First things first: this is a beautiful record.
The Diagenesis Duo is comprised of soprano Heather Barnes and cellist Jennifer Bewerse. Ms. Barnes and Ms. Bewerse have been performing as a duo since 2011. Though I have been familiar with both excellent musicians for some time, I was not aware of this particular configuration until I was asked to review this record. Together, they are magnificent.
A duo of voice and cello, you say? Perhaps you’re thinking, “what an odd, if interesting, combination?!” Indeed, there is undeniably a surfeit of music for voice and piano, especially soprano and piano. So much so that the Los Angeles-based unSUNg concert series (a fine one, that showcases LA living composers) specifically requested compositions that were NOT for soprano and piano. While certainly fewer in number than voice/piano offerings, there are of course more than a handful of works for voice and various other instruments. But I can’t recall when, if ever, I’ve heard music for voice and cello. If there was any doubt as to the viability of such an ensemble, this record should lay them to rest.
Hands and Lips of Wind presents the music of 4 composers: Mischa Salkind-Pearl, Harrison Birtwistle, Stephen Lewis, and Adam Scott Neal.
The album is bookended by two movements of Mischa Salkind-Pearl’s Hands and Lips of Wind, whence comes the album’s title. The text of these two movements are poems, in English translation, by Octavio Paz. The composer describes his piece thus:
Octavio Paz’ poems often display enormously evocative imagery contained in few words. I wanted to bring that spirit to my setting of the five poems in this piece. In particular, these poems move effortlessly between images of light and darkness, motion and stillness. These ideas are potentially very musical. My settings approach the poems as complete entities, emphasizing the prevailing affect of each poem.
The opening track, In the Lodi Gardens, is a meditation on this New Delhi garden, park, and burial place. (Paz lived in India when he was the Mexican ambassador to that country in 1962-68.) The music itself, thankfully, in my opinion, does not invoke anything Indian, per se – if anything it reminds me of Hebrew cantorial – but evokes, through Ms. Barnes’ powerful singing, an omnipotent goddess, both warning and welcoming. It is a glorious and intrepid introduction to the power, but also the emotional range of her vocal prowess.
The next work is 9 Settings of Lorine Niedecker, by the English composer Harrison Birtwistle. Birtwistle sets these epigrammatic poems in equally pithy, epigrammatic, at times enigmatic fashion. (Most of the nine movements are under one minute in length, with the longest timing out at two minutes and twenty-four seconds.) They are delicate, at times humorous, and rich settings quite worthy of their careful, sensitive, personal texts. Ms. Niedecker, for those unfamiliar with her work (I had never heard of her), was an American poet, who lived from 1903 until 1970. She was a member of the Objectivist poets (who are not related to the work or quasi-philosophical movement of the same name associated with Ayn Rand and other self-serving greedy bastards.) The Objectivists were influenced by Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, among others. The scale of these works can’t help but remind one of the compositions of Webern and Schoenberg, specifically, in the case of the latter, the Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19. The harmonic language is, obviously, quite different. But the overall cadence, the clarity of lines, the power of both the sounds and the silences, create a similar presence and emotional impact.
Next is the three-movement Con Mortuis In Lingua Mortua by Stephen Lewis. As its title (with the dead in a dead language) might suggest, it is an eerie trip to an underworld of foreboding spirits. It is not offputting, not at all, but rather invites us to tread, however carefully, along unknown paths. I can’t help but think of it as a musical equivalent of a Haunted House, where we feel a mix of excitement and fear. We know, or at least try to remind ourselves, that the danger is not real, but we can’t help but be at least a bit afraid. The three movements, Wail, Marche Funèbre, and Totentanz are of diverse character, but all showcase the precision and emotional range of the performers.
Con Mortuis In Lingua Mortua is followed by Adam Scott Neal’s five-movement work, Travels. There is a time-honored tradition of various literary works portraying a character who wanders, seeks, encounters a wide range of situations and personages. (Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince, even Partch’s Barstow, immediately come to mind.) So here, as in the work of others, we meet a traveler and his meditations on his encounters. The five movements begin with The Universe, and end with The Horizon. I particularly like the order as it resists a more cliché progression from the small to the grandiose and eternal. If anything, it is the opposite. While I suppose it could work in either direction, given the personal, modest and inward quality of much of Travels’ music, I found this order of presentation much more satisfying. A small detail, small but worthy of mention, would be the extended techniques in the third movement, The Wayfarer. These techniques are few and rather modest, just a few tongue clicks, breathy quasi-whistles and some percussive knocks on the body of the cello. Subtle though they may be, I must say, their presence is still strong and immediately felt. I’m loathe to say anything negative at all, but once I heard these sounds I realized that I could have easily taken in some more non-traditional sounds.
The last track is the final movement from the work of Salkind-Pearl’s Hands and Lips of Winds, the first composition of the album. This movement is another setting of Paz, this time his Nightfall. It may be my favorite track, though with so many good works here, it’s really hard to say. This setting is an austere, surgically careful nest of transparent, delicate pitch manipulations, a slowly downward-cascading acoustic construction, with dissonances harsh yet delicious, that give vivid sonic life to the dark, evocative poetry. The piece, and the album, end as a nightfall extinguishes the light of day:
A bird falls,
The grass grows dark,
Edges blur, lime is black,
The world is less credible.
Allow me to say it again: Hands and Lips of Wind is a beautiful record. The singing and playing, are sensitive, precise and, more importantly, inspired. It is rife with poetry, in the best senses of the word, from the texts themselves to the composers’ settings of those texts, to the interpretations of Ms. Barnes’ voice and Ms. Bewerse’s gorgeous cello lines. This music demands your concentration, to be sure. But if you give it that, if you let yourself focus and then fall into the sounds that wash over you, your efforts will be wonderfully rewarded.
With election day just a week away, Tuesdays@Monk Space offered Midterms: This Will Hurt Someone, a concert program devoted to contemporary music with a political viewpoint.
Grab it, by Jacob TV opened the show, preceded by a recorded track of coarse street talk that blended into an equally angry video. The four hands of HOCKET accompanied, and the raw stream of words was perfectly matched by a dense and powerful outpouring of piano notes. The music reflected the passionate resentment of those caught up in the wheels of a system intent on punishing the small time street criminal. Scenes of prison life and enraged inmates gave way at the finish to a hymn-like stretch that spoke hopefully of a life reclaimed after incarceration. Grab it is a stark reminder of the failings of American justice and how it perpetuates a violent underclass.
This Will Hurt Someone, by the late Matt Marks followed, arranged by pianist Thomas Kotcheff who accompanied vocalist Gregory Fletcher. The text for this piece is the final statement of R. Bud Dwyer, State Treasurer of Pennsylvania, asserting his innocence upon conviction of bribery in 1987. The music has an easy, sweet feel, and the entrance of a toy piano played by Sarah Gibson added a childlike innocence to the words. Fletcher sang calmly and gently, navigating the higher registers with a steady confidence. The music turned darker at times with lines such as “But in this nation, the world’s greatest democracy, there is nothing they can do to prevent me from being punished for a crime I did not commit.” Yet the placid character of the music continued, underlining the disconnect between the reality of conviction and Dwyer’s enduring sense of innocence. “This will hurt someone” were the last words spoken by Dwyer before committing suicide on-camera during the press conference. This piece is Matt Marks’ testament to an often misplaced confidence in our judicial system.
Counterpundit by Ian Dicke was next, a work that for piano and video performed by Aron Kallay. This opened with a quietly introspective piano line that attained a nostalgic sensibility at times. As the tempo increased, the music became more active and the video displayed a flag waiving in the breeze. Strong percussive beats were heard on the sound track of the video as the images became halting and choppy. As the piece proceeded, images of Hulk Hogan became increasingly intermingled with the flag until the video was dominated by wrestling personalities striking patriotic poses. Counterpundit was written during the 2016 election campaign and is an astute observation of how spectacle has replaced reasoned political discourse. The outcome of the election and the subsequent behavior of the present administration only amplifies Dicke’s central premise from 2016. The piece ended with a quiet introspective feel that seemed to be longing for a return to a more enlightened past.
Following the intermission Tonality, a ten-voice choir that specializes in music about justice issues, took the stage to perform “Her beacon-hand beckons”, the third movement of Caroline Shaw’s To the Hands. Lush four-part harmonies filled Monk Space with beautiful a cappella sounds and a peaceful sentiment. This perfectly matched the text, a freely paraphrased version of the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. The final line, “I will be your refuge…”, was particularly moving.
Philosophy of Furniture, by Natalie Dietterich followed, performed by speaking percussionist Derek Tywoniuk. A video projected a series of statements – ostensibly on the ideology of interior decoration and fashion – accompanied by loud, primal drum strokes. Tywoniuk shouted out the texts as they appeared on the screen, punctuating them with booming blasts and sharp raps. The contrast with the previous piece could not have been greater and the thunderous percussion created a compelling emphasis on the otherwise mundane stream words on the screen. The drift of the argument seemed to be that contemporary taste is overly influenced by money so that expensive furniture invariably acquired a higher status. “We proceed on false principals and imagine we have done a fine thing…” All of this unfurled seamlessly and Tywoniuk’s dexterity of was on full display as he attended to the many percussive elements while shouting out the spoken words at the correct instant. The text then took a most interesting turn. By describing the same processes that are at work in fashion, money was shown to similarly exert a decisive leverage on one’s political opinion. Philosophy of Furniture combines the quiet of subtle reasoning with explosive percussion to make a telling point.
Two pieces from widely known contemporary composers completed the concert program. “Which Side are you on?” the second movement of Four North American Ballads by Frederic Rzewski, began with a recorded vocal rendition of a Harlan County miners’ protest song. Rzewski’s take on the song, arranged for piano, followed immediately, full of strong chords and a sturdy texture that was ably realized by Thomas Kotcheff. The complexity and power of the music seemed to increase with each variation on the simple folk tune, filling the cozy Monk Space with a robust militancy and ending with a vigorous crescendo that drew cheers from the audience. Tonality closed the concert with Make Peace by David Lang, a composer known for his sensitivity and a strong sense of empathy. The close harmonies and delicate balance in the music were complimented by the house acoustics and excellent intonation by the singers. Make Peace was a gracefully tranquil ending to an often raucous examination of our current politics through contemporary music.
Midterms: This will Hurt Someone was a carefully curated and timely collection of diverse musical commentary on our political culture.
In an era marked by emphasis on thematic programming, sometimes it seems the theme counts more than the music, or that the music serves the theme. When all goes well, however, a theme can lend insight and bring pieces together synergistically, where they are better together than apart.
The latter is what happens on Nadia Shpachenko‘s new CD, Quotations and Homages. Noticing that some of her favorite composers had written pieces based on existing music, she conceived of a program to celebrate the practice of composing with quotation. The next step was to select the right repertoire, and to commission the rest.
“I approached composers I know and like and commissioned the music to fit this programming concept,” explained Shpachenko on the program’s genesis.
The result was a body of works that simultaneously looks backward and forward—a program that honors existing traditions while venturing forth into new terrains of composition.
Opening the recording with an uplifting brilliance–by turns motoric and ecstatic–Tom Flaherty’s Rainbow Tangle draws on the seventh movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, which “immediately came to mind” when Shpachenko commissioned the work. Flaherty transforms the gentle waves of Messiaen’s piano writing into a mosaic of rapid-fire repeated notes, interspersed with rapturous chordal outpourings. Electronics heighten the piano part and add unexpected dimension, much as that of the original quartet’s instrumentation.
The program takes a turn for the dark and stormy in Missy Mazzoli’s Bolts of Loving Thunder, an offshoot of the Rhapsody in G minor by Brahms. Recounting her own “enthused but sloppy” renditions of the work as a developing pianist, Mazzoli draws on many of the same gestures Brahms used in the Rhapsody: chordal crashes, energetic surges of arpeggiation, and flurries of tremolando activity. A unique statement emerges, at once Mazzoli’s, yet clearly welling up from the work’s guiding source material–a kind of séance of Brahms through music.
Next up, Peter Yates’s Epitaphs and Youngsters, proves how dynamic and flexible Shpachenko’s homage concept turns out to be. The work contrasts in mood and means with the preceding music, and that to follow. Generally introspective, the work draws on varying musical styles to convey the essence of figures important to Yates, in this case, John Muir, W. C. Fields, Glenn Gould, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Shpachenko intones text quotes in a lyrical sprechstimme with feeling and understanding. The artwork of Shpachenko’s own sons also served as inspiration, hence the “youngsters” in the work’s title.
In another commission by Shpachenko, Vera Ivanova’s Six Fugitive Memories reflects on a range of piano repertoire in a collage of six short movements. Ivanova cleverly reinterprets essential fragments by Debussy and Satie (whose music coalesces like two colliding galaxies in “Debutie”), Prokofieff, György Kurtág, Morton Feldman, and Galina Ustvolskaya at her most formidable.
In a reverse palette-cleanser of sorts, Nick Norton’s startlingly compact work, Piano Piece for Mr. Carter’s 100th Birthday, iterates every note on the piano exactly once. The highly virtuosic work of nine seconds in length effectively divides the album down the middle, sending the second half off in an energetic burst of raw pianistic power.
Taking the album down a surreal turn, Adam Borecki’s Accidental Mozart injects a healthy dose of humor with his terse variation set after Mozart’s Sonata Facile, K. 545. Each variation is inspired by an alcoholic beverage (never mind that most who play the Mozart are underage), including Dirty Martini, Cheap Boxed Wine, and Absinthe. Borecki conveys the spirit of each drink in vivid musical depictions, proving that homage need not be serious. Shpachenko has performed the work with a slideshow of clever pop-art slides to accompany each variation. The slideshow adds significantly to the work, but even as audio alone the work belongs on the disc and including it was the right decision. Shpachenko’s sensitive rubato and probing creativity fill the gap of missing visual cues.
The genius of this album is in its effortless flow. Each work follows naturally from one to the next. Though unified by the common theme of homage, each piece is wholly individual and unrelated to the others, enabling continuous listener attention.
Daniel Felsenfeld contributed in an area heretofore untouched on the album: rock, with all its drive and defiance. The seventies band Velvet Underground served as impetus for his Down to You is Up, where Felsenfeld channels the spirit of his younger years driving the streets of Los Angeles while listening to the subversive band. The work, and Shpachenko’s committed rendering, satisfy in the visceral sense expected of rock at its best.
Shpachenko is joined by top pianists in their own right (Genevieve Feiwen Lee, Vicki Ray, Aron Kallay, Sarah Gibson, and Thomas Kotcheff) for the final two numbers on the disk.
James Matheson’s Bagatelle commemorates Beethoven, composer of many bagatelles, though here it is the Eroica symphony that provides the quotation vocabulary. Perhaps also an homage to Sonata form, the piece “pulls apart, recontextualizes, stacks, and layers” the quoted music, and does so on a distinctly Beethovenian scale: 6 pianists on 3 pianos.
The album concludes impactfully and intuitively in a work by Tom Flaherty, his Igor to Please. Commemorating Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the work stems from the famous “Augurs of Spring” chord, but only hints at it. A work as inherently diverse as the album itself, it is scored for six pianists on two pianos, two toy pianos, and electronics.
Though derived from the Rite, Flaherty’s Igor bears little resemblance to the music of Stravinksy. Instead, it conjures the macabre world of pagan Russia and its barbaric springtime rituals in a way that resonates with contemporary ears. Utilizing differing musical languages and very different musical forces, the two composers attained similar achievements: to edify, dazzle, perhaps trouble, and certainly please.
Quotations and Homages undoubtedly comes at great effort on Shpachenko’s part. The concept is creative, the program well constructed, and Shpachenko’s pianism is of the highest caliber. The recording is sure to remain a mainstay of the contemporary discography for posterity.
Quotations and Homages is available on Reference Recordings at referencerecordings.com/recording/quotations-homages and from all major online music retailers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
Happy Valley Band’s debut album, ORGANVM PERCEPTVS, is described as a virtuosic decomposition and reconstruction of the Great American Songbook. Think of it as American Classics + The 21st Century. In this album, you will hear a microtonal version of “You Make Me Feel,” a distorted funk version of “Like a Virgin,” and a crunchy, grungy, middle-school band-esque take on “Jungle Boogie” that I am convinced is an actual recording of my high school’s pep band at a snowy football game when every brass instrument detuned after five minutes out of their cases. This album is fresh, deceptive, and insanely fun to listen to.
ORGANVM’s raison d’être is to encourage the listeners to examine biases and expectations. For example, we all know “Ring of Fire.” Listening to “Ring of Fire” that’s been put through a learning algorithm is a different experience. This is not just covering or reimagining music. This is hearing music as machines hear and interpret music. The artistic license is not so much an artist’s personal flair as it is their personal algorithm choice and process.
Love it or hate it, this is the age of algorithmic music and computers creating art from intelligent programs. I’ve heard some crazy things come from algorithms, some of which I loved. It often boils down to what the composer wants the algorithm to accomplish, lest ye worry about a lack of human musicians in our future. David Kant, the head composer and director of the Happy Valley Band, says in liner notes, “We should use machines to hear differently, not to reinforce our expectations – because whose expectations are they anyway?” Don’t hate the process, hate the preconceived notions and preferences. Or something like that.
David Kant also confronts the notion of intellectual property in the perspective of deconstruction and manipulation. If anything can be extracted, sampled, reworked, and replicated, then is the result The Thing-Changed, or A Different-Thing? By rooting itself in familiar territory and turning these songs on their heads, ORGANVM gives us a glimpse through the looking glass.
The Happy Valley Band is in LA on April 29th at Human Resources. You can check out more on ORGANVM PERCEPTVS here at Indexical’s website, and the sale options via bandcamp (digital download album or 12″ vinyl plus booklet) are here.
Choral Arts Initiative’s debut album, out today, features the works of LA-composer Dale Trumbore; the bulk of it is dedicated to the composer’s secular requiem, How to Go On. I was lucky enough to be at the premiere performance of this work, and was deeply moved by its wisdom, quiet strength, and feeling. As such, I was excited to spend more time with it. In its entirety, the album tackles the universal questions of mortality and the challenges of life’s journey – no easy undertaking, but one that Trumbore takes on with elegance and grace (and, importantly, without making things too heavy). Choral Arts Initiative, a non-profit choral organization under the direction of Brandon Elliott, successfully convey its powerful messages. Their talented performance achieves that delicate balance of strength and fragility.
Contemporary poet Barbara Crooker asks a simple question: “How can we go on / Knowing the end of the story?” This question is the germinating seed of the eight-movement requiem, as Trumbore seeks to find an answer – or, perhaps, to ask more questions (can we ever really find an answer?). Movement 1, How, is set to the text of this question. It features rising clusters, increasing in dissonance and culminating in a sublime stacked harmony, which leaves the listener with a sense of reverence for the unknown. The altos and sopranos continue this sentiment in the next movement, However Difficult, (set to text by Laura Foley). This is juxtaposed by the tenors and basses, who ground us with the message that however difficult life may be, it is still yours, and there is solace to be found in this simple truth. Movement 3 (To See It) feels like a warm blanket, its soft lines unfolding delicately over a quiet, soothing drone and holding the listener in close. CAI delivers this text (again by Foley) with patience, warmth, and sincerity.
Movement 4 (Relinquishment) is where the pacing begins to quicken. The growth and decay in dynamics, orchestration, shifting tempo, and harmony reflect a larger metaphor for the cyclical nature of life and death – learning “how to give it up again and again.” The following movement is similar in theme, but where Relinquishment calmly beckons, Requiescat is more direct in its urgency. It represents a larger gamut of emotions – from the peace of spring rain to the fury of earth and fire – and makes us confront the concept of mortality head-on. More questions lead us to the final movement, a calm acceptance of our ultimate fate, that culminates in a musical meditation to allow us the space to reflect.
The remaining pieces on the album are some of Trumbore’s earlier works, which further showcase her ability as a choral composer (and pianist, in the case of In the Middle). Embedded in these pieces are moral tales of some of life’s many challenges, from our need to connect with others to the feeling after a storm has passed. Combined with How to Go On, these works tell a complete story of life and death, acceptance and defeat, and growth and decay. They remind us that life is about the journey, and that questions are often more important than answers.