Posts Tagged “postminimalism”

Eva-Maria HoubenHouben

Piano Music

R. Andrew Lee, piano

Irritable Hedgehog Records

I’m fairly new to the Wandelweiser aesthetic and this disc of Eva-Maria Houben’s piano music reinforces a lot of what I have taken in from other sources. To call this sound world “minimalism” is accurate in the purest sense: there is extremely little material here. What is different, though, is that Houben’s language emphasizes silence over repetition. The resonance of the piano lends itself to long and heavy pauses and Houben’s treatment of the piano as a sonorous entity rather than one for frenetic button pushing is gratifying and nourishing. The slow unfolding of events in both piano works, abgemalt and go and stop let every sound resonate with the listener before going forward. Any connections between events can be gestated well before plunging on into the next event. Having said that, this is not music with an obvious formal through-line. If you are driven by hearing rhythmic processes play out over the course of a piece, you’d best look elsewhere. Houben’s music is languid in the purest sense; events happen, silence happens, and it is very possible that neither has anything to do with the other. A Zen approach is necessary: just listen to what is happening. Trying to guess what is going to happen or should happen takes you away from the piece as it is.

Abgemalt is the longer of the two works and for me the most perplexing. Over the first two minutes the same dark chord is struck and decays down to nothingness three times. That’s it. The silences clearly outweigh the sounds. The amount of space in the piece is equal parts haunting, meditative, and unsettling. Playing the disc for a colleague, she shook her head in bewilderment; is this all it is? The short answer is “yes.” The long answer is “yes,” too, but with the follow up question “what more do you want?” As Abgemalt unfurls for 40 minutes, one does begin to lose all sense of direction. Why do all these moments belong in this piece? Why are they in this order? How did Houben know when the piece was finished? These are all intellectual questions which can’t thwart the overall rightness to the sounds. Go and Stop is a little easier to digest. There is a formal process which is more readily grasped as harmonic alternations are interrupted and grow into longer and longer iterations. Abgemalt, though, keeps sucking me back in. I can’t just casually listen to this disc as background noise. The deliberateness turns the recording into foreground listening. My ears strain to hear more and more of the piano decay, as if something is going to change. I can’t just turn the piece off in the middle, either, just as I can’t turn off Piano Phase without experiencing a sudden and jarring jolt.

Houben has set up an aural ecosystem in her work and Lee’s touch and timing are sensitive and nuanced. I can easily hear the care and concentration that goes into these performances and I have no trouble picturing a stoic and deliberate performance on stage. Lee’s craft is not one displayed through senseless theatrics and pyrotechnics. He clearly has a mind for this music and the ability to transform extremely minimal amounts of material into captivating performances.

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The Chord Catalogue, Within Fourths/Within Fifths vriezen

music of Tom Johnson and Samuel Vriezen

Samuel Vriezen, piano

Edition Wandelweiser Records

In the interest of “full disclosure,” when I saw that Samuel Vriezen had begun a Kickstarter to fund his recording of Tom Johnson’s The Chord Catalogue I signed up and pledged money immediately. If you know me you probably know that I am a big fan of Johnson’s music and I was familiar with Johnson’s own recording of The Chord Catalogue. On the surface one might question if a second recording of all the 8178 chords found in a single octave was warranted but Vriezen’s technique brings out a new understanding of the composition. Yes, “all” Vriezen is doing is playing every combination of notes within an octave (first all the 2 voice combinations, then 3 voice, then 4, until the single 13-note cluster ends the piece) but Vriezen rides a peculiar edge between “all chords sound the same” and highlighting the rising chromatic lines which bring about an inherent amount of harmonic tension. Vriezen’s touch and blistering speed take the simple concept from a pedantic list into one of the most sustained examples of harmonic tension since Tristan und Isolde.

Vriezen’s articulation of the sinewy rising chromatic lines in each segment of The Chord Catalogue is then unwound and brought down for Vriezen’s own composition Within Fourths/Within Fifths. Vriezen describes the work as every combination of pitches a perfect fourth or fifth away from neighboring voices. The internal theory doesn’t de facto make a good composition, of course. Vriezen’s work does stand on its own as a slow and steady progression through expanding sonorous harmonies. The openness of the chords is the perfect tonic to the sheer density of the Johnson. The mad rush through chromatic lines is replaced with an almost complete lack of direction. Vriezen’s composition shows that there is still a lot to be done with fourths and fifths without making chords that sound like they belong in the TV theme of 70s cop shows.

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QuestionsCD cover

music of Tom Johnson

performed by Carol Robinson, Tom Johnson, and Dante Boon

Maria De Alvear World Edition

Tom Johnson’s music is very much like magic. I don’t mean necessarily that his music is magical more that his music works in the tradition of close-up or “micromagic.” As is often the case in close-up magic, the magician is telling you in no uncertain terms what he/she is doing without ever really revealing HOW any of it happened. The end result is a compelling “I can’t believe that just happened” experience and this is the area that Tom Johnson’s music occupies. Pieces like Failing: A Very Difficult Piece for String Bass or Narayana’s Cows include a narrator which explains, in no uncertain terms, how this piece works. An Hour for Piano or The Chord Catalogue relegates this information to program notes and such (the notes for An Hour for Piano should be read while listening to the piece; an internal narrator, if you will). The magic in Johnson’s music comes when he does exactly what he told you he was going to do but not HOW they are compelling and captivating.

Music and Questions is a prime example of how straightforward Johnson’s music can be. Five bells, all arranged in half-steps, are played in every possible permutation of single strikes. Between each permutation, Carol Robinson asks a simple question. The questions always relate to the listener’s experience of the piece and how the listener relates to the questions or the music. She also announces each section by stating which of the five bells are being struck first. That is it. For 23 minutes. No rhythmic motive to trace, no groove elements, no fancy orchestrational tricks, no surprise emotional outbursts, just a clinical exploration of 120 bell tones. It might be cliche to refer to this as a Zen listening experience but I honestly have no other words for it. There is absolutely nothing boring about this music but my brain tells me the music should be boring. That is the magic.

Music with Mistakes puts Robinson in the role of narrator and basset horn soloist. Listener engagement is key with Johnson and Music with Mistakes brings foreground listening to an audience that might otherwise expect to “zone out” during a typical process-oriented “old school” minimalist piece. Instead of the constant interruptions for questions, though, Music with Mistakes starts with the statement that melodic material will be played multiple times but only once without mistakes. The listener is to try to hear the mistakes. Arts organizations are constantly looking for ways to “engage the audience” with their repetitive concerts of warhorse literature. Johnson builds audience engagement into each piece. That is the magic. What is even better is that Johnson includes the answers at the back of the liner notes.

Same or Different operates under a similar basic principle as Music with Mistakes. Thick piano chords are played but the underlying question is: are they the same or are the different? A motive is played and the repeated: are they the same or are the different? This game lasts for about 27 minutes and it is some of the most active listening I’ve done in a while. I would love to give a copy of this disc to Edwin Gordon just to see how he does.

Since the music is, at its core, so simple and direct it is hard to say anything about the performances. Is there a word for this kind of virtuosity that puts the performers in a quasi-game where their detachment is a the primary fundamental skill? In the last two pieces, Carol Robinson and Dante Boon have to play their pieces without giving anything away. They have to make micro-changes and repetitions into a cheeky game of “did I or didn’t I” for considerable lengths of time. Not only is Johnson inviting the audience to hyper-scrutinize each micromotion of the performers he also gives them an extremely thin veil to hide behind. The whole disc is a delight to listen to. That is magic.

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David Lang death-speaks-front-cover

death speaks

Cantaloupe Music

 death speaks performed by: Shara Worden (vocals), Bryce Dessner (guitar), Owen Pallett (violin), Nico Muhly (piano)

depart performed by: Maya Beiser (multi-tracked cello), Elizabeth Farnum, Katie Geissinger, Alexandra Montano, and Alex Sweeton (voice)

For my ears, one of most striking features of David Lang’s music is its austerity. I have heard interviews with Lang where he speaks about eschewing a specific emotional context for his music and writing music in which the listener provides their own unique emotional response to the work. In other words, Lang tries not to manipulate the listener directly but rather create an aural space in which the listener affects themselves via the music. How well does that tactic work with such an emotionally charged idea as “death speaks?” Quite well, indeed.

The text for the five movements are all drawn from Schubert lieder in which Death speaks to the living. Lang translated the text and worked it to meet his needs as he did with Little Match Girl Passion a few years back. Shara Worden’s voice rides the edge of emotional detachment by giving just the slightest hints of tenderness. Worden’s voice is a testament to “complexity through simplicity.” She does not sing overtly virtuosic melodies; the overall shape of her lines is fairly static but she embues each phrase with subtle power and resonance. Lang’s sparse but constant instrumental textures are extremely colorful and provide a great balance between stasis and activity. The second movement, “I hear you” has vigorous bass accents but otherwise the music simply floats and drifts in consistent yet irregular clouds.

depart achieves the same affectless-affect as death speaks but adds a wonderful edge of tension via the sustained harmonies. Beiser’s cello is omnipresent through the veil of detached voices and as the harmonies build, tension mounts. At times, Lang sits on dominant-functioning harmonies but not once is such a chord resolved in a conventional manner. Lang holds your hand through the build-up of harmonic tension and walks you to the Precipice of Expected Resolution. Once staring over the cliff, though, Lang backs slowly away through a different route and leaves you (or me, anyway) feeling bewildered. But the music keeps going and I’m following him towards the precipice again…

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Soldier SongsCD cover

music of David T. Little

David Adam Moore, Newspeak, Todd Reynolds

innova recordings

David T. Little’s Soldier Songs is one of the most exciting recordings I have experience in 2013 and while the year is yet young I am confident this disc is going to stay in the cultural consciousness for the foreseeable future. Broken into three large sections (Child, Warrior, and Elder), Little has crafted a song cycle of a grand scope. The complicated and contradictory emotions involved with serving in the military is a topic that many have approached and this recording handles it all with bewildering perfection. Little’s music is intensely dramatic and emotional without becoming histrionic or sentimental and while this work has a distinct point of view, its message(s) are far from simple propaganda.

David Adam Moore’s voice is riveting throughout the disc as he transforms through the various stages (physically and emotionally) via his subtle and nuanced performance. Moore is called upon to sing falsetto, shout, and growl and does all of these things with powerful musical abilities.

Musically and emotionally, Soldier Songs does everything right. Little’s craft coupled with Moore’s abilities and Newspeak’s tight and precise energies join together into a particularly resonant work. The libretto, adapted from interviews with veterans, provides haunting and realistic vignettes about being on the ground during war time.

Overall, this piece, this performance, taps into Truth. The music is a vehicle for a larger message but one that is too complicated for words alone. This is a fantastic disc, released today.

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Towards DaybreakCD cover art

Billband

Music of Bill Ryan

innova records

Ashley Bathgate, cello; Vicky Chow, piano; David Cossin, percussion; Michael Lowenstern, bass clarinet; Pablo Mahave-Veglia, cello; Jonathan Nichol, saxophones; Todd Reynolds, violin; Paul de Jong, cello

  • Simple Lines
  • Towards Daybreak
  • Rapid Assembly
  • A Simple Place
  • Solitude in Transit
  • Friction
  • Sparkle
  • Blurred

Billband is another fine example of a post-minimalist/alt-classical chamber ensemble. Bill Ryan’s compositions fit the model well with direct and clear musical ideas well-paced and orchestrated for his mixture of performers. Whereas (gross generalizations follow, prepare yourself) Build draws from a jazz combo sound, Newspeak leans towards aggressive and edgy literature, and Victoire centers around a subdued synth-driven music, the Ryan/Billband sound world is heavily connected to a more traditional chamber music aesthetic with occasional bits of rock drumming deftly added to the mix.

As a composer, Ryan gets a lot out of a little. His penchant for simplicity (aside from appearing in several titles) makes for affective music making. Simple Lines is just that, good melodic gestures woven together using an overdubbed Ashley Bathgate. A Simple Place contains more surface action but it maintains attractive and clear emotional trajectories. Towards Daybreak and Sparkle are other contemplative pieces which paint clear aural pictures. Blurred uses copious piano pedal and reverb to gently smear an otherwise driving pulse towards its inexorable climax.

Ryan contrasts his contemplative nature with a handful of more groovy and driving works. Rapid Assembly starts with a thin groove which picks up speed and energy as the whole composition comes together. Friction jumps right in with a heavy rock groove. To my ears, it sounds like something someone is about to rap over but no real melodic material emerges until the drums subside and the whole piece quiets down. Even in his more driving works, Ryan has a delicate hand at orchestrating his ideas. Each instrument has not only its own musical space but also serves a vital role in creating a single ensemble sound. Most of the music utilizes strings, piano, and metal pitched percussion but the woodwinds are well balanced and blended in the group (expressively played by Lowenstern and Nichol). The whole of the Billband sounds great on this disc and I look forward to more releases.

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Boost/False Doors CD cover

Mikel Rouse

ExitMusic Recordings

Boost

  • Hurdle Rate
  • Professional Smile
  • Hardwired Superstition
  • Dumb Young
  • Side Pockets
  • Orson Elvis
  • Redemption Fee
  • The Movie We’re In

False Doors

  • Words are Missing
  • Prosperity Gospel
  • Sky Sprites
  • Thumb Skills
  • Make Her Won
  • Blow Dried Bodies
  • The Next World
  • The Albany Handshake
  • God Said No
  • Homegoings
  • Face Around
  • Come From Money

Mikel Rouse has done it again. Today the two album set Boost/False Doors is released and once again both albums deliver powerful and unique listening experiences which couldn’t be created by anyone else. Last time Rouse released two albums simultaneously, Recess and Corner Loading Vol. 1, those albums were treated as separate entities and for good reason. While both discs capture quintessential aspects of Rouse’s musical vocabulary, each album obsessed on totally unrelated issues. It was as if there were two Mikel Rouses for a while, each doing their own thing.  Boost and False Doors, being packaged together, show how these two halves are gradually being brought back together. Each disc is a world in and of itself but these two different halves are binding with each other. The glue is Rouse’s omnipresent steel guitar.

Boost is the manic dance-party side of Rouse’s nature. Tight beats and crisp percussive sounds provide the foundation for his vocal layers of “counterpoetry.” Melodically, tracks shift between catchy sung tunes and spoken word. In many ways, the musical language is similar to Dennis Cleveland but updated to more contemporary dance music aesthetics and production values. There is an oblique narrative through-line as one might expect from a song cycle but what mainly catches my ear is the frenetic beat energy. The opening thoughts in “Hurdle Rate” draw you in quickly and I’m also partial to “Side Pockets” as a great stand-alone track.

No matter how the melodies float by, no matter how the harmonies freely drift, Rouse’s beat creation skills are the star of the show. I’m reluctant to call them “grooves” since Boost is driven and propulsive, never lazy and funky. Even slower-paced moments like the opening of  ”Orson Elvis” don’t dally long before beats take over. There is still a lightness to this disc, though, and these beats are clearly more than simple loops. Rouse’s metrical/rhythmical bag of tricks has been compressed into these crisp metallic pulses. He makes the stuff they play in dance clubs sound even more shallow and lifeless than it already does.

Everything that Boost is, False Doors is not. This is not to say that False Doors is in any way inferior. On the contrary, I listen to this album significantly more frequently than Boost. The pacing of this disc is slower and more contemplative which suits my own personal tastes. “Sky Sprites” is especially striking with a singular guitar lick that punctuates his sung melody (this lick returns in a most perfect way in “Come From Money”). In comparison to Boost, events are drawn out and repeated more obsessively. The poetry in the lyrics is more raw and plainspoken. “God Said No,” for instance, sounds a bit like Rouse is channeling a lost Simon and Garfunkel song with his own peculiar lyrical slant. A song like “Thumb Skills” sets you up lyrically but then twists the expectations ever-so slightly for more dramatic weight.

The opening track “Words are Missing” sounds like a direct outgrowth to the phasing techniques featured on Corner Loading. If Corner Loading was Rouse’s most spartan work, False Doors adds in just the right parts of what he had taken away. “Homegoings” is also just a perfect microcosm of everything that makes Rouse’s music what it is.

Should these be two separate releases? I don’t think so. Recess and Corner Loading were two clearly separated bits of work. Boost and False Doors represent these two parts of Rouse’s music coming back together. Boost is young people’s music: quirky dance beats (my daughter prefers Boost) yet Rouse’s steel guitar gives a slightly folky/country tinge to it all. False Doors is more adult: the music is more about contemplation and nostalgia. Many of the songs sound almost too personal to hear. Again, the guitar provides the soulful through-voice to it all. Any way you hear these two discs, each disc relies on the other to create a complete picture, though, and that picture is completely worth your time.

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CD cover artAnn Southam

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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CD cover artTarget

music of Keeril Makan

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

Starkland

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

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

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

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

 

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VictoireCD cover

Cathedral City

music of Missy Mazzoli

New Amsterdam Records

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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