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Franck Vigroux & Ars Nova Instrumental
Broken Circles Live
D’Autre Cordes CD
French composer and electronic musician Franck Vigroux has done a number of projects that straddle the boundaries between avant-pop and experimental concert music. His latest recording, Broken Circles Live enlists the help of the chamber ensemble Ars Nova Instrumental. It also features vocalist Geraldine Keller, keyboardist Matthew Bourne, and electric guitarist Marc Ducret. Vigroux contributes live electronics.
Broken Circles is a five-movement suite of pieces that feature moments of free improvisation and electronics interwoven into a composed score. Keller, in particular, is a standout. Her part is written like Pierrot Lunaire plus Circles on a psychedelic, steroid-tinged cocktail. Filled with swoops, shrieks, and sprechstimme, it is a daunting part for any soprano to assay. Keller makes a formidable and committed interpreter. Ars Nova and the instrumental guests weave a supportive accompaniment, creating a sound world that dips into both second modernist constructions and free-wheeling avant jazz excursions. Often, they match Keller’s intensity: one is particularly drawn to the dissonant crunches and soaring interplay of the suite’s final movement.
Thus, Broken Circles serves as an excellent starter kit for Vigroux’s music, as well as a bracing excursion into post-millennial polystylism.
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Henri Dutilleux: D’ombre et de silence
Robert Levin, piano
Ya-Fei Chuang, piano
ECM New Series CD 2105
Born in 1916, Henri Dutilleux remains one of France’s most important living composers. In the first recording to feature his work on the ECM imprint, pianists Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang tackle his piano music for both one and two pianos. The works collected here are an eloquent overview of Dutilleux’s gradual refinement of his musical language.
His early Sonate (1946-8) is perhaps best described as post-Impressionist, inhabiting the lush yet fluid world of Ravel and Debussy with several knowing glances at the rhythmic vitality of Francis Poulenc. Already by 1950, Dutilleux is exploring birdsong in a sympathetic manner to Oliver Messiaen in the brief but charming “Blackbird.” Conversely 1976′s Figures de résonances demonstrates an awareness for innovations by the Postwar avant-garde. This work, which features both pianists, is a stirring essay in sostenuto verticals, with dramatic outbursts followed by an intricate unfolding of reverberating overtones. A collection of preludes from the 1970s and 80s, as well as 1981′s Petit air à dormir debout distill this intricate vocabulary into limpid miniatures. The preludes combine moments of exquisitely shaded delicacy with ferocious outbursts.
With ardent performances and captivating sound throughout, D’ombre et de silence serves as an excellent introduction to this talented elder statesman’s music.
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Sechs Motetten nach Worten von Franz Kafka; Choral Works
RIAS Kammerchor; Hans-Christopher Rademann
Harmonia Mundi CD 902049
Ernst Krenek’s Lamentations of Jeremiah is a work that I admire a great deal. A pivotal 12-tone composition, it proved greatly influential to a number of American composers and, reputedly, Igor Stravinsky. Indeed, Krenek is one of the first to discuss the use of a rotation as a serial permutation; a technique that would prove valuable to Stravinsky during his own late spate of 12-tone works.
The recording of Krenek’s Lamentations by RIAS Kammerchor (also on HM) was widely acclaimed as a near-flawless rendition of this famously challenging, dissonantly thorny a cappella work. Sechs Motetten is a worthy follow-up to the previous disc. It includes a wide range of Krenek’s shorter choral pieces, ranging in date of composition from 1923 to 1959. There is a disjunct, angular quality to the Kafka settings that seems to resonate well with the author’s legendarily terse and often tart prose. The RIAS singers perform with superlative control; one is particularly taken with the nuanced renderings of detailed dynamic shifts and articulations. Both sopranos and tenors negotiate an often high-lying tessitura with nary a flinch.
The CD also includes an arrangement of Baroque composer Claudio Monteverdi’s Lamento della Ninfa; it isn’t realized with a particularly informed sense of period practice, but retains Monteverdi’s nimble rhythms and canny word inflections. Also winning is the Op. 132 Kantate von der Vergänglichkeit des Irdischen. It pits twelve-tone writing against free harmonic progressions, both post-tonal and pantonal, as well as effects: frequent glissandi and passages of sprechstimme. Caroline Stein performs the virtuosic soprano solo with dazzling runs and warm tone; pianist Philip Mayers is equally impressive in his own limpid filigrees. Five Prayers (Op. 97) demonstrates Krenek’s talent for finely knit contrapuntal writing. A bit less forbidding in harmonic language, the Prayers demonstrate a sumptuousness that is almost startling when heard in such close proximity to the Kafka Motetten. Thus, the disc provides an overall impression of the composer as he should rightly be remembered: as an adroit creator in a wide range of compositional styles.
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Baroque Tardif: Soli
Cantaloupe Music EP
A couple of weeks ago, we highlighted Florent Ghys’ multimedia capabilities on the homepage. But the first of a projected three EPs for Cantaloupe, Baroque Tardif: Soli, is an altogether more inward and intimate venture. It involves French composer/bassist Ghys in a project for a virtual ensemble: built out of recorded overdubs of himself performing. While the resulting music is designed for the medium of recording – it would have to be refashioned for an actual ensemble to be replicated live – one never gets the sense of sterility that often inhabits such multi-tracked endeavors.
Instead, Ghys uses his experience collaborating with the Bang on a Can All Stars during their summer workshops in 2006 as a jumping off point for some Downtown music-making, Bordeaux style. On “Soli,” Ghys focuses on basses in an organic, acoustic fashion. But “Simplement” brings a multi-instrument approach that includes vocals as well, with much of the melodic material snazzy in its syncopation and doubled in octaves.
“Coma Carus” takes on a more blurry, ambient cast with washes of dreamily treated sonics juxtaposed against backgrounded bass ostinati. Chorused vocals take center stage on “Clignotants,” creating a fetching interwoven pattern of repetitions then taken up by instruments. The EP closes in a more lyrical vein with “Béchamel,” a gentle and lyrical piece consisting of supple arco lines in counterpoint over a slow-moving pizzicato walking bass.
So much variety and material in five short pieces. One is eager to hear the rest of this EP series.
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Bird Show Band
Amish Records AMI 041
Composer and electronic musician Ben Vida has recorded solo as Bird Show on three previous releases for Kranky. This time out, he’s made Bird Show a band project. Although he’s based in Brooklyn, Vida travelled to Chicago to record, enlisting the aid of post-rock cohorts: Tortoise’s percussionists Dan Bitney and Josh Herndon, keyboardist Jim Baker, and bassist Josh Abrams.
MP3: Quintet Four
Both Baker and Vida employ vintage synthesizers – an ARP 2600 and a Moog Voyager – as the lead instruments on the records. The complex of sound created by the synths encompasses a collage of avant-noise and bleep. Solo sections, such as Vida’sturn at the end of ‘side one,’ are skronk prog feasts, reminiscent of 70s watersheds such as Sun Ra or, more conventionally, Tony Banks’ work on The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and some of the odder moments on Rick Wakeman’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth.
The rhythm section, on the hand, crafts a background that hews closely to avant-jazz. As usual, Bitney and Herndon are a owerful pair, crafting interlocking grooves that are one part African-influenced polyrhythms and another On the Corner Era swinging fusion. Abrams, who has considerable experience in noise and field recording projects, is the glue that holds these two seemingly at odds sound environments together. He provides enough rhythmic urgency and indeed swing in his walking lines to coalesce with the Tortoise drummers, all the while keeping the melodic palette of his soloing and the harmonic inflections of his accompaniments outside enough to shadow the otherworldly timbres of the synthesists. This is particularly apparent on “Quintet Two,” a rousing improv that imagines an electrified free jazz/post rock/sci-fusion hybrid that’s truly progressive without ever seeming bloated as a result.
Tautly compelling and sonically adventurous, Vida’s found a winning lineup in the Bird Show Band. Rumour has it he’s currently at work on an opera. Dare we hope this quintet is in the ‘orchestra’ pit?
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By the Throat
Bedroom Collective (Digital)
Formerly from Melbourne, Australia, composer Ben Frost now makes his home in Reykjavik, Iceland. Just shy of thirty, Frost has already had a wide ranging career. He’s played in Glenn Branca-inspired guitar ensembles, collaborated with the likes of Nico Muhly and Jeremy Gara (of Arcade Fire), and remixed Bjōrk.
His latest recording, By the Throat, combines confrontational avant sonics with the patient sculpting of more ambient artists. Frost enlists a number of artists in the cause: Gara, Muhly, Icelandic string quartet Amiina, and Swedish metal band Crowpath all make appearances on recording. As one can imagine, the surface changes widely, sometimes violently. Hushed, breathy vocals are juxtaposed with screams. Animal sounds – lions’ roars and the multifaceted language of killer whales – are pitted against electronic percussion and synthesizer-laden ostinati. Supple strings give way to sepulchral bass sonorities – worthy to test many a subwoofer. The resultant music is fractured, disquieting, and often quite powerful.
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Winged Contraption; Piano Concerto; Persistent Memory
Marilyn Nonken, piano; Boston Modern Orchestra Project; Gil Rose, conductor
Composer David Rakowski’s jocularity is well known. His many piano etudes (88 at last count) feature a number of sly allusions to other styles and works, as well as more overt zaniness; one even requires the performer to play pitches with their nose! His previous concerti have featured various subterfuges in which the soloist is upstaged by the orchestra. And, famously, goofiness abounds on his website. But alongside Rakowski’s penchant for light-hearted expression are consummate craftsmanship and music of considerable poignancy. BMOP’s recording features three ensemble works that highlight both Rakowski’s eloquence as an orchestrator and his ability to evoke a wide spectrum of emotions in music.
Persistent Memory was written while the composer was a fellow at the American Academy in Rome: a period in which the composer experienced adversity and loss on several fronts. Cast in two-movements, it features an elegy suffused with considerable melancholy and long arching melodies reminiscent, without overt homage, of the Copland “Americana school.” This is juxtaposed with rejoinders: tart brass punctuations and, in the second movement, a defiant scherzo – featuring tour de force writing for the winds – and a series of variations that refract the elegy’s material through a multi-colored prism.
The CD’s title work was composed as a sixtieth birthday tribute to Martin Boykan. The pre-compositional conceit for the piece is that it is exactly sixty pages long – again a glimmer of Rakowskian witticism. But composer imparts considerable gravitas here as well. The texture features angst-laden horn-writing and Bergian dissonant string verticals that belie any notions of Winged Contraption as an occasional bouquet. Amid these serious signatures lie percussive adornments and a propulsive clock: an ostinato that manifests variously as repeated note figures (a frequent Rakowski device) and burbling arpeggiations.
Marilyn Nonken has been one of several tireless champions of Rakowski’s solo piano works. It seems particularly fitting that he has fashioned a concerto for Nonken that references several of the etudes composer for her – resulting in a work of ambitious scope and a near-frenetic events structure. Easily one of Rakowski’s finest pieces to date, it features a host of playing techniques – thereby allowing Nonken to exercise both her conventional chops and explore some avant paths along the way.
The first movement’s opening is a master class in the “one-note” introduction. A-natural is treated to dampening, plucking inside the piano, various chordal harmonizations, and gradual haloing by the instruments of the orchestra until it is revealed in relentless repetition as an ostinato – a self-contained first theme group! Repeated single pitches once again provide a motoric canvas upon which a host of coloristic devices and harmonic divergences are imposed. The plucked A-natural returns at the beginning of each movement of the concerto as a centering and invocational device.
While the piano writing is tailor-made to Nonken’s abundant capabilities, she’s also given a chance to exercise a bit of whimsy in several asides for toy piano. The concerto also features a few other unconventional touches, such as the inclusion of a novelty percussion item called chatter-stones. And although one is glad for Rakowski’s occasional digressions into humor and his imaginative textural additions to the proceedings, the most striking moments in the concerto feature elegant writing for the conventional instruments in the band. Wind solos and keening string sostenuto passages accompany piquant, colorful verticals in the piano – and that irrepressible plucked A! – in a gorgeous slow movement.
The scherzo, on the other hand, focuses on short rhythmic cells and terse orchestral interjections. It also revels in adroitly jazzy piano-writing. The orchestra answers these swinging signatures with sassy horn blats and suavely articulate strings: hallmarks of a bygone era of cinematic music warmly recreated here.
The repeated note device reappears in the last movement, leading to a quote from Rakowski’s first piano etude, “E-Machines.” The quote references still another quote (a quote within quote!) of Beethoven’s Für Elise. Nonken records Rakowski’s cadenza for the CD, but it’s worth mentioning that the composer let her create her own for the premiere – such is the trust and close working relationship of creator and interpreter here.
The other interpreters on the scene, Gil Rose and the BMOP, are sterling in their preparation and superlatively musical. The disc is one of the orchestra’s best thus far, and the weightiest and most satisfying in Rakowski’s discography to date. Serious fun indeed!
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MVP LSD: The Graphic Scores of Lowell Skinner Davidson
Riti CD 10
Joe Morris, guitar
John Voigt, bass
Tom Plsek, trombone
In the 1960s, Lowell Skinner Davidson (1941-1990) was active in two very different milieus: studying biochemistry at Harvard and playing with Ornette Coleman in the New York free jazz scene. Davidson made only one LP, Lowell Davidson Trio (ESP, 1965), but left behind a great deal of unrecorded material. Much of this was notated as graphic scores on 3×5 index cards. These serve as the jumping off point for a full length recording by Joe Morris, John Voigt, and Tom Plsek.
All three worked with Davidson, making this a recording that is closer to authoritative than many potential interpretations of his diminutive, but densely packed, scores. The music is imparted both the rhythmic fluidity of swing, but the trio also acknowledges the influence of the avant-garde New York School (John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, and Christian Wolff), and their penchant for graphic score realizations. Thus, Voigt alternates swinging walking bass-lines with angular melodies, multiphonics, and harmonics. Plsek undertakes free jazz solos, but also explores the noise spectrum of blats and wails. Morris’ post-tonal comping style fits right in here, supplying a bridge between jazz and concert music genres. He also frequently adopts a vigorous, snapping attack, adding percussive affects to the proceedings.
While it is unfortunate that Lowell Skinner Davidson didn’t have the opportunity to more prolifically record, all three of this CD’s performers are dedicated custodians of his musical legacy. Based on the evidence here, one hopes his scores will become more widely available for study and performance.
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Centrediscs CMCCD 14109
On Pond Life, Canadian pianist Christina Petrowska Quilico presents a double disc dose of solo music by fellow Toronto resident, composer Ann Southam. Southam takes the image of a pond scene, with its Impressionist associations, to heart. Thus, the music emphasizes delicate shadings of harmony and soft dynamics in a group of placid, slowly evolving pieces.
The harmonic language of these pieces gravitates toward pandiatonicism. But Southam’s brand of harmony eschews a thoroughly straightforward trajectory. Often, she uses artfully placed “wrong notes” to dispel familiarity, sending a well-trod progression into unfamiliar territory. Indeed, the occasional judiciously-introduced dissonance acts like a raindrop disturbing the surface of a pond, creating a restructuring ripple effect.
Occasional moments of greater rhythmic activity, such as the considerably charming pair of “Fidget Creek” pieces, are welcome respites from the prevailing stillness. Petrowska Quilico is sensitive to the delicate balance of Southam’s compositional ecosystem, playing with assured pacing and nuanced phrasing.
Pond Life is a recording that, while primarily gentle on the surface, is consistently attention-grabbing.
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