Tim Brady: Music for Large Ensemble


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Starkland ST-230

Two years ago Starkland released Instruments of Happiness which was this writer’s introduction to this artist.  As a result I traversed the wall of artistic apartheid and ordered more of his work through the Canadian Music Centre.  This is an important and well organized site for anyone interested in Canadian classical artists.  (Hint: there are a lot of good composers up that way.)

Tim Brady (1956- ) is a Canadian composer and musician who is best known for his work with multiple guitar ensembles (from 4 to 200).  Of course knowledgeable listeners will logically place him in the category of “composers who write for lots of guitars” category.  Rhys Chatham and the late Glenn Branca come to mind as probably the best known in this genre.  What is important is that, in the same way that Branca sounds very different from Chatham, Brady has his own sound developed over years of playing and composing.  In addition to his compositions for guitar ensembles he writes for more traditional classical ensembles including chamber music, concerti and symphonies.

This latest release to storm the bastion of artistic apartheid known as the US/Canadian border is Brady’s second release on an American label and it appears to be a quantum leap.  Here we get to hear Brady’s chops in handling a large orchestra.  He can no longer fit only into the category of “composers who write for lots of guitars”.  The two works on this disc are Desír (2016-17), a concerto for electric guitar and orchestra and Songs About Symphony No. 7 (2016-17).  Both works were written for the Victoriaville Festival.  Both reflect his development as a composer.  And that is why you want this disc.

The concerto Desír is in a pretty standard three movement format.  This is not his first concerto for the instrument.  Perusing his substantial list of works one finds two other concerti for electric guitar and ensemble.  It is Brady’s principal instrument and one he clearly knows from it’s acoustic components to all its electric extensions.  What is a revelation for this listener is hearing how skilled Brady is at writing for traditional classical instruments as well.  At one time the electric guitar was pretty much anathema in the classical world but Brady and his ilk have pretty much made it into simply another addition to the orchestra by creating a large and fascinating repertoire.

Desír presents a challenge for both orchestra and soloist but manages to be both contemporary and eminently listenable.  Brady’s palette is basically tonal with nods to rock and minimalism as well as references to the larger classical world.  And it is the larger classical world with which Brady is concerned in the second work on the album, Songs About Symphony No. 7.  No, this is not about Brady’s 7th (it looks like he is on his 8th, going on 9th symphonies himself) this is about Dmitri Shostakovitch’s 7th and its first performance in Leningrad on August 9, 1942.  It was the Leningrad premiere and it took place in the midst of the actual siege of Leningrad.

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Poet Douglas Burnet Smith

The text is by one Douglas Burnet Smith (1949-), a Canadian poet.  His text reflects the thoughts and impressions of various people in reaction to the Leningrad premiere of this major work.  This work demonstrates Brady’s extreme facility for vocal writing.  A quick perusal of Brady’s works list confirms that he has produced operatic works before and his skill in this area is unquestionable.

This piece is essentially an orchestral song cycle and can be favorably compared to works such as Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony.  The major difference is that the text of this work is clearly anti-war.  The various characters describe the horrors of war from their various perspectives and what holds these commentaries together is that they all make reference to the performance which took place in the midst of the awful siege of Leningrad.  The “Bradyworks Large Ensemble is ably conducted by Cristian Gort.  This is complex music but he manages to make it all work as a listenable whole.

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Cristian Gort

Shostakovitch’s work, despite it’s lack of vocal settings, is clearly an anti-war piece and, like many of his works, is concerned with social justice and human rights.  Brady’s work uses that historical performance as a context to share the various characters’ impressions in a sort of kaleidoscopic fashion and his writing here is stunningly good (meaning both text and music).  The two soloists, soprano Sarah Albu and baritone Vincent Ranallo, are clearly up to the task from spoken word to full blown operatic power.  It is not clear if the arts can affect social justice but this is one damn good try.

Having listened to Instruments of Happiness and a few more of Brady’s Canadian CDs it is fascinating to hear his development as a composer.  It is not clear if he has reached his peak but he is certainly up there showing no signs of anything but the progress of a major artist.  Bravo, Mr. Brady!  Keep it coming.

A Major Peter Garland Work


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The Whole Earth Catalog turned 50 this year.  It was in the 1980 edition of this classic publication that this writer stumbled across and embraced a small article which listed, “A Basic 10 Records of American Composers”.  It was written by one Peter Garland and forever influenced most of my subsequent listening choices and purchases.  For the record they are:

The Complete Music of Carl Ruggles (recently released on CD Other Minds OM 1020-21-2)

Piano Music of Henry Cowell (Folkways FM 3349)

Ameriques, Arcana, Ionisation by Edgar Varese (Columbia M 34552)

Peaens, Stars, Granites: Music by Dane Rudhyar and Ruth Crawford Seeger (CRI  S 247)

Ives: Three Places in New England, Copland: Appalachian Spring (Sound 80 DLR 101)

Music of Silvestre Revueltas (RCA)

Conlon Nancarrow: Complete Studies for Player Piano (Other Minds CD 1012-1015-2)

Lou Harrison: Pacifika Rondo and other works (Desto DC 6478)

Harry Partch: Delusion of the Fury (Columbia M2 30576)

John Cage: Three Dances for Two Pianos, Steve Reich: Four Organs (Angel S 36059)

And I start here to illustrate the range of this still too little known composer, musicologist, writer, musician.  Peter Garland (1952- ) doesn’t even have a dedicated website as of this writing and this list helps to put him in a context.  But a quick look at Google, Wikipedia, and Baker’s Biographical Dictionary will confirm that Garland is indeed a prolific composer as well as an accomplished and dedicated musicologist. The list of albums reflect far ranging tastes and interests. That 1980 article serves to reflect how his scholarship reached effectively beyond academia and reached a much wider audience and the same wide embrace is slowly being realized about his musical output.

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Peter Garland

He studied at Cal Arts with James Tenney and Harold Budd.  He started Soundings Press after attending a workshop with Dick Higgins.  Soundings press published articles by Garland and other musicologists.  Garland has focused on Native American and Latin American indigenous musics and is regarded as an expert in these areas.  Hie own music employs a variety of styles including minimalism and some use of folk melodies but he doesn’t really sound like anyone else.

His compositions almost seem secondary to his academic pursuits and, despite tantalizing descriptions of Garland’s performances in places like EAR magazine his music was hard to come by for some time. There have been a few recordings and, for those who don’t know his work, here is a little discography:

  • 1982 Matachin Dances (EP, Cold Blue)
  • 1986 Peñasco Blanco (Cold Blue, reissued on Nana + Victorio, 1993)
  • 1992 Border Music (¿What Next?, reissued on OO Disc, 2002)
  • 1992 Walk in Beauty (New Albion)
  • 1993 Nana + Victorio (Avant)
  • 2000 The Days Run Away (Tzadik)
  • 2002 Another Sunrise (Mode)
  • 2005 Love Songs (Tzadik)
  • 2008 Three Strange Angels (Tzadik) reissue of Border Music expanded with live recordings
  • 2009 String Quartets (Cold Blue)
  • 2011 Waves Breaking on Rocks (New World)
  • 2015 After the Wars (Cold Blue) EP with Sarah Cahill
  • 2017 The Birthday Party (New World)

Fortunately there are a few record producers who have recognized Garland’s talents.  And it should come as no surprise that these producers are of the independent label variety.  Starkland Records is indeed one of those independents with a reliable nose/ear for good new music and have chosen to record a major opus, The Landscape Scrolls.

This choice embodies much of what is great about Peter Garland.  In this work we get exposed to his scholarship of the stories and symbols of the scrolls as well as some insight to his interest in experimental and unusual instruments.  This is in fact a percussion piece but not the percussion music of your mother’s generation.

Commissioned by and dedicated to percussionist John Lane, The Landscape Scrolls (2010-2011) depicts the 24-hour day cycle in five movements. Garland remarks the work was influenced by Indian ragas, Japanese haiku poetry, and, especially, the famous Landscape Scroll of the Four Seasons by Japan’s 15th century painter Sesshu.

Each of the five movements is a metaphorical monochromatic study, more about resonance and space than melody or harmony: mid-day (Chinese drums); afternoon (rice bowls); after dark (triangles); late (glockenspiel); early morning (tubular bells). Garland notes that, after the fact, he was likely influenced by his fascination with the single-tonal color paintings of Barnett Newman.

John Luther Adams, himself a composer of some significant percussion music lately, provides most of the lucid liner notes.  Clearly Garland is respected by his fellow artists.  This release provides a fine opportunity to get to know this American master through this major opus.  As usual the Starkland production is very well recorded and sounds great.  This one was really done right.

 

Ken Thomson’s Amazing “Sextet”


 

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Panoramic Recordings

First of all this packaging is about twice the size of a normal CD package.  It is lovingly designed by Jason Das and visually suggests a sort of nostalgia for innocence, for childhood perhaps.  The performers are all of that “New York Downtown”/modern music background and this is a set of rigorously trained musicians.    Put them together as a sextet and tap their virtuosity as well as their improvisational abilities and some clever programming and you get this album.

It is an unusual but ultimately very satisfying album.  It starts with (of all things) a transcription of music by the late Hungarian master Gyorgy Ligeti, his Pasacaglia Ungherese (1978) which is originally for harpsichord.   This is hardly a “jazz” piece and one wonders at the choice of this particular work to be the one to make that all important first impression.  The transcription (by Ken Thomson) is quite effective however and very entertaining.  I’m not sure why the it was chosen but it works well here.

This leaves us with the remaining six tracks (all composed by Ken Thomson) which are more clearly in the realm of “jazz” the way most listeners are accustomed to hearing it.  Drums keeping the beat, a recognizable bass line, and improvisational solos over the harmonic progression.  These virtuosos are given a challenge by said composer and the solos which populate these tracks are one of the best things about this release.  Clearly these musicians are comfortable with their virtuosity and they seem to understand jazz.  They got and held this listener’s attention most immediately.

The Ken Thomson Sextet consists of Ken Thomson, composer and alto saxophone; Anna Webber, tenor saxophone; Russ Johnson, trumpet; Alan Ferber, trombone; Adam Armstrong, bass; and Daniel Dor, drums.  Clearly all these folks have a thorough knowledge of jazz performance and can take their audience on a mighty exciting ride.  The solos will stick in your head long after the initial thrill of your first hearing and this is a nicely balanced group functioning almost as a single entity.  Very cool.

This is chamber jazz at its finest.

 

Celebrating a Great Chief Justice in Song


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Of all the publicity heaped on the Supreme Court of the United States recently this CD definitely stands out as the most unusual but also the most joyous.  Notorious RBG in Song is something of a first, a CD celebrating one of our living Supreme Court Justices.

Ginsburg’s son James is the founder of this wonderful Chicago based recording label and clearly shares in the admiration of this physically diminutive intellectual powerhouse of a justice.  The surprise for this writer is to hear the compositional skills of the wonderful soloist Patrice Michaels (also James Ginsburg’s wife) who has long been a welcome musical performer in Chicago.  She composed The Long View (2017) for this album and the liner notes list even more compositional accomplishments.  The remaining four songs are by Lori Laitman, Vivian Fung, Stacy Garrop, and Derrick Wang.  Wang, the only male composer in this group (a symbolically satisfying fact) also happens to be the composer of an opera “Scalia/Ginsburg” (2012-15) which actually premiered in Washington D. C.  The other man in this recording is the fine accompanist Kuang-Hao Huang.

We learn from the extensive liner notes that this CD is a labor of love involving many people from various orbits around this important American Justice.  The liner notes recount many admiring perspectives on this public figure who so improbably has risen to being a major cultural icon in part by her incisively written dissenting opinions.  She has touched many lives and has thus far lived an amazing life herself.

The lyrics which are tastefully produced in a separate booklet come from a variety of very personal sources all carefully recounted here.  And “personal” is exactly what this album is about.  This is not about politics, it’s about family.  There are quite a few lovely photographs included and the cover art by Tom Bachtell with graphic design by Studio Rubric bring this intimate tribute together most successfully.  This will be a collector’s item some day.

Ultimately this is a recital disc featuring one of the finest sopranos working today featuring her as a composer as well.  It is also an unusually beautiful tribute to a truly great American and, evidenced by the love and admiration here, to a truly beautiful circle of family and friends.  Listen to the music, read the words, and feel the love.  This is a classic.

 

 

 

J. P. Jofre Double Concerto


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This writer’s first encounter with a bandoneon was the electroacoustic “cybersonic bandoneon” of Gordon Mumma from about 1966.  In fact the instrument has its origins around the beginning of the 20th century.  It is a small accordion-like instrument which relies on the performer operating a bellows while pushing buttons on the instrument which force air past reeds which vibrate at their tuned pitch.  It is a folk instrument in Germany and Argentina where it became best known as the workhorse of the tango bands of the time where it continues to be popular.

It’s appearance in the avant garde with experimentalists such as Mumma did occur but the instrument became best known through the work of Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) who incorporated tango in much the way Aaron Copland incorporated American folk songs into his classical works.  Despite his popularization of the instrument it remains largely just one of the instruments in local tango bands and the classical world appears to have largely withdrawn its interest since Piazzolla’s passing.

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Juan Pablo Jofre (from his web site)

Well along comes native Argentinian Juan Pablo Jofre Romarion (1983- ) who appears to want to change that.  In addition to running his own tango band and promoting the music of his predecessor Piazzolla he now ventures into the classical realm with no less than a double concerto for bandoneon (of course) and violin.

Now this is not the avant garde stylings of the 1960s and 70s such as that typified by Gordon Mumma.  It is also not the sort of experimentation done by Piazzolla as he incorporated his native folk musics into the realm of the classical stage.  Instead we have a classically trained virtuoso bandoneon player forging his own style which is in fact quite listenable and seems to be treading a path of significance that may rival his teachers and mentors.  If you need a category for this disc try neo-romantic or just world music.

It is not difficult to imagine Jofre writing for the instrument of his own virtuosity but he also manages to write a substantial part for the other instrument in this double concerto, a violin.  He engages Belgian classical violinist Michael Guttman to share the stage in this large and substantial composition from 2016-17 and gives him a great deal to do.

Jofre has distinguished himself as one of the important interpreters of tango with his own band and, in particular, the works of Astor Piazzolla.  Now we get to hear the next phase of this emerging artist as he ventures into the world of the classical stage bringing his diminutive folk instrument to the fore.

In this tasty little recording we get to hear two highly skilled soloists and none other than the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra who do justice to Mr. Jofre’s first (and one hopes not the last) concerto for bandoneon and violin with chamber orchestra.  It is difficult to say if Jofre is going to be able to handle large musical forms (like symphonies, opera for example) but he is quite adept at writing for these three to five minute movements which constitute the concerto’s structure.

Jofre is at his best writing for the two solo instruments and some of it is ravishingly beautiful.  All of it is quite listenable and one must surmise that Jofre is a rising star with great talent and that he will continue to write music of this quality and passion.  It would be wonderful to hear more of the possibilities of combining the bandoneon with other classical instruments, maybe a concerto for accordion and bandoneon (of course the possibilities are boundless).  Clearly this is just the beginning for this emerging artist who seems poised to take on the mantle of Argentina’s other great tango composer, Astor Piazzolla both in his compositional and performance skills.

This substantial concerto (which chooses to split the outer movements into two parts) covers five of the six tracks on this disc.  The remaining three tracks are for bandoneon and violin.  These duos provide a glimpse of the powerful and intimate nature of Jofre’s compositional skills.  This is beautiful music and here’s hoping  that this disc will be the start of a mini renaissance of tango, Piazzola, etc.

It may be some time before the bandoneon is a common instrument in classical concert halls (or maybe it will never become common) but there is no doubt that Jofre’s instrument and his music deserve serious attention.  I would stay tuned if I were you.

Luke Cissell’s Thinking/Feeling,Gently Defying Genre


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Silver Squid Music

I believe the composer himself sent me this disc.  I was not familiar with this composer/musician prior to receiving this but, a quick search on Amazon revealed several albums by this artist.  Cissell‘s web page validates my initial impression of an artist who will not easily fit in a category.  That is to say that this music wears several hats.

There is nothing experimental or difficult about this CD nor is it exactly pop or easy listening.  It is a rather personal recording.  Indeed the composer plays most of the parts and the concept is entirely his own.  Not having heard Cissell’s other recordings it is difficult to say whether this most recent one is a continuation of a style or a departure.  What is clear is that this music is easy to listen to but difficult to market efficiently.

This entirely self composed and produced album consists of 13 tracks ranging from 2 to 5 minutes or so in length.  The instrumentation consists of mandolin, electric bass, strings, and electronics and all are performed by the composer.  He identifies the track, “Follies” as being most appropriate for classical radio and the track, “Serf Shop” for pop/alternative radio.  It is lovely material with some folk leanings as well as classical leanings.  Cissell has classical training and that comes across in his writing but suffice it to say that his influences are eclectic and wide ranging.  He clearly is well trained in his ability to write effectively for these instruments and hearing this work makes one wonder what his more classically oriented work sounds like.

If this disc has languished for longer than it should have in my “to be reviewed” queue then blame it in part on the reviewer’s organizational strategy but also on the difficulty pigeon holing such a release.  There is little doubt that most who hear this album will find it entertaining but it is not clear how easy it will be for fans to find such a release unless they are searching for this specific composer.

In reviewing “classical” recordings one can rely on the “sounds like” strategy to provide listeners with some idea of what to expect.  That does not seem to work here.  The music is very listenable but it is not strictly classical and not exactly pop so while it is a very good disc I’m not sure how easily it will find an appreciative audience.

This reviewer will pay attention to this composer and looks forward to hearing his more classically oriented work as well.  Kudos, Mr. Cissell.

Douglas Boyce New and Exciting Chamber Music


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The rather plain cover belies the contents of this album of exciting and powerful chamber music.  This is billed as a “sampler” album and it contains three works by Douglas Boyce (1970- ).  He is a founding member, curator, and composer-in-residence of counter)induction, a composer/performer collective active in the New York region.  He also has experience playing in various punk bands.

Boyce holds a B.A. in Physics and Music from Williams College, an M.M. from the University of Oregon and a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania (1999).  He has studied with George Crumb, James Primosch, Kathryn Alexander, Robert Kyr, Judith Weir, Ladislav Kubik and Robert Suderburg.  He currently serves as Associate Professor of Music at the George Washington University in Washington, DC.

All this gives only the faintest hint of what his music sounds like.  In the three works represented here the listener will notice some influence of Bartok and mid-century modernism.  The first work “102nd and Amsterdam” (2005)  reflects a composer well schooled in writing for string instruments.  This piece is a string trio played by members of the Aeolus Quartet (Rachel Shapiro, violin; Greg Luce, viola; Alan Richardson, cello) and they are given a great deal to do.  This is an energetic piece which engages the listener immediately and doesn’t really let go until the end some 14 plus minutes later.

The writing is virtuosic and the variety of techniques employed in his string writing are engaging and never seem gratuitous (i.e. extended techniques because I can).  Despite multiple glissandi and other string effects the work, like the others on the album, are basically using the tonal language common to most western music.  This is seriously engaging and masterfully developed music.  It hooked this listener immediately.

The second work is Piano Quartet No. 1 (2009).  This is an even more visceral work true to Bartokian esthetics.  In its relatively brief 8 plus minutes the listener is taken on a virtuosic journey by the musicians of counter)induction (Jessica Meyer, viola; Sumire Kudo, cello; Steve Beck, piano)  They are joined by the wonderful Miranda Cuckson who steps out of her soloist role and moves deftly into this chamber group as the finest musicians can do.  Boyce cites influences as diverse as Robert Fripp and King Crimson but the details of that are not necessarily clear to this writer nor is it necessary to the appreciation of the work.  It is a powerful and exciting piece of chamber music.  This work left this listener a bit tired by the end (it is quite a workout) but the same ability to sustain interest and attention which applied to the first work is also present here.

Finally the Trio Cavatina (Harumi Rhodes, violin; Priscilla Lee, cello; leva Jokubaviciute, piano) presents a reading of the four movement “Fortuitous Variations” (2014).  This most recent composition is the big work on this disc.  The underpinnings, if you will, involve philosophical ideas and are elaborated well by the composer on his web site but, like the influences of the previous work, the music stands very well on it’s own.

There are four movements which seem to correspond (at least roughly) to the sonata form commonly used in such works.  Each maintains it’s character as said variations are rolled out and, as in the previous works, sustains interest easily.  This is perhaps a more ponderous work which is less direct than the previous two pieces but this most recent composition no doubt reflects the composer’s development and time will tell what direction his work will take.  There is, however, a sense that the composer has developed a personal style and is cultivating it.  Give a listen.

Most will want to hear these works multiple times.  This reviewer managed to find three separate drives which allowed uninterrupted listening to the entire disc and I know those three won’t be the last.