New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: 21st century music

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein Debuts Richard Danielpour’s Haunting, Guardedly Hopeful, Historic Lockdown-Themed New Suite

Imagine your doctor telling you that because you have asthma, odds are seventy percent that you won’t survive the seasonal flu.

That’s what composer Richard Danielpour‘s doctor told him in the early days of the lockdown. The good news is that Danielpour, along with hundreds of millions of other asthmatics, emerged alive. But during those grim months a year ago when so many citizens around the world had no idea if they’d ever be able to leave their homes without being shot, Danielpour was understandably distraught. He was able to find solace in Simone Dinnerstein‘s recordings of J.S. Bach – and, inspired by those albums, wrote a suite of his own for her

The result, American Mosaic, is streaming at Spotify. It’s a visceral, intensely focused attempt to transcend the psychological torture pretty much everyone endured before the science debunking the lockdowners’ terror propaganda came to light. Not only is this riveting and often haunting music, it’s important history.

A spare miniature, the first of four “consolations,” opens the suite: Dinnerstein plays it with guarded hope, but horror erupts at the end. She gives the brief second and longer third variations a muted woundedness, a clock-chime theme moving along steadily, yet with all sense of time being lost. The final one has somewhat more robust harmonies but also more of a funereal atmosphere, Dinnerstein leaving plenty of breathing room for both the somber lefthand and the slow parade overhead to linger, quietly but eventfully.

Part of the lockdowner agenda, of course, involved arbitrarily deciding who was “essential,” and who was not, a practice taken from the Nazi death camps where able-bodied workers were sometimes initially spared, and women, children and the elderly were sent to the gas chamber.

Danielpour dedicates several of the suite’s segments to groups of hardworking individuals, both essential and worthless by lockdowner standards, who kept the world going, Caretakers and research physicians get a chiming, purposeful intertwining theme. Parents and their kids bound around in a momentary distraction, as do documentary filmmakers, photographers, teachers and students: at least someone’s having fun here! Rabbis and ministers receive a resonant but enigmatically expectant, Debussy-esque salute.

Dinnerstein gets to revel in some precise but difficult boogie-woogie in a shout-out to writers, journalists and poets: thanks, guys! The closest thing to a love theme here is dedicated to doctors and interns, yet trouble lurks just outside. Prophets and martyrs are acknowledged soberly, in the suite’s most spacious, Satie-esque moment.

The visible enemy is portrayed as very calm and determined in the beginning, but this illuminati of clowns can’t get their story straight. To Danielpour, at the time, the invisible one was just as steady but more phantasmagorical: it’s the suite’s most chilling interlude. An Elegy For Our Time comes across as more of a wistful reminiscence of better days.

Dinnerstein winds up the record with three Danielpour transcriptions of Bach works: a gentle, cautiously prayerful take of the Agnus Dei from the Mass in B minor, a famous Aria theme from the St. Matthew Passion reinvented as a delicate dirge, and a more heroic yet carefully paced epilogue from that same suite. After all we’ve been through in the past year, the hope Danielpour alludes to here seems within our reach.

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.

A Haunting Album For Our Time by Iconic Pianist Satoko Fujii

You can tell how serious people are by the extremes they go to. Pianist Satoko Fujii managed to finish her new solo album Hazuki – streaming at Bandcamp – with an icepack on her neck. That may not be as much of a display of superhuman endurance as the two Curt Schillling bloody sock games, but it’s in the same league. Yet, the Boston Red Sox pitcher humbly requested to be taken off the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot. Likewise, Fujii also doesn’t seem to want anything more than the opportunity to sell out a jazz club, as she routinely did before the lockdown. Undeterred, she keeps putting out brilliant albums as a way to stay current and maybe make a few bucks since live music has been criminalized in so many of the parts of the world where she used to play.

The album title is medieval Japanese for “August,” which is when she recorded the record in the unventilated music room in her Tokyo apartment in almost hundred-degree heat last year. How hot is this music? It’s a distinctive, elegantly articulated portrait of the desperation of a career on ice and a world slipping toward a holocaust. As usual, Fujii often goes under the piano lid for all kinds of unorthodox sonics: approximations of an autoharp, a koto or a monsoon crushing the coast, which she intermingles with increasingly portentous, menacing variations on a simple, ominous lefthand riff in the album’s opening track, Invisible.

The second number, Quarantined is part Messaienic, carrilonesque study in making do with what we have and part monstrous apocalyptic tableau: this record is one of Fujii’s most energetic, even explosive albums in recent memory and this is one of its most haunting interludes. She works those close-harmonied chords with even more of a funereal angst in Cluster (possibly a take on the concept of “COVID clusters,” real or imagined). Throughout her work, Fujii typically maintans a distance from the macabre, if only for the sake of suspense, but not here.

Hoffen (German for “hope”) is aptly titled, a matter-of-factly imploring atmosphere infusing this soberly cascading, crescendoing, relentlessly emphatic ballad without words. Fujii builds an even more tightly claustrophobic, raga-like, modal intensity in the next number, Beginning, perhaps ironically one of the album’s catchiest tunes.

She develops Ernesto, a Che Guevara homage, around an artful assemblage of climbing phrases, complete with looming, stygian atmospherics and a seemingly withering parody of generic ballad architecture. Expanding, an older but previously unrecorded tune, begins as a study in leapfrogging modalities but rises toward a hard-hitting, catchy, late 50s Miles Davis-style tableau. Fujii closes the album with Twenty-Four Degrees and its steady, Mompou-esque chimes, a cool settling in after the oppressive conditions under which Fujii made the record. Three months into 2021, and she’s already released two of the strongest contenders for best album of the year: this one, and her Prickly Pear Cactus duo collaboration with vibraphonist Taiko Saito.

Haunting, Potently Relevant New Protest Music From the Imani Winds

In French, “bruit” means “noise.” In English, it’s the medical term for a heart murmur caused by a vascular blockage, and pronounced as “brute.” The Imani Winds‘ new album Bruits – streaming at Bandcamp – references both meanings, in terms of access to justice for people of color as well as stirring up a mighty noise about it. New classical music doesn’t get any more relevant than this in 2021.

The group – flutist Brandon Patrick George, oboe player Toyin Spellman-Diaz, clarinetist Mark Dover, horn player Jeff Scott and bassoonist Monica Ellis – open with the title track, a five-part Vijay Iyer suite inspired by the murder of Trayvon Martin. Cory Smythe circles ominously on microtonal electric piano as individual wind voices pulse and swirl, darkly tropical Miami bustle giving way to still nocturnal foreshadowing. The second movement has a recitation of the Florida “Stand Your Ground” law – under which Martin’s murderer was acquitted – set to terse, grim piano syncopation.

Low, lingering suspense contrasts with uneasily wafting tones in the third movement; a tense, relentless rhythm returns in the fourth, only to recede to a haze and a grim quote from Georgia congresswoman Lucy McBath, whose own son was murdered less than a year after Martin. Somber and agitated themes conjoin in the conclusion, rising to a cold, fateful stop.

Spellman-Diaz and Ellis exchange Indian-tinged melismas as Reena Esmail’s The Light Is the Same gets underway, its mashup of contrasting raga themes rising to a delicate intertwine. John Whittington Franklin reads the words of his historian dad, John Hope Franklin in Frederic Rzewski’s triptych Sometimes. The first movement has Ellis playing somber variations on Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child behind a characteristically commonsensical observation: “We need a new American Revolution that will create a new ideology of comradeship in the great enterprise of building a society in which every man and woman can face tomorrow, unencumbered by the burdens of the past or the prejudices of the present. This calls for a revolution in the heart and soul of every American. This is what the first American Revolution did not have. This is what the new American Revolution must have.”

The harmonies grow more brooding over a stately pace, then the voices diverge in steady counterpoint before circling back in the second movement. Soprano Janai Brugger sings a Langston Hughes text in the bitterly circling conclusion. Rzewski has never shied away from tackling important political issues, from the Attica massacre onward, and this is one of his most memorable and unselfconsciously vivid works.

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.

Dynamic, Tuneful, Playful Outside-the-Box Solo Bass From Daniel Barbiero

Those of us who play low-register instruments tend to think of them as complementary, which in most styles of music they almost always are.

But inevitability theories of anything, whether history or music, are not healthy, and they don’t hold water. Maybe it’s high time we got past them.

With its sheer catchiness, playful sense of humor and dynamic range, bassist Daniel Barbiero‘s solo album of graphic scores, In/Completion – streaming at Bandcamp – will get you thinking outside the box, whether you’re a player or a listener. “At their best, graphic compositions are both beautiful and provocative. Beautiful in that they can, when artfully done, stand as independent works of visual art,” Barbiero asserts in his liner notes.

You could say that the album’s opening number, Root Music by Makoto Nomura, was written by nature itself, a vegetable patch that the composer planted in shallow soil whose roots turned out to be visible. Barbiero chose to interpret it as a series of catchy, hypnotically circling phrases in the high midrange.

Traces, by Silvia Corda, offers many choices of riffs and how to arrange them: Barbiero uses a generous amount of space for his emphatic, vigorously minimal plucks and washes. His solo arrangement of Alexis Porfiriadis‘ string quartet piece Spotting Nowhere makes a good segue and is considerably more spacious and often sepulchral, with its muted flurries and spiky pizzicato.

Barbiero recorded Paths (An Autumn Day in a Seaside Town), by his four-string compadre Cristiano Bocci on their recent duo album. The terse theme and variations of this solo version are more starkly sustained and expansive, yet whispery and sparkling with high harmonics in places, minus the found sounds from the shoreline which appear on the duo recording.

Barbiero employs a lot of extended technique on this record, especially in his deviously slithery, harmonically bristling lines in Bruce Friedman’s fleeting OPTIONS No. 3. Wilhelm Matthies’s GC 1 (2-9-17), a partita, is rather somberly bowed, yet Barbiero also incorporates some subtly wry conversational phrasing.

5 Paths 4 Directions, by Patrick Brennan comes across as contrasts between purposefulness and anxiety. Barbiero winds up the record with a stark, allusively chromatic interpretation of Morton Feldman’s Projection 1, originally devised for solo cello.

Composer Jen Kutler’s Fascinating New Album Transcends Evocations of Trauma

As if the early days of the lockdown in New York weren’t terroristic enough, composer Jen Kutler spent them further terrorizing herself by watching a long sequence of violent movie scenes. Murder, rape, torture, verbal abuse, the works. Before exposing herself to this barrage of disturbing stimuli, she hooked herself up to electrodes to record the magnetic response time from her skin. Then she ran the data set through MIDI and orchestrated it electronically. The result is an alternately soothing and menacing new album, Sonified Physiological Indicators of Empathy, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s transcendent in the purest sense: a work of art drawn from what must have been a viscerally painful experience.

Kutler was intrigued by the prospect that human response to sounds of trauma might be an indicator of a capacity for empathy – or lack thereof. We speak of people as being warm or cold. Is there scientific evidence to back up such an observation? Kutler discovered research which suggests there is. A psychopath can feign compassion, but skin response to stimuli is a reflex action which can’t be controlled.

Research in this area is still in its infancy, especially as far as sound is concerned, and it has become clear that the wider the set of stimuli used in an experiment, the more unique an individual’s responses will be. However, there does seem to be a correlation between desensitization to traumatic sounds and self-identification with psychopathic behavior on one scale or another. Kutler is quick to point out that we need more research in this area, and is involved with a new project examining human response to various environmental and linguistic cues. And as our body of knowledge in this field grows, we need to be careful to consider individual experiences that may have desensitized us – from childhood trauma, to the environment around us. How many times does an urban dweller hear a scream and assume it’s just a crazy crackhead? What does that say about us?

The sounds on Kutler’s album drift toward the more industrial side of ambient music: Philip Blackburn‘s work often comes to mind. The six tracks here draw the listener in as Kutler’s allusive, methodically shifting timbres and tones waft through the sonic picture. Fragments of stately organ melody give way to what could be monks throat-singing in unison through a garage wall. Echoey drainpipes, wheels shedding overtones at high velocity, elevators, rainstorms and gently wobbling pulleys all come to mind. Sunlight looms in on the most shadowy moments, and vice versa.

The calmest, most enveloping track here is perhaps ironically titled Long Term Memory Loss, an atmosphere that drifts over into the next one, Fairness, although that piece grows more enigmatic. The shifts arrive faster and more uneasily in Short Term Memory Loss. Flickers of minimalistic melody take centerstage in Borders, but even there the textures remain on the cold and plasticky side. Kutler likes synthesized choir patches, which oscillate and pulse in the album’s final cut, A Piece For Amplified Children. It has a funny ending.

Kutler is also an inventor. One recent creation of hers that’s genuinely heartwarming is part of her In Loving Memory of Being Touched project. During the early part of the lockdown last year, Kutler found herself alone and discovered how, like probably billions of people around the world at the time, she missed a simple human touch. So she built a touch simulator which people can use to send each other anything from a playful tap to more emotionally complex tactile messages. Beyond the fun you could have with this, it has immense potential as a means of transmitting secret codes.

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.

Revisiting a Favorite of the New Classical Scene

“Anybody who thinks that classical music is dead wasn’t here,” this blog enthused about Caroline Shaw‘s sold-out concert with the Attacca Quartet at Lincoln Center a little over a year ago. Lincoln Center’s concert halls may be cold and dead at the moment – what a hideous reality, huh? – but you can hear some of what she played that night on their most recent album, Orange, streaming at Bandcamp.

Before Shaw won a Pulitzer (for a piece that wasn’t even one of her best), she was highly sought after as a sidewoman, both as a violinist and chorister. Since then, she’s become more widely known as one of the foremost composer-performers in the new classical scene. By the time she recorded this, most of the material had been thoroughly road-tested, and it sparkles with catchy, emphatic riffage and clever humor.

The title track, essentially, is Valencia, inspired by a big, juicy orange. Circling high harmonics, driving glissandos in the lows, echo riffs, suspenseful dopplers and brisk handoffs populate this artfully minimalist theme and variations. Brooklyn Rider gave the New York premiere of the trickily rhythmic yet anthemic opening track, Entr’Acte, earlier that year. The version here seems more spacious and richly textured with microtones, not to mention dynamics. The ensemble  – violinists Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga, violist Nathan Schram and cellist Andrew Yee – take advantage of the studio space to sink to a whisper and then pluck their way back up toward a Philip Glass-ine circularity.

The album’s centerpiece is Plan & Elevation, a seven-part suite inspired by the same landscaped Washington, DC greenery that Igor Stravinsky was drawn to over a half-century ago. Steady pulses, jaunty pizzicato, indian summer haze, spirals across the strings and expertly textured harmonics interchange, rise and fall: Shaw’s reliance on the low midrange, here and elsewhere, is striking, particularly in the third movement’s slow upward slide.

In Latin, Punctum means “point;” it’s also the opening of a tear duct. The group really max out the dynamics, from a wry off-scene strut, to obliquely resonant late Beethoven references and some neat polyrhythms. The album’s longest and most hypnotic piece, Ritornello contrasts shifting tectonic sheets with playful pizzicato riffs over a quasi-palindromic structure with a devious false ending. The concluding number is the plucky, pastoral Limestone & Felt.

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.