Milwaukee, Wisconsin experimental musician and visual artist Wilhelm Matthies is well-known for creating graphic scores of elegant design and legibility; these often feature fine brushwork and a grisaille palette that recalls East Asian ink painting. He also is the creator of a family of string instruments he calls mosesa, which he has been developing since 2012. The mosesa resembles something along the lines of a minimalist zither with flexible planking and resonating materials of various types, originally, plastic bottles; Matthies usually plays with a violin or erhu bow but the instrument can also be played directly with the hands. The mosesa featured on Curtains is the mosesa 9-CedarPlate, an instrument that employs cedar as its resonating material and features a single bridge (earlier versions of the mosesa had two bridges); in addition, Matthies augmented the basic sound of the mosesa with a chain of guitar pedals.
For the Jefferson Park set, Matthies interpreted his graphic score GC 1-19-18 (3). The most striking thing about the performance is the range of voices Matthies is able to elicit. Timbre predominates over pitch—the latter is rarely fixed and generally appears as a continuous gamut of microtonal shades, which Matthies produces through string-bending and bow articulation. At times this gives the mosesa a vina-like sound (the compass is reminiscent of the vina as well); at other times, it recalls the scratch and whine of the erhu. There is a vocal quality to much of the sound, a waxing and waning of range and intensity that mimics the dynamic cycle of an emotion; the electronic pedals serve to alter the textures and enhance the already considerable color variety inherent in the instrument alone.
The music of composer Douglas Boyce reflects an eclectic set of influences and interests. He has turned pre-Baroque music for inspiration as well as raw material; at the same time, he is conversant with contemporary compositional language rooted in Modernism. On Some Consequences of Four Incapacities, Boyce presents recent work in a contemporary vein. The string trio 102nd and Amsterdam is a sonic portrait of an intersection in upper Manhattan: the energy of an urban crossroad translated into vertiginous glissandi, frantically pulsating rhythms and the often dissonant coincidence of independently moving voices. The rhythmic cohesion and propulsion of the string trio find a counterpart in Piano Quartet No. 1 for violin, viola, cello, and piano. The piece’s asymmetrical but regular rhythms and heavy chords wittily acknowledge—and reveal the congruence between—two of Boyce’s early influences: Bartok and King Crimson. The CD closes with the well-crafted, thirty-five minute-long Fortuitous Variations, a four-part composition for piano, violin, and cello.
Rooms & Rituals is a recording of often strange but always beautiful music for electronically modified female voices. The latter belong to the Trondheim Voices, a group of vocalists whose performances integrate wireless sound-sculpting devices developed for them by Asle and Arnvid Lau Karstad. On these twelve tracks the combination of voices and electronics makes for haunting, ethereal sounds that explore the voice in its different manifestations—sung, spoken, yelled, whispered—with and without words. These voices stand alone, are massed into floating chords, call back and forth, and loop themselves into ostinati. And even though some of the pieces seem to balance on the edge of a pure electronic music, there is never a loss of the natural intimacy that’s never more effectively communicated than through the human voice.
Relative to his New York School associates John Cage and Morton Feldman, Earle Brown (1926-2002) tends to be overlooked both as a composer and as someone who helped reimagine the relationship between composition and performance. But his work with graphic and indeterminate scores, composed in the 1950s, helped define a concept of composition as an open-ended—he liked to use the word “mobile”—process consisting in the dynamic exchange of creative energy between composer and performer. Brown described these scores, exemplified by the FOLIO collection, as “ambiguous but implicitly inclusive” systems which, with the active participation of the performer, would stimulate an engagement with sound through its multiple parameters. Beyond their capacity to elicit a highly creative response from the performer, Brown’s graphic scores—the single-page December 1952 best known among them—are elegant, and elegantly spare, works of visual art in their own right.
The Pugliese pianist Gianni Lenoci has had an interest in Brown’s work for at least a decade, having obtained from the Earle Brown Foundation some scores for study. Like other performers before him, Lenoci, active in jazz and improvised music, was attracted to Brown’s work at least in part because of Brown’s own background as an improvising jazz trumpeter. Unlike a composer like Cage, who long denied the role of improvisation in the interpretation of his own indeterminate scores, Brown fully acknowledged that improvisation was the latent content implicit in his graphic and modular work. Lenoci’s Selected Works for Piano and/or Sound-Producing Media, the recording of which was supported by a grant from the Earle Brown Music Foundation, presents the pianist’s realizations of ten of Brown’s compositions.
Lenoci’s piano performances are exquisite—hearing them, one can imagine sound as the material crystallization of time. The pieces from FOLIO treat sound as consisting in a collection of quanta–a series of brief, discrete points in time defined by their sudden eruption, limited duration, and inevitable dissipation. Moving through the FOLIO sequence these events gradually become longer in phrasing or simply hang in the air, blending into one another—helped, in the case of December 1957 52, by an electronic delay or loop. In contrast to these piano performances, Lenoci’s interpretation of Four Systems is a thicker-textured thing–all electronic scuff and rush. The closing piece, Twenty-Five Pages, is a shimmering kaleidoscope of pianism that never loses momentum throughout its entire twenty-five minute length.
Syria is the second release by A-Septic, the tenor saxophone-piano duo of Piedmontese musicians Stefano Ferrian and Simone Quatrana. Ferrian, from Novara, is a multi-instrumentalist who in addition to tenor saxophone plays guitar and Chapman Stick; the Milanese Quatrana studied piano with Franco d’Andrea after an initial period of self-instruction. Together, they improvise a kind of music they describe as “instant composing”—which certainly isn’t a bad description of the music here, all of which exhibits a disciplined sense of structure and interplay.
Overall, the mood of the album is reflective—reflective but ultimately passionate. Ferrian and Quatrana play with rubato rhythms and rising and falling dynamics measured by the length of an emotional arc. Quatrana’s piano keeps the music harmonically centered with dark chords that often recall Mussorgsky—particularly on Neve Rossa, an engaging solo performance. Ferrian plays with a sense of melody that fits tightly over whatever harmonic framework he finds himself within. The album is dedicated to Syria, a country for whose sufferings the two tracks titled Sūriyā provide a heartfelt elegy.
Opalescence is a recording by an unconventional trio of musicians from highly diverse fields. The instrumentation alone—flutes of various kinds, bass recorder, and sopranino saxophone on the one hand, and double bass on the other—promises intriguing contrasts of range and timbre. It’s a promise made good by the musical backgrounds of the players. Rodenkirchen specializes in flute music from the medieval through Baroque eras, but he also plays what he aptly describes as “experimental archaic music;” Lee, although represented here on contrabass recorder, gemshorn, various flutes and sopranino saxophone, is a wide-ranging multi-instrumentalist known for improvisational experimental rock; double bassist Ilgenfritz, with a background in jazz and contemporary composition, is a well-established figure in New York’s new music/improvised music scene. What unites all three is a fluency in improvisation and a sensitivity to the places their voices take within a unique system of instrumental differences.
Rodenkirchen’s solo pieces Phosphorescence and Iridescence open and close the set respectively; both float with an uncluttered lyricism while understatedly using extended techniques to shore up their essentially song-like lines. Ilgenfritz’s solo on Mille Regretz is a virtuoso turn through a thicket of harmonics and bow articulations that mimic a flute’s range and colors. Rodenkirchen and Lee’s duet tracks take the form of a loose Baroque canon, or exploit fractional differences of tone and tuning. On the trio pieces, Ilgenfritz manipulates the bass’s overtone profile through finger weight and bowings in order to weave it artfully into the texture of Rodenkirchen and Lee’s combined sounds.
Altogether, a fine set of music.
In October of this year Japanese pianist/composer Satoko Fujii will celebrate her 60th birthday; to mark the occasion she’s decided to release one CD per month for 2018. Two of these releases, each featuring Fujii in a trio setting, are a testament to the diversity of her musical interests and her willingness to take risks at the initiation of what in Japan is celebrated as a new, auspicious stage of life.
The first trio is This Is It!, an ensemble consisting of Fujii along with trumpeter Natsuki Tamura and percussionist Takashi Itani. The three have played together for about five years, originally as a quartet with bassist Todd Nicholson and later alone as a trio. For the album 1538—named for the melting point of iron in degrees Celsius—the group improvises around six of Fujii’s compositions. The composed sections are more than just expedient launching points for improvisation—often of very high-energy; they’re compelling in themselves. Fujii frequently writes complex, convoluted melodies across multiple time signatures. It’s very demanding material to play, but play it Tamura and Itani do, and with a tight cohesion. The trio’s unusual instrumentation of trumpet, drums and piano gives the sound an aggressive edge that is perfectly adapted to Fujii’s jagged, stop-and-start lines.
The second trio consists of American double bassist Joe Fonda and Italian soprano saxophonist Gianni Mimmo. Unlike the standing trio with Tamura and Itani, this trio was put together for the occasion. Fujii and Fonda have a longstanding musical relationship, but Mimmo was a new factor. The set of improvisations was recorded in Milan on 9 October 2017, Fujii’s 59th birthday and the day after the three had played a concert—the latter being the first time they’d played together as a trio. One wouldn’t know it from listening to the music, which coheres as a tight fusion of compatible sensibilities. The three seem to share a sense of improvisation’s ability to trace a quasi-narrative cycle, which here takes the form of a long-term oscillation, consisting in waves of expressionistic intensity dissolving into introspective duets or solos. All five pieces, including the forty-minute-long Birthday Girl, show a remarkable attention to structure; the playing is in the moment, as is all good free improvisation, but every moment also seems to anticipate not only what the next moment will be, but what, given the current state of things, it should be. Fujii is an intuitive pianist who seems to approach improvisation with a composer’s sensitivity; she can fill audio space with cascades of sound or can allow ample breathing room with sparser, quasi-premeditated pitch collections. Mimmo—who was an inspired choice for making the Fujii-Fonda duo a trio–plays with characteristically refined lyricism leavened by timbral experimentation at the edges; his finely etched lines never lose definition, even at extremes of volumes and speed. Fonda’s forceful and often percussive voice provides a solid foundation; even in this free context he conserves the bass’s traditional function as anchor. Occasionally he switches to wood flute, which makes for a surprising, and surprisingly engaging, color contrast.