AMN Reviews: Monica Pearce – Textile Fantasies [Centrediscs CMCCD 30322]

Textile Fantasies, composer Monica Pearce’s debut monograph recording, is aptly titled. Textures of various densities and timbral combinations, rather than more conventional melodies, dominate the sound of much of the music, which is largely scored for percussion instruments of various kinds.

The opening composition, toile de jouy for solo harpsichord, shows Pearce putting the ancient instrument to an unorthodox and decidedly modern use. Its delicate, staccato sound is conventionally associated with contrapuntal music, but here Pearce scores it to generate rough-hewn, opaque blocks of fortissimo dissonances. The piano and percussion duet leather, a heavily rhythmic work, similarly creates an almost unpitched-sounding lower register rumble with the piano, which Pearce sets into contrast with the bright timbres of gongs and other metal percussion. Velvet, for percussion ensemble, takes cascades of notes and repeated motifs on mallet percussion and places them against a background hum of thickening and thinning density. Perhaps the most novel combination of instrumental voices occurs in damask for tamboura, tabla, and toy piano.

Textile Fantasies also includes chain maille for percussion ensemble; houndstooth and silks, both for solo piano; and denim for two percussionists and two toy pianos.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Andrew McIntosh & Yarn/Wire – Little Jimmy [Kairos 0022000KAI]

Little Jimmy is a backpacker’s campground in the Angeles National Forest; it also is a place in which Los Angeles composer Andrew McIntosh made field recordings during a visit in 2019. The recordings—of trees and birds—play a role in two of the six movements of Little Jimmy, a work for two pianists and two percussionists composed in 2020 for the quartet Yarn/Wire, one of contemporary music’s most exciting chamber ensembles.

Little Jimmy is an atmospheric work in which evocative sounds rather than melodies or harmonic patterns provide the binding thematic material. The brief first movement provides an opening flourish of repeated, upper-register figures passed between the two pianos. McIntosh’s field recordings come into play in the sparse second movement, largely made up of subdued, quasi-electronic sounds interspersed with piano interventions suggestive of birdsongs. Movement three is a variation on the first movement, followed by a long fourth movement centered on a tamboura-like, overtone-rich drone played on bowed piano strings which surges over and under subtle washes of tuned percussion. The slow call-and-response between the pianos and tuned and untuned percussion of the penultimate movement sets up the conclusion, a somber movement framed by field recordings. This final movement retrospectively recasts the entire piece as an elegy for Little Jimmy, which shortly after McIntosh’s visit was devastated by a fire.

Little Jimmy is accompanied by two shorter works for solo instrumentalists. I Have a Lot to Learn (2019), performed by pianist Laura Barger, consists of an austere series of chord stabs allowed to decay at length into the surrounding space, while 2021’s Learning, commissioned and performed by percussionist Russell Greenberg, is a contemplative piece for vibraphone, glockenspiel, and sine tones.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Fabrice Villard & Pierre-Stéphane Meugé – Musique Logique [Nunc]

Over the course of several decades, composer Tom Johnson has developed a style of composition based on rigorous forms derived from numbers games of various kinds. His Rational Melodies of 1982, a set of twenty-one pieces constructed of logical permutations of minimal pitch sets, exemplified the style. It also served as the inspiration for composer Fabrice Villard’s 25 pièces pour saxophone seul, performed by Stéphane Meugé on soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones. The inspiration was more than academic; as part of the Dedalus ensemble both Villard, who is a clarinetist as well as a composer, and Meugé, participated in the New World Records performance of Rational Melodies.

One of the qualities Johnson was striving toward with the Rational Melodies was a certain structural transparency. Both the pitch sets and their systematic variations were presented in such a way as to be audible in a manner that, for example, serial composition’s pitch sets and their transformations often are not. Such structural audibility also is a feature of Villard’s twenty-five pieces, which Meugé plays with the clarity they demand. Essentially a set of combinatorial variations on limited and well-defined pitch sets, they develop with an almost Baroque inevitability. Although the music is logically organized, listening to it isn’t necessarily an analytical experience; one can often just feel or sense the pieces’ systematic structures through their regular rhythms and simplicity of phrasing. Villard’s decision to realize his elaborate compositional formulas as arpeggiations played solo on a monophonic instrument goes far toward making them intuitively accessible.

In addition to the twenty-five pieces for solo saxophone, Musique Logique includes four similarly mathematically-derived compositions for two, three, and four saxophones, as well as alternate takes of five of the twenty-five solo works.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Marti Epstein – Nebraska Impromptu [New Focus Recordings fcr324]

Composer Marti Epstein’s Nebraska Impromptu is a collection of works highlighting her writing for small ensembles featuring clarinet, played here by Rane Moore. The pieces on the album span 2001-2017; although each has its own individual sound, all share a consistent aesthetic based on the unhurried deployment of mostly quiet, discretely bounded events made up of tightly aggregated instrumental colors.

Oil and Sugar (2016), for piano, clarinet, flute, and violin is exemplary. The piece’s basic elements consist of a series of brief motifs within a restricted range of harmonic movement; Epstein intertwines them among the four voices in a way that dramatizes to good effect the timbral differences of the similarly compassed winds and strings. By relying solely on clarinet, oboe, and violin, Komorebi (2017) displays this effect even further. The title track, 2012’s Nebraska Impromptu for piano and clarinet, plays with contrasts of range rather than color, as the clarinet takes the role of middle voice in between the piano’s upper and lower registers. Liquid, Fragile (2010) for clarinet, violin, viola, and cello is a broken-textured piece that uses long silences as structural supports dividing gently drifting sonic events. The earliest and longest work represented, the twenty-seven-and-a-half minute-long See Even Night from 2001, is a subtly subtractive piece for clarinet, viola, and piano that begins with a relatively dense polyphony of short, repeating, overlapping motifs and then gradually develops through a simplification of lines and opening up of overall textures.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Christopher Trapani – Horizontal Drift [New Focus Recordings fcr296]

For the six works on his album Horizontal Drift, composer Christopher Trapani chose an unusual array of instruments capable of producing a soundworld of microtones and extended timbres.

The album opens with a piece for Romanian horn-violin (played by Maximilian Haft), a violin with a metal resonator, and horn used for amplification. Its sound is tinny and thin, like an early 20th-century recording of a violin. Trapani’s writing for it consists of contemporary gestures, but even with the electronics that augment the instrument’s naturally unnatural voice, the piece conserves an echo of the folk milieu in which the horn-violin is usually encountered. Bookending the album is a second piece for bowed string instrument—Tesserae, written for the viola d’amore, a Baroque-era viola notable for its array of sympathetic strings. Trapani eschews an obvious, quasi-Baroque sound for a melody that incorporates gliding ornaments reminiscent of Hindustani vocal music. It’s sensitively played by Marco Fusi.

Three pieces were composed for unconventionally tuned instruments. Linear A, named for the still-undeciphered ancient Minoan script and performed by Amy Advocat, is for clarinet tuned to the 13-step Bohlen-Pierce scale, and live loops—a mechanism that sets in motion a swooping counterpoint of self-replicating melody. The tryptich Lost Time, for scordatura piano (played by Marilyn Nonken) is a kind of dialogue between Bob Dylan, whose lyrics provide the movements’ subtitles and hence emotional overtones, and spectralist composer Gerard Grisey, whose idea of the varieties of subjective ways of experiencing time in music set the agenda for the textural loading of each individual movement. Forty-Nine, Forty-Nine, for player organ tuned to a 31-step scale, keeps itself just this side of total harmonic chaos. For the title track, featuring guitarist Daniel Lippel on quarter-tone guitar, Trapani creates an intricately spatialized, electronically augmented sonic atmosphere built up of delayed and overlaid single-notes and harmonic fragments, which give the piece an undulating and beautifully unsettling, harp-like quality.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Cyril Bondi-D’Incise & Blutwurst Ensemble – Zgodność [Insub]

The Blutwurst Ensemble, a seven piece chamber group from Florence, Italy, comprising trumpet, bass clarinet, accordion, harmonium, viola, cello, and double bass. Zgodność is a single, forty-five minute-long piece composed by Cyril Bondi and D’Incise for the group; the composers, who work together as an electroacoustic duo under the name Diatribes, also provided a background tape. The present composition is one of nuance, consisting of a slowly developing essay in harmonic drift and timbral fusion that unfolds through gestural repetition and an incremental rearrangement of tones. The first half consists of long tones accented by stabs of pizzicato strings and tuned metal percussion, punctuated by silences; the tones drift in and out of harmonies that can take the form of simple and restful major triads or more suspenseful, brooding chords darkened by the prominent movement of double bass and bass clarinet. Following an extended silence about halfway through, the piece moves into a phase of long, drifting tonal masses and denser textures that begin as a tense, discordant drone and through incremental harmonic and dynamic shifts, and a turn toward more articulated phrasing, gradually grow more and then less concordant.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Kate Soper & Sam Pluta: The Understanding of All Things [New Focus Recordings FCR322]

Kate Soper and Sam Pluta’s The Understanding of All Things is something of a scaled-down version of Soper’s Ipsa Dixit of 2018. The latter was a two-disc set presenting Soper’s six-movement work of music, text, and theater for soprano, flute, percussion, and violin; this new release is a five-part suite consisting of three through-composed works for voice, piano, and electronics, and two improvised interludes for voice, piano, and electronics that she shares with Pluta. As she did with Ipsa Dixit, Soper chooses an eclectic set of texts to put to music or to narrate. The authors range from the Eleatic philosopher Parmenides to Irish philosopher George Berkeley to William Butler Yeats, Franz Kafka, and Soper’s teacher, composer Fred Lehrdahl. Supplementing the texts are Soper’s introductions and commentaries. The material’s eclecticism isn’t just a matter of the individual texts chosen but also of their settings; for example, on the long central piece Soper juxtaposes the surviving fragments of Parmenides’ poem with a poem by Yeats that she arranges as a sentimental song for voice and piano. Soper has a beautiful, crystalline voice whether speaking or singing or even being processed into fragments as it is on the opening track or on the first dialogue with Pluta; Pluta’s interventions are managed with a sensitivity that brings out the instrumental qualities of Soper’s voice while maintaining a keenly intelligent sense of structure.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: John Aylward/Klangforum Wien – Celestial Forms & Stories [New Focus Recordings FCR320]

Few products of the imagination have had the endurance of the mythological figures of the classical Mediterranean world. Whether as archetypes, allegorical figures, proxies for natural forces, or just examples of behavior not to emulate, the gods, heroes, and anti-heroes of the Greek world have gone through many metamorphoses and shifts in significance, but through it all they have been kept alive through a centuries-long tradition of commentary, interpretation, reinterpretation, and misinterpretation. With his musical cycle Celestial Forms and Stories, composer John Aylward makes his own contribution to the tradition via Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Italo Calvino’s analyses of Ovid’s narrative style.

What Aylward was most interested in was the structure of Ovid’s work as Calvino described it—a set of simple elements undergoing combinations and transformations—and crafted a suite of five movements based on that principle. The suite is realized here in a series of excellent performances by members of Klangforum Wien in various combinations.

The opening movement is Daedalus (2016) for a quartet of flute, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin and cello. Daedalus casts its elements as melodic fragments distributed among the four instruments, often taking the form of a single line passing through a spectrum of instrumental colors. Aylward handles unpitched timbral effects in a similar manner, juxtaposing air notes, pops, and snap pizzicato to create coherent aggregates. Mercury (2014) follows with the same instrumentation and hence covers similar timbral territory. Its sound is skittering and driven by underlying trills and glissandi; its arrangement is as a coincidence of soloists, with each instrument pursuing independent lines ultimately tied together by overlapping dynamics. Ephemera, also from 2014, is for the duo of cello and bass clarinet. It continues and expands on the atmosphere created by Mercury, employing some of the same gestures while exploiting the dramatic effects facilitated by the timbral differences of these two instruments of close compass. Despite the minimal instrumentation, the piece has a full, almost lush, sound. Narcissus (2018) is for a seven-piece ensemble of flutes, oboe, clarinet/bass clarinet, string trio of violin, viola, and cello and percussion. Appropriately enough, the piece creates a sonic mirror effect with repeated and varied lines reflected back and forth among the instruments. The tuned percussion add a nice anchoring presence to the winds and strings. The last movement is Ananke (2019), named for the goddess of necessity—the most powerful figure in Greek mythology. Aylward scores the piece with the same instrumentation as Narcissus, but with piano substituting for percussion and playing a key role in driving the music. Ananke is urgent, forceful, insistent, and altogether compelling—like its namesake.

Celestial Forms and Stories follows Angelus Novus, Aylward’s 2020 album for voice and chamber ensemble. Like Angelus Novus, Celestial Forms is an ambitious work that aims for thematic and structural coherence and like Angelus Novus, it succeeds—and in doing so embodies the ancient Greek quality of arete: “excellence.”

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Marc Yeats – Solo and Ensemble Music Volume 1 [Bandcamp]

Composer Marc Yeats describes his work as consisting in “time-code supported, polytemporal music.” It’s a complex, systematic kind of composition in which individual performers play independently of each other, each having been assigned his or her own tempo and given scores whose measures are divided into clock-time durations, all of which is coordinated by the individual performers’ digital stopwatches. The effect of this temporal asymmetry generally is a set of rapidly changing juxtapositions and overlaps of line and instrumental color. Solo and Ensemble Music Volume 1 collects six of Yeats’ compositions for ensembles of varying sizes, effectively demonstrating the diversity of sounds his method can generate.

The color contrasts made possible by Yeats’ system comes out particularly powerfully in the larger ensemble pieces. On The Unimportance of Events (2020) for a large, mixed chamber ensemble, Cutouts for Ensemble (2019) and 2019’s Liquid Music for Ensemble, which features clarinetist Gleb Kanasevich and an ensemble of oboe, harp, string quartet and percussion, brightly timbred voices weave in and out of a multihued, aural skein. Comforted by a Static Bond (2021), a duet for alto quarter tone flutes played by Carla Rees and Karin de Fleyt, is a more reserved, contrapuntal affair in grisaille. Although Yeats states that the piece, despite its title, wasn’t intended as programmatic, the sparseness of the duet format, underscored by the fact that both instruments speak with the same airy voice, lends it a consoling warmth. By contrast, Streaming (2014) for solo quarter tone and open holed flute, commissioned by flutist Carlton Vickers who realizes it here, exploits the instrument’s more aggressive, plosive side. Obscure Sorrows for Bb clarinet and violin—performed by Kanesevich and Daniele Colombo—sets violin glissandi and tremolo bowing against chromatic, register-leaping lines on clarinet.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Yarn/Wire – Tonband [Wergo Records 73982]; Becoming Air/Into the Vanishing Point [Black Truffle Records BT080]

The superb contemporary music ensemble Yarn/Wire—percussionists Ian Antonio and Russell Greenberg, and pianist/keyboardists Ning Yu and Laura Berger—is known as much for its willingness to transgress the limits of musical convention as it is for its performance prowess. Both qualities are on display with a pair of simultaneously released albums of very different kinds of new music, one of fully notated compositions within an expansive notion of modern small ensemble chamber music, and the other an unnotated exploration of extended techniques and unconventional instrumentation.

The album of traditionally notated work is Tonband, a set containing one composition each by German composer Enno Poppe and Swiss composer Wolfgang Heiniger, and one composition by both together. The first composition on the album, Poppe’s knottily acoustic, two-movement Feld (2007/2017), has the most conventionally Modern sound of the three. This is particularly true of the second movement, an expanding field of sound developed out of dissonant piano stabs and accumulating fragmentary rhythmic cells underscored by snare drum. The centerpiece is the title work, Poppe and Heiniger’s collaboration from 2008/2012. Tonband is an absorbing thirty-minute-long, two-movement electroacoustic composition involving a complex system of live electronics in which signals from contact-mic’d percussion are fed to the pianists, here playing electronic keyboards, who manipulate pitches and timbres and fabricate melodies shaped by the percussionists’ sounds and gestures. As might be expected, the result is a soundworld that stretches the timbral imagination, but even during the more extreme passages of sonic distortion, the percussionists’ gestures are still discernible beneath the clangorous surface. Heiniger’s Neumond (2018) at an economical nine minutes long is the shortest composition on the album; it is also the most “electronic”-sounding of the three. Both pianists play MIDI keyboards while the percussionists, in addition to playing a battery of wood, membrane, and metal instruments, sing wordlessly along.

Into the Vanishing Point, a 2019 work by composer Annea Lockwood, is the Yarn/Wire track on the album Becoming Air/Into the Vanishing Point. A very different proposition from the work on Tonband. the piece is the result of a collaborative process in which Lockwood set out a general structure and then, through playing, listening and discussing, the ensemble together with the composer shaped the sonic details. And these details make for a sound that is very sparse indeed. Through a combination of unconventional instruments and conventional instruments unconventionally played, Yarn/Wire create a porous texture of largely unpitched sounds that, as the title has it, are poised just at the point of vanishing. The other composition on Becoming Air/Into the Vanishing Point is Becoming Air (2018), a technically demanding solo work for trumpeter Nate Wooley.

Daniel Barbiero