AMN Reviews: James Tenney / Scordatura Ensemble – Harmonium [New World Records 80803-2]

Our perceptual responses to the world around us are sensual in two meanings of the word—both sensory and evoking aesthetic enjoyment. Through their focus on the processes and artifacts of aural perception, much of the work of composer James Tenney (1934-2006) pivoted between both kinds of sensuality. Tenney liked to say that he handled form not as a vehicle for a quasi-narrative arc, but instead as an object of perception—something of interest in its own right. And the pieces on this recording are indeed consistent with that description.

One of Tenney’s interests was in the range of consonances and dissonances contained within the spectrum of the harmonic series. Tenney’s work with the harmonic series, which represented a kind of North American spectralism independent of the spectralism developed in Europe, was aimed toward focusing attention on, and deriving independent pleasure from, these basic sound materials underlying more complex musical forms. This is apparent in For Twelve Strings (rising) of 1971, which is based on the tension between the consonant relationships among the lower harmonics and the more dissonant relationships that arise the higher up the series one reaches. The piece, scored for four violins, four violas, two cellos and two double basses, consists of simultaneous and constantly rising glissandi across registers, sounding like a looped siren or a Moebius strip of sliding tones.

Tenney’s interest in pitch combinations producing acoustic beating phenomena is represented by Two Koans and a Canon (1982), a three-movement work for solo viola, played by Elizabeth Smalt, and tape delay. The first movement, essentially an adaptation of Tenney’s 1971 solo double bass piece The Beast (a title some of us may prefer to read as an anagram on “beats” rather than a commentary on the nature of the instrument), plays out as a gradual, microtonal divergence and convergence of pitches relative to a constant pitch. This produces a beating effect that changes with changes in the distances between pitches. The tape delay comes in at the third movement, a canon that begins with the viola’s open C string and develops through a process of stacking harmonics along ascending and descending paths. (The koan for this canon might well be, “What is the sound of one pitch unraveling?”)

A tape delay system is also deployed in 1984’s Voice(s), realized here by a small ensemble of voice, recorder, clarinet, viola, keyboard, trombone and cello. The piece is largely concerned with textural organization as it thickens and thins and plays off of the perception of different pitches appearing to fuse and separate.

Harmonium, which also includes the compositions Harmonium (1976) and Blues for Annie (1975), is an excellent point of entry into the world of this important composer.

Daniel Barbiero


AMN Reviews: Vigeland / Füting / Lippel / Popham – “…through which the past shines…” [New Focus FCR204P]

This fine recording collects new and recent works for guitar by American composer Nils Vigeland (b. 1950) and composer Reiko Füting (1970), who was born in what was then East Germany and has since resided in America and South Korea. Vigeland, who studied with Lukas Foss and Morton Feldman, is also a pianist and appears here as such on the title track along with cellist John Popham. The guitarist on all pieces is Daniel Lippel, a major voice in interpreting contemporary composed music.

Vigeland’s Two Variations (1992) for solo guitar bookends the album—one to open and one to close. Vigeland wrote the piece with the intention of wringing as much resonance as possible from the acoustic nylon-string guitar, an instrument of relatively short sustain; he does that with an onrush of single notes and arpeggios overlapping in time. With a turn to a more lyrical sound, his Quodlibet (2011) for guitar and cello is a three-part suite that alludes, largely quite obliquely, to The Beatles’ Hey Jude and Good Day Sunshine. Little is recognizable of the songs outside of some phrases on guitar that seem to mimic the prosody of some of the lyrics, but the piece stands independently as song, once removed.

Vigeland’s major work here is the nearly twenty-two minute-long “…through which the past shines…” of 2017, named for a line from Nabokov’s novel Transparent Things. The piece, which alternates between pointillistic fragments and contrapuntal lines, seems to capture the irregular rhythms of the emotions that accompany recollection, in particular the cycles of agitation and reflection that supervene on the coalescence and dissolution of specific memories. The writing is especially effective in the color tensions it produces through the separation and combination of instrumental voices.

Füting’s three contributions include two original compositions for solo guitar—the energetic, perpetual motion of wand-uhr (2013/2016) and Red Wall (2006), along with his 2009 arrangement of the traditional Jewish hymn Hine ma Tov. Red Wall is the most intriguing of the three; it abandons linear development in favor of an irregular sequence of juxtaposed, non-contingent events which draw out a rich, if subtle, range of colors from the guitar. Lippel’s performance is particularly compelling as he makes explicit the timbral implications of Füting’s stable and unstable chords, harmonics, single note runs and trills, volatile dynamics, and leaps of register. Here as everywhere else on the recording, Lippel plays with a characteristically pristine tone and precise voicings.

Daniel Barbiero


AMN Reviews: Mirio Cosottini – Metodologie dell’improvvisazione musicale [Edizioni ETS: 2017]

Music is a temporal art. It takes place in time and as it does it seems to reveal something essential about time. One way time is revealed to us through music is by way of a spatial metaphor. We perceive a sequence of sounds unfolding in time as moving through an imaginary space. Our hearing music as movement in turn is bound up with our hearing it as changing or staying constant—musical change seems to embody movement, while musical constancy or stasis seems to stand still. In Metodologie dell’improvvisazione musicale, Italian composer, improviser and music theoretician Mirio Cosottini formulates a methodology of improvisation that takes change and constancy as its basic categories.

Cosottini’s methodology casts improvisation in terms of a dialectic of linearity and nonlinearity. These latter two concepts, which trace back to Jonathan Kramer’s book, The Time of Music, provide the foundation not only for Cosottini’s methodology, but for the set of exercises he presents as a means for improvisers to expand their horizons of musical possibility.

Briefly, linearity is the quality of development and change over time; nonlinearity is the quality of invariance over time. Linear music is music that appears to move from one point towards another, in a more-or-less unbroken progression; nonlinear music appears to stay in one place or to reside in discontinuous, autonomous events—to exist outside of or against the inexorable flow of time. The paradigm of linear music is the melody or cyclical chord progression; the paradigm of nonlinear music is the unchanging drone or discrete sound events of a pointillist work. In linear music “before” and “after” are explicitly traced in a succession of sounds; in nonlinear music succession appears to break down entirely into a set of non-contingent moments giving the impression of an eternal “now.” (For those with a taste for metaphysics, the difference between linear and nonlinear can be captured metaphorically by the difference between becoming and being, respectively.)

Cosottini’s appreciation for the potential importance of the nonlinear in music grew out of a personal experience. When asked to compose a contrapuntal exercise over a C major foundation, he wrote a melody based on C melodic minor. After repeated playing, he felt that the dissonance of the minor third within the context of the major modality revealed itself to be of interest as an alternative, if unconventional, way of combining pitches simultaneously rather than an error. Consequently, he began to understand nonlinearity as a way to analyze and organize improvisation.

The exercises, which make up the bulk of the book, are useful not only as ways of getting to know the heft and shape of improvisation’s constituent elements, but as a means of sharpening and directing musical awareness. Some of the exercises address attentiveness and the ability to hear nonlinearity. For example, one listening exercise asks us to hear a set of simultaneously played long tones as a “totality as if it were a sphere.” As the exercise shows, Cosottini presents linearity and nonlinearity are perceptual categories that are applied through judgments that take place within certain contexts; determining whether or not an element is linear or nonlinear may in many cases be the product of a perspective brought to the work. Cosottini describes this perspective in terms of cumulative listening, through which one can discern those pitches, timbres, rhythmic figures, dynamics or other elements that seem detached from the temporal flow of the music

When specifically addressed to active play, the exercises provide practical examples of how to use nonlinearity as a strategy for improvisation. For instance, some of the exercises call for using only five pitches, timbres, sounds or dynamics. Each of these closed sets can serve as the invariant kernel around which an improvisation—its other parameters being allowed to vary—can be built. Paradoxically, the use of relatively small, limited sets of musical material can lend a sense of larger-scale cohesion underlying and tying together individual musical events. When these sets function as constants providing points of reference for development of the improvisation as a whole, the closed set simply becomes an organizing structure for an open performance.

Cosottini’s methodology opens up clear possibilities for leveraging nonlinear forms of organization as alternatives to linear forms of organization. The former are particularly useful for music that eschews tonality; an improvisation based on textural rather than tonal structures, for instance, would offer one such kind of organization. To the extent that it is a purely vertical structure, texture by nature lacks directionality—textural movement doesn’t point toward a goal of resolution as does functional harmonic movement, nor does it imply a kind of musical entailment, as does melodic development. Instead, texture can serve as the basis of an organizational logic embodied in the relative densities, voice combinations and durations of sound complexes or other simultaneous aggregates of musical elements. Organization by textural synchrony, in other words, offers a nonlinear alternative to organization by harmonic or melodic diachrony.

A concern with texture is a concern with architecture in its vertical dimension; it’s a short step from recognizing this to a grasp of the possibilities arising from the use of nonlinear elements as formal substructures upon which to build improvisational superstructures. To take an example from outside the world of improvisation, we can discern in many of Morton Feldman’s compositions a dynamic element which stays at an unchangingly low level. In such cases we could speak of a nonlinear dynamic that serves as a structural anchor, one which remains static while pitches or timbres undergo variations. These changing pitches and timbres would then appear to belong to a linear surface floating over the constant dynamic. Cosottini similarly includes exercises that define musical parameters as constants; it isn’t hard to imagine these constants serving as structural elements on which to build a superstructure of linear events.

In a seeming reversal of meaning, nonlinear elements can serve to define horizontal relationships as well. Some nonlinear strategies—such as the imposition of sudden silences to introduce discontinuity into the flow of an improvisation—could serve as structural boundaries dividing a performance into discrete sections. The pointillism of local discontinuities, by regulating the development of collective sound densities, would then foster organization at the textural level. Recurring yet invariant tones or timbres, such as are suggested in some of Cosottini’s exercises could, when played during structurally separate passages, set up cross-sectional relationships through thematic coherence. An improvisation made up of autonomous events not explicitly related to what precedes or succeeds them—the kind of piece Cosottini refers to as “without memory [senza memoria]”—would nevertheless cohere through a unity of repetition and recollection. This would seem to present the paradox of having locally nonlinear elements work together to create a global sense of linearity, or continuity, but it is through such paradoxes that the musical dialectic of linearity and nonlinearity works in practice.

Daniel Barbiero

Baltimore SDIY Group Announces Summerfest Concert One

The Baltimore SDIY Group announces its 2018 Summerfest Concert One, to be held Saturday, June 2, at the Electric Maid, 268 Carroll Street NW, Washington DC 20012. The concert is all-ages with a $10 admission.

The concert features Akousma; Kantoendrato; Synth Tech Project; and Amber Dunleavy & Arthur Harrison.

Saturday, June 2, 7:30 PM. Doors at 7:00.

For more information, visit the Baltimore SDIY webpages.

AMN Reviews: Quatuor Bozzini / Gyula Csapó – Déjà? Kojâ? [Actuelle CQB 1821]

The title of this three-part work by Hungarian-Canadian composer Gyula Csapó–French and Persian for “Already? Where to?”—seems an appropriate epigraph for someone whose itinerary brought him from Budapest to Saskatchewan, via Paris and Buffalo and points in between.

Csapó completed studies in composition and music theory at the Béla Bartók Conservatory and the List Ferenc Academy of Music in Budapest before going to Paris to study computer music and acoustics at IRCAM. In the 1980s, he came to the US to study with Morton Feldman, a composer whose work proved to be a significant influence. In the early 1990s, he moved to Canada and, after a period teaching composition at Princeton University, settled in Saskatoon, where he currently teaches composition and music theory.

In its scale and general profile, Déjà? Kojâ? takes some of Feldman’s approaches to arranging sounds and develops them in a way that is Csapó’s own. The work, composed between 2011 and 2016, is structured as a triptych of three roughly equal lengths. The sounds move slowly, as if there were carried along on tectonic plates approaching, receding, and grinding together in a sometimes overt, sometimes more submerged, dissonant fluctuation. Texture here is architecture, as Csapó layers sound masses into striated blocks whose fault lines divide the higher and lower registers. The differentiation of voices rather than classic counterpoint really does seem to be the structural key to this sometimes darkly opaque work; throughout it, the Quatuor Bozzini maintain a clarity of individual articulation, even in the densest passages.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: John Tilbury / Keith Rowe / Kjell Bjørgeengen – Sissel [SOFA 563]

The fundamental and inescapable fact of our existence is that we are finite beings conscious of our finitude, and no more so than when someone near to us dies. This is the background to Sissel, a quietly moving performance by pianist John Tilbury, electric guitarist/electronics artist Keith Rowe, and Norwegian video artist Kjell Bjørgeengen, who collaborated with Tilbury and Rowe in the capacity of producer. The single piece that makes up the album was recorded as part of the Moving Sound concert series in Stavanger, Norway, in 2016, shortly after the death of Bjørgeengen’s wife Sissel, to whom the album is dedicated.

Taking as their inspiration the Poussin painting “The Gathering of the Ashes of Phocion by His Widow,” Tilbury and Rowe created a spaciously meditative sound environment that seems to move at the measured pace of reflective thought. The focus of the piece falls on Tilbury’s piano lines, which are less lines than intermittent handfuls of resonant notes sounding and fading away—sonic fragments shoring up the piece amid the ruins of silence, giving it a deeply affecting emotional definition and weight.

It’s possible to hear these sounds vanishing into silence as an allegory for the process of working through loss, a gradual process that approaches, but never really arrives at, absolute closure. There’s always some residue that remains, call it memory or the shadow of nothingness that lies across the image we reflect back to ourselves in moments of lucidity.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Olivia De Prato – Streya [New Focus FCR193]

Streya is the debut solo album of Austro-Italian violinist Olivia De Prato, now resident in New York. De Prato specializes in contemporary composed music as well as improvisation; in addition, she is co-founder of the Mivos Quartet, a chamber ensemble that also specializes in performing contemporary work. For Streya, she has assembled six new pieces for violin alone or with electronics, four of which were written specifically for her.

One of the four is Streya. The piece was originally composed in 2010 for De Prato by Victor Lowrie, the Mivos Quartet’s violist; the version recorded here was expanded in 2016 for the recording. Although it draws—moderately—on modern techniques of juxtaposition and disruption, Streya retains a lyrical continuity underscored by a dramatic use of dynamics. De Prato’s interpretation vivdly brings out the piece’s sense of proportion and balance. Ned Rothenberg’s Percorso insolito (“extraordinary path”) of 2016, which like Streya is a kind of contemporary counterpart to the Baroque solo violin sonata, is a cleanly played, linear piece that ranges up and down the instrument’s compass. Taylor Brook’s Wane (2016) also exploits the violin’s range, but in a different way. The multitracked piece builds layers out of five violin parts, each with a different tuning. The composite sound is of rising and falling glissandi embellished by imploring, vocal-like ornaments. Missy Mazzoli’s 2014 Vespers for Violin also uses recorded material, this time samples from the performance of her Vespers for a New Dark Age, as a sonic scrim against which De Prato projects her own part. This atmospheric piece features some of the rich, enveloping timbres of electronic ambient music and provides a lush contrast to the more austere works that precede it.

Streya also includes Samson Young’s electroacoustic Ageha.Tokyo (2008), and Reiko Füting’s Tanz.Tanz (2010) for solo violin.

Daniel Barbiero