Pauline Kim Harris’ Solo Debut: Heroine


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Pauline Kim Harris is a marvelously accomplished violinist.  Her resume includes her work as composer as well as performer.  At first glance this disc would seem to be an unusual choice for a solo debut but a quick look at her discography reveals that we have here a musician who has chosen experimental and potentially cutting edge music to define her work.  This album is a collaboration with another musician, Spencer Topel, who has chosen a similarly difficult and complex challenge to define his career.

I have chosen for the scope of this review to forego attempts at analyzing these nascent artists and their uniquely defined personas as musicians and have simply provided links to their respective websites.  What I feel obligated to do however is look at the nature of this genre of this music.  Is it ambient?  Is it drone? Is it transcription?  And who is the intended audience?  Musicians? Listeners sitting in a seat in a concert hall?  Background music a la Eno’s Music for Airports?  How will this disc be used?

One clue as to this music’s intended purpose is the recording label itself.  Sono Luminus, a new music label defined largely by a concern with producing the finest sound via digital signal processing.  This independent classical label has sent me several CDs which are reviewed (most favorably) elsewhere in these pages.  One of the things that is notable about this label is the intelligent choice of programming.  Rather than settle simply for quality sound alone they seem to focus their repertoirial radar on new and/or unusual music which is not being heard on other labels.  Their choices have been intelligent in the past.

OK, now to the disc.  There are but two pieces here.  One is a sort of deconstruction of the Chaconne from Bach’s solo violin partita (BWV 1004).  This much lauded masterpiece has received a great deal of attention and composers such as Feruccio Busoni have done transcriptions of the work.  Another recent recording (reviewed here) features a just intonation version of the work.  I’m not sure what Bach would have thought of either of these but the fact is that this is a work very much representative of western music in the high baroque era and one which endures in performances to this day.

The sound, of course, is wonderful.  The range and the clarity of the recording beg to be heard on the highest quality sound system the listener can commandeer.  It is beautiful. It is in a tonal idiom.  But what volume is needed?  Well that depends on your listening context.  For the purpose of this review I listened on my factory sound system in my 2015 Toyota RAV 4.  Not the highest end of audio reproduction but one which did allow me to perceive the quality of the recording.

So I listened at a volume which allowed the music to be heard above road and traffic noise.  I wondered if I would have appreciated this from an audience seat.  Hmm, not sure.  Then the more ambient notion suggested itself to me.  Maybe this could be music that is played in the foyer of a concert hall before the concert and during intermissions (regardless of the content of the actual concert to be heard).  Intriguing idea but I know of no one willing to consider this notion in any sizable venue.

I listened to the second track, a “reimagining” of Deo Gratias by renaissance composer Johannes Ockeghem.  Same thoughts…dedicated listener in a chair, music to modify a sonic space.  Both tracks are listed as “Composed by Pauline Kim Harris and Spencer Topel.”  So the artists think of these as their compositions.  Fine by me.  The long standing and ongoing tradition of working with older music and recasting it by changing its instrumentation, writing variations, changing its performance context, etc. is well known and has been put to good use in any number of subsequently respected musical compositions.

So in the end I remain undecided as to the intent (other than experimentalism) of these pieces and will leave my readers with the suggestion that they simply listen and utilize the music as it fits your own life.  It is certainly beautiful but it is not dramatic or assertive, rather it almost subsists inviting listeners to contemplate and choose to do more deeply or to simply allow the music to exist as a pleasing sound object (the listener indeed may be the “Heroine” of the title).  Either way this disc provides much more than what initially meets the ear.  And that would seem to be a significant artistic achievement.

LA Percussion in High Definition


Having been a bit overwhelmed with a LOT of percussion recordings lately I placed this Los Angeles Percussion Quartet recording a bit further back in my review queue.  My apologies but I did it because I really wanted to give this recording my full attention and then to have something useful to say.

So I listened.  I put this on in my car when making a trip long enough to allow me to hear one of the two discs without interruption.  And I chose a relatively non-distracting drive in which I could actually pay attention to the music without incurring some danger on the road.

Of course the first thing that strikes the listener here is the lucidity of the recording.  Sono Luminus is showing off their signal processing prowess as well as their sensitivity with things like microphone placement and all the things that only great engineers know.

Let me make one thing very clear.  I am not a fan of sonic spectacle for its own sake.  I recall one incarnation of vinyl/analog fetish releases which a friend drooled over but whose content bored me to death.  Fortunately Sono Luminus seems to be steering clear of that sand trap.

This two disc set (well, three if you count the Blu-Ray Audio disc) collects music by largely little known composers (at least to these ears).  But fear not, this is not music that sounds like someone knocked over the stainless steel pot rack at Sur le Table.  Quite the opposite.  This is some intelligent music which compels the listener to stick with each piece and follow its development.  This is apparently the fourth album by LAPQ, the previous three also being Sono Luminus productions.

The first disc begins with the first of two Icelandic composers both of whom were represented on a previously reviewed discDaniel Bjarnason is a conductor and composer and his Qui Tollis, a work of wide dynamic range and a variety of moods from more assertive to more contemplative.  The second work is by the current darling of Icelandic classical music.  I am speaking, of course, of the very talented Anna Thorvaldsdottir.  Her work, Aura, is more consistently contemplative in nature and, like all her work, the listener is rewarded for paying close attention as she weaves magical impressionistic tapestries.

Memory Palace by Brooklyn based Christopher Cerrone piqued serious interest in this listener.  This man would seem to be a composer whose work deserves watching/listening.  This five movement suite for percussion indeed makes for compelling listening as he moves through a variety of moods and isn’t afraid of frank melodic invention during the journey.  This does not strike this reviewer as run of the mill percussion music (not that the preceding two works did either).  Rather this work suggests a distinctive compositional voice worthy of further attention.  Mr. Cerrone’s collection of awards including a Rome Prize and a runner up for a Pulitzer Prize suggests that he will be heard from again soon.

Fear-Release by Ellen Reid is a shorter though no less rewarding journey down yet another compositional path for percussion.  At just short of nine minutes this is a compact movement which relies on a fairly wide dynamic range and strategic use of silences and is a fitting close to the first disc.

The brief, rather poetic, liner notes draw a parallel between the multiplicity of languages found in the Los Angeles area and the multiplicity of musical languages found on this recording.  Indeed these are distinctive voices that extract a wide variety of sound from this percussion quartet.  This reviewer is somehow strongly reminded of Nexus, the Canadian percussion group which dominated the 1990s for a bit.  The similarity is in their enthusiasm and in their musical skills.  LAPQ is a distinct ensemble in its way and is a group that is not shy to be innovative.

I have to say, though, that I could have used a great deal more info and commentary on these compositions.  As one would benefit from multilingual dictionaries in Los Angeles the listener could gain much from learning more about the structure and intentions behind these fascinating compositions.  And, unless I have failed to find them (I looked closely) the liner notes carry lovely photos but fail to name the musicians whose sound was so lovingly preserved.  They are: Matt Cook, Justin DeHart, Nick Terry, and Justin Hills.

The concluding work coming in at almost 40 minutes is divided into tracks but is in fact one large movement.  It is probably the most contemplative work here though it has some pretty assertive moments.  I Hold the Lion’s Paw by Andrew McIntosh is a great show piece for demonstrating the range of these musicians.  Though continuous this piece delves through a variety of moods and uses apparently a wide variety of instruments as well.

Fans of percussion will love this disc as will fans of audio porn (there is something erotic about technology for the ears).  This is not easy listening and though seeking innovation makes no moves toward populism.  This is serious music making.

 

Dark Queen Mantra, Celebrating Terry Riley at 80



Terry Riley (1935- ) turned 80 on June 24, 2015 and happily we are still celebrating this treasure of American music.  His iconic work “In C” (1964) is one of the defining works of the minimalist movement and Riley’s trippy album, “Rainbow in Curved Air” (1969) has also endured well.  But these works typify his early style and his work has evolved though his primary influences continue to be jazz and Hindustani music for the most part to a very personal style.

His discography boasts at least 30 albums and his compositions range from various chamber music pieces, solo and duo piano music, orchestral music, concertos and even music drama.  His influence on musicians is wide ranging and even includes that familiar intro to Baba O’Riley by the The Who (the title is actually an homage to Meher Baba and Terry Riley and that intro derives from Riley’s first Keyboard Study).  In recent years he has achieved much deserved success in collaboration with his son Gyan Riley who is a composer in his own right and an extraordinary guitarist.  Their collaborations have been a true highlight in both musicians’ careers.

This disc is a production from the truly wonderful Sono Luminus label whose recordings continue to set a high bar for production and excellence in sound as well as in intelligent programming.

Three works are presented here.  The first is Dark Queen Mantra (2015) for electric guitar and string quartet.  It is obviously the centerpiece and it is a fine work commissioned in honor of Riley’s 80th and written for the forces who perform it here. The amazing and versatile Del Sol Quartet and Gyan Riley seem a natural pairing.  These California based musicians seem to pour the whole of their artistic hearts and souls into this performance and Gyan Riley, a fine musician in his own right, always seems to be at his very best in his collaborations with his dad.  (Indeed anyone who had the pleasure of seeing their live sets can testify as to their beautiful musical intimacy.)

So it is we have a definitive recording of yet another fine piece from this beloved composer.  The choice to follow it with Mas Lugares (2003) by the late Stefano Scodanibbio (1956-2012) is an inspired and very appropriate choice (Riley was fond of this composer and helped promote his work).  Scodanibbio collaborated with Riley and recorded two albums with him (Lazy Afternoon Among the Crocodiles, 1997 and Diamond Fiddle Language, 2005).  This work for string quartet is dedicated to Luciano Berio and is a sort of deconstruction via the lens of the composer’s vision of madrigals by the early baroque master Claudio Monteverdi.  It is truly a joy to hear more of this composer’s music and this serves as a loving homage by the Del Sol and, by association, with Riley.

The concluding music is again by Terry Riley and it comes from the rich period of his collaboration with another set of fine California based musicians, the Kronos Quartet. They Wheel and the Mythic Birds Waltz (1983) first appeared on a Gramavision disc and this is a welcome reprise.  It is via his writing for the Kronos that Riley produced most of his string quartet writing and it is a fine repository for his compositional talents.

For its sound and its compositional and performance content this is one of the finest discs to come across this reviewer’s desk and it is a beautiful homage to Riley (father and son), the Del Sol Quartet, the Kronos Quartet and to the late Stefano Scodanibbio.  This is a gorgeous and deeply satisfying album.  Kudos to all.

Recurrence: New Icelandic Orchestral Music


“Well I’ve never been to Iceland, but I really like the music.”  Please excuse the Hoyt Axton paraphrase but this music brings joy to this listener’s heart.

Wow!  Even as a writer with an avowed fondness for music from the Nordic regions I am pleased to say that I am just stunned at this recording.  This is all new music written in the last few years by Icelandic composers and performed by the Iceland Symphony which seems well prepared to handle these large works.

These seven tracks document five works by living composers and, I dare say, rising stars in the classical orchestral realm as well.  Only one of these composers is likely to ring a bell in all but a few listeners and that is Anna Thorvaldsdottir, probably the best known musician from Iceland since Björk.  And it is worth noting that three of the five works are by female composers.

There is a consistency in the large orchestral sounds from these composers that provide a unity for the listener and a challenge for the recording engineers.  In fact this is ideal to show off the sonic facility of the Sono Luminus label and the skills of producer Dan Merceruio and recording engineer Daniel Shores.  This is the sort of album that stereo salons use to show off the range of their amps and speakers.  It is indeed thrilling to hear and the better your sound system, the more exciting this will be.  Those blessed with Blue Ray Audio capability will doubtless get the best sound of all.  Both standard CD and Blue Ray Audio discs are included in this package.

In order of appearance the composers are: Thurídur Jónsdóttir (1967- ), Hlynur Vilmarsson, María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir (1980- ), Daniel Bjarnason (1979- ), and Anna Thorvaldsdottir (1977- ).  Bjarnason is also the very capable conductor of the Iceland Symphony in this recording.

The music, Flow and Fusion, bd, Aequora, Emergence (three movements), and Dreaming are not given composition dates but are presumably recent compositions by these young artists.  There are liner notes which are useful to the listener but the main point here seems to be the glorious sound.  One hears influence and/or homage to some of the great sonic experimenters of the late 1950s and 60s like Penderecki, Xenakis, Lutoslawski and probably some Icelandic composers whose works have yet to be heard outside of Iceland.

The album has the notation below the title of “ISO Project 1” so here’s hoping that there will be at least a second volume and that we be given the opportunity to hear more from the rich musical landscape of Iceland.  Bravo!  Brava!  Keep it coming.

 

Nordic Affect: Raindamage, Wonderful Music from Iceland


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Definitely an unusual beginning to this sonorous album of chamber music from the happy, creative place called Iceland.  Some of these tracks are electroacoustic combining some sort of electronic sound producing and/or manipulating components along with the live musical performance.

Nothing familiar here but a lot worth listening to.  This is a collection of recent chamber music from what is apparently some of the finest composers working in Iceland today. And as a Sono Luminus product it is a sound object of the highest order.  It is a beautifully recorded set of pieces that goes a long way to demonstrate the high quality and creativity of both the compositional and performance to be found in this distant corner of the world.

There are six works represented here.  Three are exclusively electronic, one for acoustic instruments with electronics and two are for acoustic instruments alone.  All seem to share the eclecticism of modern composers and, to this writer’s ear, a rather distinct style which seems to come out of the Nordic regions these days.

Iceland has a long and proud musical history and has amassed a large creative classical repertoire in (at least) the 20th and 21st centuries.  Perhaps one can hear the “sounds of the north” in these works or perhaps that is simply the analogous associations of this listener’s mind but there does seem to be some affinity between the lovely cover photograph of melting ice and some of the sounds herein.

At any rate this is fascinating music beautifully performed by Nordic Affect, a more or less fixed ensemble of violin, viola, cello, and harpsichord with occasional electronic supplementation.  Performers include Halla Steinun Stefásdóttir, Violin; Guòrún Hrund Haróardóttir, Viola; Hanna Loftsdóttir, Cello; Guòrún Óskarsdóttir, Harpsichord with Nava Dunkelman on drum in the last track.

The composers Úlfur Hansson, Valgeir Sigurðsson, and Hlynur Aðils Vilmarsson are completely unknown to this writer though it is noted that Hansson studied at Mills College in California, itself quite a hotbed of new music innovation.  No matter, though, these are some amazing composers doing cutting edge work and deserve your attention.

All in all this is one fine disc of chamber music.

 

 

 

Skylark: Crossing Over, bringing the chamber choir to the mainstream


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Sono Luminus continues their dedication to high quality performances and recordings of a wide variety of music from the 20th and 21st centuries.  In this lovely  disc we are treated to a great deal of interesting and very listenable a capella choral music from the mid-twentieth century to the present.

It is this reviewer’s perception that a capella choral music is somewhat of an outlier in the classical music field and is generally not as well known as solo instrumental, orchestral, chamber music and such. (Band music is a similarly neglected area which is not frequently explored by many composers and not as familiar to audiences.)   It is not an area very familiar to me but this recording appears to be one that can expand this niche considerably by virtue of the sheer beauty of these recordings.

There are eight pieces by seven composers of varying levels of familiarity.  The most familiar names here are those of the late John Tavener (1944-2013) and William Schuman (1910-1992).  (Schuman was also no stranger to writing for band music.)  Some listeners may have heard of Jon Leifs (1899-1968), an Icelandic composer who should definitely be better known.  (Curiously the only comprehensive information available in English on this composer is in Wikipedia.)

The remaining composers, Daniel Elder (1986- ), Nicolai Kedrov (1871-1940), Robert Vuichard (1985- ) and (fellow Icelander) Anna Thorvaldsdottir (1977- ).  Thorvaldsdottir may be familiar to listeners via her earlier Sono Luminus release (reviewed here) as well as numerous other releases which definitely mark her as a rising star.

The disc opens with Elegy (2013) by Daniel Elder.  It is the only piece which features soloists and is a touching piece which demonstrates the composer’s skill with this specialized genre.

Butterfly Dreams (2002) by John Tavener is a series of eight choral meditations based on Chuang Tse known for his “…Am I a man dreaming he is a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he is a man?”.  Tavener’s work has pushed the solo choral genre more to the mainstream than nearly any composer of the last 50 years and this piece is a good example of how he has managed to do this.  Tavener’s inspiration comes in part from the choral styles of eastern rite church music, a rich and sonorous sound.

Otche Nash by Nicolai Kedrov is apparently a classic in sacred music circles.  In Latin this would be Pater Noster and in English, Our Father.  This is a beautiful setting of the classic Christian Prayer.

Requiem (1947) by Jon Leifs is based on Icelandic folk poetry.  It was written in response to his grief at the loss of his daughter who drowned at the age of 18.  While not exactly representative of Leifs’ modern style it is a good example of the power of his invention in this heartfelt homage.  This is perhaps the composer’s best known work.

Heliocentric Meditation by Robert Vuichard is another example of the deep knowledge of the specialized techniques available to composers in this genre.  Vuichard appears to be a niche choral composer and one who has considerable skill.  There is a rather modernist feel to this powerful meditation.

William Schuman’s Carols of Death (1958) is a sort of modern classic which has been recorded many times.  There are three movements, each on a separate track.  It is curious how well these pieces fit in style with the rest of the disc given the date of composition.

Beyond the Veil (2005) is a setting by Anna Thorvaldsdottir of an old Icelandic psalm.  It is a prayer which is, in part, a meditation on death.  The composer has a mystical/impressionistic style that suits this music particularly well.

Funeral Ikos (1981) by John Tavener is definitely a modern classic.  This piece pretty much marks the beginning of the change from his early modernist style to the sort of “holy minimalist” (if you will) style that followed his conversion to and immersion in eastern rite sacred music.

Skylark is a chamber choir (five voices to each part, SATB) and this is their second album.  They were formed in 2011 and are under the direction of Matthew Guard.

This review is basically about the music but I have to say that this is also one of the most beautiful booklets I have seen.  It is short on info about the music but the photography and graphic design by Collin J. Rae and Caleb Nei deserve special recognition as well.  Each page features a photograph and texts of these pieces are tastefully printed across the photos.  This really enhances the experience and seems to be in harmony with the overall production.

Dan Mercurio, producer, has definitely made something special here and one hopes that this will help promote this compositional and performance niche to a more common experience and will encourage composers to write for a capella choir as well.  Daniel Shores is the recording and mastering engineer.  I am unable to assess the DVD audio and can only imagine how it must sound.  The CD itself is amazing to hear.

For an album ostensibly about death there is great joy and beauty to be found here.  Highly recommended, and not just to fans of choral music.

 

 

 

New Cello Music: Michael Nicolas’ Transitions


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Michael Nicolas is the new cellist of Brooklyn Rider as well as member of the International Contemporary Ensemble and numerous other affiliations.  This French Canadian/Taiwanese young man now residing in New York is definitely an emerging artist to watch and his debut album does much to demonstrate why he deserves serious attention.

This selection of mid/late twentieth and twenty first century cello pieces comprises an intelligent survey of this repertoire introducing new music and providing a younger performer’s take on some classics of solo cello with electronics as well some more recent works.  As he says in his liner notes this survey is concerned with the dichotomy between the solo instrument and the attendant electronics in various guises (even the quasi-Max Headroom cover art seems to reflect this).  Erin Baiano did the photography and Caleb Nei did the graphic design.  If I have a criticism of this fine album it is perhaps that the liner notes provide less detail than this listener prefers so I have tried to provide a few details here.

Beginning with Mario Davidovsky‘s classic Synchronisms No. 3 (1964) for cello and electronic sounds (one of twelve such works for solo instrument with electronics) and continuing with Steve Reich‘s Cello Counterpoint (2003) Nicolas begins his survey with two relatively well-known pieces in this genre and he certainly does them justice.  These pieces serve as Nicolas’ sort of homage to the past which he follows with some very current compositions.

He introduces some pieces unfamiliar to this writer.  David Fulmer‘s Speak of the Spring (2015) is a piece for solo cello with electronics.  Fulmer is a composer/performer apparently worth watching from a quick read of his web site.  As I was unable to determine the date of composition I contacted the composer who graciously responded despite his busy travel schedule: “The work was written last year, in 2015 specifically for Michael Nicolas and this particular project (cello and electronics). Michael had asked me for a piece for his recording project, and having known him (we went to school together) for many years, and admiring his playing so much, I was very interested in writing this piece for him. As for perspective…as a string player, I always enjoy writing string works. I’m interested in the beautiful timbres that the strings have. Tuning is also an important concept for me; at the end of the work, the cello electronics (pre-recorded cello) is scordatura.All of the prerecorded lines are recorded by Michael. I see this as a work written for Michael, played by Michael, and many versions of Michael.”

Next are two pieces by Annie Gosfield for cello and sampler.  Four Roses (1997) and “…and a Five Spot” (2015, commissioned by Nicolas as a companion to the former).  Both pieces are basically lyrical with spectral effects, microtonal passages, extended techniques and the samples of course.  The first piece is more assertive and direct while the second seems more introspective.  Both appear to be typical of Gosfield’s fully developed style.

Next up is a piece by the Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir whose album length “In the Light of Air” performed by ICE was reviewed here.  Her piece on this disc for solo cello and electronics Transitions (2015) has a similarly ethereal character but one gets the impression that her approachable style belies complexities that underlie her work.

The last piece is flexura (2015) by Jaime E. Oliver La Rosa, a Peruvian born composer now working in New York.  This piece functions almost like a bookend with the Davidovsky piece that opens this disc (Davidovsky also comes from South America having been born in Argentina).  La Rosa holds a PhD. in computer music from the University of California San Diego and is developing open source software (and hardware) for live performance.  His MANO controller can be seen in the video on his website.  This last piece inhabits a similar sound world to that of the Davidovsky.  It is thorny and modern sounding and works as a showcase for the cellist.  Strictly speaking I suppose this piece is more of a duet in that there are two musicians required to perform it.

As always the impeccable production by Sono Luminus makes for a wonderful listening experience and this is quite an impressive debut for this interesting young musician. Kudos to producer Dan Mercurio recording technician David Angell  and executive producer Collin J. Rae.

Perhaps I am premature in saying this but this release has the earmarks of a being classic survey of the current status of this genre.  One of the joys of such a project is to hear new interpretations of established works and to hear an intelligent selection of new pieces.  Definitely want to hear more from Mr. Nicolas as well as from the composers represented.