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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.

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