HEATHCO: ravens & radishes. Misha Penton, soprano; George Heathco, electric guitar; Daniel Saenz, cello. Divergence Vocal Theatre DVT 002; georgeheathco.com; 25 minutes.
ravens & radishes (2013) is an “operatic fairytale song cycle” for soprano, electric guitar, and cello. The lyrics, by soprano Misha Penton, embody elusive retellings of tales from Grimm and a Slavic tale. They are well-matched with Heathco’s music, which has an easy eclecticism that reminds me of chamber rock with shifting textures and metric/rhythmic freedom. The songs work on their own and as part of the cycle.
Misha Penton, in addition to having a way with words, is a fine singer, with a darkly inviting voice, a sure sense of pitch, and outstanding diction. Mr. Heathco is a solid guitarist, coaxing a wide variety of sounds and textures from his instrument, which blends and contrasts in sometimes surprising ways with Daniel Saenz’ superb cello playing.
ravens & radishes is very well-written, recorded, and performed. A good example of the form and style.
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SHENG: The Singing Gobi Desert; LIANG: Messages of White; MAN: Dream of a Hundred Flowers; RUO: The Three Tenses. Prism Quartet; Music from China; Bright Sheng, Nové Deypalan, Huang Ruo, conductors. innova 885. 58 minutes.
In his extensive and highly readable liner notes for this disc, John Schaefer writes that this disc demonstrates that “saxophones and Chinese instruments have a natural, if unexpected, affinity”. That is an understatement, to say the least, as this remarkable program illustrates.
Bright Sheng’s The Singing Gobi Desert (2012, erhu/zhonghu, sheng, pipa, yangqin, saxophone quartet, and percussion) begins with a noisy and extravagant gesture, reminiscent of Messiaen. After that gesture (which returns) a melody snakes through the ranges of the various instruments, in harmony and in unison. The bulk of the piece consists in explorations and expansions of the implications of the opening. The piece moves easily through Western and Chinese idioms. without ever succumbing to what Steve Reich called “the old exoticism trip”. Bright Sheng’s piece explores the sonic space that both separates and unites the instruments in a way that is both brilliant and expressive.
Messages of White (2011, saxophone quartet, erhu, sheng, pipa, yangqin and percussion), by Lei Liang, explores a very different landscape from Sheng’s Gobi Desert; a snowscape. This is a far more “abstract” landscape, with few overt references to the musical traditions that lie behind the instruments used. Glissandi on the erhu are combined with bowed percussion sounds to create a background in front of which the other instruments grow increasingly active, then less active towards the end of the piece, leaving the background as it was in the beginning.
Fang Man’s Dream of a Hundred Flowers (2011, erhu, sheng, pipa, yangqin, and saxophone quartet) finds each saxophone paired with one of the Chinese instruments in a study, really a celebration, of the melodic styles associated with Chinese opera, with some very jazzy harmonies popping up from time to time. Over the length of the pieces, the duos join with other duos and the two quartets explore different relationships, like characters in an opera. It is a shapely piece, expressive and lovely.
The program ends with a searching performance of Huang Ruo’s The Three Tenses (2005, pipa and saxophone quartet). From a slow and spare beginning, the piece blossoms into hive of melodic activity, that reminds me at times of some of Luciano Berio’s melodic elaboration pieces (Voci, for example). It is very colorful and alive.
The sound is outstanding on this valuable release. Highly recommended.
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FUNG: Keeping Time; HIGDON: Secret and Glass Gardens; HOOVER: Dream Dances; LUO: Mosquito; SHATIN: Chai Variations; De KENESSEY: Spontaneous D-Combustion; DEUSSEN: A Recollection. Mary Kathleen Ernst, piano. innova 868. 69 minutes.
Headline: Mary Kathleen Ernst, who I admit I had not heard of before I got this recording, is a spectacularly gifted pianist. She plays with assured technique, a vast timbral palette, and a keen sensitivity to the variety of contemporary compositional styles. The current program, of recent music by female composers, is far more than showcase for Ms Ernst, but it is that, too.
The program opens with Vivian Fung’s sly look at Keeping Time. Ms Fung uses time-keeping (an obsession in much contemporary American concert music) for melodic and gestural musings, with the clock’s insistence always present. The melodies in Jennifer Higdon’s Secret and Glass Gardens begin as quietly purposeful wanderings that gradually blossom into large gestures covering the entire range of the keyboard.
Katherine Hoover’s Dream Dances begins with mysterious, impressionistic gestures (very idiomatic, pianistic) that are indeed dream-like in their ambiguity. The piece gradually, almost imperceptibly, develops into a driving, frenetic dance that abruptly, and convincingly, stops. Mosquito, by Jing Jing Luo, is a flighty beast indeed. Scurrying here, lighting there, it is a consistently delightful piece, well-written and expressive.
Chai Variations, by Judith Shatin, is a set of 18 variations on a Hebrew folk song. Shatin takes an effectively old-fashioned approach to variation form(s)–now Brahmsian, now Rzewskian–the theme is almost always clear in the background, if not the foreground. A shapely, convincing set.
Stefania De Kenessey’s Spontaneous D-Combustion is full of references to past styles. It is jaunty and eminently listenable. The program closes with Nancy Deussen’s attractive and haunting A Recollection. As the piece moves along, the nature of the “recollections” gets more-and-more elusive. It makes a fine end to a very good program, well-chosen and very well-played by Ms Ernst.
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BATES: Stereo is King; Observer in the Magellanic Cloud; Difficult Bamboo; Terrycloth Troposphere; String Band; White Lies for Lomax. Cynthia Yeh, Jacob Nissly, Eric Banks, perc; Mason Bates, electronica; Chanticleer; Baird Dodge, vln; Ken Olsen, cello; Jennifer Gunn, fl; Susan Warner, cl; Kuang-Hao Huang, piano; Cliff Colnot, cond; Bill Ryan and the Grand Valley New Music Ensemble; Claremont Trio; Tania Stavreva, piano. innova 882. 66 minutes
I have to say right up front that I find that, even having listened to a fair amount of it, I cannot engage with most of what I’ve heard of Mason Bates’ music. With an important exception, the pieces on this release, well-written and played and sung impeccably and enthusiastically by renowned performers, don’t speak to me. I agree with Joshua Kosman, who writes “[f]or sheer compulsive listenability, you could hardly do better than the title track, a bowlful of sonic popcorn that combines Thai gongs with a sleek veneer of electronic processing.” In fact, these very aspects of it are an important part of what is off-putting about this music. But for some reason it doesn’t speak to me. So I don’t have much to say about the disc, except to repeat that it is very well-written, played, sung, and recorded.
Except for String Band, an expressive and riveting piece of music, given a powerful performance by the Claremont Trio. String Band wears its influences lightly and feels less wedded to its musical influences than are the rest of the pieces on the program. The sleekness that Mr. Kosman finds so enthralling in Stereo is King is missing here, and the expression is, at least to my ear, more direct, somehow less mediated than in the pieces I’ve heard from Mr. Bates, and from others in his compositional cohort.
The fact that the other pieces just don’t do it for me says as much about me as it does about the music, if not more. But my experience with String Band gives me hope, and that’s always very good.
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BECKER: Gridlock; Five Reinventions; Fade; Keeping Time; A Dream of Waking. Common Sense Ensemble/Bradley Lubman; New Millennium Ensemble. innova 855. 53 minutes.
Dan Becker’s brand of post-minimalism is brightly colorful and rhythmically incisive. And it sounds as if it would be great fun to play. While the music is built on steady, clear pulses, Becker rarely resorts to a backbeat. His percussion writing, rather, is built on irregular accents and colorful blasts of sound. His writing for winds and strings is equally idiomatic; again, it sounds like it would be great fun to play.
The music on this disc that speaks most directly to me is contained in the slow sections of pieces like Fade and Keeping Time (Mvt. 1). Here, Becker uses pop-oriented harmonies and progressions, but with an irregular harmonic rhythm, supporting expressive melodies colorfully orchestrated.
The performances are top notch. The players love this music and it shows. The Bachian Reinventions are played by a Discklavier, which seems indifferent compared to the human players–the notes are there, but still.
Innova’s sound is very good, and John Halle’s notes are gushily informative.
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New World Records
What if one wanted to focus on the contemplative nature of mythology’s Furies instead of their ferocity? They might want to hear Arthur Levering’s The Furies. Sequitur’s performance of the piece, conducted by Paul Hostetter, presents layers of counterpoint and corruscating lines with enviable clarity and precision. There are occasional eruptions, but one is more struck by the piece’s unerring pacing than any brash moments that ensue. Boston Modern Orchestra Project, conducted by Gil Rose, give Il Mare Dentro a similarly detailed reading. Once again, Levering opts for a slow build with a gradual accumulation of material, much of it resonant with aquatic imagery: there’s even a sly quote of Debussy’s La Mer towards the work’s conclusion.
Four Drinking Songs is Levering at his most minimal. Harp and piano ostinatos accompany mezzo-soprano Krista River, whose warm tone and clear diction brighten the proceedings, on a multilingual tour of intoxication. The two-piano piece Partite sopra Ciaccona is more portentous in demeanor, but no less attractive than the larger works. Levering deploys a rich harmonic palette and supplies pianists John McDonald and Donald Berman with virtuosic passages a plenty to play. BMOP returns for the title work, which features its string section in a wide ranging theme and variations that combines soaring lines with a dissonant chordal sonorities. Once again, one hears frequent post-minimal ostinatos propelling the piece, but they are just part of a larger stylistically diverse tapestry that also encompasses post-tonal thinking, abundant counterpoint, and a postmodern sensibility. Levering is a talented composer whose works should be much better known. Hopefully this excellent disc will help.
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Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano; Tim Fain, violin, Sato Moughalian, flute; Blair McMillen, piano
Perspectives Ensemble, Angel Gil-Ordonez, conductor
Catalan composer and music critic Xavier Montsalvatge (1912-2002) created a stylistically varied and compelling body of work. The pieces here demonstrate his music’s abundant vitality, continual curiosity, and eloquence. In particular, the two vocal works, Madrigal sobre un tema popular, which teems with attractive folk dance rhythms, and 5 Invocaciones al Crucificado, an affecting meditation on Christ’s passion, are given standout performances by the extraordinarily talented mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke. Violinist Tim Fain supplies an energetic and adroit rendition of the solo part in the neoclassical work Concertino 1+13, and flutist Sato Moughalian and pianist Blair McMillen negotiate the more modernist environs of Serenata a Lydia de Cadaques with technical skill and thoughtful musicality. The Perspectives Ensemble, conducted by Angel Gil Ordonez, provides stalwart support throughout. The disc is an excellent snapshot of a composer whose perseverance during the repressive time of Franco’s regime yielded a great deal of memorable music.
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Dave Seidel: ~60 Hz
Dave Seidel is a New Hampshire-based composer and performer who works primarily in electronic music. The title, ~60 Hz, refers to the approximate frequency of the sine wave tones that begin two of the three works that comprise this CD. 60 Hz is also the frequency of our 110 Volt AC power outlets. and although the pieces created here use other frequencies and combinations, 60 Hz becomes a touchstone for the entire album.
That Dave has chosen to work with pure wave forms presents challenges to both the creator and the listener. Mixtures of sine waves obviously lack the variety of timbres we normally expect when standard acoustic instruments are played. Pure wave forms normally tend to have a very sterile sound, but various frequencies and mixtures can produce a more distinctive feel, especially when used in the artful combinations offered here. Certain ratios of sine wave frequencies can sound alien and metallic, or they can feel rich and warm. When two frequencies are quite close, zero beating occurs and this is another element that can be employed by the artist. I actually loaded the MP3 files of ~60 Hz into Audacity, a freeware sound editing program, in order to see the wave forms of each piece as I listened.
The first track is titled Permutation and opens with a pure 60 Hz hum to start. This tone is very pure, yet surprisingly deep and warm – unlike the 60 Hz buzzing that you often hear creeping into bad cables in a cheap sound system. A second wave is added directly onto the 60 Hz hum as the piece progresses, is layered by another, then a third at pleasing harmonic intervals. Eventually this settles out to two frequencies of about 400 and 300 Hz sounding together and riding on the 60 Hz base tone with the third tone of some 700 or 800 Hz joining in. This produces a clean sound, but not alien or unsettling. The overall effect is the pleasing throb of well-maintained machinery, humming confidently along. A slight variation in the loudness between the different wave forms and a changing of their frequencies slightly impart a sense of motion. More layering occurs as new tones enter and depart, with zero beating arising in a way that adds to the sense of forward movement. There is ultimately a return to the simple 60 Hz hum, and this fades away at the finish. This track has a pleasantly alien feel, not harsh despite the use of pure tones. Permutation is a warm wash with a bit of an edge, and sufficient variety to be engaging.
Accretion, the second track, also starts with a deep 60 Hz hum. Two low sine waves follow, with zero beating between. A third frequency is added, somewhat higher, producing a more metallic feel. This combination of zero beating at a low frequency and the addition of a steady higher tone produces a feeling of motoring forward. The higher tone now moves up in pitch, as if increasing in speed. The zero beating now increases in volume, almost overwhelming the higher tone and chopping into it. The use of zero beating here to shape the overall texture is nicely done. Now the beating tones become lower, a sense of down shifting. The higher tones become gradually softer while the lower beating tones predominate – as if something is passing out of sight. Finally there is just just a soft metallic hum that slowly fades away at the finish. There is a definite sense of journey in this piece, of going somewhere and arriving.
The final piece, Variation, begins with a 120 Hz steady hum to start. The volume now changes, increasing and then decreasing quickly to a brief silence, the sound rising and falling about twice a second or so. This period varies as does the maximum amplitude of the tone. There is a sort of broken, choppy feel to this, and these amplitude variations increase in tempo, introducing a beat that seems to have its own rhythm. Then the two sine waves waves start to zero beat – as well as oscillating in volume – adding more punch to the rhythmic line. The zero beating eventually smooths out around the12 minute mark, but continues to vary in amplitude, only not as quickly. This gives a sense of calming after the prior choppiness. The piece finishes with the original 120 Hz tone slowly decreasing in volume, then changing to a 60 Hz steady hum that gradually fades away. Variation is well named, given the varieties of volume modulation that this piece exhibits. The overall feeling is of watching some life form pulse and shimmer, as if attempting to communicate, then falling into stasis.
That such elementary sonic materials can be made to evoke such feelings is a real achievement. It is easy to produce irritating tones or 1950s science fiction sound effects, but ~60 Hz is a fine example of the artistry that can be inspired by the palette of the humble sine wave.
~60 Hz is available at the Irritable Hedgehog website.
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Scott Worthington: Even the Light Itself Falls
Ensemble et cetera
Recorded in 2012 and released last year by Populist Records, Even the Light Itself Falls is an 86 minute masterpiece from Scott Worthington. Flawlessly performed by ensemble et cetera, this music is a quiet, reflective vision informed by space, stillness and the ocean reaching to a far horizon. The liner notes set the scene: “The Pacific Ocean. A long drive. The view atop a mountain.” Even the Light Itself Falls brilliantly captures this iconic West Coast experience.
Ensemble et cetera consists of clarinet, double bass and percussion, but these few voices actually work to the advantage of the music – simple, direct, open and with silence as an integral component. Curt Miller on clarinet provides some amazing playing, especially in the first part of the piece. The sounds from Scott Worthington’s double bass are profound, even while outside the usual context of this instrument, and the solitary bell tones produced by percussionist Dustin Donahue become the signature of this piece.
Even the Light Itself Falls opens with a series of haunting clarinet calls – almost bird-like but filled with a beautiful longing reflection. This feeling is reinforced with solemn bell tones that sound at intervals as the passages progress. The double bass joins in to provide long, sustained tones that give continuity or sometimes in echo of the clarinet. Often there are short silences, as if to let the sounds settle in the ear. The music unpacks itself gradually, the passages are often similar but never quite the same, even if one of the instruments has a repeating phrase. The overall effect is a powerful combination of serenity and introspection – it is as if we are indeed looking far out to sea from a high mountain top, hawks wheeling above, the ocean waves rolling in to the beach below.
About halfway through, the feeling becomes briefly animated with more percussion and all the instruments sounding at once. This serves as a transition to the second half in which the high clarinet calls are replaced by longer, more somber tones combined with repeating figures in the bass. The feeling as the second half proceeds is like that at dusk, a time of lengthening shadows and gathering darkness. The bells are now heard in groups and patterns, like stars appearing in a darkening sky. As Scott Worthington mentions in the liner notes: “Even as the sounds ebb and flow, there is a constant pull toward stillness.” The last two minutes are a lovely mixture of deep bass trills, matched in the clarinet and bells – the last rays of the sun slipping over the horizon.
The title of this CD – Even the Light Itself Falls – was taken from an essay by Jean-Luc Nancy, “On the Threshold”, from a scene describing the death of one of the characters. This music is anything but sad, but the title aptly describes the vast realities of nature that confront us, as when watching the sun set into the ocean; we sense our insignificance and yet at the same time feel connected to a larger grandeur. Listening to this music places us squarely into this transcendental experience.
Even the Light Itself Falls is available by download from Populist Records.
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Michael Vincent Waller: Five Easy Pieces
Gumi Shibata and Jenny Q. Chai
Five Easy Pieces is a new CD of solo piano music by composer Michael Vincent Waller. The five tracks in this album are uncluttered and introspective, offering an inviting entry into Waller’s accessible style. The pieces on this CD are cast from familiar materials and played with exemplary care, allowing the listener to fully concentrate on the many emotions and feelings imparted by the music. Gentle and approachable, this is music that inspires both concentration and contemplation. Gumi Shibata performs on all the tracks save the last, which is played by Jenny Q. Chai.
The first track on the CD is L’anno del Serpente (2013) and this begins with an uncertain, pensive feeling in the melody that is accentuated by a rising bass line. The tempo is deliberate and the texture is effectively fashioned from repeating lines with simple harmonies. The piece proceeds by way of variations on the opening theme with the first variation offering a bit more complexity and a nice counter melody in the bass. At no time does the piece feel rushed but moves along purposefully so that by the second variation it becomes forcefully declarative. The melody transitions to a flowing, forward-moving series of lines and closes with a quiet passage that leaves the listener in a satisfyingly reflective mood.
L’anno del Serpente is followed by Ninna Nanna (2013) and this piece opens with a gentle, questioning feel that is reinforced with a repeating, bell-like melody. The tempo is unhurried and this allows the sonorous intervals in the harmony to fully ring out. A slight syncopation provides a sense of languid motion as the piece progresses. The first variation increases the tempo, adding density with more notes and counterpoint and this provides a nice contrast to the opening section. The second variation returns to the slower pace of the opening and here the repeating tones become almost hypnotic, the harmonies seeming to hang in the air. The final notes at the close hover above like a fine mist.
The next two tracks are titled Per Terry e Morty I and II (2012) and refer to Terry Jennings and Morton Feldman respectively. Part I begins with strong, direct quarter notes in the melody and a repeating line in the bass that produces a sense of searching and uncertainty. A slight tension is introduced as counterpoint moves into the upper registers so that part I seems to close in a question. Part II has a middle eastern feel right from the beginning, with a simple melody above and strong chords below to form a powerful declarative line. Now counterpoint by way of a repeating figure above leads to a restatement of the opening with the addition of a descending line. Softening, slowing and then a return to tempo that restores the original color, followed by a strong chord at the finish. These two tracks provide an interesting contrast, especially part II with a strong exotic flavor.
The final track of Five Easy Pieces is Acqua Santa (2013) played by Jenny Q. Chai. Dark, deep notes open and the mysterious feeling is enhanced with a moving line above, alternately accelerating and slowing. A repeating line emerges, syncopated against the melody which serves to further deepen the mysterious feel. As the piece proceeds a series of solitary notes gather themselves into a halting cluster of full bodied chords, followed by a long arcing line that reestablishes the forward momentum. Finally, a sweet melody appears that accelerates, then slows turning introspective again. Acqua Santa closes with an abbreviated recall of the mysterious opening.
Five Easy Pieces, like much of Waller’s music, seems to look forward and backward simultaneously. The sounds are recognizable and familiar – especially in an album consisting of solo piano music – but the studied simplicity and use of repeating figures owes much to the vocabulary of late 20th century minimalism. The result is a mixture that should appeal to even the most determined critic of contemporary music.
Five Easy Pieces is available on iTunes here . More ways to download and listen are here.
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