Posts Tagged “Vocal”

Mikel Rouse  

Corner Loading (Volume 1)

ExitMusic Recordings

  1. Active Denial
  2. (Running Out of Time for) Good News
  3. My Tide
  4. Made Up, Oh Lord
  5. Years
  6. Busy Humanist
  7. Be Real Bad
  8. Trouble Making
  9. Lonesome Shoeshine
  10. Great Adventure Jail
  11. Hide in There
  12. It’s Hard to be Nobody
  13. Ad Man

The second half of ExitMusic’s 10th anniversary celebration, Corner Loading (Volume 1), will be released on December 7 alongside the album Recess (my review of Recess can be read here).  Where Recess lives and breathes with Rouse’s density and complexity, Corner Loading is a lean, mean, stripped-down exploration of his musical core.  The musical language, on the surface, sounds like a fairly straight-ahead country/blues singer/songwriter but as soon as you listen past that surface you are rewarded with an intimate portrayal of what makes Rouse’s music really tick.

Each song features Rouse as a solo performer, usually voice and guitar, so at first listening Corner Loading sounds like something you can comfortably put on in your local coffee shop.  The only problem with that scenario is that this isn’t passive music.  Rouse’s language has a way of focusing your attention the same way that a magician makes you wonder how it is all being done.  The layers which Rouse usually uses are right there in Corner Loading but in a much more transparent package.  It is easier to hear deep into the musical structures of this recording and that exposed nature makes the disc even more hypnotic to me.  You hear exactly what he is doing and it still fascinates and draws you closer into the music.  If this was on in a coffee shop I don’t think I could do much but sit and listen in slack-jawed fascination.

An example of this elegant simplicity hits you right up front with the track “Active Denial.”  Rouse sings the line “Maybe I want to do it again” in melodic and rhythmic unison with the guitar.  He then repeats the lick on the guitar but inserts a single beat rest in the voice between phrases shoving the voice out of phase with the guitar ostinato.  Even better, instead of keeping this phase process as a gimmick for the song, Rouse finds important times to stretch out his melodic line by a beat so he can come back in phase with the guitar for the chorus.

This phasing procedure gets used throughout the disc but in enough deft variations that no track sounds stale.  Regular and irregular phrases are spun out in a natural manner.  Accompaniment patterns change and break up any possibile monotony.  A few tracks, like “My Tide” and “Great Adventure Jail” are accompanied by simple clapping (which isn’t nearly as simple as it sounds).  Great care has also been taken towards the pacing of the CD.  The more repetitive songs “Be Real Bad” and “Trouble Making” are followed up by the quick-fire verses of “Lonesome Shoeshine.”  Songs are very short and focused.  They create their world, do it very well, and then get out.  Tension is also built throughout the disc, too.  The final track “Ad Man” has the thickest and most frenetic guitar texture and the most driving harmonica interjections which makes this song sound like a culmination of all that came before it.

Rouse’s husky vocals are expressive and perfectly matched for this sound world.  There is soul and emotion in each track.  Rouse’s gift in lyrics is also spread all over the songs.  Unlike Recess, Corner Loading doesn’t include the lyrics in the physical disc (they are available on his website) but this never troubled me.  The intimacy of the disc makes the lyrics and their poetic meanings rather clear.  His ruminations on the current societal conditions are just as targeted, poetic, and salient as you would expect.

The whole disc has an immediate appeal that I find runs throughout all of Rouse’s music and there is not an ounce of pretention on the record.  This is a disc I spin a lot.  Beyond the deep post-minimalist structure that is driving each song, the tunes are just damned catchy.

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The Complete Songs, Volumes I and II

The Florestan Recital Project

Florestan Records

“I found [composing with and for electronics] boring and predictable – speakers cannot stand up to acknowledge applause. In electronic music everything is fixed, permanently. I missed presenting a score to a creative performer with the hope that he would take the piece into his own personality.”

One of the unexpected pleasures of reviewing the songs of the late Daniel Pinkham (1923-2006) was discovering his candid and engaging personality. That’s always a boon for the writer desperately in search of a “lead” to begin his review. Pinkham provides the critic numerous literary gems of that sort. In his long career he set his hand at it all: symphonies, cantatas, concertos, oratorios, and chamber music for a great variety of instrumental combinations, embracing means as diverse as medieval modes and plainchant, dodecaphony, serialism, and electronic music. One gets the feeling from listening to Volumes I and II of the Florestan Project’s Complete Songs project that song had a special significance for Pinkham, something to which he returned time and again over the years. It all fits in with his love of writing with a specific occasion and his love of contact with the singers and instrumentalists: “I have no unperformered music.”

Volume I of the present series embraces settings of poems by such as A E Houseman, Emily Dickinson, and particularly James Wright (1927-1980), with whose poetry Pinkham’s music formed a close, personal correlative. Wright was influenced by both Robert Frost and Thomas Hardy, both of whom he resembled in the denseness and exuberance of his imagery. We find this quality particularly in Pinkham’s settings from The Green Wall and Where Love Has Gone, both sung here by Joe Dan Harper, accompanied by guitarist Jim Piorkowski in the former and pianist Anne Kissel Harper in the latter. I normally don’t like settings of free verse (which Frost once compared to playing tennis without the net) because they tend to result in too much sameness resulting from the heightened declamation that is inevitable when the composer doesn’t have meter or rhyme to relate to. These are more palatable than most, owing largely to the imagination residing in Wright’s images: “The kind of poetry I want is my love / who comes back with the rain. Oh, I / would love to lie down long days long, / the long / down slipping the gown from her / shoulders.”

The handful of Dickinson poems in Called Home require, and receive, more cadenced settings in keeping with the poet’s use of liturgical cadence and clipped expression: “Promise this – When you be Dying – / Some shall summon Me – / Mine belong your latest Sighing – / Mine – / to Belt your Eye – / Not with Coins – though they be Minted / From an Emperor’s Hand – / Be My Lips – the only Buckle – / Your low eyes demand.” And of course, Dickinson’s preoccupation with death finds expression in all five poems in the series, providing a rare degree of unity: “Some, too fragile for winter winds / The thoughtful grave encloses – / Tenderly tucking them in from frost / Before their feet are cold.”

Tenor Joe Dan Harper and baritone Aaron Engebreth alternate the vocal assignments in Volume II, which consist of settings of Psalms, other Scriptural Sources, and poems with religious significance in their imagery by such olden poets as Henry Vaughn, George Herbert, Robert Herrick, Thomas Campion, George Wither and Sir Philip Sydney, with Emily Dickinson’s whimsical “Angels at Play” and the robust exuberance of Gerard Manley Hopkins thrown in for a change of pace: “Bring hither pearl, opal, sard; / Reck not what the poor have lost; / Upon Christ throw all away; / Know ye this is Easter Day.” The various Psalms, wisdom literature Ruth, Ecclesiastes, and Letters of St. Paul and St. Ambrose in this Volume find perfect sound=sense correlation in Pinkham’s settings, which can be lyrical, meditative, or dramatic as the text requires. He captures to perfection the intimacy in so many of these texts. And the organ accompaniment by Heinrich Christensen is always sensitive to the mood and ambience of the song.

In short, the present 2-CD package is an ideal introduction to a composer who was to claim, “The single event that changed my life was a concert [at Andover] by the Trapp Family Singers in 1939, right after they had escaped from the Nazis. They had virginals, recorders, a gamba, and I had never heard anything like that in my life … Here, suddenly, I was hearing clarity, simplicity.” Coming at a time in history when the basic sound of western music, like it or not, was post-Wagnerian, it shaped Pinkham’s whole outlook on life and music.

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Giancinto Scelsi  CD Cover art

Tre Canti Popolari

Due Componimenti Impetuosi

Sub Rosa record

  • Tre Canti Popolari: Marianne Pousseur – soprano, Lucy Grauman – alto, Vincent Bouchot – baritone, Paul Gérimon – bass
  • Duo:  Georg-Alexander Van Dam – violin, Jean-Paul Dessy – cello
  • Wo Ma: Paul Gérimon – bass
  • Sauh:  Marianne Pousseur – soprano, Lucy Grauman – alto
  • Aitsi:   Jean-Luc Fafchamps – piano
  • Sonate #4:  Johan Bossers – piano
  • Suite #11:  Johan Bossers – piano

Vocal chamber music and solo piano works form the bulk of this two disc assortment of Scelsi’s music on Sub Rosa.  Being mostly familiar with Scelsi’s instrumental chamber music, I was anxious to hear how he wrote for unaccompanied voices.  Tre Canti Popolari does not disappoint at all.  All of the focus and dramatic tension from Scelsi’s string quartets is transfered beautifully into the vocal medium.  The four performers sound tremendously good.  The blend is sublime but there is never a sense of monochromaticism.  The vocalists’ sensitivity and balance between independence and ensemble elevate this already stunning composition.  I am also a big fan of the male voice selections, specifically the choice of baritone and bass instead of tenor/bass or tenor/baritone.  Sclesi’s natural darkness gets accentuated by the darker vocal colors.  As enamored as I am with the quartet’s performance, I am equally enamored with Paul Gérimon’s interpretation of Wo Ma and Marianne Pousseur’s and Lucy Grauman’s performance of Sauh. These soulful performances wring every note for its full amount of nuance and emotion.  The only thing better would be hearing it live.

The Duo for violin and cello is a bit of an outlier on this disc being the only work that involves strings.  The piece is well executed and serves as a great sonic break for the vocal pieces.  The composition is lithe and intense, disquieting and expressive.  The first disc closes with the solo piano work Aitsi and Scelsi’s piano music, once again, has the ability to captivate with extremely little surface activity.  The opening punctuations of Aitsi are sudden and harsh, at first obscuring the delicious amplified distortion.  After several thwacks, though, the vibrant electronic sounds nourish the chords into longer and richer lifespans.

Disc two of this set is comprised of solo piano works composed about a decade before anything on the first CD (with the exception of the short 2 years between Suite #11 and Tre Canti Popolari).  In Piano Sonata #4, from 1942, I can hear the aural conflict between the musical language of the time and the language Scelsi would later develop.  The first movement is thorny and jagged but the low register melody meanders in an unusually drunken-yet-focused way.  Movement two, with its open harmonies and tenderly dark melody, hints at the expressive power of his later compositions while the final movement is spastic and rough with a singular trajectory.

Suite #11 is a real trip.  To my ears, I hear Scelsi experimenting with alternate ways of organizing and expressing his musical nature.  Each of the nine movements contains a stream-of-consciousness feel that keeps the piece, however loosely, from breaking apart into musical atoms.  The energies present in the piece reminds me of the rugged atonal expressionist American composers from the early 20th century such as Ruggles and Ornstein – the time when free atonality was brash and expansive instead of smug and superior (but maybe I’m romanticizing that a bit).  Suite #11 is wild, unhinged, and Johan Bossers plays it with the right amount of control and furor.

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Itaipu and Three Songs  

music of Philip Glass

Orange Mountain Music

I used to be somewhat dismissive of the music of Philip Glass.  I was big into Elliott Carter and it isn’t hard to see Glass as being diametrically opposed to everything that I was listening to.  I always respected that Glass was writing the music that was genuine for him and I never thought of him as a fraud or a sellout.  Glass’ voice is so distinct and confined that, popular or not, this is the music he is going to compose.  Over the last decade, I’ve softened my stance on Glass and I do enjoy more of his music than I did in the past.  The respect of his style is still there even if I don’t always enjoy the end result.

Inspired by the hydro-electric dam on the border of Paraguay and Brazil, Itaipu is Glass at his most obvious.  Glass does nothing to strain his limited choice of harmonic progressions and textures.  The performing forces of chorus and orchestra are treated as fairly blunt instruments (pun partially intended).  The four movements are mildly different from each other but none of the sections are particularly memorable.  The differences lie in simple changes such as block chords in one movement and arpeggios in another.  The words of the chorus seem unimportant to the piece and the voices are used as another timbre for Glass’ harmonic repetitions.  These choices tie somewhat programmatically into the work’s inspiration (a giant concrete slab is probably best described through block chords, after all) but I haven’t found that repeated listenings to this work provide anything deeper than a cursory once-over.  The piece is, to my ears at least, a work without surprises.

The Los Angeles Master Chorale and the orchestra “made up of the best studio players in Los Angeles” sound excellent under the leadership of Grant Gershon.  The performance is austere and detached, well blended and mixed, letting the music do what it does.  If you enjoy the music of Philip Glass already, I don’t think this particular piece is going to bring you much that you haven’t already heard.  If you are new to Glass, then Itaipu is a worthy place to begin.  Joking that Itaipu is “the best dam piece Glass ever wrote” is fun, too.

The sleeper-hit on this disc is the Three Songs for choir a cappella performed by The Crouch End Festival Chorus National Sinfonia, conducted by David Temple.  Glass’ treatment of the chorus, without any of his usual instrumental accompaniment tricks, reveals the clever and insightful craft that good Glass can possess.  The harmonic skeleton of all of Glass-dom is present but revisited and made more potent by obvious text painting.  The music is not complex but I find each of the three movements much more listenable and enjoyable than Itaipu.  Where Itaipu is a summer blockbuster with a big budget, thin plot, and forgettable characters, Three Songs is a lean and tight flick with a killer ensemble cast.

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The Fool / The Death of Enkidu

Singers: Tamara Hummel (s), Sandra Graham (m/s), Darryl Edwards (t), Gary Relyea (b/bt) (The Fool)
Amanda Parsons (actor), Julie Nesrallah (m/s), Martin Houtman (t), David Pomeroy (t), Doug Macnaughton (b/bt), Alain Coulombe (b) (Death of Enkidu)
Conductors: David Currie (The Fool), Les Dala (Death of Enkidu)

Centrediscs

This is part of Cenrediscs’ ongoing recording project commemorating Canadian composer Harry Somers (1925-1999). Somers came under the influence of the contemporary avante-garde early in his studies in his native Toronto (1942) in the person of John Weinzweig, who encouraged him to study traditional harmony as well as introducing him to 12-tone serial composition (presumably in order to thoroughly learn the rules he was to break). After the war, he studied for a time under Darius Milhaud in Paris, where he was influenced by the music of Boulez and Messiaen. As Somers was to describe this period of his life: “Now in the 1950s I was out of touch with developments that were happening in composition; I had to learn my own way. And my own way was to write works that employed Baroque techniques fused with serialism and the more highly tensioned elements of 20th century music I was familiar with at the time.”

Now, what about the two 40-minute chamber operas in the present 2-CD set? Briefly, The Fool is about a court jester who refuses to have his soaring spirit circumscribed by either convention or royal decree and falls to his death when attempting to fly from the castle battlements on his own homemade wings. (Presumably, this is the plight of the poor, misunderstood creative artist in modern society). The Death of Enkidu takes its inspiration from the ancient Chaldean epic of Gilgamesh. It deals, in flashback, with the downfall of the man-beast Enkidu, who had been happily running with a pack of wolves before the tyrant Gilgamesh sent a harlot to seduce him so that he would become more pliable to his plans for conquest following his loss of innocence. The Fool and Enkidu will be seen as stylized, non-naturalistic dramas that are philosophical, even existentialist, in thrust. They seem to reflect contemporary trends in the theatre in the 1950’s that came to be known as “Theatre of the Absurd” and “Theatre of Cruelty.”

I can’t say that I enjoyed listening to either work. Whether or not you describe Somers’ writing as “scale-like material with a strong tonal pull,” it is not at all euphonious. In fact, it is hard to talk about melody or harmony at all in the context of these works (believe me, it’s nothing you’d want to hum or sing in the shower). They suffer from the common limitation of most modern attempts to write English-language opera in that they tend to rely on heightened speech patterns in place of a true vocal vocabulary. Perhaps it is a reflection of the fact that we have no real bel canto tradition such as other languages have (There are, of course, vibrant folk and popular song traditions in various English-speaking countries, but contemporary composers have generally shown little interest in them). The result is a strained, declamatory style of operatic writing that many listeners (myself included) find most unattractive. In Death of Enkidu, this style reaches an extreme in the tortured, syllabic, hiccoughing delivery of the narrator and the equally mannered vocal writing for the hero, which incorporates wolf calls into a generally aphasic mix. There is a Chorus of three soldiers, who seem oblivious to Enkidu’s dilemma as the noble savage who has “sold out” to Gilgamesh and is thus uncomfortable in either the animal world or the human. Instead, they mostly complain about the harshness of their life in a desolate foreign land and how they long to return to their own country (which corresponds to modern-day Iraq, so you know things must really be bad). This may be alienation indeed, but it isn’t either good theatre or treasurable opera.

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Red Garuda / Rilke Songs / Bagatelles /

Piano Quintet

Peter Serkin, James Conlon, New York Philharmonic, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Orion String Quartet

Bridge Records
First, a clarification: “Red Garuda” is not the name of  a gangster, a professional wrestler, or a rodeo cowboy. Garudas are colossal bird-like creatures that exist in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology. A golden Garuda is the symbol of Indonesia and the name of its national airline. A red Garuda is the national symbol of Thailand. More to the point of why contemporary American composer Peter Lieberson (b.1946) chose this title for his work for piano and orchestra, the Garuda is said to be capable of flying vast distances without tiring and of changing its shape and size. Thus, the creature can be taken as an emblem of absolute freedom, of a life unrestricted by conventional limitations. The inspiration for the creative artist is clear. As Lieberson explains it, “Before I began composing the piece, I had a dream vision of sitting on the back of a huge Garuda flying over different kinds of landcapes.” The work premiered, significantly, in 1999, the year the composer married his wife, the late, beloved mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. The wonderful upsurge of powerful emotion one encounters in the 25 minute work may well reflect the joy he felt at this time.

 Red Garuda is listed as Lieberson’s second piano concerto, but is really more a symphonic poem with a piano soloist, much in the way that Scriabin’s Poem of Fire is. The analogy is not an idle one, as Lieberson employs Scriabinesque pulsating chords, tubular bells, and powerful contributions from the lower strings and bass drum to portray the Garuda’s emergence from the darkness and the apprehensive atmosphere of a pre-dawn world. This striking introduction, powerfully realized by pianist Peter Serkin and by the New York Philharmonic under James Conlon, gives way to variations symbolizing the ancient elements of Fire, Water, and Earth combined with Wind, as the Garuda soars over continents and oceans.

Eastern mythology is one thing. But when it comes to the verse of German language Austro-Bohemian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), that’s something else! I must confess I’m beyond my depth when it comes to explicating lines such as “Oh be inspired for the flame, in which a Thing disppears and bursts into something else; the spirit of re-creation which masters this earthly form, loves most the pivoting point where you are no longer yourself.” While even Lieberson admits there are lines in Rilke that defy exact explanation, the sense one gets in Rilke of continual transformation, of becomings rather than endings, obviously appeals strongly to him as a composer. That he could draw on the interpretive insights of his wife and of his frequent collaborator Peter Serkin in his settings of five of Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus” was definitely to his advantage. I was especially impressed with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s considerable prowess as a song interpreter, which is essential in re-creating the sense of a very difficult and often paradoxical poet, and then expressing it in terms of pure lyricism.

I wasn’t as taken with Lieberson’s three Bagatelles (1985), partly because the titles puzzled me. My notion of a “bagatelle” is that of a trifle or an amusing anecdote, something lighter in mood than these somber piano pieces. “Proclamation” bears out its name musically well enough, but “Spontaneous Songs” seems a misnomer for a group of short subjects that strike me as rather hesitant and not terribly lyrical at all, and “Nocturne” might have been a better title for the restlessly probing third movement that Lieberson calls “The Dance.”

I’m more sanguine about Lieberson’s Piano Quintet (2003), an energetic work that further benefits from an outstanding performance by Serkin and the Orion String Quartet (Daniel Phillips and Todd Phillips, violins; Steve Tenenbom, viola; and Timothy Eddy, cello). By this time, Serkin had been performing with the Orions for years, going back to the old days at Marlboro, and its shows in the solid mutual support these musicans give one another. The spirit of Cape Breton folk fiddling permeates the mood and rhtyhms of this music, evoking a place with strong associations for the composer. Part I of the work is in the form of a fantasy based on a four-note motif heard early-on. There is a brief interlude, the theme of which becomes the subject of a finely wrought fugue in Part II which builds to a vigorous climax. We have a recolection of earlier material, including a terse quotation of the four-note motif that we heard at the beginning, and then it all ends suddenly, good night and good luck!

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Mass (1971)

Jubilant Sykes, baritone (The Celebrant)
Morgan State University Choir; Peabody Children’s Chorus
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop

Naxos

By now, almost all our readers must have heard of this sensational recording and the string of awards it has garnered in the classical industry. After a long period of benign neglect, Leonard Bernstein’s acclaimed (or notorious?) masterwork has resurfaced again in a modest trio of recordings by Kent Nagano (2005), Kristjan Jarvi (2009), and now Marin Alsop that attest to its vitality. Its kaleidoscope of musical styles, mixing live musicians and pre-recorded tape, is mind-boggling. The listener is assaulted with rock, blues, and classical reverberations of everything from medieval chant to modern polytonality, Beethoven, symphonic music, traditional protestant hymns, brass bands, revivalism, early Christian melismas and tropes and Hebrew liturgy, echs of Stravinsky and Carl Orff, and large doses of that incongruous mish-mash of styles we call “Broadway.” All are continually jostling for our attention. It is as much theatre–what we might term “urban guerilla theatre,” complete with a chorus of street people as it is a work of music. In the interest of being provocative it can be vulgar on occasion, but it won’t be ignored. And in this recording, the pace moves with split-second timing as conductor Marin Alsop marshals her assembled forces to make the maximum impact on the listener.

Essentially, Mass challenges people’s shallow concepts of religion. The targets of the sometimes far-from-subtle satire in the texts by Stephen Schwarz and Leonard Bernstein are many, but they generally fall into predictable categories. The naive who take their religion spoon-fed. The worldly jaded for whom “life is easy when you’re half alive.” The cynics who confess their sins, then “go out and do it one more time.” The incurably hip who are too proud to accept the simplicity of a God who loves all simple things because He is the simplest of all. Yes, there is a more or less self-consciously righteous streak in all of this. And yes, Bernstein’s work is steeped in the social ferment of the time in which he wrote it. A time of war protests, freedom marches, and growing popular dissatisfaction with the administration in Washington, be it Johnson or Nixon. So different from the times in which we now live, with our media-fed pap in place of the discussion great issues, disillusion with what appears to be a broken political process, gnawing anxiety over the economy, and war protest that is conspicuous by its non-existence.

What gives Bernstein’s Mass a more enduring appeal is its preoccupation with theological issues that don’t wax and wane with the times. Life hurts. Man experiences separation from God, and needs to feel connected. “Things break all too easily” and need to be fixed. Life hurts. People hurt. People hurt other people. For the Problem of Pain there is no easy solution, so don’t expect this work of music cum theatre to be especially neat or tidy. It makes its impact by shock, conflict, and accumulation. And the sonic ambience of the recording is more typical of pop music and Broadway in its vivid, immediate presence than it is what we normally think of as a choral performance.

And finally, everything you have heard about American baritone Jubilant Sykes is true. His beautiful voice, his timing, his ability to adapt to a variety of modes of expression both as singer and speaker, from quiet, breathless wonder to exultant shouts of joy, all fit in perfectly with his role as The Celebrant, the man who has lost his faith and wants desperately to rediscover it: “I will sing the Lord a new song / I will sing His praises while I live / All of my days.” Since The Celebrant represents us, and since he directs our focus from one section of this sprawling work to the next, it is no mistake to say the performance would not have held together as well as it ds with the expressive, intelligent qualities Sykes brings to it.

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Vivian Houle, vocalist Treize

Treize

Drip Audio


  1. Mandrake (with Peggy Lee, cello)
  2. Molehills mumps (with Lisa miller, piano)
  3. Paperthin (with Coat Cooke, saxophone)
  4. Gratte-moi le dos (with Kenton Loewen, drums)
  5. Quiet eyes (with Ron Samworth, guitar)
  6. It’s not the moon (with Chris Gestrin, analog keyboards and live sampling)
  7. Betters and bads (with Jesse Zubot, violin)
  8. Finely tuned is my heart (with Jeremy Berkman, trombone)
  9. Au revas (with Paul Plimley, piano)
  10. A little storm (with Jeff Younger, guitar)
  11. Bells hung in a tree (with Clyde Reed, bass)
  12. Song not for you (with Brent Belke, guitar)
  13. Curve (with Stefan Smulovitz, kenaxis)

The very essence of chamber music is perfectly captured in these thirteen tracks. Viviane Houle’s duets with each of these artists is raw music making – free improvisations that transcend the ordinary and provide sonic experiences unlike anything else.  Houle’s sonic repertoire is no short of astonishing.  Half of the time I can’t tell which sounds she is making and which are being made by her instrumental counterpart.  On the same token, both performers on each track are so adept at listening to each other that the flow of events sounds totally organic and alive.  While the bulk of the tracks are showcases for Houle’s vocal fireworks she is always blending with the ensemble and creating a sonic “hyperinstrument” that is neither one nor the other.

A few of the tracks feature a more traditional melodic and sung role for the voice.  Houle, who also wrote all the texts, trends towards the smokey and hazy sounds of somber jazz or beat poetry.  Her rich sound and warm emotional expressions are further featured on one of my favorite tracks, It’s not the moon. Houle’s voice is the DNA of Chris Gestrin’s synth work creating a haunting, graceful, and eternal sounding track.

The last three tracks on the disc transition smoothly from one to the next, making an excellent journey.  Bells hung in a tree has a subdued ending that sounds like it continues as the next track fades in.  Song not for you hits me right in my Heavy Metal spot.  Houle and Belke sound like a great thrashing metal duo from somewhere in the Oort Cloud who have recently learned to sing using random Japanese phonemes (and I mean that in the best possible way).  The thrash continues while the ambient sizzle of Curve takes over.  Like It’s not the moon, Curve puts Houle’s voice in the background and she inexorably emerges from the synthetic world into an oozing and pulsating mass of delicious aural goo.

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1071265

THE WHITE ELECTION:
32 Songs on Poems by Emily Dickinson

Lisa Delan, soprano
Fritz Steinegger, piano

PentaTone

Another winner featuring the charming presence of Lisa Delan! These 32 poems that Gordon Getty has set to music have the thematic and musical unity to constitute a real cycle. The subject is Death (the “White election” of the title), and the poems look at the subject subjectively from every angle. Getty organizes them in four Groups: 1, The Pensive Spring; 2, So We Must Meet Apart; 3, Almost Peace; and 4, My Feet Slip Nearer. A noticeable progression occurs as the poet delves ever deeper into the mysteries of life and death, which are not the diametric opposites we commonly imagine.

I will leave aside the identity of the “dim companion” in the poems that seem to point to a definite love interest in the life of the semi-reclusive Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), who went to her grave a life-long spinster. Gordon Getty summarizes the case very succinctly in his program notes, and others have written at book length on the subject. Since death for Ms. Dickinson meant the spiritual reunion with those we have loved, it opened the portals to a new life, and was not at all life’s antithesis. The symbolism of white raiment, in which she dressed the last twenty years or so of her life, applies to both to the shroud and a wedding dress. She equates them with a ferocious optimism in such verses as “No more her patient figure / At twilight soft to meet, / No more her timid bonnet / Upon the village street, // But crowns instead and courtiers / And in the midst so fair, / Whose but the shy, immortal face / Of whom we’re whispering here?” Or consider, “Sufficient troth that we shall rise, / Deposed, at length, the grave, / To that new marriage justified / Through Calvaries of love.” Many other examples could be cited.

As scholars have observed, Dickinson’s poetry seems to spring from origins in church music, especially in the shape of her discrete four-line stanzas, though the flow of the thought often carries over between those stanzas, and they are not as foursquare metrically as many church hymns often are. Getty conjectures that Dickinson, who had studied voice and piano, must have set many of her poems to music for her own satisfaction. These “odd, old tunes” (her description) were certainly not intended for publication, which would have been out of character for someone who never sought to publish her poetry during her lifetime. In setting them to music, Getty confides, “I have set them, in large part, just as Emily might have if her music had found a balance between tradition and iconoclasm something like that in her poems.”

As played by Fritz Steinegger, the perfect partner for Ms. Delan in this recital, the piano accompaniment is ideally suited to the sense of the lyrics. It seldom takes the form of a florid line, but usually occurs in the form of widely spaced chords or even single notes, either quietly stated or powerfully expressed, depending on the emotion of the poetic line. Occasionally it becomes more florid, as it does in a poem that celebrates the reunion of mother and son in death after many years, he a recent casualty in one of the Civil War’s terrible battles: “When I was small a woman died, / Today her only boy / Went up from the Potomac, / His face all victory. // To look at her how slowly / The seasons must have turned, / Till bullets clipped an angle / And he passed quickly round. ” The vigorously extended piano introduction before the first stanza suggests the rapid call of bugles; in this case, the martial music is both unusual and appropriate to the idea of death as a victory over the unnatural pain of separation, numbed though it may be with the passing years.

Other lyrics do not embrace death with such enthusiasm. There is skepticism about it in such lines as, “The going from a world we know / To one a wonder still / Is like the child’s adversity / Whose vista is a hill. / Behind the hill is sorcery / And everything unknown, / But will the secret compensate / For climbing it alone?” Other poems contrast the poet’s curiously disjunctive perceptions of the two states, life and death: “And sometimes odd within; / The person that I was / And this one do not feel the same. / Could it be madness, this?” And sometimes she is struck by the odd discrepancy of feeling and perception between the bereaved and the departed: “I cried at pity, not at pain, / I heard a woman say, / “Poor child,” and something in her voice / Convicted me of me. // She’s “sorry I an dead” again, / Just when the grave and I / Have sobbed ourselves almost to sleep, / Our only lullaby.”

OF course, even a first acquaintance with Dickinson’s poetry gives you the impression that it is at the same time simple in form and very sophisticated, both in her daring use of approximate and vowel rhymes and in the way a simple declaration or a striking images can resonate with meanings far beyond the stave’s end. You can’t just set them to music and sing them without interpreting fine nuances of significance. To that purpose, Getty’s song accompaniments often continue beyond the last stanza, extending and amplifying the mood and purpose of he poem. And Delan’s vocal artistry is well adapted to expressing the shifting, swiftly surging emotion in such run-on lines as “The bell within the steeple wild / The flying tiding told: / How much can come, / And much can go, / And yet abide the world!” As a song interpreter she may well be unequalled.

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BAD DOG:
A PORTRAIT OF GEORGE CRUMB
Tony Arnold, soprano
Robert Shannon, piano
David Starobin, guitar
George Crumb, percussion

Bridge Records (DVD)

American composer George Crumb, as we learn early in this delightful video, was born on “Black Thursday,” October 24, 1929. He’s been an unsettling influence for people with fixed ideas about music ever since. Reasoning that we all have different DNA and life experiences, he states, “I have to distrust any school of composition that eliminates the persona of the individual composer.” Certainly, his footprint is different from that of other carbon-based life forms in the music profession. In this program of performance and interview, Volume 14 in Bridge Records’ George Crumb Edition, we get to know the composer in a very personal way. He may have his idiosyncrasies, but he is also utterly without pretence and filled with earnestness to communicate to his audience in a way that some of our other contemporaries would do well to cultivate.

Crumb is relatively well behaved in this program. There is no “spoken flute,” no pouring glass marbles into an open piano or any other aleatoric (i.e., random) technique. In fact, in Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik (A Little Midnight Music), the major work for extended piano in the middle of program, he is at pains to notate precisely what he expects of the performer. In this instance, it is pianist Robert Shannon, who does a fabulous job realizing a score in which he is required to play the piano in non-traditional, percussive ways involving considerable open-piano techniques.

The work is so-named because it consists of ruminations on Thelonius Monk’s “˜Round Midnight. Other composers have fooled around with the strings inside the piano, but none, I imagine, as well as Crumb. Shannon is continually on his feet, plucking or striking the strings with his hands or using them to play arpeggio like figures and palm clusters that impress the listener with their flights of fancy reinforcing the prevailing mood of the piece. From time to time, he strikes the metal crossbeams with a yarn-covered mallet, the repeated notes adding an eerie quality that enhances the nocturnal theme. (He does all that in addition to playing the keyboard without the benefit of a bench.) All these techniques serve the real purpose of extending Monk’s familiar main tune through a series of nine ruminations in which it drifts in and out of our consciousness like a dream without losing its character. In the process, we encounter mysterious block chords, mischievous staccato figures, nightmare distortions, forte passages, ringing triads, rocking or falling triplets, tritones, and even, in 6: Golliwog Revisited, an affectionate parody on Debussy’s famous Cakewalk, complete with that composer’s impudent dig at Wagner’s “Tristan” chord!

A special treat on this program is vocalist Tony Arnold. We hear from her first in Three Early Songs from Crumb’s 18th year: “Let It Be Forgotten” and “Wind Elegy” (texts by Sara Teasdale) and “Night” (Robert Southey. In case you haven’t noticed, a fascination with the night runs through Crumb’s music.) The composer himself terms these deeply felt early works, which he dedicated to his future wife Elizabeth Brown,  reminiscent of Barber and Rachmaninov, though a close listening reveals his own “latent fingerprints.” More mature works heard here are a lively “Sit Down, Sister” (2003), based on the well known African-American spiritual and featuring the talents of all four members of the ensemble, and Apparition (1979), originally written for the unique voice of Jan DeGaetani and here rendered with the greatest vividness and luminosty by Arnold and Shannon. The latter-named work is based on extracts from Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Significantly the verses are from the sequence in the poem known as the “Death Carol,” and not the Lincoln elegy with its rich symbolism of the drooping star and the song of the thrush that has inspired most of the other composers who have treated the subject. Tony Arnold’s pure tones, her cleanly rendered melismas, and her unfailing sensitivity to the meaning of the text, all serve to convey Whitman’s paean to Death as the central point between life and a return to the universal life force.

And, yes, there’s broad humor in this program, primarily in two excerpts from Mundus Canis (A Dog’s Life) entitled “Fritzi” and “Yoda” and inspired by canine members of the Crumb household. Both are deft portraits that capture the personality of their subjects. Yoda, the fluffy white Bichon Frise that we see on the cover (I actually thought it was a stuffed toy until I watched the video) is characterized by scampering guitar passages and rasping percussive sounds, ending in the words “Bad Dog,” spoken by Crumb, which give the program its title. But a curious ambiguity persists: is Yoda the naughty dog of the title, or is it Crumb himself?

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