Category: Listen

Sounds Heard: Robert Erickson Complete String Quartets

CD cover for Robert Erickson Complete String Quartets

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

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

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

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

Sounds Heard: Akropolis Reed Quintet—Unraveled

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

Akropolis Reed Quintet – photo by Lauren Landry

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

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

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

Sounds Heard: Andy Biskin Ibid—Act Necessary

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

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

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

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

Sounds Heard: Azure Carter & Alan Sondheim—Avatar Woman

Avatar Woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sounds Heard: Meredith Monk—Piano Songs

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

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

Meredith Monk: Piano Songs album cover

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

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

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

Games Played: FRACT OSC

For better or worse, rhythm games that require you to synchronize your actions with a beat are by far the most common form of music-themed video games these days. But this is not by any stretch of the imagination the only way to integrate music into gameplay, and a few interesting game-like things have been taking other approaches recently, like the meditative SoundSelf or the hybrid synthesizer/game console Ming Mecca. This kind of music game isn’t common enough yet to constitute a movement or even a trend, but maybe it’s the germ of one.

FRACT OSC's world

The synesthetic world of FRACT OSC

FRACT OSC is the latest and one of the most exciting additions to this fledgling genre. It describes itself as a “musical exploration game inspired by synthesizers,” and that’s pretty accurate. The game places you in an abstract neon landscape somewhere between Myst and Tron, and the environment is peppered with various kinds of music-making machinery. The gameplay is divided about half and half into puzzles that require manipulation of the environment, and music sequencer puzzles where you’re arranging melodic patterns. The first kind of puzzle, where you’re moving around boxes and redirecting lasers and such, will be familiar to anyone who’s played this sort of game before. But it’s admirable how smoothly the environment will audibly respond to your efforts, adding a layer or two to the ambient soundtrack as you get closer to a solution. This adds to the sensation that you’re in a world literally made of sound, that music is woven into the fabric of its reality.

Sequencer puzzle

One of FRACT OSC’s many music sequencer puzzles

But it’s the music sequencer puzzles that intrigued me the most. These puzzles present you with a piano roll-style display that lets you compose simple melodic and harmonic patterns which get more intricate as the game progresses. Without spoiling the game too much, what I admired most about these sections was how they guide the player to create certain kinds of musical structures, but without dictating specific solutions. For example, I might need a dotted, syncopated rhythm to progress, but the exact timing of that pattern might be open to interpretation. Most impressively, the game manages to convey all of this wordlessly, through carefully constructed audio and visual cues. Another nice touch is that the patterns you’ve created then later appear on other surfaces in the game, underlining the fact that you’re not just an observer in this world, you’re a maker.

As a music teacher (and perpetual student of sorts), I was inspired by the sense of balance in gently guiding the player, which is the same kind of balance I strive for in lessons and classes. Teaching composition is especially tightrope-y in this way. Saying “this is the way things need to be” doesn’t help a student think for themselves, but providing no direction is, of course, no help at all. It’s not unlike the dilemma that a game designer faces—you want to give the player some agency, but you also don’t want them to miss all the wonderful set pieces you’ve created for them.

I couldn’t help but think to myself as I was playing: could this kind of music puzzle be used as an educational tool to help students navigate their own creative processes? So much of composition is already about balancing possibilities and limitations. While it certainly might pique someone’s curiosity to learn more about music, I would stop short of saying that FRACT OSC is educational in its current form. But I can imagine similar strategies that could potentially illuminate ordinarily challenging musical concepts. We could see puzzles based on a visual rendering of the harmonic series, or a synesthetic representation of functional harmony.


Even the edges of FRACT OSC’s world are populated with discoveries

While the puzzles are the real meat of the game, the world they are situated in is much larger geographically, and you can find yourself wandering fruitlessly from time to time, searching for the next thing to solve. At first I was put off by this, until it suddenly took on metaphorical resonance. Creativity, too, is full of wandering, full of countless, often frustrating detours into cul-de-sacs and dead ends that you thought were highways. To be successful creatively, you have to be okay with this often-circuitous journey. You have to accept getting lost—and this is what the game was seeming to say to me, too. It helps that FRACT OSC’s meanderings take place in such a scenic and animated environment—while searching you might stumble across a breathtaking, surreal vista, or glowing pink crystals and green geodesic domes that emanate reverberant tones, or a fairy circle of levitating oscillators. The game is full of discoveries like this.

FRACT OSC advanced settings

Some of the studio’s “advanced settings”

FRACT OSC also has to walk a fine line between between being too trivial for musicians and too opaque for non-musicians, and this is most apparent in the game’s “studio,” which brings together all the oscillators and modulators that you unlock as you play the game into a reasonable facsimile of a digital audio workstation. You can make credible electronic music with this studio, and export the result as a WAV file or YouTube video, but the interface has some obvious limitations. For instance, the piano roll is pentatonic, there’s no automation to speak of, and you’re stuck with a few preset drum patterns. Still, the synths themselves sound great and are satisfyingly tweakable, especially after unlocking the “advanced” settings, which include a variety of options for filters, LFOs, waveshaping, and envelope shaping. For expert knob twiddlers, you can even get pretty noisy and experimental if you’re so inclined. It made me wish that the synths were available as a VST or AU plugin that could be incorporated into the context of professional audio editing software.

In the meantime, FRACT OSC is something of curiosity that is likely to delight musically inclined video game fans and perplex others. I only hope that it gains enough traction to inspire similar efforts from other game designers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sounds Heard: 17 More Takes on those 88 Keys

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


Cover for the CD American Vernacular

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Cover for the CD Keeping Time

Keeping Time
Mary Kathleen Ernst, piano
(innova 868)

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

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

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

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

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

Sounds Heard: Adventures Far and Wide

Sounds Heard: Adventures Far and Wide
Glenn Kotche: Adventureland

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

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

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

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

Man Forever: Ryonen (with So Percussion)
Thrill Jockey

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

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