Electronic Organ Works
Piece #2 (1999-2000) for electronic organ; Piece #3 (2000-2001) for electronic organ; Piece #1 (2000-2004) for electronic organ; 4/4 (2010); Piece (2010) for electronic organ and bongo drums (with Glenn Freeman on bongos)
While some composers might bristle when the term “minimalism” is applied to their music or try to distance themselves from the dread “M-word” by adding the prefix “post” or saying that their music is “inspired by” or “takes influence from” minimalism, there simply is no better term which provides a sonic context for David Toub’s sound world. The music on this disc is straight-up, unbridled, unabashed Glass-ian minimalism in the best possible way. I’m not sure if there are processes being worked out or if the changes are more intuitive but these pieces hit my ears the same way as Music in Fifths, Music in Similar Motion, or Music with Changing Parts. To be honest, Toub’s synth of choice (Ensoniq KS-32) has a more focused, less dated, and richer sound than what I hear in those earlier Glass recordings.
The three numbered pieces for electronic organ, presented in the chronological order in which they were finished, do a lot to draw you into Toub’s flavor of minimalism. Piece #2 is only 4’33” (not sure how much one wants to read into that) and chugs along with a very rock-friendly bass line and open harmonic sound. Piece #3 is longer, about twelve and a half minutes, with a more disquiet set of harmonies and mellower instrument tone. Piece #1 is about double the length of #3 and strings together more drastic textural shifts using a lighter organ sound. Piece #1 is also the only one with internal cadential pauses marking changes in texture. The alternation of arpeggio activity and longer tension-building sustains creates an interesting formal shape.
I rather enjoyed the sustained sections of Piece #1 and hoped that one of the remaining works on the disc would eschew a pulse in order to focus purely on Toub’s ability to build and release harmonic tension. 4/4 maintains the “pulse-first, build harmonies later” model but the metrical squareness becomes a great framework for Toub’s rhythmic and textural explorations. The final work on the disc, Piece for Electronic Organ and Bongo Drums, off-loads the pulse duties from the organ to the bongos so the organ can maintain sustained intervals. For my ears, the drums are a bit too loud and sharp for the mellower organ sound and I welcomed the 45 seconds without the drums (around the 9:15 mark). Overall, this is a well crafted set of pieces with rock solid performances and rich sounds.
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Maria Pia De Vito, voice; Francois Couturier, piano;
Anja Lechner, cello; Michele Rabbia, percussion and electronics
ECM CD 2340
The works of eighteenth century composers such as Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi have been subject to all manner of reinterpretation by contemporary artists in myriad styles: jazz, gospel, bluegrass, rock, and so forth. Neapolitan composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736) hasn’t thus far been popular among those reworking baroque music. That may change with the release of Il Pergolese, a collaboration between vocalist Maria Pia De Vito, pianist Francois Couturier, cellist Anja Lechner, and percussionist Michele Rabbia that is emotive, imaginative, and stylistically fluid.
Pergolesi is best known for composing vocal music – operas and sacred music both (his Stabat Mater setting is particularly fine). De Vito’s singing of the evocative “Ogni pena cchiú spietata,” with its hauntingly repeated minor triads, sits astride baroque opera and pop chanteuse traditions, making the hybrid nature of this project clear from the outset.
Many of the arias from Pergolesi’s operas have been resurrected as staples of the repertoire studied by voice students, who treat them like “art songs” – recital repertoire – rather than presenting them in a theatrical context. Sometimes these “songs,” taken too lightly, are put before students out their depth. Thus it is particularly heartening to hear Lechner lead a beautifully soulful rendition of “Tre giorni son che Nina” on Il Pergolese, which serves to rehabilitate it from the aforementioned lowly fate of freshman recital fodder.
Rabbia’s ambient electronics halo De Vito’s melismatic, rhythmically free, and folk music inflected version of “In compagnia d’amore I;” in places her delivery is reminiscent of Cathy Berberian singing Luciano Berio folksong settings. Lechner and Couturier join Rabbia on “In compagnia d’amore II,” an interpretation more tilted toward ecstatic jazz than modern classical, with ardent soloing from the pianist, pizzicato cello lines, and articulative, rather than steadily pulsing, percussion gestures. Another fascinating selection is the exploration by De Vito and Couterier of material from the Stabat Mater, translated into Neapolitan to better show its roots in and connections to local traditions and music-making. Purists might balk, but this is a respectful and musically inventive homage to an underappreciated composer.
– Christian Carey
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Bridge Records CD
In recent decades, there’s been a move in some American academic circles to put more separation between the disciplines of music composition and music theory. It seems especially curious to those of us who have, to greater or lesser degrees, modeled our careers and aesthetics on our forebears, adopting the “composer-theorist” approach (some of us even adopt the “composer-performer-theorist” tag, but that’s another story for another day). Happily, academics like Dmitri Tymoczko thrive, pointing out that a hyphenated or, more properly, interdisciplinary existence is still amply possible without compromising one’s standing in either or both disciplines.
Tymoczko is one of the best known scholars discussing geometric modeling in music theory; his “The Geometry of Musical Chords” was the first music theory article published in Science Magazine; his first book, A Geometry of Music (Oxford University Press, 2011) is thought-provoking and, given its subject matter, surprisingly accessible: It has engendered a great deal of discussion in music theory circles. However, Tymoczko teaches at Princeton University in the Composition Area; while many important theorists have studied at Princeton, there is no Theory Department in the Graduate Music program, only Composition and Musicology.
On his first CD, Beat Therapy (Bridge, also 2011), Tymoczko flexed his third stream muscles, presenting a program of concert works influenced by jazz including improvised solos. Crackpot Hymnal, his second recording for the Bridge imprint, features fully notated chamber pieces played by estimable ensembles: the Amernet and Corigliano Quartets and the Illinois Modern Ensemble with pianist Daniel Schlossberg. The pieces address crossover, or polystylism, though, for the most part, instead of jazz, popular and rock styles interact with folk and modern classical music. Given Tymoczko’s early background playing popular music, and his subsequent theoretical writings that point out the ways that geometrical modeling of scales and chords is applicable to the analysis of both classical and popular music, his exploration of similar issues in his compositions makes perfect sense.
He has a bit of fun as well with this idea of similarity of collections between disparate styles. In the album opener, The Eggman Variations (2005), a quintet for pianist John Blacklow and the Corigliano Quartet, the first movement, titled “Pentatonia,” overwhelmingly employs pentatonic collections. But is the listener guided to hear them as aspects of Asian folk music, Impressionist chamber music, or box riffs by a guitarist in a garage band? Depending on where you are in the piece, it could seem to be any one, or several, of these archetypal references to a five-note scale. Alongside the glissandos one might expect, permutations of chordal extensions (7th chords, 9th chords, et cetera), populate the piece’s second movement, “Bent.” “A Roiling Worm of Sound” (what a fantastic title) mixes multiple layers of ostinato repetitions into an ebulliently undulating whole.
Another aspect of polystylism that Tymoczko embraces in these pieces is the ever-expanding condition of our varied digital music libraries, with the concomitant use (abuse?) of the shuffle button on our iPod, iTunes, or other digital delivery system. With a few clicks of a mouse or remote, listeners can leapfrog throughout music history and a plethora of musical geographies. Typecase Treasury (2010), another piano quintet for Kevin Weng-Yew Mayner and the Amernet Quartet, is a seven-movement suite of miniatures that revels in stylistic juxtaposition. It is neoclassicism versus post-minimalism in “Where We Begin.” “Hurdy Gurdy” channels Nancarrow in its not-so-well oiled musical motor and bluesy cast. Sheared off blocks of angular rhythms and deliberately schmaltzy chords inhabit “Crackpot Hymnal” in a quirky coexistence. You can imagine what happens in “This One was Supposed to be Atonal.” The composer describes “Russian Metal” as “Shostakovich orchestrating Black Sabbath,” which is a nice summation for this simmering aural snapshot. “Intermezzo” explores polytonality and harmonics in an appealingly piquant scoring that seems to take Bartók as its starting point. “Anthem” brings the piece to a close in rollicking fashion, bringing back some of the material from the opening, but transformed into a kinetic finale.
This Picture Seems to Move (1998), is also played by the Amernet Quartet. Even though it is a relatively early Tymoczko work, one can already hear a penchant for juxtaposition. Its first movement’s title, “Twittering Machine,” is a Paul Klee reference; obviously, it significantly predates our default assumptions about “twittering” today. It pits a modernist rhythmic language against a neoromantic harmonic palette. The work’s other movement, titled (after Boccioni) “Those Who Go,” features a beautifully brooding quasi-tonal melody alongside five-against-three pizzicatos.
The recording’s final piece, Another Fantastic Voyage (2012), is a chamber piano concerto. Schlossberg and the Illinois Modern Ensemble supply a rousing performance of the piece, which is filled with abundant virtuosity for the soloist and hairpin turns and tricky rhythms aplenty for the sinfonietta. Its title references Asimov, and one can image the subtitles being the names of short stories by Ray Bradbury. As the three movements’ monikers – “The Mad King,” “Changeling,” and “An Evil Carnival” – suggest, this is a piece in which Tymoczko is willing to explore darker thematic terrain. It is also where he best demonstrates a flair for the dramatic.
Once again, we hear the composer unwilling to take received norms – the formality of the concerto form, for instance – at face value. Instead he seeks to subvert our expectations of what a piano concerto does by placing it inside the inspirational context of genre fiction. Of course, the piano concerto is one of the classical forms that is longest in the tooth, and there are a significant number of 20th and 21st century works that seek to deconstruct it. That Tymoczko is able to find still another way to reframe the concerto design is no mean feat. If you are one of those who distrust the “hyphenated” contingent of composer-theorists, assuming their music is overly cerebral and lacking immediacy, take a listen to this piece. When one hears its vividly orchestrated and vibrantly paced carnival ride closer, all bets are off. You’ll likely think twice before making extravagant claims about “interdisciplinary types” again.
- Christian Carey
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R. Andrew Lee, piano
Irritable Hedgehog Records
I’m fairly new to the Wandelweiser aesthetic and this disc of Eva-Maria Houben’s piano music reinforces a lot of what I have taken in from other sources. To call this sound world “minimalism” is accurate in the purest sense: there is extremely little material here. What is different, though, is that Houben’s language emphasizes silence over repetition. The resonance of the piano lends itself to long and heavy pauses and Houben’s treatment of the piano as a sonorous entity rather than one for frenetic button pushing is gratifying and nourishing. The slow unfolding of events in both piano works, abgemalt and go and stop let every sound resonate with the listener before going forward. Any connections between events can be gestated well before plunging on into the next event. Having said that, this is not music with an obvious formal through-line. If you are driven by hearing rhythmic processes play out over the course of a piece, you’d best look elsewhere. Houben’s music is languid in the purest sense; events happen, silence happens, and it is very possible that neither has anything to do with the other. A Zen approach is necessary: just listen to what is happening. Trying to guess what is going to happen or should happen takes you away from the piece as it is.
Abgemalt is the longer of the two works and for me the most perplexing. Over the first two minutes the same dark chord is struck and decays down to nothingness three times. That’s it. The silences clearly outweigh the sounds. The amount of space in the piece is equal parts haunting, meditative, and unsettling. Playing the disc for a colleague, she shook her head in bewilderment; is this all it is? The short answer is “yes.” The long answer is “yes,” too, but with the follow up question “what more do you want?” As Abgemalt unfurls for 40 minutes, one does begin to lose all sense of direction. Why do all these moments belong in this piece? Why are they in this order? How did Houben know when the piece was finished? These are all intellectual questions which can’t thwart the overall rightness to the sounds. Go and Stop is a little easier to digest. There is a formal process which is more readily grasped as harmonic alternations are interrupted and grow into longer and longer iterations. Abgemalt, though, keeps sucking me back in. I can’t just casually listen to this disc as background noise. The deliberateness turns the recording into foreground listening. My ears strain to hear more and more of the piano decay, as if something is going to change. I can’t just turn the piece off in the middle, either, just as I can’t turn off Piano Phase without experiencing a sudden and jarring jolt.
Houben has set up an aural ecosystem in her work and Lee’s touch and timing are sensitive and nuanced. I can easily hear the care and concentration that goes into these performances and I have no trouble picturing a stoic and deliberate performance on stage. Lee’s craft is not one displayed through senseless theatrics and pyrotechnics. He clearly has a mind for this music and the ability to transform extremely minimal amounts of material into captivating performances.
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music by Ingram Marshall
photography by Jim Bengston
While the audio to these two collaborative works has been available for some time, this Starkland DVD release is the first time that Ingram Marshall’s music and Jim Bengston’s photography for Alcatraz and Eberbach can be seen in its combined form. While I’m sure nothing could replace a live performance of these pieces, this DVD maintains all the rich immersive qualities of any good multimedia collaboration. Artistically, both works are a testament to the “difficulty of simplicity.” The ideas are direct, expertly executed, and immediately palatable while revealing more nuance upon repeated listenings.
I will fully confess to not being much of a visual person. I cannot speak at length about technical issues in the photography. I find the visuals to be stunning and affecting even though the presentation is just a cross-fade slideshow. By today’s technical standards that doesn’t sound too interesting but the instant anyone would try the “Burns Effect” on these images they would destroy the resonance these images make through their rather monolithic simplicity. Bengston has all the right images at the right times and clearly conveys motion throughout each piece.
Alcatraz, the longer work of the two, is understandably darker in tone and more disquieting than its companion. Having only experienced the audio version of this piece in the past, while I watched the visuals I was reminded that Marshall’s soundcraft was really only half of the work. I do not say that to diminish anything that Marshall did; quite the opposite. Alcatraz works quite well on its own as a purely audio experience. Or, at least, it did before I saw the photography. Now that I’ve seen how Bengston’s images inform and deepen my understanding of the work.
Marshall’s music is not generally known for wild and chaotic textures but Alcatraz relies on disquieted energy and anticipation in extremely Marshallian terms. The music channels the watery ride out to the island and keeps that churning sense of nervous energy until we enter the prison. Sometimes the frantic arpeggiations which accompany the images within the prison struck me as a little too joyous but it ended up always being rooted in nervousness and ominousness. As we go deeper and deeper into the prison the music becomes increasingly desolate and lonely. Hope only emerges again as we leave the building.
Eberbach is a metaphorical parallel for many reasons. The title refers to a German monastery in the Rhine Valley. Men isolated from society within the walls of a dark stone structure is clearly the connective tissue which binds these two works together. In Eberbach, however, the music never generates any amount of nervous energy and why would it? Calm plaintive environmental and atmospheric sounds are tinged slightly with manipulation as the photographs take us around and through the monastery. While Eberbach parallels Alcatraz in some respects, it is also an opposite. The form of both works is similar (starting outside, moving inside) but Eberbach does not end with an emergence back to the outside world. We are taken into the monastery and stay there. Marshall uses same/similar sound sources for the deep interior as he used in Alcatraz but with a completely different affect. Eberbach soothes while Alcatraz looms.
Both Alcatraz and Eberbach stand on their own but both clearly benefit from the juxtaposition of the other. This relationship is identical to how Marshall’s music and Bengston’s photography are simultaneously independent yet connected. They could be experienced apart from the other but clearly shouldn’t be. This is an excellent DVD with great reproductions of the visuals (the aspect ratio has not been tampered with and maintains the 35 mm size) and the audio is available in the original stereo mix as well as 5.1 surround.
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The Chord Catalogue, Within Fourths/Within Fifths
music of Tom Johnson and Samuel Vriezen
Samuel Vriezen, piano
Edition Wandelweiser Records
In the interest of “full disclosure,” when I saw that Samuel Vriezen had begun a Kickstarter to fund his recording of Tom Johnson’s The Chord Catalogue I signed up and pledged money immediately. If you know me you probably know that I am a big fan of Johnson’s music and I was familiar with Johnson’s own recording of The Chord Catalogue. On the surface one might question if a second recording of all the 8178 chords found in a single octave was warranted but Vriezen’s technique brings out a new understanding of the composition. Yes, “all” Vriezen is doing is playing every combination of notes within an octave (first all the 2 voice combinations, then 3 voice, then 4, until the single 13-note cluster ends the piece) but Vriezen rides a peculiar edge between “all chords sound the same” and highlighting the rising chromatic lines which bring about an inherent amount of harmonic tension. Vriezen’s touch and blistering speed take the simple concept from a pedantic list into one of the most sustained examples of harmonic tension since Tristan und Isolde.
Vriezen’s articulation of the sinewy rising chromatic lines in each segment of The Chord Catalogue is then unwound and brought down for Vriezen’s own composition Within Fourths/Within Fifths. Vriezen describes the work as every combination of pitches a perfect fourth or fifth away from neighboring voices. The internal theory doesn’t de facto make a good composition, of course. Vriezen’s work does stand on its own as a slow and steady progression through expanding sonorous harmonies. The openness of the chords is the perfect tonic to the sheer density of the Johnson. The mad rush through chromatic lines is replaced with an almost complete lack of direction. Vriezen’s composition shows that there is still a lot to be done with fourths and fifths without making chords that sound like they belong in the TV theme of 70s cop shows.
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music of Keeril Makan
performed by International Contemporary Ensemble
- Mercury Songbirds for alto flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion
- Husk for flute, oboe and harp
- Afterglow for piano
- Becoming Unknown for flute/bass flute, clarinet/bass clarinet, trumpet and double bass
- Mu for violin
- After Forgetting for clarinet, piano, percussion, violin, and cello
performed by ICE:
Eric Lamb, flutes; Joshua Rubin, clarinets, James Austin Smith, oboe; Gareth Flowers, trumpet; Erik Carlson, violin; Kivie Cahn-Lipman, cello; Randall Zigler, double bass; Nuiko Wadden, harp; Cory Smythe, piano; Nathan Davis, percussion; Erik Carlson and Adam Sliwinski, conductors
Some of the first music I heard by Keeril Makan was rough, aggressively dissonant, and full of tense and explosive energy. Afterglow, the new release of Makan’s music performed by International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) tones down the savagery and highlights Makan’s control of timbre, color, and gesture. The title track, a solo piano work, obsesses on sympathetic string reactions to simple repeated tones for almost four and a half minutes. As elegantly as Afterglow builds and adds material, part of me wishes that the piece kept that opening texture for the full 14 minute duration. Cory Smythe’s performance truly revels in the stillness and quietness of the resonant strings and the recording makes me yearn to hear the piece live.
Mu, the only other solo work on the disc, is for prepared violin and structured using an open form. Erik Carlson paces the glassy sounds and long notes well and assembles a coherent and engaging performance (although a brief one, only about 3 minutes). Husk, for flute, oboe, and harp, also emphasizes coloristic gestures and resonance over a short time frame. Again, the composition is full of poignant pauses and space to let the harp strings resonate. The woodwind writing is proto-melodic and mostly consists of long sustained tones which shift timbral space between the flute and oboe. As one would expect from ICE, the performance is vibrant.
Three longer chamber ensembles bookend and center this recording. Mercury Songbirds combines more aggressive and spikier arrivals against a subdued and omnipresent piano drone. Becoming Unknown is the most conventionally tuneful work but these melodies are fragmented, twisted, and just as soon as they build any strength they begin to decay away. I was especially drawn to the touches of trumpet in this otherwise woodwind-dominated texture. The final work on the disc, After Forgetting, has in some ways the most expected formal design on the disc which makes it rather unexpected. A constant droned pulse permeates and drives the piece forward while melodic gestures and arrivals fit in, around, and against it. The traditional harmonic touches soften the dissonance a bit and as the pulse fades out the work resumes the haunting beauty found on the rest of the disc. The abrupt final cutoff of the piece took me by surprise; I was convinced it was an error in the recording. Overall, ICE plays with a spectacular affinity for shape, color, and gesture. Their sound is a perfect fit for Makan’s music.
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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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