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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.

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