AMN Reviews: Three Free Radicals x Liis Viira – Atlas of the Heavens [Bandcamp]

Three Free Radicals is actually two people: Minnesota electronics artist Scott L. Miller and Estonian guitarist Mart Soo. Miller and Soo have previously collaborated on two albums; for this third album, they were joined by Estonian harpist Liis Viira. The result is a sound centered within a neat triangulation of sharp-edged electronics, atmospheric guitar, and harmonically centered harp.

As becomes apparent from the beginning, adding Viira to the core duo was an inspired move.  Miller and Soo are particularly adept at creating textural music, setting out shifting densities of sound underwritten equally well by the thick abrasiveness of the electronic hum, drone and feedback as by the reverb-soaked shimmering of the guitar. Soo, in particular, is able to create a brooding ambiance suggestive of empty landscapes: call it the soundtrack to unpopulated plains of the imagination. To all of this Viira brings a harmonic focus that manifests itself in chord progressions both cyclical and irregular, or in ostinatos and melodic lines hinting at modal harmony. In addition, the crystalline, staccato sounds of the harp contrast most dramatically with the denser interactions of guitar and electronics. On a piece like M12 Viira supplements Soo and Miller’s underlying polyrhythms with a set of on- and off-beats of her own, while on Sagittarius she sets the music within the angular frame of an altered mixolydian mode.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Bobby Naughton – The Haunt [No Business Records NBCD 105]

For a period of about a decade—from, roughly, the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s—New Haven, Connecticut was home to an exciting creative music community. Some of the principal figures were homegrown, some were from elsewhere, but the meeting of talent produced a cross-fertilization of ideas that resulted in excellent music, some of which was documented and some of which was not. Fortunately, the music on The Haunt, the 1976 recording led by Bobby Naughton, was not only recorded and issued in its time, but has been reissued by the fine No Business Records label as well.

Naughton, a largely self-taught vibraphonist and composer from Boston who lived and worked in New Haven during the 1970s, is joined on The Haunt by trumpeter Leo Smith (before he became Wadada Leo Smith). Smith, like Naughton, was a central figure in the New Haven creative music scene of the time; both worked closely together in small groups and as founders of the Creative Musicians Improvisors Forum, New Haven’s AACM-like artists’ collective. The third voice on the record is that of New York clarinetist Perry Robinson who, sadly, died at the end of last year.

Originally released on Otic, Naughton’s self-run label, the music still sounds astringently fresh and surprising over forty years later. A good part of the reason for this is the unusual instrumentation: clarinet, trumpet, and vibes are supplemented by no rhythm section for maintaining a pulse or even just a bass instrument to ground the harmonies. Consequently, the music tends to have a floating, harmonically open feel to it. The trio has been compared to a chamber ensemble, but even then it’s an extraordinary one. The vibes provide the frame, as would the piano in a chamber trio, but the other two instruments have a more complicated and unorthodox relationship, given the trumpet and clarinet’s similarities of compass and the peculiarities of their timbral interaction. At the upper end of their registers, they can be hard to distinguish; at the lower end, the two voices peel apart, the hollow warmth of the clarinet tempering the trumpet’s strident brassiness. Smith and Robinson both seem to intuit the implications of this dynamic and interlace their lines around each other in order to bring out the subtlest shadings of color; Naughton also is adept at altering the overall timbre of the music by using changes in register to converge on and diverge from the other two instruments. The title track, with its unisons, counterpoint and alternating leads from all three voices exemplifies the group’s painting with aural colors; a track like Ordette shows Naughton’s mastery at building textural variety with the deft arrangement of solo voices and ensemble passages; Slant demonstrates the timbral possibilities unlocked by harmonized melodies and the simultaneous play of independently improvised lines. The rapport among all three is extraordinary and given full opportunity to unfold within the unhurried tempos and open spaces of Naughton’s compositions.

AMN Reviews: Thomas DeLio – Selected Compositions III (1986-2017) [Neuma 450-120]

Selected Compositions III (1986-2017) is Neuma’s third compilation of work by composer Thomas DeLio (b. 1951). As with the previous two CD releases, which surveyed his work of 1991-2013 and of 1972-2015, Selected Compositions (1986-2017) collects both acoustic instrumental and electroacoustic pieces, with a particular emphasis on DeLio’s settings of texts.

When writing about the second album in the series, I characterized DeLio’s work as embodying an aesthetic of intermittence—a focus on sound as such standing alone in well-defined islands of time. The pieces collected on this third album further elaborate DeLio’s deep engagement with the intermittences of sound. One area where this engagement makes itself especially felt is in DeLio’s settings of spoken texts.

On this as on previous releases, DeLio presents compositions that take recordings of the poetry of P. Inman as source material. Two pieces appear here: by parch reading (2016) and “decker” (1998). DeLio has said he has a particular affinity for Inman’s work and it isn’t hard to see why: what DeLio does with sound is analogous to what Inman does with language, which is to say, breaking it not at the joints one would expect, but instead dismantling it across those joints, the better to alienate it from its usual function—for Inman and language, the semantic or meaning-conveying function; for DeLio and sound, the function afforded by temporal continuity–and to recompose it in unexpected ways. Inman’s poetry recasts words and phrases from semantic elements into a kind of musique concrète of utterance; in a similar way, DeLio breaks sounds up to play off against each other as a series of timbral contrasts and likenesses. When DeLio electronically modifies recordings of Inman’s poetry a kind of multiplier effect is at work; what results are conflicts and concordances of consonants and vowels–an abstract music of the voice.

This same use of fragmentation is a significant factor in the instrumental works; for example, the two pieces for percussion ensemble: 2002’s wave / s for marimba and one-person percussion ensemble, and the earliest composition in the set, the two-movement Against the Silence…of 1984-1985. On both pieces sounds—a wash of cymbal, a trill on the marimba, scattered strikes on tuned and untuned surfaces of wood, metal, and membrane—play against the silence that breaks them apart and at the same time frames them. In fact it may be that this idea of silence—or at any rate a negative audio space—as a frame for sound is given its most complete expression in the series of six brief works from 2017 that appear interspersed throughout the album: each piece in itself traces silence as a framing device while at the same time serving to frame the works on either side. It’s a central motif of DeLio’s, put to work at two different levels.

AMN Reviews: Isaac Schankler – Because Patterns [Aerocade AM011-CD]

Identified as a significant artistic trend in the late 1960s, systems aesthetics—the quintessential programmatic statement was Jack Burnham’s 1968 essay by that name—has continued to represent a viable and important direction in contemporary art and music. Current systems music—simply put, music that is the product of a defined operation or set of operations performed on a defined input—often takes the guise of generative composition, frequently done by computer or other means of electronic music production, and sometimes done by hand. While the fit between a systems aesthetic and electronic music is a logical one, systems music for acoustic instruments, whether alone or with electronic augmentation, can be just as natural and the results aesthetically satisfying.

The title track of Because Patterns, an album of four works by composer Isaac Schankler, is one such work. Because Patterns—the title is a witty rejoinder to Morton Feldman’s 1978 Why Patterns for flute, glockenspiel and piano—is a generative composition for four-handed prepared piano. Commissioned by the duo of Aron Kallay and Vicki Ray, who perform it here, the work uses a set of rules to generate outputs from melodic and rhythmic patterns whereby the content of a measure is the product of a rule applied to the content of the preceding measure. The process may sound mechanical but the music isn’t; the piece has an engaging melodic logic and compelling rhythmic propulsion. The score calls for preparing the piano’s upper registers to shorten the notes’ sustain, producing a bright bell-like or pizzicato sound. For this album the composer chose to mix Kallay and Ray’s performance of Because Patterns with a performance of The Deep State (2017) for double bass and electronics. In contrast to the swift-moving Because Patterns, The Deep State—performed by double bassist Scott Worthington, to whom it is dedicated–is structured by long, slow, deep tones. The hybrid obtained by combining the two pieces makes for an interesting study in contrasts, but having each piece presented separately would have been welcome as well.

Because Patterns also contains Mobile I (2009) for solo violin and electronics and Future Feelings (2018) for piano. Mobile I is a beautiful piece with a generative electronics component and a translucent violin part, brilliantly played by Sakura Tsai. Future Feelings, performed by Nadia Shpachenko, opens with tautly cascading repeated phrases that serve as rhythmic cells or kernels shaping the first section of the piece; the second section features interactive electronics that take the piano part as input and outputs it as a ghostly afterimage. Like Mobile I, it unfolds in a dramatic arc of increasing complexity and emotional urgency.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Max Giteck Duykers / Ensemble Ipse – Folding Music [New World Records 80811-2]

21904.covfile2In addition to being a composer, Max Giteck Duykers (b. 1972) is the co-founder of the Ensemble Ipse, which is featured on this collection of Duykers’ new and recent work for chamber ensembles. All of the pieces in the collection are scored for the so-called Pierrot sextet or its subdivisions, the Pierrot sextet, of which Ensemble Ipse is one, comprising piano, clarinets, flutes, violin, cello, and percussion. (The name derives from the quintet used in Arnold Schoenberg’s landmark 1912 work Pierrot Lunaire.) For such a small group it contains a surprisingly wide variety of instrumental colors, which Duykers ably exploits.

Duykers has written a number of works for the full sextet, two of which appear on Folding Music. The title track is one; it was composed in 2017 and opens the album. Duykers plays with the sextet’s color possibilities by breaking the group down into various subgroups of contrasting timbres; he distributes the piece’s thematic material, much of which consists of cells made up of a limited number of pitches, across the ensemble for maximum effect. The music has an ambiguously tonal sound to it—not quite inside and yet not quite outside either. The same is true of the other sextet on the album, 2007’s Twilight for Adored and Breathless Moments. Opening with an insistently hammered chord, it’s characterized by lively rhythms in changing meters and quasi-serial melodies allocated across winds and strings. Here again, Duykers’ effectively breaks the ensemble down into mutable subdivisions in order to create an engaging series of timbral harmonies and dissonances.

Other pieces on the album include Dark Body (2015), a quartet for flute, violin, cello and piano that’s notable for the violin’s astringent, chromatic lines and the flute’s uses of extended technique, and The Way In (2015), a setting of Robert Bly’s translation of the Rilke poem “The Way In,” arranged for soprano, piano and cello.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Sam Rivers – Emanation [No Business Records NBCD118]

It is June 3, 1971, and the Sam Rivers Trio—which in addition to the multi-instrumentalist leader included Cecil McBee on bass and Norman Connors on drums and percussion—is playing Boston’s Jazz Workshop. The trio, which Rivers formed when he was at or near the end of his 1969-1971 tenure with the Cecil Taylor Unit, had played the Jazz Workshop the previous February; excerpts from a recording of that performance found their way onto Rivers’ 1973 album Hues, which for many of us at the time was our introduction to Rivers’ improvised trio music. A later, fuller performance by the trio, recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival in July, 1973, was released the same year. But here, on the June, 1971 Boston Jazz Workshop recording, we can hear a complete performance by the group at an early stage of their development. And it was an auspicious start indeed.

The two sets captured on Emanations are valuable not only in their own right—the music, as would be expected, is exhilarating—but for what they show of Rivers’ approach to free improvisation in a small-group setting. Both sets, each of which is presented as a single long track, are steered by Rivers’ playing on a succession of instruments—tenor saxophone, flute and piano for the first set, soprano saxophone, flute and piano and voice for the second set—and take on the structure, more-or-less spontaneously arrived at, of a suite, each segment of which is shaped by Rivers’ choice of instrument as well as by ongoing changes of tempo and dynamics. But the suite-like nature of the sets isn’t just a matter of structure: during each section Rivers spins out tautly melodic passages that give the section a distinctive, thematically coherent profile. The music may unfold as a stream of consciousness, but it’s one that’s focused and never loses sight of its own musical logic. It’s a focused logic that carries over to the rhythm section as well. McBee and Connors support the lead line with fast and slow swing rhythms, Afro-Latin grooves and ostinati, or more fluid, meterless playing at the music’s transition points. In addition, McBee’s long solo during the first set adds a dramatic element of timbral and dynamic contrast to the sound of the full trio.

Emanation is the first of a series of No Business Records’ planned releases of music from Rivers’ vast archive. As with the trio’s June, 1971 performance at the Jazz Workshop, it is also an auspicious start.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Cristiano Calcagnile – ST()MA [We Insist WEIN02]

ST()MA, the six-part suite by percussionist Cristiano Calcagnile, is a mosaic of reconciled opposites: acoustic and electronic instruments, pitched and unpitched sounds, extended and conventional techniques.

Calcagnile, a native of Milan, is an instrumentalist and composer engaged in a variety of activities. His background includes classical studies as well as jazz performance; one of his notable projects is the Ensemble Multikulti Cherry On, an eight-piece group of winds, violin, drums, piano and world percussion inspired by the world jazz of Don Cherry. ST()MA finds him in a solo performance, albeit one fortified by an elaborate array of different instruments centered on, but by no means overshadowed by, a large drum kit.

As Calcagnile acknowledges in his note to the recording, ST()MA was a work of catharsis provoked by a deep personal loss. As a concept work it was organized around the idea, signaled by its title, of an opening or transitional space both connecting and defining inside and outside. A passage, in other words, and a void, all at once. The music is at times heavy and dense thanks not only to some energetic drumming, but to the generous use of electronics and a kind of four-string tabletop electric guitar played with an ebow. At other times the sound is less saturated and even delicate, for example when tuned percussion are brought into play. Throughout, Calcagnile demonstrates himself to be an accomplished layerer of sound in addition to being a gifted percussionist; with ST()MA he has succeeded in creating a complex, challenging work.

ST()MA is also noteworthy for being put together as a multimedia package comprising an LP of music, a DVD and an accompanying set of photographs.

Daniel Barbiero