AMN Reviews: Los Angeles Percussion Quartet – Beyond [Sono Luminus DSL-92214]

More than for any other kind of ensemble, it would seem, success for a percussion ensemble depends on the deft integration of timbre and space. Percussion instruments—made of wood, metal, glass–encompass a broad spectrum of sound colors and seem to want the space, alone or in combination, to let those colors make an impression. With their vast array of standard and non-standard percussion instruments, The Los Angeles Percussion Quartet—Matt Cook, Justin DeHart, Cory Hills and Nick Terry—positively revels in timbral variety. Not only vibes, drums, marimba and glockenspiels, which they strike, bow and rub, but metal sheets; pipes and planks; struck and bowed vessels containing water; and a miscellany of objects too idiosyncratic to mention. And in the five compositions they realize in Beyond, their third album, they show a sensitivity to the way space helps define sound by clarifying structure.

Beyond is formatted as a three-disc collection—two CDs and a Blu-ray surround-sound audio disc. The highlight of CD One is Christopher Cerrone’s beautiful five-part suite Memory Palace for percussion, odd instruments, and electronics. The odd instruments include tuned metal pipes, tuned cut wood slats, wine bottles filled with different volumes of water to produce different pitches, and a restrung cheap guitar. On the face of it, these objects are little more than detritus rescued from a rubbish heap, but their effects are distinctly musical. The guitar–a somewhat surprising presence in a percussion ensemble–gives the first section its characteristic sound. The wood slats stand at the center of the second section, carrying a melody hinting at harmonic cadences; section three effortlessly folds the sound of the metal pipes into a recording of wind chimes made at Cerrone’s parents’ house. The fourth section’s rhythmic pulses played tremolando on wood provide a refracted image of the second section, while the piece concludes in an appropriately reflective atmosphere carried on the electronics’ simple I-IV-V harmonies.

The disc’s opening piece, Daníel Bjarnason’s Qui Tollis, shapes musical space through dynamics as well as sound density. Beginning with a quiet rattling of metal, the piece gradually builds with vibes before settling into a muscular rhythm underscored by bass drums which then recedes into silence. Disc One also includes composer Ellen Reid’s Fear-Release, an episodic work featuring composite timbres fusing the high resonance of metal with the hollow thump of large drums, and Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s sparely dramatic Aura, a work to be performed in the dark with three of the percussionists circling the stationary fourth.

Andrew McIntosh’s forty-minute-long I Hold the Lion’s Paw fills CD Two and is also presented in surround-sound on the Blu-ray disc. Like Aura, which programs musical space as a function of literal space, I Hold the Lion’s Paw makes the physical location of the players a factor within its compositional structure. The musicians and instruments are dispersed—ideally, they surround the audience—in such a way as to give phrases the appearance of extension in space as well as in time. Space, both aural and physical, doesn’t carve the music at the joints so much as it is the joints, binding and separating sequences of sounds and marking the beginnings and endings of small- and large-scale structural elements. The sounds themselves tend to be grouped into single timbre clusters or clusters of related timbres; a salient feature of the piece’s tonal makeup is the use of microsounds, such as are obtained from a set of aluminum pipes tuned to quarter tones, and bowls whose pitch is raised and lowered according to changes in the amount of water they contain. The end result is an uncluttered play of rhythms and colors that rewards patient listening.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Mikel Kuehn – Object/Shadow [New Focus Recordings fcr160]

The results of the musical revolution that Modernism midwived during the last century are still with us. At one time a matter of novelty, the possibilities Modernism opened up—regarding pitch relationships, the role of timbre, and musical syntax—have grown into a kind of alternative common practice whose strategies are always already available to contemporary composers.

For composer Mikel Kuehn (b. 1967), the common practice of Modernism is a notable presence animating his work. Kuehn, who is Professor of Composition at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, began as a percussionist while in his teens in the Los Angeles area. Like many composers of his generation, his background includes jazz and other musics outside of the Western classical tradition. Some of these eclectic influences can be felt in his compositions as, for example, in their instrumentation. But on Object/Shadow, the first full release dedicated to his music, Modernism, with its expansive pitch and timbral vocabularies and especially its divisionist syntax, is the central point of reference.

On the ensemble pieces Undercurrents (2013), Color Fields (2006/2008) and Between the Lynes (1994), Kuehn employs Modernist-derived strategies for handling textures and phrasing. On all three pieces, he treats the surfaces as complex, colorful mosaics made up of small, irregularly-shaped tiles, foregrounding different instruments or instrumental combinations as brief, constantly changing events. The tensions created by these fragmentary textures are complemented by unresolved dissonances and phrase endings left dangling like open and unanswered questions. Those are general observations; each of the pieces has attractions of its own. Color Fields, for example, written for and performed here by the Flexible Music quartet of tenor saxophone (Timothy Ruedeman), vibes (Haruka Fujii), guitar (Daniel Lippel) and piano (Eric Huebner), like Milton Babbitt’s All Set takes a jazz ensemble and turns it to abstract uses. Whereas All Set broke the ensemble down into constantly changing subgroups, Color Fields is notable for combining instruments into a single line of composite timbre. The contrast of staccato and sustaining voices sounding in parallel gives the piece a restless push, as do the generally long, propulsive phrases running through it. Between the Lynes for flute, cello, and piano, the oldest work represented, is also the closest in sound to a mid-20th Century, broken-surfaced serial composition. It’s a gratifying excursion into audio painting: Like pieces falling in a turning kaleidoscope, the three voices—Ensemble Dal Niente’s Emma Hospelhorn, Chris Wild, and Winston Choi–combine and divide into quick, short-lived alliances and oppositions.

Unfoldings (2004), a solo guitar work written for and played by Lippel, treats color nuances within the more restricted palette of a single instrument. The composition consists in a subdued drama built on the different timbral characteristics of open and stopped strings, harmonics, varied chord voicings, and the placement of the right hand relative to the bridge. Lippel’s sensitive and unhurried performance brings out the fine-grained shadings this subtle work calls for. Chiaroscuro (2007) also focuses on the timbres of a single instrument, but the sounds here are enhanced and multiplied by virtue of having the solo instrument—a cello—augmented by its own pre-recorded and manipulated sounds. As a result, Chiaroscuro is as bold as Unfoldings is temperate; Craig Hutgren’s robust realization foregrounds percussive strikes, microtonal clashes, and deliberately harsh bowing.

A fine and stimulating collection of music.

Daniel Barbiero

Baltimore SDIY 2017 Summerfest Concert

The Baltimore SDIY Group announces its 2017 Summerfest concert, to be held Saturday, July 8 at the Electric Maid, 268 Carroll Street NW, Washington DC 20012. Both concerts are all-ages with a $10 admission.

The concert features Dave Vosh; Rupert Chappelle as National Electrophonic; Arthur Loves Plastic (Bev Stanton) & John Saint John as Novparolo; Rick Kowalski’s Spooky Action; and Pat Gillis’s TL0741 project.

Saturday, July 8, 7:30 PM. Doors at 7:00.

For more information, visit the Baltimore SDIY webpages.

AMN Reviews: Kasper T. Toeplitz – Amas [Pogus 21086-2]

Kasper Toeplitz (b .1960), the Polish-born composer currently residing in Paris, began his career in the 1980s writing for traditional acoustic orchestral instruments. To be sure, his influences were drawn from the outer edges of the Western art music tradition—he’s named the examples provided by Giacinto Scelsi, Gyorgi Ligeti and Iannis Xenakis as having played a significant formative role in his early work. But a 1997 trip to Japan brought about a shift in in focus. While in Japan he engaged in improvisation and collaborated with Merzbow and Tetsuo Furudate, and put together what he describes as a “big noise orchestra” that toured Japan and Europe. At around this time he also formed Le Dépeupleur, a laptop duo with Zbigniew Karkowski, and became involved in composing textural works using the computer not only as a compositional tool but as an instrument for live performances. Amas is one such work, consisting in a single hour-plus long accumulation of sound in which largely unpitched noise is summed and built up into a substantial, thickly-textured mass. The piece is in essence a gradual electronic crescendo-decrescendo in which bands of noise spread out over a wide compass, starting with a low frequency rumble and working their way through to a trebly static. A seemingly long way away from an acoustic ensemble, perhaps, but a not-unrecognizable heir to the sound-block experiments of Toeplitz’s early inspirations.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Mariel Roberts – Cartography [New Focus fcr185]

Cartography, the second solo album from cellist Mariel Roberts, follows up and extends the work she did on her debut solo recording, 2012’s Nonextraneous Sounds. There, she presented five pieces for solo cello or cello in tandem with electronics, all of which she had commissioned from composers under the age of 40. Her new CD also presents new work, all of them composed last year. Two are for solo cello and one each are for cello accompanied by piano and live electronics. And in contrast to the earlier CD, the work of at least one veteran composer, George Lewis, is represented.

Roberts is known as a cellist working with the sometimes radical techniques and forms of contemporary composed music. Although all four of the works on Cartography are technically challenging, the technical resources they demand are simply a means toward expressive ends; the inspirations behind the compositions, far from consisting in the investigation of technique for its own sake, all derive from extra-musical ideas. Interestingly, these ideas largely have to do with time: Time as manifested in historical cycles, time as the measure of the finite lifespans of individuals and groups, and time as a perpetually unfinished sequence of moments and events.

Eric Wubbels’ gretchen am spinnrade, for cello and piano, turns on repetition. The composer, who also performs on piano, describes it as a “manic, hounded piece”—an accurate summary of its more or less relentless hammering away at repeated notes, phrases and rhythms. There are occasional, short-lived interludes of calm, but the piece is notably harrowing experience—an effect not only of the constantly tolling piano but of the dazzlingly virtuosic unison passages of rapidly changing time signatures and displaced accents.

Lewis’s Spinner was inspired by the Greek myth of the Fates, the three goddesses presiding over the finitude and fortunes of human life. The work calls for a wide variety of contemporary performance techniques—broad glissandi, discordant double stops, abrupt punctuation with plucked notes and harmonics, unusual bow articulations. Rather than sounding abstract, this mixture of techniques lends the piece a very human quality—much of it conveyed by the cello’s capacity for capturing vocal inflections, which Roberts’s performance brings out.

The Cartography of Time, by composer Davið Brynjar Franzson is, like Spinner, a work for unaccompanied cello. Franzson’s map is drawn with long, sustained tones gradually multiplied through layering. There is no real melodic movement, just a slow thickening of texture into standing, nearly immobile harmonies. The image of time that emerges is as a kind of dessicated, immaterial plain stretching ahead to an endpoint always receding beyond the horizon.

Cenk Ergün’s Aman, a word that in Arabic means “security” but in Turkish is a warning, is the one piece that doesn’t engage time directly. A work for cello and live electronics, Aman unfolds through discontinuities of texture and register, initially treating the cello almost as a percussion instrument. The electronics, supplied by the composer, take the piece farther away from a “natural” acoustic sound by introducing an element of distortion and colored noise, and eventually transforming the cello into a dispenser of backward-surging tones.

The four pieces differ significantly from each other and place different sets of demands on the performer; Roberts’s performances are consistently exciting and never allow technique to overshadow expression.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Kyle Motl – Transmogrification [metatrope-003]

As I write this, double bassist Kyle Motl is on tour, playing contemporary compositions for solo double bass by the great Romanian Spectralists Iancu Dumitrescu and Horatiu Radulescu, among others. The works Motl has chosen to play are all conceptually and technically challenging pieces that extend the range of sounds the instrument can produce and correspondingly, the performance methods required to produce them. On Transmogrification,  Motl’s new solo CD, the bassist plays his own music. But here, as in his touring repertoire, his playing is informed by his fluency in the language of contemporary performance practices, allowing him to take the instrument to the edge of its known world.

The fifteen tracks are sequenced to trace a narrative arc starting with the concrete, largely conventional Panjandrums for pizzicato bass and moving through increasing stages of abstraction. Although he uses advanced techniques and often prepares the bass with foreign objects, Motl’s choices are always intelligent and above all, musical, no matter how far the distance he takes the bass from a traditionally lyrical sound. He’s particularly good at drawing percussive effects from the instrument with fingers, hands and a tautly bouncing bow. On several tracks he modifies the bass with objects inserted between the strings in order to envelop the notes in a rattling, buzzing sound; on others, he elicits a fascinating world of quasi-electronic sounds simply with nuanced bow articulations.

All in all, Transmogrification is a fine addition to the large and still growing catalogue of recordings for solo double bass.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Sadhana – Sadhana [Plus Timbre PT054]

Sadhana, the Neapolitan trio of Massimo Imperatore on guitar and effects, Umberto Lepore on double bass, objects and bells, and drummer Marco Castaldo, take the jazz guitar trio through both conventional and challenging soundworlds, always following a path of musically impeccable logic.

Both tracks are structured as suites alternating melodic improvisation with abstract sound; the transitions between sections are smooth and make the relationship between melody and noise a reciprocal, mutually inevitable one. The nearly thirty-six minute long opening track starts with pristine, reverberant guitar notes quickly joined by double bass in a unison line. What develops is a vaguely implied, calypso-like harmonic progression seated on top of free-rhythm drumming and a restless bassline that seems on the verge of breaking into a regular walk, but never does. The piece dissolves into unpitched sounds—crisp drumming supplemented by creaking, scraping, the backwards-surge of a volume pedal or control. And then back again to melody, through several cycles. The shorter second track runs this script backward, starting with sound and developing into pitch.

Each of the pieces is notable for its clarity and transparency of texture, even when the music shades off into pure sound. Each individual voice maintains its unmistakable profile—the guitar its clean, round tone; the double bass a muted, pizzicato attack; the drums a firm, supporting presence. A very fine recording all around.

Daniel Barbiero