AMN Reviews: Robert Gross – Chronicles [New Focus Recordings FCR301]

One of the exciting new musical territories opened up by the technical advances of the postwar era was that of electronic and electroacoustic music. Whether in the guise of purely electronic works created for early synthesizers like Princeton’s RCA Mark II or the San Francisco Tape Music Center’s Buchla, or works for fixed media and acoustic orchestral instruments, electronic technologies for sound production, storage and reproduction gave composers and performers access to vast new sound worlds. The music on composer Robert Gross’ fine album Chronicles situates itself firmly within this now-venerable tradition.

Gross has a broad-based background that includes television and film soundtrack work, music theory and analysis, and composition for orchestra as well as for electronic and electroacoustic instrumentation. On Chronicles—the title is taken from a series of electronic and electroacoustic works Gross has composed, several of which are included on the album–Gross’ instrument of choice is the Absynth semi-modular synthesizer, which he plays solo as well as paired with piano, guitar, horn and voices.

Gross’ solo work is featured most forcefully on Chronicles XIV (Charles Wuorinen in Memoriam), a monumental thirty-minute-long memorial to the late composer who in 1970 was the first recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in music for an electronic work, Time’s Encomium, which was realized on Princeton’s Mark II. Gross’ piece is a tour-de-force of pitch-oriented music that recreates some of the classic timbres of early electronic music while still maintaining a contemporary profile of its own. On Chronicles XIII for classical guitar and synthesizer Gross creates a truly dialogic encounter for acoustic guitar, given a subtley etched performance by Daniel Lippel, and electronics. The work is tightly choreographed, with each instrument completing the other’s lines or complementing the other’s rhythmic accents. Like Chronicles XIII, Chronicles VIII for piano (Jeanette Louise Yaryan) closely winds the two separate parts together into a complex tissue of sound, in addition to fomenting a rapid exchange of foreground and background functions between the two instruments. Both Chronicles XV for horn (Christopher Griffin) and synthesizer, and Chronicles XVII for mezzo-soprano (Lori Joachim Fredrics) and synthesizer, play largely on the timbral contrasts between the Absynth and its duet partners. On all of the electroacoustic pieces Gross’ writing achieves a sublime balance of voices that makes every pairing seem perfectly natural, and indeed inevitable.

The album closes with Dissonance, a forty-minute, one-act opera for synthesizer, baritone (Brandon Gibson) and mezzo-soprano (Brooke Clark Gibson), which consists of a dialogue in a funeral home between the daughter of the deceased, a piano teacher, and her former student, now an employee of the funeral home.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Douglas Boyce – The Hunt By Night [New Focus Recordings fcr290]

The Hunt by Night is the second monograph recording of chamber music from composer Douglas Boyce. Boyce, who is on the faculty of Washington DC’s George Washington University, often takes his inspiration from early music as well as from contemporary modes of composition. This comes out most explicitly in his Quintet l’homme armé, a piece for clarinet, violin, viola, cello, and piano performed here by members of the counter)induction ensemble, a group which Boyce co-founded. Boyce takes the late medieval melody L’homme armé and subjects it to a thorough refiguration in which it is transubstantiated into something with a completely contemporary sound.

The title track, The Hunt by Night, Quire 9 No. 3 is from Boyce’s Book of Etudes. The piece appared previously on the counter)induction album Against Method; in my review of that album I described it in these pages as “a trio for clarinet, cello, and piano that uncoils with a spry, loping energy that recalls the spirit of Les Six.” Stretto Perpetuo, Quire 4 No. 1 for cello and piano, is another one of Boyce’s twenty-one etudes. The object of this vigorous piece’s study is rhythmic, hence its foundation in a rhythmically varied, urgently repeated single note that cellist Schyler Slack and pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute pass around between themselves.

Sails Knife-bright in a Seasonal Wind is a trio for violinist Miranda Cucskon, guitarist Daniel Lippel and percussionist Jeffrey Irving. This is a sparely written piece that allows each individual voice to stand out with clarity against a background of open space; in particular, Lippel’s finely etched, plucked tones contrast tellingly with Cuckson’s bow work.

The Hunt by Night also contains the Piano Quartet No. 2, an essay in microtonality for strings.

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: Daniel Lippel – Mirrored Spaces [New Focus Recordings FCR239]

From guitarist Daniel Lippel comes a two-CD set containing a generous collection of recent work for solo guitarist. On the recording Lippel, a virtuoso specializing in the contemporary repertoire for guitar, plays both nylon string classical guitar and electric guitar, conventionally and with extended technique, with and without electronic augmentation. But no matter the instrumental set-up or the musical setting, Lippel’s performances are characteristically deft and assured.

A dominant theme on Mirrored Spaces is the use of alternative tunings and microtonality. The title work, a six-part suite co-composed by Lippel and Orianna Webb in 2006-2008, draws on quarter-tone tuning. The quarter-tone discrepancies create a wobbly choric effect, giving parts of the suite a strangely unstable feeling. Other parts sound like more conventional, albeit beautifully adventurous, classical guitar playing.

Ryan Streber’s Descent for scordatura electric guitar and two amplifiers was also a collaborative composition. The piece, which detunes the guitar’s four lowest strings from standard fourths tuning to the cello’s fifths tuning, has as its central trope the subtle incongruity of having an electric guitar played with classical technique. The piece slowly descends from the instrument’s upper to lower registers and in the process dresses it up in an increasingly overdriven, distorted sound.

Other pieces exploring alternative tunings include Christopher Bailey’s Arc of Infinity, a multi-faceted work for guitar and three layers of electronic sounds that uses overtones in standard tuning to create harmonies in Just Intonation, and Lippel’s own Scaffold, which incorporates three guitars using three different tunings.

Extended technique is more-or-less taken for granted on many of these performances, but they come to the fore particularly on From Scratch, a 2017 electroacoustic work by Sergio Kafejian, that envelops its skittering runs and fragmentary phrases in aggressive, percussive gestures, string scraping, snap pizzicato, and plucking behind the bridge.

No brief review can do justice to the rich variety of music in this collection. One can only say: Listen.

http://www.newfocusrecordings.com/catalogue/daniel-lippel-mirrored-spaces/

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Scott L. Miller – Raba [New Focus Recordings FCR198]

The electronic and electroacoustic music on Raba represents an updating, in its own way, of ambient music by way of contemporary art music. As composer Scott L. Miller explains, the CD began as a retrospective of his work but evolved into a reworking of some old pieces along with the creation of new work.

The title track, composed in 2015 and revised in 2017, exemplifies the paradox of tension within drift that characterizes Miller’s reimagining of ambient composition. The piece is orchestrated for a small electroacoustic ensemble of winds, strings, piano, percussion, and electronic sound. The latter is responsible for the ambience, providing as it does a textural backdrop recalling at times the electronic hum of a distant engine. Over this foundation, the acoustic instruments intervene with complementary washes of sound. The work is low-key but psychologically taut; it creates an atmosphere permeated by unresolved anticipation. The title of The Frost Performs Its Secret Ministry (2016) hints at an esoteric action hidden in an everyday meteorological event; this trio for flute (Laura Cocks), guitar (Daniel Lippel) and electronic sound keeps that action veiled in mostly abstract, unpitched sounds: the flute comes in on a gust of air notes, for example. Lippel’s agitated strumming keeps the piece from wafting into languor and instead adds an urgent, emotional edge. Lippel is the pivot for Meditation (2016) for guitar and interactive electronic sound. The piece is undergirded by a feedback-like hum on which the guitar’s coloristic fragments float; from this basic division of sonic parts Miller builds a subtle drama out of oppositions of timbre: the sharp attack, short sustain and relatively muted tones of the nylon-string guitar provide a compelling contrast to the electronics’ sustained sounds.

http://newfocusrecordings.com

http://scottlmiller.net

Daniel Barbiero

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

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

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

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

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

http://newfocusrecordings.com

Daniel Barbiero