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

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel Barbiero


AMN Reviews: Matthew Lux’s Communication Arts Quartet – Contra​/​Fact (2018; Astral Spirits)

This album was actually released on cassette back in September 2017, and it was either a quiet release or we completely missed it (probably the latter). Nonetheless, it is already being re-released on vinyl with greater fanfare. In fact, this version of the recording is a new edit of the album with a different track ordering.

But on to the music – bassist Matthew Lux is a familiar name in Chicago jazz circles, playing with Rob Mazurek among many others. Contra​/​Fact is his first release as a leader. Accompanying Lux are drummer Mikel Patrick Avery, cornetist Ben Lamar Gay, and reedist Jayve Montgomery. All members of the group contribute percussion and either keyboards, synth, electronics or samples.

As might be assumed from the retro-stylings of the album cover, Lux and friends provide more than just a nod to the past. Indeed, Contra​/​Fact has a thick, analog, funky, and experimental feel that invokes the early 1970s. Take the aforementioned Mazurek, combine with Art Ensemble of Chicago and electric Miles, and you have the beginnings of a description of these efforts. But Lux’s quartet heads off into uncharted territories, which gives the album a freshness as well.

This not free jazz, as most of the tracks have a clear rhythm if not a groove. Nonetheless, experimentalism reigns with voices, disjoint themes, odd percussion elements, and electronics accompanying the horns across long jams and shorter statements.  The result is a dense, heady mix that deftly connects two time periods, and comes highly recommended.

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel Barbiero


AMN Reviews: OCRE – OCRE (2018; Utech Records)

OCRE is a self-titled 7″ recording from bassist Stefan Thanneur of Chaos Echoes and drummer Michel Langevin of Voivod. Consisting of two tracks in the 4-5 minute range, OCRE provides a taste of what is hopefully much more to come from this duo.

Ocre Rouge kicks off with Thanneur’s processed feedback and Langevin on cymbals until the latter sets forth a pounding, syncopated rhythm, variations of which are maintained for the rest of the track. Thanneur provides a grungy main riff overdubbed with speed picked high notes, drones, and processed themes. The result lands somewhere between experimental heavy metal and Krautrock, and will sound familiar to anyone who has spent time taking in Voivod. Ocre Jaune is a dark atmospheric piece, with Thanneur offering layers of processed bass and alien harmonics. Langevin is mostly in the background, giving this track a distant and disconnected feel. But around the three-minute mark he joins in with what is effectively a jazz-inflected solo over continued bass soundscapes.

OCRE is a promising and welcome debut with a palpable tension. As a result, it comes across unlike any other bass / drum duo, and for that reason alone is worth a listen.

AMN Reviews: Dan Phillips Trio – Divergent Flow (2018; Lizard Breath Records)

This Chicago-based trio consists of bassist Krzysztof Pabian and drummer Tim Daisy joining guitarist Phillips. No strangers to one another, these frequent collaborators share a familiar cohesiveness on Divergent Flow, their debut release.

Phillips works through knotty leads, mostly relying on a clean, undistorted sound that lands somewhere between blues, rock, and outside jazz. Pabian both plucks and bows, deftly accentuating Phillips’ lines while adding flourishes and statements of his own. Daisy’s cymbal-heavy approach rounds out the active rhythm section.

Five composed tracks are each centered around a brief melody or two that gets explored and rounded out spontaneously. The two remaining efforts are freely improvised, but this distinction is largely immaterial. Sure, the composed pieces are somewhat more tuneful than the latter, but neither style results in anything resembling the conventional or routine.

On the title track, for example, after briefly introducing a theme, Phillips spends the rest of the time soloing in an increasingly aggressive fashion over Daisy’s rolling fills and Pabian’s meanderings. Dip exhibits a degree of forethought and structure but is largely improvised and eschews rhythmic repetition. Extricated From, one of the fully-improvised pieces, starts slowly with the trio making judicious use of extended techniques. This builds in terms of complexity and tension over the course of several minutes.

Divergent Flow is a formidable power-trio showcase. Guitar-led improv is not common and it is gratifying to have Phillips and company to add their voices to the mix.


AMN Reviews: Kyoko Kitamura’s Tidepool Fauna – Protean Labyrinth (2018; Bandcamp)

Vocalist Kyoko Kitamura is best known for her collaborations with Anthony Braxton, as well as her leadership role in his Tri-Centric Foundation. Thus, it can be easy to overlook her non-Braxton solo and group work, of which Protean Labyrinth is the latest example. Here, she is joined by Ingrid Laubrock on sax, Ken Filiano on bass, and Dayeon Seok on drums for eight tracks of guided improvisation.

Two characteristics of the album are immediately discernable. First is Kitamura’s wordless vocal approach. She rambles, scats, and shouts throughout, varying in emotion from playful to plaintive and many places in between, changing styles and pitch with ease. The second is the overall use of space by the group. Laubrock, Filiano, and Seok are restrained, not filling each quiet moment with notes.

That is not to say that there isn’t any virtuosity herein or that the album does not have a full sound. Filiano, in particular, gives his bass a workout from time to time but also provides subtle atmospherics. Similarly, Seok artfully combines busy unpredictability with a controlled finesse. Laubrock, of course, is wonderfully expressive while taking less of a leading role than one might expect from a purveyor of her instrument. The bottom line is that this quartet functions as a group with Kitamura as ostensible – but non-obvious – leader.

A high point is Slide, which features a wistful three-note theme worked through by Kitamura and Laubrock. Filiano stays in the mostly background with bowed drones, and Seok provides fractured beats. Kitamura expands upon the expressive theme with mournful cries and the rhythm section builds to a frenetic interlude, but the piece as a whole remains surprisingly understated.

Despite the instrumentation, this is not jazz. Nor does it groove, or set forth clear melodies. Instead, Kitamura and company offer an emotionally and intellectually satisfying excursion into a world of instrumentals with voice. Each minute of the recording overflows with ideas. Needless to say, this is one of the more compelling releases of the year.

Protean Labyrinth will be released on August 10.

AMN Reviews: William Parker – Lake of Light: Compositions for AquaSonics (2018; Gotta Let It Out)

William Parker is a legendary bassist and composer who is virtually impossible to not come across when exploring the New York creative music scene. It is not often that he eschews his instrument of choice, but on Lake of Light: Compositions for AquaSonics, he joins three like-minded individuals (Jeff Schlanger, Anne Humanfeld, and Leonid Galaganov) in a waterphone quartet.

What is a waterphone you ask? According to Wikipedia, it is a “type of inharmonic acoustic percussion instrument consisting of a stainless steel resonator bowl or pan with a cylindrical neck and bronze rods of different lengths and diameters around the rim of the bowl.” A small amount of water is usually placed in the bowl. The result is an instrument that can be played for percussion or bowed. It produces shimmering, alien sounds that have been widely used in movies (especially in the horror genre).

Here, Parker and his friends explore the sounds and techniques of waterphones for nearly 70 minutes. There is no shortage of banging, clanging, and ringing that together build up an impromptu rhythm section. But even more interesting are the contributions from bowing and rubbing. These metallic squeaks, squeals, and wails provide for a discomforting affair. Not exactly haunted house music, but that label is not far off.

By and large, this is a free improv album, albeit one with rather unique instrumentation and sound. Parker and company rarely stick to any particular rhythm for long, and there are no melodies per se. Instead, each track is a series of loosely related motifs and phrases that build upon each other into a surprisingly cohesive whole. But perhaps the biggest surprise is that all of the diverse sounds on the album come from just one type of instrument, rather than a roomful.

One of the more interesting and singular releases of 2018.