Thomas Strønen’s Time is a Blind Guide – Lucus (CD Review)

Thomas Strønen – Time is a Blind Guide

Lucus

ECM Records 2576

 

Ayumi Tanaka, piano; Håkon Aase: violin; Lucy Railton, violoncello; Ole Morten Vågan, double bass; Thomas Strønen: drums, percussion

 

Composer/percussionist Thomas Strønen’s Time is a Blind Guide has shifted membership since its debut recording. Distilled to a quintet line-up on Lucus, its latest outing for the ECM label, it retains a cohesive way of interacting that highlights a fluent interplay of textures. The Mediterranean-inflected album opener “La Bella,” the sole composition on which Strønen shares credit with Aase and Vågan, is a case in point. Fills from Strønen’s kit activate repeated notes in the strings and piano in a subtle build that gradually includes ever widening whorls of melodic snippets.

 

Often Strønen wisely deploys the quintet as an interlocking set of two trios – string trio and jazz piano trio. This is done quite effectively on “Wednesday;” the jazz side of the ensemble plays in a smoky swinging groove while Aase and Railton perform a gentle rainstorm of pizzicatos. Vågan is an interloper, moving from walking lines to sultry arco playing. On the title track, also undergirded by a propulsive string ostinato, Tanaka supplies limpid impressionist cascades. The strings build up successive layers, creating countermelodies that arc around the piano and accentuate the undergirding material of the rhythm section. The double trio idea also prevails in the standout composition “Truth Grows Gradually,” in which the players revel in a complex yet catchy groove.

 

Elsewhere, the ensemble activities vary. On “Baka,” the percussionist crosses over into the world of orchestral instruments, bringing out regular bass drum punctuations. “Friday” juxtaposes pizzicato solos with high string harmonics in a polyrhythmic duet enlivened by its textural contrasts. After an extended double bass introduction, “Tension” presents folk-tinged violin melodies and attenuated post-bop piano lines against a variety of jazz kit punctuations by Strønen. Gradually, Tanaka fills out the texture with rapid fire repeated notes against an expansive collection of string glissandos and harmonic minor pirouettes. The Eastern-tinged “Release” leads with a sweeping piano melody that alternates with oscillating strings and thrumming low register pedals. Oddly enough, “Release” is placed earlier on the disc than “Tension,” which would seem to be a corresponding antecedent. That said, the sequencing of these compositions flows organically with ample variety along the way. Whether performing again as a larger group or in the quintet that appears on Lucus, one hopes that Time is a Blind Guide are just getting started.  

 

-Christian Carey

Sheila Silver Composer Portrait at Merkin Hall

Sheila Silver

 

The Music of Sheila Silver: A Celebration

Merkin Concert Hall

February 8, 2018

By Christian Carey

Published on Sequenza 21

 

NEW YORK – Composer Sheila Silver has taught at Stony Brook University since 1979. On February 8th at Merkin Concert Hall, an all-Silver program celebrated her tenure at the university. In addition to colleagues and students past and present, the hall was filled with area musicians – including multiple generations of composers – who were most enthusiastic in their reception of Silver and the estimable renditions of her work.

 

Even when composing instrumental music, Silver often bases her work on literature and describes it in terms of its narrative quality. The earliest piece on the program, To the Spirit Unconquered (1992), played by Trio de Novo – Brian Bak, violin, Phuc Phan Do, cello, and Hsin-Chiao Liao, piano – is inspired by the writings of Primo Levi, a survivor of the Holocaust who was imprisoned in Auschwitz. One of Silver’s most dramatic compositions, in places it is rife with dissonance and juxtaposes violent angularity with uneasy passages of calm. In the video below, Silver mentions trying to imbue it both with the searing quality of Levi’s struggle and, at its conclusion, some sense of hope based on his indomitability in the midst of horrendous experiences. Trio de Novo are a talented group who performed with detailed intensity and imparted the final movement, marked “stately,” with exceptional poise.

 

Soprano Risa Renae Harman and pianist Timothy Long performed an aria from the opera The Wooden Sword (2010), in which Harman displayed impressive high notes to spare. Her acting skills were on display – comedically sassy – in “Thursday,” one of the songs from Beauty Intolerable (2013), Silver’s cycle of Edna St. Vincent Millay settings. Soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon, joined by pianist Ryan McCullough, presented another, more serious, Millay song, “What My Lips Have Kissed.” With Bak providing additional atmosphere, they also performed an aria from Silver’s current work-in-progress, the opera A Thousand Splendid Suns. Gibbon sang with considerable flexibility and purity of tone, at one point exuberantly spinning around while effortlessly holding a high note. Currently part of the group workshopping the opera, she seems perfectly cast. The songs and arias displayed a sumptuousness that served as a fine contrast to the denser language of the piano trio.

 

Dawn Upshaw was slated to perform with pianist (and longtime Stony Brook faculty member) Gilbert Kalish. Sadly, Upshaw had bronchitis and couldn’t sing on the concert. Gibbon valiantly stepped in, learning Silver’s On Loving, Three Songs in Memory of Diane Kalish (2015) in just two days. Her performance on the concert was supremely confident, betraying none of the last minute nature of the switch. Indeed, the three songs – settings of Shakespeare, St. Vincent Millay, and Khalil Gibran, were among the most stirring of Silver’s works on the program, displaying an autumnal lyricism and wistful poignancy. Kalish, a renowned accompanist, played with characteristic grace.

 

The second half of the concert showed still two more aspects of Silver’s work: a short film score and a more overtly political chamber piece. The first, Subway Sunset (1999), is a collaboration with her husband, the filmmaker John Feldman. It intersperses scenes of busy commuters with a gradually encroaching sunset adorning the sky near the World Trade Center. Although filmed before 2001, the duo dedicated it to the victims of 9/11. Seeing the towers on film will always be haunting. The musical accompaniment, a duet played by bassoonist Gili Sharret and pianist Arielle Levioff, created a solemn stillness that left space to contemplate the various implications of what used to be a normal scene for twentieth century commuters.

 

The program concluded with Twilight’s Last Gleaming (2008), a work for two pianists and two percussionists that is a commentary on the post 9/11 state of affairs. Its three movements’ titles – War Approaching, Souls Ascending, Peace Pretending – give a broad outline for the work’s impetus. Twilight’s Last Gleaming requires stalwart performers and Kalish, joined by pianist Christina Dahl (also on Stony Brook’s faculty) and percussionists Lusha Anthony and Brian Smith, provided a committed and energetic account of this challenging and penetrating piece. The large percussion setup included a considerable assortment of gongs as well as various pitched instruments and drums. The percussionists engaged in a complex choreography between parts, at times catwalking around the gongs’ stands to arrive perfectly in time for their next entrance. In the piece’s final section, an extended musical deconstruction of “The Star-Spangled Banner” takes place with all of the musicians engaging in an increasingly fragmented presentation of the tune. The piece closes leaving the penultimate line “The Land of the Free…” cut off by a musical question mark: a powerful ending to an evening of eloquent music.

 

Mark Renner – “Saints and Sinners”

RERVNG11_DIGITAL_COVER_500px


On Febuary 16, 2018, RVNG Intl. digitally released Few Traces, a recording of rarities by Mark Renner. The physical release is this Friday (February 23rd).


Renner is an under-heralded icon of the Baltimore arts scene. A talented painter, printmaker, and musician, Renner’s work proved pivotal in the local community during the first early glimmers of post New Wave alternative rock.

 
Few Traces contains music from 1982-90. Built with a minimum of gear – a four-track recorder, guitar, and a Casio synthesizer – its songs and instrumentals are simply constructed but eloquent, tuneful, and charming in their immediacy. One can imagine college radio in an alternate universe spinning Renner’s “Saints and Sages,” “Half a Heart,” and “The Wild House” in heavy rotation. Given the resurgence of eighties synth pop, perhaps their time has come.


To garner some context for Renner’s work, Maia Stern has released a short documentary (embedded below). You can also check out streams of some of my favorites on the recording and there is a link below to purchase it via Bandcamp, as well as some information about charitable contributions that are being made from the release’s proceeds. Recommended highly.


 











“On behalf of Mark Renner, a portion of the proceeds from Few Traces sales will be donated to Ethiopia ACT, an organization committed to public health strategies to serve Addis Ababa’s community, under Come! Mend!, an initiative bridging RVNG’s work and interest supporting non-profit organizations and charities.”

Danish String Quartet – Last Leaf

Danish String Quartet - Last Leaf

Last Leaf

Danish String Quartet

ECM Records CD

 

The Danish String Quartet is best known for their insightful interpretations of classical and contemporary repertoire. For instance, a 2016 CD for ECM Records presented early works by Ades, Norgard, and Abrahamsen to widespread acclaim. However, back in 2014, the quartet had a best seller on Da Capo, Wood Works, that consisted of arrangements by its members of Scandinavian folk tunes. In 2017 they released Last Leaf, another album of these arrangements and original compositions for ECM.

 

Last Leaf is in many ways even more successful than Wood Works. The arrangements by the Danish String Quartet’s various members are more sure-footed and varied in ensemble deployments. ECM’s sonics are, as usual, top notch, and the space chosen for the recording, a Danish museum, provides exemplary chamber acoustics. In addition, the group has combined classical and folk dances in adroit ways in several places. One of the most fetching and memorable of these is “Nadja’s Waltz” by cellist  Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin. Another is “Shine No More,” a reel-like tune by violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen. “Polska from Dorotea,” an arrangement by the full quartet is a wonderful blend of contrapuntal writing and boisterous dance music. Sumptuous sonorities populate the ballad-like “Now Found is the Forest of Roses,” a poignant album closer.

 

Often, string quartets rely on their creativity to provide impetus for interpretation. It is gratifying hear a group that is as interested in the acts of creating arrangements and compositions as it is in providing stalwart renditions of preexisting music. Recommended.

 

-Christian Carey

Poppy Ackroyd: Resolve (CD Review)

Poppy - Resolve

Poppy Ackroyd

Resolve

One Little Indian CD/DL

 

Brighton-based multi-instrumentalist and composer Poppy Ackroyd has released her fourth album, Resolve, on One Little Indian. Like her previous work, ambient neoclassical instrumentals reign here. Ackroyd’s violin, piano, and synths are abetted by percussionist Manu Delago, wind player Mike Lesirge, and cellist Jo Quail. Together they create a formidable chamber group that realizes Ackroyd’s hybrids of synthetic and organic elements with grace and delicate shadings. This is particularly true of the winsome title track and layered keyboards of album opener “Paper” and the reverberant synthetic repeats of album closer “Trains,” a fetching post-minimal excursion led by Ackroyd’s piano and violin.

 

All is not gentleness. Delago, in particular, adds formidable beats to several album tracks, notably “Quail” and “The Dream.” “Time,” appropriately enough, leads with drums that are then rhythmically mimicked by a repeating piano ostinato. “Stems,” at a fleeting minute-and-a-half, sets up a memorably propulsive ground bass with a plethora of auxiliary beaters: one wishes it was at least twice as long and allowed to truly blossom.

 

Ambient neoclassical music has become all the rage again and many of the reissues and newer work are quite good. The best of it, like Poppy Ackroyd’s recordings, present lovingly prepared arrangements, harnessing one’s attention with little details that make all the difference between surface beauty and a deeper listening experience.

Mike Donovan: “Sadfinger” (Bandcamp)

how to get your record played in shops


A preview track from Mike Donovan’s “How to Get Your Record Played in Shops,” which will be out on 4/20 via Drag City.


https://bandcamp.com/EmbeddedPlayer/album=3650878242/size=large/bgcol=ffffff/linkcol=0687f5/tracklist=false/track=844659316/transparent=true/

 

TOUR DATES:
FEB 10 San Francisco, CA @ RPMetaspace (Closing Party for William Keihn’s “Trapdoor” exhibition)
MAR 1 Ojai, CA @ Ojai Rancho Inn
MAR 3 SF, CA @ RPMetaspace (Opening Party for Jesse Wiedel exhibition)
MAR 15 Oakland, CA @ The Octopus Literary Salon
MAR 20 LA, CA @ Zebulon^
MAR 21 Phoenix, AZ @ Lunchbox^
MAR 22 Tucson, AZ @ Fly Catcher^
MAR 23 San Diego, AZ @ Bar Pink^
MAR 24 San Francisco, CA @ Light Rail Studios^
MAR 25 Oakland, CA @ Ivy Room^
MAR 29 San Francisco, CA @ Rickshaw Stop w/ U.S. Girls
MAY 24 Frankfurt, Germany @ Zoom*
MAY 26 Antwerp, Belgium @ Trix*
MAY 27 Winterthur, Switzerland @ Salzhaus*
MAY 28 Vevey, Switzerland @ Rocking Chair*
MAY 29 Clermont Ferrand, France @ Coopertive de Mai*
MAY 30 Lille, France @ Aeronef*
MAY 31 La Rochelle, France @ La Sirene*
JUNE 4 Brighton, UK @ Concorde 2*
JUNE 5 Manchester, UK @ Gorilla*
JUNE 6 Dublin, Ireland @ Tivoli*
JUNE 8 Newcastle, UK @ Boiler Shop*
JUNE 9 London UK @ O2 Forum*
JUNE 14 Paris, France @ Bataclan*

*w/ Ty Segall and The Freedom Band
^ w/ Lars Finberg and The Bakersfield Moonlighters

 

Quattro Mani at Weill and on CD

quattromaniresctructurescdcover

Quattro Mani

November 15, 2017

Weill Recital Hall

Works by Gosfield, Moravec, Machover, Lansky, and Ben-Amots

NEW YORK – Since 2013, pianists Susan Grace and Steven Beck have been performing together as the duo Quattro Mani. Their recent recital at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall presented several New York premieres, including pieces by Annie Gosfield, Paul Moravec, Tod Machover, and Paul Lansky. Gosfield’s mix of dissonance with rollicking rhythms was winning in “Refracted Rhythms and Telepathic Static.” Lansky’s three Color Codas – “In the Red,” Purple Passion,” and “Out of the Blue” – indeed embodied multihued harmonies and sparking ostinatos. Moravec writes in an elegant, idiomatic style for the piano. His Quattro Mani contains a substantial amount of memorable material — dare one hope it is a sketch for a double concerto? The evening culminated in a scintillating performance of John Adams’ Hallelujah Junction, which was both fiery and superbly coordinated.

Quattro Mani’s latest CD recording for Bridge Records, Re-Structures, is an engaging outing. The title work, also heard at Weill Hall, is by Machover. Scored for piano and electronics, it juxtaposes frenetic acoustic virtuosity with correspondingly penetrating digital commentary. Lansky’s Out of the Blue, one of the Color Codas also on the New York program, is an attractive post-minimal exploration of small cells of material that gradually expand into boisterous passages in octaves and quick scalar runs.

The multi-movement work Cembal d’Amore, Book Two by Poul Ruders changes up the duo’s instrumentation: Beck plays harpsichord while Grace remains at the piano. Its corruscating textures, varying duplications and canons in a sequence of movements based in part on Baroque dance suites, revels in chromaticism and wry wit in equal measure. Yet another shift in approach is found in Életút Lebenslauf by György Kurtág. Basset horns, played by Andy Stevens and Sergei Vassiliev, accompany the pianists playing instruments tuned in microtones. Mysterious timbres bump elbows with thornily dissonant angularity in a piquant, unforgettable piece.

The CD’s closer is a bit more straightforward, but no less captivating.  Tango for the Road by Ofer Ben-Amots is an eight-minute long exploration of traditional tango rhythms and gestures, with a few surprises and a left turn or two along the way. The piece gives Grace and Beck an ideal vehicle to showcase the supple phrasing and suavity they bring to bear whenever given a chance to swing.

Re-Structures is an adventurous exploration of many facets of 21st century piano music: highly recommended.

-Christian Carey