Posts Tagged “instrumental”

Build  CD Cover


Music by Matt McBane

New Amsterdam Records

  • Behavior Patterns
  • Dissolve
  • Ride
  • Swelter
  • Cleave
  • Anchor
  • Maintain

Build is Andrea Lee, cello; Ben Campbell, bass; Matt McBane, violin/composer; Michael Cassedy, piano; Adam D. Gold, drums/percussion.

Build’s second album is far from sophomoric.  I had the pleasure of reviewing their first album and I find this second release to keep all the best aspects of Matt McBane’s compositional voice and add more sophisticated instrumental textures and more compelling dramatic shapes. The strings have a more distributed use of pizzicato and bowed playing, tracks feature more subsets of the ensemble, the percussion is invigorated with a restrained use of the drum set and a broader sound palette of percussion instruments, and in general McBane employs more variety in the orchestrational vocabulary.  While each track stands squarely on its own, there are plenty of distinct dramatic chunks that cross over individual track boundaries. The ensemble plays with a tight sound, everyone in sync with the needs of the music before them.

Behavior Patterns establishes a fairly static yet compelling harmonic world.  Build does us the favor of NOT resolving these harmonies and just lets us chill in them for a while.  Dissolve then dissipates the tension left over from Behavior Patterns. In some ways, I hear a fond connection to side-scrolling video game music in the driving sections of Dissolve (I could totally play Ninja Gaiden to this) and a wonderful sense of release as Dissolve splashes down and does what the title suggested it was going to do.  Ride is a mellow flowing melodic interlude before the meatier Swelter set gets going.

The three Swelter tracks work as a single dramatic arc (fast, slow, fast) and Swelter 3 has been made available for free download. Swelter 1‘s frenetic and irregular groove is infinitely listenable, especially as the texture thins and the soaring cello melody rises over the top of said groove. Swelter 2 turns to lighter and thinner textures and Swelter 3 turns the grooves back on.  These three tracks emulate one of the points of growth in this disc; all three are scored for cello, piano, and drums.  Within that subset of Build, Matt McBane finds additional textural life and a true chamber music sense of discourse.  You don’t realize that the ensemble is pared down at all.

I hear a similar multi-track arc in the end of the album.  Cleave is, to be blunt, f*$&ing incredible.  The simplest materials (piano ostinato, tight and irregular glissandi in the strings, militaristic drums) grow and build and expand inexorably to Cleave’s high point.  The music is haunting, sorrowful, mesmerizing, and hits me in an intensely personal space.  When it starts, I can do nothing but listen. Following Cleave, Anchor is the most abstract and disjointed work.  The replacement of vibraphone for drum set and the fragmented ensemble (often in disjointed pairs and trios) keep the track lively but without a massively driving force. Fragments of distorted cello bubble under the surface, glassy and timeless intervals hang in the air, the bass gets expressive bowed lines, hocketing abounds in the middle; the whole piece seems to be the ensemble asking the “what haven’t we done on this album yet” question and creating elegant answers.  To end the disc, Maintain is Build at its most straight forward.  Resonant open intervals pulse forever forward, pushing the album towards a very satisfying harmonic and gestural goal.  The directness of the line may come across to some as slightly corny in a quasi-film score sort of way but I thoroughly enjoy the plain and direct motion.  After the ride we’ve had since Cleave I find the stable and hypnotic push towards the end the perfect closer.

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CD cover art Beta Collide

Psst … Psst!


Molly Barth, flutes; Brian McWhorter, trumpet/flugelhorn; David Riley, piano/celesta; Phillip Patti, percussion.

  • Mysteries of the Macabre – Györgu Ligeti (arr. Beta Collide)
  • Mollitude – Frederic Rzewski
  • Trio – Valentin Silvestrov
  • Memories of an Echo – Robert Kyr
  • Nanosonata No. 7 + Mollitude – Frederic Rzewski
  • Waterline – Stephen Vitiello
  • Kryl – Robert Erickson
  • Nanosonata No. 7 – Frederic Rzewski
  • Yellow – Stephen Vitiello
  • Nude – Radiohead (Beta Collide Remix)

Psst…psst! is an amazing collection of music and performance by the quartet Beta Collide.  Each performance is virtuosic yet effortlessly musical.  Each piece chosen for the disc suits the instrumentation well and the variety of works performed highlights the performers’ own mercuriality.  Their arrangement of Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre is wonderfully energetic and manic.  I honestly prefer their take on it over the original.

Beta Collide presents a “Rzewski Sandwich” in the solo flute work Mollitude, Nanosonata No. 7 for piano, and combining both pieces in the aptly named Nanosonta No. 7 + Mollitude.  The Silvestrov Trio for flute, trumpet, and percussion is delivered in a sparkling fashion.  Haunting pieces like Waterline and Yellow flow with the same effortless sound as the more flashy and chaotic works.  I am especially enamored with Memories of an Echo by Robert Kyr as an achingly beautiful duet for flute and trumpet.

Closing off the disc is a remix of Radiohead’s Nude. Their spin on this track is, in many ways, the antithesis of their arrangement which began the CD.  Their brief meditation is governed more by a contemplative mood than raw energy.

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Charlemagne Palestine   

Strumming Music

(piano, harpsichord, and string ensemble versions)

Sub Rosa

Upon first cracking open this 3-CD collection of Strumming by Charlemagne Palestine, I saw the brief newspaper article by John Rockwell who tells the tale of a Palestine performance cut short because the composer was playing a Steinway and not a Bösendorfer (“cut short” is relative since the piece lasted 2.5 hours instead of 4).  The article presents the situation as an acute case of “diva-itis” but when I heard the original version of Strumming (even listed as “for Bösendorfer piano”) and heard the massive clouds of overtones and sympathetic vibrations, I could see why Palestine would not be pleased with a Steinway instrument.  So much of the piano version of Strumming doesn’t happen at the keyboard but in the air around it.  The incessant keyboard hammerings melts into waves of sound much like dots in a Seurat painting.  Around the 17 minute mark of this 52 minute performance from 1974 my brain couldn’t hear the keyboard anymore – just the spectra of the harmonies pushing against each other.  The cresting wave around 30 minutes is an absolutely transcendent ride as is the surrender to the “power chords” 7 minutes later.  I trust Charlemagne Palestine to deliver what he wants me to hear and this recording is one you can trust.  As much as I would love to hear a more recent, higher-resolution, and longer version of the work, I think it is hard to call this performance anything other than definitive.  It makes the 12 minute version of Strumming on the Godbear album feel like a 5 Second Film.

In addition to Palestine performing on Bösendorfer, the Sub Rosa collection has two other versions: one for harpsichord performed by Betsy Freeman in 1977 and one for a string ensemble organized at the SF Conservatory by John Adams in that same year.  The harpsichord version weighs in at 35 minutes and is probably the closest to providing an actual “strum” aesthetic although without the pronounced melting of sustained sonic spectra.  Freeman’s technique and treatment of the material is compelling and well paced.  Some folks might approach a harpsichord version of Strumming with extreme distaste but there is no reason to avoid this wonderful performance.

I found the string ensemble version (about 25 minutes long) to be surprisingly sustained whereas the keyboards furiously chug away.  There is nary a tremolo to be heard nor any other picturesque technical tricks that one would expect from string ensemble writing.  The harmonic journey is laid bare and exposed in a frail and naked manner.  It is this string version that I really hope gets taken up and revisited in a longer and higher quality recording (at least one without coughing).  As a minor quibble, I’m not sure why this is sold as a 3 disc set since the harpsichord and string versions could comfortably fit on a single disc.  True, there are few of us who will spin all versions back-to-back-to-back, but I always bristle when I have a disc with so much dead space by a composer known for extended compositions.

While these recordings are supposedly of the same piece of music, each of these versions contains a different element of “truth” to them.  Each stands squarely on its own as a performance of a hypnotic and unique compositional voice instead of sounding as mere arrangements of the original piano version.  These three recordings are interconnected the same way that good film/book pairings (2001, Blade Runner) contain the core of the work while still showcasing different distinct artistic visions.

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Ballad Nocturne  

Music of Ann Millikan

Bulgarian National Radio Symphony Orchestra

Grigor Palikarov, conductor

Innova Records

  • Ballad Nocturne (with Emanuele Arciuli, piano)
  • Trilhas de Sombra
  • Landing Inside the Inside of an Animal

Ann Millikan’s music is a wonderfully eclectic mix of several contemporary compositional styles and yet Millikan retains an individual and consistent voice throughout each work on this Innova CD.  Ballad Nocturne, (2009) for piano and chamber orchestra, puts jazz harmonies and figurations through a Druckman-esque prism.  Neither straight-ahead jazz nor purely-abstract instrumental music, this piece encapsulates Millikan’s musical personality: that of a synthesizer.  Disperate elements flow together and mix in seamless compositions.  Around the 8 minute mark of Ballad Nocturne, time simply stops as high strings and a repeated high piano figure float over a slightly-disturbed walking piano bass.  The piece switches gears from pseudo-lounge to Morton Feldman without dislocating the listener’s eardrum.  Instead of ending the piece at this moment, which I fully expected, a more traditional jazz ballade lugubriously emerges and clarifies everything we’ve heard previously with the subdued juxtaposition of earlier elements.

Perhaps jazz transformations aren’t your thing.  No worries there, because the orchestral triptych Trilhas de Sombra, (2009) a programatic work based upon a story written by Millikan’s niece, feeds any needs you have for good ol’ American atonal expressionism.  Except, of course, when Millikan doesn’t need such language to express the ideas in the story.  Gestures and textures tend to abound instead of melodies but the music is still a cohesive unit that moves in a single, unified direction.  The melodies that emerge are long and fluid and showcased with solid and direct orchestrations.  Millikan doesn’t get caught in the trap of being overly clever and instead crafts a wonderfully picturesque and programatic work and like many great programatic orchestral showcases, Trilhas de Sombra doesn’t come across as a movie soundtrack without the visuals.  Unabashedly contemporary in sound, this is an approachable and enjoyable work that does not condescend to the listener.

Millikan has been flexing her synthesis muscles in the previous two works and the final composition, as one would expect, merges elements from the previous two (even though it is the earliest piece on the disc – 2008).  Landing Inside the Inside of an Animal is just as trippy and fun as the title might suggest.  I don’t know how to land “inside the inside” of something, nor do I wholly understand how the spacey, abstract, atonal music of the first half relates to the Afro-Cuban inspired dance rhythms that drive the second half.  I also don’t know how this all ties into the “story of initiation” mentioned in the program notes.  You know what?  I don’t care that I don’t know how this works.  It works. Being a fan of WTF moments in compositions, Landing Inside the Inside of an Animal hits me right where I live.  This piece is a journey but, unlike Trilhas de Sombra, there didn’t seem to be a predetermined path to follow.  It is as if Millikan just struck out to go somewhere and ended up in the most wonderful and fantastic places.

I do have one problem with this disc.  While the Bulgarian National Radio Symphony Orchestra sounds great on each piece, it really irks me that such purely American music written in the last 2 years had to be outsourced for the recording.  I should think that American orchestras would be falling all over themselves to perform and record Millikan’s output.

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Kyle Gann  

The Planets

performed by Relâche

Meyer Media

Book 1: Sun, Moon, Venus, Mars

Book 2: Jupiter, Mercury, Saturn

Book 3: Uranus, Neptune, Pluto

Members of Relâche: Michele Kelly, flute; Lloyd Shorter, oboe; Bob Butryn, saxophone;  Chuck Holdeman, bassoon; John Dulik, synthesizer; Chris Hanning, percussion; Ruth Frazier, viola (on Neptune, Sun, Mars, and Jupiter); Sarah Sutton, viola; Douglas Mapp, bass.

For too long it has seemed like the most comfortable portions of the cosmos were musically owned by a dead British composer.  Holst had essentially staked his claim on the biggest chunks of well-known real estate outside of the Earth and put up a sort of musical “Do Not Enter” sign.  We composers could write about the Earth or Pluto, the “dwarf planets” that may come and go, or any other cosmic entity (manmade or otherwise), but Holst took the celebrities of our galactic neighborhood and hung them on display like so many apples on the Tree of Knowledge.  From 1994-2008, Kyle Gann refused to be daunted by this musical monopoly and created his own suite of suites inspired mainly by the more recent evolutions in cosmology/astrology.

Relâche proves to be the perfect vehicle for Gann’s music and this collection of works showcases their extreme virtuosity in the realms of rhythm and blend.  Relâche’s rather quirky instrumentation provides a constantly shifting sense of color and, like an instrumental Pierrot Lunaire, each movement maintains its own timbral character within the context of a unified whole.  At first I was skeptical of the synthesizer but in the hands of John Dulik the synth always blends with the woodwind-dominated group and never sounds cheesy or anything less than ethereal.  Gann, of course, knows what he is doing and The Planets comes across with light and careful touch.  Every movement, no matter how driving and rigorous, maintains a fundamental buoyancy.

While some of these works were available as singles from Gann’s website, this disc is the first aggregation of all ten movements collected into three “books.”  Each book could be performed autonomously and, to my ears at least, each individual movement works on its own as well.  Gann’s attention to internal driving structures never trumps his generally accessible and listenable sonic palette.  This music is intensely difficult to perform but Gann and Relâche never make it difficult to hear.  The surface is attractive and approachable and repeated listenings reveal a web of clockwork structures that madly spin forth in a way that would make Bach jealous.  I never feel as if I am receiving some grand and verbose lecture on How to Write Post-Minimal Music, even though this disc is a treasure trove of relationships and techniques.  Kyle Gann is, in this respect, the Neil Degrasse Tyson of contemporary music.  Gann has all the smarts and his passion towards the subject is augmented by sharp and highly refined communication skills.  I’m sure Gann would kill on The Daily Show, too.

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thelema trioThelema Trio

Ward De Vleeschhower, piano; Peter Verdonck, saxophones, and Marco Antonio Mazzini, clarinets

Music by Junchaya, Lee, Carpenter, Honor, Mazzini, Walczyk, and Benadon

innova records

  • Rafael Leonardo Junchaya – Tres Danzas Episkénicas
  • HyeKyung Lee – Shadowing
  • Keith Carpenter – The Devil His Due
  • Eric Honour – neither from nor towards
  • Marco Antonio Mazzini – Imprevisto
  • Kevin Walczyk – Refractions
  • Fernando Benadon – Five Miniatures

The Thelema Trio’s modular nature, even within the context of being a trio, is one of its primary strengths and they  strut their stylistic, coloristic, versatile stuff with this collection of pieces.  No two works share the same instrumentation nor do any of the compositions share the same sound world.  The only performer not showcased with a solo feature of some sort is the pianist but Ward De Vleeschhouwer is a superb collaborative artist who can highlight his abilities within a chamber music setting.  Peter Verdonck has excellent tone and energy on alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones and Marc Antonio Mazzini has a lithe and supple sound on standard or bass clarinet.  Together, the two reed players have a perfectly communal sound quality.

Each piece on the disc showcases the Thelema Trio’s mercuriality.  Rafael Leonardo Junchaya’s Tres Danzas Episkénicas is equal parts sultry, ethereal and playful.  This work uses the most instruments overall with the reeds changing from bass clarinet to clarinet and use of baritone and tenor saxophones.  Overall, these dances are attractive, slightly thorny pitch language and extremely well orchestrated.

HyeKyung Lee’s Shadowing is a canonic/imitative work for clarinet and alto saxophone.  Long melodic lines weave in and out with sinewy and twisty motions.  The blend between the performers is spot on and the whole piece has great long-term trajectory.  The high climax reached early on in the work is the exact right music at the exact right time.  Keith Carpenter’s raucous The Devil His Due for baritone sax and piano is a punchy, aggressive, and energetic toccata for the two instruments.  Instead of the baritone sax being the “front man” of the piece, both instruments engage in funky rhythmic interplay.

The title track on the CD, neither from nor towards, is an extended rhapsody for baritone sax, clarinet, and piano written by Eric Honour.  This obsessive piece spends a lot of time spinning its wheels (in a good way) where the music is, indeed, neither from anywhere nor moving towards anywhere.  Long overlapping tones in the reeds and mid-range piano are broken by the occasional spiky piano accents in extreme registers.  Gradually a melody emerges and by the halfway point we are in a soaring, melodic section.  The soaring becomes frenetic, dies down, but then trashes around with one last outburst.  If you were to drop in on any single section of the piece, you might wonder how it all fits together.  But listening to the complete work, Eric Honour draws an excellent through-line.  The programming for this piece is perfect since it showcases not only the coloristic blend between the reeds but also the rhythmic punctuation possibilities found in earlier works.

The only solo composition on the disc, Marco Antonio Mazzini’s Imprevisto sounds like music we aren’t really supposed to be hearing.  The slow unfolding work for clarinet gives the impression that we are eavesdropping on the performer while they worked out musical/emotional stuff.  This piece is haunting and captivating.  Refractions, by Kevin Walczyk, brings back some playful and bouncy music back to the disc.  The motoric repeated notes in the piano provide a platform for melodies and shapes in the alto sax and clarinet.  The energy is constantly pushing forward, even when the music slows and becomes more tender.  The light and springy material returns to close out the composition.

Finally, the Five Miniatures for baritone sax, bass clarinet, and piano by Fernando Benadon are delightfully quirky pieces that present a focal idea, perseverate upon said idea, and then vanish.  Niether of the five movements feels underwritten and, while one might hear how each idea could become longer, I think it would destroy the chiseled nature of these pieces.  There is a lot of fun and whimsy in their brevity, making this piece the perfect waft of light flavor after a satisfying meal.

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