AMN Reviews: Ensemble neoN – Niblock/Lamb [Hubro HUBROCD2601]

For their new CD, Ensemble neoN, a Norwegian chamber group dedicated to performing works of new music, chose to program together two conceptually and sonically dovetailing works by composers Phill Niblock and Catherine Lamb. Call it two perspectives on drone music.

Niblock’s To Two Tea Roses (2012), a paradigmatic work, is a long-tone composition for combined live and prerecorded orchestras. Niblock makes good use of nuanced movement within a solid block of sound, giving the piece the character of a sustained, suspended major chord with a fluctuating undertow of microtonal disquiet. Ensemble neoN’s realization employs an octet of winds, strings, piano and bowed vibes that fuses into a composite voice that has the ringing sound and subtle, cyclical dynamics of a particularly dense tamboura.

Catherine Lamb’s Parallax Forma (2016), like To Two Tea Roses a long-tone work, is less dense than Niblock’s and includes more overt harmonic movement. The piece’s foreground is dominated by singers Stine Janvin Motland and Silje Aker Johnsen, whose voices float ethereally over the seven-piece chamber orchestra.

AMN Reviews: Setola di Maiale Unit & Evan Parker – Live at Angelica 2018 [Setola di Maiale SM3880]

Crafting a musically cohesive, uncongested free improvisation with a small group is hard enough. It become much more difficult the larger the ensemble. Some large groups—the Variable Geometry Orchestra comes to mind—have been able to manage this nicely. Add to their number the Setola di Maiale Unit, an ensemble headed by percussionist Stefano Giust.

The Setola di Maiale Unit is a free improvisation group whose membership isn’t fixed. Many of the players are artists on the Setola di Maiale label, which Giust heads. For their appearance at the 2018 AngelicA Festival in Bologna the group, in addition to Giust, consisted of Marco Colonna on clarinets; Martin Mayes on horn and alphorn; Patrizia Oliva on voice and electronics; Alberto Novello on analog electronics; Giorgio Pacorig on piano; and Michele Anelli on double bass. Special guest Evan Parker sat in on tenor and soprano saxophones, while composer Philip Corner and dancer Phoebe Neville dropped to play a brief introduction on gongs. The performance was in part a celebration of label’s twenty-fifth anniversary—an auspicious landmark, and a fittingly fine set to commemorate it.

The hour-long improvisation is tracked into five sections prefaced by Corner and Neville’s introduction. Each section highlights some aspect of the group’s work, usually on the basis of the many subgroupings that emerge over the course of the set. What’s remarkable is that there was no conducting or direction; the changes in dynamics and density and the frequent interludes for solos, duos, and trios were arrived at spontaneously. Each player has some time as a leading voice if not a soloist; there are beautiful soliloquies for piano and drums, and instances of impromptu polyphony breaking out among the horns. It’s exactly the kind of playing one would expect from some of Europe’s most sensitive improvisers, and a happy anniversary indeed.

http://www.setoladimaiale.net

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Carl Testa – Sway Prototypes Volume 1; Sway Prototypes Volume 2 [Self-released]

In mid-2017, New Haven, Connecticut double bassist/composer Carl Testa began to develop a SuperCollider-based music processing system he called Sway. Testa envisioned an autonomous program that could take individual musicians’ sounds as inputs, perform signal analysis on them, and on the basis of the results obtained, respond by modifying them with a given effect. A two-volume set of four Sway-enhanced performances recorded between September, 2017 and October, 2018 documents how Testa implemented the idea over several iterations of his program.

As the tracks on both volumes demonstrate, Sway has been an organically evolving program, changing and adapting as circumstances warranted or as Testa wished. Each improvised performance featured the system at a different stage of its development–although all stages, even the earliest, show a high degree of sophistication in design and execution. For the earliest piece, Three Sections, recorded with the mixed ensemble of Erica Dicker on violin, Junko Fujiwara on cello, Louis Guarino, Jr. on trumpet, Andria Nicodemou on vibraphone, and Testa on double bass and electronics, Testa conducted the players and triggered the processing himself. On the next piece, the hour-long Quadrants for the same group with the addition of vocalist Anne Rhodes, Testa eschewed personal intervention in favor of using a pre-arranged timetable to regulate the process of effects assignments. By the time of Emergence, also for sextet, Sway had evolved to the point where, in place of a set timetable, it could control the changes in sound sculpting through a more fluid, real-time interactivity with the instruments.

What Sway does exceptionally well on the three ensemble pieces is compose with color. Whether controlled by human input, timed sequences or real-time response, Sway moves instruments in and out of the foreground and mixes their voices in varying and unpredictable combinations. The closest analogy to listening to these performances would be to watching a multicolored Calder mobile set in motion. The timbral richness of the instrumental input—high-, low- and middle-compass strings; brass; mallet percussion; and voice—and the players’ evident skill in interacting with each other and the program, are both crucial elements in these performances.

Which is why the last piece on Volume 2, Bloom, a solo improvisation for double bass recorded in Hamden, Connecticut in mid-October 2018, is so interesting for what it shows of what Sway does given the limited input of a single instrument. The sounds fed into the system are more austere and consequently serve to lay bare with a dramatic clarity the metamorphoses, distortions and enhancements Sway injects into the flow of a performance. The spare lines and episodic structure of Testa’s improvisation dovetail nicely with the pacing of the program’s shuttling between, and overlapping of, granular synthesis, pitch alteration, delay and other effects. Here one can hear quite clearly how the system works: how it creates a dialogue with itself as well as with the instrument fed into it.

http://carltesta.net/

AMN Reviews: Louis Karchin – Dark Mountains/Distant Lights [New Focus Records FCR225]; Stuart Saunders Smith – Palm Sunday [New World Records 80813-2]

In the liner note to Dark Mountains/Distant Lights, an album of seven new and recent compositions of his, Louis Karchin describes one of the pieces as having been inspired by lyric poetry’s capacity to convey the moods and emotional states of an individual sensibility. In fact many of the other works in the collection are lyrical not only in the sense Karchin describes, but also in the original sense of something meant to be sung. This should come as no surprise, given the substantial amount of vocal music, including the opera Jane Eyre, that Karchin has written.

The point of departure for Karchin’s musical vocabulary is the pitch-oriented serial and post-serial composition of the last century. His lines tend toward the complex and highly chromatic, and are characterized by sudden turns and staggering leaps and falls. This is the case for Rhapsody (2005/2011), a work for violin and piano that features a tonally convoluted, register-spanning violin line. Nevertheless, the line has a continuity and phrasing that recall the human voice, and it isn’t hard to imagine it as an aria for soprano. It’s a virtuoso piece breathtakingly played by violinist Miranda Cuckson and pianist Steven Beck.

In addition to her affecting performance on the austerely beautiful Prayer (2004) for solo violin, Cuckson has two duets with oboist Jacqueline Leclair: 2016’s Dreamscape, and 2017’s Reflections. Both are challenging works that integrate extended techniques—multiphonics for oboe, unorthodox bowings for violin—with more conventionally played, though still demanding, passages. Karchin’s decision to pair oboe and violin, whose timbres contrast in the lower registers but tend to converge in the upper registers, is inspired.

Lyrics II (2014)—the piece Karchin was referring to in the liner note—is a two-part composition for solo piano that does indeed evoke the dynamic arc of emotional cycles.

Like the music on Dark Mountains/Distant Lights, the music on Palm Sunday, a collection of works for solo piano by composer Stuart Saunders Smith, is primarily organized in terms of pitch relationships. Smith’s background includes the formative influences of teachers and mentors such as Sal Martirano, who affirmed the value of improvisation, and Ben Johnston, who encouraged Smith’s reliance on his ear and intuition in composing. Smith’s tenure as leader of the REDS ensemble, which performed graphic and other non-traditionally notated open works, is also significant and finds resonance in most of the work on Palm Sunday.

Four of the five pieces on the album—all except for the early work Pinetop, a boogie-woogie inspired piece–are semi-open scores that notate pitch conventionally but leave the specific values for parameters such as phrasing, dynamics and articulation up to the performer to choose. Smith composes melodies that can be knotty and harmonies that are complex, and in Palm Sunday (2012) calls for the pianist to hum, sing, and recite a text along with the music. Pianist Kyle Adam Blair, who realizes the works on this recording, has a long history with Smith’s music and consequently brings a deep understanding of Smith’s methods and expressive purposes to his interpretations. That depth of understanding certainly shows in Blair’s performances, which exert confidence and a strong sense of narrative development.

http://louiskarchin.com/discography/dark-mountains-distant-lights-1/

http://www.newworldrecords.org

 

AMN Reviews: 180˚ – Submental [Splitrec 29]

Submental is the sui generis creation of the acoustic Australian trio 180˚. The group’s configuration is unique: bass flute, played by Jim Denley; acoustic guitar (Nick Ashwood); and the voice and words of Amanda Stewart. The eight pieces on Submental aren’t unconventional art songs, although that certainly would be one way to think of them; rather, they’re dynamic scenarios in which the human voice retains its centrality amidst the musical and non-musical sounds that collide and combine around it. Although the group’s sound is collective, Stewart’s vocal presence can’t help becoming the focus of attention: it’s a human voice saying something, even if what it’s saying is at times a sequence of Dadaesque syllables referring to nothing beyond their own sounds. Stewart, like Denley and Ashwood, has a thorough mastery of extended technique and blends in perfectly with their timbre-driven, texturally centered styles. In some of the music’s truly beautiful moments her whispering naturally harmonizes with Denley’s air notes—a reminder that the flute is really just voice once removed. Here as on his other work, Denley displays a technical sophistication and sensitivity in playing on the border between noise and pitch. No less crucial to the collective sound is the rattle and jangle of Ashwood’s guitar, convincingly likening itself to a detuned zither.

https://splitrec.com/

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Musicians from soundSCAPE – After the End [New Focus FCR230]

It has to be said right up front: the music on After the End, which presents three new and recent vocal chamber works by the three contemporary composers Jesse Jones (b. 1978), Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon (b. 1962) and Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez (b. 1964), is of a refined beauty.

All three compositions are performed by small groups drawn from the faculty of the soundSCAPE summer Festival of Contemporary Music, an institution to which the three composers have been connected in various capacities in recent years. Given this history, it isn’t surprising that the performers—soprano Tony Arnold; flutist Lisa Cella; violinist Mark Fewer; percussionist Aiyun Huang; and pianist Thomas Rosenkranz—seem to have an especially good rapport with the work. Their realization of this sometimes rarefied, open-textured music is delicately balanced and austerely sensuous.

Jesse Jones’ After the End (2017), which was commissioned by soundSCAPE, sets a text by Jonathan Brent Butler to music for soprano, percussion and piano. Jones describes the text as pessimistic—it’s after the end of the world, after all—but at the same time holding out the promise of renewal. The vocal line is haunting but not despairing, proceeding at a measured pace intercut with rests. The accompaniment shimmers in slightly discordant, downward cascades of piano and vibes.

Flores de Viento III (1990, revised 2013), is a work in seven parts by Guadalajara-born Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon. The composition is scored for soprano, violin, flute/piccolo, and percussion, and sets a series of poems, most of them by the composer’s sister Laura Zohn-Muldoon, based on the Mesoamerican myth of the feathered serpent Quetzalcóatl. Zohn-Muldoon constructs the music from concise, atonal melodic motifs that he varies and orchestrates as distinct splashes of instrumental color. By breaking the ensemble out into constantly shifting groupings of solo, duo, trio and quartet voices, he exploits the group’s timbral potential to its fullest. And the sheer variety of percussion instruments he employs—vibes, marimba, crotales, gong, congas, maracas and more—contributes significantly to the richness of the piece’s textures.

Mexican native Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez’s Kikai no Mori/Chance Forest Interludes (2015) was given its premiere at the 2015 soundSCAPE festival. The work is a fusion of two separate pieces, Chance Forest Interludes for solo soprano, and Kikai no Mori for piano and percussion. When presented together, the interludes are inserted in between movements of Kikai no Mori. The interludes are virtuoso pieces that provide a relatively quiet tonic to the fragmented melodies and suspenseful, rhythmic intensity of Kikai no Mori. The percussion part encompasses pitched and unpitched instruments and even the piano itself, through various extended techniques—tone clusters, playing directly on the strings, holding the strings while striking the keys—is turned into something of a multi-voiced percussion ensemble of its own.

http://www.newfocusrecordings.com

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Yoko Miura, Gianni Mimmo, Thierry Waziniak – Live at L’Horologe [Amirani AMRN 059]

Live at L’Horologe, a set of music by the trio of pianist Yoko Miura, soprano saxophonist Gianni Mimmo and percussionist Thierry Waziniak, represents a further installment in the creative work that Miura and Mimmo have done together. The rapport that was apparent between them in their duo album, 2017’s Departure, is abundantly on display in this new release.

The music on Live at L’Horologe was recorded in concert in Tracy le Mont, France, in November 2018. Composition on all nine pieces is credited to Miura, but the excitement and finesse of the music is the product of exemplary playing by all three. Although it isn’t clear how much is written and how much is improvised—an indication in its own right that the set is a success—the music is structurally sound, whether or not these structures are premeditated or spontaneous. The improvisations are built around economical motifs—a handful of notes, a slow trill, a cascading figure—that are developed through variations, transformations, deviations, repetitions, and extensions. Miura’s playing cuts right to the essence of the music and is characterized by a generous sense of space, while Mimmo’s exquisite tone and lyrical sensibility are, as always, a pleasure to listen to. Waziniak’s drumming adds a particularly bracing sense of urgency and intensity.

http://www.amiranirecords.com

Daniel Barbiero