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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John Potter, voice; Anna Maria Friman, voice and Hardanger fiddle; Ariel Abramovich and Jacob Heringman, lutes
ECM New Series 2441 CD
John Potter is best known for his work with the recently disbanded Hilliard Ensemble (writing recently disbanded for that estimable group is saddening indeed). But he has kept an active profile as a soloist as well. On the ECM label, he has focused on lute songs, with albums devoted to the Dowland Project. Anna Maria Friman is a member of Trio Medieval, who also record on ECM. They are joined by lutenists Ariel Abramovich and Jacob Heringman on Amores Pasados, a most imaginative project. The central repertoire are lute songs written by rock musicians: John Paul Jones (of Led Zeppelin), Tony Banks (of Genesis), and Sting. Potter and company have also included selections by 16th century composer Picforth and by John Campion, a 17th century composer famed for his lute songs. Rounding out the recording are Potter and company’s arrangements of songs by early Twentieth composers and compatriots E.J. Moeran and Peter Warlock.
For those who misread this as one of too many “casual” crossover projects, don’t forget the background of the pop musicians involved. Tony Banks played 12-string guitar on the early Genesis albums, Sting has recorded an entire album of songs by John Dowland and Robert Johnson, and John Paul Jones is a versatile and formidable musician. This is in part why the results of this collaboration are so successful. The other factor, of course, are the performances. Whether in tuning the achingly beautiful close part harmonies in Jones’s No Dormia or navigating the harmonic and rhythmic shifts found in abundance in Banks’s “The Cypress Curtain of the Night,” Potter, Friman, and their lutenist colleagues prove skilful and sympathetic collaborators. They make no pretense to be pop singers, performing with classically trained singers’ diction and tone. The way they manage to meet these songs in the middle is rhythm and phrasing: they readily adapt to the syncopation that is ubiquitous in pop songs and amply present in those collected here.
With material so uniformly strong, it is difficult to call out favorites. However, Sting clearly picked up a great deal about ayres when recording The Labyrinth. His “Bury me deep in the greenwood” could pass for a song by one of Dowland’s contemporaries: it is quite stirring. I would love to have a crack at the sheet music – even if I had to negotiate lute tablature!
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The Song of the Stars
British Music for Upper Voice Choir
Naxos CD 8.573427
Wells Cathedral School Choralia, conducted by Christopher Finch; Eleanor Turner, harp; Elliot Launn, piano
Occupying as it does an important niche in choral literature, the CD Song of the Stars demonstrates the vitality and importance of Naxos Records’s “no stone left unturned” recording ethos. Apart from A Ceremony of Carols, A Survivor from Warsaw, and a few other well known works, many often think of SATB – soprano, alto, tenor, bass – groupings as the default vocal ensemble for which truly meaningful choral literature is created. Here we find a number of gems for upper voices – many of them in their debut recordings – that provide a strong case for inclusivity.
The program contains well known composers such as Gustav Holst, James MacMillan, and John Tavener, who rub elbows with some of the finest contemporary British composers: Paul Mealor, Tarik O’Regan, and James Whitbourn. A find for me was the music of Cecilia McDowall (b. 1951), represented on the disc by her Regina Caeli. The piece alternates lustrous polychords with sprightly counterpoint in an attractive blend of elements that makes me want to delve deeper into McDowall’s output. There are also works by composers familiar to me, such as O’Regan’s Alleluia, Iaus et gloria, that are impressive compositions made even more appealing by their authoritative performances.
This is the recording debut of the Wells Cathedral School Choralia. Conducted by Christopher Finch, this is a fine group that demonstrates strong technical skills, beautiful tone, and excellent musicality throughout Song of the Stars. Indeed, the title work, composed by former King’s Singers member Bob Chilcott, has a perilously demanding tessitura that conventional wisdom would suggest disqualifies some groups from attempting it. The Wells Choralia make it sound eminently attainable. One hopes that conductors and composers take a careful listen to this CD. It provides many ideas for possible programming and the creation of new works for upper voice ensembles. Recommended.
Video of Tarik O’Regan’s “Alleluia, Iaus et gloria”
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The Subliminal and the Sublime
Chris Dingman, vibraphone; Loren Stillman, alto saxophone; Fabian Almazan, piano; Ryan Ferreira, guitar; Linda Oh, bass; Justin Brown, drums
Excellent albums contain many magical moments, but there’s often one that is a clue that a particular recording will be a special experience for the listener. Just such a moment occurs early on Chris Dingman’s aptly named CD The Subliminal and the Sublime. After a few minutes of shimmering textures created on the vibraphone, saxophonist Loren Stillman enters with a crescendo into a held note that completely changes the demeanor of the proceedings. It is then that you know that this recording will not just be about its leader, but that it will be an ensemble affair, artfully arranged and indelibly well paced.
Dingman’s compositional style sits astride contemporary jazz and contemporary classical composition. Befitting a percussionist led endeavor, there are many moments that recall the minimalism and prolific polyrhythms of Steve Reich. And while Stillman is a standout, frequently engaging in duets with the vibraphonist, everyone on the recording gets a turn to shine. Both Fabian Almazan and Ryan Ferreira are sensitive accompanists, but their solo spots, particularly the pianist’s dexterous endeavors, are memorable. Linda Oh and Justin Brown create a fulsome groove that propels the proceedings. Occasionally, one worries that Brown may overwhelm the vibes with his prolific use of crash cymbal paired with bass drum. But the sections containing his most energetic playing are well-timed and he provides a consistently engaging foil for his fellow percussionist Dingman.
Both of the miniatures on the album, “Tectonic Plates” and “Plea,” are particularly charming and chockfull of interesting harmonies. These are offset by much more extended tunes. One is hard-pressed to name a favorite, but the intricate architecture of the album’s longest cut, “The Pinnacles,” allows us to hear both Dingman the composer and the sextet at his disposal at the height of their current powers. One can only imagine that the way forward for them all will be even more promising.
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At the Speed of Stillness
NMC Recordings CD NMC D202
Claire Booth, soprano; Lucy Schaufer, mezzo-soprano; Alexandra Wood, violin; Andrew Matthews-Owen, piano; Huw Watkins, piano; Aldeburgh World Symphony, Sir Mark Elder, conductor; Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Oliver Knussen, conductor
Charlotte Bray’s music displays steely determination and an expansively colorful textural palette. Her NMC portrait CD supplies an abundant view of these characteristics. The title work is particularly impressive; it is filled with piquant yet often spacious harmonies, frequent juxtapositions of orchestral groupings, and lithe pacing.
Mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer approaches Fire Burning in Snow, settings of poems by Nicki Jackowska, with clear diction and an emotive presence. Likewise the players from the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group give detailed precision to the work’s angular intervals and supply intensity to the nuanced dynamic shadings found in the accompaniment. Soprano Claire Booth, ably accompanied by Andrew Matthews-Owen, brings expressiveness and considerable beauty of tone to Songs from Yellow Leaves, settings of Caroline Thomas’s poetry.
Pianist Huw Watkins pulls double duty on the CD, deftly inhabiting the alternately shimmering, sprightly, and strenuous atmospheres of the solo work Oneroi. There are far more episodes possessing the latter demeanor in the piano concertino Replay. However, the variety of timbres found in the chamber ensemble’s accompaniment keeps the work from becoming overwrought. Explained in part by its title, the piece also contains considerable motivic repetition and development: an attractive addition to Bray’s arsenal of resources.
The two-part chamber concerto Caught in Treetops is similarly endowed with an enriched template of motives, ranging from repeated note flurries to widely spaced arcing lines. The work begins with a cadenza, introducing sterling soloist Alexandra Wood, a versatile and formidable violinist. Only gradually is the chamber ensemble invited in, filling the gaps with contrapuntal lines and forceful tutti. While Bray’s language remains primarily a chromatic one, Part Two of Caught in Treetops contains the addition of some beautiful, delicately announced harmonic verticals. The gentle close of the piece provides a perfectly enigmatic twist to the CD’s program, leaving one eager for more from this talented composer.
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Winter, Spring and Fall
From Seattle-based composer J.C. Combs and Cellar Door Records comes a new album, Winter, Spring and Fall, with three solo piano improvisations and two pieces that combine piano and electronics.
The first piece is Currents and this piece begins with a series of fast trills that roil and surge like a river in flood. Deep notes add a profound feeling and the playing is very controlled, keeping just the right tempo. The volume rises and falls and the texture is alive with swirling movement. The pitches also move gradually up and down – as a sort of rising and falling of an internal tide. The electronics are buried in the whirl of sound and only rise to prominence towards the end with a low oscillation that echoes the running flow of the piano. Currents is a mesmerizing listening experience that nicely evokes swiftly moving water.
Improvisation for Winter is an improvisation in a similar mode, with nice movement and a brisk tempo to start. After a sudden stop the pace becomes more leisurely, as if ambling along a sidewalk or street. Now faster and with more notes, as if in a blizzard – hard to see for all the swirling snow. A well-crafted bass line adds some drama. The tempo slows and the notes lighten as if there is a break in the storm – the feeling here turns more more thoughtful. After a few final swirling passages, Improvisation to Winter concludes.
Improvisation for Spring starts off with a series of identical solitary notes, soon joined by a second played in harmony. The beat continues, now with wistful chords. A nice bass line provides a strong color and adds to the pensive feeling. Now a more emphatic melody line in the upper register is heard, offset by powerful chords in the bass. The opening pattern of identical straight quarter notes is repeated but with more tension developed in the counterpoint. Some soft notes in the very high octave of the piano quietly end this piece.
Improvisation for Fall has a quiet, mysterious opening – like a question hanging in the air. The steady beat on a single note adds a measure of tension. Darker notes appear in the middle and lower registers that add to the taut feeling. This is a pleasingly atmospheric piece that feels a bit like Halloween. Towards the end it turns a bit more optimistic and glides gracefully to a stop.
The final track of the album is Elevator to the Moon and this is for electronics and piano. The electronics sounds open with low pitches, rumbling and a sort of metallic moan in a middle register. The piano can be heard in between with dark chords and nervous riffs that build the sense of tension – we are traveling to a different place. Two well struck piano notes jump out of the texture – as if startled – then all becomes slower and more subdued. The piano repeats the two note motif against the sustained and quiet electronic tones as the piece comes to a close.
This latest album by J.C. Combs expands the reach of his piano improvisations and reveals a judiciously chosen color palette that impeccably fits the mood of each season.
Winter, Spring and Fall is available for download here.
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