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Monday, April 27, 2020

Jackson Greenberg, First Light EP

It is safe to say that music will never end so long as there are humans to make it and hear it. And all the while the legacy of that making cannot stand still because there is ever the new. Here on this COVID-19 sheltering Friday in April I have another worthwhile album of New Music to share with you.

It is an EP of the music of a composer new to me, one Jackson Greenberg. The EP is entitled First Light (Ravello RR8031) after the first of two compositions featured on the album.

The title work depicts a kind of gradual upward rising-swimming from deep in the seabound core to the light at the surface of the water, a long and still, surrounded ascent depicted in droning unfoldings and gradually evolving light and texture transposed to orchestral sound, ever closer to the visible and so ever more actively hypnotic. It was inspired by listening to an electronic alteration, a stretching of a snippet of music, then using a part of that and writing an orchestral soundscape that took off from that sound. It is moving music, very meditative and cosmic.

"The Panther" follows as a worthy contrast. A recitation in German of Rainer Marie Rilk's poem  threads its way though the work  a fair number of times as the strings and extended aural sustains envelop the hearer. The music is expressive with a warm and epic tonality, the new primal Post-Romantic equivalent perhaps of some elemental "Verklarte Nacht"? Or maybe not exactly. Really it lives for my ears as a feelingful breath of fresh air. Tonal, yes. Yearning without being maudlin, mysterious more than material, harmonically involved, yet also elemental.

In all, this EP gives us Jackson Greenberg in ways revealing and most energizing and hopeful in mood. Right now we may need a little of that and it makes me too want to hear more of his work. Bravo.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Roscoe Mitchell with Ostravska Banda, Distant Radio Transmission

Chicago's Roscoe Mitchell over his long and extraordinarily productive career has shown himself to be among the very greatest innovators as saxophonist, multi-instrumentalist, Free Improvisation-Free Jazz artist and New Music-Jazz Composer of the present Modernism. He is surely destined to be remembered as a key member of the iconic AACM Art Ensemble of Chicago. But there has been much more to him as well. The eclectic and intelligent compositional-improvisational superlatives that have come out of the AEC band over its long tenure as a top avant contender has been paralleled by Roscoe Mitchell's continuing career as vibrant soloist and bandleader on his own.

Yet as important as all these things have been, his output as composer in the New Music realm in time may well be considered of proportional importance some day in the future, if not now. There have been far fewer documentations of this aspect of his music on disk. Happily we have a new recording that nicely covers some of that--Roscoe Mitchell with Ostravska Banda Performing Distant Radio Transmission (Wide Hive WH 0347).

The album spotlights four compositions for various  performers.

The centerpiece of the program is the title work, "Distant Radio Transmission," as played by the 33 member orchestra Ostravska Banda conducted by Petr Kotik, featuring Roscoe Mitchell improvising on sopranino sax. Baritone vocalist Thomas Buckner has a prominent expressive wordless vocal part which seems to make sense in the context of the whole but seemingly also involves some spontaneous improvisational aspects. Mitchell and Buckner interact in some rather astonishing ways at any rate.

The complete genesis of "Transmission" is rather involved. It took birth originally in the form of an improvisation recorded by Mitchell, Craig Taborn and Kikamju Baku in 2013 (released as part of the CD Conversations 1). That segment was transcribed by Stephen P. Harvey in 2016. John Ivers then transcribed and did an initial orchestration of Mitchell's "air sounds for Strings" the following year. Finally the whole of it was orchestrated by Mitchell and comes to us in this final form.

There is a pronounced harmonic and melodic diffusion to the work, which is heightened by the bright sound colors in the orchestration. It is a testament to the initial inspiration of the made-music, of how to collectively and freely make sense spontaneously and then how that initial impetus can take flight again as a completely new progeny when orchestrated. The logic of the group improvisatory gesture remains but the music reshapes as an incredibly superorganic beast of multi-dimensions, starting first with the electronic exotics of James Fei and then involving the amassed forces with ensuing dialogues overtop that--for baritone and sopranino sax. Protracted listening brings out the beauty of the complexity and as one re-listens it so also heightens the logic of the multivaried expression. It is brilliant music!

The three chamber works that follow "Transmission" are by no means filler but instead add a great deal of pivotal New Music and open us happily to further musical adventures.

"Nonaah Trio" for flute, oboe and piano take off from Roscoe's 1971 solo sax work and makes of it an entirely new through-composed sequence for trio that retains some of the cyclical assertions of the original but then builds fleshed-out expressive bridges to a chamber whole.

"Cutouts" (for Woodwind Quintet) comes to us as a result of a 1981 commission.  This version gets completely worked through via conventional notation and special symbols to indicate harmonics and other extended techniques. It is a full-fledged work of importance, and it grows in your musical imagination the more you hear it.

"8-8-88" in three movements brings to us the digital reproduction and multiplicationj of piano techniques via the Yamaha Disklavier, allowing a density and velocity that would not be available in the conventional piano-pianist situation. It is played-recorded-programmed quite excitingly by Seth Horvitz. It was composed by Mitchell from 8-8-88 onwards, originally for Joseph Kudera. The result is extraordinary music of great complexity, painstakingly composed by Roscoe over a long period. The first movement alone took ten years to complete to the composer's satisfaction. It is a masterful work, a wonder to experience.

This volume should do much to help extend our knowledge and appreciation of the Mitchell New Music oeuvre. It gives us some critically advanced examples, excellently played in vivid soundstaging.

It is a new but essential contribution to our New Music Modernist cannon in my opinion. All who want to know what has been happening that's good should listen closely. Bravo!

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Zephyr Quartet, Epilogue

The Zephyr Quartet tackles nine works with a pronounced stylistic leaning towards a New/Radical Tonality on their album Epilogue (Navona 6275). What is most notable and unusual is that all nine works were written in turn by each member of the quartet (Kleinig, Geniert, Tulloch, Thomas). Remarkable, perhaps even more remarkable is the unity in concept of all the works. They differ sufficiently to gain a true individuality but they also have in common folksy-cum-primal meta-pop diatonic roots both lyrical and earthy. The Australian quartet realizes each of these works with the right mix of passion and precision, bringing out the nuances consistently and invariably.

Here follows a little run-down of  the music and something of what it is all about:

Hilary Kleinig, "Great White Bird"--a drone with harmonics opens and the cello plays a folkish sort of expression overtop that, then a violin takes up the strain while the cello begins an ostinato motif and the melody takes off further,  harmonized and made rhythmic.

Belinda Geniert, "Femme Fatale"--three short movements contrast, the first an unfolding arpeggiation that evolves into an evocative sequence, then a second section with vivid melody over pizzicato strummings, then a third part with vivid contrast, etc. Two further movements provide lyrical freshness, new developments among extensions of the initial material, and on we go.

Hilary Kleinig, "Cockatoos"--diatonic with minimal-like passage work underneath a flowing lyrical melody.

Hilary Kleinig, "Exquisite Peace"--more primal, ritualistic long tone blends with bounce-bowing effects that give the music texture.

Emily Tulloch, "Blindfold Gift"--a wistful and refreshing jaunt through a pizzicato playfulness, followed by a dancing pattern that sounds almost jig-like.

Emily Tulloch, "Our Lovely Star"--an ostinato counterpoint that has plenty of charm.

Jason Thomas, "Mulysa"--opens with a folk drone underpinning a simple but expressive melody, then a pizzicato waltz ostinato with a more lively folk-fiddle melody, etc.

Jason Thomas, "Time's Timeless Art"--a slowly unraveling andante with a vaguely pastoral feel, a hushed stillness in sound.

Belinda Geniert, "Epilogue"--a repeating lyricism in four-voices unfolding endlessly in fascinating ways.

It is music of a rooted simplicity that turns out to be complex and varied enough to hold up under repeated hearings. If you meet this music on its own ground it is a very happy listening experience, not tedious as such things might be in lesser hands. It is folksy enough to remain continually unpretentious and unassuming, yet giving out with inventive content and lively execution.

This is good music, well played. It may not be exactly what you might expect from New Music but it goes where it goes nicely and does what it does quite interestingly. Give it a listen!

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Zosha di Castri, Tachitipo

Who is Zosha di Castri? She is a living composer, someone in the Contemporary Modern camp in her own way. A portrait album of a cross-section of her work has been out since late last year and it is a very worthwhile program. Tachitipo (New Focus Recordings FCR227) has been on my blog playlist this past week. I am glad to post on it today.

There is a good deal to like in this portrait, some six works by various performers and configurations.

The title piece "Tachitipo" (2016) is the most lengthy of the works at 24 minutes. It is scored for two pianos, two percussionists and electronics. There are machine-like, automata-like passages for dampened or prepared strings on the piano and percussion parts working together for something one gladly rises up to encounter in one's listening mind. They are like islands scattered among more fluid oceanic expressions, the latter "quasi-improvisatory textures featuring microtonal washes of pitch," in the composer's words.  The contrasting blocks work together to leave a distinct impression of newness, of a pronounced virtuosity of sonarity. Like the 1823 Italian typewriter model for which the work is named it proceeds, the composer suggests, "one key at a time," or in other words in sectional steps. Yarn/Wire perform the work with enthusiasm and imagination.

Chronologically the album opens with an a capella vocal work "The Animal After Whom Other Animals are Named" (2013) for six voices and electronics. It is one of the more diffuse pieces and the vocal group Ekmeles jumps into it all with a flourish and a relish. The work looks at aging, of the voice and the human being as a whole.  I am not sure I would have started the set out with this one, only because it demands a fair amount of concentration on the part of the listener, but like all New Music one should pay attention from the first, so no matter.

The following "Cortege" (2010) for 13 musicians  thrives in the lively reading given it by the Talea Ensemble under Lorraine Vaillencourt. It according to the composer came out of an inspiration involving a procession, a strange, "relentless succession of people and sounds." The piece is filled with rollingly explosive interactions, each a part of the passing scene, as if one were watching a parade from a window. It also gives the feeling of "impending loss," as on the eve of a city falling into enemy hands or the inexorable loss of a lover as Zosha suggests. The work is quite exemplary of a thoroughgoing Expressionism that never flags and continually morphs. 

Enter next the JACK Quartet, who handle di Castri's "Quartet No. 1" (2016) with a flair. The resulting tumultuous music rebounds off the imagination-receptive ear quite nicely. Virtuoso parts, deep energetic forays and a sense of cosmic proportions makes this one a good starter if you are auditioning the album. It is very idiomatically string-oriented, boisterously alive, a great example of how the string quartet continues to be a context where the more serious gestures can flourish.

The complexities and dash of the solo piano "Dux" (2017) rivets the attention, then keeps it centered on itself throughout the 11:40 performance time. It contrasts the extremes with the middle registers as a wide-ranging whole and places definite demands on pianist Julia Den Boer that she tackles with heroic intensity. This is beautifully wild piano music that gets the adrenaline going.

Finally there is "La forma dello spazio" (2010) for a quintet of flute, clarinet, piano, violin and cello. Rising to the occasion is the International Contemporary Ensemble under Vaillancourt. The performers are to be auditorally placed about the room or soundstage, expressing movement against stasis as would a mobile. Each instrumentalist is given a flexibility within a set kind of continuousness. The happy whole has dynamic thrust and a hypnotic meditativeness.

So there we have it. Zosha di Castri shows herself in this album to be a voice of definite originality and talent, an imaginative and inventive force. The performers give the music their rapt attention and expressive zeal. Highly recommended for those New Music followers ready for something very new and invitingly expressed.

Monday, April 13, 2020

John Aylward, Angelus, Ecce Ensemble

The nearly infinite stylistic possibilities of the present day do not guarantee of course that everything will be great. In the end a little greatness is as rare a thing now as any other time. I must say the album coming out this month of the music of John Aylward, namely his Angelus (New Focus FCR 261) is well situated in a post-Serialist High Modern zone so not exactly a surprise but then there is some greatmess to it all, the work, the performance by vocalist Nina Guo and the chamber Ecce Ensemble directed by Jean-Phillippe Wurtz. It occupies a place in a lineage that includes Pierrot Lunaire and Le Marteau sans Maitre. That is it features a chamber ensemble of modest proportions, a singer, singer-speaker, or (for Schoenberg) a Sprechstimme vocal part that is unified in a literary segmented-sequential manner.

The music is High Modern in tone and texture. It has that widely ranging would-be Serialist expansiveness like the Schoenberg and the Boulez. The texts bring out dimensions of human experience as Aylward recalls a trip to Europe he made with his mother--her first since fleeing during WWII, and involved with that experience is the Paul Klee painting Angelus Novus. Texts are meant to illuminate this experience and include enlightening textual excerpts by the likes of Adrienne Rich, Walter Benjamin, Nietzsche, Jung, Weldon Kees, etc.

There is a haunting moodiness to the music that raises it in my mind to some of the earlier chamber-literary classics mentioned above. Soprano Nina Guo has an extraordinarily clear and bell-clarion suchness to her voice on this. The Ecce Ensemble (which Aylward is the director) sounds born to the music.

On this rainy Easter Monday of the Pandemic Lockdown here in New Jersey I while writing this review was visited by four wild turkeys looking for food in the back yard that adjoins my apartment. All writing can have time-capsule aspects and this one does purposely because the time is so unprecedented. The deserted-of-humans realm outside during the sheltering-in-place happening now no doubt encouraged the turkeys to come forth. They never would be expected to come so far into the human zone otherwise as far as my experience goes. The excellence of this music contrasts with the unknowns of the future, the ramblings of the turkeys and the juxtaposition of those three makes me appreciate the human achievement of Angelus all the more.

I do very much recommend this album. It is a triumph, a chamber work one hopes NOT for the end of the world but for a new beginning? Listen if you can.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

James Lentini, Through Time and Place, Bronislaw Martinu Philharmonic Orchestra, etc.

With the extraordinarily trying times we are living through we of course want to keep on with what we feel is most valuable in our lives as we can. And so my own survey of what New Music has been coming out keeps on. Today there is the music of James Lentini (b 1958) a US composer, guitarist and academic with a long career and a significant body of works.

A program of select Lentini orchestral works from 1994-2010 has been getting my listening ear in the last few weeks. Through Time and Place (Navona NV6273) covers some five ambitious and adventurous works for wind symphony, symphony orchestra and one for soprano, chorus and orchestra. As we come to expect from Navona, for this program the production values are uniformly high; performances range from the quite respectable to the very good. There are a fair number of organizations involved--the Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic Orchestra under Anthony Iannaccone, the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra under Ricardo Averbach, The Wayne State University Symphony Chorus and Orchestra under Norah Duncan IV, The Wayne State University Wind Symphony under Douglas Bianchi and the Krakow Philharmonic Orchestra under Jerzy Swoboda.

The music has a uniformly expressive demeanor that takes full advantage of the tonal nuances available in contemporary performing groups via nicely orchestrated and complex layering of interlocking sectional interplay. This is exemplary American Contemporary Modern with a harmonically involved tonality as rooted in American Central-Modernists such as William Schumann and other post-Copland compositional voices, and then perhaps a shade of the fanfare-like unfoldings of Edgard Varese. James Lentini holds his own by expressing a personal take on this style set. All five works have a pronounced dramatic and timbral tensileness that stand up under close scrutiny.

The "Three Sacred Meditations" (2000) for soprano Dana Lentini, chorus and orchestra is perhaps the most ambitious of the works along with the recent "Through Time and Place (Symphony No. 1)" (2010). Nonetheless there is well put-together, absorbing orchestral additions in "Sinfonia di Festa" (1996), the dramatically ravishing "Dreamscape" (1994) and the mysteriously moving wind symphony work "The Angel's Journey" (1998), the latter two certainly personal favorites and definite highlights of the program.

Anyone who likes to engage in exploring present-day orchestral Modernism in the USA will no doubt find this volume of definite interest. James Lentini has a voice that deserves a hearing. Bravo.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Bloch, Muczynski, Reger, 20th Century Music for Cello. Benjamin Whitcomb

Anyone who knows Bach's unaccompanied cello music knows how intricate and unforgettable it all is--especially after one has heard it a few times. For the serious listener it is an excellent embarkation point for further explorations into the cello repertoire. Assuming that, today we have an alternate journey through the unaccompanied zone with 20th Century Music for Cello (MSR Classics MS1587) as performed quite ably and perhaps even selflessly by Benjamin Whitcomb. It is a good selection of some three less-well-known works and even perhaps one simply not at all well-known solo cello work from last century.

It consists of the "Gallery--Cello Suite" (1966) by Robert Muczynski (1929-2010), the "Cello Suite No. 2" (1915) by Max Reger (1873-1916) and lastly another "Cello Suite No. 2" (1957), this one by Ernest Bloch (1880-1959). You may not know some or perhaps even any of these works. Yet in this Whitcomb recital they stand out as things that supplement how you look at the unaccompanied cello possibilities, all owing something indirectly from Bach and also the 20th Century and its expanded sense of melodic-harmonic development. The works are post-Romantic without being avant exactly. They all share with Bach's unaccompanied cello works the Suite format--a grouping of interrelated brevities that manage to cohere as one gesture.

Whitcomb gives us a reading of these works which are marked for their rather unassuming straightforward approach. They are neither heart-on-the-sleeve molto-expressivo nor are they spun out with some carpet-making regularity. That is to say that they are attentive to the widest arcs of the musical syntax as well as the fine-meshed details. Whitcomb does not turn these into extroverted virtuoso vehicles so much as he produces a well balanced set of readings that allow the listener to gauge the works properly, assuming an unfamiliarity and/or an appetite for the compositional wholes--as wholes.

For me the Muczynski is the happy surprise, in that I did not know the work. Nonetheless all three pieces get a bold no-nonsense definition here. They are good to hear--probably regardless of the specifics of your general orientation to the contemporary. So take a listen if you will.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Ilari Kaila, Aizuri Quartet and Adrienne Kim, The Bells Bow Down

New Music in today's world as we know needn't follow slavishly some path marked out in, say, 1920. We may inevitably be tied to a rolling path from the past but we also put the movement into the trajectory by following what we hear today, individually and collectively. That certainly applies to Finnish-American composer Ilari Kaila (b 1978) and the album of his chamber music as performed by the Aizuri Quartet and Adrienne Kim, The Bells Bow Down (Innova 036).

Six works grace the album. And each one has a distinctive, personal character. There is a special sonance halfway between a sort of folkish diatonicism and some form of Radical Tonality. Gordon Kerry in the liners explains as aspect of the personal ways of the composer. "Much of his work is shaped by extra-musical stimulus: his grief for a lost friend, visual and aural images celebrating the natural world, a love of the (sometimes multilingual) punning title." And perhaps most importantly out of that impetus there is an originality of musical language that somewhat paradoxically sounds and feels natural, quasi-organic.

Kaila after graduating from SUNY Stonybrook with a PhD in composition in 2011 taught at Columbia University and was in residence as a teaching artist with the New York Philharmonic. He is now stationed in Hong Kong where he is composer-in-residence at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

The Aizuri Quartet and pianist Adrienne Kim play the music as if they were born to it and perhaps in the end they truly have been.

All six compositions are in their own way gems. The folk-fiddling traces of the quartet "Jouhet" (2017) gives us a beautiful sort of jolt. The opening archaic harmonic sequencing of the title work "The Bells Bow Down" (2006) for quartet and piano leads to a stunning piano expression that the quartet responds to and we revel in some of the most memorable music of all of it, dedicated to the memory of pianist Hanna Sarvala.

From there we have the varied but no less striking "Cameo" (2015 for flute, viola and piano, "Hum and Drum" (2017) for cello and piano, "Wisteria" (2003) for the string quartet, and not the least, the mesmerizing five-part piano work "Taonta" (2016).

As nearly all TV ads have it lately, "in trying times like these" bla bla bla. Truly though, this Ilani Kaila collection has the human touch, has some kind of hopeful quality to it, and reminds us if we need to be reminded that music has healing powers. So in that way it is most timely and most timeless at once. I do recommend this one strongly for the paradoxically rugged yet delicate lyricism. It bears up under repeated scrutiny and after a few listens seems like a friend. Kaila is a musical poet, a definite talent out there. This would I hope be as happy a discovery for you as it has been for me. Listen closely if you can. It's well worth your time.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Reza Vali, Longing, Chamber Music, Carpe Diem String Quartet

The traditional Persian musical heritage of composer Reza Vali forms a vital core for much of a recent volume devoted to his chamber music, Longing (MSR Classics 1738). It features the very sympathetic readings of the Carpe Diem Quartet, violinist Charles Wetherbee, pianist David Korevaar and for one piece, santoorist Dariush Saghafi. The program consists of five single or multiple movement works, all written within the past decade, all freshened essays in musical sound.

It is a perhaps obvious truth that on the one hand we have the Romantic tradition in the age of classical music that begins sometime in the 19th century and ends sometime in the 20th. But it is equally so that some other ages and other local traditional folk or folk-classical traditions may center on feelings in a Romantic way as well. That is certainly true of the Iranian-Persian Classical tradition as it has come down to us. It is the case in this Reza Vali program that a Persian world of feeling-expression presents itself in rewarding ways.

There is also a nod to Western Romanticism in the opening "Three Romantic Songs for Violin and Piano" (2011). It is a tribute to Brahms according to the liners and to me not the most attractive item in the program, but it does retain its freshness on repeated hearings so I'll leave it at that. It adds another dimension to the composer's output, so good for it. It is at any rate worth hearing.

The other four works deal more directly with transforming the composer's appreciation of Persian classical and folk roots into a Western Classical-Modern world, somewhat akin to what Hovhaness did so well with his own Armenian roots.

There are some remarkable works to be heard, with the tuning of the strings often enough in the specially untempered mideastern way and a pronounced Folk-Modern outlook. Start anywhere, but perhaps a good place is with the violin-piano "Love Drunk (Folk Songs, Set No. 16B)" and its special way. I recognize one of the songs as in a recorded version on an old Folkways album I have had for a long time. Start there to hear how Vali espouses a music not unmodern, not deliberately archaic so much as engaged in transforming influences from a very old tradition into something Modern Classical in an original way.

So you will hear in addition "Ashoob (Calligraphy No. 14)" in versions for santoor (a kind of hammered dulcimer important to Iranian tradition) and string quartet, and also for string quartet alone (2014).  Listen to "Raak (Calligraphy No. 15)" and "Ormavi (String Quartet No. 4)," both nicely played by the Carpe Diem String Quartet. Then listen to all of it again and you no doubt will begin to hear how it comes together with an original flair that is by no means a given but dependent on Reza Vali's sensibility and genuine talent.

I most certainly do recommend this one for those adventurous souls looking for a different take on the World-Classical nexus, those who love Persian Classical, and Modernists who would welcome another solution to today and yesterday, here and elsewhere sorts of things. Bravo.