A painter of figures in rooms
NMC Recordings (digital EP)
American-born and UK-based composer Aaron Cassidy created the vocal ensemble work A painter of figures in rooms for Ex Audi as part of the New Music 20×12 Cultural Olympiad. It continues his research into extended tablature notation. Using this approach, details of the physicality of performance are specifically addressed, perhaps even more so than more traditional musical features. In a vocal ensemble work, this means that issues such as vowel space, approach to breathing, mouth and lip position, and gesture feature prominently.
While this notational approach would, at first glance, seem to leave room for significant variances between performances, Cassidy’s body of work occupies a distinctive and recognizable sound world that suggests a clarity of utterance conveyed by the tablature. When comparing his vocal music alongside Crutch of Memory, a recent disc of instrumental works recorded by the Elision Ensemble for Neos, certain qualities of sound surface as stylistic touchstones. Cassidy’s notation allows for an exploration of sliding between pitches, timbral adjustments, and fine gradations of microtones that would likely be cumbersome to notate in traditional Western fashion. Thus, while extremely complex and requiring a great deal from the performers, the resulting music takes on elemental concerns in organic fashion. The visceral vocalisms and muscularly effusive gestural profile of A painter of figures in rooms belie the notion that music in the “new complexity” or “second modern” vein is primarily an intellectual exercise. Instead, it often suggests uninhibited sensuality.
Songs of the Living and the Lived In
You can download each album for free right here.
Lawrence English says this about these two collections of field recordings:
“Songs Of The Living is a collection of field recordings I have had the chance to make over the past decade and a half. Many of these recordings hold very strong memories for me; spending days with Antarctic Fur Seals, hearing monkey’s calling whilst swaying on an old 50 metre high wooden tower in the Amazon or being surrounded by literally thousands of microbats, flying out from their diurnal home. I feel these recordings hold something profound and hint at the wonder that lies beyond our usual sonic radar.”
The variety of sounds that Lawrence English has collected, and the high quality at which he has collected them, is rather astonishing. Split into two collections, Songs of the Living is a series of sound recordings/soundscape compositions that feature the sounds of beings in nature. A host of monkeys, bats, insects, frogs, and seals are on a compelling sonic display and the disc never feels dull, repetitive, or simply ambient. Many times I was surprised that such sounds were from natural phenomenon; the visceral impact of some of these noises drives much deeper than what most composers do with electronic resources. The “Unidentified Cicada,” and the “Rhinocerous Beetle” for example, are ear stunners of the insect world. The “Antarctic Fur Seals” are expressive and rhythmic: they appear to be nature’s beatboxers…
And the Lived In takes the same concept as the first album but applies it to non-living beings. How does one capture the sound of a place without recording its inhabitants? English finds motors, gates, shorelines, toy stores, and more that provide rich and lush aural landscapes. The rich tones of “Cemetery Gate” and “Blizzard Battering Walls” are deep and fantastic. The “VLF During Solar Storm” is equally captivating with its high and thin sounds. I don’t know if Lawrence English put these sounds together for others to use in their compositions, to offer up as soundscape compositions alongside works of Annea Lockwood, or to show off the world that his ears have heard. In the end, none of that matters. These are two wonderful sets of recordings to hear which will reinvigorate your reception of the simple beauty all around us. Did I mention they are free?
Earlier this year I chatted with Chip Michael about the social media based ensemble TwtrSymphony. At the time, only a single movement of Michael’s Symphony No. 2: “Birds of a Feather” had been recorded. The full symphony is now complete and you can hear the complete work on their website.
The music is rather attractive, rhythmic stuff with a general tendency for thick orchestration and conventional harmony. The four movements (each 140 seconds in duration, a play on the Twitter restriction of 140 characters) takes the traditional classical approach to structure (1. Moderate, 2. Slow, 3. Dance, 4. Fast) and as a whole, the music is rather charming and well constructed. Such a short time restriction creates difficulties but Michael has a way of making each movement sound like the length is appropriate and not simply arbitrary. At around 10 minutes, Chip Michael manages to cover a nice amount of ground.
The biggest obstacle to be worked out by TwtrSymphony is in the mixing and mastering of the recording. With each part recorded in isolation by each performer using whatever materials they have on hand, assembling and crafting a master mix is a technological nightmare. At its best, the ensemble sounds pretty good (the first movement, “The Hawk Goes Hunting,” is the most successful to my ears). At its worst, the group sounds like software playback from a moderately priced set of virtual instruments. I found the strings particularly troublesome in this respect. Also, the panning is too severe and ends up highlighting the unnatural nature of the group. I think Chip Michael’s music is quite pleasant and I am willing to bet that this piece will get a fair amount of play by other ensembles. I’m also still intrigued by the nature of the TwtrSymphony and I look forward to hearing them address these sonic issues in future releases.
The Mimesis Ensemble
Scott Dunn, conductor
Sumeida’s Song, Mohammed Fairouz’s first opera, is based on the play Song of Death by Tawfiq al-Hakim. This story of a young man returning home and facing a long-standing family feud was adapted by Fairouz, as well, and the relatively plain language does well at communicating the major plot points. The music is very Stravinskian with punctuated orchestral rhythms, little ostinato figures, and slightly boxy tonal mechanics. The growth of microtonal colors in the third scene, however, is rather refreshing and engaging. I was surprised at the overall lack of ethnic-derived music given that the Egyptian setting and culture are strongly tied to the plot. I’m not asking for cliches or tastelessness, of course, but the relatively unspecific music suggests that the story could be happening anywhere. I suspect that the musical intent might be to make the story more of a generalize parable (since the story of sacrificing oneself for peace is a relatively universal ideal).
While Sumeida is in the title, this opera belongs to Rachel Calloway as Asakir. Present in almost every scene, this opera seems to be so much more about her than the title character but the libretto never really generates any sympathy for her. Calloway’s rich and powerful tone sounds like it has potential for great tenderness and nuance but the tone of this particular character never gets away from “angry evil shrew.” Her character’s edge is always present in her voice, never giving way to softness, and I would have enjoyed hearing Calloway’s dark sound in a more soothing melodic ground.
Overall, the music is a chain of solos with almost no ensemble singing whatsoever. I found most of the melodic lines emotionally flat with few resonating moments. Alwan’s lines “I won’t kill” towards the end of the second scene are punctuated with highly traditional harmonic cadences, for example. The ensuring argument builds up has wild energy and vibrant orchestration, I just find the drama uncompelling. This is always difficult when listening to an opera (instead of seeing it). All the motions that are happening on the stage could do much to heighten the impact.
Kristin Lee, violin
Conor Hanick, piano
Andrew Cyr with Metropolis Ensemble
Many of us have attempted to train ourselves to lucid dream. Lying in our beds, we’ve tried to wrangle our thoughts into those of control, discipline, and predictability. Some, if not most, nights, though, we are left with bizarre, alien-like episodes that seem perfectly normal only until we wake up.
Somehow, though, despite our attempts at control, these beautifully strange dreams can stick with us, long after we’ve forgotten the story we tried to construct ourselves.
And, somehow, Vivan Fung’s new album Dreamscapes feels a lot like this. While only one piece on the five track album has the word “dream,” her abilities as a composer can take over the subconscious of the listener in any setting.
The Canadian-born composer’s works span from prepared piano pieces to string quartets, but she somehow finds a way to make each form sing new tones. Combining distinctive sounds of Western music with those of gamelan and other non-Western timbres, she equals something from a direction neither cardinal nor previously done. Dreamscapes is certainly no exception.
Like trying to control dreams, attempting to predict the direction of Fung’s works is futile. Throughout the album, with her Violin Concerto, her prepared piano pieces Glimpses, and her piano concerto “Dreamscapes,” melodies change instantaneously into rapid textures, otherworldly plucks of piano strings reverberate off of passing drones, and Americana brass back up gamelan-influenced violin lines. But the album is about more than mixing and contrasting—it’s about Fung’s ability to invent an entire world from a certain web of sound, and her knack for knowing exactly how to disintegrate it.
The album opens with Fung’s stunning Violin Concerto. Inspired by Javanese gamelan, the piece is a distinctly gamelan theme running through settings from around the world. Kristin Lee, the soloist who worked closely with Fung, does an impeccable job being both virtuosic and accurate with the demanding passages, and the Metropolis Ensemble (conducted by Andrew Cyr) moves well together, bouncing, traveling, and being able to release pressure all at once. Throughout the first half of the concerto, Lee is in control; she guides the orchestra and audience into desolate, high register moments, into chugging, brass-filled areas, all the while exploring the landscapes the orchestra reflects with the reminder of the concerto’s pelog scale influences. Almost exactly half-way through, the violin drops the orchestra, letting it quickly dissipate as the violin seems to travel down its range, leaping sideways to build, piece by rearranged piece, a museum of styles. It builds to a climax, navigating through the gamelan scales with violent tremolo. When the orchestra arrives, it becomes the leader with animal kingdom brass and distant strings lurking in the now-familiar scales. Lee comes back in focus with almost Chinese-sounding melodies, gliding over the orchestra with more grace than was introduced. Like the listener has learned, though, no one mood stays for long, and the concerto feels impressionistic for a few minutes before it releases again into period of thinness. The ending, identical to the beginning, is a palette cleanser and a mirror, so pristine it reflects the multifaceted body that preceded it. As the strings glissandi up, the violin holds out until a small gong-like instrument is played, letting go of every sound before it, seeming to resonate for minutes.
“Glimpses,” the second group of pieces on the album, uses a gamelan-like prepared piano to provide exactly that, glimpses, into three very differently woven moods. The first movement, “Kotekan,” is titled after a gamelan style of fast, interlocking parts. With some notes ringing with a hollow sound, some vibrating against metal, and some shaking like strict percussion, Fung slowly builds a syncopated fabric, each tone bouncing off the next, each release as important as the contact. “Show,” the second movement, fills the dents from the previous movement with a fluid, sometimes impressionistic wave still spiked with the textures of the prepared strings. The third movement, “Chant,” mentally abducts. Like a flying object, the piece passes by deep, resonating, buzzes from the strings as abstract strumming, wood knocking, and echoing phrases gently create a narrative to follow.
While “Glimpses” pulls us in each direction, tugging by the arm to each new window of sound, the album’s powerhouse “Dreamscapes” for piano and orchestra becomes an entire comprehensive world. Conor Hanick, the pianist for both “Glimpses” and “Dreamscapes,” plays the inside of the piano with as much dedication and confidence as he does the keys, allowing the listener to fully accept the strange, distinctly Fung atmosphere that quickly constructs itself after the opening sounds. The piece begins with surprising fervor that holds out, transitioning through micropolyphony, jazzy spells, and the exact theme from “Glimpses” movement “Kotekan,” which on strings sounds strangely regal. Like dreams, though, each setting is accepted. No matter how out of place a section seems through words, the listener’s subconscious is taken over by Fung’s ability to weave each theme, each melody, each cluster of tones into the same environment that the listener is fully immersed in. Hanick plays a large part in this hypnotizing quality. His playing, especially in sections with undefined structure and simmering mixing of tones, is restrained and resists the temptation to become over-powerful in the delicate balance; he is also able to release off of these moments into commanding periods. After an orchestral sigh, around two-thirds into the piece, the direction of the piece becomes steeper, denser, and more urgent. Eventually, everything begins to spread out as old themes are resurrected in simple versions. As the world we have come to know disintegrates, an alien-like glimmer resonates behind the still tentative piano, which eventually dissolves.
Many composers fuse genres. Many composers build worlds. And, naturally, many composers have dreams. But what sets Fung apart is her ability to take over the subconscious of the listener, to build a world so captivating that even the strangest of transitions happen seamlessly. Lucid dreaming may seem enticing, but being taken away to Fung’s world would probably take the cake.
Wood and Forest
works by Jacob Bancks, Kenji Bunch, Robert Pateron, Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez, and Michael Torke
American Modern Recordings
Six Mallet Marimba
music of Robert Paterson
Also released last week by American Modern Recordings, a disc of the music of Robert Paterson using Paterson’s unique six-mallet marimba technique (and featuring Paterson on marimba throughout). The addition of two more mallets is actually more subtle of a change than I expected. The texture is mildly thicker but what really comes through are more nuanced shapes on the inside voices rather than a bombastic “listen to all those notes!” kind of effect. The solo works Komodo and Piranha are great compliments to each other (Paterson wrote them to be so) in that Komodo fixates on the lower range of the instrument while Piranaha surfs and splashes nimbly in the upper register. I must confess that oftentimes I have difficulties with the form of solo marimba music since a lot of it sounds (to me anyway) as inspired by a stream-of-consciousness narrative that never connects with my ears. Paterson’s works do not suffer from this ailment, however, and his fluid forms are well communicated.
The bulk of the disc features the six-mallet marimba as an accompaniment instrument for a wide variety of performers: oboe, bass clarinet, tuba, violin, and flute. In each case, Paterson largely regulates the marimba to the background of the texture, providing harmonic support for facile and enjoyable melodic writing. Paterson is adept at mixing and matching the timbre of the marimba with these various instruments so it never sounds as if he is recycling materials or techniques from one piece to the next. The feature of the disc, after all, is the six-mallet technique. Paterson’s range of music expressions show variety in using six mallets, whether it be ominous dark chords with Stillness or the sultry bass lines of Clarinatrix and the middle movement of the Duo for Flute and Marimba. Nuanced arpeggiations are possible and displayed in the Duo as well as Tongue and Groove. I am particularly fond of Links & Chains for violin and marimba with its tightly woven accompaniment and edgy yet lengthy violin melody. I’m not sure how wide-spread the technique of using six mallets is but this disc and Paterson’s music show lots of potential for those willing to try.
Widmann, clarinet; Heinz Holliger, oboe;
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie, Christoph Poppen, conductor
ECM New Series 2110
39 year old Jörg Widmann is a virtuoso clarinetist and one of Germany’s rising stars in the realm of music composition. Both of these aspects of his talents are on display in a new portrait disc released by ECM Records. Christoph Poppen, one of the label’s mainstays (another multi-talented musician – a fine violinist and conductor) leads the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie in a program that displays Widmann as a musician with a diversity of interests and a multi-faceted compositional toolkit to match.
The disc’s title work features Widmann playing a plethora of extended techniques, haloed by orchestral writing that is primarily atmospheric with occasional fierce outbursts. Messe, despite its moniker and movement titles mirroring the Ordinary of the liturgy, is for large orchestra sans voices. Fastidious attention is given to contrapuntal details in several “contrapuncti” movements. Elsewhere a juxtaposition of weighty tutti and long-breathed angular melodies provide some surprising textural shifts.
Fünf Bruchstücke (1997) are early works that feature clarinet and oboe. The latter duties are fulfilled by oboist/composer Heinz Holliger (another formidable double threat!). The two are given many opportunities to display the extended technical capabilities of their respective instruments. But it is the sense of cat and mouse interaction and the energetic elan that typifies much of the compositions’ demeanor that make them far more captivating than many a virtuoso showcase.
Widmann weds musicality and technical facility seamlessly. While the episodic nature of this program gives tantalizing glimpses of his potential, one looks forward to the composer/clarinetist expanding his horizons to larger formal designs on a future recording.
Ain’t Nothin’ But a Polka Band
Polka from the Fringe
29 polkas by various composers
Aint’ Nothin’ But a Polka Band are: Guy Klucevsek, accordion and vocals; John King, electric guitar, electric violin, dobro, vocals; David Hostra, Fender bass, doublebass, tuba; Bill Ruyle, drums, marimba, triangle; David Garland, lead vocals, whistling.
Confession time: I didn’t know what to think about this disc when I first received it. I thought I had gotten on the wrong person’s mailing list and couldn’t understand why anyone would send me a polka disc (much less a 2 disc set of polkas). All I really know about polkas I learned from Weird Al. Then I started looking at the disc: Starkland? Mary Ellen Childs? Aaron Jay Kernis? Carl Stone? Fred Frith? Lois Vierk? William Duckworth? What?!? I instantly put the discs in and all my questions were answered.
While far from being some kind of “gag disc” or collection of jokey compositions, this double-disc set is a heck of a lot of fun. Each composer makes their own work on the subject of “polka,” some are very traditional sounding others flirt with polka-ness, others take the instrumentation and write their own thing. The boisterous opening “The Grass, It Is Blue” sets the stage well with its riffs on Gershwin. Peter Garland’s “The Club Nada Polka” stutters and stammers through polka world. Aaron Jay Kernis’ “Phantom Polka” sounds like bits of Petrushka which were swept up off the floor and stitched back together. Bobby Previte’s epic (8 minutes seems appropriate for a polka to be called ‘epic’) “The Nove Scotia Polka” is equal parts polka and fantasia. Disc two contains just as many gems as disc one. William Duckworth’s “Polking Around” has all the subversive rhythmic arpeggiation grooves you would expect. Fred Frith’s “The Disinformation Polka” is full of fits and starts which make me chuckle every time I hear it. I would talk about each piece but there are just too many!
What I really love about the disc is, well, everything I suppose. You can tell that the composers had a good time writing these pieces and Ain’t Nothin’ But A Polka Band delivers clean and genuine performances of each work, no matter how “un-polka” they get. I don’t get the send of this being Hugely Important and Reverent Music. This is a boatload of composers writing out of the joy of writing. Some days you want to be blown away by profound artistry. For every other day, there are discs like this full of joy, pleasure, and talent.
music by Andrès, Paterson, Lizotte, Currier, and Taylor
I must confess that harp duos aren’t something I’ve thought a lot about in the past. Duo Scorpio’s first release, Scorpion Tales, has me thinking a lot more about this ensemble and this particular duo. On the whole, Duo Scorpio’s album simultaneously affirms and denies any stereotypes you might have about music for two harps. Kathryn Andrews and Kristi Shade deliver stellar performances throughout the disc regardless of how conventional or unconventional the compositions might be.
The disc is bookended by works of Bernard Andrès. Le Jardin des Paons reflects the impressionistic tendencies of the harp but also highlights many nuanced coloristic possibilities which might not be as readily explored in other ensemble writing. Parvis contains more drive and darkness, ramping up the timbral possibilities by quite a few notches. Parvis is quite an exciting barn-burner to close the disc, too. Both compositions are thickly scored at times, showcasing the duo’s ability to create huge clouds of sound across their entire range. Andrès treats the duo as if it was a quartet and that treatment pays off.
The title composition for the disc, Robert Paterson’s Scorpion Tales, is a three movement work which treats the duo more as one hyper-instrument. Gestures and textures stay unified throughout the duo, blurring the lines between Andrews and Shade and presenting singularly focused musical shapes. Similarly, Crossfade by Sebastian Currier takes a more “single instrument” approach to the harp duo by shifting ideas in and out of the ensemble gradually. Counterpoint between the two instruments is kept on the micro-level until the loudest and most active sections.
Two works on this disc use more unconventional approaches in exploring the sonic potential of this duo. Unfurl by Stephen Taylor, unwinds itself in sparkling arpeggios through Pythagorean tunings. The retuned instruments are a quite refreshing sound and add much to the harmonic resonance of the composition. Additionally, some of Taylor’s low range writing is rather impressive and enjoyable. Caroline Lizotte’s Raga is a real gem. Beginning with a haunting sound (a snare stick rubbed on the string) I am still not convinced that the piece doesn’t involve either of the performers singing. The gentle build in activity from these spacious and gorgeous tones flows naturally until Duo Scorpio hits their apex of chamber music writing outside of the Andrès pieces. With a little augmented percussion, Raga shows yet another rabbit hole for coloristic possibilities. Lizotte explores these colors incredibly well and Duo Scorpio makes it all seem completely natural and idiomatic.
ECM Records New Series CD
Stifters Dinge is a “soundtrack album” for a 2007 theatrical installation by composer/director Heiner Goebbels.The work features five mechanical pianos that were reconfigured to produce all sorts of sounds, pianistic and otherwise. Spoken word excerpts by famous figures — Claude Levi-Strauss, William S. Burroughs, and Malcom X — along with Bill Patterson’s mellifluous reading of a text by the work’s titular figure, Romantic era writer Adelbert Stifter, are joined by field recordings from far flung destinations: Greece, Latin America, and Papua New Guinea .
Photo: © Mario del Curto. Used with kind permission.
Integral to the work’s staging are elemental components: water, ice, smoke, stones, etc. These supply still another layer of the recording’s sound world. Often, as one finds with the crackling ice recordings heard during Patterson’s narration, these natural sounds take on a role supportive of the piece’s narrative. Elsewhere they seem to be part of its abstract musical fabric. The music itself is of similarly varigated design. The mechanical pianos sometimes make utterances closer to the realm of found sound and experimental electronics. These are mixed with more identifiably pianistic scalar passages. Chromatic clusters and, contrastingly, a bit of Bach’s Italian Concerto, make appearances.
Photo © Mario del Curto. Used with kind permission.
Of course, questions of identity are inevitably posed when confronting any work by Goebbels: what does this accumulation of disparate stuff mean? Does it cohere? I can’t answer the first question, as I’m certain that there as many pathways into Stifters Dinge as there are elements contained within it. And the second question is elusive too. Goebbels allows his materials to share the same space without forcing them into congruity. Instead, the listener (and, in the case of a live performance, viewer) is invited to engage with a design built out of elements that are in a variety of relationships with one another: sometimes in tension or opposition and at others in accord. And, one finds that when these simpatico sonic meetings happen, like oases in the midst of flux, they are often quite moving. Thus, Goebbels treats both the sounds with which he composes and the listeners who attend to them with a great deal of respect. Stifters Dinge may require much, even from a thoughtful listener, but it rewards them with an imaginative labyrinth of appealing sounds to explore.
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