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John Luther Adams – Everything That Rises

JACK Quartet

Cold Blue Music

Cold Blue Music has recently released Everything That Rises, a new string quartet by John Luther Adams, commissioned by SFJAZZ and performed by the JACK Quartet. This is the latest in a series of string quartets from the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer whose previous works in this genre include The Wind in High Places and Canticles of the Sky.

With a single track running to some 56 minutes Everything That Rises is an extended exploration of the harmonies derived from a subsonic fundamental tone, through a rising series of 16 “harmonic clouds.” The composer writes: “Each musician is a soloist, playing throughout. Time floats and the lines spin out, always rising, acoustically perfect intervals that grow progressively smaller as they spiral upward…until the music dissolves into the soft noise of the bows, sighing.”

Everything That Rises opens with a long, deep cello tone followed by a light trill. The other strings join in their lower registers, creating a broadly primal feeling. The cello continues to provide a foundation, and this develops a surging character, like waves on an incoming tide. Now tones and trills in the middle violin registers create some nice harmonies against lower notes in the cello. This has a calming effect, even when the harmonies are somewhat unconventional. The chords pile up, continuously ebbing and flowing, but always moving higher.

The structure of Everything That Rises is similar in form to an earlier J.L. Adams work, Sila: The Breath of the World, which I first heard at the 2015 Ojai Festival. That work  includes strings, woodwinds, brass, voices and percussion, and has the same upward progression of pitches, but its sense is fluid and airy. The overall impression that comes from Everything That Rises is more like climbing than floating – there is a sense of effort and progress, like scaling a high mountain. At the finish, the light scratching sounds from the bows allow the music to seemingly evaporate into thin air.

The playing of the JACK Quartet is disciplined and orderly throughout, and this contributes greatly to the coherence in the realization of an extraordinary musical architecture. The stamina and consistency of the players is remarkable. Their intonation is masterfully precise, even at the extreme edge of each instrument’s range. Everything That Rises extends the composer’s ongoing and thoughtful examination of the possibilities inherent in the harmonic series, and adds to his already significant body of work.

Everything That Rises (CB0051) is available directly from Cold Blue Music, and also from Amazon Music and iTunes.

2 months ago |
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Peter Garland – Moon Viewing Music (Inscrutable Stillness Studies #1)

William Winant

Cold Blue Music

A newly-released CD from Cold Blue Music features the music of Peter Garland as performed by master percussionist William Winant. Moon Viewing Music (Inscrutable Stillness Studies #1) consists of six movements based on the historical  poetry of several prominent Japanese writers centered around solitude and the mystery of viewing the winter moon in the night sky. Scored for gongs and tam-tam and using just a handful of tones, Garland and Winant have combined to create a gently profound work that both captivates and calms.

“Living alone in the woods…“ (after Ryokan), the first movement, is typical of the entire CD and is inspired by a short poem:

Living alone in the woods
few visitors cast shadows.
How clean the moon
gleaming in the sky.

Ryokan Taigu (1758 – 1831)

This begins with two softly sustained tones in the gongs – like the ringing of bells, but smooth and not harshly percussive. A low rumbling from the tam-tam is heard as the gongs continue to sound, and this provides a deeply satisfying foundation. The economy of the tones and the nuance in the playing is most impressive, each note and each intonation bearing a full measure of emotion. There is a quiet, meditative feel to this – solitary, yet not lonely – just as the poem suggests. As the composer writes in the liner notes: “This music is low and slow – an obvious correlation exists between tempo and pitch register. I might also suggest a correspondence between the round shape of the gongs and the tam-tam and that of the full moon.”

The other movements are similarly constructed, the mix of gong and tam-tam tones arranged to compliment the text of each poem. “Only the moon… “ (after Saigyo), the third movement, starts with two gong tones, high and medium, followed by a third and this establishes a balanced, reflective feel. The tam-tam enters with a low booming sound, almost felt rather than heard as the long tones ring out and decay. Combined with the gongs this creates the sense of reserve and longing heard in the text:

Only the moon
high in the sky
as an empty reminder –
but if looking at it, we just remember,
our two hearts may meet.

Saigyo (1118 -90)

Movement 4, “As I look at the moon…”, also based on poetry from Saigyo, is the longest piece on the CD, extending to 9:37. This has a repeating, almost hypnotic feel with different permutations of rhythms for the same tones. This offers less comfort, with a somewhat colder and more remote sensibility. Towards the end the tempo slows and a series of single pitches sound at the finish, as if the moon is setting.

Perhaps the most compelling piece is movement 5 “When I die…” (after Hyakuri). The tam-tam dominates the texture from below while gongs toll in simple, comforting tones. The great booming sounds are full of well-being, and offer a reassuring prospect of death and the afterlife. The final tones take a full 15 seconds to slowly decay into silence.

Moon Viewing Music (Inscrutable Stillness Studies #1) is quiet, subtle and lovely, and stands in noble contrast to so much of our contemporary music that is, quite properly, filled with tension and anxiety. Moon Viewing Music is noteworthy because of the exceptional collaboration between Garland and Winant. The sensitive playing and artful touch of the performer is a perfect – and equal – compliment to the intentions of the composer.

Moon Viewing Music (Inscrutable Stillness Studies #1) (CB0052) is available directly from Cold Blue Music, on iTunes, and through retail distribution by Naxos of America.

3 months ago |
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Gene Pritsker – Rite Through an Eclectic Spectrum

Sound Liberation

Composers Concordance Records

Rite Through an Eclectic Spectrum is a remarkable CD from Composers Concordance Records featuring New York-based Gene Pritsker and his band, Sound Liberation. An ambitious attempt to re-imagine The Rite of Spring, this CD brings 21st century power and a distinctly electric sensibility to the classic work by Igor Stravinsky. As Pritsker explains in the liner notes: “As a teenager studying music, I was strongly influenced by ‘The Rite of Spring‘. I listened to it over and over until what sounded like noise at first revealed itself to be the most incredible piece of music I have ever heard. I have always wanted to reinterpret this music through my own experience. This new look at ‘The Rite‘ interprets the various elements of this music using my eclectic methods and ideas: writing hip-hop and jazz songs, using improvisational techniques (like the ones used in African and Indian music), incorporating DJ and electronic elements and employing the various genres and techniques that have been developed since the premiere of this masterpiece .”

The eight tracks on this CD do not precisely align with the fourteen Episodes of the original Rite, but there are some obvious correlations. Track 1 of the CD, Introduction, includes the famous signature bassoon opening, in this case played by trumpeter Franz Hackl. The connection to the original is clear, but without the understated primal sadness. In every track of Rite Through an Eclectic Spectrum, power and amplification predominate and the careful dynamic variations scored by Stravinsky are replaced with the forceful presence of Sound Liberation. The Introduction is very much a jazz piece, with straight-ahead solos, some rousing scat singing and a solid groove.

The Chosen One, track 6, features a strong beat and driving rap vocals to create just the sort of harshness heard in Stravinsky’s Glorification of the Chosen One Episode. A smooth vocal solo on this track by Chanda Rule provides a fine contrast that only highlights the essential menace of The Chosen One. Sprint Swing on track 2 begins with a slow ballad and a nice trumpet obbligato behind the vocals. A driving beat follows, with guitars and bass backing up some good improvising. All the tracks on this CD invariably deliver a big sound with an impressive punch, just as with the original Rite.

Rivals on track 3 is a big, brassy instrumental filled with impressive solos and a compelling dynamism that would easily fit into Stravinsky’s vision. In Sacrifice, track 5, the opening percussion is followed by a call and response between trumpet and vocals that is very effective. The crowd joins in, and responds to the trumpet lead, as if calling for the sacrifice to proceed. Dance, track 8, finishes the CD with loud stabbing tutti notes and a piercingly intense guitar solo. Another dominating trumpet solo follows – good playing by Hackl here, perhaps reminiscent of a young Lee Morgan. Another guitar solo is heard and then mixed vocals enter, ominously repeating the words ‘sacrifice yourself’ to the conclusion.

At the premiere of the original The Rite of Spring in 1913, the music and choreography of Stravinsky’s masterpiece famously incited a near riot in the audience. Rite Through an Eclectic Spectrum seeks to revive that heritage in a more contemporary and familiar format, intending to make music dangerous again.

Rite Through an Eclectic Spectrum is available from iTunes and Amazon

Sound Liberation is:
Chanda Rule – voice
Max Pollak – percussion/rap/tap dance
Franz Hackl – trumpet
Greg Baker – guitar
Philip Moll – bass
Gernot Bernroider – drums
Gene Pritsker – guitar/rap/Di.J.

3 months ago |
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Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach


Alexei Lubimov, tangent piano

ECM 2112

Sort of a hybrid in sound between harpsichord and fortepiano, the tangent piano had its heyday in the second half of the Eighteenth century; they are relatively few of them left in existence. While they are no match for the volume and intensity possible with a fortepiano or modern piano, the tangent piano often had a number of different devices with which to create dynamic nuance. Alexei Lubimov decided for his latest ECM recording to employ a modern replica of a tangent piano built by Belgian craftsman Chris Maene. He felt that it had the ideal variety of shadings and tone colors with which to interpret the work of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, a composer whose works Lubimov has in recent years championed.

C.P.E. Bach (1714-1788), one of J.S. Bach’s sons, was one of the most famous composers of the latter half of the Eighteenth century. Eclipsed by his father’s revival in the Nineteenth century, C.P.E. Bach is currently experiencing something of a revival of his own. A recent issue of Gramophone was devoted to his music. The piano concertos and solo piano works are being programmed again with greater frequency (dare one hope that his vocal and chamber music are next?). With Lubimov’s Tangere, listeners are afforded the double delight of hearing a fine cross section of the composer’s work played on a beguiling and multifaceted instrument.

C.P.E. composed keyboard music in a plethora of  styles and idioms. His most formidable pieces, two Fantasies in D#-minor and C-minor respectively, bookend the collection, replete with fluid tempo changes and florid runs. There are also a pair of sonatas, in three-movement versions of the form: fast-slow-fast, omitting the dance movement. The D-minor has a brilliant first movement that propels that the work forward, while the G major sonata relies on a three-chord pattern that Lubimov shapes with considerable delicacy. Pieces for left and right hand alone likewise are treated with sensitivity. Two rondos supply tunes of an angularity and variety that sometimes approaches C.P.E.’s father’s keyboard works. The disc is capped off by a number of shorter compositions, some less than half a minute long, titled Fantasies. One could see these wonderful miniatures serving as introductions to lengthier excursions or prompts for improvisation (Czerny’s book on improvisation is a commendable introduction to this method of learning impromptu playing).

Throughout, Lubimov makes the tangent piano the star, employing all of its various methods of expression to stirring effect. As such, it is one of my “Best Recordings of 2017” in the “solo instrument” category. One hopes that there will be additional outings in which he shares his art with us on this rare and fascinating instrument.

-Christian Carey

4 months ago |
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David Del Tredici

March To Tonality


Grand Trio

Mark Peskanov, violin

Michael Nicolas, cello

Steven Beck, piano

String Quartet No. 1

Voxare Quartet

Emily Onracek-Peterson & Galina Zhdanova, violins

Erik Peterson, viola

Adrian Daurov, cello


Curtis Macomber & Anna Lim, violins

Marka Gustavsson, viola

Christopher Finkel, cello

Jeremy McCoy, double bass

Margaret Kampmeier, piano

Dynamic Duo

Mark Peskanov, violn

Felix Del Tredici, bass trombone

The Felix Variations

Felix Del Tredici, bass trombone

March to Tonality presents a David Del Tredici with whom listeners may be less familiar. Rather than the action-packed vocal and large ensemble music that is his calling card, this collection of chamber works, all recorded for the first time, showcase Del Tredici’s dense, dramatic writing for chamber forces.

The double-album opens with Del Tredici’s Grand Trio. The rippling energy of the opening figure from pianist Steven Beck sets the pace for the first three movements, which are all played attacca. Throughout this thirty minute climb, Del Tredici recontextualizes several familiar musical fixtures in their synthesis. As the work unfolds, moments reminiscent of Mozart, Mahler, and Mingus flow together elegantly, building towards the dramatic climax of the work, which (of course) is a fugue. The work closes with its shortest movement, Reminiscence – Allegretto amabile. Aptly titled, this movement looks back on the the rest of the work with a nostalgic, rose-tinted filter.

String Quartet No. 1 occupies the final three tracks of the first album. Innocence and Experience contain many tender moments, but the heart of this work is in the third movement, Grosse Tarantelle. This final third moment is nearly twice as long as the first two movements combined, and sustains the ecstatic energy of the opening throughout the entire movement. Even as the music slows later in the movement, one still hears vestiges of the opening figure rippling through the ensemble.

The tragic story of teen suicides inspires another of the pieces. Exactly halfway through Bullycide, the names of five young people who took their lives due to bullying are whispered. Again, in another work, an overtly emotional moment like this might betray the material that both precedes and follows it, but both Del Tredici’s pacing and the intimacy of the ensemble’s playing allow this to be the piece’s highpoint.

Not to be overlooked in the midst of the other, significantly larger, pieces on this double album, the chemistry of violinist Mark Peskanov and bass trombonist Felix Del Tredici brings this unusual combination together seamlessly in Dynamic Duo. While the Batman reference is (presumably) unintentional, it is still somewhat apt. In Del Tredici’s Dynamic Duo, the bass trombone is a clear leader, outfitted with equipment and skills to boot. Del Tredici presents a broad spectrum of possibility for this instrument through mutes and extended techniques, including singing through the instrument to create a haunting, metallic echo of the human voice. The final track, The Felix Variations, showcases Felix Del Tredici in a solo format. Initially unsure what else the bass trombone had to offer, each variation seemed to scold my lack of imagination, presenting a rich palette of colors and textures while never compromising expression for effect.

Grand, never gauche, and cunning without camp, Del Tredici toes a fine line in embracing a postmodern aesthetic without the emotional separation of irony. The constant rise in dramatic tension across the first half-hour of the Grand Trio, the disproportionate length of the finale of String Quartet No. 1, and the use of a myriad extended techniques in Dynamic Duo and The Felix Variations all prove powerfully expressive. March to Tonality is a longer play, but didn’t out stay its welcome.

6 months ago |
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Larry Polansky – freeHorn

Cold Blue Music

Cold Blue Music has released a new album by Larry Polansky titled freeHorn, performed by a diverse group of acoustic musicians and incorporating computer-generated electronic accompaniment. The music on this CD emerges from a particularly rich synergy of scoring, tuning, programming and polished performances. The first two tracks, for example, are described in the liner notes as “…a continuous modulation between three different harmonic series, though the two pieces work in very different ways (in freeHorn, the musicians interact with real-time computer software; in ii-v-i, the guitarists retune while playing).” While ii-v-i is a guitar duo, freeHorn on track 1 features no fewer than eight musicians that include acoustic and electric instruments in addition to the computer electronics. freeHorn begins with a single, deep tone that is felt more than heard. What sounds like a trombone enters at a slightly higher pitch, then the guitar and keyboard. Horns join in along the harmonic series and this produces a powerful feeling of awakening, especially when the french horn enters. The tones are elegantly long and smoothly flowing; the opening of Das Rhinegold comes briefly to mind. At about 3:00 some dissonance creeps into the brass, creating a feeling of uncertainty as the piece continues. The various parts no longer feel tightly connected and there is a greater sense of mystery and tension. Short riffs from the various acoustic instruments appear among the longer tones, disrupting the sleek texture.

A low drone heard in the electronics along with various alien sounds soon dominates the texture, creating a sense of remoteness. The volume continues to build and billow while the horns and guitars dart in and out of the texture – the playing here is precise and well-balanced to the electronics. This ball of sound seemingly has movement, and yet is simultaneously static. By 17:30 the tempo begins to slow and there is a comforting return to the more conventional harmonic structure of the opening series. This warm and welcoming feel provides a nice sense of closure as the texture thins and the volume decreases – a single low tone fades to a finish. freeHorn is an amazing excursion, starting from conventional harmonic comfort, extending all the way to a foreign remoteness, and then carrying the listener safely back again.

ii-v-i follows on track 2 and begins very differently with deep bass tones and a moving guitar line above that immediately projects an air of mystery. More guitar lines join in at 1:40 – a bit more sociable and less mystifying – with just the slightest flash of a Joni Mitchell sensibility. After slowing some at 4:00 the tempo moves resolutely ahead and there is an almost country-western feel that ultimately evolves into interleaving layers mixed with strong rhythmic stretches. The tuning seems to be changing even as the passages of the guitar melodies emerge and disappear, and just when you get comfortable it morphs into something new. Finally, the last note rings out for several long seconds before disappearing into silence. ii-v-i unwinds in a swirl of different sounds and rhythms, the listener constantly and pleasantly recalibrating as the piece unfolds.

The final track on this CD is minmaj, a short duo that is described in the liner notes as “…a unique arrangement/’translation’ for two electric guitars of Carl Ruggles’s 1921 work for muted brass, Angels. (It is the first movement of Polansky’s 3 Translations for Electric Guitar.)” minmaj begins with a single questioning chord followed by more simple chords asking more questions. Although light and measured, there is a sense of moving forward and the accompaniment from the bass adds some depth to the texture. At 1:23 a more sinister sensation emerges followed by a quieter and more lonely stretch. The growing sense of the solitary isolation persists to the subdued ending. minmaj is a concise sketch of just that sort of enigmatic uncertainty that we all encounter at three AM.

freeHorn (CB0049) is available directly from Cold Blue Music and also at

Musicians performing on this CD are:
David Kant, saxophone and computer
Krystyna Bobrowski, horn
Tom Dambly, trumpet
Amy Beal, piano
Giacomo Fiore, electric guitar
Larry Polansky, fretless electric guitar
David Dunn, electric violin
Monica Scott, cello
Phil Burk, programming

8 months ago |
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Stephen Whittington


Zephyr Quartet

Cold Blue Music

From Cold Blue Music comes  a new CD by Australian composer Stephen Whittington titled Windmill (CB0048), performed by the Zephyr String Quartet. The album consists of a seven-movement piece, …from a thatched hut, along with Windmill, the title track.

The seven short movements of …from a thatched hut spring directly from Whittington’s ongoing interest in Chinese history and tradition. As he writes: “… from a thatched hut draws upon a particular strand of Chinese culture: the Chinese scholar who withdraws, temporarily or permanently, from society. The thatched hut was the place where the great Tang dynasty poets Du Fu (Tu Fu) and Li Bai (Li Po) withdrew from the world.”

Whittington has traveled extensively in China and there is a definite Asian sensibility in several of these pieces – similar to what one hears in the music of Lou Harrison. The opening movement, The Unnameable, begins with soft violin tones, like the distant buzzing of insects in a remote countryside. This slowly increases in volume and a dissonance intrudes to create a more intense feeling of separation. Conventional melody and harmonies follow, as if we have arrived at a place of welcome after a long trek. The Unnameable creates strong sense of removal in just a little over three and a half minutes.

Gazing at the moon while drunk, movement 2, furnishes a more customary feel, opening with a lovely violin duet. A sweetly airy melody floats above some some well-placed counterpoint, creating a gratifying warmth. At 1:30 a somewhat darker and more solemn theme is taken up by the viola, but the initial theme then returns, beautifully developed by the entire quartet and brimming with a distinctly Asian essence. The shortest movement. Straw Dogs follows and this has a more mysterious feel arising from a scattering of pizzicato passages and a repeating, whisper-like violin figure. A few bars of full tutti harmony are heard, but this only adds to the sense of ominous uncertainty. The wispy violin passages return, although more quietly, and the pizzicato is again heard, accompanied by some rapping on the wooden bodies of the various instruments.

Scratch head, appeal to Heaven, movement 4, arrives with a return of the lush melody and elegant counterpoint of the second movement. While somewhat less exotically Asian in character, this is full of a pleasant poignancy and a smooth, embracing harmony that perfectly captures the introspective state of the scholar in his remote refuge.

Movement 5, Journey of an Immortal, begins with a slow cello melody that has a strongly Asian flavor. A viola/violin duet follows, producing a busy and purposeful feel. This is heightened when the entire ensemble becomes fully engaged in a series of inviting counter melodies that weave pleasingly together. The final passages of this movement are, by contrast, rather scratchy and vague, in what feels like a remote and lonely finish.

Movement 6, Gazing at the moon while drunk…again, reprises the alluring violin duet, adding perhaps a slightly more formal Asian sensibility. At 1:30, however, the viola solo seems a bit less coherent than before, and even a bit loopy – as if the alcohol has taken full effect. The tutti theme returns, full of beautiful harmony and counterpoint, to restore an ordered decorum.

The last movement, Scratch head, appeal to Heaven…again, opens with the warm tutti passages as before, although now tinged with uncertainty and even a bit of tension. The lead violin part here is very expressively played and masterfully supported by the rest of the quartet. Towards the finish, a gradual decrescendo reduces the ensemble sound to a series of rustling whispers – the scholar departing his refuge to make the trek home.

In all seven of its movements,  …from a thatched hut is an enlightening exploration of the inner surfaces of self examination, reflection and introspection.

The final work on this CD is Windmill, and this is the polar opposite of the thoughtfully contemplative music of …from a thatched hut. The liner notes describe the subject of this piece – an iconic commonplace in rural Australia, as well as the American southwest: “The distinctive steel windmills that dot the Australian outback pump up life-giving water in the often desolate landscape… If you get close enough to one you can hear its distinctive creaking sound, stopping occasionally, resuming as the breeze picks up.”

Windmill,  as a musical description, does exactly that. Opening with a series of repeating tones in the high and middle registers, the sounds are not always consonant and occur in independent patterns only loosely connected by an overall pulse. Yet this unlikely combination somehow precisely conjures up the worn and rusty bearings of a remote windmill, spinning purposefully along in the empty landscape. At 3:30 the sounds slow and stop briefly, as if the wind had slackened and then revived. A more leisurely tempo follows, underscoring the age and somewhat decrepit state of the windmill, all perfectly in keeping with the unkempt condition of these machines.

As Windmill continues, the stops and starts become more frequent and the silences longer  in duration. The tempo slows again and the pitches fall as well, adding to the perception of a machine that is slowly running down in the still landscape. At the last the creaking sounds are very low and infrequent, as the wind finally dies away completely.

The playing by the Zephyr Quartet here is mesmerizing and completely convincing – Windmill is wonderfully vivid musical image that completely captures its subject.

Windmill (CB0048) is available directly from Cold Blue Music as well as starting August 18, 2017.

9 months ago |
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JG Thirlwell



Editions Mego

xordox - neospection

JG Thirlwell has recorded under several monikers and with various bands (Frank Want, Clint Ruin, Foetus, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, et cetera). Xordox is his latest project, recorded both at Self Immolation Studios in Brooklyn and as part of a residency at EMS in Stockholm, Sweden.

Thirlwell primarily plays synthesizers here, employing an almost martial barrage of digital patches redolent of 80s sci-fi soundtrack work alongside more ethereal analog electronics and breathy samples. Sarah Lipstate joins Thirwell on three tracks, adding hyper-processed guitar to the proceedings. “Diamonds,” the opening track (listen below), overlays multiple arpeggiations and pulsating synths to create a fascinating rhythmic grid. Over this are added still another layer of dramatic chord progressions. “Antidote” features an ostinato pattern of unequal beats (3+3+2) over which portentous strings are at play and underneath which a gloomy bass line holds court. Lipstate makes a cameo to revel in the groove, which is followed by a massive pileup that leads the piece towards its conclusion. Suddenly, the brakes slam on the forte sounds and we are left with a puzzling piano outtro.

On “Pink Eye,” synth brass stabs and thrumming electronic drums are set against ominous sustained notes and whirring glissandos. The most substantial track on the recording, the fourteen and a half minute long album closer “Asteroid Dust,” is a sly nod to game music. At the same time, it also contains a fascinating use of ostinatos as unifying factors over which melodic scraps and extraterrestrial explosions are given relatively free reign. On the latter half of the track, there’s an adroit incorporation of pitch bends to give microtonal inflections.

Neospection strikes a nice balance of process music, ambience, and spacy aggression. Imagine Blade Runner’s denizens visiting a club where Whovians congregate in the parking lot and you have a fair sense of the affective juxtapositions Thirlwell successfully undertakes.

10 months ago |
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Rey Pila

Wall of Goth

Cult EP

Mexican rock band Rey Pila channels two different generations of music: eighties synth pop and early aughts indie rock. The latter is abetted by Julian Casablancas (The Strokes), who produces their EP Wall of Goth (out now via Cult). The four songs contained therein are replete with vocal hooks and instrumental breaks that help to carbon date their influences. However, the amalgam of these makes for an unusual, often fascinating, melange.

The trick today, of course, is that influences from yesteryear’s pop, especially often a pile-up of them from different eras, are the norm for many artists. In face of the fear of being written off as merely “retro” by publicists and the public (in which order?), bands seek to transcend an easy genre or era tag via a combining of signifiers the likes of which are found on Wall of Goth. Perhaps this is an opportune time to make the listener work a bit harder; since it is no longer enough to play “spot the influences” before rendering peremptory judgement, one may have to deal with artists like Rey Pila, who combine elements exuberantly, on their own merits rather than on the vintage of their effects pedals.

10 months ago |
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Dan Joseph

Electroacoustic Works

XI Records

XI Records has released a new two-CD set from Brooklyn-based composer Dan Joseph titled Electroacoustic Works. The first CD contains a group of fixed media collages as well as two live performances of music for electroacoustic hammered dulcimer. The second CD is devoted to a 64 minute mixed media work that originated as a multi-channel sound installation.  Throughout this album, Joseph uses bowing in addition to the hammers on the dulcimer as well as a wide variety of filtering and electronic processing techniques.  The result is an intriguing mix of timbre and color that is subtle, yet constantly changing.

Set of Four (2008) is the first work on CD 1, and Opening begins with four strong bell-like tones in a rising arpeggio from the hammered dulcimer, followed by silence. Soft strumming sounds in the background give way to a repeat of the bell tones. There is a sense of rising optimism along with a nice groove that develops as this section proceeds. The strumming becomes busier and louder, enhancing the sense of motion and activity. The repeating arpeggio tones recur at intervals as the dulcimer tones become thinner and more intense. A roaring white noise slowly fills up the texture, and only a hint of the dulcimer notes remain before all fade out at the finish.

Trio I is the second movement of Set of Four and here the dulcimer strumming is more pronounced, casting an uncertain feeling. More white noise appears, contending with the dulcimer for dominance and this develops into an ominous back-and-forth, the outcome doubtful. The sounds crescendo and then fade out in cycles, suggesting that some whirring mechanism is present. A warmer, less menacing feeling emerges towards the finish as Trio I fades quietly away.

Trio II, the third movement, follows on track 3. This begins with a series of lightly touched arpeggios in the dulcimer followed by several slower, single notes. Electronic rushing sounds fade rapidly in and out, like cars passing by on a remote highway, and this adds a sense of purpose and movement. An electronic whirring soon appears, and the dulcimer notes are often rapidly played so that there is an engaging mixture of the three sounds going on at once. It is as if you are standing on the side of a desert highway on a bright day.

Closing, the final movement, begins with a soft strumming in foreground with lush, sustained electronic chords underneath that jaggedly repeat, providing an unsettling feel. The dulcimer line is a series of varied passages, but not continuous – sometimes calming and sometimes questioning. A harsh, metallic whirring sound begins softly and increases to eventually dominate the texture. This gradually fades and recurs – at times calming in its continuity yet also disconcerting in its intensity. The dulcimer is soothing when played against the buzz but eventually the dulcimer notes fade away as the buzz increases in volume and pitch until it becomes very penetrating just before the close.

Set of Four portrays an evolving relationship between the softly melodic dulcimer and the more mechanical electronic sounds: sometimes they are complimentary and evenly matched – and sometimes the electronics overwhelm and dominate. Perhaps this could serve as a metaphor for our human relationship with technology in this new century.

Track 5 contains the first of two versions of Dulcimer Flight (1998 – present). This begins with some lovely strumming – like a gentle forest rain – and there is a sense of peacefulness combined with organic completeness. Some electronic voice oohs materialize in a single pitch underneath, adding to the tranquil feeling. At about 3:15 a ragged metallic drone starts up that grows in volume and intensity. This overwhelms the dulcimer and changes the balance of the piece to a harsher and more industrial feel. This fades, however, and by 6:10 the gentle dulcimer tones reemerge The sounds of birds and a flowing stream are heard, returning to the original pastoral sensibility. At 9:50, however, the harsh buzzing is renewed and this increases until it all but buries the dulcimer notes. More electro-mechanical sounds, similar to that of a saw, join in to reinstate a dominant industrial feel and this persists until gradually fading out over the last three minutes.

The second version, Dulcimer Flight (Corvallis) completes the first CD of the set. The opening dulcimer tones are very warm and sunny, and are immediately accompanied by the sound of running brook. Bright electronic tones add to the pleasant feeling and there is an overall sense of organic wholesomeness. An electronic tone starts up, wobbling and buzzing, to become an alien presence, although stream sounds persist underneath. At 6:30, a harder electronic drone dominates and the watery sounds and pleasant dulcimer notes subside. Some interesting harmonies appear in the electronic tones, but overall there is a much harsher edge as this proceeds. By 11:00 the drones in the electronics have softened somewhat and the watery sound reappear, perhaps suggesting a metamorphosis. By 14:00 the dulcimer reappears, restoring the balance.

Throughout this piece, the electronic sounds and the dulcimer seem to be in a contentious opposition, with one seeking to overwhelm the other. The electronic drones seem to be absorbing the sunny, organic influences, but this isn’t completely successful and it ebbs and flows in a back-and-forth process. The musical forces at 16:00 finally seem to be staging a comeback as the drones recede into the texture. A more peaceful feeling returns – complete with crickets, birds and a barking dog – like sunset on a lake in summer. The texture thins out – with less intensity in the electronics as it fades to the finish.

Both versions of Dulcimer Flight follow the same general trajectory – the harmonious beauty of the natural environment is trespassed and overwhelmed by industrial process. The conflict goes back and forth and in the second version there is the suggestion that the severity of the mechanical has been softened by the primal. This search for balance between the organic and the man-made is a consistent theme throughout the six tracks of this CD.

The second CD in the album contains a single track: the 65 minute Periodicity Piece #6 (2005). This begins with pinging sound followed by a steady single tone – perhaps a tuning fork – and then a short sine tone beep, like that you hear if your phone call is being recorded. This beep becomes the signature of the piece, appearing every few seconds throughout, while warm chords emerge in layers of sustained sounds. Low brass harmonies are heard, sounding almost as a chorale, joined by quiet string tones. There are also long woodwind tones that appear in the mix.

Periodicity Piece #6 proceeds in this way with its smooth layers crisscrossing while electronic beeps appear at regular intervals. The different tones and timbres fade in and fade out in various combinations, constantly changing the texture and keeping the listener engaged. At 17:15, and again at 33:30, there is a short, high-pitched outburst of electronics that momentarily disrupts the pleasant harmonies and peaceful feeling. A few other unsettling sounds, including a light percussive clicking are heard scattered through the tones, but these only slightly disrupt the generally serene feeling as the piece fades to its finish. Periodicity Piece #6 is tranquil journey into an unknown a landscape that fills the listener with its wide horizon.

Electroacoustic Works is available directly from XI Records and also at Amazon.

1 year ago |
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