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.

Toward Meaning: Werder and Frey with the Southland Ensemble

Last Sunday evening, a 20-odd crew quietly gathered at Automata in Chinatown for Southland Ensemble’s first concert of the season, a presentation of works by Manfred Werder and Jürg Frey. What works about Southland is their commitment to making space for a delicate strain of experimental music that requires care to present well. As the audience settled into their folding chairs and the lights dimmed in the compact gallery, a peculiar hush spread through the room.

The program’s three pieces were judiciously selected explorations of an attenuated sound world – more or less: unison cued harmonies, each lasting between half a breath and a full breath, floating into one another, and into silence. This kind of program is especially exciting because the audience can settle into a certain kind of careful listening, appreciating the nuances between each piece, and between each composer.

When materials are this bare, fluctuation is content. This is music about gesture, and the multiplicities of meaning that the tiniest variations in gesture can encode. The physicality of the music approaches dance, or theater. Maybe some would describe popular or folk dance as the height of physicality. But here, so many more revealing movements of the body are transcribed. Hidden personal rituals, telling missteps.

The first piece by Frey was 60 Pieces of Sound for bassoon, alto saxophone and flute. The 60 musical events begin simply: unison cued dyads with impeccable intonation, sans vibrato, lasting roughly half a breath, expanding into triads or clusters. If that sounds like a performance direction for a structured improvisation, it’s because the production here is so transparent that just being an audience member feels like being part of the creative process. All music depends on its audience for completion, but this music especially seems to require the audience as container. It’s nice to be needed.

The harmonies expand and contract, gently leaning and pulling. Silences are not uncomfortable, attention can ebb and flow. Gagaku comes to mind – a heightened atmosphere in which declamations have meaning, can take root.

In this context, harmonic grammar carries real weight. This music is not abstracted from canonic music, it’s stripped. The house is not rendered in multiple perspectives, it’s just the furniture has been taken out. History is still richly in evidence, if one cares to find it, speaking through temperament and timbre, harmonic expectation. Much care is given to pleasure –  silences are perfectly satisfying, not intimidating. Switches to minor harmonies seem more powerful, emotional shifts more salient.  The alto sax tone was especially exquisite and well-controlled for such a bare context. Intonation between all was precise, reverberating just right in the intimate acoustics of Automata. It’s hard to say what kind of spiritual food this is exactly, but it’s certainly toothsome.

stück, by Manfred Werder, brings similar concerns to an ensemble of flute, violin, bassoon, viola, cello, and alto sax. In uniformly blue lighting, Southland’s focused performers were like specters, communicating from another plane. Again, limited materials are at play here – half to full-breath length drones. The difference here is that the larger ensemble creates a new meaning. No longer are we exploring the intimate thoughts of a single person; this music is inherently social. There’s a ‘we.’ Register-wise, the pitches explored are much higher and lower, and although the basic form is similar to 60 Pieces, this feels like a completely different personality. More emphasis on intellect, a little less generosity, a little sharper, not inherently more dissonant, but voiced more harshly. There is less pleasure. The contrasts between high, piercing tones and sul pont whispers are especially interesting – the strings are functioning as a section here, and the play on tradition is satisfying. Haunting, piercing intonation. As the piece develops, the contrasts feel more dialectic. Here we don’t have a described nar­rative, we are grappling with opposites, in real time. The overall feeling is so solid. The heritage of experimental music has produced a vocabulary not comprised of idiomatic phrases, bu­t a way of approaching temporality, the perception of time.

All this music deals with meaning – intensifying or distilling it. It’s not typical to describe experimentalism as concerned with psychological meaning. In fact, performance instructions on the Werder are “für sich, klar und sachlich. einfach.” (to itself, clear and objective. simple.) But what is objectively being described? It seems: experience.

And for an even richer kind of experience, the star of the show was Frey’s String Quartet No.3.  Although again we were presented with simple successions of harmonies, the tones here were instantly meatier, uniquely-voiced dissonances, all sans vibrato, by the superbly balanced Koan Quartet. The group is aptly named; their commitment feels squarely placed in the mysteries of the work rather than showiness.

The piece is theatrical, self-referential — a character, a monologue, setting the scene in the city, telling us about an experience before we dive into the epic. Then, traditionally, there’s a secondary theme. Rather than just hinting at the idea of a narrative, the whole story is here, impossibly: a character, a conflict, even a love interest, a journey. Schubert comes to mind. Suspended chords bleed into one another, extended tonality unexpectedly tilts into rapturous shimmering textures. The story stops at points at glassy pools of sul pont. The explorations here examine all textural possibilities without being glib. These points of interest are selected, chosen with care, composed! “Themes” return. Perhaps most interestingly, the work grapples with the history of the string quartet itself. There’s a Beethovenian sense of fate. Silences are used here to mark sections and narrative transitions, rather than as expressive means in their own right, as in the first piece. It’s uncanny how the meaning of silence can be shaped so strongly by a composers’ intent. The piece doesn’t play with extremes of register, as in the Werder. Instead, the contrasts are between harmonic progression and unexpected leaps into extended techniques. It’s genuinely surprising when the quartet turns from phrases to textures, and a third of the way through, into a whispering wintry sul pont landscape with solo tones emerging as voices. The piece as a whole is striking in its sincerity and seriousness of purpose.

The project in these pieces is, if not absolutely clear in intent, then perfectly clear in execution. What works about such harmonic play is that, more than melody or rhythm, harmonic grammar is deeply intertwined with cultural conditioning of Western music history. Hopes and expectations formed by acculturation battle reality, mirroring so much of experience.

Frey’s String Quartet No. 3 was extraordinary, and one felt that it should have been appreciated by more than 20-or-so lucky souls. The ending fades with long breath-like tones, receding into the ether. This is Romantic music, but in a way we can really hear, today. There are concerns about identity, hope, belonging, clothed in garments we understand. These composers take their task seriously and that is perhaps the most moving thing of all.

Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble and The Phantom Carriage

It was the night before Halloween, and the stage was set – the anticipation of a ghoulish silent horror film from the 1920s, a vintage theater full of charm, audience members in costume, even the pianist was dressed as the Grim Reaper. It was my first time at the Art Theater in Long Beach, a place I’ve been wanting to visit for some time. (I absolutely loved the venue. Anyone in Long Beach, go there now.)

In fact, it was a night of firsts for me, since it was also my first time seeing a silent film with live music. I was immediately struck by the pacing of the film – I found myself all-too-aware that I’ve become numb to absurdly fast-paced media. As such, it was refreshing to be able to sit back and enjoy the slower action of The Phantom Carriage. The pacing was in no way a reflection of the depth of the film, which seemed to be well ahead of its time. In fact, the unfolding of events allowed for layers of subtlety that a faster-paced film could not have achieved. Special effects abounded (ghosts walking through doors, etc.), flashbacks on flashbacks, plot twists…this film had it all, and a classic tale of morality to boot.

Needless to say, I didn’t just come to see this classic film – I also came to see the reimagined score by the Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble. The composer, Dubowsky, was also the conductor of the ensemble, which was comprised of Charles Sharp on bass clarinet/flute, Henry Webster on viola, Slam Nobles on percussion, Jeff Schwartz on double bass, and R. Scott Dibble on keyboard and electronics. The score was full of musical imagery, from cymbal swells to represent waves, flouncy flute lines as women laughing and bass clarinet riffs for men laughing. There was also a fair amount of mickey-mousing, such as the tick tock of a horse walking, ensemble members talking with hands over their mouths to represent the muffled chatter of the crowd in the picture, to drum hits as literal smacks and falls of the characters onscreen.

The music itself was mostly tonal, with a handful of themes that played through most of the film. These themes sounded traditional, often patriotic, meant to reflect the time period and the innocence of many of the characters on screen. Along with the conventional harmony implied with these melodies, there was an undertone of a more abstract, experimental score that could emerge at any moment, which perhaps was meant to represent an underlying evil. At the times when this part of the score did emerge, it was usually when something supernatural was happening onscreen. My favorite moments were these moments of abstraction – it was here that I felt the underlying character of the film was more present.

Instruments also became representations of character’s actions. For example, as a character onscreen shrugged off the command of someone, a bass clarinet line approached the scene with similar attitude. For the most part, I got the impression that the bass clarinet took on an emotive role, rather than portraying specific action. By contrast, the percussion largely seemed to reflect specific actions on screen, which is helpful when the film itself has no sound embedded within itself. Electronics played a subtle role throughout the score – mainly, they acted as a quiet force in the background, waiting to emerge.

Overall, the whole experience was a lot of fun. (And slightly spooky.)

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.

An Evening of Song Cycles in Glendale

Mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen and pianist Nadia Shpachenko performed original works by George Gianopoulos, Yuri Ishchenko, and Christian Carey, as well as a solo vocal piece by John Cage, at a new music recital titled The Truth in Simple Things at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Glendale on Saturday. The weekend audience made its way into the cavernous sanctuary of St. Mark’s and settled comfortably into the long wooden pews.

Based on the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Three Songs of Shattering for Mezzo-Soprano and Piano, Op. 18 (2009/2013) by George N. Gianopoulos opened the program. The first movement, No. 1: The First Rose…, began with a haunting piano phrase and a strong vocal entrance by Ms. Ihnen that filled the large sanctuary space. There is a somber feeling in this music, aided by a trace of the blues in the piano accompaniment. Ms. Ihnen’s rich mezzo voice was powerful enough to be heard everywhere in the audience without a microphone or amplification – but the spaciously resonant hall tended to swallow up the words of the text. Even so, the smoothly strong vocal lines, offset by Ms. Shpachenko’s active piano passages, produced a finely balanced combination.

The brighter, jazzy feel of No. 2: Let the Little Birds Sing… included some lovely vocals in a high register that went soaring lightly over the piano line. Expressive and playful, this movement prompted a spontaneous round of applause as it concluded. No. 3: All the Dogwood Blossoms… began with powerfully dramatic chords in the piano and tightly drawn vocal phrasing that dialed up the tension. Forceful singing, blending nicely with an intricate piano accompaniment, went weaving in and out of the texture, adding some drama. A powerful crescendo from both performers filled up the hall and then pulled back slightly, enhancing the strong finish. The audience greeted Three Songs of Shattering with sustained applause.

A second Gianopoulos song cycle, this one based on the poetry of Sara Teasdale, followed.  I. Dawn, the first movement of City Vignettes for Mezzo-Soprano and Guitar (or Piano) Op. 29 (2013), began with a solemn vocal line and a bustling piano accompaniment, similar in character to the first Gianopoulos piece. Strong, declarative lyrics followed, with further flourishes in the piano as if the rising sun were still over the horizon, a power more sensed than felt. A more relaxed II. Dusk featured an overarching vocal melody that soared smoothly upward, filling the big sanctuary space with sound. Ms. Ihnen’s power and range were on full display here and quite effective. III. Rain at Night gave a more cautious and tentative feel, especially in the piano, while nicely shaped vocal phrasings added to a sense of uncertainty. This movement captures the generally mixed feelings Southern Californians  have about rain at night – especially on the freeways. City Vignettes for Mezzo-Soprano and Guitar (or Piano) further validates Gianopoulos’ pragmatic style of assigning technical embellishments to the piano, freeing Ms. Ihnen’s robust voice to rise impressively upwards, filling the space above the audience.

Piano Sonata No. 6 (2005), by Yuri Ishchenko began with a Fantasia.  Its strong opening and quietly mysterious melody made for a gloomy feeling.  A bit of agitation animated the texture, leading up to a series of resounding chords. This pattern of quiet tension followed by increasingly anxious passages continued, especially in the lower registers where deep rumblings added a sense of menace.   A marvelous Ukranian bleakness poured grimly out of the keyboard under Ms. Shpachenko’s steady hands. The dynamics and tempo increased just as the texture thickened, the notes rushing out into the audience like a dark, flowing torrent. A very rapid run upward and a solemnly quiet chord at the finish carried Fantasia to its conclusion.

The second movement, Imperativo, arrived with a bright, almost waltz-like tempo invoking a feeling that is both decisive and purposeful. The active phrasing, while often complex, never felt timid or nervous. The precise and nuanced playing impressed, especially in the quieter stretches, and a hint of Prokofiev lyricism emerged in the melodies. A new line in the lower register rose up in a complex wave, making its way through the middle piano keys and accelerated to an almost fugue-like intricacy. This is engaging music, aided by the expressive passages and a profusion of notes that roared outward at the conclusion. The final movement, Epilogo, proved much more subdued, with tentative notes and a vague feeling of uncertainty. Although brief and fittingly restrained, this movement contrasted perfectly with the preceding fireworks.  As the last notes died away, much cheering and applause arose for this most energetic performance

Aria by John Cage followed, a solo piece for voice. Ms. Ihnen explained that the score is fashioned from graphical notation with symbols, shapes and colors employed to indicate the vocal line. Aria began quietly, with a combination of musical notes and vocalese. Various languages comprised the text, the words mixing with sharp, spiky sounds and smoothly soaring musical notes.  Hand clapping and breathy sounds scattered among the musical tones added to the variety. The dynamics and tempo frequently changed, often without notice, but skillful execution by Ms. Ihnen made for a graceful flow. The constant need to fit the various sound fragments into some sort of context proved challenging, and the sequences came as from a dream. Aria follows the philosophy of other Cage pieces – music is present everything we hear, as part of a continuous spectrum of sound experience.

Kenyon Songs, by Christian Carey followed, three pieces based on the poetry of Jane Kenyon and completed between 2007 and 2009. Song opened with soft chords and a simple melody in the piano. A settled, nostalgic feeling came through and the quiet lyrics spoke of the familiar and the mundane: “An oriole sings from the hedge, and in the hotel kitchen the chef sweetens cream for the pastries…” Subdued and straightforward phrasing in the vocals sustained a pleasant wistfulness.  A bit of tension crept in as the lyrics turned to some threatening weather: “Far off lightening and thunder agree to join us for a few days down in the valley…” The vocals became stronger, but never evoked even a hint of menace in this charmingly peaceful portrait. Next was Otherwise, and the smoothly graceful opening extended the sense of serenity. Homespun lyrics persisted: “I ate cereal, sweet milk, flawless peach, it might have been otherwise” – that last phrase introducing just the slightest uncertainty, echoed in the piano line. More singing of benign, everyday activities followed, each phrase ending with “…it might have been otherwise.” The final line: “But one day I know it will be otherwise.” forcefully drove home the point of the poem. The carefully modulated vocals and accompaniment perfectly matched the intentions in the text. As Otherwise concluded the feeling turned poignant, reflecting the sense of impending loss.

Let Evening Come completed Carey’s song cycle. This brought a warmer feeling combined with a sense of completion – a welcome to the end of the day. The declarative phrasing in the voice added a bit of purpose, echoed from the text “To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop in the oats. to the air in the lung – let evening come.” Kenyon Songs celebrates those small, prosaic parts of life that so often bring great contentment; the music and the nuanced performances capturing this exactly.

The final piece on the program was Three Songs for [Mezzo] Soprano & Piano, Op. 7 (2007/2010) – another song cycle by Gianopoulos. Based on texts by Dorothy Parker this consisted of three sections: I. Little Words, II. One Perfect Rose and III. Purposely Ungrammatical Love Song. A breezy, Manhattan feel that combines the wit and energy of Ms. Parker’s prose with a  Broadway sensibility permeates all these pieces. The carefully balanced piano and vocal passages occasionally contained some impressive flash from the keyboard. The final section featured a nicely syncopated melody in the vocals joined with a light, swinging feel that animates the accompaniment. Three Songs for [Mezzo] Soprano & Piano perfectly expresses the elegant urban sophistication of New York at its height.

Shannon Knox, Micaela Tobin, Sharon Chohi Kim’s Unseal Unseam is not easily forgotten

Unseal Unseam, the title of an hour-long experimental chamber opera presented on October 6th and 7th  at Highways Performance Space, doesn’t give much away in terms of the rich programmatic soil from which it grew. This palimpsest of a piece by Shannon Knox, Micaela Tobin, and Sharon Chohi Kim developed through multiple iterations of MFA projects which responded to Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle (A kékszakállú herceg vára), which itself is influenced by previous settings of a French literary version of an even older folktale. Unseal Unseam seeks to recast Bartok’s female victim as heroine. Elevating and centering female subjectivity is the project at hand, and this nastiest of fairy tales couldn’t be a riper subject.

Unseal Unseam. Photo by Katie Stenberg.

Unseal Unseam. Photo by Katie Stenberg.

For the uninitiated, the original folktale of Bluebeard boils down to a cautionary tale about the unknowability of abusive husbands and the price of female curiosity. In most versions of the story, a nobleman with an unearthly blue beard selects a new wife from a small village. Whisked to his opulent castle after a shotgun wedding, the new bride is entrusted with a set of keys and a warning that all rooms may be opened save one. Of course the curious wife opens the door to the forbidden room, wherein she finds all Bluebeard’s previous wives dead, dripping blood, in some versions, hanging on hooks. She is subsequently caught by Bluebeard, and either dies similarly, or is saved by some handy brothers ex machina.

The tale can either be read as a literal warning against male violence, or perhaps more subtly as a warning against the horrors revealed in men by unsuspecting women who probe too far, desire too much power, or demand too much from their spouses.

The plot itself is a little thin, so in Bartok’s version, the locked doors number seven, each revealing a new treat: a torture chamber, an armory with terrifying weapons, a treasury with blood-spattered coins, a garden with flowers watered by blood, a pool of tears, an entire kingdom whose clouds are darkened by – you guessed it, blood, and the final chamber entombing Bluebeard’s dead wives. It is unclear how much of this exponentially unbelievable drama is literal and how much is psychological torment, but either way, the terrifying portrait of a serial killer is not soon forgotten.

It is this melange of folk and classical creepiness with which Unseal Unseam wrestles. Before Unseal Unseam is fully started, as the audience chats and catches up, one performer quietly conjures electronic whines with pedals on the floor, nearly inaudible to the meandering crowd, invisible to society. Another performer sits stiffly at a white piano as the lights dim and a scene begins on the concrete floor. Three wives enter in voluminous black skirts, connected by red cords bound over their faces as Judith, in beige, crochets a net with her hands. The group slowly unfurl their cords, their choreographed liberation punctuated by slams of the piano lid, plonks of prepared piano strings, and hocketed, dissonant phrases of “locked… what was locked?” and “Where did this happen? Outside or within?” These snippets of plot hints are as concrete as the libretto’s narrative gets, but the haunting, spare music and visual drama unfolding are so enrapturing that not knowing what’s going on doesn’t much matter. The attention to visual impact, from costumes to props, choreography to lighting, is intoxicatingly stunning, especially given a limited budget.

Unseal Unseam. Photo by Katie Stenberg.

Unseal Unseam. Photo by Katie Stenberg.

Similar scenes unfold in different areas throughout the space, from a domestic scene with broken plates used as percussion, to a particularly arresting scene of the women singing through hands over their mouths – both their own and sculpted plaster male hands which flare into trombone-like bells. The audience moved reverently throughout these transitions, naturally matching the ceremonial pace of all involved.

Each of these scene changes is meant to represent one of the seven rooms from Bartok’s original opera, and in some cases, this is clear, as in the pool of tears represented by three amplified cylinders full of water into which are dipped vibrating chimes, and the final tomb, a spectacle of the women singing “open the doors and you will find us” while smoke is somehow magically kept within the bounds of an invisible cube. But, it seems nearly impossible to determine where each door stops and start, and when we are in each chamber. Bartok’s original is present in the overall sense of suspended terror, but everything feels fractured – the throughline of Judith’s own subjectivity has broken even the physical structure of his castle.

Chohi Kim and Tobin’s music itself is built from a balanced palette of hypnotic, cyclical vocal ostinati, lyrical aria duets, earthy classically-structured cello lines, atmospheric electronic manipulation of acoustic phenomena (bowed and rubbed metal, amplified water, rubbing a steel wool-like substance over a microphone) and aggressive metallic percussion (throwing metal objects into a resonant tin). The music is very clearly workshopped, organically developed to flow between performers. It breathes. When the singers do let their full bel canto powers unfurl a few feet from audience members after such restraint, the effect is either hair-raising or paralyzingly beautiful, or perhaps both.

To do service to Bartok, in the original, Judith is hardly a two-dimensional opera character. Neither larger nor smaller than life, Bartok’s Judith is nervy, exhibiting both love and strength and moving Bluebeard with her agency: “I will dry these dripping walls. With my lips, I will dry them. I will warm the cold stone. With my body, I will warm it… together we will overcome these walls… I will have no doors closed to me.”

But of course, by the end, she pays with her life for these transgressions and assumptions of power. In Bartok’s version, Judith may temporarily exercise the power to open doors, but Bluebeard himself is still the defining palace in which her dramas unfold and ultimately end.

In Unseal Unseam, Bluebeard himself is all but erased. Judith is the setting and the actors, the past and the present. In some ways, she seems even more victimized. She is reacting in relation to Bluebeard’s castle, but his personage seems melted into the furniture, a memory she is trying to expunge. At one point, two Judiths appear and she sings to herself disconnectedly about her body, as if trying to gain power over her own objectification. As composers Micaela Tobin and Chohi Kim explained, “…we wanted to re-focus the story on Bluebeard’s wife Judith, and make it about how she was unlocking–unsealing, the doors to her own story… In our version, Judith eventually unlocks the door that reveals her true self, and finds the empowerment and self-love she needs to walk through the final door out of her psychological purgatory.

Was the project effective? Nearly all the audience members seemed moved afterward, and it’s hard to imagine that the dazzling impact of the visual effects could have been lost on anyone. Judith didn’t seem as completely freed from her bondage as the composers might have hoped, but there are things more authentic than an effectively happy ending. Quietly undergirding the entire project was the testimony of actual domestic violence survivors. Composers Micaela Tobin and Sharon Chohi Kim note, “Shannon, Sharon, and I decided that the design and structure … needed to be informed by the truths of actual survivors of domestic violence… every prop, color, and texture you witnessed in this production came from the anonymous answers to our questions.”  The project may not have completely succeeded in transmuting pain into power, but such a success is almost never achieved. More viscerally present, and perhaps more important, were chilling intimacies of abuse which were recognizable, disturbing at a level we almost never choose to experience, and like Bartok’s, not easily forgotten.

 

Hocket and Friends in Pasadena

On Saturday, September 30, 2017 People Inside Electronics presented HOCKET along with special guests Vicki Ray, Aron Kallay and Derek Tywoniuk at the historic Throop Church in Pasadena. The varied program included a world premiere by Samuel Wells, a minimalist landmark work by Steve Reich from 1970, and an unusual piece for three toy pianos. The auditorium was filled to capacity for the first People Inside Electronics concert of the fall season.

The first part of the concert was given over to the world premiere of The Lacuna (2017), by Samuel Wells. HOCKET – Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff – were seated at the piano while the composer manned a computer behind the audience. Soft, dreamy electronics filled the stage to open the piece. A strong chord marked the entrance of the piano, followed by a series of sparse notes adding to the solitary, remote feeling coming from the electronics. The four hands of HOCKET soon began producing a great profusion of notes from the piano, accompanied by the sound of lapping water. As the piano went silent for a moment, a more tentative and uncertain feeling prevailed as if we were standing on some distant shore. A series of softly repeating arpeggios then began in the piano – reprocessed by the computer and echoed through the speakers – and this was very effective in creating a quiet, settled feeling. At length the piano became more rapidly active and a sort of conversation ensued with the electronic reprocessing of the acoustic sounds.

At one point a dance-like groove broke out, growing in volume and generating a pleasantly warm feeling, much welcomed after the prior remoteness. The cycle of emotions continued, sometimes animated and with counterpoint, sometimes hopeful and at other times dramatic and anxious. The piano and electronic processing were amazingly well-coordinated, each complimenting the other to generate a wide range of expressive sensations. The electronics became a natural partner to the excellent playing by Hocket, even in the fastest and most intricate stretches. The Lacuna is a cutting edge work that does much to validate the capability of electronic reprocessing when joined in real time with skilled piano playing.

qsqsqsqsqqqqqqqqq (2009) by Tristan Perich followed the intermission and three toy pianos equipped with three-channel 1-bit tones were occupied by Vicki Ray, Kotcheff and Gibson. They opened with an unexpectedly bright and vivid sound, full of rapid passages and precise counterpoint that filled the space with a pleasingly playful energy. The 1-bit electronics augmented the normally modest dynamics of the toy pianos, adding a whimsical arcade game sensibility. There was some minimalist DNA in all of this, but the phrasing was more compact and the harmonic changes more engagingly frequent. Intricate layers of notes poured forth from the players, with sudden stops and grand pauses sprinkled throughout. All of this was skillfully performed, a feat made more remarkable by the cramped postures necessitated by sitting at the small instruments. qsqsqsqsqqqqqqqqq is a surprisingly attractive and inventive piece for unlikely musical forces, delivered with precision and style by HOCKET and Ms. Ray.

Orizzonte (2004) by Missy Mazzoli for solo piano and electronics was next, performed by Gibson. A clear, slowly pulsing tone issued from the speakers to begin, followed by a series of single piano notes that were close in pitch to that of the electronics. Open chords were soon heard in the piano producing a somber feel and as the piece proceeded the phrases by Ms. Gibson turned more complex and darkly dramatic. The playing here was satisfyingly expressive as the texture gradually became more dense and colored by variations in the dynamics. The piano wove intricate passages in and around the electronic tone which remained more or less constant in pitch and timbre. The simple electronics proved to be surprisingly effective as the foundation for the strongly plaintive mood. Orizzonte artfully combines skilled playing with a straightforward electronic accompaniment in a way that augments each to the benefit of the whole.

Musique de Tables (1987) by Thierry De Mey contained three solid tablets equipped with contact mics on a narrow table. Ray, Gibson and Kotcheff were seated so that their hands, fists and fingers could easily contact the surface of the tablet. The auditorium was completely darkened and the players wore LED head lamps so that the motion of their hands was highlighted as they performed. All of the possibilities of hands and fingers on a flat surface were adroitly explored in this piece, often with striking results. There was, of course, drumming with all three players in unison or separately weaving complex passages and this was often reminiscent of a marching band drum line. There was the tapping of fingers and pounding with fists. There was rubbing of palms and scratching on the surface of the tablets as well as hands clapping, all making for an effective contrast with the more dominant percussive sounds. In the darkness it often felt as if we were witnessing some primal ceremony in a remote village. Musique de Tables is a wonderfully imaginative piece made all the more impressive by the simplicity of the materials, the staging and the ingenious lighting.

The final work on the program was Four Organs (1970) by Steve Reich. Vicki Ray and Aron Kallay joined HOCKET at keyboards on a table in the center of the audience. Derek Tywoniuk began the piece with a steady and continuous eighth-note pulse from two maracas. Four Organs is early Reich, and it was one of his first pieces to be performed for a large audience at a concert by the Boston Symphony in 1971. In his book Writings on Music, Reich wrote that Four Organs was “…composed exclusively of the gradual augmentation of individual tones within a single chord. From the beginning to the end there are no changes of pitch or timbre; all changes are rhythmic and simply consist of gradually increasing durations.” The process-driven feel of this piece is immediately apparent from the beginning and it slowly unfolds with an unrelenting rigor. As the pitches lengthened, the chord took on a sort of grandeur as the tones were allowed to ring out. The playing by all was both accurate and disciplined as Four Organs uncoiled along its deliberate course – a nice reminder of the early days of minimalism.

People Inside Electronics continues to explore the many possibilities of acoustic and electronic collaboration in ways that consistently create good music. Their concert will be Sunday, October 15, 2017 at the Throop Church and will feature cellist Ashley Bathgate.

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.