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

AMN Reviews: David Dunn – Verdant (2021; Neuma 129)

David Dunn’s works reflect his interests and research in acoustic ecology, bioacoustics, interspecies communication and scientific sonification.  These interests has enabled him to truly be an interdisciplinary artist. Dunn has produced a very unique body of work that blurs the line between art and science.

David Dunn’s latest piece is “Verdant” which he describes as a kind of pastoral motivated by his desire to speak to a more optimistic future. The material of “Verdant” is an intersection of ambient music, new tonality, minimalism, algorithmic composition, software synthesis, field recording, sound art, and drone music. It is a binaural piece in a single movement of about eighty minutes in length. “Verdant” was composed and recorded during the pandemic. The quietness caused by the pandemic allowed Dunn who is an expert wildlife recordist to capture some of the extremely low volume sounds of the desert. This microscopic desert audio soundscape is intertwined with slowly changing drones of sinewaves that float along with the ambient sounds of windchimes, sustained violin sounds, backyard birds and distant traffic to create a deep and wide imaginary soundscape.

 

“Verdant” is a wonderful active ambient pastoral. Since it is a binaural recording, it is best experienced with headphones or ear buds. My first listen was at a very moderate volume level and while I found the piece really interesting on the next several passes, I listened to it at a soft to very soft volume and then found it to be really captivating. So, I would highly recommend listening to this at a softer volume and really give it a deep listen. I think most if not all regular AMN readers will find this a very engaging and relaxing listen.

For those who want to explore more of Dunn’s work I would recommend starting with an excellent article by Madison Heying and David Kant from the Sound American issue dedicated to Dunn’s work. Dunn’s website also provides a detailed retrospective of the last thirty years of his work with a collection of his scores, writings, sounds and images.

Highly recommended!

Chris De Chiara

AMN Reviews: Tim Brady – Actions Speak Louder [Redshift Records]

Actions Speak Louder is an ambitious, three-CD set from Canadian composer Tim Brady that encompasses both older pieces reworked anew, and more recent compositions. Essential to Brady’s musical practice is his work as a solo electric guitarist as well as a composer for whom the recording studio is an instrument as well as a workspace; Actions Speak Louder represents both halves to good effect.

Disc One, Solos and a Quartet, is centered on Brady’s solo guitar work. The three-movement Simple Loops in Complex Time is very much marked by the electric guitar’s native sound, and has Brady stretching repeating patterns across changing time signatures. The four-movement The Virtuosity of Time inclines toward more purely electronic sound masses. It has a darker, more portentous and elongated character than Simple Loops, and yet in the overall context of the disc seems to extend rather than refute the sonic atmosphere of Simple Loops. The final piece on the disc is Uncertain Impact for guitar quartet, a vigorously hammered out work featuring complex rhythmic counterpoint, here performed by Instruments of Happiness (Brady along with Jonathan Barriault, Simone Duchesne, and Francis Burnet-Turcotte).

The second disc, and the highlight of the collection, contains Brady’s four-movement Triple Concerto: Because Everything Has Changed for electric guitar, violin (played by Helmut Lipsky), tabla and percussion (Shawn Mativetsky) and virtual orchestra. The latter frames and supports the soloists with swells of sound thanks to Brady’s masterful manipulation of dynamics and densities to create a dramatic backdrop for the three soloists’ improvisations. All three play with a sense of urgency, compressed energy and stamina appropriate to the emotional tensions expanding and contracting over the work’s forty-minute running time. It’s an exciting piece that represents one extremely fruitful way of composing a contemporary concerto with a modern sensibility, employing modern means.

The third and final disc contains two archival recordings which Brady re-presents through remastering or additional studio production. The earlier of the two consists of settings of six poems conveying the personal upheavals and emotional turbulence that accompany political revolutions, performed by soprano Nathalie Poulin and Brady’s Bradyworks ensemble of saxophones, piano, cello, percussion and electric guitar. The second piece combines samples of a documentary interview along with chorus, guitar and percussion in a concept work about destructive, covert drug experiments carried out by the CIA in Montreal in the 1960s.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Harry Partch – The Bewitched (2021; Neuma 126) and U.S. Highball (2021; Neuma)

Many contemporary composers have been described as iconoclasts but few really are the rugged individualists they are often portrayed as being. Harry Partch(1901 – 1974) may be one of the rare exceptions. Influenced by his study and interpretation of ancient musical models, Partch decided to firmly break with the European musical tradition. He devised his own tuning system with a microtonal division of the octave into forty three notes and then designed and built a whole series of instruments to utilize his tuning. His music was influenced by ancient music, folk traditions from around the world and the dramatic inflections and gesturing of the human voice. His music does not have that “out of tune” quality that many often experience with microtonal music. This is largely due to Partch’s music being primarily based on rhythmic and melodic gestures rather than chord progressions surrounding a melody. Partch’s work was not just about his tuning system and his instruments, it was about his re-imagining of music itself.

Harry Partch commented that his work was like ancient ritual but in modern terms. He often used the word corporeal to describe his work and I have to admit that even after several decades of listening to his music that I didn’t really appreciate what that meant. It wasn’t until I watched a DVD of a performance of his piece “Delusion of Fury” that my appreciation of his work really started to click. For Partch, like many non-European cultures every aspect of the physical performance of his music was as important as the sonic result. I would recommend that readers take advantage of things like Vimeo and YouTube to see, as well as hear live staged performances of his work.

Partch wrote “The Bewitched”in the early 1950’s. He described it as a ballet satire. The piece has only been produced a few times. It is ten scenes based on everyday American life plus a prologue and epilogue. The story revolves around the idea that the world needs a serious dose of reality and that a witch goes around and appears in each of the scenes using her ancient magic to deliver a much needed bit of self-awareness to each of these everyday situations.

This recording of “The Bewitched” is a binaural recording from 1980 at the Berlin Festival. For full effect use your headphones or ear buds to get a sense of what it must have been like to be sitting in the audience for this performance.  As you can see from the video clip from this performance, the ensemble, the soloists and the dancers are all together on the same stage, all completely engaged in Partch’s ritual. And as you can hear the ensemble gave quite a spirited performance!

In addition to releasing “The Bewitched” Nuema has re-released a very rare recording of Partch’s “U.S. Highball”.  It is a work from 1943 and is the story of a transcontinental hobo trip set in Partch’s unique speech music style. It’s a story Partch knew well, as he lived the hobo lifestyle for many years. This recording of “U.S. Highball” is from 1946 and was originally released by Partch on his own label in an edition of 100 records on red vinyl. It’s a really interesting performance and a rare glimpse into one of Partch’s earliest works.  Both recordings are highly recommended !

Chris De Chiara