Archive for the “Uncategorized” Category
Andrew Tholl / Corey Fogel / Devin Hoff
CONDITIONAL TENSION is a recently released CD from populist records that features two extended improvisations by violinist Andrew Tholl, percussionist Corey Fogel, and Devin Hoff on bass. All three have worked together in various local groups, but CONDITIONAL TENSION is their first release as an improvising trio. The two pieces on this album were recorded live at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles in November 2012.
The first track on the CD is titled sensitivity to initial conditions, and is performed with acoustic instruments. This begins with a low continuous tone in the bass joined by smooth, sustained tones in the violin. The percussion is light and more active and the thin texture produces a gentle, exotic feel. Complex passages ebb and flow throughout as the piece unfolds, with solos passed around between the players. Familiar bass and drum rhythms form a foundation for some really dazzling violin playing by Andrew Tholl, reminiscent of late Coltrane. Corey Fogel’s accessible drumming becomes an anchor point for the ear as the growl and squeal of the bass and violin lines skitter and whirl about. The textural surface surges like a restless tide, constantly changing in color and density, but never sounding threatening or intimidating.
At 16:00 a crescendo builds that is comprised of high, squiggly violin passages, a strong arco bass underneath and a long cymbal roll that makes for a very effective combination. This eventually breaks down – like an unstable chemical compound – as each instrument goes its own way. New amalgams form, break apart and recombine again as the piece progresses. By 33:00 a very complex texture emerges in the bass and violin with the percussion hanging back, adding a few comments now and then. The volume builds and then retreats, ultimately dying away in a calm and settled finish. sensitivity to initial conditions is a beautifully wrought piece that combines seamless improvisation, impressive technique and outstanding playing.
reasonable strategies for tense conjugation is the second track on the CD and for this amplified instruments were employed. The piece has a louder, more intense sound with an edge that cuts rather than caresses. There is a strong, almost menacing feel to this especially in the snarling bass lines at the opening. The percussion is helpfully steady but more militant, especially in the snare and cymbal. Complex figures emerge in the violin and bass lines that float on an undercurrent of tension propelled by some nicely active drumming. A rapid squiggling in the violin appears with high, stabbing tones that bring to mind a free running electronic oscillator. The players enter and recede in changing combinations – the quieter sections benefiting by a lighter density and fewer notes.
At 17:15 there is a solemn stretch of slow pizzicato violin and bass notes that evoke a sense of sadness. This becomes progressively more distraught until a cry of agony is ultimately heard in the violin with a series of stinging passages. The intensity and volume build led by the drums and finally reaching a roar in the bass. The violin becomes completely unhinged in a frenetic hail of needle-sharp notes. The drums and bass gradually fill in underneath until the sudden ending.
reasonable strategies for tense conjugation is a fierce and exhilarating ride that pushes the expressive envelope with superbly controlled energy. The two tracks on this CD provide a vivid contrast between the expressive powers of acoustic and amplified sounds while highlighting the strengths of each.
Special mention must be made of the sound engineering, especially the recording and mixing by Nick Tipp, who adds to his impressive body of work. Listening to conditional tension is like being within arm’s length of each player – all the nuance and detail of improvisation is present and there is no noticeable background noise during the performances. The mastering was by Justin DeHart. The challenges of making a live recording outside the studio have been fully met in this CD.
CONDITIONAL TENSION is available directly from populist records.
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Nicholas Deyoe, Clint McCallum
Populist Records has released a limited edition 10 inch red vinyl recording by Los Angeles-based trombonist Matt Barbier titled FACE|RESECTION. The record features two short pieces by Nicholas Deyoe and Clint McCallum. According to the liner notes: “Both works explore hyper industrial regularity that sonically functions on the imperfect regularities created by an organic body.” Matt Barbier is a founding member of both gnarwhallaby and Trio Kobayashi, two local new music ensembles, and he has also appeared in the widely-praised opera Hopscotch.
Side A of FACE|RESECTION contains Facesplitter (2011/2014) by Nicholas Deyoe and this begins with loud, rough tones that oscillate in dynamics and pitch, much like a motor running or the hearing of some nearby industrial process. At times the sound approaches a kind of snarl that might be some fantastic beast or perhaps a group of synchronized air wrenches. At 3:32 there is an extended musical tone, eventually replaced by more rough, industrial voicing. The wide diversity of sounds – and the strength required to produce them – is impressive. FACE|RESECTION, as written by Nicholas Deyoe is at the ragged edge of intonation and technique, and adds a challenging new vocabulary to trombone playing.
Side B of the record is Bowel Resection (2011), by Clint McCallum and this has a similarly rough, industrial tone but is more consistent in pitch and texture. The sound is a continuous growl and reminiscent of a fast motorboat or a racing car. The pitch varies, speeding up and down in jumps, as if an engine is being tuned for maximum power. The circular breathing by Matt Barbier is extraordinary and surely ranks as an athletic achievement – aspiring trombone players should be required to hear this piece. Bowel Resection is a convincing musical portrait of internal combustion heard close up.
FACE|RESECTION is available as a collectible 10 inch vinyl disk, complete with eye-catching cover art from Populist Records. The two pieces can also be streamed here.
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Music of Philip Glass
Paris-based artist Nicolas Horvath has released a new CD on the Naxos Grand Piano label titled Glassworlds 2 featuring the complete Philip Glass piano etudes, numbers 1 through 20. The etudes were begun in the mid-1990s by Glass to expand the repertoire of new music for what had become an active concert schedule for solo piano. These pieces were written after the success of Einstein on the Beach and the scoring of Koyaanisqatsi and represent something of a return by Philip Glass to his early studies as a student of Nadia Boulanger. Etudes 1 through 10 were written during the 1990s in between other works such as Hydrogen Jukebox, String Quartet No. 5 and Symphony No. 2.
These first ten etudes, known together as Book I, are technically challenging – but they are at a distinct stylistic distance from the early minimalism of, say, Music With Changing Parts that famously features repetition, limited dynamic range and static harmonies. Etude No. 1, for example, begins with four strong chords followed by rapid trilling and a crescendo-decrescendo style in the passage work that is reminiscent of the great 19th century piano virtuosi. There is a detectable echo of early minimalism here but it has been subordinated to requirements of a more demanding and expressive technique, masterfully provided on this CD by Nicolas Horvath. Etudes 3 and 4 are even more dramatically phrased, almost as if they were lifted from a piano concerto.
Etude 6 has a powerful emotional component – as well as a touch of pathos – that also lends itself to a more passionate interpretation. This etude has become a favorite of Nicolas Horvath, as he writes in the liner notes: “The only recording of Book I which was available for many years did not excite me, but while attending a recital in which the composer himself performed a selection I radically changed my view, inspired by Glass’ own poetical pianism, and helped by the hall’s acoustic, my instinct recreated them as if they were performed in a Lisztian or Rachmaninov-like manner and I suddenly understood their immense potential.”
Book 2 – Etudes 11 through 20 – were composed over a longer time period, from about 2000 onward to 2013. The music of Book 2 has a completely different point of view, as Philip Glass writes: “The first ten really have a pedagogical aspect to them for my own development. The second set have nothing or very little to do with that. I began working in the world of ideas… I did not put restrictions on the technique.” Etude 12, for example, opens with strong repeating figures that impart a complex, questioning feel along with cross currents and a swirling, unsettled aspect. Etude 13 is a frantic, slightly out of control piece, filled with powerful scales running up and down that seem almost disoriented at times. By contrast, Etude 16 is smooth and restrained, with a calm, reflective feeling that is beautifully brought out by the sensitive playing of Nicolas Horvath. Number 19 is slower with a series of single, deliberate notes in the bass line combined with nicely articulated counterpoint in the upper registers that produce a more contemporary feel. There is more variety in the Book 2 etudes and more scope for expressive technique.
Nicolas Horvath, with precise playing and imaginative interpretation has made Glassworlds 2 an indispensable reference for the serious enthusiast as well as marking an important milestone in the evolution of the music of Philip Glass.
Glassworlds 2 is available on Amazon.
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Naxos has released a new Composers Concordance CD titled Song Cycles, featuring the works of eight composers with text by eight poets. Each song cycle is comprised of two to four short selections and the subjects range from failed relationships to the classic character portraits of the Canterbury Tales. The playing and singing are beautifully realized on the entire CD and each piece convincingly carries forward its story with music and voice.
Carefully Try Balance is the first song cycle, consisting of three sections written by three different composers, all based on the poetry of Toby Roberts. The first of these, Part 1 was composed by David Gotay and begins with a strong piano chord and blustery flute passages. The clear soprano voice of Elizabeth Cherry soon joins, singing of winter weather; a metaphor for a relationship that is going cold. The flute answers each passage in the voice and the blend is very effective. The singing is precise and easy to follow, with good tone and clear annunciation. There is a chill in this that sets the stage for the sections that follow Part 2, by Zach Seely, begins with deep piano notes, dark and melancholy. The soprano enters with spoken text followed by dramatic singing whose volume and emotion approach operatic dimensions. This is the breaking up of the relationship with low, dark notes in the piano and coldly spoken words.
Part 3, by Thomas Carlo Bo, opens with a lighter, more optimistic piano line and the soprano now embarks on a more bluesy, reflective line. There is a sense of getting past the pain of the breakup, a more philosophical feel: “Life and romance can be cruel – both are over too soon.” The three sections, although separately composed, work very well together and the arc of the story is carried forward seamlessly throughout. This is also a tribute to the artful playing and singing that infuse this work. Carefully Try Balance is a fine example of the power of good writing and close artistic cooperation.
The second song cycle on the CD is Blues From an Airport Bar, composed by Gene Pritsker, with poetry by Jacob Miller and vocals by Charles Coleman. These three are reunited having appeared together on an earlier CD, Manhattan in Charcoal. The feel is similar and this four-movement work opens with a bluesy piano and Coleman’s solid baritone lamenting the departure of his former lover aboard an airplane that has just taken off. He is a poet who has lost at love and now considers his fate from an airport bar stool. There is a sad, confessional feel to this – almost Sinatra-like – as the alcohol begins its work. Movement 2 has a wonderfully tipsy line in the piano and just a bit less coherence in the lyrics as the singer drinks further into his cups. There are recriminations and regrets, but this movement ends on a questionably sincere “I wish her the best…”
Movement 3 is much slower and nicely evokes the effect of alcohol fully felt. The low notes in the piano and voice point to the depressive effect of the liquor and the lyrics meander through unconnected thoughts, honest realizations and unlikely scenarios of reconciliation. The singing here is outstanding; precise yet fully expressing that hazy combination of honest assessment and alcohol-induced fog. Movement 4 is upbeat, with a sense of release – the failure of the relationship is taken into a bigger context and the experience will become grist for the poet’s art. Blues from an Airport Bar charmingly captures the pain of a lost love in the familiar confines of an airport watering hole, the sadness, anger and alcohol perfectly reflected in the music and lyrics.
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Los Angeles-based Populist Records has released PRISM, a new CD of music by Scott Worthington. Composed between 2010 and 2012, PRISM widens the circle of masterful work heard on his previous CD Even the Light Itself Falls. All the pieces on this new album are performed by Scott Worthington on the double bass, some accompanied by electronics with others recorded and layered three or five times.
At Dusk (2010), for double bass and electronics, is the first track and this begins with a satisfying pizzicato thump followed by a low growling arco note and a series of higher, questioning tones. The sequence repeats with variations, each passage ending in silence but with a faint, quivering echo in the electronics. More sequences follow with the same elements, but more complex now in their variations. There is a nice mix of textures and tones that are captured as ghostly echoes that seem to hover in the air. The sense is of low intensity power, like looking at the sun on the horizon. At 7:15 the feeling turns a bit more settled and gentle – the reverberations becoming more optimistic and less alien. More complex rhythms follow, but there is less roughness in the lower notes and a smoother, more welcoming feel. At 12:00 there is a sense of fading energy – as if the sun is setting – and there are some lovely passages with pleasing reverberations. By 14:00 there is a growing sense of departure and the piece concludes on a series of higher notes that fade quietly away.
The quiet echoes heard in At Dusk are reminiscent of one of the techniques employed by Helmut Lachenmann in his Got Lost (2007/2008), where strong notes from the singer are sympathetically echoed by the strings of an open grand piano. At Dusk demonstrates the amazingly versatile sounds that can be elicited from the double bass and Worthington’s perceptive use of them when combined with electronics.
Tracks 2 and 4 comprise two versions of a Quintet (after Feldman)(2011). Both of these pieces are short – a bit more than 3 minutes each – but consist of five separate layers of double bass. Version 1 begins with a low, rumbling chord with a rough, woody bottom and slightly metallic tones in the middle and higher registers. The tones are smooth and sustained, discordant and with a somewhat alien feel at times, but mostly warm and accessible. There is a sense of grandeur in the lowest tones, like being deep in the unknown world of dark ocean depths.
Version 2 continues in a similar pattern with low, sustained chords agreeably layered among the five double bass tracks. There is slightly more dissonance here, but this never results in an unsettled feel and the effect is to increase the exotic ambiance. Both versions of Quintet (after Feldman) seem to shift between the familiar and the unknown, but always with a deliberately comforting elegance.
Prism (2010) occupies track 3 and this consists of three double bass layers. This starts with a single high chord followed by silence. This is repeated three times, then again with notes that skip about, although the overall feeling is quiet and solemn. The piece proceeds in this way, a series of passages followed by a few seconds of silence. In one section the notes seem to chirp between the high and middle registers with an almost reedy sound. There is a lonely, open feel to all of this, with a touch of emptiness. Deeper notes appear, adding mystery.
At 4:10 a series of active notes are heard above a deep counterpoint. By 5:00 the tempo slows and thin, sustained tones are heard floating above soft, darker notes in the middle registers. Higher notes, now alone, produce a feeling of remoteness but this gradually evolves into a warm wash below with playful, bouncy notes riding above. Now a sudden low rumble with dissonant sounds that are followed by a light sustained tone, fading at the finish. Scott Worthington manages to evoke a wide variety of feelings from the double bass and the layering is artfully done.
The last track on the CD is Reflections (in memoriam Stephano Scodanibbio) (2012), for double bass and electronics, and this begins with a low drone that alternates between a dissonant growl and a somewhat thinner moan. High, sighing tones join in, adding to the mournful mood. Some roughness and a questioning feel are heard in the middle registers producing a sense of anguish and uncertainty. The relentlessness of the drone now becomes oppressive, like a great weight bearing down on the texture. The low, melancholy sounds fill the ears and seem to inhabit the listener’s head. Great sonic tears are falling and cry out in their sadness. By 9:00 the tempo slows, the drone diminishes and this compelling statement of disconsolate sorrow concludes as the sound slowly fades away.
Reflections is a fine tribute and a powerfully empathetic work that will move all who have experienced permanent loss.
PRISM was recorded at the Conrad Prebys Music Center in San Diego, CA and the sound engineering here – given the layering and subtle use of electronics – is first rate. PRISM expands the scope of Scott Worthington’s music to encompass an extraordinarily wide variety sensations and emotions, all conjured from the traditional double bass.
PRISM is available from Populist Records.
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Twilight of the Dreamboats
Cold Blue Music has released a new CD titled Twilight of the Dreamboats composed, performed and recorded by Chas Smith in 2014. Featuring a combination of sound sculptures and steel guitars, this electro-acoustic work is “…an ever-evolving single gesture, a seamless blend of tones and timbres.” Chas Smith has an extensive resume, including study with Morton Subotnick, Mel Powell, James Tenny and Harold Budd and he is also active as a performer in film scores.
The sonic materials that comprise this work are sound sculptures designed by Smith with names like Bertoia m718, Que Lastas, lockheed, Mantis and Sceptre. Additionally, Chas Smith performs on a series of modified steel guitars. The result is a precise, smooth sound that flows like liquid metal and evokes a variety of colors and feelings as it proceeds.
Twilight of the Dreamboats begins with a low, continuous tone that is soon joined by higher harmonics. There is a sense of discovery here, of something new and uncharted right in front of us. A low pedal tone enters, adding a sense of the profound. There is a haunting, continuously smooth texture to this; pensive but not dark or ominous. Swirling tones at 4:00 gradually break up this assurance and the feeling turns more mechanical and industrial as if we are in the presence of some large machine. A great, low rumbling soon overwhelms, like a large airplane passing overhead.
By 7:30, a softer, gentler feel emerges and the higher tones have again turned more optimistic and uplifting. Gradually the tone darkens somewhat, becoming more mysterious. A low moaning arises within and underneath the sound, adding a bit of anxiety. Halfway through the piece, a more approachable sound is heard and even the low tones have become warm and consonant. A soft wobbling is heard, reminiscent of the sound a worn bearing makes as it turns and this gives a sense of purposeful motion. By 16:00 we are in a whirring dream scape that contains some large, unseen mechanical force.
Now a high, barely perceptible pitch floats faintly over the swirling darkness, an arc of light in the gloom. The heavier sounds slowly dissemble, becoming less coherent by 22:00. A metallic moaning is heard, as if some large structure is breaking up. The pace slows, the sounds become quieter and there is a sense of settling as the piece slowly fades away.
That Twilight of the Dreamboats elicits such a wide range of feelings and emotions without a beat, recognizable musical instruments, harmonic progressions or familiar musical gestures is quite remarkable. The aesthetic power of the electro-acoustic processes and techniques deployed by Chas Smith on this CD is impressive and demonstrate just how far his music has evolved into a sound world of singular character and power..
Twilight of the Dreamboats is available from Cold Blue Music (CB0045)
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In the Village of Hope
Tasha Smith Godinez, harp
Michael Byron and Cold Blue Music have released a new CD of gorgeous music for the solo harp, commissioned and performed by Tasha Smith Godinez. In the Village of Hope contains a single 22 minute track that unfolds with such delicacy and grace that an hour of it would not seem too much. The composer writes: “With a sound reminiscent of wind chimes, it yields fields of harmonic stasis, that mysterious circumstance of individual notes diverging and merging to form a delicate fabric of sound.
In the Village of Hope opens with a quiet serenity, full of sound, but gentle as a summer rainfall. The tempo picks up almost imperceptibly and we are soon awash in a lovely counterpoint that infuses the harmonies with a steady propulsive energy. The rhythm is constant, with a fluid feel that ebbs and flows in complex patterns that weave a tapestry of sound. There is no progression or sense of harmonic movement except when a key change occurs – and there are several of these – then a new set of tones takes up in the same manner as previously. The texture and density have an appealing consistency throughout. Towards the finish the tempo slows and the sound becomes quieter as the final notes slowly expire. Listening to this piece is like watching the sun slip slowly over the horizon as it illuminates the sky in ever-changing colors and shades.
This music is perfectly suited to the harp providing just the right timbre for the complexity and hopefulness that are combined in this piece. There is an exotic and idealistic feeling to In the Village of Hope that is beautifully drawn out by the playing of Ms. Godinez, who negotiates the 22 minute shower of notes with assurance and perfect command of her instrument.
This is an impressive work, both in concept and performance – In the Village of Hope perfectly captures the optimism and tranquility that seems so elusive in our busy lives.
In the Village of Hope is available from Cold Blue Records (CB0043), Amazon and iTunes.
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After the Wars
Cold Blue Music
Sarah Cahill, piano
Cold Blue Music has released a new CD of piano music by Peter Garland titled After the Wars. Recorded by Sarah Cahill, After the Wars is one of a series of works she has commissioned that focus on the concept of peace. Each of the four pieces on this CD is based on a Chinese poem or Japanese Haiku and is built on sustained piano tones and chords. According to the composer the pieces in this album are “…simply stated with relatively little temporal or thematic development.”
The first track is Spring View: “The nation is ruined, but the mountains and rivers remain.” ( after Tu Fu) This begins with a series of deep, rumbling chords that paint a vivid picture of doom and destruction. These continue but are interspersed with higher, lighter chords that seem, in contrast, to hold out some hope. The heavy, sustained sounds boom out and then slowly fade after each passage. The lighter chords seem to be making cautionary comments on the devastation declared by the powerful sounds in the lower register. Spring View is the darkest of the pieces in this album and becomes the starting point for what follows.
The second track is titled “Summer grass / all that remains / of young warriors’ dreams.” (after Basho) and this also begins with dark, dramatic chords that ring out from the depths of the piano. In this piece, however, the chords climb up to the higher registers as if ascending a ladder. There is an ethereal feel to this progression, a redemptive quality that springs out of the previous darkness. The sustained ringing of the chords as they are struck hover in the air like spirits awaiting release. There is a more reflective feeling here and ultimately a sense of restful assurance.
Track three is Occasional Poem on an Autumn Day: “When I’m at peace I let everything go.” (after Ch’eng Hao) and this has a pleasantly sunny feel after the heavy drama of the first two pieces. Dense, sustained chords open but turn warmer and more relaxed as the piece progresses. A sense of relief is felt and the touch of Sarah Cahill on the keyboard is precise enough to give a slightly different feel to each of what is a succession of very similar chords. At 3:45 the dynamics increase noticeably and the chords become joyful, like hearing the peal of bells. The tempo slows towards the close and the volume tapers down to a quiet, peaceful chord at the finish. Occasional Poem on an Autumn Day effectively expresses a welcome sense of placid release and calm.
The final piece on the album is “A snowy morning / smoke from the kitchen roof– / it is good.”
(after Buson). This begins with high, bright chords and an appealing, sunny harmony that is followed by lush and comforting deep notes. There is a sense of peaceful happiness in the deliberate chords; the comforts of domestic tranquility fill up the sound. More deep chords, solemn but not sad, rise up to a sunlit landscape. All is now peaceful and harmonious.
The arc of After the Wars – from destruction and ruin to the return of placid domesticity – is artfully realized here with a minimum of musical materials and the exquisite playing of Sarah Cahill. Hearing this album creates in the listener a desire for that same healing process to be present in our own life and times. It inspires the hope that no matter how gloomy the present may seem – and our world is full of terrible things – the path to a peaceful wholeness is yet attainable.
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Winter, Spring and Fall
From Seattle-based composer J.C. Combs and Cellar Door Records comes a new album, Winter, Spring and Fall, with three solo piano improvisations and two pieces that combine piano and electronics.
The first piece is Currents and this piece begins with a series of fast trills that roil and surge like a river in flood. Deep notes add a profound feeling and the playing is very controlled, keeping just the right tempo. The volume rises and falls and the texture is alive with swirling movement. The pitches also move gradually up and down – as a sort of rising and falling of an internal tide. The electronics are buried in the whirl of sound and only rise to prominence towards the end with a low oscillation that echoes the running flow of the piano. Currents is a mesmerizing listening experience that nicely evokes swiftly moving water.
Improvisation for Winter is an improvisation in a similar mode, with nice movement and a brisk tempo to start. After a sudden stop the pace becomes more leisurely, as if ambling along a sidewalk or street. Now faster and with more notes, as if in a blizzard – hard to see for all the swirling snow. A well-crafted bass line adds some drama. The tempo slows and the notes lighten as if there is a break in the storm – the feeling here turns more more thoughtful. After a few final swirling passages, Improvisation to Winter concludes.
Improvisation for Spring starts off with a series of identical solitary notes, soon joined by a second played in harmony. The beat continues, now with wistful chords. A nice bass line provides a strong color and adds to the pensive feeling. Now a more emphatic melody line in the upper register is heard, offset by powerful chords in the bass. The opening pattern of identical straight quarter notes is repeated but with more tension developed in the counterpoint. Some soft notes in the very high octave of the piano quietly end this piece.
Improvisation for Fall has a quiet, mysterious opening – like a question hanging in the air. The steady beat on a single note adds a measure of tension. Darker notes appear in the middle and lower registers that add to the taut feeling. This is a pleasingly atmospheric piece that feels a bit like Halloween. Towards the end it turns a bit more optimistic and glides gracefully to a stop.
The final track of the album is Elevator to the Moon and this is for electronics and piano. The electronics sounds open with low pitches, rumbling and a sort of metallic moan in a middle register. The piano can be heard in between with dark chords and nervous riffs that build the sense of tension – we are traveling to a different place. Two well struck piano notes jump out of the texture – as if startled – then all becomes slower and more subdued. The piano repeats the two note motif against the sustained and quiet electronic tones as the piece comes to a close.
This latest album by J.C. Combs expands the reach of his piano improvisations and reveals a judiciously chosen color palette that impeccably fits the mood of each season.
Winter, Spring and Fall is available for download here.
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Equinox / Alejandro Escuer / Onix Ensamble
Alejandro Escuer’s Mexico City-based quintet Onix Ensamble–Escuer, flute; Fernando Dominguez, clarinet; Edith Ruiz, piano; Abel Romero, violin; Edgardo Espinosa, cello–turns 20 this year at a time when just surviving in the new music world is a major achievement. I’ve followed their work since I wrote up two of their CDs for Classical Music Review. Those CDs contained the work of Latin American composers but Onix’s repertoire also encompasses the work of modernist masters like Bartok, Stravinsky, and Martinu. But we need to remember that Europe isn’t the only game in town though it never tires of trying to convince us that it is. Yet after two massively destructive world wars and endless colonial adventures which of course included Mexico, we have Equinox which proves that there’s lots more going on south of our mutual border than cartel killings, kidnappings, and disappearances. The four works here by two Mexicans, one Costa Rican, and one American are completely individual in style. They also bear out Garcia Lorca’s assertion that “all that has dark sounds has duende) ” which for him meant everything from Bach to cante jondo.
El Aguila Bicefala (Double-Headed Eagle) — 2005 — by Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz ( b. 1964) is a prime example of her style which is characterized by quickly changing meters — 7/8; 8/8; 7/8; 8/8; 5/8 in the first 5 bars and is marked sempre ritmico e con vigore — with dramatically changing colors and virtuosic writing for the ensemble and each of the five players. It’s intricate but purposeful, subtle yet clear, even mysterious. Ortiz has always been a composer with a strikingly individual voice and this piece should bring new listeners to her work, and whet their appetite for more.
Musica para Cinco ( 2009) by Mexican composer Samuel Zyman ( b.1956 — ) sounds more indebted to Schoenberg’s 12-note method than to jazz despite Zyman’s program note where he stresses its “general jazz character”. He also seems to tip his hat to the Viennese master when he says his score is for the “Pierrot” line-up, which of course means Onix’s flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano. Musica para Cinco also has something of the feel of a Schoenberg march but it’s not doggedly insistent as so often with him, but vigorous, colorful and very imaginative with surprises at every turn, and Onix makes all of its facets shine.
Zachic 4 (2006) by Costa Rican composer Alejandro Cardona (b. 1959), which uses Aztec-like materials, is equally well-made, but sounds more instinctive, more extreme, and definitely more exciting, from its expansive floating in time opening song for alto flute, bass clarinet, cello and violin, through its successive three movement lay-out. The “static” opening of its third movement sounds a bit like “Farben” (Colors) from Schoenberg’s great and deeply influential Funf Orchesterstucke (1909). Its second movement is full of Stravinsky-like stamping rhythms, and there’s a rapid, wonderfully demented clarinet figure accentuated by the flute above, which gets reprised in the final movement.
Kukulcan II (2007), by American composer David Dzubay (b.1964) uses indigenous-sounding Aztec material – for his own expressive ends. Its textures are clean and open; and like many composers before him — Berlioz most famously in his Symphonie Fantastique — Dzubay uses the Latin chant Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) evocatively. His writing here is also generally more linear than the other three composers on Equinox , and he uses dramatic cut-offs, which keeps the audience, as in a film or stage score, on edge, expecting , wanting more.
Denibee, which is devoted to seven chamber works by Gabriela Ortiz, couldn’t be more different, and her distinctive voice is heard in each, the expressive range wide, yet classically contained.
From the mercurial 100 Watts ( 1998 ) which Ortiz revised in 2012 for 3 members of Onix — Escuer, flute; Fernando Dominguez, bass clarinet; Edith Ruiz, piano — and which they play spectacularly here; to the curling arabesques of Alejandrias Sonoras (2012) for Escuer’s solo flute; to Tres Toritos (2011) for three flutes with its three sharply contrasted movements, the second Tregua (Truce) is especially striking with Escuer’s flute line floating over a nearly motionless bass line provided by Mary-Elizabeth Thompson and Leonardo Bajarno..
The two vocal works —Tres Haikus (2012) — which aren’t really haiku because they’re not in 3 stanzas of 5-7-5 syllables each –,and Rio Bravo (2011) are more ambitious. The images in Maria Barnarda’s poem — El cielo es un piedra — are arresting — and Ortiz’s setting for mezzo Carla Lopez-Speziale and cellist Natalia Perez deepens its sense. Ortiz’s 2011 setting of Monica Sanchez Escuer’s poem Rio Bravo for Lopez-Speziale, Alejandro Escuer’s flute, and crystal glasses, evokes the psychological dislocation of the women in the poem trapped on both sides of the US/Mexico border. But Lopez-Speziale’s voice is miked too far back, and Escuer’s flute too closely. The floating ” dreamlike” sense of of the piece is there but it doesn’t get under your skin.
But fortunately there’s another version of Rio Bravo on Ortiz’s seven works Grammy -nominated CD Aroma Foliado with the LA-based Southwest Chamber Music,which does get under your skin. From the “simple ” fact of the substitution of Evan Hughes’ baritone for Lopez-Speziale’s mezzo, and the substitution of Lorenz Gamma’s violin for Escuer’s flute, which gives it a dark and deeply human urgency, Hughes’ singing sturdy and expressive, his sound beautifully supported and extended by Gamma’s violin, as if they were lovers, for what is love but the closing of distances between?
Aroma Foliado: Southwest Chamber Music
The string quartet Aroma Foliado, which Mainly Mozart commissioned in 2006 for Cuartetolatinoamerico, is easily the best piece on the CD, but not just because it’s written for the neurotic alone-in-my-room-I’m-a-genius-and-nobody-knows Western tradition — which is at its best a very pretty lie — but because it’s lyric, dramatic, always surprising but always completely logical. And though Ortiz in her program note calls it a “rondo”, which it is, it can also be heard as a series of variations on contrasted rhythms/textures. It’s learned — it quotes from Mozart’s String Quartet in D K.575 ( (1795) , and Bartok’s 1929 Quatet # 4 — not academic — sonorous, imaginative, and — “foliate “– as its title suggests–each idea springing from the leaves of the same tree.
The quartet here — Lorenz Gamma and Shalini Vijayan, violin; Jan Karlin, viola; and Peter Jacobson, cello — give a big-boned but very elegant performance.
Únicamente la verdad!
Ortiz’s Grammy-nominated opera Unicamenta La Verdad – La Autenica
Historia de Camelia La Taxana (2008 -2010) poses questions for which of course there are no answers. Did “La Texana”, who achieved fame through Los Tigres de Norte’s ” narco corrido Contrabanda y Traicion ” (Contraband and Betrayal ) really exist, and if she did did she drive her lover — several names are proposed– to commit suicide by putting his neck on the track in front of a train in the Mexico/US border town of Ciudad Juarez, which is sometimes called “the murder capital of the world’?” Opera has always trafficked in extreme situations and confused identities and Ortiz’s opera, to a libretto by her brother Ruben Ortiz Torres, which also questions how we make up our identities, as well as the role of the media in projecting them, is a perfect fit. Its seventy-five minute playing time goes by in a flash.
And Ortiz marries an advanced yet approachable new music style with the rhythms and colors of the cumbia and the norteno (North Mexican) sound, like a contemporary Revueltas, with frequent cross-cutting between chorus, orchestra, and soloists which mirrors the constructed identity of “la Texana”. And all the Mexican singers — soprano Nieves Navarro as three Camelias — tenors Gerardo Reynoso and Jose Luis Ordonez, baritones Jose Adan Perez and Armando Gama, and American bass John Atkins, are superb. This is one of the strongest first operas I’ve ever encountered. Brilliant. Serious. Entertaining. And the 24 piece Ensamble ULV and 17 member ULV chorus — each instrument and voice separately miked with the finest brands at SONY in Mexico City–under the alert and passionate direction of Jose Arean, and Christian Gohmer, produce a clear and truly spectacular sound.
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