Best Recording 2017 – Tyshawn Sorey’s Verisimilitude

Verisimilitude

Verisimilitude

Tyshawn Sorey

Tyshawn Sorey, drums, percussion, composer; Cory Smythe, piano, toy piano, electronics; Chris Tordini, bass

Pi Records PI70

Tyshawn Sorey has had quite a year of musical accomplishments. After recently finishing up his doctorate at Columbia, he succeeded Anthony Braxton on the faculty at Wesleyan University, won a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and received several other major awards and commissions. He has remained active in a number of ensembles, playing a pivotal role on another of this year’s best CDs, Vijay Iyer Sextet’s Far From Over (ECM). Verisimilitude, for Pi Recordings, is his sixth recorded outing as leader. Sorey is joined by pianist Corey Smythe and bassist Chris Tordini in five adventurous and stimulating compositions.

 

A suitable overture, “Cascade in Slow Motion,” is buoyed by interlocking arpeggios from pizzicato bass and piano and punctuated by supply drummed polyrhythms. Clocking in at four and a half minutes, it is the only relative miniature here. Thereafter, Sorey and his colleagues explore long form music-making. An arco bass solo leads off “Flowers for Prashant,” which then turns into a dovetailing duet. A gradual intensification led by this duet texture takes place, only to hew back to drone-based passages of repeated notes.

 

Smythe uses electronics and Tordini high-pitched arco lines to begin “Obsidian.” After an extended introduction exploring these timbres, Tordini plays lower pitched glissandos and Smythe sepulcral bass note stabs. Sorey enters with textural percussion: a gong, a host of woody fills, and shimmering cymbals. A fulsome groove is established; Tordini returns to pizzicato bass, Smythe repeats bass register chords, and Sorey deploys a cannonade at the kit. Eventually, pointillism is reasserted with upper register piano chords and throbbing bass notes; Sorey moves back to cymbals and auxiliary percussion instruments. Smythe’s basso reiterations lead to a coda based on the second section. Then there is a gradual denouement, punctuated by long gong strokes and slithering bass register glissandos.

 

“Algid November” is the half-hour long centerpiece of Verisimilitude and is Sorey’s most ambitious piece for trio yet. Once again, the emphasis is on gradually morphing from one set of textures and playing demeanors to the next. The musical fabric consists at first of a prevailingly soft dynamic and slow tempo, one undergirded with big beats (never amorphous) that contains numerous angular feints and jabs from all three players. Sorey is a master at contrasting the resounding of instruments such as gongs and cymbals with the faster decay of drums and small percussion instruments; all interactions and decays are timed with precision. After a long period in which these juxtapositions are the focal point, Sorey performs at the drum kit with zeal, while Smythe and Tordini operate in a dissonant language of jagged filigrees.

 

A little less than halfway through, the piece moves from post-tonality to post-bop, with cascading arpeggiations from Smythe and walking lines from Tordini locked in a tight groove that Sorey simultaneously supports and overlays with contrasting elements. Just when one feels their toes tapping, the trio moves sideways in lockstep, back to the big beats of the opener but with a fuller overall texture. Rearticulated verticals, first low and then high, signal yet another change in direction. Smythe’s repeated notes pile up in an ostinato haze and Tordini grooves in still another timeframe while Sorey engages in lithe ornamentation. Two thirds of the way through the piece, a visceral build up leads to a huge crash of cymbals.

 

Afterwards, the musicians resume the slow tempo and fragile soundscape that began “Algid November.” Pitched percussion, quickly plucked bass melodies, and chiming piano lines give way to rattling reiterations from Sorey and Smythe. It is as if the big crash that signalled the piece’s climax is being allowed successive echos. Interpolations of the swing section, in tiny slices that last merely a breath or two, are juxtaposed with barbed jabs and intricately constructed rhythmic passages. Another gale storm threatens, then is subdued, devolving into muted piano notes and quietly reverberant gong rolls.

 

The final work on the CD, “Contemplating Tranquility,” opens with the same muted material that closed “Algid November.” Gongs and temple bells gradually coalesce into  a new, still slow, pulse stream of pitched percussion, toy piano ,and then grand piano. Glassy piano harmonies are pitted against reiterated soundings of the gong. Smythe gradually adds arpeggios in the low register to replicate the lowest sounding frequencies of the gong. Filling in the registers, Sorey suddenly switches roles, adding trebly unpitched percussion to the proceedings where there had been piano. Toy piano and pitched percussion engage in a duet that is joined by a low rumbling and then sustained upper register arco lines and a generous dose of harmonics from Tordini. Smythe begins to build verticals in a more harmonically conceived direction, buoyed by more consonance — even an octave here and there — from the bass player. As things converge around the low E string of the bass, Tordini then has some fun of his own, throwing in notes that rend the heretofore harmonically grounded passage asunder. While Sorey weaves sustained cymbal passages, pianist and bassist create a duet that ebbs and flows in an ever narrowing dynamic spectrum. Temple bells suggests a possible return to the more contemplative demeanor of the opening. Instead, it is a signal that the meditation is over. Thus ends Sorey’s Verisimilitude, Sequenza 21’s Best Recording of 2017.

 

Best Chamber Recording 2017

Dark Queen Mantra

Terry Riley and Stefano Scodanibbio

The Dark Queen Mantra

Del Sol String Quartet; Gyan Riley, guitar

Sono Luminus

 

On this Sono Luminus CD, Terry Riley’s chamber works are superlatively performed by Del Sol String Quartet. Joined on the title piece by the composer’s son, guitarist Gyan Riley, the group navigates an array of rhythms, many of Spanish origin. Movement titles evoke the Basque region Vizcaino and the paintings of Goya. The final, eponymous, movement builds to an intense conclusion; Gyan Riley incorporates distortion and high volume, matching the whirling dance of the quartet in a rock-inflected finale.

 

Stefano Scodanibbio, who died in 2012, was a friend to both Rileys. Diamond Fiddle Language (Wergo, 2005), his collaboration with Terry Riley, is a standout in both of their respective catalogues. After his passing, Gyan Riley presented a memorial concert of Scodanibio’s music at New York’s The Stone. He invited Del Sol to play the composer’s Mas Lugares ( su Madrigales di Monteverdi), a work they have since made their own. A five-movement homage to the early Baroque master, Scodanibbio takes his source material on all sorts of fascinating of twists and turns. A virtuoso bass-player himself, Scodanibbio wrote prolifically and eloquently for strings. Channeling and transforming early music was only one aspect of his work – he was well known for extended techniques and as a formidable improviser. This is reflected in Mas Lugares … : The piece isn’t a neoclassical take on its source material. Instead, it is a persuasive update with considerable refashioning.

 

Originally premiered by Kronos Quartet, The Wheel and Mythic Birds Waltz is more of a minimalist affair than The Dark Queen Mantra. That said, few of Terry Riley’s pieces for quartet are unadulterated minimalism – apart from In C, his is a polyglot musical language. There are a considerable number of extended chords, folk-like melodies, and jazz-inflected wrinkles amid the repetitions. As such, the piece pairs well with the other two on the CD, and serves as a fitting closer.

The Dark Queen Mantra is Sequenza 21’s Best Chamber Recording 2017.

 

 

Best Orchestra Portrait CD: BMOP Plays Peterson

 

Wayne Peterson

Transformations

Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose, conductor; PRISM Quartet

BMOP/sound 1053

 

Composer Wayne Peterson (b. 1927) served as one of his generation’s fixtures on the West Coast music scene where, in addition to several other academic appointments, he elevated the composition program at San Francisco State to prominence. Despite fine recordings of his chamber music, this is his first portrait disc of orchestral music. 2017 has been a year where Boston Modern Orchestra Project, under the inspired direction of Gil Rose, has released a number of fine recordings, including CDs of works by Paul Moravec, David Del Tredici, Stephen Hartke, and Jeremy Gill (more about these in a forthcoming article). All are worthy of recommendation, but it is the Peterson disc that sticks out for me, both in terms of filling in a gap in late Twentieth century repertoire, and in the considerable durability of the works it contains.

 

Transformations (1985), which resembles a concerto for orchestra, is a marvelous display of timbre, with recurring fanfare-like gestures of repeated notes and chords, punctuated by interjections from percussion, juxtaposed against solo passages and richly overlaid ensembles for each of the orchestra’s sections. Frequent changes in demeanor create an almost kaleidoscopic effect. While the playing is excellent all around, pianist Linda Osborn deserves kudos for tackling a formidable part.

 

Jazz played an important role in Peterson’s development as a composer. There are jazz influences in all three of the pieces presented here, none more so than And the Winds Shall Blow (1994), a saxophone quartet concerto. PRISM Quartet are the estimable soloists here, often playing ensemble passages with such precision and fluidity that they sound like a single mega-instrument. The saxophone solo passages are where the flavor of jazz most keenly persists, and all of the PRISM members play them displaying a strong sense of jazz history, appropriately inflecting each successive homage to swing, bebop, and modern styles. In other places, quartet and orchestra alike are filled with contrapuntal intensity. Rose balances the many competing elements, artfully complex, and assures that each line receives due clarity.

 

Peterson won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for the last of the selections on the BMOP disc, The Face of the Night, The Heart of the Dark, but this honor was not bestowed without controversy. Ralph Shapey had been tipped off early that his piece was the music jury’s recommendation, and raised hell when Peterson was selected over him by the board. After many years with only Shapey’s score to consult, I was grateful to finally acquaint myself with the Peterson piece and judge for myself (The Face of the Night… was played only once and a commercial recording wasn’t released at the time – nor has Shapey’s been recorded commercially. In fact, it would be wonderful if BMOP turned its attentions to Shapey on a future portrait CD – they would play his work just as eloquently as they present Peterson’s). As a Shapey scholar, and based on some of the press I had read about the debacle, I’ll cop to a bit of bias: I had presumed that his Concerto Fantastique would win handily: I’m happy to admit that I was wrong. Both are excellent compositions. The Face of the Night, The Heart of the Dark is expressive and labyrinthine in form where Concerto Fantastique is taut and sectional, but both display a compelling, complex harmonic language and masterful use of the orchestra.

 

Face of the Night… is cast in two movements. The nocturne form is given a modern treatment not unlike the insomniac reveries of Elliott Carter’s Night Fantasies. Rapid shifts in demeanor betray the stray thoughts that sometimes keep us from sleep or inhabit our dreams. Peterson’s Face of the Night, The Heart of the Dark has passages that underscore the portentous quality suggested by its title. However, all is not nightmarish: there are beautiful moments of repose and reflection that suggest the coming darkness is not entirely enveloping: dawn awaits. The work’s climax is stirring and resolute – one imagines bolting upright from bed.

 

Transformations is Sequenza 21’s Best Orchestra Portrait CD of 2017.

Best Rock Recording 2017: Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Luciferian Towers

Luciferian Towers - GSYBE

Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Luciferian Towers

Constellation CD/LP/DL

 

Canadian instrumental post-rock leftist collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor brings something old and something new to the musical anti-fascist fray on Luciferian Towers, their latest recording for Constellation. They are still angry at the political establishment (as are many of us). But they are REALLY angry. Composition titles such as “Bosses Hang,” “Fam/Famine,” and “Anthem for No State,” are bracing sentiments, ones that seem all the more resonant with the determined opposition movements that on the political left the have been emboldened in the wake the double punch of the 2016 election and Charlottesville.

 

Early GSY!BE output relied on, indeed did a great deal to codify, a certain formula for post-rock: pieces contained one long hairpin crescendo from pianissimo to fortississimo primarily focused on drone-based textures. A penchant for minimalism and martial rhythms remain, but the group’s approach is more texturally varied. True, this time out there aren’t field recordings, but album opener “Undoing a Luciferian Towers” (sic) does include free jazz horns. Bagpipes adorn the album’s closer. Throughout, guitars oscillate and repeat riffs with little wrinkles of variation. Most significantly, dynamics are varied rather than inexorably inclined, with piano sections lingering, forte sections juxtaposed with softer passages, and some of the music cannonading through without significant shading. These changes of shaping and form demonstrate the band’s significant musical development over time. Moreover, Luciferian Towers is a yawp of resistance at just the time that we need its cathartic power. Godspeed You! Black Emperor has created a record precisely for its time, and the Best Rock Recording of 2017.

 

Best Drone Recording 2017: Lee Plays Gibson

a3080363931_16

Randy Gibson

The Four Pillars Appearing from The Equal D under Resonating Apparitions of The Eternal Process in The Midwinter Starfield 16 VIII 10 (Kansas City)

Andrew Lee, amplified piano

Irritable Hedgehog

Composer Randy Gibson is best known for his compelling experiments with intonation. R. Andrew Lee is the go-to pianist for Wandelweiser and minimalist-oriented music. On Gibson’s The Four Pillars Appearing from The Equal D under Resonating Apparitions of The Eternal Process in The Midwinter Starfield 16 VIII 10 (Kansas City), he meets Lee in the middle, creating a mammoth work out of very restricted means. The pitch material of the piece consists of just seven notes: D in all the octaves on a concert grand piano in equal temperament. Added to this are amplification and a small amount of electronic manipulation, designed to add resonance to the overtone vibrations taking place.

 

Irritable Hedgehog’s recording is a single unedited live performance from 2016 at University of Kansas City Missouri, with electronics realized alongside the piano part. Clocking in at some three-and-a-half hours, Lee deserves credit for a tour de force of stamina, focus and, perhaps above all, musicality in shaping the repeating pitches into countless varied phrases. Gibson is a master of deploying overtones. He has figured out how to exploit the various spaces between D’s to gradate the appearances of the harmonic series’ upper notes, or partials, and to maximize their potential. Shimmering conglomerations of overtones abound in The Four Pillars … it is certainly not a piece just about D! And while pitch serves as a focal point, it is worth mentioning that the piece’s overall shape, labyrinthine in scope, and its localized rhythmic gestures are equally well conceived. Four Pillars is one of the most compelling pieces yet from Gibson, and is Sequenza 21’s Best Drone Recording of 2017.