Quick and dirty CD reviews: Dunne, Fox/Roche, Kurka

Timothy Dunne: Metaphrase

St Petersburg Chamber Philharmonic; Jeffery Meyer, cond.; Artur Zobnin, vn; Irina Vassileva, sop.; Alexandra Shatalova, eng. hn; James Giles, pf

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Works of intricate construction and sometimes surprising turns of direction by New York-born composer Timothy Dunne, a former student of Sergei Slonimsky at the State Conservatory of St Petersburg. The playing by the St Petersburg Chamber Philharmonic (to which Dunne has been an artistic advisor) is exquisite, capturing the particular hovering, shadowy qualities of Dunne’s music.

Christopher Fox: Headlong

Heather Roche

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I can’t pretend to be objective on this one since I count performer, composer and even producer (Aaron Holloway-Nahum) among my friends and colleagues. Nevertheless, a new Fox disc is always to be welcomed; especially one such as this, devoted to what the composer calls in his sleevenote, ‘the most consistent instrumental preoccupation of my compositional life’, the clarinet. The versatile Roche is an ideal choice to cover the great range represented here, across 35 years of compositional activity. Sometimes the challenge with Fox’s music appears to be how such different things could stem from a coherent musical viewpoint; its satisfaction often lies in discovering that (and how) they do.

chants

Irene Kurka

Wandelweiser EWR 1710

Wandelweiser discs come thick and fast these days, and I’m sure I’m not alone in sensing a diminishing return as the exceptional examples struggle to stand out from what is now a very crowded field. Soprano Irene Kurka was responsible for one of these exceptions a couple of years ago with her disc beten . prayer, which justly earned rave reviews. Yet now that every other Wandelweiser recording seems to explore slow, simple monody, that stark nakedness is starting to sound like a mannerism. The music on chants (by Antoine Beuger, Christopher Fox, Eva-Maria Houben and Thomas Stiegler) is, again, sung with extraordinary control and delicacy, and there’s no doubting its attractions. Kurka is certainly one of the more arresting proponents of this style, and her repertory choices more interesting than some others’, but as production of music like this becomes a matter of sheer volume (EWR recently marked its 100th release) I find myself wondering what it is all for.

 

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Some recent CDs

726708696122-front-coverSelf Portrait by Brooklyn composer and multimedia artist Grant Cutler (innova 961) is composed of artists improvising to recordings of themselves, the results heavy with loops, delays and textures. innova’s press release dresses this up as ‘an act of memoir, an active reimagining of the self’. I think that’s stretching a point: if that’s what these tracks are, they’re cosy, untroubled imaginings that rarely stray far from their original path. (Not what I see in my mirror, certainly.) Nevertheless, set that aside and Cutler and his musicians have made an attractive, not always predictable work of instrumental/electronic ambiance. Requires a sweet tooth, but I have one.

726708697327-front-coverIf you like this, you might also like Listening Beam Five by Crystal Mooncone (Stephen Rush, Chris Peck and Jon Moniaci; innova 973). More of a 60s, West Coast psychedelia vibe here, although washed out, exhausted, like the fade-outs to a Bitches Brew session at full scale. The instrumentarium includes Phase Maracas, Foil-o-tron, Distant Echo Flute, Float Tank Rhodes and Cistern Singing, so that should give some idea (or not).

ewr1601-03Manfred Werder’s 2003/1–3 arrive on a triple-disc set from Edition Wandelweiser Records (EWR 1601-03). 70 minutes per disc, two (performed) sounds per disc. (I emphasise performed: these seem to be studio recordings, so the huge silences in between aren’t completely silent; they’re live, not digital.) It’s a colossal, utopian extravagance, of the sort I’d rather started to miss from EWR. There is undoubtedly something ridiculous about firing up the CD player for more than hour of almost nothing (in three different versions, no less), but at the same time, there’s nothing else quite like doing so. Which is one underlying message of Werder’s work, at least: that experience trumps thought. I doubt I’ll be returning to these discs very often, but I’m absolutely certain that I will, so unique is that feeling – not something one can always say.

ewr1607-08Eva-Maria Houben’s livres d’heures, a two-disc set this time from EWR (1607/08), goes into the less abstract territory that I feel has characterised many Wandelweiser recordings of the last year or two. In particular, it foregrounds the Christian/spiritual dimension that appears to underlie the aesthetic of several Wandelweiser composers. A book of hours is an obvious choice for a style preoccupied with periodicity and the articulation of very large spans of time – see Werder, above. The difference in his case is that the periodicity is intuitive and unpredictable: thus it holds its time in a state of heightened tension; whereas Houben’s meticulously steady bell chimes and violin drones mark out a structured, and hence contemplative time. It reminds me of other large-scale religious settings, most notably Knaifel’s Agnus Dei, or even (although its language is much less bombastic) Radulescu’s Cinerum.

51zbr3xyy8l-_ss500Pick of the listening at the moment, though, is EXAUDI’s recording of Mala punica composed by their director James Weeks (Winter & Winter 910 239-2). I’ve said this a few times recently about other composers’ works, and I find myself saying it again, but this may be the best thing I’ve heard from Weeks so far. Making use of the little canonic and fan-like games that populate a lot of his music, Mala punica – interleaved on this recording with the three-part Walled Garden for instrumental ensemble – is a stunningly subtle, disarmingly simple achievement; a crystallisation of basic ideas down to the point that they transform into something else entirely. Combining the metaphor of the hortus conclusus with a setting of Song of Songs, Weeks’s piece models an exquisite tension between chaste procedure and order, and over-tumbling sensuality.

Further to these short pocket reviews, I’ve recently written a much longer consideration of Richard Barrett’s album Music for cello and electronics, with Arne Deforce and recorded for aeon. You can read that here at Music & Literature.

No Charles Villiers, please, we’re modernists: two Stanford CDs reviewed

541, volume 4

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Innova’s fourth annual survey of graduate composition at Stanford showcases music by Alexander Sigman, Sebastian Semper, Juan Cristóbal Cerrillo, Mauricio Rodríguez, Patricia Elizabeth Martínez and Kristian Ireland. Yes, these are essentially student pieces, and yes the recording quality isn’t absolutely professional standard – but these are some sharp compositional minds, and the performers include the legendary Ensemble SurPlus, so attention is demanded. The best pieces (and hence names to keep an eye on) are probably Sigman’s reflets/réflexions/implosions, a fragmentary, prickly stream of consciousness for alto sax, and Cerrillo’s siempre otra cosa (estación violenta), which has an unusually episodic/dramatic shape that is both surprising and rewarding. Ireland’s string quartet, clearing (I), is also pretty intense.

Mark Applebaum: The Metaphysics of Notation

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While we’re on the subject of Stanford, innova have also released a fantastic DVD documenting Mark Applebaum’s  monster graphic score/installation The Metaphysics of Notation.

Metaphysics comprises a hand-drawn graphic score, drawn across twelve 6-foot paper panels, and two hanging mobiles. It was displayed for a year at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford, and during that time received 45 performances from ensembles and individual musicians (including So Percussion, Graeme Jennings, Ken Ueno, Beta Collide and Applebaum’s Stanford colleague Brian Ferneyhough).

Sensibly, innova and Applebaum have opted not to preserve one or two complete performances on this disc, but have instead gone for the more creative solution of a ‘Metaphysics Mix’, comprised of 1-minute excerpts from each of the 45 performances, each of which is accompanied by appropriate photos. It’s not a complete performance of the score, but it is a pretty decent condensation of the year-long installation (which seems to me closer to the spirit of the thing than any one performance could be). In addition, the DVD includes two scrolling animations of the score (one slow, one fast). This is hypnotically beautiful and in these animations you really do sense the possibility of a visual music.

The whole, excellent package is rounded off with a 20-minute documentary on Applebaum and the piece that includes perceptive and provocative input from several prominent musicians and musicologists. A highly recommendable record of a major project in graphic notation.

CD review: 25 Years of New York New Music

Some time ago I said that one of the best things about the American Composers Forum record label innova was its function as a publicly available archive of weird and wonderful American composition, the sort of music that no commercial label would ever touch.

25 Years of New York New Music, a 5-disc, 61-track compilation of works composed by Fellows of the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) is a superb case in point. The goal, as stated in the liner notes by innova‘s Philip Blackburn and NYFA’s Cristian Amigo, is to ‘acknowledge the place of these composers in the larger narrative of American music history’, and in musical terms it seems to do this exceedingly well.

For an archival project like this, however, the quality of the documentation has to be of a high standard, and unfortunately this isn’t the case here. One thing niggles in particular: often little information is provided about the context for each piece (at minimum, its date of composition). This is essential if you want not simply to slap this stuff onto disc but to construct a coherent and structured collection of work with its own narrative shape, as Amigo and Blackburn claim to do. As soon as I heard Mary Jane Leach’s incantatory Night Blossoms, for example, I wanted to know where she sat historically in relation to the much better-known Meredith Monk. 25 years is a long time in new music, and it makes a difference whether something was composed in 1983 or 2008, unless you’re assuming a de facto, homogenous classicism (which this is anything but).

I’m not, therefore, going to try reconstruct the history that is represented on this disc, or elucidate the story it’s trying to tell. There is some loose structure applied to the five discs, in that one is clearly more jazz/improv-based, one more orchestral-based, but the overlaps are too great to declare absolute distinctions. There is a wide range of music, wide enough that it’s not possible to pin down many unifying elements. As far as they exist, they are negatives: this is (almost all) music that is anti-classical, that rejects – quite simply and usually with minimal fuss – the conventions of concert hall, standard genres, traditional ensembles. (I say almost all because in occasional cases, like Aaron Jay Kernis’s Ecstatic Meditation 4 or George Tsontakis’s Gymnopodies, the traditional tropes of classical music are still very much to the fore.) This isn’t a world of Fluxus-type agitations either: composership–or musicianship in the case of the pieces with improvisation–is highly valued, as is good taste.

Sometimes the taste is a little too good, as in the several examples of super-cute acoustic electronica. There are now albums and albums that follow this sort of decorative, sort-of-minimalist formula (some of them, indeed, may be found on innova). Alarm Will Sound’s Aphex Twin album is a high-water mark for this kind of thing (and an exception in being an album of covers not new pieces) but they are demon players drawing on outstanding source material. Very little matches up. Often it feels like a nascent genre that has substituted the courage to state something of its own for the cynicism of synthesis, crossing two trends – postminimalism and post-techno – which are themselves shadows not pillars. Cross a shadow with a shadow and you’re left with nothing.

Nevertheless, even works like David van Tieghem’s Waiting for the Gizmo No.1 or Bora Yoon’s G I F T, both of which could sit comfortably on the next Groove Armada compilation CD, have an innocence that puts all cynical thoughts to rest: innocence, in the best possible sense, is a rewarding common theme throughout all five discs. (I was going to say propose Judith Sainte Croix’s Los Pajaros Blancos de la Noche Profunda as another example, until I read in the notes that ‘Jungle imagery is used to convey quantum physics ideas … The piano gestures represent non-physical energy waves that …’ Yawn. The worst kind of verbiage, needlessly weighing down music that is deliciously feather-light on listening.)

New music fans will probably head first for the rare cuts by better-known names in this collection: interestingly, most of these (Pauline Oliveros, Annea Lockwood, Meredith Monk, Eve Beglarian, Joan Tower, Augusta Read Thomas) are women – indeed women composers are very well-represented. But don’t neglect the lesser lights – as well as those already mentioned, pieces by Iconoclast, Bruce Gremo and many others are not to be overlooked. Despite its frustrations, this is an endlessly fascinating collection that I’ll be dipping into for months to come. Someone else can do the musicology that makes sense of it all.

CD Review: Various artists: The Art of the Virtual Rhythmicon (Innova)

The Art of the Virtual RythmiconBack in 1931, Henry Cowell asked Lev Termen [aka Leon Theremin] to build him a musical instrument capable of playing the sorts of complex overtones and rhythms that Cowell was working with at the time. The two of them came up with the Rhythmicon, a keyboard instrument a bit like an electric organ with a catch. Using sets of rotating optical discs inside the instrument all the keys were set up to play repeated tones, which were related in pitch and rhythm to one another according to the proportions of the overtone series. Very much a Cowell sort of idea it proved too unreliable to really take off as a concert instrument, but in 2003 American Public Media commissioned an online version for its American Mavericks website and radio show. The Virtual Rhythmicon – a greatly enhanced extrapolation of the original concept – has been online since then, and anyone can play around and submit the results to the American Mavericks archive. Mind you, I’ve had a good muck around on it and I’ve not produced anything that comes close to what’s on this album, so it’s not to be underestimated.

By the nature of the instrument, the nine tracks on The Art of the Virtual Rhythmicon are all built around sustained synth tones, wave forms, pulse patterns and the like, but with a notable emotional range. Schaefer’s work is a lush meditation paradoxically titled ‘All Bombing is Terrorism’, Gosfield deftly blends buzzing sawtooth waves with sweeping cello harmonics. Philip Blackburn samples a quarter-tone piano duet by Mildred Couper to evoke the concert where both her compositions and the rhythmicon were heard for the first time, while Jeff Feddersen samples Cowell’s voice over music designed to push the limits of the virtual rhythmicon to sonic breaking point. Burtner’s two contributions are dedications to his new-born son and his parents’ 60th birthday, producing rich sound worlds that belie their origins in simple algorithms, and Viv Corringham mixes her own voice, using everyday objects as resonators, over jangly, brassy blasts from the rhythmicon.

The two final tracks step furthest from the pure overtone beats of the rhythmicon medium. Mark Eden’s ‘Cremation Science’ is a Warhol-inspired pop collage, but the real gem of the whole disc is the final track, Robert Normandeau’s awesome ‘Chorus’, dedicated to the victims of 9/11. Using sound materials intended to represent Judaism (shofar), Christianity (bells) and Islam (muezzin), it’s a brooding concrete slab of a work in which menace, frustration, scratchy anxiety and spiritual profundity are all held in balance for a draining 15 minutes. No one would blame you for buying the CD for this piece alone – and you’d be in luck because the rest of the disc isn’t far behind in interest.

Download “Spectral for 0” (mp3)
from “The Art of the Virtual Rythmicon”
by Matthew Burtner
Innova Recordings

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CD Review: TJ Norris, various artists: triMix (Innova)

TrimixPart remix series, part gallery installation, part soundtrack, part DVD, this is kind of a tricky release to trace a path through, but here’s how the story goes: Portland-based artist TJ Norris puts together a 3-part series of installation under the umbrella name Tribryd, featuring photographs of derelict, abandoned and uninhabited spaces around the city (see some here). One theme of the Tribryd installations is the ever-shifting archaeology of the urban landscape. As part of his strategy for taking the pictures, Norris asks a number of musicians to write soundtracks for him to listen to whilst photographing. The pictures are taken and the installations put together, featuring as a key component new remixes of the original soundtracks. On top of this, the exhibitions also feature new video works by artists such as Sue Costabile and Ryan Jeffery using, if you still follow, several of the originally-commissioned soundtracks.

What you get on this two-disc release is a CD of the remixed tracks that were used in the installations and a DVD with four video works using the original soundtrack material. Norris’s own work appears at the end of the DVD as a swift slideshow survey of one of the Tribryd exhibitions. Although this recording is Norris’s project, he is foregrounding the efforts of his collaborators as something independent from the artworks with which they were so closely entwined. As you unpeel the layers of collaboration you hear echoes of Norris’s visual record of urban change. Many of his photos are of graffiti tags, stencils or posted bills, images that have authors themselves, and are often piled on top of one another, or juxtaposed by Norris in diptychs. It becomes impossible to say who did what, or what that ‘what’ is any more. Authorship and material detach and float freely, leaving you instead with the trace of steps taken through a series of artistic psyches.

The result might have been a plateau of dull compromise, but triMix really works as something in itself because of the variety of musical responses it has compiled, from post-melancholy guitar to minimalist noise washes. Although several tracks are strikingly beautiful it’s not an album to leave on while you do the washing up; but a closely attended journey through its many facets shows this to be a very successful sonic artwork in its own right.

Download “Continuum” (mp3)
from “Trimix”
by Nobukazu Takemura – after Scanner
Innova Recordings

More On This Album

More Innova releases reviewed

Yoav Gal and Yael Kanarek: Bit by bit, cell by cell [info]

Bit By Bit, Cell By Cell: music for soprano & Atari 800XLTaking his cue from the hyperlinked, hyperreal digital landscapes of Yael Kanarek’s WorldofAwe, Yoav Gal constructs 11 sonic typographies from an old Atari 800XL, the voice of soprano Sarah Rivkins, and some alert sounds borrowed from Apple. Repeating layers of samples are deposited on top of one another until out of the cumulative weight are forced verdant valleys and hard mountain ranges. The texture is at once enveloping water and resistant granite. Intended originally for choreography – a sample video is included on this enhanced CD – it is effective, music of physical effect demanding a physical response.

Gal’s compositional technique borrows much from medieval polyphony: vocal samples stretched inside the Atari across an inhuman tessitura create possibilities for refined mensural canons, as well as a curious human-nonhuman chorus effect that can be melody, accompaniment and sonic environment all at once.

It is in this world that the Traveller of WoA finds herself in pursuit of an elusive treasure. Her journal narrates her experiences in this mysterious world; she also uses it to set down letters to an anonymous and absent lover. WoA is set in a hinterland that is both sunset and sunrise; and this is also how she comes to sign the letters. It soon becomes apparent that dusk/dawn is not the only duality that has been obliterated, as voice becomes sound, organic becomes digital, Traveller becomes landscape. It is no longer clear in this hexadecimal hallucination who these letters are from, or who they are to. In the end, as the Traveller gives herself up, bit by bit, cell by cell, to the rapture of digital oblivion, she perhaps discovers that after all, she is also the treasure she has been searching for.

It’s fairly high-concept stuff – and you can include the low-tech approach in that equation – but perfectly accessible and often quite beautiful for it.

Download “Grid” (mp3)
from “Bit By Bit, Cell By Cell: music for soprano & Atari 800XL”
by Yoav Gal & Yael Kanarek
Innova Recordings

More On This Album


Harry Partch: Enclosure 7 [info]

This DVD, the culminating part of Philip Blackburn’s series of Partch releases for Innova, is something special. It features Stephen Pouliot’s classic 1972 documentary on Partch, The Dreamer that Remains, a remastered 1971 film of Partch’s magnum opus Delusion of the Fury (with excellent sound), a 40-minute slideshow accompanying the ‘bonus album’ of Partch describing his instruments (a recording that accompanied some of the original boxsets of Delusion of the Fury), extracts from a 1960 performance of Revelation in the Courthouse Park, and a Dreamer outtake in which Partch rants against insensitive reviewers, makes some rose petal jam, and does a strange little dance. If you have any real interest in American music, unusual music, instrument manufacture, music theatre, the hobo lifstyle or jam recipes there is no good reason why you shouldn’t buy this DVD.