Music of Mohammed Fairouz
If you can’t tell by the star-studded cast of performers on this disc, a lot of people like performing the music of Mohammed Fairouz and with good reason. This Naxos release gathers recordings of some of Fairouz’s recent chamber works (only Tahwidah and Chorale Fantasy date before 2011). Overall, the music is focused and dramatic, emotively powerful, and full of rich harmonies and sumptuous melodies. Fairouz does wear his influences on his sleeve and his borrowings from the classical canon and Middle-Eastern traditions mix well into an authentic and unique voice. Chorale Fantasy, for example, sounds very much like the slower harmonic sections of Shostakovich’s 8th quartet pressed through a colander of Arabic modes.
Tahwidah for soprano and clarinet is a prime example of Fairouz’s emotional and lyrical style. On one level, the music is lithe and sensual and without reading the text I figured it was a juicy love song. The text, while rich with omnipresent love metaphors, is actually being spoken by a mother to her son at his funeral. A second listening brought out the darker and elegiac qualities while still resonating the ideas of eternal love.
The solo violin sonata Native Informant also collects moments of supreme elegy alongside playful and fiery energy. Each of the five movements maintains a specific character throughout and most of these characters are simple and straightforward. “Lyric Sketch” is just that. “Rounds” is a peppy and zippy Arabic dance. In “For Egypt,” Fairouz crafts a haunting and woeful piece. While “For Egypt” has the gravitas to end the piece, the last two movements liven things up a bit. “Scherzo” is a cosmopolitan blend of Arab-inspired tunes which morph into and out of Tin Pan Alley-inspired tunes. The last movement, “Lullaby of the ex-Soldat” is another slow lyrical movement with a plaintive arpeggio motive in the middle. And of course Rachel Barton Pine sounds amazing throughout (I have yet to hear her play otherwise).
Vocal music is also served up on this disc. The brief song cycle Posh takes three poems from Wayne Kostenbaum’s collection Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films: “Ballade of the Layette,” “Blue Sea Songs,” and “Posh.” Of the three, my hands-down favorite is “Blue Sea Songs” which centers on a dreamt collection of Ned Rorem songs. Fairouz does a great Rorem impersonation (musically, anyway, I don’t know about personal). While Rorem-via-Fairouz is delightful, Fairouz’s own language serves the voice well with harmonic and orchestrational support. Christopher Thompson earns the fach “baritenor” well with a deep, rich, and powerful lower range and a light, floating, unstrained high register. For Victims is darker, thicker, and more intensely dramatic. David Kravitz navigates the David Shapiro text quite well and the blend between Kravitz and the Borromeo String Quartet is well done.
The final work on the disc is the colorful and charming Jebel Lebnan for wind quintet performed by the Imani Winds (again, when have they ever sounded less than amazing?). Each of the short character pieces, inspired by events from the Lebanese Civil War, is richly orchestrated and uses color and rhythm to their maximum. The spiky and chunky “Bashir’s March” shows obvious Stravinsky influence. The solo flute “Interlude: Nay” is the perfect transition into the bassoon solo which begins “Lamentation: Ariel’s Song.” “Dance and Little Song” try to be cheerful but have a dark and moribund underlayer that keeps the music from being truly joyous. The last movement, “Mar Charbel’s Dabkeh” closes off the disc with another Arab-inspired round dance.
music of Tom Johnson
performed by Carol Robinson, Tom Johnson, and Dante Boon
Maria De Alvear World Edition
Tom Johnson’s music is very much like magic. I don’t mean necessarily that his music is magical more that his music works in the tradition of close-up or “micromagic.” As is often the case in close-up magic, the magician is telling you in no uncertain terms what he/she is doing without ever really revealing HOW any of it happened. The end result is a compelling “I can’t believe that just happened” experience and this is the area that Tom Johnson’s music occupies. Pieces like Failing: A Very Difficult Piece for String Bass or Narayana’s Cows include a narrator which explains, in no uncertain terms, how this piece works. An Hour for Piano or The Chord Catalogue relegates this information to program notes and such (the notes for An Hour for Piano should be read while listening to the piece; an internal narrator, if you will). The magic in Johnson’s music comes when he does exactly what he told you he was going to do but not HOW they are compelling and captivating.
Music and Questions is a prime example of how straightforward Johnson’s music can be. Five bells, all arranged in half-steps, are played in every possible permutation of single strikes. Between each permutation, Carol Robinson asks a simple question. The questions always relate to the listener’s experience of the piece and how the listener relates to the questions or the music. She also announces each section by stating which of the five bells are being struck first. That is it. For 23 minutes. No rhythmic motive to trace, no groove elements, no fancy orchestrational tricks, no surprise emotional outbursts, just a clinical exploration of 120 bell tones. It might be cliche to refer to this as a Zen listening experience but I honestly have no other words for it. There is absolutely nothing boring about this music but my brain tells me the music should be boring. That is the magic.
Music with Mistakes puts Robinson in the role of narrator and basset horn soloist. Listener engagement is key with Johnson and Music with Mistakes brings foreground listening to an audience that might otherwise expect to “zone out” during a typical process-oriented “old school” minimalist piece. Instead of the constant interruptions for questions, though, Music with Mistakes starts with the statement that melodic material will be played multiple times but only once without mistakes. The listener is to try to hear the mistakes. Arts organizations are constantly looking for ways to “engage the audience” with their repetitive concerts of warhorse literature. Johnson builds audience engagement into each piece. That is the magic. What is even better is that Johnson includes the answers at the back of the liner notes.
Same or Different operates under a similar basic principle as Music with Mistakes. Thick piano chords are played but the underlying question is: are they the same or are the different? A motive is played and the repeated: are they the same or are the different? This game lasts for about 27 minutes and it is some of the most active listening I’ve done in a while. I would love to give a copy of this disc to Edwin Gordon just to see how he does.
Since the music is, at its core, so simple and direct it is hard to say anything about the performances. Is there a word for this kind of virtuosity that puts the performers in a quasi-game where their detachment is a the primary fundamental skill? In the last two pieces, Carol Robinson and Dante Boon have to play their pieces without giving anything away. They have to make micro-changes and repetitions into a cheeky game of “did I or didn’t I” for considerable lengths of time. Not only is Johnson inviting the audience to hyper-scrutinize each micromotion of the performers he also gives them an extremely thin veil to hide behind. The whole disc is a delight to listen to. That is magic.
Song from the Uproar
Abigail Fischer and the NOW Ensemble
New Amsterdam Records
Missy Mazzoli’s opera Song from the Uproar is proof positive that opera is alive and well in the world. A true 21st century production incorporating a lean number of performers and simple yet hauntingly effect electronics, Song from the Uproar also draws upon the basic core of operatic storytelling: expressive emotional content. While the musical foundation of Song from the Uproar is postminimalism, Mazzoli’s music has a gloriously expressive surface to pair with Uproar’s rhythmic/harmonic engines.
The opera works exceedingly well as one continuous hour-long work but the piece also breaks into component “numbers” rather nicely. I have found myself listening to “You Are the Dust” quite a lot, actually, with its gorgeous melodic line, pulsating electric guitar delay and high double bass. Abigail Fischer’s voice on this particular track, and throughout the whole opera, has a dense mournful quality. Fischer’s sound is as complex as her character. There is a lot of heavy drama in the story and it would be easy to focus on the bleak and mopey tragedies Isabelle Eberhardt experienced. Fortunately, Mazzoli is a lot smarter than that. The excitement Eberhardt felt on her adventures spawned moments like “I Have Arrived,” a mostly instrumental segment brimming with bright and infectious energy. Mazzoli treats the small ensemble of flute, clarinet/bass clarinet, electric guitar, double bass, and piano in such a way that maximizes color and sonic potential. You’d swear that there are a lot more people playing. Mazzoli has worked with NOW before and that familiarity with their sound pays off well. Similarly, musical ideas in Song from the Uproar have been explored by Mazzoli before in other pieces. One such example is that the final scene of the opera appears as “The Diver” on Victoire’s Cathedral City album. The time and attention Mazzoli has put into crafting this opera shows.
I went ahead and got one of the “Deluxe Limited Editions” available from Mazzoli’s Bandcamp page. The whole package includes the complete libretto with additional imagery from filmaker Stephen S. Taylor and a DVD, not of a staged performance, but rather an abstract accompanying film also created by Taylor. Taylor uses old black-and-white film to create a sort of “visual sense memory” of Eberhardt’s life and world. A sample of this footage can be found in the video for “You Are the Dust.” I enjoyed the progression of visual imagery as it evolved throughout the opera and Taylor’s choices flexed between “on the nose” and “abstractly poetic” in a compelling way. Still, I want a video of a fully staged performance of Song from the Uproar. It deserves one.
death speaks performed by: Shara Worden (vocals), Bryce Dessner (guitar), Owen Pallett (violin), Nico Muhly (piano)
depart performed by: Maya Beiser (multi-tracked cello), Elizabeth Farnum, Katie Geissinger, Alexandra Montano, and Alex Sweeton (voice)
For my ears, one of most striking features of David Lang’s music is its austerity. I have heard interviews with Lang where he speaks about eschewing a specific emotional context for his music and writing music in which the listener provides their own unique emotional response to the work. In other words, Lang tries not to manipulate the listener directly but rather create an aural space in which the listener affects themselves via the music. How well does that tactic work with such an emotionally charged idea as “death speaks?” Quite well, indeed.
The text for the five movements are all drawn from Schubert lieder in which Death speaks to the living. Lang translated the text and worked it to meet his needs as he did with Little Match Girl Passion a few years back. Shara Worden’s voice rides the edge of emotional detachment by giving just the slightest hints of tenderness. Worden’s voice is a testament to “complexity through simplicity.” She does not sing overtly virtuosic melodies; the overall shape of her lines is fairly static but she embues each phrase with subtle power and resonance. Lang’s sparse but constant instrumental textures are extremely colorful and provide a great balance between stasis and activity. The second movement, “I hear you” has vigorous bass accents but otherwise the music simply floats and drifts in consistent yet irregular clouds.
depart achieves the same affectless-affect as death speaks but adds a wonderful edge of tension via the sustained harmonies. Beiser’s cello is omnipresent through the veil of detached voices and as the harmonies build, tension mounts. At times, Lang sits on dominant-functioning harmonies but not once is such a chord resolved in a conventional manner. Lang holds your hand through the build-up of harmonic tension and walks you to the Precipice of Expected Resolution. Once staring over the cliff, though, Lang backs slowly away through a different route and leaves you (or me, anyway) feeling bewildered. But the music keeps going and I’m following him towards the precipice again…
performed by R. Andrew Lee
Getting a copy of this recording for review reminded me of my all-time favorite CD review, Chuck Klosterman’s review of Chinese Democracy by Guns n’ Roses. I find it especially relevant when Klosterman states that reviewing the disc “…is not like reviewing music. It’s more like reviewing a unicorn. Should I primarily be blown away that it exists at all? Am I supposed to compare it to conventional horses? To a rhinoceros? Does its pre-existing mythology impact its actual value, or must it be examined inside a cultural vacuum, as if this creature is no more (or less) special than the remainder of the animal kingdom?”
Dennis Johnson’s November is the minimalist example of Klosterman’s situation. Spoken about in hushed, revered tones, November seemed to be a work on par with any other lost/imaginary work of art you’d care to name. Hearing this piece is, to my brain at least, similar to hearing the supposedly lost “first” symphony of Mahler and finding it to be as sophisticated as his ninth. Or seeing what could have happened if David Lynch had actually directed Return of the Jedi as Lucas originally had in mind. November is a piece of epic epicness; the minimalist unicorn circa 1959.
There is little about the construction of the piece that I can say which would add much to Kyle Gann’s stellar research and reconstruction efforts. At almost 5 hours exactly in duration, Lee’s performance shows us a world where minimalism was driven forward by time instead of pulse. The busy nattering process of old-school minimalism is not in play; events merely unfold at a slow and spacious rate. November is surprisingly easy to listen to for its full duration. The opening minor third returns at appropriate but not predictable times. The dissonance and consonance interplay is captivating and clear. Full chords are surprising rare; single tones and intervals dominate the glacial unfurling of events. When larger harmonies finally do coalesce, they are striking and new but they are right. November is a work about harmony as much as it is about time and Lee’s performance elucidates the harmonic drama and narrative throughout the entire duration.
This recording is also a testament to humanity. Most big-time works of minimalism, especially early works, seem to treat the performers as machines dutifully assembling the music as it comes by on a conveyor belt. Expression and interpretation are eschewed for rhythmic precision and crisp bright timbres. Early minimalism is many things but I doubt many would use the term “lush.” November comes alive under the fingers and musical abilities of R. Andrew Lee. Every note, every chord, every ninth that still doesn’t resolve even after 4 hours, every moment is in its perfect place. November is not something like “Clapping Music” where as long as you put the right notes in the right order the piece takes care of itself. November needs a deft mind and Lee delivers. The piece is not a technical challenge of the fingers but rather a challenge of the performer’s interpretation and mental endurance. Given such few musical materials and so much time, there are rather few pianists who I think could pull this off. Some could work with these materials for 30 minutes, maybe an hour, but the ability to bring forth five hours of music in such a compelling-yet-accessible way is nothing short of a miracle. An earlier draft of this review included a “loaves and fishes” reference at this point but I think it best if I leave it out.
So the piece that should have never existed finally does and it exists in as definitive of a performance as possible. What more could we ask for except R. Andrew Lee’s next release?
Cold Blue Two
Adams, Bryars, Cox, Fink, Fox, Garland, Lentz, Marshall, Miller, Polansky, Rosenboom, Schroeder, Smith, Tenney
Cold Blue Music
Cold Blue Music, the landmark recording label that features minimalism and post-minimalist music centered on the West Coast, has issued a new CD collection containing previously unreleased works by fourteen artists. A sequel to Cold Blue (the anthology) , Cold Blue Two maintains the high standards set by the first CD. With such artists as Daniel Lentz, Ingram Marshal, John Luther Adams, James Tenney, Jim Fox and others, Cold Blue Two stands as a valuable benchmark of the state of early 21st century music. The tracks on this CD are accessible yet evocative, warm, introspective and often profound – it is the ideal collection for the new music enthusiast or for those listening to serious contemporary music for the first time.
With fourteen short pieces by fourteen separate artists it is impossible to comment at length on all the tracks, but here are some observations on a few that caught my ear.
Celli – Daniel Lentz (2008)
Written for a single cello but with the solo lines overdubbed, this piece produces a lovely layered sound – warm and welcoming. Long, well-crafted tones. Introspective, with just the right amount of sentimentality – almost nostalgic. Produces the feeling of summing up that you get while watching a beautiful sunset. A strong work to lead off this CD.
Sometimes the Sword of Seven – Chas Smith (2008)
Composed specifically for this CD and realized electronically utilizing a steel guitar and Hammond organ as sources, this piece is a series of layered scale-like sounds that grow ominously in density and complexity. The tension increases as the pitches move upward – like a jet engine revving up – culminating in a sudden crash of chords that slowly decay while a church bell-like ringing creeps into the foreground – a very effective resolution.
Sky with Four Suns – John Luther Adams (2010)
A piece written to evoke the various phenomena of the low arctic sun as it interacts with ice crystals in the air to form halos, arcs, sun-dogs and mirages of multiple suns. This piece opens with long, low cello chords to create a warm sense of place, almost like being at sea on a calm day. The higher strings add to the welcome. The feel is anything but forbidding or bleak, as the subject might imply, but rather there is a sense of calm and reassurance. The bassoon trill towards the end reinforces the pastoral motif. An unexpectedly lush vision of the Alaskan environment.
Mallets in the Air – James Tenney (2002)
Here is a piece that adds an important historical connection to its musical virtues. Just intonation, combined with the Harry Partch diamond marimba and a string quartet produce this satisfying mix of drone and fast-moving, propulsive rhythms.
Eskimo Lullaby – Larry Polansky (2006)
A quiet, almost conventional piece written for the Lou Harrison Just Intonation Resonator Guitar. Organic, natural sounding and familiar – like folk music. Gentle and serene with excellent vocals. Try this one out on friends who are suspicious of alternate tunings.
In addition to those mentioned above, other artists appearing on Cold Blue Two are Gavin Bryars, Rick Cox, Michael Jon Fink, Peter Garland, Read Miller, David Rosenboom, and Phillip Schroeder.
Cold Blue Two is a compelling collection of contemporary music that is unified by quiet surfaces yet contains strong, flowing passions that will connect with any serious, inquisitive listener.
Further info at Cold Blue Music, here.
music of David T. Little
David Adam Moore, Newspeak, Todd Reynolds
David T. Little’s Soldier Songs is one of the most exciting recordings I have experience in 2013 and while the year is yet young I am confident this disc is going to stay in the cultural consciousness for the foreseeable future. Broken into three large sections (Child, Warrior, and Elder), Little has crafted a song cycle of a grand scope. The complicated and contradictory emotions involved with serving in the military is a topic that many have approached and this recording handles it all with bewildering perfection. Little’s music is intensely dramatic and emotional without becoming histrionic or sentimental and while this work has a distinct point of view, its message(s) are far from simple propaganda.
David Adam Moore’s voice is riveting throughout the disc as he transforms through the various stages (physically and emotionally) via his subtle and nuanced performance. Moore is called upon to sing falsetto, shout, and growl and does all of these things with powerful musical abilities.
Musically and emotionally, Soldier Songs does everything right. Little’s craft coupled with Moore’s abilities and Newspeak’s tight and precise energies join together into a particularly resonant work. The libretto, adapted from interviews with veterans, provides haunting and realistic vignettes about being on the ground during war time.
Overall, this piece, this performance, taps into Truth. The music is a vehicle for a larger message but one that is too complicated for words alone. This is a fantastic disc, released today.
Artist: The Akropolis Reed Quintet
Title: High Speed Reed
Label: The Akropolis Reed Quintet
Only a few years old, the Akropolis Reed Quintet (Timothy Gocklin, oboe; Kari Dion, clarinet; Matthew Landry, saxophone; Andrew Koeppe, bass clarinet; Ryan Reynolds, bassoon) has already achieved a great deal in the way ensemble awards and chamber performance competitions. Their debut album, “High Speed Reed”, represents the group’s next step – their initial public offering into a musical world where innovative chamber ensembles have a track record of success, even when the music they champion is heavy subsidized by the work of living composers.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must note that I am one of the composers Akropolis has worked with, and the piece I’ve written for them is the title track of this record. However, my High Speed Reed is simple kindling when compared to the true meat of the album, which demonstrates unassailably the power and expressive flexibility of Akropolis’ unconventional instrumentation.
Barring my contribution, lyricism and kineticism appear in a natural tandem throughout the album, illuminating an energetic tenderness that is executed effectively by the forces of a reed quintet. The two movements of David Heetderks’ Pitchblende embody this quality, as do sections of Chiel Meijering’s De Vrouw Die Eiren Uitbroedt. The much more vast Nuclear Child Games by Babur Tongur and Circusmuziek by Ton Ter Doest certify Akropolis’ ability to carry broad, lengthy and variegated works as well as any traditional chamber group. Consider “High Speed Reed” Exhibit A in the argument that reed quintets should be taken seriously.
If these other works on the disc show off Akropolis’ ability and musicality, Asaf Peres’ Fun Fun Fun Fun summates them. The work is powerful and capricious, illustrative of Akropolis’ superior technical skill, while making a case for the artistic merit of the emerging genre of reed quintet music. Through the piece’s three movements one hears the virtuosity of the album’s other offerings tamed and focused so compellingly, the work earns attention both for Akropolis but for Mr. Peres, as well. The work’s title is only partially tongue-in-cheek, because though the music smiles through the playing of Akropolis, it is not vapid – Fun Fun Fun Fun possesses a contentment and confidence that is palpable, which indicate the mature wherewithal of its performers and creator.
Akropolis’ “High Speed Reed” is available on CD Baby, iTunes and Amazon. You can find more information on Akropolis and their debut album at the group’s website, akropolisquintet.com.
Music of Bill Ryan
Ashley Bathgate, cello; Vicky Chow, piano; David Cossin, percussion; Michael Lowenstern, bass clarinet; Pablo Mahave-Veglia, cello; Jonathan Nichol, saxophones; Todd Reynolds, violin; Paul de Jong, cello
Billband is another fine example of a post-minimalist/alt-classical chamber ensemble. Bill Ryan’s compositions fit the model well with direct and clear musical ideas well-paced and orchestrated for his mixture of performers. Whereas (gross generalizations follow, prepare yourself) Build draws from a jazz combo sound, Newspeak leans towards aggressive and edgy literature, and Victoire centers around a subdued synth-driven music, the Ryan/Billband sound world is heavily connected to a more traditional chamber music aesthetic with occasional bits of rock drumming deftly added to the mix.
As a composer, Ryan gets a lot out of a little. His penchant for simplicity (aside from appearing in several titles) makes for affective music making. Simple Lines is just that, good melodic gestures woven together using an overdubbed Ashley Bathgate. A Simple Place contains more surface action but it maintains attractive and clear emotional trajectories. Towards Daybreak and Sparkle are other contemplative pieces which paint clear aural pictures. Blurred uses copious piano pedal and reverb to gently smear an otherwise driving pulse towards its inexorable climax.
Ryan contrasts his contemplative nature with a handful of more groovy and driving works. Rapid Assembly starts with a thin groove which picks up speed and energy as the whole composition comes together. Friction jumps right in with a heavy rock groove. To my ears, it sounds like something someone is about to rap over but no real melodic material emerges until the drums subside and the whole piece quiets down. Even in his more driving works, Ryan has a delicate hand at orchestrating his ideas. Each instrument has not only its own musical space but also serves a vital role in creating a single ensemble sound. Most of the music utilizes strings, piano, and metal pitched percussion but the woodwinds are well balanced and blended in the group (expressively played by Lowenstern and Nichol). The whole of the Billband sounds great on this disc and I look forward to more releases.
music for Disklavier
Jocelyn Robert’s approach towards the Disklavier is quite different than what I usually encounter. Typically, I find the Disklavier used in a hyper-kinetic way, a way that simply overpowers conventional fleshy pianists with a flashy and thick stream of harmonies and rhythms at semi-ludicrous tempi. Robert’s approach is refreshing in its sparseness, using the Disklavier to evoke an almost piano-as-wind-chimes aesthetic. What Robert embraces in his music is an underlying nature and humanity. The textures get thick at times and while portions of each piece might be playable by a human many portions are not. The fact that my ear loses the exact moment when that possible/impossible shift occurs makes me like this disc even more.
The two bolerun works assemble grander textures from extremely simple repeated figures. Robert is quite adept at filling in the blank spaces with new material while simultaneously expanding the original looping material. As usually happens in a work of interlocking ostinati, my ear drifts from layer to layer in an almost hypnotic fashion. bolerun 1 is shorter and a bit less forceful than bolerun 2 but the overt use of looping material seems to be what binds these works together (as well as the loudest activity happening in the mid/low range of the piano).
The two für pieces are significantly different from each other. für louisa is a staccato and spritely monophonic work which arpeggiates through fairly conventional harmonies. The work abruptly cuts off at the end, keeping it just under 60 seconds but I could have easily listened to his melody for a while. für eli is a 26 minute work which slowly unfolds while maintaining a lot of open space between gestures. A rich harmonic progression seems to be the glue which binds this piece together and an almost random articulation of the tones in the progression make the work infinitely listenable to my ears. Tendency tones are well established and the underlying dissonances are resolved in a leisurely yet timely manner. At 26 minutes, I could still listen to more of this piece unfold. Any systemic or mechanical processes are kept invisible to the ear (at least to mine). The final work on the disc, la pluie, delves even deeper into the ideas of resonance and space than für eli and relies less upon a motivated harmonic progression. The attacks are sometimes sharper than in für eli and, while la pluie does more to coalesce its energies, at 17:25 in duration the work is still relatively directionless (in a good way).
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