Quantum Koh: Jennifer Koh’s “Limitless”


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Cedille 9000 191

Watching the flowering career of this wonderful violinist has been both a joy and a labor.  First, the labor: she is so consumed with projects that it is difficult to keep up sometimes.  Second, the joy:  All her projects and recordings are fascinating in concept and satisfying to the attuned listener’s ear and to her collaborators.

So it is with this marvelous 2 disc set from Cedille Records (now celebrating its 30th anniversary as one of the finest independent classical labels) which consists of duos with composers.  She partners with a variety of up and coming composers in this varied but always interesting collection. These sincere and intimate collaborations exude quantum sparks of creative genius.

Eight composers and nine compositions span two discs demonstrating the Chicago native’s eclectic interests and marvelously collaborative nature. These compositions represent some of the cutting edge nature of her repertory choices as well as the respect earned from these composers.

It begins with The Banquet by Qasim Naqvi who is perhaps best known for his post minimalist acoustic group, Dawn of Midi. Here Naqvi works with a modular synthesizer utilizing that instrument’s quirks to create a sort of drone with minimalistic effects created by his exploitation of those quirks (this could even be classified as a species of glitch). Koh’s part interacts in ways that seem quasi improvisational, doubtless the product of close collaborative efforts.

Next are the lovely Sanctuary Songs by Lisa Bielawa, a fine singer whose solfege singing was for years part of the defining sound of the Philip Glass Ensemble. (Koh masterfully played the solo violin dressed in costume in the title role in the recent revival of Einstein on the Beach.)  She comes to us on this disc as a both composer and singer in this lovely cycle.

Bielawa has developed her own compositional voice and this little song cycle is a fine example. Both voice and violin are given challenging roles in exploring this unusual combination of musical timbres.  Bielawa compositional voice is entirely her own and her gift for it is evident in this and all that this writer has heard.  The work is in three short movements.

Du Yun, whose astounding work was recently reviewed here is represented by her voice and violin duo, Give me back my fingerprints.  The link on her name will take the curious listener through this composer’s amazing accomplishments but nothing can prepare the listener for the raw energy that characterizes her work.

Rapidly rising star Tyshawn Sorey uses his amazing ear to create this memoriam for one of his mentors, Muhal Richard Abrams. Sorey uses a glockenspiel as a counterpoint to Koh’s violin in this all too brief memorial piece written on the passing of AACM (a gaggle of brilliant musicians whose grouping reminds this writer of France’s “Le Six”, the “Russian Five”, and the early twentieth century “American Five”) founding member, a truly great composer, collaborator, and performer.  The AACM was founded in Chicago.

I had the pleasure of meeting the genial and quick minded Sorey at OM 17.  The link to my blog review is provided for the curious listener.  The concert took place in 2012.  Here is the shortcut to the Other Minds archival page.  Sorey provides no liner notes perhaps because he has succeeded in saying everything he wanted to say in the music (Koh seems quite appropriately tuned in here.

Nina Young‘s Sun Propeller involves the composer on electronics which interact to some degree with the solo acoustic instrument to extend the range of what the audience hears from the violin.  The title refers to the rays of sun one sees when the sun is behind a cloud and the sunbeams radiate out in glorious fashion.  This serves as a metaphor for the process involved in the composition.  But not to worry, the complexity does not hide the beauty of the music itself.

As if all the preceding weren’t enough there is a second disc continuing this collaboration.  First up is another name new to this writer, Wang Lu .  This Chinese American composer uses electronics alongside acoustic instruments in much of her work.  Her digital sampling reflects the eclectic nature of her world comprising everything from Korean pop to Chinese opera and a host of environmental sounds.  This piece also contains an opportunity for the composer to do some free improvisation as well as provide accompaniment to Koh’s violin part.  It is a dizzying and mind manifesting experience.

Next up is Vijay Iyer.  Iyer is perhaps best known as a jazz pianist and, as such, he is a fine example but his south Asian heritage doubtless has had an influence on him musically though that is but one aspect of his work. The American born Iyer, like many of his generation, mine their and our collective heritages as needed for inspiration. The present composition, “Diamond” also draws from his rich cultural background as it refers to the Buddhist Diamond Sutra and utilizes the structure of that religious parable to create the piece.  It is probably the most conventional sounding work here but that tells the listener little given the wide ranging eclecticism.  It is a piece which gives homage to jazz filtered through the experience and the person that is Vijay Iyer and, in this case, shared with the violinist.

The last composer is Missy Mazzoli, an established American composer.  She is represented by two works, “A Thousand Tongues” and (the now Grammy nominated) “Vespers”.  The composer provides accompaniment with piano and electronics.  The first piece has more the ambiance of a pop song though an avant garde one.  The last piece, the Vespers, feels deeper and more haunting.  Both provide more than adequate writing to keep soloist Koh both busy and happy.  

Indeed this album will keep the astute listener happy for its musical content, its progressive interest in new music, its wonderful soloist and beautiful sound.


 

Pauline Kim Harris’ Solo Debut: Heroine


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Sono Luminus DSL-92235

Pauline Kim Harris is a marvelously accomplished violinist.  Her resume includes her work as composer as well as performer.  At first glance this disc would seem to be an unusual choice for a solo debut but a quick look at her discography reveals that we have here a musician who has chosen experimental and potentially cutting edge music to define her work.  This album is a collaboration with another musician, Spencer Topel, who has chosen a similarly difficult and complex challenge to define his career.

I have chosen for the scope of this review to forego attempts at analyzing these nascent artists and their uniquely defined personas as musicians and have simply provided links to their respective websites.  What I feel obligated to do however is look at the nature of this genre of this music.  Is it ambient?  Is it drone? Is it transcription?  And who is the intended audience?  Musicians? Listeners sitting in a seat in a concert hall?  Background music a la Eno’s Music for Airports?  How will this disc be used?

One clue as to this music’s intended purpose is the recording label itself.  Sono Luminus, a new music label defined largely by a concern with producing the finest sound via digital signal processing.  This independent classical label has sent me several CDs which are reviewed (most favorably) elsewhere in these pages.  One of the things that is notable about this label is the intelligent choice of programming.  Rather than settle simply for quality sound alone they seem to focus their repertoirial radar on new and/or unusual music which is not being heard on other labels.  Their choices have been intelligent in the past.

OK, now to the disc.  There are but two pieces here.  One is a sort of deconstruction of the Chaconne from Bach’s solo violin partita (BWV 1004).  This much lauded masterpiece has received a great deal of attention and composers such as Feruccio Busoni have done transcriptions of the work.  Another recent recording (reviewed here) features a just intonation version of the work.  I’m not sure what Bach would have thought of either of these but the fact is that this is a work very much representative of western music in the high baroque era and one which endures in performances to this day.

The sound, of course, is wonderful.  The range and the clarity of the recording beg to be heard on the highest quality sound system the listener can commandeer.  It is beautiful. It is in a tonal idiom.  But what volume is needed?  Well that depends on your listening context.  For the purpose of this review I listened on my factory sound system in my 2015 Toyota RAV 4.  Not the highest end of audio reproduction but one which did allow me to perceive the quality of the recording.

So I listened at a volume which allowed the music to be heard above road and traffic noise.  I wondered if I would have appreciated this from an audience seat.  Hmm, not sure.  Then the more ambient notion suggested itself to me.  Maybe this could be music that is played in the foyer of a concert hall before the concert and during intermissions (regardless of the content of the actual concert to be heard).  Intriguing idea but I know of no one willing to consider this notion in any sizable venue.

I listened to the second track, a “reimagining” of Deo Gratias by renaissance composer Johannes Ockeghem.  Same thoughts…dedicated listener in a chair, music to modify a sonic space.  Both tracks are listed as “Composed by Pauline Kim Harris and Spencer Topel.”  So the artists think of these as their compositions.  Fine by me.  The long standing and ongoing tradition of working with older music and recasting it by changing its instrumentation, writing variations, changing its performance context, etc. is well known and has been put to good use in any number of subsequently respected musical compositions.

So in the end I remain undecided as to the intent (other than experimentalism) of these pieces and will leave my readers with the suggestion that they simply listen and utilize the music as it fits your own life.  It is certainly beautiful but it is not dramatic or assertive, rather it almost subsists inviting listeners to contemplate and choose to do more deeply or to simply allow the music to exist as a pleasing sound object (the listener indeed may be the “Heroine” of the title).  Either way this disc provides much more than what initially meets the ear.  And that would seem to be a significant artistic achievement.

Wolfgang von Schweinitz’s “Klang”, Gorgeous Postminimalism


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I must confess that Ireland is hardly near the top of my list for countries that are producing interesting contemporary music but this new release will soon have me checking out their Contemporary Music Center to see what else is happening.  Let me be clear, I’m not criticizing Ireland, just lamenting the fact that, like many countries, their contemporary classical music rarely gets to U.S. ears.

As if to magically remedy my wish for a more democratic distribution of said music producer Eamonn Quinn kindly sent me this single track CD containing a work influenced by (among others) the Godfather of minimalism, La Monte Young. He commented to me about the ultimate marketability of a one track CD but his instincts are well placed in this CD recorded February 2019, hot off the presses.   This is my first encounter with the composer, Wolfgang von Schweinitz (1953- ) whose name is now programmed into my surveillance engines as a voice to be followed.  Definitely want to hear more from him.  Born in Hamburg, he now teaches at Cal Arts.  A list of his works can be found here.  (While there you will want to avail yourself of the rest of this great site about just intonation composer at Plainsound)

While I share Mr. Quinn’s concern about the marketability of a single track CD (it is about 45 min), this is an ideal presentation for a work in just intonation by a string trio and the uninterrupted 45 minute interval is integral to the experience of the music.  This work is like the grandchild of La Monte Young’s String Trio (1958).  I am now having fantasies about curating a program of this work paired with its spiritual grandfather.  The single track, just intonation hits at my geeky minimalist heart and I know I’m not alone in that.

The brief but lucid and useful program notes are by the wonderful Paul Griffiths and the recording by Peter Furmanczyk captures the rich overtones well.  The Goeyvaerts String Trio has earned a place in my media alerts now as well.  They perform this work with insight and passion.

Now, past the name dropping and background stuff to the music itself.  If you know the long tones of La Monte Young’s String Trio, which is of similar length, you might hear it as a more melodic version of that.  That is not to say that this work is derivative, it is evolved its predecessor’s DNA, so to speak.  It is postminimalism (or file under “ambient” if you prefer) from that branch of the family tree.

The full title of KLANG” is given as ” PLAINSOUND STRING TRIO KLANG AUF SCHÖN BERG LA MONTE YOUNG…” Op. 39 (1999, rev 2013),  and while the musical references to Schoenberg and Berg are there, the experience is that of an almost romantic tableau of long tones and rich harmonics descended from the Urtext of minimalism that is La Monte Young. The spirit of Morton Feldman appears to reside here as well, maybe even a wisp of Brian Eno.  The kaleidoscopic effect of the just intonation with all the rich harmonic overtones evoke a great deal and probably will provoke different memories for different listeners. It is a maybe even a sort of Verklärte Nacht for the millennium though what is ultimately transformed is the listener themselves.  You can choose your own metaphor, but first you’ll be charmed by the music.

And dontcha have to love that cover graphic?

Tim Brady’s Happiness Handbook, massed guitars, massed invention


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Starkland ST-232

This is, by my count, the third Tim Brady CD released by Starkland.  The other two, Instruments of Happiness and Music for Large Ensemble, represent only a small portion of his output and I highly recommend exploring his other releases.  You can find a listing on his web page here.  Since being introduced to Brady’s work in the Instruments of Happiness album I have purchased and enjoyed several of his earlier CDs.  Initially one necessarily wants to lump Brady in with the massed guitar masters such as Glenn Branca, Jeffrey Lohn, and Rhys Chatham.  That’s a fine starting point but as one listens to Brady’s work it becomes clear that he has his own vision and that vision is shared with like minded artists.  Some of those like minded artists are on this fine CD.

In some ways this is a sequel or a volume two to the Instruments of Happiness CD of 2016.  Despite this being chamber music with only four musicians the nature of electric guitars is to make a bigger sound.  It is always interesting to see how different artists work with a given ensemble configuration and that is the real thrill here.  One track features Brady’s music and the other tracks feature Scott Godin, Jordan Nobles, Maxime McKinley, Gordon Fitzell , and Emily Hall.  All are individual creations commissioned for this quartet.  The liner notes are definitely useful but there is much to be gleaned from the ‘composers’ web sites as well, trust me.

The disc contains six works on 10 tracks and, like the earlier Instruments of Happiness release on Starkland, this is an interesting and revelatory sampling of the marvelous invention of these composers and the amazing range and utility of the electric guitar.  If anyone questions the place of electric guitars in classical music this is a fine example of some of the potential and a teaser for the future as well.  The vision is more like that of a string quartet (another ensemble that has managed to establish itself) seeking innovative composers for some portable music making.

Familiarity with the composers mentioned earlier (Branca, Lohn, Chatham) will provide the listener with a context but the work here is seemingly almost unrelated to their work excepting that they used electric guitars.  This is a new generation of composers to whom, electric guitars were a given, not a new invention and whose use, increasingly ubiquitous in classical music, is simply one of their compositional options.

And now the music.  The album opens with an homage to the late British composer Steve Martland (1959-2013) whose rhythmic, driving music resembles that of Michael Nyman but closer to a rock aesthetic.  Martlandia (2016) by Scott Godin engages the listener (and will likely send him/her in search of Steve Martland CDs) with its long tone meditative beginning that acts like a slow introduction to a symphony of the classical era and then moves into faster quasi-minimalist sections that remind this listener favorably of some of Steve Reich’s work.  This is practically a miniature symphony.  It is an engaging piece and a loving tribute to the late composer.

Equal and Opposite Reaction (2016) is Mr. Brady’s submission to the album.  It also opens with a slow section and then goes into the manic virtuosity that is typical of Brady’s work.  I’m not saying he can’t write a decent slow movement, he can and does, but much of his work moves rather quickly and with a variety of guitar techniques in his expanded palette of sounds.  Like all the works here the harmonic language is largely tonal and the development of thematic material owes much to classical compositional techniques though his rhythmic choices owe something to rock and jazz.

Jordan Nobles’ Deep Field (2016) is a tribute the the iconic Hubble Telescope.  (If you haven’t seen at least one photo from Hubble’s catalog then you may have been in suspended animation for the last 20 years.)  Suffice it to say that the Hubble’s images have inspired a great deal of artists and this is yet another example.  This is one of the more meditative pieces on the album at its opening but, like the other pieces there are several contiguous sections.

Reflets de Francesca Woodman (2017) by Maxime McKinley is another homage.  This time the subject is an American photographer Francesca Stern Woodman (1958-1981) who took her own life in 1981 and left a posthumous legacy.  Aptly this is one of the more somber and disturbing tracks on the album. I’m sorry to say I don’t know her work but this tribute certainly sparks interest.

Going with that melancholy theme is the next track, Gordon Fitzell’s Bomb Crater Garden (2016) is the most avant garde sounding track (as well as the longest at 11:16) and the most exquisitely disturbing in its post apocalyptic vision.  The piece has optional narration and video but the music gives the listener a pretty good idea of what those images and ideas are.  So much for happiness.

Finally we have The Happiness Handbook (2016) by Emily Hall.  Like Brady’s flexibly peopled ensemble of the same name the theme of happiness comes to the fore once again.  As explained in the liner notes the notion of guitars as instruments associated with happiness is the concern.  There are five movements varied in style that make this piece function like a little symphony.  It is a celebration of the plethora of techniques and compositional possibilities of this modern guitar ensemble and will leave the astute listener ultimately in a happy place.