Aaron Myers-Brooks - Oblique
Oblique, an album by guitarist/composer Aaron Myers-Brooks (released on New Focus Recordings) explores microtonality in a unique and idiosyncratic way with the electric guitar as the primary instrument of choice. The music contained on Oblique is entirely composed and performed by Myers-Brooks, all utilizing his 17-tone division of the octave - the last piece being an exception. What I loved about this album is that it offers something for both seasoned listeners of microtonality, but could act as a very digestible early or even first experience with less common divisions of the octave. Myers-Brooks is also a highly skilled guitarist who brings a level of virtuosity to the instrument through various styles and playing techniques.
The first track on the album, The 11th and 6th Caves, gets its title from the use of 11:6 polyrhythms presented throughout the composition, as well as The Thousand Caves New York recording studio where the piece was recorded. It is composed of alternating sections that balance clean and distorted guitar tones to create formal shapes and development. Angular melodies bring out the character of the 17-tone octave structure while the rapid changes of clean tone to distortion create an engaging interplay of timbres and implied style. If you’re a fan of shredding this piece is something you’re guaranteed to enjoy.
Prelude and Fantasy is a work for electric guitar and digitally tuned piano that allows both instruments to utilize the 17-tone octave, specifically in A minor. This piece offers a more placid energy and contrasts well against the frenetic album opener. The slower unfolding allows for the inherent tone colors of the microtonal system to shine through in a more reflective way. Pairing the distorted electric guitar with the piano establishes a nice dichotomy of voices in which they can simultaneously meld together and act as unique elements within a compound texture
Tracks 3-7 make up a multi-movement composition in 5 parts titled Energy Shapes No. 3. This composition is for electric guitar and electronic sounds wherein the guitar is processed in real-time using effects in Ableton Live, along with FM synthesis in most of the movements. Each movement is distinguished by its use of live processing, presence of the synthesizer, and musical material, all of which take unique approaches to these elements. Energy Shapes focuses more on creating sonic environments through combining electronics with an often riff based approach to the guitar rather than the more angular melodic playing found in the first two works, showcasing Myers-Brooks versatility as a both a composer and performer.
In Triads and Arpeggios, Myers-Brooks extracts triads and chords from the 17-tone system, creating a familiar yet somewhat alien soundworld compared to what one might find in an equal temperament system. While similar in some ways to the A minor approach in Prelude and Entity, the overall effect and experience is different in Triads and Arpeggios. It also uses a quasi-random approach to generating the simple chords and arpeggios, resulting in a delightful kaleidoscopic microtonal soundworld, combined with noise elements and percussive attacks to create a rhythmic sound bed.
The Sonata for Solo 17-Tone Guitar was, for me, the stand-out piece on the album. Another multi-movement composed intuitively using the 17-tone system, Myers-Brooks extracts and juxtaposes what he refers to as the “pungent” melodic and harmonic possibilities of the system. He presents material consisting of disjointed rhythms and sustained chords interwoven throughout the outer movements, which have the character of mid-century modernism, while the middle movement is more akin to an improvised solo one might find in heavy metal, assisted by the use of heavy distortion and pinch harmonics. Fans of Dillenger Escape Plan and the thornier side of Omar Rodriguez-Lopez of the Mars Volta won’t be disappointed
The final composition on the album, Eight HighC Miniautures, is another multi-movement work that takes up the final 8 tracks. The movements are purely electroacoustic works that use Thomas Baudel’s HighC music drawing program, in which hand-drawn shapes generate musical material. Myers-Brooks refers in the liner notes to his interest in drawing from a young age and how this intuitive approach to music making allows him to maintain a microtonal structure without relying specifically on the 17-tone system. Each movement is a soundscape and sonic environment that explores the possibilities of the HighC program and showcases Myers-Brooks’ unique approach to sound design and his fluid compositional voice.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this album from start to finish. There is a lot of repertoire of the 20th and 21st centuries for electric guitar, and with this album I feel that Aaron Myers-Brooks has solidified a place within that canon. I firmly believe that these pieces should be studied and performed as exemplars of the intersection of electric guitar and microtonality, and otherwise it’s just a fun and varied album!
Mikel Kuehn - Entanglements
Entanglements, a new release by New Focus Recordings, is a portrait album of works by composer Mikel Kuehn containing four duo pieces and three pieces for soloists and electronics. The core concept of the album is an exploration of conversational possibilities between instruments, similar to what one might hear in the music of Elliott Carter or Mario Davidovsky. The album as a whole is quite impressive and showcases Kuehn’s adept talents as a composer, as well as the care and attention to detail exhibited by the performers in interpreting these compositions. As I’ve said with previous albums I’ve reviewed, this is one that not only demands repeated listenings but has me constantly coming back to each piece to hear things I might have missed. No matter how many times I come back to this album I hear something new, always drawing more substance from the music and taking away new aspects of the musical dialogs.
Kuehn’s particular voice fits within a modernist aesthetic with clear compositional/structural rigor that unfolds in a kaleidoscope of constantly shifting and developing materials. Though the pieces are meticulously structured, they all unfold organically, flowing seamlessly from one moment to the next. With each composition, Kuehn guides the listener through a tapestry of both similar and disparate ideas, layered and juxtaposed to create engaging and clear musical narratives. There is also abundant focus on timbre, texture and gesture, conjuring influences of Berio and Saariaho though still uniquely Mikel Kuehn.
There are two collections of works contained on Entanglements, the purely acoustic duos and the three electroacoustic works, all of which are centered around conversational approaches to music making. This can be heard most clearly in the duos, wherein instruments take on unique identities based on pitch language, gestural materials, and other components that make each voice unique. The two voices, be they guitar/harp, flute/piano, flute/marimba, or violin/viola, are in constant dialog. What I find most impressive is how Kuehn interweaves moments of guided improvisation, drawing on his background in jazz, wherein the performers are provided a collection of musical fragments and present them according to loosely guided rules. These moments are almost indistinguishable in terms from the fully composed sections in regard to the conversational nature of the music. Rather than sound like a cacophony of disparate ideas, the performers approach these sections with the utmost care and attention to detail, listening and responding to one another to continue the musical discourse and maintain the dialog, even though the conversation has changed.
The electroacoustic works present interactions between the chosen instrument (soprano voice, viola, bass clarinet) and the electronic sounds, much of which is generated and processed in real time based on the live input of the performer. The electronics for Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, however, are fixed playback and take on a role of supporting and enhancing the performer instead of reacting to and generating material in real time. In regard to Colored Shadows (viola/electronics) and Rite of Passage (bass clarinet/electronics), these pieces present an instrument/player in conversation with themselves, reacting alongside the electronic backdrop. Similar to the acoustic works, these pieces also involve a degree of loose improvisation. I find this to be particularly interesting from a listening standpoint because one is hearing the performer engaging with themselves and computer-generated reactions rather than to another performer with their own agency. And yet, the feeling of dialog, of connection between disparate elements, is maintained. It’s this kind of consistency of craft that makes Kuehn’s music so impressive and so engaging to listen to.
Overall I found this to be an incredibly impressive album, and one that I’ve already revisited numerous times. If you find yourself drawn to the music of Berio, Carter, Davidovsky, or Saariaho I think you’ll find this an enjoyable listen. If you’re already familiar with Kuehn’s music (previous New Focus Release can be found here) then Entanglements won’t let you down.
Also of note are the incredible performances by the following performers:
Deborah Norin-Kuehn, soprano (Track 1, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird)
Conor Nelson, flute (Track 2, Chimera)
Thomas Rosenkranz, piano (Track 2, Chimera)
Daniel Lippel, guitar (Track 3, Entanglements)
Nuiko Wadden, harp (Track 3, Entanglements)
Doyle Armbrust, viola (Track 4, Colored Shadows)
Kenneth J. Cox, flute (Track 5, Double Labyrinth)
Henrique Batista, marimba (Track 5 (Double Labyrithn)
Yu-Fang Chen, violin (Track 6, Table Talk)
Mei-Chun Chen, viola (Track 6, Table Talk)
Marianne Gythfeldt, bass clarinet (Track 7, Rite of Passage)
A Thing Made Whole (KAIROS Music) is an album made up of a cycle of works of the same name, all composed by Andrew Greenwald. It features seven stunning performances by Austin Wulliman, LA-based ensemble Wild Up, Contemporary Insights Ensemble, and Greenwald’s own group Ensemble Pamplemousse. Listeners familiar with Greenwald’s music will surely be pleased with the album as it demonstrates his highly unique and idiosyncratic approach to instrumental writing at the highest level in this riveting cycle of substantial pieces. For those readers and listeners who are unfamiliar, this music will likely be a challenging (though eye-opening) experience, and I recommend any fan of modern music give this album a dedicated listen.
The works present a tapestry of moods, styles and techniques that range from the familiar to the haunting and otherworldly, from serenely beautiful to alluringly grotesque. It is music that is engaging but at times keeps the listener at an arm’s distance, encouraging one to hear and understand while reshaping one’s idea of things like form, structure, musical narrative, and contextualization. It is music to engage with rather than music to simply be enjoyed for its haunting beauty and craftsmanship.
The cycle opens with a violin solo performed magnificently by Austin Wulliman; a movement that introduces the germ elements that make up the material in the rest of the cycle. Each subsequent movement latches onto and/or isolates one or more of the ideas from the first movement - sustained shifting harmonies, noise elements, interruptions, and juxtaposition of pitched and non-pitched elements - all of which culminate in a final movement that layers everything that came before in a cacophony of sound that still maintains clarity of all voices. After going through each individual movement wherein Greenwald explores the basic elements to what seems like their logical conclusion, they are heard all together in a gradually shifting mosaic of timbres and colors. Suddenly the instruments’ true roles become clear as they take on new characteristics within a new context - a sum of the preceding parts, the thing made whole.
I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed Greenwald’s music, though I have found it difficult to write about in a meaningful way to provide insight beyond a superficial treatment. It is music that needs to be heard and experienced. No amount of flowery metaphors or theoretical jargon can do these works justice the way experiencing them in real time can. It’s music that is intense with robust complexity while maintaining layers upon layers of nuance, and at times fragile sensitivity. Though I may be short on words for what I can only describe as a brilliant album all around, I can tell you that I’ll certainly be revisiting it regularly.
Josh Modney - Near To Each
Josh Modney’s Near To Each is a wonderfully composed album, and if you’re familiar with Carrier Records’ reputation for releasing albums of high quality, challenging, and engaging music performed at the highest level then you won’t be disappointed with this newest release. The album consists of nine original works by Modney, composed for violin (Josh Modney), cello (Mariel Roberts), saxophones (Ingrid Laubrock), and piano (Cory Smythe). The album covers a wide range of moods and aesthetics, all filtered through Modney’s personal flair for drawing out timbral nuances from extended playing techniques and non-equal temperament pitch structures
Near to Each is in part inspired by a walk on the Appalachian trail wherein Modney observed the variations of natural environment around him, taking in the placid stasis that could be changed at a moment’s notice based on external elements. The liner notes liken this to a musical structure in which a form of musical stasis or a structural constant is also in a state of potential and/or perpetual irrevocable change based on the gestures and sounds that infiltrate and force the change to happen. This is a very apt metaphor for the music on Near To Each which itself is in a state of unbroken development. Modney also refers to an overarching theme of dichotomies and emergence throughout the album, which I feel can be clearly perceived in each composition. The individual pieces are far too dense to try to summarize in a single review, and so I’ve found it best to focus on the album as a cohesive whole - the sum of its parts - rather than the components themselves. My goal is to review the forest rather than focus on the trees.
Another quote from the liner notes that stuck with me while listening is that the music occupies “in-between spaces for extended durations of time,” and I couldn't agree more. It feels as if you could drop into any point of any piece and have generally a similar feeling, not of stasis or noise, but of traveling from one point to another. I’m not sure the perceived or anticipated goal I expected was ever fully realized, and I personally find that to be a very rewarding experience. It’s as if the music exists from one moment to the next, clearly and rigorously composed and skillfully executed, though always existing in liminal space. It reminds me of a quote from Richard Linklater’s masterful film Waking Life, “the goal is to remain in a constant state of departure while always arriving.” Modney’s compositions remind me of this in that they undergo constant rigorous development to the point the listener is always waiting for the arrival, but the arrival is simply another point of departure open to external influence. This left me in a state of constant wonder and curiosity, and has made repeated listens all the more rewarding.
One of the most striking aspects of the album is the exploration of extended pitch structures through use of microtones on saxophone, glissandi and microtones on strings, and software piano instruments that allow for just-intonation. I found this approach engaging because of the timbral possibilities that are introduced with finely tuned pitches, but also because of how this fits into the larger concept of the album. The idea of penetrating forces and in-between spaces can be heard directly through the use of very dense harmonies and melodic gestures that interrupt the stability of equal temperament. The core concept is maintained through the glissandi and moment-to-moment microtonality, but also in a grander sense through extended just-intonation harmonies that create a characteristic and consistent pitch space throughout the album, albeit one that could take unseasoned listeners a couple listens to adjust to.
What I took away most directly on my first listen through Near to Each is how remarkably performed it is. This music is by no means easy to play, but the performers make their way through each composition as if they’re completely unphased by the intricacy and interconnected lines. Per Modney’s notes, these pieces are intended to outline the idiosyncrasies of the performers as they have all grown and played together as a unit. Modney crafted the pieces to play to their strengths and highlight the striking features of each instrument, as well as the musicality and unique voice of the performers. There are moments of improvisation intermixed with the fully composed passages, but from a listening standpoint you would never notice. The music always comes off as highly conversational at all times, demonstrating a quartet that is playing individually and collectively at the height of their abilities.
Overall, Near to Each is an incredible album that I strongly recommend. Be warned that it could be a challenging first listen, but the juice is definitely worth the squeeze.
A Series of Indecipherable Glyphs (New Focus Recording) is an eclectic album by Pennsylvania-based group the Naked Eye Ensemble. If you’re not familiar with this ensemble I suggest giving them a listen. They’re a unique blend of modern classical, avant-garde, experimental rock-crossover and electro-acoustic band, all of which is featured on this stunning album. The album features original pieces by composers Nick Didkovsky, Whitney George, Rusty Banks, Molly Joyce, Aaron Jay Myers, Richard Belcastro, and an arrangement of Frank Zappa’s Sinister Footwear II. The album as a whole is a wonderful showcase of the composers - a number of whom wrote their pieces specifically for this group - but also demonstrates the versatility of the group and their ability to seamlessly weave in and out of any genre with ease.
The album opens with Amelia’s Secret, a suite of 10 pieces by Nick Didkovsky. The material for each piece was derived through the composer’s custom software called Nerve2.hmsl, which uses algorithmic and stochastic processes to generate musical material. The end result is 10 highly unique postcard pieces that feature Didkovsky’s very idiosyncratic sound world that fuses heavy metal idioms with modernism and classical traditions. It covers the gamut from hypnotic swirling textures to dense interwoven counterpoint and walls of sound. Overall, Amelia’s Secret is an impressive collection of pieces that serve as a good introduction to Nick’s music, as well as a showcase of the versatility of the ensemble and a great opener for the album
The second piece featured on the album is an arrangement of Frank Zappa’s Sinister Footwear II - the version found on Zappa’s 1984 album Them or Us. The ensemble executes Zappa’s intricate rhythmic complexity and overlapping melodic phrasing with seeming ease. The standout for me, as a huge Zappa disciple, is Chad Kinsey’s guitar solo. Zappa devotees will probably know that the guitar feature on this particular piece is a key feature with a long list of guitarists who have contributed to recordings. Kinsey’s solo is a mesmerizing onslaught acting as a centerpiece in the middle of the arrangement that transitions perfectly into the thematic material of the 2nd half. If you’re a Zappa fan then this is a must-listen, and if you’re not a Zappa fan then this might make you a convert.
The next two pieces on the album share a connection in that they are centered around the concept of time while utilizing recordings of clocks and repetition of a steady pulse. Whitney George’s [These Hands] Hold Nothing, scored for guitar, bass, vibraphone, piano and electronics, opens with reocrdings of mechanical and clocklike sounds (the “hands”) that culminate in an explosive pulse. The piece quickly becomes a dichotomy of consistent quarter note pulse that gets passed around the ensemble while the other instruments decorate around it with tintinnabuli, lyrical melodies and interruptions. There are also brief moments of rhythmic dissonance in which some voices break from the strict duple divisions to create rhythmic and temporal dissonances within the framework. George’s piece is a wonderful example of really dedicating a work to a single concept and drawing as many possibilities out of a singular idea, especially one so simple and direct. It’s a piece that derives its beauty from the details of the whole and exploration of moments as they develop and change over time, even though the piece maintains a consistent identity throughout
Following George’s captivating work is Rusty Banks Dum Spectas Fugio (while you watch, I flee; a common phrase often found on and associated with sundials and clocks. Banks’ piece also focuses on strict pulse with auditory references to machines and specifically to clocks, similar to George in that regard but different in that it takes on a more active, playful and rhythmically varied approach. It is scored for flute, clarinet, saxophone, cello, guitar, bass, percussion, piano/controller, but it could be said that this piece is scored for “prepared mixed ensemble” in which each member takes on a different type of cock sound through assigning pre-recorded clock sounds to accompany the more traditional timbres. The piece floats between different approaches to time - strict and constant, slow, fast, pulsed but sustained juxtaposed against pulsed and articulate. The central idea is that time can maintain a certain identity, but the rate at which we perceive it can change depending on context. I think that concept is executed quite well, and even if that central core were to get lost in the translation I would still find this a very engaging and rewarding listen
The fifth work on the album continues the focus on repetition and minimalist approaches with Molly Joyce’s aptly titled Less Is More for piano and percussion. This one stands out being the only duo composition on the album (with the exception of selections from Didkovsky’s suite), so that alone sets it apart. The central focus of consistent pulse is established right out of the gate with the piano playing a single note in tandem with a kick drum. Over time new notes and melodic fragments are injected into the framework and doubled by the percussionist on glockenspiel. Similar to George’s work, this is also a wonderful example of dedicating oneself to a single idea and exploring it thoroughly. While that is a central tenet of minimalism, I don’t know that I would necessarily label this piece as simply minimalist because of the variation from moment to moment, even though the pulse and repetition is at the center of the structural framework. There is a noticeable change in tempo that occurs near the midpoint of the piece in which lower piano octaves are introduced, the energy intensifies and the melodic fragments that once interrupted sparingly become the central focus of the musical fabric
The penultimate piece on the album is Aaron Jay Myers’ stunning Strabismus for flute, clarinet, saxophone, guitar, bass, drum set, piano; a rock and jazz inspired composition that evokes many of the same idioms one hears in the Zappa arrangement earlier in the album. Strabismus contains intricate rhythms, unison melodies, bombastic interruptions, frenetic energy and a harmonic palette that exists comfortably in both modernist styles and experimental rock or heavy metal. Myers takes full advantage of the unique instrumentation of the Naked Eye Ensemble and their ability to fluidly drift in and out of various styles and aesthetics with an organic flow from one section to another, creating an interesting and engrossing musical narrative. In contrast to the preceding works, Myers focuses on moment-to-moment instrument interactions, variations of the similar materials passed through different timbres, elongations and tructations of ideas, hocketed melodies, and rhythmic counterpoint. Overall I found this to be a wonderful piece that demands repeated listens to catch all of the rapid-fire musical detail and nuance.
If you’ve ever wondered what a piece inspired by catnip might sound like, look no further than Richard Belcastro’s Nepetalactone, for the full ensembl. This piece is similar in style/aesthetic to Myers’ in that there is a much clearer influence of rock and jazz, as well as the use of heavily pulsed intricate rhythmic interplay within the entire ensemble, but both works maintain a clear sense of the composers’ unique identities. As I stated previously, the central concept of the piece is an exploration of the effects of catnip on cats. The piece shifts in and out of calm placid music juxtaposed against frantic, exciting and energetic sections with shifting pulsed infectious grooves. The formal structure offers a calm opening with a marked change in the second section introducing the first rock-inspired section that eventually fades into another period of calm reflection. The final section of the piece begins just after the midpoint of the recording and extends through the end and returns to the previous groove-oriented material from earlier. While still frenetic it eventually settles into a consistent 7|8 with combating saxophone and guitar solos. In the same way the Didkovsky was a great showcase of the ensemble’s breadth, Belcastro’s piece is a very fitting end for what is a really stellar and exciting album from start to finish
I really cannot recommend this highly eclectic and beautifully recorded album enough. There is guaranteed to be something in there for everyone, and I feel would serve as a great primer for anyone who might want to dip their toe in the world of contemporary music.
The Naked Eye Ensemble Is: Susanna Loewy (flutes), Christy Banks (clarinets), Ryan Kauffman (saxophones), Peter Kibbe (cello), Chad Kinsey (electric guitar), Mike Bitts (electric bass), Darren Lin (percussion) and Ju-Ping Song (piano/keyboards, founder).
Released on New Focus Recordings
Produced by Ju-Ping Song
Recorded and Mixed by Chad Kinsey
Mastered by Ryan Sterber, Oktaven
Laura Cocks - Field Anatomies
Captivating. Evocative. Nuanced. Expressive. Violent. These were the words that came to mind when I first sat down to write this review. In all honesty, it’s been difficult finding the words to describe my reaction to this album, and I mean that as high praise. I found Laura Cocks’ Field Anatomies to be an incredibly engaging and impressive album, one that’s so original in concept and execution that I don’t think any kind of analysis in this particular format could do the pieces and performances justice, but I’ll do my best to capture my takeaway.
Laura Cock’s solo flute album Field Anatomies (Carrier Records) is a colossal album in both content and scope, with only 5 pieces clocking in at just under an hour and fifteen minutes. It is a collection of physically demanding pieces, most of which focus on unpitched, percussive, and timbral aspects of the flute as the crux, the central germ of the composition, rather than as supplemental techniques to expand otherwise more traditional playing. The composers approach the instrument as a multi-faceted sound generating device, exploring not only the timbral capabilities but the actual physicality of producing these sounds, and Cocks displays adept mastery as a performer in 5 blisteringly captivating recordings. Ultimately, this is an album that highlights a collection of artists who are deeply invested in engaging with new, exciting and lesser explored sound worlds, executed at the highest level.
As pointed out above, many of the works call on Cocks to utilize variations of breathing and tongue pizzicato, singing while playing, key clicks, multiphonics, speaking/singing through flute, reading multiple staves simultaneously - notation that gives instructions for physical movement or technique rather than resultant pitch and rhythm. Three pieces use electronics and additional materials to augment the flute, while David Bird’s Atolls calls on an additional 29 spatialized piccolos. The combination of these techniques filtered through each composers’ unique voice is a mélange that is rife with creative exploration of new ideas while grounded in rigorous compositional craft. The time and dedication these pieces demand comes through in every moment of Cocks; ferocious performances, making highly intricate playing seem effortless.
David Bird’s Atolls is the first piece on the album, scored for solo piccolo and an ensemble of 29 spatialized piccolos that surround the audience in a live performance. The formal structure of the work consists of alternating sections of solo piccolo and piccolo with the ensemble. The solo material presents sequences of gestural motives using percussive, pitched and unpitched elements. Over time these go through variations, fragmentation and reordering resulting in a uniform mood/character that is always in flux. During the sections with the ensemble the piccolos often play dense cluster chords - derived from spectral analysis of a crash cymbal and Janet Leigh’s scream in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho - reminiscent of the early sound mass works of Penderecki and Ligeti. The ensemble also replicates activity from the soloist in a sort of object/shadow dichotomy. Over time the lines blur, the shadow is perceived as the object and vice versa.
Bethany Younge’s Oxygen and Reality is an imaginative work that explores breathing, air, perception, and limitations, using an array of playing techniques and creative sound design. Scored for piccolo, electronics, balloons and hardware there’s no shortage of interesting sound design and creativity at play. At the onset Cocks is asked to cover all openings of the piccolo (including the end hole with the pinky finger and mouthpiece) and while breathing into the sealed tube release and depress a single key at a time resulting in short rhythmic bursts of slightly pitched air, separated by long stretches of silence. In later sections a balloon is used to cover the end hole of the foot joint while variations of the same playing techniques are utilized, becoming more varied and frenetic over time. These sections of modified piccolo playing are contrasted against sections where Cocks improvises with balloons filled with metal washers, augmented by electronic sounds and processing. While I strongly encourage you to listen to the recording on this album, I think it’s essential that this piece be watched and not just listened to. Please FOLLOW THIS LINK to watch a video of Laura Cocks performing Bethany Younge’s Oxygen and Reality with a score follower roll.
Jessie Cox’s Spiritus is equally demanding from a purely technical and physical standpoint, in that the performer is asked to sing and play simultaneously throughout most of the piece. Like the Bird and Younge pieces that precede it, Spiritus focuses on how sounds are produced and manipulations of the end result, accomplished primarily by notating what to do rather than strictly resultant pitches/rhythms. The majority of the music in this piece is in the form of sustained complex long tones formed through simultaneously playing pitches and singing through the flute, sometimes through us of multiphonics. These introspective sections are broken by contrasting moments of brief angular flurries of microtonally altered pitches. One interesting aspect in Spiritus is that Cox specifies that the resultant timbres are more important than intonation of the sung pitches, placing the focus on subtleties of color rather than singing perfectly in tune. Cox not only accepts inharmonic interferences, but welcomes it. Along with singing while playing, Cocks implements additional manipulation of timbre through gradual embouchure changes, glissandi and microtonal inflection. Listening to Cocks’ performance of Spiritus, it’s almost effortless to get lost in the meditative sound world of evolving colors.
DM R’s (Diana M. Rodriguez) You’ll See Me Return To The City Of Fury is scored for glissando flute, tape and live electronics. It utilizes Ableton Live for both sound file playback (the tape) and for processing the live input from the flute, including freezing select pitches and creating delayed copies of the flute with added manipulation (filtering, spectral processing). You’ll See Me Return To The City Of Fury offers a nice contrast to the rest of the album in part because the electronics are really a prominent element, always working to elaborate on or enhance the flute while also maintaining its own identity. Physicality of playing is found in this piece through the use of the glissando flute, which uses a head joint that can smoothly glide left to right to extend or shorten the flute’s length, allowing the flutist to create smooth glissandi up or down. There are moments where a single sustained pitch is transformed through movement of the glissando joint, minor alterations in embouchure, use of quarter tones and live electronic processing work in tandem to create a tapestry of gorgeous and eerie colors. Similar to Spiritus, You’ll See Me Return To The City Of Fury is slower and more nebulous than other pieces on Field Anatomies, and even though it has fewer impulses per second there’s no shortage of detail and nuance packed into every moment.
Joan Arnau Pàmies’ Produktionsmittel I, clocking in at just under 25 minutes, is a massive and impressive tour du force on all counts, and I would say embodies the core concept of physicality of performance perfectly. This piece uses a type of graphic prescriptive decoupled notation - a similar approach and visual aesthetic of Aaron Cassidy’s more recent tablature scores. The flutist simultaneously reads staves for embouchure position, sung pitches, phonemes, lip/jaw pressure, and fingerlings, each staff under constant development, and none of which use extensively standard notation. The result is not a single unified sound in any traditional sense of “flute” timbre, but rather an amalgam of multiple strata of activity. The notation functions as a sort of deconstruction of both the physical apparatus of the flute (keys, head joint position, etc.) and the physical elements involved in sound production; the essential building blocks of playing. Pàmies takes the separated component parts and puts these pieces back together in a way that feels familiar - the timbre and experience of a person playing a flute - but seen in an entirely different perspective, like a puzzle assembled incorrectly that still retains a semblance of its identity. There is plenty more to say, but at 25 minutes in length I wouldn’t be able to even scratch the surface. And I won’t sugarcoat it, this piece is not for the faint of heart if you haven’t already spent some time with this particular aesthetic, but I do encourage taking the time to sit with this piece and engage with it on its own terms. Pàmies’ compositional skill and creativity paired with Cock’s staggering and incendiary performance make this, in my opinion, a perfect closer to a stellar album
In short, Field Anatomies is a marvelously remarkable album, and one I’m glad I had the opportunity to review. It’s not an album that you can consume and absorb in a single listen, but if you’re anything like me it’s an album you won’t mind listening to multiple times.
To Purchase Field Anatomies
For more information on Laura Cocks
For more information on David Bird
For more information on Bethany Younge
For more information on Jessie Cox
For more information on DM R
For more information on Joan Arnau Pàmies
Robert Gross - Chronicles
Robert Gross’ new album Chronicles, released in late May by New Focus Recordings, is a fascinating album that brings the synthesizer to the forefront in an approach not commonly found in the modern landscape of avant-garde electronic and electroacoustic. Clocking in at just over 134 minutes, Chronicles presents a collection of tracks from Gross’ Chronicles series of compositions - pieces for either synthesizer alone or synthesizer with instruments. These pieces take up about 80 minutes of the album, with the remaining time dedicated to a freestanding piece called Nothing Has Changed and a 40-minute one-act opera called Dissonance, for two singers and synthesizer. My initial commentary is that it is a lot to take in - definitely not an album that can be easily digested in a single sitting - but an album I found myself wanting to return to frequently after my first pass.
Because there is so much material on this album I’ve decided to discuss it more in broad strokes rather than a treatment of each composition and track on the album. Overall, I’m wholly impressed with what Gross and his collaborating musicians and engineers accomplished with this album. The logistics of putting together a collection of tracks and organizing all of the production for even a short EP is an undertaking, and Chronicles is that amount of work on steroids. The fact that the tracks were recorded by different engineers is impressive as well, considering the album does have a very homogenous sound overall.
The role of the synthesizer in creating that homogeneity shouldn’t be understated, either. The liner notes describe the album as “pitch-determinate electronic works written for one synthesizer” and in this case, that one synthesizer is Native-Instruments Absynth - a staple of the electronic music and sound design worlds. Anyone with an interest in modular synthesis and the hours of tinkering that go into working with hardware synthesizers could scratch that same itch with an instrument such as Absynth, a semi-modular setup in the software domain that offers equally limitless possibilities in terms of timbre and ability, and Gross exploits those capabilities from start to finish.
Cultivating an intimate understanding of the subtleties and nuances of a hardware or modular synthesizer can be lost easily when switching to the digital domain. There’s something that just isn’t quite as satisfying as manually inserting patch cables and slowly turning knobs to get just the right sound. And the allure of hundreds of presets is tempting. But software synthesizers, just like any other instrument, require the performer to take the time to understand the instrument, to know its strengths and limitations, and how to use it to achieve one’s artistic goals. That isn’t to say you can’t get some really killer sounds out of Absynth by clicking a few buttons and holding middle C to infinity, but the appeal can wear off quickly.
That’s not what Gross has done with Chronicles. It is clear that regardless of how the synthesizer patches were created, Gross has that deep understanding of his instrument, and it comes through in how the timbres he chooses blend well with the live musicians, that his textures aren’t so oversaturated with overtones that layers are lost, that time-varying parameters of complex sounds are morphing in ways that generate interest and draw the listener in without being so busy that the aural impact and affect is lost. If you’re a person who loves to listen to electronic music created by someone who truly understands how to harness the performative power of synthesizers, this is a good album for you to check out. And if you’re a person who is skeptical that modern digital synthesizers don’t stand up to the classic workhorses, this album is for you, too.
That leads me to my next point on another cornerstone of Chronicles - nostalgia. It’s a bit ironic to refer to an album as sounding nostalgic while also talking about its references to two of Modernism’s biggest names, those being Babbitt and Wuorinen. Gross’ liner notes also mention the influence of those mid-century electronic music pioneers, and I think that influence can be heard instantly. When I first put the album on I hadn’t ready anything about it, and the sounds of Absynth and Jeanette Yaryan’s piano playing immediately brought up references to Davidovsky’s Synchronisms VI, but different. In Dressing Station (Chronicles XVII) it’s difficult to not hear flashes of Philomel, but there’s something different. And in the 30-minute tour de force Chronicles XIV (Charles Wuorinene In Memoriam), it’s difficult to not hear the influence of, well...Wuorinen. But like I said with the others, there’s something fresh and exciting about it. Gross demonstrates a true understanding of the lineage this music was born out of, but filtered through a modern lens, one with broader possibilities in the utilization of technology in music. Take for instance the third track, Nothing Has Changed, in which Gross creates a more groove-oriented treatment of his instrument while deconstructing a looped sample of himself saying “nothing has changed.” On the surface there is a pretty clear association to Reich, but it’s not a process piece in the same manner of treatment. There are some hints at Laurie Anderson, but also of Frank Zappa’s Jazz from Hell years that blended his penchant for humor and playful dissonant melodies with modern instruments. I would also be remiss if I didn't mention the influence (whether intentional or not) of the West Coast experimentalists who did so much for the synthesizer - Pauline Oliveros, Morton Subotnik, Tony Martin and Don Buchla.
That isn’t to say Gross’ clear influence makes this a wholly nostalgic or unoriginal album. Quite the contrary, I find all of the direct influences mentioned to be ones that can be easily heard on the surface if one knows that repertoire, but Gross’ pieces themselves sound quite fresh. I think the intentional use of Absynth helped to solidify this album sonically, and the influence of past pioneers of the genre gave it grounding. But there is so much that references modern riff-based groove elements, the new possibilities of the digital synthesizer as a performative instrument, allusions to more popular styles like fusion and progressive rock/metal, and just a general modern sensibility of where music currently is, that makes the nostalgic elements an afterthought. What I’m left with isn’t music of the past filtered through Robert Gross, but rather Robert Gross’ continued contribution to that lineage while also forging something unique. Robert Gross’ Chronicles album is a colossal album that will have you thinking about future directions of music by reimagining its past.
Other musicians featured on the album: Jeanette Louise Yaryan (piano), Dan Lippel (guitar), Christopher Griffin (horn), Lori Joachim Fredrics (mezzo-soprano), Brandon Gibson (baritone), Brooke Clark Gibson (mezzo-soprano)
Recording Engineers: Michael J. Quick (Idyllwild Arts Academy) [track 1], Ryan Streber (Oktaven Audio) [track 2], Robert Gross [tracks 3, 4, 5 and 7], Christopher Griffin [track 4], Howard Fredrics [track 6], Brandon Gibson, Brooke Clark Gibson, and Robert Gross [track 7]
Link to the album: https://www.newfocusrecordings.com/catalogue/robert-gross-chronicles/
Link to Robert Gross' website: https://www.robertgrosscomposer.com/
Lock Me Up, Lock Me Down is an album released on Carrier Records by a trio consisting of Fred Frith, Sudhu Tewari and Cenk Ergün that straddles free improvisation and meticulously planned composition. Before I get into the weeds of what this album has to offer I just want to say that it was a real joy to experience it. Whenever I receive a new album to review I typically listen through it a few times and take notes before I start to write the review. In the case of Lock Me Up, Lock Me Down I must have listened through the album 3-4 times before ever writing anything down, mostly because I was so taken by it I didn’t want to interrupt the sound world that was created. The album consists of 7 individual tracks and clocks in at around 43 minutes, but is experienced as a single through-composed experience. I’ll try to do it justice with the following.
With Frith on guitar, Tewari on “junk percussion” and electronics, and Ergün on additional electronics, there is a wealth of sound sources, timbres and colors heard throughout the album. At times they complement each other wonderfully, in other moments are a perfect juxtaposition of light and dark, of serenity and agitation, of beautiful and ugly (and I mean that in the most positive way!). After my first full listen of the album I immediately started it over before realizing I probably needed to give it some time to digest before diving in for a second helping, but it’s not an understatement to say that this particular album really gave me a lot of what I look for when seeking out new artists. Though it’s definitely not going to appeal to everyone’s tastes, it absolutely satisfied my personal aesthetic palette; with resonant full-bodied guitar work, gritty distortions, colorful percussion, and an abundance of electronic noises it’s like getting lost in the most sonically engaging warehouse you could imagine.
The most intriguing aspect of this album, though, is how it was created. The source material for the album came from an improvisation session between Frith, Tewari and Ergün recorded around 2009/10 in Emeryville, CA. However, what you hear on the album isn’t simply the result of that recording session. The tracks on Lock Me Up, Lock Me Down are the work of Ergün sitting with the material and meticulously extracting a library of sound objects and moments, from microsounds to long complete phrases. He then re-composed the improvisations into a more calculated and planned compositional framework, which is what you hear on the album. I had the pleasure of speaking with Ergün about the process and he explained that it was a combination of listening to what was there and allowing some of the materials to exist in longer phrases as they were recorded while adding to and enhancing the phrases - short and long - with other sounds taken from various places throughout the full improvisation. With the exception of two tracks - the title track “Lock Me Up, Lock Me Down” and “Stay Tuned” - all the material heard is created through repurposing material from the improvisation to fit into a concise musical structure.
The title track “Lock Me Up, Lock Me Down” is essentially a Fred Frith improvisation. Ergün added material from other sections like in the rest of the album, but the atmospheric and at times mesmerizing guitar work is all Frith. The other track, “Stay Tuned” is a very fun track, and is also essentially an unedited improvisation on Tewari’s Street Piano instrument (pictured below). In addition to being an improviser and composer, Tewari is also an imaginative instrument builder. The music heard on “Stay Tuned” is from recordings of improvisations on the street piano and the variety of sounds it can produce, from pitched resonances to dark muted percussive attacks.
It’s difficult for me to talk about this album the way I typically do in a review in which I say a bit about each track on the album. The reason it’s so difficult with Lock Me Up, Lock Me Down is because it truly is one extended musical experience. Yes, there are moments, there are points of contrast, there are sounds, melodies and phrases that reappear and are developed. But to talk about any one track in detail in terms of what it contains in comparison or contrast to other tracks, I think, misses the forest for the trees, and that’s part of the real genius of this album. Cenk has accomplished something truly impressive here. He created a well-composed structural musical narrative while maintaining the exploratory organic nature of improvisation. His re-composition cleverly guides the listener from one moment to another and develops motives in a manner that one would expect from a fully composed piece. And yet, simultaneously there is still a sense of listening to a group of highly skilled improvisers communicating and composing in real time. He very clearly identified the delicate balance of structured composition and the magic of improvisation. And for that reason, I find myself almost unable to really discuss this album in a track-by-track, moment-by-moment treatment, just like I would have difficulty reviewing a true free improvisation performance in that manner. My suggestion is that you check it out, listen to it in full, don’t skip tracks, and prepare yourself for repeated listenings, not because you have to, but because (if you’re like me) you’ll just want to.
You can listen to Lock Me Up, Lock Me Down on Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, Amazon Music, and can purchase the digital album on Bandcamp.
Links to band members' websites below:
Fred Frith Sudhu Tewari Cenk Ergün
Sola - Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti
Sola is an album that consists of a single multi-movement piece for viola and electronics by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, performed by Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti, released by New Focus Recordings as of today (Friday December 4)! This is the first of 3 digital releases by Lanzilotti of a project in which she commissioned three prominent composers of the 21st century. On a personal note, I really loved this album as I’ve been a fan of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s music for many years, and this particular album offered some special insight into her music and process.
This particular review will be a little different from previous album reviews I’ve done for KLANG. Typically I provide some of my own insights into the compositions of an album and, when possible, draw from the composers’ own words and program notes to draw additional conclusions about the music. Lanzilotti and Thorvaldsdottir, however, have done that work for me by including a lengthy discussion of this piece on the album itself! The first three tracks make up the actual composition, clocking in at 17:22. The remaining tracks are the performer and composer having a conversation about the piece, it’s structure, meaning, and Thorvaldsdottir’s process. So as to not spoil anything I won’t include much of anything from that conversation and will instead just provide my own impressions after listening through the composition a number of times, and I’ll leave you to listen to the rest.
Before any kind of discussion can be had about the piece, it is absolutely key to know about the core concept behind it, which is isolation and solitude. Though Thorvaldsdottir wrote the piece in 2019, I cannot think of a more fitting concept for our collective experience in 2020, so for that reason alone this is a very timely album. The liner notes mention specifically searching for “the desire of calm and focus in chaos” and I personally think Thorvaldsdottir captured that feeling quite well, and Lanzilotti’s interpretation communicates that quite well.
On a general note, this album offers some really impressive string writing and a wonderfully captivating performance. Lanzilotti brings a level of nuance and care to the material that is really demanding by this particular flavor of music. The piece is delicate and intimate, but not weak in what it has to say and the narrative it tells. I think that comes through very clearly in Lanzilotti’s performance on this recording. The musical materials create an interesting tapestry that straddles ambient soundscapes and rhapsodic motivic development, albeit at a very slow pace for the most part. Thorvaldsdottir melds these two soundworlds into a single symbiotic sonic organism that shifts seamlessly from one to the other throughout the composition. You’ll hear a wide collection of timbres and motivic gestures- underpressure bowed string noise, homophonic passages through sustained double stops, hauntingly beautiful melodies, and even brief moments of rhythmic pulsing on a single pitch. All of this comes to a head in the final 3 minutes of the opening prologue movement when the various ideas are presented in short fragments. These eventually lead to a lush atmosphere created by a repeated viola melody in the upper register of the instrument. This is further augmented by delayed versions of the melody panned in the stereo field to enhance the physical spatial relationship of the fused sonic environments into a single undulating soundscape.
The use of electronics is essential in telling the musical narrative of Sola. All electronic elements are fixed electronics derived from the samples of viola, which are then processed and layered underneath the soloist. At times create a sustained backdrop and atmosphere, at other times they present brief moments of foreground activity. The use of a homogenous timbral palette from electronic manipulation of samples taken from the viola reinforces the central concept of isolation and solitude. To maintain that level of interconnectedness between the acoustic and electronic realms - one in which the electronics are quite subtle yet always necessary - is not an easy feat, and it shows a highly attuned sensitivity in working with these elements.
On a final note, the formal structure of Sola is quite interesting, from a proportional standpoint. The first movement, titled “Prologue,” is by far the longest, clocking in at 10.5 minutes. This introduces every element of the composition - acoustic and electronic. The listener has a chance to really live inside of each sonic space created through the various playing techniques in the viola, and the glacial pace of the movement allows the electronics to fuse gradually and really establish the organic nature of the disparate (though highly connected) sound sources. The second movement is incredibly short and offers an interesting contrast to the first. The same elements are included, but presented on a much shorter timeline in more rapid succession, as if condensing the entire prologue into a 2-minute vignette. I really enjoy the placement and character of this movement, and it gets to the heart of what isolation means, at least to me, in terms of passing time. When isolated and in solitude time ceases to have meaning, and by extension the experience of hearing these materials over the course of 10.5 minutes or just under 2 minutes, their impact is felt equally. It shows an incredible mastery of pacing from Thorvaldsdottir, and Lanzilotti’s performance reinforces that beautifully. The final movement - Epilogue - returns to a more gradual pacing of material. The electronics become more involved, particularly a repeated descending glissando motive (presented in the first movement as well) which acts as a consistent thread throughout. The viola material is centered more around the sustained chordal double-stops, creating a harmonic soup that feels it has no true beginning or end, though never feels incomplete. Like most other aspects of the composition it is nuanced and understated in a very compelling and satisfying way.
In all, I cannot recommend Sola enough. The composition itself is quite compelling and, at least for me, offered an almost cathartic listening experience. Knowing that the central concept is about isolation I felt an almost kindred connection to it while listening. The treatment of narrative as a function of time and thematic development is just done so well on every level. Further, the extended conversation between Lanzilotti and Thorvaldsdottir that follows is a real treat. It’s not often we get to hear the composer’s own insights in such a candid and intimate way, let alone with the performer for whom the piece was written. If you’re a fan of new music with electronics you should check out this album. If you’re a fan of Anna Thorvaldsdottir or Anne Lanzilotti, you should check out this album. Even if you’re not a fan of contemporary music, electroacoustic music, or don’t know who Anna Thorvaldsdottir is, then you should definitely check out this album. It really is quite unique as far as new music albums go, and I’m very much looking forward to Lanzilotti’s next release.
Sola is streaming on Apple Music and Spotify and can be purchased through New Focus Recordings.
Click here for more information about composer/performer Anne Leilhua Lanzilotti
Click here for more information about Anna Thorvaldsdottir
Fall Review 2019
This is the first post in a series of group album reviews I'll be doing moving forward. Every 3-4 months I’ll present a review of numerous albums released roughly within that timeframe (+/- a month or so). My goal is to (hopefully) provide album reviews more frequently and to include more albums. This inaugural post will include some standout albums from New Focus Recordings released between late 2018 through now. I’ll be including more albums from earlier in 2019 in my next review, but I hope you enjoy the following (links to artists, albums and labels included).
Ogni Suono - SaxoVoce (New Focus Recordings, 2018)
Ogni Suono (Noa Even and Phil Pierick) have created something truly unique with SaxoVoce, a collection of pieces for two saxophones with voice ranging from singing to narration to pitched/non-pitched vocalizations, in addition to a wide range of extended saxophone techniques and timbres. Kate Soper’s OTOTOI presents an engaging exploration of the widest range of the instruments though a relatively limited palette of sonic materials that develop slowly over time. Sheets’ “dare-gale, speaks and spells” is an impressive composition that’s executed incredibly by Ogni Supono, at times sounding like more than 2 saxophones with the complex contrapuntal framework of notes, noises and vocalizations. Christopher Dietz’s ”My Manifesto and Me” is superficially a humorous reworking of the Rifleman’s Creed from the movie Full Metal Jacket, but with some ring undertones enhanced by the saxophone accompaniment and methods of narration. The text acts as the centerpiece of this composition with the saxophones acting in a supporting role through pointed articulations, frenetic key clicks, and swirling low drones. Dietz’s piece is one that really allows the duo to shine in their ability to not only vocalize, but deliver a powerful text through narration and self-accompaniment. Chris Fisher-Locchead’s Chroma is an interesting exploration of the timbral characteristics of the saxophones and voices through seamless transitions voice to saxophone or both in an extended through-composer formal structure.
Walking After Midnight by David Reminick demonstrates the Even’s and Pierick’s singing abilities. Though Reminick specifies that “vocal training is not required,” Even and Pierick bring the same level of craft and execution as they do with all other elements of each piece on the album. Reminick’s creative use of syncopated rhythms, text painting and rapid transitions between singing and playing create a musical and textual narrative that remains consistently engaging throughout both movements.
Felipe Lara’s Vocalise II is an impressive work that presents a barrage of material that coalesces into a single sustained drone. Once the drone arrives the players present melodies and gestures in fragments, noises, inhaling, and other instrumental and vocal noises. Between the fractured melodies and vocalizations moments of consonance and repose begin to appear over the drone in the thicket of disjointed and contrasting materials.
Erin Rogers’ “Clamor” involves percussive noises and energetic rhythmic counterpoint interspersed between spoken phrases, similar to the Dietz’s piece earlier on the album. The fragmented phrases seem to be nonsense, but there are clear elements of the text relating to modern political concerns and issues surrounding capitalism. Fans of Rogers’ work with thingNY and Popebama will surely be pleased with her contribution to this album, and it acts as the perfect closer to an incredibly ambitious and wonderfully executed album.
LINK TO CREDITS AND MORE DETAILS
LINK TO OGNI SUONO WEBSITE
Splinter Reeds - Hypothetical Islands (New Focus Recordings, 2019)
Hypothetical Islands by Splinter Reeds is unlike any album I’ve heard by a woodwind chamber group - Splinter Reeds being specifically a reed quintet. Matthew Shlomowitz’s “Line and Length” is the opening track, and presents a dense contrapuntal texture that coalesces into an almost hypnotic repetition of ideas in the final third of the piece to a climax of dissonant chords and multiphonics, ending with melange of smearing glissandi and pointillistic outbursts in irregular repetition. It’s a fitting opening for the general character of the album and the ensemble. Cara Haxo’s “Exercises,” inspired by Raymond Queneau’s Exercises In Style, offers a nice contrast as the second track. The first movement consists of mechanical overlapping grooves layered under/juxtaposed against more lyrical melodies that are constantly evolving. The second movement is similar but with an entirely slow polyphonic lyrical texture, all of which can be characterized as a tapestry of slowly evolving moments derived from a limited amount of materials cleverly reworked over and over.
Eric Wubbels “Auditory Scene Analysis” opens with a nearly inaudible swirl of quiet high-pitched notes from each instrument reminiscent of a creaking metal gate. Just as the listener embraces the quiet texture a flurry of accented slap tongues and aggressive multiphonics breaks apart. This continues until the percussive articulations morph into a rhythmic groove that dissolved into a single sustained pitch that is passed from one instrument to another. Flurries of trills, tremolos, articulations, and short scalar passages are interspersed around the pitch. The piece closes with a barrage of high-register trills and growls amid persistent multiphonics that come to a grinding halt and a short coda. Theresa Wong’s “Letters to a Friend” explores the more percussive nature of the instruments through reworking rhythmic cells of key click, slap tongues and staccato articulations. The build-up of textures and energy always reminds me of a machine that’s revving up, getting more intense with each build. The final moments of the piece are a slow, almost meditative, reworking of the previous material against a backdrop of a drone and short bursts of trills from the instruments.
Sky Macklay’s “Choppy” opens with an onslaught of multiphonics and guttural growling from the instruments in evolving into a secondary layer of overlapping rising phrases. The listener goes on a journey that explores moments of transformations of sustained tones, rising and falling cascades of notes in near-unison, and repetitive riffs that seem simultaneously out of sync and yet perfectly in time. The group performs the tightly controlled chaotic transformations with the utmost skill.
The final piece on the album the title track “Hypothetical Islands” by Yannis Kyriakides, which blends the ensemble with electronic sounds. He refers to the piece as “an acoustic atlas, a carto-sonic fantasy on the notion of remote desert spaces.” I would say that imagery comes through in the dense texture of sustained electronic drones that at times sit under the group and at other moments overtake them, but neither ever comes off as overpowering. The instruments present short melodic phrases of limited pitch material, almost like bird calls or meditative chanting. At 13.5 minutes this is the longest track on the album, but the reflective and mesmerizing weave of gestures and timbres makes it feel like a brief moment, but one that could last forever, which I personally wouldn’t mind.
One aspect that really stands out is the overall production. As an engineer myself that’s one element of classical recordings I put a lot of emphasis on, and Hypothetical Islands delivers hand over fist. James Riotta (recording engineer), Zach Wiley (mixing and mastering) and Eric Wubbels (producer) deserve their own praise for creating such an incredible artifact of these works and Solinter Reeds’ performances
LINK TO CREDITS AND MORE DETAILS
LINK TO SPLINTER REEDS WEBSITE
Rand Steiger - Coalescence Cycle Vol. 1 (New Focus Recordings, 2019)
The International Contemporary Ensemble does a masterful job in bringing Rand Steiger’s music to life on Coalescence Cycle Vol. 1, an album of pieces for instruments and live electronics. What really gripped me about this album was the craftsmanship in integrating the live processing of the instruments in each piece, all of which display a complex web of counterpoint and dialogs between the acoustic instruments and electronics. Steiger’s compositions are unified through his idiosyncratic style and aesthetic - gesturally driven atonal music with a sensitivity to timbre and spectral processing techniques - but each track feels like a breath of fresh air and uniquely separate from one another. Because these works are all by Steiger and have a fairly homogenous sound, and because each piece is so dense, I feel the best approach would be a general overview of the character of each piece as opposed to a more in-depth treatment.
The album opens with Cycle performed by Joshua Rubin and serves as an exciting introduction to the album in terms of style and energy. This is matched by Claire Chase’s performance of Beacon, with the energy and intensity of the more active/angular passages executed as skillfully as the subtlety and nuance of Steiger’s more lyrical and subdued melodic writing. Chase’s performance of Light on Water is equally captivating. The two works that stood out most to me were Mourning Fog for cello and live electronics performed by Kivie Kahn-Lipman. It’s a 17.5-minute juggernaut that incorporates nearly every element of Steiger’s other works into a cohesive whole that keeps the listener engaged from start to finish. Concatenation for bassoon and electronics, performed by Rebekah Heller. This piece is impressive for the approach to the live processing that seems to adapt to the performer, creating an electronic landscape that’s always shifting and simultaneously maintains a unified identity against, and alongside the bassoon.
I strongly suggest this album for anyone who is a fan of the International Contemporary Ensemble, as this demonstrates some of the soloists performing at the highest level. I would also suggest if you’re not familiary with Rand Steiger’s music this would be a great place to start. Each piece offers a glimpse into the various styles and sonic landscapes you’ll find in his music, and his own unique approach to live processing.
LINK TO CREDITS AND MORE DETAILS
LINK TO RAND STEIGER'S WEBSITE
LINK TO ICE'S WEBSITE
JACK Quartet: Filigree - Music of Hannah Lash
Filigree is JACK Quartet’s release of a collection of music for string quartet by composer Hannah Lash. I had not been very familiar with much of Lash’s output prior to this album, but after a number of listening I plan to explore more of her work. Obviously the playing is top-notch, as JACK brings to all of their performances and recordings. Additionally, Lash’s variations of style from one piece to the next was very refreshing. I generally don’t listen to albums of music by a single composer from start to finish, but I found this particular album very easy to listen to in that way. I think this is a testament to Lash’s skill as a composer to craft engaging pieces in a variety of styles, as well as JACK’s ability to breathe life into any piece with the utmost sensitivity, regardless of style.
The opening track, “Frayed”, is a huge standout. Because this album was my first time really listening to Lash’s music I wanted to really explore it in detail. My first time through the album I listened to this particular piece 2-3 times before I moved to the next track. The interplay between long sustained chords - with varying degrees of dissonance - juxtaposed against more violent outbursts of heavy bowing and distorted overpressure created a dichotomy of sound worlds I could live in forever. Pulse-Space is also an impressive composition and demonstrates incredible dedication and execution of a single idea. The piece introduces a strict pulsing rhythm from the start and explores variations of that idea through altering speeds, registers, harmonic content and layers surrounding the pulse. The remaining tracks on the album are equally engaging, and if you’re not familiar with Hannah Lash’s work I highly encourage picking up a copy of this album.
LINK TO CREDITS AND MORE DETAILS
LINK TO HANNAH LASH'S WEBSITE
LINK TO JACK QUARTET'S WEBSITE
Ben Melsky - New Music for Harp
Ben Melsky’s New Works For Harp is an album I received just before it was released and I still cannot stop listening to it. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Ben perform live on a number of occasions, both as a soloist and with members of Ensemble Dal Niente. With each performance he makes me rethink the harp and what it is capable of, and this album is no different. The composers on this album often use Ben’s skill and creativity as a performer to ask him to do a number of nonstandard techniques, or at least playing techniques that casual harp listens are likely not accustomed to hearing. Melsky intertwines these sounds of half-pedaling (creating a rustling gritty tone), string harmonics, and a wealth of other techniques using implements against the strings creates a varied sound world that at times makes the listener question the specific sound sources. Beyond Melsky’s performances there is a host of other players who contribute to this album including Jesse Langen (guitar), Emma Hospelhorn (bass flute), Katie Schoepflin Jimoh (clarinet), Kyle Flens (percussion), and Amanda DeBoer Bartlett (soprano).
Tomás Gueglio’s After L’Addido/Felt opens the album and demonstrates Melsky’s skills as a soloist with a piece that is truly remarkable in terms of the timbral and expressive exploration of the glissandi - arguably the most recognizable and frequently associated with the instrument. The variation that Gueglio demands from the harp, all of which Melsky delivers with commanding control (some of the techniques the two developed together. The second movement, Felt, is much slower and reflective with more time taken between moments and a stronger focus on pitch and melody. Alican Camci’s Perde for harp and bass flute follows as the third track. Camci extensively explores and utilizes the timbral possibilities of the instruments, not only for variations/deviations from more standard playing techniques, but as sonic elements existing on their own merits and the primary material. The piece uses Persian religious poems called masnavi as source material with the music for flute and harp being transcriptions of these highly rhythmic poems. This comes through in the conversational nature, as well as the voiced/spoken elements through the flute and the percussive techniques from the instruments, both layered and in unison.
Fredrick Gifford’s Mobile for harp and guitar presents the two instruments playing a limited amount of pointillistic materials that are constantly reworked and varied throughout the piece, creating irregular overlaps and constantly shifting textures and layers. This is reinforced from the two instruments having similar timbres which creates, at times, an otherworldly kind of super-instrument where the harp and guitar seem to fuse into a single entity.
After Some Remarks by Wang Lu, for bass clarinet and harp, draws inspiration from Christian Wolff’s approach to controlled and structured improvisation. Like other compositions on the album, Lu takes a deep dive into exploring and utilizing extended techniques of the two instruments, opening with throbbing multiphonics in the bass clarinet with resonant harmonics, plucks and glissandi from the harp interspersed. As the piece unfolds the clarinet begins playing short sustained tones while the harp continues to present material in less conventional playing techniques, all of which expands the overall timbral and color palette.
Igor Santos’ Anima for percussion and harp is a mechanical presentation of a broad spectrum of percussive sounds from the harp and percussion instruments. The interplay of the two creates overlapping loops of material that are interlocked rhythmically. This particular method continues throughout the opening section of the piece and leads into a much slower and more expansive middle section that explores more sustained and howling timbres/gestures from both instruments. Both sections are contrasted by a short return to the rhythmic layering but with more frenetic rhythmic variation and followed by a short coda of gritty scratching noises from both instruments.
On-dit by Eliza Brown, for soprano and harp, fuses scratchy sounds from the harp and breath of the voice in the introductory section to create a fused timbre of the two elements, which blossoms into Melsky’s impeccable playing and a top-tier performance by soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett singing a fragmented text by Voltaire. The piece is an appropriate closing to the album, as Brown’s single composition - as well as the performances by DeBoer Bartlett and Melsky - is delicate though intense, broad in scope yet amazingly focused and executed with the utmost skill, all of which could be said for each piece/composer on the album and for all performances. This is truly a remarkable album that I believe will reshape how most people think about the harp in terms of its sounds and expressive capabilities.
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