Some music hangs together so distinctly, yet is composed of such unexpected elements, that one can imagine oneself in another world with the music being what the inhabitants have worked out over a long period of time, an imaginary ethnic music, an imaginary classical music.
Philip Blackburn is a fascinating composer (and also CEO of Innova) whose work can be seen as environmental art with sound. Like his mentor, Kenneth Gaburo, Blackburn has written or developed many sound installations, performance experiences and manipulations of the aural experience that are reminiscent of everything from Harry Partch to John Cage to Stockhausen. This is music that is nearly impossible to describe – and that many will not understand or like – but which, for me, is at least quite interesting and, in some cases, ethereal and fascinating.
A great example is the opening work, Duluth Harbor Serenade, in which Blackburn and a dozen or so collaborators went to the nearly empty shipyards on Lake Superior, Duluth, Minnesota to both record ambient sounds as well as create a spontaneous mélange of contributed sounds. The existing sounds include harbor buoys, bells, ship horns, train whistles, metal on metal machinery and the effect of the wind altering the many pre-existing timbres. The performance artists contributed vocalizations, wind instruments, small percussion and various “found” instruments. The net effect is really a kind of musical “happening” in a kind of retro-60s way but with an eerie contemporary strangeness.
Ghostly Psalms is similar in its impact as well as its origins. The title is taken from a collection of church psalms written in the vernacular language by Myles Coverdale in 1539. Blackburn takes the notion of the “vernacular” or that of local significance and carries his blend of vocal and small instrumental improvisations into several seemingly disparate locales. For example, Jungle Litany references several different languages that at one point or another were present in the tropical ecosystem in Belize (ie: Mayan, Creole, Latin, Spanish, etc) Performers intone the names of plants and other random vocalizations. Draw On, Sweet Night was performed in the Trinity Cathedral’s Wren Library. The title is an allusion to an English madrigal by Wilbye and performers intone selections from Hildegard von Bingen while also being wired to brain wave sensors in a manner I cannot explain. Roots of a Magic Square is, essentially, an organ duet based on a pitch and number matrix. The Shadow of My Shadow is a work for large scale string assembly played directly by performers as well as triggered by sympathetic vibrations. The remaining sections of this nearly hour long work – Non-Judgment Day is Nigh, Now, More or Less Than Never, Beyond and Above, Scratch I-Ching and Hymn to the Solar System – all have very similar philosophical and transcendental references that are fairly complex to understand. Performers throughout contribute to the sound through small ethnic and world percussion, vocalizations, organ, acoustical sources of many sorts and some electronics. Blackburn’s booklet notes are similarly fascinating but make for tough reading. They offer just enough information to – correctly – give the impression that this is music or sound experience created in a way like none other but not enough “nuts and bolts” info to fully understand how these sounds were produced and where and why. Ghostly Psalms as a large sonically meditative experience is strange and sometimes unsettling but not unpleasant.
The short small-scale choral work, Gospel Jihad, gets its quite provocative title from the composer’s realization on the very contemporary notion of a holy war. Two small choral ensembles intone or sing extracts from some traditional and “war-like” Christian hymns (“The Son of God Goes Forth to War”, as one example) The singers compete antiphonally with bits of actual hymns as well as shouting and demanding unsung snippets of text. Blackburn describes the two elements as “introvert and extrovert.” There is a commentary, to be sure, on the position that dissonant cultures take with respect to their gods that Blackburn intends. Just from a sound point of view, this is a short and somewhat disturbing experience that certainly creates interesting internal discussion.
Much of Philip Blackburn’s music sounds like a sound environment that the listener stumbles into or, perhaps, intrudes upon. There is a feeling of a strange, sometimes beautiful, sometimes frightening world into which we are suddenly immersed. Not all listeners will want to be immersed. I have always found music like this best – and most dramatically – experienced live; to walk through; to stand in various locations and absorb for a time. The recording is very good, it is spatial. I liked this for what it is – and did not dislike it because of what it is not. Blackburn is a very unique and, clearly intelligent, visionary artist. This is not casual listening. It is – however – deep listening with an open mind and acute hearing as pre-requisites.
Marc Rossi Group: “Mantra Revealed” jazz review for “CD/LP/Track Review” column by Glenn Astarita.
Multifaceted Boston-based keyboardist, composer Marc Rossi whets the harmonic palate with a genre-hopping brew of Indo-jazz, fusion and modern jazz. An educator at Boston's Berklee College of Music, Rossi is a staple in the region's progressive-jazz scene, spanning numerous formats and ensemble gatherings. Here, the artist plants his imaginative powers with a hip, upbeat, and tuneful array of works sans any filler tracks. Essentially, these disparate pieces teeter on that fuzzy space, where blithely memorable themes seamlessly coalesce with synchronous excursions into Eastern modalities and other offshoots.
Rossi varies the schema with a hybrid Latin-jazz vamp hued by percussionist Mauricio Zottarelli's mallet-based North African overlay on "Sahara." With a contemporary-jazz flair, perpetuated by saxophonist Lance Van Lenten, the band minces a windblown melody with the Latin element via Afro-Cuban interludes, featuring Rossi's fluid block chord progressions driving the cadence.
They open up during the bridge, where the pianist dissects the primary melody with yet more block chords and spirals the pitch into a different tonal range. Indeed, he pushes the band into a polymetric opus, tinted with subtle complexities. An unanticipated surprise for 2012, Mantra Revealed invokes a thrusting spiritual presence that hovers throughout the briskly moving parts.
Personnel: Marc Rossi: composer, Steinway B piano, keyboards, laptop; Lance Van Lenten: tenor & soprano saxophones; Bill Urmson: electric basses; Mauricio Zottarelli: drums & percussion; Bruce Arnold: guitar.
At a recent Bargemusic CD release concert, Cornelius Dufallo described his solo record Journaling as the union of two journeys: one leading into past memories and reflections, and the other into unbounded imaginary worlds. The album marks a milestone for Dufallo’s three-year concert series of the same name (launched in 2009), spanning works composed by both the violinist and his peers. And whether Dufallo wanders in the past or tinkers with the future, he passionately revives the art of the one-man band.
“Violin Loop I” illustrates Dufallo’s uncanny self-reliance both in technical artistry and emotional power. A few curt, rapid notes begin the piece, recorded to form the first of many loops to come. While this sequence repeats, Dufallo delves into the second loop: several pungent plucks, spaced by tight bouts of silence. His sound grows increasingly intricate thereafter, each layer assuming a unique and bold identity. ”Violin Loop V” shows a different side of Dufallo’s craft, shrouded in softer textures and an ethereal aura.
Dufallo launched several world premieres in concert, notably Paul Brantley’s “Violon D’Ingres”. The title signifies “second calling” in French, referring to the neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, whose love for the violin went largely unrecognized. Dufallo’s fiddling, however, paid Ingres poignant homage. Sharp spears of violin punctuated the underlying melody, countered by airy meanders and assertive twists. These nuances formed an aural pointillist painting, conjuring elaborate musical scenes with only a few phrases and notes. Though this track is not featured on Journaling, the Chinese folk-inspired “Four Fragments” takes a similar approach, jolting alive with every acerbic uprising.
Dufallo’s creativity turns even zestier on “Playlist One (Resonance)”, composed by pianist Vijay Iyer. Laced in “fiendishly difficult passages of harmonics,” the track undergoes erratic evolution, oscillating from pitchy whines to organic plucks. Part of its appeal lies in this slight angularity. But approximately five minutes in, Dufallo’s urgent tone gathers momentum until it transforms, conjuring the sound of bagpipes with startling accuracy.
At once, the violinist reveals a new dimension of his craft that transcends textural manipulation. Dufallo’s journey may be a solo endeavor, but it is anything but solitary. On his humble violin, he unites the past and present with undiscovered futures, forging a path of strident yet heartfelt innovation.
The San Francisco-based Volti has been a consistent innovator in vocal music for over 30 years. The mission of the 25-member a capella ensemble is to think outside the box of choral music, and to continue expanding that landscape by commissioning new works and championing the music of living, breathing composers. In its latest CD House of Voices, Volti brings its exceptional musicality to the table once again.
The first piece, by Yu-Hui Chang, uses text from two poems by Billy Collins, U.S. poet laureate from 2001-2003. Both movements of Being: Two Collins Songs address personal awareness of both the mental and physical realms. However, “Shoveling Snow with Buddha” is energetic, employing contrapuntal lines and conveying the conversational tone of the text, while “The Night House” relays more vertical chordal structures with a rich, though more subdued sound.
Ted Hearne’s five-movement work Privilege is the most wide-ranging and dramatic of the pieces on this disc. As the composer chosen for Volti’s 2009-10 Choral Arts Laboratory, he has asked a great deal of Volti in this adventurous work, and they have certainly delivered. The first and third movements use texts written by Hearne himself, from the standpoint of a privileged member of American society, and the texts of the second and fourth movements are snippets from an interview with The Wire producer David Simon that address the income divide between rich and poor, while the final movement, “We Cannot Leave,” is a setting of an anti-Apartheid Song translated into English. The tart harmonies and sinewy lines of this composition seem to be recorded at closer range than the other pieces, bringing a sense of intimacy to the piece, placing the listener very near the ensemble as if in a small, intimate performance space.
By comparison, the works that immediately follow seem almost conservative, although they are no less elegant. In Daglarym / My Mountains, Donald Crockett attempts to recreate the landscape of Tuva by using melodic and text material from Tuvan folk songs gathered by musician and researcher Katherine Vincent. Crockett stays largely within Western harmonic language in this piece, straying only occasionally into a slightly nasal singing technique during the interpretation of carefully chosen Tuvan words. Eric Moe’s The Crowds Cheered as Gloom Galloped Away is a characteristically energetic and effective setting of an equally characteristically quirky choice of text dealing with antidepressants that come packaged with… tiny ponies. It’s disconcertingly whimsical and somber at once. As with the Yu-Hui Chang piece mentioned earlier, Wayne Peterson creates two clear, no-nonsense settings of texts by a single poet—in this case, Delmore Schwartz—in this case about the beauty of art and of contemplating the free-spiritedness of childhood as respite from the pains of contemporary life.
The big finish on House of Voices is the 15-minute tribute to the power of the moon, Luna, Nova Luna, by Volti composer-in-residence Mark Winges. This lush, dramatic work combining Volti and the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir includes a cornucopia of texts with moon references, and really does travel to the moon and back in its range of dramatic contrast and musical language, laid bare by deft combinations of child and adult voices. Winges is obviously extremely familiar with the voices of Volti, and supremely comfortable working in the realm of choral music in general, as if driving a well-loved car that has been in the family for ages.
Within the choral music world this recording might be considered crazy, heady stuff, but to these ears it is first and foremost inspiring, magnificently performed music. Virtuosic? Absolutely. If this recording doesn’t make every composer who listens to it crave to write choral music, and in particular for Volti, I don’t know what will.
The Innova label has just released a full album of pieces by young composer Nick Vasallo who used to play in death metal bands before he dived into academic studies in contemporary music. Today, he has his Ph.D. and still plays death metal in Oblivion. And in his artistic process he attempts to infuse elements of metal in chamber music. And it works. Monuments Emerge is full of highlights, strokes of genius even, that blend the density of heavy metal with the harmonics of gamelan, the polyrhythms of taiko, and atonality. “Explosions in the Sky” is an attempt at reproducing the textural effects used by the post-rock band of the same name. And “Oblivion” features Vasallo’s metal band alongside a choir in a striking sludge-like piece. Recommended.
Benjamin Broening has produced a breathtaking suite for pianos, entitled "Recombinant Nocturnes," an exquisite, ever-evolving cycle of pieces that is at once dark gray and light as a feather...
The night is perhaps the most favorite time for artists to be about stringing words or music together like necklaces of glittering gems—beautiful, expectant… ominous. Not long ago the great Welsh poet Dylan Thomas wrote that glorious elegy for his father, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and for about three hundred years before that musicians—French, Italians and of course that famous Prussian, Frederic Chopin—have been writing studies and pieces evocative of the night and calling them “nocturnes”. And now another Frenchman, the fine young composer, Benjamin Broening has produced a breathtaking suite for pianos, entitled Recombinant Nocturnes, an exquisite, ever-evolving cycle of pieces that is at once dark gray and light as a feather, viscous and dotted with the Great Bear, Orion and a myriad of constellations; even starless and Bible-black, whether nothing flickers but the suggestion of unearthly spirits roaming as if on a modern Passover, reminiscent of that great day of deliverance.
The composition is flawless, attacking pitch and tone, and the timbre of the night with the awe-inspiring pianism of the Duo Runedako—pianists Ruth Neville and Daniel Koppelman—who are seamlessly bound to the Nocturnes as if by a common umbilicus. They play the pieces with great sensitivity, sublime musicianship and incredible interpretative ingenuity. The works entitled “Nocturne Fragments: Mercurial,” “Nocturne Fragments Remote” and very specially “…Fragments: flexible, mysterious, resonant” and “…Fragments: aggressive, bright, eventually giving way” are pieces that so capture the nature of the night body and spirit that there is an eerie sense that the time of day envelopes the room in which the music is played whilst the listener grapples and battles in a medieval manner, the spirits that roam the night. The composer does not make any attempt here to romanticize the subject, but rather unclothes her to reveal her truly mercurial character in all her naked glory.
Benjamin Broening’s composition truly captures the power of sound with a certain sense of timelessness. The sense of nuanced tonality and penchant for unearthing the hidden timbres of such a divine invention as night, in a nocturne—or a series of pieces—in a suite imitating that time of night when nothing stirs but the wind and the spirit-speak with whooshes and weeping; blithe laughter and gaiety and unexpurgated joy is his genius. On the other hand is the virtuosity, the ingenious expression and dynamic of the pianists who, playing together or separately, have carved an indelible interpretation of a piece eminently worthy of the CD that it is on. This is also one of the most sensitively recorded productions for which kudos must go to Innova Recordings and Philip Blackburn, for showing courage, dedication and sensitivity for the soul of the artist.
http://www.innova.mu/artist/graham-reynolds Philip Blackburn interviews Austin music legend Graham Reynolds (Golden Arm Trio) with reference to his two innova CDs. His soundtrack for the new Jack Black, Richard Linklater movie, Bernie, opens in theaters this week.
Let’s play a word association game. If I say, “prepared piano,” many of you might think “John Cage.” Yes, John Cage was a pioneer for prepared piano, and yes, Sonatas and Interludes becomes an almost inevitable comparison when discussing any prepared piano composition, but I only mention Cage because I don’t want you to think about him. (I realize, of course, that’s like saying, “Don’t think of a honey badger.”)
The problem with comparing Eleven Short Stories to Cage is that while the basic instrument is the same(ish), the end results are anything but. If you listen to this album with Cage as your expectation, you will be confused at best and incorrectly disappointed at worst. Cage’s prepared piano is exotic, percussive, and somewhat esoteric. It is high art in the best sense. Erdem Helvacioğlu’s prepared piano is electronic, quasi-minimalistic, and highly accessible. This is more a pop album, also in the best sense.
Eleven Short Stories is inspired by the works of film directors Kim Ki-Duk, David Lynch, Krzysztof Kieslowsi, Theodoros Angelopoulos, Jane Campion, Anthony Minghella, Ang Lee, Atom Egoyan, Darren Aronofsky, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Steven Soderbergh. As to which director is paired with each piece, that is deliberately left unstated. Each is given a title suggesting a scene, such as “Jittery Chase” and “Shrine in Ruins,” and since each track is more about its title than anything else, Helvacioğlu seems wise to avoid any specific associations.
As a whole, it is abundantly clear that Helvacıoğlu has a remarkable ear, and he makes it easy to forget that all these sounds are generated from a piano. Every sound, every nuance serves the music, and nothing ever feels forced or hollow; his background in electroacoustic music most likely contributed to these highly successful preparations. The means of recording are also an important part of this album. Helvacioğlu used five microphones, two extremely close to the strings with the other three serving to capture broader perspectives. He also isn’t afraid to use multi-track recording to get all the sounds he needs, which brings me back to this being a pop album.
The influence of popular music is evident in several tracks, even to the extent that there seems to be a backbeat and claps on occasion.1 More than that, though, is that this CD feels like a pop album. Most ‘classical’ CDs are about taking music that was originally meant to be heard live and attempting to archive it. They are recordings, if you will. In this case, the music seems to be written for the CD, and would be rather difficult to reproduce live—each piece has a unique preparation and the multi-track recording would require that some sounds be played over speakers in a live setting. The tracks are also relatively short (4:21 on average), adding to the pop feel. This isn’t a recording. It’s an album, and a very good album, at that.
Helvacioğlu does a wonderful job evoking each of these eleven scenes. Two standouts for me were Blood Drops by the Pool and Six Clocks in a Dim Room. The former is decidedly the most experimental on the CD, but also one of the most evocative. The scraping sounds would be perfectly at home in any thriller, and the gradual accretion of the “blood drops,” which crescendo into chaos in the middle of the track is just fantastic. Were I alone in a dark alley in a strange city, this is not the music I’d want to hear. Safe at home, I love it. Six Clocks on the other hand has an entirely different feel. There is a driving beat that fades in and out, which might be heard as either rhythm guitar or bass, and a simple melody produced by plucked strings hangs over this foundation as other ambient sounds fill out the track.
There is a fair amount of variety across the CD, both in sounds and styles, and I imagine that nearly everyone will have their own favorite tracks. Still, there remains a cohesiveness to this album that works extremely well, thanks in large part to the single underlying source of sound production. I was not familiar with Erdem Helvacioğlu before this CD, but I am now anxious to hear what else his discography has to offer. Eleven Short Stories is an excellent CD, and I would highly recommend it.
Every year, the world throws out 20 to 50 million tons of electronics, including music players, speakers, and other audio equipment, recycling only 18% at the most. Digital downloads and streaming audio may be pushing physical CDs out of the marketplace, but is streaming digital truly “no footprint” if music players and computers are, on average, replaced every two years, the discarded components exported to environmentally hazardous “e-waste” dump sites in Ghana, Nigeria, India, and China?
There are eco-friendly ways to build music products, including CD packaging, music player speakers, and even area-ready electric guitar cabinets. Companies both big and small are acknowledging what Chris Campbell, operations manager for Innova Recordings, describes as a “sea change” among consumers who love music and are concerned about a product’s environmental footprint. Here are just a few eco-friendly companies and products creatively addressing this concern.
Artists outside of the mainstream are also taking care to package their music in a similarly green way. “So many of our artists are mindful about things like being “eco-friendly” because it’s just part of who they are,” says Campbell. “It’s not a calculated PR move.” Such eco-friendly CD packaging can be expensive and labor intensive, such as the thin, 7″ x 7″ cardboard, ornately designed, letter pressed sleeve that houses string quartet Ethel’s newest CD Heavy. But Innova, being a non-profit, artist-friendly label, don’t factor in such costs when it comes to realizing an artist’s vision. “We’re lucky to have a really good vendor who’s aware of our needs and is very accommodating,” says Campbell. “It comes down to case by case basis for packaging costs.”
CD sleeve photos of accordion chameleon Guy Klucevsek wearing five different hats belie still more corners to his persona. A 2010 Collins Fellowship gave Klucevsek an opportunity to compile his favorite music styles with help from Dave Douglas, Kenny Wollesen and associates from polka and Texas swing traditions.
Klucevsek keeps his tour short and sweet with several tracks under two minutes, tipping one or other hat to Bulgarian accordionist Ivan Milev, Basque trikitixa great Kepa Junkera, colleague Lars Hollmer plus Martin Denny, Erik Satie and dancer Sandy Silva. Humor busts through Klucevesek's joyful eclecticism and the upbeat polyphony of his squeeze box, here via Satie's wryness, there via reference to a disparaging accordion joke. Slovenian/Armenian waltzes are represented but South American tango traditions ostensibly bypassed; this isn't cultural tourism but closer to home, though the desert-bound "Pink Elephant" sounds more Middle Eastern than Balkan. Multi-instrumentalist Jeffrey Barnes, listed on "ocarina, bag o' birds, harmonica, ukelele" and pictures on bass saxophone, is resourceful, as is versatile co-producer Carl Finch.
The disc starts hot with the feel Bulgarian beats of "Breathless And Bewildered" punctuated by tuba and tenor banjo. "Waltz for Sandy" takes a mood shift after the circuitous melody, adding a cameo from John Hollenbeck on drums and xylophone. "Laedereld" is Hopalong Cassidy territory, featuring Ginny Mac, the leader, on melodica and Finch on mouth percussion; "Hymnopedie No. 2," a play on Satie's influence, is a chaste feature for Douglas. Cheese mixes with heartfelt nostalgia, Klucevsek the ringmaster often surrendering limelight to fellow undersung musicians.
The new release by string quartet ETHEL is a CD, despite it being packaged like a 7”. It boasts a gorgeous cover – Innova rarely caters to obkect fetichists, but this time they did, and it’s quite a treat. I like ETHEL – their recording of Mary Ellen Childs’ Dream House is what attracted me to their work a few years ago. Heavy features eight works by eight composers. They all share a certain heaviness – eitheir from their inspiration in blues or soul music, or in their see-saw approach to the string quartet. Worth singleing out are Raz Mesinar’s long and obsessive “La Citadelle”; John Halle’s strange “Sphere[‘]s”; and Don Byron’s “String Quartet No. 2: Four Thoughts on Marvin Gaye”, the brilliant disc opener. Overall, Heavy delivers a highly enjoyable and rather varied listen. Accessible music with lots of surprises.
On Cornelius Dufallo‘s Journaling, the composer-violinist’s first CD since departing from the ensemble Ethel, we are given a truly sonic view of the modern violin as observed by many modern perspectives from both the violinist (through his interpretations as well as his own compositions) and the six other composers that contributed to the album. From the dry, unaccompanied pieces (raw, but most certainly not simplistic) to the looped and layered production-oriented pieces, Dufallo has demonstrated here that his role in that field is well-stated as a multi-tiered interpreter, and it could never be shattered.
Dufallo’s own “Violin Loops” are a series of several short pieces. Of those, the first and fifth pieces are featured here, and are both very bright, very melodic, modern fugues that are great rounds of melodic light that wrap themselves around you in a delicate way.
John King‘s “Prima Volta” is like a space-age caprice. Its use of electronics almost puts it in the Stockhausen category of that genre. Dufallo’s technique willingly still comes through heavily and with great beauty, don’t get me wrong, but I would say it comes close to being a record that should be titled Switched-On Pagainini. Ex-Kronos Quartet cellist John Jeanrenaud‘s “Empty Infinity” is a shrill, dark continuous melody with layered arpeggios that gives the most distasteful feeling of unease since Night On Bald Mountain. Huang Ruo‘s “Four Fragments” is played as if Dufallo had switched to the Chinese equivalent of the violin, the erhu (which is something I’d love to hear him actually try playing). The piece has a raw solo violin moving from Chinese folk music through Western avant-garde, and maintains a visceral mood throughout.
Pianist-composer Vijay Iyer offers up ”Playlist One (Resonance)”, a piece that has some great moments of pizzicato brightness that almost make one reminisce about the classical violin during what is essentially not a collection of old-world classics.
The epic 3-part work Three High Places by John Luther Adams is very indicative of the minimalist ambiance of this composer, and Duffalo brings both a faithfulness and freshness to Adams’ identity. “Above Sunset Pass” is a slow, ethereal harmonic drone, while “The Wind at McLaren Summit” is a sudden burst of high-pitched arpeggios that resonate like birds in the wilderness. The piece concludes with “Looking Toward Hope” a meditation on bringing certainty to a future that needs it.
Kenji Bunch‘s “Until Next Time” is a post-modern piece with what feels like a surprise moment of sentimentality which is seemingly rare in new music. Dufallo allows the listener to feel the sentiment without apology as he interprets this melody without having to simplify it. A beautifully fitting conclusion to this exciting odyssey of the modern violin by Cornelius Dufallo.
Violinist Cornelius Dufallo’s new CD Journaling presents the music of six contemporary composers living in the United States as well as some of Dufallo’s own original pieces. All for solo violin, sometimes with electronics, the results showcase the musical language of each unique compositional voice. Dufallo’s tone has an earthy, gentle, serene quality to it—almost a pastoral American sound for the new millennium. His playing is straightforward and for the most part somewhat subdued. All this allows for clarity in comprehending the different styles presented on the disc.
Dufallo himself has cultivated an ability to expand the possibilities of solo violin through the use of electronic loops. His own Violin Loop V is a particular standout on this disc. Beginning with relatively simple rhythmic figures put together, and the use of different registers and articulations for each layer allows them to be heard discreetly and as parts of a coherent whole. The improvisatory melody has a freedom to it that is a nice contrast to the steady loops—there is a floating quality to Dufallo’s soaring melodic fragments and a rhythmic looseness that gives it a gorgeous calm.
Huang Ruo’s Four Fragments pulls out an entirely different sound and style from the violin by having it emulate the Chinese two-string fiddle [Ed. note: erhu]. Dufallo’s tone works well to capture this idea, and sliding into pitches as well as a sense of inflection further demonstrate the versatility of this violinist. Ruo’s composition is perhaps the most melodic on the CD, with overall emphasis on lengthier horizontal lines, and as such makes it a more captivating piece. The use of drone-like bass notes contributes to the earthy quality, and the excursions into the upper register really sing while maintaining Dufallo’s gentle touch. The piece moves through a lot of different material, and the use of different articulations helps to provide contrast and climactic moments. One more frantic passage created by increased rhythmic intensity and harsher bowing was particularly memorable. On the other hand, the title, Four Fragments, betrays the fact that as a whole this piece is more a presentation of many different ideas rather than a coherent and captivating integral whole. It is nonetheless a good exploration of a new approach to the violin.
Vijay Iyer’s Playlist One (Resonance) is something of a virtuosic violin etude in Iyer’s diverse musical language. Its strength is in making the violin sound like many different instruments owing to the use of multiple techniques and timbres. The phrasing is very conversational, and Iyer’s writing and Dufallo’s playing excel at making the solo instrument sound like several different voices.
Kenji Bunch’s Until Next Time is probably the most substantive track as a solid solo violin piece. It begins and ends with simple though energetic alternations between two notes. From this develop different musical ideas, and the choices of different textures in different sections feel more like a coherent piece moving through different material rather than patchwork. There is a clear melodic line throughout, even in moments of figuration, and Dufallo is particularly adept at bringing this out. Dufallo’s use of expressive timing gives life to each phrase and contributes to the natural flow of the composition.
John King’s Prima Volta, on the other hand, does sound like patchwork. The use of computer in chance-determined processes as well as the material itself seems lacking in any musical coherence. The electronic transformations of the violin don’t offer anything new or exciting in terms of sound, but rather come off like amateurish video-game music. It seems these days most new music releases have to have one somewhat cheesy laptop piece, and unfortunately Journaling is no exception. While this piece of John King’s for me was a miss, I did recently hear one of his compositions make excellent use of trombones with electronics in a recent performance by Tilt Brass. The point here is that acoustic instruments with digital transformations can result in new creative heights or second-rate gimmickry, and in this case it’s the latter.
Joan Jeanrenaud’s Empty Infinity and John Luther Adams’s Three High Places are both far more textural in nature. Jeanrenaud’s piece has a certain eerie, unsettled quality to it fitting for that part of a horror movie when you don’t quite know what’s going on but you know something is afoot. Adams’s piece, on the other hand, has a gorgeous simplicity to it that’s indicative of the Alaskan nature that surrounds the composer. The use of disparate registers together, with Dufallo’s gentle ethereal high notes and earthy lower notes, made for a serene beauty. The fast but delicate bowing of the second “high place” gave the music a shimmery whistling quality.
Journaling highlights Cornelius Dufallo’s unique strengths as a performer: his use of loops in a way that allows the music to breathe rather than locks it into rigidity, and his delicate touch even during reaches into the uppermost register. This CD also makes for a good introduction into the music of several significant contemporary composers who have all cultivated their own style. Journaling is an accurate title, though for me it indicates a weakness of this release: the compositions are all intriguing in their own right, but they feel more like interesting journal entries rather than captivating essays. Everything is on some level emotionally restrained and lacking in extremes—in a sense very anti-Romantic. Perhaps this just reflects my own aesthetic difference with all things postmodern: I like unifying elements and larger narratives, not ones that flatten everything into banal simplicity, but that allow for elucidation and complexity within a coherent framework. It’s that sense of gravitas, that there is something being said (musically), that I find most captivating as a listener.
The Innova website describes its many-hatted director Philip Blackburn as "a guerilla sound sculptor, creating occasions for listening where the public least expects them." What does that mean? The opening piece, Duluth Harbor Serenade, offers some answers: it is, to quote the notes, "a giant soundscape composition for the entire sounding bodies of the busy port city on Lake Superior: bridge alarms, steam train whistles, boat and fog horns, bells, brakes, and sirens, not to mention a flash-mob band of dozens of local performers parading around with loud outdoor instruments." In essence it is like one of those 'sounds of the rainforest' kinds of CDs that were popular a few years ago, only these are sounds from the human jungle known as Duluth Harbor! In keeping with Blackburn's speciality, a coordinated 'performance' actually took place and this recording is, presumably, a minimally processed version of that. One obvious element missing is the noise of motor traffic, doubtless because it tends to drown out all other sounds in almost any environment, but Duluth still comes across as a very loud place! This is pretty much musique concrète for the new century, although the traditional Ash Grove tune does intrude into the bustle, almost humorously, at a couple of points.
The meat of the CD is the massive Ghostly Psalms, a 50-minute work, recorded live, for large chorus, organ "and unusual instruments". According to the notes again, it takes the listener through a dream Blackburn had in his chorister days thirty years ago: "Ruined abbeys, watery/windy streams of consciousness, and planetary motions feature prominently"! This is, in effect, a huge sound collage with all the ingredients of a weird dream: swirling stasis, ethereality, intimacy, intermittent intelligibility, non sequiturs, blurriness, repetition and so on. The eerie first Psalm, 'Jungle Litany', is impressive enough on its own, judging by scale, noise or imagination. Some listeners may feel mentally drained by it and needing a lie-down before facing a further forty minutes, but the remaining Psalms are less demanding, both as far as length is concerned and in their generally more benign-sounding material. Segueing into each other, the pieces are generally slow-moving, densely layered and flotsam-like, punctuated by occasional outbursts of rowdiness or emotionally-charged objets de son. As a whole, the Ghostly Psalms may well be at the core of what Blackburn is driving at in his very 21st-century artistic statement. Incidentally, Innova point out that live performance videos of both Duluth Harbor Serenade and Ghostly Psalms can be found on YouTube.
The final work is the provocatively named Gospel Jihad, "an a cappella work for two rival choirs, one distant and tranquil, the other spitting fire and brimstone based on beloved (yet vicious) gospel hymn texts." The choir at Clare - England-born Blackburn's own Cambridge College - has probably performed relatively few works like this, and the raving 'evangelical' group certainly seems to relish letting rip as it cites words and phrases from bellicose hymns like 'Onward, Christian Soldiers' in various domineering ways, whilst the other shows great self-control to keep the traditional-style background drone going in the face of much provocation. This is an unsettling, original work that builds to an intense, almost demonic final few seconds.
Innova make a big claim for their catalogue, now more than 400 titles strong, "all somehow non-conformist, individualistic, and groundbreaking". Not all titles may live up to that billing, but this one does on most counts. It is probably only suitable for those interested in experimentalism, however, although a download of Gospel Jihad might be worth anyone's money. More from Blackburn is available on Innova 204, released in 2004.
The CD case is Innova's usual digipak type, and sports their preferred pop album look, with a typical lack of indication as to what kind of music is inside, who the performers are and the like. The 'booklet' is a folded-up strip of glossy paper that slots into the front cover. It is informative, albeit written in Blackburn's own flamboyant style. Sound quality is as immaculate as ever in these superbly produced recordings.
Listening to Grant Cutler's 2012 sounds a lot like drifting above a landscape similar to the one depicted on the creamy paper of the LP cover. An alien landscape, sparse and rocky, bright white light.
2012 was actually recorded in 2008, and is a snapshot of when the composer first moved to Minnesota. He had just moved into a new house, He'd just purchased a Roland JX-3P synth from 1983, and set about layering otherworldly drones onto his grandfather's reel-to-reel tape deck. The warmth and faded quality that the analog equipment gives these recordings make 2012,/i> delightful to the ears, and it gives one a chance to notice the wonderful musicianship at play. Like the sequenced-bass of "Talk To Me," which could sound at home in a Detroit Techno club, if some wise DJ were to drop a beat on top. The trancey-repetitive nature of this music gets inside yr head, inside yr bones, keeps you coming back for. Mesmerizing.
2012is like the soundtrack to the sweetest metaphysical space opera that was never made. a single panning camera-lens over unbroken deserts, the reddish monotony finally interrupted by a pyramid made of glass. There's nothing much going on, until the Makers reveal themselves. With track names like "Devotion," "Attainment," "Mountain Top," its like these Supreme Beings are blaring wisdom telepathically, straight into yr brain.
Grant Cutler was studying Zen meditation at the time of this recording, and it shows, songs periodically being swallowed up by unexpected trance-inducing drones. Its like a less-boring meditation record. Honestly, after several visits to 2012's hazy climate, i could say that there is nothing wrong with this record. Its for a certain type, sure, those prone to closed-eye meditations and walking around with headphones on, but for those visionary types, there is a very distinctive world etched onto the two sides of this vinyl.
Summer may be the best season for exploring new music. And this year has seen a strong crop of new and interesting recordings that are tailor-made for expanding musical horizons. Below are seven noteworthy releases to explore. Besides sharing musical excellence, these CDs are performed by musicians or ensembles at the cutting edge of their musical discipline. After listening to them, it's safe to say they'll put a new shine on the word "classical."
To stand out these days, a string quartet has to write and perform music offering a sense of drama. The music must be as cinematic as it is aural. It is in this realm that the New York-based Ethel is thriving. On "Heavy" you get the noir-like musical highway string-trip that is "Four Thoughts on Marvin Gaye." This wide-screen sonic work comes across as fraught one moment, jazzy the next. At times, the bowed notes and the plucked strings falls on the ear like so much rain. A highlight on this release is Kenji Bunch's "String Circle No. 1" and the hopeful, tactile musical poetry of "Rounds."
Ethel's Heavy begins unceremoniously, by jabbing a tuning fork in your nerve endings. The first piece on the New York string quartet's latest solo record, by Don Byron, is called "Four Thoughts on Marvin Gaye": All four of Byron's thoughts on Marvin Gaye, it turns out, are violent. His first movement deposits us in the midst of a furious scrabble; it's unclear what's happening, but it's urgent. It's possible that several cats are fighting several dogs. The quartet attack a descending figure in lockstep unison, one with a difficult-to-track time signature. If you attempted to conduct it, you might trip and fall. Seconds in, the figure evaporates: The violins peel off into glass shards, and the cello starts moaning. It's a relief from the opening melee, but only insofar as scalp-prickling fear that there is a serial killer lurking in your home is technically preferable to the certainty of being stabbed to death.
Pardon the visceral language; Ethel are an infectiously visceral quartet. No matter the personnel (they were founded in 1998, and have swapped out some members since, as do most long-running quartets), their playing tends to be lusty, committed, charged with messy exuberance. They are heroically unafraid to make their instruments honk like geese or blat like car horns when the music calls for it. Heavy is their third solo album and first since 2006, when they released an album called, significantly, Light. The music on Light played on both meanings of its title: illumination and ease. By contrast, Heavy is a collection of dark thoughts and relentless pressures. Ethel-- which currently consists of Cornelius Dufallo and Jennifer Choi on first and second violin; Dorothy Lawson on cello, and Ralph Farris on viola-- function as a living affront to the misconception that chamber music is polite, white-napkin stuff, best deployed at corporate functions and rehearsal dinners as civilizing perfume. Heavy is one of their most persuasive cases yet.
The tensile, discordant "Four Thoughts", both a workout and a minefield, is one hell of an introduction. It's a morbidly mesmerizing work, Byron opening hatches into into furtive pockets of wistful, jazz-inflected harmony and slamming them abruptly shut for more surgical-saw dissonances. If this is Marvin Gaye, it is the Gaye of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine", driven up and through the ceiling of derangement.
The following work, "Spheres", by composer John Halle, starts off by conjuring a train. Innocent enough. But this is not a happy, Aaron Copland-esque choo-choo. First we hear the clear rendering of a whistle from afar, Doppler-ing its way into earshot. But as rendered by the violins, it's a sour, whining noise, unclean or impure somehow. Then, the cello and viola, bolstered with a slightly cruel hint of amplification, begin bouncing their bows aggressively against the strings, evoking locomotion's forward-thrust monotony with none of its smoothness. If we're riding this train, we're hanging by our fingers to its outside. The piece seethes in place with magnetic conviction for exactly nine minutes and 11 seconds before burning off, disappearing back into the distance.
For about three-quarters of its length, Heavy bears down on you like this. "Early That Summer", by Bang on a Can co-founder Julia Wolfe, consists of nothing more than a series of dark tremolos. If the piece could be a gesture, it would be of someone jabbing a thumb into your sternum repeatedly. The players dig into the strings with the weight and determination of a small child fist-gripping a pencil and inscribing with all his might. When the pressure finally eases, in the album's back half, it's into a jumpy, uncertain sort of ease. "No Nickel Blues", by John King, takes the skeleton of a blues vamp for its backbone, whispering the rhythm over and over in hushed plucks. Above it, violins play wispy, ether-trailing arpeggios. The landscape evoked is of a fairly ominous stretch of back-country, one in which you feel acutely ill-equipped to survive, if it somehow came to that.
Heavy is vital, haunting listening. It can also be enervating. "La Citadelle", by the N.Y.-based composer Raz Mesinai, erupts into a horror-show scream repeatedly. Mesinai claims influence from inflamed futurists like Edgard Varèse and Stockhausen, and you can hear their teeth-grinding insistence, their obsession with mechanization, reflected in his music. Ethel play the work like a series of sputtering wires.
There are two calming, restorative breaths to be had: One is David Lang's reflection-pool of harmonies "Wed". As always with Lang, there are hints of emotional disturbance pulling in the harmonies, lingering doubts that never dissipate, but in the context of Heavy, it's a spa visit. The other is Kenji Bunch's "String Cycle No. 1", a cool, inscrutable tabula rasa of open-string drones and vaguely Native-American melodies. The final piece, a gracefully antic, hip-shifting work by the Marcelos Zarvos, is almost impishly light after what preceded it: following an hour-long headlock, a breezy peck on the cheek. It reaffirms Ethel's status as a necessary jet of cold water in the contemporary classical scene.