Category: Albums

Sounds Heard: The Things We Did [This] Summer

My vote for song of the summer (at least for this morning) comes courtesy of Boston-based pop omnivores Pulitzer Prize Fighter and their first single since their late-2012 EP, All Sweetness and Light. “Movies” ticks off all the boxes for a good summer song: a relentless hook, genial amounts of volume, sing-along lyrics proclaiming the merits of shrugging off thoughts of mortality by just doing stuff, a low-key, meandering haze of disposable leisure. Not least, it packages up some nice musical nostalgia, be it a sunny ’70s squall of parallel-harmony guitars, a cool, noir-ish pour of muted trumpet, or the comforting psychedelic worry of a fully diminished seventh chord. (Listen carefully, at the dominant pause just before the end of the bridge, and you can hear a lovely, chromatically descending keyboard decoration buried in the mix like some unexploded ordnance from the British Invasion.)

Summer music, for me anyway, tends to rise and fall on its leveraging of nostalgia, even more so now that actual summer vacation time is an increasingly distant memory. I’m already nostalgic for the beginning of this summer, when a lazy, sun-dappled respite was still a naïve possibility rather than an unattainable grail. In that spirit, here’s a handful of more recent local releases of varying retro commitment and/or critique.
BMOP Spratlan cover
Lewis Spratlan: Apollo and Daphne Variations; A Summer’s DayConcerto for Saxophone and Orchestra
Eliot Gattegno, saxophones
Boston Modern Orchestra Project; Gil Rose, conductor
(BMOP/sound 1035)
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Excerpt from Lewis Spratlan’s A Summer’s Day

Spratlan’s musical version of A Summer’s Day (2008), commissioned and premiered by BMOP, has the instant nostalgia of a strongly evoked, specific time and place. His “Pre-Dawn Nightmare” includes fragments of the theme song to The Sopranos; “At the Computer” evokes the sounds of an already-obsolete desktop machine. And the connective tissue of the piece, the folk-like tune presented at the outset (“Hymn to the Summer Solstice”), is a memory of summer romanticized into an abstraction. But the tune is repeatedly interrupted and contradicted; and Spratlan is more interested in reversing the usual polarity of such tone poems, taking trompe-l’oeil musical literalisms (and some flat-out literalisms, as with the rhythmically dribbled ball in “Pick-up Basketball Game at the Park”) and working them into a fluid, chromatic musical texture until they turn back into pure sound. (BMOP’s stylistic facility is a boon here, shifting effortlessly between limpid lushness and a more incisive, new music briskness.)
The Concerto for Saxophones and Orchestra (well-assayed, on both soprano and tenor instruments, by saxophonist Eliot Gattegno) and the Apollo and Daphne Variations do something similar with nostalgic styles, the inevitable jazz references in the former, a deliberately Schumann-esque Romanticism in the latter. Three very different pieces, but all engaged in a rich dance between the memory of something, the actuality of the thing being remembered, and the persistent present that the memory can’t quite mask.
Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol: Whatsnext

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Download from Bandcamp

To be sure, only a couple of tracks on Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol’s big-band album, released this spring, directly traffic in nostalgia, and the nostalgia is pretty specific: “Kozan March” convincingly reimagines a Cypriot folk song as a Neal-Hefti-ish workout; “Gone Crazy: a Noir Fantasy” tosses out handfuls of noir signifiers, with some sirens and police whistles to boot. But much of the fizz of the album—which alternates between a 17-piece traditional band and a 13-piece ensemble that includes traditional Turkish instruments—is Sanlıkol’s use of various vintage sounds, from an eerily formal harpsichord on “Better Stay Home” to the pastoral warblings of a Turkish ney on “The Blue Soul of Turkoromero” to a pellucidly primeval analog synth lead on “N.O.H.A.”
And, anyway, Whatsnext is just superb summer music. Sanlıkol—Turkish-born, Berklee- and NEC-educated—slips Turkish sounds and ideas into a polished, modern big-band idiom with wrinkle-free ease. Relaxed and cool, it turns out, is a universal, cross-cultural virtue.
Neil Cicierega: Mouth Silence
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Download available from the artist for a donation.

A good mash-up is a double-shot of impressive cleverness, making two disparate pieces of music play nice with one other. A great mash-up uses that superimposition to tap into some deep commonality across the genre spectrum. Somerville-based Neil Cicierega, though, has devoted 2014 to a style of mash-up even more outlandishly transcendent, as if tapping into a conspiracy theory explaining some alternate history of pop culture.

Like this spring’s Mouth Sounds Mouth Silence makes esoteric use of deliberately banal material, a churn of nostalgia refashioned into something resembling the soundtrack to a Hanna-Barbera adaptation of a Don DeLillo novel. Mouth Sounds— while positing the formerly annoyingly ubiquitous Smashmouth hit “All-Star” as the hidden key to four decades of pop-music history—repeatedly dredged up musical madeleines from the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s, only to immediately undercut and profane them. Mouth Silence goes one step further, wreaking havoc on numerous songs that themselves capitalize on nostalgia in one way or another: “Crocodile Rock,” “Born to Run,” “Wonderwall.” REM’s “End of the World” and Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” end up in a Street Fighter match of boomer timelines; the good old dark days of Pokémon panic are re-animated into a golem-like stand-in for every fleetingly misunderstood fad. Cicierega’s mischief is so deep that even the moments that don’t quite mesh feel more like elusive clues for any would-be cultural Dale Cooper. And the 24:03 mark? We all go a little mad sometimes.
bso chamber players 1964 cover bso chamber players 1968 cover
Boston Symphony Chamber Players
Music by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Copland, Fine, Carter, and Piston (1964)
Music by Mozart, Brahms, Schubert, Poulenc, Colgrass, Villa-Lobos, Haieff, and Barber (1968)

(BSO Classics)
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Back in April, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, the BSO began re-releasing re-mastered editions of four recordings the group made for RCA in the 1960s. The bulk of the repertoire is Austro-Germanic bread and butter: Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart. But the recordings also included some then-contemporary repertoire, and the result is some prime Boston-School neo-classicism, in rich, time-capsule performances. On the first set, Aaron Copland’s Vitebsk gets a sharp, grim reading; Walter Piston’s 1946 Divertimento is vigorous fun. One of the century’s more notable collection of principal winds—including flutist Doriot Anthony Dwyer and oboist Ralph Gomberg—takes on Elliott Carter’s 1948 Wind Quintet. The best is an exhilarating, athletic account of Irving Fine’s 1957 Fantasia for String Trio, with violinist Joseph Silverstein, violist Burton Fine, and cellist Jules Eskin (today the group’s sole remaining founding member).
Excerpt from Irving Fine’s Fantasia for String Trio

The second re-issue includes Gomberg and Sherman Walt on Alexei Haieff’s lean, light Three Bagatelles for oboe and bassoon, along with Burton Fine and Vic Firth on Michael Colgrass’s Variations for Four Drums and Viola. As a bonus, there is a previously unreleased live recording of Samuel Barber’s Summer Music, a truly excellent performance, as bright and cool and languid as a gin and tonic on the lawn.

Sounds Heard—On Shattering, Burning, and Diverting with Passion

It is hard for me to overlook the fact that music is a male-dominated industry. I am one of six female undergraduates studying composition at my university, comprising a bleak 16% of the overall program. However, it would be inaccurate to claim that women have not been making a splash with their works. Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b. 1939), Margaret Brouwer (b. 1940), and Judith Shatin (b. 1949) are three celebrated female composers—living proof that women have the capacity to excel as artists in the face of gender disparities and discrimination in the music industry. Born within ten years of each other, each are trailblazers in the field. Zwilich was the first woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize for music composition as well as the first woman to receive a DMA from Juilliard. Brouwer has been commissioned by the Dallas Symphony, Detroit Symphony, Rochester Philharmonic, the American Pianists Association, CityMusic Cleveland Chamber Orchestra, and the American Composer’s Orchestra, and is an American Academy of Arts and Letters awardee (2006) as well as a Guggenheim Fellow (2004). Shatin is the founder and director of the Virginia Center for Computer Music and has served on the boards of the American Composers Alliance, the League/ISCM, and the International Alliance for Women in Music (IAWM) and as president of American Women Composers, Inc. (1989-93).

Cover of Zwilich CD on Azica

(Azica ACD-71292)
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Aside from tremendous successes and formidable biographies, these women share something else: recent CD releases. In listening to all three discs, it is evident that each composer has something wildly different to offer to the contemporary music scene. Zwilich’s disc, Passionate Diversions, is like a musical sprint: tremendous amounts of emotional and physical energy are expended in a very short period of time. One of the most successful things about Passionate Diversions is the full spectrum of emotions and colors that Zwilich leads the listener through. The pieces are at different times (and often simultaneously) cinematic (e.g. the piano gestures 3’40” into the 2nd movement of Piano Trio), heart-wrenching and lyrical (the violin lines in the 2nd movement of Septet c. 3’08” – 3’34”), impish (the pizzicato motif c. 4’40” in the 2nd movement of Piano Trio), suggestive of Shostakovich (the opening of Piano Quintet) and reminiscent of Gershwin (the third movements of both the Piano Quintet and Septet). The ebb and flow of these assorted styles ultimately forms a soundscape that is endemic of Zwilich’s music.

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich: Quintet for Violin, Viola, Cello, Contrabass, and Piano (2010) — 1st Mvmt.
Performed by the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio with Michael Tree (viola) and Harold Robinson (bass).
℗ and © 2014 by Azica Records. Streamed with permission of the composer and the label.

Cover of Brouwer Naxos CD

(Naxos 8.559763)
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Brouwer’s disc, Shattered, features four original pieces and two arrangements of Debussy and Bach scored for mixed ensembles of various sizes. The disc has an energy commensurate with—though completely different from—Passionate Diversions. In her program notes for the recording, Brouwer likens the first piece on the disc, Shattered Glass, to “a musical kaleidoscope.” She explains,

Instead of seeing the constantly changing colors as you do in a kaleidoscope, you hear them. There are two contrasting yet related sound worlds…[which] eventually mix and overlap, becoming sometimes rhythmic, sometimes raucous, and sometimes mysterious and melodic.

During a 2010 NewMusicBox interview, Brouwer describes a specific passage in her Violin Concerto as an example of what it means to her to be 21st century composer:

[T]here’s a place where the violin is playing the twelve-tone row while the woodwinds are playing the tonal chords. I love the way that sounds. I like mixing. To me, that’s what I love to do as a 21st century composer, is mix those things. To me, that sounds avant-garde.

The pieces included on Shattered are perhaps the quintessence of this mixing which Brouwer loves so much. From the relentless, primal energy of Shattered Glass to the naked beauty of Whom do you call angel now? and lushness of her arrangement of Debussy’s Clair de Lune, Brouwer’s music represents just how uniquely diverse the output and voice of a single composer can be.

Margaret Brouwer: Whom do you call angel now? (2005).
Performed by Sandra Simon (soprano) with the Blue Streak Ensemble.
℗ and © 2014 by Naxos Rights US, Inc. Streamed with permission of the composer and the label.

Cover of Shatin innova CD

(innova 845)
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Judith Shatin’s boldly titled disc, Time to Burn, furthers this idea of unique diversity—output that is extensively varied yet identifiably and singularly branded. Whether her compositions are atmospheric and talkative (such as Glyph, written in 1984 for solo viola, string quartet, and piano) or literally robotic (as in Sic Transit, written for percussionist and CADI—i.e. Computer Assisted Drumming Machine), Shatin always accesses a space that is conversational—between musical lines, instruments, and performers and audiences. She allows herself to be inspired by shared stories (e.g. Elijah and his entrance into Heaven in her piece Elijah’s Chariot, or as she describes in her program notes, the “renewed holocausts” of the past decade “driven by ethnic and religious hatred”). When something is in conversation, it is escapes ephemerality: a state Shatin discusses in her profile on NewMusicBox. Reflecting on rapidly changing technologies of the late 20th century, which caused one of her initial pieces for electronics to become obsolete within a mere two years, Shatin admits that the experience “was a real sort of wake up call.” “How do we think about these things and do we care whether our pieces are ephemeral or not?” she ponders. “I guess for the most part I do because I spend a lot of time working on them…it’s not like writing for piano; that probably is pretty settled at this point.”

Judith Shatin: Glyph (1984) — IV. Incandescent.
Performed by James Dunham (viola), the Cassatt String Quartet, and Margaret Kampmeier (piano).
℗ and © 2014 by Wendigo Music. Streamed with permission of the composer and the label.

* * *

Though Zwilich, Brouwer, and Shatin are only three of many distinguished female composers (check out this list of over 200), they serve as important models of the different ways a successful career as a female composer can look. While enjoying hard-earned success—particularly as a woman in a male-dominated field—calls for celebration, Zwilich offers young composers a cautionary piece of advice:

Success is more difficult than failure for a young person. When you fail, all those times you try to get your foot in the door and the door slams so tight it breaks your foot…all of the things where you fail to achieve whatever it is you’re looking for…if you can pick yourself up and go on, you’ve become much stronger. So I sometimes say to young composers, I hope you experience failure and learn how tough you are, how strong you really are.

Sounds Heard: Dan Becker—Fade

Dan Becker—Fade
Dan Becker
Fade (Innova 855)
Performed by:
The Common Sense Ensemble
The New Millennium Ensemble

The title of Dan Becker’s album Fade is named after one of its tracks, yet it doesn’t begin to disclose the manic sense of drive present in much of the music. This selection of chamber works composed between 1993 and 2008 suggests that Becker has an “on/off” switch resulting in either intensely energetic music or in work of concentrated repose. There isn’t a lot in-between, but clearly such extremes suit the composer, who according to the liner notes, is consumed by the idea of processes—both musical and otherwise—unfolding around him at all times.

Farthest to the “on” side of the spectrum are his Five ReInventions, which redress the two-part inventions by J. S. Bach in post-minimalist garb and set them for Disklavier á la Conlon Nancarrow at can’t-be-performed-by-normal-humans speeds. Other works that will make you consider skipping your morning coffee are the adrenaline-infused Gridlock, given a focused, enthusiastic performance by the Common Sense Ensemble, the second movement of Keeping Time, performed by The New Millennium Ensemble, and the final work, A Dream of Waking, for NME members Sunghae Anna Lim on violin, and Margaret Kampmeier on piano.

The title track, Fade, falls to the other edge of Becker’s compositional style; it is gentle, delicate music that walks on eggshells, ideal for laying in a hammock on a warm summer day. Similarly, the first movement of Keeping Time is a slowly measured dance through sparkling layers of vibraphone, piano, bass clarinet and strings. The excellent production by Judith Sherman makes all of the evocative works on the album glow, and delivers a satisfying punch in just the right places.

Sounds Heard: Adam Berenson—Lumen

Adam Berenson: Lumen
(Dream Play Records 88295 05724)
Adam Berenson – composer, piano, prepared piano, synthesizer, percussion, and live electronics; Scott Barnum, doublebass and occasional percussion; Eric Hofbauer, guitar and percussion; Bill Marconi, percussion; Bob Moses, drums; Yukako Funahashi and Annete Chan, violins; Ilana Schroeder, viola; Sigurgeir Agnarsson, cello; plus JACK Quartet: John Pickford Richards, viola; Ari Streisfeld, violin; Christopher Otto, violin; and
Kevin McFarland, cello
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In what seems like a deliberate play on the channel surfing of this day and age, Lumen, an extremely expansive two-CD set culled from twenty years of recordings of music by Philadelphia-area composer/pianist Adam Berenson, constantly changes moods and styles. From track to track, it veers between performances by a jazz combo (where Berenson is joined by Scott Barnum on bass and either Bob Moses or Bill Marconi on percussion), string quartet compositions, solo piano improvisations (which upon occasion wander inside the piano), and sonic experiments involving percussion and electronics. Within this premeditated serendipity, however, a subliminal through-line emerges. The more you listen, the less aware you are of whether the music was composed a priori or improvised on the spot.

In a cover letter from Berenson that accompanied the disc when it was sent to me back in March, Berenson claimed that in his “improvised ensemble work” and his “composed string quartets … the musical thinking is the same, the psyche is the same, and the process of making the music is very similar; all of the pieces are chamber music. … The concept behind the set is that in the modern world everything is everything.”

While concluding each disc with a string quartet composition could imply that his fixed music is somehow a crystallization of his improvised material, Berenson subverts that interpretation by ending the first disc with his String Quartet No. 3 and the second with String Quartet No. 1. To further mix things up, four of the tracks are parts of a work entitled “jnana”—parts 10, 13, and 8 appear on the first disc while part 18 is on the second. Aside from teasing listeners curious about at least fourteen additional parts to this piece that were not included, the listening path that Berenson has chosen for his listeners ultimately guarantees that the journey is not a chronological one. After having taken Berenson’s journey several times, here’s an attempt at a travelogue. But first, take a listen to one of the tracks.

Adam Berenson: “jnana (Part 8)”. Adam Berenson – piano, synthesizer, live electronics, and composition;
Scott Barnum – doublebass, prepared doublebass, and live electronics; Bill Marconi – percussion and live electronics.
Featured on Lumen, ℗ and © 1998-2014 by Adam Berenson / Dream Play Records and streamed with permission

The first disc opens with “Transpersonal,” a percussion duo with Marconi which sounds somewhat incantatory given its various gong twacks. This is immediately followed by the first installment of “jnana” (part ten) which combines what sounds like a mildly prepared piano with an array of electronics that hint at the sonority of the mellotron as well as magnetic tape speed manipulations. Are folks still using reel-to-reels like this? Cool. Some mysterious percussion and an occasional arco bass chime in on occasion to add to the sonic mayhem. “Late 20th century Stomp” is the first of the tracks to directly evoke the sound world of jazz, specifically that of one of its most ubiquitous combos—the piano, bass, and drums trio—in exploratory music that would feel at home on one of the original ESP-Disk’ releases. It’s all over in only 38 seconds, but the trio continues on in the equally adventurous “Emotional Idiot,” which features some skewed walking bass lines and frenetic drumming. However, although “Prose Surrealism” also features a jazz combo, here they begin to stray into very different sonic territory whose source is the other, equally inspirational end of the ‘60s jazz spectrum; the music they’re now playing would not sound out of place subbing for the Bill Evans trio at the Village Vanguard.

Things return to a more decidedly free jazz state on “Very Soon Mankind Will No Longer Be a Useless Passion (Broadway Melody Of 1996).” And all things are possible in the next section of “jnana” (part 13) which revels in an array of electronic experiments. “Rilke,” on the other hand, is a gorgeous, almost Scriabin-esque solo piano fantasia which segues abruptly into “Ricercar (for Sven Nykvist),” an homage to Ingmar Bergman’s cinematograther, returning us to jazz while “…was near the black plague…” is something of a bitonal rag. “A Little Boy Opened a Window” introduces some prepared piano sonorities in combination with percussion; at one point, Berenson ekes out a tune reminiscent of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” For “…Searching… Everywhere” the trio returns for what is perhaps the most laid back music they have played thus far. “Dithyramb” continues the jazz trajectory, only now the musicians are playing in a way that hints at Cecil Taylor’s early combos.

This is followed with another dose of “jnana” experimentation. (It’s part 8, for those keeping score.) But about a minute and half in, there’s a brief pause and the texture suddenly completely transforms. It’s suddenly all acoustic. An almost hymn-like piano melody is accompanied by arco bass and occasional percussion punctuation. You might think you’re in a new track; you’re not. After only about a minute, more unusual sounds return, some seemingly electronically generated although at this point the ear has been pulled in so many directions that it’s hard to tell! The experimentation of “jnana” continues on “Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek,” in which Barnum and Berenson are joined by Eric Hofbauer on guitar and all three share percussion duties; acoustic and electronically modified sonorities seamlessly blur, although now there are also hints of grooves from time to time. Then comes the live performance by the JACK Quartet of a roughly 16-minute single movement composition for string quartet, his String Quartet No. 3, which involves tons of extended techniques—snap pizzicatos, col legno, etc. As a result of all the improvised and electronic music that proceeds it, this notated acoustic chamber music composition often sounds like it’s neither.
“I,” which opens the second disc, begins with a riff on the synthesizer which is quickly joined in duet with acoustic piano, contrasting the abilities of these two very different keyboards—Berenson’s fingers race across the keys of the piano while his synthesizer lines are mostly slower and take advantage of the ability to change the ADSR envelop as well as to bend notes. “Respectable People” brings us back to the jazz trio for what is mostly a straight-ahead performance. “Stars 1” is another piano solo, a quiet chain of block chords, but for “The Adytum,” Berenson’s aphoristic piano lines are enhanced by eerie electronic clusters. On “Tickled to Death,” bass and drums punctuate a captivating series of jagged scalar runs on the piano, and more experimentation ensues on the final installment of “jnana”—part 18. (I really do want to hear the missing parts. Note to self: acquire Berenson’s 2010 CD Jnana.)

“Ingrid Thulin” is a slightly blues-tinged tribute, for trio, to the celebrated Swedish actress who appeared in many Ingmar Bergman films (there’s Bergman again), after which “through this stillness,” which pits piano against bowed cymbals, has a Feldmanesque quality. But perhaps the most introspective track in the entire collection is “Yasujiro Ozu,” which combines oblique piano chords with muted percussion taps that almost sound like footsteps. For its five minutes, time seems completely suspended, which is perhaps appropriate given the track’s namesake, the seminal Japanese director whose often static films are completely immersive. In “Spooky action at a distance,” Berenson wanders back inside the piano, rubbing strings with the flesh of his fingers à la Henry Cowell’s “The Banshee.”

The remainder of the disc is devoted to a 1997 studio recording of Berenson’s first String Quartet, a five-movement composition whose twelve-minute first movement is glacially slow; it is followed by faster music that seems like it’s about to go somewhere, but never does. (This is actually a compliment.) The third movement returns us to the slowness which now feels even more somber, perhaps as a result of being misled about going somewhere else in the previous movement and winding up back here instead. The fourth movement at times has a similar quality to the early chamber music of Arthur Berger, which has been very appropriately described as a kind of diatonic Webern. It turned out not to be a path Berger or anyone else wound up taking, so it’s nice to hear it being explored again. But where Berenson ultimately takes us to, in the quartet’s final movement which is also the final track on the disc, is slow, somber music once more. It’s been quite a ride.

Sounds Heard: John Adams—City Noir / Saxophone Concerto

John Adams: City Noir / Saxophone Concerto
John Adams: City Noir / Saxophone Concerto
(Nonesuch 541356-2)
St. Louis Symphony
David Robertson, conductor
Timothy McAllister, saxophone
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John Adams’s most recent album, released by Nonesuch, contains the 2007 work City Noir (freshly revised in 2013) as well as the Saxophone Concerto, with Timothy McAllister as featured soloist. The album could essentially be seen as an exercise in nostalgia; City Noir, commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is an homage to the city of Los Angeles and its movie-making style of the 1940s and ’50s, while the Saxophone Concerto gives a hat tip to Adams’s own jazz-steeped upbringing.

Both of these works sport all of the characteristic Adams-isms that we know and love—the frenetic, scurrying, tightly interwined lines, mountainous pile-ups of contrapuntal activity that are suddenly snatched away to reveal shimmering, gentler material, made even more dramatic for the contrast, and huge, yet still clear as a bell-sounding brass chords that bound across the musical terrain. The heavy-duty music geeks out there will find plenty of those “How did he DO that?! Must see score now.” moments.
Both compositions are rife with references to jazz, without “just coming out and saying it” directly in the music. Alto sax is featured in City Noir, with a “fiendishly difficult part” writes Adams in his liner notes, and according to legend, it was hearing McAllister perform the part that inspired the composer to write an entire concerto for McAllister. Well, that and McAllister’s past life as a champion stunt bicycle rider (!), which for Adams spoke to the musician’s fearlessness. Also in the liner notes, Adams states that for the Saxophone Concerto he wanted a sax sound associated with jazz performance, rather than the vibrato-laden French style that is often employed in classical saxophone music. Timothy McAllister’s powerful performance does have a more “American” sound, while the St. Louis Symphony’s performance (led by conductor David Robertson) achieves the intended infusion of bebop into its veins while maintaining a sense of clarity and conciseness throughout. One of my favorite parts is the very opening of the piece, which sounds as if McAllister is pulling an entire orchestra out of the ground with his instrument alone. But the jazz element isn’t just about the saxes—both works contain jazz-oriented harmonic and gestural material molded specifically for orchestra performance. These are vital, engaging performances by all involved.

Sounds Heard: George Heathco and Misha Penton—Ravens and Radishes

Ravens and Radishes cover WEB
George Heathco and Misha Penton: Ravens and Radishes
Performed by:
Misha Penton, soprano
George Heathco, electric guitar
Daniel Saenz, cello
Buy: Download from bandcamp or

The product of a collaboration between composer/guitarist George Heathco and soprano/lyricist Misha Penton, Ravens and Radishes is a song cycle for guitar, cello, and voice that takes inspiration from classic fairy tales and, unlike the recent film Maleficent, recasts them in a new and interesting light instead of, say, ruining them.
The slow rising double-stopped fourths of the Daniel Saenz’s cello in Witch in Winter recall a sort of metal guitar dirge and match well with Heatcho’s popping, muted clean-tone guitar, the latter like pizzicato. From the small, mid-range chords in the guitar against the cello and Penton’s voice in the opening of Mirror to the somewhat lighter (in the context of the darker brooding surroundings) uneven groupings of rising guitar scales against pizzicato cello of October Ravine, Heathco carefully balances the instruments throughout.

Ravens and Radishes EP release – photo by David DeHoyos

The recording is stark and spare with very modest post-production, which gives it a live quality, one that enhances the primarily dark musical treatment of the text. It feels like it’s happening right in front of you, and nowhere is this more evident than in Sheep’s Clothing. An “A” played on the “D” string of the cello glides in and out of tune with the open “A” string while Heathco trades punchy attacks on the low “E” of the guitar with delicate open harmonics, a bit of musical slap and tickle through the dark undercurrent. This leads to another section in which the guitar is beating polyrhythmic time with chords as the cello and voice trade barbs back and forth.

L’oiseau de Feu sees a return of the rising fourths from Witch in Winter, and though it’s not a guitar piece strictly speaking, here the six-string influence is undeniable. From the oscillation between two notes (transpose and swing those a bit and Detroit Rock City might show up) that serves as motive, to the three-chord rising figure on upbeats that, if isolated and repurposed, could find itself at home in any number of metal tunes—including this one, which is where I’m guessing the rising line might find its inspiration? I always thought it was totally metal, frankly…—the song is rooted in the guitar world both idiomatically and musically. Heathco takes these materials and plants them in new soil, the syncopated groupings of October Ravine reimagined and now emerging in incessant sixteenth note bursts in the guitar and cello, all while Penton works her magic.

Sounds Heard: Robert Erickson Complete String Quartets

CD cover for Robert Erickson Complete String Quartets

Performed by the Del Sol Quartet:
Kate Stenberg, violin
Rick Shinozaki, violin
Charlton Lee, viola
Kathryn Bates, cello
(New World 80753-2)
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San Francisco-based Del Sol Quartet’s recent New World Records 2-CD release of Robert Erickson’s complete string quartets is truly an ambitious album. Working chronologically and covering a compositional period from 1948-1986, Del Sol illuminates Erickson’s development and maturation as a composer.

Listening to his quartets brings to mind the image of an onion: at first glance, an onion is, well, an onion—basic and non-threatening. But as each layer is peeled away, the onion becomes more pungent and affects the person peeling it with greater, often times uncontrollable intensity. This gradient is sharply noticeable in Erickson’s quartets. Though everyone experiences music and sound differently, for me his debut quartet, completed in 1950, is an unpeeled onion on the kitchen counter. This is not to say the piece, organized in three movements and written using traditional methods of counterpoint and twelve-tone harmony, is not interesting; after all, the best sauces use onion, and Erickson’s first quartet has its moments of brilliance. But the piece is strict, uptight, and highly cerebral.

Over the next six years, Erickson only finished a handful of works, juggling teaching commitments, a stint on KPFA radio, writing a book, and moving around the country. But at the end of this period, he emerged transformed as a composer with his Second String Quartet (1956). Immediately this quartet pushes past the limitations of the first and expresses a greater confidence in the idiom. As Erickson’s student and biographer Charles Shere points out in the set’s accompanying program notes, “Where the conversations of the First Quartet had been contrapuntal, direct, like rational and logical disputations proceeding toward a logical outcome, those of the Second Quartet are fanciful, exploratory, playful, and not so rule-bound.”

For the next three decades, Erickson composed for a wide variety of ensembles as well as for electronics but did not return to the string quartet until Solstice, completed in 1985. A radical departure from the first and even the second quartet, it is comprised of drones and meandering lines reminiscent of an Indian raga or Middle Eastern music, meeting in powerful unisons across all four instruments but only fleetingly before one instrument leaps away to a soaring harmonic or teases with a seductive melody. One such instance is at c. 3’44”, when the instruments compound into a seemingly impenetrable wall of octaves from which an evocative solo voice emerges, pristine. Unrestrained by any traditional form or counterpoint, Erickson communicates his musical ideas every which way—powerfully, playfully, viscerally. Though he had stated that Solstice is not program music, there are reflections of the definition of a solstice (i.e. either the longest or shortest day in the year) in the interplay of short, melodic gestures and seemingly endless drones.
Finally, there is Corfu. Written just a year after Solstice, Erickson’s last composition for string quartet functions as both a seamless continuation of Solstice and as an independent creation. Corfu moans. Its harmonics jump off the fingerboard, constantly pushing the notes higher and higher, all within an extremely stripped-back, naked context. One particularly striking moment is c. 20’36” when, out of nowhere, the violin springs to a staggeringly high note and the cello sounds like a machine grinding to a halt. The harmonies are awfully dissonant and tense until a lower voice releases the tension and the piece fades to a close. Like a white dwarf that remains after the implosion of a star, the piece’s concluding gesture—which not only ends Corfu but Erickson’s entire exploration of the medium—transcends the double bar line, its residual energy lingering long after the music ceases.

Sounds Heard: Akropolis Reed Quintet—Unraveled

Akropolis Reed Quintet - Unraveled
Akropolis Reed Quintet: Unraveled
Performed by:
Tim Glocklin
Kari Dion
Matt Landry
Andrew Koeppe
Ryan Reynolds
Buy: Order from CD Baby or

I don’t get time to listen to music like I used to. The past few years have been so busy for me that sitting still in a room and letting sound be the sole focus (live or recorded) has gone from being a regular occurrence to an occasional indulgence. Maybe indulgence isn’t the right word, but as anyone who does music for a living will tell you, you have to fight for the time to do what you do. The diligent carving out of minutes and hours and the thoughtful use of those resources becomes more and more of a struggle as the responsibilities of life crowd in, but that’s the gig right? Life piles on and you say, “Thank you, Life. May I have another?”
Part of it is the double-edged sword of multi-tasking; I’m always doing more than one thing. When I say “listen to music like I used to,” I’m thinking of the times in high school when a new album would come out. I’d lie down on the floor of my bedroom with the speakers of my stereo positioned on either side of my head (at a reasonable distance and volume; I still hate headphones), close my eyes, and just listen. These days I still get down on the floor, but it’s usually for some serious tea-time with my daughter, and on these very regular occasions my head is surrounded by toys, not speakers.
I bring all this up because I’ve had this album staring me down for a while now, and I finally got a chance to stretch out and have a listen.

Akropolis Reed Quintet – photo by Lauren Landry

The Akropolis Reed Quintet is having a good year. In addition to their gold medal-winning appearance at the 2014 Fischoff Competition, they’ve released their second album, Unraveled. Like their debut, High Speed Reed, Unraveled features works written for the group through their ongoing commissioning project. For those unfamiliar with the reed quintet genre, the instrumentation is much like a wind quintet with the flute and horn swapped for saxophone and bass clarinet. The album is filled from stem to stern with tight writing by young composers, and the spectacular playing engages both intellect and emotion throughout. Bursting out of the gate, Paul Dooley’s sharp and pointy Warp and Weft pushes forward with a constant, relentless intensity. Four-Letter Word by Robert McCarthy seems at first a calm pairing with the Dooley, until it too launches into a dense, rapid texture underpinned by bassoonist Ryan Reynolds’s ostinato. In three movements, the highlight of the piece is the second movement. Largely homophonic with glimpses of a sort of Copland-esque jazz harmonic language, this movement dials down the notes-per-minute for the most part until about 2:45. at which point rapid sequences drive round and round briefly, speeding through for a bit before the longer, plaintive lines return.
True to its name, Roger Zare’s Variations On Reverse Entropy starts off as though the piece is pulling itself apart and does a hell of a job of it until around the three-minute mark, when a very simple ostinato begins to bind the work together. This little machine has been operating all along, but it doesn’t really become obvious until that mark and it does give the impression of a slow-motion reverse explosion. Jason Turbin’s Morse Code features solo lines couched in lush chords which provide a brief intro to the popping and locking that one might expect from a piece with this title. You can imagine the players feverishly counting all the little hockety entrances as they try to piece together the complicated texture which shortly becomes background to oboist Tim Gocklin and saxophonist Matt Landry’s melodies.

All of the music on the disc is quite engaging, and as compelling as it was to hear, I really wanted to see it performed. Jason Turbin’s Morse Code in particular evoked that emotion. Though the hocket framework is aggressive, in reality it’s quite delicate; it’s the kind of thing that can totally fall apart if everyone isn’t a rock star and not fully on their game while performing it. That danger can’t be sustained forever, but it’s part of what makes live performance what it is. Florie Namir’s clever, three-movement Delevarnu wins the award for best title. A slow, languid opening movement with a deft use of crescendo/decrescendo (such as the effect that occurs when two winds play a minor second rising from niente and what the listener hears is the beating between the notes…very cool) followed by a second movement that is at once noir and nostalgic, the effect enhanced by pitch bends and dense chords. Elliot Bark’s Autumn in New York picks up on the nostalgia with clean, simple melodies that offer a lamb-like bookend to Dooley’s opening lion.

I like it here on the floor. The music is pretty cool.

Sounds Heard: Andy Biskin Ibid—Act Necessary

Andy Biskin Ibid
Andy Biskin Ibid: Act Necessary
(strudelmedia 014)
Performed by:
Andy Biskin, clarinet
Kirk Knuffke, cornet
Brian Drye, trombone
Jeff Davis, drums
Buy: Order from strudelmedia or

The first thing that might catch one’s eye about the details of composer and clarinetist Andy Biskin’s quartet Ibid’s album Act Necessary is that there is no bass player involved. Rather, the ensemble contains clarinet, cornet, trombone, and drums. It’s a quirky group, playing some appropriately zany tunes, to the point where, if you close your eyes for certain tracks, it’s easy to picture a tiny cartoon marching band dancing its way across your field of vision. Such a lighthearted style—definitely Biskin’s forte, as evidenced by his extremely successful Goldberg’s Variations—which includes a deft fusion of New Orleans jazz, Tin Pan Alley, funk, and yes, polka, gives the music healthy doses of spirit and groove.

Apparently before Ibid came into existence, Biskin had also been experimenting with drummerless bands, which would naturally lend a more chamber-music feel to his music, but for this group he decided to turn things around by dropping the bass and adding drums. Because the arrangements are top-notch, my ears never found the missing bass to be an issue. There’s plenty to hear without it, and indeed, the treble-heavy lineup contributes to the sense of lightness in the music. The three melodic instruments work together to capture a satisfying sense of range, often going off in different directions to spin and whirl around one another, and then suddenly meeting at a common chord and progressing forward in rhythmic unison, like four friends on a scavenger hunt. Everyone has ample soloing opportunities, and they take them with creativity and gusto. Kirk Knuffke stands out in “Page 17,” a wonderfully energetic tune full of quick changes and surprises. As one might expect, trombone spends a lot of time filling up the lower range of the sound spectrum (check out the beginning of “Page 17′ for a good example), but Brian Drye shows his soloing chops in “Pretext” and “The Titans” while cornet and clarinet take on support roles. Also notable is that Jeff Davis’s drumming—mostly with brushes—always fits into the texture just so and is never overpowering. That you’ll likely be dancing within ten seconds of his entrance in “The Titans” or at the outset of “Just Like Me” goes to show that a great groove doesn’t have to be loud.

While all of the musicians on Act Necessary are clearly virtuosic performers, this is not so much a show-off-the-chops album, but more of a let’s-all-have-fun album, and that sentiment absolutely extends to the listener as well. The songs are complex and substantial, but never self-indulgent, with plenty of small details to be discovered upon repeated listening. While you’re dancing around the living room, of course.

Sounds Heard: Azure Carter & Alan Sondheim—Avatar Woman

Avatar Woman

Avatar Woman
Azure Carter (voice and songs) and Alan Sondheim (instruments)
(Public Eyesore 123)

The description “folk music from another planet” has been used to describe the output of musical creators as diverse as Meredith Monk, Captain Beefheart, the English art rock duo Renaldo and the Loaf, and the proto-New Age jazz-fusion ensemble Oregon. In fact it’s an expression that even I was tempted to use when I wrote about recordings of the ancient Mayan-inspired compositions of Jeremy Haladyna and in fact did when I wrote about the fascinating sonic explorations of a Taos-based duo called Untravelled Path. But it’s always struck me as a somewhat disingenuous explanation for oddball sounds since, after all, who’s to say what music from another planet would sound like? It might sound completely bland. And certainly people on our own planet have been making pretty strange sounds for millennia. Yet it’s the first thing that comes to mind yet again as I ponder how to describe Avatar Woman, a collaboration between Providence-based singer-songwriter Azure Carter and her life partner, multi-instrumentalist Alan Sondheim.
Carter’s magnum opus has been an ongoing performance/video piece called The Fairyland Around Us based on unpublished naturalist writings of Opal Whitely (1897-1992) who is mostly remembered for her mysterious and controversial childhood diary. Sondheim, though no relation to the iconoclastic Broadway composer-lyricist, has been an iconoclast of both music and words for almost as long as his more famous namesake. Back in the late 1960s, ESP-Disk issued two LPs of his experimental improvisations on a wide range of string, wind, and percussive instruments. In subsequent decades, he became even more devoted to experimenting with written language, becoming one of the pioneers of cybertext; one of his more radical techniques involves blurring poetry and computer languages. The 12 songs featured on Avatar Woman are admittedly somewhat less ambitious than some of Carter and Sondheim’s individual large-scale projects, but they are no less adventurous. Although all of the songs herein were composed by Carter, they sound the way they do largely because of Sondheim’s unusual performance approach to a potpourri of instruments from around the world—including violin, viola, oud, pipa, sarangi, electric guitar, electric saz, dàn môi (a Vietnamese jaw harp), and something that was totally new to me, a cura cümbüş which is a small banjo-like instrument that was developed in Istanbul in the early 20th century.

On “Buried,” Carter’s extremely pretty sounding vocals on a ballad are prevented from being at all soothing by the presence of a truly off-kilter sarangi accompaniment—this has nothing to do with raga. Toward the end, the voice completely slips away and all that’s left is a reverb-laden double-stop. On “Dark Robe,” Carter’s voice sounds far less innocent; there’s an almost eerie creepiness to her tone quality as she sings about death stalking her against a backdrop of mostly plucked strings and occasionally drones from two saxophones played by Christopher Diasparra and Edward Schneider. “Surely,” in which Sondheim again accompanies Carter on a bowed string instrument, reminds me somewhat of G.B. Grayson’s performance of the creepy murder ballad “Ommie Wise” from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, although half way through it sounds like Albert Ayler sat in on the session. The almost tender “Among the Ferns”—similarly arranged for voice and bowed string, but this time no saxophones—is based on poems by the Edwardian socialist and LGBT activist Edward Carpenter. For “World,” the electric saz strums madly as the voice and a saxophone weave melodic shards around it.

In the alternate universe I often wish I lived in, “Making Boys” would be a Top 40 hit; in the real one I do live in, it sounds like what might have happened if Jacqueline Humbert sang Robert Ashley’s songs with Eugene Chadbourne. Sondheim’s erratic bowing offers the one element of variance in the hypnotic, austerely minimal “Blood Tantra”—I write this as a compliment! The dàn môi gets pulled out for “Avatar Man with Dream Woman”; much more flexible than most jaw harps, the instrument is capable of a very wide range of sounds, all of which seem to get used here. In fact, pun intended, the conclusion made my jaw drop. The saxophones return on “What Remains,” which is perhaps the most song-like track in the entire collection thus far; at times it’s almost hummable, almost. “Marriage to Language” contains my favorite lyric of the entire album: “Perhaps I understand what you’re saying but don’t understand why you are saying it.” The dàn môi returns for a reprise of “Buried”; the different instrument and different key almost make it sound like a different song. I could actually image folks in an arena singing along to “Credo,” the album’s closing track. Carter’s melody is positively anthemic, and Sondheim’s resolutely primal tonal electric guitar accompaniment rarely upstages it. Then again, I live on that other planet where this stuff is folk music.