A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke is a duo outing featuring keyboardist (and recently hired Harvard Professor) Vijay Iyer and trumpeter elder statesman Wadada Leo Smith. The most striking aspect of the duo’s approach is their willingness to cede each other space in the proceedings. Thus instead of the rapid call and response we frequently hear from jazz duos, here there are often successive solos which mine connected musical territories.
The central part of the album is an extended suite titled A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke. Dedicated to Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990), it finds the duo exploring a variety of textures. In addition to piano, Iyer breaks out electronics and a Fender Rhodes, leavening the proceedings with a judicious use of each. Smith frequently explores the stratospheric range of his instrument, punctuating his solos with trills, staccato outbursts, and overblowing. When the two come together in closer colloquy, the intervening soloing morphs into an impressively rich stack of piquant harmonies and imitative gestures.
The CD closes with a truly beautiful composition by Smith, “Marian Anderson,” named after the celebrated African-American contralto. Along with the album opener, Iyer’s “Passage,” it brings out a different demeanor from the musicians: lyrical, less angular, and more directly collaborative. While one certainly appreciates the approach on the central suite, offsetting it with these two tunes is an elegant touch.
Composer Tyshawn Sorey’s latest recording is of a massive two-hour long suite for Double Trio. The Inner Spectrum of Variables finds Sorey conducting a group of longtime collaborators. Sorey has said that his approach to conducting serves as homage to Butch Morris, whose ensemble leadership was called “conduction.” He also contributes the percussion parts to the recording, ranging from textural excursions to thunderous swing.
Given its leader’s voluminous list of stylistic interests, it is no surprise that The Inner Spectrum of Variables is persistently eclectic. With four string players and a pianist in the mix, there is a great deal of opportunity for Sorey to explore his more classically-based approach to composition and improvisation. But the group can turn on a dime and play folk music seemingly from the world over, or get into a fluent post-bop groove. Despite the work’s considerable duration, the amount of quick changes of demeanor can be head spinning. That said, the return of discrete sections helps to provide an overarching structure that undergirds the proceedings. And unlike previous Sorey compositions, long swaths of lyricism abound here: an appealing addition to his already formidable compositional kitbag. Recommended.
Jonathan Tang Yvette Holzwarth Joy Yi Thea Mesirow
From the FWD: /rcrds/ label comes a new album by Luke Martin titled residues. This is a five-track CD of experimental music created by intensive collaboration with a string quartet. Each track in the album is based on original poetry, as Luke Martin explains in the liner notes: “Each score was created from the images of five everyday objects, which were slightly altered via parameters of brightness, contrast, and exposure to make ‘residues’ of the original images, and then coupled with ‘residual’ poems I wrote for each piece.”
The first track, remembrances, begins with a soft scraping sound with just a hint of musical tones in the higher strings. There is a quiet but purposefully active feel to this. Some low buzzing in the cello is just audible, sounding like distant bees and adding an organic component to the atmosphere. The scraping continues, louder now, with some occasional squeaks and taps. There is a nice balance between the soft strings and the industrial sounds – the latter does not overwhelm. As the piece progresses it maintains a continuously active texture that evokes a sense of movement that is never dull or boring.
histories is track 2 and here the string sounds here are much stronger, especially in the lower registers which carry a sense of foreboding. Individual passages are played simultaneously – unconnected, but they play off one another as if in conversation. Now a brief silence is followed by strong declarative phrases below, and answered by a flurry of light skittering notes in the violins. More silence and another strong statement in the viola. Light, airy sounds reappear in the violin – almost flute-like in tone and making for a good contrast – like hearing differing opinions during a discussion. This is followed by three strong voices grinding together with higher screeching noises rising above the low texture and evoking a sense of tension and anxiety. The piece continues along in this way – episodic, with low and loud passages countered by lighter and softer phrases in the violins all followed by a few seconds of silence. The various instruments seem to be reacting to each other, echoing emotions ranging from anger to fear.
Track 3 is structures and this begins with soft whispers “Can you say something?” A strong tone from the viola and a quieter line in the violin obscure the voices. The string tones are rough and sustained and add to the disconcerting atmosphere. The phrases can be heard when the strings subside, but there is little perceived continuity to the speech. Long silences intervene, adding to the mystery. The piece proceeds in this fashion with soft, indistinct voices countered by loud, angst-filled string tones. The spoken phrases are repeated, but not connected together and the strings can sound, at times, like sirens or train horns. The contrast between the secretive voices and aggressive string tones is emphasized by the soft whispering and the feeling is secretive and conspiratorial.
Track 4, fragilities, and for the first two minutes this contains only ambient sounds – some soft scraping, a few thumps – as if some sort of quiet preparation is in progress. Whispered poetry and the creaking sound of a string being tightened is heard, and this adds a bit of anxiety to the atmosphere. All is mechanical and wooden – no musical tones are played – and the whispers create a sort of confidential atmosphere, as if there is some undercover plot afoot. fragilities continues in this subdued fashion, and we are all in on the secret.
The final track of the album is unfoldings and this begins with a tutti chord of instruments and voices that fill the ears – like a group of air horns all going off at once. Strong, sustained tones build in intensity, sounding as if in warning. There is a distinct sense of foreboding here, even while the harmonies are refreshing and intriguing. At the midpoint these sounds begin a slow decrescendo, finally fading to a silence. The rest of unfoldings is now quiet or barely heard – no musical tones – only soft ambient sounds of breathing, light tapping, etc. This makes for a strong contrast to the alarms of the opening section and continues on for the balance of the piece, fading to silence at the finish.
residues lies at the intersection of music and sound, always pushing the listener to connect to the dots. The mix of whispered poetry, ambient sounds and musical fragments form a matrix of possibilities for the imagination that provide new pathways for expression and emotion.
Jonathan Tang, violin
Yvette Holzwarth, violin
Joy Yi, viola
Thea Mesirow, cello
Breadwoman & Other Tales is a recently-released CD on the RVNG Intl label featuring the music of Anna Homler and Steve Moshier. Breadwoman is the persona adopted by vocalist Homler and the liner notes describe her as follows: “Breadwoman is a guide, a storyteller and an observer of human events. She communicates with gestures and songs in a language that is both mysterious and familiar. Breadwoman is so very old that she stands outside of time. Her territory is that of the interior, where there are no distinctions and all things are whole.”
Although the CD was released in February 2016, the music dates from the early 1980s Los Angeles new music scene. Anna Homler was deeply involved in performance art and recorded the vocalizing that ultimately became Breadwoman as she drove around town in her car. At the same time Steve Moshier was a percussionist with the Cartesian Reunion Memorial Orchestra, often performing at the same experimental dance and theater venues where Homler appeared. Their collaboration was natural, with Anna supplying her cassette recordings to Moshier, who created the electronic accompaniment. The process was iterative – the vocals evolving as each version of the electronics was realized. This was a complex and time-consuming undertaking given the technology of the time – Moshier was working with a Kurzweil K2000 synthesizer, a Prophet analog synth, a Sequential Circuits sequencer along with 2-track and 4-track tapes.
The resulting tracks on Breadwoman & Other Tales are remarkable for their convincing insight and invocation of primal music. None of the vocal lines are heard in English but are rather spoken in some unknown ancient tongue, perhaps Eastern European in origin. The melody lines are clear and precisely sung by Ms. Homler, and the strange accents and words persuasively evoke life in a small village thousands of years ago. Moshier’s electronic accompaniment is completely contemporary and, by comparison, futuristic. This makes for an engaging balance – the timeworn words and melodies offset by analog electronic tones, adding to the mysterious and mystical feel in all these pieces.
Even without comprehensible words or context, the songs are recognizable for the human emotions they express. Anna Homler studied anthropology as an undergraduate at UCLA and the daily ebb and flow of primal society fills each of these pieces. Gu She’ Na’ Di, track 3, could be a folk melody about new love – full of optimism and hope – with a clarinet line that compliments the singing perfectly. Giyah on track 4, however, is solemn and deliberate, sung mostly in the lower registers, as if some sad event in village history is being recounted. Sirens, on track 6, is full of deep electronic tones and a menacing, predatory growl that invites fear and panic – reminding us that primal existence is precarious, full of uncertainty and danger.
Oo Nu Dah, track 2, has a mysterious pulsating in the electronics with a slightly alien feel as a faint voice comes to the top of the texture, chant-like, in a prayer of supplication. The melody becomes layered – perhaps a proto-canon – and it is as if we are witness to the origins of devotional worship. Celestial Ash, the final track, takes this to the collective level in a cloud of quiet whispers as a distant electronic humming sound emerges, building in volume – as if the sun is rising on the assembled. Voices are heard in short phrases and the electronics evoke a dignified alien presence. A melodic recap of the opening is sung – the language sounds vaguely Celtic – and we could be present at the annual gathering at Stonehenge 4000 years ago.
Breadwoman & Other Tales takes us back to a time when life was highly spiritual and lived in the moment. This CD reminds us that our brains are hardwired for the primal life, and we still respond to its ancient rhythms and sensibility.
On the Albany CD Beasts, Collage New Music, directed by David Hoose, presents three vocal chamber works by Wellesley College professor Martin Brody. In his liner notes, Brody says that each of the pieces provide, “imaginative identification with something or someone outside one’s self as a catalyst of self-transformation.”
In the title work, featuring laser beam accuracy from soprano Elizabeth Keusch, the focus is on animals: the spider, the octopus, deer, mice, and a werewolf. Millenium Sightings uses the apocalyptic writings of 12 century monk Joachim of Fiore as its starting point, interweaving these with works by Abraham Abulafia and Miraji. Accompanied by bell-like timbres, mezzo soprano Janice Felty sings these angularly melismatic settings with strong declamation and a refined sense of tonal shadings. The Tree of Life shows Brody at his most expansive, combining texts by Ovid, James Merrill, John Ashbery, Richard Wilbur, and Robert Lowell. Mezzo soprano Pamela Dellal displays an impressive lower register, superb dynamic control, and unflagging stamina in these demanding settings. Throughout, Collage and Hoose are estimable accompanists, providing space for the vocal line while exploring the various interesting textures Brody has provided for them.
One quibble, for the publishers, not for Brody: many didn’t not allow reprints of their texts in the liner notes booklet. It would seem that this would serve both poets and composers by showing off their collaboration. One wishes publishers wouldn’t be so parsimonious with permissions.
This collection of choral music by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt celebrates his eightieth birthday. It is programmed to emphasize his interpretations of Marian texts such as the Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis, and O Antiphons, all of which are central to his choral output. It also includes an excerpt from the totemic Kanon Pokajanen, his largest choral work, as well as shorter excerpts such as The Deer’s Cry and I am the True Vine. (The latter is particularly beautifully performed.)
Aquarius, a group of twenty-four voices, seems “right-sized” for these works, with enough voices to provide the requisite heft and majesty where necessary while still being able to create diaphanous pianissimo passages elsewhere. Conductor Marc Michael De Smet does an exquisite job of shaping phrases, balancing chords, and, a very important consideration in the performance of Pärt, pacing the proceedings. I will be on the lookout for their complete recording of Kanon Pokajanen.
CONDITIONAL TENSION is a recently released CD from populist records that features two extended improvisations by violinist Andrew Tholl, percussionist Corey Fogel, and Devin Hoff on bass. All three have worked together in various local groups, but CONDITIONAL TENSION is their first release as an improvising trio. The two pieces on this album were recorded live at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles in November 2012.
The first track on the CD is titled sensitivity to initial conditions, and is performed with acoustic instruments. This begins with a low continuous tone in the bass joined by smooth, sustained tones in the violin. The percussion is light and more active and the thin texture produces a gentle, exotic feel. Complex passages ebb and flow throughout as the piece unfolds, with solos passed around between the players. Familiar bass and drum rhythms form a foundation for some really dazzling violin playing by Andrew Tholl, reminiscent of late Coltrane. Corey Fogel’s accessible drumming becomes an anchor point for the ear as the growl and squeal of the bass and violin lines skitter and whirl about. The textural surface surges like a restless tide, constantly changing in color and density, but never sounding threatening or intimidating.
At 16:00 a crescendo builds that is comprised of high, squiggly violin passages, a strong arco bass underneath and a long cymbal roll that makes for a very effective combination. This eventually breaks down – like an unstable chemical compound – as each instrument goes its own way. New amalgams form, break apart and recombine again as the piece progresses. By 33:00 a very complex texture emerges in the bass and violin with the percussion hanging back, adding a few comments now and then. The volume builds and then retreats, ultimately dying away in a calm and settled finish. sensitivity to initial conditions is a beautifully wrought piece that combines seamless improvisation, impressive technique and outstanding playing.
reasonable strategies for tense conjugation is the second track on the CD and for this amplified instruments were employed. The piece has a louder, more intense sound with an edge that cuts rather than caresses. There is a strong, almost menacing feel to this especially in the snarling bass lines at the opening. The percussion is helpfully steady but more militant, especially in the snare and cymbal. Complex figures emerge in the violin and bass lines that float on an undercurrent of tension propelled by some nicely active drumming. A rapid squiggling in the violin appears with high, stabbing tones that bring to mind a free running electronic oscillator. The players enter and recede in changing combinations – the quieter sections benefiting by a lighter density and fewer notes.
At 17:15 there is a solemn stretch of slow pizzicato violin and bass notes that evoke a sense of sadness. This becomes progressively more distraught until a cry of agony is ultimately heard in the violin with a series of stinging passages. The intensity and volume build led by the drums and finally reaching a roar in the bass. The violin becomes completely unhinged in a frenetic hail of needle-sharp notes. The drums and bass gradually fill in underneath until the sudden ending.
reasonable strategies for tense conjugation is a fierce and exhilarating ride that pushes the expressive envelope with superbly controlled energy. The two tracks on this CD provide a vivid contrast between the expressive powers of acoustic and amplified sounds while highlighting the strengths of each.
Special mention must be made of the sound engineering, especially the recording and mixing by Nick Tipp, who adds to his impressive body of work. Listening to conditional tension is like being within arm’s length of each player – all the nuance and detail of improvisation is present and there is no noticeable background noise during the performances. The mastering was by Justin DeHart. The challenges of making a live recording outside the studio have been fully met in this CD.
Not so long ago, a composer portrait CD consisting entirely of solo marimba music would have been unthinkable. Idle Fancies, a new Bridge Recording of Paul Lansky’s complete music for marimba, demonstrates that the composer, despite being a non-percussionist best known for his contributions to electroacoustic music, really knows his way around mallet instruments too. The three substantial works here, each different in character and demands, provide plenty of variety; something that, given the instrumental palette on display, is no mean feat.
Spirals (2013), vide the title, surveys a panoply of chromatic harmonies in swirling, constant movement. Three Moves are a simultaneously virtuosic and charming set of character pieces. The title work is a collection of six pieces. Lansky adopts the detailed ostinati found in his post-minimal music as a foundation on which to build interesting variations. Some of the movements incorporate additional percussion instruments. Used judiciously, at times these supply the proceedings with non-pitched punctuation; at others with a Gamelan-like ambience.
Marimba player Gwendolyn Dease is a superlative advocate for Lansky’s music, bringing out every nimble run and nuanced dynamic with accuracy and artistry. One can readily hear why he entrusted her with this project. Though this may be it for Lansky’s marimba scores, perhaps we can look forward to another large-scale work for percussion instruments, written, of course, for Dease.
The Hilliard Ensemble
David James: countertenor; Rogers Covey-Crump:tenor; Steven Harrold:tenor; Gordon Jones: baritone
Begun in 2001 and composed over a ten-year period, Machaut-Transkriptionen is one of composer Heinz Holliger’s most imaginative and attractive works to date. Using pieces by medieval composer Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377) as a jumping off point, Holliger refashions the original material for three violas and the voices of the Hilliard Ensemble (now, alas, disbanded). They are employed in startling ways, encompassing frequent dissonances, extended techniques in the strings, vocal clusters, and alternate tunings.
The cycle begins with alternations between Machaut’s original vocal works and string trios that are recompositions of the same selections. A gradual morphing of roles eventually brings the voices into the contemporary sound world of the strings. In some of the pieces, there is a coexistence between lines from Machaut and Holliger’s original ideas. In others, Holliger uses techniques and formal designs from Machaut pieces as compositional groundwork for otherwise far flung fantasies.
The CD is capped off by a stirring quarter of an hour: a redesign of Machaut’s Complainte for voices and violas. It is here that all of the techniques found in the preceding selections are brought to together to craft a work that, on its surface, bears little resemblance to medieval music. But the spirit of the Ars Nova period in which Machaut composed, with its enthusiasm for experimentation and, for its time, great abstraction, clearly motivates Holliger, with fascinating results. Recommended.
A live recording from 2013 made in Providence, Rhode Island, Used, Broken, and Unwanted demonstrates to good effect the wide-ranging timbral palette and drone-based structures that artist Laura Cetilia explores. The title track makes use of repetition, not in the symmetrical fashion of process-driven minimalism, but to create an undulating undergirding for the wisps of vocal and cello melodies that sporadically emerge. This elegantly segues into the exquisitely fragile “Thrum/Pin.”
“Plucked from Obscurity” makes efficacious use of pizzicato; the electronics with which it contends range from the bell-like to the percussive. Particularly lovely is the delicate album closer “Tears of Things,” in which the main, initially pizzicato-driven, ostinato is gradually supplanted by sweeping guttural electronics and an accumulation of upper register sustained notes.
In the surprisingly burgeoning field of cellists who sing, Cetilia is a distinctive one. Alternately penetrating and atmospheric, Used, Broken, and Unwanted is a stimulating listen throughout.