AMN Reviews: Kate Soper & Sam Pluta: The Understanding of All Things [New Focus Recordings FCR322]

Kate Soper and Sam Pluta’s The Understanding of All Things is something of a scaled-down version of Soper’s Ipsa Dixit of 2018. The latter was a two-disc set presenting Soper’s six-movement work of music, text, and theater for soprano, flute, percussion, and violin; this new release is a five-part suite consisting of three through-composed works for voice, piano, and electronics, and two improvised interludes for voice, piano, and electronics that she shares with Pluta. As she did with Ipsa Dixit, Soper chooses an eclectic set of texts to put to music or to narrate. The authors range from the Eleatic philosopher Parmenides to Irish philosopher George Berkeley to William Butler Yeats, Franz Kafka, and Soper’s teacher, composer Fred Lehrdahl. Supplementing the texts are Soper’s introductions and commentaries. The material’s eclecticism isn’t just a matter of the individual texts chosen but also of their settings; for example, on the long central piece Soper juxtaposes the surviving fragments of Parmenides’ poem with a poem by Yeats that she arranges as a sentimental song for voice and piano. Soper has a beautiful, crystalline voice whether speaking or singing or even being processed into fragments as it is on the opening track or on the first dialogue with Pluta; Pluta’s interventions are managed with a sensitivity that brings out the instrumental qualities of Soper’s voice while maintaining a keenly intelligent sense of structure.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Ingrid Laubrock – Dreamt Twice, Twice Dreamt [Intakt CD 355]

The strange, strangely unstable realm of dreams has fascinated and inspired artists probably since humans first began to dream, or to make art. Even if we believe they have nothing to tell us—no messages from the gods or the unconscious, or the dead—their often weird images and incongruities of mood can be a source of raw material or a dictionary of occult—as in idiomatic—significances from which to draw. Ingrid Laubrock’s aptly titled Dreamt Twice, Twice Dreamt, a two-CD set of compositions arranged on disc one for chamber orchestra and five soloists and on disc two for small groups, presents contemporary sounds inspired by the oneiric world. Laubrock kept a dream diary for many years; the compositions on Dreamt Twice, Twice Dreamt represent her way of translating into music the moods or states of mind of the dreams recorded in her diary.

The album contains five compositions, each of which is performed in two different versions, one for the chamber ensemble and one for the small group consisting of a core trio of Laubrock on tenor and soprano saxophones, Cory Smythe on quarter-tone keyboard and piano, and Sam Pluta on electronics, augmented at different times by Adam Matlock on accordion, Josh Modney on violin and Zeena Parkins on electric harp. The chamber orchestra is an eighteen-piece group of strings, reeds and brass that serves as a setting for soloists Laubrock, Pluta and Smythe as well as drummer Tom Rainey and double bassist Robert Landfermann. Laubrock wrote first for the small group, and then constructed her versions for chamber orchestra from fragments of the original versions. The versions for chamber orchestra tend to situate the five soloists as a group-within-the-group; the contrasts between their improvisations and the orchestrated passages for the ensemble capture something of the startling juxtapositions and emotional volatility of dreams. In the leaner, tightly focused context of the small group the music comes through in a particularly vivid way. The improvised sections stand out against the composed passages with a sharp clarity, while the generous use of space and variable textures and dynamics gives the soloists openings they readily exploit to create lines of timbral complexity and emotional depth.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Spektral Quartet – Experiments in Living [New Focus Recordings FCR270]

Given the easy accessibility of recorded music of virtually every type and era, at times it seems that musically, all time collapses into the present time. It’s a strangely ahistorical contemporaneity we seem to inhabit—is the internet eternity’s jukebox?–but even if it makes for a certain uneasiness, the random-shuffle possibilities it opens up may provide opportunities for musical illumination.

Realizing some of those possibilities is something Chicago’s Spektral String Quartet sets out to do with its ambitious double album Experiments in Living. The group selected seven string quartets written between 1873 and 2018 and, inventing a randomizing process to be realized with a deck of cards, offer the listener the chance to order and reorder the pieces for playback.

The works the group chose are Brahms’ 1873 String Quartet in C Minor; Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 3 (1927); Ruth Crawford’s String Quartet of 1931; Anthony Cheung’s Real Book of Fake Tunes for string quartet and flute (2015); George Lewis’ 2016 String Quartet 1.5: Experiments in Living; Sam Pluta’s binary/momentary logics: flow state/joy state (2016); and Charmaine Lee’s 2018 Spinals for string quartet, voice and electronics.

The eighty year lacuna between Crawford’s work and Cheung’s represents a conceptual as well as a chronological discontinuity. A developmental continuity binds the earlier three works: the Schoenberg quartet conserves something of the romanticism of the Brahms, while the dissonant counterpoint of the Crawford quartet plays peculiarly American variations on Schoenberg’s serialism. As distinct as these three pieces are, all are fully composed and squarely within the elastic but still recognizable tradition of Western art music. The pieces on the other side of the great divide, by contrast, break out of that tradition as much as they take their bearings from it. They sound different, to begin with—their vocabularies draw as a matter of course on extended performance techniques that at times push their surface textures to extremes of noise and fragmentation.

One other significant break lies with the newer works’ engagement with improvisation as something major to do, emulate, or draw inspiration from. Lee’s relatively short, single-movement work, which was created in collaboration with the ensemble, is completely improvised. Lee, who joins the quartet in their performance, is an improvising vocalist who augments her voice with electronic amplification; the piece is an abstract blend of wordless vocals and largely unpitched sounds. Pluta describes his rapidly moving, twenty-five movement quartet as being about the “joy of opening up the mind to improvisatory exploration;” what’s explored is an electronically inspired collection of quick-cutting, scratchy, oscillating sounds that the quartet convincingly translates onto acoustic string instruments. Cheung’s lyrical, five-movement piece layers a flute line played by Claire Chase in an improvisational spirit over compact, song-length settings. Although improvisation plays a significant role in Lewis’ musical poetics, his exuberant quartet, which like Lee’s, Pluta’s, and Cheung’s was commissioned by the ensemble, is a fully notated work that weaves together various extended techniques into an episodic, but audibly cohesive, tissue of sound.

In its willingness to disrupt ordinary ways of listening to music within a highly diverse tradition, The Spektral Quartet’s Experiments in Living is certainly a challenging recording, and a stimulating one as well.

Daniel Barbiero