AMN Reviews: Monica Pearce – Textile Fantasies [Centrediscs CMCCD 30322]

Textile Fantasies, composer Monica Pearce’s debut monograph recording, is aptly titled. Textures of various densities and timbral combinations, rather than more conventional melodies, dominate the sound of much of the music, which is largely scored for percussion instruments of various kinds.

The opening composition, toile de jouy for solo harpsichord, shows Pearce putting the ancient instrument to an unorthodox and decidedly modern use. Its delicate, staccato sound is conventionally associated with contrapuntal music, but here Pearce scores it to generate rough-hewn, opaque blocks of fortissimo dissonances. The piano and percussion duet leather, a heavily rhythmic work, similarly creates an almost unpitched-sounding lower register rumble with the piano, which Pearce sets into contrast with the bright timbres of gongs and other metal percussion. Velvet, for percussion ensemble, takes cascades of notes and repeated motifs on mallet percussion and places them against a background hum of thickening and thinning density. Perhaps the most novel combination of instrumental voices occurs in damask for tamboura, tabla, and toy piano.

Textile Fantasies also includes chain maille for percussion ensemble; houndstooth and silks, both for solo piano; and denim for two percussionists and two toy pianos.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Marina Hasselberg – Red [Redshift Records TK495]

Red, the first solo album by Vancouver cellist Marina Hasselberg, paints a portrait of a multi-faceted artist whose musical interest span centuries. As she shows with the opening track, a performance of the First Ricercar for cello by 17th century Italian composer Domenico Gabrielli, she is an interpreter of Baroque music with a sense of delicacy and warmth. This impression is further reinforced by her beautiful realization of contemporary Toronto composer Linda Catlin Smith’s own Ricercar for solo cello, a quasi-Baroque piece that Hasselberg plays with a refined expressiveness. Smith’s piece is one of the album’s highlights, along with the closing track, Vancouver composer/guitarist Craig Aalder’s Things Fall Apart for cello and tape, an achingly moving ambient piece. Other tracks show Hasselberg’s more experimental side. She is joined by drums, guitar, and violin for a couple of free improvisations, and improvises three pieces in duet with Italian-born, Vancouver electronics artist Giorgio Magnanensi.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: BSBLork – 10 yEars alive [Public Eyesore PE150]

The Brasilia Laptop Orquestra celebrates its ten years—so far—of existence with this survey of ten tracks arranged sequentially from 2012-2021, with a second track from 2020 as a kind of coda. The Orquestra, which was founded by principal programmer Eufrasio Prates in 2012, is a collective whose floating membership is made up of electronic sound artist as well as the occasional acoustic musician. The ensemble is a vehicle for live performances that incorporate the idiosyncracies, both acoustic and physical, of the performance environment into the sounds and architecture of its semi-aleatory, interactive pieces. The group often uses liberally-interpreted scores as the basis for shaping the various parameters of their overall sound. If there’s such a thing as what Wittgenstein described as a language game—a use of words according to context-dependent rules that are to some degree flexible-then an Orquestra performance is something along the lines of a sound game.

10 yEars alive is a kind of official bootleg many of whose tracks have an audience-recorded feel to them. But that just gives the album an immediacy that enhances the experience of listening to it. The sounds interact in interesting and complex ways reminiscent of the plastic relationships of forms and colors in an abstract painting, and some of their spatialization—an important feature of Orquestra performances—comes through when heard through headphones.

Here’s to ten more years, at least.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Andrew McIntosh & Yarn/Wire – Little Jimmy [Kairos 0022000KAI]

Little Jimmy is a backpacker’s campground in the Angeles National Forest; it also is a place in which Los Angeles composer Andrew McIntosh made field recordings during a visit in 2019. The recordings—of trees and birds—play a role in two of the six movements of Little Jimmy, a work for two pianists and two percussionists composed in 2020 for the quartet Yarn/Wire, one of contemporary music’s most exciting chamber ensembles.

Little Jimmy is an atmospheric work in which evocative sounds rather than melodies or harmonic patterns provide the binding thematic material. The brief first movement provides an opening flourish of repeated, upper-register figures passed between the two pianos. McIntosh’s field recordings come into play in the sparse second movement, largely made up of subdued, quasi-electronic sounds interspersed with piano interventions suggestive of birdsongs. Movement three is a variation on the first movement, followed by a long fourth movement centered on a tamboura-like, overtone-rich drone played on bowed piano strings which surges over and under subtle washes of tuned percussion. The slow call-and-response between the pianos and tuned and untuned percussion of the penultimate movement sets up the conclusion, a somber movement framed by field recordings. This final movement retrospectively recasts the entire piece as an elegy for Little Jimmy, which shortly after McIntosh’s visit was devastated by a fire.

Little Jimmy is accompanied by two shorter works for solo instrumentalists. I Have a Lot to Learn (2019), performed by pianist Laura Barger, consists of an austere series of chord stabs allowed to decay at length into the surrounding space, while 2021’s Learning, commissioned and performed by percussionist Russell Greenberg, is a contemplative piece for vibraphone, glockenspiel, and sine tones.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: loadbang – Quiver [New Focus Recordings fcr 342]

The chamber ensemble loadbang may well be unique in its instrumentation of trumpet, trombone, bass clarinet, and baritone voice. A strange combination, yes, but one capable of producing interesting timbres and textures. Accordingly, some of the most effective music on this album of eight compositions by seven composers, three of whom are members of the ensemble, involves the dramatic extensions and juxtapositions of loadbang’s instrumental and human voices.

Disquiet (2016), by loadbang’s bass clarinetist Carlos Cordeiro, is a setting of a text by Fernando Pessoa suggestive of an individual’s experience of multiple personalities; Cordeiro emphasizes the characteristic qualities of the group’s instrumentation by arranging them as separate, abutting presences within a deliberately discordant and fragmentary whole. By contrast, vocalist Jeffrey Gavett’s Proverbial (2009), a setting of three of William Blake’s Proverbs from Hell, assembles the winds into massed and dissonant long tones. Washington DC area composer Heather Stebbins’ Quiver (2014), which was inspired by a trip the composer took to Iceland, uses muted brass and extended techniques for wordless voice to craft a spluttering, choppy allusion in sound to the lurching action of geological processes.

Further along on the spectrum of extended technique, Zong Yun We’s Flower (2015/2017) is a gestural work drawing heavily on unpitched sounds; something of a polar opposite is Quinn Mason’s harmonically conventional composition Aging (2017), a somber setting of a two-line poem by Adam Lefaivre anchored by the bass clarinet. Quiver also includes trumpeter Andy Kozar’s To Keep My Loneliness Warm (2016), a two-part setting of a text by Lydia Davis built around a microtonal drone and shards of words; Chaya Czernowin’s Irrational (2019), an assemblage of pulsing patterns, unpitched timbres, and wordless vocals; and Gavett’s 2016 quis det ut, a work for just intonation based on a 15-16th century Franco-Flemish motet.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Pierfrancesco Mucari & Gianni Mimmo – How to Get Rid of the Darkness [Amirani AMRN070]; Clairvoyance – Transient [Amirani AMRN069]

The newest two offerings from Amirani Records, the label curated by Gianni Mimmo, find the Milanese soprano saxophonist in two very different settings.

The first is a duet with Sicilian saxophonist Pierfrancesco Mucari, who plays soprano, alto, and prepared saxophone, as well as the marranzano, a Sicilian jaw harp. Mimmo is no stranger to the unusual format of the saxophone duet, and here as on his earlier collaborations with saxophonist Harri Sjöström, he demonstrates how two similarly pitched and timbrally closely related instruments can create a music of noticeable differences. His and Mucari’s voices in this series of improvisations are readily distinguishable; Mimmo, who often favors a kind of musical cubism based on repeated melodic fragments, pushes the style to contrast it with Mucari, who tends to weave a longer and more sinuous line. Although this appears to be Mimmo and Mucari’s first collaboration, at least on record, there’s an almost telepathic rapport between them, as they double each other’s lines, complete each other’s phrases, and provide counterpoint and harmonies nimbly assembled in real time. The music is complemented by an illuminating liner note from Ettore Garzia.

Mimmo also appears on Transient, the second release from the superb trio Clairvoyance, which in addition to Mimmo includes the Sardinian duo of pianist/toy pianist Silvia Corda and double bassist Adriano Orrù. The album is a relatively short, LP-length set of forceful improvisations. Although the performances are energetic, they don’t cross the line into chaos, largely because each player leavens the whole with his or her sense of structural constraints and coherence. As she has with this trio in the past, Corda often provides an overall framework constructed of patterned chords and regular rhythms, most notably on the track Shinjuku. Mimmo alternates between a free lyricism and—as on the set of duets with Mucari—an elaborate cubism in which he arranges and rearranges handfuls of notes to give the audio equivalent of a view from every possible angle. Orrù underpins it all with darting pizzicato lines and judiciously applied extended techniques with fingers and bow. This is a group that can balance a restless impressionism, as on the track Rippling Lake, with the fortissimo collision of overblown saxophone and double-bass-reinforced, lower register piano that defines the track Talking at Crazy Angles. A stimulating synthesis of intelligence and intensity.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Clocks in Motion – Oneira: Music by Jennifer Bellor [Aerocade Music AM012]; Stefan Schmidt – ruinenlust [Bandcamp]

August brings with it two very different kinds of music for tuned percussion.

Clocks in Motion, of Madison, WI, is a percussion ensemble formed in 2011. The group is a quartet with the three core members John Corkill, Christopher G. Jones, and Sean Kleve; on this album they’re made a quartet by guest percussionists Megan Arns on two compositions, and Kyle Flens on the title track.

All three pieces on Oneira were commissioned from Las Vegas composer Jennifer Bellor, who wrote them in collaboration with the group over a period of several years. There’s a certain consistency of sound tying the pieces together—Bellor writes music that’s harmonically accessible and rhythmically propulsive, even as it moves through multiple time signatures with beats divided into variably accented odd and even groupings. The orchestration tends to favor tuned percussion in which crisp, metallic timbres predominate. The opening track, for example, the three-movement Of Maker and Movement (2019), is scored for tuned pipes, glass marimba, glockenspiel, crotales, vibraphone, and cymbals, along with other instruments. Oneira, from 2021, is scored for MalletKat, two marimbas, and vibes, while This We Have Now (2020) is for MalletKat, drum kit, wind chimes, glockenspiel, crotales, xylophone, vibes, cymbals, and marimba.

On ruinenlust Stefan Schmidt, a prolific multi-instrumentalist perhaps best known as the creator of heavy ambient music, is an ensemble of one. The core of the six improvisations on his new album is tuned percussion—kalimba—looped and run through effects. There is the unmistakably heavy ambient sound of floating rhythm and stretched, resonant tones portentously overhanging a low-frequency abyss, but the darkness is leavened by the brighter, vibraphone-like timbres of multiplied and processed kalimba: imagine the sound of wind chimes at midnight.

AMN Reviews: Tom Flaherty – Mixed Messages [New Focus Recordings fcr 326]

The title of composer Tom Flaherty’s monograph recording Mixed Messages can be read as referring not only to the title track for violin, piano, and electronics, but more generally to the work of electroacoustic composition, which mixes the messaging of two different ways of creating sound. As it happens Flaherty, who directs the Pomona College Electronic Studio, mixes the messaging of acoustic instruments and electronics with a well-honed sense of complementarity. The works presented on this album represent a style of composition in which the electronics are an often subtle, and always natural, presence within the overall sound, serving to augment or emphasize harmonies and textures.

This comes out clearly on the album’s centerpiece, the three-movement Recess (2017) for string quartet, performed here with the optional electronics part included. The piece is grounded in the accumulation and repetition of brief motifs, which in the first movement form the foundation over which intertwined single lines drift downward, and in the third movement provide a pulsing, compressed rhythmic energy. The second movement features thick harmonies set out in long tones moving in and out of greater and lesser dissonances. On this movement in particular the electronics play a role in regulating the density and resonance of the sound’s overall texture, while maintaining the movement’s harmonic transformations as its center of musical gravity.

The mixed messages of the title track, from 2014, arise from its harmonic undecidability. At its center is a four-note chord that, depending on how it’s presented, could be major or minor, or consonant or dissonant. Acoustic piano and violin are accompanied by samples of violin and piano, which fruitfully complicate an already complicated harmonic knot.

Other highlights include 2020’s Release for violin, cello, and electronics, which integrates electronics-enhanced rhythms with timbral contrasts based on different string techniques, and Threnody (2003) for cello and electronics, which sets up a real-time, stimulus-and-response duet between live processing and a semi-improvised cello part.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: India Gailey – to you through [Redshift Records TK511]

For this, her second solo album, Nova Scotia cellist India Gailey (b. 1992) put together a program of six works from a multigenerational selection of living composers—five by others, and one by herself.

The oldest composer represented is Philip Glass (b. 1937), with his 2013 Orbit for solo cello. This challenging piece, with its steady, perpetual motion rhythms and measured harmonic movement carried along on single lines and multiple-stopped chords, very clearly shows itself to be a lineal descendant of the Bach suites for solo cello. Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti’s (b. 1983) ko’u inoa, from 2017, is another piece for cello by itself; it is a pulsating, arpeggiated work with a Lydian flavor. Two of the compositions feature Gailey’s voice as well as her cello. On her own Ghost (2020) her vocal part carries a melody over undulating chords pivoting on open strings, while on diepenveen (2020), a work written for Gailey by Yaz Lancaster (b. 1996), the cellist sings a text by the composer over a slow drift of sharp dissonances and arpeggiated harmonics. Fjóla Evans’ (b. 1987) Augun (2013) is an electroacoustic piece consisting of electronically superimposed, interlocking motifs. The highlight of the album is Light Is Calling by Bang on a Can’s Michael Gordon (b. 1956), a moving work written in 2004 in response to the 9/11 attacks. The harmonic foundation of the piece consists of a reversed electronic pulse, over which an elegiac, upper-register melody soars.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Ra’maat Ubadah Hotep Ankh McConner Iheru 0 The African OmniDevelopment Space Complex We/New [Arteidolia Press, 2022]

The African OmniDevelopment Space Complex/We New is the brief—66 pages long—but engaging memoir of Ronald Ubadah McConner, aka Ra’maat Ubadah Hotep Ankh McConner Iheru (1939-2020), a bassist, creative music advocate, and community catalyst who ran a music and cultural center out of his home in Pontiac, Michigan for several decades.

In the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s Pontiac, and the Detroit area more generally, was a hotbed of jazz, being home to many fine players such as the Jones brothers—one of whose nieces McConner married. McConner writes about being exposed to the music as a child through the records his mother played at home, and by his teens he and his twin brother Rashid began building extensive jazz libraries of their own. For McConner, jazz was something that was always there, through high school, through four years in the Air Force, and through thirty years working for General Motors, experiences he recalls with a genuine affection. Moving back to Pontiac after his four years working at the Hunter Air Force Base Hospital in Savannah, McConner continued to nurture his love of the music by attending performances at area clubs—The Minor Key, the Drome Showbar Lounge, The Spot Bar, LaRoach’s Tea, Baker’s Keyboard Lounge—to hear visiting artists as well as players from the vibrant local community. Eventually, he became an active participant as well as an enthusiastic listener.

McConner was attracted to the double bass early on, and finally acquired one in autumn, 1969. With his brother Rashid on trombone and Ahmad Jihad Malik Shabazz on drums, he formed a trio called The Fireworks Art Ensemble; they played an appropriately incendiary music McConner describes as being “based on sound, strength, feeling, and lengths of time.” The trio got together at Ahmed’s African Import Shop and played small clubs, restaurants, colleges, community centers, and even street corners, basements, and playgrounds. McConner got together with many other local musicians as well to play improvised music that “would really go ‘OUT’…we just played as hard as we could, as long and as loud as we could and let the spirit take over.” The spiritual dimension of the music rather than any technical concerns was what really mattered for him—to play “exclusively what it is you feel in the moment, something never even conceived, something raw, guttural and utterly spiritual.” McConner fostered this vision of a spiritually-based improvisation by encouraging others to explore it. In the early 1970s, he began hosting Friday night sessions for music, conversation, and fellowship at his home, which he called the African Omnidevelopment Space Complex/We New. Many musicians passed through it over the years; it was an important community institution that endured into the early years of the new millennium.

“Community” is the key here, but in no narrow sense. From the point of view of the larger jazz industry it would be easy enough to characterize McConner and his Friday evenings as “just” a local phenomenon that fell outside of the broader music marketplace. But in his afterword to the book, alto saxophonist patrick brennan, a participant in McConner’s Friday night sessions from 1972-1975, makes the important point that such a characterization would only miss the point. Music, and its role in the life of an individual and a community, is a more complex, and vital, thing that validates itself and is validated by the effect it has on those who encounter it and above all, on those who are affected by it and live it in a deeply meaningful way. McConner certainly did live it, and encouraged others to live it as well, and did it all in a broadly welcoming spirit. In fact what comes across most vividly in this memoir is not only McConner’s obvious passion for music, but his profound generosity of spirit. That the two can be, and even should be, intimately connected is the greater message of the book.

Daniel Barbiero