astolfi and includes the speaking voice of Janyce Collins. The voice is distinct and is accompanied throughout by electronically processed sounds suggesting a steady roar of the wind.. The piano is heard as solitary notes and chords between long pauses, lending a lost – but not tense – feeling. The words are spoken in a flat, perfunctory tone and this provides a sense of reassurance. The text is from the 1854 journal of Joseph Dalton Hooker, friend of Charles Darwin and an early explorer of the Himalayas. The words are partly an objective account of the remote surroundings in which he must have found himself and partly the stray thoughts of a wanderer. While this is certainly a solitary account, there is no sense of loneliness or fear. The piano provides a commentary on this discourse, sometimes building a bit of tension, sometimes turning introspective and nostalgic. The combination of voice, electronics and the spare piano passages are in just the right combination for building a convincing portrait of the seemingly contradictory states of pleasure and being lost.
This CD, as well as its separate tracks and links to the composers are available from Innova Recordings.
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Cold Blue Music – CB0038
From Australia comes the premiere recording of Music for Airport Furniture, a new CD by Stephen Whittington and Cold Blue Music. This single track CD is performed by the Zephyr Quartet, an award-winning chamber group from Adelaide.
Given the title of this new Stephen Whittington piece, the classic 1978 Music for Airports by Brian Eno comes immediately to mind. Eno’s piece, incorporating phased loops and various groups of instruments, was an attempt to realize a more thoughtful ambient music for public airport terminals. Music For Airport Furniture, however, is concerned with the human emotions that play out within that space. Both works capture the essential lonely emptiness of the airport waiting lounge, but Music for Airport Furniture places its focus squarely on the human heart. Stephen Whittington describes:
“I was interested in the airport departure lounge as an arena for human emotions – boredom, apprehension, despair, loneliness, the tenderness of farewells – all taking place within a bland, often desolate space.”
Whittington’s choice of the string quartet as the vehicle for this piece is inspired, the lush harmonies, intimate sound and wide range of emotional expression are a perfect match to his musical intentions. The familiar sound of the string quartet is reassuring even as the opening notes of Music for Airport Furniture evoke that distinctive feeling of emptiness and regret that we have all felt while waiting for an airline boarding call. The music proceeds in a series of long, warm phrases, offset by the occasional pizzicato arpeggio in the cello. The minimalist texture is both smooth and luxurious and the sustained chords deftly unpack all the many emotions that accompany an extended absence from home and loved ones. The playing of the Zephyr String Quartet is outstanding, investing just the right of emotional content into each extended phrase and never letting the long tones stagnate throughout the 22 minute duration of the piece. We are carried gently and comfortably into a world of emotions we have all experienced.
I found that listening to Music for Airport Furniture also produced a distinct feeling of nostalgia. Here in the US, at least, airports have become so security conscious and the movements of people so controlled that there is no longer the emotional space for the sort of quiet introspection that this piece portrays so well. Sadly, the chaotic nature of air travel nowadays has left little room for the sort of lingering goodbyes that were possible in years past. Even so, Music for Airport Furniture is a masterful realization of the bitter-sweet sadness of farewell.
Stephen Whittington is an active composer and pianist who gave the first Australian performances of the music of Christian Wolff, Terry Riley, James Tenney, Peter Garland, Alan Hovhaness and Morton Feldman, among many others. An extended stay in Southern California in 1987 resulted in a meeting with John Cage and stimulated a new style of composition for Stephen that included elements of minimalism, polystylism and chance procedures. Other artistic interests include poetry and film. Stephen has performed at the Sydney Opera House, the Adelaide International Film Festival and the Vienna International Dance Festival.
The Zephyr Quartet was founded in 1999 and is based in Adelaide. They regularly play at festivals across Australia, have commissioned several new works and are committed to the development and promotion of classical new music.
This CD is available from Cold Blue Music and the release date is September 9, 2013.
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