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

AMN Reviews: Hasco Duo – The Same Old Wonder [New Focus Recordings FCR247]

On the evidence of this, their third album, the Hasco Duo — soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett and guitarist Jesse Langen — bring a new perspective to the art song. At its most compelling, their collective sound is a play of opposites—of DeBoer’s clear, intimately human voice against the technologically facilitated distortion Langen brings to his guitar sound. This opposition, and the aesthetic and emotional tensions it both creates and balances, is epitomized in the duo’s performance on the 25-minute-long Basic Lands by Jonathan Sokol. The vocal part, a dramatic bit of register-leaping virtuosity in its delivery of text drawn from William Quayle’s The Prairie and the Sea, contrasts in its natural timbres and nature imagery with the guitar’s sonically abrasive and harmonically discordant interventions.

On the duo’s setting of poet Constantinos Harpending Pavellas’ “Wildflower” DeBoer Bartlett’s voice takes on a haunting poignance as she sings the childlike—because actually written by a child—words against the lush background of sustained tones from Langen’s guitar. For Luis Fernando Amaya’s Tinta Roja, Tinta Negra/Red Ink, Black Ink, DeBoer’s shouts and cries rise and fall alongside of Langen’s long-sustained sounds. The anguish of the piece is particularly brought into focus through the microtonal clashes that result as their lines weave across and through each other.

The Same Old Wonder also includes Ravi Kittappa’s Nietzsche-inspired piece Und wenn du lange in eninen Abgrund blickst…, a collision of sound poetry and extended technique for electric guitar, and Morgan Krauss’ pallid tongues, a piece for urgently spoken text and industrially distorted guitar.

http://www.hascoduo.com

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Fonema Consort – Vistas Furtivas–The Music of Juan Campoverde [New Focus Recordings fcr246]

Vistas Furtivas, a collection of work by composer Juan Campoverde, is the third album from the Fonema Consort, a Chicago new music ensemble specializing in performing the work of Latin American composers. Campoverde, an Ecuadorian native living in nearby Evanston, Illinois, has developed a long-running collaborative relationship with the consort, having written for them since 2013. The rapport they’ve built is evident in these deft and assured performances of Campoverde’s dramatic and often delicately constructed work.

Campoverde’s compositions here are mostly driven by forceful vocal lines but for all of that, they turn on nuances of sound color alone and in combinations. The composer masterfully brings forward and updates the kind of spacious, unconventionally orchestrated chamber music pioneered by composers like George Crumb in the 1960s and 1970s. And, as could be expected by a composer mentored by Roger Reynolds, whose imagE-imAge series of solo works meticulously capture the timbral ranges of the instruments for which they were written, Campoverde pays close attention to what might be thought of as timbral harmonies and dissonances,

The album contains four works for small chamber ensemble built around the unusual but compelling combination of guitar, flute, and soprano voice, as well as two for solo guitar. Campoverde’s inspired choice of instrumental colors, which he artfully arranges against a stark canvas of silence, makes for a music of startling fusions and contrasts of timbre in an uncluttered environment.

Umbrales I and II (2013 and 2019, respectively) for two sopranos, flute, and guitar, offer two different perspectives on the same texts by Ecuadorian poet Efraín Jara Idrovo. Both iterations rely on extended vocal and instrumental techniques and scordatura to draw out the color possibilities of guitar, flute, and voice. Typical of Campoverde’s work on the album, the pieces are constructed as decentered bursts of sound. Here the main contrast is between the sustained tones of flute and voice on the one side, and the staccato attack of plucked strings on the other. The guitar’s microtonal dissonances are an essential component of the overall sound, which is dominated by the asymmetrical phrasings of sopranos Nina Dante and Nathalie Colas

Basalto (2014) strips the ensemble down to Dante and flutist Dalia Chin, here on alto flute, supplemented by prerecorded, electronically manipulated whale song. A highly expressive work, its urgency is underscored by a collision of extended vocal technique and the flutter tongue and plosive air notes from the flute.

The two works for solo guitar, Topografias (1996) and Muna II (2012), demonstrate Campoverde’s ability to elicit a wide range of color from a single instrument. Both make extensive use of microtones and tone-altering gestures up to and including turning the gears to detune the instrument. The resulting episodes of sheer sonic materiality give one the feeling of being on the inside of the intimate process of playing. Guitarist Samuel Rowe’s performances realize these difficult pieces with clarity and precision.

Los Lugares del Deseo of 2017, the four-part suite that closes the album, brings together flute, bass clarinet (played by Emily Beisel), both sopranos, guitar and percussion (Ryan Packard) in combinations ranging from solo soprano to the full sextet. In its unhurried juxtapositions of exactly delineated timbres the suite captures in microcosm the sound of the album in all its sharply etched fullness. It’s a bracingly beautiful collection of music.

AMN Reviews: Wendy Richman: vox/viola [Tundra tun008]

For vox/viola, her debut solo album featuring recent work for viola and voice, violist/vocalist Wendy Richman has chosen a most appropriate duet partner: herself. Richman, a founding member of the International Chamber Ensemble who specializes in new performance techniques, is an accomplished performer on voice as well as viola, as she amply demonstrates on this collection of engaging works engagingly performed.

The works appearing on the album were commissioned by Richman as part of an ongoing effort to build a substantial contemporary repertoire for vocalist/violist. Modern work for singing violist traces back to Giacinto Scelsi’s Manto III of 1957, an inventive composition that joined extended string performance techniques to a sung text drawn from the Delphic oracles. Composer Lou Bunk’s (b. 1972) Scelsi Frammenti (2010) self-awarely carries Scelsi’s work forward by setting a text of broken consonants and vowels over a viola part based on Bunk’s improvisations on a homemade bowed instrument made of Styrofoam and cardboard. The piece captures and refracts the radicalism of Scelsi’s vocabulary with a series of scratches, creaks, and harmonics on the one side, and sustained vowels and stuttering consonants on the other.

Also inspired by Manto III is “to be held…” by Jason Eckardt (b. 1971) a work composed in 2012 for viola, voice, and prerecorded media. The title is taken from poet Charles Olson’s manifesto Projective Verse, which articulated a notion of measuring the poetic line by the length of a breath; the sung text derives from poet Robert Creeley’s The Language. The piece comprises a slow, microtonal counterpoint made up of elongated sung, played and played-back tones that approach, meet and diverge in slowly moving sound masses that build and sustain tension before culminating in an extreme upper register fadeout. The first part of Extraordinary Rendition (2010) by David Smooke (b. 1969) also uses long-period microtonal movements, but then turns dramatically to staccato phrasing for bow and hard consonants. José-Luis Hurtado’s Palabras en alto exploits changes in dynamic range as a way to frame and throw into sharp relief the color contrasts and expressive force inherent in a mobile series of extended gestures for strings and voice.

The above works represent just some of the highlights of the album; the other compositions, by Christian Carey, Stephen Gorbos, Arlene Sierra, Everette Minchew, and Ken Ueno, exhibit a wide and stimulating range of creative approaches to having voice and viola interact through a single performer. All are certainly worth hearing.

Daniel Barbiero