Archive for the “minimalism” Category
John Luther Adams
The Wind in High Places
Cold Blue Music has released The Wind in High Places, a new CD of string music by 2014 Pulitzer prize-winning composer John Luther Adams. The album consists of three pieces: The Wind in High Places, a 3-movement work performed by the JACK Quartet, Canticles of the Sky, a 4-movement piece for four cello choirs as performed by the Northwestern University Cello Ensemble and Dream of the Canyon Wren, by the JACK Quartet.
The first movement of The Wind in High Places is titled Above Sunset Pass and this begins with high, needle-like violin tones riding above sustained lower pitches. There is the feel of wind whistling through rocks in remote isolation. Sunset Pass, Alaska is, in fact, one of the most isolated places in North America; a low point in the Brooks Range that opens onto the Arctic Coastal Plain deep in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The overwhelming sense of removal from civilization in this place might produce a certain intimidation, but that is not what we hear in this music. The initial feeling of a vast remoteness is gradually replaced by a warm, introspective sense of place that is both welcoming and intimate. The harmonies are ruggedly beautiful and precisely played by the JACK Quartet, especially the very highest pitches that are the most evocative. Above Sunset Pass, with its pastoral sensuality and primal harmonies offers the listener an invitation to dwell in this wild place on its own terms.
Maclaren Summit follows and this has a busier feel with a series of fast, sharp passages in the higher registers, like snow swirling along a ridge line. There is an ethereal feel from the continuous motion in the violins, pleasantly complimented by a slightly more rugged texture in the lower strings. This feels like more mountainous terrain and is almost pointillist in its depiction of the snowy landscape. The playing here is very delicate and has just the right touch, as if the air itself is moving the strings. With its roiling and crisscrossing passages, Maclaren Summit manages to evoke the intensity of a snow squall without any of the menace.
Looking Toward Hope is the third and final movement of The Wind in High Places and this begins with a low, steady cello, now mixed with higher sustained tones. This has a craggy feel, like looking at a rugged mountain face. The texture is rich and warm throughout, evoking a feeling of grandeur. All three movements of The Wind in High Places offer the listener a peaceful alternative to the adversarial and often politicized relationship with nature that we moderns have inherited from a problematic past.
The four movements of Canticles of the Sky follow, as performed by four cello choirs – some 48 players – all members of the Northwestern University Cello Ensemble directed by Hans Jørgen Jensen. Sky with Four Suns is the first of these and begins with warm, deep tones in the bottom registers, building up on thirds and fifths. Lovely harmonies rise up like a cathedral tower, beautiful and lush, with a bright upper line arcing overhead. The feeling is a bit like that sense of the mystical one hears when an orchestra is tuning. The notes rise in volume and pitch, with a powerful fulness of texture, and then slowly decrescendo back to the lower tones and a peaceful finish.
Sky with Four Moons is next and this movement opens on a single sustained high tone, soon joined by lower pitches, almost as an inversion of the first movement. The volume swells as the piece progresses and a deep rugged sound is heard as the tones reach the lower registers. The pitches reascend, becoming quieter at the finish. This movement has a slightly more remote and distant feel, as a quiet night sky might appear.
Sky with Nameless Colors follows, again opening on a sustained high note with tones added in close harmony above and below. This develops a thicker feeling, especially as the pitches settle in at the bottom. As the piece progresses the texture thins out to a somewhat brighter feel as it ends quietly on a single note.
The final movement of Canticles of the Sky is Sky with Endless Stars and this begins with a low, deep tone that builds upward in a dark harmony. There is a somber feel to this, like a dirge played very slowly on a pipe organ. The volume builds as tones are added, rising upward to a higher, brighter register that brings out a feeling of expansiveness. As with the other movements this concludes by way of decrescendo and a thinning out of the harmonies to a single tone.
The final track on the CD is Dream of the Canyon Wren as performed by the JACK Quartet and this has a more surreal quality than the previous pieces. This opens with a series of low repeating figures in the cello that are followed by similar passages in the violins. The sound is suggestive of a series of dreamlike bird calls. Silences follow, and then a flurry of fast figures in the higher registers that devolve into lower, slower echoes. This pattern continues, slowing to a low, gauzy wash before concluding on one last high-pitched burst. Dream of the Canyon Wren is perhaps the most abstract of the works on this CD and the playing by the JACK Quartet is meticulously precise.
The music of The Wind in High Places precedes Become Ocean, the 2013 symphonic work that won Adams the Pulitzer last year. But this album of string music is cut from the same cloth, perfectly expressing the gentle sensibilities that inform a highly sympathetic view of nature. In a recent Facebook posting John Luther Adams wrote: “That’s been my lifelong obsession… Place as Music. And Music as Place.” The Wind in High Places is compelling evidence of just how completely he has succeeded.
The Wind in High Places (CB0041) is available from Cold Blue Music.
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Michael Vincent Waller
Seven Easy Pieces
Seven Easy Pieces is the second EP of solo piano music this year from Michael Vincent Waller, released December 2, 2014. Marija Ilic performs this suite of miniatures as recorded by Lawrence de Martin at the Spectrum Studio in New York, NY.
Track 1 is Miniatures (2014) – III. Return from The Fork and this begins with a series of simple repeating phrases that continue with slight variations over a descending bass line. This breaks into an appealingly complex melody and the contrast with the descending chords gives an open, expansive feel. The playing here is accurate and with a sensitive touch.
Miniatures – II. Vocalise follows and this features a quick, syncopated melody over strong descending chords in the lower register. There is a sense of purposeful activity here, almost dance-like and with a pleasing pace and rhythm.
Miniatures – I. Golden Fourths is next and has a rapid, agile melody line played over a solid, repeating bass chord progression. Nicely ornamented in spots – all crisply rendered – this miniature has an almost Baroque feel.
Track 4 is Miniatures – IV. Couplet and this is in a slower tempo with a more dramatic feel. A nice counterpoint develops that accentuates the darker atmosphere. Nicely complex and developed in last minute with a flowing, liquid feel.
Miniatures – V. Drops of Light follows and begins with single notes in the higher registers, echoed by a single note in low or middle. Now a descending bass line highlights a series of luminescent notes in melody. ‘Drops of Light’ exactly captures the feel of this piece and the playing by Marija Ilic was equally radiant.
Miniatures – VI. Requests is on track 6 and at 40 seconds is the shortest of the miniatures. Requests is a series of light arpeggios that have the feeling a harp glissando. There is a sense of brightness and space to this.
Miniatures – VII. Octagonal Etude is the concluding miniature and opens with a series of strong single notes followed by short silences that allow the harmonics to rise and mix in unsettling combinations. The dissonances present provide a sense of uncertainty in this last piece.
Seven Easy Pieces is the natural follow-on to Five Easy Pieces released earlier this year. This latest release has a somewhat more cohesive feel than its predecessor and manages to owe more to traditional forms while at the same time sounding entirely contemporary. Seven Easy Pieces is another step by Michael Vincent Waller towards new music informed by historical methods.
The mastering was by Cory Allen at Altered Ear, Austin, Texas and the cover art is Untitled, (2014) by Peter Geerts.
Seven Easy Pieces is available for download here.
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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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Dave Seidel: ~60 Hz
Dave Seidel is a New Hampshire-based composer and performer who works primarily in electronic music. The title, ~60 Hz, refers to the approximate frequency of the sine wave tones that begin two of the three works that comprise this CD. 60 Hz is also the frequency of our 110 Volt AC power outlets. and although the pieces created here use other frequencies and combinations, 60 Hz becomes a touchstone for the entire album.
That Dave has chosen to work with pure wave forms presents challenges to both the creator and the listener. Mixtures of sine waves obviously lack the variety of timbres we normally expect when standard acoustic instruments are played. Pure wave forms normally tend to have a very sterile sound, but various frequencies and mixtures can produce a more distinctive feel, especially when used in the artful combinations offered here. Certain ratios of sine wave frequencies can sound alien and metallic, or they can feel rich and warm. When two frequencies are quite close, zero beating occurs and this is another element that can be employed by the artist. I actually loaded the MP3 files of ~60 Hz into Audacity, a freeware sound editing program, in order to see the wave forms of each piece as I listened.
The first track is titled Permutation and opens with a pure 60 Hz hum to start. This tone is very pure, yet surprisingly deep and warm – unlike the 60 Hz buzzing that you often hear creeping into bad cables in a cheap sound system. A second wave is added directly onto the 60 Hz hum as the piece progresses, is layered by another, then a third at pleasing harmonic intervals. Eventually this settles out to two frequencies of about 400 and 300 Hz sounding together and riding on the 60 Hz base tone with the third tone of some 700 or 800 Hz joining in. This produces a clean sound, but not alien or unsettling. The overall effect is the pleasing throb of well-maintained machinery, humming confidently along. A slight variation in the loudness between the different wave forms and a changing of their frequencies slightly impart a sense of motion. More layering occurs as new tones enter and depart, with zero beating arising in a way that adds to the sense of forward movement. There is ultimately a return to the simple 60 Hz hum, and this fades away at the finish. This track has a pleasantly alien feel, not harsh despite the use of pure tones. Permutation is a warm wash with a bit of an edge, and sufficient variety to be engaging.
Accretion, the second track, also starts with a deep 60 Hz hum. Two low sine waves follow, with zero beating between. A third frequency is added, somewhat higher, producing a more metallic feel. This combination of zero beating at a low frequency and the addition of a steady higher tone produces a feeling of motoring forward. The higher tone now moves up in pitch, as if increasing in speed. The zero beating now increases in volume, almost overwhelming the higher tone and chopping into it. The use of zero beating here to shape the overall texture is nicely done. Now the beating tones become lower, a sense of down shifting. The higher tones become gradually softer while the lower beating tones predominate – as if something is passing out of sight. Finally there is just just a soft metallic hum that slowly fades away at the finish. There is a definite sense of journey in this piece, of going somewhere and arriving.
The final piece, Variation, begins with a 120 Hz steady hum to start. The volume now changes, increasing and then decreasing quickly to a brief silence, the sound rising and falling about twice a second or so. This period varies as does the maximum amplitude of the tone. There is a sort of broken, choppy feel to this, and these amplitude variations increase in tempo, introducing a beat that seems to have its own rhythm. Then the two sine waves waves start to zero beat – as well as oscillating in volume – adding more punch to the rhythmic line. The zero beating eventually smooths out around the12 minute mark, but continues to vary in amplitude, only not as quickly. This gives a sense of calming after the prior choppiness. The piece finishes with the original 120 Hz tone slowly decreasing in volume, then changing to a 60 Hz steady hum that gradually fades away. Variation is well named, given the varieties of volume modulation that this piece exhibits. The overall feeling is of watching some life form pulse and shimmer, as if attempting to communicate, then falling into stasis.
That such elementary sonic materials can be made to evoke such feelings is a real achievement. It is easy to produce irritating tones or 1950s science fiction sound effects, but ~60 Hz is a fine example of the artistry that can be inspired by the palette of the humble sine wave.
~60 Hz is available at the Irritable Hedgehog website.
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Michael Vincent Waller: Five Easy Pieces
Gumi Shibata and Jenny Q. Chai
Five Easy Pieces is a new CD of solo piano music by composer Michael Vincent Waller. The five tracks in this album are uncluttered and introspective, offering an inviting entry into Waller’s accessible style. The pieces on this CD are cast from familiar materials and played with exemplary care, allowing the listener to fully concentrate on the many emotions and feelings imparted by the music. Gentle and approachable, this is music that inspires both concentration and contemplation. Gumi Shibata performs on all the tracks save the last, which is played by Jenny Q. Chai.
The first track on the CD is L’anno del Serpente (2013) and this begins with an uncertain, pensive feeling in the melody that is accentuated by a rising bass line. The tempo is deliberate and the texture is effectively fashioned from repeating lines with simple harmonies. The piece proceeds by way of variations on the opening theme with the first variation offering a bit more complexity and a nice counter melody in the bass. At no time does the piece feel rushed but moves along purposefully so that by the second variation it becomes forcefully declarative. The melody transitions to a flowing, forward-moving series of lines and closes with a quiet passage that leaves the listener in a satisfyingly reflective mood.
L’anno del Serpente is followed by Ninna Nanna (2013) and this piece opens with a gentle, questioning feel that is reinforced with a repeating, bell-like melody. The tempo is unhurried and this allows the sonorous intervals in the harmony to fully ring out. A slight syncopation provides a sense of languid motion as the piece progresses. The first variation increases the tempo, adding density with more notes and counterpoint and this provides a nice contrast to the opening section. The second variation returns to the slower pace of the opening and here the repeating tones become almost hypnotic, the harmonies seeming to hang in the air. The final notes at the close hover above like a fine mist.
The next two tracks are titled Per Terry e Morty I and II (2012) and refer to Terry Jennings and Morton Feldman respectively. Part I begins with strong, direct quarter notes in the melody and a repeating line in the bass that produces a sense of searching and uncertainty. A slight tension is introduced as counterpoint moves into the upper registers so that part I seems to close in a question. Part II has a middle eastern feel right from the beginning, with a simple melody above and strong chords below to form a powerful declarative line. Now counterpoint by way of a repeating figure above leads to a restatement of the opening with the addition of a descending line. Softening, slowing and then a return to tempo that restores the original color, followed by a strong chord at the finish. These two tracks provide an interesting contrast, especially part II with a strong exotic flavor.
The final track of Five Easy Pieces is Acqua Santa (2013) played by Jenny Q. Chai. Dark, deep notes open and the mysterious feeling is enhanced with a moving line above, alternately accelerating and slowing. A repeating line emerges, syncopated against the melody which serves to further deepen the mysterious feel. As the piece proceeds a series of solitary notes gather themselves into a halting cluster of full bodied chords, followed by a long arcing line that reestablishes the forward momentum. Finally, a sweet melody appears that accelerates, then slows turning introspective again. Acqua Santa closes with an abbreviated recall of the mysterious opening.
Five Easy Pieces, like much of Waller’s music, seems to look forward and backward simultaneously. The sounds are recognizable and familiar – especially in an album consisting of solo piano music – but the studied simplicity and use of repeating figures owes much to the vocabulary of late 20th century minimalism. The result is a mixture that should appeal to even the most determined critic of contemporary music.
Five Easy Pieces is available on iTunes here . More ways to download and listen are here.
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Cold Blue Music – CB0038
From Australia comes the premiere recording of Music for Airport Furniture, a new CD by Stephen Whittington and Cold Blue Music. This single track CD is performed by the Zephyr Quartet, an award-winning chamber group from Adelaide.
Given the title of this new Stephen Whittington piece, the classic 1978 Music for Airports by Brian Eno comes immediately to mind. Eno’s piece, incorporating phased loops and various groups of instruments, was an attempt to realize a more thoughtful ambient music for public airport terminals. Music For Airport Furniture, however, is concerned with the human emotions that play out within that space. Both works capture the essential lonely emptiness of the airport waiting lounge, but Music for Airport Furniture places its focus squarely on the human heart. Stephen Whittington describes:
“I was interested in the airport departure lounge as an arena for human emotions – boredom, apprehension, despair, loneliness, the tenderness of farewells – all taking place within a bland, often desolate space.”
Whittington’s choice of the string quartet as the vehicle for this piece is inspired, the lush harmonies, intimate sound and wide range of emotional expression are a perfect match to his musical intentions. The familiar sound of the string quartet is reassuring even as the opening notes of Music for Airport Furniture evoke that distinctive feeling of emptiness and regret that we have all felt while waiting for an airline boarding call. The music proceeds in a series of long, warm phrases, offset by the occasional pizzicato arpeggio in the cello. The minimalist texture is both smooth and luxurious and the sustained chords deftly unpack all the many emotions that accompany an extended absence from home and loved ones. The playing of the Zephyr String Quartet is outstanding, investing just the right of emotional content into each extended phrase and never letting the long tones stagnate throughout the 22 minute duration of the piece. We are carried gently and comfortably into a world of emotions we have all experienced.
I found that listening to Music for Airport Furniture also produced a distinct feeling of nostalgia. Here in the US, at least, airports have become so security conscious and the movements of people so controlled that there is no longer the emotional space for the sort of quiet introspection that this piece portrays so well. Sadly, the chaotic nature of air travel nowadays has left little room for the sort of lingering goodbyes that were possible in years past. Even so, Music for Airport Furniture is a masterful realization of the bitter-sweet sadness of farewell.
Stephen Whittington is an active composer and pianist who gave the first Australian performances of the music of Christian Wolff, Terry Riley, James Tenney, Peter Garland, Alan Hovhaness and Morton Feldman, among many others. An extended stay in Southern California in 1987 resulted in a meeting with John Cage and stimulated a new style of composition for Stephen that included elements of minimalism, polystylism and chance procedures. Other artistic interests include poetry and film. Stephen has performed at the Sydney Opera House, the Adelaide International Film Festival and the Vienna International Dance Festival.
The Zephyr Quartet was founded in 1999 and is based in Adelaide. They regularly play at festivals across Australia, have commissioned several new works and are committed to the development and promotion of classical new music.
This CD is available from Cold Blue Music and the release date is September 9, 2013.
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Cold Blue Two
Adams, Bryars, Cox, Fink, Fox, Garland, Lentz, Marshall, Miller, Polansky, Rosenboom, Schroeder, Smith, Tenney
Cold Blue Music
Cold Blue Music, the landmark recording label that features minimalism and post-minimalist music centered on the West Coast, has issued a new CD collection containing previously unreleased works by fourteen artists. A sequel to Cold Blue (the anthology) , Cold Blue Two maintains the high standards set by the first CD. With such artists as Daniel Lentz, Ingram Marshal, John Luther Adams, James Tenney, Jim Fox and others, Cold Blue Two stands as a valuable benchmark of the state of early 21st century music. The tracks on this CD are accessible yet evocative, warm, introspective and often profound – it is the ideal collection for the new music enthusiast or for those listening to serious contemporary music for the first time.
With fourteen short pieces by fourteen separate artists it is impossible to comment at length on all the tracks, but here are some observations on a few that caught my ear.
Celli – Daniel Lentz (2008)
Written for a single cello but with the solo lines overdubbed, this piece produces a lovely layered sound – warm and welcoming. Long, well-crafted tones. Introspective, with just the right amount of sentimentality – almost nostalgic. Produces the feeling of summing up that you get while watching a beautiful sunset. A strong work to lead off this CD.
Sometimes the Sword of Seven – Chas Smith (2008)
Composed specifically for this CD and realized electronically utilizing a steel guitar and Hammond organ as sources, this piece is a series of layered scale-like sounds that grow ominously in density and complexity. The tension increases as the pitches move upward – like a jet engine revving up – culminating in a sudden crash of chords that slowly decay while a church bell-like ringing creeps into the foreground – a very effective resolution.
Sky with Four Suns – John Luther Adams (2010)
A piece written to evoke the various phenomena of the low arctic sun as it interacts with ice crystals in the air to form halos, arcs, sun-dogs and mirages of multiple suns. This piece opens with long, low cello chords to create a warm sense of place, almost like being at sea on a calm day. The higher strings add to the welcome. The feel is anything but forbidding or bleak, as the subject might imply, but rather there is a sense of calm and reassurance. The bassoon trill towards the end reinforces the pastoral motif. An unexpectedly lush vision of the Alaskan environment.
Mallets in the Air – James Tenney (2002)
Here is a piece that adds an important historical connection to its musical virtues. Just intonation, combined with the Harry Partch diamond marimba and a string quartet produce this satisfying mix of drone and fast-moving, propulsive rhythms.
Eskimo Lullaby – Larry Polansky (2006)
A quiet, almost conventional piece written for the Lou Harrison Just Intonation Resonator Guitar. Organic, natural sounding and familiar – like folk music. Gentle and serene with excellent vocals. Try this one out on friends who are suspicious of alternate tunings.
In addition to those mentioned above, other artists appearing on Cold Blue Two are Gavin Bryars, Rick Cox, Michael Jon Fink, Peter Garland, Read Miller, David Rosenboom, and Phillip Schroeder.
Cold Blue Two is a compelling collection of contemporary music that is unified by quiet surfaces yet contains strong, flowing passions that will connect with any serious, inquisitive listener.
Further info at Cold Blue Music, here.
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This Was Written by Hand
Piano Music by David Lang
Andrew Zolinsky, piano
Cantaloupe Music CD
Wed, the audition piece for the David Lang 2011 Competition, is featured on This Was Written By Hand, David Lang’s latest CD, a recital disc recorded for Cantaloupe by pianist Andrew Zolinksy. It is one of eight “Memory Pieces” included on the disc. This group serves as postminimal “Characterstucke,” an attractive and mercurial group of contrasting miniatures.
Then there is the touching title work. One of Lang’s most organically constructed pieces, it was, indeed, written by hand and intuitively constructed. A meditation on the ephemeral nature of life, it captures a similar poignancy to Lang’s recent vocal work “Little Matchgirl Passion,” but writ smaller, more intimately. To both this and the Memory Pieces, Zolinsky brings a fluid grace and subtlety that abets the spontaneous, almost improvisatory, character of the material.
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Steve Reich & Musicians
I know all three of these works very well from online performances, and the upcoming release of this album sounds much the same as what I’ve come to know of these works.
Let’s start with WTC 9/11. Even better, let’s start with the elephant in the room: the album cover. It’s been called “despicable” by no less than the composer Phil Kline, and many felt it crossed the line. In my opinion, while it wouldn’t have been my first choice (I’d have opted for a composite image of diverse people, as people from all ethnic and religious groups and all walks of life were killed on 9/11), it’s also not like the cover depicts those horrifying images of people jumping to their deaths from the towers. But I agree it might not have been as sensitive as, say, the cover for Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls. That said, it is what it is, so let’s get to the music.
Based on what I had heard online, I made some comments on my own blog about WTC 9/11, and have not changed my opinion with the passing of time. The work is reminiscent of Different Trains and City Life, neither of which really grabbed me as completely as many of SR’s other works. They’re good, but not revelatory. But that’s just my own taste. The main issue for me with WTC 9/11 is that it can’t decide if it wants to be another Different Trains, another Double Sextet, or (insert older SR work here). I feel each time I listen to it that this was a project that SR was asked to take on, which is a very heady challenge by definition, and as a result had to turn something out in time. Expectations are high. So it’s understandable he’d fall back to a familiar formula, namely using the natural music found within speech as the basis for a work. It’s a concept that dates all the way back to his early taped phase works of human speech, and it’s a great concept. But it’s done; been there, done that. That technique just didn’t strike me as something that would work well with something of the magnitude of what happened on 9/11. The music seems to be secondary to pointing out the natural music found within snippets of speech. It kind of worked in Different Trains, perhaps in part due to its novelty and also due to the poignancy of the speakers. At the same time, there were good moments in Different Trains that were not accompaniments to the speech segments, but stood on their own as music for the (two) string quartets by themselves. That seems to be missing here; the music is nearly always subservient to the spoken texts and their inherent musical qualities. And that’s perhaps why I’m underwhelmed by the piece, despite the first-rate performance by the Kronos Quartet.
The two other works, however, are standard Reich, and work well. Nothing new there, but still very good to listen to. Either or both are worth the price of the album. And again, they are well performed.
What made something like Double Sextet work well is its novelty. It broke new ground after many years of variations on earlier SR works. I was really hoping WTC 9/11 would break new ground as well. I don’t doubt that many will love the piece, either because they love anything SR writes, or else really do feel genuinely moved by the work. And good for them. I would have loved to say something more positive about the work, in all honesty. But in the end, it has nothing to do with the cover (I got to know this piece before the cover was even revealed here on S21) and everything to do with the music. It just didn’t work for me. Feel free to love it. Or not. But don’t judge it by the cover. It works or doesn’t on its musical merits, or lack thereof.
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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, Jay Batzner, minimalism, Women Composers, tags: Cantaloupe, CD Review, Ensemble Resonanz, Jay Batzner, Julia Wolfe, postminimalism, strings
Brad Lubman, conductor
The big question I had when putting in this disc for the first time was “Will a string orchestra be able to recreate the visceral power and energy that I find vital in Julia Wolfe’s string quartets?” My fear was that the harder and sharper attacks I enjoy will be too diluted with more players in the ensemble. It was a silly skepticism to hold and any trepidations I had quickly melted away once I started listening. Also, Ensemble Resonanz is the same group that recorded Weather and a disc of Xenakis. I was pretty sure I was going to have a good time with this CD.
Ensemble Resonanz and Julia Wolfe make an excellent team. Not only did Wolfe obviously compose music better suited for an orchestra than a quartet (it was foolish of me to doubt that she would) but Resonanz also threw serious energy behind both pieces. Cruel Sister, inspired by a dark Old English ballad, is expressive and emotive balancing the programmatic elements with a clean dramatic line that makes sense in the abstract. The hollow open intervals which throb away at the beginning enmesh with more angry and spiky punctuations. The four attacca movements are woven together in a solid and disrupted narrative. Ensemble Resonanz brings power and control to the whole range of the sonic spectrum and Wolfe adeptly showcases register and texture. I am especially fond of the transition between the second and third movements which is (to my ear) simultaneously abrupt yet smooth.
Fuel is a far more abstract work driven by the problems the world faces regarding the necessity of fuel. Ensemble Resonanz masterfully blends in a variety of coloristic techniques, making sounds like scratch tones a part of the woven tapestry of sound. The CD notes go so far as to state that electronics were not used at all and that all the sounds in the piece are acoustic. I think that disclaimer is a bit much. There is certainly a wider variety of string techniques and timbres in Fuel than in Cruel Sister but I never had a “What the heck was that?” reaction. Scratch tones, harmonics, tremolo, and filtering the sound via bow placement are all active parameters in the sound world. Again, Resonanz brings a whole lot of power throughout the registers and forms a massive hyper-instrument blend the likes of which make string quartets secretly jealous.
Wolfe’s music is also doing what she does best: frenetic power created through post-minimalist techniques that transcend mere repetition. The music materials are sharp, taut, basic, and the economy of material is expertly managed. Wolfe knows how to make a lot out of a little AND pull the listener along for the ride. Both works have programmatic elements but not knowing the program does not interfere with the listening experiences. These works sound fresh and contemporary and I’m confident that audiences in the future will continue to relate and connect with the ideas therein.
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