AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Franklin Cox – The New Cello Volume 2 [Centaur Records CRC3390]

MI0003868339One of the more important legacies of the musical avant-garde of the last century is the extension of the technical means available to instrumentalists of all kinds. With this has come a corresponding broadening of the range of sounds ready to hand for performers and composers alike. With his series of recordings of new and recent music for the solo cello, Franklin Cox offers a cross-section of some of the more demanding and expansive compositions for the instrument.

An American originally from Illinois, Cox (b. 1961) is not only a cellist but a composer and musicologist as well. He was a student of composer Brian Ferneyhough and retains an allegiance to the New Complexity, of which Ferneyhough is perhaps the best known exemplar. All of the composers represented on The New Cello Volume 2, in fact, are either associated with or have been influenced by the New Complexity. Microtonality is a significant element of New Complexity composition and of particular importance to Cox, whose New Cello Volume 1, a collection of works by Americans Ben Johnston, Elliott Carter, Stuart Saunders Smith and Cox himself, demonstrated his fluency not only with microtonality but with intonation that falls outside of or beyond equal temperament. His favoring work of this sort pushes him into sonic territory that he describes as challenging Western art music’s traditional “requirement of constant tonal beauty.” The New Cello Volume 2, which features nine demanding compositions by contemporary European composers, finds him very much at home in that territory.

Although all of the works delve deeply into the cello’s full complement of technical resources, they aren’t simply about what can be done with and to the instrument. Each has an irreducible expressivity that the techniques, remarkable as they are, ultimately serve. This is apparent from the first track, Cox’s realization of British composer Roger Redgate’s Feu la cendre (1992). It is an aggressively percussive work that, with its rising and falling glissandi, has the cello at times take on the plaintive inflections of the human voice. Michael Finnissy’s Dove’s Figary (1976-77; 1981), a microtonal recasting of a 17th century English country dance tune, maintains its underlying songful nature underneath the artful warpages and distortions of Finnissy’s reimagining. Einspielung II (1980) by the late Portuguese composer Emmanel Nunes has a kind of knotty lyricism transmitted through rapidly falling figures, false leading tones and dramatic changes of register and dynamics.

Three of the works are linked to literary sources. James Erber’s Le colonne d’Ercole (1996) is based on Canto 26 of the Inferno; its flowing line possesses a lyricism that nonetheless is subject to dislocating shifts in mood. La vision d’ange nouveau (1997-98) by German composer Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf has its basis in Walter Benjamin’s essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History;” its slow, microtonal glissandi against a drone are broken by pizzicato notes and an increasingly fragmented texture–possibly an allusion to the shattered future that Benjamin’s angel sees spread out before him. A poem by Paul Celan provides the context for Welsh composer Richard Barrett’s Dark Ages (1987-90), a fittingly dark, thick-textured work for cello played with two bows on detuned strings.

Interspersed throughout the program are three versions of Klaus K. Hübler’s concise Opus breve, a predominantly timbral work of multilayered rhythms.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Alexander Sigman – Nominal/Noumenal

Alexander Sigman: Nominal/Noumenal (Carrier Records)

Nominal/Noumenal is a release of recent acoustic and electroacoustic chamber work by composer Alexander Sigman. Like his teacher Brian Ferneyhough, Sigman uses thickly notated scores to create complex compositions exploiting a sometimes dense, sometimes sparse arrangement of conventional and extended methods of sound production.

The seven pieces included in this release, conceived of as parts of two intersecting cycles, are scored for solo instruments as well as small ensembles of varied and sometimes unorthodox instrumentation. Entartete Musik 2, for example, combines viola and percussion to create a contrast between resonant low-pitched percussion and the comparatively bright timbres of the viola; a kind of rhythmic harmony follows from the overlap of irregular percussion strikes and the viola’s tremolo. The Shining Pillar of Anti-Beauty (int-0) for solo cello transforms the instrument’s ordinary sound profile through use of a microtonal scordatura, a lead mute, and selective amplification. The resulting voice somehow manages to be harsh and ethereal at the same time. The composition calls for an intriguing mixture of extended techniques and varied dynamics—not so much anti-beauty as beauty as seen from a different angle.

In some respects the recording’s centerpiece is Detritus I, scored for counter-tenor, chamber ensemble and electronics. Here again contrasting textures are set up, this time through the use of membrane and metal percussion, and the sound of the human voice doubled or opposed by trombone. Another layer of contrasts is encoded in the two texts Sigman sets: The fifth strophe of the proto-surrealist poem “Maldoror,” and Eric Gill’s “An Essay on Typography.” In many respects Detritus I epitomizes the work on this release which, with its often surprising juxtapositions of instruments and techniques, can be described with the well-known image from “Maldoror”: The chance meeting of an umbrella and sewing machine on a dissecting table.