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.
Brendon Randall-Myers & Dither – Dynamics of Vanishing Bodies (2020)
Dynamics of Vanishing Bodies, Brendon Randall-Myers’ five-movement, album-length work for four electric guitars, sounds something like a scaled-down variation on some of Glenn Branca’s long-form symphonies for massed guitar orchestra. That shouldn’t be entirely surprising, given that Randall-Myers, himself a guitarist as well as a composer, participated in the Glenn Branca Ensemble and conducted it after Branca’s death. Randall-Myers’ background in punk and metal is also evident, particularly in the work’s distorted timbres and dissonances. Randall-Myers builds much of the collective sound as an accumulation of interlocking, short motifs and/or rhythms; rather than going for an effect of sheer sonic mass, he leaves open spaces over which the ringing ends of these brief riffs can hang. The guitars, played here by the Dither quartet of Taylor Levine, Joshua Lopes, James Moore and Gyan Riley, put out a shimmeringly rich, reverb-drenched sound augmented by sustaining pedals and loops.
Spektral Quartet – Experiments in Living (2020)
Given the easy accessibility of recorded music of virtually every type and era, at times it seems that musically, all time collapses into the present time. It’s a strangely ahistorical contemporaneity we seem to inhabit—is the internet eternity’s jukebox?–but even if it makes for a certain uneasiness, the random-shuffle possibilities it opens up may provide opportunities for musical illumination.
Realizing some of those possibilities is something Chicago’s Spektral String Quartet sets out to do with its ambitious double album Experiments in Living. The group selected seven string quartets written between 1873 and 2018 and, inventing a randomizing process to be realized with a deck of cards, offer the listener the chance to order and reorder the pieces for playback.
The works the group chose are Brahms’ 1873 String Quartet in C Minor; Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 3 (1927); Ruth Crawford’s String Quartet of 1931; Anthony Cheung’s Real Book of Fake Tunes for string quartet and flute (2015); George Lewis’ 2016 String Quartet 1.5: Experiments in Living; Sam Pluta’s binary/momentary logics: flow state/joy state (2016); and Charmaine Lee’s 2018 Spinals for string quartet, voice and electronics.
The eighty year lacuna between Crawford’s work and Cheung’s represents a conceptual as well as a chronological discontinuity. A developmental continuity binds the earlier three works: the Schoenberg quartet conserves something of the romanticism of the Brahms, while the dissonant counterpoint of the Crawford quartet plays peculiarly American variations on Schoenberg’s serialism. As distinct as these three pieces are, all are fully composed and squarely within the elastic but still recognizable tradition of Western art music. The pieces on the other side of the great divide, by contrast, break out of that tradition as much as they take their bearings from it. They sound different, to begin with—their vocabularies draw as a matter of course on extended performance techniques that at times push their surface textures to extremes of noise and fragmentation.
One other significant break lies with the newer works’ engagement with improvisation as something major to do, emulate, or draw inspiration from. Lee’s relatively short, single-movement work, which was created in collaboration with the ensemble, is completely improvised. Lee, who joins the quartet in their performance, is an improvising vocalist who augments her voice with electronic amplification; the piece is an abstract blend of wordless vocals and largely unpitched sounds. Pluta describes his rapidly moving, twenty-five movement quartet as being about the “joy of opening up the mind to improvisatory exploration;” what’s explored is an electronically inspired collection of quick-cutting, scratchy, oscillating sounds that the quartet convincingly translates onto acoustic string instruments. Cheung’s lyrical, five-movement piece layers a flute line played by Claire Chase in an improvisational spirit over compact, song-length settings. Although improvisation plays a significant role in Lewis’ musical poetics, his exuberant quartet, which like Lee’s, Pluta’s, and Cheung’s was commissioned by the ensemble, is a fully notated work that weaves together various extended techniques into an episodic, but audibly cohesive, tissue of sound.
In its willingness to disrupt ordinary ways of listening to music within a highly diverse tradition, The Spektral Quartet’s Experiments in Living is certainly a challenging recording, and a stimulating one as well.
Hasco Duo – The Same Old Wonder (2020)
On the evidence of this, their third album, the Hasco Duo — soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett and guitarist Jesse Langen — bring a new perspective to the art song. At its most compelling, their collective sound is a play of opposites—of DeBoer’s clear, intimately human voice against the technologically facilitated distortion Langen brings to his guitar sound. This opposition, and the aesthetic and emotional tensions it both creates and balances, is epitomized in the duo’s performance on the 25-minute-long Basic Lands by Jonathan Sokol. The vocal part, a dramatic bit of register-leaping virtuosity in its delivery of text drawn from William Quayle’s The Prairie and the Sea, contrasts in its natural timbres and nature imagery with the guitar’s sonically abrasive and harmonically discordant interventions.
On the duo’s setting of poet Constantinos Harpending Pavellas’ “Wildflower” DeBoer Bartlett’s voice takes on a haunting poignance as she sings the childlike—because actually written by a child—words against the lush background of sustained tones from Langen’s guitar. For Luis Fernando Amaya’s Tinta Roja, Tinta Negra/Red Ink, Black Ink, DeBoer’s shouts and cries rise and fall alongside of Langen’s long-sustained sounds. The anguish of the piece is particularly brought into focus through the microtonal clashes that result as their lines weave across and through each other.
The Same Old Wonder also includes Ravi Kittappa’s Nietzsche-inspired piece Und wenn du lange in eninen Abgrund blickst…, a collision of sound poetry and extended technique for electric guitar, and Morgan Krauss’ pallid tongues, a piece for urgently spoken text and industrially distorted guitar.
John Aylward and Ecce Ensemble – Angelus (2020)
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.
Cenk Ergün and the JACK Quartet – Sonare and Celare (2020)
Sonare and Celare, the two string quartets by Turkish-born composer Cenk Ergün (b. 1978) released together on an EP, are complementary works in many senses of the word. Originally conceived of as a single piece, the two quartets instead became companion pieces whose sonic qualities are creatively opposed to one another. As is often the case when Ergün composes acoustic works, these two quartets of 2015-2016were the product of a collaborative process. In sketching and then finalizing them, Ergün worked closely with the JACK Quartet, for whom they were written.
Sonare was composed through an elaborate process of reverse-engineering: Ergün first set out rhythm patterns using the MAX program and then densified their textures through software-facilitated combination. The JACK Quartet recorded a number of rehearsals of the resulting material, which Ergün edited into a sort of master take that he then transcribed and notated for the final score. As one might expect from a process like that, Sonare is a composition of dense textures. It opens with a thick, aggressive sound evoking an asynchronous, loudly buzzing swarm of insects. A close listen, though, reveals the mass to be made up of the pulsing accents of individual bowings. The piece develops as a set of variations not only on dynamics—first very loud, then very soft, then back again to full fury—but on bow speeds as well. Pitch seems to be a secondary element—a necessary yet epiphenomenal component of mass.
Celare, by contrast, is a symmetrical three-part work whose first and third sections feature short, widely spaced bowed and plucked sound events played at low volume. The middle section of the work, which consists of a drone of microtonally spaced intervals, recalls Sonare’s buzzing dissonance but lays it out in a gradually shifting layers and steady, mid-range dynamics. Celare seems to take Sonare’s volumetric sound blocks and thin them out, retaining the latter’s microtonality and fusion of voices while dispersing them through a structural substitution of space for mass.
The JACK Quartet plays these complementary pieces with the finely calibrated degrees of energy and delicacy they call for.
Fonema Consort – Vistas Furtivas–The Music of Juan Campoverde (2020)
Vistas Furtivas, a collection of work by composer Juan Campoverde, is the third album from the Fonema Consort, a Chicago new music ensemble specializing in performing the work of Latin American composers. Campoverde, an Ecuadorian native living in nearby Evanston, Illinois, has developed a long-running collaborative relationship with the consort, having written for them since 2013. The rapport they’ve built is evident in these deft and assured performances of Campoverde’s dramatic and often delicately constructed work.
Campoverde’s compositions here are mostly driven by forceful vocal lines but for all of that, they turn on nuances of sound color alone and in combinations. The composer masterfully brings forward and updates the kind of spacious, unconventionally orchestrated chamber music pioneered by composers like George Crumb in the 1960s and 1970s. And, as could be expected by a composer mentored by Roger Reynolds, whose imagE-imAge series of solo works meticulously capture the timbral ranges of the instruments for which they were written, Campoverde pays close attention to what might be thought of as timbral harmonies and dissonances,
The album contains four works for small chamber ensemble built around the unusual but compelling combination of guitar, flute, and soprano voice, as well as two for solo guitar. Campoverde’s inspired choice of instrumental colors, which he artfully arranges against a stark canvas of silence, makes for a music of startling fusions and contrasts of timbre in an uncluttered environment.
Umbrales I and II (2013 and 2019, respectively) for two sopranos, flute, and guitar, offer two different perspectives on the same texts by Ecuadorian poet Efraín Jara Idrovo. Both iterations rely on extended vocal and instrumental techniques and scordatura to draw out the color possibilities of guitar, flute, and voice. Typical of Campoverde’s work on the album, the pieces are constructed as decentered bursts of sound. Here the main contrast is between the sustained tones of flute and voice on the one side, and the staccato attack of plucked strings on the other. The guitar’s microtonal dissonances are an essential component of the overall sound, which is dominated by the asymmetrical phrasings of sopranos Nina Dante and Nathalie Colas
Basalto (2014) strips the ensemble down to Dante and flutist Dalia Chin, here on alto flute, supplemented by prerecorded, electronically manipulated whale song. A highly expressive work, its urgency is underscored by a collision of extended vocal technique and the flutter tongue and plosive air notes from the flute.
The two works for solo guitar, Topografias (1996) and Muna II (2012), demonstrate Campoverde’s ability to elicit a wide range of color from a single instrument. Both make extensive use of microtones and tone-altering gestures up to and including turning the gears to detune the instrument. The resulting episodes of sheer sonic materiality give one the feeling of being on the inside of the intimate process of playing. Guitarist Samuel Rowe’s performances realize these difficult pieces with clarity and precision.
Los Lugares del Deseo of 2017, the four-part suite that closes the album, brings together flute, bass clarinet (played by Emily Beisel), both sopranos, guitar and percussion (Ryan Packard) in combinations ranging from solo soprano to the full sextet. In its unhurried juxtapositions of exactly delineated timbres the suite captures in microcosm the sound of the album in all its sharply etched fullness. It’s a bracingly beautiful collection of music.
Jennifer Curtis & Tyshawn Sorey – Invisible Ritual (2020)
Invisible Ritual, a set of freely improvised duets for composer/violinist Jennifer Curtis and composer/percussionist Tyshawn Sorey, represents a creative meeting of fiddle music and the improvisational avant-garde. Although Curtis and Sorey derive from different traditions, they easily converge on the substantial territory where those traditions overlap.
As these eight tracks demonstrate, one of the basic features fiddling and the jazz avant-garde share is a propulsive energy. Curtis’ brisk bow work pushes her into the tension-filled, expressionistic realm of rhythm in rapid forward motion, where Sorey meets her in a splash of colorful cymbal work. Curtis artfully deploys repeated motifs, regular phrasing and open-string harmonic anchors to provide a structural foundation for her work, which Sorey complements with an underpinning of free yet solid pulse. On the third, fifth and sixth tracks Sorey switches to piano, which he takes through a diverse set of moods and styles: sparsely ponderous dissonances on III, frenetic, staccato runs up and down the keyboard on V, and a lushly romantic sound on VI. The final track, a contemplative improvisation in which cymbals, bells and/or gongs meld with pizzicato strings for a muted, gamelan-like effect, highlights Curtis and Sorey’s ability to create a vivid atmosphere with timbre.
Various Artists – Modulation Necklace: New Music from Armenia (2020)
During the years that Armenia was part of the Soviet Union, Armenian composers’ music was largely shaped by the models set out by the dominant Soviet musical culture. With the breakup of the USSR, Armenian composers were at liberty to open themselves up to new developments in contemporary Western art music as well as to recover aspects of their own national culture, musical and otherwise. Modulation Necklace, a collection of new and recent chamber work by four composers, showcases some of the multiple directions post-Soviet Armenian music has taken. The album was put together by violinist Movses Pogossian under the auspices of the UCLA Armenian Music Program.
Artur Avanesov (b. 1980) opens the album with Quasi Harena Maris (2016), a piano quintet that begins with subdued drifts of microtonal clusters for the strings and develops into a robustly emotional interplay for piano and strings. Avanesov also contributes the final pieces, a selection of seven piano miniatures from Feux follets (2010-2017), a seven-book collection of solo works for piano. Avanesov’s inspirations here are varied, encompassing medieval French song, Armenian folksong and painting, Baroque harpsichord music and more. The overall flavor is modal, as exemplified by Modulation Necklace, which in less than a minute and a half cycles through a series of modes pivoting on B.
Artashes Kartalyan (b. 1961) is a jazz pianist as well as a composer of symphonies, chamber works, and film soundtracks. His contribution is a three-song cycle for string quartet and mezzo-soprano, the text of which is by Armenian poet Vahan Tekeyan. The triptych, beautifully sung by Danielle Segen and expressively played by UCLA VEM Ensemble, conveys the complexities of different but related moods, yearning, loss, and acceptance most noticeably among them. Kartalyan’s son Ashot (b. 1985) is represented by a lively five-part suite for saxophone and percussion from 2015, performed by Katisse Buckingham and Dustin Donahue. The suite draws on Armenian modes and rhythms and is particularly engaging in its polyphonic middle movements, which pair the saxophone with marimba and vibes.
Ashot Zohrabyan (b. 1945) offers Novelette (2010) for piano, violin, viola and cello, a piece whose motif of a major tenth alludes to an earlier landmark work of Armenian art music. Novelette begins with quiet dissonances for the strings and moves to more dramatic territory, driven by an outspoken piano part, before reaching a denouement sotto voce. A Fiery Flame, a Flaming Fire, a 2017 work for violin, cello and piano by Michel Petrossian (b. 1973), is a quick-moving, shape-shifting work whose three voices are always on the verge of spinning away from each other, but without quite actually doing so.
a•pe•ri•od•ic – for (2019)
The Chicago ensemble a•pe•ri•od•ic, founded by composer/pianist Nomi Epstein in 2010, fits firmly, and quite deliberately, within the lineage initiated by Cage’s work. The group, which on this recording is an octet of violin, cello, flute, bass clarinet/clarinet, bassoon/voice, French horn, piano, and voice, performs works biased toward various kinds of indeterminacy, whether of orchestration, sound material, or architecture. Silence also plays a major role in their music, whether as primary material or as a structural element.
The four compositions on for were commissioned by the group; three are by group members and the fourth is by composer Michael Pisaro.
Violinist Billie Howard’s Roll (2016) comprises a sequence of soloists playing a sustained tone ending with a freely-chosen upward or downward glissando, followed by a silence. What comes to the fore in this work is the unique timbral quality of each instrumental voice, with the lower-pitched bassoon and cello making an especially rich impression. Vocalist Kenn Kumpf contributes Triadic Expansions (2) of 2017, a piece of mutating harmonies built up from slowly ascending or descending scales of more or less arbitrary pitch content. The entrances and exits are staggered in a way that creates an out-of-synch effect that keeps the center of gravity for the entire sound mass in a constant state of motion. Combine, Juxtapose, Delayed Overlap (2013-2017) by Epstein, is a very quiet textural piece that seems to play with the ambiguous status—are they music? Are they noise? Are they just a strange crystallization of silence into sound?–of liminal audio events. Pisaro’s festhalten/loslassen (2013), in contrast to the austerity of Epstein’s piece, contains passages of almost lush bundles of sustained tones moving cloudlike across and through each other. The piece is broken into sections by long silences and is punctuated with passages for percussive pizzicato strings and a slowly ascending scale begun on piano and continued on horn.
Zosha Di Castri – Tachitipo (2019)
Tachitipo, a set of five works composed between 2010 and 2017, is the first monograph recording from composer Zosha Di Castri. Originally from Calgary, Alberta in Canada and now resident in New York, where she is on the faculty of Columbia University, Di Castri began composing through the Edmonton, Alberta Symphony Orchestra’s Young Composers program and went onto double major in composition and performance. Di Castri is a pianist as well as a composer, and sometimes will use improvisation as a way of forming compositional ideas.
The pieces on Tachitipo demonstrate Di Castri’s versatility in composing for different instrumental groupings; included are works for chamber ensembles and small orchestra, a string quartet, a solo piano work and a piece for voice and electronics. The pieces for orchestra and mixed chamber ensembles show Di Castri’s aptitude for handling contrasts and similarities of instrumental compass and color. In a recent interview, she named Debussy as an early influence; the importance of timbral relationships in her music would seem to bear out the continuing importance of his example.
Cortège, composed in 2010 for the Acanthes Festival in Metz, France, is scored for thirteen piece orchestra. The piece, played here by the Talea Ensemble, is study of contrasts: dark and bright, light and heavy, as muffled drums are played off against the voices of flute and clarinet, and the mood alternates between a compressed, nervous energy and a melancholy languor. Forma dello spazio, also from 2010, is a quintet for flute, clarinet, piano, violin, and cello, commissioned by the Banff Center and realized here by members of the fine International Contemporary Ensemble. The piece was inspired by mobile sculptures and does seem to capture something of their motion: skittering violin and piano and rising and falling undulations on clarinet provide movement over the undertow, sometimes explicit and sometimes implicit, of suspended tones. The writing features nice timbral fusions of violin, clarinet, and piano in the upper registers.
Di Castri’s String Quartet No. 1, composed in 2016, was first played by the ten finalists in the Banff Centre’s International String Quartet Competition for that year. The piece, energetically played on this recording by the JACK Quartet, opens with a discordant flourish and rides a series of surges and retreats—of dynamics, of swift and slow glissandi, of unsettling harmonics. A subtle rhythmic coherence runs throughout and binds together this otherwise episodic work.
Other pieces included on Tachitipo are the mechanical typewriter-inspired, long title track of 2016 for two pianos and two percussionists, played by the incomparable Yarn/Wire; 2017’s Dux, a solo piano piece performed by Julia Den Boer; and the vocal and electronics work The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named (2013), a commission from the Canada Council for the Arts performed here by Ekmeles.
Daniel Lippel – Mirrored Spaces (2019)
From guitarist Daniel Lippel comes a two-CD set containing a generous collection of recent work for solo guitarist. On the recording Lippel, a virtuoso specializing in the contemporary repertoire for guitar, plays both nylon string classical guitar and electric guitar, conventionally and with extended technique, with and without electronic augmentation. But no matter the instrumental set-up or the musical setting, Lippel’s performances are characteristically deft and assured.
A dominant theme on Mirrored Spaces is the use of alternative tunings and microtonality. The title work, a six-part suite co-composed by Lippel and Orianna Webb in 2006-2008, draws on quarter-tone tuning. The quarter-tone discrepancies create a wobbly choric effect, giving parts of the suite a strangely unstable feeling. Other parts sound like more conventional, albeit beautifully adventurous, classical guitar playing.
Ryan Streber’s Descent for scordatura electric guitar and two amplifiers was also a collaborative composition. The piece, which detunes the guitar’s four lowest strings from standard fourths tuning to the cello’s fifths tuning, has as its central trope the subtle incongruity of having an electric guitar played with classical technique. The piece slowly descends from the instrument’s upper to lower registers and in the process dresses it up in an increasingly overdriven, distorted sound.
Other pieces exploring alternative tunings include Christopher Bailey’s Arc of Infinity, a multi-faceted work for guitar and three layers of electronic sounds that uses overtones in standard tuning to create harmonies in Just Intonation, and Lippel’s own Scaffold, which incorporates three guitars using three different tunings.
Extended technique is more-or-less taken for granted on many of these performances, but they come to the fore particularly on From Scratch, a 2017 electroacoustic work by Sergio Kafejian, that envelops its skittering runs and fragmentary phrases in aggressive, percussive gestures, string scraping, snap pizzicato, and plucking behind the bridge.
No brief review can do justice to the rich variety of music in this collection. One can only say: Listen.
David Bowlin – Bird as Prophet (2019)
The violin virtuoso has been an important figure in Western art music for centuries. Over these centuries the nature of virtuosity has evolved, along with the techniques needed to achieve it. What a 21st century violin virtuoso sounds like is on display on David Bowlin’s Bird as Prophet.
Bowlin, Director of String Studies at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, is an adept interpreter of new music and a founding member of the International Contemporary Ensemble, one of the most esteemed new music groups in the world. The works on Bird as Prophet bring out both his versatility and lyricism in equal measure.
Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronism (1988) for violin and tape uses discreet electronic sounds to supplement a central focus on the violin. While the latter is indeed synched with the tape it could stand on its own as an example of late Modernist virtuosity: a technical challenge played out in a slightly fragmented arc of double stops, rapid runs into the extreme upper register, and mood-changing, introspective interludes.
Under a Tree, an Udātta (2016) by Du Yun, like Bowlin a founder of ICE, is another piece for fixed media and violin. Under a Tree is anchored on a recording of Vedic chanting, which sets up an insistently rhythmic drone for the violin to play over. Bowlin’s line, which has some of the looseness of an improvisation, is an eclectic mélange of raga-like microtonal swoops, percussive strikes and long-held, widely-vibratoed tones. What the piece seems to say in part is that contemporary virtuosity isn’t solely a matter of technical mastery, but of being conversant with multiple musical traditions as well.
Bleu (2011), a composition for solo violin, is a mature work written by the late George Walker for his violinist son Gregory when the composer was nearly 90. It’s a beautiful, expressive piece that combines a warm romanticism with chromatic, Modernist lines; Bowlin plays it with great depth of feeling, as he does Martin Bresnick’s Bird as Prophet (1999), a piece for violin and piano (Tony Cho).
Bowlin has previously interpreted the music of Alexandra Karasyoanova-Hermentin, a Moscow-born composer/pianist of Russo-Bulgarian background currently living in Austria; he premiered her violin concerto Mahagoni, which she had written for him, in 2007. Here she contributes two pieces for small chamber ensembles. Kastena (2003) for violin and cello, the latter played by ICE’s Katinka Kleijn, is a tension-filled work that floats an energetic violin part over a cello performance that alternates between drones and abrupt, percussive interventions. Mari Mamo (2009), a trio work for violin, flute (Conor Nelson) and percussion (Ayano Kataoka), constructs melodies out of discontinuous tone colors and plays fruitfully on the contrast between staccato flute and tuned percussion on the one side, and long, floating violin tones on the other.
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)
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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.