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Sunday, December 16, 2018

Elliott Sharp, Dispersion, VENI Academy with Elliot Sharp, Marian Lejava

When music is especially simpatico with music you make or might like to make, it is actually harder to write about it, I think. Today that is so. I speak of the new recording of Elliott Sharp's recent works for chamber orchestra, well played by the Veni Academi under Marian Lejava, with Elliott himself on electroacoustic guitar for the final two pieces. The whole thing is named Dispersion, Music for Systems Orchestra (Mode 305).

The key to this music I think is in the name "Systems Orchestra." It is processual music, as Elliott is often very much about. There is a freedom of articulation within prescribed arenas and sound concepts, and so the avant improv element is collectively there. One might look back as a paradigmatic example to Coltrane's "Ascension" as one of the initial models for a larger-band collective outlook. And mind you this does not sound like "Ascension" so much as it breathes the air that we all do in the aftermath of such things.

The music is in part about differing degrees of velocity, of the simultaneous sounding of similarities in their differences, about the seismic experience of material aural reality as a burst of color and light, of sense and "travelling to," of being and knowing through expressive hearing, where the listener is a participant in the creative process by the act of apperception. Those are words I put on how I have embraced the music in the first five listens. It has avant jazz immediacy and then again new music pre-constructions of a will to significant form I guess you could say. And with this music from the vital musical mind of Elliot Sharp is a consistency and a growth in "Modernism" away from the folk-classical model of unfolding periodic melody and its harmony. This is the full liberation from that and a kind of hocket that is not Medieval nor Pygmy in its starts and stops, its presences and absences but rather it unfolds a new motility more like the vastness of the diurnal cycle or the planetary orbits and their this-space-that-space presence.

If that seems obscure then get this album and listen. All I do is approximate what I feel as I hear this very mind-opening music. It is neither so much a one thing or another as it is very much Elliot Sharp music, which is a very important thing. This time now is in part on Elliot Sharp time. Set your watches, put them aside, then listen to this album! I very much recommend it.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Aequa, International Contemporary Ensemble

Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir joins us this morning in a program of some seven of her compositions. The CD and the program of works is called Aequa (Sono Luminus CD and BluRay 02227). The International Contemporary Ensemble prevails in a lively musical imaginativeness and well attuned sensitivity to give us subtly alive performances. And that means a lot because there is a beautiful ambiance to this program. It is dramatic and soundscaped, as crisp as a dazzlingly bright winter's morning with the ice blue of the snow reflected out towards you as you are up to greet the sun. Or for that matter whatever other daydream that might come to mind as you listen. It is woolgathering fare, sure, and very good for that!

The music is tonal and sound-colorful in dramatic ways. That means if you think of the George Crumb way of heightening the sonic experience by a poetic demeanor, it is not something that does not apply to Ms. Thorvaldsdottir. She is not a member of a Crumb School, surely, but she has in her own way a very poetic vision in the soundscapes she constructs. So you may get an almost droned block of chordality with ornamentation that then changes to form a very slow-motion chordal sequence. And to me it feels like living in the realm of gradual shifts in sunlight on a silent and deserted landscape on a sunny, partly cloudy afternoon. If I hearken back to natural landscape in my description it is because there is a natural feel to this music and that is something one hears happily.

Anna clearly seems to know what she is after in the way she orchestrates each moment of the works we experience here. There is something in the Radical Tonality mode about this music if you want to slap a label on it. Karmanic? Oh that probably is a bit much as a descriptive label. But there is something rather cosmic about this music if you will pardon my saying. It feels quite Modern in the end, Post-Modern I suppose too with the droning and spacey toning of all of it. It all manages to mean to project a vision in sound to us as we listen.

I should mention that the album comes with two disks as is often the case with Sono Luminus releases. One is the standard CD, the other a BluRay with multiple channel 5:1 configurations.

It is music that probably would appeal to a lot of people if they allowed themselves to open up to it. From solo piano to large chamber ensemble, the music is sculpted with some brilliance. The music spans the compositional period of 2011 to 2017, right now in other words.

It is a program that allows your musically apprehending mind to luxuriate in thick growths of shifting sounds and to travel a path to many imaginary spaces no doubt. I do when I play it at least. It is an experience you will find yourself returning to and ultimately will I hope live inside of happily when you can. Thorvaldsdottir seems a central aspect of what is happening today. If Iceland has a sound, it is Anna's sound? Probably, yes! An exemplar yet also a joy. Highly recommended.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Imogen Heap, The Music of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts One and Two in Four Contemporary Suites

I am happy when someone I have been following musically makes a huge breakthrough. From a purely ego sense it means I was right all along, but that is stupid thinking. It just means it is a wonderful musical moment for me. I've been a champion of women in music I guess since when I enrolled at Berklee College of Music and there were maybe only three women in the entire student body. And every guy enrolled there (? I do not know) was after them, wanted to "date" them! What it pointed toward was that Gustav and Alma Mahler thing, or that Brahms and Robert and Clara Schumann thing. It was a reality that musical people tended to find one another congenial, and in this case as potential mates. This is not important though for the wider picture here so much as instead the fact that half of our population are women and if we are not encouraging those musically inclined then it is OUR loss. We miss all that music. Common sense.

So since then I have tried to give equal attention to the music women make (of course) so wonderfully well when they are allowed to do so! In the midst of my listening and appreciating years ago an old friend who at the time did marketing for A&M Records was kind enough to send me some music that they were putting out just then. One was the first album by Imogen Heap. Wikipedia says that first album iMegaphone  came out in 1998, but that seems very much later than I recall. No matter. I was still living in Butler, I think! At any rate I heard something different and very interesting to me. It was singer-songwriter alternative I guess. But distinct in a very interesting way, I thought.  After that was Frou Frou which was more like 1998 as far as my memory goes, considerably later? I am not here to question anyone. Heap was not a huge success initially. Frou Frou got her considerably more attention. Anyway I followed her musical trajectory with great interest. Right now there is her latest which to me is a kind of a fulfilling of a promise, of an affirmation of her presence and musical brilliance.

I speak now of this new one, the full title of which is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts One and Two in Four Contemporary Suites (SONY Music Masterworks). The album info states that this is an "album performed, engineered, recorded, mixed and produced by Imogen Heap." That tells you that this is "Electroacoustic-Electronic" at base as indeed the keys and vocals of Ms. Heap are very much to be heard as the basic ingredient that is then extended into a full "orchestral" ambiance.

And truly, her music has evolved to this point where we hear a full CD of "serious" music intended for the play of the same name. But aside from that obvious origin (the play, which will not concern me here) this is in fact a real opportunity for Imogen to show what she can do when let loose. It us stunning fare. She has fully mastered the studio to the point that her total sound is in its own way like the Brian Wilson of Smile, with a compositional-orchestrational sense all her own and incredibly imaginative. It is as if the "Prog" of people like the Beatles and George Martin, ELP, King Crimson and Pink Floyd has not been forgotten but instead relives in new form for something that realizes, that achieves the status of New Music, yet the roots of such an evolution are not disguised.

Of course this is not something that sounds like Cage or Stockhausen. It is tonal. But it does not suffer from a sort of patronized dumming down as can be the case out there today at times. It is fully musical, fully developed and brilliant, just brilliant.  So it is with joy that I listen to this again and so again. The studio is the concert venue, as it has been since Sgt. Pepper's when things are right (or for that matter since the early Electronic Music days on). And there is a spurt forward with this music in the logic of that development.

I will not try to describe the totality of what you will hear with this work. It is masterful, cosmically ambient within a kind of maelstrom of expressive thrust. It is in a way a culmination, first off of the sounds Imogen Heap has been working towards, but also of the "serious" side of Art Rock I suppose you could say. It is very beautiful music, very good to hear repeatedly but from the first it grabs hold of you. It is something that was there from the very first Imogen Heap album, an original sense, and she has arrived completely with this majestic work!

Put this into your ear space, but do not expect it to be x or y. Then you will be drawn in, I hope, on its own terms. Do hear this if you can. Get a copy. Listen!

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Peled Amit, Bach Suites (Volume One), Casals Cello

Since I started writing this blog in 2011 I have had the chance to review a number of versions of the Bach Cello Suites (do a search in the box in the upper left-hand part of this page to see them all). Is there more coming out these days or am I just looking at Classical music releases with a more detailed eye? And have we more genuinely worthy versions being made now than ever before? I cannot say for sure. Certainly the first movement Prelude of the first Suite (echoed also in the first movement of the "Well Tempered Clavier" and the Solo Violin Suites as well) has in the last couple of decades become a favorite for throwing into an ad or using in a drama and good for all that in the end, if it leads more people to be exposed. Truth is I never tire of the music no matter how often I hear it especially when played by a talented interpreter. And so I return today with yet another version, that of the remarkable Peled Amit on the very cello that Casals played in his prime (a 1733 Goffriller with an extraordinary sound) (CFM Classics).

The liners to this first volume of the Suites tells us that the last time we heard the 1733 instrument for this music on record was when Casals himself recorded the Suites in 1936. Casals made the move to be the first cellist to feature the Suites in concert. Before then the music was considered strictly for pedagogical use. So in some important ways this recording is a full coming around.

 Of course all that is very well, you might think, but it means nothing if Peled does not give us a world-class performance. He certainly does. Most notably Peled uses a very expressive rubato for that famous first Prelude. Beyond that he devotes a good deal of animate sound centering and forward motion to his readings. There is little ornamentation but then the very full richness of his tone and inspired execution is a wonder in itself regardless.

There is a kind of penetration to the psychic epicenter of the notes, surely a bit of the warmth of the Casal emphasis yet a bit more of a Modern forwardness. And a very jaunty sort of snap when that is warranted, we get that very nicely as well. It is a wonderful performance, surely one of the finest of our recent times and so I warmly recommend it. I stands its ground as a very beautiful reading that any lover of this music will be glad to have and rehear often. I know I will!

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Serenades & Sonatas for Flute and Harp, Suzanne Shulman. Erica Goodman

If this music and its performances here are virtually "no brainers" there is precedent. In my experience anyway. Very many years ago when I was a student in Chicago I was a member of the Musical Heritage Society, who released mostly mail order albums of recordings that they licensed for US distribution. Their selection of the month for January was a two-lp set of music for string orchestra which arrived in my mailbox the first mail day of the new year. I was feeling vulnerable as one does in those first days of, what was it, 1983? The set started out nicely with Vaughan Williams' "Fantasia on Greensleeves," which was a definite way to begin the year. After all a version of "Greensleeves" with different lyrics was the Christmas song "What Child is This?" and so it seemed seasonal.

Now we have another very different album, which is out right now, this time music for a different instrumentation. Serenades & Sonatas for Flute and Harp (Naxos 8.573947) it is called. And it starts out with a flute and harp arrangement of Vaughan Williams' "Fantasia on Greensleeves."  So it is good to hear this just now, though it would be good anytime. 

It goes without saying that such an instrumentation lends itself to the idea of the "Ambient" though the music was written long before that catch phrase became topical. Suzanne Shulman on flute and Erica Goodman on harp ensure that the music comes through with bell-like clarity and ravishing sonarity. If you love this instrumentation in your head the program will not disappoint.

It is a wide ranging and pretty adventurous gathering  of singular music. The early 20th century English proto-Modernists/pre-Modernists are well represented by Vaughan Williams, William Alwyn (Notably his "Naiades - Fantasy Sonata for Flute and Harp"), and Edward Elgar, among some others not as well known. Then we get some welcome additions in a couple of Francois Couperin miniatures, a little Chausson, Nino Rota and so forth.

This is not a sound by which to set the world on fire. But then for the purposes of this music we do not always want to set the place blazing so much as we might feel a bit damaged by life and seek to recover from the "holidays." That would include a New Years Day hangover of course, though that is not my thing anymore. It is substantial music that manages to bring you some psychic relief without resorting to New Age pablum, so listen without guilt!

I would highly recommend this to anyone who wants something soothing or just loves the idea of the harp and the flute together. It is a very nice way to while away some time, to prepare for or live through winter dreams or the promise of springtime, or any number of other ways to get into a poetic haze. Very nice, this! And it is substantial musically.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Nicholas Dieugenio, Mimi Solomon, Unraveling Beethoven, Modern Composers Today

For each one of us as many starts and re-starts as we go though every year at the end of it we try and sum it up. Similarly the blur of Modernity is an ever-evolving series of beginnings and re-beginnings. And at the end of each year some picture emerges. I feel a definite reset this morning as I listen for the fifth time to a new series of violin-piano Tonal Post-Post-Neo-Classical works played so vibrantly by Nicholas Dieugenio on violin and Mimi Solomon on piano.

And so we have this morning Unraveling Beethoven (New Focus Recordings FCR 217). The idea for this album was to commission five composers to write a work for violin and piano that took into account the ten Violin Sonatas Beethoven produced. Each work is a kind of unraveling and a reweaving into a new fabric. I react to each without thinking at all of that except in passing--for if listening without aid of a compass we follow the music willy-nilly--and so at times that seems best! I do so here. I hope it will help you see what is in this music via a kind of personal listening map in my own time and space.

"The Sky was Good for Flying" by David Kirkland Garner conveys lyrically stunning results in what one might call the "furling" motif for violin and piano. It is highly lyrical and very memorable.

Allen Anderson's "Linen" feels even more like a furling and a re-togethering of fine cloth. It has a bit more of the Modernist Edgy-Tonal spice distributed over its five Expressionist movements. You feel that Modern legacy strongly in ways that point it forward. There is the ghost of Berg's "Violin Concerto" to be heard here and it is a happy recalling of the power of that work. No doubt too there is the Sonata Beethoven as well, but it does not reach out and grab me directly as much as it lurks pervasively in the bedrock of this work. No matter for it is fine music.

"Olmsted" by Robert Honstein has the motility of minimalism yet it moves forward in ways that are directional more than circular, which of course befits a nod in Beethoven's direction. There is real engagement in the effervescence of it all. It makes very new use of the classical motion ideal of bow movements across all strings and a pronounced momentum in piano passagework--both rethought here in glowingly fresh ways. Then there are spaces for lyrical contemplation, which then blossom forth in intimate warmth and tender beauty. The scherzo-ish bursts of rapid figurations and silence set up a mercurial section that vibrates with expressive intensity. The work ends with a gentle dalliance in a motif that feels like a slow-motion trill and then a descending harmonic-"continuo" underpinning to set that all off very nicely. It is music that stands forth in lyrical singularity, post-Beethovenian and a feeling quite Neo-Classical in its working through of the bright glow of a tonal immersion.

Tonia Ko's "Tribute (Axis II)" makes a headlong re-plunge into the more Edgy-Modernist world. The spectre of Crumb can be heard in the ghostingly ghosty open piano sounds and the mysterious high harmonic violin passages. Yet it is forward moving, not just some easy-peasy imitation. Well done. A probing aural journey is this.

Jesse Jones' "Scherzo (After Beethoven)" is the most Ludwig-ian of all these. It addresses the composer's love for the rapid-paced aspects of Beethoven. We feel the love in there and the good willing towards the Beethoven magesticality! A great big grin is this rapid and short conclusion!

So there we have it. It was a great idea and it inspires music considerably more subtle and wayfaring than a typical gesture of "tribute" might imply. In the end that is the ideal result since it brings the music forward rather than staying at rest in a backward modality. The duo of Dieugenio and Solomon are world-class and extraordinarily nuanced in how they bring out all the implications of these works. Bravo. Neo-Classicists take note. But all should no doubt hear this.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Bohuslav Martinu, Small Storms, A Collection of Small Pieces, MINI Review

This another in my new MINI Review Series, a short mention about worthy music where there is not enough time to cover all thoroughly. There is a mature period Bohuslav Martinu Modern style that contains a kind of harmonic movement one who knows his work would recognize. On today's program of works Martinu does not give us the trademark way, but rather playfully enters a kind of Modern realm you do not expect him to be in, along with some more pronounced Neo-Romantic elements.The album is called Small Storms, A Collection of Short Pieces (Navona 6092).

There are six works included here, all for cello and piano. Five are multi-movement journeys, one is a simple short offering.Meredith Blecha-Wells appears on cello, Sun Min Kim is on piano. They do a fine job with the music, showing well developed stylistic sympathies with Martinu and able tone and technique.

Any Martinu fan will find this a good listen and a revelation about another side of his style not often seen. Recommended.