AMN Reviews: Spektral Quartet – Experiments in Living [New Focus Recordings FCR270]

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.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Anthony Cheung – Cycles and Arrows [New Focus Recordings: fcr215]

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.

Daniel Barbiero


AMN Reviews: Anthony Cheung – Dystemporal [Wergo WER7343 2]

wer73432_670The line break in free verse often has important implications for the way the poem’s meanings can be read. In the absence of a fixed meter or rhyme scheme, the division of words gives semantic force to some, subordinates others to their immediate neighbors, and generally adds or diminishes weight of meaning through isolation or amalgamation. By the same token, the musical pacing and breaking of phrases and the binding and separation of instrumental voices can affect the way musical meaning is conveyed. The line break plays a central role in the musical rhetoric of many of the compositions on Dystemporal, a collection of recent work by composer/pianist Anthony Cheung.

Windswept Cypresses (2005), scored for flute, viola, harp and percussion, is a single-movement work that alludes in its orchestration and its atmosphere to pieces by Debussy and Takemitsu. Its rhetoric seems analogous to an Objectivist poem, with short, lucid phrases defined by well-placed line breaks. It’s a pensive piece; the pacing is deliberate and each gesture and note is allowed its full weight in shaping the overall mood. Instrumental groupings cluster and disperse, often exposing individual voices to determine any given moment’s force of conveyance. Cheung’s uses of passing silences—the line breaks themselves—are exquisitely effective in carving out and throwing into high relief units of musical meaning.

As it happens, Enjamb, Infuse, Implode (2006), a work for flute, clarinet, piano, violin, cello and percussion, makes direct reference to poetic method. Enjambment breaks a poem’s line within a thought or sense rather than at the end; Cheung saw the composition’s building of tension as working in a comparable manner. The piece is largely carried along through dynamic blends of instrumental color, with percussion and piano seeming to supply the enjambment.

Other works on the CD bring to mind a kind of updated Impressionism where color carries as much meaning as melody, harmony or dynamics. The three-movement Centripedalocity (2008) for seven instruments, for example, combines the timbres of chamber ensemble with jazz alto saxophone all while casting sideways glances at Debussy and Thelonious Monk; SynchroniCities (2012) uses the astringent colors of electronics and microtones to construct a paradoxically consonant clash of media and pitches. Here and elsewhere Cheung’s timbres and dynamics are often exhilarating and at many points seem to take the fractured surfaces of High Modernism and charge them with a direct, emotional urgency.

Daniel Barbiero