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.

Josh Modney’s “Engage”, New Music for Violin Solo and Not Solo


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New Focus FCR 211

This is an awesome undertaking.  I recall when pop musicians were cautioned that it may be unwise to release a so called “double album” for fear that their inspiration (or talent) may not be up to the task.  Well here comes Josh Modney violinist and Executive Director of the Wet Ink Ensemble , a member of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), and a performer with the Mivos Quartet for eight years.  This 3 CD set is his solo violin debut album.  And what an album it is.  There is no lack of talent, skill, or imagination here.  This is essentially three faces of Josh Modney a sort of sonic CV.

The first disc features four tracks of music by contemporary composers for violin with soprano, piano, and/or electronics.  All four are fairly recent compositions:  Sam Pluta’s “Jem Altieri with a Ring Modulator Circuit (2011), Taylor Brook’s “Vocalise” (2009), Kate Soper’s “Cipher” (2011), and Anthony Braxton’s “Composition No. 22” (1998).All of these are challenging for the musicians and none are easy listening but all demonstrate aspects of Modney’s skills as a musician

The second disc features J. S. Bach’s “Ciacona” or “Chaconne” (1720) from the second violin partita.  But this is not just another performance of this towering masterwork of the solo violin repertoire.  Modney has chosen to perform it in just intonation.  Now how’s that for versatile?

The effect is subtle and may even be lost on some listeners but fanciers of Bach and alternate tunings will likely find this to be anywhere from mildly interesting to revelatory.  It is a fine performance and it is interesting to hear it in just intonation and amazing to know that this performer has this uncommon skill of playing accurately in an alternate tuning on the violin.

Filling out the second disc is a piece by pianist Eric Wubbels, “the children of fire come looking for fire” (2012).  This is a very different piece and I’m not sure why it was paired with the Bach except that it fit the available space.  Wubbels contribution is a sort of electroacoustic collage.

The third (and last) disc is of solo violin compositions by Josh Modney.  Again we move into contemporary and experimental compositions which reflect Modney’s skill with the instrument as well as his insights into it’s potentials.  Again there are no echoes of Bach here but rather more of the experimental/avant garde/free jazz style which dominates this album.  The solo violin repertoire is not huge so it is reasonable to assume that these little gems will find a place there.

This is a lovely production with striking cover art and excellent sound.  If you like cutting edge violin music you will have a wonderful time with these discs.  And if you’re looking for a wildly skilled and imaginative musician check this set out and get ready to be wowed.

 

 

Anne Akiko Meyers’ Romantic Post Minimalism Enthralls


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Avie AV 2386

Admittedly I am a sucker for nearly all things minimalist and post-minimalist.  Such programming can lead to some potentially dull or cloying experiences.  Not so with this lovely collection of miniatures though.  While minimalists like Glass and Pärt make their appearances the concept here seems to reach for larger goals.  We have a mix of relatively simple chamber compositions along with electroacoustic works, a revelatory take on Ravel’s Tzigane and and arrangement for violin and orchestra of a solemn choral piece by Morten Lauridsen.

This eclecticism seems to flow from the artist’s choices rather than choices imposed by a producer.  In this respect she reminds this reviewer of pianist Lara Downes whose repertoire choices are similarly eclectic but born very personally from the artists’ experiences and preferences.

The opening Philip Glass Metamorphosis Two (1988) is presented in an arrangement by none other than Glass’ long time champion Michael Riesman.  It is followed by two violin and piano pieces by Arvo Pärt, Fratres (1977) and Spiegel im Spiegel (1978).  These lovely works serve to draw the listener in most pleasantly.  Akira Eguchi is the fine pianist who plays on all but tracks 4, 7, and 8.

Next up is a piece of musical archaeology.  Tzigane (1924) was originally written for violin and piano.  It was later orchestrated and it is that version which is best known and probably most recorded.  Well it turns out that Ravel had made a version for a now defunct instrument called a Luthéal which is an instrument invented in the early 20th century (patented 1919).  It’s actually not so much an instrument as an add on.  It modifies the sound of a piano.  The device now exists in museums but that hasn’t stopped innovative producers from utilizing an electroacoustic version.  Elizabeth Pridgen plays the keyboard to which the lutheal is virtually attached.

Apparently this version has been recorded before but this writer encountered it first in this release.  It is a very different sound than the piano or orchestral versions and is a lovely take on the music.  Many may buy the album for this track alone.

This is followed by a charming lullaby written for Meyers’ youngest daughter.  John Corigliano has absorbed only a small bit of the minimalism bug (maybe his 1985 Fantasy on an Ostinato  qualifies) but he is one of our finest living composers and he appears to infuse this violin and piano miniature, Lullaby for Natalie (2010) with a tender romanticism that is both sweet and touching.  In the notes we learn that it did seem to put her daughter to sleep but I doubt it will do that to most listeners.

The next two tracks are works by one Jakub Ciupinski  (1981- ) who also has a stage persona under the name Jakub Ζak under which he performs live electronic music.  This Polish born composer is now based in New York and works with various forms of electronics including a theremin.  Both “Edo Lullaby” (2018) and “Wreck of the Umbria” (2009) come from a similar place musically.  Both use electronics in varying degrees to enhance and accompany the solo violin.  Both are delightful little gems that give a nod to some minimalist roots but stand on their own merit and prompt this listener to keep an eye/ear out for more of this composer’s work.

The concluding piece is an arrangement by the composer Morten Lauridsen (1943-  ).  The performer states she pursued Lauridsen for a new piece and when he finally acquiesced he presented this lovely arrangement of his well known choral piece, “O Magnum Mysterium”.  The arrangement is for string orchestra and violin and orchestra here given its world premiere performance.  It should come as no surprise to new music fanciers that the Philharmonia Orchestra is conducted by none other than Kristjan Järvi, a fine conductor, composer, and avid new music advocate who can always be found near some interesting musical projects.

This album stands out in that the choices of the musical selections and the personal connections between the composers and the soloist are clearly collaborative and  inspired.  This is substance rather than fluff but it may appeal to a wider audience.  This one can be said to have crossover hopes but it does not pander.  This is a wonderful album and will likely prompt listeners who, like this writer, have yet to know this soloist to go and seek more of her recordings and live performances.  Brava!

 

 

No Ordinary Romance: San Jose Chamber Orchestra Plays Dvorak, Musgrave, Fung, Shatin, and Susman


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The Concert Hall at the Le Petit Trianon Theater in San Jose

It was a pleasant spring day in San Jose where, in this modest hall, there was to be a concert of mostly contemporary music with one exception.  The concert was billed as “A Touch of Tech” due to its use in some pieces of electronics and, in one case, slide projections.  However the overall sense of the experience left this writer with a strong sense of the romantic, hence the title of this review.

Barbara Day Turner

Conductor Barbara Day Turner (from the SJCO web site)

The concert was to be led by the San Jose Chamber Orchestra‘s music director and regular conductor Barbara Day Turner.  A quick look at the orchestra’s web site or the repertoire of tonight’s conductor will dazzle and intrigue any fan of new music.  This modest ensemble of approximately 20 musicians (give or take) consists of professional musicians who clearly take their work seriously.  No spoilers here in saying that they turned in some seriously powerful and polished performances.

This writer was initially asked to review this performance on behalf of the management agents of composer Vivian Fung (1975- ), a Canadian-American composer whose star is rising rapidly.  In preparation for the evening’s performance it was wonderful to find some of her work on You Tube.  It was a rewarding experience to hear some of her range of compositions.  The featured composition of hers for this evening was Humanoid (2017) for cello and electronics.  It was third in the programming sequence for the evening.

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Vivian Fung (from her web site)

First up though was a composition which initially seemed anachronistic in context.  It was Dvorak’s Silent Woods (1833) for cello and orchestra in a transcription for cello and strings by Kerry Lewis.  This piece of unabashed high romanticism in fact seemed to contextualize what was to follow.  The soloist Coleman Itzkoff gave a wonderful display of his romantic chops in his interpretation of this somewhat lesser known bon bon of Dvorak’s.  The audience responded most appreciatively to a lush and lovely performance.

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Thea Musgrave (from her website)

Second up was Green (2008-16) by Scottish-American composer Thea Musgrave (1928- ).  This work was being played in honor of her 90th year.  Mr. Musgrave was reportedly unable attend this evening, not due to infirmity but rather to industry.  She is reportedly hard at work adding to her already prolific catalog of works.  (This version was a string orchestra version prepared by Martyn Brabbins.)  Nonetheless her presence was strongly felt in this recent ecologically themed piece for string orchestra (sans electronics).  The tonalities in the work seemed to almost be echoes from the first work.  Despite a few string effects, pizzicati, glissandi, there was an overall feeling of romantic gestures here in a discursive development that included a disturbing motif from the double basses and rather romantic and lyrical responses from solo violin and viola embedded in the lush orchestral textures (it is astonishing to hear what a master composer can do with a small string orchestra).  The conductor and ensemble displayed an intensity of concentration which resulted in a really spectacular performance which was very much appreciated by the audience.  (Curious side note:  I later learned that an elderly gentleman who sat in front of me and listened with obvious concentration and appreciation throughout the program was in fact a relative of Ms. Musgrave so, at least by that proxy she was there in yet another capacity.)

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Coleman Itzkoff playing Vivian Fung’s Humanoid

The stage was then set for the west coast premiere of Vivian Fung’s Humanoid for cello and electronics.  Here I had the advantage of being able to speak with the evening’s engineer (and electronic co-conspirator) Tom Johnson.  This gentleman advised me of his roles in the three pieces which involved technology.   Apparently the Fung piece required the most attention and coordination involving a click track.  The Shatin piece basically played the electronics in parallel to the orchestra with the coordination largely left (presumably) to the conductor.  And the last piece involved projections whose synchronization were not as minutely critical as the other two pieces.  Said gentleman was also the recording engineer for this concert.

For this writer the term “electroacoustic” indicates that one should approach such a work with caution.  Indeed the success of the integration of electronics and acoustic instruments varies a great deal.  Perhaps the best known of such efforts are the pioneering “Synchronisms” of Mario Davidovsky in which various instruments are paired with an electronic track.  And these days one must ask if the electronics interacts with or alters the sound of the acoustic instrument or if it exists in parallel.  Electroacoustic music has been and remains a huge compositional challenge and no small challenge for the listener.

In the case of Fung’s piece the electronics exist in parallel but carefully synchronized (the soloist does listen to a click track) to the cello score.  No alteration of the cello’s sound is done by anyone other than the cellist.  So we are then hearing basically a duo between two musical streams, one live, the other on a digital stream of largely concrete sounds and, at one point, a drum kit.  Such technical issues can be tiring but the sound of the music was not.  According to the composer the piece is in three parts.  The cello and the electronics are both equally present in all.  In fact the cello seems to be creating sounds that are analogous to the electronic sounds at times and the cellist is given a lot of large romantic sounding gestures which in many ways were not entirely different emotionally than the gestures of the Dvorak.  Fung’s work seems, appropriately here in Silicon Valley, to be challenging the human vs. the machine, an increasingly intriguing dichotomy.

It was clearly a challenging piece for the cellist requiring a plethora of techniques and a great deal of virtuosity.  Itzkoff handled his role with stern concentration and demonstrated a strong command of both his instrument and the score.  He was rewarded with a standing ovation and two curtain calls for his efforts which he gratefully accepted.  The program notes indicated that this was Fung’s first major foray into the use of electronics and one hopes not the last.

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Judith Shatin (from her web site)

Following intermission was the premiere performance of the work of another established citizen of American music.  It was Judith Shatin‘s Ice Becomes Water (2018) commissioned by Barbara Day Turner and the San Jose Chamber Orchestra and is dedicated to them.  Shatin is a sound artist as well as a composer meaning that she has mastered the incorporation of a variety of sounds into her compositional palette.  In this case she utilized sound samples gathered by glaciologist Oscar Glowacki.

This piece continued the basically pastoral/ecological themes suggested by the earlier works.  Again too there was lyricism though the sound images here were, appropriately, colder and more stark than those in some of the other compositions.  In fact this composition seemed to have some affinities to the sound world of Musgrave’s work at times but perhaps a bit harsher.  What sustained interest here, in addition to the sonic inventiveness of the string writing, was the seamless integration of the sounds into the overall texture.  Here the electronics seemed to augment Penderecki like sound mass effects and gave way to gentler clicking sounds (or were they pizzicati?).  It was another very intense but very satisfying musical experience for this writer and, by the sound of the applause, the rest of the audience as well.  Happily Shatin was there to enjoy the success of this performance and the appreciation of her artistry.

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William Susman (photo from his website)

To end the program there was a multimedia work by William Susman (1960- ) The work of this composer is new to this reviewer’s ears but not apparently to the music world at large.  A quick perusal of Susman’s web page reveals a prolific composer who maintains a busy schedule of composing and performing (including a performance of his recent opera, Fordlandia at the Forth Worth Opera Frontiers Showcase) coming up in May.

The work was a piece entitled, In a State of Patterns (2018) which received its premiere on this night.  The work is a series of six movements which are designed to respond (or maybe create musical analogs) to 6 art works created by Santa Clara University mathematician Frank Farris (1955- ).

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Frank Farris (from the Santa Clara website)

The movements (performed without pause) are: 1. California, the Golden State, 2. The Sierra Nevada, 3. At Home in San Jose, 4. Sierra Tree Death, 5. Spiral Vortex, and 6. The Stars Come Out to Comfort Us.

The photos and mathematical abstractions were projected stage left and more or less synced to the music.  This writer is not well schooled in mathematics but the appearance of the images were reminiscent of those never ending fractal drawings which eternally reproduce themselves.  Farris apparently extracts the images and colors from photographs.  Now whether the music creates successful analogies is probably more relevant to the level of satisfaction that each of the artists feels with their work but the effect in performance was quite satisfying.  One can safely say (I think) that the music and the art work both have sufficient merit to stand successfully on their own but the combination was at least intriguing.

Susman’s music draws on some very pleasant minimalist type structures that nonetheless managed to take on almost Wagnerian grandiosity at times.  Again the combination of ecology and a sort of high romanticism combined to create a very successful and enjoyable work.  The abrupt ending reminiscent of the ensemble performances of Philip Glass provided a stunning coda waking the audience from the beautiful dreams evoked by the six movements.  Again we witnessed a powerful and dedicated premiere performance of a wonderful piece of music which appeared to leave the audience quite satisfied. Susman was there to take a much deserved bow.

This was some brilliant programming and excellent musicianship. What an evening!!!

 

Coming Out Electric: Trevor Babb’s Warmth



Steve Reich’s masterful Electric Counterpoint (1987) opens this disc.  That work originally written for Pat Metheny  and has become pretty much a classic as well as a fine way to demonstrate a musician’s facility with multi-tracked guitar music.

Trevor Babb is a doctoral student at Yale and this appears to be his first album.  And what an album it is.  The choice of the opening work serves to demonstrate Babb’s ability to interpret, in his own individual manner, a work that has been recorded many times.  It remains a classic and very listenable work which belies the difficulties inherent in its performance.  Babb seems to take a bit more of a legato approach than previous interpretations but is definitely highly effective and this is a wonderful recording of the work.

It also serves to set the tone for the rest of this truly fine solo guitar and electronics debut album.  Electric Counterpoint is the first of 6 total works represented on this disc.  The remaining five selections fit the rubric of this collection in the overall sense but are definitely unique and challenging in their ways.

Paul Kerekes is not a familiar name to this writer and perhaps a new name to many.  His inclusion here introduces many to this composer and places him in the context of this interesting collection.  This young composer is apparently well known in the New York scene and seems to travel in the circles that include some of the most interesting artists currently working.  Trail is a very different piece than the Reich but demonstrates the range of the solo guitar and electronics genre.  This is a gentler, more meditative piece overall and one which piques interest in hearing more.

David Lang is a well known and very welcome name in new music and is here represented by Warmth, a classic Langian post-minimalist work which delights the listener while challenging the performer.

Septet by the late great James Tenney is one of those masterful compositions that is respected as a masterpiece but not often programmed.  This is due at least in part to it’s critical use of alternate tuning.  The effects intended by the composer can only be heard if the performer can play accurately the tuning involved.  It is a wonderful and listener friendly experience typical of the finest of Tenney’s grasp of how to use such tunings in the compositional process.  Babb executes this piece lovingly and this performance will likely help to nudge this work to a more frequent experience in the concert hall.

Babb introduces himself as a composer in Grimace, an impressionistic exercise in which he attempts to imitate both the style of Ligeti and evoke the image of a mask seen in an art exhibit.  Long tones and extended techniques predominate in this meditative drone-like work that demonstrates fine technique in both composition and instrumental facility.

The album concludes with Slope 2 by the emerging bass player and composer Carl Testa.   Again Babb introduces a new voice for the listener to explore.  This extended composition, more drone than pattern based, is one that deserves multiple hearings to discern its substance and to demonstrate its position in the larger rubric of this collection.

Babb produces a great debut here and makes a strong case for the genre of electric guitar with supporting electronics as being a viable format for a live concert.  He also seems to be defining that genre much the way that many solo artists are doing these days.  He seems to be constructing a repertoire establishing the classics (Reich, Tenney) and promoting the viability of works that he feels deserve a place in that repertoire.

This is a really delightful album and that extends, at least in this writer’s eye, to the cover design as well.  Again I will bemoan the loss of the 12  inch square format of LPs which could have made more prominent this lovely design by Colin Meyer and Trevor Babb.  Perhaps a 12 inch vinyl release may happen.  But until then the listener can settle most comfortably in the warmth of this truly fine release even in the smaller CD format or even as a digital download.

 

Emanuele Arciuli, Defining a Genre: Walk in Beauty


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Innova 255

This 2 CD set virtually defines a genre.  Following in the traditions of such notable compilations as Robert Helps’ “New Music for the Piano”, Alan Feinberg’s wonderful series of discs on Argo records among many others we see Arciuli displaying his grasp of music in the tradition of the gentle musical anthropology found in the music and scholarship of Peter Garland.  The album’s title comes from Garland’s lovely multiple movement Walk in Beauty (1992) released on New World records in the 1990s.  The present collection is both nostalgic and forward looking reminding us of great past efforts and introducing us to new work.  It is a look at a loosely defined style of mostly late 20th century American piano music through the lens of a non-American artist.

Garland’s interest in Native American myths and music inform his post minimalist ethic and the additional pieces chosen for this two disc set reflect similar artistic sensibilities.  Emanuele Arciuli is an Italian pianist whose interests range from the Second Viennese School to the unique compositions of Thelonius Monk.  He also has a strong interest in classical music from Native American traditions which puts him very much in sync with Garland’s work as well.  Here he has chosen music which he clearly understands and which appear to have deep meaning for him.

There are 28 tracks on 2 discs representing 13 composers.  Five of these composers are explicitly affiliated with their respective Native American traditions and the remaining eight composers take their inspiration at least in part from the rich music and/or mythology of those cultures.  The bottom line here is that these are carefully and lovingly chosen works which open a window on one fine musician’s perception of a certain Western/Native American/New American style which, at worst, holds up a mirror and, whether we like it or not, it tells us something about who we are and from whence we came.

Connor Chee‘s “Navajo Vocable No. 9” opens the album and sets the tone.  This is one of a series of piano pieces by this fascinating composer/pianist whose star is deservedly rising.  His work celebrates Navajo culture and is informed as well by his training in traditional western art music.

This is followed by Peter Garland‘s “Walk in Beauty”.  This piece is representative of Garland’s post-minimalist, impressionistic style.  It was previously recorded so wonderfully by Aki Takahashi on the eponymously titled New World Records album from the early 1990s.

Garland’s music is fairly well documented but deserves a wider audience. (Curiously he does not have a dedicated web site.)  His scholarship and promotion of new music also serve to place him very highly among this countries finest artists and scholars.  In addition to his compositional output he is known for his Soundings Press publications and his papers are now held by the University of Texas at Austin.

Kyle Gann is, similarly, a scholar and a prolific composer.  He has for many years demonstrated a keen interest in Native American myths in his diverse and creative output.  Gann is here represented by his “Earth Preserving Chant”.

Michael Daugherty is known for his incorporation of pop culture in his work and has been recognized with no fewer than three Grammy Awards.  His work is rooted in pop Americana and “Buffalo Dance” is his homage to Native Americana.  And if his homage seems a bit P.T. Barnum at times, that too is Americana.

John Luther Adams, a recent Pulitzer Prize winner for his orchestral work, Become Ocean, is a prolific composer who derives much of his inspiration from the mythology of Alaskan natives.  Adams spent many of his creative years in Alaska working with ecological projects as well as musical ones.  “Tukiliit” is representative of this work and pays homage to Native American/First Nation peoples.

Raven Chacon is an emerging composer who has produced a great deal of work though little appears to be available on recordings.  “Nilchi Shada’ji Nalaghali” (Winds that turn on the side from the Sun) is an electroacoustic work serves as a little sample of this artist’s work and its inclusion in this fine collection alone suggests that the remainder of his work deserves to be explored.

Martin Bresnick is an honored member of the American Institute of Arts and Letters and his work is fortunately well known.  The present piece, “Ishii’s Song” is a reference to an American Indian, the last of his tribe who lived out his life under the protection and scrutiny of anthropologist Alfred Kroeber at the University of California Berkeley.  His spirit still seems to linger in the Bay Area and this piece is a sort of homage to him.

This set contains two works by Louis W. Ballard (1931-2007) who was a Native American composer that composed classical concert music.  His work is steeped in Native American mythology and deserves to be better known.  Leave it to a non-American to point out this deficit.  Arciuli makes a strong case for listeners and for other musicians to embrace this neglected artist.  Disc Two track 2 contains the “Osage Variation” and Disc two tracks 13-16 contain his “Four American Indian Piano Preludes”.

Jennifer Higdon is a star already very much risen on the musical scene and she is here represented by a substantial piano piece called “Secret and Glass Gardens”.  Higdon, also a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, is one of those composers who manages to be friendly and accessible as well as modern.  Arciuli seems to perceive similarities in her vision that make this work fit in convincingly in this collection.  Hers is seemingly a similar romanticism and nostalgia and Arciuli has convinced at least this listener of the kinship of this piece in the vision of this collection.

Arciuli introduces another composer unknown to this reviewer, Peter Gilbert.  This young composer with an impressive resume is the co-director of the composition program at the University of New Mexico.  The offering here is his set of four “Intermezzi” for piano.

The inclusion of Carl Ruggles‘ “Evocations-Four Chants for Piano” seem at first to be a strange choice but following the Gilbert Intermezzi one gets the impression that the Americana that is Ruggles is a part of the provenance of this collection.  Ruggles coarse and famously racist attitudes hardly fit with the generally romantic vision of this collection but Americana as perceived by a non-American need not edit the unsavory from the overall picture.  The music is what this is about and these are indeed masterful little essays and a part of the American grain.

Another new name is given a brief appearance in the “Testament of Atom” by Brent Michael Davids.   This young composer’s clever website lists a plethora of works whose titles resemble many of the pieces on these discs.  Again we must trust the artist that his inclusion of this work is representative of his vision of this version of Americana.

For his concluding track Arciuli does a wonderful thing by including the work of Talib Rasul Hakim (1940-1988), another too little known American composer.  Born Stephen Alexander Chambers, he changed his name in 1973 when he converted to Sufism, a spiritual sect of Islam.  The music, “Sound Gone”, is a fitting finale to this beautiful, challenging, and ultimately inclusive collection of Americana.  Bravo, Mr. Arciuli and thank you for the gift of showing us some of the best of how we Americans look to you.

 

 

ICE Debuts on Starkland: Music by Phyllis Chen and Nathan Davis


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Starkland is one of those labels whose releases seem to be so carefully chosen that one is pretty much guaranteed a great listening experience even if that experience might challenge the ears sometimes.  If one were to purchase their complete catalog (as I pretty much have over the years) one would have a really impressive and wide-ranging selection of new music.

I recently reviewed a very fine ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble) recording of music by Anna Thorvaldsdottir here. The present disc is the first appearance on Starkland of this ensemble whose performance skills and repertoire choices show the same depth of understanding as the producers of the label upon which they now appear.

ICE was founded in Chicago in 2001 by executive director and flautist extraordinaire Claire Chase.  The discography on their website now numbers 21 albums including the present release.  The group features some 30+ artists and musicians including a live sound engineer (like the Philip Glass Ensemble) and a lighting designer.  Do yourself a favor and check out the ICE Vimeo page to get some ideas about why having a lighting designer is a good idea.  Their performances are visually as well as musically compelling.  And who knows, perhaps there is a Starkland DVD release in their future.

About half their albums feature music by members of ICE and that is the case with this release.  One always has to wonder at the process that is involved in choosing repertoire to perform and/or record but there is no doubt that this group seems to have good instincts in regards to such decisions as evidenced by the already wild popularity of this disc on WQXR and the positive initial reviews so far.

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Phyllis Chen‘s biographical data is a bit sparse on both the ICE website and her own so I am going to assume that this talented young keyboard player likely began playing at an early age.  Like fellow pioneers Margaret Leng Tan and Jeanne Kirstein before her she has embraced toy pianos and, by extension I suppose, music boxes, and electronics into her performing arsenal.  In addition to being a composer she is one of the regular members of ICE.

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Nathan Davis is a regular percussionist with ICE as well as a composer.  His works range from opera to chamber and solo pieces for various instruments as well as electronics.

The tracks on this release pretty much alternate between these two featured composers.

The first track is Ghostlight (2013) by Nathan Davis, a sort of ragged moto perpetuo for “gently”prepared piano.  This is a good example of how these musicians (pianist Jacob Greenberg in this instance) have really fully integrated what were once exotic extended techniques into a comprehensive catalog of timbral options which are used to expand the palette of creative expression.  This is not a second rate John Cage clone but rather another generation’s incorporation of timbral exploration into their integral canon of sonic options.  This is an exciting and well-written tour de force deftly executed.

The next two tracks take us into the different but complimentary sound world of Phyllis Chen.  Hush (2011) for two pianos, toy pianos, bowls (presumably of the Tibetan singing variety) and music boxes is a playful gamelan-like piece played by the composer along with pianist Cory Smythe.

Chimers (2011) is a similarly playful work requiring the assistance of clarinetist Joshua Rubin, violinist Erik Carlson and Eric Lamb (on tuning forks) along with Chen and Smythe once again.  Again we hear these unusual instruments and timbres not as outliers in the musical soundscape but rather simply as artistic elements that are part of the composer’s vision.

Track number 4 features a work for bassoon and live processing.  Davis’ On Speaking a Hundred Names (2010) is played by Rebekah Heller and again the (to this listener) usually uncomfortable fit of acoustic and electronic are achieved very smoothly.  Music like this gives me hope that some day I will be able to drop the inevitable negative connotations I have associated with the term “electroacoustic”.  This is very convincing music and not just in the “golly gee, see what they’re doing” sense either.  The experimentation here (including the multiphonics) appears to have preceded the composition giving us an integrated and satisfying listening experience.

Chen comes back on track 5 with another successful integration of acoustic and electronic in her, Beneath a Trace of Vapor (2011).  Eric Lamb handles the flute here playing with (or against) the composer’s prepared tape.  This electroacoustic trend continues in the following track (also by Chen) called Mobius (201-) in which Chen, Smythe and Lamb are credited with playing “music boxes and electronics”.  Once again the integration of electric and acoustic speaks of a high level of music making.

The final four tracks are the big work here and the work that lends its name to this disc, On the Nature of Thingness (2011) by Nathan Davis.  Apparently taking its title from Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things (ca. 1B.C.) the work earlier also inspired Henry Brant in his spatial composition, On the Nature of Things (1956), but the work in this disc does not seem to make any direct reference to that Roman classic poem except perhaps metaphorically.

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Soprano Tony Arnold

The work here is an exploration of language, sound and expression.  This most eclectic and ponderous of the selections is a wonderful opportunity to hear the considerable skills of resident vocalist Tony Arnold who sense of pitch and articulation are incredibly well-suited to this work.  Her performance leaves nothing to be desired and is likely as authoritative as it gets.  The work seems to require a great deal of concentration and coordination on the parts of all involved and ICE takes the opportunity to demonstrate their well-honed skills as they clearly listen to each other and go all out in terms of achieving the subtlety of expression required in this demanding and complex work.

As usual the Starkland recording is clear and detailed without the sense of claustrophobia that such detail can take on and the liner notes are useful without extraneous detail.  This is an ensemble to watch/listen for both for the performers and for the music they choose to program.  You won’t be disappointed.