Posts Tagged “chamber music”
Music of Bill Ryan
Ashley Bathgate, cello; Vicky Chow, piano; David Cossin, percussion; Michael Lowenstern, bass clarinet; Pablo Mahave-Veglia, cello; Jonathan Nichol, saxophones; Todd Reynolds, violin; Paul de Jong, cello
- Simple Lines
- Towards Daybreak
- Rapid Assembly
- A Simple Place
- Solitude in Transit
Billband is another fine example of a post-minimalist/alt-classical chamber ensemble. Bill Ryan’s compositions fit the model well with direct and clear musical ideas well-paced and orchestrated for his mixture of performers. Whereas (gross generalizations follow, prepare yourself) Build draws from a jazz combo sound, Newspeak leans towards aggressive and edgy literature, and Victoire centers around a subdued synth-driven music, the Ryan/Billband sound world is heavily connected to a more traditional chamber music aesthetic with occasional bits of rock drumming deftly added to the mix.
As a composer, Ryan gets a lot out of a little. His penchant for simplicity (aside from appearing in several titles) makes for affective music making. Simple Lines is just that, good melodic gestures woven together using an overdubbed Ashley Bathgate. A Simple Place contains more surface action but it maintains attractive and clear emotional trajectories. Towards Daybreak and Sparkle are other contemplative pieces which paint clear aural pictures. Blurred uses copious piano pedal and reverb to gently smear an otherwise driving pulse towards its inexorable climax.
Ryan contrasts his contemplative nature with a handful of more groovy and driving works. Rapid Assembly starts with a thin groove which picks up speed and energy as the whole composition comes together. Friction jumps right in with a heavy rock groove. To my ears, it sounds like something someone is about to rap over but no real melodic material emerges until the drums subside and the whole piece quiets down. Even in his more driving works, Ryan has a delicate hand at orchestrating his ideas. Each instrument has not only its own musical space but also serves a vital role in creating a single ensemble sound. Most of the music utilizes strings, piano, and metal pitched percussion but the woodwinds are well balanced and blended in the group (expressively played by Lowenstern and Nichol). The whole of the Billband sounds great on this disc and I look forward to more releases.
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Wood and Forest
works by Jacob Bancks, Kenji Bunch, Robert Pateron, Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez, and Michael Torke
American Modern Recordings
- The Trees Where I was Born for solo marimba – Jacob Bancks
- Duo for Viola and Vibraphone – Kneji Bunch (with Kenji Bunch, viola)
- Forest Shadows for solo marimba- Robert Paterson
- Arbor Una Nobilis for marimba and violin – Jacob Bancks (Jesse Mills, violin)
- Winik/Te’ for solo marimba – Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez
- After the Forest Fire for marimba, flute, and cello – Michael Torke (David Fedele, flute; Wilhelmina Smith, cello)
Makoto Nakura has assembled an impressive array of compositions which feature not only his fluid solo playing but also his superior collaboration and chamber musician skills. The solo marimba compositions by Bancks, Paterson, and Sanchez-Gutierrez each draw on different kinds of virtuosity from Nakura and he delivers wonderfully compelling performances of each. Banck’s The Threes Where I was Born is fairly disjunct in texture yet cogent in thought throughout the three movements. Nakura is nimble and graceful as he zips around the whole range of the instrument and connects the musical dots in a salient manner. Forest Shadows by Paterson is less theatrical and notey, using sustained chorales to build and resolve tension. Nakura does a wonderful job creating a musical through-line and solid sense of emotional trajectory. Winik/Te’ stands out from the pack with its brighter, crisper gestures and groovier rhythmic structures. Nakura plays the piece with admirable amounts of spunk and vigor.
This is not just a solo recital recording, though. Nakura’s chamber collaborations are just as excellently performed as the solos. Bunch’s Duo for Viola and Vibraphone is probably my favorite composition on the disc (right up there with Winik/Te’). The warm, throaty sound of the viola pairs well with the cooler vibraphone and Bunch’s music embraces simple musical textures and moods over complex virtuosity. Bancks’ chant-inspired Arbor Una Nobilis puts the violin in the primary role adding sparse yet important flourishes in the marimba. The final composition on the disc, After the Forest Fire by Michael Torke, casts the marimba in an even more traditional role than the Banck’s work. The marimba is an erstaz-piano providing conventional boom-chicks and arpeggios of functional harmony while the flute and cello do their best to hog the melodic spotlight. Regardless of where Nakura is in the musical texture, featured soloist or in various stages of the collaborative relationship, he is an impressive performer who knows how to pick music that features his many skills.
Six Mallet Marimba
music of Robert Paterson
American Modern Recordings
- Stillness (with Sarah Schram, oboe)
- Clarinatrix (with Meighan Stoops, bass clarinet )
- Duo for Flute and Marimba (with Sato Moughalian, flute and alto flute)
- Tongue and Groove (with Jeremy Justeson, alto saxophone)
- Braids (with Victoria Paterson, violin)
- Links & Chains (with Robin Zeh, violin)
- Fantastia (with Dan Peck, tuba)
Also released last week by American Modern Recordings, a disc of the music of Robert Paterson using Paterson’s unique six-mallet marimba technique (and featuring Paterson on marimba throughout). The addition of two more mallets is actually more subtle of a change than I expected. The texture is mildly thicker but what really comes through are more nuanced shapes on the inside voices rather than a bombastic “listen to all those notes!” kind of effect. The solo works Komodo and Piranha are great compliments to each other (Paterson wrote them to be so) in that Komodo fixates on the lower range of the instrument while Piranaha surfs and splashes nimbly in the upper register. I must confess that oftentimes I have difficulties with the form of solo marimba music since a lot of it sounds (to me anyway) as inspired by a stream-of-consciousness narrative that never connects with my ears. Paterson’s works do not suffer from this ailment, however, and his fluid forms are well communicated.
The bulk of the disc features the six-mallet marimba as an accompaniment instrument for a wide variety of performers: oboe, bass clarinet, tuba, violin, and flute. In each case, Paterson largely regulates the marimba to the background of the texture, providing harmonic support for facile and enjoyable melodic writing. Paterson is adept at mixing and matching the timbre of the marimba with these various instruments so it never sounds as if he is recycling materials or techniques from one piece to the next. The feature of the disc, after all, is the six-mallet technique. Paterson’s range of music expressions show variety in using six mallets, whether it be ominous dark chords with Stillness or the sultry bass lines of Clarinatrix and the middle movement of the Duo for Flute and Marimba. Nuanced arpeggiations are possible and displayed in the Duo as well as Tongue and Groove. I am particularly fond of Links & Chains for violin and marimba with its tightly woven accompaniment and edgy yet lengthy violin melody. I’m not sure how wide-spread the technique of using six mallets is but this disc and Paterson’s music show lots of potential for those willing to try.
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Ain’t Nothin’ But a Polka Band
Polka from the Fringe
29 polkas by various composers
Aint’ Nothin’ But a Polka Band are: Guy Klucevsek, accordion and vocals; John King, electric guitar, electric violin, dobro, vocals; David Hostra, Fender bass, doublebass, tuba; Bill Ruyle, drums, marimba, triangle; David Garland, lead vocals, whistling.
Confession time: I didn’t know what to think about this disc when I first received it. I thought I had gotten on the wrong person’s mailing list and couldn’t understand why anyone would send me a polka disc (much less a 2 disc set of polkas). All I really know about polkas I learned from Weird Al. Then I started looking at the disc: Starkland? Mary Ellen Childs? Aaron Jay Kernis? Carl Stone? Fred Frith? Lois Vierk? William Duckworth? What?!? I instantly put the discs in and all my questions were answered.
While far from being some kind of “gag disc” or collection of jokey compositions, this double-disc set is a heck of a lot of fun. Each composer makes their own work on the subject of “polka,” some are very traditional sounding others flirt with polka-ness, others take the instrumentation and write their own thing. The boisterous opening “The Grass, It Is Blue” sets the stage well with its riffs on Gershwin. Peter Garland’s “The Club Nada Polka” stutters and stammers through polka world. Aaron Jay Kernis’ “Phantom Polka” sounds like bits of Petrushka which were swept up off the floor and stitched back together. Bobby Previte’s epic (8 minutes seems appropriate for a polka to be called ‘epic’) “The Nove Scotia Polka” is equal parts polka and fantasia. Disc two contains just as many gems as disc one. William Duckworth’s “Polking Around” has all the subversive rhythmic arpeggiation grooves you would expect. Fred Frith’s “The Disinformation Polka” is full of fits and starts which make me chuckle every time I hear it. I would talk about each piece but there are just too many!
What I really love about the disc is, well, everything I suppose. You can tell that the composers had a good time writing these pieces and Ain’t Nothin’ But A Polka Band delivers clean and genuine performances of each work, no matter how “un-polka” they get. I don’t get the send of this being Hugely Important and Reverent Music. This is a boatload of composers writing out of the joy of writing. Some days you want to be blown away by profound artistry. For every other day, there are discs like this full of joy, pleasure, and talent.
- The Grass, It Is Blue – Guy Klucevsek
- The VCR Polka – David Garland
- Polka Dots And Laser Beams – Guy De Bievre
- Diet Polka – Daniel Goode
- The Club Nada Polka -Peter Garland
- The 22nd St Accordion Band – David Mahler
- The Nova Scotia Polka – Bobby Previte
- Happy Chappie Polka – Elliott Sharp
- The Winnemucca Polka – Robin Holcomb
- (Do The) Lurk – Part 2 – Polka – Bill Ruyle
- Oa Poa Polka – Mary Ellen Childs
- Peek-A-Boo Polka – Joseph Kasinskas
- Solidarity-Polka Song – John King
- Phantom Polka – Aaron Jay Kernis
- Prairie Dogs – Carl Finch
- Guy, Won’t You Play Your Accordion? – William Obrecht
- Polking Around – William Duckworth
- The Imperial Buzzard – Tom Cora
- The Disinformation Polka – Fred Frith
- Medjunarodni Nacin Polka – Anthony Coleman
- From Here To Paternity Polka – Steve Elson
- (The) Who Stole the Polka – Peter Zummo
- Some of that “Old Time Soul” Polka – Guy Klucevsek
- Polka I – Rolf Groesbeck
- Attack Cat Polka – Lois Vierk
- Fuddle The Shux – Carl Stone
- Guy De Polka – Mary Jane Leach
- Pontius Pilate Polka – Phillip Johnston
- Wild Goose – Dick Connette
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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, tags: Andrès, CD Review, chamber music, Currier, harp, Jay Batzner, Kathryn Andrews, Kristi Shade, Lizaotte, Paterson, Taylor
music by Andrès, Paterson, Lizotte, Currier, and Taylor
American Modern Recordings
- Le Jardin des Paons – Bernard Andrès
- Scorpion Tales – Robert Paterson
- Raga – Caroline Lizotte
- Crossfade – Sebastian Currier
- Unfurl – Stephen Taylor
- Parvis – Bernard Andrès
I must confess that harp duos aren’t something I’ve thought a lot about in the past. Duo Scorpio’s first release, Scorpion Tales, has me thinking a lot more about this ensemble and this particular duo. On the whole, Duo Scorpio’s album simultaneously affirms and denies any stereotypes you might have about music for two harps. Kathryn Andrews and Kristi Shade deliver stellar performances throughout the disc regardless of how conventional or unconventional the compositions might be.
The disc is bookended by works of Bernard Andrès. Le Jardin des Paons reflects the impressionistic tendencies of the harp but also highlights many nuanced coloristic possibilities which might not be as readily explored in other ensemble writing. Parvis contains more drive and darkness, ramping up the timbral possibilities by quite a few notches. Parvis is quite an exciting barn-burner to close the disc, too. Both compositions are thickly scored at times, showcasing the duo’s ability to create huge clouds of sound across their entire range. Andrès treats the duo as if it was a quartet and that treatment pays off.
The title composition for the disc, Robert Paterson’s Scorpion Tales, is a three movement work which treats the duo more as one hyper-instrument. Gestures and textures stay unified throughout the duo, blurring the lines between Andrews and Shade and presenting singularly focused musical shapes. Similarly, Crossfade by Sebastian Currier takes a more “single instrument” approach to the harp duo by shifting ideas in and out of the ensemble gradually. Counterpoint between the two instruments is kept on the micro-level until the loudest and most active sections.
Two works on this disc use more unconventional approaches in exploring the sonic potential of this duo. Unfurl by Stephen Taylor, unwinds itself in sparkling arpeggios through Pythagorean tunings. The retuned instruments are a quite refreshing sound and add much to the harmonic resonance of the composition. Additionally, some of Taylor’s low range writing is rather impressive and enjoyable. Caroline Lizotte’s Raga is a real gem. Beginning with a haunting sound (a snare stick rubbed on the string) I am still not convinced that the piece doesn’t involve either of the performers singing. The gentle build in activity from these spacious and gorgeous tones flows naturally until Duo Scorpio hits their apex of chamber music writing outside of the Andrès pieces. With a little augmented percussion, Raga shows yet another rabbit hole for coloristic possibilities. Lizotte explores these colors incredibly well and Duo Scorpio makes it all seem completely natural and idiomatic.
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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, tags: alex mincek, andy akiho, CD Review, chamber music, daniel wohl, electronics, Jay Batzner, mariel roberts, sean friar, String quartet, Tristan Perich
Mariel Roberts, cello
- Three Shades, Foreshadows – Andy Akiho
- Teaser – Sean Friar
- Saint Arc – Daniel Wohl
- Flutter – Alex Mincek
- Formations – Tristan Perich
My favorite quote from Mariel Roberts about this disc is “I wanted to make an album that sounds like the city I live in,” and I cannot think of a better aural enticement to move to New York City right now. These five solo cello/cello and electronics pieces are bustling with compelling energy and quirky sounds that constantly draw me in closer and closer. The Rodin sculpture-inspired Three Shades, Foreshadows by Andy Akiho bubbles and roils along. The electronic component stays strongly within the realm of natural sounds and the cello has been prepared with clothespins to change the pizzicato resonance. Any and all tapping and pizz sounds are used throughout the piece and the blend between live and recorded elements is perfectly seamless. Roberts has a perfect sense of timing to accentuate the grooves and create vibrant clouds of sounds.
Teaser is a monster of a solo piece in terms of technique as most of the music is made of double-stops. Roberts maintains a very playful and effortless energy throughout which belies the composition’s difficulty. Teaser’s form is mainly of moments which build and coagulate together into jaunty grooves (Sean Friar uses the title as a reference to the “tease” in storytelling). Teaser moves into and out of interesting spaces quite effectively and, while it doesn’t go where I expect on first listen, its arrival points are always worth the trip. Similar things can be said about Daniel Wohl’s Saint Arc, which brings electronics back into the mix. The piece itself uses timbral juxtapositions to build a sense of tension and release and Wohl shapes his piece quite well in that regard. Different than the Akiho work, the electronics are certainly cello-related/based sounds but the goal is the “otherness” of the sound and putting the live performer in relief to more sustains and shimmering backgrounds.
Alex Mincek’s Flutter is, pretty much, a perfect encapsulation of the title. Flutter is exactly what this piece does. Shuffling sounds swirl in and out of (what I think is) an electronic accompaniment and Roberts’ live cello seems to invoke these murmurs at first and then scrambles in ever-increasing counterpoint against them. If those initial sounds aren’t electronic, I have no idea how it is all being done. After the piece reaches its climactic peak, Roberts exhales out all the tension which was build up. The gradual detuning of the low C string for the piece’s extended final sighs is particularly haunting.
Closing the disc is the monolithic Formations by Tristan Perich for cello and 1-bit sounds. Perich’s signature blend of punchy and energetic synth timbres plays alongside a focused and repetitive live cello. The cello doesn’t always sit in the forefront of the musical texture which, while it makes for some interesting interplay with the synth world, might be an irritant for some. If you enjoy dynamic contrast, this is not the piece for you. The upbeat, active, and driving rhythmic interplay is always engaging and hypnotic. I find the piece right on the edge of captivating and irritating, which is a fascinating place to be. I have the feeling that you will know within 10 seconds of this piece’s beginning whether or not you will want to hear the whole 20 minutes. I wanted to, and I have on several occasions.
Another mild criticism some might have of the disc would be Roberts’ tone, which is much more on the edgy side of the spectrum and not the deep, dark, bassy kind of sound one would want for Brahms sonatas. I, for one, think he tone is spot on to the music she is playing which is the sign of a skilled performer. I would love to hear Roberts play something more lyrical and emotive in the future but this disc, as a presentation of Roberts’ voice, really rocks. There is a gesamtkunst-at-werk going on here: the energetic performances, the matching of tone to the aesthetics of the compositions, the language of the music chosen, it all creates a “unified field theory” making every detail of this CD point back to Mariel Roberts as Someone to Which We Should Be Listening.
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Ursula Mamlok: Volume 3
- Five Capriccios for oboe and piano (Heinz Holliger, Anton Kernjak)
- Stray Birds for soprano, flute, and cello (Phyllis Bryn-Julson, Harvey Sollberger, Fred Sherry)
- Fantasy-Variations for solo violoncello (Jakob Spahn)
- Panta Rhei (Time in Flux) for piano trio (Susanne Zapf, Cosima Gerhardt, Heather O’Donnell)
- Five Bagatelles for clarinet, violin, and cello (Helge Harding, Kirsten Harms, Cosima Gerhardt)
- String Quartet No. 2 (Sonar String Quartet: Kirsten Harms, Susanne Zapf, Nikolaus Schlierf, Cosima Gerhardt)
- Confluences for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano (Helge Harding, Kirsten Harms, Cosima Gerhardt, Heather O’Donnell)
- Kontraste for oboe and harp (Heinz Holliger, Ursula Holliger)
This third volume of the music of Ursula Mamlok on Bridge Records is a great snapshot collection of Mamlok’s musical language captured in small chamber ensembles. The earliest pieces on the disc, Stray Birds and Five Capriccios, are fragmented atonal miniatures. Stray Birds (1963), a five movement work setting aphorisms by Rabindranath Tagore, evokes bird sounds in the voice, flute, and cello equally while giving each performer their own unique space. Given the sparse and angular nature of the melodic materials, Phyllis Bryn-Julson’s performance is absolutely stunning (as one might expect). Bryn-Julson connects even the most disjointed pitch sets into a coherent whole. Sollberger and Sherry, two names you can trust to do the same, balance Bryn-Julson perfectly, creating a chamber trio instead of an accompanied voice. Five Capriccios for oboe and piano (1968), are four charming pointillistic gems and one extended lyrical final movement. Holliger, as one has come to expect, navigates each moment with clarity and a subtly nuanced interpretation.
Mamlok’s penchant for collecting many short movements under one roof is a recurring theme of this disc. Oftentimes, as with Fantasy-Variations for solo cello, these shorter movements really catch my ear as part of a single narrative journey. One of my favorite works on the disc, Panta Rhei (Time in Flux) for piano trio, really blurs the lines between movements. The angular and pointillistic gestural trends are still present but in Panta Rhei I hear a slight softening of the pitch language. Dissonances aren’t as harsh, gestures are less frenetic, the piece seems to have a bit more breath and life to it. The trio of Zapf, Gerhardt, and O’Donnell do a wonderful job merging together in a sophistically orchestrated score. The Five Bagatelles for clarinet, violin, and cello are equally well scored and orchestrated and Harding, Harms, and Gerhardt take full advantage of the material. Again on this disc, the ensemble blends extremely well and projects a unified sonic trajectory which is easy to follow. Confluences does the same but with a bit more mystery and fullness to the ensemble sound. The Sonar Quartet’s performance of Mamlok’s String Quartet No. 2 is equal parts playful, tender, and fun. The most recent work on the disc, Kontraste for oboe and harp (2009/2010) is also the most playful (the Humoresque first movement) and spaciously lyrical (Largo e Mesto second movement).
Throughout the disc I hear a lot of similarities to the music of Alban Berg: finely crafted short movements (the oboe capriccios hit me in the same spot as Berg’s clarinet pieces), strong dramatic profiles and gestures (String Quartet No. 2 evokes Berg’s op. 3 in my ears), and atonal pitch constructions which still seem to be rooted in Romanticism somehow (pretty much everything on this disc sounds like that to me). If you, like me, wish that Berg could have composed more before his untimely death, you’ll enjoy Mamlok’s offerings.
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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, tags: CD Review, chamber music, electronics, iO quartet, Jay Batzner, Michael Chertock, Odense Symphony, orchestra, Paul Mann, String quartet, Tod Machover
music of Tod Machover
Odense Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Paul Mann
- Sparkler for orchestra and live electronics
- Interlude 1 – “After Bach”
- Three Hyper-Dim-Sums for string quartet
- Interlude 2 – “After Byrd”
- …but not simpler… for string quartet
- Jeux Deux for Hyperpiano and orchestra (Michael Chertock, Hyperpiano)
The intersection of music and technology is one that is constantly fraught with peril. The balance between these two elements is difficult and when both elements click some sublime music can be made. Tod Machover’s career has been largely built through the application of technology onto musical environments (or the application of music onto technological environments). This disc shows that sometimes the balance is just right but sometimes technology can seem superfluous or, even worse, a detriment.
Sparkler is an appealing orchestral work that riffs on Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” with Coplandish harmonies and orchestration. The live electronics are balanced well in the orchestral textures but more often than not they are overshadowed by the colorful instrumentation Machover uses on his various gestures. I don’t find that the usage of live electronics really enhances the piece to a point that they are wholly necessary.
The string quartet portion of the disc is very well handled. Two interludes, one based on Bach and the other on Byrd, are fixed media pieces meant to sound like an augmented string quartet. The textures to both of these pieces is interesting and each interlude matches up well with the following acoustic piece. The timbre of the instruments does have an edge to it that denies a purely acoustic origin. Instead of the thickening texture emerging as a surprise, an unexpected moment of “I thought I was listening to just four people,” that virtual instrument sound serves as an aural obligation for the work to build into something that the performers alone could not create.
When Machover is entirely acoustic, the pieces work quite well. The 3 Hyper-Dim-Sums are charming miniatures for string quartet, played with vigor and nuance by the iO Quartet. …but not simpler… transitions beautifully from the Byrd interlude and continues to be colorful and engaging. Machover certainly knows color and he uses all means of string sounds in this floating 14 minute movement.
Jeux Deux, a three movement concerto for Hyperpiano and orchestra, has wit and energy about it but again the technology is more often a sore thumb than an ally. It could be that piano virtuosity has reached a state where I simply can’t tell when the piano is using technology to supplement the performer but the times when the technology is ouvert, it is painfully so. Mechanical trills, devoid of humanity, are just irritating. The concept behind the piece, one that uses a computer to augment and enhance the piano’s material in real time, is an intriguing one, but to my ears this is a case of the technological idea winning over the musical implementation.
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Music of Vladimir Martynov
- The Beatitudes
- Schubert-Quintet (Unfinished) (with Joan Jeanrenaud, cello)
- Der Abschied
David Harrington and John Sherba, violin; Hank Dutt, viola, Jeffrey Ziegler, cello
Vladimir Martynov’s flavor of minimalism (if you will allow me to call it that) is incredibly sneaky and pleasurable. When I received this disc in a simple, nondescript cardboard sleeve, I was unfamiliar with Martynov’s music but I was certainly looking forward to anything Kronos was going to play. At first, I was surprised by the complete conservatism of the first track The Beatitudes. A simple melody is repeated incessantly for five and a half minutes with an unsurprising and standard tonal harmonic progression. The thing is, it works. The tune is gorgeous in its sparseness and further listenings revealed subtle harmonic changes. It makes me think of one of the most important composition lesson’s I learned from the music of Schubert: you can’t go wrong with pretty. This piece is an arrangement of a choral work and while usually instrumental transcriptions of vocal pieces fall flat on me the variety used in scoring this music for four performers keeps the music fresh in the absence of text.
Speaking of Schubert, the Schubert-Quintet (Unfinished) was maddening at first listening. Schubertian harmonies and gestures abound but anything remotely melodic is surprisingly absent. It truly sounds like Martynov found a fragment of another Schubert quintet, one in which Schubert would later add a melody, and presents it whole for the listener to experience. The repetition of dramatic motions makes the work seem stuck at times but that only leads to more pleasurable breakthroughs as the piece evolves.
The epic Der Abschied does to Mahler what Martynov previously did to Schubert. A small moments and hints of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde are stretched out and composed through for 40 minutes. If you like Mahler but wanted it to have more breath and stillness, then this work is for you. What is even better is that you don’t need to have any connection to the Mahler prior to hearing this work. It is, in some ways, the antithesis of The Beatitudes which opened the disc. Der Abschied is a constantly shifting unresolved mist that keeps its hooks in you through tensions which are never satisfactorily released (sounds like Mahler, doesn’t it?) and holds you, breathless, until the music just floats away. I swear I could still hear the final string harmonics and cadences for the next half hour after the piece ended. It never lets go.
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Bang on a Can All-Stars
Big Beautiful Dark and Scary
Ashley Bathgate, cello; Robert Black, bass; Vicky Chow, piano; David Cossin, drums and percussion; Mark Stewart, guitar; Evan Ziporyn, clarinets, saxophones, gongs
- Big Beautiful Dark and Scary, Julia Wolfe
- sunray, David Lang
- For Madeline, Michael Gordon
- Music from Shadowbang, Evan Ziporyn
- Instructional Video, Matt Damon, Breakfast at J&M, David Longstreth
- Study 2a, 3a, 3c, 11, Conlon Nancarrow (arr. Ziporyn)
- Life, Marijke van Warmerdam (video) Louis Andreissen (music)
- Ridgeway, Kate Moore
- Closing (live), Philip Glass (iTunes exclusive track)
Bang on a Can certainly knows how to celebrate turning 25. This two-disc release of new recordings features the mainstay composers of BOAC and stellar performances all around. Big Beautiful Dark and Scary also showcases shrewd marketing and promotion. Not only was the recording made available as a free download before the physical CD release, the CDs come with Marijke van Warmerdam’s video component to Life. But, to complete the experience, you’ll also hop over to the iTunes store and pick up the live recording of Closing, an iTunes exclusive track. Yes, I’ve done all these things and I am pretty satisfied with the results.
Disc one contains music by the BOAC Quadrivium: Wolfe, Lang, Gordon, and Ziporyn and each work is an exceptional model of their musical personalities. Julia Wolfe’s title track Big Beautiful Dark and Scary is one continuous and compelling swell that lives up to every adjective in the title. Wolfe’s music is constantly pushing forward through waves of tension and tremolo until it finally releases a scant 10 seconds before the end of the piece. When I think of the music of Julia Wolfe, I think of intensely focused compositions that make even the most basic of materials into a mesmerizing kaleidoscope and this work is a perfect example of her technique, craft, and emotional shaping. Sunray’s vibrant rhythmic texture, lighter instrumentation, and somewhat emotionally detached affect make David Lang’s piece a great contrast to Wolfe’s previous composition. The music hovers around a bright textural groove with occasional heavier monophonic ensemble sections.
Michael Gordon’s For Madeline is more obsessive in its treatment of materials than the Lang. For Madeline floats around a nattering piano/vibraphone chatter while the others smear around in uncoordinated lines. After 5 minutes of almost undetectable raising tensions, the sliding lines take over as the prominent textural material. Eventually the chattering elements are wiped out, leading the rest of the ensemble into a sparse and vacant ending. Evan Ziporyn’s three movements from Shadowbang are equal parts fun and funky (Angkat), timeless and still (Ocean), and hypnotic (Meditasi, Head).
Disc two opens with pure awesomeness. Instructional Video by David Longstreth is a delightfully charming piece of postminimalism/totalism. The guitar strums instantly establish a wonky rhythmic environment and gradually other instruments join in and interlock with each other in mind-bending ways. The piece simmers as such for a short time and cadences with unison rhythms. At under 2 minutes, this track functions as the “elevator pitch” for what makes the album Big Beautiful Dark and Scary worth hearing. Longstreth’s other two compositions, Matt Damon and Breakfast at J&M are equally attractive for opposite reasons. Matt Damon is slow, lyrical, and just pretty. Breakfast at J&M has the same quirky spark as Instructional Video but focuses more on ensemble textures than cumulative processes.
The arrangements of four of Nancarrow’s player piano studies are right in the wheelhouse of the BOAC All-Stars. Ziporyn’s arrangements are sensitive and fresh sounding and the ensemble performs them with a joyful comfort and playful laziness that makes the music sound anything but mechanical.
The mood-painting in Louis Andriessen’s Life are thoroughly engaging as they are but when paired with the spartan video work of Marijke van Warmerdam the work is complete. Both the video and the music revolve around similar themes (movements are Wind, Couple, In the distance, and Light). Andriessen’s music is not a soundtrack to the video nor is Warmerdam’s video a reaction to the music. Both elements hang in similar spaces that reinforce each other while not interfering with each other. The video (exclusive to the CD release) captures environments over actions and I was especially impressed with the simplicity of Couple. An older couple is sitting on a bench while the camera gently sweeps up and over and around them. It sounds simple, yes, but it is incredibly entrancing nonetheless. The four video elements function as a cycle, too, with that couple appearing again in the final section. My biggest complaint is that the m4v file that is included on the second disc is not very high quality. At full screen resolution on my computer there was a high level of pixelation that really destroyed the elegance of van Warmerdam’s work. I would have happily paid for an HD file of this video.
Kate Moore’s Ridgeway is a panoply of polyrhythmic textures that serves as a strong finish for this 2-disc set. These textures are woven together with a direct narrative trajectory that keeps me engaged throughout its duration. The extra bonus track available via iTunes, a live rendition of Closing from Glassworks is a delightfully understated palette-cleanser. The obligatory minor-third oscillations are present, as are long melodic lines and all the harmonic progressions you have come to know and love. Unfortunately the piano’s entrance sounds overly compressed and unnatural and doesn’t mix well with the rest of the ensemble. Ignoring that detail, Closing is sonic comfort food. But in my opinion, you’d just be better off spending your $0.99 on the Expanded Edition Glassworks track.
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Ironworks Percussion Duo
Dave Gerhart and Axel Clarke, percussion
- Uncompression – Ming-ching Chiu
- Volume – Missy Mazzoli
- Tribute – Dave Gerhart
- Arc & Current – Roger Przytulski
- A Cosby Sweater – Axel Clarke
This intriguing disc of works for percussion duo covers a wide gamut of color and style. Two pieces, Uncompression and Volume were award winners in Ironworks’ first percussion duo composition contest held in 2009 and it is easy to see why both pieces were given honors (Uncompression won 1st prize, Volume took 3rd). Uncompression is a simultaneously focused yet sprawling work for unpitched percussion. Gestures and textures shift from driving drums to ambient cymbals and tinkles. Rhythmic ideas keep the composition coherent without using an obviously underlying motive or germ. Things fit together in this duo because everything feels right. In contrast, Mazzoli’s Volume uses steel pans, wine bottles, vibraphone, and kick drum to create a tightly woven cloud of harmony over a twitchy and energetic rhythmic language.
Two pieces are also composed by the duo. Dave Gerhart’s Tribute is a three movement piece based on African drumming. The first movement is bound with a hypnotic groove of drums and stick clicks, the second movement is wonderfully sparse with whispers of shakers, lightly brushed drums, and other softer sounds. The final movement is a barn burner of driving drums. A Cosby Sweater by Axel Clarke begins with bold and dramatic metrical gestures and unfolds in what sounds like a rather strict metrical environment (as opposed to the metrical freedom found in Tribute). Tempo becomes the most motivating factor in the various sections of A Cosby Sweater. Having these various groove zones stitched together is somewhat reminiscent of the title’s source…
Arc & Current is the most pitch-based work and uses only steel drums as its instrumentation. Irregular rhythms and punchy homophonic accents motivate the Arc movement while a more tender and slower (although not THAT slow) melodic line winds through Current. Under these irregular melodic phrases come moments of pop-inspired cadential harmony which work very nicely. This final movement reminded me of harmonic and structural moments in the Levitan Marimba Quartet. Arc & Current contrasts with the rest of the works on this disc but, come to think of it, so does every other piece on this disc… At any rate, Ironworks makes all of these musical styles sound natural to them and manages to relate the sound world of each piece to the others. Each composition sounds different yet the entire album sounds coherent. Both Dave Gerhart and Axel Clarke should be commended on their performances, recording, and programming of this disc. I can’t wait to hear 2.
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