Posts Tagged “chamber music”
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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Juan Pablo Contreras
Silencio en Juárez
Albany Records has released a new CD of chamber music by Juan Pablo Contreras – Silencio en Juárez – consisting of three new works and featuring two prizewinning compositions. The music of Juan Pablo Contreras has been widely performed in Mexico and reflects a contemporary Latin perspective on culture and events. This is most evident in the title piece of the CD, written in remembrance of 15 teenagers murdered at a birthday party in Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican border town opposite El Paso, Texas.
Silencio en Juárez (2011) is scored for violin, clarinet, piano and unfolds in four movements starting with Madre Dolorosa. This begins with a quiet, mysterious opening in the strings and the violin in very high pitch, doubling the cello. A solemn piano chord sounds and the sad melody continues, invoking a mixture of sadness and menace. Now a warm, loving feeling for a few phrases is countered by more tense piano chords. The piece morphs into a definite feeling of anxiety, louder and more pronounced. The orchestration is very well crafted here – each instrument produces just the right effect and there is an abundance of sound coming from just four players. Madre Dolorosa has an uneasy and troubled feel – the perfect prelude.
Corrido, Movement II, is bouncy and raucous music – as if we have walked into a bar where the customers are pleasantly drunk. A send up of a familiar Mexican folk song, this movement is nevertheless very effectively written – a bit of comic relief – and no doubt meant to describe the birthday party that figures in the actual event. The ensemble here is excellent and while the music sounds offhand, it is precisely scored and played.
Movement III, Liturgia, has an entirely different tone. Dark and somber piano chords sound, like church bells tolling in the distance. A plaintive melody in the cello feels like a desperate prayer. A haunting clarinet solo is heard, and a graceful violin entrance adds a measure of sadness. A loud and dissonant tutti passage becomes a cry of mourning. The sorrowful violin returns accompanied by the dark, processional piano chords that slowly fade to silence.
La Injusticia, Movement IV, has a busy, strident feel, filled with complexity and detail. Staccato phrases in the clarinet and violin interweave among syncopated piano passages as if describing some needlessly complex process. Clamorous clarinet phrases mix in with slower stretches, but a distinct level of tension remains. A hurried feel to this at times – at 4:30 there is a more coherent and settled feel – but an overall sense of uneasiness is reinforced by the sudden ending. The music seems to be saying that justice delayed by never ending procedural issues is truly justice denied.
Silencio en Juárez is masterfully written chamber music – it won the 2013 Brian M. Israel Prize – but more than that it is an honest attempt by the composer to deal with deeply troubling issues in contemporary society.
La más Remota Prehistoria is the second work on this CD and the title translates to ‘The Most Remote Prehistory’. The four short movements of this piece are based on a poem by Dario Carillo and performed by the Claremont Avenue Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Kyle Ritenauer. Juan Pablo Contreras sings the solo tenor part.
A somber bassoon solo followed by flute, strings and then voice open the first movement. There has a primal feel and a bit of wistfulness as the (translated) text begins: “Sense your warmth, it has become cold space disputed by the blue shadow, between the rock folds, and subtle inspiration with which I write.” This is sung in Spanish and it is as if we are hearing long dead fossils in the rock lamenting their fate. A sense of sadness and longing is nicely captured in the writing, orchestration and the smooth vocal line.
The second movement turns darker still giving off a bleak, melancholy feel. The measured tempo adds to the drama and the elegant expressiveness in the tenor line reinforces the sense of mourning. The third movement, however, is all motion and energy and the text here is about swirling torrents of sediment, adding to the prehistoric imagery. The final movement returns to the slow, sorrowfulness of the opening, but with a sense of resignation in the voice. Flute trills suggest birds – who might have evolved from the dinosaurs – and the piece concludes with passionate singing and a flute solo in the last few bars that is beautifully poignant.
Despite its unusual subject matter, La más Remota Prehistoria is a touching work that is artfully composed and orchestrated.
The final work on this CD is Angel Mestizo (2013), a concerto for harp and chamber orchestra that won the 2014 Arturo Marquez First Composition Contest. This work is in four movements and traces the adoption of the European harp as a cultural touchstone, starting from the Spanish conquest through the subsequent metamorphosis of Mexico into a dominantly mestizo society. The first movement, La Conquista, opens with sharp, percussive sounds that are full of energy and movement. The harp is heard in solo passages, bringing a calming interlude to the militaristic uproar and a short flute solo adds some soothing pastoral imagery. Rattling drums and bold horn calls trade back and forth with harp and flute, as if a battle is raging across the spacious landscape. A sudden flurry of syncopated rhythms concludes this movement.
The second movement, Veracruz, has a slow and lushly exotic feel with the clarinet, percussion and marimba giving the impression of a hot sun blazing overhead. The harp was first brought to Mexico by the Spanish to the port of Veracruz and there is a lingering sense of conquest and conflict in the music here, sharp at times, as in the first movement. The harp passages, especially lovely and empathetic in the final measures, seem to be trying to heal the divide between the indigenous people and their European conquerors.
Cadenza Criolla, movement III, follows and this opens with a series of strong harp arpeggios. The harp plays alone and there are bright passages but also the sense of a darker undercurrent spilling over from the opening movements. ‘Criolla’ is a term used to describe someone of Spanish ancestry born in Mexico. The latter half of Cadenza Criolla consists of snatches of a folk melody, signifying that the harp is being appropriated by the newly emerging society.
Movement IV, Son Jarocho concludes the work and as the harp cadenza finishes there is a sudden, lively outburst of contemporary folk music. This has a loud and festive feel, but is interspersed with occasional suggestions of the drums and militaristic music from movement I. The harp is heard in solo passages throughout, mostly hopeful and joyous, but also reflecting the sense of the tension that persists in this complex culture even hundreds of years after the the trauma of conquest.
Angel Mestizo is an ambitious work, taking in the history of Mexico and the evolution of its social order – using the harp as the musical focal point was a brilliant choice. The playing by the Claremont Avenue Chamber Orchestra and harpist Kristi Shade is superb. The scoring and orchestration – here and in all the pieces on this CD – are fully formed and mature beyond the years of the composer. The music of Juan Pablo Contreras would be a fine addition to the repertory of any American chamber orchestra seeking to connect with a contemporary Latin audience.
Silencio en Juárez is available from Albany Records and also by download at iTunes.
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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, tags: alex mincek, CD Review, chamber music, franzon, instrumental, Jay Batzner, lara, mincek, rihm, String quartet
music by Mincek, Rihm, Franzon, and Lara
- Alex Mincek: String Quartet No. 3, “lift-tilt-filter-split”
- Wolfgang Rihm: Quartettstudie
- David Brynjar Franzson: On Repetition and Reappearances
- Felipe Lara: Corde Vocale
Mivos Quartet – Olivia de Prato and Joshua Modney, violins; Victor Lowrie, viola; Mariel Roberts, violoncello
String quartets are tricky business for composers and quartets alike. How does a composer compete with The Masters when writing new works? How does a quartet make a name for itself without performing works that haven’t been played a billion times already, especially since the realm of “contemporary music string quartets” is a pretty dense and tricky market already? Looking at its website, Mivos Quartet has a lot of exciting repertoire, programs, and opportunities to foster new music for string quartet. Their debut album Reappearances is a sonic dynamo of unrelenting musical power. The four quartets performed are staggering compositions in their own rights and Mivos’ interpretation and performance of each piece is absolutely transfixing. Okay, so maybe I’m gushing a bit. This is one of those discs that I cannot have playing while I’m writing about it. Usually I’m listening to the disc I’m writing about just to keep the sounds in my head. With Reappearances, I end up listening instead of writing.
Mivos hits hard right out of the gate with Alex Mincek’s String Quartet No. 3. Aggressive noise-based chords bounce around the group over a background nattering and gradually a straight-tone groove emerges in contrast. The counterpoints of texture and color are complicated and rigorous but still approachable and engaging through the palpable waves of musical gestures. It is a rough ride but Mivos’ sound is glassy, silky, and clean. The quartet makes sense of the abstract gestures and shapes the whole experience into quite an aural ride.
After the rough and tumble world of Mincek, Wolfgang Rihm’s Quartettstudie open with soothing and quiet shapes. These shapes unfurl into tendrils of counterpoint and texture and again Mivos can take complex thorny atonality and communicate its structure by drawing on more overt emotional states. Rihm’s music is also rich food upon which they can feed as it is full of contrast and drama with a solid emotional core.
On Repetition and Reappearances by David Brynjar Franzson is less active on the surface than the other works on this disc and Mivos works the silences around the moments just as expertly as the moments themselves. Franzson’s work is full of quiet murmurs, sporadic moans, and disconnected textures which all hang together according to the simple metaphor of the work’s title. Mivos uses a defter touch of tone on this particular composition given the stark and direct nature of the sparse musical moments.
Finishing off the disc with a bang, Felipe Lara’s Corde Vocale is hyper-colorful full of rich singular moments of arrival. Less a work of counterpoint and juxtaposition, Lara’s composition is more akin to aural surfing; the ideas build and grow around the listeners and then inevitably and inexorably crash down around them. Mivos performs this work as a single polyphonic hyper-instrument. This piece is a strong closer for the group and an excellent way to complete an auspicious debut disc. I’m excited about what they might release next.
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Phaedra and Modern Love Waltz
music of Philip Glass
OgreOgress has been a key player in offering strong recordings of lesser known/recorded works by composers such as John Cage, Alan Hovhannes, and Morton Feldman. This Philip Glass disc is truly for the comprehensive Glass fan since it contains portions of Phaedra which were not included in the Mishima soundtrack and 21 different versions that Robert Moran arranged of Glass’ Modern Love Waltz.
Released as a DVD-A, the sound quality is exceptionally true-to-life. The music is beautifully captured and so is the space in which it was recorded which adds a great deal of depth to what could have been a sterile and flat studio recording. The string trio used through these five brief scenes from Phaedra (2, 4, 6, 14, and 15a specifically) maintains a lush and rich tone and keep the pulse energized without ever sounding mechanical and machine-like. The percussion blends extremely well with the trio when used and the guitar additions provide a bit of snap to the articulation without overshadowing the thicker bowed strings.
Modern Love Waltz, originally a short piano piece by Glass, was orchestrated into 35 different parts by Robert Moran and the rest of the disc is dedicated to presenting all of those 35 parts in 21 different modular performances. I am of two minds of this portion of the recording. On the one hand, I’m not sure how many times I need to hear this 4:25 piece of music. On the other hand, OgreOgress has paced out all the different versions of this piece so well that there is a gradual and almost imperceptible build from one track to another. By the time I hit track 16 which is only for piano and winds, the piece really sounded different to my ears. Each track stands on its own as a solid realization of the piece but the gradual increase in the ensemble size and instrument diversity makes for a fun ride. It turns out I can listen to this short piano piece many many times after all.
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music of Lansing McLoskey
- Specific Gravity 2.72 performed by the newEar ensemble
- Sudden Music performed by Rebecca Duren, soprano; Alan Oscar Johnson, piano
- Requiem v.2.001 performed by Stony Brook Contemporary Chamber Players
- Processione di lacrime (pavan) performed by Philipp A. Stäudlin, saxophone; Zoya Tsvetkova, violin; Scott Woolweaver, viola; Joshua Gordon, cello
- Quartettrope performed by Stony Brook Contemporary Chamber Players
I find myself at a slight loss when trying to describe the music of Lansing McLoskey. Elements of just about every major stream of contemporary American concert music get wrapped together in different amounts in different pieces. A little minimalism here, some neo-romanticism there, atonal expressionism woven throughout, and colorful orchestrations to wrap it all together. McLoskey’s musical eclecticism doesn’t suffer from a lack of focus; each piece hangs together according to its own rules. I was about to say that McLoskey seems to be the rare composer without an obsession but instead it seems more apt to say that McLoskey is pan-obsessive. An equal opportunity obsessor.
The opening work, Specific Gravity 2.72, splashes with color at first while a slow-moving and determined melody unfurls against the more extroverted material. The second movement, “November Graveyard,” replaces these waves of gestures from the ensemble with more subdued and resigned harmonies. The quiet and static aspect of McLoskey’s language is prominently displayed in Processione di lacrime for saxophone and string trio. A single harmonic sigh underlies the whole seven minutes while forlorn melodies emerge from the ensemble and then fade into the background. The saxophone might be seen as the “odd instrument out” here but the instrument is perfectly balanced in performance and composition.
One of McLoskey’s better known compositions, Requiem v.2.001, takes up the center of the disc. This one piece probably does the most to summarize the various aspects of McLoskey’s musical language. Punchy grooves underscore long melodies in the first movement. Thick harmonies and darker colors make for a moody second movement. The violin solo “Trope [virus]” is frenetic and edgy, heightened by the extremely nasal mute sound. “Eulogy” recalls the opening groove from the first movement but maintains the more aggressive and forward trajectory initiated by the solo violin movement. The final “Epitaph – Obit.” discards the energy using colors and harmonies similar to the second movement.
While the formal designs of McLoskey’s music isn’t always taken from a traditional model, his music maintains satisfying and recognizable dramatic shapes. The four song collection Sudden Music gives McLoskey a place to show his adept understanding and setting of text, creating lines and harmonies which, while a bit more reserved than the rest of the music on this disc, still sound like his harmonies.
The final work, Quartettrope, uses the Webern quartet for violin, clarinet, tenor saxophone, and piano as a touchstone for McLoskey’s own original work. The first movement starts with the full first movement of the Webern original with McLoskey fusing his music onto the end in true trope fashion. The second movement begins with original McLoskey material and progresses towards the second movement of the Webern. This is not commentary on the Webern nor an attempt at stylistic camouflage; it is extremely clear when and how McLoskey’s music stops and the Webern starts. The idea behind the piece is rather interesting and the execution is rather compelling. More than anything, Quartettrope summarizes the mercurial nature of McLoskey’s voice and his compositional craft to put it all together.
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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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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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