Music reviews

Ashley Walters: Sweet Anxiety

Cellist Ashley Walters released her first solo album, Sweet Anxiety, on Populist Records last month. The music is complex and difficult—sometimes on its surface, sometimes in the hidden technical requirements—but Walters breathes life into each work with her astounding virtuosity. Beyond physical skill, however, Sweet Anxiety showcases her ability to find musical consequence across a range of compositional styles. The result is a stunning album, strengthened by its aesthetic diversity and yet unimaginable without Walters’s distinct talents.

The journey of this album is in the gamut of musical intent: some pieces clutch the wheel with caffeine-trembling hands while others gaze contemplatively out the passenger-seat window. To this end, Nicholas Deyoe’s For Stephanie (on our wedding day) works as an effective exposition for the record, a short juxtaposition of dramatic, lush chords against melodic fragments and sparkling timbral echoes. Walters’ impeccable balance guides the listener’s ears, pulling you in to reveal subtle verticalities before thrusting you back in your seat to bathe you in guttural drones. Deyoe’s writing here reveals a keen sense of energy and diffusion, which Walters embodies with astounding sensitivity. This understanding between Deyoe and Walters is particularly highlighted as the splashing, melodic climax dissolves into a passage of gorgeous tranquility, calmly rippling outwards until subsiding into the stillness.

And then, emerging from quiet tappings, comes the funk. Right as you are wondering if Walters had herself become ocean, the unmistakable percussive episodes, insect-like buzzing, and haunting melodies of Berio’s late Sequenza XIV zap the air with electricity. Along with Deyoe’s works, Sequenza XIV employs a more traditional musical rhetoric, building forward momentum in which listener expectations are resolved, subverted, or re-directed. In both Sequenza XIV and Another Anxiety, Walters sets these moments ablaze with acrobatic changes of technique, tone and dynamic. Furious passages are handled with intimidating virtuosity, but it is Walters’ right hand technique that stands out here. The control of bow pressure and position transforms even the most extended of techniques into musical devices rather than musical effects. This in particular makes the dramatic contrasts inherent to the language of these pieces especially effective and expressive.

On the other hand, quite literally, are Andrew McIntosh’s Another Secular Calvinist Creed and Wolfgang von Schweinitz’s Plainsound-Litany. Both works are patient, disciplined explorations of microtonal material—horizontal in Creed and vertical in Plainsound. The Schweinitz presents intervals of varied intonation and timbre, emerging and receding in succession. A meditative atmosphere is sustained through the gentle ease of Walters’s playing (a true feat given the technical difficulty of the piece), unfolding the material like an exposé of unhurried snapshots with shifting perspectives. Creed instead explores microtonal relationships melodically in the form of a 31-note scale. Ascending and descending, the lines slowly fragment into opposing forms before recombining into a final, climbing iteration. Missing from the sound recording is the theatre of contradiction embedded in McIntosh’s piece: Radically disjunct physicality is required to produce the smooth, conjunct musical material. Still, the inclusion of these two pieces offers a contemplative and unforced contrast to the more propulsive works on the album.

Perhaps most curious is the inclusion of Wadada Leo Smith’s Sweet Bay Magnolia with Berry Clusters. The piece inherits the uninhibited, reckless abandon of an improvisation—one which emphasizes performer intuition and awareness over formal archetypes. The task of communicating a work that is less about the plot than the language itself is a difficult one, but Walters succeeds brilliantly. Under her hands, piece oozes with personality, spinning out a trajectory of ideas and development with convincing and relatable motivation. Surrounded by works that treat time as a means of either thematic propulsion or suspension, Sweet Bay Magnolia stands instead with the Berio in its improvisatory bend, creating the impression that the listener is witnessing the piece’s conception in real time. And so, beyond the merits of the piece itself, Sweet Bay Magnolia helps rounds out the album in way that highlights the variety of stylistic intent included.

Sweet Anxiety is a showcase of musical aptitude, not only for Walters’ skilled performances, but for the interpretations and larger flow of the album. Its incorporation of distinct and diverse compositional approaches is bold and effective, and the commitment to conveying the sound world and personality of each piece makes for exceptionally moving moments. This album is, no doubt, both “sweet” and “anxious”—so much so that you may have to remind yourself there is just a single instrument. But that would be somewhat deceiving, because in truth this is music for much more than solo cello; it is music for Ashley Walters.

Nicholas Deyoe, “for Duane”

On October 20th Populist Records—a Los Angeles label dedicated to local experimental music—released two new albums: Nicholas Deyoe’s “for Duane” and Ashley Walters’ Sweet Anxiety (review of Walters’s album is forthcoming). The day after moving to Los Angeles, I abandoned the assembly of Ikea furniture for the double-release show at Thymele Arts, complete with vegan cupcakes and custom beers from Solarc Brewing. But if the familiar faces, cozy venue and homegrown accoutrements rang more of a trendy Thanksgiving dinner than a classical concert, it certainly wasn’t for lack of musical substance: Selections from the albums were performed with a virtuosity and commitment that commandeered my sugar-high into a full case of gotta-get-home-and-listen-to-this. And so, surrounded by mockingly-tiny allen wrenches and indecipherable assembly instructions, I enter the violent and delicate sound world of Deyoe’s “for Duane”.

In talking about his music, Deyoe emphasizes how building friendship, collaboration and trust with his performers has informed his work since arriving in California a decade ago. “for Duane” is an album born of these relationships, marked by detailed instrumental writing and performances saturated with musical intention. Deyoe’s sound world is one of seeming contradictions; bold yet nuanced, violent but fragile. Throughout the album there is a dialectic between body and mind, pitting raw physicality against moments of distilled clarity and introspection. But behind these dramatic shifts in affect is always music that shimmers with complexity, keeping the listener suspended in the neurotic, intricate atmosphere that pervades this album. If one thing in particular stands out on first listen, it is that this atmosphere is inhabited by the performers with such conviction and vulnerability that many moments feel intimate—even voyeuristic—to listen to. But with each subsequent listen the uncompromising degree of creativity and care afforded every moment becomes clear.

The album opens with Finally, the cylindrical voids tapping along, commissioned by the LA Phil and premiered by wasteLAnd at the 2016 Noon to Midnight festival. Six songs and an interlude for soprano, flute, trombone, cello and double bass, set to a text by Allison Carter, comprise the piece. A work of outrageous expressive agility, it functions well as an introduction to Deyoe’s musical language: the composer weaves Carter’s text into an ensemble impassioned with frenetic, nervous energy and punctuated by inescapable, foreboding stasis. A formidable palette of noises are summoned from the trombone, combining with the low strings to create heavy, thick textures whose surface twinkle with flute, sometimes appearing suddenly, other times emerging from the background. Soprano Stephanie Aston masterfully navigates these transformations of character, and the pacing of each textural change feels natural and carries a sense of inevitability before yielding finally to the work’s sinking, moaning conclusion.

1560 is a relentlessly energetic three-movement work for violin and viola. Written for and performed by Adrianne Pope and Linnea Powell of Aperture Duo, the resulting sound is much bigger than its parts. The crispness of their unison playing gives the moments of departure the impression of an object coming apart at the seams as it spirals wildly (which is likely heightened in a live performance by Deyoe’s instructions for the changing physical positions of the players). Here, too, the timing proves fundamental to the work’s success, building to one final, screaming, bow-heavy stand before dying away to the whispering harmonics that end the piece.

The next two pieces on the album are both solo works. Lied/Lied was written for speaking/singing violinist Batya MacAdam-Somer using fragments of her own text. It is a modular work of twelve parts, which can be combined and varied in a number of ways, and on the album MacAdam-Somer brings great wit to her performance of this conversational, sometimes light-hearted collection. But where the playful moments of Lied/Lied bounce around the room like banter among friends, Immer wieder offers a sobering, reflective alternative to solo work. Stephanie Aston performs this second solo piece with a patience that aptly highlights Rilke’s superimposition of love and fate. Deyoe inflects the vocal writing with microtonal shadings that amplify his use of extreme registers, adding a haunting ethereal quality to the soaring high notes and an emotive, human quality to the lows. Taken together, the solos are a brief respite from the dense, imagined soundscapes of the earlier works, instead offering protagonist-driven performances of more personal and relatable impetus.

The album closes with a considerable, two-movement work, Lullaby 6 – “for Duane”, dedicated to Deyoe’s father who passed away last year. The first movement functions mostly like a chamber concerto for cello, and Ashley Walters’s playing embodies the love, tension and conflict of the piece with astounding musicianship and sensitivity. The gestural cello writing awakens lush backgrounds—sometimes aggressive timbral blocks, other times intricate, animated whisperings—carefully balanced in their counterpoint of fore-and background in a way reminiscent of Berio’s writing. The ensemble’s playing is chaotic and precise, creating a sense of urgency as it evolves into raucous, tutti, walls of sound. Suddenly, though, the intensity recedes into a quiet choir of voices, a distant resonance of the preceding brutality. Given this space, the cello comes to the lead once more, only in this second movement it finds itself fruitless in arousing the once anxious ensemble. Instead, the cello is itself absorbed into the quiet murmurs of the background, slowly and gradually. As the other instruments disappear completely and the cello begins to dissipate into the atmosphere, Deyoe offers one final, grounding gesture—a quiet, open strike of the lowest cello string, which vibrates freely for just a moment before it, too, is silenced for good.

Overall, the album “for Duane” is a testament to the creative potential born out of serious collaboration between composer and performer. Deyoe’s fiercely intelligent writing articulates a musical voice both bold and sensitive. Brought to life by the excellent performances of the musicians, this album truly hits you in the chest with its raw physicality before re-crossing its legs and asking you sweetly over rimmed glasses, “… and how does that make you feel?”

Well make of it what you will, but it makes me feel good, Populist Records. It makes me feel really, really good.

Alex Wand: The Great Hunt

MicroFest Records has released The Great Hunt, a new song cycle of chamber music pieces by Alex Wand. With a first-rate ensemble that includes members of wild Up and Partch, The Great Hunt explores the many aspects of mortality and death as seen through the lens of poetry by Carl Sandburg. Nine short tracks make up this collection, described in the liner notes as music that “weaves together folk and classical influences, microtonal guitars, improvisation, and speak-singing recitation.”

Cool Tombs is based on a poem about the burial of Abraham Lincoln and begins with a mysterious solo flute line followed by sustained cello tones and counterpoint in the bassoon. The poetry is spoken against a series of darkly mystical harp passages, soon rejoined by the flute. The feeling is solemn and grave, but not frightening. More spoken text about the burials of U.S. Grant and Pocahontas amplify the theme that, great or small, we are all equal in the tomb. The perfectly woven instrumental lines produce just the right combination of uncertainty and expectation that infuses Sandburg’s text.

Grass takes up a similar theme, but from the more overwhelming perspective of large-scale death in battle. Beginning with a quick percussive hit and followed by languid guitar strumming, the text speaks of the dead piled “high at Austerlitz and Waterloo. Shovel them under and let me work; I am the grass, I cover all.” The spare ensemble reflects the anonymity of mass casualties in war – the graves obscured by grass so that years later the resting places are forgotten. The feeling here is decidedly tragic, especially in a stark cello solo by Derek Stein as Grass rolls to a quiet close.

An unexpectedly brighter view of death is heard in Time Sweep, beginning with strong vocals, pleasing harmonies and an upbeat tempo that starts with the text “Since death is there in the light of the sun, in the song of the wind…” Death is artfully portrayed as a new and vivid experience, neither grim nor frightening, but rather occurring as a natural experience. A somewhat slower instrumental interlude is almost mournful, but never melancholy, with long, deep tones and thick harmony. The vocals take this up, bringing a warm and comforting color to the piece as it glides slowly to the finish. Time Sweep is an extraordinary musical and poetic statement on death as the natural consequence of life.

Under the Harvest Moon returns to the more familiar territory of Halloween spookiness and the sense of foreboding on a dark autumn evening in the graveyard. “Death, the gray mocker, comes and whispers to you…” A strong percussive presence, repeating guitar riffs and some discordant tutti playing add to the sense of dread. This pivots in the second half of the piece, however, becoming more of a summer reminiscence with less jarring harmonies and a softer beat. The ensemble here is very precise, leaving just a hint of the uncertainty, even as this track arrives at a smooth finish.

Not all of the album is focused so tightly on death. Jug is an engaging tribute to the simple clay vessel used to hold so many commonplace things: cider, maple syrup, vinegar. The relationship to human mortal insignificance is perhaps metaphorical, as the poem states: “There is nothing proud about this; only one out of many…” A strong repeating cello line, cleanly sung vocals and a catchy rhythm all serve to celebrate this ordinary but useful object. New Weather is a nicely nostalgic look at the highly personal way that climate and landscape were experienced in the last century. With a lilting, waltz-like melody the text seems to be a throwback to a time when we paid more attention to our surroundings. Passersby has a wonderfully breezy flute obbligato by Christine Tavolacci that floats above a determined vocal line, and this manages to impart just a hint of pop sentiment. The Great Cool Calm is even more nostalgically whimsical, with some lovely vocal harmonies and an excellent tutti ensemble section.

The Great Hunt, the title track, begins with a repeating guitar riff soon joined by the vocals of Alex Wand. The singing of Jackson Browne flashes briefly to mind here, but the exquisite harmony of Laura Jean Anderson along with sustained cello and flute lines clothe the pop sensibility with a dignity equal to the text. This piece is just two minutes long but manages to be both beautiful and captivating. The entire album, for that matter, has been carefully crafted around the touching Sandburg texts with just the right balance of the simple and the formal – all superbly performed.

The Great Hunt is available for high resolution download at prostudiomasters.com/album/page/15460.

Daniel Lentz – River of 1,000 Streams

Cold Blue Music has announced a new album, River of 1,000 Streams, by composer Daniel Lentz. Written in 2016, this is a single track of solo piano music inspired by a visit to the Yellowstone River and performed by Los Angeles-based pianist Vicki Ray. From the liner notes, “…River of 1,000 Streams is a virtuosic piano piece in which a live/solo part is expanded by the addition of hundreds of ‘cascading echoes’ (reappearing fragments of music) that appear kaleidoscopically in up to 11 simultaneous layers, creating a thick texture of primarily tremolos that gradually gains in density and volume as rich harmonies climb, in a great arc, from the very bottom to the very top of the keyboard.”

Although simple in concept and consistent in texture, River of 1,000 Streams is always changing and begins with a deep rumbling in the lower registers – almost like the roar of a distant flight of old bombers. There is a strong flowing sensation to this, as if unseen waters are roiling just out of sight. At 2:00 the rolling phrases rise just slightly in pitch, adding a new sense of expectancy. While still very dark and ominous, the expressive playing by Ms. Ray creates a powerful surging sensation; the texture and dynamics here are expertly shaped, and the result is like listening to a restless tide. The repeating patterns move slowly up the piano keyboard and each new set of pitches adds to a sense of evolving motion.

By 6:30 the notes are high enough in pitch to become a bit more distinct in the hearing – less like a roar and more like a patter. The flowing feel remains as the piece proceeds, but the small variations in pitch and the artful shaping of the dynamics keep the listener engaged. By 11:00 the register has moved high enough that there is a greater sense of drama in the notes, even as the passages and textural density remain consistent. At 14:24 a short melodic fragment is heard – like the cresting of a wave – marking the transition to the middle registers. The same pattern of tremolos and trills persist, but the new pitches feel more introspective and less menacing here. By 17:30 the pitch register is high enough to spark a sense of tenuous optimism – as if a ray of the sun is emerging from behind a dark cloud. At 19:00 another short melody fragment is heard, followed by dramatic surges of the low and ominous notes from the opening. The many subtleties in this piece rely on the perceptive playing of Ms. Ray, who manages to perfectly articulate the slight variations in density and texture from moment to moment.

By 20:00 the piece has arrived at the higher reaches of the keyboard with the notes sounding crisper and more distinctly percussive, as if a climax is approaching. At 21:54, another short melody fragment appears while the trills in the upper registers sound like an alarm going off. Middle and lower register trills roll by in accompaniment, adding a sense of layered depth to this section. At 23:30 the high register texture is now very animated and a wash of middle register trills fill in nicely below, adding balance. At 25:00 another short melodic fragment appears and the mix of pitches becomes somewhat more calming. By the finish, the very highest notes on the keyboard trill anxiously but are accompanied by a series of lower surges that offer a comforting sense of closure. At the end, the sound simply ceases, the last notes ringing out and slowly dying away.

River of 1,000 Streams is a prodigious work, in its vision as well as the realization. The subtle variations are always engaging, even as they unfold slowly, and the intricate layering of the various passages is precisely formulated. The performance by Ms. Ray deserves special credit – River of 1,000 Streams will only add to her deserved reputation as one of our premiere interpreters of contemporary music.

River of 1,000 Streams is available directly from Cold Blue Music and also Amazon Music beginning August 18.

Scot Ray and Vicki Ray: Yar

Vicki Ray and Scot Ray

Vicki Ray and Scot Ray

Is Yar perhaps a word, in some other language unbeknownst to me, that means “delicious sonic experience”? After listening to the new album, Yar, by siblings Scot and Vicki Ray, that’s what it means to me.

Neither Ms. Ray nor her excellent playing is new to me. She has been an impressive fixture on LA’s new (and not so new) music scene for many years. She plays or has played with an impressive litany of our best ensembles and players. Her recitals with the PianoSpheres series are always a joy. I confess to being unaware of her brother Scot. He was, I learned from the liner notes of their new release, originally a brass player. And not just any brass player but one who was in the thick of LA’s modern jazz scene. But while still very much enjoying a successful, vibrant, jazz career he uprooted himself, and moved back to his (and Ms. Ray’s) home state of Montana and decided to focus on the guitar. Listening to him play, in various guises and styles, including a lot of slide, would have me think he was a guitarist from the beginning.

Yar is a generous offering, a full 73 minutes of music. It uses that length brilliantly, exploiting a great variety of styles and timbres yet somehow managing to make the record, as a whole, feel cohesive, integral, and logical. But it is more than just a triumph of logic, to be sure. There is a synthesis of the modal and atonal, the consonant and dissonant, the timbrally delicate and harsh, sharp-edged noise. As I said, above, it’s truly a delicious sonic experience.

Only one of the album’s nine tracks comes in under 5 minutes (For Harry, at 4:47). Each piece is a substantial music journey on its own. Thematic elements are present, as is some notion of development and evolution of those elements. Every piece feels complete, fully realized and, by its end, satisfying.

Each one of Yar’s compositions present a unique territory, great fodder for one’s visual imagination. I see the players, surrounded in the detritus of musical instruments, cables, microphones and other electronic paraphernalia, yet I close my mind’s eye and I’m wandering in a new, delicious, hitherto unknown land of visual and auditory oddities. Some are more pleasant than others. But each one is enticing in its own way.

Listening to Yar, from start to finish, is like taking a beautiful tour of the artists the Rays have loved and been influenced by. Was this by design? Was this of primary importance to them? I can’t say. But to this listener, it is the aural equivalent of a challenging but ultimately rewarding scavenger hunt. The musics evoke many great composers and players. Some references are more explicit, some subtly hinted at. There are the helpful ghosts of so many great musical predecessors as well as various industrial machines and devices, perhaps angry with their lot in life, plotting to overtake their human overlords.

Anamorphosis, (the second track on Yar) according to my dictionary is defined as such:

1. a distorted projection or drawing that appears normal when viewed from a particular point or with a suitable mirror or lens.

  • the process by which anamorphic images are produced.

2. Biology

  • a gradual, ascending progression or change of form to a higher type.

I cite this definition here because, a) you might not be familiar with the word, (I wasn’t), and, b) taken together, both of these definitions do a wonderful, if abstract job, of explaining the work by this name. There are low drones which are then combined with slow-attack sounds fading in and out. Then comes a staccato, stutter-edit treatment of a plaintive vocal track or sample. It more than flirts with Middle Eastern modes and nasal double-reed-implying timbres. It’s cool, sure, but honestly, it earns its place not because of its treatment of what it’s referencing, but rather how it manages to mangle it, turn it into something all its own, unique, and yet somehow perfectly at home amid the other compositions.

Zero Doesn’t Exist is quite restrained but still a vehicle for Scot’s rather blistering solo. He doesn’t expose his technique often, but when he does, it’s impressive. I hear a lot of my guitar heroes from NYC’s Downtown scene, people I’d see in the first Knitting Factory iteration. Ray’s guitar playing pierces, and floats high above randomly recurring noises, from piano wires to other harsh metallic sounds, all above a quite unobtrusive, spacious electric bass ostinato.

I think it a fair assumption that For Harry is inspired by, perhaps a tribute to, Harry Partch. Ms. Ray is no stranger to the prepared piano, and she uses it here to approximate the more percussive elements of Partch’s music (Barstow, among others) while other sounds, from both Rays, fill out the would-be ensemble. Scot’s plucked strings are reminiscent of Partch’s adapted guitar, and these instruments combined with overdubbed percussive elements create a wonderful Partch-a-rama. It made me yearn for Partch’s strict 43-tone octave, but I’ll forgive the absence.

Thrice Ephemeral Journey was inspired by For Marcel Duchamp by John Cage. Cage’s prepared piano is easy enough to hear, and its tribute to his Sonatas and Interludes is clear and explicit enough, and beautifully executed. But Thrice adds another layer or two. In a soft but creepy, lurking percussive woodblock of sorts I hear PIL’s Under The House. And then Bill Frisell walks in, plugs into his volume pedal, and jams along. I’d like to think that Cage would be pleased. (When wasn’t he pleased by sounds like these?!)

In Fear of the Wind I hear something reminiscent of Stockhausen’s Kontakte, or perhaps some of David Tudor’s realizations of Cage’s later works. (Electrified cactus, perhaps?) It’s like a spinning top bouncing on a table while some odd servo-motored device churns in the backgroup, while outside a group of evil aliens play recorders! Demonic voices enter, and then a blistering quasi-rock guitar solo. And maybe that’s Bill Laswell on the bass?

I’m struck by the gorgeous evolution in The Highline, how it develops and unfolds the way Eno’s Ambient music might, but with decidedly less delicate timbres. It invokes the drama and tension of a tightrope walker’s wire, perhaps Philippe Petit’s line across the Twin Towers, tight yet buckling across that distant span, so many feet up in the air, shifting with the weight of its passenger, colored by the winds. Vertigo translated into sound. I much prefer it this way.

Among the many things to like on Yar is its great mix of beauty and noise. This is manifested movingly in Cortege. A cortege is a solemn funereal procession. As we hear the rattles in irregular staccato rhythms against the bell-like, slow-metronomic pulses, one can imagine the casket slowly, religiously carried by the pallbearers through the streets of a dark, eerily desolate town.

Just a few tracks in, and I start to wonder, “What is their compositional process?” And the more I listen, the more this delicious music turns this musing into a burning question. There are obviously real-time duets, but also other overdubs, layers, loops. The formal structures at work here warrant my curiosity, so I continue to wonder: how much of each track is pre-arranged, how much is improvised, how much is added and/or edited after the initial “basic tracks” are laid down?

Of course, how something is made is often not a satisfying question. (In certain situations, it can even be counter-satisfying.) You don’t need to wonder, or ascertain the “compositional process” of Yar. What matters, ultimately, is what we are left with. What is this music, and how does it make us hear, how does it make us feel? It delights with improvisational constructions, austere sonic fields that define their own territories, by way of harmonic language, timbral depth, and instrumental content.

This is a record that you can listen to passively or actively. I usually hate the idea of “background music” (and I hope that Yar isn’t used as such) but I find it to be equally satisfying both in “deep listening” (to borrow Pauline Oliveros’ term) or just having it be part of a more passive, meditative background.

I am genuinely fascinated by the creative process invoked here that resulted in the wealth of musical coolness that is Yar. For all my references to other composers and players, the payoff, the legitimacy, the wonder, all stem from my understanding of these works as not merely a collection of representations of their influences, but somehow some dialectical syntheses of the siblings’ collective musical instincts and influences into something quite unique, quite marvelous and quite beautiful.

To its great credit, despite the very wide-ranging sounds, Yar is devoid of irony, not at all anything resembling a postmodern commentary on anything. But that is not to say that it is always entirely serious or completely devoid of humor. It is, rather, a sincere and genuine exploration of a wide range of sonic possibilities. A collection that isn’t afraid to embrace beauty or ugliness, alone or in combination, without any faux-clever attempt to subvert or invert such subjective classifications. This, like so much of the music itself, is refreshing and extremely rewarding.

Yar is available from Orenda Records at orendarecords.com/orenda0040, and from most music retailers.

Review: Happy Valley Band’s debut album “ORGANVM PERCEPTVS”

Happy Valley Band’s debut album, ORGANVM PERCEPTVS, is described as a virtuosic decomposition and reconstruction of the Great American Songbook. Think of it as American Classics + The 21st Century. In this album, you will hear a microtonal version of “You Make Me Feel,” a distorted funk version of “Like a Virgin,” and a crunchy, grungy, middle-school band-esque take on “Jungle Boogie” that I am convinced is an actual recording of my high school’s pep band at a snowy football game when every brass instrument detuned after five minutes out of their cases. This album is fresh, deceptive, and insanely fun to listen to.

ORGANVM’s raison d’être is to encourage the listeners to examine biases and expectations. For example, we all know “Ring of Fire.” Listening to “Ring of Fire” that’s been put through a learning algorithm is a different experience. This is not just covering or reimagining music. This is hearing music as machines hear and interpret music. The artistic license is not so much an artist’s personal flair as it is their personal algorithm choice and process.

Love it or hate it, this is the age of algorithmic music and computers creating art from intelligent programs. I’ve heard some crazy things come from algorithms, some of which I loved. It often boils down to what the composer wants the algorithm to accomplish, lest ye worry about a lack of human musicians in our future. David Kant, the head composer and director of the Happy Valley Band, says in liner notes, “We should use machines to hear differently, not to reinforce our expectations – because whose expectations are they anyway?” Don’t hate the process, hate the preconceived notions and preferences. Or something like that.

David Kant also confronts the notion of intellectual property in the perspective of deconstruction and manipulation. If anything can be extracted, sampled, reworked, and replicated, then is the result The Thing-Changed, or A Different-Thing? By rooting itself in familiar territory and turning these songs on their heads, ORGANVM gives us a glimpse through the looking glass.

The Happy Valley Band is in LA on April 29th at Human Resources. You can check out more on ORGANVM PERCEPTVS  here at Indexical’s website, and the sale options via bandcamp (digital download album or 12″ vinyl plus booklet) are here.

Choral Arts Initiative and Dale Trumbore: How to Go On

How To Go OnChoral Arts Initiative’s debut album, out today, features the works of LA-composer Dale Trumbore; the bulk of it is dedicated to the composer’s secular requiem, How to Go On. I was lucky enough to be at the premiere performance of this work, and was deeply moved by its wisdom, quiet strength, and feeling. As such, I was excited to spend more time with it. In its entirety, the album tackles the universal questions of mortality and the challenges of life’s journey – no easy undertaking, but one that Trumbore takes on with elegance and grace (and, importantly, without making things too heavy). Choral Arts Initiative, a non-profit choral organization under the direction of Brandon Elliott, successfully convey its powerful messages. Their talented performance achieves that delicate balance of strength and fragility.

Contemporary poet Barbara Crooker asks a simple question: “How can we go on / Knowing the end of the story?” This question is the germinating seed of the eight-movement requiem, as Trumbore seeks to find an answer – or, perhaps, to ask more questions (can we ever really find an answer?). Movement 1, How, is set to the text of this question. It features rising clusters, increasing in dissonance and culminating in a sublime stacked harmony, which leaves the listener with a sense of reverence for the unknown. The altos and sopranos continue this sentiment in the next movement, However Difficult, (set to text by Laura Foley). This is juxtaposed by the tenors and basses, who ground us with the message that however difficult life may be, it is still yours, and there is solace to be found in this simple truth. Movement 3 (To See It) feels like a warm blanket, its soft lines unfolding delicately over a quiet, soothing drone and holding the listener in close. CAI delivers this text (again by Foley) with patience, warmth, and sincerity.

Movement 4 (Relinquishment) is where the pacing begins to quicken. The growth and decay in dynamics, orchestration, shifting tempo, and harmony reflect a larger metaphor for the cyclical nature of life and death – learning “how to give it up again and again.” The following movement is similar in theme, but where Relinquishment calmly beckons, Requiescat is more direct in its urgency. It represents a larger gamut of emotions – from the peace of spring rain to the fury of earth and fire – and makes us confront the concept of mortality head-on. More questions lead us to the final movement, a calm acceptance of our ultimate fate, that culminates in a musical meditation to allow us the space to reflect.

The remaining pieces on the album are some of Trumbore’s earlier works, which further showcase her ability as a choral composer (and pianist, in the case of In the Middle). Embedded in these pieces are moral tales of some of life’s many challenges, from our need to connect with others to the feeling after a storm has passed. Combined with How to Go On, these works tell a complete story of life and death, acceptance and defeat, and growth and decay. They remind us that life is about the journey, and that questions are often more important than answers.

How to Go On is out now and available on Amazon, iTunes, and most major online retailers.

Review: Nicholas Chase: Bhajan

Cold Blue Music is releasing a new album by Nicholas Chase titled Bhajan (CB0046). An engaging mix of electronics and brilliant violin playing by Robin Lorentz, Bhajan is inspired by Hindu devotional music and the Indian raga. The four tracks of this CD are loosely connected by Western classical tonality, yet reflect a diversity achieved through “temporal freedom, melodic non-structure and fusions of musical genre…” The computer-driven electronic sounds realized by Mr. Chase and the sensitive violin playing of Ms. Lorentz make for an intriguing combination.

Bhajan album artThe first track, Bindu, begins with a series of thin electronic tones that gradually change in volume and pitch. More electronic elements are added, giving a sense of being in the presence of a metaphysical entity. A high repeating Eb violin figure becomes the focal point, fixing the listener’s attention while oscillations, whirring and clicking sounds add to the otherworldly feel. Towards the finish, as the violin figure becomes more strident, an electronic chorus appears and the piece morphs from the strange and anxious to the settled and serene. Bindu fashions an interesting emotional bridge between the familiar and the unknown.

Drshti, track 2, comes from a completely different place. A sharp, but deep bell-like tone opens the piece and a sustained violin-buzz is accompanied by a related drone in the electronics. There is a spiritual feeling to this – like standing in some remote Asian temple. The raspy, monotone pitches in the violin line have the rhythm and cadence of a spoken chant. About midway through, the drone and violin arrive at almost the same pitch, zero-beating, and this is soon accompanied by a stately melody in the electronics. The violin continues ‘speaking’ and the electronic chorus weaves in and around the violin and drone, adding to the strong devotional feeling. Towards the finish, a deep, satisfying bass appears in bursts of short phrases. The music quickly vanishes, as if swept away on the breeze. Drshti is very effective and beautifully extracts the liturgical essence of the ceremonial, even in the absence any specific context or intelligible text.

Japa is next and this track begins with rapid, quiet clicking sounds – followed by a short, vivid electronic phrase – and then silence. More electronic phrases follow, louder and more striking, while the soft clicking seems to move left-to-right at a rapid rate. Now the acoustic violin joins in with recognizably musical phrases, followed by silence. The electronic sounds are pure tones and act as background while the violin phrases are at the forefront by virtue of the familiar tone and timbre so that listener instinctively identifies with them. The periods of silence and the sense of movement in the electronic sounds add to the image of watching something approach and then fade away. The electronic sounds are swirling and amicable – not menacing or formidable – and they seem to be attracted to the violin, as if participating in a conversation. Japa finishes suddenly just as violin and electronics are in mid-phrase. The interaction of the electronics and playing of Ms. Lorenz is especially precise and well-coordinated.

Bhajan, the title track, is the most understated and stunningly effective piece of this album. A soft electronic drone is cleanly heard in the higher registers while a somber violin repeats mournful phrases below. The overall feeling is not one of sadness or melancholy, but rather of wistful reflection. It is very beautiful and does not wear, even as it continues in the same repeating patterns over its entire length. It has a hypnotic mysticism, as watching the sun slowly set over a calm ocean. Towards the finish there is more activity in the electronics, including a low hum that grows in volume. The violin skitters a bit, then recedes as a continuous sine tone, wavering slightly in pitch, fills the foreground. The violin persists, resuming its prominence as the electronics fade at the finish. Bhajan is a warm and comforting wash, introspective and reassuring as well as beautifully performed.

Ms. Lorentz has a formidable resume as an acoustic violinist that includes the music of John Luther Adams, Daniel Lentz, Michael Jon Fink, Jim Fox, the California EAR unit as well as Jerry Goldsmith and Michael Jackson. To this must be added Bhajan, a masterly collaboration with the electronic music of Nicholas Chase. The art of ensemble playing with other acoustic musicians is, of course, a highly regarded virtue. The ability to play closely and sensitively with music realized by electronics must now be included in the arts of the acoustic musician. Ms. Lorentz and Nicholas Chase have set a standard in Bhajan that others would do well to emulate.

Bhajan is available directly from Cold Blue Music starting January 20, 2017.

 

Album Preview: Hopscotch

I’m submitting this as my review of the soon-to-be-released recording of The Industry’s Hopscotch opera project, but here’s the thing: No such thing exists. Conceived by The Industry’s Artistic Director, Yuval Sharon, Hopscotch was an opera presented in the fall of 2015 in twenty four cars driving between a number of locations scattered around Los Angeles. At the start of each performance, a few audience members would get into each of the cars along with a group of performers, and would then experience part of the opera en route to the next physical location, where they’d see another scene before being whisked away in another car. To make matters more confounding, the cars travelled along three different routes, meaning that any given audience member could only see part of the whole in any given performance. Only at the very end did all of the routes converge on a central location for the final scene.

Needless to say, this project doesn’t lend itself easily to a traditional recording. Do you present each of the car routes as a unit to approximate the experience of attending? Do you present the scenes in order to give a view of the work impossible for someone who attended it to have seen? How do you balance the inside of a limo against an open-air concrete bank of the Los Angeles River?

Difficult questions, and ones without obvious answers. Fortunately, with current technology, we can sidestep some of them. With the album released as files on a flash drive instead of tracks on a CD, you’re free to open them in any order and explore the world of this opera as you see fit. You can follow each of the car routes separately, play everything in the order of the plot, or even sort things out by individual composer or lyricist. (There were six primary composers for the project and six primary librettists, all working in a range of different styles in their respective fields.) The liner notes — in the form of a wide-ranging interview with Sharon and Josh Raab, the opera’s dramaturg — encourage this kind of self-guided exploration, though elsewhere in the booklet there are some helpful lists of which tracks to listen to to follow which routes.

Unsurprisingly, given the range of artists that contributed to this project, the tracks cover a lot of ground. “Lucha’s Quinceñera Song” (music by David Rosenboom and text by Janine Salinas Schoenberg) is a sweetly plaintive verse-chorus affair, while “Floats the Roving Nebula” (music by Ellen Reid and text by Mandy Kahn) hovers in an ecstatic crystalline stasis. “Jameson and Lucha in the Park” (music by Mark Lowenstein and text by Erin Young) presents a tightly controlled dance number coordinated with spoken dialogue, while other spoken sections feature music improvised by the contemporary performing group Gnarwhallaby. The plot is a surreally altered (but predictably heterosexual) retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, and snatches of Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 treatment of the same myth rub up against bristlingly contemporary soundscapes. There are as many contrasts as there are tracks on the album.

Such stylistic diversity can make for an uneven listening experience, especially when paired with the differing qualities of the recordings. Some of the tracks are beautifully mastered studio takes, while others are invaluable field recordings from the site-specific scenes around town. Obviously, there’s room enough in the world for both of these approaches to recording, but repeatedly switching back and forth with such short notice can be a little jarring. (So perhaps another fruitful approach to organizing your listening could be to tackle all the field recordings followed by all the studio takes, or vice versa.)

These slight jars, however, feel in keeping with the nature of the project. Hopscotch the opera wasn’t a singular experience as much as it was a collection of possible experiences, and Hopscotch the album follows suit. There’s no one single recording of the work; there’s a collection of possible recordings all dizzyingly contained on a single flash drive. Elsewhere in the liner notes, Sharon describes the piece not as an opera but as a web, a series of interconnected points with many possible paths leading between them, none more inherently valid than any of the others. The more I listen to the album, the more this description feels right. This album isn’t a documentation or presentation of an artistic event that happened and is now over, it’s an invitation to enter into this world and explore it on your own terms, to find your own way through the work’s myriad winding paths, to make the piece yours as only you can. It’s an opera in twenty four cars, and you’re the one behind the wheel.

You can order the “album” at records.theindustryla.org/album/hopscotch.

The Industry is presenting two events on January 20 to celebrate the release. Details are below:

Panel discussion
Friday, January 20 (4 pm)
USC, Wallis Annenberg Hall (ANN), Room L105A
3630 Watt Way, Los Angeles
Panelists include composers Veronika Krausas and Marc Lowenstein, Yuval Sharon of The Industry, and arts journalists Mark Swed and Sasha Anawalt (moderator).

Hopscotch in Concert
Friday, January 20 (7:30 pm)
USC, Newman Recital Hall (AHF)
3616 Trousdale Parkway, Los Angeles
This special evening emceed by director Yuval Sharon will be the first live concert of songs from the opera. Six chapters from the work will be performed (one from each of its six composers), including the expansive choral finale by Andrew Norman. 

Areon Flutes: “Thrive”

As a fellow Miyazawa flutist, I could hardly contain my excitement about this review. Thrive is Areon Flutes’ third full album release and innova Recordings debut. The flute chamber music ensemble upholds a dogma of revitalizing chamber music for 21st-century audiences. In May 2008, Areon Flutes was awarded the Bronze Medal at the prestigious Fischoff Chamber Music Competition in Notre Dame, Indiana, the first flute chamber music ensemble to do so in thirty-five years. In 2015 they were hailed as one of the most memorable live performers by the San Francisco Examiner. This album Thrive features compositions by Elainie Lillios, Cornelius Boots, and Mike Sempert, and performances by the core trio of Areon Flutes: Jill Heinke, Kassey Plaha, and Sasha Launer.

Areon Flutes - ThriveLillios’s Summer Sketches, the winner of Areon’s 2014 International Composition Competition, begins with a playful, wandering flute solo. Two more flutes join in and engage in an aural game of hide-and-seek. At times the music describes an action like skipping and diving, and other times seems more onomatopoetic. The two movements, “Skating on Discs of Light” and “Dry Wind,” follow ants running past a picnic, mosquitos buzzing past your ear, spiders creeping toward their prey, and dragonflies dive-bombing the lazy river. Unorthodox tone color, hums, trills, percussive tongue and finger slaps, flutters and growls used on the whole flute family evoke these quintessential insectoid summer sounds. This broad exploration of sounds and soundscape makes sense for an electroacoustic composer flexing her flute trio muscles. Lillios gives a voice to every insect, spider, and bug. Summer Sketches evokes a 21st-century variation of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux combined with a modernized Das Jahr (Hensel), compacted into two movements.

Cornelius Boots’s Chthonic Flute Suite, commissioned by Areon Flutes, takes the listener on a journey through the underworld. The first movement, “Root of Ether,” begins with a calm, solo meditation. About a minute in, the player exhales poignantly; upon this ‘last breath,’ the tempo picks up and the listener approaches the allegorical rabbit hole. The next movement, “Enantiodromia,” kicks off with a loud chord, and then the three flutes move in and out of sync with each other, taking turns with the melody and turning counterpoint on its head. This middle movement of Chthonic Flute Suite suggests diving down the rabbit hole and finding the underworld. ‘Enantiodromia’ is the concept that any force inevitably produces its opposite, usually towards equilibrium. This is quite possibly my favorite piece on the album for the sheer amount of fun I had listening to the twists and turns. As the name suggests, the piece moves in cycles of turning, reversing, and toppling – on an unrelated note, I just found the perfect word to describe politics. The third movement of Boots’s journey, “Void of Day” opens with a wan panpipe solo. The anemic yet cheerful tune gives way as the trio volleys melodies between each other, forming a collage of scenes from the underworld. At the midpoint, the music suddenly becomes somber and churchlike. Boots changes the mood on a dime. A great gravity overcomes the prior mystique. This does not last until the end, for as the name suggests, the void is coming! After nearly a minute of frantic chordal chuffing, the flutes arpeggiate up and…nothing. Boots saw the opportunity and took it – the void swallows the piece before it can conclude.

The last piece on this album is Uncanny Valley by Mike Sempert, commissioned by Areon Flutes. This gentle three-part counterpoint in the beginning evokes relaxing video games like Journey, Flower, and Thomas Was Alone. I choose this comparison conscientiously. The video games listed are all simple stories concerning man versus machine and are renowned for their unique (and pleasant) soundtracks. When the synthesizer enters, the piece takes on its own soul. Stumbling rhythms, harmonious electronic dance sounds and waltz-like melodies in the flutes offer a glimpse into a halting conversation between artificial intelligence and organic beings. The two halves of this multi-sided duet (organic flutes vs artificial synthesizers seek and fail to find common musical ground. The synthesizers eventually cut out, and the three flutes come together more united than before. This is a track I put on repeat and imagine a different story for each playthrough. It feels like a science fiction story put into music, and I have the pleasure of deciphering it.

Thrive easily earns a spot in my top five albums of 2016. Every track is easy to listen to, and the more you listen, the more levels of appreciation you gain. There is very little showing off, which frankly is something of a relief. So many compositions and performances are downright acrobatic nowadays. Finding a composition without virtuosity for flashy virtuosity’s sake is becoming a rare treasure. It is said that a true master makes something difficult seem easy; Areon Flutes embodies this concept and makes modern compositions for chamber ensembles accessible and pleasurable to all.

Thrive is available from Innova Music at innova.mu/albums/areon-flutes/thrive, and from iTunes, Amazon, and other music retailers.