Category: Albums

Sounds Heard: Jefferson Friedman & Craig Wedren—On In Love

Jefferson Friedman & Craig Wedren: On In Love
Performed by: American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) with Craig Wedren & Jefferson Friedman
(New Amsterdam 056)

Composers Jefferson Friedman and Craig Wedren have joined forces to shove their different-yet-connected musical worlds successfully closer together into the album On In Love. With the ensemble ACME, the two have constructed a group of songs that are dramatic, unpredictable, and beautifully crafted, serving up both both punch and substance.

Many may know of Jefferson Friedman via his stunning 2011 album of string quartets, and his composing for this current album bears a similar level of craft and aural sensitivity. In the late 90s he served as keyboardist and backup vocalist for the avant-rock group Shudder To Think, for which Wedren was the lead singer and songwriter. According to the album press release, they saw one another as creative kindred spirits, and that connection ultimately led them to create this album together. Although I’m not so sure about the description of the music as “pop music from an as-yet-undiscovered planet,”—it’s not that weird (to my ears), plus the songs are purportedly about the various incarnations of love, and isn’t writing songs about love exactly what earthlings do? Nevertheless, it is a very compelling listen, full of unexpected twists and turns of the sort that make the listener stop to really pay attention, as well as melodies that stick in the mind, asking to be hummed later on.

The first track “Tarrying” begins gently with Wedren’s slightly plaintive tenor vocals atop light-as-a-feather piano and string harmonics, which are quickly joined by equally light drums; just present enough to augment the pulse initially set by the piano. Each chorus/verse segment rises in volume and intensity like a wave, only to return to the original gentleness of the opening, until the final section of the song piles on more and more intensity, taking the wave to a crest that breaks on shore.

“Fight Song” is just that—an ornery, fast-paced slalom during which Wedren’s vocals become increasingly creepy with the addition of fish tank style reverb. I especially love the break (indeed, this album sports many excellently satisfying breaks) of angry brass, piano and drums that clears out the busy textures for a few seconds without losing intensity. “Famous Planets” is a gorgeous song accompanied by string quartet and tastefully employed synth textures; the last track of the album features an acoustic(ish) version of the song with guitar, piano, and singer (included: a little nod to Steve Reich’s electric counterpoint towards the end of the track).

The production of On In Love effectively walks the tightrope between pop and classical production techniques; happily, the acoustic instruments sound like themselves and are not excessively amplified/electrified, and although there are plenty of effects employed, they are used in service of the overall musical vision and don’t hog the aural stage. Even songs like “WARZ” and “Refuse to Die” (my personal favorite song of the album for it’s jagged yet infectiously quirky nature) have a more chamber ensemble-oriented sound than one might expect for their styles, yet they are totally convincing; a testament to Friedman’s composing and arranging chops. The most “plugged in” music can be heard about two-thirds of the way into “Glacier,” when electric guitar and bass join the acoustic ensemble for a full-on big stadium-style rock band ending (but with added Xenakis-style string shredding).

Similarly, Wedren’s singing is nuanced and natural sounding; even at big dramatic moments it never reaches the point of self-indulgence that one might expect. Rather than being the “front man,” he works with the ensemble as another instrument to get the point across.

Although it is clearly stated on the album website that this project was only intended to be a record, it has been performed live a few times already, and I’m sure that this combination of musical forces would make for a great concert experience. Whether you’re into Fugazi or Messiaen, My Bloody Valentine or Scelsi, there is something to be gleaned from the music of On In Love. It’s a beguiling record that is bound to stay in listening rotation for a good while.

Sounds Heard: Meredith Monk—Piano Songs

A couple weeks ago, on Twitter, Alex Temple cut to the chase:

The piano’s most distinctive characteristics—its gratifyingly hammered attack and its koan-like decay—are undeniably bewitching, so much so that a century’s worth of music has piled up devoted to exploring one extreme or the other. (More than a century, really—the difference between early Liszt and late Liszt is, in large part, the difference between fast notes and slow notes.) But you can still run into piano music that takes the middle path, as it were. Meredith Monk: Piano Songs, a new compilation performed by Ursula Oppens and Bruce Brubaker, is one such cache: music that is expressively moderate, which is to say, it finds expressive possibilities in the act of moderating between extremes.

Meredith Monk: Piano Songs album cover

Buy now:

Monk’s most notable mediation is between the poles of minimalist repetition and modernist continuous variation. The music is almost always ostinato-based, and each piece maintains a pretty consistent mood and modality; but different melodic cells come and go, the tiles get slightly bigger or smaller, the texture will stack up in layers only to circle back to sparseness—there’s a kind of Brownian motion built into even the simplest structures. Instead of sitting in her rooms, Monk moves through them. It lends shorter pieces, like the shuffling, unsettled “Tower,” a certain density and longer pieces, like the bright and determined “Parlour Games,” a sense of travel, of considerable covered ground, even as the themes recapitulate and round off.
There’s also give-and-take between strict, locked-in musical processes and a more unpredictable theatrical sensibility. “Urban march (shadow)” is understated, gray, then suddenly accelerating into a crush of flinty, crunchy harmonies. “Paris” throws a brash tumble of pawed clusters into the midst of its Satie-like leisure. “Folkdance” opens with rustic flair—the pianists clapping and shouting in mutual accompaniment—balancing the level of sophisticated harmonic polish that emerges by the end. Monk is an indelibly dramatic composer: not melodramatic or grandiose, but rather attuned to the rhythms of entrances and exits, expositions and reveals.

This collection is, at least partially, a cover album—the swaying, vaguely jazzy “Windows in 7’s,” for instance, composed for pianist Nurit Tilles, first appeared on Monk’s album Do You Be; “St. Petersburg Waltz” (also written for Tilles) was on Volcano Songs. Four of the selections—“Tower” (the earliest piece here, from 1971), “Parlour Games,” “urban march (shadow)” (from the opera mercy), and “totentanz” (from the album Impermanence)—were arranged by Brubaker. Given such a range of vintages and sources, the collection proves remarkably cohesive. And much of that, I think, is Monk’s inclination to use the piano as a tool, a means to an end, the sound of it a vehicle for ideas; the pieces refracted through the piano are congruent with the pieces conceived for it.

But, then again, the whole album sounds, at the same time, completely idiomatic. The timbre suits the music, and the music suits the timbre; throughout, Oppens and Brubaker find ample opportunity for expressive variations of touch and tempo. (The recording sessions came after a concert performance of the same program in Boston’s Jordan Hall, and at least a little of that live, why-not interpretive freedom made it on to the recording.) In the liner notes, Monk cites Mompou, Satie, and Bartók as early favorites, and all might be heard to be putting in guest appearances: Mompou’s haze in the “St. Petersburg Waltz,” Satie’s lazy insouciance in “Paris.” The oldest influence, Bartók’s resonant dissonance, pervades “totentanz,” the most recent music on the recording. Old and new, traditional and experimental, memory and transformation always appear as dance partners. Within all those competing forces, Monk’s music seems to hover at a point of balance.

Sounds Heard: Thomas DeLio—Selected Compositions (1991-2013)

Thomas DeLio
Selected Compositions (1991-2013)
(Neuma 450-108 & 450-201)

Neuma catalog items 450-108 and 450-201 are, respectively, a CD and a DVD (whose job is mostly to support multichannel audio; only one piece includes a video component) that together represent a 22-year retrospective of the music of Thomas DeLio. Twenty-three pieces composed between 1991 and 2013 are included on these discs.

If you’ve ever been curious about DeLio’s catalog, you’ll find plenty to engage with here. If you already hold DeLio in high esteem—he’s been counted by some among the most important living exponents of post-Cageian American experimentalism—you’ll love having all of these pieces within easy reach so you can relive them whenever the spirit moves you. If you feel—as others I’ve spoken with about DeLio’s music do—that this particular emperor has no clothes, Neuma’s collection offers the perfect chance to reevaluate that conviction. And if, like me, you’re pulled cyclically toward and away from DeLio’s music and the discourse around it, these two discs provide an ideal checkerboard on which to allow your feelings about this insistently elusive music to play out once and for all.

The CD booklet includes the following mission statement, one I remember very clearly from my first brushes with DeLio’s output more than a decade ago and which bears excerpting here:

As William Carlos Williams once said of Gertrude Stein: “Stein has gone systematically to work smashing every connotation that words have ever had, in order to get them back clean.” I too admire Stein for this reason and, following in the footsteps of those who have tried to do the same for sound, would like to move away from gesture process and get sound back “clean.” My approach to composition, to which I came quite subconsciously, involves reducing the music’s surface to just a few sounds separated—pushed apart—by large quantities of silence; sound events pushed into isolation. Often writers and scholars comment that my music is about silence. However, it is actually about sound. I use silence, among other things, to frame sound so that we may experience it in new ways, highlighting qualities of sound perhaps otherwise lost. […] I argue for wiping the slate clean and rediscovering sound beneath all the rhetoric and dated mannerisms which have accumulated over so many years and, in the process, really coming to grips with the nature of our own experience—a complex task indeed.

Although I found a great deal to enjoy in these substantial Neuma releases, I did so for exactly the opposite reason to the one that DeLio seems (according to his elevator pitch) to have intended: DeLio’s music purports to get sound back “clean,” but it’s the dirt in his sounds—that which we track in on our shoes, so to speak, no less than that which collects during each piece—that makes these recordings so worthwhile.

There are two kinds of pieces on these discs, more or less: pieces with live performers and pieces that exist on fixed media only (here charmingly called “tape” pieces in spite of their inescapably digital pedigrees). In both kinds, per DeLio’s liner note, isolated sounds are separated by long silences. As Agostino di Scipio points out in “Notes on Digital Silence: Listening to Tom DeLio’s Short Tape Works,” there’s an ontological difference between silence in a concert work for live performers and the digitally encoded silence in a fixed-media piece; either way, however, a DeLio experience (to one who knows what to listen for) is generally recognizable as such, and recognizably distinct from pieces emerging from other experimental music traditions in which silence figures so significantly (scores published by Edition Wandelweiser, onkyokei performances, etc.). In “Luminous Presence: Thomas DeLio’s think on parch,” Linda Dusman writes that DeLio and composers like him reject “the musical languages and forms of the dominant culture and seeks to create newly with each work the distinctive style established by each composer.” Whether or not it can honestly be said to emerge “newly” with each work, the “distinctive style” DeLio has established is unflagging, regardless of medium.

To the extent, then, that hearing one of DeLio’s pieces should be an exercise in the decontextualization of unsullied sounds, the fixed-media pieces and the instrumental pieces function in much the same way. But, as I’ve already indicated, I don’t think these pieces are simply exercises in the decontextualization of unsullied sounds: thankfully, the sounds come pre-sullied. That’s where the meat of this literature lies, for me, and that’s where the fixed-media pieces and the instrumental pieces diverge categorically.
The fixed-media works are full of sounds which are by no means fully drained of the “rhetoric and dated mannerisms” DeLio aspires to eliminate. Indeed, they’re full of gestures, and very sensuous and richly legible gestures to boot. Song: “Foxrock near Dublin…”, the first track on the DVD, has recourse to a bridge-of-the-Enterprise ambience beneath fractured lines from poet P. Inman (a presence throughout the discs—more on him later). Meanwhile …transients, in which DeLio processes the recording of his transients/images for piano and percussion and then strives (in an anti-musique concrète instrumentale) to “project those sonorities not as the products of actions or gestures—the products of purpose—but as purely physical [i.e., sonic, acoustic] realities.” To my ear, this doesn’t really happen: in fact, it’s the traces of the original “physical realities” of performance that are truly at issue in the piece.

Even though DeLio encourages us in words to approach each moment in his music as a lone and unmoored present, the pieces themselves encourage us to make connections backwards and forwards in time. In the fixed-media pieces especially, this is a matter not only of the piece’s duration but also of historical time: on a technical level, the electroacoustic pieces’ use of resonators and phase vocoding point very clearly to the 1990s, an inevitable (but possibly trivializing) result of following Fredric Jameson’s charge to “always historicize”—the last thing DeLio seems to want us to do. “sam”, for fixed-media sound and video, inhabits circling repetitions or near-repetitions for almost eighteen minutes, a lifetime compared to most of the fixed-media pieces on these discs. The version of “sam” on the DVD is an adaptation of an installation, which might explain its length; even in truncated form, it’s a piece that develops its own history and web of internal relationships that militate against the primacy of the sequestered moment.
The instrumental pieces, naturally, avail themselves of a different palette. A word here about the performances: although they’re uniformly superb in both precision and spirit, the works for percussion are especially noteworthy. DeLio is fortunate to have strong advocates (in capacities as varied as conductor, performer, interlocutor, and analyst) in Christopher Shultis and Tom Goldstein, whose efforts have probably brought more listeners into contact with DeLio’s music than any others’. However, all of the renditions showcased here are faithful and tight, and they all deserve praise for keeping the quality of such a huge undertaking so high. (That the Philharmonia Bulgarica recorded the three-and-a-half minute Than is itself remarkable—who expected to find an orchestra piece on these discs?) And of course they all sound great, especially on a set of decent headphones; that’s one way in which “sound” is importantly thematized that I can’t complain about.

It’s not only the sound worlds of the instrumental pieces that differ critically from the fixed-media pieces: because the embodied effort of producing instrumental or vocal sounds is so much greater than the effort of processing or reproducing sounds electronically, DeLio’s instrumental works—which I haven’t heard live in recent years but used to encounter from time to time on programs at UMBC—engage with a sort of economics of sound. Unlike his fixed-media pieces, in which sound is “cheap,” his instrumental pieces are like manipulated markets in which sound is made more valuable by virtue of its scarcity. In these pieces, performers have to reckon with the long silences between sounds, incorporating them into a performance practice. (Goldstein has written about this very consideration.) The piano solo Though, performed on the CD by Jacques Linder, establishes just such a market, and its silences rely on the sounds that they follow to create a sense of desire —at least, this is my experience of the piece: a family of small, handcrafted objects, fascinating individually and as a set, for the next of which we have to wait. As though, another solo played here by Twin Cities percussionist Jeffrey Gram, works similarly, fabricating desire by separating gestures—and let’s not pretend they’re not gestures. DeLio writes:

Among other things, in this work I was very interested in drawing attention to the distinction between non-pitched and pitched sound. Toward this end, I introduced only one pitch into the composition, near the end—one very peculiar type of sound framed by the more complex sounds of the un-pitched percussion employed throughout the piece. My purpose was to try to return pitch to its place as “sound”; to strip it of its function as a mere element of language (melodic, harmonic, tonal or atonal).

There’s nothing “mere” about being an element of language, and even if there were, then shouldn’t the piece’s “more complex” percussive sounds—many of which also carry a perceivable pitch—be held equally accountable? To my mind, the sudden appearance of a ringing metallophone in as though only reinforces the suspicion that the pitch-content to be heard in what DeLio calls the “un-pitched” percussion instruments might be expressive, too. I want to make a mountain out of this molehill, and DeLio wants me to forget about it and direct my attention to the next molehill.

DeLio’s aesthetic is a kind of “innocent modernism” in which we imagine that sound is “just sound” rather than imagining, say, that all parameters of musical material can be graduated into twelve equal-sized slices—both then-necessary but ultimately now-false ideals. It does less injury to “sound” than other kinds of musical modernism, maybe, but the word “sound” has quotation marks around it here because sound isn’t actually a thing you can do injury to. This is the root of my objection to DeLio’s project: every sound that appears in his music was produced by human labor of some kind or another; every sound’s source has an historical specificity; many of the sounds include splinters of semantic languages; all of the sounds in a piece can be related to one another in a hierarchical way (or, more accurately, many possible hierarchical ways). They are not just sounds, and what the lengthy silences that are supposed to cut them off from their kin are actually doing is giving a listener time and space to assemble them into meaningful networks.

Consider American poet P. Inman’s voice, which features in several fixed-media works and whose character at times evokes the stray pre-song utterances found on early Todd Rundgren albums. I’ll digress briefly for a look at Inman’s orientation toward poetry, which mirrors DeLio’s to music in important ways. Dusman identifies an intersection in Inman’s writing (whose fundamental unit is not the phrase or the sentence but the individual word) of the imminent (“meaning is always imminent in his poetry, emerging in the moment from the multiple possible readings produced and present in each moment”) and the immanent (“At the same time meaning is immanent; that is, its meaning wells up from the word itself”). Inman conceives of his work in a political way:

Capitalist ideology hopes to dilute or deny the existence of anything other than the everyday given. By doing so current ideology stagnates thought, replaces the possibility of change with the statistic, frozen black on paper, legitimized by its very inertia.

(That may have been true when Inman wrote it in 1979, but it certainly isn’t now: capitalist ideologies in the 21st century are increasingly predicated on the construction of desire, the commodification of affect. They change constantly and appear in terrifyingly vivid colors. They haunt us so thoroughly that I had to turn to those very terms to properly describe my reaction to Though.)

In DeLio’s case, that meaning emerges in his pieces imminently is clear to me. The act of waiting is an essential part of hearing his music, and not only in Though one hears a sound, and then one has to wait some time to hear another. It’s just that these episodes are cumulative; each new one doesn’t negate all the ones that have come before it. Dusman’s description of DeLio’s music as a threshold experience is absolutely correct; the listener spends a great deal of time on the threshold between the apprehension of the piece he or she has thus far developed and the apprehension of the piece he or she will have after the next sound event, which will necessarily alter the former in an unexpected way. This is an intensely dramatic experience, at least for me, but it only works precisely because meaning in DeLio’s music is not constructed immanently but rather negotiated by the conditional and conditioned particularity of each sound-event within the piece’s world and the resonances of those sound-events in the world outside of the piece. DeLio may want to wash his hands of “geology, astrology, and acupuncture,” to paraphrase Grisey, but we should be grateful that he hasn’t been entirely successful—because this very contradiction is what makes
these Neuma discs so magisterial, their contents so captivating.

Maybe this is DeLio’s ultimate revenge on a new music community bent on overthought, on subjectivity run amok, on indulgences in memory and gesture, both of which he reviles: maybe he’s spent a career writing pieces whose insights are revealed only when the discourse around it is considered and then disregarded. This isn’t a review of that discourse, nor of DeLio’s prose writings, nor of his interlocutors’, of course; it’s a review of a CD and DVD that contain a sizable helping of recorded and fixed-media music. He was very nearly right all along: the worthiest ambassador for DeLio (to whom I’m happy to yield the last laugh) is the music—not to say the sound—itself.

Note: If you’re going to investigate the CD and DVD set, you might as well also investigate Essays on the Music and Theoretical Writings of Thomas DeLio, Contemporary American Composer (Thomas Licata, ed.), a collection of articles and commentaries that argue passionately—if not always, as I’ve opined above, persuasively—for DeLio’s work. I’m pleased to have had the chance to cite its contents several times in this review.

Sounds Heard: 17 More Takes on those 88 Keys

Merged image of the album covers of American Vernacular and Keeping Time
Once upon a time, it often felt as if anything that did not have some kind of electronic component—or at least did not emulate those new sonic resources made possible via technology through extended techniques—was an anachronism. Things like string quartets, or—even more so—solo piano music seemed hopelessly quaint and not in keeping with the times despite the fact that tons of composers were still creating engaging music for these instruments. The recent 40th anniversary of the Kronos Quartet serves as a reminder of how they and now countless other string quartets have shown listeners that it is still possible for up-to-the-minute contemporary music to be realized on two violins, viola and cello. Similarly, myriad pianists promulgate an endless supply of recent repertoire, proving there’s still a lot to be said via those 88 keys without even having to venture inside their instruments or retune the strings. Two pianists who recently caught my attention with new releases devoted exclusively to American music composed within the last quarter century are Nicholas Phillips and Mary Kathleen Ernst. All in all, 17 composers are represented on their discs, showing that the instrument that once was a mainstay in households all across the land still has a home in the 21st century.


Cover for the CD American Vernacular

American Vernacular
Nicholas Phillips, piano
(New Focus FCR 144)

Phillips’s latest CD outing, American Vernacular, is something of a departure from the previous recordings in his discography—discs devoted to the music of San Antonio-based Ethan Wickman and the late Boris Papandopulo, who was among Croatia’s most prolific composers. Now, rather than focusing on a single composer, Phillips offers a wide-ranging program whose unifying theme is being American in some way. He approached composers telling them he wanted to put together an album of “American vernacular” music without really offering them much more to go on. In his booklet notes for the CD, Phillips wrote that he wanted to “engage audiences with new music that also drew from something familiar” but “not to make a popular crossover album.” As a result, the music represents a broad range of styles and moods.

Spectacular Vernaculars, a three-movement suite by Mark Olivieri, pays homage to Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Ahmad Jamal, De La Soul, Alberto Ginastera, and tango.  That’s already a lot of ground covered in the album’s first three tracks. Ethan Wickman’s Occidental Psalmody, which is inspired by the Pacific Ocean and the Rocky Mountains, sounds like music Claude Debussy might have written if he had lived in the Western United States instead of Paris. I’m particularly enamored of On the Drawing of Constellations by Chicago-based composer and vocalist Ben Hjertmann, whose previous compositions have run the gamut from a post-modern take on the once ubiquitous secular Medieval song “L’Homme Armé” to prog rock material that sounds deeply indebted to Brian Wilson. Constellations, as is fitting for a musical depiction of the evening sky, is much more introspective and aphoristic; imagine the directionlessness of late Morton Feldman without the sometimes neurosis-inducing (wonderful though they may be) dissonances.

Billy-tude by Joel Puckett (who was profiled last month on these pages) is a delightful virtuosic piece that makes occasional nods to Billy Joel in ways that even I, who have never been much of a fan of the “Piano Man,” can appreciate. Three Piano Miniatures (Nos. 10, 12, and 13) in Mohammed Fairouz’s ongoing series are sonic meditations on, in turn, Liberace, Tin Pan Alley, and the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The last of these, with its foreboding ostinato, is particularly moving. Beloved by David Maslanka is an extremely tender short piece that admirers of the composer’s imposing large scale works for symphonic winds will find rather surprising.

Luke Gullickson’s Back Porch Requiem for John Fahey offers up some of those Feldman-esque dissonances that Hjertmann had eschewed but in ways that are much more driving and insistent. But what is perhaps most striking about this piece is the way that material alternates with rapid cross-hand figuration that emulates Fahey’s signature finger-picking guitar style. John Griffin’s Playin’ and Prayin’, which mixes hoedowns and Christian hymnody from the Deep South, is somewhat reminiscent of the many “Hymn and Fuguing Tune” compositions Henry Cowell composed during the last 20 years of his life; it’s a sound world that is ageless, at least to my ears. A Southern Prelude by William Price offers a more abstract take on the sound world from below the Mason-Dixon line, taking its cues from the rambling, chatty-style delivery of Southern storytellers.

The final work featured is Hotfingers: Three Vernacular Nondances, composed in 2012 by David Rakowski. Aficionados of Rakowski’s seminal piano etudes will revel in this new piece’s similarly off-kilter takes on blues and jazz with fractals thrown in for good measure. I, for one, was extremely disappointed when Rakowski reached his 100th solo piano etude and said that he would write no more of them, but I’m overjoyed that he’s found a way around his vow.

One additional detail that deserves a mention: Phillips very helpfully provides detailed information in his notes for how to obtain scores for all of the pieces stating, “I hope this recording inspires you all, especially fellow pianists, to seek out the music.” It is laudable gesture that will hopefully get this worthy music into many additional hands and ears.


Cover for the CD Keeping Time

Keeping Time
Mary Kathleen Ernst, piano
(innova 868)

Mary Kathleen Ernst’s new collection, Keeping Time, ups the ante on Phillips’s by limiting her selection not only to recent music by American composers, but exclusively to women. For the folks who claim that such endeavors are no longer necessary in 2014, one need look no further than the fact that while Phillips’s American Vernacular is a fabulous collection, it did not include a single female composer. But Ernst’s restriction is anything but limiting and proves that worthy music is being created by everyone. In fact, I decided to feature both discs in this essay to try to balance things out a bit.

Keeping Time by Canadian-born, now Bay Area-based Vivian Fung lends not only its title to Ernst’s anthology but also a guiding principle behind the selection of all the works herein; as Ernst states in her booklet notes, “it reflects the ongoing pulse in music” and also “honors … composers writing during my lifetime.” Secret and Glass Gardens, a 2000 work by Jennifer Higdon written for the Van Cliburn Competition’s American Composer invitational, frequently enters territory that is worlds away from the frenetic virtuosity that usually characterizes her work and offers a glimpse of sumptuous lyricism that is equally appealing. Katherine Hoover’s Dream Dances is a single movement that stiches together a wide range of dance-like sections in different tempos. Jing Jing Luo’s Mosquito is, as its title implies, unbridled flittering; it is tense but very exciting. (Warning: though it is labelled correctly on the tray card, the metadata for this track was mislabeled and so it appears as though it were part of the next piece; in fact, the erroneously metadata tags continue on for an additional eight tracks of that next piece.)

The most substantial work featured on the disc is Chai Variations, a 20-movement, 21-minute tour de force for solo piano by Judith Shatin that was inspired by the Jewish folksong “Eliahu HaNavi.” Chai, the 18th letter of the Hebrew alphabet, is often used to represent the number 18 as well as life, hence Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and this set of 18 brief variations with a theme at the beginning and a recapitulation of the theme at the very end. Ernst shows a particular affinity for this music, having previously recorded a whole disc of Shatin’s music with violinist Hasse Borup which included the formidable solo piano piece Widdershins.

Spontaneous D-Combustion by Stefania de Kenessy, who shocked the sensibilities of the avant-garde at the beginning of the 21st century with her “Derriere Guard” movement, is true to de Kenessy’s purposefully backward-looking compositional aesthetics which provocatively reject most of the musical advances of the 20th century. But it’s not without some quirks. It is a series of seven short movements, but players can play as many as they wish in any order. Ernst chose three, ending the set with a manic Vivace in septimal meter that is not the kind of thing you’d typically hear in the 19th century.

Nancy Bloomer Deussen’s “A Recollection,” a gorgeous little piece akin to the Albumblätter that so popular during the Romantic era, is from a suite of two pieces entitled Musings: Circa 1940 that were inspired by her childhood in the Bronx as World War II was about to unravel. Coming at the end of Ernst’s CD, it almost has the feel of an encore—perhaps a not so subtle suggestion to other pianists since returning to the stage to play something like this after an entire concert program is an almost surefire way to garner even more enthusiastic applause.

Sounds Heard: Adventures Far and Wide

Sounds Heard: Adventures Far and Wide
Glenn Kotche: Adventureland

Eight years after his first composer-centric album Mobile, percussionist/composer Glenn Kotche (of Wilco fame) has released a second recording featuring a selection of chamber pieces all under the heading Adventureland. With some of the very finest musicians of the new music world in tow—including Kronos Quartet and members of eighth blackbird—he has created an engaging, sometimes playful/sometimes eerie, percussion-based landscape with twists and turns that are well worth exploring.

The most substantial piece on Adventureland is Anomaly, a work whose seven movements are sprinkled throughout the disc and serve as musical connective tissue. Originally premiered with Kronos Quartet at the 25th Anniversary San Francisco Jazz Festival in 2007, this recording is a richly layered journey through forests of strings, electronics, and percussion instruments—a landscape that will continue revealing details with further listens. In Anomaly Kotche reveals a knack for spinning a melody, and the piece demonstrates a satisfying weaving of musical lines and integration of larger thematic elements. The other multi-movement work, The Haunted, for two pianos and percussion, sports jagged rhythms and repeating patterns that smack a bit of literal translation from drum set playing. Nevertheless, the unique textures of each movement unfold in delightfully unexpected ways, as do the two single-movement pieces, The Traveling Turtle and Triple Fantasy.

Nils Bultmann: Troubadour Blue
While “viola duets” might not normally inspire a ton of listening excitement, think again: The ten duets on Nils Bultmann’s album Troubadour Blues are quite ravishing. Assembled over a period of years from bits and pieces of solo improvisations, they are performed by the composer and Kronos violist Hank Dutt. Scattered about the album, they range in tone from somber to frenetic; here’s to hoping that violists everywhere embrace these lovely little pieces.

In From the Depths, viola meets didjeridu in a four-movement work that compellingly explores the timbral relationship between the two instruments. (People, there should be more pieces for this instrument pairing!) The final work on the album is Suite for Solo Cello, performed by Parry Karp and quite clearly inspired (even without information from the liner notes) by the Bach Cello Suite #1 in G Major.

Man Forever: Ryonen (with So Percussion)
Thrill Jockey

Percussionist John Colpitts has yet another name in addition to his Kid Millions moniker—Man Forever, which is his experimental percussion persona. For his new LP Ryonen, he has teamed up with So Percussion to create a drumming smorgasbord of chaotic gratification. It’s tough not to think immediately of joyfully spastic Sunday drumming-in-the-park gatherings while listening to The Clear Realization and Ryonen, the two works on this album. The Clear Realization is a polyrhythmic study performed on two drum sets, bongos, and assorted other percussion with voice—a propulsive and exciting affair. The title track piles layer upon layer of percussion onto the more focused material of the first track, as if a huge group of people just joined in the drumming after a topsy-turvy drinking spree. Rhythmic patterns pop through the busy surface texture, and the resonance of the drums, especially the persistent bass drum played with soft beaters, creates a drone element that floats around the percolations.

It would without a doubt be an excellent thing to hear these pieces performed live—much better than Sunday park drumming, really—and you lucky New York people will be able to do just that next week at Le Poisson Rouge.

Sounds Heard: Douglas Detrick—The Bright and Rushing World

Album cover for Detrick's The Bright and Rushing World
Douglas Detrick’s Anywhen Ensemble
The Bright and Rushing World (Navona 5955)
Douglas Detrick—trumpet, composition
Hashem Assadullahi—alto & soprano sax
Shirley Hunt—cello
Steve Vacchi—bassoon
Ryan Biesack—drumset
Recorded September 15-17, 2012 at Firehouse 12 Studios (New Haven CT)

Longtime readers of this site should recognize the name of Portland-based composer/trumpeter Douglas Detrick from an overview on the creative music scene in his hometown he contributed a few years back and a subsequent report on the Chicago-based EveryPeople Workshop.

I first became acquainted with the music he composes and performs with his eclectic trumpet/sax/cello/bassoon/drums quintet, the Anywhen Ensemble, through the group’s second album called Rivers Music, which was released the same year that Detrick wrote those NewMusicBox articles. That disc consists of just one massive sprawling track lasting over 40 minutes which begins with Feldman-esque pointillistic drone exchanges between the four melodic instruments before the drums introduce a rhythmic element and then gradually take it to something more frenetic and impassioned. Both in terms of his composition and his ensemble’s performance, it was a true hybrid of the aesthetics and sensibilities of (to use genre terms many of today’s most forward-thinking music makers would rather eschew) jazz and contemporary classical music. It’s somehow straight down the middle. Cello and bassoon immediately send a subliminal message of “that’s classical” while saxophone and drums shout “this is jazz,” even though there have been valuable improvisational contributions made on the bassoon and the cello and a now significant body of score-based repertoire for the saxophone (though not so much for drumset). It’s telling that the trumpet, which has had an important audible impact in both worlds, is Detrick’s instrument.

His third Anywhen Ensemble album, The Bright and Rushing World, has just been released on Navona and offers the same broad range of musical possibilities though it is parsed into ten separate chunks. Well, not exactly. Detrick conceives of it as one piece over which he labored for the better part of a year, the various sections are just convenient markers. As if to further make listeners aware that it is an integrated whole, the titles for each of the ten sections are actually the lines of an original ten-line poem:

The door is open
And you watch as he goes out
A seeker, insubmissive
Into the bright and rushing world
Who, over the years in your care
You never thought to give a name
You gasp and ask aloud
How can you live without a name?
A question so weightless it floats away
On the wind of his leaving

But since Detrick offers these ten divisions on the CD, it seems as good a way as any to navigate through the listening experience. “The door is open” begins with just the trumpet alone. Over the course of the first minute, spare embellishments from drummer Ryan Biesack build gradually into something more clearly foregrounded and then the remaining horns enter in a quasi-chorale, though still ceding center stage to the trumpet. “And you watch as he goes out” begins with a long low note played by bassoonist Steve Vacchi which is immediately answered by the other horns before a drum solo kicks in amid Shirley Hunt’s pizzicato cello, mimicking the role of a jazz bassist. By a minute in, though, the cello, now arco, has become the primary voice, offering sweeping melodic lines that are periodically interrupted by outbursts from the various horns, sometimes in tandem, sometimes not. Here’s what some of his music looks like on paper:

Detrick-Bright & Rushing World score excerpt

An excerpt from Douglas Detrick’s score for The Bright and Rushing World. Copyright © 2012 Douglas Detrick and reprinted with permission.

At the onset of “A seeker, insubmissive” the bassoon repeats a five-note ostinato over which the other instruments add layers of counterpoint. But for “Into the bright and rushing world,” the drums initially set the tone, receding into the background or dropping out entirely when other instruments grab the spotlight with brash and harried musical gestures. The bassoon briefly takes the lead, but is quickly shouted down. About half way through, trumpet and saxophone take the center stage, moving in parallel motion as they might in a head on a hard-bop recording from the 1950s, though not for long. Eventually all dissolves to just the cello wandering pizzicato across the open strings, its cycle of fifths ringing out.

“Who, over the years in your care” continues with just pizzicato cello, though now playing more linear material over which the saxophonist Hashem Assadullahi folds a melody soon joined by trumpet and bassoon with the drums keeping everything under control. “You never thought to give a name” opens eerily with just a series of quiet, breathy cello harmonics that then lead into a more rhapsodic tune, though still unaccompanied for roughly the first minute. Others enter briefly and then the bassoon takes the lead in more angular melodic shapes.

“You gasp and ask aloud” starts with what is probably the most sublime drum solo on the album. Again, as with the earlier spotlights on individual members of the ensemble on this album, it’s about a minute long. The horns, in tandem, introduce another chorale-like tune, but the drums never stop being the main focus. A spare open fifth leads directly into the more introspective “How can you live without a name?” in which the bassoon is really given an opportunity to shine with some fancy cadenza-like figurations.

“A question so weightless it floats away” begins as a call and response between the cello and the trumpet with the drums serving as an intermediary. The other instruments then join in the ensemble interplay. Breathy harmonics return on the cello as well as other extended techniques which usher in a plethora of otherworldly squawks from the other players. Finally, more harmonically directional contrapuntal activity returns with each instrument blending together like threads in a complex tapestry, eventually dropping out except for the cello, which offers one final dirge-like flourish. At nearly 12 minutes, it is the longest piece of this massive sonic puzzle. Saxophone and bassoon trade motives at the onset of “On the wind of his leaving” over which the trumpet eventually weaves a tune that is somehow a cross between a fanfare and a lullaby.

For folks still wanting more—I know I do—Detrick’s generous website offers tons of ear candy. Walking Across, the very first Anywhen Ensemble album, is offered in its entirely. There are also recordings by his earlier group, The Turning Point, which he describes as playing “eclectic pop material,” but to my ears it just sounds more firmly rooted in jazz than his more recent sonic explorations. Tantalizingly, one page embeds a Soundcloud stream of a series of excerpts from a session in which Anywhen collaborated with pianist Wayne Horvitz in a fascinating reimagining of traditional American folk material; it’s a sneak preview of a full album that will be released in the coming months. Next year Anywhen is embarking on a nation-wide tour. I plan to attend at least one of their gigs!

Sounds Heard: These Just Out

The Puppeteers: The Puppeteers

It’s a charming, slightly romantic notion that musical collaborators who began their friendship at a much-loved performance space would later unite to form a group after that venue has come and gone as a tribute of sorts, but that’s exactly what The Puppeteers have done. In memory of the Brooklyn club Puppet’s Jazz, which closed its doors in 2011, drummer Jamie Affoumado, pianist Arturo O’Farrill, bassist Alex Blake, and vibraphonist Bill Ware have all thrown their creative ideas into the same hat and recorded their self-titled first album. The release is also the premiere recording offered on their new label Puppet’s Records.
All of these musicians have individually made so much music with so many different and amazing groups that I’m not going to venture to list them (although in the “we are all connected” department, it is worth mentioning that Bill Ware was a 2003-4 Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute participant), but suffice it to say that the strength of this album lies in the fact that everyone has contributed their own tunes; there is no bandleader. Because the musicians have played together so much, the music is varied without seeming disjointed, and the balance between instruments—especially the agility with which the instruments move between background and foreground to allow for the featuring of solos and prominent lines—is so fluid that the listener barely notices such shifts of texture until they have already taken place. From O’Farrill’s blazingly fast piano lines and Ware’s similarly propulsive vibraphone playing to Blake’s quiet, tuneful scatting over bass improvisations and Affoumado’s exacting-yet-still-relaxed drumming, it’s easy to hear that the four are having a blast playing together, and it’s most definitely a fun and energizing listening experience.


Michael Gordon: Rushes
Hitting the streets just today is a commercial recording of Michael Gordon’s composition Rushes for seven bassoons. Named after the tall grass that is reminiscent of the materials from which bassoon reeds are manufactured, Rushes is a triathlon—the piece is written in three parts; two 20+ minute sections sandwiching a short seven-minute movement—of constant musical motion; wave upon wave of repeated tones constantly wash over one another in a multilayered tapestry of darkly beautiful harmonies. It is at first warm and then, over time, becomes somehow electronic-sounding, but without losing the sense that humans are behind the music. (And don’t forget to check out the score and assorted insights into the production of the work.) Like his previous composition in the same vein, Timber, this piece is intended to evoke an ecstatic, trancelike state, and also to “expand the boundaries of a single instrument’s repertoire into hitherto unknown (and at times, otherworldly) spaces.” Mission accomplished.

Order from Cantaloupe Records

Joseph Kubera: Book of Horizons
With more than thirty years’ worth of musical contributions to the American contemporary experimental music scene, pianist Joseph Kubera has pretty much played, well, nearly all of it. He is known for unrelenting precision, stamina, and patience—qualities all required to master some of the most challenging piano works of our age, such as those by Feldman, Ashley, and numerous pieces by John Cage, to name just a few. He also has wide-ranging tastes, which are demonstrated on his new album, Book of Horizons released by New World Records. Two of the works, “Blue” Gene Tyranny’s 1994 composition The Drifter and Michael Byron’s 2009 Book of Horizons, were written especially for Kubera, and he has grouped them with Julius Eastman’s Piano 2 and Stuart Saunders Smith’s Fences, In Thee Tragedies. The music spans the lush to the thorny, and the textures range from sparse to brick wall density; the recording below of the first movement of Michael Byron’s Book of Horizons conveys the sonic cognitive dissonance of unceasing tangled fingerings that nonetheless sound strangely effortless.


Sounds Heard: Zwerm—Underwater Princess Waltz

Zwerm—Underwater Princess Waltz

Underwater Princess Waltz: A Collection of One-Page Pieces (New World 80748)
Featuring work by: Karl Berger, Earle Brown, Alvin Curran, Nick Didkovsky, Joel Ford, Daniel Goode, Clinton McCallum, Larry Polansky, and Christian Wolff

I have a “less is often more” world view, and in keeping with that ethos I’ve long found something particularly engaging about “small” art—eight-inch canvases, brief poetry—as if the space constraints actually cleared more room for a spectator to form a deeper, interactive connection with the work at hand.

So it was easy for me to fall into the concept of Belgian/Dutch electric guitar quartet Zwerm’s release Underwater Princess Waltz: A Collection of One-Page Pieces, since in a way they were developing that sort of relationship with the included music. In each case, the quartet began with the parameters of the piece presented through these brief scores, and the recoding then served as a document of their own exploration and dialog, both with the work at hand and with each other.

Their release of pieces by American composers on New World Records provides that label’s typical brand of thorough booklet notes. For the curious, Amy C. Beal explores the pieces one by one, with each of the scores reproduced for the listener to examine—works that rely on everything from more-or-less traditional notation to what one might characterize as “Marvel comic super heroes battle a graphic score” (h/t to Nick and Leo Didkovsky for that one).
The increasing circular chaos of Joel Ford’s Gauss Cannon (2006) opens the disc before the wistful sweet romance of Alvin Curran’s Underwater Princess Waltz and Her Waltzing with Her (both 1972) take over—a bowed saw adding the liquid character to Curran’s tracks.

Zwerm doesn’t allow the listener to sink too far into this daydream, however, before diving into the above-mentioned Didkovsky score Mayhem (2012). Presented in three interpretations spaced out over the course of the album, each one-minute version assumes as its subtitle one of the weapons depicted in the score—hammer, bow, and blade. Where “The Hammer” takes Didkovsky’s word at the encouragement to “be brutal,” what actually impressed me here is the nuance Zwerm brings to subsequent perspectives—”Blade” is given a sexy, high-speed car chase danger and “Arrow” a Wild West horror. (The banjo certainly helps things along there.) This quirky spirit also tints Daniel Goode’s The Red and White Cows (1979), a narrated mathematic story problem leading into a bluesy meditation on “the girl I love” for rhythm guitar, solo guitar, samples, and voice.
Larry Polansky’s tween (k-tood#2) (2002) may give some musicians exercise flashbacks as short phrases roll over and over in delicate complexity, whereas Clinton McCallum’s round round down (2012) starts in sonic bedlam and then just keeps climbing.
The most texturally diverse performance on this disc might be found in Zwerm’s interpretation of Christian Wolff’s Burdocks, Part VII (1970-71), as the musicians react to one another while old radio samples climb the dial and other recorded sounds color the field, often ratcheting up the tension. A solo version of Earle Brown’s December 1952 (1952) resides at the other end of that spectrum, a steady flicker of pitches nearly always blaring their way across a more than eight-minute span, solid yet malleable, with the artfully sculpted sound only thinning out for brief moments of recovery until it reaches a clear summit and quickly drops off into a lengthy decay.

After this imaginative tour, Zwerm brings the show to close with Karl H. Berger’s Time Goes By (1975). When it first began, the simple organ and hand percussion tricked my ears into thinking that iTunes had somehow skipped over to a Yo La Tengo album elsewhere in my library. But actually the track is an appropriately extended meditation on the piece’s title, the simple words sung over and over, up and down and up and down the scale again. The meditative trance it induces is broken apart by the guitars a third of the way in, and the instruments continue to claw at the choir until they fully shrouded it completely in their curtain.

Sounds Heard: The Quiet Ones

Considering the volume of pitches and announcements from various and sundry PR organizations I receive every week, I can’t help but wonder about all of the things happening in our musical world that are less aggressively placed in my path. The noise level out there is such that interesting-yet-below-the-surface things can be missed, and I just hate missing interesting things.
With that in mind, I have picked three recordings that have been sitting patiently and quietly in the pile on my desk without flash or fanfare, waiting to be listened to. Two of the discs are from just down the road in Washington, D.C., while another comes from San Francisco, and the music they contain couldn’t be more diverse.

D.C.-based composer/pianist Jessica Krash’s album features six compositions for solo piano as well as duos, and chamber ensemble combinations with piano. The track presented below is a solo piano work, Dangerous Curves performed by the composer herself. The piece is an exploration of “…banned and provocative music from many genres, places, and times in history.” Indeed, it is a delightfully quirky kettle full of musical worlds jostling against one another, performed with skill and plenty of zest. It’s also a good introduction to Krash’s music, which is often eclectic and animated, with a sly sense of humor.

You might know Mark Winges primarily as a composer of choral music, so perhaps it makes sense that his latest disc, entitled Night Voiced, contains new music for viola, the range of which mimics that of the human voice. The CD’s title track is scored for the eyebrow-raising combination of viola and organ, though the two instruments maintain a very conversational quality (to my ears, anyway) throughout the piece. A version of this same work for viola and piano also closes the disc, but I couldn’t resist posting the organ version (speaking of underdogs!). The other works on the disc include Reciprocal Tapestries for viola, cello and piano; Diverted Vignettes for solo viola; and San Francisco Stopover for viola cello and guitar, performed by The Left Coast Ensemble.

QUIRK is an album of new music for clarinet and electronics performed by clarinetist Mauricio Salguero. The composers represented include Christopher Biggs, Jason Bolte, Andrew Cole, Eric Honour, Sarah Horick, Jorge Sosa, and Asha Srinivasan. The album title speaks to the broad range of musical sensibilities and influences heard within the pieces, from the skittering, glitchy soundscape of Christopher Biggs’s Ten To The Power Of Negative 33 to the more melodic, slightly pop-tinged aura of Sara Horick’s Looking-Glass Changes. Quirk by Eric Honour (who also engineered, mixed, and mastered the album) begins with a dash of techno-oriented flare that is quickly pulled in different directions which allow the bass clarinet to let loose and sing before being snapped back to its beat-oriented soundscape—a sort of theme and variations that characterizes the shape of the composition.

Sounds Heard: Janice Misurell-Mitchell—Vanishing Points

While nowadays it’s pretty much common practice for music to be poly-stylistic, it’s still somewhat rare for music to completely internalize multiple musical languages from various genres and spew them back out into something that is ultimately untranslatable into anything else besides itself. But the music of Chicago-based Janice Misurell-Mitchell seems to do just that, seamlessly weaving elements from high modernism with jazz, Latin, blues, and even funk into an amalgam that is completely its own thing. Vanishing Points, the second retrospective disc of her music from the Southport Composers Series, collects six of her chamber music compositions spanning four decades.

The disc’s opening track, Agitación, is an ideal introduction to her extremely catholic approach to style and form. A roughly 16-minute work from 2005 scored for two pianists and two percussionists, it begins with almost a Latin tinge, albeit supporting a cascade of angular figurations. While the Latin feel grows less and less pronounced with each passing measure, it retains that music’s feeling of regular pulsation, but then that too drops off. Then, at about 3 minutes in, it starts to manifest a bonafide cool jazz aura, with a timbral combination of piano, vibes and drumset that sounds almost suggestive of MJQ, albeit if a young Cecil Taylor had subbed for John Lewis. The music grows somewhat dreamier with more subdued piano lines, as if John Lewis reclaimed the piano chair, but that too soon falls by the wayside. At about 6 minutes in, the Latin feel returns, now seeming fully in Afro-Cuban clave, though the harmonies continue far afield from anything you’d hear on most salsa albums.  But then the ensemble breaks down, allowing individual instruments to have brief, less rhythmically centered solos. Toward the end, a clear jazz groove briefly reappears, but so do other musical elements. At times various percussion thwacks—on instruments that fall outside of 12-tone equal temperament—even wink at Harry Partch. All in all Agitación is a remarkably fluid processing of multiple stylistic streams into something that is completely organic and unified—a defining piece of early 21st century music!

The other works are also intriguing for their polyglot sensibilities. The earliest work on this album, Vanishing Points/Quantum Leaps from 1977 (though revised in 2011), is a hefty and heavy, three-movement piece scored for clarinet and piano trio—the same forces that Olivier Messiaen used in his Quartet for the End of Time. But whereas that famous work exploits the combinatorial possibilities of various subgroups within the quartet for contrast and great emotional intensity, Misurell-Mitchell mostly keeps the full ensemble in play but revels in how the same material (intervals, rhythmic figures) appears to sound different depending on which instruments are foregrounded. According to Seth Boustead’s detailed program notes for the recording, the work—as is suggested by its title—is “concerned with perspective and … how the listeners perceive the development of musical material.”

The very first gestures of Dark was the Night, a 1994 work for solo guitar, have an almost a Flamenco tinge, but from there the piece quickly morphs into something couched in a more modernist contemporary music language—replete with cascades of harmonics and angular leaps. But that too is only part of the picture. Later on it feels more like improvisatory folk guitar and by the end it becomes a full on Mississippi Delta blues, slides and all. According to the notes, the inspiration for the piece was “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” a classic gospel-blues by Texas songster Blind Willie Johnson (whose 1927 recording of it was sent into outer space on the Voyager Golden Record!). However Misurell-Mitchell uses Johnson’s tune only sparingly and except for the clear homage at the very end, it is almost completely unrecognizable.

On Thin Ice was originally composed in 1988 for flute and guitar but is presented here in a 1998 arrangement for flute and marimba. It is a relentless, highly contrapuntal interplay spiced with bravura flutter-tonguings. In addition to her compositional activities, Misurell-Mitchell has been active for decades in the Chicago new music scene as a flutist and vocalist, although flutist Caroline Pittman is the featured soloist for the performance on this recording. The disc, however, does include a sample of Misurell-Mitchell’s own remarkable playing—her 2009 solo composition, border crossings at sunset, in which she recites an original poem, plays flute, and sings (sometimes into the flute).

The remaining work on the disc, Deconstruction Blues, is also an arrangement. A 1991 work originally scored for English horn and keyboard synthesizer (in fact, it was commissioned for that combination specifically to counter stereotypes of 18th century double-reed chamber music), this new version from 2012 returns the music to a much more idiomatic context. By scoring it for the much grittier combo of bass clarinet and Hammond B3 organ, Misurell-Mitchell’s off-kilter flights of fancy here sound like a surreal cross between a chamber piece by Ralph Shapey and a Jimmy Smith album from an alternate universe.

This disc of Misurell-Mitchell’s music is dedicated to the memory of her son Gabriel Mitchell (1973-2012), an extremely talented film-maker, visual artist and songwriter who suffered from schizophrenia. There is an online archive of his work which is also very much worth exploring.