A Sequence by Manfred Eicher
ECM New Series 2454/55 2xCD
For over thirty years, producer Manfred Eicher has been one of the greatest champions of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Indeed, the very first ECM New Series release was Pärt’s Tabula Rasa. It seems only fitting that Eicher and ECM would celebrate the composer’s eightieth birthday in handsome fashion. With Musica Selecta, a double-CD retrospective, they certainly have done so.
Called “A Sequence” by Manfred Eicher, it includes seminal early pieces such as Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten and Für Alina as well as more recent ones such as Alleluia-Tropus and Da Pacem Domine. Performers often associated with Pärt’s work – conductors Dennis Russell Davies and Tõnu Kaljuste and groups the Hilliard Ensemble, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra – are represented. It goes without saying that, with such an embarrassment of riches from which to choose, the performances are all exemplary: some iconic. While this serves as an excellent starter kit for those previously unacquainted with Pärt’s music, even those who have some of the New Music CDs would still benefit from hearing Eicher’s sequencing. It is thoughtful and musical: compositional in scope and sympathy. Recommended.
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Los Angeles-based Populist Records has released PRISM, a new CD of music by Scott Worthington. Composed between 2010 and 2012, PRISM widens the circle of masterful work heard on his previous CD Even the Light Itself Falls. All the pieces on this new album are performed by Scott Worthington on the double bass, some accompanied by electronics with others recorded and layered three or five times.
At Dusk (2010), for double bass and electronics, is the first track and this begins with a satisfying pizzicato thump followed by a low growling arco note and a series of higher, questioning tones. The sequence repeats with variations, each passage ending in silence but with a faint, quivering echo in the electronics. More sequences follow with the same elements, but more complex now in their variations. There is a nice mix of textures and tones that are captured as ghostly echoes that seem to hover in the air. The sense is of low intensity power, like looking at the sun on the horizon. At 7:15 the feeling turns a bit more settled and gentle – the reverberations becoming more optimistic and less alien. More complex rhythms follow, but there is less roughness in the lower notes and a smoother, more welcoming feel. At 12:00 there is a sense of fading energy – as if the sun is setting – and there are some lovely passages with pleasing reverberations. By 14:00 there is a growing sense of departure and the piece concludes on a series of higher notes that fade quietly away.
The quiet echoes heard in At Dusk are reminiscent of one of the techniques employed by Helmut Lachenmann in his Got Lost (2007/2008), where strong notes from the singer are sympathetically echoed by the strings of an open grand piano. At Dusk demonstrates the amazingly versatile sounds that can be elicited from the double bass and Worthington’s perceptive use of them when combined with electronics.
Tracks 2 and 4 comprise two versions of a Quintet (after Feldman)(2011). Both of these pieces are short – a bit more than 3 minutes each – but consist of five separate layers of double bass. Version 1 begins with a low, rumbling chord with a rough, woody bottom and slightly metallic tones in the middle and higher registers. The tones are smooth and sustained, discordant and with a somewhat alien feel at times, but mostly warm and accessible. There is a sense of grandeur in the lowest tones, like being deep in the unknown world of dark ocean depths.
Version 2 continues in a similar pattern with low, sustained chords agreeably layered among the five double bass tracks. There is slightly more dissonance here, but this never results in an unsettled feel and the effect is to increase the exotic ambiance. Both versions of Quintet (after Feldman) seem to shift between the familiar and the unknown, but always with a deliberately comforting elegance.
Prism (2010) occupies track 3 and this consists of three double bass layers. This starts with a single high chord followed by silence. This is repeated three times, then again with notes that skip about, although the overall feeling is quiet and solemn. The piece proceeds in this way, a series of passages followed by a few seconds of silence. In one section the notes seem to chirp between the high and middle registers with an almost reedy sound. There is a lonely, open feel to all of this, with a touch of emptiness. Deeper notes appear, adding mystery.
At 4:10 a series of active notes are heard above a deep counterpoint. By 5:00 the tempo slows and thin, sustained tones are heard floating above soft, darker notes in the middle registers. Higher notes, now alone, produce a feeling of remoteness but this gradually evolves into a warm wash below with playful, bouncy notes riding above. Now a sudden low rumble with dissonant sounds that are followed by a light sustained tone, fading at the finish. Scott Worthington manages to evoke a wide variety of feelings from the double bass and the layering is artfully done.
The last track on the CD is Reflections (in memoriam Stephano Scodanibbio) (2012), for double bass and electronics, and this begins with a low drone that alternates between a dissonant growl and a somewhat thinner moan. High, sighing tones join in, adding to the mournful mood. Some roughness and a questioning feel are heard in the middle registers producing a sense of anguish and uncertainty. The relentlessness of the drone now becomes oppressive, like a great weight bearing down on the texture. The low, melancholy sounds fill the ears and seem to inhabit the listener’s head. Great sonic tears are falling and cry out in their sadness. By 9:00 the tempo slows, the drone diminishes and this compelling statement of disconsolate sorrow concludes as the sound slowly fades away.
Reflections is a fine tribute and a powerfully empathetic work that will move all who have experienced permanent loss.
PRISM was recorded at the Conrad Prebys Music Center in San Diego, CA and the sound engineering here – given the layering and subtle use of electronics – is first rate. PRISM expands the scope of Scott Worthington’s music to encompass an extraordinarily wide variety sensations and emotions, all conjured from the traditional double bass.
PRISM is available from Populist Records.
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Twilight of the Dreamboats
Cold Blue Music has released a new CD titled Twilight of the Dreamboats composed, performed and recorded by Chas Smith in 2014. Featuring a combination of sound sculptures and steel guitars, this electro-acoustic work is “…an ever-evolving single gesture, a seamless blend of tones and timbres.” Chas Smith has an extensive resume, including study with Morton Subotnick, Mel Powell, James Tenny and Harold Budd and he is also active as a performer in film scores.
The sonic materials that comprise this work are sound sculptures designed by Smith with names like Bertoia m718, Que Lastas, lockheed, Mantis and Sceptre. Additionally, Chas Smith performs on a series of modified steel guitars. The result is a precise, smooth sound that flows like liquid metal and evokes a variety of colors and feelings as it proceeds.
Twilight of the Dreamboats begins with a low, continuous tone that is soon joined by higher harmonics. There is a sense of discovery here, of something new and uncharted right in front of us. A low pedal tone enters, adding a sense of the profound. There is a haunting, continuously smooth texture to this; pensive but not dark or ominous. Swirling tones at 4:00 gradually break up this assurance and the feeling turns more mechanical and industrial as if we are in the presence of some large machine. A great, low rumbling soon overwhelms, like a large airplane passing overhead.
By 7:30, a softer, gentler feel emerges and the higher tones have again turned more optimistic and uplifting. Gradually the tone darkens somewhat, becoming more mysterious. A low moaning arises within and underneath the sound, adding a bit of anxiety. Halfway through the piece, a more approachable sound is heard and even the low tones have become warm and consonant. A soft wobbling is heard, reminiscent of the sound a worn bearing makes as it turns and this gives a sense of purposeful motion. By 16:00 we are in a whirring dream scape that contains some large, unseen mechanical force.
Now a high, barely perceptible pitch floats faintly over the swirling darkness, an arc of light in the gloom. The heavier sounds slowly dissemble, becoming less coherent by 22:00. A metallic moaning is heard, as if some large structure is breaking up. The pace slows, the sounds become quieter and there is a sense of settling as the piece slowly fades away.
That Twilight of the Dreamboats elicits such a wide range of feelings and emotions without a beat, recognizable musical instruments, harmonic progressions or familiar musical gestures is quite remarkable. The aesthetic power of the electro-acoustic processes and techniques deployed by Chas Smith on this CD is impressive and demonstrate just how far his music has evolved into a sound world of singular character and power..
Twilight of the Dreamboats is available from Cold Blue Music (CB0045)
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Franklin Cox is an indefatigable and prolific figure, both as a performer and as a musicologist. This, the second volume in his “New Cello” series, focuses on European composers. Using Klaus Huebler’s Opus Breve as a refrain, this rondo of nine performances encompasses a great deal of what’s happening in second modernity. Particularly fine are the brief but richly detailed Dove’s Figary of Michael Finnissy, Richard Barrett’s 2-bowed essay Dark Ages, and Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf’s La vision d’ange nouveau. The latter piece is based on an essay by Walter Benjamin written in response to a work by Paul Klee. It is not only rich in literary allusions, but multifaceted in its musical reference points as well, ranging from hyper-virtuosity to string effects to linear and rhythmic polyphony. Cox makes these pieces sound, well not easy, exactly, but more attainable than they truly are by lesser cellists. Still, if that helps them to secure a foothold in the contemporary cello repertoire, even with many hours spent in the practice rooms to obtain it, so much the better.
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In the Village of Hope
Tasha Smith Godinez, harp
Michael Byron and Cold Blue Music have released a new CD of gorgeous music for the solo harp, commissioned and performed by Tasha Smith Godinez. In the Village of Hope contains a single 22 minute track that unfolds with such delicacy and grace that an hour of it would not seem too much. The composer writes: “With a sound reminiscent of wind chimes, it yields fields of harmonic stasis, that mysterious circumstance of individual notes diverging and merging to form a delicate fabric of sound.
In the Village of Hope opens with a quiet serenity, full of sound, but gentle as a summer rainfall. The tempo picks up almost imperceptibly and we are soon awash in a lovely counterpoint that infuses the harmonies with a steady propulsive energy. The rhythm is constant, with a fluid feel that ebbs and flows in complex patterns that weave a tapestry of sound. There is no progression or sense of harmonic movement except when a key change occurs – and there are several of these – then a new set of tones takes up in the same manner as previously. The texture and density have an appealing consistency throughout. Towards the finish the tempo slows and the sound becomes quieter as the final notes slowly expire. Listening to this piece is like watching the sun slip slowly over the horizon as it illuminates the sky in ever-changing colors and shades.
This music is perfectly suited to the harp providing just the right timbre for the complexity and hopefulness that are combined in this piece. There is an exotic and idealistic feeling to In the Village of Hope that is beautifully drawn out by the playing of Ms. Godinez, who negotiates the 22 minute shower of notes with assurance and perfect command of her instrument.
This is an impressive work, both in concept and performance – In the Village of Hope perfectly captures the optimism and tranquility that seems so elusive in our busy lives.
In the Village of Hope is available from Cold Blue Records (CB0043), Amazon and iTunes.
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After the Wars
Cold Blue Music
Sarah Cahill, piano
Cold Blue Music has released a new CD of piano music by Peter Garland titled After the Wars. Recorded by Sarah Cahill, After the Wars is one of a series of works she has commissioned that focus on the concept of peace. Each of the four pieces on this CD is based on a Chinese poem or Japanese Haiku and is built on sustained piano tones and chords. According to the composer the pieces in this album are “…simply stated with relatively little temporal or thematic development.”
The first track is Spring View: “The nation is ruined, but the mountains and rivers remain.” ( after Tu Fu) This begins with a series of deep, rumbling chords that paint a vivid picture of doom and destruction. These continue but are interspersed with higher, lighter chords that seem, in contrast, to hold out some hope. The heavy, sustained sounds boom out and then slowly fade after each passage. The lighter chords seem to be making cautionary comments on the devastation declared by the powerful sounds in the lower register. Spring View is the darkest of the pieces in this album and becomes the starting point for what follows.
The second track is titled “Summer grass / all that remains / of young warriors’ dreams.” (after Basho) and this also begins with dark, dramatic chords that ring out from the depths of the piano. In this piece, however, the chords climb up to the higher registers as if ascending a ladder. There is an ethereal feel to this progression, a redemptive quality that springs out of the previous darkness. The sustained ringing of the chords as they are struck hover in the air like spirits awaiting release. There is a more reflective feeling here and ultimately a sense of restful assurance.
Track three is Occasional Poem on an Autumn Day: “When I’m at peace I let everything go.” (after Ch’eng Hao) and this has a pleasantly sunny feel after the heavy drama of the first two pieces. Dense, sustained chords open but turn warmer and more relaxed as the piece progresses. A sense of relief is felt and the touch of Sarah Cahill on the keyboard is precise enough to give a slightly different feel to each of what is a succession of very similar chords. At 3:45 the dynamics increase noticeably and the chords become joyful, like hearing the peal of bells. The tempo slows towards the close and the volume tapers down to a quiet, peaceful chord at the finish. Occasional Poem on an Autumn Day effectively expresses a welcome sense of placid release and calm.
The final piece on the album is “A snowy morning / smoke from the kitchen roof– / it is good.”
(after Buson). This begins with high, bright chords and an appealing, sunny harmony that is followed by lush and comforting deep notes. There is a sense of peaceful happiness in the deliberate chords; the comforts of domestic tranquility fill up the sound. More deep chords, solemn but not sad, rise up to a sunlit landscape. All is now peaceful and harmonious.
The arc of After the Wars – from destruction and ruin to the return of placid domesticity – is artfully realized here with a minimum of musical materials and the exquisite playing of Sarah Cahill. Hearing this album creates in the listener a desire for that same healing process to be present in our own life and times. It inspires the hope that no matter how gloomy the present may seem – and our world is full of terrible things – the path to a peaceful wholeness is yet attainable.
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Musik mit Musik
Nadar Ensemble, Daan Janssens, conductor; Ensemble LUX:NM; Ensemble Mosaik; Ensemble Modern, Johannes Kalitzke, conductor
Johannes Kreidler’s music is Darmstadt’s most persuasive response yet to hip hop’s sample and mixing DJ. On his in hyper intervals, snatches of voices and backbeat percussion intersect with aphoristic interludes of violin, piano, and clarinet from the Nadar Ensemble. Cache Surrealism takes a similar approach. Female voices in an R&B sample gain the lead, but the instruments seem to “fight back” with greater intensity from the get-go, occasionally banishing the samples from the soundstage. In addition to the sampling of voices, there is a substantial keyboard part and synthetic components with which the ensemble contends. The group here, from Ensemble LUX:NM, is a baritone saxophone, accordion, and cello. Having the accordion as part of the ensemble creates some interesting textures that refract against the samples. The drums reappear on Fremdarbeit, this time live from percussionist Roland Neffe. Here there is also a live keyboard to add an in person layer of synthesis to the proceedings. Meanwhile, Ensemble Mosaic’s flutist Bettina Junge and cellist Mathis Mayr interrupt with single notes and digressive lines. Product Placements is a short solo for electronics that jitters its way through various sampling techniques.
The disc’s finale, Living in a Box, pits Kreidler’s sampler against more substantial forces: the Ensemble Modern. The principle is still the same: fragmentary samples and skittering percussion are juxtaposed with instrumental interjections. Here, however, the instrumental component is writ large, making the potential for different live groupings exponentially greater. When Kreidler’s most verbose synthetic cut-ups combine with tutti passages, the results sound thrilling. Certainly not a release for the “decaf only” listener, Kreidler is instead a hyperkinetic force with which to be reckoned.
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Musiques Suisses CD
Daniela Müller, violin; Petra Ackermann, viola; Karolina Öhman, cello; Tamriko Korsaia, piano
Fabio Oerhli, Jonas Tschanz, alto saxophones; Christan Kohi, tenor saxophone; Stefan Rolli, baritone saxophone, alto saxophone
Jürg Frey, famous as a member of the Wandelweiser Collective, is given an excellent portrait CD on the Musiques Suisses imprint. Memoire, horizon for saxophone quartet is the longest piece on the disc, clocking in at a little over half and hour. It features sustained lines for saxophone, gradually shifting from consonant verticals to chords with added dissonant notes that spice up the proceedings.
Six pieces on the program are from the Extended Circular Music series. The chordal structures here are often more consonant, but there still is a slow moving pace to the proceedings. That said, the sounds never fully die away; there isn’t the kind of space for silence that one hears in some other composers’ music. Instead, chords gently saturate the sound space, treading evenly without a sense of dynamically articulated direction. It is hard to select standouts, as these feel “of a piece,” but I am quite fond of Extended Circular Music No. 2, for solo piano; it has some beautiful sonorities.
The second longest piece on the disc, Architektur der Emfindungen, for piano quartet, once again finds the piano initially taking the lead, providing upper register melodies and repeated notes while the strings supply undulating lines and chordal accompaniment. Eventually, roles reverse, and the strings get their turn in the lead while the piano plays a chordal accompaniment. By the piece’s conclusion, the transformations in ensemble groupings and instrumental roles have left us amid a panoply of changes in role, direction, and instrumental coloration. A fascinating introduction to a composer with a strong individual voice.
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Songs We Like a Lot
Theo Bleckmann and Kate McGarry, vocals;
Uri Caine, piano and organ;
Frankfurt Radio Big Band
A follow up to 2013’s Grammy-nominated Songs I Like a Lot, Songs We Like a Lot finds John Hollenbeck’s creativity surging. His originals are intricate charts that are navigated with assuredness by Uri Caine and the Frankfurt Radio Big Band. In the cover songs, one sees a range of approaches from near complete deconstruction on “Get Lucky Manifesto” to intricate harmonic shifts and reshaping on “True Colors” and “Close to You.” Throughout, vocalists Theo Bleckmann and Kate McGarry respond to the challenges with their own imaginative approaches to the songs, ranging from close-part harmonies to throat singing. The frequent time signature shifts and thick chordal accompaniment on “How Can I Keep From Singing” might sum up this album best as one that celebrates song through its permutability rather than with stolid repetition of already heard arrangements.
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Save Your Breath
Kris Davis Infrasound
Clean Feed CD
Ben Goldberg, Oscar Noriega, Joachim Badenhorst, Andrew Bishop, clarinets; Nade Radley, guitar; Gary Versace, organ; Jim Black, drums; Kris Davis, piano and compositions
On her new Clean Feed CD, joined by a cadre of clarinetists playing instruments in varying shapes and sizes, composer/pianist Kris Davis presents her latest suite of avant-jazz pieces. Save Your Breath features ardent solo work, not only from all of the clarinetists, but also from the members of the rhythm section. Organist Gary Versace’s sci-fi brilliance on “Union Forever” is a standout (he is matched pitch for pitch by the uniformly excellent clarinetist Oscar Noriega). The aptly named “Whirly Swirly” finds guitarist Nate Radley creating undulating syncopations that dovetail with clarinetist Badenhorst and Davis’s lines. The leader herself frequently contributes post-tonal percussive solos that propel the proceedings. Speaking of musical propellent, drummer Jim Black’s energetic playing keeps the music-making from ever lapsing into idleness.
Davis makes skilful use of the clarinet quartet, calling upon them to play on alternate instruments, testing them at either end of their registral extremes, from wailing up top to chorale-like textures on the bottom; some of the bass clarinet chords are spectacularly sepulchral. Throughout, there is a sense of a strong composer’s hand at work. Davis demonstrates that an imaginative approach can make even a very challenging ensemble grouping work handily.
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