AMN Reviews: Ana Foutel & Edgardo Palotta: Ritual [Plus Timbre PT121]

Recorded in Buenos Aires in the first half of this year, Ritual is the second collaboration between pianist/percussionist Ana Foutel and multi-instrumentalist Edgardo Palotta. That the recording was made live with both musicians present wouldn’t under ordinary circumstances be remarkable, but during the time of COVID it represents an almost defiant assertion of the durability of human connections.

That connection is amply demonstrated by the sure-footed acoustic music the two recorded. Foutel and Palotta explore a spectrum of improvisational possibilities ranging from melodic duets to confrontations of abstract sounds. The very first track, for example, introduces the set with Palotta’s stentorian but ultimately mellifluous reedwork, which robustly overlays Foutel’s elegant pianism. By contrast, a track like Acá no nieva moves smoothly from pitch-based to unpitched sounds, with Palotta’s Indian flute providing the pivot. In addition to Indian flute, Palotta plays bass clarinet, clarinet, and pizzicato double bass. On the three tracks featuring the latter instrument, Palotta sets out slowly varying, repeated figures that Foutel picks up on piano and transforms through variations of her own.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Gianni Lenoci & Franco Degrassi: Nothing [Setola di Maiale SM4240-4250]

The Nothing of the title of this third collaborative release from Gianni Lenoci and Franco Degrassi is the supposed nothing of an ostensibly empty audio space. But as 4’33” famously demonstrated, empty audio space is anything but empty.

Degrassi is an acousmatic composer and electroacoustic improviser from Bari, Italy; Lenoci, who died in September, 2019, was a pianist fluent in the languages of jazz and contemporary art music. For this recording, which was made in Lenoci’s hometown of Monopli the summer before his death, Lenoci’s playing is at its most abstract.

As might be imagined, the sound of the room in which the two long improvisations on this two-CD set were recorded plays a prominent role whether indirectly, in adding resonance to Leonoci’s piano and the “sonorous bodies” both he and Degrassi play, or directly, in the form of ambient or incidental sounds. Sounds and environment combine into a holistic, if largely sparse, tissue of the audio traces of events and non-events transpiring in the studio. In addition to the sparingly placed notes and other sounds from the piano, there is the sound of footsteps restlessly moving back and forth in the room, electronic interventions, and vocalizations.

Daniel Barbiero

Dave Fuglewicz, RIP

Dave Fuglewicz, a long-time experimental electronic musician and sound artist from Lawrenceville, Georgia, died early in the morning of 15 July. Starting in the 1990s Fuglewicz actively participated in the cassette culture independent tape network; his first release was a 1990 tape of experimental music created with pedals and other effects and ARP and homebuilt analog synthesizers.

Anyone who wishes to can contribute to a GoFundMe campaign organized by Chris Phinney to help Dave Fuglewicz’s family pay for his extensive medical costs:

AMN Reviews: patrick brennan: Ways & Sounds: Inquiries Interconnections Contours [Arteidolia Press, 2021]

Originally from Detroit, Michigan, patrick brennan—he prefers to spell his name with lower case letters—is an alto saxophonist, composer and improviser living in New York City since 1975, where he has been creating and performing works involving real-time composition based on polyrhythmically overlapping melodic cells. As this might suggest, brennan has a unique view of composition and its relationship to improvisation. It is a view that he articulates in his book Ways & Sounds, which covers the often complex ramifications of what it means to create music with others, from the perspective of someone actively involved not only in the playing, but in the constructing of interactive compositional frameworks that make that playing possible.

Ways & Sounds is the first book published by the Arteidolia Press, an imprint of the Arteidolia online journal of the arts. (Full disclosure: a book of my own essays is forthcoming from the press.) As an all-arts oriented journal Arteidolia encourages creative approaches to form as well as content; accordingly brennan’s writing, which can be concisely aphoristic or expansively discursive as needed, combines the conversationally direct with the poetically suggestive in a way that conveys the spontaneity of improvisation within the discipline of a thought-out program.

In a provocative opening move, brennan deflects the question—common not only to improvised music but to much contemporary composed music as well—of whether or not a given piece or type of music is structured. The question for brennan is one of “whether” rather than “if,” and so his question becomes one of what kind of structure the music exhibits. For an answer, brennan looks to what he suggests are the two basic poles defining musical structure: what he terms the “monological” and the “dialogical.” In the former kind of music, structure is the product of what he describes as a “single compositional persona,” while for the latter, structure is arrived at through the compositional choices of multiple participants. But although these two compositional alternatives entail significant differences in roles and responsibilities, they do agree in one important respect: whether it is monological or dialogical, the structure is in either case interactive. For even with monologic music, performance involves the interpretation of, and hence an interactive intervention in relation to, the instructions set out by the composer who wrote the piece.

What brennan emphasizes in his analysis of structure and indeed throughout the book is the social dimension of music in all of its forms, whether composed or improvised. As he points out, musical structure encompasses not only the relationships between the musical materials internal to the work or the performance, but the human relationships—cooperative, conflicting, communicative—defining the interactions of the individuals generating the sounds. These latter relationships are just as much structurally essential to the music as are those we ordinarily think of as making up musical structure, and are crucial elements in the realization—successful, unsuccessful, or indifferent—of a piece of music.

Another important theme brennan explores, and one that until recently was often overlooked in Western music, is the role of rhythm in structuring a composition or performance. Here too he applies the analytical categories of monological and dialogical structure to make sense of the varying roles rhythm can play, under different compositional assumptions and circumstances, in musical practice and experience. The understanding of rhythm that drives brennan’s investigation of its compositional possibilities is that as the tactile, kinetic dimension of bodily existence it is a fundamental phenomenon that transcends narrowly musical applications to embrace a sense of what it is to be human. In fact it may be not be too much to say that for brennan, rhythm is the bridge between existential personhood and musical personhood.

Towards the end of the book, brennan addresses the important matter of hearing. Hearing—listening closely, attentively, as a deliberate action within the moment in which one’s own creation of sound may voluntarily be held in suspense—is of central importance to the kind of collaborative, dialogical composition that brennan’s own musical practice entails. But it is no less important to the realization of monological composition. Hearing is the decision to invite in the others involved—the composer, the performer or the ensemble–as collaborators, to recognize them as autonomous yet cooperative actors in a dynamic alliance fused as a common project. As he puts it, “[h]earing is empathy that fulfills the reach of listening.”

Ways & Sounds is a book that will reward repeated readings; it belongs in the permanent library of anyone thinking seriously about the possibilities of musical practice.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Samo Salamon & Hasse Poulsen: String Dancers [s/r]; Samo Salamon & François Houle: Unobservable Mysteries [Afterday Audio]

Like many artists during the past year of isolation, Slovenian guitarist Samo Salamon managed to stay creative and maintain musical collaborations through a combination of ingenuity and technology. He took the initiative of contacting about three dozen guitarists throughout Europe to record a series of virtual duets, which he’s been releasing in three volumes; in addition, he recorded two full albums of duets with one other musician on each—String Dancers with guitarist Hasse Pousen, and Unobservable Mysteries with clarinetist François Houle.

String Dancers is an album of improvisations and compositions for acoustic guitars. Each guitarist sent the other his own compositions, to which the second overlaid a part. The album is a pleasure to listen to: the compositions are intricate and fully developed, not merely simple chord progressions to solo over, and the interplay between Salamon and Poulsen is tight and exciting, even though this appears to have been their first time working together. It’s a pairing that one hopes will continue, especially once it’s possible for them to share a stage.

Unobservable Mysteries represents another successful first-time collaboration for Salamon. For this twelve-track, fully improvised project, Salamon and Houle evenly split the taking the lead. For six of the tracks Salamon recorded improvisations on acoustic guitar and sent the recordings to Houle to complete with his own contributions; for the other six, the process was reversed. The combination of clarinet (and on one track, flute) and acoustic guitar opens up a soundworld of contrasts—of range and timbre, and especially of the fundamental opposition of the wind instrument’s legato lines and the plucked instrument’s staccato voice. This latter contrast comes out particularly well on improvisations where the two weave rapid lines around each other. Unobservable Mysteries ventures more into experimental territory than String Dancers (though the latter’s track Mind Fuel explores extended techniques), though on the more conventional tracks Salamon’s playing provides a complex, atmospheric setting for Houle’s melodies, which can be pastoral, plaintive, or more abstractly refracted from brief motifs.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Robert Gross – Chronicles [New Focus Recordings FCR301]

One of the exciting new musical territories opened up by the technical advances of the postwar era was that of electronic and electroacoustic music. Whether in the guise of purely electronic works created for early synthesizers like Princeton’s RCA Mark II or the San Francisco Tape Music Center’s Buchla, or works for fixed media and acoustic orchestral instruments, electronic technologies for sound production, storage and reproduction gave composers and performers access to vast new sound worlds. The music on composer Robert Gross’ fine album Chronicles situates itself firmly within this now-venerable tradition.

Gross has a broad-based background that includes television and film soundtrack work, music theory and analysis, and composition for orchestra as well as for electronic and electroacoustic instrumentation. On Chronicles—the title is taken from a series of electronic and electroacoustic works Gross has composed, several of which are included on the album–Gross’ instrument of choice is the Absynth semi-modular synthesizer, which he plays solo as well as paired with piano, guitar, horn and voices.

Gross’ solo work is featured most forcefully on Chronicles XIV (Charles Wuorinen in Memoriam), a monumental thirty-minute-long memorial to the late composer who in 1970 was the first recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in music for an electronic work, Time’s Encomium, which was realized on Princeton’s Mark II. Gross’ piece is a tour-de-force of pitch-oriented music that recreates some of the classic timbres of early electronic music while still maintaining a contemporary profile of its own. On Chronicles XIII for classical guitar and synthesizer Gross creates a truly dialogic encounter for acoustic guitar, given a subtley etched performance by Daniel Lippel, and electronics. The work is tightly choreographed, with each instrument completing the other’s lines or complementing the other’s rhythmic accents. Like Chronicles XIII, Chronicles VIII for piano (Jeanette Louise Yaryan) closely winds the two separate parts together into a complex tissue of sound, in addition to fomenting a rapid exchange of foreground and background functions between the two instruments. Both Chronicles XV for horn (Christopher Griffin) and synthesizer, and Chronicles XVII for mezzo-soprano (Lori Joachim Fredrics) and synthesizer, play largely on the timbral contrasts between the Absynth and its duet partners. On all of the electroacoustic pieces Gross’ writing achieves a sublime balance of voices that makes every pairing seem perfectly natural, and indeed inevitable.

The album closes with Dissonance, a forty-minute, one-act opera for synthesizer, baritone (Brandon Gibson) and mezzo-soprano (Brooke Clark Gibson), which consists of a dialogue in a funeral home between the daughter of the deceased, a piano teacher, and her former student, now an employee of the funeral home.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Alex Eddington – A Present from a Small Distant World [Redshift Records TK483]

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.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Colin Fisher – Reflections of the Invisible World [Halocline Trance HTRA017]

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.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Tim Brady – Actions Speak Louder [Redshift Records]

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.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Mauro Sambo & Marcello Magliocchi – …camminava solo sotto le stelle [Plus Timbre PT116]; ASA – Avoiding Sharks Attacks [PT113]

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.

Daniel Barbiero