Where (we) Live
music by Grey McMurray
- This Place the Place
- Five Rooms Back
- Strange Steps
- Room and Board
- In Our Rooms
- All Along
- Strangers All Along
- Five Rooms Down
- Thank You
So Percussion: Eric Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski, Jason Treuting; Guitar and vocals: Grey McMurray
Where (we) Live, a collaborative composition/performance/event by Grey McMurray and So Percussion, does everything in its power to communicate a sense of place and space. The first track sets McMurray as the leader of a guided meditation asking the listener to think about various places he/she has lived and how it felt to move into a new place. It is the kind of metaphor one might expect someone to build a piece around but it is a narrative which would require ample program notes (and listeners who would read them) in order to communicate the piece’s true intent. McMurray cuts right through that and after 20 seconds, you know exactly what he is shooting at. Even before his narration comes in, though, we get a sense of space. The scratchy LP sounds and the distant piano recording established a sense of space and mood immediately. Being asked to think of the places we’ve lived just takes us deeper inside.
So Percussion and McMurray keep all details focused on mood, tone, and event throughout the disc. All details, from subtle timbres to large formal designs, all point back to the whole composition. Even a track like “Moat,” which contains some jarring shifts from loud and percussive moments quickly dropping into subdued delicate textures all seem to convey the very idea of what a moat is and what it does: a drastic shift in the landscape meant to isolate one thing from another. As this particular track continues, the disparate elements are unified into one cohesive unit.
“Room and Board” walks that fine line between a work for narrator and ensemble and a story on This American Life with a slightly more exuberant soundtrack. “All Along” is a straight-up groove for a while but gives way to spare electric piano chords at the end. While the disc has a mostly ambient sound world about it, So Percussion gets plenty of rhythmic and driving moments to contrast the pointallistic and quieter moments. Everything blends so well together, every sound is so perfectly chosen, each component is exactly where it needs to be.
It can be difficult to talk about this disc as a collection of tracks or songs. Where (we) Live is a complete and unified whole. It is equal parts groove and sparse points, equal parts spoken and sung, equal parts soloist feature and ensemble playing, equal parts acoustic and electronic, equal parts of all things. It isn’t casual listening, either. I can’t have this on in the background. It becomes the foreground, takes over my listening space, and puts me in its world. When the disc is playing, it is where I live.
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Arianna Savall and Petter Udland Johansen
ECM New Series 2227 CD/Digi
Swiss soprano and harpist Arianna Savall pairs with Norwegian folksinger, Hardanger fiddle player, and mandolinist Petter Udland Johansen on Hirundo Maris (Latin for “Sea Swallow”), a recording on ECM’s New Series. They are joined by Sveinung Lilleheier (guitar, Dobro, backing vocals), Miquel Àngel Cordero (double-bass, backing vocals), and David Mayoral (percussion, backing vocals) in an outing that combines folk material from multiple traditions (from both Northern and Southern Europe), early music instruments and performance practices, and improvised original pieces.
This is one of the recordings that we keep playing: at home, in the car on the way to work; I’ve even inserted it into a classroom lecture. Like many ECM releases, the overall ambiance is lovely: spacious yet detailed with each voice and instrument able to be pinpointed in the sound field with crystalline clarity.
The material is heavily weighted towards ballads, including particularly lovely versions of ”The Water is Wide” and the Catalan traditional song “El Mestre:” a showcase for Savall’s lustrous soprano. But the program is punctuated by livelier selections too; the Sephardic song “Ya salio de la mar” and the Norwegian folksong “Ormen lange,” a terrifically syncopated tour de force for both Johansen and Mayoral. This is certain to be on many “best of” lists of recordings at the end of the year: ours included.
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America is electronic musician Dan Deacon’s third full length recording, and his first for the Domino imprint. It would be easy for someone uninitiated with Deacon’s previous work to assume that this is a “rah-rah” type of artistic statement, but those familiar with his usually dense and sometimes frenetic music are forgiven if they wondered if there was some tongue in cheek joke intended by the title.
There’s not: Deacon intends the album to be an exploration of his experiences as an American, albeit one of a more left-leaning, even countercultural, mindset than the artists who are usually found putting “America” in their albums’ titles. According to recent interviews, including one in the New York Times, Deacon’s initial response to the post 9/11 era was to feel disassociated from his national identity. Over time, realizing that, despite wrestling with or flat out rejecting many of the Bush era’s policies and value systems, and some that have persisted under the current president, Deacon found that he couldn’t escape an association with his country of origin, even when travelling abroad. America is a musical work based on this reintegration experience.
A somewhat puzzling aspect of the Times profile linked above: it emphasizes a narrative of Deacon as a burgeoning contemporary classical composer that seems to soft pedal his formidable capacities as a creator of effusive, if at times knotty, electronica by making it sound as if this aspect of his work might be moving into the rear view mirror. To be sure, Deacon has a sheepskin from SUNY Purchase in electronic music composition and credits on crossover events such as Merkin Hall’s Ecstatic Music series. That said, there’s no need for an either/or juxtaposition. Even in the midst of the album’s formidable “B side,” a four movement suite titled USA, Deacon hasn’t left his beats at home. What he’s done instead is to integrate them into a fabric that gives a nod to the wide dynamic spectrum of concert music and incorporates some of its instrumentation into a porous, even shape shifting, musical fabric. These are songs writ large, with an artist gaining greater depth of awareness, exploring nuances of arrangement, and striking a pose that serves as a sharp contrast to any homegrown jingoist ideas about music-making.
Alongside the release of America, Deacon has also released a free Dan Deacon app. Featuring a synthesizer loop program, spectrogram, dB meter, and links to other Deacon activities, it’s a fun addition to one’s smart phone or tablet. I’m lobbying for the designers to add the ability to take a picture of the spectrographs you create, which would make it very useful for composers.
Dan Deacon App video
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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, tags: alex mincek, andy akiho, CD Review, chamber music, daniel wohl, electronics, Jay Batzner, mariel roberts, sean friar, String quartet, Tristan Perich
Mariel Roberts, cello
- Three Shades, Foreshadows – Andy Akiho
- Teaser – Sean Friar
- Saint Arc – Daniel Wohl
- Flutter – Alex Mincek
- Formations – Tristan Perich
My favorite quote from Mariel Roberts about this disc is “I wanted to make an album that sounds like the city I live in,” and I cannot think of a better aural enticement to move to New York City right now. These five solo cello/cello and electronics pieces are bustling with compelling energy and quirky sounds that constantly draw me in closer and closer. The Rodin sculpture-inspired Three Shades, Foreshadows by Andy Akiho bubbles and roils along. The electronic component stays strongly within the realm of natural sounds and the cello has been prepared with clothespins to change the pizzicato resonance. Any and all tapping and pizz sounds are used throughout the piece and the blend between live and recorded elements is perfectly seamless. Roberts has a perfect sense of timing to accentuate the grooves and create vibrant clouds of sounds.
Teaser is a monster of a solo piece in terms of technique as most of the music is made of double-stops. Roberts maintains a very playful and effortless energy throughout which belies the composition’s difficulty. Teaser’s form is mainly of moments which build and coagulate together into jaunty grooves (Sean Friar uses the title as a reference to the “tease” in storytelling). Teaser moves into and out of interesting spaces quite effectively and, while it doesn’t go where I expect on first listen, its arrival points are always worth the trip. Similar things can be said about Daniel Wohl’s Saint Arc, which brings electronics back into the mix. The piece itself uses timbral juxtapositions to build a sense of tension and release and Wohl shapes his piece quite well in that regard. Different than the Akiho work, the electronics are certainly cello-related/based sounds but the goal is the “otherness” of the sound and putting the live performer in relief to more sustains and shimmering backgrounds.
Alex Mincek’s Flutter is, pretty much, a perfect encapsulation of the title. Flutter is exactly what this piece does. Shuffling sounds swirl in and out of (what I think is) an electronic accompaniment and Roberts’ live cello seems to invoke these murmurs at first and then scrambles in ever-increasing counterpoint against them. If those initial sounds aren’t electronic, I have no idea how it is all being done. After the piece reaches its climactic peak, Roberts exhales out all the tension which was build up. The gradual detuning of the low C string for the piece’s extended final sighs is particularly haunting.
Closing the disc is the monolithic Formations by Tristan Perich for cello and 1-bit sounds. Perich’s signature blend of punchy and energetic synth timbres plays alongside a focused and repetitive live cello. The cello doesn’t always sit in the forefront of the musical texture which, while it makes for some interesting interplay with the synth world, might be an irritant for some. If you enjoy dynamic contrast, this is not the piece for you. The upbeat, active, and driving rhythmic interplay is always engaging and hypnotic. I find the piece right on the edge of captivating and irritating, which is a fascinating place to be. I have the feeling that you will know within 10 seconds of this piece’s beginning whether or not you will want to hear the whole 20 minutes. I wanted to, and I have on several occasions.
Another mild criticism some might have of the disc would be Roberts’ tone, which is much more on the edgy side of the spectrum and not the deep, dark, bassy kind of sound one would want for Brahms sonatas. I, for one, think he tone is spot on to the music she is playing which is the sign of a skilled performer. I would love to hear Roberts play something more lyrical and emotive in the future but this disc, as a presentation of Roberts’ voice, really rocks. There is a gesamtkunst-at-werk going on here: the energetic performances, the matching of tone to the aesthetics of the compositions, the language of the music chosen, it all creates a “unified field theory” making every detail of this CD point back to Mariel Roberts as Someone to Which We Should Be Listening.
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Ursula Mamlok: Volume 3
- Five Capriccios for oboe and piano (Heinz Holliger, Anton Kernjak)
- Stray Birds for soprano, flute, and cello (Phyllis Bryn-Julson, Harvey Sollberger, Fred Sherry)
- Fantasy-Variations for solo violoncello (Jakob Spahn)
- Panta Rhei (Time in Flux) for piano trio (Susanne Zapf, Cosima Gerhardt, Heather O’Donnell)
- Five Bagatelles for clarinet, violin, and cello (Helge Harding, Kirsten Harms, Cosima Gerhardt)
- String Quartet No. 2 (Sonar String Quartet: Kirsten Harms, Susanne Zapf, Nikolaus Schlierf, Cosima Gerhardt)
- Confluences for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano (Helge Harding, Kirsten Harms, Cosima Gerhardt, Heather O’Donnell)
- Kontraste for oboe and harp (Heinz Holliger, Ursula Holliger)
This third volume of the music of Ursula Mamlok on Bridge Records is a great snapshot collection of Mamlok’s musical language captured in small chamber ensembles. The earliest pieces on the disc, Stray Birds and Five Capriccios, are fragmented atonal miniatures. Stray Birds (1963), a five movement work setting aphorisms by Rabindranath Tagore, evokes bird sounds in the voice, flute, and cello equally while giving each performer their own unique space. Given the sparse and angular nature of the melodic materials, Phyllis Bryn-Julson’s performance is absolutely stunning (as one might expect). Bryn-Julson connects even the most disjointed pitch sets into a coherent whole. Sollberger and Sherry, two names you can trust to do the same, balance Bryn-Julson perfectly, creating a chamber trio instead of an accompanied voice. Five Capriccios for oboe and piano (1968), are four charming pointillistic gems and one extended lyrical final movement. Holliger, as one has come to expect, navigates each moment with clarity and a subtly nuanced interpretation.
Mamlok’s penchant for collecting many short movements under one roof is a recurring theme of this disc. Oftentimes, as with Fantasy-Variations for solo cello, these shorter movements really catch my ear as part of a single narrative journey. One of my favorite works on the disc, Panta Rhei (Time in Flux) for piano trio, really blurs the lines between movements. The angular and pointillistic gestural trends are still present but in Panta Rhei I hear a slight softening of the pitch language. Dissonances aren’t as harsh, gestures are less frenetic, the piece seems to have a bit more breath and life to it. The trio of Zapf, Gerhardt, and O’Donnell do a wonderful job merging together in a sophistically orchestrated score. The Five Bagatelles for clarinet, violin, and cello are equally well scored and orchestrated and Harding, Harms, and Gerhardt take full advantage of the material. Again on this disc, the ensemble blends extremely well and projects a unified sonic trajectory which is easy to follow. Confluences does the same but with a bit more mystery and fullness to the ensemble sound. The Sonar Quartet’s performance of Mamlok’s String Quartet No. 2 is equal parts playful, tender, and fun. The most recent work on the disc, Kontraste for oboe and harp (2009/2010) is also the most playful (the Humoresque first movement) and spaciously lyrical (Largo e Mesto second movement).
Throughout the disc I hear a lot of similarities to the music of Alban Berg: finely crafted short movements (the oboe capriccios hit me in the same spot as Berg’s clarinet pieces), strong dramatic profiles and gestures (String Quartet No. 2 evokes Berg’s op. 3 in my ears), and atonal pitch constructions which still seem to be rooted in Romanticism somehow (pretty much everything on this disc sounds like that to me). If you, like me, wish that Berg could have composed more before his untimely death, you’ll enjoy Mamlok’s offerings.
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Thierry Pécou: Tremendum
Ensemble Variances and Percussions Claviers de Lyon
Harmonia Mundi’s third release of music by French composer Thierry Pécou (b. 1965) features the “carnival concerto” Tremendum (2005-’10) as its centerpiece. The version presented on this recording was revised to highlight the considerable talents of its interpreters: Percussions Claviers de Lyon. The influence of Brazilian carnival is overt, with boisterous syncopated rhythms clamoring for attention amid whistles and mallet percussion in a jubilant, dancing celebration. Cast in two movements Arbre des Fleurs (2010) for percussion quintet retains the carnivals sense of relentless energy and occasional whimsy, but the dissonance quotient is upped to create a spicier harmonic palette. More angst-filled too, and effectively so, is Soleil-Tigre (2009) for cello and piano, a piece that contains the ostinati which are Pécou’s signature; but these contend with the cello line’s throbbing, angular melodic gestures.
Paseo de la Reforma (1995-2011, perhaps the latter date implies a revision of an earlier piece?) is relentless in its reiteration of jazzy riffs. There is elegance in the instrumentation of the work, but the repetitions don’t transform as interestingly as the material tends to do in his more recent works. Another earlier piece, Danzón for solo flute, incorporates microtones, key clicks, harmonics, and multiphonics seamlessly in a pliant dance with considerable charm. Manoa (2005) features bass flute, employing a considerable array of technical extensions, in another composition that brings together traditional dance rhythms with gestures of the avant-garde: a microcosm of Pécou’s considerably wide ranging domain.
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Kawabata Makoto & à qui avec Gabriel
Kawabata Makoto is best known for his work with the group Acid Mothers Temple, a post-psych noise rock collective that can melt paint off of walls with the amplitude of their recordings. When the guitarist joins forces with accordionist and vocalist à qui avec Gabriel for the album Golden Tree (Important Records), he creates an entirely different sound world.
The album consists of three extended duets; one, “Solid Torus,” lasting in excess of half an hour. Balancing with long held tones on the accordion, the guitar lines provide an uneasy counterpoint that, while less subdued than the torrents of fuzzed soloing one hears on AMT releases, is no less focused. Indeed, there is a sense that the energy Makoto is keeping in reserve could at any moment be unleashed; released like a tightly coiled spring. Instead, most often balance is sought by both parties, with guitar harmonics and the occasional feedback flirtation blending with the accordion’s treble register drones and ephemeral clusters. à qui avec Gabriel also has a beautiful soprano singing voice, which she sometimes lends to the proceedings in sustained lines and repeated tones. Golden Tree is at its most beguiling when vocalized tones, sustained guitar lines, and accordion drones dovetail together in an intense dovetailing of dolphin-like song.
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Tomas Fujiwara and the Hook Up
The Air is Different
482 Music CD 482-10719
Pictures of Tomas Fujiwara’s grandparents, dressed elegantly and exuding warm yet somewhat reserved countenances, grace the cover and sleeve of his latest CD: The Air is Different. The jazz drummer and composer helms this, the second recording of his “Hook Up” group, which includes guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Trevor Dunn, tenor saxophonist Brian Settles, and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson. The Air is Different is in an outing that blends contemporary chamber jazz with fleeting references to trad jazz and Twentieth century neoclassicism. Thus, it embodies both reflection on the traditions of one’s elders and the resolve and courage that their example gives to descendents to forge their own pathways; Fujiwara’s inclusion of family photos is no mere dedicatory happenstance.
Compositions like “Lineage” and “For Ours” present tight structures and duetted thematic melodies that often reference their progenitors; in homage, not parody. Plummy tone from Finlayson and supple, dynamically nuanced drumming from Fujiwara prove particularly distinctive in these pieces. Meanwhile, listeners are treated to a strong and urgent polymetric groove (and shredding solos from Halvorson and Settles) on “Double Lake, Defined,” and free play with a raucous rhythmic underpinning and bracing dissonance on “Cosmopolitan, Rediscovery.”
The CD’s final two selections — “Smoke-Breathing Lights” and “Postcards” — are a bit more extended; allowing the quintet to change demeanors, soloing roles, and accompanying textures a number of times. It’s in these variegated landscapes that Fujiwara and the Hookup shine most brightly, sensing the shifts in one another’s playing with the near-prescient perception. This is no ESP; it is hard won acquaintance that comes from the chameleon like exchange of roles occurring nearly nightly on a variety of Brooklyn bandstands among these, and many other, frequent collaborators in the ecstatic jazz tradition.
Standing on the shoulders of avant jazz giants, and not afraid to occasionally look over their own for inspiration, Fujiwara and company make exciting music together.
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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, tags: CD Review, chamber music, electronics, iO quartet, Jay Batzner, Michael Chertock, Odense Symphony, orchestra, Paul Mann, String quartet, Tod Machover
music of Tod Machover
Odense Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Paul Mann
- Sparkler for orchestra and live electronics
- Interlude 1 – “After Bach”
- Three Hyper-Dim-Sums for string quartet
- Interlude 2 – “After Byrd”
- …but not simpler… for string quartet
- Jeux Deux for Hyperpiano and orchestra (Michael Chertock, Hyperpiano)
The intersection of music and technology is one that is constantly fraught with peril. The balance between these two elements is difficult and when both elements click some sublime music can be made. Tod Machover’s career has been largely built through the application of technology onto musical environments (or the application of music onto technological environments). This disc shows that sometimes the balance is just right but sometimes technology can seem superfluous or, even worse, a detriment.
Sparkler is an appealing orchestral work that riffs on Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” with Coplandish harmonies and orchestration. The live electronics are balanced well in the orchestral textures but more often than not they are overshadowed by the colorful instrumentation Machover uses on his various gestures. I don’t find that the usage of live electronics really enhances the piece to a point that they are wholly necessary.
The string quartet portion of the disc is very well handled. Two interludes, one based on Bach and the other on Byrd, are fixed media pieces meant to sound like an augmented string quartet. The textures to both of these pieces is interesting and each interlude matches up well with the following acoustic piece. The timbre of the instruments does have an edge to it that denies a purely acoustic origin. Instead of the thickening texture emerging as a surprise, an unexpected moment of “I thought I was listening to just four people,” that virtual instrument sound serves as an aural obligation for the work to build into something that the performers alone could not create.
When Machover is entirely acoustic, the pieces work quite well. The 3 Hyper-Dim-Sums are charming miniatures for string quartet, played with vigor and nuance by the iO Quartet. …but not simpler… transitions beautifully from the Byrd interlude and continues to be colorful and engaging. Machover certainly knows color and he uses all means of string sounds in this floating 14 minute movement.
Jeux Deux, a three movement concerto for Hyperpiano and orchestra, has wit and energy about it but again the technology is more often a sore thumb than an ally. It could be that piano virtuosity has reached a state where I simply can’t tell when the piano is using technology to supplement the performer but the times when the technology is ouvert, it is painfully so. Mechanical trills, devoid of humanity, are just irritating. The concept behind the piece, one that uses a computer to augment and enhance the piano’s material in real time, is an intriguing one, but to my ears this is a case of the technological idea winning over the musical implementation.
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Music of Vladimir Martynov
- The Beatitudes
- Schubert-Quintet (Unfinished) (with Joan Jeanrenaud, cello)
- Der Abschied
David Harrington and John Sherba, violin; Hank Dutt, viola, Jeffrey Ziegler, cello
Vladimir Martynov’s flavor of minimalism (if you will allow me to call it that) is incredibly sneaky and pleasurable. When I received this disc in a simple, nondescript cardboard sleeve, I was unfamiliar with Martynov’s music but I was certainly looking forward to anything Kronos was going to play. At first, I was surprised by the complete conservatism of the first track The Beatitudes. A simple melody is repeated incessantly for five and a half minutes with an unsurprising and standard tonal harmonic progression. The thing is, it works. The tune is gorgeous in its sparseness and further listenings revealed subtle harmonic changes. It makes me think of one of the most important composition lesson’s I learned from the music of Schubert: you can’t go wrong with pretty. This piece is an arrangement of a choral work and while usually instrumental transcriptions of vocal pieces fall flat on me the variety used in scoring this music for four performers keeps the music fresh in the absence of text.
Speaking of Schubert, the Schubert-Quintet (Unfinished) was maddening at first listening. Schubertian harmonies and gestures abound but anything remotely melodic is surprisingly absent. It truly sounds like Martynov found a fragment of another Schubert quintet, one in which Schubert would later add a melody, and presents it whole for the listener to experience. The repetition of dramatic motions makes the work seem stuck at times but that only leads to more pleasurable breakthroughs as the piece evolves.
The epic Der Abschied does to Mahler what Martynov previously did to Schubert. A small moments and hints of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde are stretched out and composed through for 40 minutes. If you like Mahler but wanted it to have more breath and stillness, then this work is for you. What is even better is that you don’t need to have any connection to the Mahler prior to hearing this work. It is, in some ways, the antithesis of The Beatitudes which opened the disc. Der Abschied is a constantly shifting unresolved mist that keeps its hooks in you through tensions which are never satisfactorily released (sounds like Mahler, doesn’t it?) and holds you, breathless, until the music just floats away. I swear I could still hear the final string harmonics and cadences for the next half hour after the piece ended. It never lets go.
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