Who Has the Biggest Sound
If any composer is going to ask the musical question “Who has the biggest sound,” Paul Dolden is rightfully going to be on the short list of potential composers. The almost hour-long work Who Has the Biggest Sound is quite the whirlwind of sonic activity and stylistic diversity.
Relying mostly on high-quality samples instead of synthesized sounds, Dolden keeps a lot of humanity in the sound world. Rhythm and articulation are the only real means by which the artifice of his production shows through. One could imagine, for example, the overall sound world of “The Answer is Blowing in the Winds” being played totally acoustically but the hard edge to the attacks coupled with the dryness and clarity of the timbres makes it obvious to the ear that these are all processed sounds. This movement in particular comes across mostly like an instrumental version of Paul Lansky’s “chatter” pieces. Dolden’s journey through various ensembles at the start of the album hits its apex in the fifth movement “Who Can Play the Fastest?” Dolden started using rock instruments and tropes in the previous movement but in “Who Can Play the Fastest” he really, to be blunt, rocks the f—k out. It is glorious.
Unfortunately, Dolden kills this energy with the introduction of a narrator with hyper-exaggerated declamation while being mimicked in real time by instrumental samples. This overt asking of the music question brings an unwanted and unwelcome campiness to the piece and reduces most of the clean crisp instrumental samples into cheesy 90’s era MIDI samples. Who Has the Biggest Sound managed to have the right balance of levity and seriousness before the narrator started its aural mugging, the first 30 seconds of “My Hound is Out of Harmony” was going quite well before the narrator barges in, and for the rest of the piece Dolden seems obligated to pollute his otherwise engrossing creations with this whiny and irritating character. I love the idea of this musical question being posed by the “Center for Strategic Sound” but I think the implementation of the narration falls short. Humor is a tricky and subjective thing and something many composers avoid. Dolden’s attention to electroacoustic studio techniques reassures me that while he tries to be funny he takes his art seriously.
The Un-Tempered Orchestra fortunately presents its aural landscape without a verbal guide. Having composed diatonic melodies and harmonies, Dolden uses computer processing to retune and juxtapose his material through a wide variety of tuning systems. The end result is a blurred aural line between performance and processing; a work which in some ways could be played acoustically (from a timbre, rhythm, and instrumentation point of view) and a work which could only be done via intense computer analysis and transformation. I find “Orchestra 4” to be the most sonically satisfying, especially as female voices emerge from the elongated clouds of stretched notes. These six conjoined ruminations which form The Un-Tempered Orchestra never really build into a single shape or trajectory, at least not to my ear, but I nevertheless find the whole work compelling and the final cadential resolution rather satisfying.
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FEATHER & STONE
With so much of new music coming out of smaller groups it is refreshing to hear the new CD from populist records FEATHER & STONE by wild Up, a 40 member Los Angeles-based ensemble directed by Christopher Rountree. With 8 tracks totaling some 66 minutes, this CD is an important example of what a larger sound can bring to the new music scene. According to the liner notes “These live recordings spanning a year of Los Angeles-born music exemplify our ethos of exploration. … Sometimes brutal, sometimes serene – but always as grass roots grow: earthy, communal and deep.” FEATHER & STONE is aptly named and contains a powerful mixture of tranquility and intensity painted in bright colors on a big canvas.
The first track, stand still like the hummingbird dives right into the big band sound with a wonderfully bluesy opening that features a nicely doubled voice and bass line. Brian Walsh on alto sax delivers a convincingly agile bebop solo amid a swelling horn section that evolves into a series of lush brass chords. A strong percussive beat is added as this section rolls rapidly along. A trombone passage announces the start a sweet, lingering sax solo that is eventually accompanied by a lovely wash of horns. Stand still like the hummingbird darts about, changing direction and speed, much like a hummingbird in flight – always in motion, even when stationary. As the alto sax slowly trails off, the entire group suddenly breaks into the Charlie Parker tune Ornithology. This develops a nice groove with wild Up in full voice. The playing here is a satisfyingly tight ensemble, nicely navigating a cloud of rapidly moving notes at the end of the section. The alto sax emerges again and is joined by high, sketchy violin sounds that combine with a final zen-like vocal chord at the finish.
Written by artistic director and conductor Christopher Rountree, stand still like the hummingbird fully engages the big sound of wild Up and showcases the virtuosity of the players, especially Brian Walsh. The often-familiar musical materials add to the accessibility of this piece and, as the title suggests, this opening track clearly belongs to the FEATHER theme of this album.
A new anxiety, written by Nicholas Deyoe, is on track 2 and surely this represents the STONE portion of the CD title. Opening with a quiet combination of cymbals and strings, a sudden crash of instruments in full cry quickly ratchet up the tension to something between surprise and panic. This continues like a long scream, with pounding percussion followed by a jarring drone that ultimately predominates. More chord crashes and a sawing sound in the lower strings carry the tide of foreboding relentlessly forward. A new anxiety proceeds in this manner – shifting and changing in direction with unsettling textures and disquietude, often when least expected. Now there is the sound like an air raid siren, now more intense tutti chords. Something like an industrial jig saw is heard and a riotous percussion passage accompanies this brutally gnawing sound. The deep voice of a bass clarinet adds a touch of mystery, and there is the gradual emergence of a series of broad chords in the winds that provide some relief. The trombones pick up the theme but are soon replaced by the menacing snort of some unseen beast. The snorting slowly fades – then suddenly stops – concluding the piece.
This is high energy music that takes dead aim at your serenity and succeeds, aided and abetted by the intense and precise playing of wild Up. With a new anxiety, Nicholas Deyoe continues to add to his sharply drawn vision of urban dynamism and insecurity.
The reference piece for this CD is track 3, Oiseaux exotiques by Oliver Messiaen and this is the perfect choice for extending the feather theme. Birdsong was a powerful influence on Messiaen and, according to Peter Hill of the University of Sheffield, “…Messiaen continued to regard birdsong as music – and divinely inspired music at that – a belief that led for a time to an obsession with truth-to-nature. Against this background, Oiseaux exotiques proves to be a landmark, the work in which Messiaen the musician began to regain the upper hand over Messiaen the ornithologist.” The short, rapid runs of notes by woodwind, brass and percussion are carefully observed by wild Up, the twittering of the bird-like passages are precisely realized with an almost conversational feel. Richard Valitutto, with an accurate but light touch on piano, acts as an intermediary as the woodwinds, percussion and brass swirl about in an intricate flurry of notes. The balance between all the dazzling musical forces is well struck here and this is a real credit to recording engineer Nick Tipp, who must have had quite a lot to deal with given the many parts and textures of this piece and the necessity of recording it in a concert venue. Oiseaux exotiques by wild Up is a lively and finely realized performance of a complex and historically important work.
Mothlight by Archie Carey is next and this is a short piece, just over three minutes . It begins with a series of slowly varying glissandos in the upper strings that produce a lazy, siren-like sound that is joined by swelling tones in the bass. This gives way to light drumming and breathy whooshes of air through a flute that evoke the feathery wings of a large moth knocking about the porch light. A drone in the low strings adds to the picture. Perhaps this is too much of a metaphorical interpretation, but mothlight is convincing nonetheless, and a creative use of extended techniques to project a vivid image.
Track 5 is dante quartet by Odeya Nini and this begins with light, mysterious sounds in the upper strings, soon joined by flute trills and the braking sound of a subway car, complete with squeals and screeching. Silence for a few moments and then the woodwinds return, this time in a series of rapid bird-like arpeggios. More subway sounds and a disquieting sequence of chords from the piano and cello follow. The piece proceeds in this way; silence, industrial sounds and then the occasional tranquil phrase or organic bird call. Now come long, soft chords joined by the distant squawking of gulls and the soft rattle of gravel and machinery. The piano enters with a lovely flowing melody, soon picked up by the oboe, flutes and cello, bringing a welcome respite. As this continues it is interrupted with a series of lightning fast riffs by horns, percussion and woodwinds until the piece quietly ends as it began. Dante quartet seems undecided as to its point of view, oscillating back and forth between nature and industry, in a series of mixed passages separated by silences. More stone than feather, this piece is nevertheless effective in the portrayal of contrasting moods.
Still not a place to build monuments or cathedrals by Andrew Tholl follows and this starts out with a strong, distorted and discordant entrance by two guitars. The percussion joins in with a loud boom, pounding away like the sound of canon fire. Intense, chaotic and seemingly out of control, the guitars proceed wildly until a series of strong declarative chords in the brass restore order. The guitars – Andrew Tholl and Chris Kallmyer – fight back with a furious reply but are again overwhelmed by the brass; barbarians subdued by the forces of empire. The battle continues with a tremendous volley of drums that ends suddenly with soft guitar notes floating quietly out into the silence. This truce is only temporary, however, as the guitars decompose into more chaos accompanied once more by loud drumming. As before, this is subdued by intimidating – but orderly – brass chords. Just as the forces of reason seem to prevail, disorder wells up from below, putting the outcome into doubt once more. The brass again shout out, this time at maximum volume, finally deciding the issue as a slow trail of quiet guitar notes slowly fade away at the finish. Still not a place to build monuments or cathedrals vividly captures the elemental struggle between the forces of reason and chaos, the battle flowing back and forth with furious energy and intensity. The resilience of the forces of chaos and the thin margin of victory by the voices of reason as described in this piece are themselves a telling comment on our present condition.
Perhaps the most feathery piece on the CD is this nest, swift passerine by Chris Kallmyer. Opening with the sounds of squawking geese and song birds calling over the lapping waters of a quiet lake, there is the immediate feeling of the tranquility and peace that only nature can provide. A lovely cello drone creeps in, and this is soon accompanied by smooth, repeating chords in the horns and bass. A light chiming is heard, adding a transcendental dimension that completes the sense of pure serenity. More drone-like tones appear in the lower strings and by about midway through the piece a series of beautiful soft trumpet and cello solos are heard. The pace accelerates somewhat and the higher strings add just a bit of tension – also reflected in the more agitated sound of the birds in the background. This builds in the woodwinds but at the end there is just the sound of the chirping birds. The long, lush tones of this nest, swift passerine are perfectly fitted to its intended sense of pastoral peacefulness and the playing here is appropriately quiet and restrained. This track makes a fine contrast to the excitement present in the other pieces on this CD.
The final track on this CD is bird of paradise in paradise by Archie Carey. This begins with a sexy alto solo that has a definite jazzy feel. This is soon joined by the clarinet, trumpets and trombones playing long, sustained chords. A continuous, high violin note that adds a bright sparkle to the polished sound coming from the brass. Some nice work in the trumpets and trombones give these passages just the right relaxed feel. The name ‘Ellington’ crossed my mind. Sedate, almost languid, this continues along until the sax solo returns and the background wash morphs to a more insistent and questioning tone. This eventually devolves into a high drone in the strings that slowly fades at the finish. Bird of paradise in paradise is a warm and elegant piece that exploits the full color palette of the brass and woodwinds.
FEATHER & STONE is an important album if only because it brings together a critical mass of talented Los Angeles-based musicians to provide a prominent platform for music written for the larger ensemble. The playing here is extraordinary and the music well-matched to the capabilities of wild Up. Chris Rountree and populist records have done a remarkable job in making all of this happen with such impressive results.
FEATHER & STONE is available from populist records, here.
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From three-time Grammy Award winning producer/engineer Marc Urselli and Stridulation Records comes CRÆSHER, a CD album of experimental noise created entirely from the combination of sine waves and mathematical algorithms. According to the album notes, “The goal became to create an experimental form of ambient-noise WITHOUT ANY sort of recorded sound… Some of these pieces follow cyclical evolutions while others morph in time arguably in accordance with absolute randomness.“ Following a Greek mythology theme the tracks have Greek letters for titles and the CD was released on March 14 (3/14) as a tribute to the transcendental number pi.
A surprising amount of variety results from seemingly simple materials and a deterministic creative process; each track has a distinctive character. The first track, α, opens with a sound like the roar of a jet passing overhead and the good panning technique gives a sense of movement and direction. A metallic, mechanical sound enters, and the overall result is a sense of observing something unusual happening in the skies. β, the second track, starts off with a low humming that changes in volume once or twice a second, producing a rhythmic feel. This track has a more immediate and local sound – you have the feeling that something is rotating right in front of you.
Other tracks bring new textures and images such as #10, ι, which has a series of lovely ringing tones that create the feeling of being inside a kaleidoscope. The rhythmic groove creates a circus-like feel to this that is quite appealing. Track 5, ε, features electronic sounds – beeps and boops – that are reminiscent of a pin-ball arcade. Θ, track 9, has low mysterious tones and a repeating figure that perfectly evokes the feeling of being in a strange place in a foggy night. Track 4, δ, has tones that seem to shoot across your hearing, like standing by a freeway while cars go whizzing by. And ϛ, track 6, has a large scale feel that opens with a low pulsing tone, now with a fast clicking above and a rapidly whooshing helicopter-like sound that fades in and out . It is like watching a giant spaceship landing – as if you are in an overwhelming presence.
Still other tracks have a more industrial feel. λ sounds distinctly like being inside a pipe with a running liquid – the panning here gives a convincing sense of gurgling movement. Other tracks are simply unrelenting such as η, with only the high whining sound of an electric drill that seems to be coming through your bones, or κ, a continuous beeping combined with a jarring ringing sound that conveys an alien harshness.
All of the tracks on CRÆSHER add up to over 50 minutes separately, but they were designed to be cross-faded together such that the total length comes to a little less than 39 minutes of continuous playing. Included with the CD is a bamboo wood enclosure with laser-engraved lettering and a laser-cut CD holder – no plastic was used to make the CD case.
CRÆSHER is an experimental work that shows what can be conjured from simple tones, mathematics and some very creative sound engineering. Described by Urselli as “self-incestuous noise inception” because of the iterative nature of its creation, this CD is nonetheless a marker in the ongoing exploration of synthetic tone creation and self-directed composition. Can noise be art? Judging by contents of CRÆSHER it would seem so. Each track creates a distinctive atmosphere and evokes a mental picture in the listener, and this is the basis of all artistic communication. If you want to hear what is happening at the intersection of art and engineering, CRÆSHER is worth a listen.
CRÆSHER is available from Stridulation Records here.
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[exhibit a], recently released by populist records, is the first CD to feature gnarwhallaby, a Los Angeles-based new music ensemble. With 16 tracks by 8 different composers, [exhibit a] is a noteworthy introduction to the versatility that gnarwhallaby brings to the performance of late 20th and early 21st century music. Consisting of Brian Walsh, clarinet, Matt Barbier, trombone, Derek Stein, cello and with Richard Valitutto on piano and melodica, gnarwhallaby delivers remarkable precision, energy and passion along with a studied and controlled sensitivity to the music of American and European contemporary composers.
[exhibit a] opens with Half a minute it’s all I’ve time for (1972) by Morton Feldman. Just 47 seconds in total, this track contains the sounding of just four mysterious chords dominated by the clarinet and piano, and separated by silence. We are definitely in Feldman territory, but It feels as if these chords have been lifted from a larger mosaic – a few fragments to be held up for closer examination. The ending track on the CD has the same title and the same short chord sequence, but you must listen to the entire 16 minute playing time – mostly silence – to appreciate the full intent.
D-S-C-H , by Edison Denisov is next and this opens with a high, sharply struck piano note followed by a series of jagged passages from the trombone, piano and cello. The piano sounds its note again and the process repeats. The playing here is very precise and appropriately animated and the feeling is like watching a pinball machine.. At about half-way, the pace slows with a series of longer phrases in the cello, trombone and clarinet; the piano now picks up the spiky theme. This piece finishes quietly with the piano continuing to sound short, rapid bursts of exclamation. The ensemble playing by gnarwhallaby here is agile and and focused and nicely negotiates the complex and often rapid-fire interplay between the parts.
[exhibit a] contains five tracks by Nicholas Deyoe, a Los Angeles-based composer from his series titled FLUFF (2012). These were written for gnarwhallaby and range from 20 seconds to a few minutes in length. FLUFF No. 5 is 22 seconds of upward scales in the trombone – almost practice like – that are surrounded by warm sounds in the cello and clarinet. FLUFF No. 7 features a high trill in the trombone with the clarinet and cello supporting with short passages and sustained tones that remind one of a mosquito-filled summer night. FLUFF No. 1 features a low trombone trill that could be a motorcycle racing away into the distance while screeching from the clarinet and cello combine to capture the classic urban moment of a changing traffic light. This theme continues in FLUFF No. 8 but now the trills and screeching produce that instant of sheer terror just before two vehicles collide. FLUFF No. 11 is the longest of the series at 2:42 and begins with a low creaky groan in the cello and trombone with clarinet notes that dart in and around the rumbling texture. This has a menacing feel, as if some malevolent force is gathering just out of sight. The five FLUFF tracks each encapsulate a moment in miniature, and are played with just the right combination of energy and attention to detail.
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STREICH: Dramatische Studie Nr. 3; ABLINGER: Augmented Study; JANULYTE: Psalms; FREY: A Memory of Perfection; Distant Colors; wen III; JENEY: Százéves átlag; BABBITT: Composition for Twelve Instruments; Arrivals and Departures; CLEMENTI: Second Violin Concerto; OTTO: Violin Duo; DAVIS: slip; CARLSON: Second string octet; MAKAN: mu; MAŽULIS: The Sleep; WILCOX: Two Violins. Erik Carlson, violin, various artists. http://erikcarlson.bandcamp.com/ 153 minutes.
Erik Carlson is a New York based violinist and composer, a member of ICE and the Talea Ensemble, among many others. He is a fine player, possessed of excellent technique, impeccable intonation (a must in the kind of music he plays here), and a keen ear for the range of sounds that can be made on a violin.
Some of Mr. Carlson’s central concerns, as both composer and performer, come through in his Second Octet. This very brief (less than three minutes) long-tone piece moves easily from harmonic clarity to harmonic crunch, with an incredibly present, physical sound.
The rest of this generous, always rewarding set is made of pieces that range from the high concept process pieces of Stefan Streich and Peter Ablinger through the expressive elegance of Milton Babbitt’s Composition for Twelve Players, in the best recording I’ve heard.
All of the pieces can be streamed from the website listed above, they can be purchased individually or as an album. Highly recommended.
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Ursula Oppens, Bruce Brubaker, pianists
ECM New Series CD 2374
Meredith Monk is best known for her vocal works. However, she has been writing for the piano since early on in her studies and has mature works in her catalog that date back to the 1970s. Starting in the 1980s, she began to write a number of pieces for piano duo. Both solo works and duos are represented on this ECM CD of her piano music, played expertly and energetically by Ursula Oppens and Bruce Brubaker. They even engage in a bit of hand percussion and vocal call and response on the ebullient “Folkdance.“
As Monk points out in her liner notes, these are pieces that may seem simple on the surface. This is deceiving. Accounting for all their details and dealing with the slightly off-kilter rhythmic sensibility that is so often brought to bear in the works is quite tricky. One might wonder why the selections are called “Piano Songs.” Truth be told, Monk’s work, be it for instruments or voices, retains such a strongly vocal quality to the shaping of its lines that calling these pieces songs, much like Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte, seems apt.
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A Place Toward Other Places
Richard Hawkins, clarinet;
The Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble, Timothy Weiss, conductor
Oberlin Music 2xCD
While not hot off the presses (it was released in 2012), this disc is new to me and I’ve greatly enjoyed spending time with it. Richard Hawkins is a clarinetist with superlative technique and keen musicality. The Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble, conducted by Timothy Weiss, accompanies him in enthusiastic fashion. Their rendition of the Carter Clarinet Concerto (1996) is a study in contrasts, with the group playing muscularly while Hawkins spins arcing lines with cool command. There’s a similar dichotomy to be found in the performance of Benjamin Broening’s Clarinet Concerto. This does not in any way show the ensemble in a bad light. In fact, after hearing dozens of cool-as-ice performances by New York and European groups, it is a breathe of fresh air to hear these young musicians dig in con brio! Broening’s piece itself features many thrilling passages and is, as is most of his music, from a formal vantage point exquisitely well sculpted.
Things come into crystalline focus in the recording of the late William Albright’s Clarinet Quintet, with dovetailing strings turning on a dime and staccato and pizzicato passages delivered with precise accuracy. The piece is quite fetching; one hopes that more groups will take it up. The title work, by Aaron Helgeson, closes the proceedings in beautifully ethereal fashion. Hawkins and Weiss are not only a good team musically speaking; their curation of this recording’s program is thoughtful and artful.
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DETRICK: The Bright and Rushing World. AnyWhen Ensemble. Navona NV5955. 63 minutes.
Composer/trumpeter Douglas Detrick’s The Bright and Rushing World (2012) is a ten-movement piece of chamber jazz in which a single theme recurs throughout the work. The theme itself (stated at the outset by Mr. Detrick’s trumpet) is straightforward and memorable, with enough twists, turns, and ambiguities (both rhythmic and in harmonic implication) to sustain the piece for over an hour.
The Bright and Rushing World is a brooding piece, full of introspection–the overall title and the movement titles come from a poem about identity and release that Detrick wrote at the end of composing. The unique instrumentation of the AnyWhen ensemble (the composer’s trumpet, Hashem Assadullahi on saxophone, Shirley Hunt, cello, Steve Vacchi, bassoon, and Ryan Biesack, percussion) lends itself to that introspective vibe. Detrick mentions a few influences, including Ellington and Britten, in his notes, but what hear more than these is the Miles Davis of Birth of the Cool in sound and harmony, and that’s very high praise.
The playing here is really outstanding–technically and expressively. Highly recommended to a wide range of listeners, including jazz fans, chamber music buffs, and those seeking common ground between genres and audiences.
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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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