Tag: CD review

Sounds Heard: Alvin Lucier—Orchestra Works

Alvin Lucier: Orchestra Works

Alvin Lucier
Orchestra Works
(New World Records 80755)

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

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

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

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

Sounds Heard: Erik Friedlander—Claws & Wings

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

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

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

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

Sounds Heard: 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: Cold Blue Two

For more than three decades, Cold Blue Music has been highlighting the work of composers working on the outer edges of contemporary music, many of whom are based on the West Coast and “whose personal music visions often blend intuition with process,” according to the label. Sonically, this translates into a very specific kind of aesthetic which can be gleaned from the titles of the works on Cold Blue’s most recent anthology CD Cold Blue Two; Colorless Sky Became Fog and Prelude to Alone, for instance, are telling. Not to say that the music is colorless—it is anything but. This is (to my ears) music that evokes the thick, dark quiet of late nights, and misty rainy days, when a certain level of sleepy, languid melancholy can become soothing and thought-provoking.

Cold Blue Two features 14 short tracks (only Nights in the Garden of Maine by Peter Garland breaks the five-minute mark), many of which were composed specifically for this CD. It offers a panoramic view of Cold Blue’s offerings, which are quite varied and yet make a powerful unified statement. These works could be described as beautiful oddities—some even devastatingly gorgeous, but always with a twist. Even if unapologetic beauty is not your cup of tea, worry not—upon close listen each one of these works sports frayed edges, chipped corners, or other subtle disturbances that turn it into a highly personal proclamation; this is far more than lovely fluff. Daniel Lentz’s smooth, mournful solo cello-with-overdubs piece Celli, Phillip Schroeder’s shimmering Another Shore for celesta with digital delay, and John Luther Adams’s Sky With Four Suns (originally a choral piece but presented here in an arrangement for string quartet) are examples of flat-out pretty music bearing plenty of harmonic and thoughtfully structured substance. But stand by, because things get weirder, and quickly. Son of Soe-Pa for solo guitar with electronics by Ingram Marshall is performed by his son, and also includes a recording of his son singing as an eight-year-old child. This description sounds warm and fuzzy until you actually hear the digital delay pitch-bends dragging down the guitar in a mildly sea-sickly, disturbing fashion. Here, childhood memories are taken to a surreal place.

The disc also contains a healthy dose of just intonation; the 16th note tremolo that opens James Tenney’s Mallets in the Sky, scored for the Harry Partch diamond marimba with string quartet, ushers in an upswing of mood and activity level after a series of somewhat lethargically paced tracks. It is followed by the disarmingly lovely, glowing Eskimo Lullaby, written by Larry Polansky for Lou Harrison’s just-intonation National guitar and the diaphanous, untrained voice of guitarist John Schneider.
All of the pieces have an intimate, small-space chamber music sound, whether it is accordion, clarinets, and piano, and/or electronics. Many are haunting, but not at all cold or alienating; this is music for friendly ghosts. Each work contains treasures to be discovered within, and the heart-on-sleeve honesty of the works is not something one hears often. Cold Blue Two can make you look forward to a rainy day.

Sounds Heard: Gabriel Kahane—February House

One of the particular gems on Gabriel Kahane’s self-titled 2008 release was a track called “7 Middagh,” the lyrics of which teased out the story of the residents of 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn. At this address, such cultural icons as George Davis, Carson McCullers, W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, and Gypsy Rose Lee cohabitated as a kind of unconventional family in the 1940s. Additional research on my part revealed more of the tale underlying this artsy commune and, a little later, the news that Kahane would be creating a full-scale musical based on the story in order to fulfill the first commission of The Public Theater’s Music Theater Initiative.

While the above-mentioned track does not appear in Kahane’s eventual full-evening musical February House (a show he wrote with Seth Bockley), its echoes are easy to trace. Within the first few moments of the production, as captured on the cast recording released on the StorySound label* in October, a brief lyrical reference calls to mind that earlier track. Yet in a broader sense, Kahane has once again crafted a collection of songs that navigate complex, sometimes bittersweet emotion across a music bed that floats and, importantly, propels the characters through the text before they drown under the sentiment.

Not to imply that every song carries such weighty seriousness. February House is, at its core, the story of people who are trying to make a home for themselves, and all the silly complications that can entail—arranging the personalities and the furniture into the available rooms (“A Room Comes Together”). Nine voices and the six-musician ensemble take the stage for an intimate tour of lives and love, the quick and witty sung repartee showing off the colorful personalities lashing themselves together within this Brooklyn outpost. That it is a place for the homosexual residents in the group to live more openly is a strong surface statement, but an undercurrent of feeling strange and alone runs deeply and more generally throughout the show and its characters.

These relationships are well complimented by the chamber ensemble, which provides color and context but generally keeps out of the spotlight. A fiddle line adds to a story, an elegantly sober piano empathizes. The song that held me most transfixed was actually a delicate solo outing that features McCullers (sung by Kristen Sieh), accompanied by only a plucked banjo line, during which she meditates on feeling weird and lonely in the midst of a freak show: “There’s a secret part of me gets so silent,/My communion at Coney Island, oh…” Kahane immediately follows that up with an intricate full-cast hug of a song (“Shall We Live Here”); the struggles of writing a line or paying the rent (“Discontent/Talk of the Town”) play out against a world that is marred by the horror of World War Two (“You Sit In Your Chair”). The house fights against bed bugs; the house fights for love.

But the center cannot, or at least does not, hold. McCullers and her husband decide to return to “Georgia.” Britten and Pears make plans to head to “California.” And George Davis, the godfather of the house, sings adieu to this fantasy in heartbreakingly revised/reprised versions of “Light Upon the Hill” and “Goodnight to the Boardinghouse.”

I’ve long been a fan of Kahane’s songwriting. His Craigslistlieder was as clever and quirky as its subject matter, and his first full-length disc provided a photo album of stories that proved a compulsive listen. With February House, he has taken the strengths of those previous projects—smart lyrics, even smarter compositional choices—and played them out across a larger storyboard, creating distinct voices for his characters that still solidly carry the attractive marks of his own.

*An earlier version of this review misidentified the StorySound label as the house label of the Public Theater. It is its own unaffiliated entity.

Sounds Heard: David Keberle–Caught in Time

Drawing on his work from the decade spanning 1997 to 2007, composer David Keberle’s new album, Caught in Time, showcases six chamber works that blend microtonality, extended performance techniques, and rich textural writing into spacious soundscapes for 21st-century ears.

Keberle revels in many details of performance technique that lend his work a haunting, organic, and particular quality, yet he is above all a composer who paints with broad brushstrokes. The works featured on this release all have an unhurried, larger-than-life, at times epic quality; this is music driven by powerful seismic forces lurking under the surface, music about events that resound with a global sense of scope and impact.

The disc opens with Keberle’s Soundings II, a piece recorded by commissioning flutist Tara O’Connor and the Pittsburgh Flute Club flute choir. The piece is the second in a series of pedagogical works in which Keberle sought to provide a way for student and professional performers of varying levels the opportunity to meet in a masterclass setting and explore the still relatively uncharted world of extended techniques. (In his notes, the composer explains that, “like an iceberg, classical flute study contains many unexplored sonic possibilities that lie under the surface.”) This is a fascinating idea for an educational piece, but in the hands of a composer less artistically assured it could have easily come off as a pedantic catalog of performance techniques. Far from a technical exercise, Soundings II is a haunting composition that weaves all kinds of breath sounds, key clicks, and microtonal glissandi into a large music space that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Keberle’s Four To Go for Pierrot ensemble is cast in four miniature movements that bustle along with a sense of motion that is a refreshing contrast to the opening work’s unhurried wide spaces. Even working with movements of two or three minutes, Keberle seems to paint postcards that function as windows onto spaces more vast than can be contained within the boundaries of each miniature’s brief duration.

David Keberle is also a clarinetist specializing in new music, and he performs on two of the other chamber works featured here, including the 15-minute work for clarinet and piano titled Incroci (literally “crossover” or intersection, and the closest word approximating the term “crossover” in Italian). Keberle’s performance reveals his secure technique and imaginative sense of tone color—many of his microtonal fingerings alter the instrument’s tone even more than they alter pitch, and in Keberle’s musical universe it’s clear that pitch and tone color are interrelated at an almost organic level. One of Keberle’s great strengths as a composer is his understanding of how several seemingly disparate elements may be combined to create impressions of singular expressive power.

The disc concludes with settings of three Yeats poems performed ably by tenor Rob Frankenberry with Eric Moe on piano. It’s interesting to hear Keberle’s compositional muse channeled into a slightly more linear/narrative mold, and both composer and poet seem well-served by the encounter. A very active piano accompaniment provides most of the textural interest, with a surprisingly art song-like vocal part.

This disc represents my first encounter with David Keberle’s music and rarely have I been so taken by a composer’s use of time as aural and expressive space. Each of these works cultivates its own musical space: an atmosphere that belongs to that work alone.