Tag: new releases

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.

Sounds Heard: These Just Out

The Puppeteers: The Puppeteers

It’s a charming, slightly romantic notion that musical collaborators who began their friendship at a much-loved performance space would later unite to form a group after that venue has come and gone as a tribute of sorts, but that’s exactly what The Puppeteers have done. In memory of the Brooklyn club Puppet’s Jazz, which closed its doors in 2011, drummer Jamie Affoumado, pianist Arturo O’Farrill, bassist Alex Blake, and vibraphonist Bill Ware have all thrown their creative ideas into the same hat and recorded their self-titled first album. The release is also the premiere recording offered on their new label Puppet’s Records.
All of these musicians have individually made so much music with so many different and amazing groups that I’m not going to venture to list them (although in the “we are all connected” department, it is worth mentioning that Bill Ware was a 2003-4 Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute participant), but suffice it to say that the strength of this album lies in the fact that everyone has contributed their own tunes; there is no bandleader. Because the musicians have played together so much, the music is varied without seeming disjointed, and the balance between instruments—especially the agility with which the instruments move between background and foreground to allow for the featuring of solos and prominent lines—is so fluid that the listener barely notices such shifts of texture until they have already taken place. From O’Farrill’s blazingly fast piano lines and Ware’s similarly propulsive vibraphone playing to Blake’s quiet, tuneful scatting over bass improvisations and Affoumado’s exacting-yet-still-relaxed drumming, it’s easy to hear that the four are having a blast playing together, and it’s most definitely a fun and energizing listening experience.


Michael Gordon: Rushes
Hitting the streets just today is a commercial recording of Michael Gordon’s composition Rushes for seven bassoons. Named after the tall grass that is reminiscent of the materials from which bassoon reeds are manufactured, Rushes is a triathlon—the piece is written in three parts; two 20+ minute sections sandwiching a short seven-minute movement—of constant musical motion; wave upon wave of repeated tones constantly wash over one another in a multilayered tapestry of darkly beautiful harmonies. It is at first warm and then, over time, becomes somehow electronic-sounding, but without losing the sense that humans are behind the music. (And don’t forget to check out the score and assorted insights into the production of the work.) Like his previous composition in the same vein, Timber, this piece is intended to evoke an ecstatic, trancelike state, and also to “expand the boundaries of a single instrument’s repertoire into hitherto unknown (and at times, otherworldly) spaces.” Mission accomplished.

Order from Cantaloupe Records

Joseph Kubera: Book of Horizons
With more than thirty years’ worth of musical contributions to the American contemporary experimental music scene, pianist Joseph Kubera has pretty much played, well, nearly all of it. He is known for unrelenting precision, stamina, and patience—qualities all required to master some of the most challenging piano works of our age, such as those by Feldman, Ashley, and numerous pieces by John Cage, to name just a few. He also has wide-ranging tastes, which are demonstrated on his new album, Book of Horizons released by New World Records. Two of the works, “Blue” Gene Tyranny’s 1994 composition The Drifter and Michael Byron’s 2009 Book of Horizons, were written especially for Kubera, and he has grouped them with Julius Eastman’s Piano 2 and Stuart Saunders Smith’s Fences, In Thee Tragedies. The music spans the lush to the thorny, and the textures range from sparse to brick wall density; the recording below of the first movement of Michael Byron’s Book of Horizons conveys the sonic cognitive dissonance of unceasing tangled fingerings that nonetheless sound strangely effortless.


NewMusicBox Mix: 2013 Staff Picks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Luther Adams: Inuksuit (excerpt)

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

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

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

Sounds Heard: Computer-Assisted

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

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

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

Sounds Heard: Make It Big (Large Ensemble Edition)

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

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

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

Sounds Heard: Blowing In The Wind (Flute Edition)

Among the CDs that have landed on my desk in recent weeks are a few that showcase flute prominently. Here are three artists whose highly individual styles of integrating flute into their compositions perked up my ears.
Elizabeth Brown, Arcana
Performed by Elizabeth Brown
New World

Composer/flutist Elizabeth Brown is aptly described in the liner notes of her recent CD Mirage as a “gentle maverick.” Her work is experimental in nature, yet rather than whacking the listener over the head with that, the music has an understated and beautifully handmade feel that begs careful listening and exploration. Brown is a talented flutist as well as a shakuhachi and theremin player, and within the disc’s seven works she performs on those instruments in combination with ensembles that include string quartet, recorded sound, Harry Partch instruments, and Japanese traditional instrument orchestra. The track featured here, Arcana, for flute and recorded sound, is full of bending, melting sounds that suggest a dreamlike tale of intrigue.


Harris Eisenstadt, What Is A Straw Horse, Anyways?
Performed by Nicole Mitchell, flute; Sara Schoenbeck, bassoon; Mark Dresser, contrabass; Harris Eisenstadt, drums, compositions
Golden State
Order Directly

Harris Eisenstadt’s Golden State features the somewhat unusual instrumental combination of flute, bassoon, contrabass, and drums. I was immediately struck by the pointillistic style of drumming that opens a number of the tracks—as if Eisenstadt (who is performing on drums) is reveling in the individual sound world of each drum or cymbal—and by the pleasantly quirky, occasionally stuttering, restless nature of the woodwind writing, not to mention the casual sprinkling of extended techniques through the pieces. What Is A Straw Horse, Anyways? combines all of these elements into an engaging (and fun!) musical statement.


Matthew Joseph Payne, flight of the bleeper bird: obviously I was abducted by paper aliens
Performed by Meerenai Shim
The Art of Noise

As an unrepentant fan of most things “bloop-bleep”-oriented, I couldn’t resist Matthew Joseph Payne’s work flight of the bleeper bird for flute and Game Boy on flutist Meerenai Shim’s compilation album The Art of Noise. The second movement, entitled “obviously I’ve been abducted by paper aliens,” opens with a somewhat “typically contemporary music flute-y” melodic line, but is quickly enveloped by cascading waves of electronic tones, transforming into a gleefully bouncing, frenetic duet. Anyone needing a fix of well-honed music derived from electronic game sounds should have a listen.

And while you’re at it, give the whole CD a spin—the four other thoughtfully constructed and well-performed works on The Art of Noise, which also deliver doses of cello, piano, and percussion in addition to Shim’s flute, were composed by Daniel Felsenfeld, Janice Misurell-Mitchell, Jay C. Batzner, and David E. Farrell.

NewMusicBox Mix: The Jazz Edition

NewMusicBox Mix: The Jazz EditionThis edition of the NewMusicBox Mix is drawn from the many different sound worlds of jazz. Focusing primarily on recent releases (as current as today!) there are some familiar names, as well as a few you may not have heard from yet. Whether you are a serious jazz buff or a curious listener, you’re likely to find something to pique your interest among these tracks.
Each piece is streamed separately on this page, with information about the recordings and purchasing links to encourage further exploration and continued listening. These artists have very generously donated their tracks to this project, and we encourage you to support them by purchasing their albums and letting them know if you enjoy what you hear!—AG

Brooklyn Babylon cover
Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, The Neighborhood
Brooklyn Babylon
New Amsterdam

Capricorn Climber
Kris Davis, Pass The Magic Hat
Capricorn Climber
Clean Feed

Nourishments cover
Mark Dresser, Not Withstanding
Performed by the Mark Dresser Quintet
Clean Feed

The Kandinsky Effect, Johnny Utah

No Morphine No Lilies
Allison Miller, Waiting
Performed by Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom
No Morphine No Lilies

Rob Mosher, North By Northwest
Performed by Rob Mosher’s Polebridge

Sun Pictures
Linda Oh, Shutterspeed Dreams
Ben Wendel, saxophone; James Muller, guitar; Linda Oh, bass; Ted Poor, drums
Sun Pictures

Songs from The Ground
Mara Rosenbloom Quartet, Small Finds
Songs from the Ground
Fresh Sound

Inner Chapters
Jen Shyu, Elliptical / Wayward Son
Inner Chapters


Ten Freedom Summers
Wadada Leo Smith, Malik Al Shabazz and the People of the Shahada
Ten Freedom Summers

Craig Taborn Trio, Saints

Sounds Heard: Mohammed Fairouz—Sumeida’s Song

Sumeida’s Song was completed in 2008, when composer Mohammed Fairouz was only 22 years old. Taking inspiration from Tawfiq al-Hakim’s play Song of Death, the opera follows Alwan (Mischa Bouvier) as he returns from Cairo to his hometown in Upper Egypt. Rather than fulfilling an ancestral blood-feud, Alwan rejects violence but ends up paying a terrible price for his efforts to bring enlightenment to the village, in a plot that echoes another Middle Eastern Passion.

For a first opera, Fairouz’s work is a brilliant synthesis of Western opera and Arab musical traditions—specifically, the microtonal inflections typical of Arabic maqam which Fairouz allows to take hold in the second scene onward. Written for operatic voices and Western symphonic instruments, Fairouz’s command of traditional operatic craft would be astonishing for a composer twice his age—and at times, the work sounds almost Straussian in its textured web of motifs; imaginative and rigorous and expressive yet very far removed from any sound world that might be considered even vaguely Arabic.

One reason for this is doubtless because much of the development in Sumeida’s Song takes place within the characters’ minds, hence the intensely psychological, almost expressionist tone developed in the final arias. Another reason is that Fairouz often reserves his Arabic inflections for moments of urgency and crisis, giving his use of quarter tones a specific and musical significance. Those looking for a glib and obvious film-score, Arab-American fusion will be disappointed by this work, which casts Fairouz squarely as a serious composer of concert music in the Western tradition more than a crossover phenomenon.

Fairouz’s orchestration likewise stems from traditional 19th-century technique but is always peppered with arresting timbres and subtly shifting textures that support the drama in myriad creative ways. The first scene begins with Alwan’s mother and aunt anxiously awaiting his arrival by train, with the shrill and sudden screech of the train whistle expressing volumes. Fairouz understands that colorful sounds have an associative and expressive capacity, and his use of the orchestra—though largely traditional—reveals a composer intent on making every sound contribute to the overall psychological drama.

The opera’s libretto is perhaps not its strongest suit, largely expository and at times clunky and ill-suited to Fairouz’s vastly more natural vocal writing. And at times, I found myself wondering if the composer had shown too much concern for avoiding identifiable Arabic influence—sidestepping one kind of compositional danger only to embrace a musical blend in which classical tradition, performance technique, and orchestration threaten to smother the Arabic elements for a good amount of the score. Yet Sumeida’s Song comes off as a compelling musical drama nonetheless, a statement of tragedy and hope that speaks to a universal aspiration: that humans might one day turn away from a legacy of violence.

Several of Fairouz’s recent compositions have received a lot of attention in part because of their timeliness and thematic relation to recent uprisings in the Arab world, but this opera in particular addresses ideas and emotions that have relevance far beyond the events of the Arab Spring. Expertly recorded and mixed by Bridge Records, the disc features fine performances from all four singers as well as a taut and finely detailed account of the score by the Mimesis Ensemble under Scott Dunn. Bridge has released several new operas in recent years, including works by Tod Machover, Bill Bolcom, and John Musto, and Sumeida’s Song proves that Mohammed Fairouz is a composer whose sensitive musicianship and personal vision suggests that he is likely to claim a similar niche in the operatic world.

Breathing In


I vividly remember the first time I ever consciously understood how inspiration functioned for me. I had been studying for 6 straight days. My eyes suffered the tunnel vision of sleep-deprivation and my body was crushed under a ceaseless caffeine buzz. But what I remember so intensely about that night isn’t what I was studying or why I felt so depressed—I don’t even remember what year it was, just that it was winter in Ithaca and upon leaving the library at 2 AM, I faced a 25-minute walk home, which made me angry at the world. But something amazing happened as soon as my face hit the frigid air. It had been snowing during my whole study session and through my blurry eyes the entire quad was radiantly white and crystalline, with more snowflakes spiraling gracefully and silently to the ground. Upon seeing this scene, my body filled with this incredible euphoria that was so strong that at first wondered if someone had slipped something into my coffee. I ran through the snow finding symbolism and superstition in everything around me…that my footprints were the first to break up the smoothness of the snow, that someone lost a glove for me to find. But I couldn’t tell if I was inspired by the situation or the timing of it or the caffeine. In any case, this month I was simply fascinated by the diverse sources of inspiration that drove composers and musicians to commit so much work to 41 new recordings of American music.

Art Yields Art

Since most Americans are required at least to square dance for a few weeks in school, it is no wonder that many composers hold a special place in their heart for folk music and tales. After all, despite criticism from the rest of the world, Americans do have a folk history rich with music, dance, and tales. Oh My Little Darling, a collection of field recordings of Southern Appalachian folk music, gives a good overview of one facet of our earthy musical roots, while Leonardo Balada‘s pair of one-act operas based on an American cowboy song and Richard Winslow’s “Variations on a Tune by Stephen Foster” (arranged for guitar on David Leisner‘s new disc) show how these tunes continue to elicit new art. Meanwhile, Gloria Coates‘ eighth symphony for voices and orchestra draws texts from Seneca, Winnebago, and Plains Indian songs, making use of another musical tradition in America’s history. Funk trumpeter and composer Greg Adams is more up to date on today’s pop world, also an important aspect of American culture, incorporating influences from more commercial music into his smooth arrangements of standards and original songs.

Other composers and players move outside U.S. borders to find motivation, for example drummer Guillermo Nojechowicz brings rhythms from South American dances to the music of Latin jazz combo El Eco and composer/guitarist Gyan Riley‘s first solo recording is a meditation on the nylon-string guitar’s presence in all kinds of world musics. Plus, on a unique recording of John Cage‘s orchestral music, 108 (for large ensemble) is played simultaneously with One9, for solo sho, a Japanese harmonic instrument.

While it makes sense, that folk music would inform today’s music, we cannot forget the influence that other art forms, particularly literature and theater, have too. For example, Ernst Toch, after escaping Hitler’s Germany, came to the United States and wrote two orchestral works based on beloved children’s stories and Irving Fine was enlisted to write tunes for a 1942 stage version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Theatrical tuba player William Roper takes it one step farther on Roper’s Darn! Yarns and improvises his own stories! Singer Carolyn Heafner found eight American composers who had set 28 Emily Dickinson poems, composer Edward Thomas based his American folk opera on Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms, and the libretto for Sweethearts, with music by Victor Herbert, is a take on the old “princess-in-disguise” tale. Cellist Joan Jeanrenaud, who struck off on her own after 20 years with Kronos, has created multimedia work taking off on current trends in the art world. And finally, inspired by a different kind of cultural institution—Sesame StreetPaul Lansky‘s Alphabet Book includes music about numbers and letters and animations on an enhanced CD.

Church music can be fun!

Considering that many people came to America to escape religious persecution, a lot of music is still created in response to spiritual practices, and in the midst of the holiday season, Music for Christmas by Conrad Susa, is a shining example. Furthermore, the male vocal ensemble Chanticleer and the University of Miami Wind Ensemble both engage in diverse programs of all-American music that have a few threads of religious insight like William Billings’ David’s Lamentation or James Syler’s choral/winds work Blue which uses a variety of texts including some from the Bible.

The Nonfiction Variety

While myths, literature, and Biblical stories seem to be a universal
ly inspiring lot, many composers prefer to address history and politics through their music. Whether depicting the Jewish experience of the past century, such as in Michael Horvit‘s oratorio The Mystic Flame, or creating a theatrical portrait of the great Civil War and political journalist Ambrose Bierce, like Rodney Waschka II‘s Saint Ambrose, the composers attempt to recreate the emotions they felt when hearing these stories from the past. James Cohn, on the other hand, is more preoccupied with current events, writing works such as Homage, a tone poem dedicated to a sick Secretary of State John Foster Dulles during the Cold War.

Personalize It

Although James Cohn found current events of a grand scale inspiring, a lot of composers and musicians use their own personal experiences as fodder for their art. After the death of his son in the early ’60s, George Rochberg abandoned strict serialism for a freer form that allowed him to express his grief, which is apparent in dark works such as Black Sounds. Kathryn Mishell‘s Musical Voyages reflect inner voyages that she has taken as she experiences life and if part of your life experience includes “Cash, Ho’s, Rides, Kicks,” maybe you can identify with the eclectic men of The Hub, whose newest recording is titled Trucker.

Space Age

Like me, many people find inspiration simply by walking outside. The profound aura of John Luther Adams‘ music always owes a little bit to his arctic surroundings in Alaska while the chorus of frogs that accompany Phil James and his shakuhachi on First Places celebrates the natural sounds of Missouri. Rochester-based musician Tommy Gravino opens one song with an ode to Monroe Avenue in his hometown on his new album Party of One while the singers of the Spivey Children’s Choir pay homage to their Homeland of Georgia. Andrew Imbrie‘s experience as a visiting professor in Chicago formed the inspiration of his “Chicago Bells” while electronic composer Frank Felice basks in the ambient noise of bustling sidewalk scenes on his latest record. Conceptual composer Alvin Lucier trumps them all by designing music that is meant for a particular space and one can hear his early explorations on Vespers and Other Early Works.

The Instrument is the Thing

Often, when asked to write a work for a specific player, composers need no more of a muse than the instrument itself. Oboist Jonathan Blumenfeld explores works by two composers that focus mainly on the oboe’s timbre and personality and flutist Kathleen Chastain rounds up an all-star list of composers each with a unique perception of the flute’s potential. Farther afield, jazz organist Tony Monaco makes it clear that what drives him musically is his indestructible love for the instrument and its history.

All You Need Is Music

Of course, there remain the hardcore musicians who need nothing more than the ideas surrounding music to create more music. Through a second volume of David Diamond‘s string quartets one can see how the neoclassical structure influenced his ideas about music and the chamber music of Julian Wachner shows how he separates elements out in order to fit them back together again. Meanwhile, Larry Polansky‘s Four-voice canons (the name says it all) claim no other motivation than purity of construction, facilitated by Polansky’s expertise with computer programming. The formal electro-acoustic music of Barry Schrader makes use of unyielding repetition to bring out the more subtle timbral qualities of sound, while Orlando Jacinto Garcia‘s chamber music also highlights more subtle structural qualities of sound through delicate, tiny changes in texture. And finally, the driving force in the duets performed from saxophonist Anthony Braxton and brass player Taylor Ho Bynum is simply a transcendence of musical limitations, seeking liberty through exploration and innovation.

The word inspire comes from the Latin inspirare, which literally means to breathe in. It is no wonder then during that winter night in Ithaca, as soon as I took a breath of that cold, crisp air, I began to find beauty everywhere. Looking at the stories behind each of these recordings, it became clear to me that, in the most simple of circumstances, to breathe is to live and to live is to be inspired.

"Step, kick, kick, leap, kick, touch"


A composer friend of mine once joked that a lot more people would listen to his music if he threw in a drum track. This idea brought back painful memories of Hooked on Classics and that disco tune “A Fifth of Beethoven,” but I had to admit that he had a point. Americans have an obsession with beats—they want to tap their feet, bob their heads, and occasionally just boogie down when listening to music. This is nothing new. Music and dance have been inherently linked since the first Neanderthal man blew a tune on his four-note bone flute and his buddy moved about. Probably even earlier than that! There is a primal, human link between sound and movement. Nearly every culture (with the exception 16th-century Switzerland under John Calvin, the Massachussetts Bay Colony, and the town in Footloose—all of which prohibited dancing), has traditional music and traditional dance that co-exist. Therefore, it does not seem too implausible for a populace conditioned to link a steady beat with movement to crave this element in their music. This month, 8 of the 25 CDs that I received reminded me of this basic need to move when hearing music.

Swing music, gleaned from the African-American musical tradition that emphasized a strong rhythmic component and the rich song tradition of European-Americans, was a natural hit on the dance floor during that era. That’s why hearing the Susie Arioli Swing Band play classics like “Pennies From Heaven” and “Honeysuckle Rose” is a great first example of how music catalyzes motion. However, in today’s world, it isn’t the big bands, but the electronic sounds manipulated by a sound engineer that get young bodies moving. Two albums this month attempt to reconcile this rift between electronic sounds and acoustic instruments by combining the two into ambient grooves. “Strange Lives” by Metaphor combines the talents of 8 musicians who throw everything but the kitchen sink into their music—guitars, French horns, snake charmers, accordions, synthesizers, violins, and voices just to name a few. In that same vein, the New York-based trio Plexus prides itself on the fact that the normal rhythms and breakbeats that one hears in contemporary jungle and drum’n’bass are played live, with a real drummer (and some programming of course). The result is a fresh, emotive spin on what has become an otherwise watered-down and dull musical style.

Somewhere along the line, someone thought that this link between dance and music would make great entertainment and the worlds of formal dance, musical theater, and burlesque shows came into being. On the newest recording of the mind-blowing World Saxophone Quartet, the first piece was written by David Murray for the dance company Urban Bushwomen and is based on an excerpt from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Paul Chihara‘s ballet Shinju, which appears on a brand new recording of his music from New World Records, is based on the suicide plays of the famous Japanese dramatist Chikamatsu Monzaemon. Finally, the work of the Bard is set to music and dance in Galt MacDermot and John Guare‘s early-70s, psychedelic and sexually charged rendition of Two Gentlemen of Verona.

The last two recordings that sparked thoughts of dance are, granted, a little more far-fetched… The first is Rise of the Firebird, which of course reminded me of the great Stravinsky ballet. I was surprised however to find that it was, in fact, a collection of works for wind ensemble by 10 different composers. Thinking of wind music, I naturally thought about the American phenomenon of the marching band, which is a form of dance in itself. If you are a fan of marching band music, check out An American Salute, a collection of patriotic tunes including plenty of Sousa, the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” some Gould, Copland, and Ives, and much more.

Dance will always be a key component to how music develops in the United States and the world at large. The two art forms are kindred spirits that feed one another with their creativity and energy. So, this summer, keep your ears open and your feet moving and be sure to check out these recording along with the 17 others featured this month!

Other SoundTracks this month: