AMN Reviews: Elliott Sharp – Plastový Hrad (2019; Infrequent Seams)

Sharp_Plastovy_Hrad_COVER_1400x1400_James_IlgenfritzComposer, improviser and multi-instrumentalist Elliott Sharp has been a major voice within the downtown New York music scene for decades. Timbre, dynamics, motion, shape and rhythm are always in play in Sharp’s compositional and improvisational practice. His music is a kind of avant-garde “groove” that combines algorithmic thinking with interpretive and improvisatory intuition. His latest album “PLASTOVY HRAD” presents three very different compositions that feature the bass clarinet.

 

“Plastovy Hrad” is for chamber orchestra with bass clarinet soloist. The composition was commissioned by the Brno Contemporary Orchestra as part of the celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of the formation of the Czech Republic. In this piece Sharp builds a kind of labyrinth that is somewhat dark and relentless. The bass clarinet soloist is a lone voice that wanders the labyrinth commenting and questioning as it moves through its ever changing surroundings. The cimbalom is prominently used to provide a counter voice to the bass clarinet.  The use of the cimbalom also gives the piece bits of Czech folk sounds that pierce the dark textures often revealing bits of light.  It’s a really interesting piece that is well recorded.  Both the soloist Lukasz Danhel and the ensemble perform with a great deal of power, conviction and subtly.

“Turing Test” premiered at the Venice Biennale in 2012. It is performed by the voices of the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart and the bass clarinet of Gareth Davis. It is a kind of mini-opera where disembodied voices try to understand who they are and where they are. While many of the techniques in Elliott Sharp’s musical language such as cells and looping appear to be at work here, they are used very differently than in other works by Sharp. In this piece Sharp uses these techniques not to construct actively evolving dense textures but clear melodic segments of counterpoint and chords for the voices. Gareth Davis’s wonderful bass clarinet is used to comment and question the voices as they continue their test. It’s a wonderful piece that is beautifully performed. I look forward to hearing more work in this vein from Elliott Sharp.

“Oumuamua” is a graphic score for bass clarinet and electronics. In this piece the bass clarinet is processed by the electronics in real time. In many ways this piece resembles Sharp’s solo electric guitar work, in that there are repeated fragments overlaid in a constant forward motion that occasionally collapses into a sustained sound mass.  The use of electronics here is really interesting in that they are both transformative and interactive. The bass clarinet transforms into clusters of floating sounds that dissolve into duets between the bass clarinet with sounds that resemble berimbau, saxophone and organ. It’s an interesting and wild romp that features Elliott Sharp’s excellent bass clarinet playing.

All in all, “PLASTOVY HRAD” is a really interesting and diverse album that presents three different faces of Elliott Sharp, one of America’s most interesting contemporary composers.

Highly Recommended!

Chris De Chiara

AMN Reviews: “The Happiness Handbook” – The Instruments of Happiness, Tim Brady [Starkland ST-232]

ST-232 Instruments of Happiness_The Happiness Handbook_Cover_HiRes

In the 20th century the electric guitar was invented and then proceeded to globally dominate popular music for decades. But the electric guitar is still somewhat of an outsider in the world of contemporary composition. Many conservatories and university music schools still do not allow students to select the electric guitar as their principal instrument of study. But despite this situation we now have several generations of highly trained electric guitarists possessing both the skills and the interest in playing something other than popular music.

In the last forty years or so a new chamber format has appeared all over the planet – the electric guitar quartet. The electric guitar quartet offers contemporary composers a chamber ensemble with an enormous sonic palette, an instrument familiar to all kinds of listeners, a globally increasing number of skilled instrumentalists and no defined “style” or accepted common practice. All of this has led to an increase in new works for the electric guitar. The Sheer Pluck Database of Contemporary Guitar Music  currently contains more than six thousand entries of works specifically for or that include the electric guitar.

Still much of the interest from composers in writing for the electric guitar has largely stemmed from the efforts of a small group of proponents. A leader among these proponents is composer/guitarist Tim Brady. Brady has spent more than thirty years composing and commissioning new works, organizing concerts and performing new works for the electric guitar.  Whether it be for the opera, the orchestra or the electric guitar quartet, Tim Brady is a composer whose compositional eclecticism synthesizes the sounds of classical, folk, rock, jazz, noise, improvisation, and electronics into his own personal sound world.

“The Happiness Handbook” is the second album on Starkland from the electric guitar quartet configuration of Tim Brady’s ensemble known as “The Instruments of Happiness”. The album features premiere recordings of compositions from Scott Godin, Jordan Nobles, Maxime McKinley, Gordon Fitzell, Emily Hall and Tim Brady. Each of the composers explore many of the unique sonic abilities of the electric guitar and often reference popular electric guitar styles and techniques. Style wise the compositions generally fall into the new tonality and post minimalist aesthetics; making the album ideal for a wide range of audiences.

“The Instruments of Happiness” quartet members Marc-Oliver Lamontagne, Jonathan Barriault, Simon Duchesne and Tim Brady have playing skills that are deep and wide.  The quartet is extremely well versed in everything from classical chamber music to popular music to extended techniques and experimental music including electronic effects and pedals. As an ensemble they are tight, lyrical and energetic.  They play with a wide range of dynamics and control and are able to move effortlessly from an ensemble of highly independent voices to performing as one large instrument.

“The Happiness Handbook” opens with Scott Godin’s “Martlandia” which explores swelling chords and intricately articulated themes with shades of progressive rock. Tim Brady’s “Equal But Opposite Reaction” combines standard and extended techniques with electronics into a wonderful contrapuntal kaleidoscope that covers a lot of ground.

Jordon Nobles “Deep Field” would make a great sci fi soundtrack with its swells of sounds that roll by as it moves slowly through deep space. It’s as if a flamenco and blues gesture were combined and intertwined; then slowed down a few hundred times while slowly twisting and turning to reveal itself.  A wonderful piece!  Maxime McKinley’s “Reflects de Francesca Woodman” begins with harmonics bouncing and refracting off of one another that eventually builds up into jagged variations on a bluesy theme only to finds its way back into a refractive meditative state. Gordon Fitzell’s “Bomb Crater Garden” is an aggressive mix of clear harmonics and scattered noisy sounds. It beautifully utilizes extended techniques and electronics to slowly build up and then melt away into a kind of noisy slide guitar bird song.  The album ends with Emily Hall’s “The Happiness Handbook”. A suite of five short movements that covers a lot of ground as it celebrates the sheer joy of playing the electric guitar.

“The Happiness Handbook” is a wonderful album. Many AMN readers will enjoy this album, especially guitarists. I think the album should have appeal not just with the minimalist/post minimalist, new music and experimental guitar crowds. “The Happiness Handbook” may be an ideal gateway recording to introduce progressive rock and fusion listeners to contemporary electric chamber music.  So, give it a listen!

Highly Recommended!

Chris De Chiara

Sound American 21: The Change Issue

Sound American is very excited to announce a new step in our growth as one of the preeminent music journals in America. Beginning on May 6th, we’ll be releasing each issue in print form. Although we will continue to make each issue available for free online at www.soundamerican.org, we are taking a step to meet the long-standing demands of our readership to make each issue available in a physical, collectible form.

Designed by Mike Dyer of Remake Designs (designer of the recent Donald Judd: Writings publication), each issue is:
– Printed using offset lithography in a special Pantone color throughout (which will change each issue)
– Bound with the highest quality thread-sewn binding, using cold glue and Otabind™, so the book lies open and stays completely flat, and will last for a lifetime.
– Printed on Holmen paper, an excellent Swedish stock
– Printed by die Keure, one of the finest book printers in the world in a limited edition of 500

Sound American 21: The Change Issue will be released on May 6th online and in print.  The Change Issue is the first in a new editorial format and features words by or about Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste, Ornette Coleman, Nicole Kaack, Bradford Bailey, G. Lucas Crane, Jennie Gottschalk, Ambrose Akinmusire, Mats Gustafsson, Peter Margasak, Terry Riley, Kim Brandt, John Cage, Josh Sinton, Edgard Varése, Marc Hannaford, John Zorn, Matthew Mehlan, Million Tongues Festival, Alex Mincek, Lester St. Louis, and Steve Lehman.

AMN Reviews: Nate Wooley “Columbia Icefield” [Northern SPY NS 112]

Inspired by the largest icefield in the Rocky Mountains trumpeter Nate Wooley set out to explore “ … large structures that have a feeling of being really large and slightly disturbing, but also, natural, … it’s not an attack on our senses. We understand it.”  On “Columbia Icefield” Wooley’s amplified trumpet is joined by drummer Ryan Sawyer, pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn and guitarist Mary Halverson. The three compositions on “Columbia Icefield” while unique in content and form seem to share an overall point of view or perhaps mood. The recording itself also contributes to this overall mood. The album’s mix beautifully exploits the stereo field to project a big and open sound that still seems close and intimate.

The album opens with “Lionel Trilling”, a piece that seems like it would make a great soundtrack for a journey by train to visit the ice field. The piece slowly builds up from very deliberate but somewhat overlapping melodic and rhymical patterns on the guitars. The interplay between Halverson and Alcorn is very tight and balanced. These patterns could be imagined as representing the sounds of the train. They are eventually joined by other patterns played by the drums along with the very effective use of the amplified trumpet as percussion. This builds up over time but not in a sentimental or obvious way.  The train continues to climb till out of nowhere ethereal voices arrive and the mood abruptly changes.  They have arrived and set out to explore the expanse in a floating dialogue. This gives way to a new section of contrapuntal questions and episodic improvisations till it is time to leave and then we get back on the train to return to where the journey began.

“Seven in the Woods” is a piece where its shape slowly forms over time. It begins as an abstraction of what it will become with a slow counterpoint of melodic fragments between the guitars and muted trumpet. When the drums finally enter it tries to subvert the developing shape with march like rhythmic attacks. Eventually the drums give in and all of this abstraction crystallizes into a soulful melodic hymn accompanied by beautiful brush work from the drums. The piece then moves through a series of wonderful moments with solos from each of the musicians. Eventually it begins to fall back apart but is interrupted by the guitars with chiming church bell chords that slowly fade away.

The last piece “With Condolences” starts slowly and quietly but as the sonic conversation grows it becomes more and more animated over time. As it builds up into a chatter, spoken word lyrics emerge and push it back into a more reflective instrumental conversation that slowly winds itself down.

The playing by each of the musicians on “Columbia Icefield” is nothing short of outstanding. I hope that Nate Wooley is able to do a lot more recording with this particular group. As an ensemble they demonstrate real chemistry. Make no mistake “Columbia Icefield” is a great album. So, do your ears a favor and spend some quiet time listening to “Columbia Icefield”.

Highly Recommended!

Chris De Chiara

AMN Reviews: Daniel Barbiero, Ken Moore, Dave Vosh – “transparent points on four axes”[pyr260]

Transparent-Points-on-Four-Axes-cover-768x768“transparent points on four axes” is a studio collaboration by Daniel Barbiero on double bass, sylosynth app and microbrute synthesizer. (Yes, AMN Readers this is the same Daniel Barbiero that frequently posts reviews here on AMN.) Ken Moore on STEIM Crackle Box, minimoog, emax sampler and various percussion. Dave Vosh on analogue modular synthesizer. It is a very interesting album that is bound to be the best free download you will get all year. It has been released on pan y rosas discos. A netlabel out of Chicago that focuses on experimental, noise, improvisation and weirdo rock.  It has a catalog of 260 releases all of which are free downloads.

The eight pieces on “transparent points on four axes” each began as a single layer of either a composed or improvised track to form a ground layer from which each of the participants then added additional layers. The use of this ground layer provides an underlying sense of direction as each piece’s dialog develops and unfolds. The pieces have a great deal of sonic and textural variety and the album is very well recorded and mixed. There are pieces that are driven by exceptional bass playing with lyrical use of bowed harmonics and the extreme upper register of the bass. Other pieces seem to be driven by more sensitive and nuanced percussion. The analog synth work is really interesting because it can at times give the pieces that retro analog early electronic music vibe, however I think that it really works on this album because it completely avoids the repetitive sequencer driven drivel that is currently being produced by so many contemporary musicians using analog and modular synths.

“transparent points on four axes” is a really interesting listen of solid contemporary experimental  music and it is free. So grab it and enjoy it!  And maybe poke around the rest of the releases on pan y rosas discos and explore some new sounds.

Highly recommended!

Chris De Chiara

 

American Contemporary Music Ensemble – Kindred Spirits in John Cage and Phil Kline, at Tank

From NYTimes.com:

Finding connections between John Cage and Phil Kline, experimental composers from different generations and backgrounds, is not very hard. Cage, the Zen master whose chance operations loosened the strictures of contemporary music, surely provided an early model for the random serendipities of Mr. Kline’s subsequent boombox compositions like “Unsilent Night,” a seasonal processional that wound through Greenwich Village streets just over a week ago.

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FONT Music To Present Four-Night Event At Abrons Arts Center In January

Dave Douglas, SFJAZZ Collective
Image by @Siebe! via Flickr

From Improvised Communications:

The Festival of New Trumpet Music (FONT Music) will present Forward Flight, the third and final event of its 7th annual performance season, from Wednesday, January 13th through Saturday, January 16th at New York’s Abrons Arts Center.

This four-night celebration of the eclecticism of the trumpet in contemporary music, curated by Dave Douglas and Taylor Ho Bynum, will feature events on two stages, including performances by a diverse range of ensembles, three free FONT Music Workshop Series events and an opening night tribute to unheralded veteran trumpet player, Wilmer Wise.

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