New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: indie classical

Anna Heflin Blends Clever, Hilarious Spoken Word With Enigmatic New Music For Strings

Violist Anna Heflin calls her debut album The Redundancy of the Angelic “an interluding play.” Blending surrealistic, sometimes cut-and-pasted spoken word in between austere string themes, the record – which isn’t online yet – is alternately very serious and ridiculously amusing. Heflin is an acute observer and an imaginative composer; the push-pull of the album’s central dynamic ramps up the surreal factor. The album’s unifying and very best joke doesn’t reveal itself until the end, and it’s way too good to give away.

Tensely enunciating, Heflin opens the album with a disjointed poetic tableau, a beauty parlor recast as the center of a strangely benign universe. Then the music begins. A slowly sirening riff gives way to a close-harmonied string trio – Heflin with violinists Shannon Reilly and Emily Holden. Their alternately puckish, rhythmic and soberly spacious phrases and variations descend to a a hazy, hypnotic interlude, which they end up bringing full circle.

The second spoken word piece, Fell This Blonde, is devastatingly funny: let’s say it turns an ugly American beauty myth upside down. The strings return in As Above, So Below, first with an austere, stairstepping theme, then sandpapery harmonics and a hair-raising coda.

Heflin allusively ponders apocalyptic portents and escape therefrom in We Made It Out: ultimately, she’s optimistic. In Heflin’s closing pastiche poem, the joke is on the listener as she ties up all the loose ends, Hitchcock style: again, no spoilers.

The Berlin Mallet Group Ring In a Unique, Imaginative, Colorful Debut Album

One of the most imaginative and unique albums to reach the front page here in recent months is the Berlin Mallet Group‘s debut album Sogni D’oro, streaming at Spotify. It rings, and pings, and whirs, and whooshes and bubbles in ways few other groups ever have, no surprise considering the instrumentation. Bandleaders David Friedman and Taiko Saito play vibraphone and marimba, respectively, along with Julius Heise and Hauke Renken, who alternate between those two instruments, and Raphael Meinhart, who sticks with the marimba here. The world is full of percussion ensembles and vibraphone jazz groups, but this crew sound like no other band in the world, part precise orchestra, part outside-the-box jazz ensemble. This is very lively, colorful music.

The opening number, Friedman’s Penta e Uno, is a mini-suite full of playful twists and turns, from a rapturous, minimalist ballad, to tantalizingly brief, bouncy swing and bossa themes and fleeting moments of Lynchian suspense. What’s most fascinating about it is the group’s meticulously orchestral intertwine. There’s a thicket of tremolo and ripples, but also a steady bassline, and circling low midrange.

The second number, by Saito, is Komodo No Kodomo, a vampy, distantly Asian, cleverly polyrhythmic web anchoring a series of terse vibraphone solos that finally mingle down into hypnotic rivulets. The group reinvent Kenny Wheeler’s Sea Lady as an epic bell choir: Saito’s evocative arrangement gets the group bowing oceanic ambience, right down to coy shorebirds and waves leisurely washing onshore. From there they take turns drifting and ringing out a summery tropical tableau.

Carousel, another Friedman tune, shifts from warmly hypnotic to emphatically assertive, with both motorik and west African balafon flavors and catchy solos from the vibes. The group dedicate this album to the late composer and percussionist Rupert Stamm and follow with two of his compositions. Friedman’s spare phrases resonate broodingly over suspenseful marimbas as Xylon 1 gets underway, the group maintaining a tight but mysterious pulse as a more tropical rhythm picks up. Xylon 4 is the album’s most anthemic track, with some breathtaking interplay in the highs as it peaks out.

Friedman’s title track shifts between summery atmosphere, a puffing pulse and a casual, shuffling bounce, with lushly expanding textures as it goes on. Scharfenberg, a fond ballad by Heise, concludes the album, the ensemble’s keening, pinging layers rising to a cheery series of waves that underscore the song’s sly resemblance to an old Elvis hit.

Surrealistically Captivating Electroacoustic Solo Clarinet Sounds From Esther Lamneck

On one hand, clarinetist Esther Lamneck’s new album Sky Rings – streaming at Spotify – is primarily for fans of her axe, her silken sostenuto, her effortless legato and command of extended technique. On the other, devotees of adventurous new classical music ought to check it out. It’s a collection of six solo electroacoustic pieces, testifying to the fact that we’ve probably barely scratched the surface of how many solo records have been made in the fateful days since March 16 of last year. Often it’s hard to tell what’s an overdub and what’s getting reprocessed and spun back through the mix, enhancing the psychedelic factor.

The opening piece is Lars Graugaard‘s Quiet Voice. It begins as a wafting reverbtoned soundscape that picks up slowly: the distantly chimey multitracks sound suspiciously like the mixer picking up the clicking of the keys. A loopy, uneasy, chromatic phrase hints at the development of more anthemic melody, then Lamneck fires off a sudden cadenza akin to a stone hitting a pond. The sonic thicket grows thicker and more flutelike, even as it’s balanced by fliting low notes against the trills and leaps. Playfully bubbly phrasing alternates with austere atmospherics as she winds up this colorful showpiece.

The album’s title track, by Michael Matthews, has a bracing,, heavy-gamelanesque electronic introduction that gives way to lively allusions to Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time and dynamically shifting variations which come full circle almost imperceptibly.

Kyong Mee Choi‘s Ceaseless Cease gives Lamneck alternately drifting and playfully percussive backdrops for leaps and bounds as well as more pensive phrasing that eventually weaves into a sort of catch-and-follow. She airs out her blues phrasing in the intro of Ihbtby, by Paul Wilson, a minimalist take on a Gershwinesque stroll; from there,surreal ambience alternates with hectic flutters.

Although it’s awash in gritty harmonics and keening duotones, Michal Rataj‘s Small Imprints is the most straightforward and subtly playful number here. Lamneck winds up the record with David Durant’s rather brooding Faji, sailing tersely and then glissandoing frenetically over an ominous series of noirish electronic textures and accents.

An Old World Premiere and an Ambitious New Choral Work From New York Polyphony

New York Polyphony are pretty much unique in the world of choral music in that they sing world premieres from five hundred years ago as well as from the here and now. The quartet – countertenor Geoffrey Williams, tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson, baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert and bass Craig Phillips – are as expertly protean as protean gets. One reason why they’re able to find so much fascinating, previously unreleased early music – beyond simply being experts at sleuthing it out – is that they’re smaller than most choirs and focus on the most intimate side of medieval masses and motets. The other is that they have sufficiently formidable chops to tackle this material – some of which was sung by boys at the time it was written – and Herbert’s steely upper register has a lot to do with that.

Their latest album And the Sun Darkened: Music for Passiontide is streaming at Spotify. The group open with fifteenth century Flemish composer Loyset Compère’s stately, utterly otherworldly Crux Triumphans. The group’s resolute command of the pairing of highs against lows leaves the impression that they are a much larger ensemble: it’s a device that’s worked for everyone from Mozart to Gil Evans.

From there, the group shift seamlessly from a spaciously soaring, brief Josquin piece, to the hypnotic, swaying, terse echo effects and persistently unsettled ancient/modern harmonic juxtapositions of contemporary composer Andrew Smith‘s Salme 55.

A diptych by a slightly later fifteenth century Flemish composer, Adrian Willaert, features more dramatic upper register work. From there the group move on to alternately desolate and delicately rhythmic 20th century Estonian terrain for a psalm setting by Cyrillus Kreek.

Their latest old world premiere is Compère’s nine-part suite Officium de Cruce. It’s a Book of Hours meditation, its brief segments ranging from proto-operatic counterpoint to a mystical sway and back. The rather brooding sixth segment, where those rhythms intertwine, is the highlight. The quartet close the album with a thoughtful, spacious, benedictory work by a Compère contemporary, Pierre de la Rue [editor’s note – no relation :)].

The kinds of venues these guys would typically serenade a year ago are dragging their feet reopening, which only means that crowds are going to stick with the vastly less expensive speakeasy circuit when they do. A radical shift in how live music is presented in New York City is underway. The old venue-centric model is being replaced by a community and artist-based scene…and some would say that change is long overdue.

Joy and Desolation From the Tesla Quartet

The Tesla Quartet have been around for more than a decade. In keeping with this century’s zeitgeist, artists release albums when they’re ready, not when some accountant says they have to in order to fulfill some sleazy record label contract. So their debut album, Joy and Desolation – streaming at their music page – was worth the wait. It’s a mix of very familiar repertoire and more adventurous material.

They open the record with a classical radio staple: Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A Major, with soloist Alexander Fiterstein. Let’s not kid ourselves: pensive third movement notwithstanding, this is wine-hour music for the thieving dukes and abbots and the gentry of suburban Vienna, such as suburbs existed in 1789. The more you drink, the easier it is to get lost in its lustre and exchanges of subdued revelry. But it’s gorgeously executed. Fiterstein maintains a stunning, wind-tunnel clarity, throughout both extended passages and bubbly staccato phrases. Violinists Ross Snyder and Michelle Lie, and violist Edwin Kaplan provide echoes and a strong backdrop, and cellist Serafim Smigelskiy switches seamlessly between resonant ballast and serving as bass player.

Next on the bill are Gerald Finzi’s innocuously neo-baroque Five Bagatelles. A drifting legato quickly transforms to leaps and bounds in the opening Prelude. Fiterstein’s moody vistas echo in Smigelskiy’s undercurrent in the nocturnal Romance, followed by a nostalgically snowy, waltzing carol of a third movement. The fourth relies more on stark pastoral textures from the strings; the concluding fughetta, on bubbly exchanges. Aaron Copland comes to mind often here: this music is facile, derivative – and seamlessly played.

So much for joy. There’s a slow, fugal contrast between icy, troubled, tectonically shifting close-harmonied strings, built around a creepy chromatic riff and the clarinet’s looming textures, in John Corigliano‘s Soliloquy. The windswept, ghostly outro is absolutely gorgeous. The group wind up the album with Carolina Heredia’s Ius in Bello, its haunted flickers and flutters behind plaintive clarinet up to a fire dance within the first couple of minutes. Demands on the ensemble increase from sudden shocked cadenzas to chilling mictrotonal interludes: what a piece de resistance to choose as a coda.

Suspensefully Cinematic, High-Spirited New Classical Works From the CCCC Grossman Ensemble

The Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition’s Grossman Ensemble is the brainchild of Augusta Read Thomas. Her game plan was to create a group which could intensely workshop material with composers rather than simply holding a few rehearsals and then throwing a concert. Their album Fountain of Time – streaming at youtube – is contemporary classical music as entertainment: a dynamic series of new works, many of them with a cinematic suspense and tingly moments of noir. Percussionists Greg Beyer and John Corkill, in particular, have a field day with this.

They open with Shulamit Ran’s picturesque Grand Rounds. Oboe player Andrew Nogal, clarinetist Katherine Schoepflin Jimoh, pianist Daniel Pesca and harpist Ben Melsky get to send a shout-out to Messiaen and then a salute to Bernard Herrmann’s Hitchcock film scores. Terse accents from horn player Matthew Oliphant and saxophonist Taimur Sullivan mingle with the acerbic textures of the Spektral Quartet: violinists Clara Lyon and Maeve Feinberg, violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen. Furtiveness ensues and then the chase is on! The ending is anything but what you would expect. Told you this was fun!

Anthony Cheung’s triptych Double Allegories begins with sudden strikes amid suspenseful, wafting ambience, heavy on the percussion: Herrmann again comes strongly to mind. The midsection is built around a deliciously otherworldly series of microtonal, stairstepping motives, subtle echo effects and ice-storm ambience. The finale comes across as a series of playful but agitated poltergeist conversations….or intermittent stormy bursts. Or both, Tim Munro’s flute and the percussion front and center.

David Dzubay conducts his new work, PHO, which is not a reference to Vietnamese cuisine: the title stands for Potentially Hazardous Objects. The ensemble work every trick in the suspense film playbook – creepy bongos, shivery swells, tense bustles, pizzicato strings like high heels on concrete, breathy atmospherics and hints of a cynical Mingus-esque boogie – for playfully maximum impact. It’s the album’s most animated and strongest piece.

Tonia Ko‘s Simple Fuel was largely improvised while the ensemble were workshopping it; it retains that spontaneity with all sorts of extended technique, pulsing massed phrasing in an AACM vein, conspiratorial clusters alternating with ominous microtonal haze.

A second triptych, by David “Clay” Mettens, winds up the record. Stain, the first segment, bristles with defiantly unresolved microtones, gremlins in the highs peeking around corners and hints of Indian carnatic riffage. Part two, Bloom/Moon pairs deviously syncopated marimba against slithery strings. The textures and clever interweave in Rain provide the album with a vivid coda. Let’s hope we hear more from this group as larger ensembles begin recording and playing again: day after day, the lockdown is unraveling and the world seems to be returning to normal.

Darkly Colorful Cellist Gyda Valtysdottir Celebrates Her Fellow Icelanders

The last time that cellist Gyda Valtysdottir was on this page, it was 2013 and her atmospheric trip-hop/postrock band Mum had just put out their Smilewound album. Since then she’s taken a deeper plunge into new classical music. Her latest album Epicycle II – streaming at Bandcamp – is a collection of enveloping new electroacoustic works by colleagues from her native Iceland.

The first track, Skúli Sverrisson’s Unfold, is an increasingly brooding, almost maddeningly unresolved series of duotone chords, up the staircase, then down and around. In her airy high soprano, Valtysdottir half-whispers over stately, minimalist pizzicato in Ólöf Arnalds’ loopy waltz Safe to Love, rising to some bracing doublestops.

Anna Thorvaldsdóttir’s Mykros has looming lows, hazy atmospherics and approximations of whale song. Valtysdottir digs in triumphantly when Úlfur Hansson’s Morphogenesis….well…morphs out of pulsing, looped phrases to a gritty swell and then a long, stark upward climb with some flute-like harmonics – it’s musical M.C. Escher.

Kjartan Sveinsson’s Liquidity features stately, spare piano and also percussion. It’s the album’s lone departure into uneasily if anthemically crescendoing art-rock, in keeping with the composer’s background in atmospheric rock. The lingering tone poem Air to Breath, by Daníel Bjarnason has some breathtakingly anticipatory, cantabile phrasing.

Jónsi’s Evol Lamina (spell it backwards, Sonic Youth style) reflects the title – it’s the album’s lone throwaway. Appropriately, the record’s eighth and final composition is María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir’s Octo, an increasingly atmospheric series of variations on a brooding four-note phrase.

Terse, Otherworldly, Magically Textured Solo Piano Pieces by Benoît Delbecq

Benoît Delbecq inhabits a unique, often otherworldly, surreal sound world. That’s because he prepares his piano, putting metal and other materials on the strings and elsewhere, for textures that few other pianists would ever imagine, let alone seek out. His compositions span the worlds of jazz improvisation, 20th and 21st century classical music, often evoking the work of Messiaen or Federico Mompou. Delbecq can be sardonically funny or piercingly plaintive, sometimes in the same song. His new solo album The Weight of Light is streaming at Spotify.

The opening number, The Loop of Chicago has spare, bell-tinged righthand phrases over muted but dancingly catchy, prepared textures that sound like a cross between a mbira and a balafon. This is definitely the Loop on a rainy Friday night when pretty much everybody has traipsed home.

Dripping Stones is an aptly titled, bell-like tableau that strongly brings to mind Mompou, with more rhythmic freedom. For the album’s third number, Family Trees, Delbecq brings back the approximation of the balafon and adds a clock-like timbre (think of Pink Floyd’s Breathe), with cleverly clustering phrases using Fender Rhodes voicings.

It’s as if Delbecq has a couple of muted, hypnotic bass drum loops going behind his sparse, rainy-day righthand in Chemin Sur Le Crest. The skeletal, arrythmic textures of Au Fil De La Parole are a spot-on evocation of the metal chimes of a mobile, an important childhood influence on Delbecq’s music.

He returns to the balafon-and-chimes analogue, more hypnotically at first and then with more of a traditional postbop jazz edge, in Anamorphoses: that could explain the title. Timbres shift to what could be harmonic pings on the high strings of an electric bass in Havn En Havre: the overtones wafting from Delbecq’s simple chromatic loop are deliciously disquieting. Then his righthand belltones drive the point all the way home.

The album’s most epic track is Pair Et Impair, with an increasingly complex web of plinky, dancing, mbira and Rhodes tones. He winds up the album with Broken World, its spacious, warily ringing phrases tinged with murk.

Fun fact: Delbecq takes the album title from his physicist brother, whose doctoral thesis proposed to verify that light has mass.

Somberly Relevant Ambient Music From Desdemona and Percussionist Adam Holmes

Most of us tend to think of ambient music as hypnotic and soothing. Composer/percussionist Adam Holmes has written a trio of works, Music For a Small Shelter – streaming at Bandcamp – which have more bite than you typically find in calm, horizontal music. Depicting interminable isolation, in this case the grim early days of the lockdown, is hardly an easy task for any composer, but Holmes’ minimalist approach maximizes a small supply of sonic ingredients. It’s as if to remind us that sometimes we have to make do with what’s available.

Chamber ensemble Desdemona play with stark precision, joined by the composer’s incisive, spacious hammered dulcimer rhythms on the first track, First Names. On the third and final piece, Trust Fall, his rustles and misty press rolls alternate with echoey, astringently overtone-infused string swells and accents. Eventually the string trio – violinists Adrianne Munden-Dixon and Caroline Drexler and violist Carrie Frey – converge and then triangulate acerbically.

Long tones rise and fall away suddenly in the middle piece, Scattering, the strings smoldering with similarly otherworldly harmonics. Anyone terrified at the prospect of New Abnormal totalitarianism taking over the globe can find solace in this spare, somber music.

Richly Disquieting Music From Nomi Epstein

Pianist Nomi Epstein writes magical, otherworldly, spacious music that sometimes brings to mind Federico Mompou, other times Messiaen. The piano pieces on her new album Sounds – streaming at Bandcamp – linger with an often mournful, sparse belltone ambience. These works are deceptively minimalist: the way Epstein slowly shifts between relentlessly unsettled harmonies is artful to the extreme. She keeps the pedal down for maximum resonance.  If there was any sound tailor-made for the unreality and immersive angst of the lockdown, this is it.

The first composition is Till For Solo Piano, played meticulously by Reinier van Houdt. The obvious antecedent seems to be Satie’s Vexations; the way Epstein subtly shifts harmonies while maintaining a creepy, bell-like ambience is as masterful as it is hypnotic.

Solo for Piano part I: Waves is aptly titled, its graceful series of low lefthand rumbles building a picturesque portrait of water washing a beach at night, and slowly brightening from there. The minute dynamic shifts in the brooding, steady conversation between left and righthand in the uninterrupted, eighteen-minute part two, Dyads are more celestially captivating. Again, Satie’s Vexations comes to mind

Van Houdt returns to the keys for the concluding number, Layers for Piano, with its contrasts between stygian reflecting-pool resonance in the lefthand with slowly shifting, spare, unsettling close-harmonied accents in the right. Occasional flinging gestures in the the upper registers dash any hope of a persistent, meditative state.

There are also two chamber works here. For Collect/Project, a hazy, lighthearted electroacoustic piece featuring vocalist Frauke Aulbert with Shanna Gutierrez on bass flute is ridiculously funny in places. And the composer herself plays the album’s sparest piano on the title track, Eliza Bangert’s flute and Jeff Kimmel‘s bass clarinet providing nebulous wave motion and a mist of overtones behind her. What a stunningly individualistic and often haunting album: let’s hope Epstein can continue build on what promises to be a brilliant body of work.