Composer Marti Epstein’s Nebraska Impromptu is a collection of works highlighting her writing for small ensembles featuring clarinet, played here by Rane Moore. The pieces on the album span 2001-2017; although each has its own individual sound, all share a consistent aesthetic based on the unhurried deployment of mostly quiet, discretely bounded events made up of tightly aggregated instrumental colors.
Oil and Sugar (2016), for piano, clarinet, flute, and violin is exemplary. The piece’s basic elements consist of a series of brief motifs within a restricted range of harmonic movement; Epstein intertwines them among the four voices in a way that dramatizes to good effect the timbral differences of the similarly compassed winds and strings. By relying solely on clarinet, oboe, and violin, Komorebi (2017) displays this effect even further. The title track, 2012’s Nebraska Impromptu for piano and clarinet, plays with contrasts of range rather than color, as the clarinet takes the role of middle voice in between the piano’s upper and lower registers. Liquid, Fragile (2010) for clarinet, violin, viola, and cello is a broken-textured piece that uses long silences as structural supports dividing gently drifting sonic events. The earliest and longest work represented, the twenty-seven-and-a-half minute-long See Even Night from 2001, is a subtly subtractive piece for clarinet, viola, and piano that begins with a relatively dense polyphony of short, repeating, overlapping motifs and then gradually develops through a simplification of lines and opening up of overall textures.
As unwelcome as the covid lockdowns were, they had the unintended consequence of inspiring some fine work from artists forced to rely on nothing but what was immediately available at hand. Italian double bassist Marco Bellafiore’s Forme e Racconti, a home-recorded solo album created in isolation in 2020, is one such work.
The tracks on Forme e Racconti were created by looping and layering Bellafiore’s multiple double bass parts into solidly constructed compositions. The emphasis throughout is on song, where Bellafiore shows a gift for crafting harmonically taut, multilevel structures from relatively spare materials. The undergirding for many of the tracks comes by way of pizzicato phrases looped into propulsive ostinati or brief chord cycles; on several pieces Bellafiore adds percussion by tapping rhythmic patterns on the body of the instrument. On top of it all Bellafiore layers a liquid, arco lead or a punchy, rapid pizzicato.
The seven pieces cover a wide expressive range. For example, the brightly lyrical opener is followed by a track focused on darker and more abstract timbres, which itself is followed by the reverb-and-tremolo expanses of a quasi-Western soundtrack. The sparsest piece in the set is the traditional Japanese shakuhachi melody Honshirabe, in which Bellafiore draws startlingly breath-like sounds with the bow. The closing piece, the twelve-minute-long It Wasn’t so Bad at All, creates an emotionally moving atmosphere with a slowly drifting bowed line that gives way to a freer, more active, yet still-introspective, pizzicato soliloquy.
Robert Paredes (1948-2005) was a well-rounded experimentalist who composed electroacoustic works and text scores, and as a multi-reed instrumentalist performed with the Harry Partch Ensemble and played freely improvised music as well as jazz and Middle European, Balkan, and Greek folk music. In May and August of 2000, he played a series of improvised duets with double bassist Anton Hatwich in Iowa City, where Paredes taught and Hatwich was a student. The seven performances on this well-recorded set feature Paredes on clarinet, bass clarinet, and alto saxophone. Originally self-released in a limited edition of 100 CD-Rs, the album is now available on Bandcamp. It’s music well worth retrieving from obscurity.
Although presumably freely improvised, the music is tightly organized and structurally sound, cohering into spontaneous passages of harmony, counterpoint, and complementary themes. On the evidence of his playing here, Paredes was a charismatic improviser, crafting forcefully convoluted lines from a mix of extended and conventional techniques. Hatwich’s bow work is nimble, darting in and around Paredes’ lines with a fluidity that ranges across the instrument’s full compass. When Hatwich plays in his extreme upper register, the duo sound like a pair of clarinets; when playing pizzicato, he supports Paredes with a percussive drive.
There are many recordings of improvised duets for reeds and double bass; this is among the finest of them.
For the six works on his album Horizontal Drift, composer Christopher Trapani chose an unusual array of instruments capable of producing a soundworld of microtones and extended timbres.
The album opens with a piece for Romanian horn-violin (played by Maximilian Haft), a violin with a metal resonator, and horn used for amplification. Its sound is tinny and thin, like an early 20th-century recording of a violin. Trapani’s writing for it consists of contemporary gestures, but even with the electronics that augment the instrument’s naturally unnatural voice, the piece conserves an echo of the folk milieu in which the horn-violin is usually encountered. Bookending the album is a second piece for bowed string instrument—Tesserae, written for the viola d’amore, a Baroque-era viola notable for its array of sympathetic strings. Trapani eschews an obvious, quasi-Baroque sound for a melody that incorporates gliding ornaments reminiscent of Hindustani vocal music. It’s sensitively played by Marco Fusi.
Three pieces were composed for unconventionally tuned instruments. Linear A, named for the still-undeciphered ancient Minoan script and performed by Amy Advocat, is for clarinet tuned to the 13-step Bohlen-Pierce scale, and live loops—a mechanism that sets in motion a swooping counterpoint of self-replicating melody. The tryptich Lost Time, for scordatura piano (played by Marilyn Nonken) is a kind of dialogue between Bob Dylan, whose lyrics provide the movements’ subtitles and hence emotional overtones, and spectralist composer Gerard Grisey, whose idea of the varieties of subjective ways of experiencing time in music set the agenda for the textural loading of each individual movement. Forty-Nine, Forty-Nine, for player organ tuned to a 31-step scale, keeps itself just this side of total harmonic chaos. For the title track, featuring guitarist Daniel Lippel on quarter-tone guitar, Trapani creates an intricately spatialized, electronically augmented sonic atmosphere built up of delayed and overlaid single-notes and harmonic fragments, which give the piece an undulating and beautifully unsettling, harp-like quality.
The Road to Amarillo is a collaboration between Julyen Hamilton, a dancer, choreographer, poet, voice artist, and musician originally from the UK and now based in Athens, among other places in Europe, and George Kokkinaris, a double bassist dividing his time between Athens and Berlin. The pairing here seems natural; Hamilton’s long history of performing dance in duet with musicians complements Kokkinaris’ own extensive work with solo dancers. For this recording, though, Hamilton participates as poet/voice artist and pianist.
The thirteen tracks presented here are nearly evenly divided between piano-double bass duets (seven), and bass-and-spoken-word performances (six). The recording is crisp, highlighting Kokkinaris’ robust bass sounds and the intimacy of Hamilton’s voice. There’s much to like in the interplay between the two artists. Kokkinaris supports Hamilton’s spoken word performances with a sensitivity that provides just the right background presence of sound without overshadowing the voice or falling into call-and-response clichés. On the piano duets, Hamilton’s contributions range from ad hoc chord progressions to purely abstract stabs and rapid, atonal runs, but in all cases he leaves space enough for the pieces’ overall textures to breathe. The duo’s collective instrumental sound is epitomized on the free Back to Home, where Hamilton’s piano is underscored by Kokkinaris’ restless pizzicato bassline, as well as on Major Work, with its bowed and pizzicato bass weaving between piano splashes. Feathered, which features Hamilton playing directly on the strings alongside Kokkinaris’ complementary extended techniques, shows them at their most exploratory.
The idiosyncratic musical language of Thelonious Monk continues to be a source of inspiration for composers and improvisers. This live recording of the trio of Andrea Biondi (vibes and electronics), Marco Colonna (piccolo and alto clarinets), and Mario Cianca (double bass) is meant as a homage to Monk and his musical idiolect, even if the music itself is very much the trio’s own.
Colonna, who is credited as composer, starts the forty-two minute-long piece with an alto clarinet solo that captures something of the staggered phrasing of a Monkish melody. Throughout the performance, Colonna’s melodic interludes serve to establish and link discrete sections, each of which has its own distinct sound and mood. Cianca’s bass and Biondi’s vibes craft a group sound consisting of a free-flowing polyphony that pushes the music forward along parallel, complementary lines. What is most like Monk’s own musical language is the trio’s judicious use of open space, which recalls the often sparse textures of Monk’s solo lines and accompaniments. Such sensitivity comes as no surprise, since each musician shows himself to be a superb improviser with a fine ear and sense of development.
Monk does make a brief appearance about three-quarters of the way through the piece, thanks to some sampled recordings.
Volumes II—Fiction Musicale et Chorégraphique is an ambitious, large-scale composition by the French double bassist/composer Benjamin Duboc for orchestra, voice, and physical movement. Recorded in October, 2021, the nearly forty-five minute-long piece was realized by a mixed-voice, twenty-one piece ensemble—hence its name—and three actors, including one speaker.
The composition unfolds in a long sequence of highly disparate parts, beginning with ambient noises and a spoken prelude before moving into more overtly musical passages. The orchestra commences with a sustained, droning chord marked by a slowly developing, internally unstable drift of pitches in and out of dissonances and consonances, building to a crescendo followed by a sonic void from which barely audible electronics emerge. A tolling section for bass drum and piano follows, after which the ensemble returns with a siren-like drone that devolves into all-out, free-blowing chaos. Duboc draws a wry contrast to this allusion to avant jazz by following it up with parodistic fragments of traditional-sounding muted trumpet and old dance styles. These conventionally cyclical, even old-fashioned sounding passages provide a kind of paradigmatically postmodern coda to the sound masses and abstract forms that went before.
The Blutwurst Ensemble, a seven piece chamber group from Florence, Italy, comprising trumpet, bass clarinet, accordion, harmonium, viola, cello, and double bass. Zgodność is a single, forty-five minute-long piece composed by Cyril Bondi and D’Incise for the group; the composers, who work together as an electroacoustic duo under the name Diatribes, also provided a background tape. The present composition is one of nuance, consisting of a slowly developing essay in harmonic drift and timbral fusion that unfolds through gestural repetition and an incremental rearrangement of tones. The first half consists of long tones accented by stabs of pizzicato strings and tuned metal percussion, punctuated by silences; the tones drift in and out of harmonies that can take the form of simple and restful major triads or more suspenseful, brooding chords darkened by the prominent movement of double bass and bass clarinet. Following an extended silence about halfway through, the piece moves into a phase of long, drifting tonal masses and denser textures that begin as a tense, discordant drone and through incremental harmonic and dynamic shifts, and a turn toward more articulated phrasing, gradually grow more and then less concordant.
Kate Soper and Sam Pluta’s The Understanding of All Things is something of a scaled-down version of Soper’s Ipsa Dixit of 2018. The latter was a two-disc set presenting Soper’s six-movement work of music, text, and theater for soprano, flute, percussion, and violin; this new release is a five-part suite consisting of three through-composed works for voice, piano, and electronics, and two improvised interludes for voice, piano, and electronics that she shares with Pluta. As she did with Ipsa Dixit, Soper chooses an eclectic set of texts to put to music or to narrate. The authors range from the Eleatic philosopher Parmenides to Irish philosopher George Berkeley to William Butler Yeats, Franz Kafka, and Soper’s teacher, composer Fred Lehrdahl. Supplementing the texts are Soper’s introductions and commentaries. The material’s eclecticism isn’t just a matter of the individual texts chosen but also of their settings; for example, on the long central piece Soper juxtaposes the surviving fragments of Parmenides’ poem with a poem by Yeats that she arranges as a sentimental song for voice and piano. Soper has a beautiful, crystalline voice whether speaking or singing or even being processed into fragments as it is on the opening track or on the first dialogue with Pluta; Pluta’s interventions are managed with a sensitivity that brings out the instrumental qualities of Soper’s voice while maintaining a keenly intelligent sense of structure.
“Excantation” is the act of freeing a victim of enchantment through counter-enchantment—wielding a protective bit good magic to ward off bad magic. It also serves as an apt metaphor for music’s capacity to counteract the two-year-long psychological thrall covid’s held us in.
The music on this disc was recorded at the Teatro San Leonardo in Bologna in February 2019, a year before the virus struck, which makes its theme appear particularly prescient. The group involved was the Nonono Percussion Ensemble, a trio of Gino Robair on percussion, prepared piano and electronics; Cristiano Calcagnile on drums, percussion, drumtable guitar, glockenspiel, and effects; and Stefano Giust on drums, cymbals, and percussion. The seven performances consist of finely-tuned textural music in which timbre and dynamics take the place of melody and harmony as organizing qualities. Contrasts of metal and membrane intermixed with electronic percolations; marimba-like interventions on prepared piano framed on either side by conventional drumkit; bowed and scraped cymbals over low-frequency tones—these and other sounds make up these constantly changing sonic fabrics. The ensemble’s effort is a truly collective one, and although the mix effectively separates the voices, with Giust on the left, Robair in the center, and Calcagnile on the right, all three musicians are expert colorists and sympathetic listeners able to complement each other with whatever nuance or shading is needed at any given moment.