GVSU’s “Return”, an Intoxicating Adventure in Sound


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                                                                        Innova 983

OK, I’ve listened to this lovely CD numerous times and greatly enjoyed it each time. So why has it languished as a draft and why have I failed to publish this?

Procrastination aside there are several things I can identify as things that make this reviewer pause. First (and perhaps least significant) is unfamiliarity. The disc features three composers completely unknown to me: Daniel Rhode, Adam Cuthbert, and Matt Finch all of whom are listed as doing the additional duty of acting as mixing engineers (they are all students of the ensemble director as well).

GVSU  hails from the state of Michigan and it’s new music ensemble (consisting of Hannah Donnelly on piccolo, flute, alto flute, bass flute; Ryan Schmidt, clarinet, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet; Darwin McMurray, soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones; Makenzie Mattes, percussion; Reese Rehkopf, piano; Jenna Michael, violin; Kirk McBrayer, cello; Niko Schroeder, sound engineer; and Bill Ryan, director and producer) is also new on this writer’s radar. Add the participation of the extraordinary violinist Todd Reynolds (on one track) and one’s attention is further piqued. Reynolds is an artist who chooses his repertoire and collaborations judiciously so his presence certainly functions as an endorsement.  But “unknown” is the heart of my interests both as listener and reviewer so that can’t be the reason though the lack of liner notes is a bugaboo (though hardly a fatal one).

On the positive side this is an Innova release and that fact alone lends credibility. Anything that Minnesota based label (the official label of the American Composers Forum) is worth your attention. Label director Philip Blackburn has a finely tuned radar which has led to many revelatory releases over the years.  Truly anything released on this label is worthy of your attention if you are a new music fan.

So we have hear a 15 track CD of 15 new works whose sounds seems to travel between ambient and postminimal. The pieces merge nicely with each other in a production which assures a fine listening experience. One can put this on either as background or for more intensive listening. It works either way. The playing is dedicated and insightful and the recording is top notch.

The pieces range in length from 1:32 to 7:32 and all seem to be just the right length communicating substance but never dallying too long. They’re bite sized, so to speak but they each have their charms as well as their complexities.  All are premiere recordings and all are commissioned by the ensemble.

Check it out. Click on the links provided in this review. And simply enjoy.

 

 

Philippe Manoury’s Book of Keyboards, Third Coast Percussion’s Masterful Rendition


3rdcoastbookofkey

Philippe Manoury (1952- ) is a French composer who worked at IRCAM and is professor emeritus at UCSD.  Knowing just these facts I must admit that I let this one languish a bit before giving it a good listen.  I was just not ready for some obtuse Boulez-oriented complexity.  But Manoury is nothing if not original and even if his music has complexities it does not fail to communicate very well to the listenter.  My apologies to Third Coast Percussion and the ever interesting New Focus recordings for the delay now that I’ve put my fears to rest and given the music a chance.

There are two works on this disc, Le livre des claviers, Six pieces for 6 percussionists (1987) and Métal for sixxens sextett (1995).  The first piece, which translates as, “Book of Keyboards” invites connotations of monolithic masterpieces such as Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, Boulez’ Livre pour Quatuor, or any of a number of pieces with such aspirations that have the word “book/livre” in the title. The second piece is strikingly similar in sound to the first and is a fitting companion on the recording.

Indeed the 6 movement Livres is a monumental work but its aspirations are to produce a lovely and complex set of pieces for percussion sextet.  Third Coast handles this work, as they do with all they approach, with thought and virtuosity.  This is not a grandiose attempt to create a landmark of western music but rather to add to the oeuvre.  The same can be said for the later work which follows it.

While Manoury has worked with electronics and computers, none of that is in evidence here.  This is purely acoustic, just six virtuoso percussionists and the music is well crafted and shows off the composer’s inventiveness as well as giving these fine young musicians something to show off their considerable skills.  It is absolute music (ie music for the sake of music) and if there are metaphorical aspects they are not immediately evident.

Doubtless there are complexities here, most of which lay beyond the ken of the average listener (your humble reviewer included) but the joys of the sounds and the lucidity of the writing make for an enjoyable experience.  It’s not the minimalism of Philip Glass, nor the complexities of Boulez, nor the dissonances of Xenakis.  This is intelligent, approachable chamber music that will speak to the listener who allows it to unfold.

The first piece has six movements which are named simply for the instruments called for in the score:

  1. 6 Thai Gongs and 2 Marimbas
  2. Marimba Duo
  3. Sixxen
  4. Vibraphone solo
  5. 6 Thai Gongs and 2 Marimbas
  6. Sixxen

As you can see, not all six percussionists are kept equally busy throughout.  Each movement seems to have its own character and probably a great deal of  complexity which will entertain and perhaps frustrate musicologists.  All in all a very entertaining work.

The second work coming in at just over 22 minutes is cast in a single movement and has a more pensive quality.  It does require attention and, like all good music, reveals more on repeated listens.

The recording is, as always with New Focus, lucid and complementary.  This recording also serves to demonstrate the incredible range of this rapidly rising star in the percussion players universe.

Be not afraid, this is great stuff.

Perpetulum, a Double Album from Third Coast Percussion is a Triumph


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Orange Mountain Music OMM 0132

Third Coast Percussion is one of Chicago’s finest musical exports along with groups like Eighth Blackbird and doubtless others with whom I have less familiarity.  Their deservedly Grammy winning album of music by Steve Reich was reviewed here.  All percussion ensembles are somewhat the rage these days judging by the amount of such albums that come my way.  Percussion instruments are common in eastern cultures but only really made its way into western ensembles in a big way in the last 100 years or so largely due to composers like John Cage and Lou Harrison studying music of other cultures and writing new music for both existing and newly invented percussion instruments.

Percussion is like the junk drawer of the orchestra in that any instrument which does not fit into the categories of strings, winds, or brass is handled by the percussionist.  The taxi horns in Gershwin’s American in Paris are a good example.  However what we have here is an ensemble entirely comprised of percussion instruments with some seriously virtuosic players here performing music written for them.

This two CD set from Orange Mountain Music contains five works by five composers.  The first CD is dedicated to the largest work on this release, “Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities” by ensemble member David Skidmore.  It is, at about 35 minutes, the longest piece in this collection and is virtually a symphony for percussion and electronics.  It is in seven movements, each with a cryptic title no doubt related to the musical content.  It is an engaging work of some complexity with fascinating writing for percussion instruments. Multiple close listens will reward you with details not immediately apparent and reveal some of the structure of this large work.

The second CD begins with a shorter work by ensemble member Peter Martin called “Bend”.  It has the characteristics of an orchestral work using largely pitched percussion.  It presents themes, develops them, and has a detectable harmonic structure.  It is a showpiece for the musicians but it does communicate with the listener.

Next up is Philip Glass in his first all percussion work, “Perpetulum” (2018) has four movements and clocks in at about 25 minutes.  This is music by a seasoned composer, not the experimental music of his earlier years (which hooked this listener) but rather a recognizable and comfortably familiar style with some really nice writing for percussion.  Glass has frequently used percussion of various sorts in his works but this is the first thing he has written entirely for percussion ensemble.  It is an audience pleaser and a challenge to the musicians.

This is followed by a work by another member of the group Robert Dillon.  “Ordering-Instincts” (2018) is cast in one movement it is a relatively brief (7min approx) piece which successfully challenges the players and entertains the audience.  It also seems to provide a nice segue to the final cut.

The disc concludes with a major percussion work by British minimalist Gavin Bryars.  “The Other Side of the River” (2018) is a commission by Third Coast Percussion and is a valuable addition to Bryars gentle, pensive oeuvre.  For this listener this piece is the highlight of this collection.  Bryars is at his best in his meditative mood.  Sinking of the Titanic and Farewell to Philosophy come to mind as similarly relaxing and thoughtful.  This is a big piece and well worth the journey of listening.

bryarsOM

Bryars at the Other Minds Festival in San Francisco, 2016 (Creative Commons license by Allan J. Cronin)

This CD set is a massive undertaking and a fine production illustrating the range of compositional interests of Third Coast Percussion as well as their own compositional chops.  It is also a great sounding recording.  Very well done.

 

 

Painting With Sound: J.L. Adams’ “Become Desert”


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Cantaloupe

This is the third work in a series which began with Become River (2010).  It remains to be seen if this series will be capped as a trilogy or will go on to further installments but, for this reviewer the very name of John Luther Adams (1953- ) has a strong positive bias.  I have been a fan since I first heard Songbirdsongs (1974-80) in its original Opus One release.  Though I have not followed all of his most recent work I was again drawn in in a big way with his Pulitzer Prize winning Become Ocean (2013).

J.L. Adams is generally speaking a post minimalist composer to the extent that such categories matter.  He is without a doubt the highest profile composer at the moment to focus so much on the natural world and his web site linked above is a fine guide to his recordings and listings of works yet to get such documentation.

Become Desert (2018) is a truly welcome installment in this prolific composer’s oeuvre.  It is a one track CD but one would be at a loss to make any divisions by dividing this recording in tracks.  The work is a coherent whole much in the spirit of his previous work but distinct in its sound world as are all of his pieces (at least that this reviewer has heard).  It is a slowly unfolding work with a large orchestra and chorus used judiciously and softly.  The Seattle Symphony and Chorus under Ludovic Morlot (who also premiered Become Ocean) are at the height of their interpretive powers and the recording is first rate.

The release also contains a DVD featuring some of Adams’ stunning photography along with the music is a nice feature but the music also works well all by itself.  Reviewing this CD will doubtless find me “preaching to the choir” to the established fans of the composer but it will likely help him find and even wider audience.  Much has already been written about this disc so let me just say it is beautiful and, hearing it in your favorite relaxed setting without distraction, is a calming and spiritual experience.

ADDENDUM: I usually publish the text of my reviews on the Amazon website.  Given what I tend to review mine is usually the first and frequently the only review.  So be it.  Though not shocked I was a little surprised to find no reviews as of 6/21/2019 and the invitation link titled, “Be the first to review this item”.  I guess that chorus to whom I imagined I preached might not shop on Amazon.

Heavenly Violin and Piano Music by Giya Kancheli


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For this reviewer, my relationship with the music of Giya Kancheli (1935- ) began with the symphonies (I think there’s seven now) with the character of some outrageous dynamic contrasts such that they spawned warning levels on the package containing the CD.  It was only after that, when ECM began to release the “holy minimalist” type works, that I first heard those.

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Frederic Bednarz

 

Now comes Canadian violinist Frederic Bednarz  who, along with pianist Natsuki Hiratsuka and bandoneon player Jonathan Goldman have recorded some incredibly lovely chamber music which has not been previously released or widely distributed.  

 

Well its hard to say why these have not been widely heard because they are just beautiful.  These are miniatures, all clock in at less than 4 minutes but all have a certain charm that relies neither on the dynamic range or the “holy minimalist” meme.  These are simply delightful neo-romantic pieces that could not fail to charm a recital audience.

Bednarz clearly knows and loves these little gems.  His playing is both sincere and, I think, definitive.  In this album he shows this lesser known aspect of the composer’s work.  Certainly there have been releases of Kancheli’s chamber orchestra pieces and a string quartet but this is the first recording this reviewer has heard of the violin and piano (and bandoneon) music.

Doubtless there are musical and musicological aspects to this music which escape the average listener (this one included) so no attempt will be made here to analyze these works.  Bednarz provides concise but useful liner notes in the gatefold cover to the CD.

Once again our neighbors to the north have scaled the metaphorical art barrier between our adjacent countries to bring this delightful music to light.  It is a welcome addition to the Kancheli discography and a delight in your CD player.  Whether as calm background or for intense listening this disc is a gem.

N.B. As of this writing the physical disc does not appear to be available from Amazon but it is available through the usual streaming services.  If you can get the physical disc it is worth it for the notes though.

 

 

Bearthoven: Post Minimal, Post New York School


wollschlegeramdream

Cantaloupe CA 21145

So many associations here.  Jaime Boddorf‘s lovely photography complements the sparse evocations of the music but this writer immediately flashed on the old Pat Metheny album, “American Garage”.

methenygarage

 

This is most definitely not a Pat Metheny album but the somewhat spare sound world of Scott Wollschleger is reflected (metaphorically of course) in the cover photo and the others on the inside. In fact the resemblance stops with the visuals. And don’t jump to conclusions about the name, “Bearthoven”. It’s not Beethoven either.

bear2

 

So what is American Dream and who is “Bearthoven”?

 

 

 

Well, a look at their website suggests we have a classical ensemble spiritually patterned in a way like a prog rock design school dalliance.  Think Talking Heads. For the record, they are (left to right): Matt Evans , percussion; Karl Larson , piano; and Pat Swoboda , bass.  bear1

Well, no, don’t think about Talking Heads or Pat Metheny.  At least for a minute.  And here’s why.

wolls

 

This is Scott Wollschleger (1980- ), originally from Erie, Pennsylvania, now resides in New York.  The fact that he studied at the Manhattan School with Nils Vigeland suggests an educational provenance which can be traced most directly to Morton Feldman.  But this is not a case of derivation as much as it is of evolution and incorporation of styles inherited from his teachers and his experiences upon which he attempts to improve for better or worse.  Isn’t that the basic way an artist works?

Whether such musings hold any water will wait the test of time while we consider the actual music here.  This reviewer encountered this letter laden composer’s work here.  This previous album, Soft Aberration which was a wider ranging sort of snapshot of the composer’s work made a similar impression.  His use of fragments is seemingly idiosyncratic.  I can’t figure out exactly what he is doing but that is secondary to the fact that I like what he is doing. And a quick look at the track titles on American Garage and then reading Wollshleger’s commentary one sees some philosophical/metaphorical confluences.

His intriguing and evolving compositional style draws the listener in.  Like the Soft Aberration Album (in art design and musical content) this album relies heavily on metaphor.  So it is with the impressions penned by the musicians involved which are included in . And it is oh so consistent with the metaphorical tone of the photos as well.  There is something amazingly integrated here.

Going into details about these pieces is both outside my expertise and certainly above my pay grade but I can tell you these works touched me on an emotional level and, like the best in art, will continue to speak to those who want to hear.  This is highly evocative music which, if you listen patiently, will gently surprise you.

 

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


happinesshandbook

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.