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.
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.
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.
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
Alex Mincek: String Quartet No. 3, “lift-tilt-filter-split”
Wolfgang Rihm: Quartettstudie
David Brynjar Franzson: On Repetition and Reappearances
Felipe Lara: Corde Vocale
Mivos Quartet – Olivia de Prato and Joshua Modney, violins; Victor Lowrie, viola; Mariel Roberts, violoncello
String quartets are tricky business for composers and quartets alike. How does a composer compete with The Masters when writing new works? How does a quartet make a name for itself without performing works that haven’t been played a billion times already, especially since the realm of “contemporary music string quartets” is a pretty dense and tricky market already? Looking at its website, Mivos Quartet has a lot of exciting repertoire, programs, and opportunities to foster new music for string quartet. Their debut album Reappearances is a sonic dynamo of unrelenting musical power. The four quartets performed are staggering compositions in their own rights and Mivos’ interpretation and performance of each piece is absolutely transfixing. Okay, so maybe I’m gushing a bit. This is one of those discs that I cannot have playing while I’m writing about it. Usually I’m listening to the disc I’m writing about just to keep the sounds in my head. With Reappearances, I end up listening instead of writing.
Mivos hits hard right out of the gate with Alex Mincek’s String Quartet No. 3. Aggressive noise-based chords bounce around the group over a background nattering and gradually a straight-tone groove emerges in contrast. The counterpoints of texture and color are complicated and rigorous but still approachable and engaging through the palpable waves of musical gestures. It is a rough ride but Mivos’ sound is glassy, silky, and clean. The quartet makes sense of the abstract gestures and shapes the whole experience into quite an aural ride.
After the rough and tumble world of Mincek, Wolfgang Rihm’s Quartettstudie open with soothing and quiet shapes. These shapes unfurl into tendrils of counterpoint and texture and again Mivos can take complex thorny atonality and communicate its structure by drawing on more overt emotional states. Rihm’s music is also rich food upon which they can feed as it is full of contrast and drama with a solid emotional core.
On Repetition and Reappearances by David Brynjar Franzson is less active on the surface than the other works on this disc and Mivos works the silences around the moments just as expertly as the moments themselves. Franzson’s work is full of quiet murmurs, sporadic moans, and disconnected textures which all hang together according to the simple metaphor of the work’s title. Mivos uses a defter touch of tone on this particular composition given the stark and direct nature of the sparse musical moments.
Finishing off the disc with a bang, Felipe Lara’s Corde Vocale is hyper-colorful full of rich singular moments of arrival. Less a work of counterpoint and juxtaposition, Lara’s composition is more akin to aural surfing; the ideas build and grow around the listeners and then inevitably and inexorably crash down around them. Mivos performs this work as a single polyphonic hyper-instrument. This piece is a strong closer for the group and an excellent way to complete an auspicious debut disc. I’m excited about what they might release next.
Back Porch Requiem for John Fahey – Luke Gullickson
Playin’ and Prayin’ – John Griffin
A Southern Pride – William Price
Hotfingers – David Rakowski
Nicholas Phillips approached several composers looking for music inspired by the phrase “American Vernacular” and the end result is a strong balance of eclectic musical tastes framed within relatively conservative harmonic and formal frameworks. Mr. Phillips was aiming for a “classical crossover” disc at the start but he creates is a disc of fun and charming music which, while performed with a high level of technical and musical sophistication, doesn’t feel the need to take itself too seriously. There are serious works on the disc, no doubt, but the overall focus is on enjoyable works which sound as gratifying to play as they are to hear. If you want a disc which is trying to rant for or against a style or idiom, you want a different disc. This is merely a well-programmed and performed collection of music which is approachable and engaging to listeners from a broad range of backgrounds.
Several works highlight direct ties to “vernacular” roots. Mark Olivieri’s Spectacular Vernaculars draws on ragtime, “Stella by Starlight” and De La Soul but clearly uses these inspirations as jumping off points instead of as a cursory exterior. Bill-ytude by Joel Puckett achieves the same using Billy Joel and Elton John stylings. Playin’ and Prayin’ by John Griffin takes Christian worship music tropes on a rhapsodic adventure and Mohammed Fairouz alludes to Liberace and Tin Pan Alley in two of his three miniatures. Back Porch Requiem for John Fahey synthesizes guitar licks and gestures from Fahey as well as Mississippi John Hurt.
Other composers focus more on the “American” side of the “American Vernacular” inspiration. William Price’s A Southern Prelude asks the question of “what makes music not just American but Southern?” and Ethan Wickman’s Occidental Psalmody takes the visual inspiration from watching the ocean rise and fall and turns that into expanding quintal harmonies. Fairouz’s third miniature, “America never was America to me” reacts to the 50th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech filtered through the events of Trayvon Martin’s murder.
Hotfingers: Three Vernacular Nondances again shows David Rakowski’s flair for idiomatic and engaging piano writing. These three short works sound right at home among his piano etudes. Maybe I’m biased but I think every disc of American piano music should include something by Rakowski. David Maslanka’s Beloved doesn’t draw from any specific vernacular touchstone but rather keeps close to his other “remembrance” compositions. Perhaps the most removed from the “vernacular” idea, On the Drawing of Constellations by Ben Hjertmann is the least harmonically conservative and predictable. This work stands out on the disc for its unusual and captivating musical language and more ambient and environmental approach to its linear unfolding.
No matter the composers’ inspirations, Nicholas Phillips delivers solid and engaging performances which give first-time listeners all the overt connections they need and all the nuance that repeat listenings can uncover. American Vernacular is well worth checking out for anyone interested in current trends of contemporary American piano music.
Clocking in at well over three hundred minutes in duration, Michael Finnissy’s eleven-movement cycle for solo piano The History of Photography in Sound (composed 1997-2000) is a gargantuan effort for both composer and performer. Ian Pace is the foremost advocate for and interpreter of Finnissy’s piano music – over the past two decades, he has performed all of it and is presently writing a monograph about the composer. One cannot imagine a more heartfelt nor technically skilful performance of this work.
From a composer with a more directly programmatic bent, a work titled “North American Spirituals,” as is this piece’s third movement, would sound very different. But Finnissy’s musical language revels in a complex interplay of far flung reference points, ample virtuosity, and a penchant for pungent, dense harmonies and a coruscating rhythmic grid. Thus, musical program can sometimes be integrated in earnest or with a measure of critical distance – oftentimes, both aspects of dealing with narrative are at least somewhat present. The past, especially past music, can sometimes seem to be a far-off memory distantly evoked; it can also seem to be lampooned in over-the-top fashion.
Finnissy has been called a “New Complexity” composer, and late modernism is merely one strain of his work. While Ives’s sense of collage and quotation certainly is a touchstone, so too are Scriabin, Schoenberg, Liszt, folksong, pop standards, and, yes, Ferneyhough. Also present are a variety of recurring themes – homosexuality, freedom, violence, sensuality, Christianity, community, literature, poetics – the list goes on.
The question many listeners inevitably will have, particularly with the prospect of 5 ½ hours of Finnissy’s music ahead, is how to make heads or tails of an overarching message or narrative: it would seem to elude one’s grasp. And that’s because, as far as this writer can tell, there isn’t a single idée fixe to be had: that’s not the reason for this cycle’s existence. We may like to think that a monumental and cyclic composition must have a single thread for us to wend our way through it – even the twists and turns of the Ring Cycle have a mythological framework for us (tenuously) to grip. Pace has written often of Finnissy’s generous spirit, and if there is a through line to be found in The History of Photography in Sound, it is that spirit of generosity bestowing upon us all the many musical ideas Finnissy has to offer: and that’s quite a lot. So, don’t worry about “getting it” on first hearing: that’s not the point either. Instead, revel; wallow even, in the embarrassment of riches and abundant virtuosity on display here. Then, listen again, gradually peeling away successive layers to find your favorite bits.
Caution: The History of Photography in Sound is a heavy dose for a single sitting, much like watching a season of Breaking Bad in a single weekend: binge at your own risk! Still, this is a boxed set that is wholeheartedly recommended.
The follow-up to Listening to Istanbul, Seda Roeder’s CD spotlighting Turkish composers, Black and White Statements provides a wide-ranging overview of Austrian composers who write for the piano. Roeder is a champion of composers of many nationalities and stylistic backgrounds. On Black and White Statements, a couple of the works are quite severe; in particular, Mattias Kranebitter’s Drei nihilistische Etüden über eine Liebe der Musikindustrie is a tough sit. But most composers prove themselves adventurous and thoughtful, rather than assaultive, in crafting their miniatures. Many ably employ Roeder’s considerable prowess.
For example, Liszten to … Totentanz doesn’t settle for a pun(-chline) to win over listeners; it is clever, well-crafted music as well. The piece, by Johanna Doderer, channels the virtuosity of the Liszt work it cites into a postmodern cascade of ostinati that serves as departure and wry comment on the original. Similarly, Dla Rajun by Manuela Karer pits jazzy chordal interjections against more vigorous textural moments and passagework to create a witty juxtaposition of elements. Other composers are decidedly less interested in conventional pianism. Karlheinz Essl’s aphoristic Take the C Train uses the piano as a percussion instrument and allows Roeder the chance to evoke some train horn like keening from it as well. On the other hand, Rupert Huber’s Teardrops IIa lavishes traditional imagery upon the listener; but his reliance on irregularly repeated patterns and distant-sounding resonances allow the “teardrop” motif to avoid lapsing into sentimentality.
All in all, Black and White Statements suggests that the piano miniature remains a lively laboratory for compositional ingenuity, and that there’s much of that to be found in Austria.
with electroacoustic music by John Downey and Jenny Kallick
Libretto by Jenny Kallick
Navona Records CD/DVD
Pulitzer prizewinning composer Lewis Spratlan, abetted by electronics from John Downey and Jenny Kallick, crafts an elegant meditation on creativity in the chamber opera Architect. It is based on the ideas and life story of 20th century Philadelphia architect Louis I. Kahn. The avant electronics palette of Downey and Kallick is well integrated into the score: Spratlan balances elements of traditional orchestration with a conspicuous amount of percussion that helps to bridge the divide between the acoustic and electronic elements.
Three singers are called upon to play five roles; in addition to the title character there are the Guide, the Engineer, the Healer, and Woman. Spratlan is known for the quality his vocal music – his opera Life is a Dream was the winning work for the aforementioned Pulitzer. While the demands of Architect on the singers are significant, the composer always writes so well for the voice that they sound terrific. He also knows how to pick an excellent cast of singers. Baritone Richard Lalli and tenor Jeffrey Lentz both bring vivid characterization and musicality to their respective roles. Soprano Julia Fox exhibits laser beam accuracy and evenness of sound throughout a wide range, even when the vocal lines she is required to sing are quite angular. The Navona release, generously stuff with information and extras, is an ideal complement to the multidimensional view of the creative life provided by the opera.
Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra (transcribed by Mark Lortz) – Philip Glass
(Ji Hye Jung and Gwendolyn Burgett, timpani)
Symphony No. 4 ‘In the Shadow of No Towers’ – Mohammed Fairouz
The Naxos collection of “Wind Band Classics” has consistently delivered strong performances and this recording of two large-scale works by the University of Kansas Wind Ensemble under the direction of Paul W. Popiel is no exception. True, I am an alum from KU but I don’t think any of the praise I am about to extoll on this disc can be led back to some kind of Jayhawker loyalty. Everyone should be able to agree that the performances on this disc are top notch.
The Concerto Fantasy by Philip Glass is a bit of an odd work. Featuring the timpani can be quite tricky and while the performances by the timpani soloists are precise and impressive, I think that this piece rarely sounds like a fully completed composition. The timpani are certainly active in the piece but there is little to my ears which makes them foreground material. The recording is clean and clear and preserves the physical separation between the pair of soloists but at the end of the day the piece just sounds like an accompaniment lacking a focal element. Glass’ harmonic vocabulary seems even more conservative than usual and I found little to engage in either texturally or rhythmically. I am not overly familiar with the original orchestral version of the piece so I am in no way trying to compare the wind ensemble sound to the orchestra (see apples v. oranges, books v. movies, etc.). And honestly, the piece doesn’t intrigue me enough to track down more recordings of it.
My general dislike of the Glass is made up for, however, with Symphony No. 4 ‘In the Shadow of No Towers’ by Mohammed Fairouz. Inspired by the Art Spiegelman graphic novel of the same name, Fairouz delivers as powerful and evocative a work for wind ensemble as Karel Husa’s Music for Prague 1968. Beginning with “The New Normal,” this four movement symphony draws in a wide array of creative and affective ensemble colors but none more colorful as in the second movement “Notes of a Heartbroken Narcissist.” In this second movement, metal percussion, harp, piano, and double bass scrape and groan through a grey-inspired aural landscape. The not entirely playful third movement “One Nation Under Two Flags” portrays a “Red Zone” and “Blue Zone” through musical juxtapositions of a sort which would make Ives proud. The final movement, “Anniversaries” uses a ticking clock motive throughout to highlight the notion of passing time but also to imply a ticking time bomb. The composition rides this metaphor well by transforming a simple steady rhythm into something ominous and foreboding. Throughout the entire disc, the University of Kansas Wind Ensemble sounds fantastic. All the musical layers are clear and articulate but their precision does not come through sacrificing emotion and lyricism (such as it exists in either work). Rock chalk, Jayhawks!