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Tag: minimalism

Beguiling New Sounds From Ancient Instruments

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

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

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

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

Drifting, Uneasy Atmospheric Vistas From Shida Shahabi

The central instrument in Shida Shahabi’s new score to Maria Eriksson-Hecht’s new short film Alvaret – streaming at Bandcamp – is Linnea Olsson’s cello. Minutely nuanced overtones flickering from her strings, it’s a well chosen vehicle for Shahabi’s slowly unfolding, minimalist vistas. Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s work comes strongly to mind.

This latest ep is consistent with Shahabi’s penchant for short, concise albums. It’s best appreciated as a single, drifting whole. The composer adds subtle synth washes and bowed bass in places. You have to wait til the fourth segment for the adrenaline from her slow, ominous glissandos to kick in. There are children in this cornfield, and they do not seem friendly!

A Dark Masterpiece From the Del Sol String Quartet and Guitarist Gyan Riley

The Del Sol String Quartet’s gorgeously brooding, aptly titled Dark Queen Mantra with guitarist Gyan Riley came out in 2016 and is streaming at Spotify. It’s a great album to listen to with the lights out – hypnotic in places, but with a tightly coiling intensity. It contains three debut recordings: Terry Riley’s title triptych and concluding sixteen-minute “waltz,” along with cult favorite microtonal composer Stefano Scodanibbio’s Mas Lugares, inspired by a Monteverdi madrigal.

This music spans several different genres: there are moments that are pure 70s psychedelic art-rock, others that strongly bring to mind Philip Glass at his darkest. As the title track’s first part, Vizcaino begins, the guitar launches into an eerie downward chromatic theme, then variations on a flamencoish riff while the strings pulse in response. Riley calls, they respond, they echo, sometimes all joining together. Eventually they reach a quietly marionettish interlude enhanced by an unusual and welcome amount of reverb for a string quartet recording, the guitar a darkly bubbling presence amid the quartet’s insistence.

Part two, Goya With Wings develops from uneasily disjointed, hazy resonance contrasting with the younger Riley’s lingering, minimalist incisions, to a slowly staggered, pensive ballad that coalesces in the epic third movement after a guitarless bit. Riley’s return signals a moodily circling variation on the simmering opening theme, this time the quartet taking the lead, steady eight-note riffs popping up like evil gremlins in every corner of the sonic picture. Riley’s precise, distorted spirals lead down to a circular Indian carnatic theme; it ends unresolved.

The rest of the album isn’t anywhere near as dark. Scodanibbio’s five-part suite begins with what could be a Nordic dance, steadily pulsing eight-note echo phrases from the quartet’s individual members – violinists Benjamin Kreith and Rick Shinozaki, violist Charlton Lee and cellist Kathryn Bates. It has little if anything in common with Italian Renaissance polyphony, but the other sections do, their surrealistic, metrically tricky paraphrases keening with harmonic overtones. Flight motives and haze alternate in the third movement, with an Iranian tinge.

The quartet open the elder Riley’s Tibetan-inspired Wheel & Mythic Birds Waltz with tense close harmonies, a morning theme punctuated by swoops, plucks and the occasional anthemic riff. Suddenly the birds take flight, with distant Middle Eastern and jazz allusions, Riley was close to eighty when he wrote both works here: the contemporary classical icon and godfather of American minimalism shows no sign of slowing down. Both his son and the quartet revel in the music’s constantly shifting idioms.

Pensive, Meditative Sounds From Chrystal Für

Chrystal Für‘s album Elusion – streaming at Bandcamp – seemed for a second to be a good candidate for the daily Octoberlong Halloween celebration here since the first cut is a requiem. As it turns out, there’s absolutely nothing Halloweenish or even particularly dark about most of the record’s expansive, minimalist themes. But it is a good backdrop for meditation.

The opening requiem is gently pulsing spacerock without the drums. It could be Noveller in a particularly minimalist moment. The segue into I’m Losing You introduces a moody, spare, steadily loopy piano theme.

Spark Over the Horizon is aptly titled, a theme for a perilous new day dawning. Minimalist volume-knob guitar phrases filter through the sonic picture in Memory and There Is No Second Chance, then shift to piano in Memory of a Fading Home, finally falling away in fragments.

Deep-space unease permeates the album’s most epic soundscape, I Rise at Dawn, up to an unexpected conclusion. Pass the Torch is the one interlude that follows a familiar rock chord progression. That’s where the album ought to end; it goes on for another track..

Given Unlimited Time, Catherine Christer Hennix and Hans Isgren Wrapped It Up in Under an Hour

What if the time available to musicians was unlimited? Not only in terms of how long a venue might be open, or willing to put up with musical self-indulgence, but in terms of eternity? What would music sound like if a beat didn’t have to land, or a there was no limit to how long a tone could resonate…or if the guy behind the sound board was never going to pass out no matter how long the show went on?  That’s what Karlheinz Stockhausen sought to explore with Unbegrenzt, his 1968 score that relies on poetic cues rather than notation.

Fifty years after he proposed it, the idea is just as radical, realized even more radically by percussion duo Catherine Christer Hennix and Hans Isgren in 1974. What’s just as extraordinary as their performance – a cleverly terse, generally calm, metallic experience – is that they had the presence of mind to record it. And that there would be an organization as far-reaching as Blank Forms to track down the original analog recording, and digitize it, and release it this year. That kind of dedication transcends accolades. You can hear the whole sometimes ghostly, fitfully turbulent 52-minute concert as a single track at Bandcamp.

Ironically, Hennix came out of a jazz background: a teenage phenom in her native Stockholm, she’d drummed with some pretty big names before she turned twenty. By contrast to the animated rhythms of postbop jazz, this is vast, magically immersive music.

Computer-generated bubbles filter in and out of the mix as Isgren weaves reverberating quilts of sound while Hennix colors the space with steady, sharply echoey temple block riffs that echo through the electronics, sometimes seemingly despite them. The recitations from a Buddhist text are mercifully spare, leaving plenty of room – that was the point, right? – for Hennix’s electric stalactite drips and allusions to craggy drama mingled within Isgren’s creepy metallic ambience.

Listen closely and you’ll hear points where a seemingly organic thicket of mutedly echoing hits recedes for more mechanical atmosphere, then the humans quietly and defiantly regain control, and gently push into deep space. Much as machines can be useful, ultimately it’s up to us to claim our territory, not the other way around. A delightfully enveloping yet equally chilling sonic metaphor for these times.

A Diverse, Playfully Eclectic Solo Violin Album From Michi Wiancko

Until the lockdown, violinist Michi Wiancko enjoyed a busy career in the New York new music scene. Like many arists have done in the last few months, she’s releasing a solo album, Planetary Candidate – streaming at Bandcamp – an eclectic collection of both organic and electroacoustic works by several of her favorite contemporary composers, along with one of her own. The sounds here are adventurous and often psychedelic, but not harsh or assaultive.

The album’s title track, by the artist herself, is a deceptively catchy, increasingly dense jungle of insistent, minimalist pizzicato chords bookending a still, sustained interlude. Wiancko’s vocals are multitracked as well. The theme is breathing, which could be a loaded metaphor: hard to do that with a muzzle over your face!

Wiancko’s similarly insistent eight-note phrases dirift further and further into dissonace as Christopher Adler’s Jolie Sphinx moves along, a trope that repeats in more pensive, subtly baroque-influenced cadences a little later on in Mark Dancigers‘ Skyline. Paula Matthusen’s Songs of Fuel and Insomnia has dissociatively drifting overlays, trippy electronic textures that extend into stygian depths, and some unexpectedly shreddy metal.

Wiancko shifts from briskly leaping arpeggios to hazy, steady close harmonies and then halfway back in Jessie Montgomery’s Rhapsody No. 2. Bizarrely processed echo effects pervade William Brittelle‘s alternately ambient and acerbic So Long Art Decade – a reference to the Bowie song?

A waterside tableau complete with found sounds, Matthusen’s Lullaby for Dead Horse Bay manages to be both the album’s most atmospheric and captivating piece. Wiancko winds up the record with a second Brittelle composition, Disintegration, a swooping, imaginatively overdubbed, increasingly kinetic series of echoey exchanges with coy, distant echoes of 80s new wave music.

Vivid String-and-Piano Tableaux From Drum and Lace

Drum and Lace a.k.a. film composer Sofia Hultquist’s tantalizingly short album Semi Songs – streaming at her music page– comprises a quartet of bracingly tuneful, often hypnotically circling instrumentals for violin, two cellos and piano. You could call it minimalism, or new classical music: however you categorize it, this brief, verdant release leaves you wanting more.

The album begins and ends with a diptych, Outsider Complex. The first part opens with a burst of strings followed by some furious, machete-chop sixteenth notes. The piano joins the frenzy, then recedes with a brooding elegance; the strings follow as the song calms before a final volley. As terse and minimalistic as this is at heart, it takes serious chops to play. To wind it up, the piano rises to a loopy insistence, strings leading to a moody lull and tantalizing hints of what will eventually be a deliciously ominous return to tightly orchestrated savagery.

There are two other tracks. The swaying, summery Parhelion begins with a loopy contrast between stark, insistent cello and hazy violin; then the two switch roles as the harmonic web grows more complex, a rondo of sorts. Coyly bouncy piano suddenly leaps in; it ends brightly.

The epic, fourteen-minute Gardenia has a slower, more pensive sway, spacious piano chords and a steady, lullaby-like melody that begins to sound completely improvised. A light, echoey electronic drone moves toward the forefront as the strings echo each other; the piano kicks off the first of several successive rounds of circular riffs. Composer Matt McBane’s ensemble Build comes to mind, although Drum and Lace’s music is more springlike, closer in spirit if not in sound to Vivaldi than, say, Bach.

Dusky, Enveloping Ambience and a West Village Album Release Show by Cellist Clarice Jensen

Clarice Jensen has been one of the prime movers of the New York scene in new classical music for over a decade, both as a cellist and as artistic director of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble. But she’s also a composer. Her long awaited, atmospheric solo debut album, For This From That Will Be Filled is streaming at Bandcamp. She’s playing the release show with a typically stellar cast this Friday night, March 13 at 8 PM at the Tenri Institute; cover is $25.

The album’s ten-minute opening epic, BC, is a co-write with the late film composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. Its slowly shifting, hypnotic series of tectonic sheets and simple chords drifts through the sonic picture, sometimes with subtle doppler, backward-masked or pitch-shifting effects. The encroaching unease of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s work comes to mind.

Awash in low, sitar-like drones, keening harmonics, pulsing echo effects and circling oscillations, Cello Constellations, by Michael Harrison comes across as a more stately take on Brian Jones-style loopmusic – or Brian Eno in darkly enigmatic mode. The unexpected coda packs such a punch that it’s too good to give away.

The opening echoes and textures of Jensen’s title diptych – a Dag Hammarskjold reference – are much more icily otherworldly. Here she begins to sound more like a one-woman orchestra. In the second part, Jensen blends Eno-esque layers amid a gathering storm that recalls Gebhard Ullmann‘s rumbling multi-bass adventures in ambient music as much as it does Bach cello suites. Those who gravitate toward both the calmer and more psychedelic fringes of the new music world have a lot to savor here.

Arctic Surrealism From Christine Ott and Torsten Bottcher

The 1922 silent film Nanook of the North was a  patronizing noble-savage docudrama that foreshadowed similarly dubious explorations of indigenous cultures by the BBC and PBS. Christine Ott and Torsten Bottcher’s pointillistic, keyboard-based new soundtrack – streaming at Spotify – seems to closely follow the original narrative  This music is much more surreal than you would expect. Digeridoo, tabla and steel pan in a story about Eskimos? Fans of both Philip Glass and Terry Riley ought to enjoy it.

The soundtrack begins with gongs and then whistling bowed bells, a surreal Asian snowscape particularly appropriate for its milieu. The protagonist’s theme is hypnotically circling, minimalist piano over white-noise washes, followed by a lively if repetitive, surrealistically tiptoeing electric keyboard melody.

A rippling open-water kayak tableau and a return to echoey, distantly uneasy electronic piano, with what sounds like a muted ukulele, provide a brief beach scene. Bells and delicate upper-register piano underscore the fragility of Eskimo infant life, followed by muted steel pan alongside bell-like, stealthy, jazz-tinged piano.

From there the score segues into Walrus Hunting – yeah, those adorable creatures are food, that far north – with its grim crescendos over a loopy tabla pulse. The onset of winter signals a hypnotically oscillating, increasingly agitated piece with toy piano and that digeridoo.

The score’s most epic theme, part Fender Rhodes soul, part Japanese temple bell music, concerns igloos. A fateful morning comes tiptoeing in with an eerie, Satie-esque minor-key vamp, then the piano spins around with an elegant, precisely articulated angst. The score closes with the big blizzard portrayed via Satoko Fujii-esque extended-technique piano variations. Of all this year’s movie soundtracks, this has to be one of the most original.

Things Go Bump in the Night With the Momenta Quartet

It’s extremely rare that an artist or group make the front page here more than once in a single week. But today, because the Momenta Quartet play such stylistically diverse, consistently interesting music, they’ve earned that distinction – just like the Kronos Quartet have, on two separate occasions, since New York Music Daily went live in 2011. Some people are just a lot more interesting than others.

This year’s annual Momenta Festival is in full swing, with its usual moments of transcendence and blissful adrenaline. The Momenta Quartet’s violist Stephanie Griffin programmed night one; night two, violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron took charge. As she put it, the theme was “Lively things that happen at night.” She wasn’t kidding.

Maybe, to provide a little break for her bandmates – who also include violinist Alex Shiozaki and cellist Michael Haas – Gendron supplied a major portion of the adrenaline with an irresistible romp through Erwin Schulhoff’s rarely performed Sonata For Violin Solo. Throughout its eclectic shifts from evocations of Appalachian, Middle Eastern, Asian and rustic Romany music, she swayed and practically clogdanced at one point, and that vivacity was contagious.

The high point of the night was one of the group’s innumerable world premieres, Roberto Sierra‘s sublimely shapeshifting, relentlessly bustling Cuarteto Para Cuerdas No. 3. Flurrying, almost frantic interludes juxtaposed with brief, uneasily still moments and all sorts of similarly bracing challenges for the group: slithery harmonics, microtonal haze spiced with fleeting poltergeist accents, finally a wry series of oscillations from Haas and a savagely insistent coda. Distant references to boleros, and a less distant resemblance to restless, late 50s Charles Mingus urban noir drove a relentless tension forward through a rollercoaster of sudden dynamic changes. There were cameras all over the room: somebody please put this up on youtube where it will blow people’s minds!

There was even more on Gendron’s bill, too. The hypnotic horizontality and subtle development of playful minimalist riffs of Mario Lavista’s String Quartet No. 2 were no less difficult to play for their gauzy microtonality and almost total reliance on harmonics. Harry Partch’s Two Studies on Ancient Greek Scales have a colorful history: originally written for the composer’s own 88-string twin-box invention, the Harmonic Canon II, the Momentas played the string quartet arrangement by the great microtonal composer Ben Johnston, a Partch protege. Part quasi Balkan dance, part proto horror film score, the group made the diptych’s knotty syncopation seem effortless.

They closed with Gyorgy Ligeti’s String Quartet No.1, subtitled “Metamorphoses Nocturnes.” The ensemble left no doubt that this heavily Bartokian 1953 piece was all about war, and its terror and lingering aftershock (Ligeti survived a Nazi death camp where two of his family were murdered). The similarities with Shostakovich’s harrowing String Quartet No. 8 – which it predated by six years – were crushingly vivid. If anything, Ligeti’s quartet is tonally even harsher. In the same vein as the Sierra premiere, these dozen movements required daunting extended technique. Which in this case meant shrieking intensity, frantic evasion of the gestapo, (musical and otherwise) and deadpan command of withering sarcasm and parodies of martial themes. All that, and a crushing, ever-present sense of absence.

The 2019 Momenta Festival winds up tonight, Oct 19 at 7 PM at the Tenri Institute, 43A W 13th St., with a playful program assembled by Shiozaki, including works by Mozart, toy pianist Phyllis Chen (who joins the ensemble), glass harmonica wizard Stefano Gervasoni and an excerpt from Griffin’s delightfully adult-friendly children’s suite, The Lost String Quartet. Admission is free but you should rsvp if you’re going.