Passing Frames, a new CD by Joel Helander, Happy, Gentle Experiments


Let me first acknowledge that I am running behind on my reviews but one of the reasons I have been slow about this one is that I have had great difficulty trying to characterize this music in a meaningful way for readers of this blog.  And by that I don’t mean to imply that this music makes for a difficult listening experience, it doesn’t.

Passing Frames (2014)

Passing Frames (2014)

Passing Frames is the second CD by composer/pianist Joel Helander whose previous release, Flood (2012) is a solo piano effort.  These two CDs published on Bandcamp earned Mr. Helander mention in Forbes magazine in an article about the self-marketing that is available to musicians who are trying to establish themselves in the music business.

Joel Helander

Joel Helander

Helander is a student in theory and composition at Clark University where this very project is featured on their website.  I conducted a sort of interview with Mr. Helander via e-mail exchanges and learned that he has been playing piano for about 10 years including classical training and a more recent interest in jazz performance. He said that this project began as a sort of follow-up or perhaps a natural progression to his previous release.  His earlier album has much in common with this one in terms of atmosphere. Passing Frames is a set of ensemble pieces with the assistance of friends and classmates all drawn from the Worcester area.

His brother Karl Helander, a singer and song writer in his own right, who studied studio drumming at the University of Miami plays drums and percussion.  String and wind players were enlisted from the Worcester Chamber Music Society, fellow Clark students and other friends. He cites Mike Tierney (guitar, engineer, co-producer) as being essential to the creation of the overall sound of the album as well as being an effective instrumentalist in selected tracks.  All in all it sounds like this was a very close creative collaboration which was rewarding for all involved.

When I first received the CD in the mail I was immediately struck by the lovely cover art and overall design which led me to comment to Mr. Helander of the nostalgia for the larger cover art one used to get with vinyl LPs.  He commented that he had looked into this possibility but found it economically prohibitive.  The photo and overall design was by the same artist, Paul Puiia, who had designed his previous release. There are 11 tracks on this CD all with poetic titles that tell you little about the music itself but no doubt have some meaning for the composer and perhaps his collaborators.  That is not intended as a criticism, rather it is a reflection of music that is less concerned with form than expression.  Not program music but little poetic statements.  And given that Mr. Helander aspires to writing film music this sort of focus seems quite appropriate.

On my first few listens to this disc I was reminded in ways of Ludovico Einaudi, The Penguin Cafe Orchestra and perhaps some of the chamber music of Peter Schickele.  Mr. Helander said he was comfortable with those comparisons.  I did ask him to list some of the music he listens to and he provided me with a pretty eclectic list including:

-Debussy’s String Quartet
-Chopin’s Nocturnes
-Beethoven’s “Archduke”
-Satie’s “Gymnopedies”
-Bill Evans’ “Portrait in Jazz”
Randy Newman‘s “Sail Away”
-Rufus Wainwright’s “Want”
-Nina Simone’s “Little Girl Blue”
-Jon Brion’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Soundtrack”
Van Dyke Parks‘ “Song Cycle”
-John Coltrane’s “Blue Train”
-The Bad Plus’ “Never Stop”
-Fleet Foxes’ “Helplessness Blues”
-Tom Waits’ “Orphans: Bawlers”
-Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush”
Belle and Sebastien‘s “The Life Pursuit,”
-Chet Baker’s “Chet Baker Sings,”
Chilly Gonzales “Solo Piano I and II”
Brad Mehldau‘s “Highway Rider”
-Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bookends.”
This is an interesting and varied list.  I didn’t include this list to give prospective listeners and idea of what the music sounds like but I think it does reveal something about the aspirations and inspirations of the composer’s intent.
I had given some thought to trying to describe each of the tracks on the disc and give my analysis and impressions but finally decided to leave my readers with more general impressions.  Each of the tracks is a self-contained musical statement though three of the tracks are identified as being parts of a suite.  As I said, the poetic titles may have meaning for the composer and may invoke ideas in the listener as well but in the end I perceived the entire disc as a sort of unified whole in that the disc appears to be a musical statement which stands as a reflection of the composer’s ideas at the time of this release much as his first disc does.
Further listenings suggested a sort of sophisticated melancholy lounge music born both of the composer’s aesthetic and those of his collaborators (the production and recording certainly add to this effect).  There appears to be more of a classical influence with a jazz ambiance added.  This is an interesting disc which manages to be both gently experimental as well as eminently listenable.  It is a snapshot of this young man’s best efforts at composition and each can be listened to as a potential sound track to a yet to be made film sequence or simply as a pleasant musical statement on it’s own.
With the perspective of the first disc in mind one can see a progression and integration of nascent ideas evolving as the composer works to develop a more integrated and clear statement of his ideas.  He achieves exactly what he intended I think.  That being said I will be interested to see what he does next as I enjoy the work he has done so far.  If you are interested in new music this disc is worth a listen.  If you are just looking for something different to add to your listening selections you would not be disappointed either.

Tom Johnson and Samuel Vriezen, Great New Recording


A few of months ago received my copy of the newly minted CD by pianist/composer Samuel Vriezen.  This is one of those crowd-sourced projects on Indiegogo .  The disc consists of a new recording of a sort of minimalist classic and a new works by the pianist, Within Fourths/Within Fifths (2006) which is, essentially his artistic response to this piece.  The piece is dedicated to Johnson.

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This is only the second recording of the Tom Johnson work committed to disc. That by itself is an achievement. The first was recorded by the composer and released on XI records in 1999.  That recording clocks in at about one hour.  By contrast Mr. Vriezen’s recording takes only about 30 minutes to play the piece.  Johnson, who is also known as the former music critic for the Village Voice is one of the few composers who actually embraces the term “minimalist”, in fact he was there witnessing the very birth of that style during his tenure at the Village Voice (1972-1982).

The Chord Catalog (1985) consists of, in order, all the possible chords in a single octave that are possible with two notes, three notes, four notes, etc. up to 13 notes with the doubling of the octave.  That’s a total of 8178 chords. This sounds like a potentially bland academic exercise like many minimalist or process music concepts.  No tempo is specified in the score.  It is an important piece which may not appeal to all audiences but will likely entertain anyone whose listening interests lie in the realm of minimalism, process music and conceptual art.

TheChordCatalogue-page-001

According to Kurt Gottschalk in his article for I Care If You Listen Johnson is a fan of Vriezen’s interpretation and, in fact, is one of the many contributors to the project.  Vriezen has been performing the piece for about 10 years now in public concerts and he posted a video of a performance of Chord Catalog with commentary by Tom Johnson and himself.  There are also scenes of Johnson with Vriezen as he performs a portion of Within Fourths/Within Fifths.

Vriezen’s piece by contrast lasts about 45 minutes and, though using similar methods, produces a different sound world.  He correctly describes the piece as lyrical and it is a wonderful piece on its own, more wonderful in context with its predecessor.  This disc is an artistic dialogue, a call and response between to kindred spirits of different generations.

Samuel Vriezen is a Dutch pianist, composer and writer born in 1973.  His web site lists his compositions and writings and there are downloadable mp3 files and scores.  There is also a Vriezen page on Ubuweb which contains mp3 files and pdf files of several of his pieces and includes useful program notes.  He also produced Johnson’s CD Symmetries (1980) featuring Vriezen and fellow pianist Dante Oei on Karnatic records.

This is the solo début recording by a composer and pianist with keen instincts and talents that leave this reviewer in excited anticipation of what he  will do next.  I am also proud to have sponsored this wonderful recording.

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Cançonièr at the Berkeley Festival Fringe


Full moon presides over exsanguinous tales.

Last night, local early music ensemble Cançonièr performed in what was their last appearance until next year.  In the somewhat noisy parish hall of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church this four member ensemble played a slightly condensed version of a program they have been touring for the last year or so.  It was a program called ‘Black Dragon’ with music from the first half of the 15th century, the time of the reign of Count Vlad Dracula, the historical antecedent of the vampire character.

Cançonièr is a four member ensemble co-directed by Tim Rayborn and Annette Bauer.  The other two regulars are Shira Kammen and Phoebe Jevtovic.  All are amazing instrumentalists and scholars in their own right and all play in other ensembles and groupings.

Tim Rayborn is a medieval scholar , multi-instrumentalist, singer and performer.  Annette Bauer is a recorder virtuoso, multi-instrumentalist and singer.  Shira Kammen plays vielle (antecedent of the violin/viola), medieval harp and sings.  And Phoebe Jevtovic is a singer who also does double duty by playing a small bell set in some of the pieces.

Annette Bauer demonstrates her virtuosity on the recorder.

Tim Rayborn

Tim Rayborn providing context and performing.

The group goes beyond their scholarship (which is excellent) and puts their performances in context.  They provide translations of the words they sing (frequently in dead or antiquated languages) and they connect with their audience with a pleasant sense of humor as well as drama.

Shira Kammen playing the vielle.

They clearly enjoy playing together and seem very connected, deriving great pleasure from making music.  And they produce a beautiful sound with their intricately crafted replicas of the instruments of the time.

Phoebe Jevtovic sings accompanied by Tim Rayborn on the lute.

One complaint.  The location of this church at Bancroft and Ellsworth makes for a bit of urban distraction provided by sirens and traffic.  And there were apparently other activities going on in the church complex which could be occasionally heard.  But the musicians and audience handled the distractions in a good-natured manner consistent with the rest of their performances.

They began and ended their intermissionless program with a narrative drama with music partly sung, partly spoken or intoned but performed with characteristic flair by Tim Rayborn accompanied by himself on frame drum and the ensemble.  This was a jaunty upbeat sounding piece at the outset that gives way to the narrative talking/singing about the infamous subject of this performance here called Dracula of Wallachia.  The language here sounded like an old German dialect and after the brief but harrowing telling of the story in speech and song (the speech gratefully rendered in English) the jaunty music of the beginning returns to conclude the piece.  One can imagine this being performed in a tavern or inn by a troubadour or group of musicians for the guests.

Rayborn then spoke to the audience providing more context by explaining that tonight’s music is from the time of the Count’s reign but that it is not known if he indeed had musicians in his court.  And for those who do not know the story of ‘Vlad the impaler’, as he was known, this is pretty grisly stuff.  Reality programming from the dark ages if you will.

There followed two more composed songs, a folk song, a traditional Romanian dance,  a heart-rending Moldavian chant passionately sung by Jevtovic and a traditional Bulgarian dance.

I have not bothered to mention the composers’ names (which were listed in the printed program) because they are very little know and would likely clutter this little narrative.  My apologies to the composers and the scholars if I have offended in my omissions.

Left to right: Shira Kammen, Annette Bauer and Phoebe Jevtovic demonstrating their vocal collaboration.

But the next piece was by a composer familiar to anyone who has taken a course in western music history, Guillame Dufay (1397-1474).  The work of this composer, who provided a lot of sacred music for the church as well as secular pieces, was so successful that his work and his name have survived the ravages of history.  The ‘Lamentio Sanctae Matris Ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae’ required the vocal skills of all four in the group as well as instrumental accompaniment.  And they did so beautifully singing, we were told, in two different languages as the piece is originally written.

There followed an Italian dance, a Byzantine secular court piece called a “kratima” (spell check is practically useless here), a medieval Russian pilgrim  song and an Ottoman Turkish piece followed by a very spirited reprise of the first piece.

The ensemble clearly enjoys their music making.

All in all a very satisfying evening and a clearly appreciative audience sent this writer out into the Berkeley night not with nightmarish images but with the tunes of this joyful performance ringing in his head (medieval earworms?).  And I popped one of their CDs in my car stereo for the ride home.  I could easily hear this again.