With Blue, cellist Simon McCorry offers a kind of hypnotic chance music built up through the asynchronic layering of chord tones, interpolated pitches, and melodic fragments. On five of the nine tracks McCorry, who’s from Stroud, Gloucestershire in the UK, plays cello fed through looping devices and effects pedals; alternating between these performances are four electronic compositions constructed of manipulated recordings of the bells of Gloucester Cathedral.
On a number of the pieces, McCorry works a foundation of overlapping prolonged tones whose variable periodicities weave a gently rocking texture of real or implied harmonic movement. Forest, for example, begins as a drone but transitions to an alternating pair of chords over which McCurry plays an expansively serene melody. Similarly, the undulating, major-key harmonies of Light & Water anchor a refracted pentatonic melody liable to provoke a reverie in the listener. Invocation II is more unsettled harmonically and, in contrast to Light & Water, features a darker, slowly-paced polyphony in a minor mode. The abstract, metallic shimmering of the compositions for recorded bells provide an effective atmospheric offset to the cello pieces’ inherent melodiousness.
Beam Splitter is a duo with a unique, and uniquely broad, perspective on what wind music can be when augmented by contemporary sound technologies and produced through extended performance techniques. The project, a collaboration between Norway’s Henrik Munkeby Nørstebø and American expatriate Audrey Chen, is premised on the idea of creating an interpersonal sound from the dynamic interaction of the participants’ instruments: amplified trombone and amplified voice, respectively.
Ten of the eleven tracks are relatively short collages assembled from fragments of sound recorded during live performances in Vienna and Ljubljana in October, 2016; the long eleventh track appears to capture the real-time flow of Nørstebø and Chen’s July, 2016 performance at the Weincafé in Berlin. The latter track in particular reveals Nørstebø and Chen’s fundamental sense of the dramatic potential of the improvised duet; given the intimacy of pairing the human voice with an instrument not very far removed from the voice—and played in such a way as to emphasize its closeness to voice—it isn’t surprising to hear an element of theatricality in their work even when, through manipulation or assemblage, its surfaces are deliberately rendered illegible. This theatricality extends to their dramatization of the physical gestures underwriting sound production, which are brought to the forefront by virtue of their use of amplification: listening to Nørstebø and Chen, one can never forget that both voice and trombone are dependent on, and have their origin in, breath. For each of us, breath is a highly personal signature at the audible edge of sound; to magnify it, as Nørstebø and Chen do, is to make oneself available in a particularly bold way. And the work on Rough Tongue is nothing if not bold.
Morgan Evans-Weiler’s Unfinished Variations (for Jed Speare) is a 44-minute piece dedicated to the memory of Jed Speare (1954-2016), a Boston-area sound artist who created audio soundscapes and sculptures out of found sounds. Far from being found, the sounds that Evans-Weiler crafts on this work for solo violin are carefully constructed and assembled; like much sculpture, the long performance is built up of discrete and elementary structural units that combine into a strong architectural whole. These units consist of a set of related gestural themes, which Evans-Weiler varies through a series of small-scale movements. He works with motifs derived from microtonal chords and basic bowing patterns, which he subjects to changes of length and intensity. In their simplicity of material and dynamic restraint, the quieter sections recall Morton Feldman’s musical language; the collateral sounds of rasping bowhair traversing the strings adds a degree of material immediacy to these passages. In the louder and texturally thicker middle sections, the bowstrokes become boulder and more strident, while the convergences and divergences of the pitch material become correspondingly more continuous and pronounced. Evans-Weiler makes good use of silences as structural elements, breaking the long piece into discrete events that maintain their distinct characters but nevertheless support each other.
Much of the most interesting new music is not only composed with specific performers in mind, but is written in collaboration with them. This isn’t a process unique to contemporary music; historically, composers have written works for the noted performers of their time, and in more recent years, composers interested in expanding the range of new music’s sound palette have worked with technically adventurous virtuosi to create distinctly challenging pieces—challenging not only to play, but for listeners used to the more conventional range of instrumental sounds, challenging to assimilate as well. The practice of composer-performer collaboration seems to be particularly flourishing right now, often with excellent results. An example of this is Ashley Walters’ Sweet Anxiety, a collection mostly made up of new collaborative works for solo cello.
Two of the collaborative works on the disc are by composer Nicholas Deyoe. For Stephanie (2009), a wedding gift to the composer’s wife, is a piece whose volatile dynamics and unusual detuning scheme seem to capture the anxiety and aspiration that surround such an emotionally complex rite of passage. Deyoe’s another anxiety (2013) worries its sound material with compulsively repeated figures, frantic bowing, and jaw-clenchingly close microtonal dyads.
For Wadada Leo Smith’s Sweet Bay Magnolia with Berry Clusters (2012-2013), collaboration came in when Walters began the process of interpreting the completed score. Smith’s semi-improvisational piece left Walters much latitude in terms of phrasing, durations, and dynamics, and as a consequence her performance is richly expressive and at times uninhibited.
The highlight of the recording is Walters’ interpretation of Luciano Berio’s Sequenza XIV for cello. Berio composed the piece for the Sri Lankan cellist Rohan de Saram but it was left unfinished at the composer’s death; Walters worked with de Saram to realize her own version of the score. Sequenza XIV contains a number of technical challenges, including extended pizzicato and arco gestures meant to evoke Sri Lankan drumming rhythms. Walters’ performance conveys the power of the piece in a way that feels entirely natural.
Martin Küchen’s grimly titled Lieber Heiland, lass Uns Sterben was, fittingly enough, recorded in a crypt. The room, a stone-floored space built in 1121 and reputed to be the oldest such space in Sweden, is part of Lund Cathedral. Küchen went there in May, 2016 to set out the music that makes up this recording. Küchen plays alto, tenor and baritone saxophones; he uses radio, iPod and electronic tambura as additional sound sources. Two of the tracks feature overdubbing, but it is the three unedited live performances at the literal center of the set that carry the greatest expressive immediacy, even when Küchen’s horn is supplemented by sounds in fixed media. The brief Music to Silence Music unfolds with the lightness of rising and falling waves of sound that recall a fluttering of wings. The resonance of the crypt’s acoustics undoubtedly enhance the subtle shadings Küchen coaxes from his instrument; here, as on other pieces, Küchen’s saxophone sound takes on a flutelike airiness. The long Purcell in the Eternal Deir Yassin is a slowly developing, uncluttered alap for solo saxophone accompanied by electronic tambura. Ruf zu mir Bezprizorni…also uses prerecorded sound, in this case of a piano, over which Küchen’s saxophone laments hoarsely. While the set seems to represent a meditation on history’s uneasy dialectic of barbarity and cultivation, the stark beauty of the individual pieces provides an opportunity for reflection that the listener can fill with his or her own meanings.
On this second release by the international trio O3—Norwegian percussionist Ingar Zach, Italian flutist Alessandra Rombolá, and Spanish accordionist Esteban Algora—the group return to the chapel of Ermita de la Anunciada in Urueña, Spain, where their debut recording was made. This new recording opens with two resonant and widely-spaced percussive thumps, gradually followed by the clink of ceramic surfaces in collision and the whoosh and scrape of objects finding their voices. It’s an appropriate introduction to the exploration of space and timbre that follows. O3’s work is a kind of abstract painting with sound—more Miró than Pollock—with splashes of color in irregular shapes occupying discrete zones of audio space. Although the sound textures tend toward a higher density the further the playing develops, the points at which sounds join tend to be permeable; so too are the spaces between individual pieces, with the seven tracks working together as a single, non-narrative suite of timbral events.
Nicholas Deyoe’s “for Duane,” a collection of recent work for small ensembles, opens up areas of expression that often take advantage of the incremental dissonances of microtonal sounds and the darker shades of low-compass instruments. Deyoe, a West Coast composer who studied with Roger Reynolds, teaches composition at the California Institute of the Arts’ Herb Alpert School of Music. In addition to his compositional work, he is an experimental electric guitarist and founder of the ensemble wasteLAnd, the Los Angeles new music collective featured on most of the disc’s performances.
Voice figures prominently throughout the collection. The first piece, the seven-part Finally, the cylindrical voids tapping along (2016) is a setting of texts by poet Allison Carter for flute, trombone, cello, double bass and soprano Stephanie Aston. Deyoe floats Carter’s text, which includes incongruous images and free associations arranged alphabetically, over the sharp ends of notes clustered together in a close but brittle proximity. It’s a good match of music to words, as harmonic tension complements semantic ambiguity. Lied/Lied (2013) has violinist Batya MacAdam Somer speaking and singing her own text–at times surreal, at other times a fractured reminiscence—while playing a suitably fragmentary violin part that seems capriciously to underscore, punctuate, amplify, argue with and contradict the words, just as the title’s multilingual pun implicitly calls their veracity into question.
The instrumental 1560 (2016), a three-part composition for violin and viola realized by the Aperture Duo, is a performance piece with a spatial element: each movement calls for the players to take up a specified position relative to each other. The individual parts reflect this movement by matching up in unison drones and flurries of notes, or separating into lines rising and falling against each other. The underlying constant is a tight coordination between the two. Lullaby 6, also from 2016, is a two-movement concerto for amplified cello and nine-piece chamber ensemble that both closes the album and serves as its center of gravity. Dedicated to Deyoe’s recently deceased father, the piece is a lullaby in the way that a requiem is a lullaby for the dead. The orchestration is decisive in creating a charged ambience—it’s heavily weighted with a preponderance of low brass and reeds, giving the piece the gravitas it needs. Cellist Ashley Walters’s solo lines maintain the understated emotional intensity of the piece as the ensemble raises a dark curtain of sound behind her.