Relentless, Starkly Exhilarating Microtonal String Music From the Apollo Chamber Players and Vanessa Vo
Of all the albums released this year, the Apollo Chamber Players‘ collaboration with Vanessa Vo, Within Earth – streaming at Spotify– perfectly fits the zeitgeist. It’s a meticulous yet robust and relentlessly uneasy collection of stunningly acerbic pieces for strings and the elegantly warptoned Vietnamese dan bau. It would not be hubris to call this music Bartokian. It’s easy to read the album as a suite: the short segments and otherworldliness bring to mind the work of the late, great microtonal composer Ben Johnston, the more rhythmic sections evoking Julia Wolfe‘s string quartets. And the slides, and pings, and swoops of the dan bau are the icing on the cake.
The group – violinists Anabel Ramirez Detrick and Matthew Detrick, violist Whitney Bullock and cellist Matthew Dudzik – open the album with Leo Brouwer’s Nostalgia de las Montañas, beginning with deliciously pulsing, disquieting close harmonies, descending to almost total silence, then the cello guides the music upward to a brooding intensity. Subtle microtones invade those terse riffs, raising the angst. The ensemble really embrace that as the music grows more surreal. The second movement balances catchy counterpoint against moments of fleeting terror, starkly airy textural contrasts, and a flurrying disquiet.
Christopher Walczak’s Four Dreams is a triptych. Bullock’s viola adds spiky textures as the first part pulses darkly on the wings of the cello, the rest of the ensemble negotiating the music’s persistent relentlessness, intermingled with subtle, Asian-tinged riffs. Part two is somewhat calmer, more about fleeting exchanges, furtive flickers and simple, direct motives, with a funereal pulse at the end. The final one has similar, more lively counterpoint balanced by shimmery, sustained harmony – but also an siren riff and unresolved bluster.
Vo and Vũ Nhât Tân’s considerly more lighthearted, picturesque epic Cloud opens with keening, lapsteel-like swoops from the dan bau. As the strings behind Vo take a rhythmically staggered, microtonal stroll behind her, the effect is deliciously disorienting. This skyscape takes many shapes: imperturbable wisps dancing above massed grey washes, then the rest of the strings join Vo in a joyous, celestial ballet. Is that a theremin, or just a pitch pedal? There’s a lone cirrus cloud, cumulo-nimbus on the horizon, and a parade of varying shapes passing through the frame, coalescing and then receding. What a strange, fun piece of music!
The album’s final piece is Alexandra du Bois nocturnal tone poem, Within Earth, Wood Grows. The group rise from warm, verdant resonance, bolstered by clarinet, horn and low-key percussion, then recede to starry stillness. The timbres are pure Beethoven, the composition closer to Gerard Grisey. A brief march dissolves in a wash of microtones; a spare, deep-space conversation between oboe and dan bau is one of the album’s most unselfconsciously beautiful moments. What an incredible find!