Archive for the “CD Review” Category
The Edge of Light
Gloria Cheng, piano; Calder Quartet
Pianist Gloria Cheng’s first CD release, from 1995, was a recording of Messiaen’s music for Koch. Her interpretations of the French composer’s works have only grown richer with time, as evidenced by her latest recording, The Edge of Light, for the Harmonia Mundi imprint. The centerpiece of its program is the Preludes. Composed in 1929, they were only performed privately until their debut in a 1937 recital. Of course, Debussy’s Preludes loom large and undoubtedly influenced Messiaen. That said, it is extraordinary how refined and singular the younger composer’s aesthetic is by age 21.
We get a taste of the birdsong that will figure prominently in a great deal of Messiaen’s music. For instance, he replicates the cooing of a dove in “La Colombe.” Elsewhere, the wind is depicted in “Un reflet dan le vents.” Sometimes the natural world is eschewed in favor of the subconscious or inward-turned expression-filled emotional terrain, as on the beguiling “Les son impalpables du rêve.” Cheng seamlessly inhabits each of these moods, finely executing the multi-faceted textures and playing styles that evoke them. The Calder Quartet joins Cheng for Messiaen’s brief and mercurial Piéce for piano and string quartet (1991), a late work that captures a wide range of emotions, from brittle and incisive to languidly mystical, in just three-and-a-half minutes.
The quartet’s lower half, Jonathan Moerschel and Eric Byers, also collaborate with Cheng on Kaija Saariaho’s trio Je sens un deuxième Coeur. Cast in five movements and composed in 2003, it sounds like an extension of Messiaen’s “color chords,” suggesting that these complex harmonies presaged spectralism and other explorations of resonance and timbre undertaken later in the 20th (and into the 21st) century; its second and fourth movements remind one more than a little of punctilious passages in the aforementioned Messiaen quintet. Not only does it pair well with Messiaen, the trio is a dazzling work in its own right.
Cheng also presents debut recordings of two of Saariaho’s solo piano pieces, both written in the last decade. Prelude is filled with limpid gestures and post-Impressionist harmonies; but these are given a strong tinge of postmodernism, set as they are against muscular arpeggiations and strongly articulated verticals. The Ballade seems to operate a bit less in conversation with the early 20th Century. It pits sonorous bass tolling against feverously repeated notes in the treble register. When its own arpeggiations arrive, there is a more portentous sensibility found in the Ballade’s gestures and harmonies. Cheng rendering of these disparate pieces is both fluid and fluent. This is my favorite recording of hers to date, and that’s a tall order. Recommended.
- Christian Carey
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Composers Concordance Records
- Two Etched Marks (Katherine Crawford, David Morneau)
- Behind Corneal Gates (Mary Hubbell, David Morneau)
- My Husband (Eleanor Dubinsky, David Morneau)
- Cupid’s Song (Lana Is, Baraka Noel, and David Morneau)
- Music in Me (Melanie Mitrano, Rebecca Ashe, and Edward Morneau)
- Summer (Shabana Tajwar, Vladimir Katz, and David Morneau)
- Crumpled Sonnets (Katherine Crawford, David Morneau)
- My Song (Mary Hubbell and Vladimir Katz)
- Love’s Slave (Lana Is and David Morneau)
- Now I Love You Best (Melanie Mitrano, Edward Morneau, and David Morneau)
When a composer writes “songs” these days, what does that mean? Pop songs? Art song? Lieder? Songs are essentially everywhere due to the prevalence of vocal music in popular culture with instrumental works only existing in classical realms. If you’ve ever taught music appreciation and bristled at someone talking about a Beethoven piano sonata as a “song” then you know what I mean. If we can make a distinction, popular songs seem to be attached to the performer and not the composer. It might be a gross overstatement to say that when you talk about or focus on the composer of a song rather the artist who sings it you’ve entered the realm of “classical music” but that is the assumption I’m working from. Another way of stating this could be: is Morneau a composer or a songwriter? Some of you might enjoy drawing lines in the sand and parsing the deeper meanings inherent in the implied opposition of those terms.
Personally, I don’t enjoy such debates and definitions but this disc brings some of these questions to the surface. On one hand, this collection of songs is very much about Morneau’s composed musical intentions. Each song pairs a Shakespeare sonnet with a complimentary modern poem in a single unbroken musical fabric. Would anyone other than a Serious Composer try to set a Shakespeare sonnet? Several of these songs are sung by voices which would be at home singing Schubert, Schumann, and Wolf but the most haunting performances retain a more commonly heard pop/jazz technique. Electronics abound on the disc but usually in the form of keyboards, virtual instruments, and poppy sequenced rhythms. It seams like every time you think you know what world this disc is in, it changes just enough to make you question your assumptions.
More songs tend to fall more in the “composer camp” than “songwriter camp” if such lines must be drawn. “My Husband,” co-written with Eleanor Dubinsky, switches the music into full “songwriter” mode. Dubinsky’s dark and relaxed tone makes this torch song seem like it belongs on a different album altogether. “My Husband” is also the most hooky and ear-worm worthy song on the disc and I hope for more Morneau/Dubinsky collaborations in the future. Personally, I think the songs that are from the “songwriter” side are stronger than the “composer” works. “My Husband,” “Love’s Slave,” “Crumpled Sonnets,” and “Now I Love You Best” bring out the best of Morneau’s melodic writing and rhythmic drive and these specific performances hit the musical nail right on the head.
While the songs do feature a mercuriality in Morneau’s compositional abilities, the disc provides a chance for the singers to show depths as well. Katherine Crawford favors art-song technique in “Two Etched Marks” but strips away these classical touches on “Crumpled Sonnets.” I heard “Crumpled Sonnets” in an earlier version which included samples of ripping paper and I much prefer this disc’s version with just voice and synth. Mary Hubbell reverses the transformation that Crawford undergoes; Hubbell’s first song “Behind the Corneal Gates” is sung more lightly than her dramatic return in “My Song” and while a lot of that can be attributed to Morneau’s response to very different poetry it is always welcome to hear performer exhibit a range of characterizations.
The transitional moments between Shakespeare and each song’s paired poem are well handled and at times hard to hear. Often the singers shift their declamation just a touch to make a shift in the mood but sometimes it happens without my knowledge. My favorite of these moments has to be “Music in Me” sung by Melanie Mitrano with Rebecca Ashe, flute and Edward Morneau, guitar. Musically, the texture and harmony stay very Shakespearean and folksy. By the time you’ve tuned out a little you hear Mitrano sing “my vagina so engorged that I can feel it when I walk” (from the poem “Music” by Susan Maurer) and realize that you probably should have been paying attention to how you got here in the first place.
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Clocks and Clouds
In a Pentagonal Room
From far-away Anaphoria comes music by Kraig Grady in a new album titled Clocks and Clouds, In a Pentagonal Room. This features Kraig playing the Meta-Slendro Vibraphone and Terumi Narushima on the Meta-Slendro Harmonium, a vibraphone and pump organ, respectively, that have been modified specifically to the microtonal pitch requirements of the five pieces on this CD. The live recordings, produced by Eva Cheng, took place in a pentagonal reverberation chamber with no parallel walls to better capture the acoustic possibilities inherent in these pure harmonic tunings.
A Wish Resounding from a Well, the first track on the CD features the Meta-Slendro vibraphone and begins with lightly delicate cloud of notes in the higher registers. Bright and mystical, the interplay of these tones add to the sense of a shimmering atmosphere. This does sound like the inside of a well and the instrument effectively leverages the acoustic properties of the reverberation chamber. Lower and middle tones ring out forcefully as the piece progresses offering a solid counterpoint to the airy wishes hovering in the upper registers. The piece ends with a slowly dissolving series of tones that seem to float upward and out of sight. This piece nicely balances the acoustics reminiscent of a well with the ephemeral nature of a rising wish.
The second track is To Search for Traces and begins with steady tones from the harmonium mixing together in a gentle, questioning wash of sound that is soon joined by a line of single tones from the vibraphone. The combination of the long, soft harmonium pitches and the percussive notes of the vibraphone combine effectively to create a sense of movement and journey. The harmonium finishes on a lower pitch and the vibraphone seems to increase in tempo and this leaves the listener with a feeling that the search continues even as the playing has concluded.
Reflections in a Mirrored Cavern is track three, and spare, solitary vibraphone notes begin this piece. Soon the notes are sounded in pairs and the intermixing of the tones closely related in pitch produce a shifting, surreal sound. More notes are added, and now beating between the tones produces new sounds, adding to the unreal atmosphere. The decay time of sound in the pentagonal chamber can be as long as 12 seconds and there is a sense of reflection and interference of tone patterns that accurately evokes a sense of multiple shimmering images. This piece is a fine example of how the interactions of tones sounded together can be used creatively given the right acoustic environment.
Track four is Illuminated Mist and here the vibraphone begins with a sparkling splatter of high notes that is soon joined by a high pitched tone in the harmonium. This is followed by sustained low pedal tones in the harmonium that are especially effective in reinforcing the sense of mystery. The vibraphone creates a fine mist of notes and overtones that, grounded by the harmonium, give the piece its descriptive title. The harmonic interactions, at once exotic and reassuring, beget a sense of unfolding wonder at an imaginary landscape. Like walking around your neighborhood in a heavy fog, this piece is artfully mysterious and familiar at the same time.
The final track is titled Dawn Crossing of the Bridge and starts with simple, light vibraphone phrases accompanied by long, low harmonium tones that suggest a slow dawning presence just over the horizon. As with Illuminated Mist, this combination of vibraphone and harmonium textures are very effective in building a sense of place and mystery. As the harmonium sounds sustained tones in the upper registers, a feeling of the sun rising is achieved and the movement in the vibraphone line reinforces the the forward sense of motion. This piece ends quietly having accurately described not only the crossing of a bridge, but also a crossing from darkness into light.
Clocks and Clouds is a delicate, sensitive work that explores the landscape of alternate tuning in a completely convincing way. This is the album to send to your friends who may be skeptical of mictotonal music. This album makes a quiet – but convincing – argument.
Clocks and Clouds, In a Pentagonal Room is available at the music page of the Anaphoria website.
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Phaedra and Modern Love Waltz
music of Philip Glass
OgreOgress has been a key player in offering strong recordings of lesser known/recorded works by composers such as John Cage, Alan Hovhannes, and Morton Feldman. This Philip Glass disc is truly for the comprehensive Glass fan since it contains portions of Phaedra which were not included in the Mishima soundtrack and 21 different versions that Robert Moran arranged of Glass’ Modern Love Waltz.
Released as a DVD-A, the sound quality is exceptionally true-to-life. The music is beautifully captured and so is the space in which it was recorded which adds a great deal of depth to what could have been a sterile and flat studio recording. The string trio used through these five brief scenes from Phaedra (2, 4, 6, 14, and 15a specifically) maintains a lush and rich tone and keep the pulse energized without ever sounding mechanical and machine-like. The percussion blends extremely well with the trio when used and the guitar additions provide a bit of snap to the articulation without overshadowing the thicker bowed strings.
Modern Love Waltz, originally a short piano piece by Glass, was orchestrated into 35 different parts by Robert Moran and the rest of the disc is dedicated to presenting all of those 35 parts in 21 different modular performances. I am of two minds of this portion of the recording. On the one hand, I’m not sure how many times I need to hear this 4:25 piece of music. On the other hand, OgreOgress has paced out all the different versions of this piece so well that there is a gradual and almost imperceptible build from one track to another. By the time I hit track 16 which is only for piano and winds, the piece really sounded different to my ears. Each track stands on its own as a solid realization of the piece but the gradual increase in the ensemble size and instrument diversity makes for a fun ride. It turns out I can listen to this short piano piece many many times after all.
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music of Lansing McLoskey
- Specific Gravity 2.72 performed by the newEar ensemble
- Sudden Music performed by Rebecca Duren, soprano; Alan Oscar Johnson, piano
- Requiem v.2.001 performed by Stony Brook Contemporary Chamber Players
- Processione di lacrime (pavan) performed by Philipp A. Stäudlin, saxophone; Zoya Tsvetkova, violin; Scott Woolweaver, viola; Joshua Gordon, cello
- Quartettrope performed by Stony Brook Contemporary Chamber Players
I find myself at a slight loss when trying to describe the music of Lansing McLoskey. Elements of just about every major stream of contemporary American concert music get wrapped together in different amounts in different pieces. A little minimalism here, some neo-romanticism there, atonal expressionism woven throughout, and colorful orchestrations to wrap it all together. McLoskey’s musical eclecticism doesn’t suffer from a lack of focus; each piece hangs together according to its own rules. I was about to say that McLoskey seems to be the rare composer without an obsession but instead it seems more apt to say that McLoskey is pan-obsessive. An equal opportunity obsessor.
The opening work, Specific Gravity 2.72, splashes with color at first while a slow-moving and determined melody unfurls against the more extroverted material. The second movement, “November Graveyard,” replaces these waves of gestures from the ensemble with more subdued and resigned harmonies. The quiet and static aspect of McLoskey’s language is prominently displayed in Processione di lacrime for saxophone and string trio. A single harmonic sigh underlies the whole seven minutes while forlorn melodies emerge from the ensemble and then fade into the background. The saxophone might be seen as the “odd instrument out” here but the instrument is perfectly balanced in performance and composition.
One of McLoskey’s better known compositions, Requiem v.2.001, takes up the center of the disc. This one piece probably does the most to summarize the various aspects of McLoskey’s musical language. Punchy grooves underscore long melodies in the first movement. Thick harmonies and darker colors make for a moody second movement. The violin solo “Trope [virus]” is frenetic and edgy, heightened by the extremely nasal mute sound. “Eulogy” recalls the opening groove from the first movement but maintains the more aggressive and forward trajectory initiated by the solo violin movement. The final “Epitaph – Obit.” discards the energy using colors and harmonies similar to the second movement.
While the formal designs of McLoskey’s music isn’t always taken from a traditional model, his music maintains satisfying and recognizable dramatic shapes. The four song collection Sudden Music gives McLoskey a place to show his adept understanding and setting of text, creating lines and harmonies which, while a bit more reserved than the rest of the music on this disc, still sound like his harmonies.
The final work, Quartettrope, uses the Webern quartet for violin, clarinet, tenor saxophone, and piano as a touchstone for McLoskey’s own original work. The first movement starts with the full first movement of the Webern original with McLoskey fusing his music onto the end in true trope fashion. The second movement begins with original McLoskey material and progresses towards the second movement of the Webern. This is not commentary on the Webern nor an attempt at stylistic camouflage; it is extremely clear when and how McLoskey’s music stops and the Webern starts. The idea behind the piece is rather interesting and the execution is rather compelling. More than anything, Quartettrope summarizes the mercurial nature of McLoskey’s voice and his compositional craft to put it all together.
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Here and There
Music for Piano and Electronics
Brian Belet / Jim Fox /
Jeff Herriott / Tom Lopez /
Ed Martin / Phillip Schroeder
Jeri-Mae G. Astolfi, piano
Innova Recordings has assembled the work of six composers in this CD of music for piano and electronics, performed by Canadian pianist Jeri-Mae G. Astolfi. Released in early 2013, this album contains works written between 2006 to 2012 and combines the fine playing of Ms. Astolfi with varied atmospheric electronic and processed sounds.
Crystal Springs (2011) by Philip Schroeder is the first track on this CD and is inspired by the Arkansas landscape of brooks, streams and mysterious caves. This piece begins with booming bass chords that are created from electronically manipulated bass, cymbal and sounds from the inside of the piano. These are combined with piano trills in the middle and solitary notes in the upper registers. This effectively conjures a running, liquid feel combined with the deep darkness of an underground cavern, as if we are following a subterranean stream.
The piece is constructed in three parts and with each part the mysterious dark sounds in the lower registers increase and the watery sounds are reduced. The second section has a more animated and less of a flowing feel and is dominated more by the bass chords – as if we are traveling deeper and the water is splashing downwards. By the third section we hear long bass tones accompanied by slow, languid chords, then single notes sounding in the middle registers – a feeling of going deeper still. The low tones are more comforting now and by the conclusion of the piece there is the sense of arriving at a distant, unexplored place filled with a quiet serenity. The electronic processed sounds and the skillful playing of Ms. Astolfi combine here to produce just the right balance of mystery and beauty.
The second track is Swirling Sky (2011) by Ed Martin who describes this piece as inspired by “…peaceful moments spent lying in the grass, gazing at cloud formations drifting above.” This music contains a series of mystical, swirling sounds powered by light arpeggios in the upper registers combined with a sense of majesty in the lower chords. At 4:30 the feeling turns dark and powerful, like a storm approaching full of rain and thunder. Electronic effects provide a sense of rushing wind as the piece slowly winds down to a gentle finish. Swirling Sky was composed for Jeri-Mae G. Astolfi whose sense of imagination adds to this already imaginative work.
Track three is green is passing (1999, rev. 2006) by Jeff Herriott. Jeff explains that “The initial version… opened with pulseless material that would become typical of my later work. In 2006, when I reworked the piece for a performance by pianist-composer Dante Boon, I retained this opening structure but changed the piece’s development to better suit my evolved musical style.” The opening is indeed simple and spare, consisting of soft passages with just a few notes. It proceeds in a slow and stately manner, like a person speaking quietly with well-chosen words. There are pauses between the short phrases, allowing the notes to reverberate, and this evokes a sense of suspense and questioning. At other times there is a definite feeling of warmness – turning almost wistful and nostalgic. The piece ends with a long sustained note that seems to melt into the air. Ms. Astolfi’s playing provides the delicate and sensitive touch critical to this quiet piece.
The fourth track is by Brian Belet, titled Summer Phantoms: Nocturne (2011) and this completely lives up to its name. The piece opens with deep, scary sounds, like the throwing of a knife in the dark or a large blade cutting through the air. Piano notes, often dissonant, add to the tenseness. The electronics here are particularly effective and atmospheric. Brian explains: “The fixed media part is made up of piano sounds (string scrapes, hand-dampened tones, soundboard strikes and isolated tones) that I processed through Spectral Analysis, Sum of Sines, Time Alignment Utility and additional stochastic algorithms…” For all of that, the effects are genuinely chilling and not artificial or overly analytical. The piano weaves its line skillfully in and out between the electronics and the balance between the two sustains the tension. This piece convincingly portrays things that go bump in the night, and could well be the sound track for a horror movie.
Track 5 is Confetti Variations (2012) for piano and fixed media by Tom Lopez. According to the liner notes by the composer, this piece “…entailed shredding Brahms and Feldman piano music into brightly colored fragments, firing the sparkly bits into the air, and listening to them rain down on field recordings.” Accordingly, the piece starts out with a rousing segment of Brahms accompanied by the sounds of a fuse lit and burning – followed by explosions. More loud Brahms follows and a spectacular fireworks display is heard overhead. This gives way to distant thunder and rapid piano playing alternating with soft wind sounds and a quiet Feldmanesque piano section. Now a downpour is heard and the piano jumps from rapid, loud playing to quiet simple chords. The sounds of booming surf follow with gentle piano passages alternating with energetic Brahms. The plunk of a rock thrown into a stream is heard and the water seems to be moving more slowly now. Soon we are in a full-blown rain forest complete with sounds of birds and the croaking of frogs. This tranquil setting is leisurely accompanied by the piano and the buzzing of bees. The occasional piano notes and a few simple chords bring us to a quiet ending. The piano playing by Ms. Astolfi here is impressive as she switches seamlessly between the two styles – Brahms and Morton Feldman being two of her favorites. The field recordings are of a convincing and vivid fidelity. This track is an imaginative mix and demonstrates the creative possibilities of piano music combined with field recordings.
The final track is titled The pleasure of being lost (2012) by Jim Fox and is also for piano and fixed media. This piece was written for Jeri-Mae Astolfi and includes the speaking voice of Janyce Collins. The voice is distinct and is accompanied throughout by electronically processed sounds suggesting a steady roar of the wind.. The piano is heard as solitary notes and chords between long pauses, lending a lost – but not tense – feeling. The words are spoken in a flat, perfunctory tone and this provides a sense of reassurance. The text is from the 1854 journal of Joseph Dalton Hooker, friend of Charles Darwin and an early explorer of the Himalayas. The words are partly an objective account of the remote surroundings in which he must have found himself and partly the stray thoughts of a wanderer. While this is certainly a solitary account, there is no sense of loneliness or fear. The piano provides a commentary on this discourse, sometimes building a bit of tension, sometimes turning introspective and nostalgic. The combination of voice, electronics and the spare piano passages are in just the right combination for building a convincing portrait of the seemingly contradictory states of pleasure and being lost.
This CD, as well as its separate tracks and links to the composers are available from Innova Recordings.
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Electronic Organ Works
Piece #2 (1999-2000) for electronic organ; Piece #3 (2000-2001) for electronic organ; Piece #1 (2000-2004) for electronic organ; 4/4 (2010); Piece (2010) for electronic organ and bongo drums (with Glenn Freeman on bongos)
While some composers might bristle when the term “minimalism” is applied to their music or try to distance themselves from the dread “M-word” by adding the prefix “post” or saying that their music is “inspired by” or “takes influence from” minimalism, there simply is no better term which provides a sonic context for David Toub’s sound world. The music on this disc is straight-up, unbridled, unabashed Glass-ian minimalism in the best possible way. I’m not sure if there are processes being worked out or if the changes are more intuitive but these pieces hit my ears the same way as Music in Fifths, Music in Similar Motion, or Music with Changing Parts. To be honest, Toub’s synth of choice (Ensoniq KS-32) has a more focused, less dated, and richer sound than what I hear in those earlier Glass recordings.
The three numbered pieces for electronic organ, presented in the chronological order in which they were finished, do a lot to draw you into Toub’s flavor of minimalism. Piece #2 is only 4’33” (not sure how much one wants to read into that) and chugs along with a very rock-friendly bass line and open harmonic sound. Piece #3 is longer, about twelve and a half minutes, with a more disquiet set of harmonies and mellower instrument tone. Piece #1 is about double the length of #3 and strings together more drastic textural shifts using a lighter organ sound. Piece #1 is also the only one with internal cadential pauses marking changes in texture. The alternation of arpeggio activity and longer tension-building sustains creates an interesting formal shape.
I rather enjoyed the sustained sections of Piece #1 and hoped that one of the remaining works on the disc would eschew a pulse in order to focus purely on Toub’s ability to build and release harmonic tension. 4/4 maintains the “pulse-first, build harmonies later” model but the metrical squareness becomes a great framework for Toub’s rhythmic and textural explorations. The final work on the disc, Piece for Electronic Organ and Bongo Drums, off-loads the pulse duties from the organ to the bongos so the organ can maintain sustained intervals. For my ears, the drums are a bit too loud and sharp for the mellower organ sound and I welcomed the 45 seconds without the drums (around the 9:15 mark). Overall, this is a well crafted set of pieces with rock solid performances and rich sounds.
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Maria Pia De Vito, voice; Francois Couturier, piano;
Anja Lechner, cello; Michele Rabbia, percussion and electronics
ECM CD 2340
The works of eighteenth century composers such as Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi have been subject to all manner of reinterpretation by contemporary artists in myriad styles: jazz, gospel, bluegrass, rock, and so forth. Neapolitan composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736) hasn’t thus far been popular among those reworking baroque music. That may change with the release of Il Pergolese, a collaboration between vocalist Maria Pia De Vito, pianist Francois Couturier, cellist Anja Lechner, and percussionist Michele Rabbia that is emotive, imaginative, and stylistically fluid.
Pergolesi is best known for composing vocal music – operas and sacred music both (his Stabat Mater setting is particularly fine). De Vito’s singing of the evocative “Ogni pena cchiú spietata,” with its hauntingly repeated minor triads, sits astride baroque opera and pop chanteuse traditions, making the hybrid nature of this project clear from the outset.
Many of the arias from Pergolesi’s operas have been resurrected as staples of the repertoire studied by voice students, who treat them like “art songs” – recital repertoire – rather than presenting them in a theatrical context. Sometimes these “songs,” taken too lightly, are put before students out their depth. Thus it is particularly heartening to hear Lechner lead a beautifully soulful rendition of “Tre giorni son che Nina” on Il Pergolese, which serves to rehabilitate it from the aforementioned lowly fate of freshman recital fodder.
Rabbia’s ambient electronics halo De Vito’s melismatic, rhythmically free, and folk music inflected version of “In compagnia d’amore I;” in places her delivery is reminiscent of Cathy Berberian singing Luciano Berio folksong settings. Lechner and Couturier join Rabbia on “In compagnia d’amore II,” an interpretation more tilted toward ecstatic jazz than modern classical, with ardent soloing from the pianist, pizzicato cello lines, and articulative, rather than steadily pulsing, percussion gestures. Another fascinating selection is the exploration by De Vito and Couterier of material from the Stabat Mater, translated into Neapolitan to better show its roots in and connections to local traditions and music-making. Purists might balk, but this is a respectful and musically inventive homage to an underappreciated composer.
– Christian Carey
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Bridge Records CD
In recent decades, there’s been a move in some American academic circles to put more separation between the disciplines of music composition and music theory. It seems especially curious to those of us who have, to greater or lesser degrees, modeled our careers and aesthetics on our forebears, adopting the “composer-theorist” approach (some of us even adopt the “composer-performer-theorist” tag, but that’s another story for another day). Happily, academics like Dmitri Tymoczko thrive, pointing out that a hyphenated or, more properly, interdisciplinary existence is still amply possible without compromising one’s standing in either or both disciplines.
Tymoczko is one of the best known scholars discussing geometric modeling in music theory; his “The Geometry of Musical Chords” was the first music theory article published in Science Magazine; his first book, A Geometry of Music (Oxford University Press, 2011) is thought-provoking and, given its subject matter, surprisingly accessible: It has engendered a great deal of discussion in music theory circles. However, Tymoczko teaches at Princeton University in the Composition Area; while many important theorists have studied at Princeton, there is no Theory Department in the Graduate Music program, only Composition and Musicology.
On his first CD, Beat Therapy (Bridge, also 2011), Tymoczko flexed his third stream muscles, presenting a program of concert works influenced by jazz including improvised solos. Crackpot Hymnal, his second recording for the Bridge imprint, features fully notated chamber pieces played by estimable ensembles: the Amernet and Corigliano Quartets and the Illinois Modern Ensemble with pianist Daniel Schlossberg. The pieces address crossover, or polystylism, though, for the most part, instead of jazz, popular and rock styles interact with folk and modern classical music. Given Tymoczko’s early background playing popular music, and his subsequent theoretical writings that point out the ways that geometrical modeling of scales and chords is applicable to the analysis of both classical and popular music, his exploration of similar issues in his compositions makes perfect sense.
He has a bit of fun as well with this idea of similarity of collections between disparate styles. In the album opener, The Eggman Variations (2005), a quintet for pianist John Blacklow and the Corigliano Quartet, the first movement, titled “Pentatonia,” overwhelmingly employs pentatonic collections. But is the listener guided to hear them as aspects of Asian folk music, Impressionist chamber music, or box riffs by a guitarist in a garage band? Depending on where you are in the piece, it could seem to be any one, or several, of these archetypal references to a five-note scale. Alongside the glissandos one might expect, permutations of chordal extensions (7th chords, 9th chords, et cetera), populate the piece’s second movement, “Bent.” “A Roiling Worm of Sound” (what a fantastic title) mixes multiple layers of ostinato repetitions into an ebulliently undulating whole.
Another aspect of polystylism that Tymoczko embraces in these pieces is the ever-expanding condition of our varied digital music libraries, with the concomitant use (abuse?) of the shuffle button on our iPod, iTunes, or other digital delivery system. With a few clicks of a mouse or remote, listeners can leapfrog throughout music history and a plethora of musical geographies. Typecase Treasury (2010), another piano quintet for Kevin Weng-Yew Mayner and the Amernet Quartet, is a seven-movement suite of miniatures that revels in stylistic juxtaposition. It is neoclassicism versus post-minimalism in “Where We Begin.” “Hurdy Gurdy” channels Nancarrow in its not-so-well oiled musical motor and bluesy cast. Sheared off blocks of angular rhythms and deliberately schmaltzy chords inhabit “Crackpot Hymnal” in a quirky coexistence. You can imagine what happens in “This One was Supposed to be Atonal.” The composer describes “Russian Metal” as “Shostakovich orchestrating Black Sabbath,” which is a nice summation for this simmering aural snapshot. “Intermezzo” explores polytonality and harmonics in an appealingly piquant scoring that seems to take Bartók as its starting point. “Anthem” brings the piece to a close in rollicking fashion, bringing back some of the material from the opening, but transformed into a kinetic finale.
This Picture Seems to Move (1998), is also played by the Amernet Quartet. Even though it is a relatively early Tymoczko work, one can already hear a penchant for juxtaposition. Its first movement’s title, “Twittering Machine,” is a Paul Klee reference; obviously, it significantly predates our default assumptions about “twittering” today. It pits a modernist rhythmic language against a neoromantic harmonic palette. The work’s other movement, titled (after Boccioni) “Those Who Go,” features a beautifully brooding quasi-tonal melody alongside five-against-three pizzicatos.
The recording’s final piece, Another Fantastic Voyage (2012), is a chamber piano concerto. Schlossberg and the Illinois Modern Ensemble supply a rousing performance of the piece, which is filled with abundant virtuosity for the soloist and hairpin turns and tricky rhythms aplenty for the sinfonietta. Its title references Asimov, and one can image the subtitles being the names of short stories by Ray Bradbury. As the three movements’ monikers – “The Mad King,” “Changeling,” and “An Evil Carnival” – suggest, this is a piece in which Tymoczko is willing to explore darker thematic terrain. It is also where he best demonstrates a flair for the dramatic.
Once again, we hear the composer unwilling to take received norms – the formality of the concerto form, for instance – at face value. Instead he seeks to subvert our expectations of what a piano concerto does by placing it inside the inspirational context of genre fiction. Of course, the piano concerto is one of the classical forms that is longest in the tooth, and there are a significant number of 20th and 21st century works that seek to deconstruct it. That Tymoczko is able to find still another way to reframe the concerto design is no mean feat. If you are one of those who distrust the “hyphenated” contingent of composer-theorists, assuming their music is overly cerebral and lacking immediacy, take a listen to this piece. When one hears its vividly orchestrated and vibrantly paced carnival ride closer, all bets are off. You’ll likely think twice before making extravagant claims about “interdisciplinary types” again.
- Christian Carey
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R. Andrew Lee, piano
Irritable Hedgehog Records
I’m fairly new to the Wandelweiser aesthetic and this disc of Eva-Maria Houben’s piano music reinforces a lot of what I have taken in from other sources. To call this sound world “minimalism” is accurate in the purest sense: there is extremely little material here. What is different, though, is that Houben’s language emphasizes silence over repetition. The resonance of the piano lends itself to long and heavy pauses and Houben’s treatment of the piano as a sonorous entity rather than one for frenetic button pushing is gratifying and nourishing. The slow unfolding of events in both piano works, abgemalt and go and stop let every sound resonate with the listener before going forward. Any connections between events can be gestated well before plunging on into the next event. Having said that, this is not music with an obvious formal through-line. If you are driven by hearing rhythmic processes play out over the course of a piece, you’d best look elsewhere. Houben’s music is languid in the purest sense; events happen, silence happens, and it is very possible that neither has anything to do with the other. A Zen approach is necessary: just listen to what is happening. Trying to guess what is going to happen or should happen takes you away from the piece as it is.
Abgemalt is the longer of the two works and for me the most perplexing. Over the first two minutes the same dark chord is struck and decays down to nothingness three times. That’s it. The silences clearly outweigh the sounds. The amount of space in the piece is equal parts haunting, meditative, and unsettling. Playing the disc for a colleague, she shook her head in bewilderment; is this all it is? The short answer is “yes.” The long answer is “yes,” too, but with the follow up question “what more do you want?” As Abgemalt unfurls for 40 minutes, one does begin to lose all sense of direction. Why do all these moments belong in this piece? Why are they in this order? How did Houben know when the piece was finished? These are all intellectual questions which can’t thwart the overall rightness to the sounds. Go and Stop is a little easier to digest. There is a formal process which is more readily grasped as harmonic alternations are interrupted and grow into longer and longer iterations. Abgemalt, though, keeps sucking me back in. I can’t just casually listen to this disc as background noise. The deliberateness turns the recording into foreground listening. My ears strain to hear more and more of the piano decay, as if something is going to change. I can’t just turn the piece off in the middle, either, just as I can’t turn off Piano Phase without experiencing a sudden and jarring jolt.
Houben has set up an aural ecosystem in her work and Lee’s touch and timing are sensitive and nuanced. I can easily hear the care and concentration that goes into these performances and I have no trouble picturing a stoic and deliberate performance on stage. Lee’s craft is not one displayed through senseless theatrics and pyrotechnics. He clearly has a mind for this music and the ability to transform extremely minimal amounts of material into captivating performances.
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