AMN Reviews: Cenk Ergün and the JACK Quartet – Sonare and Celare [New Focus Recordings FCR238]

Sonare and Celare, the two string quartets by Turkish-born composer Cenk Ergün (b. 1978) released together on an EP, are complementary works in many senses of the word. Originally conceived of as a single piece, the two quartets instead became companion pieces whose sonic qualities are creatively opposed to one another. As is often the case when Ergün composes acoustic works, these two quartets of 2015-2016were the product of a collaborative process. In sketching and then finalizing them, Ergün worked closely with the JACK Quartet, for whom they were written.

Sonare was composed through an elaborate process of reverse-engineering: Ergün first set out rhythm patterns using the MAX program and then densified their textures through software-facilitated combination. The JACK Quartet recorded a number of rehearsals of the resulting material, which Ergün edited into a sort of master take that he then transcribed and notated for the final score. As one might expect from a process like that, Sonare is a composition of dense textures. It opens with a thick, aggressive sound evoking an asynchronous, loudly buzzing swarm of insects. A close listen, though, reveals the mass to be made up of the pulsing accents of individual bowings. The piece develops as a set of variations not only on dynamics—first very loud, then very soft, then back again to full fury—but on bow speeds as well. Pitch seems to be a secondary element—a necessary yet epiphenomenal component of mass.

Celare, by contrast, is a symmetrical three-part work whose first and third sections feature short, widely spaced bowed and plucked sound events played at low volume. The middle section of the work, which consists of a drone of microtonally spaced intervals, recalls Sonare’s buzzing dissonance but lays it out in a gradually shifting layers and steady, mid-range dynamics. Celare seems to take Sonare’s volumetric sound blocks and thin them out, retaining the latter’s microtonality and fusion of voices while dispersing them through a structural substitution of space for mass.

The JACK Quartet plays these complementary pieces with the finely calibrated degrees of energy and delicacy they call for.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Giancarlo Schiaffini \ Giuseppe Giuliano – What’s That Noise? [Setola di Maiale SM4000]

The liner note to What’s That Noise?, the exhilarating recent album by trombonist/composer Giancarlo Schiaffini and pianist Giuseppe Giuliano, is a manifesto of sorts. In it, Schiaffini observes that until relatively recently European music included improvisation among its accepted practices and declares that now, after the experiments of the second half of the last century, improvisation once again has become acceptable as a course of action available for use in conjunction with notated music.

Pursuing that conjunction is, in essence, the program for What’s That Noise? The album consists of five free improvisations alternating with four new and recent compositions by Giovanni Costantini, Corrado Rojac, Stanislav Makovsky, and Schiaffini himself.

As might be expected, both Schiaffini and Giuliano have deep backgrounds in improvised music as well as in the postwar European avant-garde. Giuliano’s musical sensibility was imprinted by encounters with Franco Evangelisti, Luigi Nono, Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage. As a performer, he’s realized contemporary composed works in addition to playing improvised music in different settings. Schiaffini, in addition to having been part of the European free jazz movement, studied with Stockhausen, Evangelisti, György Ligeti and Vinko Globokar, and collaborated with Cage, Nono and Giacinto Scelsi.

As is apparent from the very first notes, the music on What’s That Noise? reflects both musicians’ fluency not only in the advanced vocabulary of contemporary improvisational practices, but in the expansive sound world and complex syntax of the postwar European avant-garde.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Espen Sommer Eide – The Waves [SOFA SOFA578CD]; Monopiece + Jaap Blonk – s/t [Shhpuma SHH052CD]

From Europe and the American West Coast, two albums explore two of the possibilities afforded by mixing technologically sophisticated electronic sound art with the human voice.

The Waves, a work by Norwegian composer/instrument builder Espen Sommer Eide with the participation of microtonal tubist Martin Taxt and vocalist Mari Kvien Brunvoll, is a recording of a year-long, multi-room sound art installation in a villa in Maastricht, Netherlands. The album’s individual pieces are meant to capture the different sonic ambiences of the villa’s spaces, which visitors could experience in a mobile, variably perspective manner while moving through the building. On CD this multi-modal, three-dimensional interaction is necessarily reduced to the single dimension of sound, but taken on those terms alone The Waves stands as a substantial piece of timbre- and texture-driven sound art. Of particular note is the contribution of a layer of spoken words by Brunvoll, which draws on texts by Virginia Woolf, A. N. Whitehead, and Bertrand Russell.

A quite different recording combining electronically shaped, textural instrumental work is Monopiece + Jaap Blonk, an album documenting the collaboration of the American improvisational trio Monopiece (Nathan Corder on electronics; Matt Robidoux on guitar; and Timothy Russell on percussion) with Dutch voice artist Blonk—a kind of Antonin Artaud for the 21st century—who contributes electronics as well as voice. The nine relatively short pieces, recorded at Mills College in Oakland, California in April 2018, demonstrate the deep affinity between Monopiece’s brand of mutable, abstract, quick-cut constructions and Blonk’s primal, pre- (or post-?) semantic vocalizations.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Marco Olivieri, Antonio Valente & Sanjay Kansa Banik – Rumore d’acqua [Plus Timbre pt096]

Rumore d’acqua, a three-movement suite for a percussion trio and voices, is named for the last line of a classic haiku by Basho. The poem also provides the text sung during the suite’s third movement, and appropriately so: the apparent simplicity of haiku is reflected in the simplicity of the trio’s makeup—piano, vibes, and table—but as with haiku, the implications of this surface simplicity are complex and subtle.

Rumore d’acqua’s trio is composed of pianist Marco Olivieri, vibist Antonio Valente and tabla player Sanjay Kansa Banik. All three are resident in Italy—Olivieri in Rome, where among other things he is active in the improvisational collective NED; Valente in Milan, where he composes and teaches music therapy in schools; and Banik, who teaches and performs in various ensembles, in Rome by way of Bengal. All three are rigorously trained in their respective musical traditions, which meld nicely in this multi-layered, rhythmically intricate music.

Each movement of the suite begins with a text sung as a canon for three voices, which is then developed in the instrumental improvisations that follow. On the first movement, the piano and vibes pick up from the canon and elaborate and vary the melody until the original modality gradually dissolves into freer harmonies and wider-ranging melodies. The second movement places the tabla under the voices, from which it emerges into a long solo that sets up a propulsive current of sophisticated rhythms. The piano and vibes enter in at about the halfway point and with the tabla weave a lively rhythmic web based on threes. For the third movement, the piano and vibes accompany the voices before settling into a slow, measured rhythm that eventually accelerates to a racing finish.

As important as the piano and vibes are to the suite’s melodic and harmonic development, it really is the tabla, with its constantly mutating rhythmic subdivisions and cross-accents, that gives the ensemble its truly unique and mesmerizing sound.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Isophone – Bise [Setola di Maiale SM4040]

“Isophone” is defined as a phonetic feature shared by some but not all speakers of a dialect. The musical equivalent might be a sound shared by some but not all instruments of the same type. It’s a fitting name for the duo of Rosa Parlato and Claire Marchal, two flutists whose music arises at the sonic crossing points and divergences of their instruments.

Both artists bring substantial backgrounds to their collaboration. Parlato, originally from Italy and now resident in France, was trained at Rome’s St. Cecilia conservatory and has performed music ranging from electroacoustic improvisation to the “chamber noise” of the Wasteland quartet. Marchal has participated in multi-modal collaboration with visual artist Céline Boinnard as well as in the Baroque and modern flute duet Melle GLC with flutist Elodie Frieh.

On Bise, Parlato and Marchal demonstrate a close improvisational rapport. Their voices are highly mobile, darting back and forth between foreground and background: one may play a repeated note or simple rhythmic figure while the other layers elaborately crafted melodies on top, before both converge on a microtonally separated drone or braid rapid flurries of notes around each other. Their improvisations are essentially melodic but with the balanced integration of extended technique and voice for timbral shading and contrast. The collective sound always seems directed toward a center—a tone or short melodic or rhythmic motif acting like an attractor or a center of gravity—but for these two creative voices a center is ultimately a point of departure rather than a state of rest.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Fonema Consort – Vistas Furtivas–The Music of Juan Campoverde [New Focus Recordings fcr246]

Vistas Furtivas, a collection of work by composer Juan Campoverde, is the third album from the Fonema Consort, a Chicago new music ensemble specializing in performing the work of Latin American composers. Campoverde, an Ecuadorian native living in nearby Evanston, Illinois, has developed a long-running collaborative relationship with the consort, having written for them since 2013. The rapport they’ve built is evident in these deft and assured performances of Campoverde’s dramatic and often delicately constructed work.

Campoverde’s compositions here are mostly driven by forceful vocal lines but for all of that, they turn on nuances of sound color alone and in combinations. The composer masterfully brings forward and updates the kind of spacious, unconventionally orchestrated chamber music pioneered by composers like George Crumb in the 1960s and 1970s. And, as could be expected by a composer mentored by Roger Reynolds, whose imagE-imAge series of solo works meticulously capture the timbral ranges of the instruments for which they were written, Campoverde pays close attention to what might be thought of as timbral harmonies and dissonances,

The album contains four works for small chamber ensemble built around the unusual but compelling combination of guitar, flute, and soprano voice, as well as two for solo guitar. Campoverde’s inspired choice of instrumental colors, which he artfully arranges against a stark canvas of silence, makes for a music of startling fusions and contrasts of timbre in an uncluttered environment.

Umbrales I and II (2013 and 2019, respectively) for two sopranos, flute, and guitar, offer two different perspectives on the same texts by Ecuadorian poet Efraín Jara Idrovo. Both iterations rely on extended vocal and instrumental techniques and scordatura to draw out the color possibilities of guitar, flute, and voice. Typical of Campoverde’s work on the album, the pieces are constructed as decentered bursts of sound. Here the main contrast is between the sustained tones of flute and voice on the one side, and the staccato attack of plucked strings on the other. The guitar’s microtonal dissonances are an essential component of the overall sound, which is dominated by the asymmetrical phrasings of sopranos Nina Dante and Nathalie Colas

Basalto (2014) strips the ensemble down to Dante and flutist Dalia Chin, here on alto flute, supplemented by prerecorded, electronically manipulated whale song. A highly expressive work, its urgency is underscored by a collision of extended vocal technique and the flutter tongue and plosive air notes from the flute.

The two works for solo guitar, Topografias (1996) and Muna II (2012), demonstrate Campoverde’s ability to elicit a wide range of color from a single instrument. Both make extensive use of microtones and tone-altering gestures up to and including turning the gears to detune the instrument. The resulting episodes of sheer sonic materiality give one the feeling of being on the inside of the intimate process of playing. Guitarist Samuel Rowe’s performances realize these difficult pieces with clarity and precision.

Los Lugares del Deseo of 2017, the four-part suite that closes the album, brings together flute, bass clarinet (played by Emily Beisel), both sopranos, guitar and percussion (Ryan Packard) in combinations ranging from solo soprano to the full sextet. In its unhurried juxtapositions of exactly delineated timbres the suite captures in microcosm the sound of the album in all its sharply etched fullness. It’s a bracingly beautiful collection of music.

AMN Reviews: Haiku (Paolo Pascolo & Stefano Giust) – s/t [Setola di Maiale SM4030]; Jars – s/t [Setola di Maiale SM4050]; Ombak Trio – Through Eons to Now [Setola di Maiale SM4070]

Percussionist Stefano Giust, a native of Unterseen, Switzerland now resident in Pordenone, Italy, is a multifaceted drummer who serves as the common link on these recordings of two trios and one duo. All three are all improvised and reflect a refined manner of playing with space and color.

Haiku is a deceptively simple art form. Consisting of a handful of syllables, three lines and plainly direct language, these poems when successful imply an entire macrocosm in the microcosmic observation of detail. By the same token the improvising duo Haiku—Stefano Giust and Paolo Pascolo—take the smallest ensemble format and leverage it to improvise a rich world of sound color, texture, and line.

Giust is credited with drums and cymbals, but in practice he is a multi-instrumentalist in the way he approaches the various components of his set. Each individual drum is treated as a distinct instrument in its own right, with its own unique voice to be sounded alone or in chorus with the other voices. Giust plays for timbre and space rather than for pulse and leaves a good deal of open room for each element of his to resound to its fullest. The recording puts the listener right in the middle of these sounds where he or she can actually feel the vibrations—especially of the bass drum.

Pascolo complements Giust’s sound with flute, bass flute, tenor saxophone and electronics. Whether on flute or saxophone Pascolo plays with a liquid fluency. His lines cohere around thematic runs—downward cascades of notes shifted over different implicit keys, elongated tones slowly floating upward—that aggregate over the course of an improvisation into songlike arcs. On bass flute Pascolo unfolds a line with the gravitas appropriate to the instrument; his two contributions on electronics serve as abstract interludes in between acoustic flights.

On Jars, Giust is joined by Slovenian double bassist Boris Janje and Croatian clarinetist/bass clarinetist Henry Marić. Like the Haiku recording, Jars is an improvised session in which space plays a highly audible role. Giust again provides a flexible framework of color and even moves into defined, yet elastic, rhythms on a couple of the tracks. Although containing mostly expressive, melodic music, the album does have moments of pure, unpitched timbre as Marić, a forcefully lyrical voice on reeds, when doubling on prepared electric guitar creates scraping, spiky sounds. Janje, who tends to favor staccato, economical bass lines, during the more abstract passages is able to open up his sound with extended pizzicato and arco techniques.

Through Eons to Now is another trio session, this time for tenor and soprano saxophone (Cene Resnik, who like Janje is from Ljubljana) and cello (Giovanni Maier of Trieste) as well as Giust’s drums. The music here is energetic and forward—still attentive to the formative role of space, but at the same time willing to fill that space with compacted sound. An important part of the group’s signature sound is the way Maier’s cello plays a kind of hybrid role, punctuating the overall texture with low, pizzicato notes on the one hand, and setting long, high-register tones against Resnik’s own long upper-register tones on the other.