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

AMN Reviews: Quatuor Bozzini – Alvin Lucier: Navigations[2021; CQB 2128_NUM]

There have been many technical and technological innovations in music since 1945 but one of the most important aesthetic innovations has been in new ideas that focus on listening. Innovators like Pierre Schaeffer proposed the idea of reduced listening – an attitude in which sound is listened to for its own sake as a sound object, removed from its source. John Cage invited listeners to hear any sound as music. Pauline Oliveros encouraged listeners to actively experience all sounds through a practice she described as “deep listening”. These ideas all contributed to contemporary music’s focus on the experience of sound itself.

Alvin Lucier’s compositions and installations make use of sounds that are often the results of acoustic phenomena. His work focuses our attention and perception on the physical presence of sound interacting within a particular space. Performing Lucier’s compositions requires performers to learn to recognize, activate, play and interact with acoustic phenomena. The Quatuor Bozzini were clearly up for the challenge when they recorded “Alvin Lucier: Navigations”. The album opens with “Disappearances”, a piece that is a single note. That description may sound like it is minimalist to the extreme but to my ears it is a piece rich with development. You hear changes in weight and timbre as each string joins together in unison. The controlled motions of the string’s bows cause phasing and filtering of the sound. The tiny subtle changes in pitch causes beating which reveals pulsating difference tones. Each of these phenomena disappear into one another creating a feeling of movement and making the listener aware of the tiniest changes in pitch and timbre.

The album contains two realizations of “Group Tapper”, a piece that explores room acoustics by having the instrumentalists treat their instruments as percussion. The performers tap on their instruments in various places and reflect the sound coming from their instruments around the room. The recording engineer does a great job of making the room present on this album so that you can really hear how the group’s performance interacts with the room. Placed in between the two realizations of “Group Tapper” is for me the most striking piece on this recording, “Unamuno”.  The piece was inspired by early twentieth century Spanish writer  Miguel de Unamuno and it was originally written for voices. “Unamuno” is based around four pitches that are continuously arranged into different patterns. It has a probing and questioning kind of vibe to it. The Bozzini’s perform the piece with both strings and their voices. The result is absolutely stunning. 

The album finishes with “Navigations for Strings”. At a high level “Navigations for Strings” and “Unamuno” share some of the same types of ingredients. Both pieces are based on four pitches and both make use of slowly changing combinations and difference tones. However, despite these high level similarities the two pieces sound very different.  “Navigations for Strings” is a somewhat dark piece in which continuous changes in microtonality, dynamics and tempo create a sound mass that feels like it is becoming a stasis, but it’s continuous changes never allow it to rest. It is a very haunting piece.

With “Alvin Lucier: Naviagtions” the Quatuor Bozzini have gone well beyond the surface of Lucier’s scores and have totally embraced his challenge to performers to be sonic explorers. “Alvin Lucier: Naviagtions” is a wonderful album with captivating performances of one of the most original and innovative experimental composers of our time.

Highly Recommended!

Chris De Chiara

AMN Reviews: Robert Honstein – Middle Ground [Other Minds OM2030]

As its title declares, composer Robert Honstein’s Middle Ground (2016) for amplified violin and electronics seeks to find the mean between the string instrument’s extremes of pitch and tonality. Honstein chooses a tripartite scheme of three movements that lays out his program with an unmistakable clarity: starting with the violin’s upper register, the piece jumps to the low end of its compass before settling into the range in between. The overall result is a deft, composite portrait of a string instrument.

The first movement, titled Too Far, is made up of softly played upper register long tones and harmonics drifting upward and downward, as if carried along on warm air currents. The second movement is Too Close, and exchanges the ethereality of the first for grinding, predominantly lower-register sixteenth notes played over changing time signatures as they race toward an electronically-distorted finish. The final movement is Bridging the Gap, which returns to low dynamics and long tones, now alternating between high and low registers and growing gradually less distant from each other until they converge on a terminal two-note chord.

The composition’s structural clarity is brought out not only in its division into three movements logically determined by its programmatic character, but by the simple melodic material Honstein uses for each. Rather than spinning out linear melodies, Honstein in the first two movements arranges notes into fields; in the third movement he breaks up the fields into points moving against each other. Although the piece is fairly sparse its textures are smoothed over by the electronics’ augmentation of the sound with delay and reverb, bolstering its presence and frequently giving the impression of multiple violins playing a closely-spaced canon. Violinist Kate Stenberg’s performance is by turns serene and urgent, giving the composition the emotionally controlled performance it demands.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: The Return of Neuma Records

One of the more positive things that happened in 2020 was the relaunch of Neuma Records.  In 1988 Shirish Korde and Jerry Tabor launched the label. They built a catalog that included recordings of well known twentieth century composers such as Xenakis, Cage, Boulez, Messiaen, Nono, Scelsi  and Varese. But the catalog caught my attention in the early 90’s because it was releasing recordings of works by contemporary electroacoustic composers and recordings by performers who focused on the work of lesser known contemporary composers . The catalog includes works by Dashow, DeLio, Dodge, Gaburo, Johnston, Karpen, Lansky, Laske, Lippe, Martirano, Oliveros, Reynolds, Risset, Saariaho, Subotnick, Yuasa and many many more.

By the end of the 90’s Neuma’s release schedule had really become sparse. In 2020 the label relaunched with Philip Blackburn taking over. Blackburn is a composer who spent almost 30 years working at Innova Recordings. Innova focuses on assisting composers and performers through the recording, publication, marketing and distribution process. As a result, Innova has curated a diverse body of contemporary music spanning more than 650 albums. Blackburn has brought this assistive and curatorial approach to Neuma.

In December of 2020 Neuma released three new recordings. The first was from composer Wesley Fuller (1930-2020).  It is a nice collection of seven electroacoustic pieces for instruments and computer.

Fuller ‘s works skillfully blends acoustic instruments and computer generated sounds with a focus on gesture, shape and color.

The second release is from composer Robert Moran. It is a nice collection of eight diverse works for orchestra. On this album Moran’s work is primarily neoromantic with occasional minimalist tendencies.

The third release is a concert recording from 1967 of composer Kenneth Gaburo conducting the New Music Choral Ensemble in a diverse program of twentieth century choral music. This is a really interesting release. If you don’t have any contemporary choral music in your collection then this would be the disc to have. It is not hard to imagine that in 1967 very few people in the US had heard live performances of choral music by Luigi Nono, Anton Webern and Olivier Messiaen. But practically no one had heard any music, never the less choral music from Pauline Oliveros, Ben Johnston, Leslie Bassett, Charles Hamm and Robert Shallenberg. Under the direction of Kenneth Gaburo the New Music Choral Ensemble took on the extreme technical challenges of performing such a diverse and difficult program. The program’s compositions included everything from 12 tone serial music to 31 tone just intonation to graphic and descriptive notation to works with live and or prerecorded electronics! The spirited performances on this disc are extremely well done. Also included are two interesting electronic pieces by Gaburo that were used to allow the singers a short break in between some of the pieces on the program. I highly recommend that you give this album a listen!

As I was getting ready to post this, Neuma released several additional titles – Robert Moran’s opera “Buddha goes to Bayreuth”, Gina Biver’s “Nimbus” which is seven miniatures for electroacoustic chamber ensemble, spoken word and soprano voice, James Caldwell’s “Pocket music” a set of concreté miniatures made with “small” sounds usually of things found in his pockets, and Spanish composer Juan J.G. Escuerdo’s “Shapes of Inner Timespaces” a collection of eight acousmatic compositions. Perusing their online catalog today it looks like several more titles are being released in February including a recording of Harry Partch’s “The Bewitched” ! I am glad to see that Neuma is back and that Blackburn has established an aggressive release schedule of diverse contemporary music. You can hear more samples of current and upcoming releases as well as selected back catalog on the Nuema Soundcloud Page. So check it out!

Chris De Chiara

AMN Reviews: Bernhard Lang – Flute & Bass [Kairos 0015089KAI]

The music on Bernhard Lang’s Flute & Bass, and indeed much of the Viennese composer’s mature music, was inspired by the paradox of repetition. The repeated object is somehow both the same and different all at once, in a way that, roughly, a copy is the same and yet different from its original. Lang’s direct inspiration came from his reading of Gilles Deleuze’s book Repetition and Difference, but in one form or another the paradox can be traced as far back as Heraclitus or, more recently and provocatively, to Borges’ story of Menand’s rewriting of Don Quixote. Be that as it may, Flute & Bass is a set of three works whose conceptual depth and performative challenges never overshadow their compelling musicality.

Lang engages the paradox of repetition through the use of reiterated musical elements. This is apparent from the very first composition on the album, Monadologie XVI “solfeggio” (2011) for solo flute, performed by Manuel Zurria. Lang takes repeating, brief phrases of two, three, four, and seven notes and arranges them in a sequence the linearity of which gives the performance the feel of a minimalist pulse piece come unraveled. By using different phrases and building an increasing sense of urgency into the piece’s narrative arc, Lang introduces an element of variation into and through repetition. (In another working of repetition, Lang takes the piece’s melodic content from a flute etude by Prussian emperor Frederick the Great, himself an accomplished performer on the instrument.)

Differenz/Wiederholung 25:…more loops for U. (2014) for solo double bass is more fragmentary in sound than Monadologie XVI, but as the title indicates, is just as reliant on repeated figures. Here these largely take the form of gestures drawn from the instrument’s repertoire of extended techniques: overtones and multiphonics, bow scratches and grinding, drumming on the bass’s body, left-hand pizzicato, and many more. The piece was inspired by electronic dance music and DJing and hence has a loose-jointed but pronounced rhythmic drive. The technical demands on the bassist are extreme; bassist Dario Calderone’s deliberately rough-edged performance is breathtaking.

The final piece is Difference/Wiederholung 22 “Winterlicht” (2010), a 25-minute-long duet in which Calderone is joined by Zurria on bass flute. Here too repetitive figures come into play, but the focus is largely on timbral continuity and contrast. As in DW22 the double bass part here makes liberal use of extended technique—as does the bass flute part, although less dramatically—to support and subvert the more melodic flute lines. The soundworld of the piece is unusually rich thanks to the remarkable interplay of the two voices.

On a recording like Bass & Flute much hinges on the ability of the performers not only to meet the extreme technical demands of the music, but to provide genuinely musical performances. It comes as no surprise that Zurria and Calderone both certainly do. Rome-based Zurria is a master of contemporary music for his instrument, and Calderone, an Italian-born musician currently living in Amsterdam, is one of the finest double bassists in Europe and indeed anywhere.

https://www.kairos-music.com
Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Christopher Bailey – Rain Infinity [New Focus Recordings fcr283]

Woven throughout Rain Infinity, the new monograph of work by composer Christopher Bailey, are the six movements of Duo for violin and cello. The duets, which are interspersed among works of varying instrumentation and sound, provide a continuity that serves as a connective tissue tying the album together as a totality.

The piece that follows the first duet is Retreat (2016), a composition for electronics realized by the composer. Bailey opens the piece with a chaos of recorded human voices and then moves to microtonal passages for sampled acoustic instruments; the structural focus of the work is on shifting densities, as the texture thickens and thins in a flux of constant change. In contrast to Retreat, the brusquely fragmentary Timelash (1999) is an acoustic quartet for piano, cello, clarinet, and violin largely carried along on the sounds of an aggressively raw cello and strident piano. Another work for small acoustic chamber ensemble, the Passacaglia after Hall and Oates 2 for piano, flute, and violin, alternates timbral variations on a single note with pulsating, minor-second dissonances that eventually culminate in an unlikely, lyrical denouement. Rounding out the album are the title track, a microtonal work composed for Jacob Barton and his homemade wind instrument the udderbot, and Arc of Infinity, a work for classical guitar and electronics, whose performance here by Daniel Lippel appeared earlier on Lippel’s superb solo collection Mirrored Spaces. And as for the duets, they are the highlight of the album. Violinist Miranda Cuckson and cellist Mariel Roberts move effortlessly between robust gesture and delicate nuance while playing their parts with an almost telepathic coordination.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: counter)induction – Against Method [New Focus Recordings FCR278]

The chamber ensemble counter)induction, a group that has dedicated itself to the performance of new music since it came on the scene at the end of the last century, takes its name from a concept in philosopher Paul Feyerabend’s classic work Against Method, which is also the title of their latest album. Counterinduction, roughly, is a critical method of opposing a theory or concept with a counterpart drawn from outside of the target theory’s ordinary frame of reference. In practical terms it entails an embrace of critical pluralism, which seems to have been the concrete inspiration counter)induction took from it. With its selection of six diverse works by just as many composers, Against Method the album neatly encapsulates the group’s musical pluralism.

The opening track, Douglas Boyce’s The Hunt by Night, is a trio for clarinet, cello, and piano that uncoils with a spry, loping energy that recalls the spirit of Les Six. It’s an engaging lead-in, and oddly, perhaps the least “contemporary” sounding of the works represented. Kyle Bartlett’s Before for guitar, bass clarinet and cello follows and changes the atmosphere dramatically. In contrast to The Hunt by Night’s melodic continuity, Before features bursts of fragmentary lines and long tones, and makes generous use of unpitched sounds. Ein Kleines Volkslied by Alvin Singleton, originally commissioned by Bang on a Can, draws on elements of rock and jazz—Dan Lippel’s distorted electric guitar chords and Randall Zigler’s pizzicato basslines add just the right flavor—and includes a fine feature for vibraphone at its center. Jessica Meyer’s Forgiveness, the only piece on the album incorporating electronics, uses a loop pedal to transform a hymn-like solo performance by bass clarinetist Benjamin Fingland into an accumulating, virtual reed ensemble. In another abrupt contrast of styles, Forgiveness is followed by Ryan Streber’s neoclassical Piano Quartet—a lushly beautiful, harmonically rich piece. The album closes with Argentinian composer Diego Tedesco’s Scherzo for guitar, clarinet, violin, viola, and cello. Although billed as a musical joke—and the repeated motif of descending chromatic lines does sound like a bagful of broken toys falling down a flight of stairs—the piece makes sophisticated use of pizzicato textures from the guitar and other strings.

http://newfocusrecordings.com

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Jordan Nobles – Chiaroscuro [Redshift Records TK477]

In describing what music sounds like it’s virtually impossible to avoid falling back on metaphors and similes of various kinds; as it happens, the most musically suggestive figures and comparisons come from the language of the visual arts. And so it is that Canadian composer Jordan Nobles titles his 30-minute-long Chiaroscuro (2014/2020) after a painterly technique; but unlike chiaroscuro, which exploits the binary opposition of light and shadow, Chiaroscuro exploits multifaceted interactions of instrumental color. Nobles’ basic material consists of clusters of voices defined by their particular fusions of timbres rather than by conventional melodies or harmonies; he arranges these clusters as a sequence of semi-independent events taking place within a virtually static rhythmic framework. The atmosphere is suspenseful and palpably, if subtly, tense.

Running at half the length of the quasi-immobile Chiaroscuro is the strongly rhythmic Pulses (1998) which, as its title suggests, is a piece constructed of pulse-based melodic patterns and their variations. As with Chiaroscuro, the focus of the piece is on changes of instrumental color. In contrast to the longer work, in the shorter Pulses a steady rhythm provides the continuity binding a series of smoothly segued, gradually evolving aggregations of instrumental timbres. Nobles keeps the undistractingly simple melodic material moving among constantly changing subgroups of different sizes and makeup; the result is an absorbing work that revels in the sheer beauty of sound-color dynamics.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: J Pavone String Ensemble – Lost and Found [Astral Spirits AS143]

Lost and Found is the second release from the J. Pavone String Ensemble, a string quartet comprising violist Jessica Pavone, who composed all of the music here, violist Abby Swidler, and violinists Ericka Dicker and Angela Morris. The four compositions neatly demonstrate Pavone’s continuing interest in the musical possibilities of long tones in slowly evolving relationships.

The bulk of the four pieces largely consists of harmonically mobile sound masses made up of sustained tones gradually drifting up and down. If there is a recurring motif here it would be the slow glissando, which provides the engine driving the internal dynamic of the group’s collective sound. The generally quiet dynamics don’t disguise the subtle tension underlying much of the music—a tension occasionally and dramatically broken by the sudden but temporary appearance of a major triad. The unconventional makeup of this string quartet—two violins and two violas—give its voice a bias toward the upper registers, resulting in an often shimmering, ethereal sound. The entire recording has an austere beauty to it not only on account of the writing, but because of the ensemble’s tightly-controlled performance.

Daniel Barbiero