Archive for the “Innova” Category
Looking Back – Flute Music of Joseph Schwantner
Innova Records (Innova 919)
Jennie Oh Brown, flute; Jeffrey Panko, piano;
Karin Ursin, flute and piccolo
; Janice MacDonald, flute and alto flute; Susan Saylor, flute and bass flute
Joseph Schwantner has written a substantial body of work featuring flutes. On her Innova recording Looking Back, flutist Jennie Oh Brown provides superlative performances of several of these compositions. Brown’s interpretations are vividly detailed, presenting the various nuances of Schwantner’s scores in enthusiastic and vital fashion (one is recommended to flutist and composer Cynthia Folio’s liner notes; they provide excellent analysis and detailed descriptions of both compositional and technical aspects of the pieces at hand).
The title work, composed in 2009 and dedicated to the memory of legendary flutist and teacher Samuel Baron, is a case in point. The first movement is a challenging duet with the estimable pianist Jeffrey Panko. They revel in contrapuntal dialog and cascading virtuosic doubled lines. The middle movement is a solo, which involves various extended techniques, including overblowing in the altissimo register, singing and speaking into the instrument, and stabbing accents. The final movement “Just Follow …” builds a lattice of ascending scalar interplay between flute and piano, sending the music aloft in a final valediction.
Black Anemones, another duo, revels in sumptuous harmonies, punctuated by piano octaves, with melodies that feature the flute’s lower register, played in sultry fashion by Brown. The short work Soaring has a more dissonant palette, with upper register punctuations and fleet-fingered runs culminating in a dazzling passage of repeated notes and a final flourish.
The flute quartet Silver Halo ups the ante and reprises the various playing techniques found in the other works, with several more added for good measure. Schwantner is a master colorist: the abundant variety of timbral combinations and imaginative doublings found in Silver Halo amply attest to this. Brown plays beautifully, and she is abetted by excellent colleagues: Karin Ursin, Janice MacDonald, and Susan Saylor. A compliment disguised as a minor quibble: one wants more! The disc clocks in at less than three quarters of an hour; it might have been nice to include another chamber work with flute. That said, Schwantner and Brown provide us with plenty to consider and savor: Looking Back is a winner of a recording.
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SHENG: The Singing Gobi Desert; LIANG: Messages of White; MAN: Dream of a Hundred Flowers; RUO: The Three Tenses. Prism Quartet; Music from China; Bright Sheng, Nové Deypalan, Huang Ruo, conductors. innova 885. 58 minutes.
In his extensive and highly readable liner notes for this disc, John Schaefer writes that this disc demonstrates that “saxophones and Chinese instruments have a natural, if unexpected, affinity”. That is an understatement, to say the least, as this remarkable program illustrates.
Bright Sheng’s The Singing Gobi Desert (2012, erhu/zhonghu, sheng, pipa, yangqin, saxophone quartet, and percussion) begins with a noisy and extravagant gesture, reminiscent of Messiaen. After that gesture (which returns) a melody snakes through the ranges of the various instruments, in harmony and in unison. The bulk of the piece consists in explorations and expansions of the implications of the opening. The piece moves easily through Western and Chinese idioms. without ever succumbing to what Steve Reich called “the old exoticism trip”. Bright Sheng’s piece explores the sonic space that both separates and unites the instruments in a way that is both brilliant and expressive.
Messages of White (2011, saxophone quartet, erhu, sheng, pipa, yangqin and percussion), by Lei Liang, explores a very different landscape from Sheng’s Gobi Desert; a snowscape. This is a far more “abstract” landscape, with few overt references to the musical traditions that lie behind the instruments used. Glissandi on the erhu are combined with bowed percussion sounds to create a background in front of which the other instruments grow increasingly active, then less active towards the end of the piece, leaving the background as it was in the beginning.
Fang Man’s Dream of a Hundred Flowers (2011, erhu, sheng, pipa, yangqin, and saxophone quartet) finds each saxophone paired with one of the Chinese instruments in a study, really a celebration, of the melodic styles associated with Chinese opera, with some very jazzy harmonies popping up from time to time. Over the length of the pieces, the duos join with other duos and the two quartets explore different relationships, like characters in an opera. It is a shapely piece, expressive and lovely.
The program ends with a searching performance of Huang Ruo’s The Three Tenses (2005, pipa and saxophone quartet). From a slow and spare beginning, the piece blossoms into hive of melodic activity, that reminds me at times of some of Luciano Berio’s melodic elaboration pieces (Voci, for example). It is very colorful and alive.
The sound is outstanding on this valuable release. Highly recommended.
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FUNG: Keeping Time; HIGDON: Secret and Glass Gardens; HOOVER: Dream Dances; LUO: Mosquito; SHATIN: Chai Variations; De KENESSEY: Spontaneous D-Combustion; DEUSSEN: A Recollection. Mary Kathleen Ernst, piano. innova 868. 69 minutes.
Headline: Mary Kathleen Ernst, who I admit I had not heard of before I got this recording, is a spectacularly gifted pianist. She plays with assured technique, a vast timbral palette, and a keen sensitivity to the variety of contemporary compositional styles. The current program, of recent music by female composers, is far more than showcase for Ms Ernst, but it is that, too.
The program opens with Vivian Fung’s sly look at Keeping Time. Ms Fung uses time-keeping (an obsession in much contemporary American concert music) for melodic and gestural musings, with the clock’s insistence always present. The melodies in Jennifer Higdon’s Secret and Glass Gardens begin as quietly purposeful wanderings that gradually blossom into large gestures covering the entire range of the keyboard.
Katherine Hoover’s Dream Dances begins with mysterious, impressionistic gestures (very idiomatic, pianistic) that are indeed dream-like in their ambiguity. The piece gradually, almost imperceptibly, develops into a driving, frenetic dance that abruptly, and convincingly, stops. Mosquito, by Jing Jing Luo, is a flighty beast indeed. Scurrying here, lighting there, it is a consistently delightful piece, well-written and expressive.
Chai Variations, by Judith Shatin, is a set of 18 variations on a Hebrew folk song. Shatin takes an effectively old-fashioned approach to variation form(s)–now Brahmsian, now Rzewskian–the theme is almost always clear in the background, if not the foreground. A shapely, convincing set.
Stefania De Kenessey’s Spontaneous D-Combustion is full of references to past styles. It is jaunty and eminently listenable. The program closes with Nancy Deussen’s attractive and haunting A Recollection. As the piece moves along, the nature of the “recollections” gets more-and-more elusive. It makes a fine end to a very good program, well-chosen and very well-played by Ms Ernst.
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BATES: Stereo is King; Observer in the Magellanic Cloud; Difficult Bamboo; Terrycloth Troposphere; String Band; White Lies for Lomax. Cynthia Yeh, Jacob Nissly, Eric Banks, perc; Mason Bates, electronica; Chanticleer; Baird Dodge, vln; Ken Olsen, cello; Jennifer Gunn, fl; Susan Warner, cl; Kuang-Hao Huang, piano; Cliff Colnot, cond; Bill Ryan and the Grand Valley New Music Ensemble; Claremont Trio; Tania Stavreva, piano. innova 882. 66 minutes
I have to say right up front that I find that, even having listened to a fair amount of it, I cannot engage with most of what I’ve heard of Mason Bates’ music. With an important exception, the pieces on this release, well-written and played and sung impeccably and enthusiastically by renowned performers, don’t speak to me. I agree with Joshua Kosman, who writes “[f]or sheer compulsive listenability, you could hardly do better than the title track, a bowlful of sonic popcorn that combines Thai gongs with a sleek veneer of electronic processing.” In fact, these very aspects of it are an important part of what is off-putting about this music. But for some reason it doesn’t speak to me. So I don’t have much to say about the disc, except to repeat that it is very well-written, played, sung, and recorded.
Except for String Band, an expressive and riveting piece of music, given a powerful performance by the Claremont Trio. String Band wears its influences lightly and feels less wedded to its musical influences than are the rest of the pieces on the program. The sleekness that Mr. Kosman finds so enthralling in Stereo is King is missing here, and the expression is, at least to my ear, more direct, somehow less mediated than in the pieces I’ve heard from Mr. Bates, and from others in his compositional cohort.
The fact that the other pieces just don’t do it for me says as much about me as it does about the music, if not more. But my experience with String Band gives me hope, and that’s always very good.
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BECKER: Gridlock; Five Reinventions; Fade; Keeping Time; A Dream of Waking. Common Sense Ensemble/Bradley Lubman; New Millennium Ensemble. innova 855. 53 minutes.
Dan Becker’s brand of post-minimalism is brightly colorful and rhythmically incisive. And it sounds as if it would be great fun to play. While the music is built on steady, clear pulses, Becker rarely resorts to a backbeat. His percussion writing, rather, is built on irregular accents and colorful blasts of sound. His writing for winds and strings is equally idiomatic; again, it sounds like it would be great fun to play.
The music on this disc that speaks most directly to me is contained in the slow sections of pieces like Fade and Keeping Time (Mvt. 1). Here, Becker uses pop-oriented harmonies and progressions, but with an irregular harmonic rhythm, supporting expressive melodies colorfully orchestrated.
The performances are top notch. The players love this music and it shows. The Bachian Reinventions are played by a Discklavier, which seems indifferent compared to the human players–the notes are there, but still.
Innova’s sound is very good, and John Halle’s notes are gushily informative.
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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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It’s a long way from Brooklyn to Big Sur, isn’t it? Well, New York based composer (and Philip Glass Ensemble member) David Crowell’s work Eucalyptus suggests that the distance can be bridged with a single overtone series. This spectral imbued piece for saxophones allows for frequency pile-ups to suggest an aromatic evergreen grove just off of a Northern California beach: still within earshot of the crashing surf. And if you don’t like having this Big Sur inspired programme get in the way of your sonic immersion, it is a lovely and warm aural bath all by itself.
Crowell likes using consorts of instruments, homogeneous groupings (apart from occasional electronic manipulation). Thus, the saxophones of Eucalyptus and its jazzy post-minimal counterpart Point Reyes give way to the mallet instruments of Kaleidoscope. Here, the composer enlists the assistance of percussionist Brian Archinal, who populates the piece with a striking textural makeup of overlapping ringing ostinati.
Archinal is also on hand for “Throw Down your Heart,” a work inspired by a documentary in which Bela Fleck described the African roots of the banjo. It features the amadinda, a twelve foot long marimba played by up to six people. Indeed, the piece’s busily corruscating mallet-played melodies remind one of an entire shop of banjos and mbiras (thumb pianos) being played all at once. Here, as elsewhere, Crowell’s use of layering encompasses the cannily composed with just the right taste of aleatory to allow for a bit of improvisational sounding organicism to zestily season a distinctive sound world.
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Flickers of Mime/Death of Memes (2 discs)
What do you get when you combine Kubrick moods, outer space, Middle Eastern vibes, clouds of metal timbre, and a lot of talent in mixing those ingredients? Something similar to a disc by Alexander Berne. How about combining the primeval, the creepily serene, and the sense of slow motion. You’ll get the same thing.
Now, coalesce both of those, and you’ll get an illustration of the arc of human nature woven into an ambient collection. Or, more accurately, you’ll get Alexander Berne’s new album Flickers of Mime/Death of Memes.
Flickers of Mime/Death of Memes is the third collection of works by Berne and his Abandoned Orchestra. Berne is a composer from New York who has primarily immersed himself in the jazz scenes of America and Belgium. He is a saxophonist and has also invented a new wind instrument, one he calls the “saduk,” a mixture between a saxophone and a duduk.
Flickers of Mime/Death of Memes is an album divided into two discs. The first, Flickers of Mime, is meant to symbolize what a mime might create using its bare movements. Many of the tracks off this disc include very 80s-space sounding, sustained notes, such as “Flicker I” and “Flicker VII,” while many others include eastern scales and timbres. However, these tracks are not obviously themed. Each is soon invaded with other ambient sounds that help the disc do what it was meant to do; through each of the “flickers” on the first disc, a different world, structure, or mood is built. Despite some of the celestial sounds, Flickers of Mime/Death of Memes does not use any synthesizers or the like. “Flicker VIII” sounds like calm, Middle Eastern-sounding club music, and can be compared to songs by Mocean Worker with its sassy wind motifs paired with loose piano phrases. “Flicker X” is a whirlwind of sounds that the listener arrives at in linear ways, like passing each one in a car. While each track is one train of thought without much individual development, the way the flickers are lined up in the album creates one leg of the arch that is Flickers of Mime/Death of Memes. “Flicker XI,” the last track on the disc, is eerily similar to “Flicker II,” but with faded glances back at previous flickers.
The second disc, Death of Memes, is meant to be the second leg of the arch—the one that recedes back to the ground. One would more literal apocalyptic sounds on a disc that illustrates the downfall of a society. But the pieces on the disc are mostly loosely primitive, like the aftermath of said apocalypse. While Berne’s album’s first disc focuses on the construction of aural formations, the second one is the destruction of those. The perspective is also different on the two discs. Flickers of Mime is, hypothetically, meant to come from the hands of one man. Death of Memes describes the downfall of a large mass, like a city. Many of the tracks on the disc are much more subtle, such as “Meme III,” a piece of unfettered yet serene piano accompanied by ambient drones. “Meme I” is one of the only tracks that moves slightly in the realm of more aggressive dystopia, with subdued timpani and other percussion.
Alexander Berne’s Flickers of Mime/Death of Memes is an album that doesn’t fall into the whirlpool that ambient music, or music of the sort, sometimes can—monotony. Because of the well thought-out relationships between the two discs, Berne has constructed a body of work that works together in ways not only aurally, but conceptually. It offers a new way of looking at the arch of humanity; the arch that we ourselves, as humans, might never understand.
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Timothy McAllister, soprano saxophone; Zachary Shemon, alto saxophone; Matthew Levy, tenor saxophone; Taimur Sullivan, baritone saxophone
- Roshanne Etezady: Inkling
- Zack Browning: Howler Back
- Tim Ries: Lu
- Gregory Wanamaker: speed metal organum blues
- Renee Favand-See: isolation
- Libby Larsen: Wait a Minute
- Nick Didkovsky: Talea, Stink Up! (PolyPrism 1 and 2)
- Greg Osby: Prism #1
- Donnacha Dennehy: Mild, Medium-Lasting, Artificial Happiness
- Ken Ueno: July 23
- Adam B. Silverman: Just a Minute, Chopin
- William Bolcom: Scherzino
- Matthew Levy: Three Miniatures
- Jennifer Higdon: Bop
- Dennis DeSantis: Hive Mind
- Robert Capanna: Moment of Refraction
- Keith Moore: OneTwenty
- Jason Eckhardt: A Fractured Silence
- Frank J. Oteri: Fair and Balanced?
- Perry Goldstein: Out of Bounds
- Tim Berne: Brokelyn
- Chen Yi: Happy Birthday to PRISM
- James Primosch: Straight Up
I don’t think there are enough words to describe the technical precision, the unity of sonic intent, the musicality, and the timbral facility present in the Prism Quartet’s playing. Fortunately for me, I don’t really need the words; I have this disc instead. These 23 compositions, all short and wonderfully focused, paint a wonderful aural picture of this amazing sax quartet. The slithering of Roshanne Etezady’s Inkling showcases the extreme fluidity of their sound and as soon as it is over – BAM – we are hit with the spiky and strident Howler Black by Zack Browning. Adam B. Silverman’s Just a Minute, Chopin is as tender and expressive as Gregory Wanamaker’s speed metal organum blues is not, yet Prism sounds like they were born to play both. Compositions using lots of extended techniques like Ken Ueno’s July 23… (the full title takes longer to read than it takes to listen to the piece) and Jason Eckardt’s A Fractured Silence are gorgeous and rich sounding. The composers’ voices are strong and resonant and Prism plays these works as if no effort was involved (the effort for these pieces is considerable). Frank Oteri’s Fair and Balanced? exploits Prism’s pitch and tuning control with his four microtonal movements. By the time the disc is over, you’ll think there is nothing the Prism Quartet can’t do. And you’d be right.
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Innova CD 234
Barton McLean’s latest release finds the composer/pianist/electronic musician presenting works that draw upon a variety of inspirations. These range from local to more exotic geographies, from field recordings to laboriously crafted computer sounds from customized software, and from live performances to overdubbed studio-wrought virtual ensembles. What brings these seemingly disparate works together is McLean’s distinctive ear for timbre, and his delight in creating various sonic echoes and digitized instrumental doppelgangers.
The earliest completed piece, 1989’s Demons of the Night, explores the darker side of a summer evening in rural New York. Various dark denizens, real or imagined (we can’t be sure!), are evoked by cackling saxophone and agitated synthesized glissandi.
On Concerto: States of Beingg (2009), McLean serves as piano soloist while the “Petersburgh Electrophilharmonica” provides a virtual accompaniment. The three movements – “Wonder,” “Attainment,” and “Tranquility” – each evoke a different stage of life or state of mind. The solo part is fluidly rendered and, given the subject matter, suitably wide ranging. The accompanying timbres are equally multifaceted in makeup, but generally favor echoing reverberations that trail the piano’s attacks and bell-like sonorities. Magic at Xanadu is a showcase for McLean’s electroacoustic prowess, particularly his facility with MAX/MSP (from which the work takes its title). Its blending of more atmospheric timbres with ostinatos crafts a work of variegated texture and intriguingly intricate formal design. More exploratory still is the live electronics piece Ice Canyons, which blends ephemeral wisps of melody with string pads and ambiguous harmonies blurred with glissandos.
More acoustically based is Ritual of the Dawn, a chamber sextet for the Syracuse Society of New Music. It is a contemplative millennial work that features shimmering pitched percussion, insistent gongs, McLean’s virtuosic pianism, and soaring wind duets. It captures both the nervous excitement and reflective moments that can take hold of us, sometimes in quick succession, at times of significant change. Finally, Rainforest Images II makes successful use of field recordings and natural sounds in a sound installation; a genre that is often rife with cliche is here given considerable compositional focus. Thus, the CD presents many facets of McLean without ever diluting the impression of a composer with keenly refined vision.
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