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.

https://newfocusrecordings.bandcamp.com/album/experiments-in-living

https://www.newfocusrecordings.com/

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Martino Traversa – Hommage [Kairos 0015054KAI]

If Debussy’s was one of the quieter revolutions in Western art music, it was also one of the farthest-reaching. His innovative use of scales and their attendant harmonies had an enduring effect not only on subsequent classical music but on jazz as well, while his foregrounding of timbre and sonority suggested possibilities that are still undergoing exploration and development. With his pointedly titled monograph Hommage, Italian composer Martino Traversa (1960) places himself directly within this rich European, and largely but not exclusively French, tradition.

The album’s two works featuring Ensemble Prometeo, a chamber orchestra conducted by Marco Angius, show most directly Traversa’s deep engagement with the sensuous forces of instrumental color and their historical forms. Red 2, a piece for concertante violin and twelve-piece ensemble, is a direct homage to Boulez that begins with a quote from the latter’s Anthèmes. Boulez’s material serves as the basis for thematic elaborations that permeate the piece. In developing his themes Traversa plays clusters of voices against each other in a dense weave of fused timbres; he maintains a sense of suspense throughout with the simple but effective device of placing trills on top of these sound masses. Di altri cieli, a piece for soprano and chamber sextet inspired by Luigi Nono’s Fragmente-Stille, an Diotima, sets a text by poet Friedrich Hölderlin. It is a succinct, crepuscular work of fragments shored up against an abyss, with soprano Livia Rado’s voice providing a haunting, flute-like presence.

Rado, accompanied by piano, clarinet and cello, is also featured on Traversa’s settings of three poems by Stéphane Mallarmé, which make up a moody, beautifully orchestrated and sung triptych. Here Traversa constructs a vocal line that floats languidly, rushes energetically and leaps wide intervals as it lags behind, outruns and doubles the instruments. The match of Rado’s voice with the clarinet and upper register cello is at times uncanny and a sensitive use of the human voice as a purely musical instrument.

Hommage also includes Oiseaux Tristes, a piece for solo piano inspired by Ravel’s Miroirs, and Quasi una sonata…for violin and piano.

Altogether a beautiful recording.

http://www.kairos-music.com

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Nomi Epstein – sounds [New Focus Recordings FCR260]

Composer/pianist Nomi Epstein’s music, as demonstrated on the portrait recording sounds, is made up of fine-grained distinctions between sounds and between sound and non-sound. This is evident particularly in the three compositions for solo piano: Till (2003), Solo for Piano (2007-19), and Layers for Piano (2015/18), all of them performed by Reinier van Houdt. Till, which opens the album, surrounds deliberately picked out, largely quiet individual notes and chords with silences to create differential effects of dynamics and register. The first part of the two-part Solo for Piano, appropriately titled Waves, features oscillating, closely-spaced tones that particularly in the lower registers merge into something like a massed, grey noise. The second part opposes Waves’ sonic blur with unhurried, precisely defined pitch groups. Layers for Piano, a three-part work, places delicate sonic fragments consisting of single notes and muffled dissonances within a range of quiet, subtly distinguishable dynamics. The other two compositions in the collection are for trios: of voice, bass flute and electronics, and for flute, bass clarinet, and piano. The first of these, for Collect/Project (2016-19), is a low-key drama of contrasts between the hollow tones of the bass flute (Shanna Gutierrez) and the abrasively dense interventions of the electronics (Francisco Castillo Trigueros). When Frauke Aulbert’s voice breaks through into a sonic clearing, the effect is bracing and revelatory. The 2016 sounds for Jeff and Eliza, for flutist Eliza Bangert and bass clarinetist Jeff Kimmel, who perform it here along with the composer on piano, builds harmonies from the wind instruments’ multiphonics superimposed on isolated notes and chords from the piano. The piece’s very slow harmonic rhythm lends it a sense of timelessness.

http://newfocusrecordings.com

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Patrick Ozzard-Low – In Opposition [Kairos 0015067KAI]

The two substantial works on British composer Patrick Ozzard-Low’s In Opposition were the delayed effect of an epiphany the composer had in 1978 at age twenty. Having heard Jean Barraqué’s Sonata for Piano on the radio for the first time, Ozzard-Low was drawn to the French composer’s dense yet vestigially tonal sound world. Ozzard-Low consequently found and began studies with Bill Hopkins, Barraqué’s composition student. These studies lasted until Hopkins’ early death in 1981. Beginning in the late 1980s, Ozzard-Low entered into a twenty-year-long period during which his own work gestated. Over the course of that time, Ozzard-Low adapted for his own use Barraqué’s unique form of tone-row construction and permutation which Ozzard-Low describes as based on “pitch-fields”—that is, sets of pitches of fixed register rather than variable octaves, which have the potential to be organized tonally or quasi-tonally as well as atonally. From his understanding of Barraqué’s musical architecture, with its openness to harmonic as well as serial construction, Ozzard-Low developed his own musical language. The Piano Sonata No. 2 and In Opposition are two of the works to emerge from that process of development.

Piano Sonata No. 2, a single-movement, half-hour-long work divided into five submovements, embodies a taut energy built up from the sometimes abrupt jostling against each other of harmonies and dissonances. The piece is essentially modern in its vocabulary, but it develops with the emotional power of a reconfigured Romanticism and retains a harmonic openness tinted with shades of Impressionism. Pianist Andrew Zolinsky’s performance is appropriately robust and compelling.

In Opposition, a sonata for solo viola, is like the piano sonata a half-hour-long single movement work of several submovements. Also like the piano sonata the piece stakes out a ground between tonality and atonality; in construction, it draws on modern and pre-modern ways of phrasing. The opening sections are largely laid out as discontinuous sequences of events of dynamic and registral extremes; as the piece unfolds, though, it gathers itself in toward longer, more continuous passages that suggest the Bach sonatas for solo violin brought into the 21st century. In this regard In Opposition, like the Piano Sonata No. 2 but to a more marked extent, demonstrates Ozzard-Low’s aptitude for putting into dialogue forms taken from past and present musical practices. Violist Elisabeth Smalt’s realization of this demanding composition represents a deft handling of Ozzard-Low’s multimorphic idiom.

http://www.kairos-music.com

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Hasco Duo – The Same Old Wonder [New Focus Recordings FCR247]

On the evidence of this, their third album, the Hasco Duo — soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett and guitarist Jesse Langen — bring a new perspective to the art song. At its most compelling, their collective sound is a play of opposites—of DeBoer’s clear, intimately human voice against the technologically facilitated distortion Langen brings to his guitar sound. This opposition, and the aesthetic and emotional tensions it both creates and balances, is epitomized in the duo’s performance on the 25-minute-long Basic Lands by Jonathan Sokol. The vocal part, a dramatic bit of register-leaping virtuosity in its delivery of text drawn from William Quayle’s The Prairie and the Sea, contrasts in its natural timbres and nature imagery with the guitar’s sonically abrasive and harmonically discordant interventions.

On the duo’s setting of poet Constantinos Harpending Pavellas’ “Wildflower” DeBoer Bartlett’s voice takes on a haunting poignance as she sings the childlike—because actually written by a child—words against the lush background of sustained tones from Langen’s guitar. For Luis Fernando Amaya’s Tinta Roja, Tinta Negra/Red Ink, Black Ink, DeBoer’s shouts and cries rise and fall alongside of Langen’s long-sustained sounds. The anguish of the piece is particularly brought into focus through the microtonal clashes that result as their lines weave across and through each other.

The Same Old Wonder also includes Ravi Kittappa’s Nietzsche-inspired piece Und wenn du lange in eninen Abgrund blickst…, a collision of sound poetry and extended technique for electric guitar, and Morgan Krauss’ pallid tongues, a piece for urgently spoken text and industrially distorted guitar.

http://www.hascoduo.com

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Fonema Consort – Vistas Furtivas–The Music of Juan Campoverde [New Focus Recordings fcr246]

Vistas Furtivas, a collection of work by composer Juan Campoverde, is the third album from the Fonema Consort, a Chicago new music ensemble specializing in performing the work of Latin American composers. Campoverde, an Ecuadorian native living in nearby Evanston, Illinois, has developed a long-running collaborative relationship with the consort, having written for them since 2013. The rapport they’ve built is evident in these deft and assured performances of Campoverde’s dramatic and often delicately constructed work.

Campoverde’s compositions here are mostly driven by forceful vocal lines but for all of that, they turn on nuances of sound color alone and in combinations. The composer masterfully brings forward and updates the kind of spacious, unconventionally orchestrated chamber music pioneered by composers like George Crumb in the 1960s and 1970s. And, as could be expected by a composer mentored by Roger Reynolds, whose imagE-imAge series of solo works meticulously capture the timbral ranges of the instruments for which they were written, Campoverde pays close attention to what might be thought of as timbral harmonies and dissonances,

The album contains four works for small chamber ensemble built around the unusual but compelling combination of guitar, flute, and soprano voice, as well as two for solo guitar. Campoverde’s inspired choice of instrumental colors, which he artfully arranges against a stark canvas of silence, makes for a music of startling fusions and contrasts of timbre in an uncluttered environment.

Umbrales I and II (2013 and 2019, respectively) for two sopranos, flute, and guitar, offer two different perspectives on the same texts by Ecuadorian poet Efraín Jara Idrovo. Both iterations rely on extended vocal and instrumental techniques and scordatura to draw out the color possibilities of guitar, flute, and voice. Typical of Campoverde’s work on the album, the pieces are constructed as decentered bursts of sound. Here the main contrast is between the sustained tones of flute and voice on the one side, and the staccato attack of plucked strings on the other. The guitar’s microtonal dissonances are an essential component of the overall sound, which is dominated by the asymmetrical phrasings of sopranos Nina Dante and Nathalie Colas

Basalto (2014) strips the ensemble down to Dante and flutist Dalia Chin, here on alto flute, supplemented by prerecorded, electronically manipulated whale song. A highly expressive work, its urgency is underscored by a collision of extended vocal technique and the flutter tongue and plosive air notes from the flute.

The two works for solo guitar, Topografias (1996) and Muna II (2012), demonstrate Campoverde’s ability to elicit a wide range of color from a single instrument. Both make extensive use of microtones and tone-altering gestures up to and including turning the gears to detune the instrument. The resulting episodes of sheer sonic materiality give one the feeling of being on the inside of the intimate process of playing. Guitarist Samuel Rowe’s performances realize these difficult pieces with clarity and precision.

Los Lugares del Deseo of 2017, the four-part suite that closes the album, brings together flute, bass clarinet (played by Emily Beisel), both sopranos, guitar and percussion (Ryan Packard) in combinations ranging from solo soprano to the full sextet. In its unhurried juxtapositions of exactly delineated timbres the suite captures in microcosm the sound of the album in all its sharply etched fullness. It’s a bracingly beautiful collection of music.

AMN Reviews: Wendy Richman: vox/viola [Tundra tun008]

For vox/viola, her debut solo album featuring recent work for viola and voice, violist/vocalist Wendy Richman has chosen a most appropriate duet partner: herself. Richman, a founding member of the International Chamber Ensemble who specializes in new performance techniques, is an accomplished performer on voice as well as viola, as she amply demonstrates on this collection of engaging works engagingly performed.

The works appearing on the album were commissioned by Richman as part of an ongoing effort to build a substantial contemporary repertoire for vocalist/violist. Modern work for singing violist traces back to Giacinto Scelsi’s Manto III of 1957, an inventive composition that joined extended string performance techniques to a sung text drawn from the Delphic oracles. Composer Lou Bunk’s (b. 1972) Scelsi Frammenti (2010) self-awarely carries Scelsi’s work forward by setting a text of broken consonants and vowels over a viola part based on Bunk’s improvisations on a homemade bowed instrument made of Styrofoam and cardboard. The piece captures and refracts the radicalism of Scelsi’s vocabulary with a series of scratches, creaks, and harmonics on the one side, and sustained vowels and stuttering consonants on the other.

Also inspired by Manto III is “to be held…” by Jason Eckardt (b. 1971) a work composed in 2012 for viola, voice, and prerecorded media. The title is taken from poet Charles Olson’s manifesto Projective Verse, which articulated a notion of measuring the poetic line by the length of a breath; the sung text derives from poet Robert Creeley’s The Language. The piece comprises a slow, microtonal counterpoint made up of elongated sung, played and played-back tones that approach, meet and diverge in slowly moving sound masses that build and sustain tension before culminating in an extreme upper register fadeout. The first part of Extraordinary Rendition (2010) by David Smooke (b. 1969) also uses long-period microtonal movements, but then turns dramatically to staccato phrasing for bow and hard consonants. José-Luis Hurtado’s Palabras en alto exploits changes in dynamic range as a way to frame and throw into sharp relief the color contrasts and expressive force inherent in a mobile series of extended gestures for strings and voice.

The above works represent just some of the highlights of the album; the other compositions, by Christian Carey, Stephen Gorbos, Arlene Sierra, Everette Minchew, and Ken Ueno, exhibit a wide and stimulating range of creative approaches to having voice and viola interact through a single performer. All are certainly worth hearing.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Various Artists – Modulation Necklace: New Music from Armenia [New Focus Recordings FCR244]

During the years that Armenia was part of the Soviet Union, Armenian composers’ music was largely shaped by the models set out by the dominant Soviet musical culture. With the breakup of the USSR, Armenian composers were at liberty to open themselves up to new developments in contemporary Western art music as well as to recover aspects of their own national culture, musical and otherwise. Modulation Necklace, a collection of new and recent chamber work by four composers, showcases some of the multiple directions post-Soviet Armenian music has taken. The album was put together by violinist Movses Pogossian under the auspices of the UCLA Armenian Music Program.

Artur Avanesov (b. 1980) opens the album with Quasi Harena Maris (2016), a piano quintet that begins with subdued drifts of microtonal clusters for the strings and develops into a robustly emotional interplay for piano and strings. Avanesov also contributes the final pieces, a selection of seven piano miniatures from Feux follets (2010-2017), a seven-book collection of solo works for piano. Avanesov’s inspirations here are varied, encompassing medieval French song, Armenian folksong and painting, Baroque harpsichord music and more. The overall flavor is modal, as exemplified by Modulation Necklace, which in less than a minute and a half cycles through a series of modes pivoting on B.

Artashes Kartalyan (b. 1961) is a jazz pianist as well as a composer of symphonies, chamber works, and film soundtracks. His contribution is a three-song cycle for string quartet and mezzo-soprano, the text of which is by Armenian poet Vahan Tekeyan. The triptych, beautifully sung by Danielle Segen and expressively played by UCLA VEM Ensemble, conveys the complexities of different but related moods, yearning, loss, and acceptance most noticeably among them. Kartalyan’s son Ashot (b. 1985) is represented by a lively five-part suite for saxophone and percussion from 2015, performed by Katisse Buckingham and Dustin Donahue. The suite draws on Armenian modes and rhythms and is particularly engaging in its polyphonic middle movements, which pair the saxophone with marimba and vibes.

Ashot Zohrabyan (b. 1945) offers Novelette (2010) for piano, violin, viola and cello, a piece whose motif of a major tenth alludes to an earlier landmark work of Armenian art music. Novelette begins with quiet dissonances for the strings and moves to more dramatic territory, driven by an outspoken piano part, before reaching a denouement sotto voce. A Fiery Flame, a Flaming Fire, a 2017 work for violin, cello and piano by Michel Petrossian (b. 1973), is a quick-moving, shape-shifting work whose three voices are always on the verge of spinning away from each other, but without quite actually doing so.

https://newfocusrecordings.com

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Sivan Silver-Swartz – Untitled 6 [Editions Wandelweiser EWR 1920]; a•pe•ri•od•ic – for [New Focus Recordings fcr249]

Nearly seventy years have passed since John Cage composed 4’33,” his most famous—or notorious, as at the time it seemed—“silent” piece. Since then the questions 4’33” raised—regarding the limits and definition of music; the relationship between the work and the environment in which it is performed; the ontological different, or indeed indifference, between sound and silence; and above all, the degree of control or letting-go a score can or should exert over its product—have given rise to a significant lineage or tradition within new music. Two new releases of music for chamber ensembles fall within that lineage and serve to bring it forward.

The Chicago ensemble a•pe•ri•od•ic, founded by composer/pianist Nomi Epstein in 2010, fits firmly, and quite deliberately, within the lineage initiated by Cage’s work. The group, which on this recording is an octet of violin, cello, flute, bass clarinet/clarinet, bassoon/voice, French horn, piano, and voice, performs works biased toward various kinds of indeterminacy, whether of orchestration, sound material, or architecture. Silence also plays a major role in their music, whether as primary material or as a structural element.

The four compositions on for were commissioned by the group; three are by group members and the fourth is by composer Michael Pisaro.

Violinist Billie Howard’s Roll (2016) comprises a sequence of soloists playing a sustained tone ending with a freely-chosen upward or downward glissando, followed by a silence. What comes to the fore in this work is the unique timbral quality of each instrumental voice, with the lower-pitched bassoon and cello making an especially rich impression. Vocalist Kenn Kumpf contributes Triadic Expansions (2) of 2017, a piece of mutating harmonies built up from slowly ascending or descending scales of more or less arbitrary pitch content. The entrances and exits are staggered in a way that creates an out-of-synch effect that keeps the center of gravity for the entire sound mass in a constant state of motion. Combine, Juxtapose, Delayed Overlap (2013-2017) by Epstein, is a very quiet textural piece that seems to play with the ambiguous status—are they music? Are they noise? Are they just a strange crystallization of silence into sound?–of liminal audio events. Pisaro’s festhalten/loslassen (2013), in contrast to the austerity of Epstein’s piece, contains passages of almost lush bundles of sustained tones moving cloudlike across and through each other. The piece is broken into sections by long silences and is punctuated with passages for percussive pizzicato strings and a slowly ascending scale begun on piano and continued on horn.

One of the composers who studied under Pisaro is Sivan Silver-Swartz (b. 1993). Like many composers of his generation, Silver-Swartz works in eclectic forms ranging from composed new music to rock-derived song. His Untitled 6 is an hour-long work in just intonation for three or more violins, violas, cellos or other bowed instruments that can be detuned as called for by the score. On this recording, the piece is played by two violas, two cellos, and one violin. As with the compositions on for, Untitled 6 is an open-form work that leaves many performance decisions up to the players. The performers are divided into two groups, one of which is assigned a score arranged somewhat like a chessboard each of whose squares specifies a given sound gesture or a silence; this set of performers is given latitude, within some constraints, to choose the sequence of squares, and hence sounds or silences, they will play. The score for the second set of players is a linear table that specifies durations but allows for choices of dynamics and gestures. Like Kumpf’s Triadic Expansions (2) or Pisaro’s festhalten/loslassen, Untitled 6 unfolds in a set of slowly shifting harmonies, but here the harmonies are given a particular piquancy from the instruments’ tunings and from the limitation of melodic material to open strings and the first harmonic—overall, music cast in a somewhat darker shade of consonance.

https://newfocusrecordings.bandcamp.com/album/for-a-pe-ri-od-ic

https://www.wandelweiser.de/

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Osvaldo Coluccino – Interni [Kairos 0015062KAI]

Before he began writing music as a mature composer, Osvaldo Coluccino (b. 1963) was a literary artist. Although he had studied composition and classical guitar, had performed in concert halls in his teens and had begun to compose in 1979, from the end of the 1980s to the early 2000s Coluccino was mainly engaged in writing: poetry, drama and prose. Poetry in particular demands an ear for words as sonorous objects as well as a grasp of language as potentially an instrument of condensed meaning—of saying much with little. And while Coluccino may consider his work with poetry and with composition to occupy two separate and largely unconnected spheres, it does seem that both of those qualities of poetry—sonority and economy of expression—carry over into his compositions.

This is especially true of Interni, a 2017-2018 series of five solo compositions for various flutes and one for flute and electronics. As he did with earlier works, like the Emblema series for small chamber ensembles and Atto, which was composed for objects rather than musical instruments, Coluccino with Interni makes music focused on the quiet details of sound production and color.

From the opening notes of Primo interno for C flute, Coluccino’s sensibility reveals itself. In as pure an example of klangfarbenmelodie as one could want, Coluccino calls for each of the first four notes—all of them a G—to be played with different extended techniques, yielding a melody consisting of a sequence of changing timbres over constant pitch. As with the first Interno, so with the rest: the entire series stands as a kind of encyclopedia of extended flute techniques. These include key clicks, whistles, palate snaps, tongue rams, air pizzicato, multiphonics, harmonics and more. Coluccino draws attention to the specific characteristics of his sonorities by separating them with palpable rests; these islands of sound then function as brief meditations on sound in its qualitative dimension.

Interno sesto for contrabass flute, bass flute and electronics maintains the consistency of the preceding Interni by couching complex timbres at relatively low dynamics. The electronics serve as a kind of background curtain of undefined noise and a screen on which the flutes can project their sounds.

This music requires a technically advanced performer with an ear attuned to nuance; Coluccino is thus fortunate to have these fine works realized by the Italian flute virtuoso Roberto Fabbriciani.

http://www.kairos-music.com

Daniel Barbiero