AMN Reviews: Scott Wollschleger – Soft Aberration [New Focus FCR 182]

Composer Scott Wollschleger (b. 1980) seems most interested in creating musical effects through a deliberately-chosen economy of means. He writes largely for chamber ensembles or soloist performers, and in fact Soft Aberration, the first album dedicated to his work alone, contains compositions for solo, duo, trio and quartet.

A couple of the titles of these works—Soft Aberration, Brontal Symmetry—are likely to call up associations with New York School composers, especially Morton Feldman. Wollschleger has acknowledged the New York School and Feldman as influences and exemplary figures; like Feldman, Wollschleger favors constructing pieces out of repeating fragments of pitches, timbres, or rhythmic figures. His method for building a full-scale work out of these basic elements generally consists of creating chains of semi-independent events or moments defined by a relatively simple pattern of pitch, color, or rhythmic relationships. One moment doesn’t necessarily implicate the next; Wollschleger’s stated aim in making continuous works from discontinuous, repeating events is to encourage the listener to reflect on the sounds’ different facets–as if they had been presented from different angles.

The long piece that opens the album, 2015’s Brontal Symmetry, was commissioned by the unorthodox piano trio Longleash, who perform it here; the work is an astutely-chosen opener, as it epitomizes some of the key aspects of Wollschleger’s aesthetic. The piece lays out its fundamental musical material from the start, as it begins with a staccato, deliberately square-rhythmed three-note motif on the piano. The motif is picked up on the strings, which reproduce its phrase profile more than its exact melody; the playing then dissolves into a simulacrum of chaos—of acoustic white noise carried on the frenzied bowing of the strings. This contrast of moods sets a larger, symmetrical pattern in which the piece alternates passages defined by the simple motif with chaotic or quiet passages.

The white noise of the strings’ unpitched moments in Brontal Symmetry is developed further in —and alluded to in the title of–White Wall (2013) for string quartet.  Played with the requisite subtlety by the Mivos Quartet, White Wall’s softly bowed, muted strings and whistling harmonics—broken on occasion by plucked or bowed stabs–largely exist in an audio environment notable for its low dynamics and dispersed texture. White Wall is a piece of extraordinary sonic delicacy that serves as the understated focus of the album.

The album’s other compositions—the title track, for piano and viola; America, for solo cello; and Bring Something Incomprehensible into This World, for the unusual duo of soprano and trumpet—give more evidence of a composer who can extract the expressive maximum from minimal musical means.

http://newfocusrecordings.com

Daniel Barbiero

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AMN Reviews: Joshua Rubin – There Never Is No Light [Tundra TUN 002 CD]

For over fifty years now composers and performers have used electronics to enhance, augment, and otherwise expand the range of sounds that can be produced by a conventional acoustic instrument. There Never Is No Light, the debut recording solo by clarinetist Joshua Rubin, works within this by now well-established tradition by situating the acoustic instrument fruitfully at many points along a continuum running from music to noise.

Rubin, who plays bass clarinet as well as clarinet, is a founder and artistic director of the International Contemporary Ensemble. His skills as a curator are well-displayed in the selection of the six works on this CD, which range over thirty years and two generations of electroacoustic composers.

The disc opens auspiciously with The Soul Is the Arena (2010) for amplified bass clarinet and electronics, a work that Rubin commissioned from composer Mario Diaz de Leon and premiered at Chicago’s Velvet Lounge in November, 2010. For this sometimes boisterous duet Rubin plays the bass clarinet with a harshly distorted sound as he chases electronic shadows in a vigorous game of pursuit. Synchronisms No. 12 (2006) is another duet for reed and electronics by another Mario—Mario Davidovsky. In contrast to the manic energy of The Soul Is the Arena, Synchronisms is a more restrained, reflective soliloquy for unaltered clarinet with discreet electronic interventions. Rubin’s playing is deeply engaging, using carefully modulated dynamics and drawing on the full compass of the instrument. The earliest composition in the collection, Olly Wilson’s Echoes (1974), is a duet for tape and clarinet; in addition to its own inherent interest as an effective pairing of acoustic and prerecorded sounds, it provides historical context for the newer electroacoustic works on the CD.

Suzanne Farrin’s Ma Dentro Dove (2010) for clarinet and resonating body is one piece within the larger cycle Corpo di Terra, a collection of compositions inspired by the sonnets of the fourteenth-century Italian poet Francesco Petrarca. The title, taken from a line in Canzoniere 9, translates as “but within, where”—an apt name for a work that takes the sound of the mic’d clarinet and feeds it into the resonant interior of a piano. The rhetoric of the piece is built on a virtuoso technical vocabulary turned to expressive ends; Rubin’s performance is as affecting as it is arresting. Mexican composer Ignacio Baca Lobera’s exhilarating Salto Cuantico (2011) also calls for a virtuoso performance for a prepared clarinet that confronts electronic sounds on their own turf, as it were.

Rubin is co-composer of 2012’s Toast, a kind of aleatory work in which a synthesizer unpredictably accompanies Rubin and co-composer/pianist Cory Smythe through the rises and defiles of sonically broken ground.

http://tundrasounds.org

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Ensemble Resonanz, Elliott Sharp, Gareth Davis – “Oceanus Procellarum” [Cavity Search CSR101]

OP_CoverElliott Sharp has been a key figure in New York City’s experimental music scene for more than thirty years. He is a musician of incredible range with significant works spanning free improvisation, blues, jazz, electronic, noise, chamber, and orchestral music. Sharp’s work has been inspired by his deep interest in science and mathematics. He has developed a unique musical syntax that is informed by fractal geometry, chaos theory, algorithmic and biological processes. On “Oceanus Procellarum” Elliott Sharp teams up with Gareth Davis and the Ensemble Resonanz.

The Ensemble Resonanz is an unusual chamber orchestra based in Saint Pauli, Hamburg. The ensemble is democratically organized and makes its home at the resonanzraum – a concert space built inside of an old bunker. The resonanzraum is both unique and informal with more of a club atmosphere than that of the traditional concert hall.  The Ensemble Resonanz regularly performs monthly programs at the resonanzraum that aim to bridge the musical past with the present.

Gareth Davis is a clarinetist that primarily performs on the bass and contrabass clarinets. Like Sharp, he is a musician of incredible range and interests. Davis’s work spans the worlds of contemporary classical, to free improvisation, to rock, noise and electronica. Davis has a wonderful sound and incredible technical command of the bass clarinet. He has premiered works by Jonathan Harvey, Bernhard Lang, Peter Ablinger and Toshio Hosokawa. Davis has performed and collaborated with JACK Quartet, monster cellist Frances Marie Uitti, Merzbow and Christian Marclay.

Elliott Sharp’s “Oceanus Procellarum” is a work filled with propulsive development that is rich in rhythmic and timbral complexity. “Oceanus Procellarum” was recorded live at its UK premiere during the 2016 Huddersfield Festival. This performance was beautifully recorded and has a sound that is much larger than the chamber ensemble of twelve strings plus the two soloists. “Oceanus Procellarum” which translates to Ocean of Storms is a thirty-eight minute through composed piece in five sections with each section consisting of multiple episodes.  Sharp constructed the piece to be a kind of intersection between two moving fronts somewhat like a concerto in that it pits the two soloists – Elliott Sharp on electro-acoustic guitar and Gareth Davis on bass clarinet against the strings of the Ensemble Resonanz. The piece creates a sound world where textures build, form and transform in a kind of attraction and repulsion as the two moving fronts move into and out from each other. The composition has a raw intensity with many dramatic shifts where events can suddenly move from very intense large sound bodies to moments of reflection only to suddenly be challenged by the arrival of another moving front.

Since improvisation is at the heart of Elliott Sharp’s work it is likely that some elements of improvisation or performer choice are part of this score and this enables the soloists – Sharp and Davis, who are outstanding, to create an atmosphere of spontaneity throughout the performance. The strings are called upon to use many extended techniques including “alternate bows” constructed from various metal springs and wooden sticks. Despite what must be a challenging score to perform, the Ensemble Resonanz really brings this music to life. The timbral range produced by the entire ensemble and soloists is stunning. They effortlessly move from chaotic clouds to throbbing masses of growing clusters to ethereal almost ambient reflections to sparkling and brassy counterpoint to intense primal rhythmic unisons and eventually they end in a bed of very soft bowed white noise.

“Oceanus Procellarum” is an exciting listen. Old hands will really enjoy it and newcomers will find it a great place to start as it is absolutely one of Elliott Sharp’s best chamber works.  Highly Recommended!

Chris De Chiara

AMN Reviews: Los Angeles Percussion Quartet – Beyond [Sono Luminus DSL-92214]

More than for any other kind of ensemble, it would seem, success for a percussion ensemble depends on the deft integration of timbre and space. Percussion instruments—made of wood, metal, glass–encompass a broad spectrum of sound colors and seem to want the space, alone or in combination, to let those colors make an impression. With their vast array of standard and non-standard percussion instruments, The Los Angeles Percussion Quartet—Matt Cook, Justin DeHart, Cory Hills and Nick Terry—positively revels in timbral variety. Not only vibes, drums, marimba and glockenspiels, which they strike, bow and rub, but metal sheets; pipes and planks; struck and bowed vessels containing water; and a miscellany of objects too idiosyncratic to mention. And in the five compositions they realize in Beyond, their third album, they show a sensitivity to the way space helps define sound by clarifying structure.

Beyond is formatted as a three-disc collection—two CDs and a Blu-ray surround-sound audio disc. The highlight of CD One is Christopher Cerrone’s beautiful five-part suite Memory Palace for percussion, odd instruments, and electronics. The odd instruments include tuned metal pipes, tuned cut wood slats, wine bottles filled with different volumes of water to produce different pitches, and a restrung cheap guitar. On the face of it, these objects are little more than detritus rescued from a rubbish heap, but their effects are distinctly musical. The guitar–a somewhat surprising presence in a percussion ensemble–gives the first section its characteristic sound. The wood slats stand at the center of the second section, carrying a melody hinting at harmonic cadences; section three effortlessly folds the sound of the metal pipes into a recording of wind chimes made at Cerrone’s parents’ house. The fourth section’s rhythmic pulses played tremolando on wood provide a refracted image of the second section, while the piece concludes in an appropriately reflective atmosphere carried on the electronics’ simple I-IV-V harmonies.

The disc’s opening piece, Daníel Bjarnason’s Qui Tollis, shapes musical space through dynamics as well as sound density. Beginning with a quiet rattling of metal, the piece gradually builds with vibes before settling into a muscular rhythm underscored by bass drums which then recedes into silence. Disc One also includes composer Ellen Reid’s Fear-Release, an episodic work featuring composite timbres fusing the high resonance of metal with the hollow thump of large drums, and Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s sparely dramatic Aura, a work to be performed in the dark with three of the percussionists circling the stationary fourth.

Andrew McIntosh’s forty-minute-long I Hold the Lion’s Paw fills CD Two and is also presented in surround-sound on the Blu-ray disc. Like Aura, which programs musical space as a function of literal space, I Hold the Lion’s Paw makes the physical location of the players a factor within its compositional structure. The musicians and instruments are dispersed—ideally, they surround the audience—in such a way as to give phrases the appearance of extension in space as well as in time. Space, both aural and physical, doesn’t carve the music at the joints so much as it is the joints, binding and separating sequences of sounds and marking the beginnings and endings of small- and large-scale structural elements. The sounds themselves tend to be grouped into single timbre clusters or clusters of related timbres; a salient feature of the piece’s tonal makeup is the use of microsounds, such as are obtained from a set of aluminum pipes tuned to quarter tones, and bowls whose pitch is raised and lowered according to changes in the amount of water they contain. The end result is an uncluttered play of rhythms and colors that rewards patient listening.

http://sonoluminus.com

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Mikel Kuehn – Object/Shadow [New Focus Recordings fcr160]

The results of the musical revolution that Modernism midwived during the last century are still with us. At one time a matter of novelty, the possibilities Modernism opened up—regarding pitch relationships, the role of timbre, and musical syntax—have grown into a kind of alternative common practice whose strategies are always already available to contemporary composers.

For composer Mikel Kuehn (b. 1967), the common practice of Modernism is a notable presence animating his work. Kuehn, who is Professor of Composition at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, began as a percussionist while in his teens in the Los Angeles area. Like many composers of his generation, his background includes jazz and other musics outside of the Western classical tradition. Some of these eclectic influences can be felt in his compositions as, for example, in their instrumentation. But on Object/Shadow, the first full release dedicated to his music, Modernism, with its expansive pitch and timbral vocabularies and especially its divisionist syntax, is the central point of reference.

On the ensemble pieces Undercurrents (2013), Color Fields (2006/2008) and Between the Lynes (1994), Kuehn employs Modernist-derived strategies for handling textures and phrasing. On all three pieces, he treats the surfaces as complex, colorful mosaics made up of small, irregularly-shaped tiles, foregrounding different instruments or instrumental combinations as brief, constantly changing events. The tensions created by these fragmentary textures are complemented by unresolved dissonances and phrase endings left dangling like open and unanswered questions. Those are general observations; each of the pieces has attractions of its own. Color Fields, for example, written for and performed here by the Flexible Music quartet of tenor saxophone (Timothy Ruedeman), vibes (Haruka Fujii), guitar (Daniel Lippel) and piano (Eric Huebner), like Milton Babbitt’s All Set takes a jazz ensemble and turns it to abstract uses. Whereas All Set broke the ensemble down into constantly changing subgroups, Color Fields is notable for combining instruments into a single line of composite timbre. The contrast of staccato and sustaining voices sounding in parallel gives the piece a restless push, as do the generally long, propulsive phrases running through it. Between the Lynes for flute, cello, and piano, the oldest work represented, is also the closest in sound to a mid-20th Century, broken-surfaced serial composition. It’s a gratifying excursion into audio painting: Like pieces falling in a turning kaleidoscope, the three voices—Ensemble Dal Niente’s Emma Hospelhorn, Chris Wild, and Winston Choi–combine and divide into quick, short-lived alliances and oppositions.

Unfoldings (2004), a solo guitar work written for and played by Lippel, treats color nuances within the more restricted palette of a single instrument. The composition consists in a subdued drama built on the different timbral characteristics of open and stopped strings, harmonics, varied chord voicings, and the placement of the right hand relative to the bridge. Lippel’s sensitive and unhurried performance brings out the fine-grained shadings this subtle work calls for. Chiaroscuro (2007) also focuses on the timbres of a single instrument, but the sounds here are enhanced and multiplied by virtue of having the solo instrument—a cello—augmented by its own pre-recorded and manipulated sounds. As a result, Chiaroscuro is as bold as Unfoldings is temperate; Craig Hutgren’s robust realization foregrounds percussive strikes, microtonal clashes, and deliberately harsh bowing.

A fine and stimulating collection of music.

http://www.newfocusrecordings.com

Daniel Barbiero

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.

http://www.newfocusrecordings.com

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Thomas DeLio – Selected Compositions II 1972-2015 [Neuma 450-116]

Selected Compositions II is the second installment in Neuma’s Composers Series of works by composer Thomas DeLio (1951). As with the first installment, Selected Compositions II contains compositions for solo instruments and small ensembles, some for electronics, and one relatively large-scale work for soprano and orchestra. DeLio, who has a background in mathematics and visual art as well as in music, frequently works with disjunctive forms and an expanded palette of sound; the pieces presented here are representative of the composer’s aesthetic on both counts. He also creates what he calls “deconstructions”—electronically manipulated recordings of previous performances of his work, one of which is included in the set.

DeLio’s rhetoric of discontinuity and rupture is particularly on display in two versions of inents (2015), an electronically-processed setting of P. Inman’s poem aengus for six voices. Inman’s fragmentary text lends itself well to DeLio’s treatment, which proceeds over a broken surface of silences, electronic sounds, and spoken words. The brief – en/l’espace de…(2007) for soprano and orchestra draws a minimum of sound from a maximal surrounding of silence; the pleasure of the piece consists in its paradoxical leveraging of the greatest instrumental resources to produce a microeconomy of sound.

The deconstruction included here is thoughtfully juxtaposed with the performance it takes as its source. The source, 1990’s anti-paysage for flute, piano, percussion and electronics, anchors isolated sound events in an ocean of silence; its deconstruction, anti-paysage II (2013), reduces the original recording’s already reduced surfaces to a glittering, second-order abstraction.

http://www.neuma-music.com/neuma_home.htm

Daniel Barbiero