AMN Reviews: James Tenney / Scordatura Ensemble – Harmonium [New World Records 80803-2]

Our perceptual responses to the world around us are sensual in two meanings of the word—both sensory and evoking aesthetic enjoyment. Through their focus on the processes and artifacts of aural perception, much of the work of composer James Tenney (1934-2006) pivoted between both kinds of sensuality. Tenney liked to say that he handled form not as a vehicle for a quasi-narrative arc, but instead as an object of perception—something of interest in its own right. And the pieces on this recording are indeed consistent with that description.

One of Tenney’s interests was in the range of consonances and dissonances contained within the spectrum of the harmonic series. Tenney’s work with the harmonic series, which represented a kind of North American spectralism independent of the spectralism developed in Europe, was aimed toward focusing attention on, and deriving independent pleasure from, these basic sound materials underlying more complex musical forms. This is apparent in For Twelve Strings (rising) of 1971, which is based on the tension between the consonant relationships among the lower harmonics and the more dissonant relationships that arise the higher up the series one reaches. The piece, scored for four violins, four violas, two cellos and two double basses, consists of simultaneous and constantly rising glissandi across registers, sounding like a looped siren or a Moebius strip of sliding tones.

Tenney’s interest in pitch combinations producing acoustic beating phenomena is represented by Two Koans and a Canon (1982), a three-movement work for solo viola, played by Elizabeth Smalt, and tape delay. The first movement, essentially an adaptation of Tenney’s 1971 solo double bass piece The Beast (a title some of us may prefer to read as an anagram on “beats” rather than a commentary on the nature of the instrument), plays out as a gradual, microtonal divergence and convergence of pitches relative to a constant pitch. This produces a beating effect that changes with changes in the distances between pitches. The tape delay comes in at the third movement, a canon that begins with the viola’s open C string and develops through a process of stacking harmonics along ascending and descending paths. (The koan for this canon might well be, “What is the sound of one pitch unraveling?”)

A tape delay system is also deployed in 1984’s Voice(s), realized here by a small ensemble of voice, recorder, clarinet, viola, keyboard, trombone and cello. The piece is largely concerned with textural organization as it thickens and thins and plays off of the perception of different pitches appearing to fuse and separate.

Harmonium, which also includes the compositions Harmonium (1976) and Blues for Annie (1975), is an excellent point of entry into the world of this important composer.

http://www.newworldrecords.org

Daniel Barbiero

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AMN Reviews: Vigeland / Füting / Lippel / Popham – “…through which the past shines…” [New Focus FCR204P]

This fine recording collects new and recent works for guitar by American composer Nils Vigeland (b. 1950) and composer Reiko Füting (1970), who was born in what was then East Germany and has since resided in America and South Korea. Vigeland, who studied with Lukas Foss and Morton Feldman, is also a pianist and appears here as such on the title track along with cellist John Popham. The guitarist on all pieces is Daniel Lippel, a major voice in interpreting contemporary composed music.

Vigeland’s Two Variations (1992) for solo guitar bookends the album—one to open and one to close. Vigeland wrote the piece with the intention of wringing as much resonance as possible from the acoustic nylon-string guitar, an instrument of relatively short sustain; he does that with an onrush of single notes and arpeggios overlapping in time. With a turn to a more lyrical sound, his Quodlibet (2011) for guitar and cello is a three-part suite that alludes, largely quite obliquely, to The Beatles’ Hey Jude and Good Day Sunshine. Little is recognizable of the songs outside of some phrases on guitar that seem to mimic the prosody of some of the lyrics, but the piece stands independently as song, once removed.

Vigeland’s major work here is the nearly twenty-two minute-long “…through which the past shines…” of 2017, named for a line from Nabokov’s novel Transparent Things. The piece, which alternates between pointillistic fragments and contrapuntal lines, seems to capture the irregular rhythms of the emotions that accompany recollection, in particular the cycles of agitation and reflection that supervene on the coalescence and dissolution of specific memories. The writing is especially effective in the color tensions it produces through the separation and combination of instrumental voices.

Füting’s three contributions include two original compositions for solo guitar—the energetic, perpetual motion of wand-uhr (2013/2016) and Red Wall (2006), along with his 2009 arrangement of the traditional Jewish hymn Hine ma Tov. Red Wall is the most intriguing of the three; it abandons linear development in favor of an irregular sequence of juxtaposed, non-contingent events which draw out a rich, if subtle, range of colors from the guitar. Lippel’s performance is particularly compelling as he makes explicit the timbral implications of Füting’s stable and unstable chords, harmonics, single note runs and trills, volatile dynamics, and leaps of register. Here as everywhere else on the recording, Lippel plays with a characteristically pristine tone and precise voicings.

http://newfocusrecordings.com

Daniel Barbiero

 

AMN Reviews: Quatuor Bozzini / Gyula Csapó – Déjà? Kojâ? [Actuelle CQB 1821]

The title of this three-part work by Hungarian-Canadian composer Gyula Csapó–French and Persian for “Already? Where to?”—seems an appropriate epigraph for someone whose itinerary brought him from Budapest to Saskatchewan, via Paris and Buffalo and points in between.

Csapó completed studies in composition and music theory at the Béla Bartók Conservatory and the List Ferenc Academy of Music in Budapest before going to Paris to study computer music and acoustics at IRCAM. In the 1980s, he came to the US to study with Morton Feldman, a composer whose work proved to be a significant influence. In the early 1990s, he moved to Canada and, after a period teaching composition at Princeton University, settled in Saskatoon, where he currently teaches composition and music theory.

In its scale and general profile, Déjà? Kojâ? takes some of Feldman’s approaches to arranging sounds and develops them in a way that is Csapó’s own. The work, composed between 2011 and 2016, is structured as a triptych of three roughly equal lengths. The sounds move slowly, as if there were carried along on tectonic plates approaching, receding, and grinding together in a sometimes overt, sometimes more submerged, dissonant fluctuation. Texture here is architecture, as Csapó layers sound masses into striated blocks whose fault lines divide the higher and lower registers. The differentiation of voices rather than classic counterpoint really does seem to be the structural key to this sometimes darkly opaque work; throughout it, the Quatuor Bozzini maintain a clarity of individual articulation, even in the densest passages.

http://www.actuellecd.com

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Olivia De Prato – Streya [New Focus FCR193]

Streya is the debut solo album of Austro-Italian violinist Olivia De Prato, now resident in New York. De Prato specializes in contemporary composed music as well as improvisation; in addition, she is co-founder of the Mivos Quartet, a chamber ensemble that also specializes in performing contemporary work. For Streya, she has assembled six new pieces for violin alone or with electronics, four of which were written specifically for her.

One of the four is Streya. The piece was originally composed in 2010 for De Prato by Victor Lowrie, the Mivos Quartet’s violist; the version recorded here was expanded in 2016 for the recording. Although it draws—moderately—on modern techniques of juxtaposition and disruption, Streya retains a lyrical continuity underscored by a dramatic use of dynamics. De Prato’s interpretation vivdly brings out the piece’s sense of proportion and balance. Ned Rothenberg’s Percorso insolito (“extraordinary path”) of 2016, which like Streya is a kind of contemporary counterpart to the Baroque solo violin sonata, is a cleanly played, linear piece that ranges up and down the instrument’s compass. Taylor Brook’s Wane (2016) also exploits the violin’s range, but in a different way. The multitracked piece builds layers out of five violin parts, each with a different tuning. The composite sound is of rising and falling glissandi embellished by imploring, vocal-like ornaments. Missy Mazzoli’s 2014 Vespers for Violin also uses recorded material, this time samples from the performance of her Vespers for a New Dark Age, as a sonic scrim against which De Prato projects her own part. This atmospheric piece features some of the rich, enveloping timbres of electronic ambient music and provides a lush contrast to the more austere works that precede it.

Streya also includes Samson Young’s electroacoustic Ageha.Tokyo (2008), and Reiko Füting’s Tanz.Tanz (2010) for solo violin.

http://newfocusrecordings.com

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Eric Wubbels – being-time [Carrier037]

Composer Eric Wubbels’ being-time (2013-2017), a work for string quartet and quadrophonic electronic sound, is an essay in the effects of tuning on the experience of sound and through it, time. The piece was commissioned by Chamber Music of America for the Mivos Quartet, who premiered it in November 2015 at the Roulette in Brooklyn and who perform it on this recording.

Wubbels, who is a pianist and co-director of the new music ensemble Wet Ink as well as a composer, conceived the piece as a kind of investigation into how the resonances of detuned string instruments interact with the environment and the listener’s perceptions of pitch and rhythm and ultimately, time. Although Wubbels’ preparation for writing the piece included research into the physics and psychology of sound, being-time seems intended to be more the product of imaginative speculation rather than a proper scientific experiment.

The piece calls for a scordatura in which the instruments are tuned down to low pitches whose microtonal relationships create dissonances of varying degrees as well as consonances. The fluid movement back and forth between and within dissonances and consonances gives the piece its distinctive sound.

Although music like this probably has to be heard live to get the full effect, the recording does give a sense of its sound and structure. Overall, being-time creates the impression of an archipelago of microtonal chords separated by silences and electronic events. Most of the movement is carried by the incremental drift of the chords’ inner voices, which subtly changes their color. Although the piece features a range of dynamics, this seems a secondary factor relative to the ongoing recalibration of the harmonies. As with many long-duration works that use silence as a structural element, being-time delays and expands the listener’s sense of anticipation to reveal time for one of the things it is—an unmarked ground for music, a figuratively blank canvas on which sounds are arranged in dynamic relationships.

http://carrierrecords.com

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Scott Worthington – Orbit [IIKKI 005]

These three pieces by Los Angeles-based double bassist/composer Scott Worthington represent one half of a collaboration with Italian photographer Renato D’Agustin. The other half is D’Agustin’s book of photographs. While each half complements the other, each also provides a gratifying experience by itself and on its own terms, as Worthington’s contribution ably demonstrates.

Worthington’s three compositions can be listened to separately, but together they create a consistency of mood and dynamic that makes them best heard as an interlocking triptych. The first of the three pieces, A Time That Is also a Place (2015) for flute and electronics, was commissioned by flutist Rachel Beetz, who performs it here. Structured as a series of long tones on flute alternating with silences, the piece is a meditation on breath as a marker of time. Both the tones and silences are given the duration of a breath—a necessarily inexact but very human metronome. The tonal richness of Beetz’s interpretation is supplemented by an electronic playback system, which gives unintrusive support to the flute by supplying ghostly echoes and a quite surf of static. There follows a brief electronic interlude that builds and thickens some of the timbres set out in the first piece, and serves as a hinge joining it to the concluding piece. This latter is the dreamily paced A Flame that Could Go Out (2016) for two five-string electric basses, a sequence of slow and seemingly randomly-ordered chord tones that imply a hesitant movement between tonic and dominant. As with Worthington’s other two pieces, it weaves minimal raw material into something hauntingly beautiful.

http://iikki.bandcamp.com

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Gregory Oakes – Aesthetic Apparatus [New Focus FCR196]

Some of the most challenging music of recent years—challenging to play as well as to listen to—has been written by German composer Helmut Lachenmann (b. 1935). The conceptual core of much of his music has consisted in laying bare the conditions underlying and assumed by music production—essentially, the physical prerequisites of performance practice, as well as the determinations, both accepted and rejected, of genre. For Lachenmann, musical sound is a complex of factors reaching back within the tradition or genre in relation to which it is created, and reaching forward into the moment—the physical situation of specific possibilities and the choices they elicit—in which it is actually produced. Thus the title of his book of writings, which translates as “music as existential experience.” This standpoint puts extraordinary demands on the performer, who must be familiar with all the aspects and resources his or her instrument has to offer. With Aesthetic Apparatus, a set of three Lachenmann compositions, clarinetist Gregory Oakes takes up the challenge.

Oakes, who is principal clarinetist for the Des Moines Symphony Orchestra as well as an assistant professor of clarinet at Iowa State University in Ames, is particularly interested in contemporary art music. Much of his repertoire is the product of collaboration with currently active composers, and he seems especially drawn to new music that assumes a broad notion of what kinds of sounds are permissible in the concert hall. Thus Lachenmann’s music is a natural fit for him.

The affinity between Oakes and Lachenmann’s sound world is immediately apparent with the first piece, 1970’s Dal Niente (Interieur III) for solo clarinet. The composition calls for a number of extended techniques for the instrument, many of which involve the sounds of breath on the borderline of silence. In his liner note, Oakes points out that the title of the piece derives from a musical marking that translates as “from nothing;” his performance accordingly pivots on the flux of sounds proceeding from and returning to nothing. The Trio Fluido for clarinet, viola and percussion of 1966, in which Oakes is joined by violist Jonathan Sturm and Matthew Coley on marimba, also centers on sound but in a more assertive way. The piece begins with a fragmented Modernist counterpoint that, through a kind of compositional auto-deconstruction, gradually dissolves into abstract sound. What’s striking about the piece is its underlying consistency; the division of the three voices focuses attention on their individual timbral characteristics, whether played conventionally or with the extended techniques that come to dominate the final third or so of the performance. The interplay among the three performers manages to be both refined and (subtly) dramatic. The final performance, the nearly 32 minute long Allegro Sostenuto (1986/1988), is a trio for clarinet, cello (George Work) and piano (Mei-Hsuan Huang) that Lachenmann has described as mediating between resonance and movement. The piece begins as an archipelago of rapid bursts, truncated phrases and points of sound that accumulate and build length and mass over time. The resonance inheres in the individuation of each of the three instruments, which is helped by the three players’ precise articulation. Here as on all three pieces, Oakes plays with a fine-grained, well-modulated and vivid sound.

 

Daniel Barbiero