Whether by design or by accident, the three Scott Wollschleger compositions performed on the trio Bearthoven’s American Dream album capture, in their spare beauty, the pervasive sense of uncertainty and disorientation so characteristic of recent years. This may not simply be something imagined: Wollschleger himself sees them as expressing an often contradictory set of emotions—“doom, optimism, hopelessness, and the sublime.” Perhaps as a result, the collection is pervaded by an elegiac, haunted atmosphere, an impression conveyed by the fragmentary and understated nature of much of the music and made explicit by the title of the final work in the trilogy: We See Things That Are Not There.
Gas Station Canon Song, the opening piece for solo piano, captures this mood in a concise manner. It’s a short work made up of brief phrases, dissonances that sound like stumbled-upon “mistakes,” and an artfully halting pace. Hearing Karl Larson’s performance is like listening to someone reaching for a memory that won’t quite crystallize. The five-movement American Dream for the full Bearthoven trio of Larson, double bassist Pat Swoboda and percussionist Matt Evans continues and expands on the atmosphere established by Gas Station Canon Song. American Dream is very much an ensemble piece of collective sound rather than a work with sharply defined figure and ground relationships; it frequently features instrumental combinations of novel colors, such as when piano and percussion fuse to mimic the sound of a toy piano. The final track, We See Things Are Not There for piano, vibraphone, and crotale, is in mood a fitting complement to the opening track and serves to bookend the collection nicely.
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.
Composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir has spoken of how, growing up in Iceland, she developed a close relationship to natural landscapes and an appreciation for the subtle changes in light and weather peculiar to a location sited between mountains and ocean. This sensitivity to the quiet drama of nuance carries over to her music, as shown in the recent work on Aequa.
The seven compositions on Aequa—for solo piano, small instrumental groupings and a large chamber orchestra—tend to focus on the resonance of sustained tones undergoing incremental dynamic or timbral changes. The first track, 2011’s Scope for solo piano (performed by Cory Smythe), does this simply and elegantly by building a framework around the lingering decay of held notes. The small ensemble piece Fields (2016) is a wintry composition made of slow, consecutive melodies on cello, double bass and bass clarinet, overlaid with a restless scattering of notes from piano and guitar. Thorsvaldsdottir orchestrates it nicely by dividing the lead lines among the strings and reed, and the ornamental flourishes between piano and guitar. Aequilibria (2014), for eleven-piece chamber orchestra, creates a soundscape of slowly moving timbres through the canny division of the whole ensemble into subgroups. It’s the perfect sound analogue of the gradual environmental metamorphoses Thorsvaldsdottir remembers.
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.
The junctions and disjunctions that bind and divide language and what we try to mean with it: this is an old and perennial problem for philosophy and one that provides the subject of Ipsa Dixit, composer/vocalist Kate Soper’s six-movement work for soprano and small chamber ensemble.
The work, which was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in music, was initially written as separate pieces between 2010 and 2016; as a unified work it was premiered in Troy, New York in December 2016. As presented here on two discs, Ipsa Dixit is a 90-minute fusion of classical and contemporary texts, spoken and sung, underscored by flute, violin and percussion.
Soper’s voice provides the dramatic center around which the various parts cohere; she speaks, lectures, recites, questions, and above all sings in a beautiful, precise soprano. As she does all this, the Wet Ink Ensemble’s flutist Erin Lesser, violinist Josh Modney, and percussionist Ian Antonio play a score that tends toward a sparse, modernist vocabulary of fragmented chromaticism and timbral interplay. The passages for voice and flute, and voice and violin in movements II and VI respectively, balance on the subtle gradations of tone within comparable ranges and, as duets, bring out a certain paradoxical sensuousness implicated in austerity. It’s one irony in a work built on ironies, starting with the title, a feminization of “ipse dixit,” the legal term for an unsupported claim. Soper is quoted in the liner note as saying that Ipsa Dixit is about the difficulties of conveying human experience in language. But despite its ambiguities and inevitable lapses, language still allows us to make ourselves understood, and that may be the fundamental conclusion Soper’s work draws us to. Let Guido d’Arezzo, whom Soper quotes in the final movement, have the last words: “Just as everything that can be spoken can be written, so everything can be made into song that can be written. Therefore everything can be made into song that can be spoken.”
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.
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.