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Tag: electroacoustic

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.

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.

Hauntingly Immersive, Dystopic Swirl From Resina and Avant Garde Choir 441Hz

Polish cellist and composer Karolina Rec a.k.a. Resina wrote her new album Speechless – streaming at Bandcamp – during the Women’s Strike protests there last year. Plans for the album were nearly derailed by lockdown insanity, but Rec and conductor Anna Wilczewska’s Gdańsk-based choir 441Hz worked fast during brief moments of freedom. The result is a whirling, dystopic, electroacoustic salute to nature before she gets sick of us and kicks us off the planet for good (if we don’t beat nature to the punch with lethal injections and mass sterilization).

Rec likes diptychs, ending in a sonic place completely different from where she begins. Her opening piece here is Mercury Immersion, a ghostly chorale amid a constantly shifting series of increasingly anguished, rising and falling waves. Drummer Mateusz Rychlicki takes the eerie grandeur to a boomy peak at the end.

There’s a sharp, singing quality to Rec’s cello in Horse Tail, her one-woman multitracked string section joined by the choir as they hypnotically pulse along at a quasi-gallop. The creepy electronic effect toward the end is too good to give away, and spot-on for the plandemic era.

Looping, cocooning phrases from the choir contrast with the starkness of the cello and what could be whalesong in Failed Myth Simulation, a diptych; the second half is a motorik theme. The dissociative soundscape Darwin’s Finches features birdsong field recordings by Michał Fojcik, which turn out to be more icily techy than bucolic.

Underneath the gritty textures and sepulchral washes of voices, Unveiling could be a circling Philip Glass etude. Slashes from the cello penetrate calm loopiness as track six, Manic gets underway, Rec building a somberly minimalist theme that she eventually takes in a grim industrial direction. After that, the brief tableau Hajstra makes a good segue.

Rec develops variations on a heroic marching theme in A Crooked God, again veering into industrial roar and clank. The album’s final cut is Recall, a surreal, staggered canon at quarterspeed which eventually collapses in an electronic ice storm. This is a sonic treat for those brave enough to confront it.

A New Album of Warm, Imaginatively Textured Sikh Spiritual Songs From Manika Kaur

For those who like the idea of Enya but find her music insubstantial and samey, singer Manika Kaur is your elixir. Her latest album Ek (“Oneness”) – streaming at Bandcamp – has everything that’s made her a favorite among fans of Sikh sacred music. It’s a mix of new and ancient kirtan themes and ambient music with occasional, playful hints of jazz.

The opening track has santoor, tabla, synth and Kaur’s airy, inviting, expressive voice. The second, spiced with melismatic violin and tanpura, is titled Magic Mantra – but it’s a lot more lively than that. After that, there’s a mix of harmonium, shennai oboe and glockenspiel, then acoustic guitar and veena: how’s all that for interesting textures?

Bansuri flute and strings? Check. Tender vocals contrasting with stark string orchestration? Doublecheck. Liberation theology? Check, check, check. There’s also a catchy folk-rock tune, a lingering, rustically rubato soundscape and a couple of quasi trip-hop anthems. Good stuff for unwinding and lighting up your chakras.

An Otherworldly, Drifting Diptych by Joe O’Connor, Theo Carbo and Tim Green

An eclogue is a pastoral poem. How bucolic is Eclogue, the new album by Joe O’Connor, Theo Carbo and Tim Green? It’s streaming at Bandcamp – you decide. The trio create a warmly drifting sunrise ambience with subtle textures and minimalist accents, plus the occasional creak or quaver as tectonic sheets of sound make their way slowly through the frame. Overtones and harmonics rule in this comfortably enveloping universe.

Without knowing the instrumentation, you might think that the slow oscillations and echoey blips could be electronic, but they’re actually from O’Connor’s prepared piano, Green’s brushed drumheads and Carbo’s guitar.

There are two tracks here. The first is about fourteen minutes and rises to watery rivulets over a steady calm, echoing a familiar Pink Floyd dynamic originally manufactured using a vintage analog chorus pedal. Rustles from the drums and a single somber, recurrent piano note hint that the forest or faraway galaxy here is about to awaken, and it seems more of a galaxy than a bright, green naturescape as it does.

Keening highs and squirrelly, muted percussive activity contrast as the twenty-minute second half gets underway. Playful figures that could be whale song, or beavers gnawing out the raw materials for a new home, appear amid the stillness. Gentle cymbal washes and that persistent low piano note add a second dichotomy, then the two reverse roles, Erik Satie at quarterspeed. A warped quasi-gamelan ensues, then it’s back to Satie territory to close on an absolutely otherworldly note.

A Slashingly Relevant New Album of New String Quartet Works From Quartet121

When Quartet121 put out a call for string quartet scores, they really scored! The ensemble – violinists Molly Germer and Julia Jung Un Suh, violist Lena Vidulich and cellist Thea Mesirow – are a magnet for world premieres. Their new album, simply titled Call for Scores – streaming at Bandcamp – comprises three acerbic and powerfully relevant new works.

The first piece is Rachel Beja‘s Punti Invisibili di Contatto, with a theme focusing on the tension between individuality and being part of a whole. The group flit through playful exchanges within lots of space, then the harmonies begin. Lots of extended technique is involved: percussive flickers, keening harmonics and slithery glissandos The more the piece coalesces, the more severe the harmonies and gestures become. A wicked slide signals a muted pedalpoint, but the rhythms remain unsettled the rest of the way: this is a posse of rugged individualists! A state anthem for South Dakota, or the freedom fighters in Beja’s native Israel, maybe?

Latvian composer Anna Ķirse’s electroacoustic Mundus Invisibilis, a contemplation of how the microscopic world influences the one we can see without magnification, is next. There’s computer-voiced text about the birth of a mushroom, then sheets of astringency balanced by plucky accents. The dynamics shift to a rhythmic insistence versus haze and brief poltergeist bursts. The mushroom eventually blooms with acidic tremoloing phrases and sharp, short, stabbing motives: not your typical forest-floor presence.

The final work is Mexican composer Rafael Rentería‘s Hashtag Capital Gore, a glitchier electroacoustic piece on themes of violence against women. The score calls for the performers to immerse their feet in buckets of ice while playing. They follow a series of brief crescendos, a forest of shivery tonalities that stops short of sheer horror, then the tension rises with greater intensity. There’s a false ending and a coda that’s too apt to give away. To the group’s credit, if they in fact put their feet into the ice for this, they don’t race to warm up again. As the world wakes up from the media-induced terror and paranoia of the past seventeen months and returns to normal, let’s hope this group continues on a path that’s off to a flying start.

Get Lost in Southeast of Rain’s Magical Soundscapes

Back in the spring of 2017, singer Lemon Guo opened an outdoor festival along the Hudson River sponsored by Columbia University. Her calmly hypnotic yet gently playful electroacoustic set, a blend of ambient music with traditional Asian tinges, could have gone on twice as long as it did and the crowd stretched across the lawn would have been happy to hear it. Fast forward to 2021: Guo has a new album, 42 Days, by her  duo project Southeast of Rain, an online collaboration with pipa player Sophia Shen streaming at Bandcamp. Recorded remotely over the web during the lockdown, it’s similarly intimate, intriguing, inviting music.

Shen plays solo in Constellations, the first number, making her way from delicate tremolo-picking, through spare bends, enigmatic thickets and echoey harmonics, pushing the limits of traditional pentatonic Chinese modes. That was day four of the two musicians’ collaboration. Day eight, Between Fleeting Somethings has a coastal California rainstorm, fleeting vocal peaks, slow doppler-like ambience and gentle rattles from Shen’s pipa.

The eleventh day of the two musicians’ collaboration was a productive one, a trance-inducing Shen soundscape peppering immersive ambience with sudden metallic flickers. Day eighteen is titled To Frank the Owl. a steady, catchy, balletesque theme: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Sofia Rei catalog.

Guo’s plaintive, hauntingly microtonal chorale, Luminescence, descends from Bulgarian-inflected leaps and bounds to more stark, spaciously drifting figures. Day 25, Traveler, has Guo’s Balkan melismas far back in the mix behind an enigmatic calm.

If Improvising at the Gym reflects actual events, it’s a beautiful, stark and slowly unwinding example of what a couple of composers can do when the endorphins kick in, Guo’s warmly mapled clarity over Shen’s elegant tremolo-picking. The two wind up the album with Unwanted Bits, Shen’s wounded, exploratory plucking over a surreal pastiche of found sounds. If this is what Guo and Shen can do without the the chemistry of actually playing together in person, imagine what magic they’ll be able to conjure once we’re all free of the lockdown.

Darkly Carnivalesqe, Mary Lou Williams-Inspired Themes From Frank Carlberg and Gabriel Bolaños

This is not to imply in any way that the lockdown has been anything other than Hitlerian evil, but it’s forced everybody to think outside the box. We’re now finding out how far outside the box artists have pushed themselves in the past year. One who’s explored unexpected territory is pianist Frank Carlberg, whose phantasmagorical new electroacoustic album of Mary Lou Williams-inspired microtonal music, Charity and Love, a collaboration with Gabriel Bolaños is streaming at Bandcamp.

Carlberg has always had a carnivalesque side, and is a connoisseur of noir, but this is arguably his creepiest record yet. It seems here that his piano is processed to evoke bell-like microtones. Sometimes the effect is akin to an electric piano, sometimes a toy piano, sometimes a carillon. Either way, the effect is persistently disquieting.

Bumping around under the lid, channeling darkly ambered blues, some of the phantasmagoria he so excels at has echoes of stride and boogie and a little crazed tomcat-on-the-keys noise in the album’s title track. Meanwhile, a loop of voices draws closer and closer to the center, becomes painfully unlistenable and fortunately is not a portent for what’s on the rest of the record.

Mary Lou, Mary Blue is a stunningly uneasy, carillonesqe piece that soon goes up and down the funhouse staircase in odd intervals that will keep you on your toes no matter how agitated or woozily surreal the multitracks become. Zodiac Impressions has an echoey, strange web of flitting, rhythmic gestures and Monklike riffs twisted into microtonal shapes, rumbling diesel motor sonics contrasting with the chimes far overhead, decaying to a creepy, sepulchral outro

A brief, murky interlude introduces Mary’s Aries, one of the starker pieces here, its spare, steadily rhythmic, chiming phrases and cascades imbued with the album’s warpiest tonalities. The duo follow that with Broken Stomp, a delicate, marionettish strut encroached on by loops and cascades. The way Bolaños layers the echoes, one long phrase following another, will give you chills.

Big Sky, Dark Clouds is a haunting Lynchian stroll that Carlberg builds emphatically and lets drift away forlornly at the end. Williams’ quote about “Whenever there’s a strong beat, people always want to degrade the music by calling it jazz,” is priceless in context.

The two follow Hop, Skip, Jump, a lively gremlin of a miniature, with the spacious, lingering chords of Water Under the Bridge, strongly evoking the otherworldly, eerie coda of Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time. The two close with Waving Goodbye, Carlberg opening with the album’s most darkly carnivalesque, chromatic melody, then taking a twistedly wistful turn that branches off into bizarre multitracks before the piano brings the poignancy back. In a strange way, this makes a good companion piece to Chris Pattishall‘s reinvention of Williams’ Zodiac Suite.

Moody, Enveloping, Purposeful Girl-Down-the-Well Sounds From Caitlin Pasko

Caitlin Pasko plays minimalist, pensive parlor pop songs and sings in a nebulous high soprano. An economy of notes is her thing. Her new solo album Greenhouse – streaming at Bandcamp – is sardonically titled. There’s nothing verdant about her alternately hazy and icy keyboard textures or her moody vocals. On one hand, this often comes across as one long song, with a relentlessly suffocating, claustrophobic feel. On the other, Pasko really owns that sound. Fans of Julee Cruise will love this.

She opens the record with the minimalist, rhythmic piano chords and enigmatic, close-harmonied vocals of I Know I: “I can’t trust my emotions,” Pasko reflects, “Because my skin crawls.”

Pasko reaches for her airy uppermost registers in Unwell as a drone looms in and wafts above her steady chords. She switches to electric piano for Even God. “I’m stuck in death,” she half-whispers, again and again, eventually shifting back to piano and then a low Rhodes rumble at the end. Definitely a lockdown moment!

Horrible Person is probably the most succinct kiss-off song ever written, and it’s actually very funny. Over lingering, Eno-esque atmospherics, Pasko doesn’t waste either notes or words. The simple instrumental Ooo Happy introduces To the Leaves, which seems to be a tenative stab at happiness…or merely escape.

She gets back on her feet – literally – in the next song, Mother: Pasko’s images of abandonment and alienation pack a quiet wallop. “You are lake and you’re still as glass,” she muses enigmatically in Quiet Weather: it seems to be a paradoxical love song. Pasko closes the album with Intimate Distance, the closest thing to a straightforward pop ballad, or for that matter any kind of closure. A cynic would say that any second-year piano student could play the whole record from beginning to end, but Pasko’s commitment to maintaining a mood and resisting the urge to go fulllblown orchestral is pretty remarkable.

 

Angelica Olstad Captures the Terror and Alienation of the First Few Months of the Lockdown

Pianist Angelica Olstad ls one of the few New York artists to be able to put the tortuous first several months of the lockdown to creative use. Her new solo release Transmute – streaming at Bandcamp – is a haunting, often downright chilling, rather minimalist recording of a series of themes from four French Romantic works. Olstad reimagines them as a suite illustrating the terror and isolation of the beginning of the most hideously repressive year in American history. And it isn’t over yet. In the meantime we owe a considerable debt to Olstad for how indelibly and lyrically she has portrayed it.

Rather than playing any of the four pieces here all the way through, she deconstructs them, usually to find their most menacing or macabre themes. Then she pulls those even further apart, or loops them. Erik Satie is the obvious reference point. The first and most troubled segment is based on The Fountain of the Acqua Paola from Charles Griffes’ Roman Sketches, Op. 7. It turns out to be a creepy, loopy arpeggio matched by skeletal lefthand, with light electronic touches and snippets of field recordings. Yes, some of them are sirens. A simple, icy upper-register melody develops, then recedes, the menacing music-box melody returning at the end.

Track two, Death + Sourdough is a mashup of a handful of themes from the Ravel Sonatine, at first reducing it to a rising series of Satie-esque snippets. Then Olstad hits an elegant, ornate series of chords, but once again loops them. She returns with an even more troubled, resonant minimalism.

An Awakening, based on the Oiseaux Triste interlude from Ravel’s Miroirs has spacious glitter over spare lefthand, distant sirens and crowd noise from Black Lives Matter protests panning the speakers

The closest thing to a straightforward performance of the original is her steady, rippling, picturesque take of Cygne sur l’eau from Gabriel Faure’s Mirages; she titles it Brave New World. Here and only here does the music grow warmer and offer a glimmer of hope, tentative as she seems to see it. Let’s hope that’s an omen for days to come. If she’s brave, maybe we’ll be lucky to see Olstad in concert somewhere in New York this year.