The lyricist to the title track of A Present from a Small Distant World, a set of vocal music by Toronto composer Alex Eddington, is the unlikely James Earl Carter, Jr., the 39th president of the US. For the piece, which opens the album, the composer set the message Carter wrote to be carried into space on the 1977 Voyager space probes—a kind of greeting card from Earth to Whom It May Concern in the deep cosmos. In a nice bit of symmetry “to the makers of music, all worlds, all time,” the dedication inscribed on the famous Golden Record of music and other sounds from Earth that the two probes carried, provides the text for the closing track.
These two compositions and the nine in between span the nearly two-decade long period 2002-2020. The album, Eddington’s debut, features an eclectic set of electroacoustic sounds and texts by authors ranging from Shakespeare to an anonymous spam bot. But one constant running throughout is the remarkable voice of soprano Kristin Mueller-Heaslip, which can communicate meaning even with the absurdities of Scintillating (2008/2020), a world salad derived from spam, as well as with the earnest sentiments, transmitted through the electronic chaff of overlaying and processing, expressed in the Voyager statement. Her unaccompanied performance of Shakespeare’s Sonnet XVIII, which Eddington set with dramatic leaps of register and dynamics, finds in this well-known text the austere, metaphysical dark cloud lurking behind the lyric’s evocation of eternal summer.
The highlight of this engaging recording is Time Will Erase (2009/2019), a twenty-minute-long opera for soprano and saxophone, the latter played by Jennifer Tran. Time Will Erase is a moving work based on the eventful, sometimes harrowing life of poet Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966), who experienced some of the best and some of the worst aspects of Russian, and later Soviet, life. The composition features Akhmatova’s text along with supplementary text by Mueller-Heaslip. Time Will Erase is a forceful reminder that Eddington’s creative work has included acting and playwrighting as well as composing music.
Reflections of the Invisible World is a seductively atmospheric, texturally rich solo work from Toronto guitarist Colin Fisher. Fisher multi-tracks himself on all of the instruments that appear on the album: electric guitar, or course, but also tenor saxophone and electronics. All six pieces demonstrate a clarity of form in which Fisher’s three instrumental elements each have a well-defined part to play. Guitar and saxophone trace lines that run rapidly over or stab into the languidly cycling chord progressions that Fisher spells out with electronics. As a one-person ensemble working from a foundation of electronic sound it would be easy enough for Fisher to solo over drones, but he doesn’t do this; instead, he sets down thoughtful leads over harmonic sequences that often take unexpected turns while making good musical sense nevertheless.
Actions Speak Louder is an ambitious, three-CD set from Canadian composer Tim Brady that encompasses both older pieces reworked anew, and more recent compositions. Essential to Brady’s musical practice is his work as a solo electric guitarist as well as a composer for whom the recording studio is an instrument as well as a workspace; Actions Speak Louder represents both halves to good effect.
Disc One, Solos and a Quartet, is centered on Brady’s solo guitar work. The three-movement Simple Loops in Complex Time is very much marked by the electric guitar’s native sound, and has Brady stretching repeating patterns across changing time signatures. The four-movement The Virtuosity of Time inclines toward more purely electronic sound masses. It has a darker, more portentous and elongated character than Simple Loops, and yet in the overall context of the disc seems to extend rather than refute the sonic atmosphere of Simple Loops. The final piece on the disc is Uncertain Impact for guitar quartet, a vigorously hammered out work featuring complex rhythmic counterpoint, here performed by Instruments of Happiness (Brady along with Jonathan Barriault, Simone Duchesne, and Francis Burnet-Turcotte).
The second disc, and the highlight of the collection, contains Brady’s four-movement Triple Concerto: Because Everything Has Changed for electric guitar, violin (played by Helmut Lipsky), tabla and percussion (Shawn Mativetsky) and virtual orchestra. The latter frames and supports the soloists with swells of sound thanks to Brady’s masterful manipulation of dynamics and densities to create a dramatic backdrop for the three soloists’ improvisations. All three play with a sense of urgency, compressed energy and stamina appropriate to the emotional tensions expanding and contracting over the work’s forty-minute running time. It’s an exciting piece that represents one extremely fruitful way of composing a contemporary concerto with a modern sensibility, employing modern means.
The third and final disc contains two archival recordings which Brady re-presents through remastering or additional studio production. The earlier of the two consists of settings of six poems conveying the personal upheavals and emotional turbulence that accompany political revolutions, performed by soprano Nathalie Poulin and Brady’s Bradyworks ensemble of saxophones, piano, cello, percussion and electric guitar. The second piece combines samples of a documentary interview along with chorus, guitar and percussion in a concept work about destructive, covert drug experiments carried out by the CIA in Montreal in the 1960s.
The two improvisations on …camminava solo sotto le stelle find multi-instrumentalist Mauro Sambo paired with percussionist Marcello Magiolocchi, who also brings a number of instruments to the collaboration. The tracks were recorded a year apart, the first in December 2014 and the second in the following December.
One of the instruments Magliocchi is credited with playing is sounding sculptures by Andrea Dami, which may well provide the opening moves on these two substantial performances. Magliocchi has had prior experience with Dami’s sheet metal and steel sculptures, having recorded the album Music for Sounding Sculptures in Twenty-three Movements some ten years ago, and in fact sounds from Dami’s sculptures appear to be the continuo running throughout both tracks. Sambo’s electronics, bass clarinet, and bowed double bass join Magliocchi to add a layer of largely unpitched sounds to a collective sound that plays subtly with changes of density. In addition to percussion, Magliocchi contributes electric and acoustic guitars and Sambo adds soprano saxophone, further mixing colors in the overall weave of musical texture. Still, the predominant timbres come from the various percussion instruments, which provide both background context and foreground punctuation. What’s striking and strikingly consistent about both pieces is the way Sambo and Magliocchi create a truly cooperative sound, a polyphony of timbres melding into a purposeful unity.
Recorded in November 2019, Avoiding Sharks Attacks is a compact set of four improvisations by the trio of Luca Pissavini on five-string double bass (played both “clean” and with electronic distortion), Fabrizio Bozzi Fenu on electric guitar, and Emilio Bernè sampling drums on laptop—a surprisingly effective substitute for an organic drum kit in the context of the group’s close interactions. The three play in a style that alludes, often in an oblique way, to harmonic cycles and structured themes but still manages to flow freely with the unfolding logic of the moment, whether frantic, as on the opening track, or more reflective, as in Lose Obedience.
When John Cage invented the prepared piano to accompany a dance performance, the idea was to mimic the sound of a percussion ensemble in a space too small to accommodate one. With his own work, French pianist Benoit Delbecq has taken the idea of the prepared piano further. For Delbecq, using a highly selective and idiosyncratic system of preparations along with an open form of composition, the prepared piano is seemingly transformed into an ensemble—an unaltered piano accompanied by one or more percussion instruments.
Delbecq’s musical vision is on full display in The Weight of Light, a fascinating solo album recorded in the otherwise inauspicious month of March, 2020. Delbecq’s sound on the recording is grounded in a pulse-based, elastic sense of time that he constructs out of repeated patterns of independent and layered rhythmic motifs. He’s developed his own form of graphic notation employing circles and calligrams—words arranged to form shapes or images—to denote these musical structures, which he conceives of in terms of proportions or other relationships between numerical objects.
Delbecq’s method of piano preparation is to insert objects, most often wooden sticks of varying hardness, into a handful of strings in a way that affects only the keys playing the rhythmic patterns. As a result, he lends the piano the sound of a gamelan, as on the pieces Family Trees, Anamorphoses and Pair et Impair, or of a drum kit, as on the opening The Loop of Chicago. On top of all this he plays jazz-inflected, chromatic or modal melody lines drawn predominantly from the unprepared part of the piano. To hear it is to imagine one is hearing two or more players or overdubs, but it’s all done by Delbecq alone, in real time. It’s sleight of hand, literally, in the form of hand-crossings and striking keys already depressed. But Delbecq also can play directly and in a largely conventional manner, as he does on the album’s closing track, Broken World, a freely elegiac and highly affective quasi-ballad.
The subtitle of pianist Gianni Lenoci’s A Few Steps Beyond is The Very Last Concert, which it sadly turned out to have been. Lenoci’s performance took place at the Pinocateca d’Arte Moderna in Ruvo di Puglia on 4 September 2019; on 30 September he died at age 56. Lenoci was called “L’anima jazz della Puglia” but he was also an inspired interpreter of the experimental and open-form compositions of postwar avant-garde art music as shown by, for example, the recordings he made of the music of Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, and Sylvano Bussotti. Both sides of his musical personality—the jazz side and the avant-garde “classical” side—are apparent in the six performances on A Few Steps Beyond, which as luck would have it were captured by the small recorder Lenoci happened to place under the piano.
Lenoci’s inventiveness and capacity to recast preexisting structures as open forms are on full display in his performance of, of all things, the old standard All the Things You Are. It’s no easy thing to make of this overly familiar tune an exciting and unpredictable piece of music, but this he does. Lenoci starts with highly elastic and oblique allusions to the song’s harmonic cycles, which he proceeds to drive into increasingly convoluted and inward-turning musical territory. Just when the tension of anticipation—underscored by the urgent rhythm Lenoci maintains throughout—becomes nearly unbearable, a straight reading of the song breaks through, recognition of which registers as a shock after all that came before. Lenoci’s interpretation of Carla Bley’s Ida Lupino is less radical but still demonstrates his ability to transform standing structures in original ways. Working largely through variations on the basic melody, he moves in and out of form by subjecting that main theme to a kind of Cubist presentation from all perspectives, while maintaining it as the piece’s (deliberately flexible) backbone.
A Few Steps Beyond also contains Lenoci’s interpretations of Ornette Coleman’s Lorraine and Latin Genetics, as well as Paul Bley’s Blues Waltz and–in a bit of unintended irony–Gordon Jenkins’ Goodbye. On these performances no less than on the others, Lenoci’s inspired pianism offers a view into a unique musical sensibility that was all-too-soon gone. We are fortunate to have this final concert as a part of his recorded legacy.
A long interval separates the release of the new, fourth album by the Toronto multimedia collective Intersystems and the group’s third album: more than fifty years. That third album, Free Psychedelic Poster Inside, appeared in 1968 and represented the culmination of the collective’s unique variety of aural psychedelia which, in contrast to the more commercial types of musical psychedelia then current, was the product of a particular avant-garde sensibility expressed through homemade instruments, tapes, and a notably early adoption of the Moog synthesizer. A Moog modular is at the heart of the new album, a two CD set of one full-length recording and one EP, which was recorded in 2015 by the two surviving members of the collective, sound artist John Mills-Cockell and light sculptor/visual artist Michael Hayden. The words for #IV were written by Intersystems’ poet-lyricist Blake Parker, who died in 2007. (The fourth member of the collective was architect Dik Zander.)
Parker’s words are a salient part of the new recording, not least because they are “spoken” by computer-generated voice. At times the synthetic voice sounds almost perfectly natural, but at other times, through various means of electronic distortion, it mutates into an uncanny artificiality. Rather than distracting from the content of Parker’s writing this alienation of the voice from the human presence of a speaker only serves to underscore the sometimes unsettling surreality of the poetry. Mills-Cockell’s work with the Moog modular evokes the sounds of the classic electronic experiments of an earlier period, but does so in a way that’s fresh and entirely contemporary.
Dave Seidel’s Involution is another double CD release of electronic music, but of a kind very different from Intersystems’. Seidel’s album contains two very long, multi-movement works, the new three-part Involution and a remastered version of the six-part Hexany Permutations, which was previously released in 2016. Both pieces are slowly evolving drones diverging and converging within a microtonal soundspace defined by conventional and unconventional scales of varying sets of intervals.
The Hunt by Night is the second monograph recording of chamber music from composer Douglas Boyce. Boyce, who is on the faculty of Washington DC’s George Washington University, often takes his inspiration from early music as well as from contemporary modes of composition. This comes out most explicitly in his Quintet l’homme armé, a piece for clarinet, violin, viola, cello, and piano performed here by members of the counter)induction ensemble, a group which Boyce co-founded. Boyce takes the late medieval melody L’homme armé and subjects it to a thorough refiguration in which it is transubstantiated into something with a completely contemporary sound.
The title track, The Hunt by Night, Quire 9 No. 3 is from Boyce’s Book of Etudes. The piece appared previously on the counter)induction album Against Method; in my review of that album I described it in these pages as “a trio for clarinet, cello, and piano that uncoils with a spry, loping energy that recalls the spirit of Les Six.” Stretto Perpetuo, Quire 4 No. 1 for cello and piano, is another one of Boyce’s twenty-one etudes. The object of this vigorous piece’s study is rhythmic, hence its foundation in a rhythmically varied, urgently repeated single note that cellist Schyler Slack and pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute pass around between themselves.
Sails Knife-bright in a Seasonal Wind is a trio for violinist Miranda Cucskon, guitarist Daniel Lippel and percussionist Jeffrey Irving. This is a sparely written piece that allows each individual voice to stand out with clarity against a background of open space; in particular, Lippel’s finely etched, plucked tones contrast tellingly with Cuckson’s bow work.
The Hunt by Night also contains the Piano Quartet No. 2, an essay in microtonality for strings.
The tales of Edgar Allan Poe have inspired hacks and artists as different as crime story writers working for the pulps on the one hand, and poets such as Charles Baudelaire and the Surrealists on the other. Silent Orchestra are most decidedly artists and not hacks, as they demonstrate on their CD Poe—A Dream Within a Dream, a collection of ten musical scenarios inspired by Poe’s stories.
Silent Orchestra is the duo of keyboardist Carlos Garza and percussionist Rich O’Meara. (Full disclosure: O’Meara is a longtime collaborator and friend.) The two have played together for a number of years, having put Silent Orchestra together in 1998 to provide live, partly composed, and partly improvised soundtracks for classic silent films such as Nosferatu and Salomé. This background comes naturally into play with Poe, which is a kind of imaginative soundtrack for the written word rather than film.
The music on the CD is grand without being grandiose; its finely articulated and arranged structures are cinematic in suggesting a world of complex action and possibly opaque motives. Between them Garza and O’Meara leverage an array of keyboards and samples, tuned and untuned percussion, guitar, electric bass, ukulele and mandolin. As if this weren’t enough, on three of the tracks their already rich sound is supplemented by guests artists flutist Sara Andon; clarinetist Perry Conticchio; cellists Gabriel DiMarco and Harriet Kaplan,; violinist/violist Joni Fuller; and O’Meara’s son Kevin on ukulele and percussion. As this might imply, the pleasure of these musical texts is in the textures and the timbres woven into them; the heart of the music consists in rhythmically interlocking layers of voices and overlapping instrumental colors. There is much here in a minor key, of course—that’s just how it is with Poe’s tales of the grotesque and arabesque, as one old Doubleday edition would have it—but enough of a range in moods to keep things from falling into an eternal Halloween of the morbid mind.
Alto saxophonist Aaron Martin, a longtime presence in the Washington DC free jazz community, died Thursday. Martin’s was a forceful voice that in recent years could be heard in such ensembles as Ed Ricart’s New Atlantis Octet and the Trio OOO with bassist Luke Stewart and drummer Sam Lohman. Martin was known for an often intense, free style of playing that built extensive thickets of sound out of brief, repeated motifs and melodic fragments. He was 73 years old.