AMN Reviews: Duane Pitre – Omniscient Voices [Important Records]

Pianist/composer Duane Pitre’s Omniscient Voices for justly tuned piano and electronics is a paradoxical album: a collection of music both lushly seductive and subtly disquieting all at once. For this set of five short-to-medium length pieces, Pitre composed piano motifs, largely consisting of brief phrases blending into chords, and used them as input for a generative computer program to convert them in real time into microtonal electronic sounds. The piano parts have a minimal quality to them—they’re enunciated as pitch-limited, discrete events allowed to decay gradually—whereas the electronics have a broader orchestral sweep and a more pronounced rhythmic continuity. The harmonies are euphonic and warmly enveloping, but the just tuning lends them a slightly off-kilter quality that shows up as a hint of sourness around the edges.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Sivan Silver-Swartz – Untitled 6 [Editions Wandelweiser EWR 1920]; a•pe•ri•od•ic – for [New Focus Recordings fcr249]

Nearly seventy years have passed since John Cage composed 4’33,” his most famous—or notorious, as at the time it seemed—“silent” piece. Since then the questions 4’33” raised—regarding the limits and definition of music; the relationship between the work and the environment in which it is performed; the ontological different, or indeed indifference, between sound and silence; and above all, the degree of control or letting-go a score can or should exert over its product—have given rise to a significant lineage or tradition within new music. Two new releases of music for chamber ensembles fall within that lineage and serve to bring it forward.

The Chicago ensemble a•pe•ri•od•ic, founded by composer/pianist Nomi Epstein in 2010, fits firmly, and quite deliberately, within the lineage initiated by Cage’s work. The group, which on this recording is an octet of violin, cello, flute, bass clarinet/clarinet, bassoon/voice, French horn, piano, and voice, performs works biased toward various kinds of indeterminacy, whether of orchestration, sound material, or architecture. Silence also plays a major role in their music, whether as primary material or as a structural element.

The four compositions on for were commissioned by the group; three are by group members and the fourth is by composer Michael Pisaro.

Violinist Billie Howard’s Roll (2016) comprises a sequence of soloists playing a sustained tone ending with a freely-chosen upward or downward glissando, followed by a silence. What comes to the fore in this work is the unique timbral quality of each instrumental voice, with the lower-pitched bassoon and cello making an especially rich impression. Vocalist Kenn Kumpf contributes Triadic Expansions (2) of 2017, a piece of mutating harmonies built up from slowly ascending or descending scales of more or less arbitrary pitch content. The entrances and exits are staggered in a way that creates an out-of-synch effect that keeps the center of gravity for the entire sound mass in a constant state of motion. Combine, Juxtapose, Delayed Overlap (2013-2017) by Epstein, is a very quiet textural piece that seems to play with the ambiguous status—are they music? Are they noise? Are they just a strange crystallization of silence into sound?–of liminal audio events. Pisaro’s festhalten/loslassen (2013), in contrast to the austerity of Epstein’s piece, contains passages of almost lush bundles of sustained tones moving cloudlike across and through each other. The piece is broken into sections by long silences and is punctuated with passages for percussive pizzicato strings and a slowly ascending scale begun on piano and continued on horn.

One of the composers who studied under Pisaro is Sivan Silver-Swartz (b. 1993). Like many composers of his generation, Silver-Swartz works in eclectic forms ranging from composed new music to rock-derived song. His Untitled 6 is an hour-long work in just intonation for three or more violins, violas, cellos or other bowed instruments that can be detuned as called for by the score. On this recording, the piece is played by two violas, two cellos, and one violin. As with the compositions on for, Untitled 6 is an open-form work that leaves many performance decisions up to the players. The performers are divided into two groups, one of which is assigned a score arranged somewhat like a chessboard each of whose squares specifies a given sound gesture or a silence; this set of performers is given latitude, within some constraints, to choose the sequence of squares, and hence sounds or silences, they will play. The score for the second set of players is a linear table that specifies durations but allows for choices of dynamics and gestures. Like Kumpf’s Triadic Expansions (2) or Pisaro’s festhalten/loslassen, Untitled 6 unfolds in a set of slowly shifting harmonies, but here the harmonies are given a particular piquancy from the instruments’ tunings and from the limitation of melodic material to open strings and the first harmonic—overall, music cast in a somewhat darker shade of consonance.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Ben Johnston & The Kepler Quartet: String Quartets 6, 7 & 8 [New World Records 80730]

fileX5pG6.jpg.fullIn both its scale and its fundamental reimagining of the form, the cycle of ten string quartets by microtonal composer Ben Johnston represents one of the most ambitious compositional projects of the second half of the twentieth century. With the release of this CD, the Kepler Quartet completes its own ambitious project of recording the cycle in its entirety.

As a composer Johnston, who celebrated his 90th birthday last month, was a protégé of microtonal experimentalist Harry Partch, having spent six months of 1949-1950 with him in California before going on to study with Darius Milhaud at Mills College. In 1951 Johnston took up a position at the University of Illinois, Urbana, where he stayed until his retirement in 1983. In between he studied with John Cage in 1959, after a brief and unsatisfactory attempt to work with the early electronic instruments at the Columbia-Princeton electronic music center. As early as the 1930s, Johnston showed an interest in acoustic theory as a basis for tuning and a corresponding dissatisfaction with equal temperament. Although he composed some works in equal temperament—including the First String Quartet, a serial work—the bulk of his compositions were done in sometimes quite expansive iterations of just intonation. Johnston’s reasons for adopting just intonation weren’t formal so much as they were expressive; as Kepler Quartet Second Violinist Eric Segnitz put it, the often complex array of pitches called for were “only byproducts of the emotional nuances” Johnston wished to convey. Johnston ceased composing in 1995.

Johnston’s expanded just intonation produced a very complex, difficult to perform body of work. Therein lies the paradox of just intonation: It reduces pitch relations to simple ratios, but these simple ratios in turn ramify into complex collections of microtonally distinguished, individual pitches when multiple keys are involved. The minute distinctions of pitch naturally demanded a special notation, which presents interpretive challenges of its own quite beyond the challenges of having to hear and reproduce as many as 1200 distinct pitches (as is called for in the Seventh String Quartet). Given the challenges inherent in the work, it isn’t surprising that it took the Kepler Quartet—who are, in addition to Segnitz, Sharan Leventhal (violin), Brek Renzelman (viola) and Karl Lavine (cello)– fourteen years and close consultation with the composer to accomplish the recording project, which began with their premiering the Tenth Quartet in 2002.

This final installment of the resulting series of recordings covers the Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Quartets, composed between 1980 and 1986. One of them—the Seventh—had never been performed before the Kepler Quartet took it up for this recording. And it’s this most notoriously difficult quartet that opens the set.

Finished in 1984, the Seventh quartet is divided into three movements, the first two short and the last very long relative to the others. Johnston described the first movement in terms of Kafka’s Metamorphosis because of its densely “scurrying” microtones. The sound is cloudlike—a swarming but somehow weightlessly airy mass of finely graded pitches circling each other. By contrast, the second movement is anchored by a walking pizzicato line with harmonics layered on top. The long third movement plays off of the opposition of horizontal lines that deviate perceptibly from what a lifetime of exposure to equal temperament would have one accept as “right” sounding, although vertically the pitches add up to chiming, rich chords that sound precisely calibrated.

The four movement Eighth quartet (1986) is one of Johnston’s neo-classical compositions. The first movement features a figure/field structure that sets a lead melody against a chordal background, while in the second movement the individual voices move in a fully-developed counterpoint. Like the second movement of the Eighth quartet, the third movement again uses the device of a regular but complexly cyclical pizzicato pulse as a framework, which in the fourth movement mutates into a more robust rhythm of unexpectedly added and dropped beats. The melodic last movement has the sound of a distantly recollected folk song, one whose melody is somehow distorted by the unreliability of memory.

The final quartet in the set, the Sixth (1980), is a single, long movement aptly subtitled “legato espressivo.” Johnston returns to twelve-tone writing here but in just intonation; the twelve-pitch set is made up of six tones from the D overtone series and six from the so-called undertone series of D#. One doesn’t need to hear this underlying structure to be affected by the slightly melancholic gravity of the piece. The unorthodox crossing of serial form and microtonal content makes for a moving work; the complexity of the formal arrangement only enhances the essentially expressive intent of the piece.

The set closes with Quickness (1996), a short piece for string quartet and voice reciting lines from the Persian poet Rumi. The piece is dedicated to the memory of Johnston’s late U Illinois-Urbana colleague Salvatore Martirano; the voice recorded here is Johnston’s.

The pleasure of listening to these landmark works is much enhanced by the indispensable liner note by Kyle Gann, a one-time student of Johnston’s.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Microtub – Star System [SOFALP544]

sofa544This is the second release from Microtub, the trio of Robin Hayward, Kristoffer Lo and Martin Taxt playing works in just intonation for their microtonal tubas. For Star System the group interpret two compositions notated as three-dimensional, color-coded graphic scores meant to provide spatial representations of the microtonal tuba’s compass and harmonic capabilities.

The title track—the score to which is reproduced as an image on the CD’s cover—consists of long tones laid out as unisons, octaves, and simple harmonies built on or implying a major triad. As the three tubas’ lines double each other and overlap, higher overtones emerge to enrich the sound and fill out the harmonies. Square Dance, like Star System a slowly unfolding piece of about twenty minutes’ duration, sets up a chord progression over pedal points, its suspended chords taking on a hymn-like quality at times, the tubas somehow mimicking the sound of an organ.

Microtub is minimal music sui generis—a sonically rich aggregate built up of deceptively simple elements.