AMN Reviews: Martino Traversa – Hommage [Kairos 0015054KAI]

If Debussy’s was one of the quieter revolutions in Western art music, it was also one of the farthest-reaching. His innovative use of scales and their attendant harmonies had an enduring effect not only on subsequent classical music but on jazz as well, while his foregrounding of timbre and sonority suggested possibilities that are still undergoing exploration and development. With his pointedly titled monograph Hommage, Italian composer Martino Traversa (1960) places himself directly within this rich European, and largely but not exclusively French, tradition.

The album’s two works featuring Ensemble Prometeo, a chamber orchestra conducted by Marco Angius, show most directly Traversa’s deep engagement with the sensuous forces of instrumental color and their historical forms. Red 2, a piece for concertante violin and twelve-piece ensemble, is a direct homage to Boulez that begins with a quote from the latter’s Anthèmes. Boulez’s material serves as the basis for thematic elaborations that permeate the piece. In developing his themes Traversa plays clusters of voices against each other in a dense weave of fused timbres; he maintains a sense of suspense throughout with the simple but effective device of placing trills on top of these sound masses. Di altri cieli, a piece for soprano and chamber sextet inspired by Luigi Nono’s Fragmente-Stille, an Diotima, sets a text by poet Friedrich Hölderlin. It is a succinct, crepuscular work of fragments shored up against an abyss, with soprano Livia Rado’s voice providing a haunting, flute-like presence.

Rado, accompanied by piano, clarinet and cello, is also featured on Traversa’s settings of three poems by Stéphane Mallarmé, which make up a moody, beautifully orchestrated and sung triptych. Here Traversa constructs a vocal line that floats languidly, rushes energetically and leaps wide intervals as it lags behind, outruns and doubles the instruments. The match of Rado’s voice with the clarinet and upper register cello is at times uncanny and a sensitive use of the human voice as a purely musical instrument.

Hommage also includes Oiseaux Tristes, a piece for solo piano inspired by Ravel’s Miroirs, and Quasi una sonata…for violin and piano.

Altogether a beautiful recording.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Owl – Mille Feuille [Sofa Music SOFA580]

Owl is the duo of Oslo multi-instrumentalists Karl Bjorä and Signe Emmeluth; Mille Feuille, their first album, is based on a series of live recordings made over three days in a school building converted to an artists’ space.

The album title is a reference to Owl’s interest in creating music of multi-layered textures, which the two weave from the separate threads of saxophone, electric guitar, percussion, recorders and electronics. These individual elements often appear as ornaments or embellishments of an unheard melody—an improvised periphery around an imaginary center. At other times the center asserts itself in no uncertain terms as an expressionistic saxophone cadenza or resonant, carillon-like guitar chords chosen for sonority rather than for harmonic function.

A promising debut indeed.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Luca Collivasone & Gianni Mimmo – Rumpus Room [Amirani Records AMRN #064]

Over the course of his career, Pavian soprano saxophonist Gianni Mimmo has recorded a good number of duets with a wide variety of musicians. On Rumpus Room he plays with someone who surely must be one of his most unusual duet partners: Luca Collivasone. What makes Collivasone unusual is in part his eclectic background, which includes classical guitar, electronic sound design, and rockabilly, but also his choice of instruments for this recording: the Cacophonator. The Cacophonator is an instrument Collivasone built himself from an old Singer sewing machine he bought from a junk shop; it is a unique hybrid of strings, springs, buttons and miscellaneous electronics and mechanisms that can sound like steel drums, pizzicato cello, a primitive synthesizer, or a drum machine. Producing for the most part sonorities rather than melodic material, it largely provides the field against which Mimmo’s saxophone is the figure. And Mimmo certainly responds to its unconventional stimulus in creative ways: ordinarily playing with a highly refined, rounded tone, here he plays instead with an unusually keen edge and a focus on pure sound and extended technique as well as melody. The combination of Collivasone’s and Mimmo’s two voices on this recording is astonishingly successful; open ears will be well-rewarded.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Nomi Epstein – sounds [New Focus Recordings FCR260]

Composer/pianist Nomi Epstein’s music, as demonstrated on the portrait recording sounds, is made up of fine-grained distinctions between sounds and between sound and non-sound. This is evident particularly in the three compositions for solo piano: Till (2003), Solo for Piano (2007-19), and Layers for Piano (2015/18), all of them performed by Reinier van Houdt. Till, which opens the album, surrounds deliberately picked out, largely quiet individual notes and chords with silences to create differential effects of dynamics and register. The first part of the two-part Solo for Piano, appropriately titled Waves, features oscillating, closely-spaced tones that particularly in the lower registers merge into something like a massed, grey noise. The second part opposes Waves’ sonic blur with unhurried, precisely defined pitch groups. Layers for Piano, a three-part work, places delicate sonic fragments consisting of single notes and muffled dissonances within a range of quiet, subtly distinguishable dynamics. The other two compositions in the collection are for trios: of voice, bass flute and electronics, and for flute, bass clarinet, and piano. The first of these, for Collect/Project (2016-19), is a low-key drama of contrasts between the hollow tones of the bass flute (Shanna Gutierrez) and the abrasively dense interventions of the electronics (Francisco Castillo Trigueros). When Frauke Aulbert’s voice breaks through into a sonic clearing, the effect is bracing and revelatory. The 2016 sounds for Jeff and Eliza, for flutist Eliza Bangert and bass clarinetist Jeff Kimmel, who perform it here along with the composer on piano, builds harmonies from the wind instruments’ multiphonics superimposed on isolated notes and chords from the piano. The piece’s very slow harmonic rhythm lends it a sense of timelessness.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Tim Stine Trio – Fresh Demons [Astral Spirits AS133]

Guitarist Tim Stine has been a creative presence on the Chicago music scene for well over a decade now. Originally from North Dakota, he’s released recordings with his quartet and trio, and has played as a sideman with many of the city’s most interesting musicians. Fresh Demons is the second album from his trio with double bassist Anton Hatwich and drummer Frank Rosaly; recorded in January 2018, it follows their self-titled debut of 2016.

Stine composed the album’s eight tracks and plays acoustic guitar on all of them. That makes for a slightly unusual sound for a guitar-double bass-drums trio, but it is a very effective one and perfectly suited to the asymmetrical, chromatic substance typical of Stine’s thematically structured compositions. Stine is a fine guitarist; during written and improvised passages he plays fluent, long lines that push against the naturally staccato sound of the acoustic guitar. Hatwich’s pizzicato double bass, another predominantly staccato voice, both doubles and counterpoints Stine’s melodies and provides active support to his improvisations. No less important to the well-integrated group sound is Rosaly’s drumming—it’s fluid and propulsive, and makes Stine’s rhythmically complex compositions swing.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Three Recent Turns at Improvisation – Mentolados Durruti, Orlando Freitas & Fabrizio Bozzi Fenu

Three new and recent releases from the Pan y Rosas and Plus Timbre netlabels offer improvised music in trio, overdub and solo formats. Each provides a unique perspective on improvisational practice, and all are worth hearing.

The Argentine trio Mentolados Durruti is made up of Luis Conde on clarinet, bass clarinet and soprano saxophone; Luis Lanes on acoustic guitar; and Carlos Vega on double bass. Their album De aća a cien años [Pan y Rosas pyr287] is a well-rounded collection of music that ranges from the pure timbre of the opening track, with its string- and fingerboard-tapping and key clicks, to the pure counterpoint of a track like Los solidarios. Lane’s pristine fingerpicking and Vegas’ refined arco sound are particular delights, and the perfect offsets for Conde’s creative uses of extended techniques. This is a group with a deft touch for polyphonic music that balances the demands of defined line against atmospheric sonority.

Home, by Brazilian bassist Orlando Freitas, is another Pan y Rosas release [pyr289]. The title of the album is certainly appropriate: recordings of the bassist’s everyday life provide the backdrop against which he layers overdubbed pizzicato improvisations throughout the course of the single 35 minute-long track. Home is built around multitracked counterpoint and variations on density, as Orlando sets out rapid flurries of notes solo and as a virtual duo and trio. His sound on upright bass has the sleek and crackling edge of an electric fretless bass.

Finally there is Fabrizio “Bozzi” Fenu’s Sant’Andrìa, on Plus Timbre [pt099]. Fenu, a guitarist originally from Sardinia now resident in Marseille, France, invents a many-colored sound world for electric guitar augmented by loops, miscellaneous electronic processing, and preparations. In spite of the sometimes abstract nature of the timbres he coaxes from his instrument, he isn’t averse to grounding his improvisations in the occasional steady rhythmic pulse. There’s much of interest here—repeated fragments of melody circling an imaginary center; insistently ringing tones coalescing into chords; microtonal detunings; the reversed decay of notes turned backwards. And beneath it all, the sharply honed edge of the electric guitar’s plain voice.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Attilio Novellino – Strängar [Forwind FWD28]

Strängar, by Attilio Novellino is a four-movement work for grand piano, piano soundboard, prepared piano, various synthesizers, and electronics. Novellino, a sound artist, and composer from Catanzaro in the southern Italian region of Calabria, recorded Strängar at EMS Elektronmusikstudion in Stockholm as well as in Catanzaro. Novellino’s musical concept, with its structural use of compact themes and simple elements repeated and recombined, is its own kind of minimalism, but his ear for timbre and his ability to develop richly textured soundscapes gives his music an almost cinematic expansiveness.

The core of Strängar consists of resonant piano chords or notes struck once and left to linger, and in short, repeated motifs. From that foundation Novellino layers on a variety of sounds, most notably those created by playing directly on the piano’s strings—scraping, plucking, and striking in such a way as to convey something of the instrument’s sheer materiality. With these sonic foundations thus set down, Novellino then goes on to elaborate each piece with increasingly complex textures and sweeping electronic washes of sustained chords. The end result is a finely-tuned balance of the abstract and the atmospheric.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Patrick Ozzard-Low – In Opposition [Kairos 0015067KAI]

The two substantial works on British composer Patrick Ozzard-Low’s In Opposition were the delayed effect of an epiphany the composer had in 1978 at age twenty. Having heard Jean Barraqué’s Sonata for Piano on the radio for the first time, Ozzard-Low was drawn to the French composer’s dense yet vestigially tonal sound world. Ozzard-Low consequently found and began studies with Bill Hopkins, Barraqué’s composition student. These studies lasted until Hopkins’ early death in 1981. Beginning in the late 1980s, Ozzard-Low entered into a twenty-year-long period during which his own work gestated. Over the course of that time, Ozzard-Low adapted for his own use Barraqué’s unique form of tone-row construction and permutation which Ozzard-Low describes as based on “pitch-fields”—that is, sets of pitches of fixed register rather than variable octaves, which have the potential to be organized tonally or quasi-tonally as well as atonally. From his understanding of Barraqué’s musical architecture, with its openness to harmonic as well as serial construction, Ozzard-Low developed his own musical language. The Piano Sonata No. 2 and In Opposition are two of the works to emerge from that process of development.

Piano Sonata No. 2, a single-movement, half-hour-long work divided into five submovements, embodies a taut energy built up from the sometimes abrupt jostling against each other of harmonies and dissonances. The piece is essentially modern in its vocabulary, but it develops with the emotional power of a reconfigured Romanticism and retains a harmonic openness tinted with shades of Impressionism. Pianist Andrew Zolinsky’s performance is appropriately robust and compelling.

In Opposition, a sonata for solo viola, is like the piano sonata a half-hour-long single movement work of several submovements. Also like the piano sonata the piece stakes out a ground between tonality and atonality; in construction, it draws on modern and pre-modern ways of phrasing. The opening sections are largely laid out as discontinuous sequences of events of dynamic and registral extremes; as the piece unfolds, though, it gathers itself in toward longer, more continuous passages that suggest the Bach sonatas for solo violin brought into the 21st century. In this regard In Opposition, like the Piano Sonata No. 2 but to a more marked extent, demonstrates Ozzard-Low’s aptitude for putting into dialogue forms taken from past and present musical practices. Violist Elisabeth Smalt’s realization of this demanding composition represents a deft handling of Ozzard-Low’s multimorphic idiom.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Steve Ashby & Vicki Hallett – The Shore Sang of Ghosts [Bandcamp]

Back in 2017, Richmond guitarist, composer and sound artist Steve Ashby met Australian clarinetist, composer and sound artist Vicki Hallett when both were participating in a field recording residency in South Africa. The encounter bore fruit in the form of their collaborative work The Shore Sang of Ghosts, an album the two created by exchanging files literally from opposite ends of the globe. The physical distance between them may have been great, but musically Ashby and Hallett show themselves to be in close proximity.

All four tracks on the album are heavily atmospheric. In fact, they represent four developments and elaborations of a single, fundamentally introspective mood. On all of them Ashby’s bracingly clear and clean guitar floats over a timelessly oscillating electronic ground drenched in resonant effects, while Hallett brings similarly ethereal lines on flute, clarinet and bass clarinet to add alternately bright and dark colors to the fore of the mix. Ashby and Hallett’s melodies are independent of each other yet complementary, giving good evidence of a shared sensibility undiminished by thousands of miles of separation.

Overall, the music brings to mind the image of cumulus clouds drifting and mutating slowly overhead. But as the low frequency undertow becomes more salient and the textures thicken as the album progresses, one can imagine a different, darker set of clouds piling up just on the horizon.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: John Aylward and Ecce Ensemble – Angelus [New Focus Recordings fcr 261]

One of the better-known works by Swiss artist Paul Klee is Angelus Novus, a 1920 monoprint that was once owned by essayist Walter Benjamin. Klee’s angel is a bird-like figure facing the viewer, eyes open and slightly cast down, hand-like wings thrown up and mouth open. In a much-remarked upon paragraph in his Theses on the Philosophy of History Benjamin, on the basis of a more or less fanciful interpretation, identified Klee’s angel as the Angel of History, facing away from the future and toward the past in order to bear witness to what Benjamin characterized as the “one single catastrophe” of history.

Klee’s picture and Benjamin’s interpretation provide the background for composer John Aylward’s Angelus, a ten-movement cycle of vocal chamber music performed by soprano Nina Guo and the Ecce Ensemble, for which Aylward is artistic director. Aylward saw Angelus Novus during a trip to Europe with his mother, who had fled the continent during World War II and was returning there for the first time since then; the composer describes the music that experience inspired as a “treatise on the human experience” as reflected through a series of texts selected from the philosophy, depth psychology and poetry of “various cultural histories” of different eras. Aylward’s choices do embrace a multiplicity of ways of addressing and assimilating experiences of both extreme and more ordinary circumstances from perspectives ranging from the tragic to the transcendental.

Fittingly, one of the texts Aylward chose to set to music is drawn from Benjamin’s meditations on Klee’s image, which he used for the cycle’s second movement. Aylward serves Benjamin’s text well; with both the writing and orchestration the composer conveys the tragic power and seeming inevitability of the human capacity for destruction. Guo speaks, chants, and sings the words against a confusion of strings and winds in a swirling whirlwind of sound; one can readily imagine the sight of a disordered scattering of ruins.

At the other end of the experiential spectrum is Truth, the eighth movement. The source texts here are Plato’s Phaedrus, a dialogue on beauty and the good, and the Catholic Church’s Angelus devotion, a message of hope commemorating the annunciation and incarnation. The section opens with a flourish of pitched percussion and then settles into a sonority dominated by the interactions of violin and cello on the one hand, with flute, clarinet, and oboe on the other. Aylward’s setting of the Angelus text to the cadences of the missa cantata is especially evocative.

The composer himself provides one of the two texts for the seventh movement, titled Anima. (The other text is Thomas Mann’s Freud and the Future.) Anima is primarily a duet between Guo and flutist Emi Ferguson. Both voices contrast with and complement each other while sharing the same range; both also draw on extended techniques, Guo exploring extremes of dynamics and glissandi, and Ferguson using tongue trills and plosive breathing. The cycle’s final movement is The Distance, whose slowly rising and falling lines are score in lower ranges. Guo speaks and sings the movement’s text, taken from the poem A Distance from the Sea by Weldon Kees.

It’s a real pleasure to hear these and the other texts—by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Jung, D.H. Lawrence, Adrienne Rich—set to music of a matching depth and complexity. The Ecce Ensemble plays with an appropriately calibrated range of feeling, while Guo delivers her demanding parts with the strength of commitment suited to the words.

Daniel Barbiero