AMN Reviews: Milton Babbitt – “Philomel” [ATD4], Juliet Fraser – Soprano, & Luigi Nono – “La Fabbrica Illuminata” [ATD5], Loré Lixenberg – Mezzo-soprano

All that dust is a new independent label based in the UK that is dedicated to producing high quality releases of contemporary music. With the help of a Kickstarter campaign they have recently released five recordings. In this initial batch of recordings two of the five are high quality binaural recordings. Binaural recording is a recording technique that aims to create a 3-D stereo sound field that represents the listening experience of actually being in the room during the performance. It is best experienced with headphones or ear buds. Binaural recording is a very effective way of capturing the experience of a performance where there is a live performer(s) with multichannel tape/electronic accompaniment.

ATD4cover

ATD4 is “Philomel” a serial composition from 1964 by Milton Babbitt that utilizes recorded synthesizer with both live and recorded soprano voice. The piece is one of the earliest works to use the synthesizer and is considered to be Babbitt’s best-known work. Its text is taken from a poem by John Hollander and its three sections are based on Ovid’s myth of Philomela. A tale of a women who is the sister in-law of a king whom rapes her. The king has her tongue cut out so that she cannot talk and then imprisons her. Her sister discovers the truth and helps Philomel escape. As they are pursued by the king the gods intervene and transform her sister Procne into a swallow, the king into a hoopoe and Philomel into a nightingale. The piece is a dramatic representation of Philomel’s transformation.

Babbitt used synthesizer and voices in a four-channel tape accompaniment to try and make the listener feel trapped in the music, as a way of conveying Philomela’s inability to escape her fate. The four channels act as a moving sound ensemble. The music is both very rhythmic and colorful with a great range of synthesized timbres and with a very demanding virtuoso part for soprano voice. The pieces mood is tentative and shattered but despite the stories horror the music is never sentimental in its anger or sorrow. As the piece progresses the mood shifts more to bewilderment at the transformation that is taking place.

On this recording “Philomel” is beautifully performed by soprano Juliet Fraser.  Her voice is very expressive, with great tone and incredible control. She is not simply singing to a recording but is actively interacting with a four-channel ensemble. Fraser is able to make this performance feel as if she is driving this ensemble while bringing this piece to life. Juliet Fraser is an accomplished performer of early music and new music. She has performed with many ensembles and has recorded for Hat Hut, Neos, Kairos and many other labels. Fraser is also one of the principles of All that dust.

ATD5cover

ATD5 is “La Fabbrica Illuminata” it is a powerful work for voice(mezzo-soprano) and four-channel tape from 1964 by Luigi Nono. This binaural recording captures a fantastic performance by mezzo-soprano Loré Lixenberg. Lixenberg is an accomplished voice in contemporary and experimental music giving more than a thousand performances around the globe. Her voice has a beautiful tone that is rich with both power and subtlety. Lixenberg has performed with many of the world’s leading ensembles including the Ensemble InterContemporain, BBC Symphony, Berlin Philharmonic and the Tokyo Philharmonic.

“La Fabbrica Illuminata” came out of Nono’s work on a large-scale musical theater project depicting the conditions of factory workers. It utilizes texts by Guilaino Scabia and a fragment of Cesare Pavese’s poem “Due poesie a T.”  The mezzo-soprano voice sings a commentary on situations that are represented by the tape as it illuminates the conditions of factory work. The tape’s sound scenes are meant to represent the injustice and unfairness of capitalism to the working classes. While this description may make it sound like this piece is just some 60’s agitprop, it is not. It is much more than that. “La Fabbrica Illuminata” is a highly original piece that surrounds the listener with sonic scenes that can be dramatic, poignant and hopeful.  Even if you do not understand the language of the voices or appreciate the sentiment of the texts, the drama and intensity of the piece is clear.

“La Fabbrica Illuminata” is structured in three sections. The first section slowly builds from fragments and chants with the soloist appearing and disappearing while singing fragments of the texts. The section slowly builds up to an industrial crescendo. The second section is more reflective, often mysterious or dream like. The live voice sings while surrounded primarily by electronically processed voices occasionally punctuated by echoes of the illuminated factory. In the final section the tape is silent and the solo voice sings and intones verses taken from Pavese’s poem. Leaving us with a little bit of hope for the future as she sings “ … it will not be so  always  you will find something “.

In “La Fabbrica Illuminata” the listener is surrounded by sonic scenes that move into and out of one another. At times it can be dramatic or mysterious or even surreal. The four-channel tape makes use of electronic sounds, concrete sounds of factory noises as well as voices that go through multiple transformations.  Sounds move around the space to create distance and depth. As sound masses move into and out of one another it is as if we hearing sonic thoughts enter, unfold, transform and dissipate as another group appears. Nono wanted the listener to feel as if they were inside the sounds and to confuse them so that they are unsure of where the sounds are coming from. The experience of listening to this binaural recording on headphones achieves that. There is a wide dynamic range on this recording so don’t crank the volume up to much the first time you listen to it.

Binaural recordings are a unique way to present multi-channel works. In this time where so much music is listened to in the personal space of ear buds, binaural recordings provide the listener with a unique 3-D listening experience. For those of you that are afraid of Babbitt’s reputation as a serial composer of extreme mathematically based music, or Nono’s much maligned reputation as a composer of leftist agitprop, check your assumptions at the door and put on your ear buds and enjoy two of the twentieth century’s most spectacular sonic dramas.

Highly recommended!

Chris De Chiara

 

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AMN Reviews: Alfonso García de la Torre & Guillermo Lauzurika / Ensemble Sinkro [Bandcamp]

Vitoria-Gasteiz is the capital of the Basque Autonomous Community; it is also the home of the Ensemble Sinkro, a group playing acoustic and electroacoustic works by contemporary composers. The group was formed in 2005, although its roots reach back to the establishment of the Jesús Guridi Ensemble and the Electroacoustic Music Laboratory of the Conservatory of Vitoria-Gasteiz in the mid-1980s. From the latter, in particular, Ensemble Sinkro seems to have derived its interest in the integration of new technologies with the compositional methods and instrumental techniques of the Western art music tradition. Recently, the ensemble has been issuing a series of recordings that provide an aural window into the fine work being made by the current generation of Basque composers, among whom are Alfonso García de la Torre and Guillermo Lauzurika.

Música de Cámara [CD010] collects eight of García de la Torre’s electroacoustic chamber works from the period 1998-2014. García de la Torre (1964), a native of Vitoria-Gasteiz, came to composition with a background in electronic engineering as well as music; among his studies were courses at the Computing and Electronic Music Laboratory in Madrid and at IRCAM in Paris. His work often involves multimedia and encompasses sound art as well as more traditional instrumental composition. The tracks on Música de Cámara demonstrate his deftness at melding electronic technologies with solo acoustic instruments or small ensembles. What makes each unique is what all have in common: a finely honed sensitivity to the way that electronics can bring out the particular natural characteristics of a given instrument. For example, Un Caracol Manchado (2000), for tenor saxophone and electronics, is a tightly integrated work that uses voice doubling, pitch-shifting and other processes to create the illusion of a ghost saxophone shadowing the actual instrument. By contrast, 2005’s Dark for baritone saxophone and electronics maintains each element as an independent yet complementary voice. García de la Torre describes Danba II (2014) for flute, cello, percussion, piano, and electronics as a piece exploring the affinities of these very different instruments’ sound characteristics; his non-hierarchical approach to the material leads to a naturally pointillistic setting for solo voices representing independent colors.

Like García de la Torre, under whom he studied, composer/pianist Guillermo Lauzurika (1968) is a native of Vitoria-Gasteiz. Also like García de la Torre, Lauzurika’s compositions are attuned to the opportunities afforded music by new technologies and multimedia environments. His background includes work with jazz ensembles as well as dancers, improvisers and experimental musicians; currently he teaches electroacoustic music and serves as Ensemble Sinkro’s artistic director. His portrait release [CD007] comprises six works including a piece for solo piano, three for solo instruments and electronics, a work for two pianos and two percussion instruments, and one for guitar, percussion, and electronics. As with García de la Torre’s collection, Lauzuritka’s includes pieces for tenor saxophone and electronics and baritone saxophone and electronics. On both pieces, Lauzuritka artfully integrates extended and conventional saxophone techniques into the surrounding electronic soundscape. Moving over to an entirely different sound palette, MOmmm (MI) momNN(ni)c for guitar, percussion and electronics elucidates the sometimes unexpected timbral convergences of nylon string acoustic guitar on the one hand, and drums on the other. The highlight of the recording is Zatiketa, in which Lauzurika skillfully weaves together the parts for piano and pitched percussion to afford their meeting on a common ground defined by the brusque, albeit melodious, sounds of things struck.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Lauren Redhead – Hearmleoþ—Gieddunga (2018; Pan y Rosas)

Lauren Redhead is a UK electroacoustic composer who currently is a lecturer in music at Canterbury Christ Church University. Hearmleoþ—Gieddunga, roughly translated as Sorrowful Songs—Prophecies, is her latest of several album-length releases.

While the term “unique” gets thrown about when reviewing experimental music, there is perhaps no better word to describes Redhead’s output. While her focus is on organ and voice, Hearmleoþ—Gieddunga is a collaborative composition with her on these instruments, as well as harpsichord and various woodwinds. She provided the scores, texts, samples, and overall direction for the project. Then collaborator Alistair Zaldua further developed the pieces in live environments and added violin, double bass, percussion, and electronics. Finally, Josh Cannon added further overdubs in the studio with a combination of programming, mixing, and mastering. The focus is on texture, structure, and palette more than melody or rhythm.

Perhaps the most striking aspects, however, are Redhead’s use of voice and vocals. There are extensive spoken-word elements, but these are not dominating, and often multiple voices mix unintelligibly in the background. Thus, aside from a few moments of text recitation, voice is used as another instrument. But when overlayed with scattered and brief acoustic motifs, as well as layers of electronics and drones, Hearmleoþ—Gieddunga takes on a character of its own. In fact, the electronic and acoustic parts often blend to the point of being indiscernible from one another.

As an example, the 15-minute Ingenga begins with disjointed violin sawing and spoken-word vocals over an amalgam of indistinct voices and background drones and rumbles. The stringed instruments squeak while the speaking grows more intense and drones mix with percussion and take the form of a crackling wall of sound.  By the seven-minute mark, organ chords and bells have joined and the voices have dropped out. Afterward, harpsichord plays over dense layers of electronics combined with long-held notes. Organ chords return with lightly grinding electroacoustics and stray voices.  A heady journey, indeed.

Hearmleoþ—Gieddunga is another excellent offering from Pan y Rosas and in the running for album of the year. Well done.

http://www.panyrosasdiscos.net/pyr262-lauren-redhead-hearmleoth-gieddunga/

AMN Reviews: David Dominique – Mask (2018; Orenda Records)

When we interviewed David Dominique in late 2013, he indicated the desire for his next album release to be out by the end of 2014. But Dominique is a busy guy as a composer and academic (currently, he is a music professor at William and Mary). He also moved across the U.S. twice in this time frame, and has had his personal life disrupted by family-oriented adversities. So Mask is a little later than expected. And to use a cliche, it is well worth the wait.

In addition to Dominique’s brass contributions, Mask features Brian Walsh on sax and clarinet, Joe Santa Maria on sax and flute, Sam Robles also on sax, Lauren Baba on viola, Alexander Noice on guitar and electronics, Michael Alvidrez on bass, and Andrew Lessman on drums and percussion. While instrumental, the album includes some vocalizing, skat singing in particular.

Dominique’s compositional style is quite varied, spanning jazz, rock, and modern classical. But his major influence, Charles Mingus, can be heard in Mask‘s idiosyncratic swing motifs and start-stop stylings.  Similarities to early Frank Zappa have also crept into the album.  Although Dominique is aware of Zappa and is a fan of the latter’s 1970/71 period, the influence is not overt.  Nonetheless, Dominique’s effortless and complex themes involving a mid-sized brass section harken back to Waka / Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo. To Dave Treut is an example thereof.

The sense of playfulness that pops up from time to time is also reminiscent of Zappa. The Yawpee is a joyful romp with intricate lines. Yet, this is juxtaposed with Dominique’s expressions of personal loss.  For instance, Grief is a track with a thick walking melody and poignant wordless singing that fits the title.

In sum, Mask covers a broad swathe of musical and emotional territory that goes beyond your run of the mill classically-influenced jazz/rock. And clocking in at just under 38 minutes, Dominique says what he has to say, then takes a bow.  The result?  A singular and compelling release.  Bravo.

AMN Reviews: Bonini Bulga – Sealed (2018; Cyclic Law)

Bonini Bulga is Sweden’s Pär Boström, a veteran of projects such as Kammarheit, Cities Last Broadcast, and Altarmang, and offers this solo effort. This eight-piece version of Sealed is an extended variant of a five-track release put out last year.

Sonically, it falls between quiet ambient and slow-moving drone. With heavy use of loops and analog synths, Boström creates dark, sparse soundscapes. His approach is raw and earthy, yet at the same time with an otherworldly feel. Lightly undulating drones combined with subtle looped elements produce a hypnotic effect.

The relative understatedness Sealed is in stark contrast to its sense of foreboding and anxiety. Uneasy synth waves evoke dead cities and broken landscapes with unknown dangers just out of view. Thus, the album challenges the listener on a subconscious level. Nonetheless, the unique stylings of Sealed help it stand out amongst the ever-growing library of dark ambient recordings.  Strongly recommended.

AMN Reviews: Aviva Endean – cinder: ember: ashes [Sofa 569]; Lea Bertucci – Metal Aether [NNA 108]

For better and for worse, “extended technique” describes the use of unconventional or nontraditional methods of playing an otherwise conventional instrument. There’s another sense in which the technical resources of an instrument can be extended, though, and one that’s more literal: the augmentation of the instrument with preparations, electronic devices, or the intervention of external objects of some other sort. Two stimulating new releases of music for solo reed instruments contain pieces played with extended technique in both of these senses.

The pieces on Aviva Endean’s cinder : ember : ashes, her first solo release, grew out of a practice of playing simply for herself, without larger agenda or ulterior motive. Endean is often a collaborative player, so her turn inward here would seem to represent something of a change: not quite woodshedding in anticipation of a performance, and not quite a performance either, at least not one directed toward an audience other than herself. More of an assisted introspection, externalized in sound. Thus there’s an almost autohypnotic quality to much of the album, the result of Endean’s proclivity for creating variations on motifs made up of a minimal collection of pitches which she orders, expands, condenses or distorts—all the while still somehow retaining their essential profiles. Endean’s signature sound throughout consists in fluctuations of pitch and timbre that find their centers of gravity in recurring long tones or simple pitch sequences. The opening track, burst in black : under for contrabass clarinet, is exemplary. There, Endean coaxes a changing set of overtones and timbres from pitches extending into an engulfing empty space. On apparition : above Endean augments the clarinet with a tympani, whose head she uses to amplify and modify the clarinet’s natural voice, giving it a quasi-electronic edge, a wind-like hollowness, or turning it into a facsimile of a trombone. Similarly, on vapour : between she manipulates the instrument—again, a clarinet—by running it through a pocket amplifier, which helps to foreground the fluctuations of the piece’s mantra-like, two-pitch quasi-melody. On the more extraverted undulations : behind, Endean plays umtshingo, a Zulu flute producing overblown harmonics, in conjunction with an effects pedal.

The concise, repeated themes that permeate much of cinder : ember : ashes find a counterpart in Patterns for Alto, the opening track of Metal Aether, a recording for solo alto saxophone and electronics by Lea Bertucci. Bertucci seems less directed toward the meditative potential of repeated sound cycles and more interested in exploring the harmonic implications of accumulating tones and overtones. Patterns for Alto layers its tones through speed; the piece is a rapidly pulsing performance with a well-defined tonal center of gravity, reminiscent in an oblique way of some of the classic Minimalist pulse pieces built over relatively simple harmonies. With the two tracks Accumulations and Sustain and Dissolve, Bertucci explores tonal interactions within a more extended time frame. Both pieces deliver what their titles plainly promise: harmonic development consisting in the piling up, lingering and jostling of tones separated by variably spaced intervals. It’s all in the overtones and the micro-scaled interference patterns that result from the way tones are juxtaposed and layered. The textural insight Bertucci has to offer here is that density isn’t (only, always) a matter of the simultaneous aggregation of sound events, but of the exploration of the detail of any given sound event’s microstructures.

http://www.sofamusic.no

https://leabertucci.bandcamp.com/album/metal-aether

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Reinhold Friedl / Quatuor Diotima – String Quartets [Bocian Records]

Berlin-based composer Reinhold Friedl (b. 1964) occupies an emblematic place within contemporary art music. As the latter has become increasingly open to influences from other genres and cultures, it has ample room for a composer like Friedl, who has worked with artists from worlds as diverse as punk and post-punk rock, free improvisation and noise. Friedl’s background is itself diverse, including training in piano performance, mathematics and musicology as well as composition; as a pianist specializing in the techniques of playing inside the instrument, he performs with Zeitkratzer (“time scraper”), a chamber ensemble fluent in the musical languages of electronic sound, minimalism and improvisation as well as modern composition, which he founded and serves as musical director.

Not surprisingly, Friedl’s three string quartets, realized for this collection by the Quatuor Diotima, deliberately avoid the traditional string quartet conventions of linear and contrapuntal writing in favor of a texture-based manipulation of mobile sound masses. In String Quartet No. 1 (2005), he accomplishes this by centering the nine-and-a-half minute work on the development of a single gesture: circular bowing. The piece, which was commissioned by the BBC and is dedicated to cellist Anton Lukoszevieze, rides on a slowly crescendoing surf of white noise, glassy harmonics and muted and open strings. The ebb and flow of the sound follows the movements of the musicians’ bowing with an uncanny transparency.

At double the length of the first quartet, String Quartet No. 2, composed in 2009 for the Diotima quartet, erects an abstract acoustic wall of sound that develops by increases in saturation, volume and intensity. As with the first quartet the piece, which is constructed around sustained tremolo bowing of ever greater speed, is an essay in gestural crescendo.

The closest Friedl comes to traditional string quartet writing—and really it isn’t that close—is on 2016’s String Quartet No. 3, commissioned in Copenhagen and dedicated to Diotima cellist Pierre Morlet. The solidly constructed piece consists of long-toned, pungent chords arranged as sound blocks slowly moving in lockstep across audio space.

https://bocian.bandcamp.com/album/reinhold-friedl-string-quartets

Daniel Barbiero