New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: indie classical

Sad and Anxious Choral Music for a Sad and Anxious Time

David Lang wrote his chorale Love Fail in 2012, long before the lockdown was anything other than a handful of World Economic Forum memos and hysterical flu-apocalypse memes bouncing around the web. But it’s an apt piece of music for this time in history. Loosely based on the story of Tristan and Isolde, Lang interpolates texts from sources as diverse as Lydia Davis, Marie de France, Gottfried von Strassburg, Béroul and Thomas of Britain into the narrative. All-female choir Quince Ensemble  sing this rather subtle theme and variations very matter-of-factly, in the style of a Renaissance motet, adding spare percussion in places. Their world premiere recording is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening segment, He Was and She Was is easily identiable as Lang: short syllables, subtle and almost imperceptible variations and harmonies that in this case draw on both early music and this era’s minimalism.The ensemble follow with Durreth, an allusive, stoic but melancholy miniature

A Different Man has glockenspiel and a distinctly Spanish tinge to the melody  By contrast, The Wood and the Wire is much more upbeat and soaring, and evocative of British counterpoint from the 17th century and before.

Right and Wrong is a web of simple deconstructed chromatic riffs. You Will Love Me has tantalizingly evanescent close harmonies, while Forbidden Subjects provides welcome feminist context and reminds how agillely Lang works space into his music.

The next variation, As Love Grows begins even more spacious but grows much more warily anthemic. Members of the group rise to the top of their voices in I Live in Pain – no wasted words there, huh? – over a rhythmic rondo of sorts.

The music grows much more sparse all of a sudden in Head, Heart and picks up only a little If I Have to Drown, a gruesome dilemma that Lang doesn’t foreshadow in the least until it arrives. There’s subtle irony in the otherworldly tones of the conclusion as well. Lang has been incredibly prolific lately and this is one of his more memorable work from the past decade.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

A Lively, Fearless, Colorful New Album From Susie Ibarra

Susie Ibarra is one of the most distinctive and interesting composers to emerge from the New York downtown jazz scene of the 90s. She’s best known for her Electric Kulintang project, which draws on magical, pointillistic sounds from her Filipina heritage as a stepping-off point for improvisation and cross-pollination. Her latest album, Talking Gong – streaming at Bandcamp – is a trio collaboration with pianist Alex Peh and flutist Claire Chase.

The album’s centerpiece is the almost seventeen-minute title track, referencing the gong’s use as a means of communication in the Philippines, in the same vein as African talking drums. It’s typical Ibarra, Peh negotiating its rigorous staccato and rippling textures with a steely intensity, the bandleader adding nebulous and sparkling color, Chase’s breathy pops and coyly oscillating textures leading to a more-or-less straightforward drive. A wary strut with moody bass flute calms to mystical sparseness, chiming passages alternating with storminess, clustering frenzy, deep-forest rapture and what could be lumberjacks there. The Asian pentatonics come to the forefront more and more as the music develops.

Peh’s bell-like staccato and brooding resonance contrasts with Ibarra’s spare cymbals and toms in Paniniwala (Belief). The solo piano piece Dancesteps vividly brings to mind the imploring repetition of Jehan Alain’s iconic organ work Litanies, with similarly stark harmonies but more nimble rhythms and a rapturous bird-on-the-wire interlude midway through.

Speaking of the avian kingdom, there are two tracks here inspired by our feathered friends. Ibarra’s evocation of a hummingbird in Kolumbrí is much more than just delicate, muted fluttering. We get a taste of the flowers and greenery and this creature’s businesslike activity, which is less hyper and far more mysterious than you might think. Chase is deputized, solo, to play Sunbird, a native Philippine species, with cheery, resonant lines, circumspect ambience and anxious stepping around: it’s a showcase for her daunting extended technique.

There are also four largely improvisational miniatures here which Ibarra calls “meriendas,” meaning “snacks.” The first is flitting and muted; the second is a jaunty, trililng flute/piano conversation. Chase dances between Peh’s brooding droplets in the third, and all three musicians join in a ticklishly jungly thicket in the final one.

Not only is this entertaining music: it’s a triumph of artistic fearlessness. It’s impossible to remember what ridiculous restrictions Andrew Cuomo had put in place, in violation of citizens’ Constitutional right to free assembly, when the trio recorded this album at a (presumably) empty SUNY campus space last July. Whatever the case, Ibarra, Peh and Chase made the record undeterred. Let that be an inspiration for the rest of us.

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.