AMN Reviews: Tom Flaherty – Mixed Messages [New Focus Recordings fcr 326]

The title of composer Tom Flaherty’s monograph recording Mixed Messages can be read as referring not only to the title track for violin, piano, and electronics, but more generally to the work of electroacoustic composition, which mixes the messaging of two different ways of creating sound. As it happens Flaherty, who directs the Pomona College Electronic Studio, mixes the messaging of acoustic instruments and electronics with a well-honed sense of complementarity. The works presented on this album represent a style of composition in which the electronics are an often subtle, and always natural, presence within the overall sound, serving to augment or emphasize harmonies and textures.

This comes out clearly on the album’s centerpiece, the three-movement Recess (2017) for string quartet, performed here with the optional electronics part included. The piece is grounded in the accumulation and repetition of brief motifs, which in the first movement form the foundation over which intertwined single lines drift downward, and in the third movement provide a pulsing, compressed rhythmic energy. The second movement features thick harmonies set out in long tones moving in and out of greater and lesser dissonances. On this movement in particular the electronics play a role in regulating the density and resonance of the sound’s overall texture, while maintaining the movement’s harmonic transformations as its center of musical gravity.

The mixed messages of the title track, from 2014, arise from its harmonic undecidability. At its center is a four-note chord that, depending on how it’s presented, could be major or minor, or consonant or dissonant. Acoustic piano and violin are accompanied by samples of violin and piano, which fruitfully complicate an already complicated harmonic knot.

Other highlights include 2020’s Release for violin, cello, and electronics, which integrates electronics-enhanced rhythms with timbral contrasts based on different string techniques, and Threnody (2003) for cello and electronics, which sets up a real-time, stimulus-and-response duet between live processing and a semi-improvised cello part.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Nick Storring – Newfoundout [mappa editions MAP027]

Nick Storring’s last solo album, My Magic Dreams Have Lost Their Spell, demonstrated the Toronto composer/multi-instrumentalist’s masterful use of multitracked instruments for the optimization of color and texture. Like My Magic Dreams, Newfoundout, Storring’s new offering, is a solo work of painstakingly composed sounds in vibrant layers, but unlike the earlier album, it pushes rhythm and percussion to the forefront.

Each of the seven compositions on Newfoundout is named for a Canadian ghost town. Although the pieces apparently aren’t intended as program works “describing” these towns—which Storring notes he’s never visited—they do have a cinematic sweep suggesting open vistas.

With Dome, the first track, the album opens in a splash of cymbals giving way to a repeated short melodic motif, which develops over a bed of expansive electronics and a polyphony of drums with delay. Dome Extension follows, with Dome’s motifs translated into rhythms. Although Storring uses both acoustic and quasi-electronic percussion with a strong emphasis on their color effects, on Vroomanton and Frood, as on Dome Extension, he has them spell out explicitly defined rhythms; on Frood he augments them with plucked and struck strings. The focus in Khartum, by contrast, is on a reverberant Fender Rhodes piano in a setting tonally exotic yet discordant around the edges.

The album closes with the title track, whose melancholic electronic drone, punctuated by chimes and tolling bells, could well stand as an elegy to that abandoned town and the others along with it.

A simply beautiful album of vividly imaginative music.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: James Caldwell – Pocket Music (2021; Neuma 135)

“Pocket Music” is collection of suites of electroacoustic miniatures from composer James Caldwell.  Caldwell is Professor Emeritus at Western Illinois University (WIU). In addition to his teaching, Caldwell co-directed the annual New Music Festival at WIU where he programmed hundreds of new pieces by living composers. “Pocket Music” is his first portrait release and represents just one facet of his wide-ranging interests as a composer.

For this CD Caldwell’s compositions explore his sonic imagination with everyday items that are often found in his pockets. As he writes, “For more than twenty years I have pursued a sporadic project of making small musique concrète pieces. The original set used sounds I made with things I found in my pockets while working in the studio—coins, keys, plastic pill bottle, comb, paperback book, rubber band, and a screwdriver struck against a wrench. … As I returned to the project, I continued working with small found sounds, but not necessarily things from my pockets: ping-pong balls, a stapler, M&M’s,  binder clips, finger cymbals, a pencil run over the rungs on the back of a chair, dresser handles, the bag from a bunch of apples from the grocery store, a wine glass, and then — moving outside into my yard — cicadas, lawn furniture, garden stones in a wheelbarrow, birds, the distant rumble of the Macomb Speedway, and some odds and ends sitting around on my hard drive. Even as the objects became larger or farther from me, the pieces remained pocket size.”

Armed with his imagination and his computer Caldwell explores the various relationships between representation and abstraction with the object(s) he has chosen; sometimes imposing his compositional ideas on the object and other times led by his discovery of hidden sonic properties in the object itself. There is a great deal of variety amongst each of these miniatures. Some are very rhythmic, a few are very harmonic, others are more acousmatic. There is always a sense of both an idea and of playfulness in each of these pieces and that is what makes “Pocket Music” a really interesting listen. Recommended.

Chris De Chiara

AMN Reviews: George Lewis – The Recombinant Trilogy [New Focus FCR284]

George Lewis’ Recombinant Trilogy is a triptych of recent compositions for solo acoustic instruments and interactive electronics. As the title implies, the electronic component, a software program written by Damon Holzborn, combines with the sound of the acoustic instrument to double its voice, alter its timbre, pitch, and apparent location in space, and otherwise fragment and recombine it into what Lewis describes as “multiple digitally created sonic personalities.” The Recombinant Trilogy represents the most recent stage in a long history of evolution; Lewis’ experiments with interactive electroacoustic systems reach at least as far back as his work at IRCAM in Paris in 1984, which included a performance featuring Lewis’ computer-generated improvisations in combination with improvisations by Joelle Leandre, Steve Lacy and others.

The current album encompasses three duets, each of which features an outstanding instrumentalist conversant in both contemporary composed and improvised music. Flutist Claire Chase, accompanied by Levy Lorenzo on electronics is first with Emergent (2014), followed by Seth Parker Woods, on electronics as well as cello, on Not Alone (2014-2015), and then bassoonist Dana Jessen, with Eli Stine on electronics, on Seismologic (2017), which Jessen commissioned. Holzborn’s program takes the instruments’ sounds and pans them from side to side and top to bottom; breaks them into fragments and then chunks them into quanta of repetition and layering; warps their timbres and shifts their pitches; and in the process synthesizes a global continuity out of multiple local discontinuities. One of the fascinating points of comparison is the very different timbral signature each instrument carries; while all three pieces are similar in their general processes of sonic interface, dilapidation, and rearrangement, they differ greatly in the details of color, density, and plasticity. In all three meetings of electronics and acoustics, the voices of the instruments come through even while undergoing the metamorphoses they’re subjected to: the flute’s pure, nearly disembodied soprano in Emergent, the dark friction of the cello in Not Alone, the earth-shaking low tones of the bassoon in the aptly titled Seismologic. And all of it is built on the foundation of Lewis’ concept and compositions, the solid ground on which these meetings take place.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Samora – Quasar [Rizosfera/NUKFM]

Samora is the solo project of Enrico Marani, but on Quasar, a multimedia work encompassing sound, visual art, and text, Marani expanded Samora to a complement of five. For the ten-part musical suite that makes up the work Marani, an electronic musician known for his wide range of collaborations with international artists, is joined by Eraldo Bernocchi, a composer, producer, and electronic musician associated with the post-industrial and ambient genres; and Silvia Corda, the Sardinian pianist/toy pianist/composer fluent in both freely improvised music and contemporary experimental art music. In addition to these superb musicians, Marani brought in philosopher Davide Bertolini to write an essay and visual artist Stefano Ricci to provide images.

Quasar’s ten parts find the three musicians in differing configurations: five for the full trio, two for the duo of Marani and Corda, one for Marani and Bernocchi, and two for Marani alone. Despite the variation of voices in combination, there is a consistent overall sound linking all ten pieces—a meticulously composed ambient impressionism made up of a richly woven tapestry of audio colors. Unlike much ambient music, which relies on predominantly dark and hazily-defined layers of sound, Quasar favors a brighter palette calling up the sounds of mallet percussion, flutes, rainsticks, and tintinnabulating bells. From the harp-like glissandi and embroidering piano chords of Part One, through the electric guitar, chromatic piano, and thick bass harmonies of Part Three, the vintage synthesizer sounds of Part Six and the jet-roar chords of Part Nine, the suite casts sound as a plastic material—something to be molded into coherent forms driven by the dynamic interrelationships of contrasting timbres. To make music this way is, as Bertolini puts it at one point in his essay, “to make something from that which is other.”

SAMORA – Quasar • USB Card + eBook + Digital Streaming

Daniel Barbiero


AMN Reviews: Luigi Nono – La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura [Kairos 0015086KAI]

The provocatively beautiful La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura: Madrigale per piu “caminantes” con Gidon Kremer, violino solo, 8 nastri magnetici, da 8 a 10 leggii, an open-form electroacoustic work for solo violin, eight-track tape and eight to ten music stands, was one of the last pieces composed by Luigi Nono (1924-1990). Nono wrote the piece after having met violinist Gidon Kremer, recordings of whose playing, which Nono later manipulated electronically in the studio, serve as the sound sources for the piece’s electronic component. Nono called the work a madrigal because he conceived it as a polyphony—specifically a polyphony that Nono, ever opposed to hierarchy in music or anywhere else, envisioned as a truly level duet for voices meeting on entirely equal terms within a given space.

The spatial setting of the work plays an important role in shaping the performance, no two of which will be exactly the same given the good deal of discretion that Nono’s score affords both performers. The eight to ten music stands are distributed within the performance area; six of them contain scores for one each of the piece’s six parts, while the remainder are empty. The violinist is to trace a path through the parts by “wandering”–both the violinist and the sound projectionist are the “caminantes,” or “wanderers,” of the title—from stand to stand, playing from the score, the empty music stands serving as disruptive wild cards of a sort. The violinist can choose when to begin and how long to play each of the parts, while the sound projectionist can fade tracks in or out in dialogue with what the violinist plays or according to his or her own sense of musical architecture. Thus though the piece has a total duration of 61 minutes, the duration any given part will have is left to the actual choices the performers make while playing. A complex work, then, and one in which a certain element of unpredictability is always in play.

The realization of La lontananza by violinist Marco Fusi and sound director Pierluigi Billone reflects the specific choices these two performers made not only during the recording of the piece, but beforehand. The two agreed on an overall architecture and, at Fusi’s suggestion, on putting a focus on the liminal aspects of the piece, and hence on some of the violin’s more elusive sonorities. The version that resulted is one of refinement and nuance. Although there are passages where the violin is played with a full-throated voice—as for example in the fourth section, or in the more cohesively linear melodies of the second section, where Fusi and Billone interact in a relationship that approaches something resembling a conventional, albeit discordantly Modernist, counterpoint—it mostly appears at the lower end of its dynamic range, often with sounds from which the stability of pitch, and in some cases even its traces, has been deliberately effaced with aporetic gestures. This is especially true of the third section, in which Fusi introduces exquisite fluctuations of tone and tone color and positions his sound at the threshold of audibility. His description of his approach to this section as involving a turn inward is apt, and in fact serves as a good description of his orientation within the work as a whole. Billone’s projection and sculpting of the electronic material provides not only the multiplied images of Kremer’s prerecorded violin, but a counterweight of assertion and density to Fusi’s voice of introversion. No mere background or neutral environment, the electronic parts carry a substantive eloquence of their own on a par with the violin. Together they offer a harmony of equals, through difference.

Daniel Barbiero

San Francisco Tape Music Collective


A selection of fixed media works presented by the collective in recent San Francisco Tape Music Festivals.

Works by Maggi Payne, Kent Jolly, Cliff Caruthers, Matt Ingalls, Thom Blum, Kristin Miltner, and Joseph Anderson.


Freely available for streaming and download from

The San Francisco Tape Music Collective is dedicated to presenting performances of audio art. For over 20 years they have presented The San Francisco Tape Music Festival, diffusing works from composers throughout the world in addition to their own works through a pristine immersive 24-speaker surround-sound environment, in complete darkness.   SFTMC and SFTMF are projects of sfSound.

Donations are welcome. All proceeds go to the San Francisco Tape Music Festival. (post COVID-19).  If you donate this Friday, Juneteenth, bandcamp will donate 100% of their shares to NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

AMN Reviews: Attilio Novellino – Strängar [Forwind FWD28]

Strängar, by Attilio Novellino is a four-movement work for grand piano, piano soundboard, prepared piano, various synthesizers, and electronics. Novellino, a sound artist, and composer from Catanzaro in the southern Italian region of Calabria, recorded Strängar at EMS Elektronmusikstudion in Stockholm as well as in Catanzaro. Novellino’s musical concept, with its structural use of compact themes and simple elements repeated and recombined, is its own kind of minimalism, but his ear for timbre and his ability to develop richly textured soundscapes gives his music an almost cinematic expansiveness.

The core of Strängar consists of resonant piano chords or notes struck once and left to linger, and in short, repeated motifs. From that foundation Novellino layers on a variety of sounds, most notably those created by playing directly on the piano’s strings—scraping, plucking, and striking in such a way as to convey something of the instrument’s sheer materiality. With these sonic foundations thus set down, Novellino then goes on to elaborate each piece with increasingly complex textures and sweeping electronic washes of sustained chords. The end result is a finely-tuned balance of the abstract and the atmospheric.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Samuel Goff – Transmissions [Cacophonous Revival Recordings]

Samuel Goff, the percussionist, composer, and improviser from Richmond, VA, begins 2020 with his first monograph album and the inauguration of a new label. Goff, who plays tuned percussion and keyboards as well as drum kit, and who often works with field recordings and electronic processing, is no stranger to establishing close-to-the-ground institutions in music’s borderlands. He is one of the founders of the Richmond Avant Improv Collective (RAIC), a free-floating group whose five core members are often joined for performances and recordings by guests drawn from the unexpectedly deep bench of Richmond’s musical underground—musicians such as Jimmy Ghaphery, Fred McGann, Tim Harding, Lucas Brode, and Sam Byrd. For Transmissions, which in addition to being his first solo album is also the first release on his Cacophonous Revival Recordings label, Goff is the sole musician, playing percussion of various types along with keyboards, turntables and more.

Many of the pieces on Transmissions can be described as augmented musique concrète—improvised instrumental performances layered over a foundation of processed field recordings and other pre-recorded sounds. This documentary grounding also comes out in titles like Pikeville, Snakebite and Cochabamba, which evoke places and situations in the real world, the local flavor of which Goff evinces with the instrumental voices he chooses to use. There’s a soundtrack-like quality to much of his music—the two-part title work, for example, has the cinematic sweep and drama of an imaginary science fiction film set in interstellar space. Not surprisingly, one of Goff’s recent albums with RAIC was a soundtrack improvised to a silent film. While Transmissions’ seven tracks happily transgress boundaries of genre and programmatic content, they make for a coherent whole. What holds them all together is Goff’s own sophisticated sensibilities as a composer crafting finished works out of multiple moving parts.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Irene Kepl – Sololos [Fou FR-CD20]; George Cremaschi, Irene Kepl & Petr Vrba – Resonators [Another Timbre at104]

In one new and one recent release, Austrian violinst Irene Kepl appears in two different contexts: As unaccompanied soloist and as a composer and participant in small ensemble play.

SololoS, the new release, consists of twelve improvised solo performances. The performances are for the most part built around a limited set of motifs or techniques which Kepl develops through series of variation, some of them quite minute. She’s especially effective at creating rhythmic motifs out of insistent bowing patterns, which she subsequently colors with changing accents. Many of the pieces are densely textured with all four strings sounding simultaneously, to which Kepl occasionally adds her voice as a fifth layer.

Resonators, released late last year, is a trio recording with Kepl on violin and electronics, George Cremaschi on double bass and electronics, and Petr Vrba on clarinet, trumpet, and electronics. As the title implies, the recording was made with the acoustics of the performance environment foremost in mind; the four pieces on the CD were recorded in two particularly resonant spaces in the Czech Republic. In order to fully exploit the natural resonance of the spaces, the acoustic instruments were fortified with amplification and feedback. Feedback dominates the first track, Cremaschi’s Affective Labor, which conveys a sense of sounds drifting in an expansive space. Kepl’s two compositions stand in pronounced contrast to each other, Soma focusing on timbral variability through bow articulation and slow counterpoint, and Pirol collecting brief, frenetic fragments of pitches and sounds. Pirol’s scattering of quick sounds is quite a different thing from the piece that precedes it, Vrba’s gravely beautiful Locus Resonatus. Here strata of long, overlaid tones create ambiguous harmonies that slowly accumulate tension as the dynamics build to a very gradual crescendo. The richness of the acoustic instruments comes through most clearly, helped along by Vrba’s switch from clarinet to trumpet as the piece unfolds.

Daniel Barbiero