As stated on its web site:
New Focus Recordings is an artist led collective label featuring releases in contemporary creative music of many stripes, as well as new approaches to older repertoire. The label was founded by guitarist Dan Lippel, composer/engineer/producer Ryan Streber, and composer Peter Gilbert in 2004, formed around the production of the first five albums in the catalogue. Many of the subsequent releases within those first years were with artists who also continue to release their music with the label today – featured members of the International Contemporary Ensemble including pianist Jacob Greenberg, flutist Claire Chase, cellist Kivie-Cahn Lipman, soprano Tony Arnold, composer/percussionist Nathan Davis, composer/performer Du Yun, and composer/pianist Phyllis Chen, alongside others in the ICE community, and members of new music quartet Flexible Music, pianist Eric Huebner and percussionist Haruka Fujii, along with several of the group’s associated composer and performer colleagues (including John Link, Steve Ricks, Jeff Irving, David Laganella, Adam Silverman, Antares, Orianna Webb, Erin Lesser, and Mikel Kuehn) released recordings or appeared as guests on others. In the first several years of New Focus, these musicians shared their artistry in fantastic recordings which shaped the direction of the New Focus catalogue and helped to lay the foundation for the label.
Over the last few years, we have reviewed quite a few New Focus releases – all reviews by Dan Barbiero. They are gathered below.
Ben Melsky / Ensemble Dal Niente – s/t (2019)
The harp is one of those instruments whose extraordinary versatility makes it well-suited to musical experimentation. Berio’s 1963 Sequenza II for solo harp showed just how rich the instrument’s sonic resources are, given a willingness to extend technique beyond the conventional. The new and recent works on harpist Ben Melsky’s self-titled album continue in that decidedly untraditional tradition.
Melsky specializes in modern and contemporary music for the harp and has a particular interest in expanding the repertoire of challenging new compositions for the instrument. He’s joined on this album by members of the contemporary chamber ensemble Dal Niente, of which he is Executive Director as well as harpist. It’s quite simply a beautiful recording that manages to be both sensuous and cerebral all at once.
As different as the album’s individual pieces are, there are a couple of features that recur throughout the recording: a basic interest in foregrounding timbre over pitch, generally through the uses of extended technique and imaginative instrumental pairings; and uncluttered textures often made up of discrete sound events.
Except for Tomás Gueglio’s two-part After L’Addio/Felt (2014) for solo harp, all of the compositions are for harp in a duet setting. After L’Addio places a continuo of rough, scraping sounds under glissandi and individually plucked notes; the aptly titled Felt filters a measured sequence of atonal notes and harmonics through felt applied to the instrument. Whereas L’Addio/Felt draws timbral contrasts through extended technique for harp alone, the other works explore the timbral implications of different instrumental pairings. The phrasing in Alican Çamci’s Perde for bass flute and harp (2014) is based on the rhythms of a 15th century Persian poem; the resonant, vocal quality of the line is emphasized by having bass flutist Emma Hospelhorn sing and speak through her instrument while Melsky supplies staccato punctuation and accents. On-dit (2014) by Eliza Brown also matches voice to harp; soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett sings, whispers, and sustains notes over the harp’s more fragmentary interventions.
Mobile 2015: Satirise, an open-form work by Frederick Gifford, was written for an inspired combination of harp and guitar (played by Jesse Langen), two instruments with similar timbral profiles. It’s a similarity that, paradoxically, dramatizes their differences by virtue of their not being identical. The piece’s microtonality adds another, subtle degree of separation between the two. Igor Santos’ 2019 Anima for harp and percussion has percussionist Kyle Flens and Melsky converge on spiky, composite timbres, while Wang Lu’s After some remarks by CW on his work (2018) for harp and clarinet blends ample open spaces, multiphonics from Katie Schoepflin’s clarinet, and harp harmonics in a sequence of sound-islands of uncanny, composite timbres.
Louis Karchin – Dark Mountains/Distant Lights (2019)
In the liner note to Dark Mountains/Distant Lights, an album of seven new and recent compositions of his, Louis Karchin describes one of the pieces as having been inspired by lyric poetry’s capacity to convey the moods and emotional states of an individual sensibility. In fact many of the other works in the collection are lyrical not only in the sense Karchin describes, but also in the original sense of something meant to be sung. This should come as no surprise, given the substantial amount of vocal music, including the opera Jane Eyre, that Karchin has written.
The point of departure for Karchin’s musical vocabulary is the pitch-oriented serial and post-serial composition of the last century. His lines tend toward the complex and highly chromatic, and are characterized by sudden turns and staggering leaps and falls. This is the case for Rhapsody (2005/2011), a work for violin and piano that features a tonally convoluted, register-spanning violin line. Nevertheless, the line has a continuity and phrasing that recall the human voice, and it isn’t hard to imagine it as an aria for soprano. It’s a virtuoso piece breathtakingly played by violinist Miranda Cuckson and pianist Steven Beck.
In addition to her affecting performance on the austerely beautiful Prayer (2004) for solo violin, Cuckson has two duets with oboist Jacqueline Leclair: 2016’s Dreamscape, and 2017’s Reflections. Both are challenging works that integrate extended techniques—multiphonics for oboe, unorthodox bowings for violin—with more conventionally played, though still demanding, passages. Karchin’s decision to pair oboe and violin, whose timbres contrast in the lower registers but tend to converge in the upper registers, is inspired.
Lyrics II (2014)—the piece Karchin was referring to in the liner note—is a two-part composition for solo piano that does indeed evoke the dynamic arc of emotional cycles.
Musicians from soundSCAPE – After the End (2019)
It has to be said right up front: the music on After the End, which presents three new and recent vocal chamber works by the three contemporary composers Jesse Jones (b. 1978), Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon (b. 1962) and Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez (b. 1964), is of a refined beauty.
All three compositions are performed by small groups drawn from the faculty of the soundSCAPE summer Festival of Contemporary Music, an institution to which the three composers have been connected in various capacities in recent years. Given this history, it isn’t surprising that the performers—soprano Tony Arnold; flutist Lisa Cella; violinist Mark Fewer; percussionist Aiyun Huang; and pianist Thomas Rosenkranz—seem to have an especially good rapport with the work. Their realization of this sometimes rarefied, open-textured music is delicately balanced and austerely sensuous.
Jesse Jones’ After the End (2017), which was commissioned by soundSCAPE, sets a text by Jonathan Brent Butler to music for soprano, percussion and piano. Jones describes the text as pessimistic—it’s after the end of the world, after all—but at the same time holding out the promise of renewal. The vocal line is haunting but not despairing, proceeding at a measured pace intercut with rests. The accompaniment shimmers in slightly discordant, downward cascades of piano and vibes.
Flores de Viento III (1990, revised 2013), is a work in seven parts by Guadalajara-born Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon. The composition is scored for soprano, violin, flute/piccolo, and percussion, and sets a series of poems, most of them by the composer’s sister Laura Zohn-Muldoon, based on the Mesoamerican myth of the feathered serpent Quetzalcóatl. Zohn-Muldoon constructs the music from concise, atonal melodic motifs that he varies and orchestrates as distinct splashes of instrumental color. By breaking the ensemble out into constantly shifting groupings of solo, duo, trio and quartet voices, he exploits the group’s timbral potential to its fullest. And the sheer variety of percussion instruments he employs—vibes, marimba, crotales, gong, congas, maracas and more—contributes significantly to the richness of the piece’s textures.
Mexican native Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez’s Kikai no Mori/Chance Forest Interludes (2015) was given its premiere at the 2015 soundSCAPE festival. The work is a fusion of two separate pieces, Chance Forest Interludes for solo soprano, and Kikai no Mori for piano and percussion. When presented together, the interludes are inserted in between movements of Kikai no Mori. The interludes are virtuoso pieces that provide a relatively quiet tonic to the fragmented melodies and suspenseful, rhythmic intensity of Kikai no Mori. The percussion part encompasses pitched and unpitched instruments and even the piano itself, through various extended techniques—tone clusters, playing directly on the strings, holding the strings while striking the keys—is turned into something of a multi-voiced percussion ensemble of its own.
Splinter Reeds – Hypothetical Islands (2019)
Extended technique long ago lost its shock value, which is all to the good. For many composers as well as performers, extended technique is a resource that can be drawn on as a matter of course—as one musical device among many, rather than as novelty or anomaly. As their fine second album demonstrates, the music written for and performed by the extraordinary reed quintet Splinter Reeds—oboist Kyle Bruckmann, clarinetist Bill Kalinkos, saxophonist David Wegehaupt, bass clarinetist Jeff Anderle and bassoonist Dana Jessen—shows how artfully extended technique can serve as the organizing principle for stimulating works that are challenging to performer and listener alike.
An excellent example of this is composer Sky Mackley’s Choppy, which was written in 2017 for Splinter Reeds and premiered at the Berkeley Art Museum that November. The piece weaves together a dense tissue of multiphonics, microtonal detuning, overblowing and the non-musical sounds of disturbed water (a sonic allusion to the title’s evocation of windblown water, perhaps). It’s a piece that inhabits extremes of register and dynamics and might be something we could imagine the Furies listening to when not out pursuing transgressors.
Like Choppy, Eric Wubbels’ Auditory Scene Analysis II, written for the group in 2016, employs multiphonics as a significant element. Also like Choppy, it contains jarring dynamic contrasts as well as harsh, massed sound clusters. Some of the percussive effects in Wubbels’ piece find an amplified echo in Theresa Wong’s Letters to a Friend, which uses key clicks and slap-tongue to set up a complex set of rhythms and counterrhythms.
The title track, by Yannis Kyriakides, augments the sound of the acoustic winds with electronics. The piece begins with a wind-like background rumble that, rising and falling in prominence, runs as an undercurrent throughout. On top of it the reeds carve out dissonant islands of sound—short, discordant fragments of ensemble work that take the guise of tantalizing, because deliberately incomplete, hints of melody.
The album also includes the gleefully stuttering polyphony of Matthew Shlomowitz’s Lines and Length, and the Cara Haxo’s alternately pointillistic and movingly lyrical Exercises I and II.
Marianne Gythfeldt – Only Human: Electroacoustic Works for Clarinet (2018)
At first glance, the title of clarinetist Marianne Gythfeldt’s Only Human would appear to be ironic. The album is a collection of work for clarinet and bass clarinet augmented by electronics in various capacities; the resulting sounds are more than just what human breath produces when vibrating a reed. But in fact there’s no irony: the technology never overshadows the essentially human rhythms underlying the music and the equally human urge to convey, though sound, an expressive message from one person to another.
Gythfeldt brings a depth of experience to the music here. She is on the faculty of the Brooklyn College Conservatory as well as a member of the Zephyros Winds ensemble; her repertoire is diverse, encompassing classical and contemporary chamber music as well as the kind of work represented on Only Human. The album shows something of Gythfeldt’s history with electroacoustic music, since earliest composition on the CD, Robert Morris’ 1999 On the Go, was also the piece that introduced her to the possibility of integrating electronics with her clarinet. In structure if not in the particulars of sound, Morris’ work is fairly conventional. It is modeled on a concerto for solo clarinet on one side and a lush, yet unmistakably synthetic quasi-orchestra on the other; the two parts seem to move with a high degree of independence, but in doing so they throw off a counterpoint that seems as inevitable as it is unpredictable.
The CD’s title track was composed for Gythfeldt in 2005 by John Link. The piece, for clarinet and stereo sound, has Gythfeldt playing against a virtual ensemble made up of prerecorded, largely unprocessed samples of herself. The multiplication of voices turns a fractured, register-leaping lead line into a series of echoing hockets and long harmonies. Like Only Human, Mikel Kuehn’s Rite of Passage (Hyperresonance V) of 2014 was composed for Gythfeldt. Here she plays bass clarinet, threading her way through a more or less dense thicket of electronic sound as she circles around a bass clarinet part taken from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Elizabeth Hoffman’s And when the white moths were on the wing (2017), a three-movement work for clarinet and live electronics, was composed for Gythfeldt through a collaborative process of improvisation and conversation. The collaborative spirit of the piece’s composition translates out into its sound: the clarinet and electronics are dynamically balanced and well-integrated, with each voice serving as an atmospheric complement to the other. Eric Lyons’ Little History of Photography (2015), for clarinet and interactive computer, takes Gythfeldt’s real-time performance as input for live manipulation. Gythfeldt’s part consists of a vigorous, rising and falling flurry of notes embroidered at the edges with timbral effects courtesy of computer processing. Licorice Stick Groove by David Taddie matches live clarinet with a prerecorded soundtrack that cycles through a series of energetic rhythms.
Transient Canvas – Wired (2018)
On Wired the acoustic duo Transient Canvas—bass clarinetist Amy Advocat and marimbist Matt Sharrock—are indeed wired. Most of the seven pieces on the CD, which the duo commissioned between 2014 and 2017, supplement the basic reed and percussion ensemble with electronic sounds of one kind or another.
Many of the compositions reflect the influence of rock or other recent popular music: they may have discernible, song-like harmonic cycles or well-defined rhythms, or both. But that’s just a jumping-off point; these are influences to be reworked, dismantled and reassembled into something particular to each composer. Exergy Bubblebath, for example, a 2015 composition by Peter VanZandt Lane, takes explicit inspiration from the dance music of the 1990s but refigures it in a series of deftly executed, rapid unison figures for bass clarinet and marimba while electronic sounds ricochet in the background. Syncopation propels Dan Van Hassel’s Epidermis (2017), which breaks up into twitchy repetitions of fragmentary phrases covered in a skin of electronic sounds. Kirsten Volness’s Year Without a Summer (2017) opens with deep, brooding electronic tones before developing into a movingly plaintive bass clarinet melody placed over arpeggiated chords on marimba. Branches, a 2015 composition by David Ibbett, sets out rock rhythms in changing time signatures recalling some of the more challenging kinds of progressive rock; from there, it swerves into an infectiously upbeat outro. Somnambula (2014), by Rudolf Rojahn, repeats a relatively simple but haunting melody over a cyclic song structure, which it then takes through a series of variations. On the more abstract side, Lainie Fefferman’s Hyggelig (2016), which appears to be a purely acoustic piece for Advocat and Sharrock alone, moves in free-floating trills and measured lines. Mischa Salkind-Pearl’s solm (2016) captures in musical analogy the experience of hearing a foreign language whose meanings one doesn’t understand: what stands out are the prosody as well as bits and pieces of phonics with the semantics stripped out. Accordingly, the music is fragmented and focused on the sound qualities of the instruments, enriched by an electronic overlay.
Scott L. Miller – Raba (2018)
The electronic and electroacoustic music on Raba represents an updating, in its own way, of ambient music by way of contemporary art music. As composer Scott L. Miller explains, the CD began as a retrospective of his work but evolved into a reworking of some old pieces along with the creation of new work.
The title track, composed in 2015 and revised in 2017, exemplifies the paradox of tension within drift that characterizes Miller’s reimagining of ambient composition. The piece is orchestrated for a small electroacoustic ensemble of winds, strings, piano, percussion, and electronic sound. The latter is responsible for the ambience, providing as it does a textural backdrop recalling at times the electronic hum of a distant engine. Over this foundation, the acoustic instruments intervene with complementary washes of sound. The work is low-key but psychologically taut; it creates an atmosphere permeated by unresolved anticipation. The title of The Frost Performs Its Secret Ministry (2016) hints at an esoteric action hidden in an everyday meteorological event; this trio for flute (Laura Cocks), guitar (Daniel Lippel) and electronic sound keeps that action veiled in mostly abstract, unpitched sounds: the flute comes in on a gust of air notes, for example. Lippel’s agitated strumming keeps the piece from wafting into languor and instead adds an urgent, emotional edge. Lippel is the pivot for Meditation (2016) for guitar and interactive electronic sound. The piece is undergirded by a feedback-like hum on which the guitar’s coloristic fragments float; from this basic division of sonic parts Miller builds a subtle drama out of oppositions of timbre: the sharp attack, short sustain and relatively muted tones of the nylon-string guitar provide a compelling contrast to the electronics’ sustained sounds.
Ogni Suono – Saxo Voce (2019)
bandcamp width=100% height=120 album=3356787332 size=large bgcol=ffffff linkcol=0687f5 tracklist=false artwork=small]
Ogni Suono, the Cleveland, Ohio saxophone duet of Noa Even and Phil Pierick, opened the 2018 Sonic Circuits DC Festival this past September. Their set was a remarkable, precisely played précis of their album Saxo Voce, a collection of new work they commissioned from several contemporary composers. As its title suggests, Saxo Voce is an album of music for saxophones and voices matched and sorted in a variety of ways. On a piece like Christopher Dietz’s My Manifesto and Me (2016), which alternates recitative and instrumental passages, voice and saxophone occupy distinct spheres that dramatize each other by way of contrast. On Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s Chroma (2017) for two soprano saxophones and voice, the instrumental parts—long lines moving past each other in slow glissandi—lie over a substrate of wordless voices hardly distinguishable from the sounds of the instruments. The serene pace of the work belies its on-edge dissonances, afforded by overtones, multiphonics and microtonal collisions. Ogni Suono’s facility with extended techniques is further demonstrated in Vocalise II (2016) by Felipe Lara, which rushes in with the hissing of air notes and is sustained on the drone of a tenor saxophone accompanied by a parallel, hummed line.
Anthony Cheung – Cycles and Arrows (2018)
Cycles and Arrows, a collection of complex, well-crafted compositions for chamber ensembles, is the third portrait CD of work by Anthony Cheung (b. 1982). The recording highlights Cheung’s interest in composing with a focus on the qualities of instrumental voices both alone and in combinations.
Cheung’s concern with instrumental color follows naturally from his formation as a composer. A pianist as well as a composer, Cheung had as his primary composition teachers the spectralist Tristan Murail and Bernard Rands; he wrote his dissertation on Ligeti’s Hamburg Concerto, a late work exploring non-harmonic sonorities for solo horn and chamber orchestra. Given this background, it isn’t surprising that Cheung’s compositions tend to engage sonority as a substantive product of careful orchestration.
With the exception of 2015’s Après une lecture, a work for solo oboe, all of the pieces on Cycles and Arrows locate their musical centers of gravity in the timbral effects of instrumental aggregations and divisions. One of the more adventurous instances is More Marginalia (2014) for a ten-piece ensemble. The composition represents a reworking of Cheung’s 2012 piece for ten traditional Chinese instruments, originally written for the Taipei Chinese Orchestra. For the newer work, Cheung replaced half the Chinese instruments with Western instruments of more-or-less analogous makeup. The ensemble’s unconventional makeup allows Cheung to set up shifting timbral alliances and oppositions between groups of instruments whose contrasting voices reflect contrasting traditions and playing techniques; especially effective are the contrasts between the plucked and bowed Chinese instruments on the one hand, and Western strings and winds on the other. In this piece as in the other works for chamber orchestra, Cheung plays instrumental coalitions off against each other in constellations of color that break apart as quickly as they cohere.
Although a solo piece, Après une lecture also is essentially about the dynamics of sound color. Based on a free reading of Leoš Janáček’s transcriptions of spoken language, Cheung’s composition, forcefully realized by oboist Ernest Rombout, draws on a vocabulary of microtones and multiphonics to mimic the vagaries of the human voice; its irregular accents and tempos, along with mercurial changes of register, convey something of the range of sonic nuances that are an integral, if often overlooked, dimension of linguistic meaning.
Douglas Boyce – Some Consequences of Four Incapacities (2019)
The music of composer Douglas Boyce reflects an eclectic set of influences and interests. He has turned pre-Baroque music for inspiration as well as raw material; at the same time, he is conversant with contemporary compositional language rooted in Modernism. On Some Consequences of Four Incapacities, Boyce presents recent work in a contemporary vein. The string trio 102nd and Amsterdam is a sonic portrait of an intersection in upper Manhattan: the energy of an urban crossroad translated into vertiginous glissandi, frantically pulsating rhythms and the often dissonant coincidence of independently moving voices. The rhythmic cohesion and propulsion of the string trio find a counterpart in Piano Quartet No. 1 for violin, viola, cello, and piano. The piece’s asymmetrical but regular rhythms and heavy chords wittily acknowledge—and reveal the congruence between—two of Boyce’s early influences: Bartok and King Crimson. The CD closes with the well-crafted, thirty-five minute-long Fortuitous Variations, a four-part composition for piano, violin, and cello.
Vigeland / Füting / Lippel / Popham – “…through which the past shines…” (2018)
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.
Olivia De Prato – Streya (2018)
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.
Michael Hersch/The FLUX Quartet – Images from a Closed Ward (2018)
By design, Images from a Closed Ward, Michael Hersch’s cycle of thirteen movements for string quartet, is not easy listening. Hersch’s inspiration was a set of etchings and prints artist Michael Mazur created of people institutionalized in a mental asylum in Rhode Island in the 1960s. The music is accordingly disturbing—jarring, discordant, harsh and unyielding. Hersch leverages blocks of sound, deliberately out-of-tune harmonies and extended string techniques to convey a world unmoored and unstable, haunted by an emptiness and fundamental self-alienation. One can only imagine what those people experienced or how their surroundings impinged on them; Hersch’s composition provides sixty-five minutes of empathetic conjecture, which the FLUX Quartet realizes with a relentless power.
Gregory Oakes – Aesthetic Apparatus (2018)
Some of the most challenging music of recent years—challenging to play as well as to listen to—has been written by German composer Helmut Lachenmann (b. 1935). The conceptual core of much of his music has consisted in laying bare the conditions underlying and assumed by music production—essentially, the physical prerequisites of performance practice, as well as the determinations, both accepted and rejected, of genre. For Lachenmann, musical sound is a complex of factors reaching back within the tradition or genre in relation to which it is created, and reaching forward into the moment—the physical situation of specific possibilities and the choices they elicit—in which it is actually produced. Thus the title of his book of writings, which translates as “music as existential experience.” This standpoint puts extraordinary demands on the performer, who must be familiar with all the aspects and resources his or her instrument has to offer. With Aesthetic Apparatus, a set of three Lachenmann compositions, clarinetist Gregory Oakes takes up the challenge.
Oakes, who is principal clarinetist for the Des Moines Symphony Orchestra as well as an assistant professor of clarinet at Iowa State University in Ames, is particularly interested in contemporary art music. Much of his repertoire is the product of collaboration with currently active composers, and he seems especially drawn to new music that assumes a broad notion of what kinds of sounds are permissible in the concert hall. Thus Lachenmann’s music is a natural fit for him.
The affinity between Oakes and Lachenmann’s sound world is immediately apparent with the first piece, 1970’s Dal Niente (Interieur III) for solo clarinet. The composition calls for a number of extended techniques for the instrument, many of which involve the sounds of breath on the borderline of silence. In his liner note, Oakes points out that the title of the piece derives from a musical marking that translates as “from nothing;” his performance accordingly pivots on the flux of sounds proceeding from and returning to nothing. The Trio Fluido for clarinet, viola and percussion of 1966, in which Oakes is joined by violist Jonathan Sturm and Matthew Coley on marimba, also centers on sound but in a more assertive way. The piece begins with a fragmented Modernist counterpoint that, through a kind of compositional auto-deconstruction, gradually dissolves into abstract sound. What’s striking about the piece is its underlying consistency; the division of the three voices focuses attention on their individual timbral characteristics, whether played conventionally or with the extended techniques that come to dominate the final third or so of the performance. The interplay among the three performers manages to be both refined and (subtly) dramatic. The final performance, the nearly 32 minute long Allegro Sostenuto (1986/1988), is a trio for clarinet, cello (George Work) and piano (Mei-Hsuan Huang) that Lachenmann has described as mediating between resonance and movement. The piece begins as an archipelago of rapid bursts, truncated phrases and points of sound that accumulate and build length and mass over time. The resonance inheres in the individuation of each of the three instruments, which is helped by the three players’ precise articulation. Here as on all three pieces, Oakes plays with a fine-grained, well-modulated and vivid sound.
Scott Wollschleger – Soft Aberration (2017)
Composer Scott Wollschleger (b. 1980) seems most interested in creating musical effects through a deliberately-chosen economy of means. He writes largely for chamber ensembles or soloist performers, and in fact Soft Aberration, the first album dedicated to his work alone, contains compositions for solo, duo, trio and quartet.
A couple of the titles of these works—Soft Aberration, Brontal Symmetry—are likely to call up associations with New York School composers, especially Morton Feldman. Wollschleger has acknowledged the New York School and Feldman as influences and exemplary figures; like Feldman, Wollschleger favors constructing pieces out of repeating fragments of pitches, timbres, or rhythmic figures. His method for building a full-scale work out of these basic elements generally consists of creating chains of semi-independent events or moments defined by a relatively simple pattern of pitch, color, or rhythmic relationships. One moment doesn’t necessarily implicate the next; Wollschleger’s stated aim in making continuous works from discontinuous, repeating events is to encourage the listener to reflect on the sounds’ different facets–as if they had been presented from different angles.
The long piece that opens the album, 2015’s Brontal Symmetry, was commissioned by the unorthodox piano trio Longleash, who perform it here; the work is an astutely-chosen opener, as it epitomizes some of the key aspects of Wollschleger’s aesthetic. The piece lays out its fundamental musical material from the start, as it begins with a staccato, deliberately square-rhythmed three-note motif on the piano. The motif is picked up on the strings, which reproduce its phrase profile more than its exact melody; the playing then dissolves into a simulacrum of chaos—of acoustic white noise carried on the frenzied bowing of the strings. This contrast of moods sets a larger, symmetrical pattern in which the piece alternates passages defined by the simple motif with chaotic or quiet passages.
The white noise of the strings’ unpitched moments in Brontal Symmetry is developed further in —and alluded to in the title of–White Wall (2013) for string quartet. Played with the requisite subtlety by the Mivos Quartet, White Wall’s softly bowed, muted strings and whistling harmonics—broken on occasion by plucked or bowed stabs–largely exist in an audio environment notable for its low dynamics and dispersed texture. White Wall is a piece of extraordinary sonic delicacy that serves as the understated focus of the album.
The album’s other compositions—the title track, for piano and viola; America, for solo cello; and Bring Something Incomprehensible into This World, for the unusual duo of soprano and trumpet—give more evidence of a composer who can extract the expressive maximum from minimal musical means.
Mikel Kuehn – Object/Shadow (2017)
The results of the musical revolution that Modernism midwived during the last century are still with us. At one time a matter of novelty, the possibilities Modernism opened up—regarding pitch relationships, the role of timbre, and musical syntax—have grown into a kind of alternative common practice whose strategies are always already available to contemporary composers.
For composer Mikel Kuehn (b. 1967), the common practice of Modernism is a notable presence animating his work. Kuehn, who is Professor of Composition at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, began as a percussionist while in his teens in the Los Angeles area. Like many composers of his generation, his background includes jazz and other musics outside of the Western classical tradition. Some of these eclectic influences can be felt in his compositions as, for example, in their instrumentation. But on Object/Shadow, the first full release dedicated to his music, Modernism, with its expansive pitch and timbral vocabularies and especially its divisionist syntax, is the central point of reference.
On the ensemble pieces Undercurrents (2013), Color Fields (2006/2008) and Between the Lynes (1994), Kuehn employs Modernist-derived strategies for handling textures and phrasing. On all three pieces, he treats the surfaces as complex, colorful mosaics made up of small, irregularly-shaped tiles, foregrounding different instruments or instrumental combinations as brief, constantly changing events. The tensions created by these fragmentary textures are complemented by unresolved dissonances and phrase endings left dangling like open and unanswered questions. Those are general observations; each of the pieces has attractions of its own. Color Fields, for example, written for and performed here by the Flexible Music quartet of tenor saxophone (Timothy Ruedeman), vibes (Haruka Fujii), guitar (Daniel Lippel) and piano (Eric Huebner), like Milton Babbitt’s All Set takes a jazz ensemble and turns it to abstract uses. Whereas All Set broke the ensemble down into constantly changing subgroups, Color Fields is notable for combining instruments into a single line of composite timbre. The contrast of staccato and sustaining voices sounding in parallel gives the piece a restless push, as do the generally long, propulsive phrases running through it. Between the Lynes for flute, cello, and piano, the oldest work represented, is also the closest in sound to a mid-20th Century, broken-surfaced serial composition. It’s a gratifying excursion into audio painting: Like pieces falling in a turning kaleidoscope, the three voices—Ensemble Dal Niente’s Emma Hospelhorn, Chris Wild, and Winston Choi–combine and divide into quick, short-lived alliances and oppositions.
Unfoldings (2004), a solo guitar work written for and played by Lippel, treats color nuances within the more restricted palette of a single instrument. The composition consists in a subdued drama built on the different timbral characteristics of open and stopped strings, harmonics, varied chord voicings, and the placement of the right hand relative to the bridge. Lippel’s sensitive and unhurried performance brings out the fine-grained shadings this subtle work calls for. Chiaroscuro (2007) also focuses on the timbres of a single instrument, but the sounds here are enhanced and multiplied by virtue of having the solo instrument—a cello—augmented by its own pre-recorded and manipulated sounds. As a result, Chiaroscuro is as bold as Unfoldings is temperate; Craig Hutgren’s robust realization foregrounds percussive strikes, microtonal clashes, and deliberately harsh bowing.
A fine and stimulating collection of music.
Mariel Roberts – Cartography (2017)
Cartography, the second solo album from cellist Mariel Roberts, follows up and extends the work she did on her debut solo recording, 2012’s Nonextraneous Sounds. There, she presented five pieces for solo cello or cello in tandem with electronics, all of which she had commissioned from composers under the age of 40. Her new CD also presents new work, all of them composed last year. Two are for solo cello and one each are for cello accompanied by piano and live electronics. And in contrast to the earlier CD, the work of at least one veteran composer, George Lewis, is represented.
Roberts is known as a cellist working with the sometimes radical techniques and forms of contemporary composed music. Although all four of the works on Cartography are technically challenging, the technical resources they demand are simply a means toward expressive ends; the inspirations behind the compositions, far from consisting in the investigation of technique for its own sake, all derive from extra-musical ideas. Interestingly, these ideas largely have to do with time: Time as manifested in historical cycles, time as the measure of the finite lifespans of individuals and groups, and time as a perpetually unfinished sequence of moments and events.
Eric Wubbels’ gretchen am spinnrade, for cello and piano, turns on repetition. The composer, who also performs on piano, describes it as a “manic, hounded piece”—an accurate summary of its more or less relentless hammering away at repeated notes, phrases and rhythms. There are occasional, short-lived interludes of calm, but the piece is notably harrowing experience—an effect not only of the constantly tolling piano but of the dazzlingly virtuosic unison passages of rapidly changing time signatures and displaced accents.
Lewis’s Spinner was inspired by the Greek myth of the Fates, the three goddesses presiding over the finitude and fortunes of human life. The work calls for a wide variety of contemporary performance techniques—broad glissandi, discordant double stops, abrupt punctuation with plucked notes and harmonics, unusual bow articulations. Rather than sounding abstract, this mixture of techniques lends the piece a very human quality—much of it conveyed by the cello’s capacity for capturing vocal inflections, which Roberts’s performance brings out.
The Cartography of Time, by composer Davið Brynjar Franzson is, like Spinner, a work for unaccompanied cello. Franzson’s map is drawn with long, sustained tones gradually multiplied through layering. There is no real melodic movement, just a slow thickening of texture into standing, nearly immobile harmonies. The image of time that emerges is as a kind of dessicated, immaterial plain stretching ahead to an endpoint always receding beyond the horizon.
Cenk Ergün’s Aman, a word that in Arabic means “security” but in Turkish is a warning, is the one piece that doesn’t engage time directly. A work for cello and live electronics, Aman unfolds through discontinuities of texture and register, initially treating the cello almost as a percussion instrument. The electronics, supplied by the composer, take the piece farther away from a “natural” acoustic sound by introducing an element of distortion and colored noise, and eventually transforming the cello into a dispenser of backward-surging tones.
The four pieces differ significantly from each other and place different sets of demands on the performer; Roberts’s performances are consistently exciting and never allow technique to overshadow expression.