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!
The challenge—and seduction—of sampling is to make what someone else has recorded yours. Most sampling hews too closely to the verb: Sampling, partaking of, nibbling, and, alas, delving no further than to extract a loop for the familiar temporal grid which has dominated music for over a half century. Noah Creshevsky samples, yet instead of just looping he sculpts tiny, poetic fragments into a startling, often luscious palette of timbres and long-limbed melodies; a drum flam, a rising string orchestra scale, and three snippets of bird-like vocal vibratos can collide and caress at once.
Creshevsky’s palette has been multifariously open for decades, heard initially in hard-to-find split LPs released by Opus One in the 1970s and 80s—many of which are collected on the essential compilation disc The Tape Music of Noah Creshevsky 1971-1992 (EM Records, 2004)—to recent albums such as Rounded with a Sleep (Pogus, 2011), The Twilight of the Gods (Tzadik, 2010), and To Know and Not To Know (Tzadik, 2007).
Genres, instruments, and melodies which otherwise might never have cohabited do so freely and in unexpected, delicious ways throughout Creshevsky’s work. On “Cantiga” (1992), strict row-like choral lines, which if heard separately might have won pleased nods from astringent serialists like Donald Martino and Roger Sessions, interweave with flutes and pungently nasal, synthetic horns in a courtly dance, as if Stravinsky’s Agon had actually originated as electronic music. In “Canto di Malavita” from Hyperrealism (Mutable Music, 2003), a churning sitar-laden melody slithers through snare drum and cymbal hits, pausing at 20″ for a cooing female voice, which then reappears at the one minute mark and comes to a thrilling split-second stop at 1’03”. The palette blooms thereafter into frenetically clipped and cut piano scales, with what may be the closing cadence of Stravinsky’s “Madrid” (from the Four Etudes for Orchestra), and string pizzicati, all sealed by a quiet closing bell. Creshevsky makes impossible music possible. Read the rest of this entry »
In the early 90s, I sang a small role in Jacob Druckman’s opera Medea in the Juilliard Opera Center’s semi-staged production of it. I was struck by its synthesis of old and new, and demanding yet felicitous writing for the voice. Later I worked with Druckman at the Aspen Music Festival and saw him again in a masterclass at Boston University. At the latter he seemed unwell, but retained his charisma and sense of humor. Little did I know that he was terminally ill with cancer; he passed away some months later. Although my contacts with Druckman were brief, I miss him. Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s portrait disc devoted to Druckman is a pleasing way to renew, or begin, one’s acquaintance with his potent music.
Druckman died a decade and a half ago, yet his influence is still palpable for contemporary classical composers. In the 1980s, his work exemplified the modernists’ version of postmodernism. Contemporary dissonances coexist with past practices; many of his compositions incorporate influences ranging from mid-century Americans such as Copland at his most modern, late Romantic masters such as Strauss, whose orchestrations he often praised, and early baroque opera. Indeed, several of his pieces recompose the latter material, leaving it recognizable but significantly changed and thoughtfully re-orchestrated. Two of these works, a suite of material from Charpentier’s Médée (hear a stream of a short excerpt from the suite on our blog’s Tumblr page) and an aria by Francesco Cavalli, appear on BMOP’s Druckman recording. Conductor Gil Rose and the group do a fine job giving both the “old” and “new” sensibilities of Druckman their due, in one piece mimicking aspects of a period ensemble and in the next hefting a sound three times that size.
All of Druckman’s work, whether it contains pre-existing material or not, displays a singularly incisive yet colorfully deployed harmonic language. And one is struck again and again by his masterful orchestrations. That Quickening Pulse is the perfect curtain-raiser; an orchestral overture that shimmers and thums with passionately played percussion, corruscating wind and brass lines, and icy string verticals, leavened with still more (pitched) percussion. Both low and high brass chorales articulate formal divisions, leaving skittering lines from the other sections as a written out echo chamber in their wake. Nor Spell Nor Charm is a fetching, indeed beguiling, work that started out life as a song for mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani; after her own terminal illness, it became a memorial work that retains the beautiful lines Druckman imagined the singer would perform, but set instead for orchestra (with a vintage eighties Yamaha synthesizer featuring prominently).
The disc’s title composition features vocalist Lucy Shelton, who is called upon to sing in four different languages: Ovid in Latin, folk conjurations in French and Malay, and a snippet from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde auf Deutsch. The narrative shifting through this cultural and linguistic kaleidoscope is the story of Lamia, an unfortunate Queen from ancient Libya whom the gods transform into a child-eating daemon. It has resonances with another long-time interest of Druckman, the story of Medea, and presages some of his later work using that tale. It also features spatial notation in places, allowing for a certain amount of rhythmic flexibility. Shelton is an excellent interpreter of Druckman’s music, capturing its emotional volatility, earthy incantations, and soaring climaxes with vocal assuredness and consummate expressivity.
It is hard to choose among BMOP’s many excellent recordings: call this one something of a sentimental favorite that comes highly recommended.
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.
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.