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

AMN Reviews: Spektral Quartet – Experiments in Living [New Focus Recordings FCR270]

Given the easy accessibility of recorded music of virtually every type and era, at times it seems that musically, all time collapses into the present time. It’s a strangely ahistorical contemporaneity we seem to inhabit—is the internet eternity’s jukebox?–but even if it makes for a certain uneasiness, the random-shuffle possibilities it opens up may provide opportunities for musical illumination.

Realizing some of those possibilities is something Chicago’s Spektral String Quartet sets out to do with its ambitious double album Experiments in Living. The group selected seven string quartets written between 1873 and 2018 and, inventing a randomizing process to be realized with a deck of cards, offer the listener the chance to order and reorder the pieces for playback.

The works the group chose are Brahms’ 1873 String Quartet in C Minor; Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 3 (1927); Ruth Crawford’s String Quartet of 1931; Anthony Cheung’s Real Book of Fake Tunes for string quartet and flute (2015); George Lewis’ 2016 String Quartet 1.5: Experiments in Living; Sam Pluta’s binary/momentary logics: flow state/joy state (2016); and Charmaine Lee’s 2018 Spinals for string quartet, voice and electronics.

The eighty year lacuna between Crawford’s work and Cheung’s represents a conceptual as well as a chronological discontinuity. A developmental continuity binds the earlier three works: the Schoenberg quartet conserves something of the romanticism of the Brahms, while the dissonant counterpoint of the Crawford quartet plays peculiarly American variations on Schoenberg’s serialism. As distinct as these three pieces are, all are fully composed and squarely within the elastic but still recognizable tradition of Western art music. The pieces on the other side of the great divide, by contrast, break out of that tradition as much as they take their bearings from it. They sound different, to begin with—their vocabularies draw as a matter of course on extended performance techniques that at times push their surface textures to extremes of noise and fragmentation.

One other significant break lies with the newer works’ engagement with improvisation as something major to do, emulate, or draw inspiration from. Lee’s relatively short, single-movement work, which was created in collaboration with the ensemble, is completely improvised. Lee, who joins the quartet in their performance, is an improvising vocalist who augments her voice with electronic amplification; the piece is an abstract blend of wordless vocals and largely unpitched sounds. Pluta describes his rapidly moving, twenty-five movement quartet as being about the “joy of opening up the mind to improvisatory exploration;” what’s explored is an electronically inspired collection of quick-cutting, scratchy, oscillating sounds that the quartet convincingly translates onto acoustic string instruments. Cheung’s lyrical, five-movement piece layers a flute line played by Claire Chase in an improvisational spirit over compact, song-length settings. Although improvisation plays a significant role in Lewis’ musical poetics, his exuberant quartet, which like Lee’s, Pluta’s, and Cheung’s was commissioned by the ensemble, is a fully notated work that weaves together various extended techniques into an episodic, but audibly cohesive, tissue of sound.

In its willingness to disrupt ordinary ways of listening to music within a highly diverse tradition, The Spektral Quartet’s Experiments in Living is certainly a challenging recording, and a stimulating one as well.

https://newfocusrecordings.bandcamp.com/album/experiments-in-living

https://www.newfocusrecordings.com/

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Martino Traversa – Hommage [Kairos 0015054KAI]

If Debussy’s was one of the quieter revolutions in Western art music, it was also one of the farthest-reaching. His innovative use of scales and their attendant harmonies had an enduring effect not only on subsequent classical music but on jazz as well, while his foregrounding of timbre and sonority suggested possibilities that are still undergoing exploration and development. With his pointedly titled monograph Hommage, Italian composer Martino Traversa (1960) places himself directly within this rich European, and largely but not exclusively French, tradition.

The album’s two works featuring Ensemble Prometeo, a chamber orchestra conducted by Marco Angius, show most directly Traversa’s deep engagement with the sensuous forces of instrumental color and their historical forms. Red 2, a piece for concertante violin and twelve-piece ensemble, is a direct homage to Boulez that begins with a quote from the latter’s Anthèmes. Boulez’s material serves as the basis for thematic elaborations that permeate the piece. In developing his themes Traversa plays clusters of voices against each other in a dense weave of fused timbres; he maintains a sense of suspense throughout with the simple but effective device of placing trills on top of these sound masses. Di altri cieli, a piece for soprano and chamber sextet inspired by Luigi Nono’s Fragmente-Stille, an Diotima, sets a text by poet Friedrich Hölderlin. It is a succinct, crepuscular work of fragments shored up against an abyss, with soprano Livia Rado’s voice providing a haunting, flute-like presence.

Rado, accompanied by piano, clarinet and cello, is also featured on Traversa’s settings of three poems by Stéphane Mallarmé, which make up a moody, beautifully orchestrated and sung triptych. Here Traversa constructs a vocal line that floats languidly, rushes energetically and leaps wide intervals as it lags behind, outruns and doubles the instruments. The match of Rado’s voice with the clarinet and upper register cello is at times uncanny and a sensitive use of the human voice as a purely musical instrument.

Hommage also includes Oiseaux Tristes, a piece for solo piano inspired by Ravel’s Miroirs, and Quasi una sonata…for violin and piano.

Altogether a beautiful recording.

http://www.kairos-music.com

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Nomi Epstein – sounds [New Focus Recordings FCR260]

Composer/pianist Nomi Epstein’s music, as demonstrated on the portrait recording sounds, is made up of fine-grained distinctions between sounds and between sound and non-sound. This is evident particularly in the three compositions for solo piano: Till (2003), Solo for Piano (2007-19), and Layers for Piano (2015/18), all of them performed by Reinier van Houdt. Till, which opens the album, surrounds deliberately picked out, largely quiet individual notes and chords with silences to create differential effects of dynamics and register. The first part of the two-part Solo for Piano, appropriately titled Waves, features oscillating, closely-spaced tones that particularly in the lower registers merge into something like a massed, grey noise. The second part opposes Waves’ sonic blur with unhurried, precisely defined pitch groups. Layers for Piano, a three-part work, places delicate sonic fragments consisting of single notes and muffled dissonances within a range of quiet, subtly distinguishable dynamics. The other two compositions in the collection are for trios: of voice, bass flute and electronics, and for flute, bass clarinet, and piano. The first of these, for Collect/Project (2016-19), is a low-key drama of contrasts between the hollow tones of the bass flute (Shanna Gutierrez) and the abrasively dense interventions of the electronics (Francisco Castillo Trigueros). When Frauke Aulbert’s voice breaks through into a sonic clearing, the effect is bracing and revelatory. The 2016 sounds for Jeff and Eliza, for flutist Eliza Bangert and bass clarinetist Jeff Kimmel, who perform it here along with the composer on piano, builds harmonies from the wind instruments’ multiphonics superimposed on isolated notes and chords from the piano. The piece’s very slow harmonic rhythm lends it a sense of timelessness.

http://newfocusrecordings.com

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Patrick Ozzard-Low – In Opposition [Kairos 0015067KAI]

The two substantial works on British composer Patrick Ozzard-Low’s In Opposition were the delayed effect of an epiphany the composer had in 1978 at age twenty. Having heard Jean Barraqué’s Sonata for Piano on the radio for the first time, Ozzard-Low was drawn to the French composer’s dense yet vestigially tonal sound world. Ozzard-Low consequently found and began studies with Bill Hopkins, Barraqué’s composition student. These studies lasted until Hopkins’ early death in 1981. Beginning in the late 1980s, Ozzard-Low entered into a twenty-year-long period during which his own work gestated. Over the course of that time, Ozzard-Low adapted for his own use Barraqué’s unique form of tone-row construction and permutation which Ozzard-Low describes as based on “pitch-fields”—that is, sets of pitches of fixed register rather than variable octaves, which have the potential to be organized tonally or quasi-tonally as well as atonally. From his understanding of Barraqué’s musical architecture, with its openness to harmonic as well as serial construction, Ozzard-Low developed his own musical language. The Piano Sonata No. 2 and In Opposition are two of the works to emerge from that process of development.

Piano Sonata No. 2, a single-movement, half-hour-long work divided into five submovements, embodies a taut energy built up from the sometimes abrupt jostling against each other of harmonies and dissonances. The piece is essentially modern in its vocabulary, but it develops with the emotional power of a reconfigured Romanticism and retains a harmonic openness tinted with shades of Impressionism. Pianist Andrew Zolinsky’s performance is appropriately robust and compelling.

In Opposition, a sonata for solo viola, is like the piano sonata a half-hour-long single movement work of several submovements. Also like the piano sonata the piece stakes out a ground between tonality and atonality; in construction, it draws on modern and pre-modern ways of phrasing. The opening sections are largely laid out as discontinuous sequences of events of dynamic and registral extremes; as the piece unfolds, though, it gathers itself in toward longer, more continuous passages that suggest the Bach sonatas for solo violin brought into the 21st century. In this regard In Opposition, like the Piano Sonata No. 2 but to a more marked extent, demonstrates Ozzard-Low’s aptitude for putting into dialogue forms taken from past and present musical practices. Violist Elisabeth Smalt’s realization of this demanding composition represents a deft handling of Ozzard-Low’s multimorphic idiom.

http://www.kairos-music.com

Daniel Barbiero