Manhattan in Charcoal
Jacob Miller – Libretto
Manhattan in Charcoal is a newly released CD from Composers Concordance Records and distributed by Naxos. This is a chamber opera with the libretto written by the poet Jacob Miller and music composed by Gene Pritsker. The story is about “The life and loves of an artist in New York City in the early days of the 21st century who is struggling to find his way…” Manhattan in Charcoal is a powerfully dark work whose strength is equally derived from the poetry and the music.
The first movement starts with The Village Feels Empty and the music evokes just the right atmosphere – a sustained trombone tone with a moving bass line underneath. Woodwinds and brass hold higher, dissonant tones, while a running piano scale is heard cutting through the texture. Now violins add a dark shadow, and the image of a rainy night in Manhattan is complete. The narrator – librettist Jacob Miller, perfectly cast – begins his story.
The story line of Manhattan in Charcoal is about a painter – the Artist – who is struggling to make an impression in the uptown galleries while at the same time maintaining a balanced relationship with his girlfriend Beatrice, who is jealous of his devotion to his art. The music in the opening scene reflects this tension, but dissolves into warm harmony when the Artist invites Beatrice to look outside the window. They sing “Art is everywhere, Beatrice – come look at the streets…” Later the Artist tries to assure Beatrice with the words: “But there is and has always, been only you.” – this is sung as a lovely duet and it seems as if Beatrice is almost convinced.
Meanwhile the Artist, always struggling for money, begins his latest work, ‘Manhattan in Charcoal’ – envisioned in paint at first, but later reduced to a more affordable charcoal and paper. Outsider Art opens Movement 2, and the music to describe this slowly unfolding process is heavy and complex as the Artist struggles to adapt to the unfamiliar technique. As the drawing nears completion, plans advance to show it in a gallery and when this occurs the Narrator describes the exhibition, backed by a wonderfully jazzy groove that projects success and sophistication.
A lively piece opens Movement 3 – Art Dealers Dance – and this captures the mundane and banal demands of those who simply want to make money from the success of an artist. Just the Way I Draw is all horns, woodwinds and brass – bouncy and light – the perfect allegory for the airy pronouncements by the critics. The Artist has gained some notoriety from ‘Manhattan in Charcoal’, but his sudden celebrity has attracted the attentions of another woman, and Beatrice senses a rival. This leads to the crisis and denouement of the opera. In the final scene the libretto and music are masterfully matched in a beautiful collage of woodwinds, voices and percussion that is very moving.
The lead singers in this recording – baritone Charles Coleman as the Artist, and soprano Lynn Norris, as Beatrice, give a skillful and precise reading of the sometimes angular and uneven phrases. The accompanying musicians provide a polished and well-balanced support, effectively evoking the many different moods that are woven through this work.
This opera is described in the liner notes as “… the life and loves of an artist in New York City in the early days of the 21st Century…”, but there is no plot device having to do with cell phones or email. Rather, Manhattan in Charcoal is the timeless story of artists and lovers, beautifully told here in poetry and music.
Manhattan in Charcoal will be released in May 2015 and the CD will be available from Naxos.
A short video featuring some of the music is here.
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Michael Vincent Waller
The South Shore
From XI Records comes The South Shore, a new double CD release by New York-based composer Michael Vincent Waller. Totaling some 138 minutes, The South Shore is the most comprehensive musical statement from Waller to date – his two previous albums of piano music were much less ambitious in scale. With a style that runs to miniatures and other smaller forms, The South Shore features a total of 31 tracks. This new collection includes a number of different instrumental ensembles that greatly add to the possibilities for new colors and texture. This is a definite enhancement and brings an added dimension to Waller’s carefully constructed pieces. Released in latter weeks of a difficult winter, hearing the warm and sunny pieces of this album is like a weekend in the south of France.
With such a profusion of music, here are some observations on selected tracks.
From disk 1, Atmosfera di Tempo, on track 2, is an example of how an ensemble of several instruments – in this case a string quartet – can give a greater sense of intimacy and empathy to the underlying structure. This piece begins with a repeating figure in the violin supported by the cello. The others join in, to create a warm, contented feeling with just a slight tinge of sadness that strings can bring out so well. The theme is repeated with variations, sometimes gentle and lush and at other times more insistent and stark. The subtle shadings and sensitivity evident in this piece are a credit to the four players.
Per La Madre e La Nonne on track 4 features a string trio, with a light, bright sound to open. The violin leads with a repeating melody with an effective counterpoint in the lower strings. Variations follow and the close ensemble adds to the sweet feeling in this piece. Written for the composer’s mother and grandmother, Per La Madre e La Nonne is sturdy enough to carry the emotions invested in it yet delicate enough to clearly render the finer details. Towards the end the cello carries the melody with the others in counterpoint, and this gives a somber, almost brooding feel. The ensemble here -by Pauline Kim-Harris, Daniel Panner and Christine Kim – is excellent.
Pasticcio per meno è piú, track 5, is a solo piano piece played with great sensitivity by Nicholas Horvath. A simple running melody above is supported by warm chords underneath and the feel of this is very impressionistic. The gentle touch on the keyboard nevertheless produces a wonderfully luminous sound and the overall effect is to be transported to a sunny day in the south of France. A variation at 4:00 has a more purposeful color, but Pasticcio per meno è piú concludes by reinstating the softer opening.
Nel Nome di Gesú on track 10 opens with a powerful series of strong, chant-like passages repeated by Christine Kim’s cello. The organ line by Carson Cooman adds an expansive component and the result is a feeling of the monumental combined with a comforting sense of familiarity. It is like sitting in a strange church but feeling as if at home. The second movement of this piece is track 11 and the cello, with darker tones plays the melody below the organ, now registered with a lovely flute sound. There is a plaintive, almost mournful feel to this that is nonetheless very beautiful. Both movements of Nel Nome di Gesú are well balanced and quietly touching.
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In the Sea of Ionia
Southern California composer Daniel Lentz has a new CD of piano music, titled In the Sea of Ionia, recently released by Cold Blue Music. Los Angeles pianist Aron Kallay performs all four pieces on this album, totaling over an hour of accessible and inviting music.
The opening track is 51 Nocturnes and this begins with a series of descending chords and a light melody that immediately puts the listener at ease. Arpeggios in the bass appear, accompanied by a simple melody that seems to float above. Now stronger chords are heard in the middle registers with counterpoint below. The simple melody returns briefly, turning gently to introspection. By 4:20 there is a darker feel but this soon turns lighter again. 51 Nocturnes proceeds in this way with short bursts of different colors and textures; sometimes dramatic, sometimes mysterious, sometimes energetic but always returning to a warm, inward-looking sensibility. The playing of Aron Kallay has just the right touch for each of the many moods here and he sustains the last chord of the piece for exactly the right amount of time.
The second track is Pacific Coast Highway and this opens with an intriguing series of steady rhythms played against each other, suggesting the flow of traffic along an open highway. Some lovely harmonies are heard as the different melody lines interact. In one section there is a stronger feel, like the surf pounding on the beach – a feature that actually occurs along some sections of the roadway. A strong sense of motion and journey are evident in Pacific Coast Highway and this piece nicely evokes the iconic Southern California experience.
Dorchester Tropes follows, a work that was commissioned by Dr. Richard Marcus, a resident of Dorchester, Massachusetts thus giving the Santa Barbara-based Lentz the opportunity for an extended visit and some New England inspiration. The piece consists of four movements, the first of which is titled Messatossec. This has a dramatic opening that turns delicate with some lovely textures and tones. There is a pleasant feel to this, with a definite sense of home and place.
Ponkapoag Bog is the second movement and opens with a quiet, pleasing melody that soon gives way to a faster, more animated section providing a lively contrast. A precisely played syncopation adds to the sense of lightness and joy between the more peaceful stretches. Strong chords and a low rumbling texture appear as well, but the piece always circles back to the inviting and welcoming.
Moswetuset, the third movement, begins with a series of arpeggios underneath a relaxing melody. This is appealing music, drawing the listener into its circle of light and warmth. At 2:30 the notes are falling like a series of spring raindrops, full of optimism. A somewhat more dramatic sound follows with strong chords, as if watching a late afternoon sunset. The tempo slows and the piece tapers off to a settled finish.
The final movement of Dorchester Tropes is Pocapawnet and this has a a series of forceful chords heard in an almost dance-like rhythm. The syncopated melody bounces happily along until a smoother, more elegant section appears, followed by more syncopation. There is a sense of expressiveness and joy that comes through both the playing and the notes.
The final piece on the CD is the title track, In the Sea of Ionia. This has a gentle, languid opening that turns suddenly rapid, full of movement with syncopated lines weaving joyfully back and forth. The slow, drifting feeling soon returns, like a lazy summer day at the beach. Now faster again, with a happy, energetic feel – good control in the playing here. As with 51 Nocturnes, In the Sea of Ionia oscillates between purposeful intensity and leisurely relaxation. Sometimes it evokes a soft summer rain or a quiet, reflective moment and at other times it is a joyful gallop The harmonies and rhythms compliment each other nicely in each of the various sections and the playing is both accurate and heartfelt. The final three minutes feel like a dash headlong down to the sea, and this is wonderfully played by Aron Kallay.
This CD is a lovely collection of accessible and engaging music that draws the listener in with welcoming sounds.
In the Sea of Ionia (CB0042) is available from Cold Blue Music.
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John Luther Adams
The Wind in High Places
Cold Blue Music has released The Wind in High Places, a new CD of string music by 2014 Pulitzer prize-winning composer John Luther Adams. The album consists of three pieces: The Wind in High Places, a 3-movement work performed by the JACK Quartet, Canticles of the Sky, a 4-movement piece for four cello choirs as performed by the Northwestern University Cello Ensemble and Dream of the Canyon Wren, by the JACK Quartet.
The first movement of The Wind in High Places is titled Above Sunset Pass and this begins with high, needle-like violin tones riding above sustained lower pitches. There is the feel of wind whistling through rocks in remote isolation. Sunset Pass, Alaska is, in fact, one of the most isolated places in North America; a low point in the Brooks Range that opens onto the Arctic Coastal Plain deep in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The overwhelming sense of removal from civilization in this place might produce a certain intimidation, but that is not what we hear in this music. The initial feeling of a vast remoteness is gradually replaced by a warm, introspective sense of place that is both welcoming and intimate. The harmonies are ruggedly beautiful and precisely played by the JACK Quartet, especially the very highest pitches that are the most evocative. Above Sunset Pass, with its pastoral sensuality and primal harmonies offers the listener an invitation to dwell in this wild place on its own terms.
Maclaren Summit follows and this has a busier feel with a series of fast, sharp passages in the higher registers, like snow swirling along a ridge line. There is an ethereal feel from the continuous motion in the violins, pleasantly complimented by a slightly more rugged texture in the lower strings. This feels like more mountainous terrain and is almost pointillist in its depiction of the snowy landscape. The playing here is very delicate and has just the right touch, as if the air itself is moving the strings. With its roiling and crisscrossing passages, Maclaren Summit manages to evoke the intensity of a snow squall without any of the menace.
Looking Toward Hope is the third and final movement of The Wind in High Places and this begins with a low, steady cello, now mixed with higher sustained tones. This has a craggy feel, like looking at a rugged mountain face. The texture is rich and warm throughout, evoking a feeling of grandeur. All three movements of The Wind in High Places offer the listener a peaceful alternative to the adversarial and often politicized relationship with nature that we moderns have inherited from a problematic past.
The four movements of Canticles of the Sky follow, as performed by four cello choirs – some 48 players – all members of the Northwestern University Cello Ensemble directed by Hans Jørgen Jensen. Sky with Four Suns is the first of these and begins with warm, deep tones in the bottom registers, building up on thirds and fifths. Lovely harmonies rise up like a cathedral tower, beautiful and lush, with a bright upper line arcing overhead. The feeling is a bit like that sense of the mystical one hears when an orchestra is tuning. The notes rise in volume and pitch, with a powerful fulness of texture, and then slowly decrescendo back to the lower tones and a peaceful finish.
Sky with Four Moons is next and this movement opens on a single sustained high tone, soon joined by lower pitches, almost as an inversion of the first movement. The volume swells as the piece progresses and a deep rugged sound is heard as the tones reach the lower registers. The pitches reascend, becoming quieter at the finish. This movement has a slightly more remote and distant feel, as a quiet night sky might appear.
Sky with Nameless Colors follows, again opening on a sustained high note with tones added in close harmony above and below. This develops a thicker feeling, especially as the pitches settle in at the bottom. As the piece progresses the texture thins out to a somewhat brighter feel as it ends quietly on a single note.
The final movement of Canticles of the Sky is Sky with Endless Stars and this begins with a low, deep tone that builds upward in a dark harmony. There is a somber feel to this, like a dirge played very slowly on a pipe organ. The volume builds as tones are added, rising upward to a higher, brighter register that brings out a feeling of expansiveness. As with the other movements this concludes by way of decrescendo and a thinning out of the harmonies to a single tone.
The final track on the CD is Dream of the Canyon Wren as performed by the JACK Quartet and this has a more surreal quality than the previous pieces. This opens with a series of low repeating figures in the cello that are followed by similar passages in the violins. The sound is suggestive of a series of dreamlike bird calls. Silences follow, and then a flurry of fast figures in the higher registers that devolve into lower, slower echoes. This pattern continues, slowing to a low, gauzy wash before concluding on one last high-pitched burst. Dream of the Canyon Wren is perhaps the most abstract of the works on this CD and the playing by the JACK Quartet is meticulously precise.
The music of The Wind in High Places precedes Become Ocean, the 2013 symphonic work that won Adams the Pulitzer last year. But this album of string music is cut from the same cloth, perfectly expressing the gentle sensibilities that inform a highly sympathetic view of nature. In a recent Facebook posting John Luther Adams wrote: “That’s been my lifelong obsession… Place as Music. And Music as Place.” The Wind in High Places is compelling evidence of just how completely he has succeeded.
The Wind in High Places (CB0041) is available from Cold Blue Music.
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From Jon Brenner comes a new album of dance music appropriately titled dance suite. Jon is a Seattle based composer and musician who specializes in extremely new and extremely old music and the four tracks of dance music are an intriguing blend of old forms, new electronic realizations and a distinctive appreciation of counterpoint. All the tracks on dance suite have the same instrumentation: two guitars, piano and electric piano, harpsichord, two synthesizers, electric bass and piccolo electric bass. The result is an engaging sound that provides a good variety of densities and textures.
first dance is the opening track and this has a formal, almost Baroque feel to it despite a lively tempo. The guitar and keyboard realizations fill out the sound and enhance the chamber-music atmosphere. There is an alternately steady and syncopated bass line that forms a solid foundation for a series of pleasing harmonies and progressions above. The instruments play off one another in vivid counterpoint and the overall sense is a satisfying combination of profusion and movement
second dance follows and this has a stronger, more aggressive opening with a faster tempo and driving beat in the bass. This track has a sharper edge – as provided by the distortion guitars – yet it develops a nicely sustained groove. second dance is somewhat reminiscent of the music of Steve Moshier, with a similar precision and interlocking of all the moving parts.
third dance (sarabande) is on track 3 and with its slow tempo this piece has more sedate and elegant sensibility. A syncopated rhythm repeating in the bass is joined by a rich, contrapuntal melody and strong, but somewhat somber harmonies. There is a sense here of wistfulness combined with nostalgia – a longing for a brighter time. The ending is especially poignant as the keyboard trails off slowly into silence.
The final track is fourth dance (fandango) and this has a purposeful, march-like tempo supported by a steady beat in the bass. There is a bit of a heroic feel to this, and a melody line that arcs nicely over the powerful rhythms below. fourth dance has a spirited quality, full of energy and pleasing counterpoint and the piece concludes effectively on a single beat.
dance suite is an intriguing combination of contemporary sounds informed by historical forms and processes – always new but never foreign.
dance suite is available for download in several high-resolution formats here.
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Michael Vincent Waller
Seven Easy Pieces
Seven Easy Pieces is the second EP of solo piano music this year from Michael Vincent Waller, released December 2, 2014. Marija Ilic performs this suite of miniatures as recorded by Lawrence de Martin at the Spectrum Studio in New York, NY.
Track 1 is Miniatures (2014) – III. Return from The Fork and this begins with a series of simple repeating phrases that continue with slight variations over a descending bass line. This breaks into an appealingly complex melody and the contrast with the descending chords gives an open, expansive feel. The playing here is accurate and with a sensitive touch.
Miniatures – II. Vocalise follows and this features a quick, syncopated melody over strong descending chords in the lower register. There is a sense of purposeful activity here, almost dance-like and with a pleasing pace and rhythm.
Miniatures – I. Golden Fourths is next and has a rapid, agile melody line played over a solid, repeating bass chord progression. Nicely ornamented in spots – all crisply rendered – this miniature has an almost Baroque feel.
Track 4 is Miniatures – IV. Couplet and this is in a slower tempo with a more dramatic feel. A nice counterpoint develops that accentuates the darker atmosphere. Nicely complex and developed in last minute with a flowing, liquid feel.
Miniatures – V. Drops of Light follows and begins with single notes in the higher registers, echoed by a single note in low or middle. Now a descending bass line highlights a series of luminescent notes in melody. ‘Drops of Light’ exactly captures the feel of this piece and the playing by Marija Ilic was equally radiant.
Miniatures – VI. Requests is on track 6 and at 40 seconds is the shortest of the miniatures. Requests is a series of light arpeggios that have the feeling a harp glissando. There is a sense of brightness and space to this.
Miniatures – VII. Octagonal Etude is the concluding miniature and opens with a series of strong single notes followed by short silences that allow the harmonics to rise and mix in unsettling combinations. The dissonances present provide a sense of uncertainty in this last piece.
Seven Easy Pieces is the natural follow-on to Five Easy Pieces released earlier this year. This latest release has a somewhat more cohesive feel than its predecessor and manages to owe more to traditional forms while at the same time sounding entirely contemporary. Seven Easy Pieces is another step by Michael Vincent Waller towards new music informed by historical methods.
The mastering was by Cory Allen at Altered Ear, Austin, Texas and the cover art is Untitled, (2014) by Peter Geerts.
Seven Easy Pieces is available for download here.
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Michael Jon Fink
From a Folio
Cold Blue Music
From Los Angeles-based Cold Blue Music comes a new CD by Michael Jon Fink titled From a Folio, featuring Derek Stein on cello and the composer at the piano. Michael Jon Fink has a distinguished 30+ year career as a composer and his music has been performed at the Green Umbrella series of new music concerts by the Los Angeles Philharmonic as well as a number of other venues and festivals throughout the United States and Europe. The long arc of his composing career has allowed Michael Jon Fink to refine his style of understated eloquence through simple musical materials, and From a Folio is a fine example of just how much this can achieve.
All of the tracks on this CD are short – running from two to a little over three minutes. All but one of the tracks use the same combination of spare piano rhythms accompanied by the cello. The first track, Invocation, is typical – the piano provides a steady, purposeful line of single notes in a rising, repeating sequence. The cello follows the piano, but in an unexpected register – high but not shrill – and the cello ends each passage on a sustained tone that compliments piano figure. This simple structure is unhurried and restful. Good control of intonation and pitch by Derek Stein is critical – the cello is almost never heard in its lower, warmer ranges.
Heiroglyph is next and this has a more mysterious feeling in the piano passages. The rhythms are a series of straightforward, deliberate notes. The cello follows with soft, sustained tones that add to the enigmatic atmosphere. Melos follows and here the piano weaves its line of single notes around very simple cello tones. More complexity is heard in the piano as this piece unfolds, but by the finish it has resumed its restrained character.
Aftersong, on track 4, is a completely different piece consisting of just the cello in a series of slow, dramatic tones that have been recorded separately but are heard together in this track. This has a sense of lonely isolation and is played with great feeling by Derek Stein who also performs with Gnarwhallaby and wildUp, two Los Angeles groups known for a much more animated and energetic sound – this CD is evidence of a softer, more introspective side to his playing.
The remaining tracks – From a Folio, Over and Exit – return to the original combination of piano and cello. From a Folio, track 5, suggests a questioning feel in the quiet piano chords. The cello answers by way of single, sustained tones that are masterfully infused with emotion. Over is a more solemn piece, with a tinge of sadness. Exit, the last track, opens with a series of luminous piano notes that seem to hang suspended in the air. The cello shortly picks up the same notes, sustaining them while the piano replies in quiet counterpoint. The cello, again in a high register, repeats the opening theme as the piano adds a few short arpeggios. The solitary sound of the cello plays out as the track concludes.
From a Folio is the perfect title for this CD. Each piece is one of a series of brilliant jewels as if cut from the same stone. From a Folio by Michael Jon Fink is music that is simple, yet essential – an elegant vessel of deep expression.
From a Folio CB0039, is available from Cold Blue Music starting October 14, 2014
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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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