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Category: 21st century music

An Epically Genre-Smashing, Deliciously Unpredictable Album From Charlotte Greve

Over the years there have been a ton of jazz records made with a string section, or even an orchestra. But jazz with a choir? Has anyone ever made a jazz album with a choir? Saxophonist/singer Charlotte Greve has. Her latest release Sediments We Move – where she bolsters her quartet of guitarist Keisuke Matsuno, bassist Simon Jermyn and drummer Jim Black with adventurous, endlessly shapeshifting choir Cantus Domus – is streaming at Bandcamp.

This seven-part suite is like nothing you’ve ever heard before. Sometimes Caroline Shaw‘s new classical work comes to mind when the phrasing gets particularly cellular. Some of the most rhythmically straightforward interludes evoke bands like Wye Oak and My Brightest Diamond, when they straddle the line between artsy indie rock and modern classical music. There’s so much going on in this catchy but endlessly permutating album that what you see here is just the highlights. Conductor Ralf Sochaczewsky does Herculean work keeping the choir on the rails through Greve’s endlessly kaleidoscopic twists and turns.

The first interlude begins with a series of airy loops intertwining at glacial tempos. A delicate guitar figure enters and enlaces the choir’s stately vocals . Bass and drums become more prominent as the choir’s highs and lows coalesce into a quasi-canon. Greve moves to the mic with a stately, gracefully leaping melody over terse, steadily rhythmic bass and guitar, the men of the choir answering. The rainy-day feel warms as Black picks up the energy again. That’s just the first eight minutes of the record.

The second segment has a determined, emphatic sway, Greve’s unaffected, clear voice giving way to uneasy close harmonies from the choir and a simmering distorted guitar solo. From there she takes a carefree sax solo over subtly contrapuntal, looped choral parts, Matsuno finally kicking in toward the end.

A dancing bassline and incisive guitar lead to an unselfconsciously joyous crescendo of voices, then the sound grows more stark as the voices back brief sax and bass solos. Press repeat for extra joy…and whisper en masse when it’s almost over.

The deep-space interlude midway through comes as a complete shock, first with starry guitar, then pensive sax and ambience disappearing into the ether, followed by agitation and roar. Greve’s sax pulls the melody together tersely over Black’s steady tumbles before the nebula sonics return.

Part four opens with a couple of slow, lingering choral themes. There’s extra reverb on Greve’s judicious sax spirals and warmly conversational counterpoint from there, winding down to the most minimalist point here. But Black gets restless…he doesn’t want to let the pull of deep space get the best of everybody a second time around.

Guitar jangle and clang careens over calm resonance as the fifth segment kicks in and motors along: the point where the choir pick on the punk rhythm is irresistibly funny. Likewise, this is probably the first album to feature a sputtering bass solo backed by a towering choir in insistent 4/4 time. Scrambling guitar over an enveloping atmosphere evaporates for a funkier sway, the choir at the center.

Calmly and hypnotically, band and ensemble segue into the concluding portion, the bandleader’s sailing solo introducing a funky/stately dichotomy and hints of circling Afrobeat. Greve’s sax leads a reprise of the lush opening interweave. After a couple of triumphant, well-deserved crescendos, the choir take over with a carefree but unwavering rhythm. At this point, there’s no sense in giving away the ending: it’s not what anyone would expect. Maybe, ultimately, it’s not even an ending.

Entertaining, Dynamic New Classical Orchestral Works on the Latest Polarities Compilation

The second volume of the Polarities compilations of new orchestral music – streaming at Spotify – came out last summer and is very much worth your time if you like colorful, translucent, robustly performed sounds. To open the album, Pavel Šnajdr conducts the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra in Margaret Brandman‘s Spirit Visions, a “symphonic tone poem.” It’s variations on a catchy, folksy theme straight out of Nashville circa 1972. Brandman sends it goodnaturedly around the orchestra: everybody gets to indulge, especially the brass.

The orchestra’s second contribution here is Kamala Sankaram‘s 91919, playful flourishes contrasting with a nebulous density that no doubt draws on her time working with Anthony Braxton’s large ensembles. Natalia Anikeeva’s terse, astringent viola stands out resolutely against the smoky backdrop and occasional deviously twinkling accent or drumroll. Sankaram’s signature sense of humor comes to the forefront as a goofy march ensues.

The second piece on the album is Beth Mehocic’s Tango Concerto, played in striking high definition by the Zagreb Festival Orchestra under Ivan Josip Skender, with Charlene Farrugia on piano and Franko Božac on accordion and bandoneon, Don’t let the strangely tremoloing strings make you believe that there’s something wrong with the recording: the two keyboardists’ regal introduction quickly brings the first movement down to earth, right up to what could be a sly allusion to a famous Led Zep song.

Movement two has an elegant pas de deux between accordion and piano over increasing deep-sky nocturnal lustre. The muscularly pulsing third movement is where the inevitable Piazzolla comparisons arise, but Mehocic chooses her spots and packs a lot into not much time – around thirteen minutes. It’s inspiring to hear a piece like this that matches the iconic Argentine composer’s outside-the-box sensibility without being imitative.

Stanislav Vavřínek conducts the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra in the album’s three other works. Echo figures filter in over drifting suspense in Larry Wallach’s Species of Motion, rising to a flurrying agitation as the main theme coalesces and winds animatedly through the ensemble. From there the piece is calm without losing brightness. Everybody has a good time with this one – what a fun piece to play!

Does Mel Mobley‘s Labored Breathing allude to a recently ubiquitous divide-and-conquer technique? Probably not, although this ominously colorful piece quickly escalates from brooding resonance to a bellicose intensity that sometimes borders on the macabre. A desolate, fugally-tinged interlude sets the stage for the next skirmish; from there, the suspense doesn’t let up. It’s the most distinctly noirish and most memorable piece on the program.

The final work is Brian Latchem’s picturesque, Dvorakian Suffolk Variations, a relatively brief (ten-minute) viola concerto. A wistful canon sets the stage, soloist Vladimír Bukač following a steady, restrained, baroque-tinged upward trajectory. There’s a rustic, rather lushly dancing passage and then a wry crescendo before the orchestra bring it full circle. Spin this for anyone who might feel daunted finding their way around the new classical scene: it’s as good a place to start as any.

A Catchy, Entertaining New Orchestral Music Playlist

For the last few years, Navona Records has been advocating for new and contemporary composers with their ongoing series of Prisma compilations. Volume Five – streaming at Spotify – is a characteristically colorful, diverse collection, played with as much of a sense of adventure as attention to detail by the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra under Jiří Petrdlík. Every composer represented here is a first-class tunesmith: this is a very cinematic, translucent mix. Unexpected false endings figure heavily here.

The first work is the opening Adagio, “Of Times and Seasons” from Lawrence Mumford‘s Symphony No. 4, essentially variations on a song without words, with unhurried, warmly puffing phrases and contrasts between cheery high woodwinds and the density of the strings and brass below. There’s a Gershwinesque sense of contentment mixed with moments of bittersweetness and a counterpoint that goes back to Haydn in theory, if not idiomatically. As Petrdlík leads the ensemble upward, there’s a towering, Vaughan Williams-like pastoral solidity.

In Kevin McCarter’s All Along, the group shift between balletesque precision and a similarly verdant lushness. The palindromic architecture around the lull at the center is ingenious. They begin Samantha Sack‘s A Kiss in the Dark dreamily, then the high strings begin circling tightly as the low brass looms in and a hypnotically heroic theme ensues. The false ending is amusing: this, um, incident is just getting started!

Bustling drama mingled within passages of muted furtiveness introduce Bell and Drum Tower, by Alexis Alrich. It’s akin to a 21st century neoromantic take on the 1812 Overture as Angelo Badalamenti might have reimaged it, with an increasingly Asian sensibility fueled by precise piano cascades. The wistful bassoon solo midway through is one of the album’s highlights; from there, the composer’s edgy sense of humor starts to burst out.

There’s a similar, low-key furtiveness and even more of a sense of impending trouble in Nunatak, by Katherine Saxon, complete with an eerie twinkle from the bells amid pillowy strings. From there, Petrdlík shifts the group seamlessly toward more optimistic, envelopingly ambered terrain.

Is Anthony Wilson‘s 3 Flights of the Condor a reference to sinister deep-state meddling in Latin American affairs in the 1970s? Possibly. Sinister low rustles reach further into the lustre above as the tableau unveils. A dip to a moody exchange of low winds and horns rises to a Rimsky-Korsakovian nocturne

The album comes full circle with William Copper‘s This Full Bowl of Roses, Pt. 3, a second set of variations on a song without words, full of tension and release and baroque-tinged counterpoint. It’s a good vehicle for the orchestra to show off the dynamism of their brass section and aptitude for Beethovenesque exchanges.

The Muom Overtone Singing Choir Explore Vast, Rapturous Sonic Expanses

Few choral groups explore such a vast expanse of sound as the Muom Overtone Singing Choir. Their extended technique is breathtaking in the purest sense of the word. Neither the sepulchrally wispy highs nor the stygian lows they often reach at the same time exist in most music for the human voice, simply because most people can’t hit those notes. The ensemble’s magical new suite Terra – streaming at Bandcamp – is the first in a planned series of four. The late Maurice White would be delighted to know that the next two are explorations of wind and fire, water being the fourth element.

The suite, performed as a contiguous whole, begins with Eter, a single D note sung in unison until some of the choir reach a couple of octaves lower for a guttural anchor. By this point, harmonics are oscillating in the background. From there the group segue into Astral, slowly coalescing into an aptly drifting theme with gentle massed glissandos and long, sustained notes moving through the sonic picture, a graceful deep-space exchange of voices. Rhythm falls away to a cocooning, enveloping, uneasy morass, then the counterpoint rises again.

The group completely flip the script with Ardhi (Swahili for “earth”), with a joyously cantering, percussive west African groove, mens’ lows and spiraling overtones against the triumphant women overhead. They whisper their way out.

There’s a return to rapt, otherworldly stillness in Akasha (Sanskrit for “ether”). The men in the choir open Sa Mantra (sa being Tibetan for “earth”) with a low, growling chant, riffing on a phrase common to carnatic music and vocal warmup exercises. From there, they build a starkly bluesy minor-key theme.

A plaintively expressive solo by one of the men, like a muezzin’s call, takes front and center over allusively chromatic phrasing in the next segment, Ancestral, before the ensemble kick into a rousing, insistently rhythmic drive. Khörzün (“earth” in the Tuvan language) is where Central Asian choral traditions resonate the most here, via echoing layers of harmonics and a galloping trans-Siberian beat.

The choir close with Gea (the Greek earth deity), a starkly circling violin solo by group member Farran Sylvan James introducing a hypnotic downward drift. There hasn’t been any album like this released in the recent past, maybe ever, reason to look forward to whatever other magic the group can conjure in the next installment.

A Singularly Disquieting Electroacoustic Album From Pianist Peng-Chian Chen

On her latest album Electrocosmia – streaming at Spotify – pianist Peng-Chian Chen explores the intersection of new classical composition with electronics, as well as the many philosophical and real-world implications thereof.

She opens with a set of miniatures, Pierre Charvet’s Neuf Etudes aux Deux Mondes. Enervated motorik bustle, cautious strolls, spare dripping minimalism and a slow ramble through stygian depths are juxtaposed with and sometimes mingled within icy ambience or gritty industrial sonics. There’s sardonic humor as well: a plane crashing at takeoff and the nagging interruption of phone ringtones. Is the point of this that as much as we hate this techy shit, we might as well get used to it since we’re stuck with it? Or that even in the grip of a digital dystopia, there’s beauty in – or guarded hope for – the human element? Maybe both?

Next, Chen tackles Cindy Cox‘s spare, surreal Etude “La Cigüeña” for piano and sampler, its furtive upward flights and uneasy lulls set to a backdrop of what could be whalesong or birdsong. In Elainie Lillios‘ Nostalgic Visions – inspired by a Garcia Lorca childhood reminiscence – Chen throws off dramatic improvisational flourishes, goes under the piano lid for autoharp-like shimmer, chilly minimalism and a murky crush. Some of it gets flung back to her, through a sampler, darkly.

She concludes with Peter Van Zandt Lane‘s electroacoustic partita Studies in Momentum. Steady, glistening, circling phrases mingle with increasingly menancing close harmonies; a devious peek-a-boo theme meets its ghostly counterpart; a tongue-in-cheek, Charlie Chaplinesque march reaches the end at a cold reflecting pool. Chen’s stiletto articulation in the lickety-split, coyly altered third piece is the high point of the record, although the brooding tone poem that follows is just as tantalizingly brief.

Jeanne Golan Explores Allusive Tango-Inspired Piano Pieces

n her latest album It Takes One to Tango – streaming at Spotify – pianist Jeanne Golan explores new and obscure solo piano music more influenced by tango than it actually embodies the form. In a mix of works by composers imperiled by (and sometimes murdered in) the Holocaust, and also several contemporary pieces, Golan reaches effortlessly between the High Romantic and the modern, with tinges of jazz in places. It’s often a very entertaining ride.

There are a lot of dances here. Golan opens the album with three short pieces by Pablo Ortiz. The first, Bianco, is a Romantic miniature with a suspicious resemblance to a famous Beethoven etude. She follows with a similarly glittering, attentively spacious take of Piglia, and then The Shady Side, a coyly dancing game of peek-a-boo. The tango rhythm in each of these is more implied rather than actually stated.

Next on the program is Reverie d’Automne, by Wanda Landowska. a wistful quasi-waltz: Golan’s bell-like crispness in the upper registers is bittersweetly spot-on. Wilhelm Grosz is represented by his Tanzsuite, beginning with a “foxtrot” which sounds like Gershwin through a japanned glass in places. Golan creeps carefully toward Debussy and waltz time with the second number, Boston (which is also a dance). Grosz’s Tango here is a devious mashup of bits of themes, Golan luxuriating in its more resonant moments. She follows with Shimmy, which is just as clever a blend of mid-century modern, music-box tableau and morsel of tango. Golan mines a similar irony and humor, wryly marching through the concluding movement, Quasi Fivestep. This music is great fun: Grosz, who died young in 1939, deserves to be better known.

Chester Biscardi’s Incitation to Desire is an altered ballad that straddles the line between comfortable consonance and more enigmatic tonalities. Pacita’s Lunch, by Theodore Wiprud is more kinetic, a dynamically shifting dance across the constellations.

Erwin Schulhoff’s five-part suite Etudes de Jazz in many ways prefigures Piazzolla. Golan begins with the Schoenbergian ragtime of his Charleston and then slows down for a blues that isn’t close to real blues, but does have an ominous deep-sky gleam. The third segment, Chanson, echoes the opening number’s dichotomies, more spaciously, while the tastily twisted tango is the only real item in that genre here. The cat never shows its face in the concluding Toccata and Kitten on the Keys, but this edgy ragtime is both playful and a little disquieting.

Golan closes the album with Toby Twining‘s An American in Buenos Aires, a charmingly Gershwinesque piece featuring both grand and toy piano.

A Fearless, Bristling, Undaunted Solo Album by Cellist Hannah Collins

Hannah Collins is the cellist on the wittily scathing DWB (Driving While Black) soundtrack album. Her new solo record Resonance Lines – streaming at Bandcamp – is a treat for fans of low-register sonics, and high-voltage 20th and 21st century works. She doesn’t mess around: her extended technique will give you chills. There’s an iconic suite as well as a very popular, considerably shorter current-day work. Collins’ loosely interconnecting theme celebrates close collaborations between non-cellist composers and the artists they wrote for.

The famous work here is Britten’s Suite No. 1 for Cello Solo. It’s arguably the composer’s best piece, With a spacious yet incisive attack, Collins digs in and lets the overtones bristle through a fearlessly macabre homage to Bach’s Cello Suites, from sudden, shivery sunbursts, to austere drafts filtering under the door, to a pizzicato horror film. Why didn’t Britten ever write anything as chilling or intense as this ever again? We’ll never know. Mstislav Rostropovich’s premiere interpretation is the model for others brave enough to tackle it, but this is equally memorable.

The popular contemporary classical piece here is Caroline Shaw‘s In Manus Tuas. Again, Collins’ brilliance is her semi-savage attack of the composer’s signature, circling riffage. It’s easy to play this as a rapt homage to a beloved sonic space. Collins seems to want to sneak the keg in and then light a bonfire…before the group meditation, anyway.

She opens the album with a briskly crescendoing take of one of the earliest known works for the cello, 17th century Italian composer Giuseppe Colombi’s Chiacona. Kaija Saariaho’s Dreaming Chaconne, a deviously and dauntingly shivery take on the same theme, is next: Collins is undaunted. And she’s undeterred through the sometimes ghostly, sometimes monstrous flurries and slides of Saariaho’s Sept Papillons.

She closes the record with the world premiere of Thomas Kotcheff’s Cadenza (with or without Haydn), a playful and increasingly wild, electrifying, shreddy new work written as a coda for the Haydn Cello Concerto in C major, It’s an apt way to close an album that invites repeated listening.

Pensive, Disquieting Minimalism For Piano and a Rare Early Electronic Instrument

As Snowdrops, Christine Ott and Mathieu Gabry have been releasing a series of albums which blend new classical music, electronic soundscapes and film score atmospherics. On their latest release, Inner Fires – streaming at Bandcamp – Ott shifts between piano and the surreal ondes Martenot, an electronic keyboard which predates the theremin and can create a wild variety of sounds. Gabry plays piano on the first two tracks plus electronic keys and tubular bells on the final two. It’s distantly, sometimes persistently troubled, immersive music.

The first track, Elevation begins with Gabry’s spare rainy-day piano over subtly gritty and airier textures, which Ott expands on with loopy upper-register work as the piano grows more insistent. The template is the same for the fourteen-minute Egopolis, icy piano incisions over low, looming fog from the ondes Martenot. From there, Ott slowly constructs a less ornate, funereal. Radiohead-like tableau.

Ott and Gabry switch places, essentially, for the diptych Shadow Society/A Piece of Freedom, a chuffing, loopy industrial rhythm receding for echoey, plaintively glistening piano. Ott remains on (and inside) the piano for the final cut, Ruptur 47, with Gabry on tubular bells plus Richard Knox on guitar, shifting from dark, hypnotic polyrhythms to a slowly spinning bell choir. By that point, the listener has gone through the funhouse mirror and it’s not clear who’s playing what, validating this duo’s singular, uneasy vision.

Vividly Melodic New Classical Works by Danielle Eva Schwob

Multi-instrumentalist/composer Danielle Eva Schwob‘s new album Out of the Tunnel is streaming at Soundcloud. She used to record under the name Delanila and played artsy electroacoustic pop; this is a quantum leap for her imaginative, colorful contemporary classical craft.

The PUBLIQuartet play the album’s centerpiece. The first movement of Out of the Tunnel is simply titled Fast, a brisk, rather suspenseful, bustling theme that brings to mind Jessica Meyer‘s work, along with Kayhan Kalhor in its most energetic moments.

The slower but typically steady second movement is more circular, in a subdued, rainy-day Philip Glass vein, which really comes to the surface in the fleeting third movement. The conclusion has a bold, flamenco-ish rhythm, Schwob weaving a heroic anthem into a stabbing pulse that brings the initial theme full circle, first as a waltz, then a darkly dramatic canon of sorts. This is fun!

Her arrangement of Travelling North for flute and vibraphone is a spare, conversational, enigmatically twinkling wintry theme, played by Simon Boyar and Nathalie Joachim, respectively. Harpist Kristi Shade plays The Long Way Down with graceful, baroque-tinged fluidity: there’s a distant Renaissance folk melancholy to her steady triplets.

Joachim joins Shade and violist Wei-Yang Andy Lin in Breathing Underwater, the trio building a verdant syncopation that coalesces into a dynamically shifting, Debussyesque pastorale. Caroline Shaw also comes to mind.

As you would expect, Reflections on Francis Bacon – a multitracked cello piece played by Brooklyn Rider‘s Michael Nicolas – is darkly acerbic, often austere, anchored by a gritty pedal note in the early going. Schwob pares it down to an allusively chromatic melody that more than hints at Bach. Ultimately, there is no escape for this guy.

Pianist Orion Weiss plays the concluding piece, Reflections on Lucian Freud, somber introspection spiced with coy peek-a-boo motives, then building to jauntily clustering phrases. The eerily modal cascade to a false ending is breathtaking. Let’s hope that Schwob has more material like this up her sleeve.

Beguiling New Sounds From Ancient Instruments

What’s the likelihood that a contemporary composer would write a partita for viola da gamba ensemble? Molly Herron – who plays bass viola da gamba on her new album Through Lines, streaming at Bandcamp – has done exactly that. Although it’s on the minimalist side, it’s very dynamic: sometimes bracing and sober, other times immersive, and unexpectedly funny in places.

Science Ficta’s Loren Ludwig and Zoe Weiss, on standard models, and Kivie Cahn-Lipman on bass viola da gamba, join the composer in this eleven-part suite. Each segment is on the short side, four minutes or sometimes considerably less. The introduction is spacious and on the austere side, rhythmically staggered plucking backed by simple long-tone lines. The dusky tones of gnawa occasionally come to mind.

The quartet follow a study in wafting drones, overtones and fluttering pedal notes with playful, conspiratorial eighth-note phrases, hypnotic flurries and enigmatic close harmonies. Segment four, After Picforth alludes to a stormy anthem, then recedes into atmospherics.

There’s also an overtone-spiced contrast between plucked acerbity and calm ambience; a wry rondo assembled from echo effects; somber, assertive variations on a simple minor chord; and a coy return to the opening theme at the end.