Archive for the “Uncategorized” Category
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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with throbbing eyes
Red Fish Blue Fish
Stephanie Aston / Brendan Nguyen
with throbbing eyes is an album of music composed by Nicholas Deyoe, heard in three different performance contexts: string quartet, percussion ensemble and voice accompanied by piano. According to the Populist Records website: “Nicholas Deyoe’s debut album with throbbing eyes is a collection of chamber works composed between 2009 and 2011, each exploring the dominant themes in his recent music: noise, delicacy, drama, fantasy, and brutality.” This CD was released in early 2012 but is worth looking up if you were not aware of its release.
The album opens with Images from a sleepless night performed by the Formalist Quartet. This piece is variously haunting, discordant and unnerving with high spiky pitches from the violin to start and long, slow tones in the lower strings. The sense of restlessness in the beginning of this track will be familiar to all who have experienced night time tossing and turning, waiting for sleep to come. The lines wander and search about, never quite settling in; it is 3 AM and your mind is still running in circles
The second half of the piece, however, is much slower and almost lethargic – exactly like those mornings when you try to waken from a short, deep slumber after a mostly sleepless night. The low, creaky cello line and high, seemingly vaporous violin tones combine to perfectly evoke that morning-after feeling. The playing of the Formalist Quartet is precise, highly crafted and equal to the images portrayed here. Both sections of this piece together are just 3:45, but perfectly capture the title.
The second track – again performed by the Formalist Quartet – is for every day is another view of the tentative past. This is a 32 minute piece, divided into several sections separated by short silences. The opening is tense and uncertain, filled with bits of dissonance and long questioning tones. The feeling here is bleak and lonely, often sharply punctuated with single pizzicato notes. At other times the feeling is aggressive in the lower registers or repetitive in the viola and violin. At 6:40 the sound becomes more animated and strident, then slows again, and finishing with a loud, tense chord. At 8:40 we hear more energetic interplay among the strings with the texture becoming more dense and pressing. Furious violin passages ensue ending in a sustained high pitch that is nicely played at pianissimo and very effective against a rough, dark drone sounding in the cello.
At 16:08 another series of strong flourishes are heard that congeal into several short, rough chords – there is a feeling of anger now. At 18:40 the tempo slows noticeably, as if the anger in the previous section has spent itself. Slow, quiet sounds are heard, again against the high, sustained violin tone and soon the feeling becomes more reconciled and restful. By 23:00 the pace becomes yet slower and the soft chords now seem tired – the feeling here is one of weariness.
At 25:30 the strings gather themselves, rallying with a bit more energy. The high pianissimo violin remains, a thread connecting the various sequences. The piece ambles along again, now resting, now questioning, but this is soon replaced with slower, mysterious sounds rising up from the lower strings. The piece becomes gradually softer and more distant, drifting quietly out of sight at the finish.
for every day is another view of the tentative past is challenging listening by any standard, but this music is like a carefully woven tapestry that gives up its secrets with closer inspection. The controlled and disciplined playing of the Formalist Quartet is critical to the success of this, but attentive listening to this work more than repays the effort. I can’t remember a piece that revealed more on the second or third hearing. For all its complexity and intricacy, this will be a very satisfying listening experience for those who are willing to make the effort.
The third track is wir aber sind schon anders, a percussion piece performed by Red Fish Blue Fish. The translation of the title is “we are, however, different” and this begins with a quiet repeating phrase using a floor tom and vibraphone. Solemn and deliberate, like a procession in the darkness, it changes slightly but continuously as it proceeds along. This track is also separated into sections by short silences. Various percussion pieces enter and exit including bass drum, tympani, bongos and Thai gongs – but always in good balance. The vibraphone and glockenspiel give this piece a sense of luminous mystery while the drums punctuate the phrases or provide a steady rolling accompaniment.
wir aber sind schon anders is subtle and nuanced – even when the bass drum or congas are sharply struck. The range of contrast and variety of texture are a pleasure to hear – it draws the listener in and is like looking at a medieval wood carving with wonderfully intricate detail. The playing is excellent and precisely follows the changing contours of this piece – a fine example of how much variety can be conjured from carefully scored percussion.
The last group of pieces on this CD are collectively titled 5 McCallum Songs and these are a series of love songs for soprano and piano performed by Stephanie Aston and Brendan Nguyen. The text of the first of these, Love Poem I, provides the album title: “I want you to look at me with throbbing eyes, I want you to watch me through you.”
This is spare music, with solitary piano chords tolling like clock tower chimes and some really lovely singing that seems to float airily above. The words of the text are plainly heard, intimately sung and well-matched to the music. The feelings conveyed by these pieces are variously anxious, wistful, plaintive, frustrating, yearning, angry – all of the emotions that are part of the subject. The accompaniment by Brendan Nguyen is nicely understated in a way that gives the singing by Ms. Aston plenty of expressive room. 5 McCallum Songs are the most direct and accessible pieces on this album and are all highly listenable.
This is a CD that will challenge the listener but whose carefully embroidered details and intricate constructions make the effort very worthwhile. with throbbing eyes is available from the Populist Records website.
The Formalist Quartet is:
Andrew Tholl, Andrew McIntosh, Mark Menzies, Ashley Walters.
Red Fish Blue Fish is:
Ross Karre, Brian Archinal, Bonnie Whiting-Smith, Dustin Donahue
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Clocks and Clouds
In a Pentagonal Room
From far-away Anaphoria comes music by Kraig Grady in a new album titled Clocks and Clouds, In a Pentagonal Room. This features Kraig playing the Meta-Slendro Vibraphone and Terumi Narushima on the Meta-Slendro Harmonium, a vibraphone and pump organ, respectively, that have been modified specifically to the microtonal pitch requirements of the five pieces on this CD. The live recordings, produced by Eva Cheng, took place in a pentagonal reverberation chamber with no parallel walls to better capture the acoustic possibilities inherent in these pure harmonic tunings.
A Wish Resounding from a Well, the first track on the CD features the Meta-Slendro vibraphone and begins with lightly delicate cloud of notes in the higher registers. Bright and mystical, the interplay of these tones add to the sense of a shimmering atmosphere. This does sound like the inside of a well and the instrument effectively leverages the acoustic properties of the reverberation chamber. Lower and middle tones ring out forcefully as the piece progresses offering a solid counterpoint to the airy wishes hovering in the upper registers. The piece ends with a slowly dissolving series of tones that seem to float upward and out of sight. This piece nicely balances the acoustics reminiscent of a well with the ephemeral nature of a rising wish.
The second track is To Search for Traces and begins with steady tones from the harmonium mixing together in a gentle, questioning wash of sound that is soon joined by a line of single tones from the vibraphone. The combination of the long, soft harmonium pitches and the percussive notes of the vibraphone combine effectively to create a sense of movement and journey. The harmonium finishes on a lower pitch and the vibraphone seems to increase in tempo and this leaves the listener with a feeling that the search continues even as the playing has concluded.
Reflections in a Mirrored Cavern is track three, and spare, solitary vibraphone notes begin this piece. Soon the notes are sounded in pairs and the intermixing of the tones closely related in pitch produce a shifting, surreal sound. More notes are added, and now beating between the tones produces new sounds, adding to the unreal atmosphere. The decay time of sound in the pentagonal chamber can be as long as 12 seconds and there is a sense of reflection and interference of tone patterns that accurately evokes a sense of multiple shimmering images. This piece is a fine example of how the interactions of tones sounded together can be used creatively given the right acoustic environment.
Track four is Illuminated Mist and here the vibraphone begins with a sparkling splatter of high notes that is soon joined by a high pitched tone in the harmonium. This is followed by sustained low pedal tones in the harmonium that are especially effective in reinforcing the sense of mystery. The vibraphone creates a fine mist of notes and overtones that, grounded by the harmonium, give the piece its descriptive title. The harmonic interactions, at once exotic and reassuring, beget a sense of unfolding wonder at an imaginary landscape. Like walking around your neighborhood in a heavy fog, this piece is artfully mysterious and familiar at the same time.
The final track is titled Dawn Crossing of the Bridge and starts with simple, light vibraphone phrases accompanied by long, low harmonium tones that suggest a slow dawning presence just over the horizon. As with Illuminated Mist, this combination of vibraphone and harmonium textures are very effective in building a sense of place and mystery. As the harmonium sounds sustained tones in the upper registers, a feeling of the sun rising is achieved and the movement in the vibraphone line reinforces the the forward sense of motion. This piece ends quietly having accurately described not only the crossing of a bridge, but also a crossing from darkness into light.
Clocks and Clouds is a delicate, sensitive work that explores the landscape of alternate tuning in a completely convincing way. This is the album to send to your friends who may be skeptical of mictotonal music. This album makes a quiet – but convincing – argument.
Clocks and Clouds, In a Pentagonal Room is available at the music page of the Anaphoria website.
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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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Cold Blue Music – CB0037
This is a single track CD consisting of Black Water, a work composed by Jim Fox for three pianos in 1984 and first performed at the New Music America festival the following year. Bryan Pezzone has realized this studio version by recording all three parts.
Those familiar with the music of Jim Fox will find Black Water to be outside of the quiet, introspective style normally associated with the composer. This CD is the first of what is envisioned as a series of recordings of Jim’s earlier works, tracing, according to the liner notes “..a few other somewhat loud and boisterous pieces of mine from the same mid-eighties period…”
Black Water begins with an extended trill setting an energetic pace that builds with each successive wave of notes. There is a sense of strong, fluid motion that is slightly out of control – like a running sea in the dark. The notes roil around each of the piano parts, building in intensity and then setting off again without quite discharging the tension. At 3:30 it suddenly becomes spare and quiet; only a few piano notes dripping from the higher registers but with a swirling undercurrent below, like a river gathering its strength in a quiet stretch. The flow soon picks up again and breaks into another swift-flowing torrent of sound.
Black Water proceeds in this fashion – strong surges interspersed with quieter sections – but always with a sense of movement in the lower registers. This is exciting music, carrying the listener along in unexpected directions. Black Water could be describing one of our Southern California rain storms – sometimes a blinding downpour and yet with patches of clear sky where just a few raindrops are falling. The contrast between the turbulent and quieter sections of this piece evoke a force of nature, especially in the last 2 minutes which boil like the race of water in a flooded canyon. The final crashing chord hangs in the air, slowly dissipating, to provide a fitting end to this high-powered work.
Bryan Pezzone has done a fine job here – not only managing to get all the notes under his fingertips, but also to integrate the three sections into one cohesive whole. Bryan’s experience in film music and performing in the Green Umbrella Series and with the Los Angeles Philharmonic provides the ideal foundation for playing Black Water.
Jim Fox is familiar name in West Coast new music circles and is also the founder of Cold Blue Music. Black Water adds to his established catalog and will be a contribution to the historical arc of his body of work.
Available from Cold Blue Music, the release date for Black Water is September 9, 2013.
Paul H. Muller
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Songs of the Living and the Lived In
You can download each album for free right here.
Lawrence English says this about these two collections of field recordings:
“Songs Of The Living is a collection of field recordings I have had the chance to make over the past decade and a half. Many of these recordings hold very strong memories for me; spending days with Antarctic Fur Seals, hearing monkey’s calling whilst swaying on an old 50 metre high wooden tower in the Amazon or being surrounded by literally thousands of microbats, flying out from their diurnal home. I feel these recordings hold something profound and hint at the wonder that lies beyond our usual sonic radar.”
The variety of sounds that Lawrence English has collected, and the high quality at which he has collected them, is rather astonishing. Split into two collections, Songs of the Living is a series of sound recordings/soundscape compositions that feature the sounds of beings in nature. A host of monkeys, bats, insects, frogs, and seals are on a compelling sonic display and the disc never feels dull, repetitive, or simply ambient. Many times I was surprised that such sounds were from natural phenomenon; the visceral impact of some of these noises drives much deeper than what most composers do with electronic resources. The “Unidentified Cicada,” and the “Rhinocerous Beetle” for example, are ear stunners of the insect world. The “Antarctic Fur Seals” are expressive and rhythmic: they appear to be nature’s beatboxers…
And the Lived In takes the same concept as the first album but applies it to non-living beings. How does one capture the sound of a place without recording its inhabitants? English finds motors, gates, shorelines, toy stores, and more that provide rich and lush aural landscapes. The rich tones of “Cemetery Gate” and “Blizzard Battering Walls” are deep and fantastic. The “VLF During Solar Storm” is equally captivating with its high and thin sounds. I don’t know if Lawrence English put these sounds together for others to use in their compositions, to offer up as soundscape compositions alongside works of Annea Lockwood, or to show off the world that his ears have heard. In the end, none of that matters. These are two wonderful sets of recordings to hear which will reinvigorate your reception of the simple beauty all around us. Did I mention they are free?
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Earlier this year I chatted with Chip Michael about the social media based ensemble TwtrSymphony. At the time, only a single movement of Michael’s Symphony No. 2: “Birds of a Feather” had been recorded. The full symphony is now complete and you can hear the complete work on their website.
The music is rather attractive, rhythmic stuff with a general tendency for thick orchestration and conventional harmony. The four movements (each 140 seconds in duration, a play on the Twitter restriction of 140 characters) takes the traditional classical approach to structure (1. Moderate, 2. Slow, 3. Dance, 4. Fast) and as a whole, the music is rather charming and well constructed. Such a short time restriction creates difficulties but Michael has a way of making each movement sound like the length is appropriate and not simply arbitrary. At around 10 minutes, Chip Michael manages to cover a nice amount of ground.
The biggest obstacle to be worked out by TwtrSymphony is in the mixing and mastering of the recording. With each part recorded in isolation by each performer using whatever materials they have on hand, assembling and crafting a master mix is a technological nightmare. At its best, the ensemble sounds pretty good (the first movement, “The Hawk Goes Hunting,” is the most successful to my ears). At its worst, the group sounds like software playback from a moderately priced set of virtual instruments. I found the strings particularly troublesome in this respect. Also, the panning is too severe and ends up highlighting the unnatural nature of the group. I think Chip Michael’s music is quite pleasant and I am willing to bet that this piece will get a fair amount of play by other ensembles. I’m also still intrigued by the nature of the TwtrSymphony and I look forward to hearing them address these sonic issues in future releases.
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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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Daniel Okulitch, baritone
The New American Art Song
Songs by Ricky Ian Gordon, Jake Heggie, Lowell Liebermann and Glen Roven, accompanied by the composers
The first solo record by Canadian baritone Daniel Okulitch is an impeccable portrait of his voice’s warm and earthy elegance. Through sets of songs by Ricky Ian Gordon, Jake Heggie, Glen Roven and Lowell Liebermann, Mr. Okulitch’s voice comes across as richly dark, sensitive and – above all – clear. The songs themselves are very good and lovely as well, but do not necessarily display a wide swath of the landscape of contemporary American song. With this fact stated, I want to stress that each cycle has beautiful, poignant moments and are scrupulously written…they are just cut from a similar cloth in terms of their musical materials. Because the composers actually accompany Mr. Okulitch on the recording, I was particularly attentive to the interplay between the piano and vocal parts. The role of the two musical characters varied greatly between and within each group of songs, providing – along with the transient moods of the texts – the listener with welcome volatility and contrast against the stylistic consistently of the works and Mr. Okulitch’s undeviatingly sterling performance.
Dominating the CD is Glen Roven’s from the Underground, a set of fifteen songs each with an isolated personality and texture, yet united by Mr. Roven’s mostly triadic and diatonic musical fabric. The piano imitates the vocal line in many of the songs, strengthening the reflection of, “[Mr. Roven’s] personal feelings about each poem”, which he describes is his goal when writing art songs. Repetitive rhythms in the piano accompaniments, combined with humorous texts gave some songs, like “This is Just to Say”, the flavor of musical theater music (an affect that reappears in other cycles on this disc). Though I enjoyed the whole set, I felt the song “Come to the Edge” was the most beautiful – perhaps perfectly constructed – thanks to the absolutely engrossing way the vocal line pairs with the piano. Mr. Okulitch’s part begins quietly, accompanied by timorous pandiatonic clusters in the piano, the two musical bodies simultaneous build momentum, energy and scope until the vocal line climaxes and the piano part spills into a valley of lush extended triads, marking the most important moment in the poem.
The musical hints at musical theater I noted in from the Underground are also apparent in the album’s first cycle – Ricky Ian Gordon’s Quiet Lives. To me, all songs are theatrical and narrative, so I am not surprised – in a contemporary music world typified by the fusion of popular and traditional motifs – that the clear phrasing and persistent rhythms of musical theater songs have bled into the already closely related genre of ‘art song’. Like all the composers on the album, Mr. Gordon has written some stunningly beautiful songs fueled by very interesting texts with the exact personality of each song remaining pretty variable. Contrastinglt to from the Underground, the piano is limited to a strictly accompanimental presence and does not often double or imitate the vocal line. Conveniently, the cycle’s extremes in mood appear adjacent to each other. “As Planned” features a sarcastic text discussing the unpredictable consequences of drinking too much vodka, with the air of mischief shared in the piano’s tongue-in-cheek, cabaret-style waltz. The following song, “Kid in the Park” is the cycle’s most reflective, with a piano part that hints, with the most extraordinary subtleness, to slow, R&B ballads (I could very well be imagining such a connection exists). The tempo and chordal accompaniment leave Mr. Okulitch plenty of room to draw the listener into the text’s account of the challenges facing urban youths.
The two remaining cycles both stood out to me with their more coherent character/mood (thanks, no doubt, to their relative brevity in comparison to the aforementioned works), and subtly cultivated drama. Lowell Liebermann’s Night Songs, probably the most traditional sounding of the disc, paints a delicate and convincing portrait of the introspection that so often accompanies the setting of the sun. This is particularly apparent in the set’s first two songs – “Good Night” and “She Tells Her Love Half Asleep” – whose repetitive accompaniments and melodies firmly establish a musical world haunted by the stillness of moonlight and stars. Jake Heggie’s Of Gods and Cats had, by far, the most memorable texts of the whole album. The first, “In the Beginning”, retells the biblical creation through the perspective of a cat engaging with quotidian experiences such as drinking milk and falling asleep in a paper bag. Closing out the pair is “Once upon a Universe”, which describes what God was like as a child, destroying his toys much to the chagrin of his mother. Of course, the text is not so engrossing on its own accord: Mr. Heggie sets it both impishly and austerely, with the piano part adding masterfully timed moments of levity to an otherwise reverent portrayal of poet Gavin Geoffrey Dillard’s comical musings.
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Line Upon Line Percussion
Line Upon Line Percussion
In a contemporary music world where percussion is stereotyped as high-volume and high-action, Austin-based percussion trio Line Upon Line’s first CD boldly focuses on something other and speed and volume: color. Featuring the work of four local, Texas composers – James D. Norman, Steven Snowden, Zack Stanton and Ian Dicke – the self-titled album is a remarkably diverse journey in sound and expression. Each work revolves around contrasting, evolving relationships in timbre and employ a variety of pitched and unpitched, commonplace and specialized percussion instruments. Exquisitely produced and performed, the album is limitlessly captivating and stimulating thanks to the deft, elegant work the composers and the constant variety of colors present in their pieces.
James D. Norman’s Redshift (2010), the album’s first track, crystallizes the aforementioned emphasis on timbre: from its explosive outset, a crucial dialogue emerges between wooden and metallic sounds. As his program note explains, Mr. Norman armed each member of the trio with the same materials – “six metal plates, six wood planks (tuned to the same pitches for each player)”. This allows him to create multiple layers of essentially the same sound and develop fascinatingly detailed variations on a consistent foundation of timbre. Another consistent element in the work is a persistent rhythmic/melodic idea that repeats heavily, but with increasing irregularities as the work moves forward. To my ears, the agent for this variation is a distinct metallic sound – what Mr. Norman calls a, “modified crash cymbal” – that breaks the rhythmic energy of the aforementioned rhythmic/melodic idea over the course of the piece, causing it to restart itself and seemingly precipitating the turbulent and thrilling evolution this tightly-knitted work undergoes from beginning to end.
The next piece on the CD – Steven Snowden’s A Man with a Gun Lives Here (2010) is the only work of the four I had already seen performed. My language is intentional I watched a DVD of the performance, much of which is deliberately choreographed to add an extra level of drama and to connect to the work’s back-story. The title refers to the signal system hobos developed during the Great Depression to inform wanders about dangerous and generous residences; moreover, the scoring of the piece – three percussionists play on and around a single bass drum – is deliberately aimed to suggest hobos gathered around a trash can fire. Although I loved the piece the first time I heard it, I worried, without the visual element, the music would not mesmerize me as much as it had before. This was not the case in the least. In fact, losing the ability to see the performance heightened my awareness of Mr. Snowden’s subtle decisions about timbre, foreground/background and the temporal spacing of the music. These qualities, on their own, project a compelling dramatic tale of action and reaction and inter-ensemble conversation united by the highly original and ominous way the trio exploits the shared bass drum.
The written description of Zack Stanton’s Echoes of Veiled Light (2009) epitomizes the unabashed boldness with which Line Upon Line and their collaborators approached this project. “When line upon line approached me about writing a new piece for them, they had a terrifying request: ‘write us a quiet piece’”. To me, this account demonstrates the trio’s understanding of their supreme expressive ability and the resulting composition, with its beguiling delicacy, meets their challenge with unquestionable success. The work has a twinkling, metallic sheen to it, using unpitched and pitched instruments to construct a chrystalline web spangled with unobtrusive harmonies that meld seamlessly with the other sound elements of the work. I was very fond of the way Mr. Stanton used pitch in Echoes because his harmonies are very affective, not stylistic, along the lines of the low piano clusters in Varese’s Ionisation and – to be a little more obscure – the droning trumpet in Donald Sur’s Red Dust. The pitched material adds inviting, soothing warmth to an accompanying texture of cymbals, gongs and bongo drums that, otherwise, would seem a little stoic.
The final piece on the album is Ian Dicke’s Missa Materialis, a musical response to Austin’s ‘Cathedral of Junk’, a massive environmental folk art exhibit created by artist Vince Hannemann. Mr. Dicke calls the work a “soundtrack” for the art, employing a variety of traditional percussion instruments and found objects over the course of five movements. The extra-musical framework for the piece is twofold: the found objects – namely plastic bags and water bottles – represent the environmental destructiveness of our material culture, and the pitched material, form and title mimic the traditional Latin mass. These influences emerge in different, intriguing ways – the fourth movement, ‘Plastic Deity’, climactically features the smashing of bottles and bags directed by an imperious egg timer, while the work’s infrequently appearing melodies (including contrapuntal singing by the trio!) are heavily referential to, if not direct quotes of Medieval chant. Overall, the work has the feeling of post-apocalyptic ritualism, made uncommonly memorable by Mr. Dicke’s bizarre ‘instruments’.
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