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AMN Reviews: Harry Partch – The Bewitched (2021; Neuma 126) and U.S. Highball (2021; Neuma)

Many contemporary composers have been described as iconoclasts but few really are the rugged individualists they are often portrayed as being. Harry Partch(1901 – 1974) may be one of the rare exceptions. Influenced by his study and interpretation of ancient musical models, Partch decided to firmly break with the European musical tradition. He devised his own tuning system with a microtonal division of the octave into forty three notes and then designed and built a whole series of instruments to utilize his tuning. His music was influenced by ancient music, folk traditions from around the world and the dramatic inflections and gesturing of the human voice. His music does not have that “out of tune” quality that many often experience with microtonal music. This is largely due to Partch’s music being primarily based on rhythmic and melodic gestures rather than chord progressions surrounding a melody. Partch’s work was not just about his tuning system and his instruments, it was about his re-imagining of music itself.

Harry Partch commented that his work was like ancient ritual but in modern terms. He often used the word corporeal to describe his work and I have to admit that even after several decades of listening to his music that I didn’t really appreciate what that meant. It wasn’t until I watched a DVD of a performance of his piece “Delusion of Fury” that my appreciation of his work really started to click. For Partch, like many non-European cultures every aspect of the physical performance of his music was as important as the sonic result. I would recommend that readers take advantage of things like Vimeo and YouTube to see, as well as hear live staged performances of his work.

Partch wrote “The Bewitched”in the early 1950’s. He described it as a ballet satire. The piece has only been produced a few times. It is ten scenes based on everyday American life plus a prologue and epilogue. The story revolves around the idea that the world needs a serious dose of reality and that a witch goes around and appears in each of the scenes using her ancient magic to deliver a much needed bit of self-awareness to each of these everyday situations.

This recording of “The Bewitched” is a binaural recording from 1980 at the Berlin Festival. For full effect use your headphones or ear buds to get a sense of what it must have been like to be sitting in the audience for this performance.  As you can see from the video clip from this performance, the ensemble, the soloists and the dancers are all together on the same stage, all completely engaged in Partch’s ritual. And as you can hear the ensemble gave quite a spirited performance!

In addition to releasing “The Bewitched” Nuema has re-released a very rare recording of Partch’s “U.S. Highball”.  It is a work from 1943 and is the story of a transcontinental hobo trip set in Partch’s unique speech music style. It’s a story Partch knew well, as he lived the hobo lifestyle for many years. This recording of “U.S. Highball” is from 1946 and was originally released by Partch on his own label in an edition of 100 records on red vinyl. It’s a really interesting performance and a rare glimpse into one of Partch’s earliest works.  Both recordings are highly recommended !

Chris De Chiara

AMN Reviews General Releases Reviews

AMN Reviews: Quatuor Bozzini – Alvin Lucier: Navigations[2021; CQB 2128_NUM]

There have been many technical and technological innovations in music since 1945 but one of the most important aesthetic innovations has been in new ideas that focus on listening. Innovators like Pierre Schaeffer proposed the idea of reduced listening – an attitude in which sound is listened to for its own sake as a sound object, removed from its source. John Cage invited listeners to hear any sound as music. Pauline Oliveros encouraged listeners to actively experience all sounds through a practice she described as “deep listening”. These ideas all contributed to contemporary music’s focus on the experience of sound itself.

Alvin Lucier’s compositions and installations make use of sounds that are often the results of acoustic phenomena. His work focuses our attention and perception on the physical presence of sound interacting within a particular space. Performing Lucier’s compositions requires performers to learn to recognize, activate, play and interact with acoustic phenomena. The Quatuor Bozzini were clearly up for the challenge when they recorded “Alvin Lucier: Navigations”. The album opens with “Disappearances”, a piece that is a single note. That description may sound like it is minimalist to the extreme but to my ears it is a piece rich with development. You hear changes in weight and timbre as each string joins together in unison. The controlled motions of the string’s bows cause phasing and filtering of the sound. The tiny subtle changes in pitch causes beating which reveals pulsating difference tones. Each of these phenomena disappear into one another creating a feeling of movement and making the listener aware of the tiniest changes in pitch and timbre.

The album contains two realizations of “Group Tapper”, a piece that explores room acoustics by having the instrumentalists treat their instruments as percussion. The performers tap on their instruments in various places and reflect the sound coming from their instruments around the room. The recording engineer does a great job of making the room present on this album so that you can really hear how the group’s performance interacts with the room. Placed in between the two realizations of “Group Tapper” is for me the most striking piece on this recording, “Unamuno”.  The piece was inspired by early twentieth century Spanish writer  Miguel de Unamuno and it was originally written for voices. “Unamuno” is based around four pitches that are continuously arranged into different patterns. It has a probing and questioning kind of vibe to it. The Bozzini’s perform the piece with both strings and their voices. The result is absolutely stunning. 

The album finishes with “Navigations for Strings”. At a high level “Navigations for Strings” and “Unamuno” share some of the same types of ingredients. Both pieces are based on four pitches and both make use of slowly changing combinations and difference tones. However, despite these high level similarities the two pieces sound very different.  “Navigations for Strings” is a somewhat dark piece in which continuous changes in microtonality, dynamics and tempo create a sound mass that feels like it is becoming a stasis, but it’s continuous changes never allow it to rest. It is a very haunting piece.

With “Alvin Lucier: Naviagtions” the Quatuor Bozzini have gone well beyond the surface of Lucier’s scores and have totally embraced his challenge to performers to be sonic explorers. “Alvin Lucier: Naviagtions” is a wonderful album with captivating performances of one of the most original and innovative experimental composers of our time.

Highly Recommended!

Chris De Chiara

AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: David First / The World Casio Quartet – The Complete Gramavision Session (1989) [Pogus P21084-2]

R-8768693-1468364146-4968.jpegA saxophone quartet, yes. A string quartet, most certainly. But a Casio quartet? But of course! In the late 1980s, composer David First acquired a Casio CZ-1000 to create microtonal drones with the assistance of a Tascam Portastudio. An overdubbed demo piece called Four Casios—a wry, quasi-parodic homage to Steve Reich’s Four Organs credited to the technically non-existent World Casio Quartet—led to performance requests and the consequent formation of a real World Casio Quartet. The four members—First, Esther Sandrof and Brian Charles on Casio CZ-1000 and Kevin Sparke on Casio CS-101—went into the studio in 1989 and recorded the four pieces that appear on this CD.

Rather than creating conventional harmonies with melodies superimposed, the group forged its distinctive collective sound by detuning their instruments and stacking the resulting microtones into thick clusters. The two middle tracks on the release—one of which is appropriately titled Plate Mass—consist of heavy, droning masses of densely layered plates of sound rising and falling against and with each other in slow glissandi. Strange Over and Collapsing ‘Round Midnight both are rapid pulse pieces whose inner and outer voices build complex, motile chords—the latter an oblique, microtonal allusion to the Monk classic ‘Round Midnight.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: If, Bwana – E (and sometimes why)

If, Bwana: E (and sometimes why) [pogus 21062-2]

If Bwana
If Bwana (Photo credit: kubia)

This new, fascinating two-disc set from If, Bwana (Al Margolis) could easily have been named for its last track, Diapason, Maybe. Diapason can be defined as either the just octave of Pythagorean tuning, or a great upsurge in harmony. Both definitions come into play throughout this album, which documents a well-conceived and -accomplished virtual collaboration between Margolis and the Trio Scordatura (Elisabeth Smalt, viola d’amore; Bob Gilfrun, keyboard and laptop; and Alfrun Schmid, voice), a Netherlands-based ensemble dedicated to exploring novel harmonic relationships through the use of just intonation or tunings that aren’t based on conventional twelve-pitch equal temperament.

A recurring theme throughout E (and sometimes why) is the layering of long tones into emergent harmonies that shift and swell over time. Because of the tunings and instruments used, the harmonies have a microtonal flavor—they seem to roll, pitch and yaw somewhere in the spaces between equal-tempered harmonies. The Diapason, Maybe, along with the title track and All for Al(frun) exemplify this. Each of the three uses a different voice as a kind of urtext. E (and sometimes why) layers long-bowed tones from the viola d’amore with Schmid’s voice; All for Al(frun) is built up of overdubs of Schmid and electronics; Diapason, Maybe has as its foundation Monique Buzzarté’s trombone drones. On all of these tracks, Margolis’s additive layering of samples produces harmonies that fluctuate between the apparently concordant and discordant, often getting denser as the piece develops. Because of the manner in which the sounds are presented, the listener is likely to become sensitized to the micro-variations in pitch that attend even the seemingly steadiest, long-duration tone. There’s something of a paradox here in that this highly electronic music highlights the tiny inconsistencies that make music human, whether these make themselves apparent through the ebb and flow of breath, barely discernible changes in bow pressure on a string, or a slight wobble in the voice.

A few of the pieces bring out a different side of the sound altogether. The wonderfully titled The Tempest, Fuggit is an ultimately unsettling work centered on Michael Peters’ recitation of Prospero’s lines from Act 1, Scene 2 of The Tempest, punctuated by sampled pizzicato strings and set within a looming, suspenseful electronic drone. Cicada 4AA is a predominantly textural work, while Gilmore’s Girls, augmented by the appearances of Buzzarté, vocalist Lisa Barnard Kelley and Margolis on keyboards, favors more staccato sounds and is in some ways the most overtly microtonal track in the collection.