Archive for the “Women Composers” Category

Vivian Houle, vocalist Treize


Drip Audio

  1. Mandrake (with Peggy Lee, cello)
  2. Molehills mumps (with Lisa miller, piano)
  3. Paperthin (with Coat Cooke, saxophone)
  4. Gratte-moi le dos (with Kenton Loewen, drums)
  5. Quiet eyes (with Ron Samworth, guitar)
  6. It’s not the moon (with Chris Gestrin, analog keyboards and live sampling)
  7. Betters and bads (with Jesse Zubot, violin)
  8. Finely tuned is my heart (with Jeremy Berkman, trombone)
  9. Au revas (with Paul Plimley, piano)
  10. A little storm (with Jeff Younger, guitar)
  11. Bells hung in a tree (with Clyde Reed, bass)
  12. Song not for you (with Brent Belke, guitar)
  13. Curve (with Stefan Smulovitz, kenaxis)

The very essence of chamber music is perfectly captured in these thirteen tracks. Viviane Houle’s duets with each of these artists is raw music making – free improvisations that transcend the ordinary and provide sonic experiences unlike anything else.  Houle’s sonic repertoire is no short of astonishing.  Half of the time I can’t tell which sounds she is making and which are being made by her instrumental counterpart.  On the same token, both performers on each track are so adept at listening to each other that the flow of events sounds totally organic and alive.  While the bulk of the tracks are showcases for Houle’s vocal fireworks she is always blending with the ensemble and creating a sonic “hyperinstrument” that is neither one nor the other.

A few of the tracks feature a more traditional melodic and sung role for the voice.  Houle, who also wrote all the texts, trends towards the smokey and hazy sounds of somber jazz or beat poetry.  Her rich sound and warm emotional expressions are further featured on one of my favorite tracks, It’s not the moon. Houle’s voice is the DNA of Chris Gestrin’s synth work creating a haunting, graceful, and eternal sounding track.

The last three tracks on the disc transition smoothly from one to the next, making an excellent journey.  Bells hung in a tree has a subdued ending that sounds like it continues as the next track fades in.  Song not for you hits me right in my Heavy Metal spot.  Houle and Belke sound like a great thrashing metal duo from somewhere in the Oort Cloud who have recently learned to sing using random Japanese phonemes (and I mean that in the best possible way).  The thrash continues while the ambient sizzle of Curve takes over.  Like It’s not the moon, Curve puts Houle’s voice in the background and she inexorably emerges from the synthetic world into an oozing and pulsating mass of delicious aural goo.

Comments No Comments »


String Quartets of Elena Ruehr
Performed by the Cypress String Quartet

Cypress Performing Arts Association

I was enchanted with this, my first acquaintance with the music of American composer Elena Ruehr, and I think you will be, too. A strong, engaging personality suffuses her music. She was born and spent her early years in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, an area of much natural beauty that is said to have the most beautiful fall colors in America. Her music reflects a variety of traditional and world influences in addition to her formal education under mentors William Bolcom, Milton Babbitt and Vincent Persichetti. The daughter of a mathematician, she admits to a fondness for solving intellectual puzzles such as 12-tone rows, but she decided at an early stage in her career to leave the complicated stuff beneath the surface of what people hear, incorporating it into the musical form (For the record, Mozart did much the same thing).

As a result, her music, of which we get a good sampling here from String Quartets 1, 3 and 4, written between 1991 and 2005, is both accessible and challenging. We sometimes forget, in analyzing the art of the string quartet, how sensually beautiful the sound of these four strings can be. Ruehr reminds us. Her art consists in large part of long melodies, long intonations and exhalations, gorgeously swelling tones and smartly struck pizzicati. The members of the Cypress Quartet – Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violins; Ethan Filner, viola; and Jennifer Kloetzel, cello – attest to the challenges they encountered in performing these works in an interview with radio host Bill McGlaughlin, excerpted in the program notes. They speak from experience of the 17-bar melody with a canon in 3 parts, with all four players playing fragments of it here and there, in the slow movement of Quartet No. 3. In this movement, entitled “The Abbey” and taking its inspiration from the style of 12th Century Abbess Hildegard von Bingen, the chant-like melody is supported by a catchy rhythm derived from it. The trick, which the Cypresses bring out with deceptive ease, is to make the music sound as simple and natural as possible.

Quartet No. 4 was written in 2005 on commission from the Cypress Quartet as part of its “Call & Response” series. In this instance, the task was to look at relationships between Mozart’s “Dissonant” Quartet in C, K465 and Beethoven’s Op. 59/ 3 in the same key. The intriguing opening movement draws in the listener. The second movement (Aria: Andante) plays like a long, hauntingly beautiful improvisation. The third is marked Minuet: Grazioso, though I wouldn’t advise trying to dance to its intricate patterns. The final movement has a pronounced motor rhythm and striking pizzicati.

Quartet No. 3 looks to ancient and traditional music for inspiration. Besides the afore-mentioned “Abbey” movement, Ruehr evokes the music of South American pan flutes and West African drums in the movements entitled “Clay Flute” and “Bell Call,” respectively, while “How she Danced” was inspired by the sight of her young daughter dancing in the kitchen. Ruehr disclaims writing that tune, citing a traditional source, and for sure it has the distinct echo of folk fiddling.

So, surprisingly, does the second movement of Quartet No. 1, which Ruehr says was intended as a tribute to Bach and the Well-Tempered Clavier. It starts off reverently enough, but by the end the rhythm has taken on an existence of its own. The opening movement, a tribute, to the 13th Century composer Perotin entitled “Patterns,” evokes both the medieval composer’s sequences and his gently rocking lilt. The Third movement, “Let’s Sit Beneath the Stars,” is achingly beautiful and sad, like a lullaby. The last, Estampie, is inspired by the old French “stamping dance” of that name. It builds in excitement, helped by the vigorous phrasing and sensational pizzicati of the Cypress Quartet members. The ending is typically abrupt for Elena Ruehr. Having said what she had to say (which is a lot), she stops.

Comments No Comments »

CD cover art

CD cover art


Amy Horvey, trumpet

Music by Scelsi, Arditto, Hōstman, Purchase, and Horvey/Morton

Malasartes Musique

  • Quattro pezzi per tromba sola – Giancinto Scelsi
  • Míºsica Invisible – Cecilia Arditto
  • Interview – Anna Hōstman
  • Apparatus Inconcinnus – Ryan Purchase
  • Overture to “The Queen of the Music Boxes” featuring Jeff Morton

This is not your typical solo trumpet disc.  Some folks might dismiss a CD made up almost entirely of solo trumpet music, but when the most straightforward thing on a disc was written by Scelsi, I get kind of excited.  Amy Horvey tackles exciting and provocative repertoire on this offering and nails all of it.

The Quattro pezzi by Scelsi kick off the disc and highlight Ms. Horvey’s chops and musicality.  Her tone is dark and somber, her ability to connect the lengthy lyrical lines in each piece is uncanny, and the only thing that would make the performance better would be hearing her live.  These are demanding pieces and she squeezes every nuance of music from them.

Cecilia Arditto’s Míºsica Invisible is in three movements (Sfumato, Chiaroscuro, and Anamorphosis) and uses both flugelhorn and trumpet.  Each work involves the use of extended techniques such as singing while playing, extreme pedal tone melodies, and putting the bell of the trumpet into a bowl of water.  Regardless of the techniques, which are intrinsic to the sound worlds of the pieces and not mere gimmicks, the music is haunting and meaningful.  Each gesture is given time and space to develop and mature and, at about 12 minutes, I could stand to listen to a whole lot more.

The next two works both feature spoken passages as well as played passages.  Anna Hōstman’s Interview relates to a larger work about trumpet soloist Edna White called “Queen of the Music Boxes.” The fragments of text coax listeners into an emotional world with very little said.  The music that follows is sometimes playful, sometimes sorrowful, and Ms. Horvey communicates the text well without being too hammy or too stoic in affect.  In contrast to the fragmentary Interview, Apparatus Inconcinnus by Ryan Purchase contains more of a linear narrative about remembering how to count by Russian author Daniil Charms.  This humorous anecdote takes some serious musical terms and would be, of course, most effective in a live performance.  The story holds the music together very well.  My only quibble of this disc, if I have to have one, is that these two very similar works were programmed back to back.

The final work,  Overture to “The Queen of the Music Boxes”, includes the electro-acoustic/circuit-bending/composer Jeff Morton working with prepared music boxes, toy instruments, and electronics.  The composition is largely about Morton’s sound world of dreamy, lo-fi mechanical music making than it is Amy Horvey’s trumpet playing.  When the trumpet melody does emerge, the dreaminess of Morton’s contraptions becomes more accompaniment  than ambient.  The whole piece projects an introspective mood and is the perfect sound world to close off the CD.

Comments No Comments »

thelema trioThelema Trio

Ward De Vleeschhower, piano; Peter Verdonck, saxophones, and Marco Antonio Mazzini, clarinets

Music by Junchaya, Lee, Carpenter, Honor, Mazzini, Walczyk, and Benadon

innova records

  • Rafael Leonardo Junchaya – Tres Danzas Episkénicas
  • HyeKyung Lee – Shadowing
  • Keith Carpenter – The Devil His Due
  • Eric Honour – neither from nor towards
  • Marco Antonio Mazzini – Imprevisto
  • Kevin Walczyk – Refractions
  • Fernando Benadon – Five Miniatures

The Thelema Trio’s modular nature, even within the context of being a trio, is one of its primary strengths and they  strut their stylistic, coloristic, versatile stuff with this collection of pieces.  No two works share the same instrumentation nor do any of the compositions share the same sound world.  The only performer not showcased with a solo feature of some sort is the pianist but Ward De Vleeschhouwer is a superb collaborative artist who can highlight his abilities within a chamber music setting.  Peter Verdonck has excellent tone and energy on alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones and Marc Antonio Mazzini has a lithe and supple sound on standard or bass clarinet.  Together, the two reed players have a perfectly communal sound quality.

Each piece on the disc showcases the Thelema Trio’s mercuriality.  Rafael Leonardo Junchaya’s Tres Danzas Episkénicas is equal parts sultry, ethereal and playful.  This work uses the most instruments overall with the reeds changing from bass clarinet to clarinet and use of baritone and tenor saxophones.  Overall, these dances are attractive, slightly thorny pitch language and extremely well orchestrated.

HyeKyung Lee’s Shadowing is a canonic/imitative work for clarinet and alto saxophone.  Long melodic lines weave in and out with sinewy and twisty motions.  The blend between the performers is spot on and the whole piece has great long-term trajectory.  The high climax reached early on in the work is the exact right music at the exact right time.  Keith Carpenter’s raucous The Devil His Due for baritone sax and piano is a punchy, aggressive, and energetic toccata for the two instruments.  Instead of the baritone sax being the “front man” of the piece, both instruments engage in funky rhythmic interplay.

The title track on the CD, neither from nor towards, is an extended rhapsody for baritone sax, clarinet, and piano written by Eric Honour.  This obsessive piece spends a lot of time spinning its wheels (in a good way) where the music is, indeed, neither from anywhere nor moving towards anywhere.  Long overlapping tones in the reeds and mid-range piano are broken by the occasional spiky piano accents in extreme registers.  Gradually a melody emerges and by the halfway point we are in a soaring, melodic section.  The soaring becomes frenetic, dies down, but then trashes around with one last outburst.  If you were to drop in on any single section of the piece, you might wonder how it all fits together.  But listening to the complete work, Eric Honour draws an excellent through-line.  The programming for this piece is perfect since it showcases not only the coloristic blend between the reeds but also the rhythmic punctuation possibilities found in earlier works.

The only solo composition on the disc, Marco Antonio Mazzini’s Imprevisto sounds like music we aren’t really supposed to be hearing.  The slow unfolding work for clarinet gives the impression that we are eavesdropping on the performer while they worked out musical/emotional stuff.  This piece is haunting and captivating.  Refractions, by Kevin Walczyk, brings back some playful and bouncy music back to the disc.  The motoric repeated notes in the piano provide a platform for melodies and shapes in the alto sax and clarinet.  The energy is constantly pushing forward, even when the music slows and becomes more tender.  The light and springy material returns to close out the composition.

Finally, the Five Miniatures for baritone sax, bass clarinet, and piano by Fernando Benadon are delightfully quirky pieces that present a focal idea, perseverate upon said idea, and then vanish.  Niether of the five movements feels underwritten and, while one might hear how each idea could become longer, I think it would destroy the chiseled nature of these pieces.  There is a lot of fun and whimsy in their brevity, making this piece the perfect waft of light flavor after a satisfying meal.

Comments No Comments »


Songs by American Composers
Lisa Delan, soprano
Kristin Pankonin, piano
Assisted by Susanne Mentzer, mezzo-soprano; Matt Haimovitz, cello


This recital by the wonderful American soprano Lisa Delan created pleasant peril for me, and I don’t mind admitting it. Lord, but there’s so much diversity here! These seventeen songs by six composers – William Bolcom, Gordon Getty, Jake Heggie, David Garner, John Corigliano, and Luna Pearl Woolf – range from cabaret and blues to genuine art song and modern folk-inspired. The lyrics cover the whole poetic spectrum: poignant, piquant, witty, profound, wickedly satirical, sad, and sensuous, with even a bit of pathos here and there. It’s as if I’d been admiring the artistry of one of those jugglers who can balance a rubber ball, a basketball, a bowling ball, and a pineapple all at the same time, and was requested by the artist: “Here, won’t you please keep these going for a while so I can take a break?”

Nor were my brother wizards in the upper stratosphere any help at all. A diligent search of the “˜net failed to reveal any previous reviews from which I could crib. It could be I’m the first reviewer with the temerity to tackle this musical landmine in the shape of a compact disc. That’s a scary thought!

So, where to begin? Where, I ask you? Could it be Bolcom’s delightfully impudent Cabaret Songs to lyrics by Arnold Weinstein, Amor, Close the Curtain, Waitin’ and Toothbrush Time? Impossible in just a few words to describe the impish quality Delan imparts to the flirt who inspires just one response from everyone she encounters, from the ice cream man to an all-male jury: “Amor!” Or the light twist given a contemporary wail of morning-after alienation in “It’s toothbrush time, / ten a.m. again and toothbrush time. / Last night at half-past nine it seemed O.K. / But in the light of day not so fine at toothbrush time.” Gordon Getty’s settings of three of his own poems, ranging from the delicate tracery of Where is My Lady, (“In footfall and starfall again and again, / beauty and grace she is, beauty and grace / Hang in the air like chimes when she goes by”) to the rousing, stamping high spirits of Tune the Fiddle and the poignant sense of pristine beauty lost in The Ballad of Poor Peter, bring forth an impressive range of interpretive responses from Delan, in collaboration with the sensitive accompaniment of pianist Kristin Pankonin. “Upon a day, along a way, / I met a child. / She said, “˜Come find me if you can: / you lost me when the world began.’ / I asked her meaning but she ran / into the wild.”

Jake Heggie, like Getty a native San Franciscan, finds inspiration in the traditional, represented by his setting of Sir Philip Sydney’s Elizabethan lyric My True Love Hath My Heart and arrangements of three American folk songs, Barb’ry Allen, He’s Gone Away, and The Leather-winged Bat. The first three are moving and dignified in their expression of deep-running emotion, as befits tradition. The last is a purely delightful romp that gives Delan the chance to characterize the four avian voices in the poem with some shrewdly funny accents: “‘Hi,’ said the woodpecker sittin’ on a fence, / “˜Once I courted a handsome wench, / She got sassy and from me fled, / And ever since my head’s been red.'” Garner’s Annettes-Lieder are modern art song settings, sung in the original German, of three poems by the remarkable poetess Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (1797-1848): Im Grasse (In the Meadow), Am Turm (On the Tower), and Der Weiher (The Weir), the last-named filled with the atmosphere of her beloved moorlands in Westphalia. What a remarkable figure Annette must have seemed to her contemporaries: her poems are vigorously romantic, stern, and completely unsentimental. They cry out for the spirit of wild adventure then enjoyed solely by men, and were not what her era expected of a woman, even an aristocrat. With the aid of Pankonin and Matt Haimovitz, whose cello lends eloquent support here, Ms. Delan reaches sublime heights in such verses as “When in my breast the dead come to life, / Each corpse wakens and stretches; / Lightly, so lightly drawing breath, / And the eyelids lightly flutter, / Loves past, times past, joys past. / All these treasures mingled in the rubble, / Brush against each other: timid sounds, / Like the tinkling of chimes in the wind.”

The “wickedly satirical” element I mentioned earlier is found in Corigliano’s Two Cabaret Songs, to poems by Mark Adamo. Dodecaphonia, for which Corigliano originally flirted with the title “They call Me Twelve-tone Rose,” evokes police suspect descriptions a la film noir. It’s spiced with choice lyrics like “She lured the likes of Bernstein, even / Copland to her camp, / that vaguely ethereal, always funereal, / post-Wagnerian vamp” and “she’ll lead you to inversion / and you’ll fall for ev’ry pitch, / “Cause she’ll never use the same pitch twice.” Originally premiered by the incomparable Joan Morris, Dodecaphonia sounds just as great when Lisa Delan does her own take on it. Marvelous Invention satirizes the tendency for even great music to descend to mere wallpaper when pressed into a handbag full of compact discs: “So play me Sondheim or Takemitsu when / it’s time to walk my Shih-Tzu.” Finally, Woolf’s Odas de Toto el Mundo (Odes for Everyone), for which Haimovitz again adds the dark color of his cello, captures the flavorful Latin dance rhythms, the insouciance, the melancholy, and the exotic metaphors of the poem by the great Chilean author Pablo Neruda. Delan, who commissioned this piece, revels in such exotic imagery as “I sell / jungle odes / that run on puma feet: / they must be handled with care, behind bars, / they come / from age-old forests, / they are hungry.” What better way to conclude so thoroughly enjoyable and provocative a recital than the poem’s final stanza: “See you soon / when all things / become song”?

Comments No Comments »


2000 Notes
String Quartet No. 1
Haiku Settings
Oboe Concerto
Designs for Violin, Piano
Woodwind Quintet

Bridge Records

Ursula Mamlok was born in Berlin in 1923, left Germany to escape the Nazis in 1939, and has resided once again in the city of her birth since 2006. In between, she spent her seminal years in the United States, absorbing the influences of her teachers (including Vittorio Giannini, Roger Sessions, Stefan Wolpe, and Ralph Shapey). She probably represents the purest example of a “modernism” of any composer whom I’ve reviewed lately. Since that fact is not calculated to endear her music to me, I feel a particular obligation to be fair and objective in the present review.

 One immediately noticeable quality of Mamlok’s music is her terseness of expression. As a result of it, we have here on this compact disc seven major works by the composer, without straining the time limit of the medium. Another is her constant rhythmic, textural and registral variations and her manipulations in pitch, traits that keep the listener off-balance as she constantly seeks new combinations of elements. Finally, there is a nascent lyricism in her writing that is usually kept submerged under her other preoccupations. On this program, it finds partial expression in the Haiku Settings for soprano and flute, but is found most fully only in her early Woodwind Quintet of 1956. One also detects a fascination with musical games; the opening movements of String Quartet No. 1 (1962) and 2000 Notes are in the form of palindromes, while in Designs (1962) Mamlok experiments with the use of twelve tones in four basic rows.

 A number of famous musicians contributed their talents to this program, a testimony to their esteem for the composer, so I will try to give then all credit. Pianist Garrick Ohlsson is solo performer in Notes 2000, whose four movements are realized in a mere 7:23. Only the first movement, Gruff, has any sort of expressive subtitle, the others having only metronomic markings. Brief bursts of activity resolved into sustained tones in the opening movement are succeeded by rapid, rhythmically irregular figures, melodic and chordal motifs (but not melodies) in the middle movements, and contrary motion octaves and a final fff cluster chord in the finale. This is “pure” music with a vengeance! As such, it places great stress on the artist in attempting to characterize it – if such can even be done. In Haiku Settings (1967), with soprano Tony Arnold and flutist Claire Chase, Mamlok attempts to convey sense impressions in many features of her writing for the flute, for instance the angular, asymmetrical shapes in the flute lines, set against the interval of a minor third in the vocal, suggest the gull rocking fitfully in the restless sea in “So cold are the waves.” Her virtuosic writing for the flute is in stark contrast to her mannered use of the voice, which is used comparably to the flute only in the last Haiku, “How cool the green hay smells.” In Designs (1962) violinist David Bowlin and pianist Jacob Greenberg wrestle with the pithy (5:48) work’s numerous configurations of pitch, rhythm and texture.

 String Quartet No. 1(1962), which clocks in at a leisurely (for this composer) 9:59, absorbs the collective talents of the Daedalus Quartet, whole are often called upon to exercise high degrees of independence and individual virtuosity in dealing with the shifting patterns of Mamlok’s rhythmically fluid writing. In the opening of the second movement, a scherzo, the quartet members play wide-spanning figures at different speeds and with different articulations; in the trio section, viola and cello play cadenzas, prestissimo and fortissimo. All of this sounds more cerebral than engaging to my ears, although those listeners of a more “modernist” persuasion may think otherwise. Concertino for Wind Quintet, String Orchestra and Percussion (1987), with the Odense (Denmark) Symphony Orchestra under Scott Yoo, blends Mamlok’s neoclassical techniques with her modernist language. The four movements are entitled Energetic, Joyful, Elegy, and Playful. The composer employs her material in irregular phrases and rhythms, so it scarcely seems appropriate to term it “melodic.” The most convincing movement is the Elegy, its dark mood relieved somewhat by two virtuosic cadenzas for the wind instruments.

 Concerto for Oboe and Chamber Orchestra (1976, rev. 2003) features the talents of oboist Heinz Holliger and the Ensemble SurPlus conducted by James Avery. The three movements – Spirited, Dirge, and Rondo – are played without a break. A feature of the opening movement is the brief, rhythmically free cadenzas for oboe, xylophone and harp. (In fact, the two percussionists in the group get quite a workout in this opus.) In the slow movement and the finale, the texture of the music is punctuated by the oboe’s multiphonics (which I assume accounts for the strangulated quality of the soloist’s tone, which elsewhere sounds more like the “duck & bagpipes” school of oboe playing than the singing tone of the Heinz Holliger we have been used to hearing.) Woodwind Quintet (1956), the earliest work on this program, was also the one I found most satisfying, not the least for a true lyricism that I found rare in the later works. The performance by the woodwind quintet Windscape is superb, especially when dealing with the swinging eighth-note figures and the rapid scalar passages and trills in the opening movement. The second movement, marked Andante tranquillo, is nocturnal in mood, characterized by a melismatic melody that passes through the ensemble. The finale, marked Allegro molto, is spirited, ending decisively in a brilliant coda.

Comments No Comments »


James MacMillan: The Confession of Isobel Gowdie
Thomas Adí¨s: Chamber Symphony
Jennifer Higdon: Percussion Concerto

Colin Currie, percussionist
Marin Alsop conducting the London Philharmonic

Marin Alsop leads the LPO in a program of three of today’s most important new composers, James MacMillan (b.1959), Jennifer Higdon (b.1962) and Thomas Adés (b.1971). MacMillan is heard from first, in a treatment of an historical event that is very close to this composer as a Scot, a Socialist and a Catholic, The Confession of Isobel Gowdie. The work describes, as painfully as is well nigh possible in music, the persecution for witchcraft of the title figure, who in 1662 was induced to “confess” following the most horrible tortures and afterwards strangled and burned at the stake. The music is appropriately brutal, violent and dissonant, utilizing some of the most rasping, rattling, tortured and strangulated sounds that can be produced by percussion, brass and woodwinds, involving a massive chord for full orchestra, repeated thirteen times in the middle of the piece, and then building gradually to a final crescendo on middle C. Running counter to all this calculated anarchy is a theme, first heard on the lower strings and then running throughout the string section, that evokes a plainchant Lux Aeterna from the Requiem Mass. MacMillan’s purpose could not be clearer: it is to remind us to be vigilant against the hysterical outbreaks of intolerance that periodically infect our species. Have we not seen in our own supposedly enlightened time the re-emergence of the ancient benighted belief that one can obtain good results by torturing people?

London native Thomas Adés also writes some ugly-sounding music in his Chamber Symphony, but without MacMillan’s higher purpose. The 12-minute work with allusions to jazz, utilizes a bass clarinet, whose low timbre influences the coloring of the piece. It replaces the usual bassoon in the woodwind quartet, to which Adés adds three brass, five strings, two percussionists, a piano employed percussively, and an accordion. The texture is spare and spikey, with a rather undistinguished motto of a turning semitone running through the entire work. I found the whole thing tremendously uninvolving. If you like the so-called “Ash-Can” school of dramatic art, you will probably like Adés, too. They say every composer has an identifiable “thumb print” running throughout his work; Adés’ should be kept on file at Scotland Yard.

The Percussion Concerto (2005) of American composer Jennifer Higdon provides a change of pace and a satisfying conclusion to the program. Here, Colin Currie has the opportunity to realize a percussionist’s life ambition, in a program placing the artist front and center, showcasing all the sounds the artist’s battery can produce, from the loudest and most aggressive to the softest twinkling tintinnabulation. The array of instruments available to Currie ranges from marimba, vibraphone and crotales (tiny antique cymbals) to bongos, a resonating bowl, and a small Peking opera gong. The large orchestra includes harp, piano, celesta, tympani and three percussionists, with whom the soloist sometimes joins to make a single unit or to play in opposition to the orchestra. Later, a cadenza involving all the percussionists opens a window, similar to the common procedure in a jazz ensemble, allowing for the soloist to do an imaginative improvisation on the drums. The orchestra re-enters, and enlarges on earlier ideas, including the two-bar riff that has largely propelled the work. Things build to a zestful conclusion, followed by well-deserved applause at the end of this live recording, made at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall.

Comments No Comments »

Dark Full Ride: Music in Multiples

music of Julia Wolfe

CD cover

Matthew Welch, bagpipes
Talujon Percussion Ensemble
Lisa Moore, pianos
Robert Black, double basses

This disc is bound to get an immediate reaction and I’m willing to wager that the reaction will be extreme.   When approached with the fact that Julia Wolfe has written a piece for nine (9) bagpipes, the reaction is going to be one of the following:

  • “Why would anybody do such a thing?”
  • or “Holy crap, it must be awesome!   Put it on RIGHT NOW!”

I fall into that second category.   This Canteloupe release collects four works by Julia Wolfe all featuring ensembles of a single instrument type and all with a singular musical focus that can’t be bargained with, can’t be reasoned with, don’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear, and absolutely will not stop, ever, until the piece is over.   And then you’ll want to listen to the music again.   Trust me.   I haven’t lied to you yet.

LAD for nine bagpipes is a glorious work featuring drones (of course), expressive melodic fragments, life-altering glissandi, and the most revelatory emergence of tunes this side of Denis Smalley’s Pentes. Wolfe’s sense of musical timing is outrageously good.   There is a slow wind-up of activity in the first half of the piece and then, when she “brings it” in the second half, she really Brings It.   Matthew Welch, covering all 9 parts, provides a fantastic wall of sound, tons of musical expression, and has a palpable amount of fun with the material.   The last 5 seconds of the work, where all 9 bagpipes power down, is simply perfect.

The title track of the disc is a work for four drum sets and is performed by the Talujon Percussion Quartet.   Similar to LAD, Dark Full Ride is in two parts.   The first part obsesses on cymbals and metal, especially the hi-hat, for an all too short seven and a half minutes.   Wolfe is the master of transfixing the listener the simplest idea (running sixteenth notes).   Part 2 brings in the drums and what starts off as a fairly normal groove.   It doesn’t take long for the groove to become a distorted and lumbering engine and I mean this in an enthralling sort of way.   Dark Full Ride grooves along with a propulsion and drive.   The Talujon Percussion Quartet smacks out ever nuance and detail.

my lips from speaking, for six pianos, is a prismatic projection through a single soulful progression taken from Aretha Franklin’s song Think. The first third of the piece is dark and lugubrious with lots of space and resonance between gestures.   Part 2 starts pushing forward with the help of a solid and comfortable blues bass line.   You can hear every harmonic and overtone in Lisa Moore’s playing, which makes the piece that much more engaging and detailed.   In part 3, Wolfe “let’s it snap” as my father says.   Imagine the most soulful and explosive piano music you can muster.   Now multiply it by 6.

Last, and certainly not least, is Stronghold for eight double basses performed by Robert Black.   Part 1 is held together through throaty throbbing arpeggiations.   There is a great stratification in registers that keeps the gestures clear when they need to be or hazy background when called for.   The arpeggios give way to rapid tremolo fixations that lithely wind their way into part 2.   In part 2, there is a clarification of musical elements and a clearer pecking order of melody, harmony, and bass line.   It doesn’t take long for this clarity to complicate itself and devolve into rich static harmonies.   The last two minutes of the piece consists of each bass groaning out the low E string with such ferocity and intensity that you would swear Robert Black was using electronic manipulation.   Black’s sound is so huge and powerful that it seems as if it emanates from the most primal forces of nature.   It is the perfect ending to the piece, the only ending you really want, but you don’t know it until you are soaking in it.

Did I mention how much I like this disc?   I really, really do.   Each piece transfixes me.   I am writing my own music differently because of this disc.   I am so glad that Julia Wolfe exists, is writing music, and that such talented performers play the hell out of her stuff.

Comments 1 Comment »


Music for flute by Beyer, Vierk, Polansky, La Barbara, and Tenney

Margaret Lancaster, flutes; Beth Griffith, soprano; Larry Polansky, electric guitar; Matthew Gold, percussion

New World CD 80665-2

 Margaret Lancaster - Io

On io, Flutist Margaret Lancaster performs a program that spans nearly three quarters of a century. Despite this, most take the 1930s Ultramodernist tradition in American music as a point of referral.

Written in 1936, Johanna Beyer’s “Have Faith” is a brief, angular piece that presents the nightingale’s song in a fetching, somewhat spiky, costume; it is sung with pure tone and detailed care by Beth Griffith. This segues directly into the title piece, by Lois V. Vierk. Lancaster is joined here by Larry Polansky (playing electric guitar) and Matthew Gold (playing marimba). The material encompasses many of the slides and inflections of Gagaku, a subject of extensive research by the composer. Lancaster thrives with Eastern flair in the subtleties and characterizations demanded by the score. Meanwhile, Polansky and Gold articulate vibrant ostinati and pulsating drones. Thus, the piece supplies an East-meets-West, traditional music plus Downtown amalgam that is simultaneously distinctive and appealing.

Premiered in 2008, the most recent work on the CD is Joan La Barbara’s Atmos. Although written for multiple instruments and “sonic atmosphere” as a theatre piece, it still shows off Lancaster’s considerable dramatic flair as an audio-only presentation. La Barbara revels in the sounds of breath, manipulating both live performer and recordings to create a wide range of “wind shadings.” Other effects include percussive attacks, key clicks, and all manner of vocal utterances. La Barbara’s piece may be more directly influenced by Cage than Cowell or Seeger, but it is welcome for its inclusion as a stunning showcase for Lancaster regardless.

Another echo of the Ultramodernist school is James Tenney’s Seegersong #2 (1999). Tenney (1934-2006) used Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Piano Study in Mixed Accents as a basis for the piece, extending Seeger’s ideas about tempo flexibility (perpetuo mobile) to encompass some of the investigations into large-scale rhythmic design that engaged him during his late career. While all of this precompositional conceptualizing may be fascinating to insiders, the aural result is widely appealing: a skillfully written, artfully shaped solo flute piece. Lancaster affords it the precision its tricky rhythmic shifts require, all the while maintaining a sumptuous tone.

The CD closes with Larry Polansky’s five-movement work for solo piccolo entitled Piker. Taken from a reference in a 1935 letter by Marion Bauer to Ruth Crawford Seeger (“You’re no piker! But please drop me a card from somewhere!”). Generally, one might think that five movements of solo piccolo is four too many, but Polansky varies the part enough to keep things quite interesting, including microtones, devilishly difficult polymetric twists and turns, distressed Shaker tunes, and percussive foot stomps. Truth be told, Lancaster is joined by Polansky and Gold on the final movement of the piece, so it’s not strictly a solo work. But for many, it takes an artist of Lancaster’s caliber to make piccolo diverting for twenty minutes; a task she accomplishes handily here.

Comments No Comments »


Ethos Percussion Group

Bribie Recordings

Break It Down by Robert Levin
These Trees That Speak by Susie Ibarra
The Guiros Talk by Dafnis Prieto
Ziggurat (interior) by John Hollenbeck
performed by Eric Phinney, Yousif Sheronick, David Shively, and Trey Files

The Ethos Percussion Group’s release Building is a well-performed, attractive, and engaging collection of percussion music. The four musicians display ensemble virtuosity throughout each piece and launch the CD with the track Break it Down by Robert Levin. In this 2001 work, the four percussionists work together to sound as one drummer grooving through different styles. Upon casual listening, the piece comes across as a solo drumset performance. Deeper listening reveals a terse rhythmic interplay that could only be done my some robotic superhuman drummer. Or, as it so happens, by the Ethos Percussion Group.

These Trees That Speak by Susie Ibarra adds a haunting and simple pre-recorded track of ambient sound to the quartet. The opening heartbeat provides a motivating background to an otherwise meditative vibraphone solo. The heartbeat gives way to earthy deep drumming that just grooves all day long (okay, the piece is only 11 minutes, but I could listen to it all day). The second half of the composition brings back the mellowness of the opening over a backdrop of rain. The work is natural and exudes contemplation and serenity.

The Guiros Talk is a two movement piece, the first being just for guiros. It is, to borrow from Shakespeare, awesome. The dialog of guiros is sensitive and fresh to the ears. I am a fan of the “do more with less” approach to percussion that this movement hits the nail on the head. Or the guiro on the side. The second movement, “Claveteando,” is a quirky romp through Cuban and Latin drumming influence. The piece grooves, definitely it does, but the groove is constantly growing and changing. In contrast to the Levin work, in which Ethos sounded like one superdrummer, “Claveteando” makes them sound like one impressive quartet.

The last work, Ziggurat (Interior), is the least concrete and groovy of the four works. What you get instead is an avalanche of mystery sounds (oh how the mind wanders when trying to determine how they are making those sounds) interjected with a boomwhacker obbligato. The work has a tense energy to it, sounding as if the ziggurat is being raised into position before your eyes. The composition is full of sonic trajectory and Ethos supports this trajectory every step of the way. When the piece gave way to rapid rolls on tiny tinny bells, I just sat and thought “what on EARTH is going on here?” But I thought it in a good way. Hollenbeck’s work is hypnotic in its mysterious quirkiness and Ethos commands your attention at every moment.

Comments No Comments »