Alexina Louie’s “Take the Dog Sled”, A Musical Iditarod for Inuit Throat Singers and Ensemble


Centrediscs CDCCD 28320

Ah, those sneaky Canadians. This disc was surreptitiously slipped in with another mailing of a disc sent for review. The sender, aware of my interest and admiration for Canadian art music sent me this little gem of a recording. It is a fine example of cultural incorporation (as opposed to the pejorative, “cultural appropriation”). It is about the celebration of “first nations” people and their culture rather than the exploitation of it.

“Take the Dog Sled” (2008) by Alexina Louie is in eight movements that clock in at 21:48 total time making this a sort of CD single. And I’m happy to say that this is a happy little musical journey much in the spirit of Leopold Mozart’s “Musikalische Schlittenfahrt” or (“Musical Sleigh Ride” in English), an unusual piece of program music from 1755 (the year before the birth of his ultimately more famous son, Wolfgang). In fact these two works might make for an interesting program heard back to back.

Alexina Louie (1949- ) is a justly much lauded Canadian composer. Her prolific output includes orchestral, chamber, solo music, and film scores. She is a living artistic treasure and the recipient of Canada’s highest civilian honor when she was named an “Officer of the Order of Canada” in 2005. This is just one of many awards and she continues to produce exciting music in a variety of genres and has demonstrated facility with electronics as well as conventional acoustic instruments.

But first a word about “throat singers”. Many people familiar with this term have probably heard the singing of Tibetan Monks who produce multiple tones via their ability to emphasize one or more of the natural overtones of the fundamental note they are singing. (The process is beyond this writer’s understanding of vocal physiology and, if you haven’t heard it, you probably can’t imagine it.) But the point of this is that there are different varieties of “throat singers” and, while I can’t tell you the specifics of what makes them different, the listener should be aware that the singers heard here do not sound like Tibetan Monks or Tuvan Throat Singers or David Hykes and his Harmonic Choir. Rather you will hear the Inuit style of throat singing.

The throat singers are featured in movements 2, 3, 5, 7, and 8. Movements 1, 4, and 6 are given solely to the seven piece chamber orchestra, the amazing Espirit Orchestra. All are conducted by the the wonderful conductor, educator, and advocate of Canadian composers, (and spouse of the composer) Alex Pauk. The singers Evie Mark and Akinise Sivuarapik are both natives of northern Quebec (“Nunavik” in their native language) and life long throat singers and their collaboration with Louie is a delightful accomplishment.

This piece was written in response to a commission from the fine conductor Kent Nagano in conjunction with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (where he was principal conductor at the time) for a performance in three towns (Inukjuak, Kangiqsujuak, and Kuujjuuaq) in far northern Quebec (Nunavik). Ms. Louie worked with the throat singers, listening to their songs, talking with them and, ultimately, choosing the songs which would become a part of this piece.

Not surprisingly these performances were well received and listeners are in for a treat with this recording. It does honor to first nations folk artistry and effectively includes them in the definition of music as a whole, incorporating traditions and instruments in the traditional classical sphere while still doing honor to the traditions from which they sprung. The music is accessible but never trite and reflects what appears to have been a respectful collaboration. One hopes that this will not be their last collaboration. You may or may not want to take a ride on a dog sled but give a listen and find the delight from which it draws.

Catherine’s Oboe: Catherine Lee’s New Solo Album, “Remote Together”


Redshift Records

I make reference to “Gabriel’s Oboe” (from the Morricone score to The Mission) in a slightly ironic way to introduce an album in which the artist, Dr. Catherine Lee is on a Mission of a different sort from that of Gabriel in the film. Lee’s mission is the liberation and expansion of the role of her chosen instrument(s).

While many instruments fit comfortably into a solo role such as keyboard instruments, violins, and cellos this is not the case with the oboe and it’s double reed relatives the oboe d’amore and the english horn (Lee is a master of all of these). Indeed many instruments which have populated orchestras and chamber groups for ages have seldom if ever stood on their own. In a phenomenon which I term, “refugees from the orchestra” there have been many instances in which artists have taken their instruments out of the context of those ensembles and began to establish a performing tradition and commission a repertoire suitable for such a venture. In fact there are two west coast musicians who are renowned for their work in liberating their respective instruments from orchestras and into their own domains: Bertram Turetzky (professor emeritus at UC San Diego literally wrote the book on expanded techniques for double bass) and Stuart Dempster (trombonist extraordinaire who also “wrote the book” on the modern trombone). Dr. Lee is poised to make a similar mark on the musical world.

Lee’s previous album reviewed here, “Social Sounds” (2013) focused on music by Canadian composers. The present album (released May, 2021) parallels the tenor of these crazy pandemic times in both title and content. Recorded mostly in 2019 it arguably has some prescience the way good art tends to achieve. Here she includes composers whose milieu includes northern California and the Pacific Northwest in addition to Canada. The six compositions represented here touch on many mythological and actual beings from whom the artists derive their inspiration. Dr. Lee was apparently pleased with my review of her first solo disc graciously sent me a copy of this new effort.

Hurricane Ridge

Now for the last 18 months I have been on a travel contract living and working near Tacoma, Washington. My tenure in my “day job” has run pretty much concurrently with the rise of the pandemic and its attendant restrictions. As a result I had not explored this beautiful area of the world until recently. I decided to remedy this by taking a car trip to explore a bit of the Olympic Peninsula, the westernmost portion of the lower 48 states, and I took this CD along to provide a soundtrack for my trip. This journey of two days took me around and through parts of the Olympic National Park and through various tribal lands where native peoples have lived for thousands of years. Throughout the drive I let the disc play repeatedly and found it curiously satisfying as a soundtrack for the images I saw through my windshield (I did not bring music along on my hikes). Metaphorically Lee accompanied me on this journey.

Mount Olympus, WA

This disc also appears to derive inspiration from several musical mythologies and persons which are also associated with the regions which span from the San Francisco Bay Area north into the Oregon, Washington, and Canada. John Cage, Pauline Oliveros (Lee holds a certification in Oliveros’ “Deep Listening” techniques), Harry Partch, Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell, spectralists (Wyschnedgradsky, Haba, Radulescu, etc.), Morton Feldman, Raymond Murray Schaeffer, Henry Brant and professor Lee who shares one of her own compositions much as she did on the first disc. There are six tracks containing six compositions which, though of different character, share a connection via the historical and mythological dimensions that comprise their roots. This is more about drones than rhythmic complexity and about images more than linear narratives.

The recording begins with the only actual solo composition, Jordan Nobles‘ “Nocturne” (2013). This is in fact a realization of a composition for a “spatialized” chamber group in which the instruments play “self paced melodies”. This track is a somber Cagean etude realized from this material for solo oboe. Spatial dynamics are the realm of both Raymond Murray Schaeffer as well as Henry Brant.

The second track is by the only composer on this recording with whom I have some familiarity, Dana Reason, a pianist and sound artist with roots in (the now mythological) Mills College and who is also certified in Oliveros’ “Deep Listening”. It is Pauline Oliveros whose spirit presides in this work. Her “Chanson de Fleurs: Eleanor of Aquitaine” (2017) is a sort of sonic narrative for oboe and soundscape evoking the mythology of the medieval French Queen. This is music that skirts the boundaries between didacticism and program music. It evokes images of the archetype of the eternal feminine. It is a lush and evocative work that brought images to this listener’s mind.

Taylor Brook‘s “Alluvium” (2017) is for oboe d’amore, a slightly lower pitched version of the modern oboe which was popular in the baroque era. It includes an electronic accompaniment and plays on the tuning problems common to these woodwind instruments. The recorded tape is the foil against which the soloist plays and deals with the tuning issues which in turn results in spectral harmonies which are rich and beautiful.

Julian Snow‘s “Red Eyes, Green Lion’s Teeth, Golden Heads” (2017) is also for oboe d’amore and recorded sounds. Here is a piece which ostensibly evokes the sprites and devas of “the flies and dandelions” of the composer’s back yard. Snow seems to channel the world music explorations of Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison in spirit.

Matt Carlson‘s “Chiasmus” (2018) for English Horn and Synthesizer attempts to metaphorically use the literary device of Chiasmus (a type of repetition for emphasis like “all for one and one for all”). This piece is, at 14:20, the longest piece on the disc. It consists of several short movements utilizing a minimalist dearth of materials to create variation structures. It is virtually a concerto whose virtuosic demands are interpretive rather than technical. It is a highly engaging piece that gave this listener joy in both passive and active listening. He seems to channel musical deities like Morton Feldman and Alan Hovhaness, a lovely experience.

The final conjuring on this disc is by Catherine Lee who presents “Silkys” (2020) a meditation for oboe and environmental sounds, a collaboration with sound artist Juniana Lanning. This is a meditation on the life of the domestic silk moth, again a soundscape rather than a narrative. Dr. Lee’s fascination with the natural world is also reflected in the cover art which is the artist’s own photomicrograph of the exoskeleton of a bombyx mori.

This is a subtle but widely embracing collection of music seems to be a logical next installment in Professor Lee’s mission to lead her tribe of double reeds to a new vision appropriate to the new century. Brava! Long live Catherine’s Oboe.

Only the Lonely, Frank Horvat’s “Music for Self Isolation”


Centrediscs CMCCD 28521

I’ve only heard one other Frank Horvat recording, his String Quartet “For Those Who Died Trying“, and homage to slain social justice activists in Thailand. It is cast in some 35 short movements, each based on the name of one of those activists. Horvat’s work is frequently characterized by references to social justice issues.

The present disc contains 32 short pieces named for the musician (or, in a couple of cases, musicians) who play these instrumental soliloquies apparently in a cavernous concert hall, Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto. The little booklet included with this CD contains the texts for the 5 tracks which include singers. The booklet gives a brief description of the project but no further details regarding compositional processes, etc.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining (as I frequently do) about the lack of details in these liner notes. The music seems to speak for itself, a mix of melancholy and yearning but also with just a dash optimism. Doubtless there are stories behind the compositions and the performances but, listening to the music, this writer found it curiously comforting and even nostalgic.

The cover photo and the nature of the project put this writer in the mind of the Canadian film by Don McKellar, Last Night (1998), a beautiful film (and a personal favorite) about an impending apocalypse and how it affects the various characters. One scene is filmed in what appears to be the same hall in which this project was recorded. The film achieves similar emotional goals of expressing sadness, isolation, and just a little hope.

Dennis Patterson’s engineering captures the apparently deeply felt performances and creates an ambience that seems to enhance the composer’s intent. The photography by Melissa Calixte included in the booklet by graphic designer Lisa Horvat show the large lonely stage of said concert hall. One can imagine the loneliness of playing in such a large space in a context which usually includes an audience. Now, in these plague years, the audience is you, the listener. Just listen and let the music take you within yourself. You won’t be disappointed.

Azrieli Music Prizes Volume II: Jewish Music from Canada


newjewishII

Analekta AN 2 9862

So you read “New Jewish Music” and you think, well, Israel.  At least I did at first.  But the richness of the Canadian musical landscape embraces a wide range of excellent music both pop and classical and this disc (I haven’t heard volume I) serves to illustrate my point. These three works, two for instrumental soloist and orchestra and one for soprano and orchestra are indeed imbued with music that takes its inspiration from the folk traditions common to Jewry around the world.

The musical radar of Canadian producers is truly astounding.  One need only peruse the wonderfully organized Canadian Music Centre web site to get a flavor of which I speak.  You will find classical music by many composers, not just Canadians.  And the range of styles runs the gamut from the experimental (in traditions largely unheard in the United States) to more traditional sounding pieces all of which sound quite substantive to these ears.  Frank Horvat’s “For Those Who Died Trying” made my “best of 2019” list for example.

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So back to the disc at hand.  More about the amazing Azrieli Foundation and their various projects is worth your attention.  Their efforts are indeed wide ranging and include the arts most prominently along with their other humanistic endeavors.  The disc includes the 2018 prize winning works by Kelly-Marie Murphy and Avner Dorman along with an arrangement by François Vallieres of the late elder statesman of Canadian music, Srul Irving Glick (1934-2002).

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Photo from composer’s website

Murphy’s “En el Oscuro es Todo Uno” (2018) is for cello, harp and orchestra.  The soloists are the duo Couloir whose album was reviewed previously in these pages.  Its four movements comprise essentially a double concerto (has anyone else done a double concerto for this combo?).  The varied moods in this tonal and melodic work draw the listener in and beg to be heard again.  The piece won the 2018 Azrieli Music Prize.  It is a major work by an established composer whose star continues to rise.

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Avner Dorman photo from the composer’s web site

The second work is Avner Dorman’s “Nigunim” (Violin Concerto No. 2) (2017) with the great Lara St. John on violin.  Winner of the 2018 Azrieli Prize for New Jewish Music, this concerto is a delight to the listener as well as a showcase for a talented soloist.  Imbued with references to Jewish folk music, this piece is a melodic delight.  Like the previous work, the listener will likely find themselves returning for another hearing.

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Srul Irving Glick photo from the composer’s web site.

The disc concludes with a lovely setting of some of the much beloved texts from the biblical Song of Songs titled, “Seven Tableaux from the Song of Songs” (1992).  It was originally scored for soprano and piano trio and arranged for this recording for soprano, piano, and string orchestra by François Vallieres.  Glick was known both for his concert and his liturgical works.  These texts have inspired countless composers and will doubtless inspire many more with the beauty of the words.  Soprano Sharon Azrieli is very much up to the task and delivers a heartfelt and lyrical performance.

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Photo of Boris Brott form the orchestra’s web site

Last but not least the Orchestre Classique de Montréal under the direction of (too little known conductor) Boris Brott deliver a sensitive and nuanced approach to these works.  All in all an extremely entertaining disc that will likely appeal to a wide audience regardless of religious or political affiliations.  This is just great music making.