Category: Albums

Sounds Heard: Things You Already Know

It’s always exciting to find a “new” favorite piece of music or music maker, and when a genre’s emphasis is on the innovative, that perhaps lays the foundations for a particularly blinkered focus. I almost passed up the three discs below for that reason, because while they were new, I had covered these artists in some measure before and felt obliged to keep my ears moving. But then I heard Kamala Sakaram in her interview this month suggesting that there is so much to be gained by digging past the premiere, and I decided to apply that to my listening.

Once this idea slapped me in the face, Chris Campbell‘s Things You Already Know (poetically appropriate, no?) metaphorically hit the other cheek. In this case this was not music I already knew but rather Campbell playing around (as he explains in his CD or vinyl-accompanying note to the listener) with dialog across his own internal and external realities. While much music might be traced in one way or another to a similar root motivation, here the work wears its intention on its CD sleeve and it led me to consume the tracks as a sort of tour though the composer’s aural memory palace, several doors left temptingly unlocked and the drawers open for ready snooping. With the assistance of musicians drawn from various genre specialties in the Twin Cities and a colorful collection of unusual and/or processed instrumental timbres, it’s a rewarding journey—particularly Water Variations, with its exotic string instrument collection. Campbell himself sits at the piano at key points offering reflective commentary until the listener is beckoned to peek behind the next swaying curtain.

David T. Little’s Haunt of Last Nightfall was stuck in my head for nearly a month after our Spotlight interview, and it has taken up residence there yet again in anticipation of the commercial release of a recording on New Amsterdam (out today!). It’s not always comfortable sonic material to host in one’s ear. The history which Little explores through the music—the massacre at El Mozote, El Salvador in December 1981—draws on a full palette of extreme content stretching from horror to prayer. What particularly impresses me about this piece, however, is how rich and gripping an emotional experience Little, Third Coast Percussion, and guest musicians Eileen Mack, Mellissa Hughes, Andrew McKenna Lee, and Toby Driver are able to conjure—particularly in the percussion-only sections the work offers. A visceral reaction to a driving electric guitar is perhaps not an experience to brush aside, but it’s the timbral interplay of the various percussion sounds that bring a remarkable exploration of the events to light and one that won’t easily be shaken even after the last sounds fade.

Saxophonist Aaron Irwin is a bandleader whose projects sometimes catch my ear even before I realize his name is attached, but they tend to stick around in the rotation long enough for me to do my liner note research and get my credits straight. His latest release, Ordinary Lives, is sure to take up similar residence. In addition to Irwin on alto, this outing features Danny Fox (piano, Fender Rhodes), Sebastian Noelle (guitar), Thomson Kneeland (bass), and Greg Ritchie (drums), and the men are clearly well at home in one another’s company. The tracks are filled with too-easy-to-eat hooks, seductive gestures, and, well, regular injections of joyful lick playing that neatly keep things from getting tedious and ruining the party. It’s a warm and welcoming recording that quickly rewards attention.


Sounds Heard: Big Robot

Big Robot
Big Robot
Unmanned Studios
Viewing last year’s self-titled DVD from Indianapolis “computer-acoustic trio” Big Robot is an exercise in forbearance. The DVD includes six audiovisual pieces, the last of which is divided into three movements; all of this material works by suggesting and then withholding, cannily but almost ceaselessly, the formal and rhetorical identifications, explicit visual and auditory referents, and narrative connections that, by the end of the DVD, we’re made to crave.

Big Robot comprises Scott Deal, Michael Drews, and Jordan Munson, all of whom are affiliated with IUPUI (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis)—a mouthful of a school whose Arts and Humanities Institute is credited in the DVD’s acknowledgments. Each of these collaborators has a distinct instrumental specialty, but “programming” is chalked to all three; although Munson (winds) receives the nod for “video,” it is indicated that Drews (keyboards/guitar) and Deal (percussion) furnished some assistance in this department as well. Composition and improvisation, planning and spontaneity by the group and by its constituents, intermingle in an unknowable but apparently near-equal proportion—and the degree of aesthetic single-mindedness in evidence on the DVD is impressive: Deal, Drews, and Munson, who have been working with one another since 2009, have cultivated a strong sense of ensemble and shared purpose that knits together every track.

Indeed, throughout the DVD we encounter shapes, whispers, and intimations issued with a delicacy that requires such thorough creative sympathy. At the center of Big Robot’s DVD is the relationship between the only-partially-heard and the only-partially-seen. The only-partially-heard has many guises here—the tumbled and distressed sounds of various instruments and synths and even a voice or two, all with a distinctly digital flavor. The only-partially-seen is often people, or at least one suspects it is: fleeting and heavily processed images of what seems to be a person walking, what seems to be a person leaving a car, what seems to be a person’s face. These alienated, once-quotidian images invite us to hear their musical accompaniments in the same light—as defamiliarized everyday sounds that tantalize us most when they skirt the outermost edges of our recognition.

That’s not to say that Big Robot doesn’t occasionally indulge in some rather more straightforward moments, too. Jackwalk, the fourth piece on the DVD, includes some material reminiscent of the opening credits of an unprecedentedly opaque CBS procedural—CSI, Twin Peaks, maybe. But even in that case, the simple decision to bring this material back later on has a profound effect, because it lets us apprehend the intervening stuff as a temporary breakdown rather than a return to the status quo. Noir, meanwhile, has a much firmer narrative framework than the other pieces on the DVD; it’s more an unsparingly edited sequence of slasher flick outtakes than an experimental video piece of the sort Big Robot has trained us to expect. It’s a surprising but genuinely bold move to explore a sound world that many lay listeners find ominous and menacing while showing us a Volvo stranded in the rain at night, a mysterious wooden box with a portentous, impossible photo in it, and a creep with burlap on his face—exactly the kind of images that those of us more accustomed to drones, shrieks, and sub-100Hz bumps in the night have probably stopped associating with the sensorium of experimental music. Big Robot is challenging us: have we really scrubbed those horror-movie accretions from our hearing brains, or can we still be scared by electroacoustic music?

The DVD’s final gesture, however, betokens a less confrontational turn: among the very last images we see in From the Ripples of a Towering Ocean III is what appears (as always, it’s hard to say for sure) to be one of the group’s members. It looks like he’s exposing “the cross points of virtual and physical gesture,” as the group’s blurb has it, by performing tracked motions that correspond to (and are no doubt somehow responsible for) the piece’s audio. The possibility that one of Big Robot’s human operators has popped up to bid us farewell at the DVD’s conclusion is a pleasing one, and not just because it reminds us that these three musicians are more than just three chutes emptying into a single churning vat, as the monolithic unity of the DVD sometimes implies. For Big Robot to show us part of itself is for it to commit the ultimate vulnerability, to subtly break character just in time for the curtain call. It’s the perfect way for the DVD to end, and I encourage you to pick up a copy so you can enjoy this small but generous reveal—and the very un-small, un-generous plane of sound and light that precedes it—for yourself.

Sounds Heard: Keeril Makan–Afterglow

Afterglow cover
Keeril Makan
Afterglow (Mode 257)
Performed by ICE: Eric Lamb, flutes; Joshua Rubin, clarinets, James Austin Smith, oboe; Gareth Flowers, trumpet; Erik Carlson, violin; Kivie Cahn-Lipman, cello; Randall Zigler, double bass; Nuiko Wadden, harp; Cory Smythe, piano; Nathan Davis, percussion; Erik Carlson and Adam Sliwinski, conductors.

It is always a pleasure to encounter music that serves as a reminder of some basic creative ideas: that music is a physical thing, connected to the body and to breath; that simplicity is often the most satisfying option; that the present moment and all that it holds is important. All of these notions are present in composer Keeril Makan’s latest release on Mode Records, Afterglow, a selection of chamber music and solo works performed by International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE).

In an effort to listen with ears as widely open as possible, I always do a first pass on a recording without reading the liner notes or considering biographical details about the artist(s) involved in any way (barring past information that I may already know). Although Robert Kirzinger’s liner notes and Makan’s New York Times essay about the link between his struggles with depression and his creative life are both excellent and well worth reading, I appreciated that my first listening experience of Afterglow was uncolored by extra input. Either way, the six compositions featured on this album communicated a strikingly beautiful sense of clarity and openness in both form and content.

The opening track, Mercury Songbirds, is scored for a Pierrot plus percussion ensemble. It opens with a smooth-as-glass, sine wave-like tone performed by clarinet, which is quickly thickened by additional long tones and peppered with short interruptions over top that build up and abruptly return the instruments to the previous spare texture. While there is a subtle and nearly constant drone emanating from the piano, percussive sounds performed inside the piano play a prominent role in marking the start and stop points of the more active material.

After the seven-minute mark, all of the instruments join together in a short, plaintive song that, while ultimately returning once again to slower, sparser content, causes a transformation in which all pitch content is raised to a higher register. At 9:25 we experience the first bit of silence in the work; the drone cuts off briefly, leaving gentle chords to make footprints of their own for a short time. Almost without noticing, the drone fades back in underneath the chord progression and is eventually overtaken by piano and long string tones that are abruptly cut off by a final wooden smack on the body of the piano.

Husk for flute, oboe, and harp is a more “in your face” affair—a study in contrast from start to finish. It begins with short yet dramatic harp gestures and flute jet tones, but still sports plenty of sustained pitches, many of which are performed by the oboe and set squarely in the instrumental foreground. At three minutes, an instrumental “panic attack” breaks in of twirling oboe, brash slaps, and glissandi from the harp and piano (played with plenty of fingernail action). This frantic outburst is quickly replaced by intensely quiet material, such as the sound of hands rubbing across harp strings and breath tones from the flute, made all the more dramatic when placed against the material before.

Afterglow for solo piano revels in the sonic landscape of the instrument’s harmonies and overtones that are created through a limited palette of harmonic and rhythmic material. Opening with one repeated note that keeps cycling around, it blooms with additional pitches and slightly altered rhythmic gestures. The progression of events is quite slow, so when new notes and different registers come into play, the sonic effect is fresh and surprising. The pace picks up just a bit at about eight minutes, but by the end it has slowed back down to the original pulse. According to the liner notes, the timing of the piece is quite flexible, allowing for differences between both instrument and performance space; I hope that many pianists will take up this work and bask in its sound world as much as the composer obviously has.

The other solo work on the album, Mu for prepared violin, also has a somewhat flexible score that allows the performer to explore the nature of unexpected and/or changeable timbres that result from her or his instrument. This close microphone recording puts the listener practically inside the violin; the proximity of the delicate yet complex sonorities of bowing strings prepared with paper clips creates a feeling of vulnerability and unpredictability. The effect is like the sound of slightly labored deep breathing.
Becoming Unknown for flute/bass flute, clarinet/bass clarinet, trumpet, and double bass, follows a fitful opening of melodic fragments with a plaintive melody that is, after a short time, smacked to a halt by double bass. The material afterwards features a combination of chordal material, textural exploration, and snippets of melodic content, both compressed into short gestures and stretched out into long tones.

The final work on the disc, titled After Forgetting, is a big change, as the biggest, brightest (in terms of instrumentation), and most accessible composition of the set. A pulse is established right away that continues throughout the work, but the music never rushes—all of Makan’s work exhibits a sense of patience, even at its most frenetic. Bright, open orchestration is also a hallmark of Makan’s music, with every sonority fully present in its own space, and After Forgetting is particularly lush and engaging in this regard, with vibraphone adding a metallic sparkle.

What I find most notable in this music is its complete lack of pretension; there is nothing flashy or forced, nothing trying too hard. It’s an unexpected kind of exciting music, of the fiercely quiet sort, that will greatly please discerning ears.

Sounds Heard: Chris Wild–Abhanden

Abhanden (Navona Records) is the debut release from Chicago-based cellist Chris Wild. Wild is a mainstay of the Chicago contemporary music scene; he has been a core member of Ensemble Dal Niente since its founding and is an active conductor and music educator. His onstage presence is intense and contemplative, so it comes as no surprise that Abhanden presents six works which, in radically different ways, explore intimate and interior worlds. The recording is expertly crafted by Wild and his co-producers, engineer Dan Nichols and composer Eliza Brown, and features excellent performances from Dal Niente’s pianist Mabel Kwan, percussionist Greg Beyer, violinist J. Austin Wulliman, and soprano Amanda deBoer Bartlett.

The album’s first work is Chinary Ung’s Spiral (1987) for cello, piano, and percussion. Ung, a Cambodia-born composer whose music draws on (and works to preserve) the musical traditions of his native country, has written a series of pieces for various instrumentations, all sharing the title Spiral. In this, the first piece of the series, Ung frequently places the cellist in the traditionally virtuosic, singing role of soloist. Wild’s approach to the material is soaring, lyrical, and bold. Pianist Mabel Kwan and percussionist Greg Beyer contribute dynamic and exciting performances; they create a rich, dark, percolating atmosphere which can spring to rhythmically ferocious life at any moment. It is hard to imagine Ung’s enchanting music finding finer advocates than these. Each moment of the piece’s heart-stopping final sequence is painstakingly shaped and colored by the trio, and the cello’s final note seems to both swallow all of time, and be swallowed by it.

The next track is Claude Vivier’s 1975 Piece pour violoncelle et piano. (Vivier was a promising French-Canadian composer whose career was cut short by his murder at age 34.) With its dramatic passages of extended recitative, the piece calls to mind great chamber works by Ravel and Debussy. Vivier, like his French predecessors, was interested in the musical cultures of Asia (in this case, Balinese gamelan music). The piece, written for a Canadian performance competition, walks the line between celebrating cellistic virtuosity and taking the formal and harmonic risks we might expect from late-20th century music. Wild and Kwan’s performance is sensitively timed and supremely patient, allowing the work’s material to sparkle as it unfolds at a glacial pace.
Chicago composer Daniel Dehaan’s If it encounters the animal, it becomes animalized begins calmly enough, in an ether of harmonics. But then an arresting groan, as if from the mouth of a living creature, emerges and startles the listener. This is the first signal that the piece, a virtuosic tour-de-force for solo cello, will indeed engage the instrument’s “animal nature.” Dehaan’s piece places the animal (the human performer) in a many-sided physical relationship with the cello and all the raw materials of which it is made. The recording and production work is particularly excellent here, capturing Wild’s full-bodied performance and successfully creating a three-dimensional sonic image of the cello itself that the listener feels she can almost touch. The closeness of the microphones leaves us delightfully uncertain whether Wild’s audible breathing is a part of the notated score or not.
If it encounters the animal… is an excellent representation of the creativity that can result from long-term collaboration between performer and composer. Each cello sound seems to have been carefully and collaboratively developed. The piece feels so multi-layered that one could easily forget it is an unaccompanied cello work. It evokes both an animal–whips, groans, breaths, rasps, slaps–and the windswept chasm in which the animal might manage to survive. This recording is yet another reason why Dehaan has become one of the most exciting young composers in the city.

Andrew Greenwald describes his music as being concerned with “issues of pixelated sound material viewed at increasing resolutions.” His Jeku II for violin and cello, performed here by Wild with J. Austin Wulliman, demands a wide technical range and interpretive daring. The duo delivers a focused and dramatic performance; there’s particular flair in the way the piece’s long silences amp up the tension before another burst of activity. Wild and Wulliman execute Greenwald’s palate of extreme sounds with a combination of playfulness and precision. Every whoosh, clatter, and scramble sparkles in contrast to the surrounding sounds. Wulliman seems to know the dimensions and density of each centimeter of his bow; in one passage, he creates an arresting series of percussive clicks with the movement of what seems like one “tooth” of the bow hair. It’s a clear-sighted performance that demonstrates why Wild and Wulliman are such successful longtime collaborators.

Marcos Balter’s elegiac memoria, for solo cello, shows off Wild’s strengths as an introspective performer. Balter has written subtle and slow-moving shifts of timbre that make the simple addition of a second pitch feel magical. As the piece spins in what feels like one never-ending note, there are haunting glimpses of harmonics that seem to ascend and descend from other dimensions. The recording quality is again excellent, embracing the three-dimensional aliveness of the cello itself.

Eliza Brown’s Ich ben der welt abhanden gekommen–a work for cello, soprano, and electronics inspired by Gustav Mahler’s setting of the same Ruckert text–was, for this listener, the most fascinating and revelatory on the disc. Brown describes her music as exploring “culturally defined elements of musical meaning and syntax,” and succeeds wonderfully here. This is art song that alternates between feeling like Mahler and feeling like Mahler played through a radio on the moon. Brown makes subtle and powerful use of electronic tracks, which move in mysterious waves as Bartlett opens the piece with wide-vibrating long tones and a melodic line of Mahlerian scope. Brown’s setting often finds the cello and soprano in intimate interaction, trading off unisons that blend seamlessly into one another. The electronics are a highly dynamic third character: sometimes tender and lush, lending superhuman strength to the cello; other times self-consciously machine-like, crackling with cold, post-apocalyptic static.
Abhanden offers the listener excellent renderings of work by three of Chicago’s most interesting voices, as well as three fascinating works by composers less often heard in the city–yet each one manages to project a sense of musical intimacy. Abhanden confirms that Wild is not only an exciting performer to watch, but also a wise programmer and collaborator. The album manages a delicate balance between being both a fascinating portrait of Wild himself and an intimate map of the collaborative community in which he works.

Sounds Heard: Duo Scordatura, The Act of Loving You, and Ritual

Three very different albums showed up on my desk recently. One came from a friend, another from a friend of a friend, and the last from out of the blue, and the wildly varied music reminded me of what NewMusicBox is all about: exploding the idea that contemporary American music is any one thing.
Duo Scordatura

Violinist Nicholas Leh Baker and violist Faith Magdalene Jones form the Houston-based chamber group Duo Scordatura. Their eponymous debut album is the result of collaborations with all the composers featured on the album and each of the works came from their ongoing commissioning project.

Jordan Kuspa’s Beneath the Magma starts out with quietly growling unisons glissing and whining wider and wider into small turns. High energy, quasi-Balkan (or maybe real Balkan?) rhythms evolve from these opening gestures, populating alternating odd time signatures. While not straight-up tonal, the piece is centered in this ballpark for the most part and serves as a strong opening to the album. Robert Garza’s Ill-Tuned Illusions is one of the two works that reflects the duos namesake. Here the violin is tuned G D A# E and viola C G D# A, and the extra tension on the instruments can be heard in the work. A series of truncated vignettes, the piece is almost cartoon-like in its extreme changes of mood and texture. This is not meant pejoratively and, while there are a number of disparate sections, it certainly holds together quite well.

Jack Benson’s Tightrope Sonata is in two movements, and the first features long lines, each instrument having a turn at shaping them. Long soliloquies traded between the players merge into a languid dialogue, the back and forth spiraling upward in register before returning to material reminiscent of the opening. The second movement comes out guns blazing with its muscular jetés across double-stopped lower strings. Throughout the movement, one player plays chordal material in the chunky double-stop vein while the other lays out melodic material above. There are larger, more distinct sections, some of which have enough character to possibly warrant their own movements.

George Heathco’s Turbine features a Q&A between the two instruments that quickly overlap and become a sort of hockety canon starting in the lower registers and ascending by and by as the piece develops. A bright harmonic tonal center sways from dark to light and back again, as an ostinato in the viola plays against double stops in the violin. Pizz moments make their way into this trading texture, one that never gets too busy but always feels full and focused. This leads to a more legato section followed by a reductive ending in which a long phrase played between the instruments gets pared away until there is nothing left. Alexandra T. Bryant’s All True Passion Comes Out Of Anguish begins with a single keening line drawn out and punctuated with pizz. Glissando on the viola begins to break up the call while gentle dips in the violin mark the start of a new section, one in which arguably brighter harmonic content prevails. Chords long held by the violin are coaxed upward by sharp stabs in the viola, which upon dying away make way for a new and welcome texture of light arpeggiation from the violin and slowly gliding double stops in the viola. The arpeggiation moves into the realm of harmonics and dies away at the closing of the work. A final work by Benson, Fringe, provides an approachable and visceral close to a spectacular debut by the Houston duo.

Odessa Chen and the Invisible Stories Ensemble—The Act of Loving You

Odessa Chen’s chamber-folk EP The Act of Loving You is certainly an album of its time. Chen’s lyrical content and vocal delivery would fit comfortably in the pop rotation, though the former is more richly varied than much of that rotation and the latter has a breadth of character that outshines the average pop singer. Accompanying Chen are nine seasoned classical musicians and a composer/arranger.  (Full disclosure: the last is my friend Max Stoffregen.) The Act of Loving You has four charming tracks, each with their own character but wonderfully connected as well. The first thing that struck me about the opening song, “Our Hearts Boom Boom, was the distinctly different mic positions and distances between the vocal parts and the instrumental arrangements. Chen’s breathy vocal treatment is largely in line with typical pop production (the reverb is lush but not over the top) while the instruments are somewhat drier and more present. Delicate, intricate, and linear, the largely polyphonic arrangements set the piece apart from a pop track simply sweetened with orchestral instruments, though I admit that I missed the homophony a little bit in the choruses where, in pop, all things are tutti. Just a little.

In “Spring Comes On” a less rhythmically driven texture dominates. Filigree flute lines play around piano and bassoon while seagull strings serve to fill the space. The rhythmic activity does ramp up towards the end of the track, but the piece continues to float along by and large. “Objects May be Closer” begins with guitar and continues with a pulsing texture which at first blush is quite conventional. However, as the piece progresses and is overtaken by the orchestral instruments, one can hear the possibilities this sort of treatment has both in terms of density as well as timbre. Frankly, the pop world has no shortage of timbral possibilities, and that embarrassment of riches certainly plays a role in too many overly simplified broad-stroke arrangements. Here a strong understanding of each instrument and its timbral characteristics works strongly in favor of emphasizing the lyric at times, as well simply matching the quality of Chen’s voice, occasionally fusing the voice and instruments into a single entity.

The title track finally brings the homophony that I personally craved in the preceding arrangements while retaining the timbral matching of “Objects May be Closer.” While still floating along like “Spring Comes On,” “The Act of Loving You” is somehow bigger and thicker in spots, and when the piece ends like an indrawn breath, one is certainly left wanting more.

David Dominique—Ritual

David Dominique’s album Ritual reminds me of the best parts of the tradition of “rock band plus horns,” albeit with violin, flute, and flugabone in this case. The ten tracks feature four “Rituals” in spots one, three, seven, and nine, the first of which was salvaged from an opera and reworked from the original in which the piece acted as a sardonic fanfare for Saddam Hussein. As Dominique explained it to me:

The four “Ritual” tracks are all tied together by an emphasis on cellular repetition. In Ritual 1/BDB, that repetition gets a bit of development. Ritual 2/Dirge has a long chord progression that repeats once with repetitions in the way Andrew Lessman is improvising (not all exactly cellular). Ritual 3/Hostage overtly repeats almost the same material six times in a row, with small variations at the end of the “phrase.” And Ritual 4/Release takes an opening series of motives and deconstructs and varies them through processes of literal cellular repetition followed by a motivic group improvisation.

While the album is by no means derivative, listeners of a certain vintage will pick up on Zappa and Waits, while others may hear elements of Morphine and early Mr. Bungle channeled through Dominique’s tight arrangements. The album has a dirty, visceral quality, and while there is no story per se, there is a quasi-narrative forward motion—kind of like Zorn’s “Naked City,” without the hyperkinetic/schizophrenic arrangements and vocals.

In addition to the eponymous tracks, highlights include Golden Retriever, with its wandering pizzicato strings and lowing tenor sax, and Mulatto Shuffle, which marches in on its namesake before shuffling off, and last but not least, Drunk Hump, which sounds like the end of the night, no doubt. The album is very evocative, totally begs live performance, and to my ear lends itself to additional elements of theater and dance. Dominique’s performing contribution to the album is on flugabone on all ten tracks, and my only criticism is that with an album with a vibe like this, if you play a flugabone, you should name one of your tunes after it. Ritual 5, anyone?

Sounds Heard: Ingram Marshall and Jim Bengston—Alcatraz and Eberbach

Perhaps it’s a symptom of our sensory-overloaded lives, but I have a special appreciation for musical works that also offer a visual focus point. Like a mandala, such pairings, when done well, can be more of an attention enhancer than a distraction.
In both Alcatraz and Eberbach, the two audio/visual compositions by Ingram Marshall (composer) and Jim Bengston (photographer) included on a recent surround-sound DVD release from Starkland, the artists offer an especially effective marriage of these two realms. The visual poetry of the architectural images provides a rich compliment to the aural landscape. Taken together, they arrive like a series of postcards relaying vivid, complex impressions of places—perhaps sent by residents now long gone.

Alcatraz opens with a long display of the infamous California prison island positioned off in the inky darkness, the light from its tower beckoning while brooding piano lines rock us rapidly forward with a liquid rush and flow. From here, images of the grounds of the penitentiary dissolve in and out of the frame, in compliment with the audio scoring but without either party reduced to a slavish game of follow the leader. Delineated by brief audio pauses between the eight movements, the work takes the listener deeper and deeper into the prison, the piano lines leaving to make way for a music built of foot falls and cell doors slamming. Processed vocals intoning about regulations and the clanking of harbor bells further put us in this place, haunted moans and decaying cells cinching the experiential noose even tighter. Towards the end of the piece, the piano returns again, and when we are let outside, the vibrant green of the grass is a shocking relief. Electronic sounds seem to suggest a certain joy and optimism as we are invited to gaze across the Bay towards urban civilization and take a deep breath.

Moving on to the second piece on the disc, Eberbach, do not adjust your volume. This time we are visiting a German monastery, and Marshall allows the sounds of the countryside and ringing church bells to patiently creep in, later accompanied by delicate, wind-like (though seemingly human) vocalizations. These voices that are not quite voices color the start and end of the work, mixed with other drones and chirping birds. The music at the center of the piece is more obviously instrumental, with Bengston apparently stepping in to play some of the material that Marshall recorded on-site and later processed. The images move from detail to detail, the dissolve transitions often making a geometric commentary of their own.

Alcatraz was by no means in your face with its narrative, but Eberbach seems to be an even more subtle and nuanced presentation. No people appear in the landscapes of either piece, but perhaps it’s possible to read both as haunted spaces in a sense, echoing still with the experiences and activities of different ghosts.

Sounds Heard: Some American Albums

In the wake of the many “Best of 2013” lists floating around, I wanted to highlight some recent album releases worthy of your time and attention. I didn’t select them for this reason, but it occurs to me that they each say something interesting and distinct about what it means to make American music right now.
William Winant—Five American Percussion Pieces (Poon Village Records)

Winant has been a champion of contemporary percussion music for decades and can boast a personal connection to most of the composers represented on this album—Lou Harrison, Michael Byron, Alvin Curran, and James Tenney. This is a fascinating snapshot of mid-to-late 20th-century American percussion music, including pieces as early as Harrison’s Song of Quetzalcoatl (1941) and as recent as Curran’s Bang Zoom (1995), with works from the 1970s by Byron and Tenney filling in the gaps. The recordings themselves span many years, too—Byron’s Tracking I was recorded in 1976, while Tenney’s Never Having Written a Note for Percussion was recorded earlier this year. Taken together, these works lend the album the feeling of a retrospective in miniature, spanning most of Winant’s prolific career as a performer.

Song of Queztacoatl is the lone ensemble piece, and a curiously strident one for Harrison. It alternates between aggressive sections driven by unpitched percussion—tom-toms, bass drum, an insistent snare drum—and more melodious passages inhabited by bell-like muted brake drums, glasses, and cowbells. The Willie Winant Percussion Group (Todd Manley, David Rosenthal, Daniel Kennedy, and Winant) really captures the feverish energy here, and they play with an astonishing unity of purpose—if not for the many layers going on, you might be forgiven for mistaking this for a solo work.

Byron’s Trackings I for four metallophones toys with density; clangorous textures elide into skittering runs and back again. Curran’s Bang Zoom for 13 tuned cowbells immediately conjures up Balinese gamelan music, but without the frantic pace and tempo shifts. Winant maintains a steady, resolute tempo here, bringing out the emergent melodic patterns with incredible clarity.
Tenney’s Never Having Written a Note for Percussion is a bit of an anomaly here, consisting of a single tam-tam roll that crescendoes and diminuendos over the course of nine minutes. Again, Winant’s patience and precision gives the piece a magnificent arc, as disparate layers of sound from the tam-tam emerge and recede one by one.

The record concludes with another Lou Harrison piece, Solo to Anthony Cirone for tenor bells. It is understated, tantalizingly brief, and a perfect epigram for the album as a whole. One striking thing about the entire collection is its strong focus on melodic writing (with the exception of the Tenney). Running counter to prevailing stereotypes, it makes a strong case for melody as a central concern of 20th century percussion music, and Winant is an ideal ambassador for this message here.

Scott Worthington—Even the Light Itself Falls (Populist Records)

Scott Worthington’s Even the Light Itself Falls also looks back to the 20th century in a way, recalling the sparse, gentle textures of Morton Feldman’s music. Scored for clarinet, percussion, and double bass, Worthington’s piece unfolds at a remarkably patient pace—the bass does not even enter until several minutes in. The ensemble et cetera (Curt Miller, clarinet; Dustin Donahue, percussion; Worthington, double bass) plays with noteworthy restraint and control here. Miller’s playing is the most immediately ear-catching, with plaintive yet precise variations in vibrato. Nearly an hour and a half long, it is tempting to put this album on as background music, but the rewards for active listening are plentiful as well.

Various Artists – Rounds (the wulf. records)
Purchase directly from the wulf. records
There have been countless free concerts of experimental music at the wulf., a local Los Angeles venue. Rounds is the first release on the organization’s recently launched recording label, and it’s a very interesting choice for a first album. As the title implies, each composition is in fact a round, a melody that overlaps with itself. Of course, this immediately conjures up memories of nursery rhymes, but while many of these pieces do trade on a certain childlike simplicity, the composers also find diversity and depth in these limitations. Most tracks are a capella, though occasionally an instrument or two will double a line for extra support. There are bluesy inflections in Daniel Corral’s Your Storm, raucous nonsense syllables in Eric KM Clark’s Rhythmic Round, clever numerology in Jessica Catron’s Four 3 And, ominous chromaticism in Larry Polansky’s Scarlet Tanager, and so on.

The performances feature a beautifully heterogenous mix of trained and untrained voices, giving individual lines a timbral uniqueness that adds both clarity and character. It also connects the experimental tradition to folk music traditions—in particular, it reminds me of the Sacred Harp tradition of choral singing in the American South in its rawness and realness.

Sounds Heard: Zevious—Passing Through the Wall


Passing Through the Wall
(Cuneiform Rune 367)

While it would have been particularly appropriate to begin the New Year with a write-up of a recording released in 2014, there’s actually still plenty of great 2013 music to catch up with. Greeting me upon my return to the office yesterday morning was a stack of goodies from the old year including a package from the always intriguing Cuneiform label. I was immediately struck by the cover of one of the discs therein, Passing Through the Wall, credited to a group called Zevious. Its repetitive sequences of diagonal lines in stark back and white, different but equally hypnotic patterns on both the front and back of the CD booklet cover as well as the tray card suggested that the music would be simultaneously primal and mind altering. And it indeed it is.

This trio of guitarist Mike Eber, cousin Jeff Eber on drums, and bassist Johnny DeBlase makes spare, taut music that is also chock full of dueling layers of angular counterpoint couched in polymeters. But despite its austerity and complexity, it’s surprisingly easy to listen to—perhaps an appropriate irony for a band whose name rhymes with devious! What might also be “zevious” is that the group began its performing career in jazz clubs as something of a straight-ahead trio, with DeBlase on upright bass. Then around five years ago they decided to go completely electric and even added effects pedals to the mix. Yet they’re still garnering rave reviews from the likes of All About Jazz which opined that the group now “leans more toward technical metal than jazz” but praised them for still “retain[ing] the skills of a jazz band.”

The opening track of Passing Through the Wall, “Attend to Your Configuration,” goes beyond a transition from jazz to fusion to rock to something that has a distinctly heavy metal feel to it, albeit without anything remotely resembling an attention-grabbing guitar solo. After about two and a half minutes, they slow down a tad and then simply stop playing. It sounds like these jazzers, unlike earlier generations of fusion-minded musicians, came to rock via punk. However, I was not fully prepared for what happens next—a six-minute track named “Was Solis.” It starts innocently enough, with a single guitar line moving in parallel motion with taps on a high-hat. The bass comes in, again mirroring every beat of the guitarist’s line, at first with a single note ostinato and then with a complimentary phrase. But then the guitar veers off into more syncopated terrain, actually not terribly far away from what a contemporary jazz guitar solo could sound like, but by a minute and half in, gnarly harmonies bathed in distortion take over. When individual voices again emerge they are much more menacing, with overtones screeching out against a throbbing beat. Then, the real surprise; the music gets extremely slow, with each individual long sustained note sounding more and more ominous. Although the pace finally picks up in its closing thirty seconds, the music has gone to a place from which it is not easy to return.

In a live performance of “Was Solis” from 2011, it comes across as slightly less dangerous, perhaps because they look so assured as they play through it, but you can still get the idea.

The remaining eight tracks on Passing Through the Wall navigate between these polarities. At first, “Pantocyclus” melds the angularity of Red-era King Crimson with the circular counterpoint of the reformed KC’s subsequent Discipline. But midway through it sounds a lot closer to Sunn O))); the music reaches a point of heightened dissonance and just stays there! “White Minus Red,” perhaps a nod to the aforementioned Crimson LP, is similarly relentless, alternating linear movement with big dissonant chords.

At the onset of “A Crime of Separate Action” a progression of two chords repeats over and over, but rather than establishing a tonality, it actually obfuscates it in a way that would have made Captain Beefheart proud. Two minutes in, however, the music transforms to something much murkier and trippier, which is somehow magical but hardly Magic Band, but it doesn’t stay there for more than 40 seconds, opting instead for another musical dead end. The music keeps morphing but it never resolves. “Entanglement” continues in this harmonically unstable terrain, with a single throbbing polytonal chord forming the basis of the melodies and harmonies. In “A Tiller in a Tempest,” the melodic instruments act as punctuation to insistent percussion riffs. The title track “Passing through the Wall” has something of a march-like feel to it, but it’s like a march off a cliff. But just when you might think the unremitting intensity will never let up, there’s a brief respite of relative calm before it starts up again. “This Could Be the End of the Line” is the shortest of all the disc’s offerings, just barely over two minutes, but it is by no means lighter fare. Insistent asymmetric ostinatos make it difficult to determine exactly where the downbeat it much of the time. By contrast, “Plying The Cold Trade,” is the longest, clocking it at slightly over eight minutes. It is also, by far, the slowest. From its mysterious, almost other-worldly opening salvo, it builds extremely gradually and mostly remains surprisingly low key given all the agitation of the nine previous tracks; it is further testimony to the remarkable range of this group.

There is precious little information on the disc or booklet besides the fact that Mike Eber composed all of the tracks except for “Was Solis,” “White Minus Red” and “Entanglement” which were composed by Johnny DeBlaze. But according to the press release that accompanied their disc, both composers have completely scored out all of the parts for their music—going still further afield from their jazz origins and ostensibly leaving little to chance. This is quite surprising, given how in the moment it all sounds. But what surprises me even more about Zevious is that I hadn’t known about them before listening to this album, yet the group hails from NYC, just played a gig in Brooklyn last month which I missed (damn it!) and this is their third album. Well, I’ll be making up for lost time by keeping this disc in rotation as well tracking down the rest of their discography.

NewMusicBox Mix: 2013 Staff Picks

As a fond farewell to 2013, the intrepid New Music USA staff has chosen some of their favorite tracks from the past twelve months for this edition of the NewMusicBox Mix. Below you will find each track streamed separately on this page, as well as a continuous playlist of all of the tracks at the bottom of this post. Information about the recordings and purchasing links is intended to encourage further exploration and continued listening.
These artists have very generously donated their tracks to this project, and we encourage you to support them by purchasing their albums and letting them know if you enjoy what you hear!
Happy Holidays to all!—AG

Dawn of Midi: Dysnomia
Dawn of Midi: Algol
Thirsty Ear
Purchase via Bandcamp
With Dysnomia, Dawn of Midi have confirmed that we no longer think about electronic music in terms of instrumentation; today’s definition has much more to do with content, sensibilities, and aesthetics. Though the Brooklyn-based trio’s percolating, slowly-permuting jams suggest minimal techno, they are created entirely by three acoustic instruments, performed live in a room together. There’s a drum kit, cymbal-less save for clicky hi-hats; a double bass, conversing with itself across registers; and a grand piano, performed so as to remind us why we call the piano a percussion instrument. Dysnomia is my album of the year, and “Algol” is one of its finest moments. Listen loudly and on the best speakers or headphones you can find.
Rafiq Bhatia, Development Manager for Institutional Giving

Son Lux: Lanterns
Son Lux: Lost It To Trying
Joyful Noise
Purchase via Bandcamp
I first encountered the music of Ryan Lott (Son Lux) this past year when he and Stephen Petronio Company applied for and were awarded for their project Like Lazarus Did. At the premiere I was totally blown away by the creative synergies he and the ensemble yMusic drew between acoustic and electronic sound—a difficult feat to accomplish in live performance, let alone in performance that is paired with such stunning choreography. I’ve been paying attention to this composer ever since, if anything for his totally unique voice and approach to sound. This densely layered and energetic song, “Lost it to Trying,” from his new album Lanterns, has been one of my favorite aural dissections since it was released in October. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.—Emily Bookwalter, Program Manager

Rose & The Nightingale
Rose & The Nightingale, I write you a love poem
Spirit of The Garden
Purchase via Bandcamp
Jody Redhage’s cello playing is well known in jazz and new music circles, as is her singing voice. Jody put together Rose & The Nightingale after a year of touring with Esperanza Spalding to play her own garden-inspired songs, using poetry from all over the world. The musicianship is impeccable, and the songs are beautiful. Also they will get stuck in your head. Catch one of their concerts in a botanical garden, or just buy the album for everyone you know.—Kevin Clark, Communications Manager

Three-Mountain Pass
Van-Anh Vanessa Vo, Three-Mountain Pass
Three Mountain Pass

Evocative vocals and enticing sonic landscape take you on an interesting, if short, journey.
Eddy Ficklin, Technology Manager and Developer

Brooklyn Babylon
Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society: Missing Parts
Brooklyn Babylon
New Amsterdam

I keep coming back to this album for Darcy James Argue’s stunning large ensemble writing (how often is it possible to hear an 18-piece jazz ensemble anymore?), and for the cornucopia of musical references that are smartly woven into the work. Though originally created as a multimedia work with stop-motion animation by Danijel Zezelj, the music on it’s own is truly a listening adventure!—Alexandra Gardner, Associate Editor, NewMusicBox

Build Me Up From Bones
Sarah Jarosz: Fuel the Fire
Build Me Up From Bones
Sugar Hill

As a “classical” violinist just beginning to break into the folk music scene, I am inspired by the melding of traditional and contemporary ideas—both musical and lyrical—in this powerful, original track by Sarah Jarosz.
—Ethan Joseph, Development Manager for Individual Giving

Hexgon Cloud
Erika: North Hex
Hexagon Cloud
Interdimensional Transmissions
Available on vinyl!

I saw Erika play a live set at the abandoned, re-appropriated Leland Hotel in downtown Detroit over Thanksgiving weekend as part of the homegrown Interdimensional Transmissions techno label’s “No Way Back” night of chaos. Imagine a decaying, decadent 1920’s gigantic ballroom, no heat to fight the bitter cold, completely dark except for a few disco lights flashing underneath a deflated hot air balloon sprawled behind the stage halfway covering the floor-to-ceiling windows. Erika had about 20 feet of gear lined up, and mesmerized the scant, but dedicated audience with her minimal, process-driven techno. She has defined herself as an electronic musician, and has become one of the focal points of the current Detroit techno scene.
Lorna Krier, Program Manager

Mobious Loop
Mathew Rosenblum: Sharpshooter
Boston Modern Orchestra Project conducted by Gil Rose
Mathew Rosenblum: Möbius Strip
Purchase from BMOP

Orchestras rarely take on microtonal music, except when certain members of the string and brass sections inadvertently play music intended for performance in 12-tone equal temperament with less than accurate intonation. This alone makes Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s perfectly in-tune performance of Mathew Rosenblum’s Sharpshooter, which is crafted from an idiosyncratic 19-pitch scale with equally beating minor thirds, a thing of wonder. But the fact that the music shimmers and grooves and that these otherworldly intervals are almost hummable make it an extremely satisfying, if slightly mind-altering, listening experience. For added enjoyment, try singing along with it!
Frank J. Oteri, Composer Advocate and Senior Editor, NewMusicBox

John Luther Adams: Inuksuit (excerpt)

When word came down that Doug Perkins was producing a recorded version of John Luther Adams’s powerful outdoor percussion piece Inuksuit, I wondered if committing such an expansive and variable work to something so fixed was really going to do the music and its underpinning ideas justice. After all, a big part of the live listening experience involves actively moving through the performance space and among the 9 to 99 percussionists involved, allowing you to hear “your” unique version of the music. However, while this recording (offered both on CD and high resolution surround-sound DVD) won’t change from play to play, the surround sound option and the excellent performances of the 32 musicians who bring it to life make it a powerful version all its own. To my mind, this is definitely not intimate headphone music. You’re going to want to find the best stereo equipment available to you and fill the space up with sound. Things may start off in the midst of peacefully chatting birds, but there are musicians with mallets coming up behind them and it will get loud!—Molly Sheridan, Executive Editor, NewMusicBox

A Lorca Soundscape
Alexis Cuadrado, “Danza de la Muerte” from A Lorca Soundscape

There was a lot of great jazz released this past year, reflecting a huge range of music in this genre, but I was asked to choose one, and Alexis Cuadrado’s Lorca Soundcape spoke to me. The poetry Lorca wrote more than 80 years ago during his time in NYC at the start of the Great Depression resonates still, and it becomes even more contemporary through Alexis’ cohesive and deeply personal rendering, which is influenced by Flamenco, African music and contemporary jazz. The selected track, “Danza de la Muerta” is an example of how well text and music are working together, as it opens with “The mask! Look how the mask comes from Africa to New York”. The performances, from Claudia Acuna’s both raw and silky voice to Miguel Zenón’s virtuosic saxophone, drive this profoundly moving work straight into our hearts.—Deborah Steinglass, Director of Development

Sounds Heard: Alvin Lucier—Still and Moving Lines

Still and Moving Lines
Alvin Lucier
Still and Moving Lines
Cat Hope – artistic director, flute, alto flute, organ;
Lindsay Vickery – saxophone, organ, MaxMSP programming;
Stuart James – piano, organ, recording, mixing, mastering;
Malcolm Riddoch – electronic playback, live recording, MaxMSP performance, networking, organ
(Pogus 21072-2)
Order directly from Pogus

[Ed. Note: This year, as part of the staff exchange program of the International Association of Music Information Centres, New Music USA is hosting two staff members from music centers in other countries. You may recall that Caio Higginson from the Welsh Music Information Centre, Tŷ Cerdd, was with us a month ago and during the time he was here he wrote about Navigation by the Taylor Ho Bynum’s 7-tette. This past week we hosted someone else from the United Kingdom, Kealy Cozens, who is the Digital Development and Communications Assistant for Sound and Music in London and we also asked her to write about a CD for NewMusicBox. Since Kealy has been part of the team involved with SAM’s fascinating Minute of Listening, a program that offers children aged six to ten 60 seconds of creative listening for every school day, she was immediately drawn to yet another new disc featuring works by Alvin Lucier, a composer who has long explored the relationship between acoustic phenomena and auditory perception. —FJO]

The overwhelming feeling that comes from Still and Moving Lines, a new Pogus disc featuring four compositions by Alvin Lucier performed by the Australian new music ensemble Decibel, is that it is an exercise in listening. It invites you to explore the world sonically beyond the immediate aural experiences normally presented to you. By challenging and subverting listening conventions, these pieces of music open up minds and ears to push the listener into deeper realms of sonic perception.
The first piece on the disc, Ever Present, places a flute, saxophone, and piano with a slow sweep pure wave oscillator. The two sine wave generators interact with each other across the piece while the acoustic instruments resonate perfectly in places and provide contrast in others. As the electronic sounds decay and meld into one another, the instrumental sounds momentarily overtake them and come to the fore like the crest of the wave. All the pieces on Still and Moving Lines make you more aware of the external sonic world, but Ever Present also opens you up to how you receive the pieces physically. The waves flowing from the oscillators tingle your brain while the interjecting piano stirs deep in your chest.

Carbon Copies invites the players to create recordings of the environments that they are in and imitate them. In this version, we hear domestic duties, a hotel, a commute, and a house monitor. The inspiration for this piece was the ability of animals to imitate their surroundings to survive. Listening to Carbon Copies for the first time this week was extremely timely for me. While arguably not as crucial to my survival, the ideas in this piece mirror what I’ve noticed in my recent travels. When walking down a New York street earlier in the week I heard the most amazing Brooklyn accent and immediately copied it, repeating the uttered phrase until I had the sounds just right…(ish). The flipside happened to me on the flight over from London when the air steward revelled in my pronunciation of the word “water” (however to me it sounded more like he was imitating Mary Poppins). For the players, the air steward, and myself, imitating the sounds enabled us to explore particular sounds further—breaking down the composite parts and building them back together on our own.

The third piece on the disc, Hands, features four players on one electric chamber organ. Each of the players uses hand movements on the pipes while the keyboard is used to provide a sense of harmony. Sounds from both ends of the spectrum weave in and out of one another, seemingly at odds at points but in harmony at others. At times Hands is both calming and alarming, with the harmonic points creating familiarity in juxtaposition to the otherworldly feel that is also present.

Listening to Shelter, the final track on the disc, is like turning your chair around and eavesdropping on the world outside of the concert hall. Here, Lucier subverts normal listening conventions and instead of the concert hall walls acting as barriers to keep the sounds in, they become speakers for the world outside. This version of Shelter takes place in a performance space in a music conservatorium. The rehearsing musicians, air conditioning, and electrical buzzing outside the performance space become the piece as contact microphones pick up their sounds. These are then equalized and amplified and played back in to the room. Shelter presents us with the world we almost missed; the walls become the filters for what was not heard, amplifying all those seemingly negligible sounds.

Each of the four tracks of Still and Moving Lines focuses upon a different area of aural perception, extending the way you listen. After hearing it all, it’s hard not to notice the vast sonic world around you, much like having your ears cleaned.