Pheromone, the third solo recording by San Francisco-area new music flutist Meerenai Shim, is a fine collection of new electroacoustic works, all but one of which were commissioned for this recording. The six compositions encompass their composers’ individual approaches to integrating the flute with electronics of various types, and reflect Shim’s own genre-challenging, eclectic engagement with new music.
The opening track, composer Eli Fieldsteel’s Fractus III Aerophoneme for flute and live electronics, is the one piece not written specifically for Shim. Nevertheless, from its stark first notes, whose breathy timbre and microtonality are somehow reminiscent of the shakuhachi, she makes it her own through a forceful, momentum-gathering interpretation enhanced by the electronics’ computer-generated sonic shadows. Here as in other pieces, Shim shows an affinity for lyrical playing that recalls folksong in its phrasing and hinted-at modality.
Other highlights include Huge Blank Canvas Neck Tattoo, Gregory C. Brown’s work for alto flute and Ableton Live loops. Here the interaction between Shim’s live and sampled lines builds up a cumulative, rhythmically-informed structure that at times takes on the appearance of a kind of virtual chamber ensemble. Douglas Laustsen’s 60.8% for bass flute and electronics was written during the lead-up to the 2014 elections in Greece. Explicitly referring to events outside of itself, the work is concerned with Greek travails and resilience in recent and historical form: The title represents the highest unemployment rate for Greek youth during the country’s recent economic crises, while the musical substance was inspired by rebetiko, a kind of Greek urban folk song of hardship and resistance that flourished during the first third of the last century. Shim’s performance evokes the grain of the human voice, while the modal, microtonally-informed melody and asymmetrical rhythms point to the rebetiko’s deep heritage in Ottoman sources.
The recording also includes two pieces for piano (played by Australian pianist Jacob Abela), flute and electronics: Emma O’Halloran’s aurally sumptuous Penciled Wings and Isaac Schankler’s Pheromone, in which overlaid flute and piano chase their own echoes in a decelerating game of aural tag. The closing track, the brief Etude for contrabass flute and T183+ calculator by Matthew Joseph Payne, is a good-natured, propulsive piece that allows Shim to riff like a bass guitar in a stylized funk-rock band.
We receive many review requests. In order to increase the amount of material we cover, capsule reviews are short reflections on recent releases of note.
Kohoutek – Curious Aroma (2015; MIE)
With a name like Kohoutek, one immediately thinks of Sun Ra and space music. This Washington D.C. based group falls squarely into the domain of the latter. The album consists of two tracks, 18 and 24 minutes respectively, both the result of studio improv. Drawing on a Krautrock vibe, the first track features atmospherics with quiet electronics and found object percussion providing a base layer for picked electric guitar. The second piece adds another guitar and slowly builds to a jam session featuring a drum kit and dueling fuzzed-out guitars. Electronics and effects take a secondary role. An interesting release, reminiscent of Ash Ra Temple, with more than a hint of British psychedelia.
Guitarist McManus and bassist Hebert are well-traveled in the New York creative improv scene, the former of the Gerry Hemingway Quintet, Kermit Driscoll group, and Herb Robertson, the latter of the Fred Hersch Trio, Uri Caine Trio, and Andrew Hill. This is their debut as a duo, a release that covers quite a bit of ground. McManus’s playing has some similarities to the cleanly-picked outside lines of Joe Morris, but with less overt aggression. Whether plucking or bowing, Hebert is up and down the bass. As a result, the listener is never quite sure where the next note is going to come from, nor the direction that each piece will take. A representative track is It’s Always Something, where Hebert takes the lead and McManus provides delay-driven atmospherics until the bass settles into an ending drone.
Machinefabriek with Anne Bakker – Deining (2015; Bandcamp)
The process used for making the 26-minute drone-based effort is almost as interesting as the music itself. As stated by the artists, violinist Anne Bakker bowed “each string of her instrument while sliding slowly from the lowest note to the highest, in exactly 5 minutes.” Then this process was repeated in reverse. As a result, Deining has four discernible parts, one for each string, though these parts run together. After layering the violin tracks, electronic processing took place to add synthetic drones, waves, and effects. Needless to say, the slowly-evolving pitches bring a certain amount of sustained tension to the recording, which is not released until about one minute remains. At that point, a low-volume interlude of structured static concludes the album.
Incongruously, Powertrio, the Portuguese new music/improvisational ensemble of harpist Eduardo Roan, pianist Joana Sá and classical guitarist Luis Martins, take the generic name of rock music’s heaviest configuration. Incongruously because the sound of the group is the antithesis of the loud, often heavy-handed sonic assault of a typical rock power trio. In fact Roan, Sá and Martins, who formed Powertrio in 2007, create often delicate, shimmeringly beautiful surfaces of sound that put to best use the family resemblances of plucked, struck and strummed strings.
From the first track, À flor do mal, the bright timbres of guitar and harp lend a characteristic tone that will color much of the release through various reworkings and filterings. O nervo e a outra dança moves into more contrastive territory, with a carillon-like chiming sound underscoring the piece and playing off the creaking and scraping sounds that arise within its framework. The mood is largely pensive, marked by suspended time and the sometimes surprising dramatic development of rising and falling dynamics. Di lontan fa specchio il mare, an arrangement of a work by Portuguese composer/pianist Constança Capedeville (1937-1992), holds interlocking melodic cells in a now overt, now covert state of tension. This austerely lovely piece is deliberately paced, with each note seemingly weighed and pondered before being allowed to sound. The closing Divertimento lightens the atmosphere with brief and rapid bursts of notes—resembling at times a fractured flamenco—that suggest a dance of halting steps growing bolder and more percussively assured.
Heather Leigh’s new album is a progression in sound and intensity, showcasing first her vocal talent before gradually letting loose with the extreme noise coming from her amplified pedal steel guitar that she’s perhaps most famous for. This album is her most song-based, lyrically oriented album to date. She’s had a smattering of solo albums over the years, as well as having worked with Charalambides and Christina Carter (in the duo known as Scorces), and featured in the bands Taurpis Tula and Jailbreak.
The album opens with the title track, a gently sung folk tune with eerie backing vocals, despite the disturbing title. “Quicksand,” the album’s second of six tracks, consists of a slightly more powerful vocal and introduces her guitar work in a fashion that’s raw but still comparatively tender. This builds up to the third track, “All That Heaven Allows,” a sonic workout that pushes the pedal steel beyond where the listener expects it to go. It’s slightly reminiscent of Zeena Parkins’ amplified harp playing on her album No Way Back, but with even less restraint.
By way of respite, “Passionate Reluctance” brings Leigh back to folkish, gentle singing, and the closer, “Fairfield Fantasy,” eschews the extreme noise for a more expressive style of playing that, with its woozy tonal shifts, is pleasantly disorienting.
This album marks a break from the side-long noise workouts Leigh is known for, both solo and with her dueling partner, drummer Chris Corsano, in Jailbreak, as well as a split from the experimental all-vocal album Cuatro. It shows significant growth and confidence as a songwriter, and, while the earlier material is definitely worth either checking out or returning to, I Abused Animal is a step in an exciting direction.
Christian di Vito is an experimental composer who lists Xenakis, Ligeti and Scelsi as primary influences. Listening to Battimuro, it is Giacinto Sclesi (1905-88), who made a huge impression in the early sixties with pieces sticking rigorously to a single note, who comes most readily to mind, as di Vito stands straight and tall and conducts wind and sea.
A warm, steady breeze, barely rippling the air, gusting just enough to disturb the uppermost fronds on the palm trees, is punctuated by a single wave that repeatedly rolls in, but never out again. Di Vito´s ambient drone is deceptively, amiably layered. Resist its somniferous effect or you will miss the play of gradually shifting colors. And then, more than halfway through Battimuro´s forty-seven minutes, a more drastic shift, as di Vito errs ever-so-slightly on the side of atonal, forcing frigid air to play icicles as though they were a calliope. A long organ croon is sustained, festooned and garlanded, until it ebbs out. Not a footprint is left on the beach. Or is it, in the snow?
The Tortoise is the record of Seattle composer/sound artist Nat Evans’ five-month-long walk up the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2600 mile north-south track that runs the length of the US west coast from the Canadian border to the Mexican border. Starting at the southern end and finishing at the northern end, Evans took field recordings during the journey and sent the files to eight composer/performers along the route. These latter in turn used the recordings as basis for their own compositions, which they then recorded and sent to Evans. This release is the collection of their pieces as well as Evans’ own work.
Five of the thirteen tracks are Evans’, performed by Neil Welch on saxophone, John Teske on double bass, Evan Smith on bass clarinet, and Evans himself on percussion and shruti box. For the most part, Evans’ compositions seem to imagine the music as an integral component of the landscape’s ambient sounds. His choice of sparse textures and restricted pitch material, often presented as long tones interspersed with long pauses, preserves open spaces for the field recordings to sound through. The musicians’ judicious use of dynamics and of microtones and multiphonics helps situate the music within the world of raw, untempered sounds as well.
The other tracks present diverse interpretations of the interrelationships between the field recordings and the individual composers’ own sensibilities. These range from Andrew Tholl’s serene, discreetly droning piece to Brenna Noonan’s aggressive work for saxophone and electronics. Also notable are Scott Worthington’s bowed open strings and harmonics for double basses in slow harmonic motion, Carolyn Chen’s piece in which zither and birdsong meet on equal terms, John Teske’s well-spaced drone notes for double bass and Hanna Benn’s tone poem for intermittently Satiesque piano.
Michiel Braam on piano and Bo van der Graaf on saxophones are the rigorous, vigorous Dutch duo Olanda in Due. They are brazen players, but with such a light touch – philosophically, if you will – and a genius for moving notes in space; they´re pretty funny, too (aside from the fact that it tickles me to no end that van der Graaf is a dead ringer for Larry Fine). They crawl between bar stools stealing drinks in small, smoky bars and raise a ruckus under big-top circus tents, romp with M. Hulot and characters out of Fellini and play Verdi as though it were written by Mickey Spillane. Among their own compositions, they slip in Eubie Blake´s “Memories of You” and a couple by their late friend Harry Banninck. They seem to love their audience and the feeling is mutual.