Music reviews

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.

Synchromy + HOCKET present Crusoe at LACC

Composer/pianist/HOCKET member Sarah Gibson emptying out a treasure chest during Synchromy's performance of Rzewski's Crusoe.

Composer/pianist/HOCKET member Sarah Gibson emptying out a treasure chest during Synchromy’s performance of Rzewski’s Crusoe. Photo by Adam Borecki.

If there were any doubts that the LA new-music scene is in the midst of a surfeit of musical and aesthetic diversity, Synchromy and HOCKET’s evening of music, titled Crusoe, on November 5 should certainly quell them. The playing, centering on Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff of the piano duo HOCKET, and later adding a larger ensemble, was truly exceptional: precise, expressive, virtuosic where needed, yet playful, even comedic where possible.

The concert’s first half was comprised of four compositions for piano-four-hands by four local, living LA composers.

Alexander Elliott Miller’s Clock Smasher made for a striking and auspicious beginning. As its title might suggest, the opening motif, in four hands in ascent, burst open a vivid sonic palette that would traverse and transmogrify in interesting and musically satisfying ways.

Composer Alexander Elliott Miller, here playing guitar with Linnea Powell, viola, on Synchromy's performance of Crusoe. Photo by Adam Borecki.

Composer Alexander Elliott Miller, here playing guitar with Linnea Powell, viola, on Synchromy’s performance of Crusoe. Photo by Adam Borecki.

In his program note Miller makes mention of the “… polyrhythms, many of which do have a sort of ‘tick-tock’ quality, like a room full of out-of-sync clocks.” This is most certainly accurate but it only begins to suggest the variety and vitality of harmonic and gestural realms it creates and explores. Clock Smasher teases us at first with a metronomic, pulsed music which evolves into something ominously hovering, then interrupted by syncopated rhythms infused with quasi-jazz harmonies. Even the mention of the “J Word” is sometimes frowned upon – personally, I don’t frown upon it – but regardless of what that might suggest to you, this is certainly not a jazz composition. But that isn’t to say that it doesn’t flirt with tonality, some very lovely melodies and, at times, even hints at something Bill Evans might have mused about at the keyboard.   This music, as Miller’s notes suggest, does subvert its own idiomatic tendencies with those irregular rhythms, to my ear something of a this-is-definitely-NOT-jazz insistence, which then somehow, artfully evolves into a spacious, airy coda, punctuated by big, long and spacious chords. A poignant, striking work.

The next piece on the program was Marc EvansOne Wandering Night. This piece was for a slightly varied configuration of HOCKET in that Ms. Gibson remained on the piano while Mr. Kotcheff moved to an electric keyboard and they were augmented by the addition of two melodicas (played by the composer and Nick Norton).

Fun fact: I went to a Joe Jackson concert when I was a kid, probably around 1980. He whipped out a melodica and declared it “The Instrument of the Future!” Perhaps he was right. I do hear a lot of melodica at new music concerts these days.

Evans’ piece was inspired by Bartok and that came through clearly enough. There is always the danger of being on the wrong side of the line separating homage from uninspired imitation. Fortunately, One Wandering Night falls decidedly on the right side of that line. While the melodicas played a sort of wheezing Eastern European Bartokian ostinato, definitely and pleasantly reminiscent of Bartok’s own take on modal folk melody, the piano and electric keyboard sputtered and interjected their own contrasting bits. I found this particularly satisfying as it reminded me, on a simple level, of Bartok’s own 2-handed piano trickery, where the two hands remain, stubbornly, in their own domain (key, mode, register) despite any discord that stubborn autonomy might produce. And on a more complex level, it reminded me of one of my very favorite pieces of music, Messiaen’s jardin du sommeil d’amour, a movement from his Turangalîla-Symphonie. While the melodic and harmonic technique is quite different in Messiaen’s masterpiece, a similar bifurcation and their disorienting affect is in play.

L to R: Marc Evans, Sarah Gibson, Nick Norton, and Thomas Kotcheff perform Evans' One Wandering Night.

L to R: Marc Evans, Sarah Gibson, Nick Norton, and Thomas Kotcheff perform Evans’ One Wandering Night.

And playful it is. As the piece progresses, the tempo of the melodicas’ pumping melody increases and the interjections become more intense until, like a tired Hungarian hiker on the banks of the Danube, all four instruments slow down until they reach total repose. I must admit to being completely unfamiliary with Evans’ work but if this piece is at all representative of his musical sensibilities, then I definitely want to hear more.

Nick Norton told us from the stage that his Mirror Smasher was a number of things. He said it was “minimalisty” (and as such, “easy to write”), loud, and a work in progress. This piece was, again, for the four deft hands of HOCKET, and in fact even the pitch material itself was produced and ordered by them. The unordered (or, to quote the program, “played about a zillion different ways, as if looking at it in a broken mirror”) pitch set is:

H O C K E T = B G C D E F#

Yet again, HOCKET played beautifully. The piece begins with a clear tonal center, pulsing along as “minimalisty” pieces often do. But not long into the playing, a pre-recorded track of electronic sounds makes its presence known.

Norton’s choice of electronic sounds – both their timbre and idiomatic qualities – were a highlight for me. The combination of the smooth, hypnotic four-handed piano combined with the somewhat Kraftwerky buzzes, gently evolving into higher pitched electronic sounds reminiscent of some of the organ work in Einstein on the Beach really made for a powerful electro-acoustic marriage.

About halfway into Mirror Smasher the volume cranks up significantly. (The composer warned us of this before the performance. There will be no lawsuits.) If there was a hint of Einstein before the knob was turned, now the Einsteinian character felt married to something more like Heavy Metal, even Rock Opera. (Norton’s program note says that the title is a nod to Alex Miller’s Clock Smasher but I couldn’t help wonder if it might, even subconsciously, have any connection to The Who’s Do I Smash The Mirror, from Tommy. OK, probably not, but still…) OK, Rock Opera is misleading at best, demeaning at worst. But Mirror Smasher’s loud second half is formidable, powerful, and I could easily imagine it, as the composer suggested, being extended into a much longer Minimalist work. While different in pitched/melodic material, it reminded me, in a very good way, of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music in its powerful, gyrating and relentless sonic attack.

The program’s first half concluded with Jason Barabba’s The Distance of the Moon. The piece takes its title from a story in Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics of the same name. Calvino’s work is a collection of clever, fanciful tales, sometimes mischievous, sometimes romantic and nostalgic, often subverting our expectations if not the laws of nature as we’ve come to understand them. Calvino’s Distance of the Moon is a story about the moon, which, once upon a time, existed but a hop away from the Earth, but is now gradually moving farther and farther away. As the two spheres continue to distance themselves from each other, the inhabitants abandon the moon for the Earth. All but one of them, who decides to remain, forever, stranded alone on the moon.

Barabba’s musical interpretation of the story is itself a clever, fanciful tale. But unlike the rather light quality of the short story, it is a significant, weighty work. This is not to say that it isn’t imbued with moments of lightness – it is! – but it is not a mere bagatelle, but rather a significant musical and pianistic undertaking. Distance of the Moon was originally composed for a single pianist (presumably the two-handed kind) but as such it was almost impossible to play. I can all too easily believe this. Even in its two-person version, it is quite challenging.

Stylistically, it manages to explore a number of moods and idiomatic gestures yet still most definitely feel like a coherent, unified work. Moments of romantic, almost tonal passages intermingle deftly with strong, almost Schoenbergian dissonances. Lugubrious night music passages transition into stumbling, irregular rhythms with almost-BeBop melodic lines.

In the end, analogous to the story on which its based, Distance makes us feel the separation, the yearning, the tension hoping, however in vain, for a resolution. It ends, fragile and sparse, in a delicate and beautiful diad. Two notes at either end of the piano keyboard. A deep work, and one that I suspect would definitely reward repeat hearings and analysis.

Then came an intermission. If this had been a meal, I would have felt not full but satisfied. This was a chunk of concert that delivered four works of diverse character yet not, as a whole, illogically incongruent. But wait, there’s more…

The second half began with Mayke NasDiGiT #2.  (For the curious, I don’t think there’s a DiGiT #1.)  For those who don’t know (I didn’t), Ms. Nas is a Dutch composer, born in 1972. I don’t know how her work wound up on this program but it was a perfect palette cleanser. DiGiT is, to my ear, entirely devoid of a single specified pitch for any of the four hands, or four forearms, or two foreheads that activate the piano keys. It is, to be clear, a humorous bit of performance, perhaps a commentary on what we consider to be “high art.” It also allows a piano duo to highlight a different take on virtuosity.

DiGiT centers itself around a variation of our childhood schoolyard hand jive or clapping game that involves an intricate collaborative clapping between two people (usually young girls), while simultaneously singing a rhyme. (Shimmy Shimmy Cocoa Pop! was the one the Black girls bussed into my Queens elementary school taught me). DiGiT, however, is inspired by another favorite, Oh Little Playmate. It is not only a charming work – one that HOCKET obviously enjoyed immensely – but even a virtuosic one, albeit in a very different way. Piano keys are only played in clusters, but other sounds arise from the intricate interplay of the two pianists’ strikes against the palms, arms, and thighs of themselves and each other. The rhythms are at times satisfyingly smooth, even evoking soft shoe dance moves in their elegance and grace. It’s very much a performance piece, and, if you like, you can see an older performance of it (not by HOCKET, but by eighth blackbird, here:

The concert itself was billed under the title of CRUSOE. The grand finale, so to speak, was Frederic Rzewski’s composition of that name. Rzewski, born in 1938, is seen as a somewhat enigmatic figure of the 20th century avant-garde, someone who studied with “Uptown” and Princeton figures (Babbitt, et al.) yet whose own musical output butterflied effortlessly among genres widely, from serialism to minimalism. His works are coherent and easy to describe in and of themselves. But to describe what a “Rzewski piece” might be is near impossible.

Isaac Schankler, Thomas Kotcheff, and Nick Norton performing Rzewski's Crusoe. Photo by Adam Borecki.

Isaac Schankler, Thomas Kotcheff, and Nick Norton performing Rzewski’s Crusoe. Photo by Adam Borecki.

As for Crusoe, where to begin? First of all, it was a delight! Which is not to say that it was necessarily such a delight on the page, but Synchromy upped the dose for our viewing pleasure. The stage was adorned with a backdrop of a deserted island, inflatable palm trees and beach balls. A large ensemble adorned themselves a la Castaway, with everything from light headgear to a stuffed parrot on a shoulder to, in the case of one player (Mr. Norton, on guitar) a full-on shark suit! It was most definitely an aesthetic choice, not one dictated by the score, and I found it to be a wise one which bore much (tropical?) fruit.

Crusoe employs a performing force of unspecified instruments, requires its players to sing and chant various lines about Robinson Crusoe, play percussion instruments, and do other things that might make a Musicians Union bristle. The vocal sections are interspersed among bright, quite lovely pointillistic instrumental episodes. As such, Crusoe is reminiscent at times of some of Harry Partch’s better works, albeit without the microtonal schema.

Soprano Justine Aronson performing Rzewski's Crusoe with Synchromy and HOCKET. Photo by Adam Borecki.

Soprano Justine Aronson performing Rzewski’s Crusoe with Synchromy and HOCKET. Photo by Adam Borecki.

After various chants, instrumental interludes, spilling of doubloons, breaking of branches, dusting off of hands, tinkling of toy pianos, swords whirred as they are raised in the air, heads patted, feet stomped, the Narrator (sung by Justine Aronson) comes forth to chant the last line. At which point she is pelted by the ensemble with beach balls. The End! (I won’t call the Union if you don’t.)

As I said, Rzewski is enigmatic. And Crusoe is no less an enigma. Did this performance, and this piece, provide any insight into the tale of Robinson Crusoe? No, not really. Did it give me a sense of what Rzewski’s compositional voice was? Well, kinda sorta, inasmuch as only one of his pieces might. But more importantly, it was a perfect end to Synchromy’s ambitious concert, a perfect counterweight to an already diverse and profound selection of our community’s musical wealth.

Alexander Noice: Music Made With Voices

“Is that 8-bit game music?” My boyfriend asked, overhearing the song Karina Kallas. His question was surprisingly apt. Alexander Noice’s Music Made With Voices, published by Orenda Records, features eight pieces created out of the same eight voices singing the same note. As there are exactly eight elements, it is indeed, in a sense, 8-bit. The songs showcase characterizing traits of eponymous friends and family through only their voices.

Noice manipulates the pitch, attack, decay, and so on, and layers these modifed sonic elements into melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. Human ears fail to recognize sound as a voice if it has been altered by more than a major third (the span of the first two notes in Kumbaya). Since most of the notes are indeed outside that range from the original pitch, it is nearly impossible to recognize the sounds as vocal. Depending on the timbre of the individual singer, and the manner in which Noice alters the voice, they can sound like an electronic beep, a shawm, a kazoo, or an electric bass. Noice orchestrates according to each voice’s unique properties, and presumably according to the singer’s personality.

Alexander Noice

Alexander Noice

Some works, like Frank Noice, sound relatively more acoustic; it could probably be done with a choir of shawms and sackbuts (if you don’t know what a sackbut is, it’s as funny as it sounds. Google it). In other words, though it does not sound like a choir, it does sound instrumental. Others, like Masatoshi Sato, sound more electronic. The third category is, of course, those that retain their voice. Ihui Wu is a clever mix of female voices whooping out a melody while other voices chirp and thrum like old-school synths.

This technique is ingenious in itself, but it requires a certain skill to pull off such intricate polyphony with it. Here, Noice’s expertise with ensemble work shines through. Every track exhibits novel rhythms, interesting harmonies, a clear and unique melody, and a variety of textures. This is especially impressive given his minimal source material of a single note. Then again, a single note in a digital audio workspace contains infinite potential. Making the right choices to concoct a series of engaging pieces is the real challenge, over which Noice triumphs.

Noice uses technology to chop, warp, bend, stop, drop, and roll, cha cha real smooth. You get the picture. Software turns the original sound clip into something almost-but-not-quite-completely different. And that was his inspiration. “[Music Made With Voices] parallels our modern relationships and interactions, both with communication, and the cherry-picking portrayal of our daily lives through texting, Facebook, Twitter, etc. At times it’s hard to get a fully realistic, honest view of people with our relationships are so filtered through digital outlets,” Noice explains. This is a keen insight to our 21st century culture. Many adults miss the days of communicating by voice instead of text, as many believe actual talking breeds deeper connection. Some people believe a voice is the most honest part of any person; some cultures believe the soul resides in the throat, not the heart or the brain, for exactly this reason. By digitally afflicting the voice, Noice transforms this human essence into art, thus destroying the very thing that made it human.

At the same time, he creates a community. The voices were recorded alone, and Noice joins them in an ensemble. Say what you will about technology filtering interaction, it does have the wonderful power to bring people and voices together. Though transformed, the essence remains, and now the voices interact. In continuing the parallel to cyber interactions, Noice succeeds in uniquely uniting eight people for the sake of art.

Noice has created a thought-provoking and aurally stimulating album. Each song proves again and again his prowess with intricate ensemble work, a sense of interesting melody, and his understanding of the subject’s personality. As reliant on digital effects as this album is, it exhibits a rare organicism. Music Made With Voices encapsulates creativity, humanity, and the digital age.

The album will be available for purchase on October 21st from the Orenda Records website and bandcamp, which is also taking pre-orders.

Review: New Ovation Music presents David Arbury’s Alchemy

The cover art for David Arbury's AlchemyRecord label New Ovation Music has just completed a modern classical recording project with the Formalist Quartet, nationally acclaimed tenor Kerry Jennings, and other Los Angeles locals on the music of LA-based composer David Arbury. From bottom to top, this showcases the excellence of the Los Angeles music scene. This record features beautiful melodies and lush harmonies. I absolutely recommend headphones and minimal distractions. The recording feels intimate and magical, but you won’t turn iron to gold if you don’t put down your phone.

David Arbury’s aesthetic lies somewhere between Arnold Schoenberg, Franz Schubert, and Iannis Xenakis. This makes sense given his background in music technology, choral composition, and bass and percussion performance. In the notes, Arbury writes, “Alchemy is a collection of music written for different performers in different styles at different times in my life but all of which tries to express a similar idea: that transformation and change are an inherent part of our being no matter our course through life.” This idea of alchemy is evident between works and also within movements of pieces. With each listen, you hear more and deeper connections between the motifs.

The record begins with his second string quartet, performed by the Formalist Quartet. The first movement initially struck me as reminiscent of Schoenberg’s string quartets, but the way the notes ebbed and flowed was unique to Arbury. The second movement is a pleasant change of pace from the push and pull of the first movement. You can almost touch the lush texture of the strings. The third movement features harmonics in a way I have come to expect from John Luther Adams. You can hear the scratching of the bow on the string, making it feel like you the listener are inches from the performer. Everything suddenly changes for the final movement, which sounds like a page from an old Western soundtrack. The notes chase each other up and down, and the performers tap out percussion on the hollow bodies of their instruments. Overall, the full quartet feels like a series of vignettes. Alone they are good. Together they create an unexpected dish better than the sum of its parts.

The next set of the pieces is a song cycle titled “If I Shall Ever Return Home: Seven Chinese Poems” written specifically for tenor Kerry Jennings. Jennings is garnering a lot of attention right now on the international circuit because of his focused energy on performing new works. I admire this work for its Neoromantic feel; Arbury was surely channeling Schubert, Schumann, and Liszt when writing this one. Kerry Jennings’s dulcet voice and Andria Fennig’s expressive piano skills bring the score to life and transport the listener to a simpler, more pastoral world apart from the hustle and bustle of busy LA.

The eponymous track is something different altogether. Two percussionists, Douglas Nottingham and Brett Reed, create strings of motives on various percussion instruments and quilt them together into a tapestry. The enchanting piece is 20 minutes long, but it goes by quickly. This piece is one of the few times words fail me – I want to go on and on about how I hear something different every time I listen, and how the space between the notes is the real music, and how the interplay between timbres makes for a unique sound, but everything I say sounds flat in comparison to what I mean. This is one I will just take the easy way out and say you need to hear it for yourself.

Wrapping up the album, Arbury’s third string quartet sounds like a blend of Ralph Vaughn Williams and Elliott Carter. There’s something about the way Arbury expresses and moves time that can only come from an accomplished percussionist, the rumbling low end plays tribute to his knowledge of double bass, and the thick textures move from polyphonic to homophonic and everywhere in between. The final notes lift and drift away. There is no resolution, no conclusion, just beautiful dissipation.

I was struck by the carefully curated variety of composition and performance on one record. Arbury doesn’t let himself get pigeon-holed in one genre. The performers are not robotic perfectionists, but artists breathing life into the music. This is the kind of record that earns New Ovation’s place as the center of progressive music-making. The next project you can look forward to from David Arbury, collaborating with Kerry Jennings, Andria Fennig, and Charles Stanton is a multi-sensory presentation of many these works in cities across the country. Such an experience seeks to engage new and diverse audiences, and Arbury’s cinematic feeling cultivates successful execution. Before they come to your city, check out “Alchemy” for yourself.

Alchemy is available from most online music retailers, but CD Baby pays artists more than most, so buy it here: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/davidarbury.

Round and Around and Around We Go

Desert Magic is an LA-based collective comprised of the talents of Alex Wand, Steven Van Betten and Logan Hone, all alumni of Cal Arts. With backgrounds in composition, folk, jazz, songwriting, and world music, they manage to succeed in creating genre-bending sound world that honors not only their musical pedigrees, but also our human histories as well.

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A Round the Sun consists of a collection of songs and rounds that were have been “released piecemeal” on the equinoxes and solstices of this year. The album coalesces upon a shared middle ground that is earthy, wholesome and honest: a world that can be difficult to inhabit while also maintaining experimentalism and a sense of the mystic. From inclusion of samples from NASA’s sound archive to the weightless quality of the trios voices, the album doesn’t try to hide the joy and haunting beauty with which it appreciates our time on earth, and the passing thereof.

With such a large set of rounds, there is always the chance of a form getting stale, but A Round the Sun plays with formal elements, tonalities and instrumentation plenty enough that the old counterpoint feels new and interesting each time it is presented. The most power parts of the album are the points when the processes used to create the pieces are dished out to us the listener. On Venus Takes Jupiter, a round is introduced with text that wanders from a more whimsical metaphoric take on the orbits of the titular planets to a mathematical/musical explanation of the phasing loops that follow.

While the core instrumentation could seem folk-ish or even poppy, usually hovers about guitar based groves with floating vocal lines above, guitar preparations, an expansive array of guitars, and Logan Hone’s multi-instrumentalism throw in new timbral (and at times tuning system) choices just before the color pallet gets stale. What I can only assume is Erhu on The Other String Theory and a carefully tasteful sax solo in the middle of Commonly Observed Phenomenon expand complement the loops that permeate the album.

While this exact brand of zodiac contrapuntal songwriting seems like it might have a hard time finding a home in a concert hall or a club, the grey-area-ness of its classification will lead to a rewarding listen for anyone who is looking for an album that exists in the cracks of classification, and will pay off with melody lines that can circle through one’s head for days after listening, begging to be rewound and re-listened and timbres and layers that are supremely joyful and poignant and at times absolutely laid bare in their sincerity.

Listen to The U and I off of  A Round the Sun below:

Review: Meerenai Shim: Pheromone

Meerenai Shim, contemporary flautist, describes herself as “[committed] to the advancement of the flute repertory.” Pheromone, the third of her solo recordings, doesn’t disappoint on this count. While Shim’s execution displays an appealing directness throughout, the album is thankfully much more than a virtuoso showcase. This album is about new pieces by exciting composers.

What is most effective here is the theme: the album is a collection of electroacoustic commissions, all in reaction to Eli Fieldsteels’ Fractus III: Aerophoneme, originally written in 2011, which is included as the first track. The piece is an extended exploration of flute and Supercollider dialogue, alternately spacey and pulsing, aggressive and reticent. Shim’s flurried runs are occasionally executed with less precision than her sharp attacks, flutter-tongue, and other effects, but not to the point of distraction. Eventually, familiar harmonic progressions appear in an extended pop language that is thoroughly enjoyable in context. Why feel guilty? Materials here are complex enough, no brain cells are being lost; might as well enjoy the scenery.

The score to Fractus itself is worth investigating, and is available as a video that can be watched along with the piece. What is really innovative is the care with which Supercollider has been scored with the same blend of traditional and extended notation as the flute. Supercollider is an expressive equal here, its potentials managed and planned with the deliberation of traditional compositional approach, creating a subtle “phonemic” dialogue with the flute. Originally intended for four-channel speakers, the piece occasionally loses a bit of strength in sections where four channels may have enhanced the experience – but there is something attractive about the flatness that results.

When composers can start with such a highly developed palette as a starting point for inspiration, pieces of real depth can emerge – the focus here yields a whole new expressive realm. Whether or not these works may be properly considered new “repertoire” is dependent on the performability of these pieces independently of the live electronic noodling of the original composers. Still, it’s a worthy goal.

Track 2, Huge Blank Canvas Neck Tattoo by Gregory C. Brown is for alto flute and digital delay and starts, as one might expect, purified of some of Fractus III’s excess. Predictable additive gestures quickly build, however, into a thicket of stimulating activity. Harmonic progressions loop and the texture becomes so homophonic at times, medieval texture is suggested, especially considering the rhythmic repetitions. While the soloist-plus-delay formula is not particularly complex in concept, in execution these layers are sophisticated and fulfilling. A particular pleasure is the lethargic, slowed loop of a flute attack, which showcases the uniquely wild partials of a flute attack in detail. Attacks are taut, microtonal descents are layered with an eventual lyrical alto flute lushness over pop harmonic language.

Track 3, Pencilled Wings by Emma O’Halloran is a pleasant respite, as shimmering filtered electronics surround crystalline leaping partials in the flute, with whistle tones lending the right kind of strained beauty. The texture shifts, here sparse, there heavy and modal, as piano plunks out ambiguous harmonic poles. Again, pop influences and “dated” electronic sounds are somehow completely welcome, as they are part of a larger vision. Tinkling piano octave samples mix with roasty electronic pads, and the effect is more than a little new aged, but who cares? There is real love for electronics as an idiom here, and we would be boorish not to be swept along. Besides, it’s not all butterflies. There is grounded ferocity behind all the cock-eyed ornament.

60.8% by Douglas Laustsen presents a number of puzzles: exaggerated Middle-Eastern melodies slide over ethnic percussion samples used in isolation and quirky electronic blips. Is it Orientalist or not? Melodies dive in and out of sincerity and the grotesque, alto tone gorgeous throughout. Probably it’s 60.8% serious. Toy piano and bobbling electronics belie an authentically intoxicating drone and 7/8 groove. Slithering zither samples wink over a dead serious bass drum. Shim seems particularly at home here, digging joyfully into the alto flute’s territory of haunted lyricism. I’d go to this party, just to see how it ends.

LA’s own Isaac Schankler contributed title track 5, Pheromone, the brightest on the recording. Sly coarseness is left behind and thought returns. Schankler’s interpretation of Fractus III clings to a few relevant concepts but mostly he explores his own interests in depth. Piano samples surround a delayed flute texture, bobbing in rhythm. Schankler is happy to retrace his steps for effect: something is being described, rather than experienced, or declaimed. The delight of the first section soon gives way to a pensive landscape, however. Repeated flute tones swell and fade, piano presents crisp chords and rumbling low intervals, and crackling electronics quietly recede. Schankler’s work on the video games Depression Quest and Analogue comes to mind here. Possibilities seem endless – we could choose any direction, be any character. This texture swells and transitions quickly back into driving rhythms, repeated flute leaps and runs bounded by low piano aggression. Like other tracks, the rhythm can be driving, but unlike the others, rhythm pulls, occasionally veering off-course with a real vulnerability. This gives way to even more low piano rumbling and arpeggiation, and finally into a more direct, dangerous texture, exploring darker themes and harmonies. Schankler’s strength is the range here – from light to forceful.

The final track is a one-minute and 41-second etude for contrabass flute and TI83+ calculator, and it is exactly what you think it is. As for me, this sort of shamelessness is just my cup of tea. Completely fun, and totally bizarre, musical complexity isn’t really the focus here. The form consists of some basic call-and-response binary sections of weird contrabass clarinet over a rather stupid calculator-generated groove, with hocketing syncopation. The composer, Matthew Joseph Payne, runs a “chiptune-folk-doom-jazz band” with Shim, and this ridiculousness is in full effect. Contrabass hoots with hauntingly bizarre gestures over a noxious square-waved electronic calculus. Higher harmonics in the contrabass flute are actually quite gorgeous in their whispering richness. Calculator music, yes please!

Overall, Shim and the composers have presented a stunning, and valuable vision of the flute’s capabilities. These pieces all engage with a raw earthiness not typically associated with the instrument, and one which could easily be more fully explored. Pheromone, with its connotation of intense humanness and connection to the natural world, seems an apt title. Materials are simultaneously in close contact and pulled apart. Narrative is abandoned as compulsion takes hold. I, for one, am looking forward to the next installment.

 

 

Review: Matt Barbier: FACE|RESECTION

With a name like “FACE|RESECTION,” you know it’s going to mess with your head. The album title is a merging of the two track names, Facesplitter and Bowel Resection, performed by Matt Barbier and released on populist records. Both use extended techniques transform the trombone into much more than a mere instrument.

The first track, written by composer and guitarist Nicholas Deyoe for solo trombone, imitates machine noises. A lawnmower here, a band saw there, and an electric drill and sink disposal in between evoke a soundscape of quotidian noise as music. Rarely is there a sound produced by Nicholas which does not have some parallel which can be heard from your own kitchen. This catalogue of techniques moves the listener to appreciate these noises more as music than something to be ignored. In short, I would call this music by a human about inhuman subjects for humans.

Clint McCallum’s piece is another technically startling trombone solo called “bowel resection.” It emphasizes circular breathing and uses the sniffs to remind the listener of the human behind the mechanism, of the organic being in machine. Another set of extraordinary trombone techniques, this piece brings a new emotion with each listen, one of which is, as you may guess from the name, disgust. But, like spectacular gore in a horror film, you won’t want to turn away. To compare this track to gore seems both blasphemous and fitting. You’ll have to listen for yourself.

Review: Weston/Saxon Groove Assembly: Acceleration

Groovy. Every track on this record has a characteristic groove, mood, and personality. The album, which comes with a poem inspired by it by Steve Shelton, is about coming and going and changing and curving and accelerating. Such themes are scattered like so many constellations in the tracks, which seem to wander, march, or race.

A quartet comprised of drummer Grant Calvin Weston, percussionist Jonathan Saxon, bassist Steuart Liebig, and keyboardist Wayne Peet, Weston/Saxon Groove Assembly meld together a unique sound. Astoundingly, the four did not play all together; Grant recorded in Philadelphia, and the other three recorded in LA. The sound is so well mixed both as individual tracks and compared to the others that nothing ever feels missed, but each piece feels balanced.

The first track, “Take it to the streets,” is atmospheric at the beginning, then adds a tribal beat with a sci fi groove strongly reminiscent of N64 racing games. “Stutter step” is an upbeat, organ-strong piece with dissonant suspensions over constant cymbals, descending into madness and suddenly resolving back to its tonal, upbeat groove. “Third Floor” is relatively barebones, and again reminds me of N64 soundtracks, which lends it a nostalgia factor, though I somehow doubt that was really the intention. At track four we reach the title track: drones and claves build the Twilight Zone-esque atmosphere, and the emptiness of the sound makes it expansive in space, like a rift in reality. “Road trip to Downey” was the song that kicked off the idea for this album as a percussion duet – it starts with a pleasing groove and adds in more instruments until a sudden acceleration, and then instruments phase out, an effect deemed ‘classic’ for good reason.

“Juno” is perhaps my favorite track, opening with a piano solo reminiscent of Debussy’s style, and the stereo hocketting percussion throughout the piece quite simply made me feel happy. “All systems go” opens with an electric mbira solo and adds in other-worldly distortion. I’ve hinted at it and now I’ll say it: the album either evokes nostalgia for something it may not have thought to intend, or is very science fiction. The eighth and final track, “Observations at dawn,” is the most sci-fi of all. Drones, tapping percussion, and foley sound effects from Jonathan acutely evoke dawn as you’ve never seen or heard it before.

If you like jazz, atmospheric, or electronic music, this album is sure to tantalize and please. It gives a little something for everyone, and the eight unique songs blend into one exhilarating album.