The trio Hear in Now not only crosses national borders with its personnel—violinist Mazz Swift and cellist Tomeka Reid are from the US, while double bassist Silvia Bolognesi is from Siena, Italy—with its music, it crosses the border between composition and improvisation as well.
The music on Hear in Now’s second studio release, Not Living in Fear, is sui generis. It isn’t jazz, although it does embrace improvisation and some of the feel of jazz, and it isn’t classical, although it does contain composed passages that refigure some of the conventions of post-Minimalist and neo-Romantic music. Whatever label one may wish to use, the music is tightly focused and strongly lyrical throughout. In fact structured lyricism is the most striking quality; all three instruments play melodies in turn, often layered over an accompaniment of the other two instruments’ repeated figures. Bolognesi’s pizzicato lines are especially effective in anchoring the higher voices of violin and cello; Reid’s solid cello work—the essential middle voice binding upper and lower registers–and Swift’s expressive portamento both sit well over the bass’s firmly grounded foundation. Two of the recording’s highlights are pieces dedicated to musical forebears: the elegiac Requiem for Charlie Haden features Bolognesi’s heartfelt pizzicato, while the hymn-like Prayer for Wadud is a beautiful exploration of Phrygian melody and ambience.
In one new and one recent release, Austrian violinst Irene Kepl appears in two different contexts: As unaccompanied soloist and as a composer and participant in small ensemble play.
SololoS, the new release, consists of twelve improvised solo performances. The performances are for the most part built around a limited set of motifs or techniques which Kepl develops through series of variation, some of them quite minute. She’s especially effective at creating rhythmic motifs out of insistent bowing patterns, which she subsequently colors with changing accents. Many of the pieces are densely textured with all four strings sounding simultaneously, to which Kepl occasionally adds her voice as a fifth layer.
Resonators, released late last year, is a trio recording with Kepl on violin and electronics, George Cremaschi on double bass and electronics, and Petr Vrba on clarinet, trumpet, and electronics. As the title implies, the recording was made with the acoustics of the performance environment foremost in mind; the four pieces on the CD were recorded in two particularly resonant spaces in the Czech Republic. In order to fully exploit the natural resonance of the spaces, the acoustic instruments were fortified with amplification and feedback. Feedback dominates the first track, Cremaschi’s Affective Labor, which conveys a sense of sounds drifting in an expansive space. Kepl’s two compositions stand in pronounced contrast to each other, Soma focusing on timbral variability through bow articulation and slow counterpoint, and Pirol collecting brief, frenetic fragments of pitches and sounds. Pirol’s scattering of quick sounds is quite a different thing from the piece that precedes it, Vrba’s gravely beautiful Locus Resonatus. Here strata of long, overlaid tones create ambiguous harmonies that slowly accumulate tension as the dynamics build to a very gradual crescendo. The richness of the acoustic instruments comes through most clearly, helped along by Vrba’s switch from clarinet to trumpet as the piece unfolds.
Wet Cats is a single, nearly hour-long improvisation by Italian musicians Gianni Lenoci and Francesco Cusa. Lenoci, whose background includes studies with Paul Bley and Mal Waldron, plays piano and prepared piano and a bit of wood flute at the very end, while Cusa plays drums. Although they are an ensemble of only two, they fill out a broad spectrum of audio space partly by virtue of the nature of their instruments and partly by virtue of their intelligent playing. Lenoci is sensitive to the piano’s percussive qualities as well as its coloristic effects. He’s capable of taking the music into surprising places, shifting smoothly from agitated, abstract atonality to romantic or bluesy implied chord progressions. Cusa’s drumming is energetic when drive is needed and restrained when the music takes a reflective turn. He is as capable of playing a free pulse beyond barlines as he is able to lay down a solid rock beat. The interaction between the two is assured and seamless; given the quality of their collaboration it comes as no surprise that Lenoci and Cusa are able to maintain a taut focus over the entire course of the performance.
Guitarist/bassist Raphael Vanoli’s Bibrax, a set of work for electric guitar, takes the basic practice of solo classical guitar and recasts it in the wide spectrum of colors attainable only through electronic devices.
Like many conservatory-trained musicians in recent years, Vanoli is as involved with rock-derived music as with jazz and music in the Western classical tradition. He studied jazz and classical guitar at the Conservatory of Amsterdam and went on to perform the music of Steve Reich, Frederic Rzewski, Makoto Nomura and others. But he also played in a number of rock-based ensembles including Knalpot, a duo with drummer Gerri Jäger. Bibrax is his first solo release.
For the recording, Vanoli used a stereo setup employing a modified Fender Stratocaster sent through an elaborate pedal chain and then outputted to a bass amp on one side, and one of six guitar amps on the other. Unsurprisingly, the sound on all tracks is full and often of a lush—though sometimes harsh–beauty. This is apparent from the opening track, 99, which wraps floating, chime-like harmonies in a sharply honed, metallic jangle. Similarly, Perrine is a wash of consonant chords carried along on an explicit pulse. It’s vaguely muted sound may be an effect of Vanoli’s bowing the strings with a peacock feather. Lenz is one of several pieces created with Vanoli’s signature technique of blowing across the fingerboard to set the strings in motion. The piece consists of shimmering chords brought on with a gradual attack and fading with a long decay. As with the other pieces on the recording, its beauty carries just enough of an edge to keep complacency away.
For over fifty years now composers and performers have used electronics to enhance, augment, and otherwise expand the range of sounds that can be produced by a conventional acoustic instrument. There Never Is No Light, the debut recording solo by clarinetist Joshua Rubin, works within this by now well-established tradition by situating the acoustic instrument fruitfully at many points along a continuum running from music to noise.
Rubin, who plays bass clarinet as well as clarinet, is a founder and artistic director of the International Contemporary Ensemble. His skills as a curator are well-displayed in the selection of the six works on this CD, which range over thirty years and two generations of electroacoustic composers.
The disc opens auspiciously with The Soul Is the Arena (2010) for amplified bass clarinet and electronics, a work that Rubin commissioned from composer Mario Diaz de Leon and premiered at Chicago’s Velvet Lounge in November, 2010. For this sometimes boisterous duet Rubin plays the bass clarinet with a harshly distorted sound as he chases electronic shadows in a vigorous game of pursuit. Synchronisms No. 12 (2006) is another duet for reed and electronics by another Mario—Mario Davidovsky. In contrast to the manic energy of The Soul Is the Arena, Synchronisms is a more restrained, reflective soliloquy for unaltered clarinet with discreet electronic interventions. Rubin’s playing is deeply engaging, using carefully modulated dynamics and drawing on the full compass of the instrument. The earliest composition in the collection, Olly Wilson’s Echoes (1974), is a duet for tape and clarinet; in addition to its own inherent interest as an effective pairing of acoustic and prerecorded sounds, it provides historical context for the newer electroacoustic works on the CD.
Suzanne Farrin’s Ma Dentro Dove (2010) for clarinet and resonating body is one piece within the larger cycle Corpo di Terra, a collection of compositions inspired by the sonnets of the fourteenth-century Italian poet Francesco Petrarca. The title, taken from a line in Canzoniere 9, translates as “but within, where”—an apt name for a work that takes the sound of the mic’d clarinet and feeds it into the resonant interior of a piano. The rhetoric of the piece is built on a virtuoso technical vocabulary turned to expressive ends; Rubin’s performance is as affecting as it is arresting. Mexican composer Ignacio Baca Lobera’s exhilarating Salto Cuantico (2011) also calls for a virtuoso performance for a prepared clarinet that confronts electronic sounds on their own turf, as it were.
Rubin is co-composer of 2012’s Toast, a kind of aleatory work in which a synthesizer unpredictably accompanies Rubin and co-composer/pianist Cory Smythe through the rises and defiles of sonically broken ground.
Bearing the name of a short book on the Anglican Church in Lisbon, Per Gärdin, Pedro Lopes & Rodrigo Pinheiro’s History of the Lisbon Chaplaincy was, appropriately enough, recorded in St. George’s Church in Lisbon in September, 2013. St. George’s figures centrally in the book, but undoubtedly it was chosen as a recording site not for its history, but for its Fincham pipe organ, played by Pinheiro. Throughout much of the long improvisation that makes up the recording, the organ acts as a kind of sonic anchor, whether as a relatively immobile foundation for Gärdin’s restless soprano and alto saxophone lines, or as a kind of eddying current running underneath the reeds and Lopes’s percussion and turntables. The music’s dramatic development largely hinges on the tension between Gärdin’s energetic expressionism and Lopes and Pinheiro’s more texturally-directed sounds; crucially, the trio plays effectively with the church’s acoustics, carefully crafting sound densities from variable-length phrases and subtly-balanced ensemble passages.
Although considerably more rare than the violin-piano duo, the viola-piano duo traces at least as far back as Mendelssohn’s 1824 sonata for viola and piano. Max Reger and Paul Hindemith—the latter a violist himself—added substantially to the repertoire in the last century, as did Darius Milhaud, Hans Werner Henze, George Rochberg and others. Now, Serbian-Hungarian violist Szilárd Mezei and Bolognese pianist Nicola Guazzaloca bring the viola-piano duo into the twenty-first century, albeit in a manner that departs substantially from the conventional chamber sonata.
Unlike classical sonatas, these eight improvisations, four each from concerts in Lucca and Bologna, develop through variations of timbre, dynamics and density rather than through melodic themes and harmonic modulation. But although much of the playing negates the formal vocabulary and syntax of the classical viola-piano duo, something of the latter’s ability to capture an emotional arc remains. The music can be tempestuous, placid, abstract or even plainly melodic, as when Mezei delivers a modal soliloquy during the third improvisation from Lucca. Both improvisers draw on an expanded palette of instrumental colors, setting conventional and unconventional techniques in a mutually illuminating dialogue with each other. Guazzaloca moves agilely from the keyboard to playing directly on the strings inside the piano; his use of objects in association with the piano emphasizes the instrument’s often-obscured status as a percussion instrument. Mezei, too, plays percussively, using a full-bodied attack with the bow as well as a forceful pizzicato; his engagement with hypermodern performance techniques doesn’t eclipse an expressive immediacy consonant with his involvement with Hungarian folk traditions.