Category: Albums

Sounds Heard: In the Mood for a Melody (Piano Person Edition)

Piano Sounds Heard
Perhaps it is the drama surrounding the Steinway sale that has put me in a piano state of mind (my last Billy Joel allusion, I promise), but this week three unique keyboard albums caught my attention.

At the top of the pile was Little Things featuring the toy piano talents of Phyllis Chen. While of miniaturized stature, the instrument’s impact under Chen’s fingers is full-sized; any misapprehension that this music is simply a novelty exercise on a child’s plaything is quickly curbed. The disc’s seven compositions—some concentrating on the instrument alone, others incorporating electronics, recorded vocals, and/or additional percussive sounds—span a compelling range of sonic worlds that dazzle with their creative use of the toy piano’s unique timbre, the distinctly audible key strokes, and variously employed extended techniques. While often playful, to my ears each piece avoided any coy winks at cuteness that the instrument might encourage. Angélica Negrón’s The Little Things, with its expanded palette of additional instruments and electronics, is a particular disc stand out.

Concentrated from another angle, Cold Blue’s release of Jim Fox’s Black Water as a CD single allows listener attention to cleanly focus on his 18-minute work for three pianos (each part covered here by Bryan Pezzone). Borrowing its title from a collection of short stories Fox was reading at the time of its composition, the work tracks a nearly relentless shimmering movement that explores the full range of the keyboard. When the lines do linger a bit in a particular area of tranquility, the mood easily turns reflective, but the bulk of Pezzone’s work across the three piano parts keeps ears pulled forward, the notes a school of silvery fish rapidly outpacing any ominous predators floating in the shadows.

Bonus points: Where thoughtfully curated collections are fascinating, hodgepodge albums with no clear through line often frustrate my listening enjoyment. I found that this singular presentation significantly strengthened my engagement with the work and easily encouraged repeat listens.

Rounding out this case of innovative ivory pressing is Timo Andres’s album Home Stretch, a three-work collection of pieces that allow the listener to view the pianist/composer’s musical mind from several intriguing and overlapping angles. In performance with the Metropolis Ensemble under the direction of Andrew Cyr, the disc opens with Andres’s own Home Stretch, a piece that embraces a colorful intricacy in the piano line rather than flashy showmanship and encourages a joyful interplay with the orchestra. Andres’s Paraphrase on Themes of Brian Eno and his completion/recomposition of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 26 (Coronation) both showcase musical dialog of a slightly different ilk. His take on the Mozart in particular really held me up by the lapels. As the disc’s liner notes illuminate, here Mozart gave himself plenty of room to improvise in the original score (and neglected to specifically notate much of the left-hand part). Andres fills in with materials of his own invention, stretching the paths this way and that and inviting in his own ideas and influences with one hand, while holding Mozart’s in his other.

Admittedly, the exercise may not be for everyone—one friend called it “the ultimate act of hubris”—but adore it or despise it, at the very least it’s likely to fuel some animated post-listening thinking.

Mozart / Timothy Andres: Piano Concerto No. 26 “Coronation” – 1st Movement.
Movements 2 and 3, plus Paraphrase on Themes of Brian Eno, are also available on the Metropolis Ensemble’s Vimeo channel.

Sounds Heard: Rebekah Heller—100 names

It’s refreshing to hear the bassoon edging its way towards the sonic foreground in contemporary music. Anyone with doubts about how cool the instrument can be has perhaps not yet heard bassoonist and core member of ICE Rebekah Heller perform; in her hands, the oft-underappreciated woodwind is transformed into a fierce creature that cannot be ignored onstage. Whether the music being performed is a cadenza from a Mozart piece or a new work by an ICELab participant, she will make you wonder how you never noticed the instrument before.

Her first solo CD, 100 names, features six work for solo bassoon, both alone and paired with electronics. All of the composers represented make use of Heller’s virtuosic playing abilities, loading up their compositions with the most extended of extended techniques. The potential “gimmicky” feel is absent though, because the pieces were obviously created in collaboration with Heller, who is clearly comfortable handling such musical material. The first piece by Edgar Guzman, ∞¿?, opens the disc with a bang; a thick, low electronic tone with rough edges cuts in and out, is quickly joined by the bassoon in its lowest range, and from there the two engage in an undulating dance of rollicking multiphonics, beating tones, and multi-tongued, staccato interruptions. The texture thickens and becomes increasingly complex as it reaches a climactic, abrupt ending.

Marcelo Toledo’s Qualia II employs a totally different sound world, beginning with high-pitched squeaks, dramatic, close-miked breath (and breathless) sounds, and amplified key clicks. Low range melodic cells are underscored by Heller’s “helicopter” technique (in which the bassoon actually does sound like a helicopter hovering at a distance), interrupted by a dramatic set of her vocalized yelps and groans. The mood then calms to slower, more extended wind and noise drones. The piece is like solo instrument musique concrète.

Dai Fujikura’s Calling is an artful construction of multiphonics wrapped around a beautifully mournful melodic line that slinks through the sound field, gradually incorporating the multiphonics into itself. On speaking a hundred names for bassoon and processing also shows off a lyrical side; fellow ICE member Nathan Davis deftly combines multiple layers of bassoon that expand and contract within the stereo space, shifting in mood from happily frenetic to angry to tranquil. Ultimately the story ends with the bassoon being swallowed in its own electronic processes, flying away into high frequencies, like a helium balloon let loose into the sky.

…and also a fountain falls the farthest from the sound worlds presented on 100 names, brought to you by Marcos Balter. It features more of Heller’s voice—this time reciting passages from Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein—heavily reverbed, and punctuated with small percussion instruments in addition to fragile bassoon textures. It shows a sparse, stripped down side of the instrument, and also reveals Heller’s willingness to try anything.

The bonus track (a sip of espresso to end the program?), Du Yun’s 10pm, ixtab is a dramatic pile-up of bassoon tracks and recorded found sound. It’s a speedy, intense roller coaster ride that slams to a halt as abruptly as it began.

For a thorough tour of the capacities (and extremes) of the bassoon, 100 names is the recording to check out. Hopefully other bassoonists will also start to perform these works (not to mention commission new works and make albums of their own!) and continue to expand the available repertoire for the instrument. Bassoon is not just for inner orchestra voices anymore.

Sounds Heard: Brooklyn Rider—A Walking Fire

With the Kronos Quartet celebrating their 40th anniversary this season, a survey of new music’s current crop of innovative young string quartets reveals a diverse array of ensembles who specialize in unique niches of the music scene. Whereas the original Kronos Quartet lineup performed works by Lutoslawski along with Glass and world music, today’s younger generation quartets seem split between groups like the JACK Quartet—who have defined themselves by a commitment to experimental modernism—and, on the other hand, groups like this disc’s Brooklyn Rider, an ensemble with a predilection for the vernacular and chops steeped in the musical anthropology of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble (of which the gentlemen of Brooklyn Rider are all members).

Brooklyn Rider had enormous success with their previous Seven Steps release, a recording which paired Beethoven’s monumental C-Sharp Minor String Quartet with a group-composed composition that reflected and expanded upon that masterwork’s varied musical facets. Brooklyn Rider thrives in the realm of world music and folk traditions, yet they’ve always sought to tie this impulse into their considerable classical chops—all while at the same time cultivating the ensemble as a kind of composer collective led by violinist/composer Colin Jacobsen.

In this case, Bartók’s Second String Quartet is the glue that holds this new album together, with that work’s blend of folk sources defining the album’s musical core. The Bartók is flanked by two new compositions by present day composer-performers that further burnish Brooklyn Rider’s reputation for hip collaborations that shed light on our relationship to our roots.
Ljova’s Culai (2011-12) wears its Romanian gypsy influence proudly, finding a nice balance between an offhanded, improvised feel and carefully orchestrated gestures that mark Ljova as composer with craft and ingenuity to burn. The work’s central movement—inspired by the stylings of gypsy vocalist Romica Puceanu—is catchy, harmonically pungent, and rich in character. Brooklyn Rider brings a suitably rustic quality to the work—knowing when to lay off of their classical side is one of the group’s strongest suits. “Love Potion, Expired” is easily the fieriest movement, a scampering tarantella that’s as fun and exciting a romp as you’re likely to hear on string instruments. Even the work’s more low-key “Funeral” movement is animated by mournful slides that wring every last bit of sentiment from the scene; Ljova and Brooklyn Rider are a great pair, and I hope to hear more of their collaborations. Ljova inhabits pop miniatures with a sense of care and orchestrated gesture that adds layers of punch and expression to simple textures, which in turn is what Brooklyn Rider’s interpretations offer the attentive listener.

Colin Jacobsen’s Persian-laced Three Miniatures (2011) expands on a tradition of miniature paintings in which epic scenes packed with emotion and action are rendered on tiny surfaces. As something like Brooklyn Rider’s resident composer, Jacobsen has been developing with each new offering and this is perhaps his strongest and most persuasive composition to date: a series of microcosms that encapsulate powerful feelings and gestures, while never seeming overblown or overwrought.

Brooklyn Rider seems to thrive on miniatures and established quartet masterpieces in equal measure, and here Jacobsen serves up a series of movements grounded in ostinato patterns, most obviously in the first movement, “Majnun’s Moonshine.” The suite’s slow movement, “The Flowers of Esfahan,” drifts in like perfumed air, its vivid imagery of nocturnal gardens and birdsong unfolding naturally in trills and runs, demanding passagework that Brooklyn Rider makes effortless and delicate. This is one of the album’s most arresting tracks, and one in which Jacobsen’s potential and personality as a composer is given the most room to blossom into something truly unique and satisfying. The concluding movement, “A Walking Fire,” seems to reach the limits of Jacobsen’s ostinato-based approach but in a glorious way, revving up the intensity over a variety of harmonic and textural shifts.
Like many newly minted compositions for Brooklyn Rider, this one is bite-sized and unrelentingly poppy—which, after the Bartók, struck my ears as refreshing. The particular genius of Brooklyn Rider has been the way in which the group manages to connect established masterworks to new projects that capture the pop infatuation, diversity, and more informal spirit of the group’s namesake borough. A Walking Fire makes a telling argument for the validity of this approach, with an infectious toe-tapping quality that pervades both the Bartók masterwork and the lighter offerings which set it so cleverly in relief.

Sounds Heard: Jacqueline Humbert & David Rosenboom—Daytime Viewing

Ever since I attended the premiere of Robert Ashley’s opera Improvement—Don Leaves Linda, which is something of a showcase for the voice of Jacqueline Humbert, I’ve been fascinated by how she is able to make cutting-edge avant-garde music sound completely natural, if not downright friendly. In the quintet of voices that has been the basis of Ashley’s operas for decades—an ensemble which also features the otherworldly Joan La Barbara and Thomas Buckner, as well as Ashley himself and his son, Sam Ashley—Humbert’s voice has always struck me as the most immediate and down to earth. But it was pretty much the only context in which I’ve known her voice, the one exception being a 2004 Lovely CD called Chanteuse which features Humbert performing music by a variety of other composers—including Alvin Lucier, Sam Ashley, Joan La Barbara, David Rosenboom, and herself—in addition to two selections by Robert Ashley. From her bio included with that disc, I learned that she trained as a visual artist and worked as a designer of sets, costumes, and graphics, but began her career as a performer on two albums created in collaboration with Rosenboom—My New Music (1978) and Daytime Viewing (1980). Both of these albums have both been long of print, and the latter was only ever available in a limited-run cassette edition.

So I was delighted that Unseen World Records has re-released Daytime Viewing, making it available for the very first time on CD as well as on LP! While it is very much of its time, a by-product of that brief window in the late 1970s and early 1980s when a fusion of experimental music and New Wave created numerous uncategorizable hybrids, it is also very much a harbinger of our own much longer-lasting “indie-classical” zeitgeist where musicians cross freely between musical genres, equally comfortable in all of them.

According to the notes accompanying the disc, Daytime Viewing is “based on the casual analysis of daytime television drama and the audience phenomena such programming addresses.” Having rarely been able to sit through an entire episode of a soap opera, I can’t really speak to Daytime Viewing’s effectiveness in capturing the essence of such fare and the people who watch it. However, even a non-television viewer can imagine the sordidness and quotidian angst of afternoon serials from some of the album’s lyrics, which include such lines as: “He’s starting to sleep in a different place every night,” “Where were you when our dear baby died?” and “Where were you when my moustache began to appear?” evoke both the sordidness and quotidian angst of afternoon serials.

Of the six tracks on Daytime Viewing, two of them—“Bareback” and “Distant Space”—both clock in at under five minutes and could easily be mistaken for quirky pop songs from that time. Had radio stations discovered those songs back when the album was first released, it might have reached a much wider audience. Remember this was the era when Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” wound up on the charts. In 2013, Daytime Viewing comes across as a blueprint for much of the so-called genre-defying music being made now. It is yet another reminder that no idea is completely new. Then again, it wasn’t even completely new in 1980. Listening to Humbert’s straightforward vocals against a wash of Rosenboom’s electronics calls to mind another such collaboration that occurred decades before that—the recordings of Les Paul and Mary Ford. Despite the wild experimentation of the Paul/Ford sessions, they were widely popular—in the 1950s no less. But hopefully with this re-issue, Daytime Viewing will assume its rightful place as the missing link between those fascinating duos and everything from The Fiery Furnaces’ Bitter Tea to Matt Marks’s Little Death.

Sounds Heard: Daniel Wohl—Corps Exquis

There’s something a little magical to my ear in Daniel Wohl’s New Amsterdam release Corps Exquis. The music included on this nine-track album showcases a seamless marriage of acoustic instruments and electronics that opens its mouth and sings, up close and personal, in a language that retains its vibrant human energy even while being processed and polished by Wohl’s electronic hand. For a record carrying a title harkening back to a surrealist parlor game, the fact that the tracks follow a somewhat twisted path, one to the next, comes as par for the course. Yet mental exercise aside, I found this music endlessly interesting without ever being “challenging” in that way that sometimes holds my ears at arms length with locked elbows.

Much of the album conjures a sort of poetic intimacy, inviting the listener to experience all manner of fantastic and strange places. The addictive 323 is expansive and beat driven, a camel caravan of rocking movement and color. Neighborhood, also sizable in sonic scope, adds the extra hands of So Percussion into the mix to conjure a radiant sense of sun-on-your-face pleasure. On the other end of the spectrum, in Cantus, something like the echo of church music is filtered through—and perhaps eventually held down and drowned beneath the surface of—a pool of water. Ouverture then traces a sharp percussive line that forms over a reverberation of sound, a foggy memory just beyond grasping.

The turn-on-a-dime twists of Plus ou Moins explore multiple floors of sound, expanding and contracting, racing ahead and then pausing to ruminate on all the sonic elements available for the taking in the acoustic junk drawer. (The bubbling water is a stand out.) Insext, however, follows a scrambled beacon; rather than digging in, its digital signal glides across, skating over rich surface textures.

An attention-grabbing track on the second half of the album is Fluctuations, with a droning timbral character that sent me Googling for electronic bagpipes to see if they had been invented yet. They have, of course, but the samples I heard produced nothing as complex as this five-and-a-half-minute exploration of a quasi piper’s tune built out of melodicas, bass clarinet, violin, cello, and electronics.

Limbs, with its weighty piano line setting the tone, makes it easy to imagine the arms and legs of the title wound in heavy chains, the music shuffling, occasionally tripping, across the aural space in the company of Jacob Marley. Finally, the album bids adieu with the bittersweet sighs of Corpus, for which the multimedia creative collective Satan’s Pearl Horses created this video:

The wordless vocal contributions of Julia Holter and Aaron Roche on select tracks in addition to the guest appearance by So Percussion definitely add a special color to the proceedings, but the TRANSIT Ensemble holds up the core of this music, delivering vibrant performances throughout. I suspect, however, that in addition to composing the music, it is Wohl’s demonstrated skill in programming and sound design that truly makes this music fire (plus loud bonus applause to the recording team). Much that has already been written about this album, including its own accompanying PR, focuses on that favorite trope of genre-less-ness, which the music may very well warrant of you’re looking at it from that angle. But to my mind one of the strengths of the record is that it never once draws any attention to that kind of banter. It doesn’t have any surface cracks betraying a nervous merger to make excuses for.

Perhaps the best compliment I can pay Corps Exquis is that I couldn’t stop listening to it. The tracks are a parade of bright lights and glimpses of secret corridors, all passing by long before they wear out their welcome.

Sounds Heard: Rzewski, Tenney, Parkins—Music for String Quartet & Percussion

From one vantage, almost all music analysis can be summed up in one question: Where does the time go? This lovely new recording by the Los Angeles-based new music specialist Eclipse Quartet and percussionist William Winant is, primarily, united by the relatively unusual, pleasantly mad scientist-ish combination of string quartet and percussion. But it also presents three works that wear their respective approaches to marking the time on their sleeves. It also suggests, however small the sample size, that how the time gets passed depends on what time the composer has passed through; the cohort divide between the program’s composers is audible and fascinating. When it comes to time—to paraphrase one of my favorite time-killers—the perennial problem for each generation is finding a good way to spend it.

Boxes and process characterize the first two works. The nested elevens of Frederic Rzewski’s Whimwhams, for string quartet and marimba—eleven sections of eleven groups of eleven quarter-note beats—is a restrictive yin to a pure-imagination yang: the modules are, ostensibly, the only formal restriction on a form of compositional improvisation, Rzewski filling each module with bits of passing fantasy. But Rzewski’s improvising is disciplined and restrained: his conviction seems to be that the short ideas—a quick little four-note oscillation, for example, is a prominent character—have more variation and potential than might be apparent. Motives stay in play for a surprisingly long time from section to section; much of the music’s hold on the ear hinges on subtleties—some modules circle back to their beginnings, some don’t, and Rzewski has a fair amount of fun with tiny shifts that nonetheless completely change a phrase’s stylistic lean.

The entire process of James Tenney’s Cognate Canons is announced in the title: twenty-five minutes of canonic near-translation, pitched strings and largely unpitched percussion doing their best to echo each other. That the time goes so quickly is due to Tenney’s management of the gap between vocabularies: the relationship between the string and percussion sounds are close enough to recognize but far enough to lose track of, and it’s easy for the listener to slip between hearing the structure assured by the title and setting it aside for an experience of pure sound. The piece wears its ingenuity lightly.

Whimwhams and Cognate Canons are generational cousins: both composers were born in the ’30s, both pieces date from 1993. Zeena Parkins, whose s:c:a:t:t:e:r:i:n:g fills out the recording (and was commissioned by the performers), is of a later time. Parkins got her start in the experimental music world of 1980s New York, and her experience is characteristic of that time and place: a lot of avant-garde rock bands, a lot of music for dance, a lot of free movement between notation and improvisation—and between alternative spaces and academia.

Completed in 2012, s:c:a:t:t:e:r:i:n:g has a structural similarity to Whimwhams—ten continuous movements this time, in which ideas weave and swirl from section to section. But Parkins’s music is cumulative: the ideas don’t so much bounce off of each other as pile up. There’s a heavy overlay of electronics as well, amplifying the instruments, processing the sound, introducing new sounds—manipulated vocal sounds are a prominent feature. The music is deliberately overscheduled, a crowded grid.

One of my listening sessions with this recording filled the time on a long, cross-country drive, and I started hearing the disparate works in similar terms: Tenney’s piece a picture of slow-shifting, rolling landscapes, Rzewski’s a state highway tour of successive small town centers. Parkins’s was a much more urban/suburban landscape—signs and billboards, in such profusion as to make zoning restrictions nominal. From era to era, it seems, fixed points move: regimentation turns mercurial, systems produce mystery, sprawl becomes expressive. The passage of time can also be a handoff.

Sounds Heard: Christine Southworth–String Quartets

Being a fan of vintage early 1970s British progressive rock, especially the groups who really experimented with instrumentation and form like Gentle Giant, King Crimson, and Van der Graaf Generator, I was immediately intrigued by a disc that arrived in the mail four years ago with the portentous title Zap! Music for Van de Graaff Generator, Tesla Coils, Instruments & Voices featuring a single, hour-long composition in seven movements. At the time, its composer, Christine Southworth, was completely unknown to me, as were some of the instruments she was exploring. Since the generator (named after its inventor, American physicist Robert J. Van de Graaff) was misspelled in the name of the legendary prog band fronted by Peter Hammill (whose LPs I treasure after scouring for them in record shops from Los Angeles to Porthmadog in Wales), I never actually knew what a Van de Graaff generator was or did until I’d heard Southworth’s disc in which this mechanism originally devised to smash atoms makes its musical debut. So in addition to doing some rewarding listening to the really off the wall, out there stuff on that disc, I learned a few fascinating things during the process.

A couple of months ago, I came across a new disc devoted to her music with the immediately more readily identifiable title, String Quartets. But after hearing the truly new sound world she created on her earlier disc, I was quite sure she’d create something totally unusual despite using the most popular instrumental combination in all of chamber music. She did not disappoint!
I should point out that none of the three compositions by Southworth featured on the new CD are actually scored exclusively for string quartet. The opening piece, Super Collider, is a double quartet featuring the classic combination of two violins, viola, and cello (here performed by the Kronos Quartet) with four percussion instruments that are traditionally part of the Balinese gamelan—kempli (a single gong which is mounted horizontally), ceng-ceng (a set of cymbals), and two kendangs (which are double-sided membrane drums struck with the hands)—plus additional electronic sounds generated via MIDI through an interface with the gamelan instruments called Gamelan Elektrika. Gamelan Electrika was designed and developed by Alex Rigopulos (founder and CEO of Harmonix Music, the company that invented the video games Guitar Hero and Rock Band). It is apparently the first-ever MIDI instrument that requires an entire group to trigger its output, which alters tuning and timbres, rather than an individual; somehow fitting since a gamelan is a collective that comes together to create a unified sound. For the first 90 seconds of Super Collider, the only sound worlds that are actually colliding with one another are the physical and virtual gamelans, but the real “super” collision ultimately takes place when the string quartet finally enters—the fixed-pitch short-decay percussion clacks of the live gamelan players contrasting with the longer sliding tones of the strings and the electronic environment, which is capable of both paradigms and many others.

After the poly-timbral world of Super Collider, where it is often difficult to discern which instruments are producing which sounds, Honey Flyers initially feels like a return to a comfort zone in its extremely idiomatic embrace of the language of the conventional string quartet. The music is played passionately by the Calder Quartet. But this doesn’t last over the course of its three movements in which the sounds of “honey flyers”—bees—gradually grow more and more prominent. At first while I was listening to the second movement, which opens with unaccompanied bee sounds, I was worried that I was about to be stung. I hate bugs and it is, after all, summer in the city. In the final movement, the sounds of the bees and the quartets seem totally integrated with one another which is simultaneously a wonderful sonic feat and somewhat creepy—remember, I hate bugs!

The final piece of the disc, Volcano, in addition to the string quartet immediately adds sounds of an eruption to the mix, prefaced by the quartet intoning the word “volcano.” Then a piano enters for some initially very propulsive music that gradually explores a variety of tempos and moods. Toward the end, there is additional rhythmic punctuation from a percussionist. (The pianist and percussionist for this performance are one and the same.) Eventually the piano makes a return appearance for the music’s final climactic—sorry, pun intended—eruption.

Sounds Heard: Luke Cissell—Cosmography

Every now and then something lands on my CD-cluttered desk and instantly stands out. Such was the case with Cosmography by Luke Cissell. Admittedly, before his disc arrived in the mail Cissell sent us a query to find out if we were interested in hearing his music—I always answer yes. As soon as I saw the digipack with its lovely otherworldly artwork by Melissa Haas Hinton overlaid with a neon-like font that screamed out titles such as “Sam Shepard,” “Misbegotten,” and “Percival” (which is actually a “cover” of themes from Richard Wagner’s Parsifal), I immediately put it on the top of my listening pile for the week.

So who is Luke Cissell? It sounds like the name of a character from either a Louis L’Amour or Flannery O’Connor novel, or perhaps the protagonist in something published in Astounding Stories magazine. Fittingly, the press release that accompanied the CD in the mail described the music as “bluegrass on a distant planet.” I knew I had to put it into the CD drive on my laptop and listen right then and there!

But at first my skepticism briefly got the better of me. The synth- and acoustic guitar-laden opening title track “Cosmography,” albeit with a tender fiddle melody floating on top, seemed to veer too dangerously close to a Weather Channel soundtrack for my own aesthetic comfort zones. (Maybe those “smooth” sounds are just too strong a reminder of my bad luck getting rained on during mornings with reportedly clear skies or losing my umbrella on rain-announced days that turn out to be sunny.) But, always attempting to eschew personal judgment in the hopes of a sonic epiphany, I kept listening and less than a minute in, a banjo riff suddenly entered as if someone had just hacked into the control room and reprogrammed the sound cues for the forecast.

Then things took a much more bona fide down home turn. “Sam Shepard” is a convincing breakdown with some curious harmonic twists and virtuosic fills on fiddle, mandolin, banjo, and steel guitar that seem to feed off of each other, Grand Ole Opry style, except that they were all overdubbed by Cissell in the studio. The synthesizers return in “Ghosts of Grayson County,” but now they’ve taken on a decidedly more foreboding tone, as mandolin and fiddle trade mournful solos. On “The Farther We Fall,” it suddenly sounds as if Ralf Hütter from Kraftwerk was invited to sit in with J. D. Crowe and The New South. For this, Cissell in fact was not alone, but was joined by Kevin Ratterman, former drummer for the indie rock band Wax Fang, who appears on seven of the album’s twelve tracks. Ratterman already made an appearance on the album’s first two tracks, but here his insistent beats are foregrounded, resulting in a kind of techno-disco-bluegrass. It might not be to everyone’s taste—probably not to folks steeped in the ever-shifting rhythmic uncertainties of most high modernist music—but the sheer audacity of its combination of influences has gotten me to hit replay several times already in the last 24 hours.

“Misgiven” is a dolorous, unaccompanied fiddle solo that barely lasts a minute. It leads directly into “Lonesome Dreamer,” which is characterized by constant changes in timbre and occasional percussion interjections that serve more to provide color than a driving rhythm. “Little Memphis” is an unlikely amalgam of Doc Watson and mid-’70s Tangerine Dream (to my ears at least). “Misbegotten” is another minute-long fiddle solo that is slightly more upbeat.

But at this point, the more I listened the more questions I had. Since the one-page press release didn’t offer a ton of information, I did some web surfing. (Cissell is the 2012 winner of the John Cage Memorial Random Composer Award!) I also traded a few emails with the composer to get a better grounding in where he’s coming from.

“I think there’s a sense of in-between-ness that’s been with me for a long time,” Cissell remarked in one of our exchanges. Though now based in New York City, he originally hails from Louisville, Kentucky, and grew up hearing Bill Monroe play on television. At the age of five, Cissell was playing fiddle and took lessons with a player who went on to become a Nashville session man. But that same teacher also suggested that Cissell should get classical training, so he enrolled in the preparatory department at the University of Louisville. Cissell describes his own music, which also includes two string quartets (you can hear the full range of his compositional output on his Soundcloud page), as an attempt at reconciling these “simultaneous musical upbringings.” There have certainly been precedents for infusing country-western/Bluegrass/roots music with a “new music” sensibility and vice versa. Aside from the “new music” inclinations of New Acoustic Music pioneers like Tony Trischka, Andy Statman, Béla Fleck, Mark O’Connor, Edgar Meyer, or—more recently—folks like Chris Thile or Abigail Washburn, a Southern twang has occasionally crept into the avant-garde; works by Ned Sublette, Laurie Spiegel, Paul Elwood, and Monroe Golden come to mind.

But to return to Cissell’s album, “Heaven Hill” begins with ethereal synthesizer harmonies, but then a driving reel played on the acoustic instruments is layered on top of it that wanders gleefully into bi-tonal terrain. It’s the kind of music that Charles Ives might have made if he had access to a recording studio. In the ambient, somewhat Brian Eno-esque “Faded,” a regular guitar ostinato provides a steady pulse over which acoustic and electronically produced sounds take center stage in turn. A stranger sound world resurfaces for “It Was All a Fantasy.”

There is once again a constant shift in timbres (this time including an acoustic piano), which at times calls to mind Frank Zappa. But eventually the scalar melodies that were previously shards lock together in a driving counterpoint reminiscent of Philip Glass. It turns out that Cissell was the violinist on Tara Hugo’s recording of Glass’s music released on Glass’s Orange Mountain Music label last year. Unlike the previous tracks that seem formed spontaneously in the studio, “It Was All a Fantasy” sounds like there was quite a bit of pre-performance planning. My suspicion was confirmed by Cissell, who explained it to me as follows:

For most of the tracks I started with a basic idea about a mood or a structure/form/tempo, and the tracking particulars were about finding organic solutions—a lot of the composing process happened at the microphone or in the thick of the tracking process. [But] “It Was All a Fantasy” started out as a written score.

The final track on the disc, “Percifal,” is something else entirely, though like “It Was All a Fantasy,” it was also scored in advance. But unlike the rest of the music on the album, which was all created by Cissell, “Percifal” is a sonic excursion derived from the music of Wagner’s final opera, another unlikely hybrid that sounds like it couldn’t possible work but it somehow does. Again, in Cissell’s own words:

There’s some irreverence (and some twang) in there, to be sure, but mostly a great deal of reverence. There was a period when I was listening to it a lot, and at some point I got the deranged idea to make my own recording of it.

There’s definitely an undeniable solemnity to it that carries through for nearly its entire five minutes. But then after more than two minutes of silence comes a hidden musical bonus, an introspective song—the only vocal on the entire album. At first I found it extremely disconcerting, especially, coming as it did, on the heels of Wagner. That said, it is lovely and I particularly like that he concludes the song without resolving the harmonic progression he set up during it. The more I thought about it, the ambiguity of that final secret track was perhaps the only way to end an album that was so filled with incongruities. Cissell carefully plotted how everything herein relates to everything else, conceiving of this project as an “album” overall and not just a collection of standalone tracks.

I was conscious of the overall feel and arc I wanted Cosmography to have throughout the process. For me there’s a bit of homesickness to it, a sense of displacement but also a sense of wonder and questioning. There’s a kind of “sigh” motif that runs throughout the album: you can hear it in the opening statement of the title track in the fiddle, it gets probably most fully developed in “Ghosts of Grayson County,” and you can continue to hear echoes of it in “The Farther We Fall” and throughout the remainder of the album.

There will be a lot more vocal music from Cissell in the near future. He’s currently working on an opera—an adaptation of Henry James’s novel The Ambassadors. If that sounds completely out of left field after reading about this bluegrass meets “new music” album, for him it’s just the next step in working out the dichotomies that have shaped his musical identity. According to him, “The Ambassadors was a natural choice for me to want to adapt into an opera; the text is rich with Jamesian themes of American-ness vs. European-ness and of feeling the pull between two very different and very powerful forces.”
I can’t wait to hear more.

Sounds Heard: Lawrence Brownlee and Damien Sneed—Spiritual Sketches

The spirituals that have been sung around the world are Negroid to be sure, but so full of musicians’ tricks that Negro congregations are highly entertained when they hear their old songs so changed. They never use the new style songs, and these are never heard unless perchance some daughter or son has been off to college and returns with one of the old songs with its face lifted, so to speak.

—Zora Neale Hurston, “Characteristics of Negro Expression” (1934)

[There was a] famous teacher and scholar of Vienna to whom I had come to seek guidance in the mastery of Bach’s style…. I vividly remember his astonishment on hearing me sing some Aframerican folk songs; an astonishment caused by the spiritual affinity of my songs with the spirit and style of the great German master. “But you have it all there,” he assured me; “it is the same language.”

—Roland Hayes, My Songs (1948)

One of my favorite corners of the compositional world is and always has been the spiritual arrangement—and not in spite of Hurston’s complaint (and others like it), but, in a way, because of it. Maybe it’s because my own provenance (suburban, Catholic, white) is so far removed from the proper milieu, but it was always the game of masks involved in dressing up the vernacular for the concert hall that made spiritual arrangements so fascinating to me. There’s a grain of truth in what Hurston writes: spiritual arrangements are, in one sense, neither here nor there. But musically, it’s at that disconnected point—where stylistic reference becomes as much a choice as a necessity, and where authenticity is just one possible concern among many—that, for me anyway, things often start to get really interesting.

Spiritual Sketches, the new recording by tenor Lawrence Brownlee, is, in essence, a showcase for singing; and Brownlee’s singing is worth showcasing, a fiery, flexible bel canto tenor that soars without strain and burbles through ornamentation with comfortable flair. But it was the arrangements, by pianist Damien Sneed (who also performs), that really caught my ear. Written especially for this project, Sneed’s spiritual settings update the usual language—“There Is a Balm in Gilead” as contemporary R&B ballad, “Every Time I Feel the Spirit” as angular funk—while still making some deft plays within the genre’s complicated weave of influence and stylization.

Some of the most fun things about the album, in fact, are those moments where Sneed acknowledges that the arranging of spirituals has acquired a history almost as long as those of the spirituals themselves: “Come By Here, Good Lord” echoes Hall Johnson’s brighter, bouncier settings; “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” channels the Romantic harmonies of Harry T. Burleigh’s Gilded Age settings; “Down by the Riverside” has a thumping swing reminiscent of the legendary Mildred Falls, Mahalia Jackson’s longtime accompanist. Even the most predictable reharmonizations—the spiritual tradition is multilayered enough that even the stylizations can be traditional—get enough of an extra flourish to freshen the standards while honoring them. And Sneed has the taste to get out of the way when the mood requires; his version of “All Day, All Night” achieves a deep, potent simplicity.

The sheer adaptability of spirituals has been viewed as either distressing (e.g. Hurston) or empowering (e.g. Hayes), but I think the repertoire’s survival is a testament in itself. We keep coming back to them; they keep coming back to us. Sneed’s résumé is a very 21st-century one, encompassing gospel, jazz, classical, pop, and art in equal measure, but, as in the 20th and even the 19th centuries, the spiritual style proves inspiringly flexible enough to pull it all in. The language changes; but, like Hayes said, it’s still the same language. You have it all there.

Sounds Heard: Amy Williams—Crossings: Music for Piano and Strings

Being a Suzuki-trained violinist myself, it’s rare that music listening inspires me to reach for a score, but that’s what I found myself wishing for while unpacking the layers of sound that comprise Amy Williams’s Richter Textures (2011). (I soon discovered that the composer has helpfully posted it to her website, and so I was able to explore the piece’s construction in more detail.) In this opening composition on her new Albany CD of chamber music, Williams conjures in sound the character of seven Richter paintings and the JACK Quartet brings them to remarkable life. The seven-movement work proceeds without pause, which further heightens the impact of the assured passing game the quartet members run throughout the piece. No examination extends longer than four and a half minutes, but each movement builds up a translation of Richter’s visual medium ranging from frozen to frantic. Williams employs a full bag of colorful string techniques to accomplish this, but none that show any evidence of pushing the players beyond their comfort.

In total, the music included on the disc spans some ten years of compositional activity, and Williams’s experience as a pianist and her work in The Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo has likely contributed to her sensitivity and skill when it comes to composing chamber music. Williams’s comments in the brief booklet notes highlight her interest in using points of inspiration not as material for quotation but as “a structural model, abstract reference or starting point for a particular compositional process.” (A sentiment which somewhat harkens back to Arlene Sierra’s comments on her own working methods.)

In some instances, her influences are seemingly audible, as in Brigid’s Flame (2009), a solo piano work composed in memory of Williams’s late father-in-law. The piece features a number of dense running piano lines which easily link up with the images of flickering firelight suggested by the title. The Brian Philip Katz poem that inspired the composition of Falling (2012) written for Ursula Oppens is reprinted in the booklet, but the sonic connections Williams draws out are arguably less directly presented and instead perhaps more personally infused into the slow drift of the music. Both brief works are performed on this recording by the composer herself. From here, the emotional tone of the album takes a sharp left as Jeffrey Jacob launches into the intricate, rapid-fire keywork required in Astoria (2004), a piece rooted in Astor Piazzolla’s Movimiento Continuo (Williams cites its structure, harmonic progressions, and rhythmic patterns as points of intersection) without being terribly obvious about it. It’s an addictive little gem of a piece.
The Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo performs the two remaining piano-focused works, the genesis of both traceable to the music of other composers. According to Williams, Crossings (2009) reaches back to Bach and Abstracted Art (2001-02) to the music of Art Tatum, but the leash of influence seems long and I suspect listeners would be hard pressed to make the associations if the composer hadn’t pointed them out herself. Crossings for four hands unspools along deliberately plotted steps, the exploration keeping largely to the upper register until well past the halfway point and the density only gaining serious weight in the work’s final minutes, Williams’s dynamic finally reaching the bolded and underlined stage. Despite its serious sounding title, Abstracted Art has a lot more play in the lines and isn’t shy about flashing the sass it has to offer.

Arriving at the closing bookend, the JACK is joined by Williams at the piano for Cineshape 2 (2007), one in a series of works inspired by films–in this case the split screen experiment Timecode. The instrumentalists work through the music, sometimes in a kind of soliloquy among the other players and sometimes in conversation with them, the development of various thematic areas punctuated by some startling moments of auditory aggression.

Across the disc, this collection of music stands in dialog with other creative work, whether in the form of stories, images, text, or other music. It is an intimate look inside Williams’s artistic influences, a portrait of what she has seen there and what she has taken away.