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Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Johann Sebastian Bach, Keyboard Partita No. 4, etc., Marija Ilic, Piano

As I grow older I find that the music of Johann Sebastian Bach seems ever more deep. And when a pianist makes a new selection of keyboard works that are worth re-hearing and then brings a fully pianistic expression to them, I am a happy listener. That's how I feel listening to a new volume of such things by Marija Ilic (MSR Classics 1724).

It's an almost whimsical reading of some classics, sounding almost like she is recalling the music in memory with some feeling of past-in-present, some fond associations the music brings to her. Perhaps I am projecting into the music how I myself feel about it? Not exactly, though, because this is a series of delicately dreamful readings, not a romping horserace like some of Glen Gould's classic interpretations, but then the choices reflect a reflection, a reflectivity more than a flurry.

So the two Adagios (BWV 1016 and 968) are calm and introspective, the "Six Little Preludes" have a brittle delicacy. But then the "Partita No. 4" has the deep waters of the "heavier," somewhat more profound Bach and Ms. Ilic gives it all the weight it demands.

In the liners they mention that the Times praise her for her "quiet intensity." Yes, I hear that, too. And with this particular setting and these interesting repertoire choices you have a real keeper. I am glad to have it and I suspect you'd be too, if you love Bach on piano. Bravo.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Nick Storring, My Magic Dreams Have Lost Their Spell

Nick Storring's My Magic Dreams Have Lost Their Spell (Orange Milk Records) resonates at once through a number of genres simultaneously. The music is Electroacoustic, New Music, Ambient, Neo-Psychedelic Rock and Soundscape all at once. The music is painstakingly built up out of many tracks laid down one-at-a-time by Storring on a great variety of acoustic and electroacoustic instruments--guitars, synths. violin, his primary instrument the cello, etc. The potent final conjugation is a heady orchestral melange that has roots in Sgt. Pepper's as much as Stockhausen, Pink Floyd, Fripp and Eno as much as Morton Feldman and John Luther Adams, or even Funkadelic for a minute or two! And out of that comes a certain brilliance, real brilliance.

The Toronto based Storring put this together as a tribute to Roberta Flack. That might not suggest itself to you if you did not already know it but the point is that the ambitious soundscape transcends any possible reference point gloriously to exist in itself. The music has Progressive thrust and a wonderful sense of "orchestration" that comes out of Storring's remarkable sound-color vision.

And in the end it defies genre to exist on its own plane, a singular thing of beauty, a remarkable set of short pieces that flow together in one long, convincing stream of musical being. It is a conglomeration of influences that all together come together as the future of the past. And perhaps all music of note exists in that way?

I recommend this one heartily. It could have been listed in any number of my other blogs because it is everywhere at once. It is a ravishingly fine album. Do not miss it if you can help it.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Jeremy Beck, By Moonlight

If one is to be fair in evaluating the various New Music albums that might come your way these days, it is best not to have a pre-conceived set of stylistic expectations that push the discussion into a pre-judgement. This may be a recent development. If you were listening to the assortment of New Music releases in the '70s or '80s it was fair to expect that the music would likely be either High Modern, pre- or post-Serialist, or Minimalist. Nowadays all those categories still exist, yet there are other possibilities as we continually see. When describing music, I find myself often enough making a turn to labels I have long thought are useful in that they give you a shorthand clue as to the music you could hear, what it generally might sound like, and now those possibilities include anything or everything. I have not abandoned the typologies-labels here because I still think it helps potential listeners, but they are no longer the end-all of considerations, surely, if they ever were.

For example we have the music of contemporary living US composer Jeremy Beck in an album entitled By Moonlight (Innova 051). It covers some nine works in a wide variety of ensemble possibilities--solo guitar, choir, tenor and piano, several stringed instruments, full orchestra, etc. The music is unabashedly tonal, perhaps a bit on the painter-of-tones side of things, lyric and expansive, not exactly a Modern-day Copland, but not exactly Neo-Classical either. Perhaps something in between, in original ways.

The last composition in the program, the relatively short "Three Pieces for Orchestra" takes flight most happily in the painterly zone--in general, not that the music engages in referential specifics to the extent of something like, say, Copland's "Appalachian Spring." The mood is soundfully sunny and pastoral, but not so literal. The first movement depicts moonlight, the second a prelude to Beck's opera The Biddle Boys and Mrs. Soffel, and the third a "Serenade" based on a movement from his fifth string quartet. It holds up on repeated hearings, as does the rest of the music in general.

The opening work, "Concertino" for two cellos and string orchestra also gives us some very heartening lyricism, this slightly more folksy than not but very fresh in its phrasing out of long melodic streams, and all that is most appealing.

The beginning and the end of this program give us vibrant music that, even if taken alone gives us sufficient reason to like this music. Yet there are a great deal of contrasting things in between as well. Given the terse but appealing brevity of much of it a detailed blow-by-blow delineation of what you would hear would be perhaps a little too much detail for this review article?

Yet a few touchstones might be in order. "Dream and Echoes" is a two movement satb choir sequence beautifully lyrical. "Of Summers Past, or Passing" gives us nicely ruminative and inventive movements for clarinet and piano.

"Two Pieces for Guitar" sounds timeless yet at the same time sounds like a past-in-the-present kind of Modernity that does nicely defy expectations yet channels the guitar-lute literature as a whole into something personal and in the present moment.

The solo cello "Prelude and Toccata" has a kind of proudly bold set of double-stop punctuated declamations both dramatic and toneful, then jumps into a dancingly jaunty second movement that is quite appealing.

The music disarms me as a listener by not calling attention to itself as an example of some new trend, some flavor-of-the-month fodder for some genre cannon. Instead it beguiles purely on its own terms as a series of  miniatures and one-offs most notable in themselves more so than examples of some larger movement. That is all fine if one listens without expectations. It is regenerative music nice to accompany the need for a more hopeful mood? As nature becomes awakened in full spring as I write this I feel the music helps do justice to the glorious seasonal opening of buds. Most pleasurable a listen it is. Bravo Jeremy Beck.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Ning Yu, Of Being, Music By Wang Lu, Misato Mochizuki, Emily Praetorius

In these days we live through it is sometimes natural to reflect on how things have come to be. During such times the music we hear can be quite fitting if it is thoughtful and introspective. I've found that to be much the case on a new album, Of Being (New Focus FCR242) by pianist Ning Yu. It is her very first solo album and features the world premier recordings of three solo works.

Each of those works explores the sonarities, the harnessing of substantial virtuoso abilities to a music at hand and the extended technical possibilities of new piano music the way it has opened up in the past 100 years. The works are ripe with expressive potential, well realized by Ning Yu. Each of the pieces seeks to make a conceptual element come alive through evolved, Abstract Modern expression.

The opening composition is "Rates of Extinction" in five relatively short movements by Wang Lu. As the program notes tell us it is "both a lament for mortally endangered species and a celebration of  pianistic virtuosity." There is much going on throughout.

Misato Mochizuki's single-movement "Moebius-Ring" is a musical realization of a mathematical paradox identified by the title. A set of variations centers around pulsations that repeat, gradually deconstructs down to one note and then rebuilds again.

The third and final work, "Of Being" by Emily Praetorious seeks to examine the space between time in suspension and time flowing.  The music uncovers subtleties in decay, interval-to-interval relationships, the continuous articulation of lines across a wide-set of registers and varied attacks including dampened pitches, harmonics, bursts of pianism and a movement through increasingly high density soundings. It all gives us a heightened perception of time set into motion.

In sum we are treated to a highly sophisticated set of piano works played with emotional commitment and thoughtful precision. It is music difficult to play but not so difficult to explore with a proper attitude and a bit of patience.

Ning Yu is a wonder of contemporary pianism, taking on each of the three works with an ideal sense of focus and aesthetic expression. The works themselves in turn give to us a proverbial Zen rock garden of sound and sensibility exhilarating to hear. Highly recommended.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Gunther Schuller, The Fisherman and His Wife, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose

The late Gunther Schuller (1925-2015) was enormously influential on the American musical scene as I grew up. He was a Modern composer of great breadth and originality, one of the main forces behind so-called Third Stream Music which sought to meld Classical and Jazz, a major innovator in music education in his leading role at the New England Conservatory, and a musicologist and author of great consequence, writing among other things the classic Early Jazz.

In spite of all that his own compositional output has not in the present day been getting the exposure it deserves. A worthy exception is the new Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Odyssey Opera recording of The Fisherman and His Wife (BMOP/sound 1070), Gil Rose conducting.

The opera was completed in 1970 and was performed as recently as 2015 by BMOP/Odyssey in a memorial concert. The libretto enshrines John Updike's wry adaptation of the classic Grimm Brothers tale of the same name, about a fisherman who catches an enchanted prince in the form of a talking fish and subsequently intervenes for his wife who asks the fish to grant her a sequence of increasingly demanding wishes.

The point of it all is the ingenuity of the combination & contrast of the music with the libretto and the implications, the complexities of the score and its diffuse pointing beyond. The cast of  five singers (Sondra Kelly, Steven Goldstein, David Kravitz, Katrina Galka and Ethan Depuy) each take on their roles well and the orchestra sounds excellent as always.

The beautifully involved expression of orchestra and vocalists has an original Modernity and definite traces of Jazz soundings in an inimitable way. The orchestration has subtle brilliance, power and chromatic heft. Each scene has like a modern abstract painting a surface and a depth that becomes more apparent and revealing the more one is exposed.

It's a good one for your collection of Modern US milestones, if you like to gather such things together for your reference and enjoyment. Viva Gunther Schuller!

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Peteris Vasks, Viola Concerto, String Symphony "Voices," Sinfonietta Riga, Maxim Rysanov, Viola & Conductor

There is a quiet sort of yearning present in some of the best works of Latvian-born Peteris Vasks (b. 1946) and it is not so much Romantic in intent as it is more widely mysterious. We can hear this readily and quite happily on the recent release of the Viola Concerto String Symphony "Voices" (BIS 2443). Maxim Rysanov most capably and beautifully plays the solo viola part and conducts Sinfonietta Riga, who in turn sound fully ravishing.

The "Concerto for Viola and String Orchestra"  (2014-15) opens with an ultra-tonal primality that has some of the folk-like string lyricism of Hovhanness and the longing long-tones of an Arvo Part.Yet one would not confuse this music with either composer because Vasks authoritatively brings his self-singing into it all. The stage is set for the viola and the entrance confirms open and stopped string eloquence and earthiness combined. The second movement catches the folk-dance mood and makes of it something beautifully wrought and infectiously engaging. The music grows more vivid and energetic in the third movement before the last movement and its exquisite peace.

The "Symphony for Strings 'Voices'" follows, written some years earlier in 1991. It opens with a strongly yearning series of chordal string blocks, goes on to depict groups of birds singing in the middle movement, with some of the most lyrically evocative music he has written. The movement culminates in a beautifully exuberant, collective mass twitter. In contrast the final movement expresses some of the political upheaval the Baltic States were undergoing while the music was coming into being. Dubbed "Voices of conscience," it expresses dismay and perhaps a yearning sense of hope. culminating in an outcry and then serene reflections perhaps, a kind of hopeful resignation? It is moving music.

So we end where we began, in a contemplative silence. Vasks' music is here especially thoughtful, seemingly perfect for the reflective solitude many of us may find ourselves experiencing of late. We get two deeply introspective works played especially well. It gives us a perfectly representative introduction to his music for those not familiar but then provides a welcome addition for those who know the composer and want more. Bravo!

Wet Ink Ensemble, Glossolalia, Lines on Black, Music of Sam Pluta and Alex Mincek

New Music especially in the so-called Avant Garde often implies a future where that music will somehow be in the mainstream. Yet the future nowadays seems less preoccupied with "serious music" than it has at times been. Is it a sign of things to come? So for example Beethoven's late string quartets may be embraced by the community of classical musical professionals today but it hardly is "popular" fare in some statistical sense. If we look back to the "High Modern" works of the past 100 years, of course not everything has ended up in the standard repertoire. Rather few have, on the whole. But then New Music in our time has spawned followers who may listen to it instead of the standard fare. The most daring of such works have taken risks, experimented with novel aural and musical ideas and combinations, gone into aesthetic realms few dreamed of in the past. And such music has gathered a small but devoted following because such a thing can excite and give pleasure, of course.

Someone from 150 years ago, if they magically time-traveled to today and heard the album Glossolalia/Lines on Black (Carrier Records 048) by the Wet Ink Ensemble, they might be a good deal more shocked by what they would hear than any of us today who have lived with New Music as a steady diet. The album is expressively filled with timbral and textural extensions and experiments that they might have had no intimations about in their day. The electronically derived-altered sounds and extended instrumental techniques are in fact novel at times yet we have been prepared for them by sound-color advances we have lived with for years. What's more at times such sound innovations have even entered Popular music in the form of synths, samples and studio techniques.

And by now have many of us who listen to such things no longer trouble ourselves too much with how many of the new things we hear will be singled out in 500 years as seminal to the world and its continued rolling changes? We might instead ask, does it retain interest for us when listening repeatedly? Is it worth an immersion into?

In the case of the album at hand the answer for me anyway is emphatically, "yes!" We have in the ensemble the considerable talents of Erin Lesser, flutes, Josh Modney, violin, Kate Soper, voice, Alex Mincek, saxophone, Eric Wubbels, piano, Ian Antonio, percussion and Sam Pluta, electronics (and audio production). All have centered in New York City. Each has mastered the complexities of advanced New Music performance and each contributes compositions to the group's repertoire as I understand it.

For this release Mincek presents his seven movement "Glossolalia" and Pluta his nine movement "Lines on Black." Each work makes of every movement a special showcase for one or more of the ensemble members. So "Apmonia" (from "Glossololia") highlights violin and piano stridencies, then switches to snare and electronics before moving on to the final movement with the latter plus vibes, piano, voice and etc., for a rollicking helter skelter of entrances and exclamations. Everything is heightened as performativity, as a special vehicle for the artists as a group and individually. There is a vibrant level of expression one can often enough hear in the best of free improvisational musics yet too sometimes the more tightly prescribed and ordered sequences of New Music on the "Classical" end of things.

One might suggest that this result is especially forwarded by the composer-performer interface as close and continually interactive. In this way we get a New Music equivalent perhaps of the classical Duke Ellington Big Bands where each instrumentalist is captured in the compositions as a special musical personality.

So here it is the immediacy of the personal input of the performers combined with the complex compositional vision of each of the two works that make this program special and set this music apart as individual and noteworthy.

What people will be remembering about the music of the present in 500 years is virtually anyone's guess. Right now, however, the music of the Wet Ink Ensemble does a great job capturing our very much living present. You should by all means give this one a listen.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Thomas Ades, Works for Solo Piano, Han Chen

Thomas Ades (b. 1971) has over the past several decades been somewhat quietly but steadily establishing himself as one of England's most vital new compositional lights. I've been appreciating his chamber and orchestral works but never really encountered his treatment of the piano. All that changes with Works for Solo Piano (Naxos 8.574109), a volume of some seven interesting pieces well played by Han Chen.

The works come at us from the recent and fairly recent past, 1992-2018. My first impression on listening, which has stayed with me, was how pianistic it all is, so that we get a pianistic Ades, something a bit other compared to the orchestrational and chamber-pieces identity. Here we get a kind of registrational, touch-oriented Ades. It is most underscored, most about the notes, or so that seems to me as I listen. You might say that all solo piano music aims to registrate and touch, and that is as true with this music as any. Here Ades brightly and brilliantly succeeds where some others may not completely do so.

There is Lisztian panache in the 2009 "Concert Paraphrase," some almost Japanese sounding Dowland-lute-influenced expression with dampened strings on "Still Sorrowing" (1992) and the epically stretched and trilled impact of the companion piece "Darkness Visible." The world premiere recording of "Blanca Variations" shows us a thoughtful, pensive side, lyrically robust.You can hear a kind of Modernist post-Scriabin on "Traced Overhead" (1996).  Then there are haunting, mysterious post-Chopin explorations and playfulness on the "Mazurkas for Piano" (2009). "Souvenir" (2018) closes out the program with a kind of heartbreaking lyricism. It sounds like peak experience filtered in somewhat melancholy memory.

It's all good and it gives you a side of Ades that strongly portrays him in broad outlines and pictorial pastels. He can allow influences to show without losing sight of his own musical vision and he remains in the expressive tradition yet completely Modernist in overall impact. The music has some teeth, some bite. It challenges the player with original ornateness yet never seems to lose the center of its melodic-structural thrust.

It's a vital set of works played with obvious relish and sympathy. Anyone who lives to hear the ivory-ebony towers of sound possible in our times will no doubt find this one as fascinating as I have. Kudos to all involved!

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.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Louis Valentine Johnson, Peace, with the Dos Almas String Quartet

Classical guitarist Louis Valentine Johnson teams up with the Dos Almas String Quartet for Peace (Dos Almas DA 2019), a collection of some timeless music mostly contemporary yet in the tradition of the Spanish guitar legacy. Three works get idiomatic, warm treatment--"The Peace Concerto" by Johnson himself, "Toccata, Evocation, & Fandango" by Mark A. Radice (arranged by Philip Rothman) and "Allegretto in B Minor, Opus 35, Number 22" by Fernando Sor (arranged by Johnson).

The highly sonorous possibilities of classical guitar and string quartet see three happy realizations that spring forward with lyrical consonances in the wider Spanish tradition.

Johnson's own "Peace Concerto" has a post-Aranquez beauty in its middle "Song of Peace" and elaborate interactions on the closing movement "The Question." The opening "Portraits" has a rugged thematic character. It is all quite pleasing and well worth the ear time.

The program  opener "Toccata, Evocation & Fandango" by Mark A Radice has a complementary Spanish-Neo-Classical  meditative air to it that the Fandango conclusion stirs up with a spirit that paints the guitar in the center of an expressive flourish that the quartet seconds nicely.

Sor's "Allegretto in B Minor" holds forth in short and sweet fashion to bring a palate cleanser of sorts before the centerpiece Concerto of Johnson's.

This is not music meant to stand on a contemporary cutting edge but it is memorable and that is what matters. Anyone who revels in the classical guitar will find in this program much to like, I think. The "Peace Concerto" will likely stay in your mind as the central linchpin, but regardless the music and performances hang together as one continually unified stylistic gesture. Johnson and company wax eloquently. In tough times like these the music helps brighten the mood and we do need that now very much. Kudos.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Meredith Monk, Memory Game, Vocal Ensemble and Bang On A Can All Stars

My first brush with Meredith Monk, as I may have mentioned before, was some time in the mid-70s when JCOA distributed her first album and I sent away for it for no other reason than I was exploring women avant artists and was open to something new. It was just her on vocals and ringing bowls, I guess they were. Her singsongy vocals and general unique way got my attention and I've been following her musical path ever since.

And now we have her latest, a nicely hewn chamber set in multiple parts entitled Memory Game (Canteloupe Music CA21153). It is a most interesting collaboration of Monk, her Vocal Ensemble and the Bang On A Can All Stars, the latter in this case an electric-acoustic chamber setting of some six instrumentalists, two doubling with their voices.

It is a gathering of some nine, mostly relatively short pieces from the past, ranging in time from 1983 (six), 1986 (one), 1996 (one) to 2006 (one). It hits me as I listen repeatedly that this in a way is Pop Art Music (in the Lichtensteinian sense). It owes something to the deliberately bright and sometimes irritating world of classical advertising jingles--especially from the '60s, a Brave New Age of products and processes, perhaps most vividly brought out in the piece "Tokyo Cha Cha." As the lyrics have it, "Let's cha cha me happy." It says it all by deliberately saying not much.

Like the classic Pop Art paintings, there is more than just some co-optation or appropriation. Like the best Pop Art was painterly, so Meredith's music is very "musical," filled with a personal style that too is at times NOT exactly pop-ish, and the catchy insistence of the music also places it of course into Bang On A Can territory--not unfamiliar as Minimal-oriented, setting aside all the problems with that term.

The lyrics are quirky, with snippets of what sounds Polynesian, what could be Yiddish, and other languages (Japanese?) interspersed with a deliberate, sometimes SpaceAge banality. The instrumental parts give the All Stars plenty to sink their fingers into (so to say) and the interplay of vocals and instrumentals is rather pristine in its deft combination of somewhat retro allusions and polyphonic complexities. The pieces are variously and nicely arranged for this ensemble by Monk herself, Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, Ken Thomson, Allison Sniffin, and David Lang.

There was a point somewhere in my second listen that the music fell together in my head and it has stayed there. Perhaps like Warhol's art there is a deliberate surface to things and that gives you the principal interactive means to your listening ends. Once you situate yourself where the music is, just like on her very first album only of course further on, there you are in a unique place. The ensemble and arrangements make this particularly special. As we live in some very tough times this music can be a foil to a place beyond, before, and outside all of the moment.

You most certainly should give this music your attention if you want to know a newness. I cannot guarantee of course that you will love this program, but it is no different than ever in that way. We cannot know until we try something. This is surely among her very best.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Michael Gordon, Anonymous Man, The Crossing, Donald Nally

As I write this the COVID-19 lockdown is in effect for the state of New Jersey, USA. All non-essential business folks are working from home if they can, or otherwise shuttered up until further notice. The highway outside the modest apartment I live in is eerily silent. I cannot help but wonder, "How can music matter at a time like this?" One answer is that it matters no less if you are musical, and those less musical still have the need for it as human beings. We hope, anyway. And in fact other than live music gatherings it is one thing you can keep going with in spite of social distancing. (Not to take that lightly, since many make their livelihood by doing such.)  And so today I listen to a new recording by the superb vocal ensemble the Crossing with Donald Nally conducting.

It is a major work from a major composer in the so-called Minimalist camp, Michael Gordon. It is his a capella choral work Anonymous Man (Canteloupe Music CA21154). Michael wrote both the words and the music.. It is a personal reflection on home and homelessness, life and death, and being with and without. It has to do with living in his NYC neighborhood from the time it was a largely abandoned industrial zone through to its gentrification. It is about several homeless men who lived across from him there.

It has pulsating sections and others that gently overlap themselves within themselves. The mood is thoughtful. Time passes and backtracks. There is the inexorable, somehow.

The Crossing are the ideal group to make of this music something special. And they do. It is not music that is self-evident or predictable, even if you know Michael Gordon's music well. It is the opposite of banal, yet it expresses an experience of things filled with a sameness. It is filled with a ruminative facticity that perhaps fits perfectly the mood of current locked-down stasis within a jarring turn of things to pass.

The music haunts. It is not the expected. Bravo.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Cenk Ergun, Sonare & Celare, JACK Quartet

What is new in New Music? Judging by the albums I've covered in the last few weeks, it is still the case that anything goes and if it does so in good ways, we are all the better for it of course. This morning some advanced string quartet music in the High Modern mode--the ever-accomplished JACK Quartet give us an EP of the music of Cenk Ergun, Sonare & Celare (New Focus Recordings FCR238).

So what is this one all about? Turkish-born Cenk Ergun emerges from a protracted interaction with the JACK Quartet with a set of paired works that stand in important ways at polar opposites, Sonare loud, busy and dense followed by the more sparsely soft and celestial Celare.

Ergun's past involvement in electronic music production has had a large impact on how he composed Sonare and its ultimate performance by the JACK Quartet.  Some preliminary sketches of a few motives and repetitions were notated for the Jack Quartet. Their recorded performance of them formed the basis of a further set of notations, accomplished in part by splicing the results into new fragments, their subsequent further recorded performances  each created a new entity which was subjected to further dissecting and so forth, with successive generations of interactions leading ultimately to the results we hear.

That work is insistent, like some infernal machine, perhaps, going through its cycles. It is as much invigorating as it is unnerving, with the JACK Quartet in part because of the built-up interactions becoming something wholly other than a mere four-fold reader-interpreter of notations. They are something transcendent. The music most definitively jumps out at us in full dimensional ways.

Celare on the other hand is made up of air and light to Sonare's earth and density. As the promotional sheet that came with the CD points out, the work is built around "just intonation, Turkish modes, and early monophonic music." A most palatable sauce of sustained chords and microtonal movements forms the bulk of the work. It explores an effectively contrasting timbral-sonic universe of possibilities..

In the end the organic and the superorganic dramatically interact with automata and infernal machines? That may be fanciful but the JACK Quartet bring these two works into wonderfully lively existence as contrasting forces that Ergun has created and made dramatically memorable.

It is one of those advanced work complexes, one of the exceptional later avant creations that, as one listens frequently, becomes a completely unique and singular universe of sound. It stands on its own. Here is this!. Hear this.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Ensemble Made in Canada, Mosaique

As I write this the Pandemic has wrought huge changes around me and around the world. Many steps have been taken to try and slow down the outbreak. I keep up with the social distancing in my apartment and happily there still is plenty of New Music to write about, so I remain productive.

Today we consider Mosaique (Factor Canada 0 51497 14047 2) by Ensemble Made in Canada. It is a 14-work celebration of the vast diversity and beauty of the country-wide span of territory, with a piece for nearly every geographic-cultural niche. It was specially commissioned, premiered during the summer of 2018 and now takes the form of this recording so that we all might hear, rehear and generally appreciate the whole of it.

Ensemble Made in Canada is a most cohesive gathering of talent--a quartet featuring Angela Park on piano, Elissa Lee on violin, Sharon Wei on viola and Rachel Mercer on cello.

Andrew Downing's opening "Red River Fantasy" (for Manitoba) and Julie Doiron's "Blessed" (for New Brunswick) (arr. by Andrew Creegan) are the most striking thematically of  these many works, but then there is much else that is quite heartening. This is partly lyrical POMO fare, with some sounding more overtly Modern than others but all played very well and very worth hearing.

Rather than try and run down the salient points of all fourteen works instead I list the composers and regions that I have not mentioned yet: Richard Mascall (Ontario), Nicolas Gilbert (Quebec), William Rowson (Nova Scotia), Vivian Fung (Alberta), Barbara Croall (St. Lawrence Seaway and Great Lakes), Samy Moussa (Nunavut), Kevin Lau (Yukon), Ana Sokolovic (British Columbia), David Braid (Northwest Territories), Nicole Lizee (Saskatchewan), Darren Sigesmund (Prince Edward Island) and Sarah Slean (Newfoundland). Needless to say, you might not be familiar with many of these composers and that is the point in some ways. Here indeed is very New Music specially produced in the last several years to give you a broad survey of the Canadian scene and so all the better for it.

Ensemble Made in Canada are a finely attuned, very talented chamber group who via this project have created a vivid moment on the Canadian New Music scene that gives us an important cross-section of new Canadian composers and the sheer wonder of Canadian locales as a complex matrix, a vast resource. Bravo. You should hear this.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Minimal Works, Alessandro Viale, Piano

From Italy we have pianist Alessandro Viale and his well-considered program of Minimal Works (KHA 018). As I have been listening it strikes me that Viale in his choice of some 16 short pieces does a fine job in summing up a disparate set of a.) some "doctrinaire" Minimal classics (by Glass, etc.) in the lyrical-melodic rather than mesmerizing mode, but also b.) brings in interesting related pieces by composers we might not ordinarily put into the Minimalist camp.

And at this perhaps somewhat late date for the timeline of such things, Viale's summing gives us the insight that thoughtful retrospectives allow. And like the best of this kind of hindsight review, there are expected classics and unexpected surprises.

In addition to the nine solo piano works, there are four pieces for violin and piano that bring in violinist Rebecca Raimondi, and then three piano duets adding Assunta Cavallari. The performances are uniformly warm without being sentimental, uniformly expressive and painstaking. With the variety of groupings and memorable works time passes quickly and nicely for the listener.

Not surprisingly John Cage's 3rd of his "Six Memories" for violin and piano reminds us that there exists a post-Satie, pared-down strain of his music that has a straightforward elemental Minimalist quality to it. Perhaps less expected is a minute-long Peter Maxwell Davies "Snow Cloud, Over Lochan" that has a similarly elemental haiku brevity and succinctness. Ligeti's "Musica ricercata: No. 7"  has a bracing, driving left-hand motif and a beautiful half-time right-hand melody that puts him too in his own, special Minimal place.

Nils Frahm's "Familiar" has an almost early Keith Jarrett-like whimsical lyricism. Lera Auerbach's "Prelude No. 15" for violin and piano has a mysterious liquidity rewarding to experience. The Matteo Sommacal duet "Forgotten Strains" is rather nocturnal, haunting. David Lang's violin-piano "Light Moving" has all his charm in microcosm. And the concluding, well known Arvo Part "Spiegel im Spiegel" has an appealing earthy treatment that ends up putting a smile to your face (if you are like me, anyway). There is more I could say about the other works included in this program but this should give you some idea what you'll find.

The fine performances and wide-ranging choices make this set far from ordinary or predictable. One is in the last instance filled with lyrical poetics and reminded that Minimalism looking back has covered a good deal of ground and given us a refreshing sea change that as we know has given the very later Modern voices something to react to, both against and toward. This collection I highly recommend. Viale gets it all very right.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Sandbox Percussion, And That One Too

A quartet known as Sandbox Percussion makes its debut this season with their album And That One Too (Coviello Contemporary COV91918). It consists of Jonny Allen, Victor Caccese, Ian David Rosenbaum and Terry Sweeney. Since their formation in 2011 their goal has been to establish long-term collaborative relationships with composers in order to further the possibilities of what can be done with percussion from both a technical and an expressive perspective.

The four works represented on the album sum up, according to Rosenbaum, this past nine years and the best and most transformative collaborations. Each work occupies its own world, its own space.

So there are highly melodic interlockings via pitched metallic objects on Andy Akiho's "Haiku 2." The music recalls the complex layering of Gamelan music and a bit of Steve Reich's contrapuntal additive matrices taken a step further.

David Crowell continues the momentum with his "Music for Percussion Quartet" (which adds Crowell on guitar). In the opening music for mallet instruments and drum set there is a very beautiful sequencing of irregular phrase lengths, then bowed vibraphones form enveloping, slowly unfolding passages, followed by a layered series of cascading mallet motives that take over for interesting movements in aural space. More bowed mallets give us a reflective conclusion. This work has definite atmospherics that stay in the listening mind nicely.

Amy Beth Kirsten follows with multi-part, uniquely captivating, ritualistically unfolding vocals and the quartet giving it all a beat and a percussive color veneer for her "she is a myth." The concluding part waxes lyrical and then ends while one might want some more! Well done.

The finale work is the longest of the segments with a three movement, nearly 30-minute Thomas Kotcheff work entitled "not only that one but that one & that too." Part I begins with some meandering yet insistent woodblocks (I believe) in an ensemble, then includes lower-pitched wooden mallets that create heightened, unfolding rhythmic interest and thematics. The momentum grows as the percussive instrumentation drills down to a kind of contrapuntal froth.

The second movement has subtly insistent, irregular unpitched soundings, then a single pitched bongo and tom-tom drum patterns, all played with a musicality that puts everything into place. The complexity grows and gathers a good deal of steam as the number of struck drums increases. The rhythmic interplay intensifies as the pulse becomes more underlined in complex ways.

The last movement involves a switch to small bell-like metallic instruments that work together in a confluence both delicate and introspective, then increasingly motile and driving in quiet ways.

The very end is a slightly mysterious yet musically satisfying suspension of both the work and the program at large, leaving one ready for more yet glad for the thoughtful whole.

The Sandbox Percussion debut fulfills its mission well. By the end one feels that one has re-created in a well evolved series of extended possibilities for percussion quartet. It is lively and absorbing fare and a most promising first album. Definitely recommended.

John J. Becker, Soundpieces 1-7, FLUX Quartet, etc.

John J. Becker (1886-1961) has been enshrouded in obscurity in our lifetime, even though he was a part of an early Modern US group of composers that were extraordinarily important in the development of the New Music movement. The "American Five" were known especially in the '20s and '30s of last century as the most dissonant and advanced voices on the American scene. It placed Becker in the illustrious company of Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles, Henry Cowell and Wallingford Reigger.

The good news right now is that we can hear in a new two-CD recording his all-important chamber series Soundpieces 1-7 (New World Records 80816-2).

The liners to the CDs give us context. Becker followed in part Charles Seeger's idea of a "dissonant counterpoint" where the goal was the opposite of a traditional, continual consonance. There were Neo-Classical elements to be heard and iconoclastic influences through personal friendships with Cowell and Ives, along with a Catholicism which gave him a conversant bond to church music form.

The seven Soundpieces were written between 1932 through 1949, with five hailing from the early to later '30s and the last two coming forth in 1942 and 1949. Nos. 2 and 4 are for string quartet, No. 1 for string quartet and piano, No. 3 for violin and piano, No. 5 for solo piano, No 7 for two pianos and No. 6 for flute and clarinet. All seem to revel in their advanced dissonance, with a structural flourish and rather extraordinary expressionism.

In the liners Kyle Gann discusses criticisms of Becker's music over the years, that his rhythmic sense is not always as lively as his harmo-melodic advances, that perhaps there is just too much dissonance in the end. Yet the Soundpieces are examples of his very best.

I find especially to my liking Soundpieces 3 (for string quartet, the engaging Scherzo most notably) and 4 (with lots of very engaging violin-piano interplay). The monolithic boldness of the solo piano Number 5 has a heroic grandeur that draws me in increasingly the more often I listen.

I for one am very happy to have this music to hear repeatedly. The performances are quite respectable, quite good. Kudos to the FLUX String Quartet and Conrad Harris (the latter for both his quartet and solo violin role, Joseph Kubera on piano with Adam Tendler on the two-piano work, for Margaret Lancaster on flute and Vasko Dukovski on clarinet. They go a considerable ways to make this music come alive and they are to be commended for it.

Anyone like me who takes great interest in the rise of 20th Century High Modernism will be glad to have these Becker works to discover and explore. There is a freshness, an almost naive faith in the liberating power of dissonance that is both touching and invigorating to hear, surely worthy of our consideration. Becker may not quite be another Charles Ives yet this music sounds nearly as pathblazing as it must have when it was first performed. Recommended for all New Music aficionados interested in the history of it all.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Sarah Slean, Music by Christos Hatzis, Symphony Nova Scotia, Bernhard Gueller

We humans are ever creating categories, local, international, contingent, "universal." "timeless," temporary. We are ever defending or undermining them, depending. And a new thing will then eventually come along and throw categories into confusion. When that happens, we take note.

Something like that comes to us in the form of a new CD that brings together two compositions by Christos Hatzis, featuring vocalist Sarah Slean and Symphony Nova Scotia under Bernhard Gueller (Centrediscs CMCCD27819). The music is so well-done that I can scarcely imagine not covering it. Yet is it something I might not ordinarily seek out, that all of my readers would not necessarily as a matter of course incorporate into their New Music listening? There is no simple answer because it is an unexpected twist to our categorical understanding.

Well, so what is it? Simply put it is Canadian composer Christos Hatzis's two interrelated symphonic song cycles Lamento and Ecstacy. It comes alive through the expressive presence of acclaimed vocalist Sarah Slean and the happy confluence of conductor Gueller and the Nova Scotia Symphony.

Lamento was the first of the two cycles. It came into being in 2012 as a kind of long rejoiner-tribute and/or commentary-exegesis on Purcell's beautiful "When I am Laid in Earth" from Dido and Aenaes--but also a wider meditation on loss, mental illness, suicide.

Its success for all concerned eventually made it a good idea for a second cycle with Slean and Nova Scotia. Ecstasy is the result, which features lyrics penned by Slean herself and a theme-mood in much happier territory, in a way the obverse of Lamento. 

As I wrote above, this music is exceptionally well done. The category breaking involves the injection of a "pop" element into the music. And it is not so much a today-top-40 sort of pop, it is closer to what in the later '60s were categorized as MOR (Middle of the Road), more like something Barbara Streisand might have done than, say, Joni Mitchell or even Carol King. And for that it is also a little closer to the sort of song one might hear on Broadway than on a Classic Rock radio outlet.

The lyrical content of these songs, especially the poetics of mental health in Lamento, puts them more squarely on the "Art Song" side of things. I must say I especially like the final "Despair" movement of Lamento, the one most beholden to Purcell.

Sarah Slean's performances are one-of-a-kind and I can scarcely imagine anyone coming close to her dramatically smashing way with these songs. By the same token the orchestral parts come very much alive with Gueller and the Nova Scotia Symphony. The orchestrations are quite lovely and do a great deal in setting off Ms. Slean's expression-rich readings.

Sometimes I wonder as an exercise in my own judgement whether I would (assuming a capability which is another matter) choose to write music in a certain way, here in this way. My answer in this case would be no--which is only to say that I do not feel entirely akin to this MOR-Classical meld. However I concede happily that there is a great deal of brilliance to be had in this music which transcends air-guitar visions of what I might dream of as my"own," so to say. Nonetheless if I do not exactly "speak" this language I do appreciate the music as exemplary.

It is rather remarkable fare in the end. Yet it is neither avant garde nor is it entirely capital /M/ Modern in some superadvanced way. You might say it is somewhat "old fashioned," even. Mahler meets MOR meets Christos Hatzis? Maybe. Yet it is that in unique ways that make it something one should pay attention to, for it is quite a two-fold achievement in often sublime ways. Bravo.

Recommended for those who self-select for the parameters sketched-out here. Give it your ears.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Scott L. Miller, Ghost Layers, TAK Plays Miller

According to my records, this is the fourth review article I have written on the music of Scott L. Miller (see the Gapplegate Music Review, 2015, and this blog, 2017 and 2018). His music lays out well to my ears. So now I am back with a new one to talk about, Ghost Layers, TAK Plays Miller (New Focus Recordings FCR253).

First a bit on the TAK Ensemble, who distinguish themselves markedly on this chamber program. It is ordinarily a quintet. For this program the four founding members hold sway--Laura Cocks (flute), Marina Kifferstein (violin), Charlotte Mundy (voice) and Ellery Trafford (percussion), augmented at various points in the program by Meghan Burke on cello, Tristan McKay on piano, and Joshua Rubin on clarinet. Collectively they tackle this advanced and difficult-to-play music with ease, with dash and even a heroically dynamic demeanor. TAK happily specialize in the Contemporary of yesterday and today through commissions, collaborations and dedicated New Music concertizing. A listen or two will no doubt convince you that they are near-ideal proponents of the music at hand, stars in today's Modern firmament.

So what, then, of that music? There are some five Miller chamber compositions featured, four of which combine instruments with electronic sound. The works exhibit Scott Miller's "eco-systemic" approach, where the music takes on something analogous to the function of ecosystems. This has to do with found environmental sounds, their analysis and then the establishment of paradigms within the musical structure of a given work.

So for example the opening work "Accretion" (2015) for flute, violin, clarinet/bass clarinet, cello, percussion and electronic sound has its initial basis in the composer's field recordings of waterfalls and ice floes, both subjected to spectral analysis which then provides data that figures in the instrumental and electronic components of the composition.

In the end what matters is that each work feels as a kind of natural organic entity where timbral choices and the interlaying of sounds have a feeling of inevitability without providing the listener with an obvious expected result acoustically or syntactically. Everything has an element of surprise yet gives the satisfaction of rich textural presence.

I will not try to run down each piece individually because the deep complexities and emergent form seem at this juncture better heard than subject to more words. The instrumental-electronic interfaces have a remarkable quality born out of the frisson of an exceptional collective grasp on the part of performers, electronic sounds that have a built-in logic and poetics in their interactive presence with acoustic instrumental sounds, and a totality that convinces, comes across as genuinely new, and makes for increasingly absorbing hearing the more one repeats the program.

All praise is due Scott Miller and TAK and company. This is a chamber program anyone with an interest in the latest Modernities should not miss. Outstanding music.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Richard Valitutto, Nocturnes & Lullabies

The tree falling in the woods idea holds true on the musical front, just as it always has. For New Music to exist in some validated or institutional sense there must be an audience of course. I hope I play some role in such things, originally as a consumer and physical presence on the scene, now as a writer, ever I hope also as a music-maker.

Today's selection exemplifies a good sort of "new" as a real contribution towards a special kind of solo piano music. Richard Valitutto is the pianist. The album goes by its title Nocturnes & Lullabies (New Focus Recordings FCR243). The label explains that this music concerns "themes of transitional states between light, dark, consciousness, and unconsciousness" or alternately-additionally night, sleep, and life/death  Further the eight solo works contained in the program (seven or which are premiere recordings) engage the pianist in his striving for a kind of "anti-virtuosity," or more specifically directs him away from the sort of note-weaving typical of conventional piano playing-writing and concerned more with experimental goals, of widening the palette of sound colors and techniques obtained in the act of piano performance.

This program nicely opens and expands the sort of poetic piano Modernism of sound color one might trace from Ives, Cowell, Cage and his colleagues to George Crumb and his reflective pianism. All eight of the works on this album espouse a poetry of sound that invites a kind of expansive introspection. Tone clusters, mesmeric and sometimes ritualistic repetitions, thunderously or flashingly rapid single-note rollings, percussive dampened extreme upper register repeats,  cavernous resonance and open sustains, inside-the-piano hand techniques, the enhanced use of aural space, the full syntactical recourse to all the available notes in all registers, an edgy Modern harmonic expansiveness that generally neither dogmatically favors consonance nor dissonance as a whole, those are some of the traits of the music at hand, all in the service of a thematic night of time and experience, of a nocturnal mood as we might look back upon it from John Field and especially Chopin onwards, only set free from typical cantabile stylings per se.

The full span of our Late Modern period comes into play in these works, from 1984 through 2015. Five of the eight works however are from the last decade.

The composers names may not be entirely familiar to you, yet the music shows us that each has a vision for the piano that intertwines as Richard Salitutto in effect curates wisely and judiciously, then performs each chosen work with a definite dedication and a dramatic musical proportionality. And so we are made aware of piano adventurousness from the likes of Nicholas Deyoe (two works included), Rebecca Saunders, Philip Cashian, Marc Sabat, Maura Capuzzo, Wolfgang von Schweinitz, and Linda Catlin Smith.

Heartily recommended for those wishing to remain fully versed in the most modern in solo piano music and for adventuresome souls in general. Well done!

Monday, March 9, 2020

Iris Trio, Homage and Inspiration, Works by Schumann, Kurtag, Mozart and Weiss

Inspiration from the classics, homage to their continued vitality for us. That is the central theme behind music from the considerably talented Iris Trio on their debut album, Homage and Inspiration (Coviello Classics COV92002). The program grew organically out of the trio's first appearances beginning in the Spring of 2013 when Christine Carter (clarinet), Molly Carr (viola) and Anna Petrova (piano) played their first concert as the Iris Trio at the German Consulate in New York. The program consisted of Robert Schumann's Marchenerzahlungen Op. 132 (Fairy Tales) and Gyorgy Kurtag's Hommage a R. Sch. Op. 15d, which paid tribute to Schumann with a Modern work utilizing the same instrumentation.

After that very first concert the Trio learned that the Mozartfest Wurzburg in Germany had commissioned Christof Weiss to write a new clarinet-viola-piano trio to pay homage to Mozart's "Kegelstatt" Trio K 498 with the identical instrumentation--the Drittes Klaviertrio fur Klarinette, Viola und Klavier "Gesprach unter Freunden." The threesome subsequently chosen to give the premier of that trio ended up being the Iris Trio and so in time all four works formed a double-pairing in an extended concert tour which culminated in this recording.

Add to that the additional aspect of it all--that Schumann in fact wrote the Marchenerzahlungen as a homage to Mozart and his Kegelstatt trio--and so we in fact here have a most extraordinary sequence of homages and inspirations.

The brilliant thematics of the program pull together the "classic" and the Modern with a continuity-commonality which nevertheless draws stylistic boundaries in that the "Modern" sounds more like the present than not--so that the homages and inspirations are real but not obviously quasi-quotational, instead subtle. That of course is how it should be. The compositional hand writes after having already moved on, so to speak.

The Weiss both temporally and stylistically place the most complex and virtuoso demands on the trio and they certainly and definitively rise to the occasion. Yet all four works in the end are performed with an articulate zeal that is as joyful in its expression as it is exacting in its execution. These are extraordinarily, mutually attuned practitioners that deserve our acclaim.  They take on the classic and the present-day with equal poise and authentic fluency. Bravo all concerned. A delightful offering in every way.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Vivaldi, Manchester Sonatas, Mark Fewer, Hank Knox

The very lively and out-ringing Canadian duo of Mark Fewer on violin and Hank Knox at the harpsichord give to us their impeccable and even exciting reading of Antonio Vivaldi's Manchester Sonatas (Leaf Music LM229 2-CDs), which rather incredibly were only made available to us in 1973 when they were found in a Manchester, England library. The complete Knox-Fewer recording fills two CDs with all twelve sonatas, each with four movements.

Vivaldi may have been more prolific as a composer than others and honestly at times some of it seems less indispensable than others. Happily The Manchester Sonatas do not belong to the less essential grouping. Each one has inventive drive and character that make them a welcome addition to Vivaldi at his best, lyrical or vital in turn, a joy to hear.

And part of that joy stems from just how good the Fewer-Knox Duo is at realizing this music. Mark Fewer plays without a vibrato, with a deeply, sweetly centered intonation and a straightforward musical energy that Hank Knox seconds with conviction. The harpsichord has the all-important role of realizing the harmonies and bass foundations of each movement and it is to his credit that nothing comes across as filler--but instead all sets up the musical stage so that Fewer's violin can come across with a vigorous robustness never sentimental but ever openly engaged and flourishing with animation.

The duo follow with this on the heels of their 2018 Bach Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord  which I have not heard but suspect (if it's anything like this one) it is very good.

The completely centered readings give this recording a decided edge that is as delightful to hear as it is to study and learn from. Recommended without hesitation.