Category: Albums

Sounds Heard: Spektral Quartet—Chambers

Now in their fourth season, Spektral Quartet is currently ensemble-in-residence at the University of Chicago and already a well-known champion of Chicago composers, including the six whose works are featured on the group’s first commercial disc release. Since I heard Spektral perform at Chicago’s Empty Bottle this August, I’ve been intrigued by their homebrewed approach to contemporary music. Their first CD offering (also available on cassette, for those with an ’89 Volkswagen Golf or similar playback device) is not only a calling card for the group’s formative artistic collaborations but also a richly detailed portrait of Chicago’s up-and-coming contemporary music scene.

The album’s title, Chambers, is a wry play on the tradition of chamber music that Spektral Quartet is working so intensely to update via their performances at nontraditional venues, but it also reflects the very distinct sonic spaces that each of the six composers recorded here create with offerings mostly under ten minutes in duration. Hans Thomalla’s Albumblatt (2010) plunges us right into a fascinating space without preamble, with an initial pizzicato gesture igniting a series of melting lines that recede almost as quickly as they materialize. Familiar tricks of the contemporary composer’s trade such as extended timbral effects and microtonal inflections are made personal and fresh in Thomalla’s hands—for example, a series of glissandi combined with interesting bowing patterns make for an aural impression that is particular and sharply imagined rather than generic. At times these sliding figurations almost take on the character of mechanical sirens before fading to a whispered, chorale-like passage made tense by extremely slow bow speed, sounding something like a quiet scratch-tone. In the glissandi and spun-tone sounds, Spektral reveals a remarkable sense of control and a nuanced range of expression, qualities that place the quartet in the distinguished company of groups including the JACK Quartet and Kronos in their heyday.

Ben Hjertmann’s String Quartet No. 2, Etude (2013) is the most recently composed piece featured on this recording and also opens with a backdrop of glissandi against which an arching violin line unfolds and elaborates (one of four solos for each quartet member woven into the composition). Before long a more rhythmic section erupts, marked by pizzicato strumming (with guitar picks!) and complex, prog-ish meters giving the effect of a wild guitar jam. These percussive sections are where the piece’s personality really comes out—including foot-tapping and quartet members hissing through their teeth, deftly wedded to the sounds produced on their instruments. A dramatic violin cadenza dissolves into a sustained array of languid artificial harmonics that end with an abrupt and abortive crescendo to the faintest stirrings of mezzo-piano; surely one of the more original endings I have heard, with each gesture obsessively shaped and brought into focus by the quartet.

Eliza Brown’s String Quartet No. 1 (2011) begins with fingered tremolos and flickering harmonics and is marked overall by the purity and simplicity of its crystalline textures. Making its argument in more direct and unadorned terms than the previous works on the album, this is no textbook minimalism but a work in which textural variety is ably engaged with a richness of sound often lacking in similar music of such apparent and beguiling plain-spokenness. Brown’s quartet has something of a surprise ending as well, with a bracing dissonance all the more rewarding because it was saved for exactly this effect, with shadings of microtonality resolving to a luminous C Major.

Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s Dig Absolutely (2010) likewise opens with an interlocking network of glissandi (perhaps the unifying sound of the entire album, although handled with different expressive impact by each composer recorded here). Straining and wailing with the inflections of pop vocalism, the piece strikes an enchanting balance between aspects of vernacular expression and contemporary experimental music. For one thing, Fisher-Lochhead writes some incredibly specific and constantly varied rhythms, giving the whole affair a sense of improvisatory looseness more characteristic of roadhouse performance than the concert hall. The members of Spektral draw this feeling into the aural foreground, playing with a kind of “reckless precision” (to paraphrase a Tuck Andress guitar album) that is often difficult for trained classical musicians to achieve with conviction. Also bearing a strong pop influence (although neither work wears this influence on its sleeve or as a form of gimmickry) is Liza White’s 2012 Zin Zin Zin Zin, inspired by Mos Def’s scatting on The Roots’ “Double Trouble.” Beginning with onomatopoeia of the titular four syllables, White’s composition employs inventive techniques such as dead bow-stops and a crunchy harmonic palette of cluster-based chords to create the feeling that we are experiencing pitchless grunts and shouts rather than musical lines. This is the shortest work recorded here and also the most kinetic; the music is passed around the quartet like a superball with great virtuosity, only to slink away at the end in four breathless puffs of sound that mimic the work’s opening. It’s a tour de force of quartet writing that manages to make a vivid impression in under four minutes.

Marcos Balter’s Chambers (2011), which concludes the disc, is—like much of the composer’s work—highly gestural in its musical rhetoric while also pervaded by a feeling of stasis; the work’s three short movements are masterful at establishing moods but do very little to develop their initial gestures as the music unfolds, opting instead to offer three snapshots that invite the ear to linger. The first movement presents faintly shimmering harmonics in a cycling pattern, almost marked with the regularity of breathing or the steady “lub dub” of a heartbeat. This is by far the most minimalistic movement anywhere on the album with an extremely slow rate of change, yet investing its near-stasis with an incredible sense of urgency and suspense. The second movement is initially marked by pizzicato, the crisp notes of the high violin strings contrasted with the rounder, boomier sound of the cello’s low strings to great effect, before a series of cluster chords emerge out of nowhere. The work’s third movement likewise begins with pizzicato in a funky, dance-like groove, against which sagging string lines in canonic imitation animate the feeling of suspended time—whereas the previous movements sometimes feel a bit confined to their respective small chambers, this one feels like a larger room where anything can happen and, as such, provides a great conclusion to this sampler of young Chicago composers.

Spektral Quartet is moving up the ladder fast, and I can only suspect that this is the first of many recording releases for the group. It’s rare for an ensemble with such a predilection for contemporary music to also exhibit such a strong lyrical impulse, and this tendency—amply evidenced on Chambers—sets Spektral apart from many other players on the new music scene. I look forward to hearing them present an album that blends contemporary music with other offerings from the traditional quartet repertoire (their live performances of Verdi and Puccini selections made an impression just as strong as the contemporary works recorded on this disc). After all, what Chicago is perhaps most in need of is an ensemble that can perform the classical repertoire with the same commitment, nuance, and ferocity with which it champions contemporary composers, and the Spektral Quartet is a more sincere and viable candidate than most in bringing these two oft-separated worlds together.

Sounds Heard: Computer-Assisted

Claire Chase: DENSITY
New Focus
Claire Chase: DENSITY
The newest album by flutist and leader of ICE, Claire Chase, uses the concept of density as an overarching theme. Varése’s 1936 work Density 21.3 serves as the springboard, and from there she explores many definitions of density in music. The various sized flutes snowball upon themselves in all of the other works on the disc: the multiple linearities we know from Steve Reich and Philip Glass; fragile, gauzy layers of texture from Marcos Balter; laser-focused swimming with sine waves from Alvin Lucier; and they even transform into a noisy heavy metal guitar in Mario Diaz de León’s Luciform for flute and electronics. As pristinely produced as this recording is, don’t miss a chance to hear Chase perform these works live—her performances are riveting, and just as tight as those on the album.

Chris Arrell: Diptych
Beauport Classical
Performed by: Boston Musica Viva, Clayton State Chorale, Sonic Generator, Jacob Greenberg, Lisa Leong, and Amy Williams.
Chris Arrell: Diptych
Chris Arrell’s bustling echo electric, performed by Sonic Generator, is one of five absorbing works on a portrait CD of the composer’s music. Scored for clarinet, violin, cello, vibraphone, and computer, Arrell uses the story of Narcissus as a creative stepping-stone. The electronic part is derived from modeling the spectral content of the acoustic instruments, creating transformed electroacoustic “images” of the instruments, a bit like the distortions that happen in funhouse mirrors. The restless instrumental textures emit long metallic sonic tails that ripple and swirl throughout the open spaces of the music, wrapping a diaphanous film of electronic counterpoint around the soundscape.

Richard Teitelbaum: Piano Plus
New World
Performed by: Richard Teitelbaum, Ursula Oppens, Aki Takahashi, Frederic Rzewski
Richard Teitelbaum: Piano Plus
Piano music is the focus of this album from interactive electronic and computer music pioneer Richard Teitelbaum. Specifically, technology is used to extend the range of the acoustic piano and to introduce textural complexities that exceed the ability of normal human performance. The six pieces were written between 1963 and 1998, and feature the composer himself playing three of the works, while the others are performed by contemporary music pianist superheroes Frederic Rzewski, Aki Takahashi, and Ursula Oppens. The piece presented below, SEQ TRANSIT PARAMMERS, was conceived with the intention of the player collaborating creatively by performing compositional tasks to determine the direction of the music, à la Cage, Brown, and Tudor—”a kind of toolkit for real-time interactive composition,” writes the composer in the liner notes.

Sounds Heard: Alvin Lucier—Orchestra Works

Alvin Lucier: Orchestra Works

Alvin Lucier
Orchestra Works
(New World Records 80755)

When David Lean’s 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia was restored in 1989, one of the best shots rescued from the vaults was a seemingly inconsequential one, a shot showing exactly what it is T. E. Lawrence (played by Peter O’Toole) is doing in the dank Cairo office where he has been initially stationed during the First World War: he is drawing a map. In fact, a close look at the shot in question—Lawrence’s hand carefully laying down a line of blue watercolor along a coast—reveals that he is drawing a map of the Gulf of Aqaba. It is the capture of Aqaba that turns out to be Lawrence’s first great military accomplishment, a feat that sets in motion the movie’s whirlwind of triumph and trauma. The clean boundaries laid down on paper turn out, in cinematic reality, to chart a glorious, horrible, bright, dark, vast panorama.

I thought of Lawrence’s mapmaking while listening to this new recording of some of Alvin Lucier’s orchestral music. I can’t think of another composer who manages, again and again, to create such an inverse relationship between the bald simplicity of the compositional plan and the crazy richness of the musical result. The more basic Lucier’s hypothesis—the more abstract the map—the more inexhaustible the experience.

The three works on this new release are especially straightforward and, thus, especially grand. Diamonds (for one to three orchestras, or one orchestra divided in three) is nothing but the title shape: one group of instruments ever-so-slowly swoops up and then down, while another group mirrors it, a shape presented in three overlapping iterations over twenty-plus minutes. Slices presents a sustained 53-note chromatic cluster in the orchestra; a solo cello works its way through all 53 one at a time, switching the corresponding ensemble note off, then works through all 53 again, switching the notes back on—a process repeated, in varied order, seven times. Exploration of the House revisits the playback-feedback acoustic winnowing of Lucier’s most famous piece, I Am Sitting in a Room, but with the source material being a live orchestra playing fragments of Beethoven’s Consecration of the House overture. Each fragment is recorded as it is performed, then sent back into the hall and re-recorded, until the acoustic signature of the space is all that’s left. In all three pieces, as in so much of Lucier’s music, the schematic is so obvious as to immediately disappear, leaving instead the repeated opportunity to focus one’s attention on what is normally so plain in music—individual notes, phrases, timbres—and realize just how restrictively framed one’s normal perception of those artifacts usually is.
The Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra (conducted by Christian Arming, Petr Kotik, and Zsolt Nagy) gives Diamonds a near-constant shimmer and scintillation, the microtonal collisions of passing glissandi seeming to open up a kind of infinite zoom into the nature of the sound. Members of the San Diego Symphony fill in the pre-recorded 53-note cluster in Slices, with Kotik conducting and Charles Curtis on cello—in an act of added devotion, each of the 53 instruments were recorded individually, then mixed together to maximize the sonic redolence. Kotik fashions the fragments of Exploration of the House as brisk, starched Classical-era swatches, the better to contrast with their transformation into hazy bells.

We take a lot of what goes on in music for granted, and, often, with good reason: the abstraction to more hierarchical listening is the gateway to a lot of the large-scale dramatic conceptions—triadic progressions, standard forms, dialectic give-and-take among instruments—whose by now traditional nature sometimes can disguise their continuing effectiveness. But Lucier’s music is a counterweight to all that, a useful exercise that is no less dramatic in its own way. Music history has privileged the global view. But Lucier, sitting in a room, drawing maps, is showing travelers the path to landscapes that, once moved off the paper, prove unexpectedly limitless and uncanny.

Sounds Heard: Taylor Ho Bynum—Navigation

[Ed. Note: Last week at New Music USA, we hosted Caio Higginson from the Welsh Music Information Centre, Tŷ Cerdd, as part of the staff exchange program of the International Association of Music Information Centres. During the week, I arranged for Caio to visit a variety of music organizations in the city as well as to hear live performances of American music every night in venues ranging from Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera to (le) poisson rouge, the Jazz Standard, and the Church of St. Luke in the Fields. Caio also worked with each of our departments here, learning about what we do and how we do it. As part of a way to understand what we do at NewMusicBox, I put a pile of new CD releases in front of him and told him he could write about one of them for us if he was so moved. After an afternoon listening bonanza, Navigation by the Taylor Ho Bynum’s 7-tette, inspired these thoughts from him.—FJO]
Taylor Ho Bynum 7-tette: Navigation
(firehouse 12 FH-12-04-01-019)
Taylor Ho Bynum: cornet; Jim Hobbs: alto saxophone;
Bill Lowe: bass trombone, tuba; Mary Halvorson: electric guitar;
Ken Filiano: acoustic bass; Tomas Fujiwara and Chad Taylor: drums, vibraphone

Navigation, Taylor Ho Bynum’s recent CD release, seems particularly relevant to my own experience of visiting New York this week. I can bare no claim to navigating the airplane over the Atlantic, of course, but to me at least, this improvisatory multi-sectioned work reflects the adventure of experiencing a specific city for the first time.

Bynum has laid this work out in six movements—ISH, WUK, ZADE, TRIST, MANCH, and KID—each with some predetermined elements planned, but from there the music relies on the independence of the performers as it weaves from one scenario to another. These movements can be played in any order, simultaneously, and even multiple times within a single performance, as they are in the two realizations featured on this Firehouse 12 2-CD release. Diagrams printed on the digipack outline the specific paths taken.

In the first track, MANCH, Tim Hobbs’s alto saxophone and Bill Lowe’s tuba spar with one another before Mary Halvorson’s electric guitar and Tomas Fujiwara’s snare drum and cymbals kick in; it reminded me of my arrival to this city—e.g. depending heavily on maps at first and gradually feeling more confident of where I was going. This sets the stage for the second track, MANCH-ISH, which, after the heaviness of the proceeding interplay between the musicians, sounds relatively tranquil. It begins with an electric guitar solo that made me think of the sounds of dial-up internet connections from the 1990s. As a backdrop, bell-like percussion sounds kick in occasionally; although it might not have been the musicians’ intent, to me it felt like the subway rumbling underneath me from time to time! But there is a constant gradual build-up to a flurry of passion from Lowe’s saxophone and then Bynum’s cornet. The MANCH movement reappears on the last track of the second disc. In that performance there is a calm sense of confidence, with the saxophone taking the lead accompanied by the cornet while in the background the guitar lays back and strums away as if just observing the world go by.

The ZADE and WUK movements are each performed twice on the first CD. In the first performance of ZADE-WUK, the vibraphone (played by Fujiwara) is very prominent in deciding the path that the sax and cornet then follow. The subtlety of the vibraphone and bass (played by Ken Filiano) contrasts very effectively with the harsh and brash interferences, particularly from the guitar and tuba. The second performance, which opens with a bleak bowed bass solo, eventually builds to an ensemble interplay that has an almost traditional jazz feel to it, but not for long. In this performance, however, the navigation of the journey seems clearer and more confident due to its familiar landmarks.

There is an additional performance of ZADE on its own on the second CD. Here is a barren and sobering version of the movement with low and hanging sounds from the bass countered by both low and screeching expressions by the cornet which create a weird sense of uneasiness. About midway through, the saxophone enters and the tensions that had been building up to that point finally evaporate.

Throughout the piece, Bynum doesn’t allow the listener to dwell too long in any moment, choosing to steer back and forth from the traditional to newer waters. In my view, of the six movements it is TRIST and MANCH that reflect the traditional and fond essence of travelling and the confidence in your navigation that allows for a pleasurable journey.

In the first performance of TRIST there’s almost a sense of a strong, cold wind blowing across the landscape, but shelter is provided in the form of the guitar and warmth from the bass and drums. These foundations allow the performance of the wind instruments to thrive in a carnival-like atmosphere, yet at the end we are still made aware of the raging storm. But in the second performance of TRIST, there is no lingering threat from Mother Nature; this is reflected in a colorful cornet solo. It is the wind instruments rather than the guitar that take the initiative at the beginning of this performance. Those festive sax and cornet elements are more subdued in this performance, allowing the guitar to take center stage midway through the track.
The KID-WUK movement begins with the guitar and cornet playing in tandem, both shadowing the other. Suddenly the bass trombone appears (played by Lowe) which gradually builds a sense of tension. The cornet plays over it, responding differently throughout the movement, sometimes challenging the tension and sometimes embracing it.

From the beginning, this album challenged ideas that I’ve had about jazz and made me realize that there is a lot that I have to learn. I’ve listened to it many times during the last five days, and though it is a cliché to say it, every time it evokes a different emotion in me. This is actually the intention of Taylor Ho Bynum. In addition to having recorded two versions of most movements, he states in the CD’s program notes that he “wants to ask listeners to consider the composition as a set of possibilities rather than a fixed document.” And it is just that.

Sounds Heard: Florestan Recital Project—Early Songs of Samuel Barber

One of the more endearingly paradoxical indications of compositional success is that interest gets piqued in music that even the composer had largely forgotten about. Unpublished works, unfinished works, juvenilia—when even that becomes fair game, you know you’ve (posthumously, usually) made it. The latest recordings from Florestan Recital Project pay that tribute to Samuel Barber (1910-1981), collecting six songs, mostly written during Barber’s teenaged years.

The group first reclaimed the songs for posterity in 2009; their multi-concert survey of all of Barber’s songs included a host of then-unpublished works preserved in manuscript at the Library of Congress. (Since then, most of them have made it to print via a collection published by G. Schirmer.) The six recorded here make it clear just how much Barber was at home in vocal music from an early age, primed by temperament and family ties. (His aunt and uncle were Louise and Sidney Homer, Metropolitan Opera contralto and art-song composer, respectively; Louise Homer premiered many of Barber’s earliest efforts.) “Three Songs from Old England” show a precocious confidence: spare harmonic and melodic sequences for John Wilbye’s “Lady, When I Behold the Roses”; off-balance phrasing and contours in Thomas Wyatt’s “An Earnest Suit to His Unkind Mistress Not to Forsake Him”; cheerfully persistent diatonic suspensions in an anonymous “Hey Nonny No.”

“Fantasy in Purple” (with words by a then-up-and-coming Langston Hughes; Barber probably got the text through a friendly English professor) and “Watchers” (text by the prolific and forgotten Edgar Daniel Kramer) are both grim, high-drama scenes; if they lack the embellishment of unpredictability that marks so many of Barber’s songs, the skill on display is uncanny for a 15-year-old. Interestingly, the only dud dates from Barber’s twenties: “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” ca.1935, which sets Robert Frost’s famous poem in almost diffidently prosaic fashion. (That Barber left it unpublished is at least a testament to his critical standards.) The performances, by Florestan artistic directors Aaron Engebreth (baritone) and Alison d’Amato (piano) are first-rate—stylish, lived-in interpretations with high technical polish. (The former vocal coach part of me could listen to Engebreth’s diction all day long.)

Still, even given Barber’s considerable and continuing popularity, this is obscure, old repertoire—awfully old for a publication called NewMusicBox, certainly. But the release is interesting in itself: the recording is free. It was funded by a grant—the first such—from Thomas Hampson’s Hampsong Foundation. Recording grants are nothing new, but a grant for a recording designed to be given away is a sign of the online streaming, post-record-store state of recordings going forward, I think. Florestan Recital Project’s first recordings—a two-CD set of the complete songs of Daniel Pinkham—were self-produced, self-released physical products, but since then, they have opted for the free download, first with Libby Larsen’s The Peculiar Case of Dr. H. H. Holmes (a Florestan commission), and now with these Barber songs.

At a symposium last weekend I heard a panel discussion on music publishing and recording during which Jim Selby, the CEO of Naxos, did his best to finesse the same paradox that his pop counterparts sidestepped at the “Rethink Music” conference I wandered around a couple of years ago: labels are increasingly interested primarily in artists who engage in a high degree of self-promotion, a criterion that would seem to preemptively make moot one of the basic advantages of signing with a label in the first place. In the meantime, the philanthropic apparatus of classical music is beginning to create funding channels for completely different models, high-quality DIY recordings sent into the market as a freely available resource. The give-it-away model has its own disadvantages and pitfalls, without question, but give Florestan Recital Project credit for using it in a savvy way. Glimpses of the teenaged Barber’s raw talent and potential would probably be an extreme niche product; for free, its road-less-traveled aspect feels special enough to be more than usually generous.

Sounds Heard: Make It Big (Large Ensemble Edition)

Kevin Puts: To Touch The Sky, If I Were A Swan, Symphony No. 4 “From Mission San Juan”
Harmonia Mundi
Performed by Conspirare (Craig Hella Johnson, cond.) and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (Marin Alsop, cond.)
Puts: To Touch The Sky
The works on this recording by composer Kevin Puts share common inspiration in that they are all treatments of spiritual concepts such as ideas of the “divine feminine.” The interconnected movements of To Touch The Sky: Nine Songs for Unaccompanied Chorus on Texts by Women are stunningly performed by Conspirare, featuring texts ranging from Sappho to Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Although the opening track, If I Were A Swan, with text by poet Fleda Brown (who also happens to be Puts’s aunt) was originally intended to be part of the sequence, Puts ultimately chose to have it stand on its own. Symphony No. 4 “From Mission San Juan” was commissioned by an avid listener and attendee of the Cabrillo Festival, who was especially enamored with the annual concerts that take place at San Juan Bautista. Puts took that opportunity to delve into the music of the Mutsun Indians, who, despite being baptized and taught to sing church music by the friars of Mission San Juan, managed to retain their own musical practices for some time. The first movement of Symphony No. 4 (featured in the track below), performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with Marin Alsop conducting, uses the unique acoustics of the Mission space as an inspirational stepping-stone.

John Musto: Concertos and Rags for Piano
Bridge Recordings
Performed by Odense Symphony Orchestra (Scott Yoo, cond.) and Greeley Philharmonic Orchestra (Glen Cortese, cond.)
Musto: Concertos and Rags
Over the past ten years in particular, composer John Musto has been busy with opera productions and vocal music, but this recent Bridge CD features Musto’s two piano concertos—the first dating from 1988, and the second from 2006—with the composer himself at the piano. Throughout each concerto, Musto’s affinity for ragtime can be heard within the harmonic language and the melodic lines. In fact, sandwiched between the two big pieces are two short solo piano works from Musto’s Five Concert Rags, further inquiries into such musical connections. The third movement of Piano Concerto No. 1, Scorrevole (featured here), is a roller coaster ride for the ears, bustling with ever-shifting orchestra textures and rollicking percussion.

inscape: Sprung Rhythm
Sono Luminus
Richard Scerbo, director
inscape: Sprung Rhythm
This debut recording of the Bethesda, Maryland-based inscape chamber orchestra showcases the work of the three younger composers from the mid-Atlantic region—Nathan Lincoln-DeCusatis, Joseph Hallman, and Justin Boyer. The ensemble expands and contracts to adjust for the unique voice of each composer, from chamber orchestra for Lincoln-DeCusatis’ A Collection of Sand, to smaller mixed ensemble for Hallman’s imaginatively orchestrated imagined landscapes: six Lovecraftian elsewheres. For those who want to put their surround sound systems to work, the physical CD comes packaged with an additional audio-only Blu-Ray disc containing all of the compositions, plus additional bonus tracks featuring Boyer’s work Auguries for bassoon and string trio. Whichever recorded medium you decide to explore, these are all interesting musical works, expertly recorded, and performed by inscape with confidence and dexterity. The label Sono Luminus has smartly created a mashup of the works on this recording, which is presented below:

Sounds Heard: Erik Friedlander—Claws & Wings

In the wake of Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize win last week for her remarkable short stories, I have been reminded to be more attentive to the small details in life, the intensely personal moments that are also—sometimes shockingly—quite universal.
It’s a particularly excellent frame of mind to be in when approaching Claws & Wings, cellist Erik Friedlander’s latest release with Ikue Mori (electronics) and Sylvie Courvoisier (piano). The album is dedicated to Friedlander’s late wife, the choreographer and writer Lynn Shapiro, who passed away in November of 2011 after a long battle with breast cancer. In interviews, Friedlander has been quite forthcoming about the role music played during that struggle—music being a place that he could escape to, a place he could control. An injury to his left hand right after her death sidelined him for months, further challenging him as he grieved. When he was ready to return to playing, he was still in a place of loss, but ready to wrestle with the experience of mourning and moving forward through music—work which appears on Claws & Wings.

Knowing all of this biography, it’s admittedly tempting to tape a lot of implied meaning over top of the music, but I found those concrete narratives to quickly fade into the abstract musical landscape, the image as messy as love, as complex as life. But the music does move like a dancer in my mind’s eye, and holding onto the idea that this album is a sort of mental pas de deux certainly suits it. The album’s opener, Frail As a Breeze, which is broken into two parts/tracks, sets a tone that is cleanly spare but not chilling—gently whistling electronics, meditative piano lines, the cello answering with sections of pizzicato. The swirling lines of the second part carry themselves with an ear-turning beauty and grace that slips some into the ominous, tearing and scratching at certain turns.

Several shorter tracks cohesively follow, each full of fluid and breath. In Dancer particularly, the electronics keep the sentiments grounded, the reflection never turning saccharine, the cello and piano ever committed to maintaining forward motion. Indeed, as the album moves toward its close, it becomes clear that there will be no explosive displays of emotion. Friedlander’s scoring will glimmer and glide through Swim With Me and refuse to settle until the final moments of Insomnia, but even in Cheek to Cheek (an original, not a Berlin cover) which closes the disc, the distinct optimism is tempered, the journey not over but turning towards the bittersweet.

You can listen to Friedlander speak about his wife and the work on this album during his All Things Considered interview “Returning to Music, Tested by Loss.” He’s also curating/performing at The Stone in New York City all week (October 15-20) and will premiere Claws & Wings on October 16 at 8 p.m.

Sounds Heard: Noah Creshevsky—The Four Seasons

Creshevsky--Four Seasons

Noah Creshevsky
The Four Seasons
(Tzadik 8097)

While the four concertos for violin and string orchestra that comprise Antonio Vivaldi’s 1723 Le quattro stagioni unquestionably remain the most famous as well as ubiquitous example of music inspired by the seasons, there is a long and illustrious history of other, similarly themed music. A mere 25 years later, Gregor Joseph Werner kicked it up a notch with his 1748 Calendarium Musicum by composing several illustrative pieces for each month of the year, presented in calendrical order. While Werner’s own endeavor is admittedly relatively obscure at this point, his game plan was adopted nearly a century later by Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel in 1841 and then again by Tchaikovsky in 1876 in their respective solo piano suites comprised of twelve short movements for each month. Grander still, however, was Joseph Haydn’s elaborate four-part oratorio Die Jahreszeiten, an evening-length work for soloists, chorus, and orchestra which was first performed in 1801. Perhaps the most over the top musical renderings of a year ever realized are the four large-scale symphonies representing the seasons from spring to winter (Symphonies Nos. 8-11) which Swiss-born German composer Joachim Raff labored on for three years between 1876 and 1879 (though they were not composed in seasonal order). But none of this has prevented more contemporary efforts. In the first year of the 20th century, the Russian Imperial Ballet presented what is probably the first season-themed dance music, a ballet with music by Alexander Glazunov. In 1947, Merce Cunningham crafted a completely different season-spanning ballet set to John Cage’s first orchestral score. It is divided into nine sections, and each season from Winter to Fall is proceeded by a prelude, with the initial prelude reprising as the work’s finale. Between 1969 and 1970, Nuevo Tango pioneer Astor Piazzolla followed up his 1965 “Verano Porteño” (a.k.a. “Buenos Aires Summer”) with three other similarly themed works collected under the title Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (or “The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires”), which remain among his most popular compositions. Wendy Carlos’s Sonic Seasonings, which combines studio created electronic music with field recordings, was released as a 2 LP set in 1972 with each of the four LP sides representing a season from string to winter. More recently, Chen Yi weighed in with Si Ji (“Four Seasons”), a single-movement 15-minute orchestral work from 2005 that seamlessly weaves together four sections inspired by four classical Chinese poems about each of the seasons. So Noah Creshevsky’s expansive 2012 sample-based composition The Four Seasons, which forms the basis of his latest CD release on Tzadik, is hardly without precedent. However, it is one of the most meticulously crafted renderings of this much-traversed concept and is arguably the most elaborate of all of his musical creations thus far.

Creshevsky’s output has been extensive and well-documented on a series of recordings released by Centaur, Mutable, Pogus, Tzadik, and EM Records. For over 40 years, he has been mining samples to create a fluid compositional language he describes as “hyperrealism” in which pre-recorded snippets of music and other sonic ephemera are exaggerated and somehow heightened. Unlike the musique concrète of an earlier generation of composers, Creshevsky’s hyperrealism eschews obfuscation, yet surprisingly all of his sonic materials, despite being culled from myriad sources, seamlessly fit together and yield narrative arcs that are very effective. There probably is still no better primer on Creshevsky’s idiosyncratic technique than the lengthy exegesis of it by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz that we published on NewMusicBox in 2006. So I won’t attempt a detailed analysis of how Creshevsky’s compositional method works in The Four Seasons. But since the present composition didn’t exist at the time of Báthory-Kitsz’s writing, it does require and merit our attention.

The previous recordings of Creshevsky’s music offer collections of miniatures whereas The Four Seasons, though multi-movement, is one large integrated musical statement. It’s something of a summation of hyperrealism, but it also explores new sonic elements. Many of the samples featured herein were created for this recording and feature vocalists and instrumentalists performing material that Creshevsky prepared for them, which then becomes the raw material for his own self-plundering. I would dare say the result is almost orchestral in scope, although clearly this is music that no orchestra would ever be able to perform live.

It would be nearly impossible to chart all of the various sonic fragments that cascade by during this nearly 47-minute composition, but a few guiding posts are worth pointing out. There are a total of seven movements—the four larger season-themed movements are separated by three brief interludes which range in duration from three minutes to a mere thirty-nine seconds. Overall, the season movements are more densely packed with sonic information whereas the interludes juxtapose spoken texts and vocal effects with samples of individual instrumental lines—the overall effect, to my ears anyway, is not unlike that of third region of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s massive electronic music composition Hymnen which includes conversations that were recorded in the studio during the making of the piece.

The larger movements are far more symphonic. The first, Summer, begins with an almost giddy duet between what sounds like a harpsichord and a vibraphone. Then a solo piano is soon interrupted by break-beat-sounding effects that would not be out of place on a 12-inch dance remix. Four minutes in, a violin enters playing Baroque-like figurations—perhaps a nod to Vivaldi—amidst what sounds like a vocal group singing a madrigal, albeit one that has been cut up and spliced back together again. Suddenly a flute joins in, a brief hint of sitar, then brass. It is easy to imagine walking down a city street on a hot summer evening when everyone’s windows are open, allowing us to eavesdrop on a mélange of sounds emanating from people’s homes. Autumn begins with a frenetic cut-up guitar solo. When the madrigal-like voices return here against a backdrop of guitar and mallet percussion they are somehow dreamier and more wistful, like the fallen tree leaves that permeate the autumn landscape. Winter is fittingly the most austere sounding of the four larger movements with its various sonic elements paced out almost like a processional. At some point, fragments that are discernibly like traditional East Asian music take center stage, continuing the overall tone of solemnity. But there is space for raucous festivity as well; this is, after all, the season in which revelers celebrate the end of the year with abandon—so toward the end an Eastern European brass-band takes over. Creshevsky, unlike his season-minded predecessors, ends his account of the year in the Spring, which most other composers take as their starting point, since Spring is traditionally perceived as a time of beginnings. By placing Spring at the end, however, Creshevsky is able to wrap up his largest musical composition to date with a euphoric sound world that constantly renews itself—it is a wild sonic roller coaster ride!

Sounds Heard (Historical Edition): Henry Brant—Young People’s Records

In Montreal during the First World War years there were various kinds of music. The place where my family was living was out in the sticks and it didn’t even have sidewalks. It had houses that sort of stood in mud flats. Across the field was a military school; they blew their bugle calls morning and night. I couldn’t have been very old because I was in a baby carriage bundled up and I was put on the porch. I remember seeing the sun go down. Nobody told me this stuff. I told the adults. I heard the bugle calls. I looked forward to them every day.
—Henry Brant, 2002

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This month marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of composer Henry Brant. There was something invigorating about the diversity of Brant’s careers: the teenaged acolyte of Charles Ives and Henry Cowell; the expert professional arranger and orchestrator for radio and film; the omnivorous devotee of musical styles both esoteric and popular; the merry, prolific guru of spatial music. But there is one other corner of his catalog that doesn’t get mentioned much: his music for children. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Brant wrote three original scores for records produced by Young People’s Records and its successor, the Children’s Record Guild. (He also arranged music for releases by singer and educator Charity Bailey, and probably had some part in the music for what was one of the Guild’s more beloved records, an adaptation of Ruth Krauss’s book The Carrot Seed.)

Young People’s Records was the brainchild of Horace Grenell, a Juilliard-educated pianist, record producer, and entrepreneur in New York. Grenell’s musical efforts were wide-ranging and restless. He was, for a time, chairman of the music department at Sarah Lawrence College; he had a stint conducting the leftist, pro-union Jefferson School choir; he was connected to the folk revival of the 1940s, alongside such figures as Pete Seeger and Tom Glazer.
The Children's Record Guild
By the late 1940s, most of the major record labels had jumped on the children’s record bandwagon—”kidisks,” in trade parlance—some of them backed by serious talent. (Composers Paul Creston and Alec Wilder, for instance, wrote scores for children’s records; Capitol Records released a series of such records with music by the noted bandleader Billy May, the best being the ingenious Rusty in Orchestraville.) But the Young People’s Records label was unusual. They operated under a subscription model, mailing subscribers a new record every month, an innovation in the recording industry; by the early 1950s, according to one report, the number of subscribers exceeded a million. The records Grenell produced were sophisticated and progressive. In 1947, YPR recorded Jazz Band, putting jazz on the same music-appreciation footing as classical, and recruiting Teddy Wilson’s quintet (with Buck Clayton on trumpet) to provide the music. Seeger and, especially, Glazer would feature on numerous YPR releases. Folksinger and broadcaster Oscar Brand recorded a series of folksong collections. Walter Hendl—then the associate conductor of the New York Philharmonic—led samplers of music by Stravinsky and Copland. YPR got Groucho Marx into the studio for an anti-bullying tale called The Funniest Song in the World. At its height, Young People’s Records was turning out, in the best sense of the word, some of the hippest children’s records ever made.

Brant’s first YPR effort was based on his prowess on the tin whistle, a skill that landed him occasional performing work in radio and film. Penny Whistle, based on a story by Erick Berry and narrated by legendary voice-over artist Norman Rose, tells the tale of a child who can only play one note on that instrument; his mother sends him out of the house to play, and each of his encounters with a variety of sounds along his way—a truck horn, a bullfrog, a cricket, etc.—adds another note to his repertoire, until he has an entire diatonic scale, which he proudly demonstrates to his mother. “After that,” Rose adds, “he found a big string of new notes, and played all kinds of tunes on his penny whistle”—a cue for Brant to do a little showing off:

Penny Whistle is charming, in its bare-bones way. Brant’s other two YPR projects were more elaborate. Kitchen Music spends its first side talking kids through the construction of a few homemade instruments: how to tune water glasses and pop bottles, how to make a tin-can string bass. Flip the record over, and there’s a mini-suite by Brant that wrings a lot more music out of household artifacts than might be expected. (This was right up Brant’s alley; he had, as a child, written some of his first music for such DIY instruments and had revisited the idea in his Music for a Five and Dime Store, which surrounded a piano and violin with a small clutch of percussive cutlery and glass.) A nifty, bouncy “March” is followed by “Swinging,” which puts some vaguely modernist chromatic parallel harmonies into waltz time. The finale, “Jumping,” puts Brant’s bright jazzy sense on display:

The dish rack qualities of Kitchen Music may have inspired Brant’s third album. The Lonesome House was conceived by Douglas Moore, the opera composer whose greatest hit, The Ballad of Baby Doe, was still several years in the future. (Moore had been associated with YPR from its earliest days; his children’s opera treatments of Puss in Boots and The Emperor’s New Clothes, for instance, were both YPR commissions.) Moore wrote the libretto with Brant in mind as the composer; the story wonders what a house does when its inhabitants are away, along the way encouraging a Cagean appreciation of everyday sounds—a dripping faucet, a hissing radiator, a squeaky shutter. The brilliance of Brant’s score is that none of these are illustrated with standard sound effects. Rather, Brant deploys a pair of flutes, a pair of double basses, and a pair of pianists—armed with a full array of preparations, inside-the-piano glissandi and pizzicato, and buzzing, scraping bass strings—to provide evocative imitations. Like Kitchen Music, the music coalesces on the second side, as the house puts on a concert for itself:

The Lonesome House was ultimately issued by the Children’s Record Guild, a label Grenell developed for Greystone Press (a direct marketing publishing company) after a falling out with the ownership of the Young People’s Records. In the meantime, YPR had become ensnared in one of America’s great this-is-why-we-can’t-have-nice-cultural-things spasms, the Red Scare of the late ’40s and early ’50s. As early as 1947, Walter S. Steele, anti-communist publisher and pundit, was telling the House Un-American Activities Committee that the label was “exploited by the Communists.” By 1948, the California Senate Fact-Finding Committee On Un-American Activities was calling YPR a Communist front organization—”The Communist Party does not overlook the indoctrination of children. The Communist book stores recently have been handing out folders advertising Young People’s Records”—which was enough to land it on the HUAC Guide to Subversive Organizations three years later. Red Channels, the infamous one-stop-shopping blacklist of entertainment professionals published by the newsletter Counterattack in 1950, included a host of names common to YPR credits: Grenell, Seeger, Glazer, Brand. (They were in good musical company: Leonard Bernstein, Marc Blitzstein, Aaron Copland, and Artie Shaw were also listed in Red Channels.)

With libraries and schools boycotting the McCarthy-bruised YPR, the company soon recombined with its successor, CRG. Most of the YPR records were re-issued by CRG, but a few—including Kitchen Music—were not. (David Bonner, whose book Revolutionizing Children’s Records is the standard history of the YPR/CRG enterprise, speculates that the master recordings had deteriorated too much in the interim.) That’s probably why Brant published the score to Kitchen Music. But the others remain unpublished, the recordings long out of print.

The Lonesome House, especially, seems unjustly forgotten. It’s one of the few children’s records that not only understands a child’s point of view, but actually privileges it over that of adults—Brant’s avant-garde extended-technique enthusiasm is childlike not in the adult-vantage, simplistic way, but in the complex, intricate, far-out fashion of actual childhood imagination. “Awaken your child to music,” the YPR logo suggested. Brant was an ideal alarm clock, himself always happy to discover a new musical day.
Thanks to David Bonner, Peter Muldavin, and Kathy Wilkowski for help with this article.

Sound Heard: Mark Gustavson—Dissolving Images

While Dissolving Images is the first full-length CD devoted to the music of Mark Gustavson (a self-released EP featuring his 2010 Chiftetelli for clarinet and strings was released that same year), the five works collected here date back to the 20th century (one work was composed as far back as 1986) and two performances on the disc were actually recorded in the 1990s as well. So to say this recording is long overdue is an understatement, but it was certainly worth the wait. Hearing these five works collectively reveals a unified compositional aesthetic, one which seamlessly blends heady structural rigor with emotional intensity and humor. Although each of these five pieces—two solos and three chamber works—is strictly notated, some of the material hints at the musical vocabulary of improvisatory traditions ranging from early jazz to Middle Eastern maqam and other non-Western idioms. But just like standard repertoire warhorses which are constantly revisited because of the numerous interpretative possibilities they yield, Gustavson’s compositions feed off of the energy of the performers. The musicians featured on the current disc, who are in the top echelon of new music practitioners, are clearly reveling in this material.

The opening work which lends its title to the entire CD, Dissolving Images (1986), is an emotionally intense virtuosic solo piano composition (here played passionately by Lisa Moore) inspired by “Pensando, enredando sombras” from Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s 1924 collection Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada. (An English translation of the poem, “Thinking, Tangling Shadows,” can be found here.) Gustavson’s response to Neruda’s romantic words is a relentlessly developing series of variations that emanates from an ominous ascending minor third motive, which announces itself three times completely unadorned at the very beginning of the piece and is then immediately woven into a denser harmonic palette. Focusing on a specific interval is a hallmark of Gustavson’s compositional process—it’s a technique he describes as a “signature interval.” These designated intervals operate in his music similarly to the way a key is used in music governed by functional tonality; they are points of gravity that keep the listener focused on the sonic narrative.

Jag (1991) is scored for a “Pierrot” quintet of flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano with the addition of a trombone, an interloper which significantly changes the balance of this ubiquitous new music combination. (It was initially composed for a now defunct German ensemble featuring that somewhat unusual instrumentation and is here performed by members of Either/Or conducted by Richard Carrick.) The signature interval here is an ascending major sixth. It is first announced by muted trombone and then immediately answered by the cello playing the inversion of that interval—a descending minor third. Material based on these two manifestations of the interval is then woven through another chain of variations. While this might seem a bit intellectually erudite, the textures are remarkably lucid as Gustavson exploits the broad range of timbral possibilities available to him, juxtaposing solo, duo and full ensemble passages in a constant stream of polyphony.

The heftiest work featured herein is a Quintet for clarinet and string quartet composed in 1993. This beautiful instrumental combination has been a source of inspiration to composers since Mozart and has yielded extremely important works by composers ranging from Brahms and Reger to Morton Feldman, Osvaldo Golijov, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. Gustavson, too, clearly gives into the extremely satisfying blend of reed and bowed string here. In choosing the perfect fifth as his primary interval throughout each of the work’s four movements, he weaves expansive music that is open-ended and almost rapturous. Another compositional device that Gustavson explores throughout is creating the illusion of multiple tempos through gradual acceleration and unstable polyrhythms. The first movement is a slowly unfolding set of continuous variations—variation form is clearly another Gustavson hallmark. The second, which is much faster, is underpinned by an insistent cello throb on a perfect fifth at the bottom of its range. The third movement pairs a rhapsodic solo clarinet melody with a dense rhythmic canon in the strings. In the final movement, which is inspired by a slow Turkish dance, the clarinet plays seductive phrases periodically laced with quartertones against a percussive backdrop in the strings—the pizzicato cello suggesting the sonority of the doumbek, an hour-glass shaped hand drum found throughout the Islamic world. The extremely idiomatic performance by the group Contempo, and in particular clarinetist Edward Gilmore, is very convincing.

In Trickster, a solo clarinet showcase from 1997, quartertones are explored even further, as are slides and other extended techniques. (In addition to his compositional activities, Gustavson is also active as a clarinetist, although Edward Gilmore is an exceptionally impressive soloist on this recording.) In choosing the tritone as the primary interval for this piece, Gustavson fashions music that is inherently unstable, an ideal sonic parallel to the trickster of Native American mythology from which the piece’s title derives.

Finally, A Fool’s Journey (1998), scored for the standard Pierrot plus percussion sextet configuration (with clarinetist doubling on bass clarinet and flutist doubling on piccolo and alto flute), is a diptych focused on the interval of the major second that is inspired by two Tarot cards—the Fool and the Magician. (It is here performed by one of New York City’s long standing Pierrot group, Parnassus.) In the first movement, there are only three instruments—piccolo, piano and sleigh bells. According to the disc’s booklet notes, this is an attempt to directly musically convey the physical appearance of the Fool card—on the card the fool (piccolo), who is wearing sleigh bells, is accompanied by a small barking dog (which is aurally translated into a series of piano chords). In the second movement, the remaining members of the ensemble join in to portray the Magician who is able to make objects multiply or disappear—which is what now happens here to the thematic material of the first movement. At one point, there is a quotation in the clarinet and piano from Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, the first composition scored for its namesake ensemble. But that oblique reference quickly dissolves without elaboration other than guffaw-like utterances from the flute—the fool, who ultimately has the last laugh.