AMN Reviews: David Dunn – Verdant (2021; Neuma 129)

David Dunn’s works reflect his interests and research in acoustic ecology, bioacoustics, interspecies communication and scientific sonification.  These interests has enabled him to truly be an interdisciplinary artist. Dunn has produced a very unique body of work that blurs the line between art and science.

David Dunn’s latest piece is “Verdant” which he describes as a kind of pastoral motivated by his desire to speak to a more optimistic future. The material of “Verdant” is an intersection of ambient music, new tonality, minimalism, algorithmic composition, software synthesis, field recording, sound art, and drone music. It is a binaural piece in a single movement of about eighty minutes in length. “Verdant” was composed and recorded during the pandemic. The quietness caused by the pandemic allowed Dunn who is an expert wildlife recordist to capture some of the extremely low volume sounds of the desert. This microscopic desert audio soundscape is intertwined with slowly changing drones of sinewaves that float along with the ambient sounds of windchimes, sustained violin sounds, backyard birds and distant traffic to create a deep and wide imaginary soundscape.

 

“Verdant” is a wonderful active ambient pastoral. Since it is a binaural recording, it is best experienced with headphones or ear buds. My first listen was at a very moderate volume level and while I found the piece really interesting on the next several passes, I listened to it at a soft to very soft volume and then found it to be really captivating. So, I would highly recommend listening to this at a softer volume and really give it a deep listen. I think most if not all regular AMN readers will find this a very engaging and relaxing listen.

For those who want to explore more of Dunn’s work I would recommend starting with an excellent article by Madison Heying and David Kant from the Sound American issue dedicated to Dunn’s work. Dunn’s website also provides a detailed retrospective of the last thirty years of his work with a collection of his scores, writings, sounds and images.

Highly recommended!

Chris De Chiara

AMN Reviews: Harry Partch – The Bewitched (2021; Neuma 126) and U.S. Highball (2021; Neuma)

Many contemporary composers have been described as iconoclasts but few really are the rugged individualists they are often portrayed as being. Harry Partch(1901 – 1974) may be one of the rare exceptions. Influenced by his study and interpretation of ancient musical models, Partch decided to firmly break with the European musical tradition. He devised his own tuning system with a microtonal division of the octave into forty three notes and then designed and built a whole series of instruments to utilize his tuning. His music was influenced by ancient music, folk traditions from around the world and the dramatic inflections and gesturing of the human voice. His music does not have that “out of tune” quality that many often experience with microtonal music. This is largely due to Partch’s music being primarily based on rhythmic and melodic gestures rather than chord progressions surrounding a melody. Partch’s work was not just about his tuning system and his instruments, it was about his re-imagining of music itself.

Harry Partch commented that his work was like ancient ritual but in modern terms. He often used the word corporeal to describe his work and I have to admit that even after several decades of listening to his music that I didn’t really appreciate what that meant. It wasn’t until I watched a DVD of a performance of his piece “Delusion of Fury” that my appreciation of his work really started to click. For Partch, like many non-European cultures every aspect of the physical performance of his music was as important as the sonic result. I would recommend that readers take advantage of things like Vimeo and YouTube to see, as well as hear live staged performances of his work.

Partch wrote “The Bewitched”in the early 1950’s. He described it as a ballet satire. The piece has only been produced a few times. It is ten scenes based on everyday American life plus a prologue and epilogue. The story revolves around the idea that the world needs a serious dose of reality and that a witch goes around and appears in each of the scenes using her ancient magic to deliver a much needed bit of self-awareness to each of these everyday situations.

This recording of “The Bewitched” is a binaural recording from 1980 at the Berlin Festival. For full effect use your headphones or ear buds to get a sense of what it must have been like to be sitting in the audience for this performance.  As you can see from the video clip from this performance, the ensemble, the soloists and the dancers are all together on the same stage, all completely engaged in Partch’s ritual. And as you can hear the ensemble gave quite a spirited performance!

In addition to releasing “The Bewitched” Nuema has re-released a very rare recording of Partch’s “U.S. Highball”.  It is a work from 1943 and is the story of a transcontinental hobo trip set in Partch’s unique speech music style. It’s a story Partch knew well, as he lived the hobo lifestyle for many years. This recording of “U.S. Highball” is from 1946 and was originally released by Partch on his own label in an edition of 100 records on red vinyl. It’s a really interesting performance and a rare glimpse into one of Partch’s earliest works.  Both recordings are highly recommended !

Chris De Chiara

AMN Reviews: Quatuor Bozzini – Alvin Lucier: Navigations[2021; CQB 2128_NUM]

There have been many technical and technological innovations in music since 1945 but one of the most important aesthetic innovations has been in new ideas that focus on listening. Innovators like Pierre Schaeffer proposed the idea of reduced listening – an attitude in which sound is listened to for its own sake as a sound object, removed from its source. John Cage invited listeners to hear any sound as music. Pauline Oliveros encouraged listeners to actively experience all sounds through a practice she described as “deep listening”. These ideas all contributed to contemporary music’s focus on the experience of sound itself.

Alvin Lucier’s compositions and installations make use of sounds that are often the results of acoustic phenomena. His work focuses our attention and perception on the physical presence of sound interacting within a particular space. Performing Lucier’s compositions requires performers to learn to recognize, activate, play and interact with acoustic phenomena. The Quatuor Bozzini were clearly up for the challenge when they recorded “Alvin Lucier: Navigations”. The album opens with “Disappearances”, a piece that is a single note. That description may sound like it is minimalist to the extreme but to my ears it is a piece rich with development. You hear changes in weight and timbre as each string joins together in unison. The controlled motions of the string’s bows cause phasing and filtering of the sound. The tiny subtle changes in pitch causes beating which reveals pulsating difference tones. Each of these phenomena disappear into one another creating a feeling of movement and making the listener aware of the tiniest changes in pitch and timbre.

The album contains two realizations of “Group Tapper”, a piece that explores room acoustics by having the instrumentalists treat their instruments as percussion. The performers tap on their instruments in various places and reflect the sound coming from their instruments around the room. The recording engineer does a great job of making the room present on this album so that you can really hear how the group’s performance interacts with the room. Placed in between the two realizations of “Group Tapper” is for me the most striking piece on this recording, “Unamuno”.  The piece was inspired by early twentieth century Spanish writer  Miguel de Unamuno and it was originally written for voices. “Unamuno” is based around four pitches that are continuously arranged into different patterns. It has a probing and questioning kind of vibe to it. The Bozzini’s perform the piece with both strings and their voices. The result is absolutely stunning. 

The album finishes with “Navigations for Strings”. At a high level “Navigations for Strings” and “Unamuno” share some of the same types of ingredients. Both pieces are based on four pitches and both make use of slowly changing combinations and difference tones. However, despite these high level similarities the two pieces sound very different.  “Navigations for Strings” is a somewhat dark piece in which continuous changes in microtonality, dynamics and tempo create a sound mass that feels like it is becoming a stasis, but it’s continuous changes never allow it to rest. It is a very haunting piece.

With “Alvin Lucier: Naviagtions” the Quatuor Bozzini have gone well beyond the surface of Lucier’s scores and have totally embraced his challenge to performers to be sonic explorers. “Alvin Lucier: Naviagtions” is a wonderful album with captivating performances of one of the most original and innovative experimental composers of our time.

Highly Recommended!

Chris De Chiara

AMN Reviews: James Caldwell – Pocket Music (2021; Neuma 135)

“Pocket Music” is collection of suites of electroacoustic miniatures from composer James Caldwell.  Caldwell is Professor Emeritus at Western Illinois University (WIU). In addition to his teaching, Caldwell co-directed the annual New Music Festival at WIU where he programmed hundreds of new pieces by living composers. “Pocket Music” is his first portrait release and represents just one facet of his wide-ranging interests as a composer.

For this CD Caldwell’s compositions explore his sonic imagination with everyday items that are often found in his pockets. As he writes, “For more than twenty years I have pursued a sporadic project of making small musique concrète pieces. The original set used sounds I made with things I found in my pockets while working in the studio—coins, keys, plastic pill bottle, comb, paperback book, rubber band, and a screwdriver struck against a wrench. … As I returned to the project, I continued working with small found sounds, but not necessarily things from my pockets: ping-pong balls, a stapler, M&M’s,  binder clips, finger cymbals, a pencil run over the rungs on the back of a chair, dresser handles, the bag from a bunch of apples from the grocery store, a wine glass, and then — moving outside into my yard — cicadas, lawn furniture, garden stones in a wheelbarrow, birds, the distant rumble of the Macomb Speedway, and some odds and ends sitting around on my hard drive. Even as the objects became larger or farther from me, the pieces remained pocket size.”

Armed with his imagination and his computer Caldwell explores the various relationships between representation and abstraction with the object(s) he has chosen; sometimes imposing his compositional ideas on the object and other times led by his discovery of hidden sonic properties in the object itself. There is a great deal of variety amongst each of these miniatures. Some are very rhythmic, a few are very harmonic, others are more acousmatic. There is always a sense of both an idea and of playfulness in each of these pieces and that is what makes “Pocket Music” a really interesting listen. Recommended.

Chris De Chiara

AMN Reviews: The Return of Neuma Records

One of the more positive things that happened in 2020 was the relaunch of Neuma Records.  In 1988 Shirish Korde and Jerry Tabor launched the label. They built a catalog that included recordings of well known twentieth century composers such as Xenakis, Cage, Boulez, Messiaen, Nono, Scelsi  and Varese. But the catalog caught my attention in the early 90’s because it was releasing recordings of works by contemporary electroacoustic composers and recordings by performers who focused on the work of lesser known contemporary composers . The catalog includes works by Dashow, DeLio, Dodge, Gaburo, Johnston, Karpen, Lansky, Laske, Lippe, Martirano, Oliveros, Reynolds, Risset, Saariaho, Subotnick, Yuasa and many many more.

By the end of the 90’s Neuma’s release schedule had really become sparse. In 2020 the label relaunched with Philip Blackburn taking over. Blackburn is a composer who spent almost 30 years working at Innova Recordings. Innova focuses on assisting composers and performers through the recording, publication, marketing and distribution process. As a result, Innova has curated a diverse body of contemporary music spanning more than 650 albums. Blackburn has brought this assistive and curatorial approach to Neuma.

In December of 2020 Neuma released three new recordings. The first was from composer Wesley Fuller (1930-2020).  It is a nice collection of seven electroacoustic pieces for instruments and computer.

Fuller ‘s works skillfully blends acoustic instruments and computer generated sounds with a focus on gesture, shape and color.

The second release is from composer Robert Moran. It is a nice collection of eight diverse works for orchestra. On this album Moran’s work is primarily neoromantic with occasional minimalist tendencies.

The third release is a concert recording from 1967 of composer Kenneth Gaburo conducting the New Music Choral Ensemble in a diverse program of twentieth century choral music. This is a really interesting release. If you don’t have any contemporary choral music in your collection then this would be the disc to have. It is not hard to imagine that in 1967 very few people in the US had heard live performances of choral music by Luigi Nono, Anton Webern and Olivier Messiaen. But practically no one had heard any music, never the less choral music from Pauline Oliveros, Ben Johnston, Leslie Bassett, Charles Hamm and Robert Shallenberg. Under the direction of Kenneth Gaburo the New Music Choral Ensemble took on the extreme technical challenges of performing such a diverse and difficult program. The program’s compositions included everything from 12 tone serial music to 31 tone just intonation to graphic and descriptive notation to works with live and or prerecorded electronics! The spirited performances on this disc are extremely well done. Also included are two interesting electronic pieces by Gaburo that were used to allow the singers a short break in between some of the pieces on the program. I highly recommend that you give this album a listen!

As I was getting ready to post this, Neuma released several additional titles – Robert Moran’s opera “Buddha goes to Bayreuth”, Gina Biver’s “Nimbus” which is seven miniatures for electroacoustic chamber ensemble, spoken word and soprano voice, James Caldwell’s “Pocket music” a set of concreté miniatures made with “small” sounds usually of things found in his pockets, and Spanish composer Juan J.G. Escuerdo’s “Shapes of Inner Timespaces” a collection of eight acousmatic compositions. Perusing their online catalog today it looks like several more titles are being released in February including a recording of Harry Partch’s “The Bewitched” ! I am glad to see that Neuma is back and that Blackburn has established an aggressive release schedule of diverse contemporary music. You can hear more samples of current and upcoming releases as well as selected back catalog on the Nuema Soundcloud Page. So check it out!

Chris De Chiara

AMN Reviews: Fred Frith, Sudhu Tewari, Cenk Ergün – Lock Me Up, Lock Me Down (CARRIER054)

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Fred Frith is a pioneer of the extended electric guitar. Take a glance at his discography of over four hundred titles and it becomes clear that Frith has successfully inserted himself into an incredibly diverse number of contemporary sound worlds. From bands like Henry Cow, Skeleton Crew and Massacre to improvising with the likes of John Zorn, Anthony Braxton, and Evan Parker to his compositions for electric guitar quartet, the Ensemble Modern, the Arditti Quartet and so much more! 

One of Frith’s many collaborations has been with Sudhu Tewari in the duo Normal. Tewari is a sound artist focused on audio electronics, interactive installations, invented musical instruments and sound sculptures that utilize whatever materials are on hand. They recently presented and discussed a number of their invented instruments at the Center for New Music in San Francisco.

“Lock Me Up, Lock Me Down” is a new release from Fred Frith, Sudhu Tewari and Cenk Ergün. The material for this album was recorded about ten years ago as an improvisation with Frith on guitar, Tewari playing recuperated junk and electronics and Ergün on electronics.  However, this is not an album of a group improvisation. “Lock Me Up, Lock Me Down” is a long form work that uses the original improvised studio material as building blocks for an entirely new piece.

Cenk Ergün is a Turkish American composer/improviser currently based in Berlin. Ergün has written a wide range of acoustic and electronic works. A wonderful album of two of Ergün’s compositions for string quartet performed by the JACK Quartet was released earlier this year. During the lock down Ergün revisited the ten year old session and then went to work. He created a sound library of various samples from the original trio session. The samples range from a second to several minutes. Samples from the library may be heard in their raw form or heavily processed. Ergün used this library to very carefully assemble “Lock Me Up, Lock Me Down”, which combines elements of rock, noise, improvisation, electronic processing and digital studio composition.

Street Piano_photo by Carly McLane

While “Lock Me Up, Lock Me Down” has been divided into seven tracks it really is a continuous forty-four-minute piece. I think it is best to listen to it as a single listening experience. The piece has a mesmerizing almost dream like quality to it.  It’s sounds move from the chaotic and noisy to the lyrical and harmonic, often drifting between multiple textures. There are sections that focus on developing very specific elements from the original session.  For example, the title track is all Frith reassembled by Ergün layering different moments from the original studio session. “Stay Tuned“ features Tewari’s mallet work on his “street piano” accompanied by birds and the occasional passing car interrupted by bursts from the studio session.  The piece ends with “Dem” which focus’s on the final sounds Frith made in the original session. The gentle de-tuned arpeggios from Frith’s guitar unfold at a glacial pace into long sustained chords that slowly transform back into their original form.

“Lock Me Up, Lock Me Down” is a wonderful listen! It successfully combines so many different sonic elements that it is likely to appeal to a very broad range of creative music listeners. Treat your ears and give it a listen.

Highly Recommended!

Chris De Chiara

AMN Reviews: Susan Alcorn Quintet – Pedernal [Relative Pitch Records 1111]

alcorn quintetWhen most people think about the pedal steel guitar they expect to hear Country or Hawaiian music.  For the last twenty-five years Susan Alcorn has been forging her own way of playing the pedal steel guitar. Alcorn’s unique sound, while steeped in the pedal steel tradition, is largely shaped by the deep influences of Olivier Messiaen and Ornette Coleman. Her playing spans the gamut from the very melodic and soulful to rich harmonic sounds to sparse swells and otherworldly textures.

Alcorn has recorded several solo albums and has played on many recordings including Nate Wooley’s “Columbia Icefield” and Mary Halvorson’s Octet. An unexpected grant provided Alcorn with the resources to write and record “Pedernal”, her first album as a band leader.  She is joined by guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Michael Formanek, violinist Mark Feldman and drummer Ryan Sawyer.  Alcorn wrote the albums five compositions with these specific players in mind. 

The album opens with the title track “Pedernal”. Its stark and somber steel guitar and bass intro slowly builds into a bluesy minor theme. The piece really develops over several iterations as it shifts mood and texture, eventually working itself into a frenzy that unwinds into a more reflective segment that eventually returns to the primary theme. The title track just opens the door to what you will hear on the rest of the album. Alcorn makes great use of contrast and counter lines in developing her compositional material. This often gives her work a cinematic feel as it can suddenly shift from something very melodic and or rhythmic into oblique or sparse textures. Susan Alcorn’s compositions for this quintet range from the harmelodic hoedown of “Northeast Rising Sun” to the textural expanses of the chamber sounds found in both “Night in Gdansk and “Circular Ruins” to the angular and bop like melodies of “R.U.R”.

“Pedernal” is a wonderful album. Listeners of creative music and the outer fringes of jazz will find quite a lot to like on this album. The quintet is spectacular and I hope this won’t be the last ensemble record that Susan Alcorn leads. I think that “Pedernal” will show up on a lot of the best of 2020 lists and it absolutely deserves to be included.

Highly Recommended!

Chris De Chiara

AMN Reviews: Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl – Artlessly Falling [ Firehouse 12 Records FH12-04-01-034 ]

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“Artlessly Falling” is the latest album from guitarist, composer Mary Halvorson’s group Code Girl. Halvorson has received a great deal of recognition for her unique guitar style and her unpredictable improvisational skills but it is her writing that really shines on this album. For the eight songs on “Artlessly Falling” Halvorson first wrote the lyrics, with each lyric written in a pre-existing poetic form and then set them to music. Halvorson’s songs balance poetic lyrics rich with imagery set to elaborate melodies over challenging but supportive accompaniment. “Artlessly Falling” is an evocative set of songs that will really grow on you with each listen.

For this edition of Code Girl Mary Halvorson is joined by longtime creative associates Amirtha Kidambi on vocals, Michael Formanek on bass and Tomas Fujiwara on drums, plus new collaborators Adam O’Farrill on trumpet and María Grand on tenor saxophone and vocals. They are joined by guest vocalist Robert Wyatt, who appears on three songs that Mary Halvorson wrote especially for him. It is really great to hear Wyatt’s voice on something new! Halvorson considers Wyatt to be a major influence on her and on this particular recording.  The influence is clear on the tracks Wyatt sings on but it is felt throughout the album.  The production of “Artlessly Falling” has a warm, very even, and somewhat dry sound reminiscent of albums recorded at Carla Bley’s Grog Kill Studio by Bley, Michael Mantler, and John Greaves / Peter Blegvad that featured Robert Wyatt.  It’s a great sound and Code Girl really extends that sound with their incredible imagination and musicianship.

The opening track “The Lemon Trees” begins with a nod to Wyatt’s “Sea Song”. However, this quickly becomes a very original piece. As Wyatt sings the lyric, each verse alternates with a probing trumpet commentary. That becomes a trumpet solo accompanied by the rhythm section that slowly develops into a trumpet and drum duo that transforms into a drum solo and then suddenly the ensemble is right back to the lyric. The tag ending features a bass solo beautifully accompanied by just the two female voices.

The album continues with “Last-Minute Smears” which is most likely the only song to ever use the congressional testimony of a candidate for the US Supreme Court as a found lyric.  It opens with a very “downtown” improvised intro that slowly develops into a striking ballad beautifully sung by Amirtha Kidambi. It has colorful ensemble writing plus a soulful tenor solo from María Grand. 

On “Walls and Roses” Wyatt and Kidambi sing the same introspective verses back to one another. Halvorson frames the verses with a contrasting section that allows her to wink at Jimi Hendrix as she sails off past the straits of Sonny Sharrock and Shockabilly era Eugene Chadbourne only to return with a winding melodic counterpoint between her and Kidambi.  I hope these brief descriptions of the first three tracks leave you with a sense that on “Artlessly Falling” each track is filled with surprises.

As a group Code Girl’s playing is solid and adventurous. They very easily move back and forth from the written to the improvised. This allows Code Girl to continually shift and transform their sound. It is this combination of Halvorson’s writing and the group’s interaction with both her music and one another that makes “Artlessly Falling” such an interesting listen.

Highly Recommended!

https://firehouse12records.com/

Chris De Chiara

AMN Reviews: “Gran Sasso”, Matteo Liberatore (2020; BandCamp)

a2037926004_2“Gran Sasso” is Matteo Liberatore’s second solo guitar album.  It is the follow up to his excellent 2018 debut “Solos”.   Unlike “Solos” which focused on extended techniques on the acoustic guitar, “Gran Sasso” is a single extended piece for solo electric guitar using somewhat more conventional techniques. Having said that “Gran Sasso” is less of a departure from “Solos” as it is more of a glimpse into Liberatore’s musical imagination.

“Gran Sasso” is without any overdubs and other than some reverb and extensive use of the volume pedal, it is void of electronic effects. It is a very imaginative piece that has an open atmospheric quality in which Liberatore explores shape, texture, space and color. His dropped guitar tuning gives him a big open sound. Liberatore’s tone is bright and clear and has just a little bit of chime. “Gran Sasso” unfolds in unusual ways; the piece seems to continually shift from moment to moment.  But all the while Liberatore’s playing sounds both intentional and reflective giving this piece its own character.

“Gran Sasso” is a wonderful modern electric guitar record and is something I have found myself replaying over and over again. It was recorded and mixed by Matteo at his home studio and was mastered by Elliot Sharp. “Gran Sasso” appears to be a digital only release so head on over to Bandcamp and check it out.

Highly recommended!

Chris De Chiara

 

San Francisco Tape Music Collective

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A selection of fixed media works presented by the collective in recent San Francisco Tape Music Festivals.

Works by Maggi Payne, Kent Jolly, Cliff Caruthers, Matt Ingalls, Thom Blum, Kristin Miltner, and Joseph Anderson.

 

Freely available for streaming and download from http://sound.bandcamp.com.

The San Francisco Tape Music Collective is dedicated to presenting performances of audio art. For over 20 years they have presented The San Francisco Tape Music Festival, diffusing works from composers throughout the world in addition to their own works through a pristine immersive 24-speaker surround-sound environment, in complete darkness.   SFTMC and SFTMF are projects of sfSound.

Donations are welcome. All proceeds go to the San Francisco Tape Music Festival. (post COVID-19).  If you donate this Friday, Juneteenth, bandcamp will donate 100% of their shares to NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

http://sfSound.org/tape

http://sfsound.bandcamp.com/album/san-francisco-tape-music-collective