Cold Blue Music – CB0038
From Australia comes the premiere recording of Music for Airport Furniture, a new CD by Stephen Whittington and Cold Blue Music. This single track CD is performed by the Zephyr Quartet, an award-winning chamber group from Adelaide.
Given the title of this new Stephen Whittington piece, the classic 1978 Music for Airports by Brian Eno comes immediately to mind. Eno’s piece, incorporating phased loops and various groups of instruments, was an attempt to realize a more thoughtful ambient music for public airport terminals. Music For Airport Furniture, however, is concerned with the human emotions that play out within that space. Both works capture the essential lonely emptiness of the airport waiting lounge, but Music for Airport Furniture places its focus squarely on the human heart. Stephen Whittington describes:
“I was interested in the airport departure lounge as an arena for human emotions – boredom, apprehension, despair, loneliness, the tenderness of farewells – all taking place within a bland, often desolate space.”
Whittington’s choice of the string quartet as the vehicle for this piece is inspired, the lush harmonies, intimate sound and wide range of emotional expression are a perfect match to his musical intentions. The familiar sound of the string quartet is reassuring even as the opening notes of Music for Airport Furniture evoke that distinctive feeling of emptiness and regret that we have all felt while waiting for an airline boarding call. The music proceeds in a series of long, warm phrases, offset by the occasional pizzicato arpeggio in the cello. The minimalist texture is both smooth and luxurious and the sustained chords deftly unpack all the many emotions that accompany an extended absence from home and loved ones. The playing of the Zephyr String Quartet is outstanding, investing just the right of emotional content into each extended phrase and never letting the long tones stagnate throughout the 22 minute duration of the piece. We are carried gently and comfortably into a world of emotions we have all experienced.
I found that listening to Music for Airport Furniture also produced a distinct feeling of nostalgia. Here in the US, at least, airports have become so security conscious and the movements of people so controlled that there is no longer the emotional space for the sort of quiet introspection that this piece portrays so well. Sadly, the chaotic nature of air travel nowadays has left little room for the sort of lingering goodbyes that were possible in years past. Even so, Music for Airport Furniture is a masterful realization of the bitter-sweet sadness of farewell.
Stephen Whittington is an active composer and pianist who gave the first Australian performances of the music of Christian Wolff, Terry Riley, James Tenney, Peter Garland, Alan Hovhaness and Morton Feldman, among many others. An extended stay in Southern California in 1987 resulted in a meeting with John Cage and stimulated a new style of composition for Stephen that included elements of minimalism, polystylism and chance procedures. Other artistic interests include poetry and film. Stephen has performed at the Sydney Opera House, the Adelaide International Film Festival and the Vienna International Dance Festival.
The Zephyr Quartet was founded in 1999 and is based in Adelaide. They regularly play at festivals across Australia, have commissioned several new works and are committed to the development and promotion of classical new music.
This CD is available from Cold Blue Music and the release date is September 9, 2013.
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Cold Blue Music – CB0037
This is a single track CD consisting of Black Water, a work composed by Jim Fox for three pianos in 1984 and first performed at the New Music America festival the following year. Bryan Pezzone has realized this studio version by recording all three parts.
Those familiar with the music of Jim Fox will find Black Water to be outside of the quiet, introspective style normally associated with the composer. This CD is the first of what is envisioned as a series of recordings of Jim’s earlier works, tracing, according to the liner notes “..a few other somewhat loud and boisterous pieces of mine from the same mid-eighties period…”
Black Water begins with an extended trill setting an energetic pace that builds with each successive wave of notes. There is a sense of strong, fluid motion that is slightly out of control – like a running sea in the dark. The notes roil around each of the piano parts, building in intensity and then setting off again without quite discharging the tension. At 3:30 it suddenly becomes spare and quiet; only a few piano notes dripping from the higher registers but with a swirling undercurrent below, like a river gathering its strength in a quiet stretch. The flow soon picks up again and breaks into another swift-flowing torrent of sound.
Black Water proceeds in this fashion – strong surges interspersed with quieter sections – but always with a sense of movement in the lower registers. This is exciting music, carrying the listener along in unexpected directions. Black Water could be describing one of our Southern California rain storms – sometimes a blinding downpour and yet with patches of clear sky where just a few raindrops are falling. The contrast between the turbulent and quieter sections of this piece evoke a force of nature, especially in the last 2 minutes which boil like the race of water in a flooded canyon. The final crashing chord hangs in the air, slowly dissipating, to provide a fitting end to this high-powered work.
Bryan Pezzone has done a fine job here – not only managing to get all the notes under his fingertips, but also to integrate the three sections into one cohesive whole. Bryan’s experience in film music and performing in the Green Umbrella Series and with the Los Angeles Philharmonic provides the ideal foundation for playing Black Water.
Jim Fox is familiar name in West Coast new music circles and is also the founder of Cold Blue Music. Black Water adds to his established catalog and will be a contribution to the historical arc of his body of work.
Available from Cold Blue Music, the release date for Black Water is September 9, 2013.
Paul H. Muller
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Kimberly Cole Luevano (Clarinet), Midori Koga (Piano), Lindsay Kesselman (Soprano)
Bright Angel: American Works For Clarinet And Piano
Fleur De Son
Fleur De Son’s recently released “Bright Angel: American Works For Clarinet And Piano” is an album that does right by new music in this country. It champions important composers who currently enjoy a range of notoriety through amazingly performed works that are strong and indicative of contemporary styles without sacrificing their reverence for tradition. There are two offerings by current big-namers Joan Tower and Libby Larsen and two more by accomplished and ascending Roshanne Etezady and Abbie Betinis whose path to dominance in new music’s near future will only be eased by their triumphant representation on this CD.
Of course, at the heart of any recording’s success or faaiure is the tremendous quality of its performers, and “Bright Angel” features three of today’s most fabulously gifted interpreters of contemporary music. Clarinetist Kimberly Cole Luevano and pianist Midori Koga appear throughout the disc, and Soprano Lindsay Kesselman joins them for Ms. Betinis’ song cycle Nattsanger. Their performances are exquisite as is their ensemble chemistry, which is demonstrated in moments like the opening of Ms. Etezady’s Bright Angel, when Ms. Luevano draws her sound out of a high, quartal or quintal harmony in the piano, or in the last movement of Nattsanger, when Ms. Kesselman’s scream of madness emerges from a high, screeching clarinet line.
As I alluded before, the pieces on “Bright Angel” are fairly centrist in their style, that is, they are certainly not aesthetically anachronistic, but are also not highly experimental or aggressive. Frankly, every work is extremely appealing, and represents the kind of music I wish could more frequently act as an ambassador of contemporary music to broad audiences. For example, Roshanne Etezady’s Bright Angel (which receives its recording world premiere on this CD) opens the album with warm lyricism and enthralling moments of virtuosity. Inspired by the architectural drawings of nineteenth century American architect Mary Jane Colter, Bright Angel possesses clear musical images of the West, which are conveyed clearly and thoughtfully through the grand tenderness of Ms. Etezady’s musical language.
Next up is Abbie Betinis’ Nattsanger (also a world premiere recording), which is a dramatic yet approachable song cycle on Norwegian texts depicting various stages of the night. Nattsanger presents dark, beautiful music that is skillfully orchestrated, namely in the way the clarinet and soprano play off each other’s similar colors and range. The performers are used conventionally with the exception of the fourth and eighth movements, where the texts’ underlying surrealism is most apparent. Here we find the clarinet and soprano used by themselves in a nervous duet (the fourth movement), and the aforementioned scream, which essentially ends the piece (the eighth movement). These are anchors of extremity, both in terms of the music’s expressive force, but also in the work’s symmetrical structure.
Joan Tower’s Fantasy (…those harbor lights) and Libby Larsen’s Licorice Stick further underscore the skill and craft of the composers and performers featured on “Bright Angel”. Fantasy is appropriately impulsive in character and mysterious in its expression. The prominence of the clarinet and piano’s roles are constantly shifting as they trade off prominence and, at times, share it – particularly when the musical explodes with energy about a third of the way through, rollicking through winding scales and arpeggios for most of the remaining music. Licorice Stick is less expansive an endeavor as Fantasy but nonetheless powerful. The most extensively aggressive work on the disc, Licorice Stick shows off the clarinet’s flare for bombast by drawing on its heritage as a jazz instrument (I’m about 90% sure there’s a Rhapsody In Blue quote) with pitch bends, trills and screaming altissimo lines. Throughout the shredding clarinet solos, the piano punches through with driving bass lines that make the piece stagger along the way to its loud, stumbling conclusion.
“Bright Angel” is available on iTunes, Amazon.com and from Fleur De Son’s website.
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The Art Of Noise
Mix equal parts delicacy, satire, abstraction, and imagery; add a flutist whose performance is as charismatic as it is virtuosic and versatile. This is the recipe for Meerenai Shim’s second album, “The Art Of Noise” – five courses of musical repast highlighting Ms. Shim’s personality even more than it does her ability. To be simple, the disc, accidentally or not, validates Ms. Shim’s self-appointed title as, “the ultimate indie music curator and performer.” Credit for this extends both to the truly unique composers and compositions she collected for the album as well as her in-studio collaborators (percussionist Christopher G. Jones, pianist Lori Lack, and cellist Paul Rhodes), all of whom deliver splendid contributions to the recording.
“The Art Of Noise” begins its journey with Daniel Felsenfeld’s brooding To Committee: A Parody Of Self, for flute, piano and cello. As Mr. Felsenfeld explains in the CD’s liner notes, the work is a deliberately maudlin and mocking lament dedicated to the committee-industrial complex he finds encumbering to himself and American composers in general. To Committee’s first movement opens with bitingly energetic, if not strained, material, which serves “The Art Of Noise” well by grabbing the listener’s attention. Over the next two movements, this nervous musical energy compellingly alternates with more lyrical passages, acting as a gentle introduction to the enormous range of musical expression present in the album’s remaining contents.
Janice Misurell-Mitchell’s title track, The Art of Noise, for flute/voice and percussion, is next on the album and contrasts strongly to the more lyrical and melodic characteristics of Felsenfeld’s To Committee. As the instrumentation for Ms. Misurell-Mithell’s piece suggests, the work calls for Ms. Shim to reach outside her instrument’s conventions. The heart of The Art of Noise is in fluid gulf of timbre that lies between Ms. Shim’s flute and the percussion instruments of her A/B Duo comrade Chris Jones. Indeed, the piece is more about the similarity of sounds the two performers and produce than the distinctions. The flute and percussion’s metallic and earthen characters (the latter achieved in the flute through Ms. Shim’s fantastic singing/playing) complement and are cast in relief of each other through the composer’s crisp, adroit phrases.
Jay C. Batzner’s Mercurial, for flute and electronics, is the next piece on “The Art Of Noise”. Essentially, Mr. Batzner’s piece contains two kinds of material: ambient synthesized and processed sound paired with yearning flute melodies and upbeat, granular rhythms (which, at one point, made me think of a beat-boxing robot), once more appropriately paired with more facile flute lines. To me, Mercurial stood out as a pivot in the album’s narrative – its intimate moments drew me back to To Committee, while its abstract material and the expertise of its electronic and acoustic colors seemed reminiscent of The Art of Noise. Most importantly, the brief passages of straightforward, repeating rhythms in the electronics foreshadow perfectly the next piece on the disc.
Matthew Joseph Payne’s flight of the bleeper bird for flute and Gameboy sounds like the musical lovechild of Tristan Perich, Kraftwerk and Megaman kidnapped a flute to abet its manic, low-bit, synthesized mayhem. I applaud Mr. Payne for appropriating so iconic a found object and using music to both capture and redefine its basic cultural essence. Ms. Shim’s flute is joyfully along for the ride through the work’s sugar-pop, kaleidoscopic dances and abstract, white noise reflections. In terms of the whole of “The Art of Noise”, flight of the bleeper bird is an exquisitely crude climax, the unabashed culmination of the Ms. Shim’s transformation as a performer from the relatively comfortable trappings of To Committee to the extended techniques of The Art of Noise and, at last, the electro-acoustic splendor of Mercurial. At least for me, it was impossible to foresee that this trajectory would lead to so tremendous a fusion of Ms. Shim’s artful musicianship and the repurposed vernacular of Mr. Payne’s musical material and machinery.
If you listen to “The Art Of Noise” from beginning to end, I think you will agree that David E. Farrell’s moonwave is a perfect conclusion for the album. Again we see Ms. Shim’s skill as a musical curator shine, because after experiencing the accumulating sonic density of the preceding works, my ears and mind were desperate to take in a gentle flute solo like moonwave. Works like Mr. Farrell’s are many in the flute repertory, but, at least for me, they never get old. Perhaps this is because, like the piano or cello, the flute, when in the hands of a truly gifted artist, is a treasure to hear by itself. As I have already suggested, moonwave is soft and unassuming, but not restrained; basically, the piece sounds content, which echoes the fulfillment anyone will enjoy after they listen to this album.
Meerenai Shim’s “The Art Of Noise” is available for purchase from Amazon.com and Ms. Shim’s Bandcamp page.
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Albany Records Blu-ray Audio/CD Troy1418
When I wrote about Felder’s flute concerto Inner Sky (1994, rev. 1999)) in a concert review of Tanglewood’s 2011 Festival of Contemporary Music, I mentioned how much I looked forward to hearing the piece again on its (then in preparation) recording. What I didn’t mention at the time: my concern that it would be difficult to capture the many details of the piece on record. Enter blu-ray audio.
Indeed, David Felder’s music is perfect to demonstrate the capacities of blu-ray audio. Musical climaxes feature piercingly fierce highs and rumbling lows. Elsewhere, shimmering diaphanous textures, frequently blending electronic and acoustic instruments, surround one immersively in this multi-channel environment. By the way, if one doesn’t have access to blu-ray, the recording package also includes an audio CD.
One of the magical things about Inner Sky, not just as a demonstration of an audio platform but as an expertly crafted composition, is the use of register to delineate the structuring of the three main facets of the piece: its solo part, the orchestra, and the electronics. Over the course of Inner Sky, flutist Mario Caroli is called upon to play four different flutes: piccolo, concert flute, alto flute, and bass flute. Moving from high to low, he negotiates these changes of instrument, and the challenging parts written for each of them, with mercurial speed and incisive brilliance. Even though all of the orchestra members are seated onstage, we are also treated to a spatialization of sorts through the frequent appearance of antiphonal passages. This ricochet effect is more than matched by the lithe quadraphonic electronic component. Featuring both morphed flute sounds and synthetic timbres that often respond to the orchestration, it is an equal partner in the proceedings.
Tweener (2010) a piece for solo percussion, electronics, and ensemble, features Thomas Kolor as soloist. Kolor is called upon to do multiple instrument duty too, using “analog” percussion beaters as well as a KAT mallet controller. An astounding range of sounds are evoked: crystalline bells, bowed metallophones, electronically extended passages for vibraphone and marimba. The percussionist’s exertions are responded to in kind by vigorous orchestra playing from University of Buffalo’s Slee Sinfonietta Chamber Orchestra, conducted by James Baker. The Slee group flourishes here in powerful brass passages, avian wind writing, and soaring strings. The brass pieces Canzonne and Incendio are also played by UB musicians in equally impressive renditions. These works combine antiphonal writing with a persuasive post-tonal pitch language that also encompasses a plethora of glissandos.
The Slee Sinfonietta again, this time conducted by James Avery, gets to go their own way on Dionysiacs. Featuring a flute sextet, the piece contains ominously sultry low register playing, offset by some tremendous soprano register pileups that more than once remind one of the more rambunctious moments in Ives’s The Unanswered Question. What’s more, the flutists get to employ auxiliary instruments such as nose whistles and ocarinas, adding to the chaotic ebullience of the work (entirely appropriate given its subject matter).
Clarinetist Jean Kopperud and pianist Stephen Gosling are featured on Rare Airs, a set of miniatures interspersed between the larger pieces. These works highlight both musicians’ specialization in extended techniques and Kopperud’s abundant theatricality as a performer. Pianist Ian Pace contributes the solo Rocket Summer. Filled with scores of colorful clusters set against rangy angular lines and punctuated by repeated notes and widely spaced sonorous harmonies, it is a taut and energetic piece worthy of inclusion on many pianists’ programs.
Requiescat (2010), performed by guitarist Magnus Andersson and the Slee Sinfonietta, again conducted by Baker, is another standout work. Harmonic series and held altissimo notes ring out from various parts of the ensemble, juxtaposed against delicate guitar arpeggiations and beautifully complex corruscating harmonies from other corners. Once again, Felder uses register and space wisely, keeping the orchestra out of the guitar’s way while still giving them a great deal of interesting music to play. Written relatively recently, Requiescat’s sense of pacing, filled with suspense and dramatic tension but less inexorable than the aforementioned concerti, demonstrates a different side of Felder’s creativity, and suggests more efficacious surprises in store from him in the future.
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Simon Thacker’s Svara-Kanti
Slap the Moon Records
Simon Thacker, guitar; Japjit Kaur, voice; Jacqueline Shave, violin; Sarvar Sabri, tabla
- Thacker – Dhumaketu
- Osborne – The Five Elements
- Riley – SwarAmant
- Korde - Anusvara – 6th Prism
- Thacker – Svaranjali
- Thacker – Multani
- Thacker – Three Punjabi folksongs
- Thacker – Rakshasa
The rich diversity of musical influences available in this world can yield truly inspired works which weave multiple threads into a single aural “rope” or works which use cursory cultural details out of the desire to sound “exotic.” Happily, Rakshasa is a work in the first category, bringing together musical elements into an attractive musical package.
Thacker’s compositional output on the disc reflects this polycultural synthesis with a delightful blend of traditional sounding Indian music with very Western harmonic progressions. Shave’s violin playing clearly draws from traditional Indian practices but to my ears her sound is only a slight nudge away from American fiddle technique. Kaur’s voice is bright and clean without ever becoming irritatingly nasal. Sabri’s tabla playing is direct, focused, and provides ample forward momentum when present.
As I am not an expert in music of India, I can’t speak much about the traditions surrounding the influences of each composition. The notes provide a wealth of guidance on all of these issues but I never found much need to refer to them in order for specific tracks to make sense. Everything on the disc makes sense as it is and left few questions that led to a need for research.
If I could point to a single track that represents the core of the music, I would choose Thacker’s compositions Svaranjali. The scales and rhythms used throughout this propulsive work are right on the edge of traditional ragas and something you might find on a Bela Fleck album. It isn’t that Thacker has “cleaned up” Indian rhythmic and pitch vocabulary to fit Western classical guitar tradition, Thacker instead draws on elements of both musics to shape a fiery and groovy piece.
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Neither Anvil Nor Pulley
music of Dan Trueman
performed by So Percussion
So Percussion: Eric Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski, Jason Treuting
Neither Anvil Nor Pulley
- Another Wallflower [from Long Ago]
- 120 bpm [or, What Is Your Metronome Thinking?]
- A Cow Call [Please oh Please Come Home!]
- Feedback [in Which a Famous Bach Prelude Becomes Ill-Tempered]
- Hang Dog Springar [a Slow Dance]
Trueman’s percussion/laptop quartet Neither Anvil Nor Pulley derives its musical core from fiddle tunes and string timbres. While a percussion ensemble might seem like an odd choice of instrumentation for string sounds, So Percussion is the perfect fit for Trueman’s musical ideas. Neither Anvil Nor Pulley is a perfect example of composer/performer collaborations. The score is almost inconsequential in terms of specificity and exactness. Instead, the pages contain a mixture of precision and vagueness which allows So Percussion to inhabit and interpret the piece. Since music notation wasn’t of primary importance to performers in the folk fiddle tradition, it seems wholly appropriate for rote/community learning to be the foundation upon which this album was constructed.
The first, third, and fifth movements are the most true to the fiddle inspiration. Each movement begins with a “drop the needle” on a turntable (a real turntable is needed, even among the four laptops) and So Percussion provides accompaniment and interaction with the recordings. A lot of the instrument choices and dynamic shaping is left up to the performers and So, as always, makes every choice sound like the right one.
The rest of the movements are substantially larger and contain more elaborate drawn-out formal shapes. The second movement, “120 bpm,” transforms through chaotic/structured clicking into sustained string samples being triggered by tether controllers. This transformation is smoothly done and even though I never could have predicted that the movement was headed in that direction the formal shape feels perfectly balanced. “Feedback,” the fourth movement, is a show-stopping aural exploration of the famous G major Prelude from the first cello suite by Bach played via feedback excitation of a concert bass drum. The rhythm of the original piece is stripped away entirely which makes the score seem more like a Schenker sketch of the work then realized over the course of 16 minutes. Philosophically, it reminds me of 9 Beet Stretch or Call Me Maybe slowed down 1000% except this is done acoustically. Again, you might not think of a percussion quartet as the perfect instrumentation for this kind of sonic treatment of the material but So Percussion frequently demonstrates that they make the unexpected sound perfect.
The computer/percussion interaction goes along with the piece’s larger philosophical idea about the man/machine relationship (I’ve been using a lot of slashes in this review, haven’t I? I’ll stop). The computer doesn’t really SHOW the user what it does (as opposed to an anvil or a pulley). In that way, the integration of the laptops within the percussion quartet is extremely well balanced. Just listening, one is never sure if it is “live or Memorex.” And, after following the score, I can say the same confusion holds. Furthermore, this recording is not physically available; downloads only. But Trueman and So have gone the extra mile to make a physical release matter. You can get the recording with a recycled LP, a speaker driver, or even a tether controller like those used in “120 bpm.” Given the amount of creativity and artistic thought that went into the creation and performance of Neither Anvil Nor Pulley, it is encouraging to see the same level of interest go into the packaging of the work.
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Music of Mohammed Fairouz
- Tahwidah – Mellissa Hughes, soprano; David Krakauer, clarinet
- Chorale Fantasy – Borromeo String Quartet
- Native Informant – Rachel Barton Pine, violin
- Posh – Christopher Thompson, baritenor; Steven Spooner, piano
- For Victims – David Kravitz, baritone; Borromeo String Quartet
- Jebel Lebnan – Imani Winds
If you can’t tell by the star-studded cast of performers on this disc, a lot of people like performing the music of Mohammed Fairouz and with good reason. This Naxos release gathers recordings of some of Fairouz’s recent chamber works (only Tahwidah and Chorale Fantasy date before 2011). Overall, the music is focused and dramatic, emotively powerful, and full of rich harmonies and sumptuous melodies. Fairouz does wear his influences on his sleeve and his borrowings from the classical canon and Middle-Eastern traditions mix well into an authentic and unique voice. Chorale Fantasy, for example, sounds very much like the slower harmonic sections of Shostakovich’s 8th quartet pressed through a colander of Arabic modes.
Tahwidah for soprano and clarinet is a prime example of Fairouz’s emotional and lyrical style. On one level, the music is lithe and sensual and without reading the text I figured it was a juicy love song. The text, while rich with omnipresent love metaphors, is actually being spoken by a mother to her son at his funeral. A second listening brought out the darker and elegiac qualities while still resonating the ideas of eternal love.
The solo violin sonata Native Informant also collects moments of supreme elegy alongside playful and fiery energy. Each of the five movements maintains a specific character throughout and most of these characters are simple and straightforward. “Lyric Sketch” is just that. “Rounds” is a peppy and zippy Arabic dance. In “For Egypt,” Fairouz crafts a haunting and woeful piece. While “For Egypt” has the gravitas to end the piece, the last two movements liven things up a bit. “Scherzo” is a cosmopolitan blend of Arab-inspired tunes which morph into and out of Tin Pan Alley-inspired tunes. The last movement, “Lullaby of the ex-Soldat” is another slow lyrical movement with a plaintive arpeggio motive in the middle. And of course Rachel Barton Pine sounds amazing throughout (I have yet to hear her play otherwise).
Vocal music is also served up on this disc. The brief song cycle Posh takes three poems from Wayne Kostenbaum’s collection Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films: “Ballade of the Layette,” “Blue Sea Songs,” and “Posh.” Of the three, my hands-down favorite is “Blue Sea Songs” which centers on a dreamt collection of Ned Rorem songs. Fairouz does a great Rorem impersonation (musically, anyway, I don’t know about personal). While Rorem-via-Fairouz is delightful, Fairouz’s own language serves the voice well with harmonic and orchestrational support. Christopher Thompson earns the fach “baritenor” well with a deep, rich, and powerful lower range and a light, floating, unstrained high register. For Victims is darker, thicker, and more intensely dramatic. David Kravitz navigates the David Shapiro text quite well and the blend between Kravitz and the Borromeo String Quartet is well done.
The final work on the disc is the colorful and charming Jebel Lebnan for wind quintet performed by the Imani Winds (again, when have they ever sounded less than amazing?). Each of the short character pieces, inspired by events from the Lebanese Civil War, is richly orchestrated and uses color and rhythm to their maximum. The spiky and chunky “Bashir’s March” shows obvious Stravinsky influence. The solo flute “Interlude: Nay” is the perfect transition into the bassoon solo which begins “Lamentation: Ariel’s Song.” “Dance and Little Song” try to be cheerful but have a dark and moribund underlayer that keeps the music from being truly joyous. The last movement, “Mar Charbel’s Dabkeh” closes off the disc with another Arab-inspired round dance.
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music of Tom Johnson
performed by Carol Robinson, Tom Johnson, and Dante Boon
Maria De Alvear World Edition
Tom Johnson’s music is very much like magic. I don’t mean necessarily that his music is magical more that his music works in the tradition of close-up or “micromagic.” As is often the case in close-up magic, the magician is telling you in no uncertain terms what he/she is doing without ever really revealing HOW any of it happened. The end result is a compelling “I can’t believe that just happened” experience and this is the area that Tom Johnson’s music occupies. Pieces like Failing: A Very Difficult Piece for String Bass or Narayana’s Cows include a narrator which explains, in no uncertain terms, how this piece works. An Hour for Piano or The Chord Catalogue relegates this information to program notes and such (the notes for An Hour for Piano should be read while listening to the piece; an internal narrator, if you will). The magic in Johnson’s music comes when he does exactly what he told you he was going to do but not HOW they are compelling and captivating.
Music and Questions is a prime example of how straightforward Johnson’s music can be. Five bells, all arranged in half-steps, are played in every possible permutation of single strikes. Between each permutation, Carol Robinson asks a simple question. The questions always relate to the listener’s experience of the piece and how the listener relates to the questions or the music. She also announces each section by stating which of the five bells are being struck first. That is it. For 23 minutes. No rhythmic motive to trace, no groove elements, no fancy orchestrational tricks, no surprise emotional outbursts, just a clinical exploration of 120 bell tones. It might be cliche to refer to this as a Zen listening experience but I honestly have no other words for it. There is absolutely nothing boring about this music but my brain tells me the music should be boring. That is the magic.
Music with Mistakes puts Robinson in the role of narrator and basset horn soloist. Listener engagement is key with Johnson and Music with Mistakes brings foreground listening to an audience that might otherwise expect to “zone out” during a typical process-oriented “old school” minimalist piece. Instead of the constant interruptions for questions, though, Music with Mistakes starts with the statement that melodic material will be played multiple times but only once without mistakes. The listener is to try to hear the mistakes. Arts organizations are constantly looking for ways to “engage the audience” with their repetitive concerts of warhorse literature. Johnson builds audience engagement into each piece. That is the magic. What is even better is that Johnson includes the answers at the back of the liner notes.
Same or Different operates under a similar basic principle as Music with Mistakes. Thick piano chords are played but the underlying question is: are they the same or are the different? A motive is played and the repeated: are they the same or are the different? This game lasts for about 27 minutes and it is some of the most active listening I’ve done in a while. I would love to give a copy of this disc to Edwin Gordon just to see how he does.
Since the music is, at its core, so simple and direct it is hard to say anything about the performances. Is there a word for this kind of virtuosity that puts the performers in a quasi-game where their detachment is a the primary fundamental skill? In the last two pieces, Carol Robinson and Dante Boon have to play their pieces without giving anything away. They have to make micro-changes and repetitions into a cheeky game of “did I or didn’t I” for considerable lengths of time. Not only is Johnson inviting the audience to hyper-scrutinize each micromotion of the performers he also gives them an extremely thin veil to hide behind. The whole disc is a delight to listen to. That is magic.
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Song from the Uproar
Abigail Fischer and the NOW Ensemble
New Amsterdam Records
- Abigail Fischer – Isabelle Eberhardt
- Celine Mogielnicki, Amelia Watkins, Kate Maroney, Tomas Cruz, and Peter Stewart (other voices)
- Sara Budde, clarinet & bass clarinet
- Logan Coale, double bass
- Mark Dancigers, electric guitar
- Michael Mizrahi, piano
- Alexandra Sopp, flute & piccolo
- Steven Osgood, conductor
Missy Mazzoli’s opera Song from the Uproar is proof positive that opera is alive and well in the world. A true 21st century production incorporating a lean number of performers and simple yet hauntingly effect electronics, Song from the Uproar also draws upon the basic core of operatic storytelling: expressive emotional content. While the musical foundation of Song from the Uproar is postminimalism, Mazzoli’s music has a gloriously expressive surface to pair with Uproar’s rhythmic/harmonic engines.
The opera works exceedingly well as one continuous hour-long work but the piece also breaks into component “numbers” rather nicely. I have found myself listening to “You Are the Dust” quite a lot, actually, with its gorgeous melodic line, pulsating electric guitar delay and high double bass. Abigail Fischer’s voice on this particular track, and throughout the whole opera, has a dense mournful quality. Fischer’s sound is as complex as her character. There is a lot of heavy drama in the story and it would be easy to focus on the bleak and mopey tragedies Isabelle Eberhardt experienced. Fortunately, Mazzoli is a lot smarter than that. The excitement Eberhardt felt on her adventures spawned moments like “I Have Arrived,” a mostly instrumental segment brimming with bright and infectious energy. Mazzoli treats the small ensemble of flute, clarinet/bass clarinet, electric guitar, double bass, and piano in such a way that maximizes color and sonic potential. You’d swear that there are a lot more people playing. Mazzoli has worked with NOW before and that familiarity with their sound pays off well. Similarly, musical ideas in Song from the Uproar have been explored by Mazzoli before in other pieces. One such example is that the final scene of the opera appears as “The Diver” on Victoire’s Cathedral City album. The time and attention Mazzoli has put into crafting this opera shows.
I went ahead and got one of the “Deluxe Limited Editions” available from Mazzoli’s Bandcamp page. The whole package includes the complete libretto with additional imagery from filmaker Stephen S. Taylor and a DVD, not of a staged performance, but rather an abstract accompanying film also created by Taylor. Taylor uses old black-and-white film to create a sort of “visual sense memory” of Eberhardt’s life and world. A sample of this footage can be found in the video for “You Are the Dust.” I enjoyed the progression of visual imagery as it evolved throughout the opera and Taylor’s choices flexed between “on the nose” and “abstractly poetic” in a compelling way. Still, I want a video of a fully staged performance of Song from the Uproar. It deserves one.
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