Aquarius chamber choir, conducted by Marc Michael De Smet
This collection of choral music by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt celebrates his eightieth birthday. It is programmed to emphasize his interpretations of Marian texts such as the Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis, and O Antiphons, all of which are central to his choral output. It also includes an excerpt from the totemic Kanon Pokajanen, his largest choral work, as well as shorter excerpts such as The Deer’s Cry and I am the True Vine. (The latter is particularly beautifully performed.)
Aquarius, a group of twenty-four voices, seems “right-sized” for these works, with enough voices to provide the requisite heft and majesty where necessary while still being able to create diaphanous pianissimo passages elsewhere. Conductor Marc Michael De Smet does an exquisite job of shaping phrases, balancing chords, and, a very important consideration in the performance of Pärt, pacing the proceedings. I will be on the lookout for their complete recording of Kanon Pokajanen.
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Andrew Tholl / Corey Fogel / Devin Hoff
CONDITIONAL TENSION is a recently released CD from populist records that features two extended improvisations by violinist Andrew Tholl, percussionist Corey Fogel, and Devin Hoff on bass. All three have worked together in various local groups, but CONDITIONAL TENSION is their first release as an improvising trio. The two pieces on this album were recorded live at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles in November 2012.
The first track on the CD is titled sensitivity to initial conditions, and is performed with acoustic instruments. This begins with a low continuous tone in the bass joined by smooth, sustained tones in the violin. The percussion is light and more active and the thin texture produces a gentle, exotic feel. Complex passages ebb and flow throughout as the piece unfolds, with solos passed around between the players. Familiar bass and drum rhythms form a foundation for some really dazzling violin playing by Andrew Tholl, reminiscent of late Coltrane. Corey Fogel’s accessible drumming becomes an anchor point for the ear as the growl and squeal of the bass and violin lines skitter and whirl about. The textural surface surges like a restless tide, constantly changing in color and density, but never sounding threatening or intimidating.
At 16:00 a crescendo builds that is comprised of high, squiggly violin passages, a strong arco bass underneath and a long cymbal roll that makes for a very effective combination. This eventually breaks down – like an unstable chemical compound – as each instrument goes its own way. New amalgams form, break apart and recombine again as the piece progresses. By 33:00 a very complex texture emerges in the bass and violin with the percussion hanging back, adding a few comments now and then. The volume builds and then retreats, ultimately dying away in a calm and settled finish. sensitivity to initial conditions is a beautifully wrought piece that combines seamless improvisation, impressive technique and outstanding playing.
reasonable strategies for tense conjugation is the second track on the CD and for this amplified instruments were employed. The piece has a louder, more intense sound with an edge that cuts rather than caresses. There is a strong, almost menacing feel to this especially in the snarling bass lines at the opening. The percussion is helpfully steady but more militant, especially in the snare and cymbal. Complex figures emerge in the violin and bass lines that float on an undercurrent of tension propelled by some nicely active drumming. A rapid squiggling in the violin appears with high, stabbing tones that bring to mind a free running electronic oscillator. The players enter and recede in changing combinations – the quieter sections benefiting by a lighter density and fewer notes.
At 17:15 there is a solemn stretch of slow pizzicato violin and bass notes that evoke a sense of sadness. This becomes progressively more distraught until a cry of agony is ultimately heard in the violin with a series of stinging passages. The intensity and volume build led by the drums and finally reaching a roar in the bass. The violin becomes completely unhinged in a frenetic hail of needle-sharp notes. The drums and bass gradually fill in underneath until the sudden ending.
reasonable strategies for tense conjugation is a fierce and exhilarating ride that pushes the expressive envelope with superbly controlled energy. The two tracks on this CD provide a vivid contrast between the expressive powers of acoustic and amplified sounds while highlighting the strengths of each.
Special mention must be made of the sound engineering, especially the recording and mixing by Nick Tipp, who adds to his impressive body of work. Listening to conditional tension is like being within arm’s length of each player – all the nuance and detail of improvisation is present and there is no noticeable background noise during the performances. The mastering was by Justin DeHart. The challenges of making a live recording outside the studio have been fully met in this CD.
CONDITIONAL TENSION is available directly from populist records.
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Gwendolyn Dease, marimba and percussion
Bridge Records CD 9454
Not so long ago, a composer portrait CD consisting entirely of solo marimba music would have been unthinkable. Idle Fancies, a new Bridge Recording of Paul Lansky’s complete music for marimba, demonstrates that the composer, despite being a non-percussionist best known for his contributions to electroacoustic music, really knows his way around mallet instruments too. The three substantial works here, each different in character and demands, provide plenty of variety; something that, given the instrumental palette on display, is no mean feat.
Spirals (2013), vide the title, surveys a panoply of chromatic harmonies in swirling, constant movement. Three Moves are a simultaneously virtuosic and charming set of character pieces. The title work is a collection of six pieces. Lansky adopts the detailed ostinati found in his post-minimal music as a foundation on which to build interesting variations. Some of the movements incorporate additional percussion instruments. Used judiciously, at times these supply the proceedings with non-pitched punctuation; at others with a Gamelan-like ambience.
Marimba player Gwendolyn Dease is a superlative advocate for Lansky’s music, bringing out every nimble run and nuanced dynamic with accuracy and artistry. One can readily hear why he entrusted her with this project. Though this may be it for Lansky’s marimba scores, perhaps we can look forward to another large-scale work for percussion instruments, written, of course, for Dease.
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Guillaume de Machaut
Muriel Cantoreggi: viola;
Geneviève Strosser: viola;
Jürg Dähler: viola
The Hilliard Ensemble
David James: countertenor;
Gordon Jones: baritone
Begun in 2001 and composed over a ten-year period, Machaut-Transkriptionen is one of composer Heinz Holliger’s most imaginative and attractive works to date. Using pieces by medieval composer Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377) as a jumping off point, Holliger refashions the original material for three violas and the voices of the Hilliard Ensemble (now, alas, disbanded). They are employed in startling ways, encompassing frequent dissonances, extended techniques in the strings, vocal clusters, and alternate tunings.
The cycle begins with alternations between Machaut’s original vocal works and string trios that are recompositions of the same selections. A gradual morphing of roles eventually brings the voices into the contemporary sound world of the strings. In some of the pieces, there is a coexistence between lines from Machaut and Holliger’s original ideas. In others, Holliger uses techniques and formal designs from Machaut pieces as compositional groundwork for otherwise far flung fantasies.
The CD is capped off by a stirring quarter of an hour: a redesign of Machaut’s Complainte for voices and violas. It is here that all of the techniques found in the preceding selections are brought to together to craft a work that, on its surface, bears little resemblance to medieval music. But the spirit of the Ars Nova period in which Machaut composed, with its enthusiasm for experimentation and, for its time, great abstraction, clearly motivates Holliger, with fascinating results. Recommended.
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Used, Broken, & Unwanted
Laura Cetilia, cello, autoharp, voice, and electronics
Estuary Ltd. CD
A live recording from 2013 made in Providence, Rhode Island, Used, Broken, and Unwanted demonstrates to good effect the wide-ranging timbral palette and drone-based structures that artist Laura Cetilia explores. The title track makes use of repetition, not in the symmetrical fashion of process-driven minimalism, but to create an undulating undergirding for the wisps of vocal and cello melodies that sporadically emerge. This elegantly segues into the exquisitely fragile “Thrum/Pin.”
“Plucked from Obscurity” makes efficacious use of pizzicato; the electronics with which it contends range from the bell-like to the percussive. Particularly lovely is the delicate album closer “Tears of Things,” in which the main, initially pizzicato-driven, ostinato is gradually supplanted by sweeping guttural electronics and an accumulation of upper register sustained notes.
In the surprisingly burgeoning field of cellists who sing, Cetilia is a distinctive one. Alternately penetrating and atmospheric, Used, Broken, and Unwanted is a stimulating listen throughout.
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Looking Back – Flute Music of Joseph Schwantner
Innova Records (Innova 919)
Jennie Oh Brown, flute; Jeffrey Panko, piano;
Karin Ursin, flute and piccolo
; Janice MacDonald, flute and alto flute; Susan Saylor, flute and bass flute
Joseph Schwantner has written a substantial body of work featuring flutes. On her Innova recording Looking Back, flutist Jennie Oh Brown provides superlative performances of several of these compositions. Brown’s interpretations are vividly detailed, presenting the various nuances of Schwantner’s scores in enthusiastic and vital fashion (one is recommended to flutist and composer Cynthia Folio’s liner notes; they provide excellent analysis and detailed descriptions of both compositional and technical aspects of the pieces at hand).
The title work, composed in 2009 and dedicated to the memory of legendary flutist and teacher Samuel Baron, is a case in point. The first movement is a challenging duet with the estimable pianist Jeffrey Panko. They revel in contrapuntal dialog and cascading virtuosic doubled lines. The middle movement is a solo, which involves various extended techniques, including overblowing in the altissimo register, singing and speaking into the instrument, and stabbing accents. The final movement “Just Follow …” builds a lattice of ascending scalar interplay between flute and piano, sending the music aloft in a final valediction.
Black Anemones, another duo, revels in sumptuous harmonies, punctuated by piano octaves, with melodies that feature the flute’s lower register, played in sultry fashion by Brown. The short work Soaring has a more dissonant palette, with upper register punctuations and fleet-fingered runs culminating in a dazzling passage of repeated notes and a final flourish.
The flute quartet Silver Halo ups the ante and reprises the various playing techniques found in the other works, with several more added for good measure. Schwantner is a master colorist: the abundant variety of timbral combinations and imaginative doublings found in Silver Halo amply attest to this. Brown plays beautifully, and she is abetted by excellent colleagues: Karin Ursin, Janice MacDonald, and Susan Saylor. A compliment disguised as a minor quibble: one wants more! The disc clocks in at less than three quarters of an hour; it might have been nice to include another chamber work with flute. That said, Schwantner and Brown provide us with plenty to consider and savor: Looking Back is a winner of a recording.
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Nicholas Deyoe, Clint McCallum
Populist Records has released a limited edition 10 inch red vinyl recording by Los Angeles-based trombonist Matt Barbier titled FACE|RESECTION. The record features two short pieces by Nicholas Deyoe and Clint McCallum. According to the liner notes: “Both works explore hyper industrial regularity that sonically functions on the imperfect regularities created by an organic body.” Matt Barbier is a founding member of both gnarwhallaby and Trio Kobayashi, two local new music ensembles, and he has also appeared in the widely-praised opera Hopscotch.
Side A of FACE|RESECTION contains Facesplitter (2011/2014) by Nicholas Deyoe and this begins with loud, rough tones that oscillate in dynamics and pitch, much like a motor running or the hearing of some nearby industrial process. At times the sound approaches a kind of snarl that might be some fantastic beast or perhaps a group of synchronized air wrenches. At 3:32 there is an extended musical tone, eventually replaced by more rough, industrial voicing. The wide diversity of sounds – and the strength required to produce them – is impressive. FACE|RESECTION, as written by Nicholas Deyoe is at the ragged edge of intonation and technique, and adds a challenging new vocabulary to trombone playing.
Side B of the record is Bowel Resection (2011), by Clint McCallum and this has a similarly rough, industrial tone but is more consistent in pitch and texture. The sound is a continuous growl and reminiscent of a fast motorboat or a racing car. The pitch varies, speeding up and down in jumps, as if an engine is being tuned for maximum power. The circular breathing by Matt Barbier is extraordinary and surely ranks as an athletic achievement – aspiring trombone players should be required to hear this piece. Bowel Resection is a convincing musical portrait of internal combustion heard close up.
FACE|RESECTION is available as a collectible 10 inch vinyl disk, complete with eye-catching cover art from Populist Records. The two pieces can also be streamed here.
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John Luther Adams
John Luther Adams, electronics; Glenn Kotche, percussion
In the Alaskan Inupiaq language, Ilimaq means “spirit journeys.” One can readily hear how John Luther Adams seeks to embody the many facets of the spirit journey on his album of the same name: the shamanic, the dream state, the heroic quest, et cetera. Powerful drumming from Wilco percussionist Glenn Kotche is juxtaposed with atmospheric, at times ominous sounding, electronics from Adams. Kotche is a marvelous collaborator; throughout his playing is rhythmically sure and dynamically supple.
Given that there are two participants, instead of the full symphony orchestra found on Adams’s recent Become Ocean or the bevy of percussionists who populate his signature work Inuksuit, it is impressive how comparatively epic the scope and soundscape of Ilimaq are. This more intimate piece can go toe to toe with some of the composer’s largest works, and that’s saying something. Ilimaq is one of 2015’s finest releases: recommended.
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Music of Philip Glass
Paris-based artist Nicolas Horvath has released a new CD on the Naxos Grand Piano label titled Glassworlds 2 featuring the complete Philip Glass piano etudes, numbers 1 through 20. The etudes were begun in the mid-1990s by Glass to expand the repertoire of new music for what had become an active concert schedule for solo piano. These pieces were written after the success of Einstein on the Beach and the scoring of Koyaanisqatsi and represent something of a return by Philip Glass to his early studies as a student of Nadia Boulanger. Etudes 1 through 10 were written during the 1990s in between other works such as Hydrogen Jukebox, String Quartet No. 5 and Symphony No. 2.
These first ten etudes, known together as Book I, are technically challenging – but they are at a distinct stylistic distance from the early minimalism of, say, Music With Changing Parts that famously features repetition, limited dynamic range and static harmonies. Etude No. 1, for example, begins with four strong chords followed by rapid trilling and a crescendo-decrescendo style in the passage work that is reminiscent of the great 19th century piano virtuosi. There is a detectable echo of early minimalism here but it has been subordinated to requirements of a more demanding and expressive technique, masterfully provided on this CD by Nicolas Horvath. Etudes 3 and 4 are even more dramatically phrased, almost as if they were lifted from a piano concerto.
Etude 6 has a powerful emotional component – as well as a touch of pathos – that also lends itself to a more passionate interpretation. This etude has become a favorite of Nicolas Horvath, as he writes in the liner notes: “The only recording of Book I which was available for many years did not excite me, but while attending a recital in which the composer himself performed a selection I radically changed my view, inspired by Glass’ own poetical pianism, and helped by the hall’s acoustic, my instinct recreated them as if they were performed in a Lisztian or Rachmaninov-like manner and I suddenly understood their immense potential.”
Book 2 – Etudes 11 through 20 – were composed over a longer time period, from about 2000 onward to 2013. The music of Book 2 has a completely different point of view, as Philip Glass writes: “The first ten really have a pedagogical aspect to them for my own development. The second set have nothing or very little to do with that. I began working in the world of ideas… I did not put restrictions on the technique.” Etude 12, for example, opens with strong repeating figures that impart a complex, questioning feel along with cross currents and a swirling, unsettled aspect. Etude 13 is a frantic, slightly out of control piece, filled with powerful scales running up and down that seem almost disoriented at times. By contrast, Etude 16 is smooth and restrained, with a calm, reflective feeling that is beautifully brought out by the sensitive playing of Nicolas Horvath. Number 19 is slower with a series of single, deliberate notes in the bass line combined with nicely articulated counterpoint in the upper registers that produce a more contemporary feel. There is more variety in the Book 2 etudes and more scope for expressive technique.
Nicolas Horvath, with precise playing and imaginative interpretation has made Glassworlds 2 an indispensable reference for the serious enthusiast as well as marking an important milestone in the evolution of the music of Philip Glass.
Glassworlds 2 is available on Amazon.
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Chamber Music of John Burge
Ensemble Made in Canada
On his latest recording for Centrediscs, Canadian composer John Burge presents three pieces that showcase different members of Ensemble Made in Canada. Pas De Deux features violinist Elissa Lee and cellist Rachel Mercer, both playing soaring lines that serve to propel the proceedings. They then work themselves back in short angular bursts.
String Theory is another duo that has been arranged for several string instrument/piano combinations. This version is for viola and piano, played by violist Sharon Wei and pianist Angela Park. Passionate, throbbing glissandos abound in this Neoromantic work, as well as dazzling double stops and richly voiced piano chords.
Commissioned by the ensemble for their entire number, the Piano Quartet opens with repeated chords in a minimalist gesture. Contrapuntal writing interrupts this. It is only in the third movement of the piece, after a long three-movement arch (alternating slow-fast-slow tempos) has been established, that we hear this ostinato return to be resolved. Thus for Burge, minimalism is not a stylistic determination, but a musical gesture: one signature in a batch of them to be used, contravened, and ultimately unwound.
Artful composing and fine players: a good match.
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