Art and the Reclamation of History: Akropolis Reed Quintet’s “Ghost Light”


New Focus FCR-292

Let me say that this disc represents one of the most integrated releases that I have seen/heard. This has the gravitas of a well conceived and executed prog rock concept album (remember those?). This young group of musicians from Detroit present themselves in a photo in the accompanying booklet in casual dress flouting the old fashioned traditions of playing in tuxes much as another creative chamber ensemble (The Kronos Quartet) did many years ago. The Akropolis Reed Quintet is a group of instruments not commonly known (I’ve never heard of any repertoire for this combination of instruments, any musicians/musicologists want to chime in here?) in classical chamber ensembles. Whereas the Kronos began work a with a long held standard ensemble comprising two violins, a viola and a cello, the classical string quartet which can easily trace a long standing tradition going back to Haydn and very much alive today, the Akropolis consists of oboe (Tim Gocklin), clarinet (Kari Landry), saxophone (Matt Landry), bass clarinet (Andrew Koeppe), and bassoon (Ryan Reynolds), an unheard of combo. Its history begins here.

Illustrator Ashton Springer

Unfamiliar music by an unfamiliar group of reed instruments doesn’t exactly shout, “Buy me, listen to me”, but the prospective listener need not fear. The program here consists of all new music for this ensemble. There are no competitors, at least for now. But all this music in truly excellent performances/recordings along with remarkably integrated collaboration with visual artist, British artist and illustrator Ashton Springer, and poet/writer Marsha Music combines in an apparent attempt to reclaim the artistic history that, in the days of the booming automotive industry and the success of Motown Recordings made Detroit a creative center known round the world. Ms. Music (a nom de plume for Marsha Battle Philpot), a Detroit native, is in many ways the heart of this album. Her father was a producer for Motown and her poetic reflections on local history infuses the album with a certain authenticity. The poet states she was “born in a record store”. Indeed it was the Joe’s Records which appears in Ashton’s album cover art to which she refers (metaphorically of course)

Ghost Light brings a variety of things into focus in this paean to Detroit, the home of these artists whose work very organically includes promotion of the arts in local schools and other venues. In works generally focused on themes of birth, death, and rebirth this album tells a sad story of lost history, of razed black neighborhoods, of fond memories, of a once thriving economy now struggling but fully embracing pride of place while seeking resolution of (and forgiveness?) for past injustices while looking optimistically to a better future.

Poet Marsha Music

The art work itself is a nostalgic example of fine cover art which successfully reflects the content and the character of the music contained within. The illustrations which so beautifully attract the eye to the cover are continued in the accompanying booklet which provides concise notes which place the music in the context of the composers’ various intent and processes as well as the nearly cinematic efforts made to represent the intended content of each piece. Though neither the poet nor the illustrator are known to this writer it is reasonable to assume that we will see/hear from them again. That would be my wish.

This is the fourth album by this prize winning chamber group which was formed in 2009 at the University of Michigan. It contains five musical compositions and three poems (which precede movements I, II, and IV of the final work). All the music, as noted above is generally on themes of life, death, and rebirth as well as “ghosts” of the past.

The first work by the only composer here that was known previously to this writer is “Rites for the Afterlife” (2018) by the amazing Stacy Garrop whose facility with melodic invention and subtle use of tone colors permeated her exciting Mythology Symphony. The four movements are roughly analogous to the classical sonata forms with a longer more complex first movement followed by a slow movement, a scherzo-like movement, and a finale which ties them all together. Here she titles her movements: I. Inscriptions from the Book of the Dead, II. Passage Through the Netherworld, III. The Hall of Judgement, and IV. The Field of Reeds. The composer provides a scenario which is recounted in the booklet. Let me say that her tone painting is that of a true master and I advise listeners to collect anything she releases. You will not be disappointed.

Second is “Kinds of Light” (2018) by Michael Gilbertson. This piece, in four brief movements attempting to metaphorically treat each instrument as a pigment. The movements: I. Flicker, II. Twilight, III. Fluorescence, and IV. Ultraviolet utilize timbres and combinations of timbres to represent the visuals implied by the titles. This is probably the most “experimental” of the pieces here but the experiment engages rather than repels.

“Firing Squad” (2018?) by Niloufar Nourbakhsh. If I’m reading those liner notes correctly, the performance of this work is accomplished with the ensemble playing with a recording of themselves playing the work. This is the most overtly political of the works represented here in its intense single movement.

“Seed to Snag” (2018) by Theo Chandler is cast in three movements: I. Sprout, II. Stretch, and III. Sow. Here is a metaphoric evocation of the cycle of life from birth to death utilizing baroque musical structures.

The album concludes with “Homage to Paradise Valley” by Jeff Scott. This is the largest work here clocking in at over 30 minutes including the poetry. Its four movements attempt to describe forgotten neighborhoods of Detroit. The movements are titled: I. Ghosts of black Bottom, II. Hastings Street blues, III. Roho Pumzika Kwa Amani, and IV. Paradise Theater Jump. Movements I, II, and IV are preceded by Detroit poet Marsha Music reading from her work. The beautiful title of the third movement is a phrase in Swahili which translates as, “Spirits, Rest Peacefully”. The other movements channel the ghosts of these nearly forgotten neighborhoods and that third movement invites those ghosts to a place of rest and the peace of knowing that they will not be forgotten.

I’ve placed links throughout this article so that readers can find more detail about the composers and other artists involved. All of the artists involved here deserve at least a second look if not more. Kudos to all who were involved in this project.

Donut Robot! Post-Haste Duo


OK, so I go to the post-office, to my little PO Box and I find one of those nice flat envelopes with the bubble wrap inside. Nothing unusual so far. When I pull out the disc I see post-apocalyptic cover art that could have come from the pen of Matt Groening (that is a compliment). And looking at the inside I recognize none of the musicians and none of the composers (also not unusual). Bassoon and Saxophone? Sounds iffy at best. And these folks hail from Idaho. Idaho? The last time I heard the name of this state in relation to classical music La Monte Young was being discussed (he was born in Idaho). They now hail from Portland.

Sean Fredenburg

But when I put this disc in my CD player while on one of my longish drives (we drive a lot in California) I was delighted and mesmerized. These two musicians, both professors at Idaho university, seem to have cast their net into minimalist waters. The variety within that definition of a musical style demonstrates the apparently boundless creative ways of working within that style and the limitations of the term in helping listeners know what to expect.

Well, expect virtuosity, expect clever invention, and expect to be entertained. Despite the pop art cover (the entire production will be my exhibit A when I propose a law requiring a minimum 12 x 12 packaging for all music and video releases) the music consists of some really solid compositions which send quite a challenge to the artists while leaving the listener enthralled (no easy task). The only mistake is putting the liner notes one line. Die hards like yours truly will seek out and read these (actually very useful notes) but I think most listeners will not make the effort. Ah, well.

Usually these solo instruments are accompanied by a piano or a guitar when they are not a part of a larger ensemble. When these two instruments play together one might choose a strategy of having one instrument accompany the other. The compositions here utilized a variety of strategies, many of which place some serious physical demands on the musicians. What all these compositions manage to do is to sound as though they were intended to come out exactly as you hear them in this recording (also a daunting and frequently unaccomplished task).

These machinations stem from the efforts of the Post-Haste Reed Duo consisting of Sean Fredenburg on saxophone and Javier Rodriguez on bassoon. These works are commissions written for them (who else?) and presented here in their world premiere recordings.

The composers (Ruby Fulton, Drew Baker, Michael Johanson, Edward J Hines, Andrea Reinkemeyer, and Takuma Itoh) presented me with yet another research task (also not uncommon with the unusual music that comes my way), that of finding out who these people are and, frankly, if I should file these names away in my future successes file, keep them on the radar in the hopes that they will continue to produce work of this quality. I’d say odds are good.

A Far Cry: Visions and Variations


farcryvisions

Crier Records CR 1801

This is the latest release by an ensemble whose debut CD was released some nine years ago.  Most recently this ensemble released a fine recording featuring Simone Dinnerstein playing piano concertos by J. S. Bach and Philip Glass.  This recording is focused on the virtuosity of this small string orchestra by focusing on some unusual but highly listenable pieces from the early twentieth century to the present.

The lovely cover art (by Bill Flynn) conjures images that evoke Picasso’s drawings of Igor Stravinsky conducting.  The album evokes a feeling of an early twentieth century salon and makes the most of this rather small ensemble which counts 20 musicians on this release.  The issue here seems to be quality musicianship exploring unusual but very listenable music.

The disc begins with the too little heard Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge (1937) by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976).  Bridge was one of Britten’s teachers and a fine composer as well.  This is the piece that first brought Britten international recognition but it is not frequently played or recorded as one might expect.   It is a very entertaining set of variations and one can only surmise that this ensemble will likely tackle some of Britten’s other early string orchestra pieces like the Simple Symphony (1934).

After that workout we are treated to another set of variations.  This time by one Ethan Wood, a violinist with the ensemble.  His contribution is a set of variations on the French song, “Ah vous dirais-je, Maman” (better known to some as “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”).  This little fantasy is billed as “a folk tale for 18 players based on characters created by W. A. Mozart”.

And, finally, we have a lively transcription of Sergei Prokofiev’s ” Vision Fugitives” Op. 22.  Originally for piano, this string orchestra version is a unique but interesting idea.  The ensemble handles this complex music well and this version provides a perspective on these little miniatures that will produce discussion among fanciers of the original piano versions.

All in all this is basically a pretty conservative program stylistically but the intelligent choices of repertoire and the wonderful execution make this a stand out release with incredible potential that will leave listeners waiting for their next release.