Jason Vieaux with the Escher Quartet


 

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Though this album was actually released a few months before the Sharon Isbin recording containing, purely by chance, two of the same guitar quintets is perhaps an indicator that these quintets are making their way into the active performing repertoire.  I’m not really interested in the differences between the two recordings but I am interested in hearing two of the finest guitarists working today finding the two works on their respective radars at more or less the same time.

The present disc with Jason Vieaux (whose fine work has been reviewed elsewhere in this blog) and the Escher Quartet begins (as Isbin’s does) with the inconceivably little known masterpiece, the Guitar Quintet Op. 148 (1950) of Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968).  The composer’s style sounds pretty much mid-century post romantic with a wealth of Spanish references.  The high romanticism of the quintet format (compare Schubert’s Trout Quintet, Brahms and Schumann’s Piano Quintets) is well served here in an incredibly engaging work which makes significant demands on the musicians but is musically very transparent to the listener.  It is a wonder that this piece is not better known and, for that matter, that the rest of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s output is not being explored in a big way.

The second work here also deserves more hearings.  Aaron Jay Kernis’ (1960- ) 100 Greatest Dance Hits is another piece which can be described as post romantic and audience friendly.  Kernis uses some extended techniques like using the instruments percussively at times but its basically a consonant melodic experience.  It’s scoring for guitar and string quartet keep the listener in basically the same sound world and, except for Kernis’ curious titlings, this is a guitar quintet in all but name.  And the use of dance forms is a tradition that goes back at least the baroque era.  Like the opening work, it is cast in four movements.

Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805) is a prolific Italian composer who spent a great deal of creative life in Spain and, as a result, has incorporated Spanish rhythms and idioms into his work.  This contemporary of Mozart and Haydn shares a similar late classical style.  The last work here is another four movement Guitar Quintet (1793), the fourth of nine he wrote and probably the best known.  The only difference between this rendition and the one by Isbin and the Pacifica Quartet is the absence of castanets in the fandango last movement.  In fact that may be one of the hooks for completists who want to hear what it sounds like in its original version (both work very well).

The performances are all full of enthusiasm and seemingly easy virtuosity that one expects from musicians of this caliber.  If you are stumped as to which one of these to get I think the only reasonable answer is, of course, both.

 

 

The Ecstasy of Enjoyment: Sharon Isbin with the Pacifica Quartet


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Cedille CDR 9000 190

I was delighted to have had the opportunity to speak with guitarist Sharon Isbin (1956-) about this fine album.  She appeared to be in the midst of a queue of interviewers set up by her press corps but she came across as a confident, relaxed, and skilled interviewee and a gracious person with a palpable passion for music.  Listening to this latest release and having a more than passing interest in this fine musician it is a joy to see her getting recognition.

Originally from the Midwest, Isbin actually began her studies in Italy where her nuclear scientist father was working as a consultant.  Her studies in Varese, Italy began at age 9 with Aldo Minella.  She also counts among her teachers Andre Segovia, Alirio Diaz, and Oscar Ghiglia among her many teachers.

Most curiously she spent time studying Bach with none other than pianist Rosalyn Tureck during the time she was working on her landmark recording of the Bach Lute Suites.  Isbin stated, “I don’t play piano and Tureck doesn’t play guitar but I wanted her insights into the preparation of this music.”  Apparently this collaborative scholarship resulted in the publication (by G. Schirmer) of two of these suites originally written for lute.

As an academic, Isbin is all about research, fact checking, and collaboration and this clearly pays off as listeners will be delighted to find.  But she is also the founder of the Guitar Department at the venerable Julliard School, a department which this year celebrates 30 years hosting students from 20 countries and, this year, establishing a DMA in guitar performance.  Her first graduate, Australian guitarist Alberta Khoury, is the first recipient of this degree.

Asked about being THE musician to start the guitar department at Julliard she related that Segovia had proposed the idea some years ago and was rejected but that she was actually asked to start the department.  An example, perhaps, of the student transcending the teacher.

Isbin plays a great deal of guitar music but, unlike many in her field, she has shown interest and devotion to music of our time as well.  In fact she estimates having at least 80 scores and arrangements either commissioned by her or dedicated to her.  It was with her recording “American Landscapes” featuring concerti commissioned from Lukas Foss, John Corigliano, and Tan Dun that first brought this artist to this reviewer’s attention.  She is the recipient of three Grammys (and this album may very well earn her a fourth).

Regarding the present release, Isbin spoke of the process of preparation involved with this music.  The Pacifica Quartet had been in residence at the University of Chicago and this was the connection (Cedille is a Chicago based, Chicago friendly label) that allowed her collaboration to appear of this fine record label.

She also spoke of the serendipitous discovery of finding that the composer’s granddaughter, Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco, actually lived near her in New York.  They began discussions and Isbin was able to view and work directly with the manuscript of the Quintet which opens the disc.  Asked about the fact that this very quintet had been recorded about a year ago by Jason Vieaux, Isbin replied that it was pure coincidence but that this piece was considered by the composer to be his finest work of chamber music.

The Italian composer, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968) was born in Italy but was forced to flee the Nazis and was able, with the sponsorship of Jascha Heifetz (then a recently minted citizen himself), to come to the United States in 1939 just before the outbreak of WWII.  In fact, his family suffered a similar indignity in 1492 when they were forced from their native Spain when the Alhambra Edict forced the expulsion of Jews from the country.  The composer’s curious hyphenated name, according to Isbin, resulted when a dying friend who had no progeny asked that the composer somehow incorporate his name.  This is both sweetly romantic and evocative of the sensitivities of the man himself.

The Guitar Quintet Op. 143 (1950) is a grand romantic and virtuosic work that deserves to be heard.  It is difficult to imagine an audience not being thrilled by this music.  It is cast in four movements like a classical work (allegro, andante, scherzo, finale).  From the beginning the listener is carried along by beautiful melodies and clever collaborations between the strings and the guitar.  Isbin related that superscriptions on the score saying, “Souvenir of Spain” gave the idea for the title of this album.

This is followed by one of the most recognizable guitar concertos, the Concerto in D Major for guitar and strings by Antonio Vivaldi written about 1730.  The original is written for lute and Isbin uses an edition for guitar by Emilio Pujol with gorgeous ornamentation consistent with late baroque practice added by the present performer.  This performance is with guitar, violin, viola, and cello (no second violin) but manages to make a big sound.  This work is a personal favorite and, unlike the other works on the album, extremely well known and loved by this reviewer.  My baseline favorite recording of this piece will probably always be Julian Bream’s performance on this RCA recording but Isbin’s scholarship provides a fascinating perspective on this work.  So basically I now have two favorite recordings.

Next up is the only piece on the album where the Pacifica Quartet plays without guitar.  Joaquin Turina (1882-1949) is more or less a contemporary of Castelnuovo-Tedesco.  Offered here is Oración del Torero Op. 34 (1925).  Curiously this work was written originally for four lutes or string quartet.  Only the quartet version seems to get much play though the lute version might be interesting as well.  This work, which translates into English as “Bullfighter’s Prayer” is essentially a miniature tone poem whose drama takes on almost cinematic dimensions in its just over 7 minutes.  The Pacifica Quartet does a potent job of delivering an engaging performance.  The Pacifica consists of Simin Ganatra, first violin; Austin Hartman, second violin; Mark Holloway, viola; and Brandon Vamos, cello.  They are based at Indiana University.

Last and certainly not least is another major Quintet by an Italian composer, Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805).  His dates make him a contemporary of Mozart and Haydn, though he was born in Italy, many of his productive years were spent in Spain where he enjoyed royal patronage.  He was a prolific composer who has experienced a significant interest in the 20th century.

He wrote no less than 9 Quintets for guitar and string quartet and this one, in D Major G. 448 dates from about 1798 and is the best known of his works for this combination.  It has the rather unusual attribute of having a percussionist (one Eduardo Leandro) improvise on castanets and tambourine in the last movement, fandango.

The work is cast in three movements (pastorale, allegro, grave assai-fandango) and will remind the listener of Haydn, Mozart, and/or early Beethoven.  The music is both familiar and very entertaining.  The castanets do not appear to be included in the original score and one can find recordings without them but they really rock that last movement.

This is another triumph for Ms. Isbin and a feather in the caps of the Pacifica Quartet.  It is sonically spectacular album as well having employed the producer/engineer team of Judith Sherman and Bill Maylone.  They achieve a lucid and warm sound field with an appropriately dry resonance that makes for an intimate listening experience which reveals the details the musicians coax from the score.  Get this one, you’ll play it often.

 

 

 

Duo Noire, Guitar Duo Revisioned


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New Focus FCR 210

Duo Noire consists of Thomas Flippin and Christopher Mallet.  These guitarists are graduates of the Yale School of Music.  For this, their debut album, they have chosen to feature a program of all women composers.  Add to that the fact that these fine emerging artists are African-American (also the first African American graduates of Yale School of Music) and you have a glorious celebration of gender/cultural diversity as well as some mind blowing compositional efforts ably handled by these visionary musicians.

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The demographics are necessarily prominent especially in these contentious times when racial and gender discrimination are, sadly, huge and difficult issues that remain largely unresolved.  But the real story here is creative music and musicians.  This duo seems to have a unique sound and are clearly schooled in their instruments to the point that they even seem to be expanding the very possibilities of a guitar duo.  Above all this is an intelligent album.

The composers Clarice Assad (1978- ), Mary Kouyoumdjian (1983- ), Courtney Bryan (1982- ), Golfam Khayam (1983- ), Gity Razaz (1986- ), and Gabriella Smith (1991- ) are mostly unfamiliar names to this writer and, likely, to most listeners.  But don’t let that put you off.  This is a highly inventive set of compositions and these performers are doing the job of discovering these compositional talents.

There on six compositions on this thirteen track CD which has over an hour of music on it and it appears to be a landmark release for identifying new composers contributing to the guitar duo genre.  Guitar duos are not an unusual instrumental grouping but this collection suggests fresh new directions that extend the possibilities of this instrumental configuration.

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Clarice Assad

Of course the guitar duo is hardly a new idea.  On the more pop side we have had Les Paul and Mary Ford and on the classical side many listeners will be familiar with Sergio and Odair Assad.  And that brings us to Clarice Assad who is the daughter of Sergio Assad.  Her composition,  Hocus Pocus (2016) is in three movements, each ostensibly describing an aspect of magic.  Clearly Assad is familiar with both traditional and extended techniques of composition for guitar.  This is a sort of impressionistic work which calls upon the musicians to utilize a variety of techniques to evoke moods and images of each of the three movements, Abracadabra!, Shamans, and Klutzy Witches.

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Mary Kouyoumdjian

 

Byblos (2017) by Mary Kouyoumdjian embraces her Persian roots as well as the conflicts which have plagued this area of the world.  Here she is evoking an ancient town in Lebanon.  This is the most extended single movement on the disc and demonstrates the composer’s mastery of form while it challenges the instrumentalists to evoke the ancient and mystical sounds of her classical culture.

 

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Courtney Bryan

The only African-American composer featured on this recording is Courtney Bryan.  Her “Solo Dei Gloria” (2017) which was commissioned by Duo Noire takes the listener on a sonic journey through the composer’s impression of the inner process of prayer.  That’s a mighty abstract concept and she manages accomplish it with just the two guitars (and, of course, two talented musicians).

 

 

The three movement, “Night Triptych” (2017) was also written for Duo Noire and has the honor of being the title track for this truly eclectic and innovative album.  This has more the feel of an abstract musical work than the others featured but one does hear the influences of her ethnic origin (Persian/Iranian).  Despite the more extended nature of this composition this work, like all the works presented here, is a sampling of the composer’s work and the astute listener will have many reasons to seek out more of this young composer’s work.

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Golfam Kayam

 

 

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Gity Razaz

 

Four Haikus (2017) was also written for Duo Noire.  This Iranian born composer is rapidly becoming established internationally as an accomplished composer.  Like the previous work these four short movements are of a more abstract nature.  Another sampling that will prompt listeners to seek out more of this emerging composer’s work.

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Gabriella Smith

Last but not least is the second most extended work here by the youngest of the composers represented.  “Loop the Fractal Hold of Rain” (2017) is another Duo Noire commission.  This is probably the most abstract and modern composition on the disc.

Many works here have at least the suggestion of dealing with politics, conflict, and the impact of such things on individuals.

It is admittedly unusual (though clearly not risky) to program compositions by all women composers.  This is a wonderful collection with performances that are incisive and intriguing enough to leave their listeners wanting more.  This is a group to watch/listen to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marin: An Unknown Danish Master Gets His Due Marvellously


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I have made no secret of my passion for the music which has been coming out of the Scandinavian portion of our planet.  My knowledge of these musical traditions is mostly limited to the twentieth century up to the present but what a horn of plenty there is to be had.  There are so many composers that it is forgivable if one of them fails to get worldwide attention and acclaim during their lifetime.  Or is it?

Well if sins of omission that have been committed all can now be forgiven and the memory of Axel Borup-Jørgenson (1924-2012) is likely guaranteed to remain solidly in the history of music of the twentieth century.  The Danes take their music very seriously it seems (check out the You Tube Channel for the Danish National Symphony Orchestra if you don’t believe me) and producer Lars Hannibal and his crew have labored tirelessly to bring this formerly obscure master most deservingly to light in this DVD/CD combo pack featuring some of his finest works.

This truly major release contains a DVD with a gorgeous animated feature synced to the late composer’s swan song big orchestral piece, Marin op. 60 (1963-70) a really beautifully produced documentary (“Axel”) on the composer featuring some of his fellow composers including, Finn Savery, Pelle Gudmunsen-Holmgreen, Bent Sørensen, Sunleif Rasmussen, Per Nørgard, Gert Mortensen, Ib Nørholm, Michala Petri, and producer Lars Hannibal along with family and other musicians and producers.

The animated feature looks like one of the finer entries one might find on Vimeo.  The animation was done by Lùckow Film and works well with the music.  The biographical feature does a spectacular job of placing the composer in context with his Nordic contemporaries and with contemporary music in general.  The people interviewed give about as definitive a description of the man’s work as can be done in a film biography and the intervening or connecting scenes bespeak a high level concept of cinematography that makes this film both compelling and a delight for the eyes as well as the mind.  The concept of the composer’s use of silence as a compositional tool seems to be reflected in these transitional scenes.

The CD consists of seven carefully selected pieces on seven tracks.  The disc opens with the big orchestra piece which was heard behind the animation on the DVD, Marin Op. 60 (1963-70) followed by Music for Percussion and Viola Op. 18 (1955-56), For Cembalo and Orgel Op. 133 (1989), Nachtstuck Op. 181 (1987) (played here by the composer’s daughter, Elisabeth Selin), Winter Pieces Op. 30b (1959) for piano, Pergolato Op. 182 (2011) for treble recorder, and Coast of Sirens Op. 100 (1980-85) for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, guitar, piano, percussion, and multivoice tape.  This is truly a balanced portrait with examples of orchestral, solo instrument, keyboard, chamber and electroacoustic works from 1959-2011, a more than fair sampling of the composer’s output both by genre and by time.

The music seems to move between post-romantic tonality and expressionistic experiments such as one hears in the music of Gyorgy Ligeti.  The music is evocative and very listenable especially if one avails one’s self of the introductory film.  It certainly seemed to tune this reviewer’s ears properly.  It is helped as well by some very fine recordings that capture the subtlety of the composer’s work.

Lars Hannibal is clearly the guiding hand in this project but his genius (he is a fine guitarist as well as a producer) is his ability to engage all these fine musicians, artists, producers, and family in what is one of the most loving portraits this writer has ever seen.  Now that is the way to blast someone out of obscurity forever.

And this is but one entry in a larger project to record the composer’s complete output.  Two previous releases were reviewed on this blog and, presumably there are more to come.  But in the meantime there is much to savor here and one hopes that this will introduce this music into the general repertoire.  I’m sure Axel would be pleased to be placed as he is now among the masters of Danish composers.

 

The Heresy and the Ecstasy: Brooklyn Raga Massive Does “In C”


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This is heresy.  It is not, strictly speaking, faithful to the 1964 score and it is a sort of cultural appropriation which is actually the very basis of Brooklyn Raga Massive, a sort of latter day “Oregon” (to those who recall that band) which takes on all sorts of music and filters it through the unique lens of this flexibly populated group of musicians whose backgrounds range primarily from Hindustani and Carnatic traditions (though hardly in the most classical sense) but also from western classical and jazz.  Their “heresy” comes from their choices.  The root of heresy is the Greek word, “hairesis” which means choice.  There is a lovely selection of their musical heresies on their You Tube Channel.

No this is not purely heresy and it is certainly not blasphemy.  Quite the opposite actually.  And I would prefer to think of this effort as cultural integration.  The choices made here instead lead to some mighty ecstatic music making which pays honor to Terry Riley who turned 80 in 2015 and provides a unique perspective on this classic work.

“In C” (1964) is without doubt Riley’s best known work by far and the one which pretty much defined what would later become known for better or worse as “minimalism”.  It is an open score meaning that no instruments are specified for performance making this music heretical in nature as well.  In addition there is no conductor’s score as such.  Rather there are 53 melodic cells numbered 1 to 53 and the ensemble is held together by the expression of an 8th note pulse played by at least one of the musicians involved.  The defining reference on the intricacies of this work is composer/musicologist Robert Carl’s masterful book entitled simply, “In C”.  He describes the wide variety of potential choices which can be made in performance and the different results which can be achieved.

There are a great deal of recordings available of this work from the first (released 1968)  on Columbia’s “Music of Our Time” series curated by the insightful David Behrman to versions involving a wide variety of instrumental combinations of varying sizes.  The first “world music” version this writer has heard is the version for mostly percussion instruments by Africa Express titled, “In C Mali” (released in 2014).

Not surprisingly BRM, as they are known, have chosen a largely Hindustani/Carnatic take on this music.  The unprepared listener might easily mistake this for a traditional Indian music recording with the introduction which incorporates a raga scale and adheres to the traditional slow free rhythm improvisation of the introductory “alap” section common to such traditional or classical performances.

The familiar sound of these (largely) South Asian instruments with their rich harmonics sets the tone gently.  This writer has at best a perfunctory working knowledge of these complex and beautiful musical traditions but one must surmise that the choice of Raga Bihag may have some intended meaning.  Indeed such music is by definition integrated into the larger cosmology of Hinduism, the Vedas, the Gita, the Sanskrit language, and, no doubt other references.  This is not discussed in the brief liner notes but is worthy perhaps as a future interview question.

It appears that many of the musical decisions were made by sitarist Neel Murgai though it becomes clear as the performance develops that individual soloists are allowed wonderful improvisational freedoms at various points.  The recording is intelligently divided to let the listener know which set of melodic cells is being expressed at a given time.

The alap gives way to the sound of the tablas which initiate the pulse mentioned earlier.  The structure of this piece produces a range of musical experiences from a sort of didactic beginning to the swirling psychedelic waves of sound which stereotypically define much of the music born in the mid 1960s in this country.  In fact Terry Riley’s deep study of South Asian musics (most famously under vocalist Pandit Pran Nath) did not occur until later in his career.  Nonetheless there seems to have always been some affinity between Riley’s vision and the sort of music whose popularity was driven in the United States most famously by the efforts such as Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Alla Rakha in the 1970s.

What follows is a riot of musical ecstasy involving some inspired improvisational riffs and some stunning vocalizations as well giving us a fascinating take on this music which was written well before these musicians came into the world.  We have a later generation paying homage to the beloved American composer and to the beautiful traditions of their own eclectic ethnic heritage.

The set concludes in this live and lively recording with a traditional fast paced Jhalla, the traditional ending to classical Indian musical performances. This will likely become known as the “Indian” recording of “In C” but it is so much more than that.  It is an homage.  It is a look back from the view of at least a couple of generations of artists.  And it is heresy in the best sense of that word, choices made judiciously to achieve higher artistic goals.  Not all art is heresy and not all heresy is art but the heresies perpetrated here definitely deserve our ears.

The heretics are: Neel Murgai, Sitar and Vocal; Arun Ramamurthy, Violin; Andrew Shantz, Vocal; Josh Geisler, Bansuri; Sameer Gupta, Tabla; Roshni Samlal, Tabla; Eric Fraser, Bansuri; Timothy Hill, vocal; Trina Basu, Violin; Ken Shoji, Violin; Kane Mathis, Oud; Adam Malouf, Cello; Michael Gam, Bass; Lauren Crump, Cajon; David Ellenbogen, Guitar; Max ZT, Hammered Dulcimer; Vin Scialla, Riq and Frame Drum; Aaron Shragge, Dragon Mouth Trumpet.

Namaste, folks.

 

 

 

 

Jason Vieaux and  Julien Labro, Chamber Music with Afro-Cuban Roots


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This album seems to have been characterized as fusion/crossover perhaps for marketing purposes but it is in fact a fine compilation of too little heard works by Afro-Cuban/Latin American/South American composers of the mid to late 20th century.  Start with the rapidly rising star of guitarist Jason Vieaux whose earlier recording of the stunning Ginastera guitar sonata seems to place him in the position as a specialist in Latin American music.  Then add Julien Labro, a specialist in the bandoneón, an instrument best known for its ubiquity in tango music. Combine them with good audio engineering and an intelligent production and you have this album.

If there is a sense of “fusion” here it is due to the creative efforts of the composers involved.  In fact this is pretty much in the same tradition of Bartok, Kodaly, Copland, Thomson and others who mined folk and ethnic musics very successfully to infuse their “classical” compositions with new life.

Leo Brouwer (1939- ), Radamés Gnattali (1906-1988), and Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) are all composers deserving of serious attention but are little known in North America and the reasons are clearly not musical talent.  All three composers are featured here in works arranged by Julien Labro who plays bandoneón, accordion and accordina on this recording.  He is joined by Jason Vieaux on guitar, and Jamey Haddad on percussion.

In addition we are treated to a composition by Pat Metheny and a curious arrangement of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Roland Orzabal, Ian Stanley, and Chris Hughes to round out a diverse and engaging program.

One hopes that this will kindle further interest in these too little known composers but, until then, we have a marvelously entertaining recording that will likely please Latinists, guitar lovers, bandoneón lovers, and the like.

This is a fine and crisply recorded CD with some truly fine musicians.  Call it fusion if that helps you want to listen but please listen when you get a chance.  You won’t regret it.

 

 

Oceanus Procellarum: Gareth Davis and Elliot Sharp


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I recall excitedly taking a class in college in the late 70s which dealt with post 1950 composition.  The professor emphasized that the reigning characteristic of this music is “pluralism”, that is to say that anything goes and one gets less useful information from labels like, “classical”, “baroque”, “romantic”, “post-romantic”, “post-modern”, etc.  There is no question that this maxim remains very true and we now are seeing composers well-versed in virtually every technique known to the world of composition.

This album is a fine example of such pluralism.  Seeing names such as Elliott Sharp and Gareth Davis one might expect something of the “free jazz” genre and that would not necessarily be an inaccurate description.  But it would fail to capture the wonderful writing for Ensemble Resonanz by the eclectic (yes, pluralistic too) Elliott Sharp.  As a composer Sharp draws on late twentieth century modern/post-modern compositional techniques along with a fair amount of his own creative innovations gleaned from his own experimentation and, no doubt, from his exposure to the wildly creative milieu of the Downtown New York scene of the 80s and 90s.

The result is like listening to shades of Penderecki and Xenakis as they wrote in the late 1950s though the 70s.  This is far more homage than derivation however and the achievement here is how well the soloists on guitar and bass clarinet fit into the work as a whole.  They fit remarkably well.

This could easily be called “Symphony for Ensemble with Obligatto Guitar and Bass Clarinet” or even Concerto if you like.  The point is that Sharp is an engaging composer whose works are very substantial.  From his beginnings on the New York Downtown scene with its mix of jazz, experimental and classical he has continued to explore and grow as a composer and that is what ultimately makes this release so compelling.

The musicianship here from Ensemble Resonanz, Sharp and Davis is of the first order and there is a certain sense of a tight fit such that, whatever may be improvised here sounds as though it were carefully written into this large orchestral fabric.  This is a powerful piece of music and repeated listenings will doubtless reveal more and more depth.  This is a very engaging piece.

Sharp is clearly evolving and growing as a composer and still hasn’t lost his marvelous collaborative and improvisatorial abilities.  This is a major work and a lovely recording.