AMN Reviews: Adam Roberts – Bell Threads [New Focus Recordings fcr312]

Strings are the predominant voice on Bell Threads, an album of composer Adam Roberts’ chamber music for solo, duo, trio and quartet. The title work, a piece for solo viola performed here by Hannah Levinson, contains the sliding between pitches, microtonal dissonances, contrasting upper and lower registers, and use of harmonics that typifies Roberts’ writing for strings. Levinson is joined by violinist Maya Bennardo on Shift Differential, a symmetrical work in three parts whose opening and closing sections feature raga-like phrasing built on stressed tones and microtonal sliding. In between is a section for the two to weave a texture of rapidly intertwining lines. Levinson and Bennardo also perform the two-part duet Diptych. Part I consists of drone tones and undulating lines with slight deviations above and below pitch, overlaid with pressure bowing; Part II includes microtonal near-unisons leavened by a more conventionally modernist-sounding counterpoint. The solo harp piece Rounds, performed by Hannah Lash, also relies on counterpoint, but of a rhythmic kind; rapidly plucked rhythms are set out against slower rhythms for a richly layered effect. The kaleidoscopic trio work Happy/Angry Music, for piano, double bass and percussion (performed by Bearthoven), plays with texture and changing time signatures and throws much of the melodic work to the bass; while the Oboe Quartet is a classically structured work written to complement the Mozart oboe quartet. Roberts’ quartet, performed by oboist Erik Behr and members of the JACK Quartet, represents an updating of the tradition, with generous use of bent tones, dissonances and extended techniques for both oboe and strings

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Cenk Ergün and the JACK Quartet – Sonare and Celare [New Focus Recordings FCR238]

Sonare and Celare, the two string quartets by Turkish-born composer Cenk Ergün (b. 1978) released together on an EP, are complementary works in many senses of the word. Originally conceived of as a single piece, the two quartets instead became companion pieces whose sonic qualities are creatively opposed to one another. As is often the case when Ergün composes acoustic works, these two quartets of 2015-2016were the product of a collaborative process. In sketching and then finalizing them, Ergün worked closely with the JACK Quartet, for whom they were written.

Sonare was composed through an elaborate process of reverse-engineering: Ergün first set out rhythm patterns using the MAX program and then densified their textures through software-facilitated combination. The JACK Quartet recorded a number of rehearsals of the resulting material, which Ergün edited into a sort of master take that he then transcribed and notated for the final score. As one might expect from a process like that, Sonare is a composition of dense textures. It opens with a thick, aggressive sound evoking an asynchronous, loudly buzzing swarm of insects. A close listen, though, reveals the mass to be made up of the pulsing accents of individual bowings. The piece develops as a set of variations not only on dynamics—first very loud, then very soft, then back again to full fury—but on bow speeds as well. Pitch seems to be a secondary element—a necessary yet epiphenomenal component of mass.

Celare, by contrast, is a symmetrical three-part work whose first and third sections feature short, widely spaced bowed and plucked sound events played at low volume. The middle section of the work, which consists of a drone of microtonally spaced intervals, recalls Sonare’s buzzing dissonance but lays it out in a gradually shifting layers and steady, mid-range dynamics. Celare seems to take Sonare’s volumetric sound blocks and thin them out, retaining the latter’s microtonality and fusion of voices while dispersing them through a structural substitution of space for mass.

The JACK Quartet plays these complementary pieces with the finely calibrated degrees of energy and delicacy they call for.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Zosha Di Castri – Tachitipo [New Focus Recordings FCR227]

Tachitipo, a set of five works composed between 2010 and 2017, is the first monograph recording from composer Zosha Di Castri. Originally from Calgary, Alberta in Canada and now resident in New York, where she is on the faculty of Columbia University, Di Castri began composing through the Edmonton, Alberta Symphony Orchestra’s Young Composers program and went onto double major in composition and performance. Di Castri is a pianist as well as a composer, and sometimes will use improvisation as a way of forming compositional ideas.

The pieces on Tachitipo demonstrate Di Castri’s versatility in composing for different instrumental groupings; included are works for chamber ensembles and small orchestra, a string quartet, a solo piano work and a piece for voice and electronics. The pieces for orchestra and mixed chamber ensembles show Di Castri’s aptitude for handling contrasts and similarities of instrumental compass and color. In a recent interview, she named Debussy as an early influence; the importance of timbral relationships in her music would seem to bear out the continuing importance of his example.

Cortège, composed in 2010 for the Acanthes Festival in Metz, France, is scored for thirteen piece orchestra. The piece, played here by the Talea Ensemble, is study of contrasts: dark and bright, light and heavy, as muffled drums are played off against the voices of flute and clarinet, and the mood alternates between a compressed, nervous energy and a melancholy languor. Forma dello spazio, also from 2010, is a quintet for flute, clarinet, piano, violin, and cello, commissioned by the Banff Center and realized here by members of the fine International Contemporary Ensemble. The piece was inspired by mobile sculptures and does seem to capture something of their motion: skittering violin and piano and rising and falling undulations on clarinet provide movement over the undertow, sometimes explicit and sometimes implicit, of suspended tones. The writing features nice timbral fusions of violin, clarinet, and piano in the upper registers.

Di Castri’s String Quartet No. 1, composed in 2016, was first played by the ten finalists in the Banff Centre’s International String Quartet Competition for that year. The piece, energetically played on this recording by the JACK Quartet, opens with a discordant flourish and rides a series of surges and retreats—of dynamics, of swift and slow glissandi, of unsettling harmonics. A subtle rhythmic coherence runs throughout and binds together this otherwise episodic work.

Other pieces included on Tachitipo are the mechanical typewriter-inspired, long title track of 2016 for two pianos and two percussionists, played by the incomparable Yarn/Wire; 2017’s Dux, a solo piano piece performed by Julia Den Boer; and the vocal and electronics work The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named (2013), a commission from the Canada Council for the Arts performed here by Ekmeles.

AMN Reviews: Ryan Carter – Chamber Works [Kairos 0015048KAI]

Although composer Ryan Carter’s monograph Chamber Works contains work largely written for acoustic chamber ensembles and solo piano, the influence of modern electronic audio technologies is never very far away. Carter is, in addition to a composer of “classical” music, a programmer and electronic sound artist, one of whose projects uses a video game controller to create real-time electronic music.

Carter is particularly interested in the ways that technology informs, and at times distorts, the way people listen to music. It’s an interest that surfaces in his third string quartet, Too Many Arguments in Line 17 (2010), which was inspired by the glitches and loops of a badly buffered video Ryan was watching. The piece, which was written for the JACK Quartet who perform it here, mimics the jerky playback of the video with seemingly randomly repeated phrases broken up by hiccups, skips and other rhythmic interruptions.

If Too Many Arguments in Line 17 is marked by discontinuities of rhythm Grip, Carter’s second string quartet, is marked by displacements of architecture. The piece, performed here by the Calder Quartet who commissioned it in 2006, features synchronous and asynchronous layers of sound built up from glissandi, overlapping sustained tones, and tremolo bowings and plucking.

When All Else Fails (2016-2017) is a work centered on the sonorous qualities and interplay of two prepared pianos and two percussionists. The pianos sound at times like marimbas, gamelans and chimes; the preparations additionally alter the instruments’ pitch to throw out a hint of microtonality. The gradually becomes polyrhythmic as the instruments’ tempos go in and out of phase. It’s a highlight of the album and is played with characteristic verve by Yarn/Wire, for whom it was written.

The single work for acoustic instrument and electronics is On the Limits of a System and the Consequences of My Decisions (2016) for fixed media, piano and interactive electronics. Carter envisioned the electronics as another sustain pedal for the piano; they account for the intermittent drones and glassy, bell-like simulacra of the piano part. This latter, played by Keith Kirchoff, is couched in fragmented phrases scattered nervously across the instrument’s registers.

Chamber Works also includes the simultaneously hesitant and exuberant solo piano work Errata (2010), which wittily recasts Carter’s technical limitations as a pianist into technical challenges for the performer (Emanuele Torquati), and Break (2018) for piano and cello.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Richard Karpen – Aperture II / Elliptic [Neuma 450-117]

cover170x170Richard Karpen is a composer whose work exemplifies what music historian Richard Taruskin characterized as “post-literate” composition—works composed with electronic or other means that eliminate the need for a formally notated score.

Karpen (b. 1957), who is Director of the School of Music at the University of Washington, trained as a pianist but also is a programmer who created software for use in composition and performance.  Karpen’s method of composition is to bypass the middle term of notated scores and to work directly with the performers of his works. Many of these are developed around specific artists; both pieces on this CD were originally conceived as solos—Aperture for viola and Elliptic for guitar—and then scaled up for the versions recorded here.

Aperture II for amplified string quartet—performed by the JACK Quartet—is a tintinnabulation of accumulating overtones that surges and diminishes over the unhurried course of thirty-nine minutes. Sounding at first like a particularly rich, chiming drone, the piece undergoes gradual changes of harmony as well as dynamics as shifting internal voices slowly complicate its tambura-like buzz. Listening is like watching a relatively calm sea: Not looked at too closely, the surface appears to be a static plane; the more attentive view of a downward glance instead reveals wavelets in constant motion. Aperture II’s deceptively placid surface is occasionally disturbed by stabs and runs of individual notes and the unpitched squealing of massed, amplified harmonics.

Like Aperture II, Elliptic is a long piece of rising and ebbing sound grounded in increments of movement. The entire piece seems to pool around a single tone, whether explicitly stated or simply implied; what in a more conventional piece would be framed as development of line is instead reconfigured as deviations from a center. Here the JACK Quartet is augmented by nylon-string and electric guitars and two Vietnamese zithers–the monochord đàn bầu and the đàn tranh. The performance plays on the timbral contrasts between bowed and plucked strings; the metallic, twangy zithers set themselves off from the sustained tones of the string quartet, often simulating the effects of sustain with tremolo strumming.

This is beautiful music for close listening.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Horatiu Radulescu – Piano Sonatas & String Quartets Vol. 1 [Mode 290]

MI0004024730Although originating in France and particularly identified with the work of composer Gérard Grisey, Spectralism also flourished in Romania. Horatiu Radulescu (1942-2008), a Romanian composer who for a period took up residence in Paris, crafted a Franco-Romanian Spectralism with unique characteristics of its own. The three works presented on this CD—two piano sonatas played by Stephen Clarke and one string quartet—trace the development of Radulescu’s variation on Spectralism in the period 1990-2003.

Radulescu studied in the Bucharest Academy of Music in the late 1960s, relocating to Paris after his graduation in 1969. In the early 1970s, he took summer courses at Darmstadt with Cage, Ligeti, Stockhausen and Xenakis. He continued to esteem Xenakis’s music throughout his life. Also in the early 1970s he was a student of Messiaen at the Paris Conservatoire. His artistic aim was to create a “sound plasma” of dynamic musical textures through which the listener could become immersed in the microtonal nuances deriving from the overtone series. He drew inspiration from the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu as well as from Pythagoras; many of his works—including the three on this release—are titled or subtitled with lines from Stephen Mitchell’s translation/paraphrase of the Tao Te Ching.

The two piano sonatas—No. 2 of 1991 and No. 5 of 2003—represent a kind of synthetic Spectralism—a Spectralism that is concerned with natural harmonics, but as interpreted through the instrument’s equal temperament. Also part of the synthesis is Romanian folk song, which provided Radulescu with melodic source material. The sonatas are distinct from Radulescu’s early experiments with retuned, bowed piano and show him now turning to the conventional piano. Piano Sonata No. 2, which is from a set of three piano sonatas (Nos. 2, 3 & 4) commissioned by pianist Ortwin Stürmer, incorporates themes taken from the Bb, C and B overtone series as well as a hexatonic mode with a B root. The textures are sparse and prismatic, and appear to develop their thematic material through repetition and fragmentation. Piano Sonata No. 5, like No. 2 a three-movement work, arranges Romanian folk motifs in multi-tempo canons in which the modal flavor of the melodies is particularly pronounced.

The CD’s centerpiece, both literally in terms of its placement and figuratively in its capacity to compel attention, is Radulescu’s String Quartet No. 5, titled “before the universe was born.” Realized here by the JACK Quartet, the piece is a tour de force of extended timbre amounting to a sort of dissonant counterpoint with instrumental color. The glassy sounds of sul ponticello bowing and high harmonics, and the frequent uses of multiphonics all make for an otherworldly sonic texture—quite literally, as at times the quartet sound as if they’re channeling the rising and falling squeals of extraterrestrial lightning-generated radio waves. It is a powerful performance of a thrilling work.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Lewis Nielson – Axis [Mode Records 283]

283-nielsonThe music of Lewis Nielson, who recently retired as chair of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music Composition Department, pushes the fragmentary language of modernism to a breaking point and couches it in contemporary timbres.

Nielson’s work can be highly expressive—his Il Romanticismo di Lucrezia e Cesare (2014), a theatrical piece for double bass, soprano and tape, appropriates the grand emotional sweep of opera and turns advanced double bass technique to equally dramatic use. By contrast, the three recent pieces collected here, composed between 2005 and 2010, largely eschew dramatic rhetoric and instead tend to rely on the accumulation of piecemeal gestures which gradually gather up into a whole. In a way they recall what Carlo Ginzburg called the “intuizione bassa”—the inductive leap by virtue of which a full picture suddenly appears out of scattered traces.

The string quartet Le Journal du Corps (2010), performed by the JACK Quartet, is an episodic work in which the four voices occasionally converge but more often seem to operate independently. It begins sparsely, testing the silence with tentative stabs of sound, and slowly gathers momentum and mass. Nielson intersperses rapid runs, droning chords and brittle harmonics with the “unmusical,” quasi-industrial sounds of creaking and grinding. A few minutes away from the ending there’s a chant-like sung part drawing on text taken from a play by Martinican poet Aimé Césaire. Nielson’s choice of text makes explicit the quartet’s anti-imperialist programmatic intent. Tocsin (2009) is a similarly programmatic work of assembled and disassembled pieces. The all-percussion work, performed by red fish blue fish, uses changes in sound density and dynamics to illustrate the coalescence and dissolution of crowds during periods of political upheaval. Finally Axis (2005), for solo percussion and string quintet—for which cellist Emily Du Four joins JACK—is a concatenation of nervous spasms of sound, the restless pizzicato and scuffled bowings of the strings playing off of percussionist Steven Schick’s unsettling attacks on drums and cymbals.

Daniel Barbiero