Posts Tagged “Jay Batzner”
Soundings for a New Piano
R. Andrew Lee, piano
Irritable Hedgehog Music
Ann Southam is one of those composers I wish I would have been introduced to sooner. Soundings was the first piece of hers that I have heard and the work brings forth such a delicious dichotomy that I have scoured available sources to find more of her music and hear how it is, and simultaneously is not, an example of commonly mentioned techniques. The two words that I have heard tossed about regarding Southam’s music are “serialism” and “postminimalism.” Soundings is easily both and yet also neither. Is there a twelve-tone process at work? In a sense. The austere opening arpeggio adds new tones as a means of development and Southam admits to working with the same row for several decades. Is this post-minimal? Why not? There is a rhythmic stubbornness but it seems to come from a sense of obsession with the sonority rather than some rigorous process. This is the same opening chord (and articulation) found in Southam’s Simple Lines of Enquiry, so obsession seems to be the right word. In contrast to Simple Lines, Soundings has a more urgent aura about it and a brighter, more vivacious piano sound in the recording.
Through the twelve short movements and one central interlude, this chord is played out in mostly monophonic and spacious gestures. The serial music you are taught to hate in college doesn’t ruminate, it lectures. This music, serial in the looses sense, is languid and floating. Deceptively simple arpeggios dissipate from the beginning to the interlude, where time seems to stop completely. Post interlude, thick and chunky chords appear and provide the firmament for the final five movements. Those meaty chords try to dissolve but rebuild themselves in the 11th movement and, once they have been worked out of the composer’s system, the whole composition unwinds and vanishes.
This EP release (Soundings is around 23 minutes) is another excellent vehicle for R. Andrew Lee to showcase a subtle virtuosity and sensitive musical touch. It is also one of the best sounding pianos I’ve heard on disc in quite some time. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I am close friends with David and Michelle McIntire, the Executive Producers of this album and masterminds of the Irritable Hedgehog label. You may subsequently dismiss this review as cronyism but I am positive those thoughts will evaporate once you’ve heard this disc or their An Hour for Piano recording (both available for free streaming on their website).
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The Pulitzer Project
Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus
Carlos Kalmar, Conductor; Christopher Bell, Chorus Director
- A Free Song – William Schuman
- Appalachian Spring – Aaron Copland
- The Canticle of the Sun – Leo Sowerby
Cedille’s initial release of The Pulitzer Project comes across as one of those great ideas that you can’t believe hasn’t been done before. With all the pomp and circumstance that revolves around the Pulitzer, it is a real shocker to find how few of these pieces are commercially recorded, much less have entered any sort of regular programming rotation. The Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus seek to correct this startling issue by recording early Pulitzer winners and, in two out of of three cases on this disc, provide world premiere recordings, to boot.
William Schuman’s secular cantata A Free Song won the first Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1943 and the piece is a contemporary of his better known Symphony for Strings (Symphony #5). The choral writing is full of strong and richly scored harmonic writing with a few excited sprinkles of contrapuntal writing. The text, From Drum Taps by Walt Whitman, seems made for Schuman’s setting. Part I is somber and solemn with an almost ritualistic quality. Part II begins with boisterous imitative fugal counterpoint in the orchestra which quickly catches fire in that typical Schuman way.
Leo Sowerby’s The Canticle of the Sun is the last work on the disc and is comprised of 11 shorter attaca movements based on text by St. Francis of Assisi. Sowerby’s music is lush and dramatic at the opening but Sowerby easily transforms the mood from segment to segment. The music is equally playful, tender, rhapsodic, bold, and joyful. While the chorus dominates the musical activity, the orchestra deftly balances its activity and blurbles so as to never get in the way of the voices. The Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus have created an exemplary recording of these works.
In an interesting choice of programming, this disc skips Howard Hanson’s 4th Symphony, the Pulitzer winner in 1944 and skips on to Appalachian Spring and The Canticle of the Sun, winners of the 1945 and 1946 prizes, respectively. I take some issue with this exclusion of the Hanson but I can see all sides of the situation. Cedille is aiming the disc at as broad of a market as possible. Librarian/collector folks will be interested in hearing the world premiere recordings of lesser known (or completely unknown) works. Appalachian Spring, the single most performed Pulitzer winner in the history of the prize, is going to attract a broader audience who are simply interested in that piece. Since the Schuman and the Sowerby each use chorus and orchestra, it does make a certain amount of programming sense to have those two works on the same disc, too. Personally, I would rather have a Grant Park Orchestra recording of Hanson’s Fourth Symphony than another recording if Appalachian Spring.
Appalachian Spring is, in some ways, a bit of a let down. The performance is solid and the orchestra does a great job with the piece, but this is the same Appalachian Spring that I’ve heard hundreds of times before. If the GPO would have recorded the work in its original 13 instrument form, with the full ballet score and not the shortened suite that has become so popular, then I would have been exceedingly interested in the disc. Furthermore, the longer version with its original instrumentation was the piece that won the Pulitzer, not the popular orchestral suite. There would be no better time to record that version of Appalachian Spring than this very disc.
As it stands, the disc gives good performances of lesser known works and one warhorse. It is interesting to hear how the sound world of a “Pulitzer winner” has changed in the last 70 some years. I hope the series continues and might consider putting Concerto Fantastique alongside the 1992 winner The Face of the Night, The Heart of the Dark due to the notoriety of the Shapey work. That isn’t going to happen, I know, but a guy can dream.
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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, tags: Alex Waterman, California E.A.R. Unit, CD Review, chamber music, Either/Or, Jay Batzner, Keeril Makan, Laurie Rubin, postminimalism, Starkland
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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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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electroacoustic music by
Robert Scott Thompson
- Out of the Vivid Air
- Waters of Cabeus (A)
These four compositions by Robert Scott Thompson, all for fixed digital audio playback, blend notions of the natural and unnatural worlds. All the sounds used are crisp and clean, elegantly placed in time, and each work progresses at a slow and unencumbered pace. Most of the sonic materials are drawn from natural sources: water, wind, or simple percussion sounds and the synthetic elements grow into and out of these natural sounds so deftly that it can be hard to tell how much you are hearing is, in fact, artificial. Shinrin-yoku, with its obvious instrumental timbres, never quite sounds like it is either instrument or environment. Lots of attention is given to spatialization and these works would do extremely well in a surround format. So much of this music is based on where things happen that I feel the stereo field is a bit of a let down. Be that as it may, these organic and ambient tracks are splendidly created and infinitely listenable.
F. Gerard Errante, clarinet
- Water Crossing ~ Alex Shapiro
- Echoes of the Invisible ~ Peter Terry
- Passage ~ Robert Scott Thompson
- Circles in the Sky ~ Jane Brockman
- Breath ~ Joseph Harchanko
- Equanimity ~ Robert Mackay
- Midway Inlet ~ McGregor Boyle
- Cherry Blossom and a Wrapped Thing ~ Judith Shatin
- A Little Night Music ~ Douglas Quin
- rain of the heart, reign of the soul ~ D. Gause
The purpose of this disc was to collect works for clarinet and electronics that were “calm, peaceful and tranquil, perhaps being suitable for relaxation and contemplation.” Every composition succeeds in this goal. The music is indeed calm and tranquil with soft droning synths and slow moving harmonies. Rhythmic activity is kept light, as with the groove in Shapiro’s Water Crossing, and for the most part each piece consists of mellow string pads underneath a long drifting clarinet line. Robert Scott Thompson’s Passage stands out for tying in the high and bright clarinet sound into the electronic fabric of the accompaniment. Breath by Joseph Harchanko pulls its inspiration from Vipassana meditation to great affect, making a work that is sonically unlike the others and a welcome break from the clarinet/synthesizer dichotomy in other pieces. The quietude and spaciousness of Judith Shatin’s Cherry Blossom and a Wrapped Thing are wonderful things. Cherry Blossom has rich and sumptuous electronics that envelope the clarinet in a blissful and dreamy sonic fabric. Through all of these pieces, F. Gerard Errante maintains excellent control in blending the clarinet timbre with whatever electronics are present. It can be difficult to make calm music compelling but each piece, and Errante’s playing, keep me listening.
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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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American Modern Ensemble
American Modern Recordings
- The Thin Ice of Your Fragile Mind
- Star Crossing
- Embracing the Wind
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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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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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, Jay Batzner, minimalism, Women Composers, tags: Cantaloupe, CD Review, Ensemble Resonanz, Jay Batzner, Julia Wolfe, postminimalism, strings
Brad Lubman, conductor
The big question I had when putting in this disc for the first time was “Will a string orchestra be able to recreate the visceral power and energy that I find vital in Julia Wolfe’s string quartets?” My fear was that the harder and sharper attacks I enjoy will be too diluted with more players in the ensemble. It was a silly skepticism to hold and any trepidations I had quickly melted away once I started listening. Also, Ensemble Resonanz is the same group that recorded Weather and a disc of Xenakis. I was pretty sure I was going to have a good time with this CD.
Ensemble Resonanz and Julia Wolfe make an excellent team. Not only did Wolfe obviously compose music better suited for an orchestra than a quartet (it was foolish of me to doubt that she would) but Resonanz also threw serious energy behind both pieces. Cruel Sister, inspired by a dark Old English ballad, is expressive and emotive balancing the programmatic elements with a clean dramatic line that makes sense in the abstract. The hollow open intervals which throb away at the beginning enmesh with more angry and spiky punctuations. The four attacca movements are woven together in a solid and disrupted narrative. Ensemble Resonanz brings power and control to the whole range of the sonic spectrum and Wolfe adeptly showcases register and texture. I am especially fond of the transition between the second and third movements which is (to my ear) simultaneously abrupt yet smooth.
Fuel is a far more abstract work driven by the problems the world faces regarding the necessity of fuel. Ensemble Resonanz masterfully blends in a variety of coloristic techniques, making sounds like scratch tones a part of the woven tapestry of sound. The CD notes go so far as to state that electronics were not used at all and that all the sounds in the piece are acoustic. I think that disclaimer is a bit much. There is certainly a wider variety of string techniques and timbres in Fuel than in Cruel Sister but I never had a “What the heck was that?” reaction. Scratch tones, harmonics, tremolo, and filtering the sound via bow placement are all active parameters in the sound world. Again, Resonanz brings a whole lot of power throughout the registers and forms a massive hyper-instrument blend the likes of which make string quartets secretly jealous.
Wolfe’s music is also doing what she does best: frenetic power created through post-minimalist techniques that transcend mere repetition. The music materials are sharp, taut, basic, and the economy of material is expertly managed. Wolfe knows how to make a lot out of a little AND pull the listener along for the ride. Both works have programmatic elements but not knowing the program does not interfere with the listening experiences. These works sound fresh and contemporary and I’m confident that audiences in the future will continue to relate and connect with the ideas therein.
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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, Jay Batzner, Piano, tags: CD Review, chamber music, Ensemble CMN, instrumental, Jay Batzner, Laganella, Marilyn Nonken, Prism Quartet, saxophone
The 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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