Posts Tagged “chamber music”

Ironworks Percussion Duo CD cover

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 QuartetArc & 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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A Different World CD cover art

string chamber music of James MacMillan 

Gregory Harrington, violin 

Estile Records 

  • Kiss on Wood
  • After the Tryst
  • A Different World
  • Fourteen Little Pictures
  • Walfrid, on his Arrival at the Gates of Paradise
  • 25th May, 1967
  • In Angustiis…I
  • In Angustiis…II (for violin solo)

James MacMillan’s lyrical instrumental writing often takes a back seat to his choral work and the compositions and performances on this CD make an excellent case against seeing MacMillan as someone restricted to the vocal idiom. Violinist Gregory Harrington is the central figure in these compositions and particularly shines on the opening three pieces for violin and piano. The wistful and lonesome melodic lyricism is expressive and emotionally compelling while still sounding very much of contemporary times. Pianist Simon Mulligan makes an excellent collaborator in these three works and is given a bit more to chew upon when cellist Caroline Stinson joins in for the Fourteen Little Pictures for piano trio. These miniatures are strung together in a seemingly stream-of-consciousness form that I find difficult to parse into separate components. On the one hand, the trio blends together extremely well for a singular chamber sound. On the other, the fourteen smaller works, almost entirely attacca, makes grasping the through line a bit of a challenge, at least to my ears. Programming this piece in the middle of the album makes a lot of formal sense. The shorter pieces do well to frame this 20 minute monolith.

The somber and haunting-yet-real musical material of the violin and piano works returns in Walfrid, on his Arrival at the Gates of Paradise for solo piano. Abruptly, the scene changes from the contemplative into a delightful dance tune towards the end. I find this move particularly enjoyable since it plays on the idea of being sad that someone is entering paradise. I can’t hear the dance tune strike up without smiling and, at the same time, being a little sad. Simon Mulligan has a generally light and breezy touch on the keys which keeps even the heaviest of chords from sounding too downtrodden. Similar treatment holds true for the piano works 25th May, 1967 and In Angustiis…I. The final track brings attention to the crystalline sounds of Gregory Harrington, who here brings an almost folk-ish quality to the solo violin version of In Angustiis…II. There is a permeating sadness to the piece but the affect is one of solitary contemplation instead of heart wrenching sobs. MacMillan’s music is evocative and expressive, even when he isn’t setting text which expresses those emotions. The performers and performances on this disc seize every opportunity for expression on this recording and make a very compelling disc.

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cd cover


PRISM Quartet


innova records

Timothy McAllister, soprano saxophone; Zachary Shemon, alto saxophone; Matthew Levy, tenor saxophone; Taimur Sullivan, baritone saxophone


  • Roshanne Etezady: Inkling
  • Zack Browning: Howler Back
  • Tim Ries: Lu
  • Gregory Wanamaker: speed metal organum blues
  • Renee Favand-See: isolation
  • Libby Larsen: Wait a Minute
  • Nick Didkovsky: Talea, Stink Up! (PolyPrism 1 and 2)
  • Greg Osby: Prism #1
  • Donnacha Dennehy: Mild, Medium-Lasting, Artificial Happiness
  • Ken Ueno: July 23
  • Adam B. Silverman: Just a Minute, Chopin
  • William Bolcom: Scherzino
  • Matthew Levy: Three Miniatures
  • Jennifer Higdon: Bop
  • Dennis DeSantis: Hive Mind
  • Robert Capanna: Moment of Refraction
  • Keith Moore: OneTwenty
  • Jason Eckhardt: A Fractured Silence
  • Frank J. Oteri: Fair and Balanced?
  • Perry Goldstein: Out of Bounds
  • Tim Berne: Brokelyn
  • Chen Yi: Happy Birthday to PRISM
  • James Primosch: Straight Up

I don’t think there are enough words to describe the technical precision, the unity of sonic intent, the musicality, and the timbral facility present in the Prism Quartet’s playing. Fortunately for me, I don’t really need the words; I have this disc instead. These 23 compositions, all short and wonderfully focused, paint a wonderful aural picture of this amazing sax quartet. The slithering of Roshanne Etezady’s Inkling showcases the extreme fluidity of their sound and as soon as it is over – BAM – we are hit with the spiky and strident Howler Black by Zack Browning. Adam B. Silverman’s Just a Minute, Chopin is as tender and expressive as Gregory Wanamaker’s speed metal organum blues is not, yet Prism sounds like they were born to play both. Compositions using lots of extended techniques like Ken Ueno’s July 23… (the full title takes longer to read than it takes to listen to the piece) and Jason Eckardt’s A Fractured Silence are gorgeous and rich sounding. The composers’ voices are strong and resonant and Prism plays these works as if no effort was involved (the effort for these pieces is considerable). Frank Oteri’s Fair and Balanced? exploits Prism’s pitch and tuning control with his four microtonal movements. By the time the disc is over, you’ll think there is nothing the Prism Quartet can’t do. And you’d be right.

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CD cover artTarget

music of Keeril Makan

performed by Either/Or, Alex Waterman, Laurie Rubin and the California E.A.R. Unit, and David Shively


Keeril Makan’s music grabs hold of you right away with musical language that is simultaneously straightforward yet highly nuanced. The quartet of pieces on Target serve as excellent examples of what makes Makan’s compositions approachable and mesmerizing. 2 for violin and percussion, performed by members of Either/Or (Jennifer Choi, violin and David Shively, percussion) bursts out with simple regular repeated notes played with ferocity and urgency. The blend of low violin and chimes in these opening seconds is compelling and draws me in as a listener. Percussion writing can get out of hand with performers using almost every possible instrument under the sun. Throughout 2 Makan shows tremendous restraint by leaving the percussion on metallophones and using the two players as one hybrid synthetic instrument. Timbral choices are carefully managed to keep the duo sounding as one driving hyperinstrument, whether the music is bombastic or restrained. The closing scratch tones and super-ball driven tam tam textures are creepy and luscious. Makan makes the sound organic and necessary where other composers would sprinkle them in a piece for sheer effect. Either/Or’s timbral virtuosity is particularly stunning and they bring a perfect melding of energies to this exciting performance.

The very next track on the disc, Zones d’accord for solo cello and recorded by Alex Waterman, showcases Makan’s ability to do a lot with a little. Long single tones are given amazing life by carefully controlled bow placement making the cello sound like a variety of bowed percussion instruments, a trautonium, a balloon being rubbed, and any other sounds you could think of on the “brittle glass to rich full cello tone” spectrum. The virtuosity of Waterman’s right hand is truly stunning. While few of the sounds found in these nine minutes seem traditionally associated with the cello, Waterman (who is also a member of Either/Or) really connects with and draws out Makan’s ecstatic emotional arc throughout the performance.

Target, the title track of the disc, is song cycle performed here by Laurie Rubin (mezzo-soprano) and the California E.A.R. Unit. The text for the set is pieced together from Jena Osman’s poetry as well as propaganda leaflets which were dropped over Afghanistan after 9/11. Makan’s deft hand with timbre and breeding hyperinstruments from seeming simple combinations is once again all over the piece. Far more than accompanied voice, Rubin is simultaneously featured yet absorbed into a singular musical fabric. The images are disturbing and harrowing and the music dives straight towards a strong emotional connection with the listener.

Last and certainly not least (especially since it is the longest work on the CD) is the solo percussion piece Resonance Alloy performed by David Shively. The music again uses only metal percussion sounds and the motivation of the narrative is more through abstract timbral changes than motivic or melodic material. All of the spectralmorphological moves done in the earlier pieces are concentrated and inflated over the course of 30 minutes. Makan seems to channel Alvin Lucier and Eliane Radigue with his slow unfolding of waves of sound within a wholly obsessive framework. Resonance Alley is very much like hearing a single cymbal roll in excruciatingly slow aural motion. Yet again, Makan makes what should be simple and mundane captivating and engrossing.


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VictoireCD cover

Cathedral City

music of Missy Mazzoli

New Amsterdam Records


Victoire is Missy Mazzoli: compositions, keyboards, piano, melodica, toys; Olivia De Prato: violin; Lorna Krier: keyboards; Eileen Mack: clarinet; Eleonore Oppenheim: double bass, electric bass

  1. A Door into the Dark
  2. i am coming for my things
  3. Cathedral City
  4. Like a Miracle
  5. The Diver
  6. A Song for Mick Kelly
  7. A Song for Arthur Russell
  8. India Whiskey

Victoire is an ensemble that is hard to categorize. On the one hand, this is an instrumental chamber group that (on this album) is championing the music of one of its members. Mazzoli’s compositional voice is clear and focused, she definitely has something to say. The textures of the music, the timbres in the ensemble, the use of synthesizers and electronics, though, make Victoire appear less like a conventional chamber ensemble and more like a “band.” Unlike Build, a similar genre-bending group on the same label, Victoire’s connection to either the “chamber music” or “popular music” worlds is much more fluid. You can love or hate this group based on whichever camp you find yourself.

But enough about what Victoire is not. Mazzoli’s compositions are smooth and flowing with a aura of emotional detachment. Harmonies are comforting, long lyrical lines are abundant, and Mazzoli finds exciting ways to provide rhythmic propulsion without a dedicated percussionist. The music simmers. Distorted guitar in A Song for Mick Kelly could have plunged that track into some real spleen-venting thrash but Mazzoli shows excellent restraint and control. This isn’t minimalism, this isn’t pop, this is simply Mazzoli. Her compositional voice is distinct and highly listenable. Events unfold slowly, unhurried, but never lagging or taking too long.

Each player in Victoire blends extremely well with the various synth and electronic sounds that form the sound world of each track. I am especially drawn to the juxtaposition of bubbling synths and the lyrical line of the double bass in Like a Miracle. The various breathy and hollow synth sounds are well chosen for their blend.

Many vocal elements permeate the compositions but again, there is a distancing of those emotionally charged elements from the listener. i am coming for my things replicates an answering machine message rich with emotional potential. India Whiskey uses the same technique of distancing a vocal element by manipulating a “number station” recording of a male voice counting over radio static. This static becomes the rhythmic motivator of the track as well as a timbral touchstone for the synths and instruments. I fear that a lot of the discussion about Victoire is going to revolve around the “what are they/what aren’t they.” I would much rather put that conversation aside and focus on their product: Intriguing music of our time, expertly crafted, performed, and produced.

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Robert PatersonCD cover art

Star Crossing

American Modern Ensemble

American Modern Recordings

  • Sextet
  • The Thin Ice of Your Fragile Mind
  • Star Crossing
  • Embracing the Wind
  • Elegy
  • Skylights
  • Quintus

The American Modern Ensemble gives splendid and vibrant recordings of these seven works by composer Robert Paterson. Paterson’s music is bright and shiny with a lot of timbral spectacle. Gestures are sparkling and bright and the AME balances the spiky rhythms and quick bursts of energy with fluidity. The pitch world is very much in line with the shiny timbres of the pieces; chords are based on extending tertian harmonies and traditional functions.

Most of the pieces are scored for the stereotypical grouping of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion (or a subset of that instrumentation). Paterson’s approach to pitch, rhythm, and timbre stays constant across pieces which, on a casual listening, can make it difficult to tell when one piece stops and another piece starts. The exceptions are Embracing the Wind which thins the ensemble to flute/alto flute, viola, and harp. This composition stands out with a thinner amount of activity but also the husky viola tone and the harp stepping in to the piano’s shoes. The following Elegy for two bassoons and piano refreshed my sonic palette, too. Nevertheless, the AME provides strong performances of Paterson’s signature sounds.

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AmericansCD cover art

music of Scott Johnson

various performers


  • Americans
  • The Illusion of Guidance
  • Bowery Haunt
  • Anthem Hunt

performed by: Kermit Driscoll, electric bass; Scott Johnson, electric guitar; Michael Lowenstern, clarinets; Mary Rowell, viola; Greg Chudzik, bass; David Cossin, marimba, percussion; Mark Dancigers, electric guitar; John Ferrari, drums; Stephen Gosling, piano; Derek Johnson, electric guitar; Liviu Onchoi, sampled voice; Taimur Sullivan, saxophones; Ken Thomson, clarinet; Shekaiba Wakili, sampled voice; Alex Waterman, cello; Janet Xiong, sampled voice

Scott Johnson’s Americans is a large pseudo-rock ensemble work punctuated by the sampled voices of various American immigrants. The rhythmic cells found in the voices are woven into the ensemble for an effect that is best described as “Zappaesque.” The compositional techniques are similar to Johnson’s “How It Happens” featuring the sampled voice of I. F. Stone but ramped up with more aggressive and driving features. The ensemble playing is tight and at first listening I thought the composition was for fixed media a la Noah Creshevsky. I am much more impressed knowing that the ensemble is live and that only the voices are sampled. I found my own listening to gravitate towards the voices, which I think is natural, so I found some difficulty with the through-line of the second movement (the narrator of which speaks Romanian). The final movement, featuring the voice of an Afghan-American talking about her internal schism about going to war in Afghanistan, makes for a poignant and subdued ending.

The last three compositions are all pure instrumental chamber works featuring electric guitar is some way, shape, or form. The Illusion of Guidance keeps a tight reign on its motivic materials. The clarinet often comes across as the primary melodic voice but Johnson uses the blend between the electric guitar and the high clarinet register to keep the timbres alive and kicking. Rhythms are spiky, driving, but never devolve into a frivolous groove. Bowery Haunt and Anthem Hunt are two excellent examples for what composers can and should be doing with their rock heritage. Each piece uses steady rhythms, electric guitar timbres, and power chords but neither piece does anything trite or cliched with these elements. If I were to describe these as a sommelier, I’d say something like “Delightfully post-minimalist/totalist, still lyrical, with notes of King Crimson.” These works, and the disc as a whole, are prime examples of well-crafted music that speaks to the moment. Scott Johnson isn’t creating pieces that use contemporary flavors simply on the surface. There is compositional craft knitting each piece together and some fantastic performances to boot.

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CD coverThe Calls of Gravity

music of David Laganella

The Prism Quartet, Marilyn Nonken, Ensemble CMN

New Focus Recordings

  • Leafless Trees – The Prism Quartet
  • The Hidden River – Marilyn Nonken
  • Unattainable Spaces – Ensemble CMN
  • The Persistence of Light – Marilyn Nonken
  • Sundarananda – Ensemble CMN

These recent works by composer David Laganella feature a constant nattering of activity full of motion and gestures and with very little stability or repose. Leafless Trees is an energetic and coloristic set of miniature toccatas for saxophone quartet. The Prism Quartet are clearly at home here as they make the acrobatics and difficult timbral shifts sound fluid and organic. The quartet is a showy virtuosic piece and I found that I wanted to listen to the individual sound worlds of each movement for a greater amount of time that Laganella had composed.

Marilyn Nonken’s two performances (The Hidden River and The Persistence of Light) features almost constant activity and flow as is fitting to the compositions’ inspirations. Both pieces function with their own internal logic through a linear form that eschews repetition for constant development. These pieces are based on textures instead of gestures with broad dramatic shapes to guide the listener. Harmonies are dense clusters which occasionally relax into softer sounds. As a whole, Laganella uses the piano as a single voice with very little use of large-scale polyphony. The smaller gestures that make up the whole composition are again appropriate given his inspirations of water and light.

Unattainable Spaces stays true to the sound world that Laganella has presented thus far. Tight dissonances are the glue that bind this ensemble (string trio, clarinet, and percussion) into a single unified instrument. The language is equally sinewy and slippery as it progresses from one moment to the next. In a refreshing change of pace, the final composition played by Ensemble CMN has smooth edges and a more tender touch. Sundarananda for flute, cello, and guitar, is a compellingly understated piece built of slower moving lyrical lines sometimes punctuated by more hectic activity. The trio waxes and wanes and is full of breath. Short spiky gestures that become the mainstay of Laganella’s later compositions (this work is the earliest on the disc – 2004) are given resonant space. A tight control over the dramatic arch is still maintained. I’m not sure what has happened in the past 7 years to move Laganella’s music into a more hectic and manic direction but I hope he will still draw upon the serene contemplations he had when composing Sundarananda.

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Trio Fibonacci

5 x 3


  • Ana Sokolovic – Portrait parle
  • Paul Frehner – Quarks Tropes
  • Jean Lesage – Le projet Mozart, où l’auteur s’interroge sur la complexité du style et le métissage des genres
  • Analia Llugdar – Tricycle
  • Chris Paul Harman – Piano Trio

Julie-Anne Derome, violin; Gabriel Prynn, violoncello; Anna D’Errico, piano

Trio Fibonacci is quite a group.  I first heard them on their recording of Jonathan Harvey works a few years back and I am astounded at their ability to program and perform Old Warhorses alongside cutting-edge contemporary music.  This recent release, 5 x 3, plays to the trio’s strengths in technique and interpretation providing an end result of excellent music making.  All of the composers represented have some connection to the Montreal new music scene but beyond that, the five compositions provide unique experiences.  Ana Sokolovic’s Portrait parle, inspired by 19th century French phrenology practices, is reminiscent of the sparkling colors and shifting hazes found in Jonathan Harvey.  The trio is made of many small vignettes which are woven together in a compelling and kaleidoscopic narrative.  Paul Frehner’s Quarks Tropes is about as different as it could be: long, stoic melodic lines and dark harmonic tones in the first movement and aggressive energies in the second.  The more conservative harmonic language is still fresh and inviting as both movements traverse satisfying emotional arcs.

Le projet Mozart, où l’auteur s’interroge sur la complexité du style et le métissage des genres (The Mozart Project, where the author questions himself on the complexity of styles and mixing of genres), other than winning long title competitions, shines a wondrous magnifying lens on the music of Mozart and watches it melt and subsequently catch fire.  Jean Lesage treats the Mozart as an elusive figure, slipping in and out of recognizability with remarkable skill.  The music could, and does, go anywhere at any time.  Analia Llugdar’s Tricycle brings back the coloristic sound world of the Sokolovic trio but with an emphasis on pointalistic moments and slowly developing shapes.  Energies ebb and flow throughout the piece but the overall vibe projected is one of almost serene detachment.

The final composition on this disc is Chris Paul Harman’s Piano Trio, set in six brief movements.  This composition gives Trio Fibonacci yet another chance to shine since it contains some of the most intricate and quickly orchestrated material on the entire disc.  Trio Fibonacci is adept at sounding as a singular unit as well as three separate virtuosi but this Piano Trio gives Trio Fibonacci the presence of 9 people.  The overall rough and rugged language (pitch and rhythm) is a great contrast to the delicate works which proceeded it and its closing position on the disc is a good choice.  The silky smooth and poignant ending in movements 5 and 6 (attaca) is a surprise (which I’ve ruined for you now but it is still worth hearing).

In general, there is hardly anything left that you should want from this disc.  The excellent music, fabulous performances, and great programming have kept this disc in my regular rotation for quite some time.

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Giancinto Scelsi  CD Cover art

Tre Canti Popolari

Due Componimenti Impetuosi

Sub Rosa record

  • Tre Canti Popolari: Marianne Pousseur – soprano, Lucy Grauman – alto, Vincent Bouchot – baritone, Paul Gérimon – bass
  • Duo:  Georg-Alexander Van Dam – violin, Jean-Paul Dessy – cello
  • Wo Ma: Paul Gérimon – bass
  • Sauh:  Marianne Pousseur – soprano, Lucy Grauman – alto
  • Aitsi:   Jean-Luc Fafchamps – piano
  • Sonate #4:  Johan Bossers – piano
  • Suite #11:  Johan Bossers – piano

Vocal chamber music and solo piano works form the bulk of this two disc assortment of Scelsi’s music on Sub Rosa.  Being mostly familiar with Scelsi’s instrumental chamber music, I was anxious to hear how he wrote for unaccompanied voices.  Tre Canti Popolari does not disappoint at all.  All of the focus and dramatic tension from Scelsi’s string quartets is transfered beautifully into the vocal medium.  The four performers sound tremendously good.  The blend is sublime but there is never a sense of monochromaticism.  The vocalists’ sensitivity and balance between independence and ensemble elevate this already stunning composition.  I am also a big fan of the male voice selections, specifically the choice of baritone and bass instead of tenor/bass or tenor/baritone.  Sclesi’s natural darkness gets accentuated by the darker vocal colors.  As enamored as I am with the quartet’s performance, I am equally enamored with Paul Gérimon’s interpretation of Wo Ma and Marianne Pousseur’s and Lucy Grauman’s performance of Sauh. These soulful performances wring every note for its full amount of nuance and emotion.  The only thing better would be hearing it live.

The Duo for violin and cello is a bit of an outlier on this disc being the only work that involves strings.  The piece is well executed and serves as a great sonic break for the vocal pieces.  The composition is lithe and intense, disquieting and expressive.  The first disc closes with the solo piano work Aitsi and Scelsi’s piano music, once again, has the ability to captivate with extremely little surface activity.  The opening punctuations of Aitsi are sudden and harsh, at first obscuring the delicious amplified distortion.  After several thwacks, though, the vibrant electronic sounds nourish the chords into longer and richer lifespans.

Disc two of this set is comprised of solo piano works composed about a decade before anything on the first CD (with the exception of the short 2 years between Suite #11 and Tre Canti Popolari).  In Piano Sonata #4, from 1942, I can hear the aural conflict between the musical language of the time and the language Scelsi would later develop.  The first movement is thorny and jagged but the low register melody meanders in an unusually drunken-yet-focused way.  Movement two, with its open harmonies and tenderly dark melody, hints at the expressive power of his later compositions while the final movement is spastic and rough with a singular trajectory.

Suite #11 is a real trip.  To my ears, I hear Scelsi experimenting with alternate ways of organizing and expressing his musical nature.  Each of the nine movements contains a stream-of-consciousness feel that keeps the piece, however loosely, from breaking apart into musical atoms.  The energies present in the piece reminds me of the rugged atonal expressionist American composers from the early 20th century such as Ruggles and Ornstein – the time when free atonality was brash and expansive instead of smug and superior (but maybe I’m romanticizing that a bit).  Suite #11 is wild, unhinged, and Johan Bossers plays it with the right amount of control and furor.

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