Posts Tagged “electronics”
Composers Concordance Records
- Two Etched Marks (Katherine Crawford, David Morneau)
- Behind Corneal Gates (Mary Hubbell, David Morneau)
- My Husband (Eleanor Dubinsky, David Morneau)
- Cupid’s Song (Lana Is, Baraka Noel, and David Morneau)
- Music in Me (Melanie Mitrano, Rebecca Ashe, and Edward Morneau)
- Summer (Shabana Tajwar, Vladimir Katz, and David Morneau)
- Crumpled Sonnets (Katherine Crawford, David Morneau)
- My Song (Mary Hubbell and Vladimir Katz)
- Love’s Slave (Lana Is and David Morneau)
- Now I Love You Best (Melanie Mitrano, Edward Morneau, and David Morneau)
When a composer writes “songs” these days, what does that mean? Pop songs? Art song? Lieder? Songs are essentially everywhere due to the prevalence of vocal music in popular culture with instrumental works only existing in classical realms. If you’ve ever taught music appreciation and bristled at someone talking about a Beethoven piano sonata as a “song” then you know what I mean. If we can make a distinction, popular songs seem to be attached to the performer and not the composer. It might be a gross overstatement to say that when you talk about or focus on the composer of a song rather the artist who sings it you’ve entered the realm of “classical music” but that is the assumption I’m working from. Another way of stating this could be: is Morneau a composer or a songwriter? Some of you might enjoy drawing lines in the sand and parsing the deeper meanings inherent in the implied opposition of those terms.
Personally, I don’t enjoy such debates and definitions but this disc brings some of these questions to the surface. On one hand, this collection of songs is very much about Morneau’s composed musical intentions. Each song pairs a Shakespeare sonnet with a complimentary modern poem in a single unbroken musical fabric. Would anyone other than a Serious Composer try to set a Shakespeare sonnet? Several of these songs are sung by voices which would be at home singing Schubert, Schumann, and Wolf but the most haunting performances retain a more commonly heard pop/jazz technique. Electronics abound on the disc but usually in the form of keyboards, virtual instruments, and poppy sequenced rhythms. It seams like every time you think you know what world this disc is in, it changes just enough to make you question your assumptions.
More songs tend to fall more in the “composer camp” than “songwriter camp” if such lines must be drawn. “My Husband,” co-written with Eleanor Dubinsky, switches the music into full “songwriter” mode. Dubinsky’s dark and relaxed tone makes this torch song seem like it belongs on a different album altogether. “My Husband” is also the most hooky and ear-worm worthy song on the disc and I hope for more Morneau/Dubinsky collaborations in the future. Personally, I think the songs that are from the “songwriter” side are stronger than the “composer” works. “My Husband,” “Love’s Slave,” “Crumpled Sonnets,” and “Now I Love You Best” bring out the best of Morneau’s melodic writing and rhythmic drive and these specific performances hit the musical nail right on the head.
While the songs do feature a mercuriality in Morneau’s compositional abilities, the disc provides a chance for the singers to show depths as well. Katherine Crawford favors art-song technique in “Two Etched Marks” but strips away these classical touches on “Crumpled Sonnets.” I heard “Crumpled Sonnets” in an earlier version which included samples of ripping paper and I much prefer this disc’s version with just voice and synth. Mary Hubbell reverses the transformation that Crawford undergoes; Hubbell’s first song “Behind the Corneal Gates” is sung more lightly than her dramatic return in “My Song” and while a lot of that can be attributed to Morneau’s response to very different poetry it is always welcome to hear performer exhibit a range of characterizations.
The transitional moments between Shakespeare and each song’s paired poem are well handled and at times hard to hear. Often the singers shift their declamation just a touch to make a shift in the mood but sometimes it happens without my knowledge. My favorite of these moments has to be “Music in Me” sung by Melanie Mitrano with Rebecca Ashe, flute and Edward Morneau, guitar. Musically, the texture and harmony stay very Shakespearean and folksy. By the time you’ve tuned out a little you hear Mitrano sing “my vagina so engorged that I can feel it when I walk” (from the poem “Music” by Susan Maurer) and realize that you probably should have been paying attention to how you got here in the first place.
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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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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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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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Posted by Judah Adashi in CD Review, tags: cornelius dufallo, electronics, Huang Ruo, Innova Recordings, Joan Jeanreneaud, John King, john luther adams, Judah Adashi, Kenji Bunch, Vijay Iyer, violin
Innova Recordings 831
Cornelius Dufallo, violin and electronics
Cornelius Dufallo seems to be everywhere of late, making great music wherever he goes. At one time best known for his work as a violinist with the adventurous string quartet ETHEL, Dufallo has now turned his full attention to a wide-ranging career as a composer and soloist. Having established a recital series, Journaling, devoted to collaborations with fellow composers, Dufallo’s new release of the same name documents those partnerships alongside his own music.
Dufallo’s two pieces on Journaling are driven by loops. Violin Loop I serves as a propulsive opener, and Violin Loop V as a meditative interlude. These works are inextricably tied to the composer’s explorations of his instrument as a performer: Dufallo’s gliding lyricism, pure tone, and sensitive use of varied techniques and technologies articulate a sound world all his own.
The album includes uniformly strong contributions from a broad range of composers: John King’s restless Prima Volta; Joan Jeanreneaud’s mesmerizing Empty Infinity; pianist-composer Vijay Iyer’s contrapuntally rich Playlist One (Resonance), which culminates in a melody of understated beauty; Huang Ruo’s soulful, sinuous Four Fragments; and Kenji Bunch’s wistful Until Next Time.
The centerpiece of the disc is John Luther Adams’s Three High Places, written in memory of the composer’s longtime friend Gordon Wright. For those who know Adams’s music primarily from his larger-scale soundscapes, this eloquent study in open strings and natural harmonics will sound at once familiar and revelatory.
Both as a composer and as a performer, Dufallo has a gift for personal, direct communication. Journaling affirms that he has found kindred spirits along his musical journey, and affords a rewarding glimpse into the private world that they are creating.
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music for violin and electronics
- cosmic clouds
- waiting for you
- suite for electric violin
Cornelius Dufallo’s Dream Streets is a sublime collection of music for violin and electronics. Expertly crafted, beautifully played, and something that I’m honestly ashamed that it has been out since 2009 and I’m only now getting acquainted with it. The first seven tracks form a seamless cycling journey through a variety of moods and textures with very deftly deployed electronics. Most of the electronic touches fall in the categories of reverb and looping as well as some ambient soundscape accompaniments. Dufallo is no stranger to genre-crossing string+electronics settings and every moment on this disc is perfectly placed. I never felt like “oh, here is the section where he builds up a lot of loops” even though there are clearly sections where he does just that. Those moments contain a momentum that many other loopers lack and, in “Waiting for You,” Dufallo hits us with an enchantingly simple and catchy tune. A wise man once said “Reverb is like garlic; too much is just enough” and it is clear that Dufallo feels the same way. And still, reverb is an active tool. Dufallo uses it when it is most effective and builds up a three-dimensionality to his soundworld by drying out the solo lines for contrast.
Dufallo’s Suite for Eleectric Violin is edgier and more overtly abstract and artificial. Still, he chisels out distinct sound worlds that draw you into ornate and vibrant environments. Each of the six movements is a world in and of itself and the Suite still comes across as a single organic whole. Onefivesix is a brief and haunting gem weighing in at only 1:49. On the one hand it is so perfect as it is, on the other I wish the music would go on. It does lead well into the final track, Transcendence which shimmers and ripples with Paganini-style arpeggios. The harmonic language, while firmly tonally rooted, throws some most welcome curveballs and the manic bow work sounds free and easy as it smears into broad colors.
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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, tags: CD Review, chamber music, Clarinet, electronics, Jay Batzner, Missy Mazzoli, New Amsterdam, Piano, postminimalism, strings, violin, women composers
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
- A Door into the Dark
- i am coming for my things
- Cathedral City
- Like a Miracle
- The Diver
- A Song for Mick Kelly
- A Song for Arthur Russell
- 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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music of Scott Johnson
- 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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a retrospective (1977 – 2009)
New World Records
It may be unfair to say that the genre of electronic music is one that ignores its history. Of course that isn’t entirely true, there is always attention paid to the past, rarely does that attention manifest itself in the presentation of music more than ten years old. Concerts that feature or include electronic music typically showcase the “newest in new” as if anything prior to 2004 is the sonic equivalent of day-old donuts, anything from the 1990s is “quaint” and literature found before 1980 is approached the way a music appreciation class approaches Machaut.
I know this is a brash generalization and a stunning example of hyperbole, but it is rare that the pioneers of electronic music are given much air time in concert halls when compared to acoustic composers who also paved the way for future generations. And since fixed media pieces lack the element of performer interpretation, there seems to be no need to release a composition more than once. That the work is available at all seems to be enough.
New World Records does a great service here by releasing a collection of works by the venerable master Charles Dodge. Dodge, a paragon of the early American pioneers, is someone who made exquisite compositions from the digital equivalent of banging two rocks together. Most of those early compositions, released on vinyl, haven’t found the larger distribution in part because earlier electronic compositions are not as valued as more contemporary pieces. Sites like Ubuweb and the now defunct Avantgardeproject.org offer access to earlier experimental electronic recordings. New World’s commitment to preserving, promoting, and distributing cornerstones of the genre is worthy of praise.
What about the music? The bulk of the disc is occupied by Dodge’s seminal Cascando, based on the radio play by Samuel Beckett. Cascando dates from 1977 and makes heavy use of the vocal synth/sampling techniques found in Dodge’s earlier Speech Songs. Cascando is to Speech Songs, though as Reich’s Drumming is to Clapping Music. Cascando’s texture is sparse and draws the bulk of its sound world from the speech synthesis engine. My reaction to the work is similar to my reactions to much of Beckett; I don’t feel a strong narrative arc but I find the events compelling in and of themselves.
New World includes two other more recent compositions alongside the 30 minute Cascando. Fades, Dissolves, Fizzles for fixed media, from way back in 1995, connects well to the older work and demonstrates a through line in Dodge’s compositional voice. Fades, Dissolves, Fizzles is built from fairly plain and simple synthetic bell-like timbres. The event language is similar to Cascando in that there is rarely a counterpoint of ideas. Dodge favors single events and a slow unfolding of activity. Fades, Dissolves, Fizzles has quite a bit more pep, though, as the active pseudo-gamelan textures that arise help motivate the narrative and provide formal continuity. Fades, Dissolves, Fizzles is also strongly concerned with just intonation. The pure timbre of the synth helps the tuning relationships shine through.
The final composition is the 2009 work Violin Variations for violin and computer, played here by Baird Dodge. Again, just intonation and the slow unfolding of simple textures are the motivating factors in the construction. The synth sound is subtly refined from Fades, Dissolves, Fizzles with more overtones and richer sonic fabrics behind each pitch. The four movements rarely move past a contemplative affect, a faster tempo and pizzicato third movement help break monotony. Like the other pieces on the disc, I don’t feel a sense of a traditional dramatic narrative but find the work sonically compelling.
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This release combines three recent program pieces by Clark University’s Matthew Malsky, performed by the Boston-based string quartet QX.
Lacan (2007) “for string quartet with electronic sounds” is Malsky’s take on a medium reified by Steve Reich’s Different Trains (1988). Like Reich’s composition, Malsky’s incorporates recorded speech and is built around a historical-political program. Unlike Reich’s, though, Malsky’s is free-wheeling and whimsical (with a touch of cynicism)–successfully evoking, in his own words, “the sound of vivid dreams, inspired by a mix of half-heard news reports and other thoughts bouncing around my unconscious.” The QX Quartet keeps up admirably with a rhythmically challenging score, injecting humor into each glissando, tremolo and pizzicato.
Although the string writing is characteristically rhetorical–sometimes in a four-way conversation or debate and at other times in homophonic declamation–it rarely bears a readily apparent relation to the spoken words of the electronic track. The electronics feature snippets of political figures “posturing” (Malsky’s word) on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, interspersed with recordings from that same day in the composer’s own life. (At one point, we hear the composer talking with his children about dandelions, broccoli, and brussel spouts.) In contrast to Different Trains, whose rhythm and tonal shape is informed at every turn by spoken words, the quartet in Lacan seems to comment on or around the public and private speech without reacting to it directly. In some places, the electronics seem merely incidental to the strings. A tighter relationship between the two would have been more aesthetically satisfying, but perhaps less dream-like.
The one-movement work is an arc divided into seven sections, framed by a question and answer posed to and given by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. But don’t listen too carefully for discrete parts. The piece carries its dream conceit through to the end, playing on liminal states of wakefulness and the blending of disparate speech-influenced dreams. Twice, the strings break into an unexpected tango before morphing back into the more abstract forms that characterize the piece.
The highlight of the disc is Malsky’s Berlin, Symphony of a Great City (2009), his anachronistic accompaniment to a 1920’s silent film of the same title. You can watch it with music here, but the Malsky’s score stands alone well thanks to its quasi-minimalist construction. Several micro-motifs interact in a charming whole: Rippling water at the beginning of the film inspires a two-note oscillation; an arpeggiated triad traces the grandeur of its buildings; a driving mollosic meter (strong-strong-strong) suggesting the city’s mechanization–its locomotives and factories–but shifts into antibacchic meter (strong-strong-weak) to depict the heartbeat of Berlin’s citizens. QX renders with feeling and precision the human and mechanical elements that make this piece a success.
The disc ends with Valley of Dying Stars (2003), which Malsky describes as a “literal but wordless setting of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men.'” To this listener, the music gets too caught up in its program to succeed musically. It lacks the somewhat more self-evident structure of Lacan and the transparency of Berlin. The piece nevertheless keeps one’s attention all the way to its anticlimactic “whimper” of an ending, thanks to rich phrasing and rhetorical pathos inspired by the poem and convincingly conveyed by QX.
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