AMN Reviews: Mariel Roberts – Cartography [New Focus fcr185]

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.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: John Corbett – “ Vinyl Freak: Love Letters to a Dying Medium” [ Duke University Press – isbn:9780822363507 ]

978-0-8223-6366-8_prFreaks are those of us that harmlessly indulge our interests to the point of compulsion or obsession. When it comes to music, the most interesting people that I have met have been those that exuberantly talk about music almost to the point of proselytizing. As they talk about either their collections or their discoveries or a recent concert or a new release or a particular instrument, they invite us to share in their enthusiasm and in the process they turn us on to all kinds of great music that we may have been completely unaware of. While many of these people can be found on blogs, or in chat rooms, on mailing lists and in forums, a select few have managed to turn their obsessions into a career. Luckily for us John Corbett is that kind of freak.

When it comes to the outer limits of jazz and the realms of creative music and free improvisation, Corbett writes with unmatched exuberance and passion supported by his deep and wide knowledge of the music. In “Vinyl Freak: Love Letters to a Dying Medium” John Corbett explores the mindset of record collecting and the rising popularity of vinyl records. He combines bits of memoir and criticism to explain what he and other collectors find so special about vinyl. The book contains seven new essays and the entire twelve years of the “Vinyl Freak” column that Corbett wrote for DownBeat magazine. Each “Vinyl Freak” column consisted of a one page essay/review of a rare primarily jazz record and are reprinted in their entirety, plus updated notes on reissue status. What was really interesting about the “Vinyl Freak” columns were the tangents that Corbett might take in describing the record, its music, the musicians, cover, style, etc. This would often reveal interesting external connections between the music, its makers and its history, and in the process expose us to related albums and musicians. Among the new essays is a chapter of vignettes on one hundred thirteen of his favorite rare free improvisation and creative music recordings. There is also one riveting essay that focuses on the tale of his uncovering of a cache of extremely rare Sun Ra items.

While many will view this book as just being about Corbett’s obsessive and unique view of record collecting and the recent vinyl resurgence, and that is definitely in this book, it’s really about how the format changes of recorded music impacts music history. There is so much great music that seems to have disappeared due to format changes. In writing about all of these rare records Corbett uncovers a lot of great and potentially forgotten music. John Corbett reminds us that as formats change we can lose great music. Think of the many records that you had in your vinyl collection that have yet to make it to CD or a digital download format. Well, consider that this has happened throughout the history of recorded music, as recordings moved from tapes and wires and cylinders and shellac to various forms, speeds and sizes of vinyl and then to various digital formats. Bottom line, we may have lost a lot of great music along the way and we would have lost even more great music, if it weren’t for collectors who turned their passion into the curating and production of reissues of old recordings in new formats. John Corbett has stepped up here as well with the many reissues he has been busy producing for his Corbett vs Dempsey label.

Clearly John Corbett is a vinyl freak. Who else would include a rare unreleased limited edition Sun Ra flex-disc in his latest book? He may truly love the vinyl medium but deep down he loves the music even more. Corbett really is an “equal opportunity ear filler” and is willing to acquire the music he really enjoys in any format. With “Vinyl Freak: Love Letters to a Dying Medium” John Corbett invites us to join him in the pleasure of discovering new sounds to indulge our ears. So what are you waiting for? You’ve been invited. Highly Recommended!

Chris De Chiara

For more information:

Additional reviews of John Corbett’s books on AMN:

AMN Reviews: Creation VI – Deus Sive Natura (2017; Cryo Chamber)

Dark ambient music can go in so many directions, but Creation VI has a new twist on the genre, at least to these ears. First, the recording medium is analog tape, which gives the album a subjective richness and warmth often not apparent on pure digital works. Second, the instrumentation is unusual. Blockflute, Chinese flute, shruti-box, harmonica, ocarina, kazoo, bells, chimes, seeds, and seedpods are present in a drone- and wall-filled excursion. The result is a percussion-based, aboriginal feel spanning five long tracks.

But unlike others (notably Steve Roach) who explored the tribal ambient space, Deus Sive Natura is primarily foreboding, with dense chords and distant bells subtly combining with the wind instruments to create a slowly-shifting, ominous soundscape. In several tracks, the percussion plays a significant role, contributing to a haunting atmosphere rather than supplying a rhythm for the drones. Voices combine with these drones in hypnogogic chants, as do boiling electroacoustic elements.

Deus Sive Natura (translated as “god or nature”) is an exploration of ancient places and peoples therein, the latter seeking to understand their place in the universe through ritual and music. Aside from any such imagery, it represents a strong contribution to the dark ambient genre. Recommended.

AMN Reviews – Reid Karris – Arbor Philosophica (2017; Pan y Rosas Discos)

Chicago-based Reid Karris is quietly putting out a string of excellent releases in the electroacoustic vein. Focusing on guitars and percussion, his material falls in various places on the spectrum between free improv and composition. On this, his latest recording, Karris continues exploring sound collages not unlike those of Tod Dockstader or the Colorado avant-rock group Biota.

The music of Arbor Philosophica reflects the ancient idea that celestial bodies emit signature tones based on their orbital revolutions, as well as have alchemical associations with certain metals. The result, in Karris’s words, is “one score to create a drone that shifts through a progression of tones as one travels from one side of the solar system to the other.”

While the 14 pieces on the album could be viewed in relation to this grounding, the recording as a whole exhibits a great deal of cross-track similarity.  As one moves from piece to piece, the overarching approach and feel remains consistent. Karris makes heavy use of unstructured percussion, samples, and processed guitar.  There are no melodies or rhythms per se.  The instruments and effects melt together in a way that is reminiscent of backmasking – indeed, some of these tracks could probably be played in either direction. Thus, there is a great deal of variety within each piece, even as they combine to form a congruous whole.

Karris certainly has captured an otherworldliness that reinforces his chosen themes. Nonetheless, Arbor Philosophica is not out of line when compared to some of his previous releases. Another strong effort from a modern musician / composer who deserves a much wider audience.

Read our reviews of Karris’s 2016 release, Oscines et Ensifera and his 2017 release, Divinatio Exitium.

AMN Reviews: Kyle Motl – Transmogrification [metatrope-003]

As I write this, double bassist Kyle Motl is on tour, playing contemporary compositions for solo double bass by the great Romanian Spectralists Iancu Dumitrescu and Horatiu Radulescu, among others. The works Motl has chosen to play are all conceptually and technically challenging pieces that extend the range of sounds the instrument can produce and correspondingly, the performance methods required to produce them. On Transmogrification,  Motl’s new solo CD, the bassist plays his own music. But here, as in his touring repertoire, his playing is informed by his fluency in the language of contemporary performance practices, allowing him to take the instrument to the edge of its known world.

The fifteen tracks are sequenced to trace a narrative arc starting with the concrete, largely conventional Panjandrums for pizzicato bass and moving through increasing stages of abstraction. Although he uses advanced techniques and often prepares the bass with foreign objects, Motl’s choices are always intelligent and above all, musical, no matter how far the distance he takes the bass from a traditionally lyrical sound. He’s particularly good at drawing percussive effects from the instrument with fingers, hands and a tautly bouncing bow. On several tracks he modifies the bass with objects inserted between the strings in order to envelop the notes in a rattling, buzzing sound; on others, he elicits a fascinating world of quasi-electronic sounds simply with nuanced bow articulations.

All in all, Transmogrification is a fine addition to the large and still growing catalogue of recordings for solo double bass.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Thet Liturgiske Owäsende – Wisconsin Mining State (2017; Forwind)

The Rust Belt refers to a largely-deindustrialized portion of the United States surrounding the Great Lakes. Once a powerhouse of manufacturing, the region is now known for being a poster child of economic decline, and perhaps swinging a presidential election. Thet Liturgiske Owäsende are Swedish experimentalists Linus Schrab and Johan Fotmeijer, and their Wisconsin Mining State release sonically explores the sparseness and melancholy of small towns in this region. In fact, four of the six tracks are titled after mining towns with populations of less than 2000 each.

Using synths, guitars, and field recordings, Schrab and Fotmeijer provide drones with mechanical rhythms and pulsing bass, evoking post-industrial soundscapes – a place where the machines have largely shut down, but occasionally fire up for a few minutes at a time. Platteville begins with a slowly repeating drone melody that grows and ebbs with lightly-distorted walls. Hazel Green offers dark ambient atmospherics interspersed with ominous crescendos. Iron Ridge consists of oscillating drones and a sparse, repeating bass line. Klar Piquett features throbbing, distorted walls. Mineral Point, perhaps my favorite track, is dominated by a start/stop mechanical cadence overlaid with varied percussive patterns. Rajah is a more traditional spacious, ambient drone, and somewhat out of place compared to its companion tracks.

In a world where ambient music is easy to come by (and much of it is quite good), it can be hard for a release such as this one to stand out. And yet, Wisconsin Mining State somehow does. Through a layering of simple elements and a juxtaposition of melody and distortion, Schrab and Fotmeijer’s dark offering characterizes a set of uneasy emotions that are felt not only in the Rust Belt, but anywhere that industry is in decline.

AMN Reviews: Hanging Hearts – Into a Myth (2017; Shifting Paradigm Records)

This debut from Chicago trio Hanging Hearts falls somewhere in the general location of that town’s Chicago Edge Ensemble – a mix of jazz and rock styles, with a touch of experimentalism. Into a Myth features Chris Weller on tenor and bass saxophones, Cole DeGenova on keyboards, and Devin Drobka on drums. Dave King, drummer from The Bad Plus, produced the album.

On tracks like Return of Saturn, Big Big Bang Anunini, and Creation, Weller provides lines that are both rude and soaring, while DeGenova applies washes in the background. In contrast, Pilsen opens with catchy sax melodies over raw keyboard riffing (sounding quite guitar-like), and then takes a left turn into free-jazz land before a reprise. Throughout, Drobka takes a mostly subtle role, more than simple timekeeping and breaking out from time to time. The takes it downtempo as well, with He Had the Purist of Intentions, a near-ballad.

Not afraid to mix things up, Hanging Hearts covers a broad spectrum of sounds that Chicago is known for, with energy and spirit. A notable effort.

Hanging Hearts will be on tour starting this week:

6/10: w/ Dave King Trucking Company @ Cactus Club- Milwaukee, WI
6/11: w/ Tony Barba @ Art In- Madison, WI
6/12: w/ Dave King Trucking Company @ Ice House- Minneapolis, MN
6/16: CD RELEASE w/ Sun Speak @ Constellation- Chicago, IL
7/04: w/ Ben Willis Band @ Trinosophes- Detroit, MI
7/05: Ann Arbor, MI
7/06: The Bop Stop- Cleveland, OH
7/07: Pittsburgh, PA
7/08: Boston, MA
7/09: w/ Mario Castro @ Rockwood Music Hall- New York, NY
7/10: Baltimore, MD
7/11: Washington, D.C.
7/12: Cincinnati, OH
7/13: w/ Jonah Parzen-Johnson & Ben Lumsdaine @ Blockhouse- Bloomington, IN
7/14: VINYL RELEASE w/ Jonah Parzen-Johnson @ Hungry Brain- Chicago, IL 9pm
7/15: Spot Tavern- Lafayette, IN
7/16: Fort Wayne, IN