[exhibit a], recently released by populist records, is the first CD to feature gnarwhallaby, a Los Angeles-based new music ensemble. With 16 tracks by 8 different composers, [exhibit a] is a noteworthy introduction to the versatility that gnarwhallaby brings to the performance of late 20th and early 21st century music. Consisting of Brian Walsh, clarinet, Matt Barbier, trombone, Derek Stein, cello and with Richard Valitutto on piano and melodica, gnarwhallaby delivers remarkable precision, energy and passion along with a studied and controlled sensitivity to the music of American and European contemporary composers.
[exhibit a] opens with Half a minute it’s all I’ve time for (1972) by Morton Feldman. Just 47 seconds in total, this track contains the sounding of just four mysterious chords dominated by the clarinet and piano, and separated by silence. We are definitely in Feldman territory, but It feels as if these chords have been lifted from a larger mosaic – a few fragments to be held up for closer examination. The ending track on the CD has the same title and the same short chord sequence, but you must listen to the entire 16 minute playing time – mostly silence – to appreciate the full intent.
D-S-C-H , by Edison Denisov is next and this opens with a high, sharply struck piano note followed by a series of jagged passages from the trombone, piano and cello. The piano sounds its note again and the process repeats. The playing here is very precise and appropriately animated and the feeling is like watching a pinball machine.. At about half-way, the pace slows with a series of longer phrases in the cello, trombone and clarinet; the piano now picks up the spiky theme. This piece finishes quietly with the piano continuing to sound short, rapid bursts of exclamation. The ensemble playing by gnarwhallaby here is agile and and focused and nicely negotiates the complex and often rapid-fire interplay between the parts.
[exhibit a] contains five tracks by Nicholas Deyoe, a Los Angeles-based composer from his series titled FLUFF (2012). These were written for gnarwhallaby and range from 20 seconds to a few minutes in length. FLUFF No. 5 is 22 seconds of upward scales in the trombone – almost practice like – that are surrounded by warm sounds in the cello and clarinet. FLUFF No. 7 features a high trill in the trombone with the clarinet and cello supporting with short passages and sustained tones that remind one of a mosquito-filled summer night. FLUFF No. 1 features a low trombone trill that could be a motorcycle racing away into the distance while screeching from the clarinet and cello combine to capture the classic urban moment of a changing traffic light. This theme continues in FLUFF No. 8 but now the trills and screeching produce that instant of sheer terror just before two vehicles collide. FLUFF No. 11 is the longest of the series at 2:42 and begins with a low creaky groan in the cello and trombone with clarinet notes that dart in and around the rumbling texture. This has a menacing feel, as if some malevolent force is gathering just out of sight. The five FLUFF tracks each encapsulate a moment in miniature, and are played with just the right combination of energy and attention to detail.
The three movements of Modernes Kaufhaus [1998/2010] by Marc Sabat are heard on tracks 4 to 6 and the first, Swabian Queen, is an impressive display of precision playing – the clarinet and piano simultaneously hitting a series of fast, staccato notes in an irregular melody. In the second movement, Rathaus, the notes become even more scattered, producing a somewhat tentative feel – like a bird pecking at seed on the ground. Ko¨nig X, the final movement, is built around a sharp beat rapped out on the wood of the piano. A stern, strident melody sounds from the clarinet and trombone, as if a tyrant king is approaching. There is a middle eastern flavor to this that comes from the carefully sustained stringendo in the high register and the syncopated rhythm. This recording of Modernes Kaufhaus is a monument to tight ensemble.
Pour Quatre , by Wlodzimierz Koton´ski is on track 8 and this begins with a marvelously busy series of sounds that bubble along as short, single notes are heard individually from the piano, clarinet and trombone. More busyness follows from the cello while the trombone holds a steady, somber tone. Other sounds follow, most hard to categorize, but there is a sense of constant activity and bustle in the texture. The piece slows somewhat towards the end producing a slightly less intense feel before quietly concluding. This is complex music with a lot of independently moving parts that succeeds only through the discipline in the playing.
A less frenetic approach is heard in Polychrome  by Zygmunt Krauze. A series of dissonant sustained tones is heard from the cello, clarinet and muted trombone. Short, fast riffs are traded between the piano and clarinet that add to the tension. There is a feeling of uncertainty and anxiety that derives directly from the dissonance that is carefully maintained for maximum effect.
Steffen Schleiermacher’s Stau  is next and the title translates as ‘congestion’. Stau is the way Germans describe heavy congestion on their autobahn and this piece could be interpreted as a metaphor for stop and go traffic. A series of sforzando chords sound at the beginning, almost like the theme from a detective show on TV. The feeling of drama is heightened by the strong rapping of a series of beats, followed by another sudden sforzando chord. There is a halting feel to this as the pattern repeats. At 3:50 there is low sustained clarinet tone followed by the trombone and cello, producing a mysterious feeling. A loud piano chord sounds and drifts away with a long decay into silence. Now a return to the opening theme but with bright, animated passages in the clarinet, trombone and cello. A feeling of velocity and confusion is quickly attained but the slow theme suddenly returns. There is a sense of speeding up and then slamming on the brakes. The playing of all this was effectively realized and the tension in the sustained chords and sforzando passages never lessened.
The final pieces in [exhibit a] are by Henryk Go´recki , his Muzyczka IV (koncert puzonowy), Op. 28 . This trombone concerto is a study in extreme contrasts and is brilliantly played by Matt Barbier. The first section, furioso, marcatissimo starts with a deep rumbling in the piano that is soon joined by fast, loud trills in the clarinet and trombone. There is a frenetic tempo to this and the explosive trombone playing dominates the texture. High screeching in the clarinet adds to the chaotic mixture of sounds – stopping abruptly to observe a few seconds of silence, only to start up again. The furioso entrances here are demanding but come across as clean and precise. There is the sense of unfolding catastrophe or of a pitched battle whose outcome is uncertain and the energy continues to build until a final piano crash leads directly to the tranquillissimo, ben tenuto section in the following track.
In the tranquillissimo section a series of soft piano chords ring out like cathedral bells in mourning. A slow dirge-like melody in the clarinet and trombone powerfully evoke a solemn sadness. At 1:50 a strong fortissimo passage on the same theme underscores the emotion before returning to the quietness of the opening. This is very powerful music that vividly portrays overwhelming loss. A sense of finality envelops the listener at the conclusion as the last piano chord slowly dies away. The playing here is acutely sensitive and perfectly matched to the intent of the music. A quick Google check turned up only one available CD and a single indifferently recorded YouTube video of this piece – by including Op. 28 on this new CD, gnarwhallaby has performed a real service for those who are drawn to the music of Henryk Go´recki.
The sound engineering and recording of [exhibit a] has been carefully designed to capture the wide variations in dynamics and timbre – nothing is lost or noticeably distorted. The playing on this CD is remarkable for the precision and tight ensemble that gnarwhallaby brings to each piece in this diverse and challenging collection.
[exhibit a] is available from populist records.
STREICH: Dramatische Studie Nr. 3; ABLINGER: Augmented Study; JANULYTE: Psalms; FREY: A Memory of Perfection; Distant Colors; wen III; JENEY: Százéves átlag; BABBITT: Composition for Twelve Instruments; Arrivals and Departures; CLEMENTI: Second Violin Concerto; OTTO: Violin Duo; DAVIS: slip; CARLSON: Second string octet; MAKAN: mu; MAŽULIS: The Sleep; WILCOX: Two Violins. Erik Carlson, violin, various artists. http://erikcarlson.bandcamp.com/ 153 minutes.
Erik Carlson is a New York based violinist and composer, a member of ICE and the Talea Ensemble, among many others. He is a fine player, possessed of excellent technique, impeccable intonation (a must in the kind of music he plays here), and a keen ear for the range of sounds that can be made on a violin.
Some of Mr. Carlson’s central concerns, as both composer and performer, come through in his Second Octet. This very brief (less than three minutes) long-tone piece moves easily from harmonic clarity to harmonic crunch, with an incredibly present, physical sound.
The rest of this generous, always rewarding set is made of pieces that range from the high concept process pieces of Stefan Streich and Peter Ablinger through the expressive elegance of Milton Babbitt’s Composition for Twelve Players, in the best recording I’ve heard.
All of the pieces can be streamed from the website listed above, they can be purchased individually or as an album. Highly recommended.
Ursula Oppens, Bruce Brubaker, pianists
ECM New Series CD 2374
Meredith Monk is best known for her vocal works. However, she has been writing for the piano since early on in her studies and has mature works in her catalog that date back to the 1970s. Starting in the 1980s, she began to write a number of pieces for piano duo. Both solo works and duos are represented on this ECM CD of her piano music, played expertly and energetically by Ursula Oppens and Bruce Brubaker. They even engage in a bit of hand percussion and vocal call and response on the ebullient “Folkdance.“
As Monk points out in her liner notes, these are pieces that may seem simple on the surface. This is deceiving. Accounting for all their details and dealing with the slightly off-kilter rhythmic sensibility that is so often brought to bear in the works is quite tricky. One might wonder why the selections are called “Piano Songs.” Truth be told, Monk’s work, be it for instruments or voices, retains such a strongly vocal quality to the shaping of its lines that calling these pieces songs, much like Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte, seems apt.
A Place Toward Other Places
Richard Hawkins, clarinet;
The Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble, Timothy Weiss, conductor
Oberlin Music 2xCD
While not hot off the presses (it was released in 2012), this disc is new to me and I’ve greatly enjoyed spending time with it. Richard Hawkins is a clarinetist with superlative technique and keen musicality. The Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble, conducted by Timothy Weiss, accompanies him in enthusiastic fashion. Their rendition of the Carter Clarinet Concerto (1996) is a study in contrasts, with the group playing muscularly while Hawkins spins arcing lines with cool command. There’s a similar dichotomy to be found in the performance of Benjamin Broening’s Clarinet Concerto. This does not in any way show the ensemble in a bad light. In fact, after hearing dozens of cool-as-ice performances by New York and European groups, it is a breathe of fresh air to hear these young musicians dig in con brio! Broening’s piece itself features many thrilling passages and is, as is most of his music, from a formal vantage point exquisitely well sculpted.
Things come into crystalline focus in the recording of the late William Albright’s Clarinet Quintet, with dovetailing strings turning on a dime and staccato and pizzicato passages delivered with precise accuracy. The piece is quite fetching; one hopes that more groups will take it up. The title work, by Aaron Helgeson, closes the proceedings in beautifully ethereal fashion. Hawkins and Weiss are not only a good team musically speaking; their curation of this recording’s program is thoughtful and artful.
DETRICK: The Bright and Rushing World. AnyWhen Ensemble. Navona NV5955. 63 minutes.
Composer/trumpeter Douglas Detrick’s The Bright and Rushing World (2012) is a ten-movement piece of chamber jazz in which a single theme recurs throughout the work. The theme itself (stated at the outset by Mr. Detrick’s trumpet) is straightforward and memorable, with enough twists, turns, and ambiguities (both rhythmic and in harmonic implication) to sustain the piece for over an hour.
The Bright and Rushing World is a brooding piece, full of introspection–the overall title and the movement titles come from a poem about identity and release that Detrick wrote at the end of composing. The unique instrumentation of the AnyWhen ensemble (the composer’s trumpet, Hashem Assadullahi on saxophone, Shirley Hunt, cello, Steve Vacchi, bassoon, and Ryan Biesack, percussion) lends itself to that introspective vibe. Detrick mentions a few influences, including Ellington and Britten, in his notes, but what hear more than these is the Miles Davis of Birth of the Cool in sound and harmony, and that’s very high praise.
The playing here is really outstanding–technically and expressively. Highly recommended to a wide range of listeners, including jazz fans, chamber music buffs, and those seeking common ground between genres and audiences.
HEATHCO: ravens & radishes. Misha Penton, soprano; George Heathco, electric guitar; Daniel Saenz, cello. Divergence Vocal Theatre DVT 002; georgeheathco.com; 25 minutes.
ravens & radishes (2013) is an “operatic fairytale song cycle” for soprano, electric guitar, and cello. The lyrics, by soprano Misha Penton, embody elusive retellings of tales from Grimm and a Slavic tale. They are well-matched with Heathco’s music, which has an easy eclecticism that reminds me of chamber rock with shifting textures and metric/rhythmic freedom. The songs work on their own and as part of the cycle.
Misha Penton, in addition to having a way with words, is a fine singer, with a darkly inviting voice, a sure sense of pitch, and outstanding diction. Mr. Heathco is a solid guitarist, coaxing a wide variety of sounds and textures from his instrument, which blends and contrasts in sometimes surprising ways with Daniel Saenz’ superb cello playing.
ravens & radishes is very well-written, recorded, and performed. A good example of the form and style.
SHENG: The Singing Gobi Desert; LIANG: Messages of White; MAN: Dream of a Hundred Flowers; RUO: The Three Tenses. Prism Quartet; Music from China; Bright Sheng, Nové Deypalan, Huang Ruo, conductors. innova 885. 58 minutes.
In his extensive and highly readable liner notes for this disc, John Schaefer writes that this disc demonstrates that “saxophones and Chinese instruments have a natural, if unexpected, affinity”. That is an understatement, to say the least, as this remarkable program illustrates.
Bright Sheng’s The Singing Gobi Desert (2012, erhu/zhonghu, sheng, pipa, yangqin, saxophone quartet, and percussion) begins with a noisy and extravagant gesture, reminiscent of Messiaen. After that gesture (which returns) a melody snakes through the ranges of the various instruments, in harmony and in unison. The bulk of the piece consists in explorations and expansions of the implications of the opening. The piece moves easily through Western and Chinese idioms. without ever succumbing to what Steve Reich called “the old exoticism trip”. Bright Sheng’s piece explores the sonic space that both separates and unites the instruments in a way that is both brilliant and expressive.
Messages of White (2011, saxophone quartet, erhu, sheng, pipa, yangqin and percussion), by Lei Liang, explores a very different landscape from Sheng’s Gobi Desert; a snowscape. This is a far more “abstract” landscape, with few overt references to the musical traditions that lie behind the instruments used. Glissandi on the erhu are combined with bowed percussion sounds to create a background in front of which the other instruments grow increasingly active, then less active towards the end of the piece, leaving the background as it was in the beginning.
Fang Man’s Dream of a Hundred Flowers (2011, erhu, sheng, pipa, yangqin, and saxophone quartet) finds each saxophone paired with one of the Chinese instruments in a study, really a celebration, of the melodic styles associated with Chinese opera, with some very jazzy harmonies popping up from time to time. Over the length of the pieces, the duos join with other duos and the two quartets explore different relationships, like characters in an opera. It is a shapely piece, expressive and lovely.
The program ends with a searching performance of Huang Ruo’s The Three Tenses (2005, pipa and saxophone quartet). From a slow and spare beginning, the piece blossoms into hive of melodic activity, that reminds me at times of some of Luciano Berio’s melodic elaboration pieces (Voci, for example). It is very colorful and alive.
The sound is outstanding on this valuable release. Highly recommended.
FUNG: Keeping Time; HIGDON: Secret and Glass Gardens; HOOVER: Dream Dances; LUO: Mosquito; SHATIN: Chai Variations; De KENESSEY: Spontaneous D-Combustion; DEUSSEN: A Recollection. Mary Kathleen Ernst, piano. innova 868. 69 minutes.
Headline: Mary Kathleen Ernst, who I admit I had not heard of before I got this recording, is a spectacularly gifted pianist. She plays with assured technique, a vast timbral palette, and a keen sensitivity to the variety of contemporary compositional styles. The current program, of recent music by female composers, is far more than showcase for Ms Ernst, but it is that, too.
The program opens with Vivian Fung’s sly look at Keeping Time. Ms Fung uses time-keeping (an obsession in much contemporary American concert music) for melodic and gestural musings, with the clock’s insistence always present. The melodies in Jennifer Higdon’s Secret and Glass Gardens begin as quietly purposeful wanderings that gradually blossom into large gestures covering the entire range of the keyboard.
Katherine Hoover’s Dream Dances begins with mysterious, impressionistic gestures (very idiomatic, pianistic) that are indeed dream-like in their ambiguity. The piece gradually, almost imperceptibly, develops into a driving, frenetic dance that abruptly, and convincingly, stops. Mosquito, by Jing Jing Luo, is a flighty beast indeed. Scurrying here, lighting there, it is a consistently delightful piece, well-written and expressive.
Chai Variations, by Judith Shatin, is a set of 18 variations on a Hebrew folk song. Shatin takes an effectively old-fashioned approach to variation form(s)–now Brahmsian, now Rzewskian–the theme is almost always clear in the background, if not the foreground. A shapely, convincing set.
Stefania De Kenessey’s Spontaneous D-Combustion is full of references to past styles. It is jaunty and eminently listenable. The program closes with Nancy Deussen’s attractive and haunting A Recollection. As the piece moves along, the nature of the “recollections” gets more-and-more elusive. It makes a fine end to a very good program, well-chosen and very well-played by Ms Ernst.
BATES: Stereo is King; Observer in the Magellanic Cloud; Difficult Bamboo; Terrycloth Troposphere; String Band; White Lies for Lomax. Cynthia Yeh, Jacob Nissly, Eric Banks, perc; Mason Bates, electronica; Chanticleer; Baird Dodge, vln; Ken Olsen, cello; Jennifer Gunn, fl; Susan Warner, cl; Kuang-Hao Huang, piano; Cliff Colnot, cond; Bill Ryan and the Grand Valley New Music Ensemble; Claremont Trio; Tania Stavreva, piano. innova 882. 66 minutes
I have to say right up front that I find that, even having listened to a fair amount of it, I cannot engage with most of what I’ve heard of Mason Bates’ music. With an important exception, the pieces on this release, well-written and played and sung impeccably and enthusiastically by renowned performers, don’t speak to me. I agree with Joshua Kosman, who writes “[f]or sheer compulsive listenability, you could hardly do better than the title track, a bowlful of sonic popcorn that combines Thai gongs with a sleek veneer of electronic processing.” In fact, these very aspects of it are an important part of what is off-putting about this music. But for some reason it doesn’t speak to me. So I don’t have much to say about the disc, except to repeat that it is very well-written, played, sung, and recorded.
Except for String Band, an expressive and riveting piece of music, given a powerful performance by the Claremont Trio. String Band wears its influences lightly and feels less wedded to its musical influences than are the rest of the pieces on the program. The sleekness that Mr. Kosman finds so enthralling in Stereo is King is missing here, and the expression is, at least to my ear, more direct, somehow less mediated than in the pieces I’ve heard from Mr. Bates, and from others in his compositional cohort.
The fact that the other pieces just don’t do it for me says as much about me as it does about the music, if not more. But my experience with String Band gives me hope, and that’s always very good.
BECKER: Gridlock; Five Reinventions; Fade; Keeping Time; A Dream of Waking. Common Sense Ensemble/Bradley Lubman; New Millennium Ensemble. innova 855. 53 minutes.
Dan Becker’s brand of post-minimalism is brightly colorful and rhythmically incisive. And it sounds as if it would be great fun to play. While the music is built on steady, clear pulses, Becker rarely resorts to a backbeat. His percussion writing, rather, is built on irregular accents and colorful blasts of sound. His writing for winds and strings is equally idiomatic; again, it sounds like it would be great fun to play.
The music on this disc that speaks most directly to me is contained in the slow sections of pieces like Fade and Keeping Time (Mvt. 1). Here, Becker uses pop-oriented harmonies and progressions, but with an irregular harmonic rhythm, supporting expressive melodies colorfully orchestrated.
The performances are top notch. The players love this music and it shows. The Bachian Reinventions are played by a Discklavier, which seems indifferent compared to the human players–the notes are there, but still.
Innova’s sound is very good, and John Halle’s notes are gushily informative.
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