CD Review: Riot Ensemble

Speak, Be Silent

Riot Ensemble, Aaron Holloway-Nahum, conductor

Works by Chaya Czernowin, Anna Thorvaldsdóttor, Mirela Ivičević, Liza Lim, and Rebecca Saunders

Huddersfield Contemporary Records HCR20CD

2019


Riot Ensemble’s latest CD features five works by female composers who hail from a diverse group of countries: Israel, Iceland, Croatia, Australia, and the UK. Speak, Be Silentcomes at a time when, coinciding with overdue shifts in the broader culture, raising awareness of the abundant diversity of contemporary composers making vital music has taken on especial urgency. All of the pieces on Speak, Be Silent are recent; the earliest is from 2008. Thus, the CD also serves as a catalog of what vanguard composers are doing today.

Ayre: Towed through plumes, thicket, asphalt, sawdust and hazardous air I shall not forget the sound of, by Chaya Czernowin, incorporates all manner of noises alongside microtonal verticals and just a taste of the melodic line, often glissando, that its title suggests. It is a powerful piece in which Czernowin deploys a wide-ranging sonic palette with sure-footed trajectory. Ayre’s close sounds like the slamming of a plethora of recalcitrant, squeaky doors: a strongly articulated gesture of finality. 

Ró, by Anna Thorvaldsdottir, employs a more delicate palette, with sustained pitches building shimmering overtone chords that are punctuated by gentle solos and occasional articulations from the harp and the percussion section. Ró features sumptuous wind and string writing, with duets succeeding the aforementioned solos in sinuous counterpoint. Pacing is slow, deliciously so, and the final cadence serves as both harmonic and gestural closure.

Mirela Ivicevic’sBaby Magnify/Lilith’s New Toy is an acerbic piece with clangor at key points interspersed with uneasily spacious phrases. Ivicevic’s use of percussion as both a motor and for accentuation is effective. The piece builds to a plethora of sliding tones and wind multiphonics, serving as a convincing counterweight to a battery of chiming pitches and stalwart drums. 

The title work, by Liza Lim, is the most substantial on the CD. Cast in three movements, it is a chamber concerto for violin. Soloist Sarah Saviet plays impressively with nimble musicality and a silvery tone. Lim creates a shimmering, sinuous harmonic fabric. The orchestration is vivid. Lim provides each section of the ensemble a chance to interact with the soloist, who withstands brash brass interpolations and chattering percussion but firmly stands her ground, each interruption giving rise to an ever more virtuosic solo response. Finally, pitched percussion, winds and strings get their spotlight turns, nearly upending the soloist’s ever more vigorous cadenza. Just when you think that there will never be accord between ensemble and soloist, a heterophonic line develops between them, followed by a richly scored climax and a cadenza that serves as a scalar denouement.  

The recording concludes with Rebecca Saunders’ Stirrings Still III. Vertiginous harmonics are haloed by piano chords and icy woodwind countermelodies. Like Thorvaldsdottir, Saunders adopts a slow gait, but Stirrings takes on a pervasively pensive, rather than spacious, ambiance. About two thirds of the way through, sustained lines, rumbling brass, and timpani impart a degree of urgency, but this is soon banished to return to more or less the original unsettled demeanor, which gradually vanishes. 

The Riot Ensemble, conducted by Aaron Holloway-Nahum, plays skillfully throughout, attending to each score’s myriad details. it is worth noting that the disc’s aesthetic touches, from appealing artwork and riveting sound to an engaging liner notes essay by Tim Rutherford-Johnson, are potent reminders that a physical artifact trumps the current craze for booklet-less (information-less) and sonically compromised streaming. Speak, Be Silent is one of 2019’s best recordings and certainly one of its most culturally relevant ones as well. 

-Christian Carey

Barre Phillips in New York

Barre Phillips

Zürcher Gallery

By Christian Carey

Sequenza 21

May 20, 2019

Barre Phillips

NEW YORK – ECM Records has released a number of great solo bass recordings. The label’s producer, Manfred Eicher, was himself a bassist, and he has invited a number of fellow low string players to record for ECM. Barre Phillips is a pathfinder in the genre, releasing one of the first solo bass recordings, Journal Violone, on Opus One in 1968. Eicher and he have been keen collaborators for many years, beginning in 1971 with a duo recording of Phillips with Dave Holland, Music from Two Basses, the first of its kind, which was followed by a number of solo and ensemble outings for ECM. In 2018, the imprint released what was announced as Phillips last solo CD, End to End, which he called the last entry in his “Journal Violone.” 

It has been more than thirty years since Phillips last performed in New York. Originally from San Francisco and long a resident of France, much of the bassist’s career has been made playing in Europe. On Monday, May 20th, he appearedat the Zürcher Gallery, an art venue on Bleecker Street in lower Manhattan. The crowd was standing room only and contained a number of jazz and experimental music luminaries. They were attentive and enthusiastic throughout. 

Phillips turns eighty-five in October. In his performance on Monday night, he appeared energetic and fit. He easily hoisted a sizeable double bass to his shoulder, and deftly moved it around to play its entirety: not just the strings. His playing and demeanor are vibrant, inquisitive, and often imbued with puckish humor. 

The bassist gave a veritable masterclass of standard and extended playing techniques. The latter appear prolifically on End to End, among them high harmonics, different varieties of strumming such as plucking notes with both hands, a number of approaches to bowing, microtones, glissandos, and all manner of percussive playing. However, the CD intersperses these with a fair bit of cantabile playing. Less of that was on offer live. Instead, with a mischievous twinkle and disarming banter, Phillips went to work showing what it meant to “do your own thing” when, as he described it, career paths in more traditional jazz and classical music were denied him. 

Each piece, most of them improvised but some selections fromEnd to End that had been crafted into compositions, centered on a different palette of techniques. At times Phillips played his instrument caressingly, seeming to coax delicate high notes and thrumming vibrations from the strings at a pianissimo dynamic. At others, he virtually attacked the instrument, scratching it from stem to stern with his bow. If a luthier were in attendance, they would have likely had a panic attack. 

There was considerable variation in the harmonic vocabulary employed. Some of the music was in the ‘out’ post-tonal language of free jazz. Phillips also supplied an etude of octaves, another of open string drones, a third a chameleon-like shift to Eastern scales and gestures, and on “Inner Door, Pt. 4,” a plaintive modal jazz solo grounded in double-stopped fifths. Here, as elsewhere, Phillips displayed a penchant for executing a long, unerringly controlled decrescendo, bringing the music to a whispered close. Zürcher was an ideal location in which to hear these small details: an intimate space but one with good acoustics.

It is unfortunate that New Yorkers haven’t had more opportunities to hear Barre Phillips up close and personal. His performance was an unforgettable experience. Phillips joins Mat Maneri, Emilie Lesbros, and Hank Roberts for a performance on Saturday night at 8 PM at Brooklyn’s I-Beam. One more chance …    

-Christian Carey

Blue Heron Sings Ockeghem in Cambridge

Blue Heron. Photo: Kathy Wittman

Blue Heron Sings Ockeghem’s Missa Prolationum

First Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts

By Christian Carey

Sequenza21.com

March 9, 2019

CAMBRIDGE – Blue Heron’s Ockeghem@600 project has steadily worked its way through much of the composer’s repertoire. On March 9th at First Church, one of the most special evenings of this series was performed: Johannes Ockeghem’s Missa Prolationum. The mass is constructed almost entirely out of a set of double canons, presenting imitative counterpoint throughout and at every scalar interval (a feat only matched by Bach’s Goldberg Variations, but Bach’s include single, not double, canons). The jaw-dropping intricacies of this work’s construction, and the comparative irregularity of its presentation on concert programs, made me more than happy to make the trip from New Jersey to Boston to experience it live.

Johannes Ockeghem, who died in 1497, was during his lifetime highly esteemed as both a composer and singer (some say the low bass lines one sees in his music would likely have been performed by Ockeghem himself). A number of composers and theorists referenced his music, employing it in paraphrase and parody works and holding it up as a paragon of craftsmanship. One of Josquin’s most affecting pieces is Nymphes des bois, a Déploration on the death of Ockeghem. So why isn’t he a household name today among choral enthusiasts? The challenges posed by pieces like Missa Prolationum keep them beyond the reach of any but the most skillful and dedicated ensembles. This is where Blue Heron’s Ockeghem@600 project comes in, raising both awareness for the composer and demonstrating that, while formidable, his is eminently singable music.  

Scott Metcalfe, Blue Heron’s director, carefully curated the program both to elucidate and to entertain. The concert opened with a brief canonic work by Jean Mouton, Ave Maria gemma virginum, which served as a talking point for a brief but animated lecture by Metcalfe. The singers of Blue Heron helped him to illustrate several musical examples that explicated the process of canon and how it was used by Ockeghem. Further demonstration of canonic procedure was provided by Prenez sur moi, one of Ockeghem’s most famous songs.

The program continued by interspersing some of Ockeghem’s songs with movements of the mass. Given the compositional rigor of Missa Prolationum, the inclusion of other music smartly broke it up into more manageable chunks for listeners. It also served to demonstrate the composer’s versatility; the chansons may not include double canons like the mass but are equally inventive in their own respective ways.

Throughout, Blue Heron sang with impressive tone, flawless intonation, and incisive rhythmic clarity. Indeed, the latter characteristic was particularly efficacious. One of the chief rewards of their rendition of the mass was being able to hear, clearly delineated, a veritable labyrinth of interlocking rhythms. As is their practice, Blue Heron shifts around the members of the ensemble (numbering nine singers plus Metcalfe directing and playing harp) from number to number. The upper part features both male and female voices and the rest of the singers, when singing solo, are heterogenous in tone color as well. However, when they join voices, the group adopts a resonant and supple blend.

The performance was inspiring, and the onstage remarks were spot-on in terms of content, level of detail, and duration. In addition to memories of the fine music-making, audience members left with another keepsake: a lovingly curated and detailed program book that was remarkably in-depth for such a document. It was yet another indication of the level of commitment that Metcalfe has brought to the Ockeghem@600 project. Blue Heron’s forthcoming recording of Ockeghem’s complete songs is not to be missed.

-Christian Carey

Caroline Shaw – Orange (CD Review)

Caroline Shaw – Orange

Attaca Quartet

Nonesuch/New Amsterdam CD

Winner of the Pulitzer prize in 2013, Caroline Shaw has been a busy musician in the years following, performing as a vocalist with Roomful of Teeth (which recorded her prizewinning work Partita), violinist with ACME, and recording with Kanye West (yes, that Kanye West!). Shaw’s versatility and abundant creativity has kept her in demand for new commissions. Despite all this, Orange is the first portrait CD of her music. It is the first recording in a new partnership between Nonesuch and New Amsterdam Records. Given her own string instrument background, it seems especially appropriate that the CD contains chamber works performed by the estimable Attacca Quartet.  

Shaw frequently evokes the work of earlier composers in her own music, with snippets reminiscent of Beethoven and Bach in Punctum, Dowland’s consort music in Entr’acte, and Purcell in Ritornello 2.sq.2.j.a. But this channeling of the past never feels like pastiche or ironic critique. The composer’s juxtapositions instead seem celebratory in character. The adroit deployment of a plethora of styles, from earlier models to the postminimalism, totalism, and postmodern aesthetics of more recent music accumulate into a singular voice; one buoyed by keen knowledge of the repertoire and flawless technique in writing for strings.

The latter quality is amply displayed in Valencia, in which pizzicato, sliding fiddle tunes, and high-lying arpeggios combine to create a fascinating, multifaceted texture. Entr’acte uses a lament motive as its ostinato, building from a simple descending chord progression to rich verticals and, later, plucked passages redolent in supple harmonies. Punctum builds rich chords to contrast repeated notes and undulating repetitions.

Plan and Elevation is a multi-movement work that celebrates gardens, “the herbaceous border” that outlines them, trees, and the fruit that they bear. These pastoral images inspire some of the most beautiful and expansive music on the CD. Once again, a descending minor key ground is a significant part of the piece’s organization, appearing in multiple movements.

The album’s closer, Limestone and Felt, is a one-movement miniature for viola and cello, combining pizzicato, percussive thumps on the bodies of the instruments, and several canons. It serves as an excellent encapsulation of the simultaneous joy and rigor that embodies so much of Caroline Shaw’s music.

  • Christian Carey

Anna Webber: Clockwise (CD Review)

Anna Webber

Clockwise

Pi Recordings (2019)

Saxophonist/flutist/composer Anna Webber, a thirty-five-year-old who has already won a Guggenheim Fellowship and numerous other plaudits, makes her Pi Recordings debut with Clockwise.Joined by an estimable group of avant-jazz musicians – pianist Matt Mitchell, Jeremy Viner playing tenor saxophone and clarinet, trombonist Jacob Garchik, cellist Christopher Hoffman, bassist Chris Tordini, and percussionist Ches Smith-Webber plays tenor saxophone and flute on the CD. Her compositions are mostly extrapolations of pieces for percussion by twentieth century classical composers Morton Feldman(King of Denmark)Iannis Xenakis (Persephassa), Edgard Varése (Ionisation), Karlheinz Stockhausen (Zyklus), Milton Babbitt (Homily), and John Cage (Third Construction). Employing percussion music to organize musical structures yields fascinating and fertile hybridized compositions. 

Array, based on Babbitt’s Homily, a solo piece for snare drum, uses the score’s serialized dynamics and attack points to craft a welter of overlapping arpeggiations inhabited by the entire group. King of Denmark is visited in three different incarnations on Clockwise, the first lifting off with a bracing hail of noise-inspired multiphonics before moving into an undulating groove that positions the rhythm section front and center. The second features an introduction in which Smith plays glissandos on timpani alongside chiming interjections. This is succeeded by a sultry main section, pitting walking lines from Tordini against microtonal winds. King of Denmark III is the briefest trope on Feldman, juxtaposing a roiling arco solo from Tordini against saxophones overblown. 

The title track takes the modularity of Stockhausen’s original as a cue for its own set of disparate, time-linked sections. Cage’s Third Constructionis channeled on Hologram Best, which features angular saxophone and brass lines in ebulliently spinning motion. Idiom II is the sole track on the disc to be composed with Webber’s own material. Near unison saxes, just slightly out of sync, create a loping tune that is punctuated by thrumming percussion and bass notes. Gradually, the rhythm section exerts a more intrusive presence that rivals the saxophone ostinato. Ultimately, the head is banished in favor of a saxophone-piano duet, in which Mitchell plays from an attractive palette of complex harmonies. Inexorably, the saxophones push back. Now no longer in near-unison, deployed in counterpoint, they take a break of their own that is only gradually infiltrated by the rhythm section. The final section of the piece features ostinatos again, this time with blocks of reeds, harmonizing the original tune, taking the front line in the proceedings while the rhythm sections positively roars its propulsive support. A brief reappearance of the head ensues, and then the door slams shut on the most compelling music of the recording. 

Varése and Xenakis inspire the works Kore I and Kore II. The latter opens the disc with undulating pizzicato strings that are eventually joined successively by flute, piano, and the rest of the ensemble in an off-kilter, post-tonal dance. Kore I closes the recording with another pileup of material, starting from pianissimo feints from the rhythm section and eventually building to a portentous moto perpetuo in which solos from Tordini, Webber, and Garchik are finally subsumed into a furious tutti coda. 

Whether Webber is exploring avant-garde classical masters or paving her own pathways, she proves to be a compelling creator. Her collaborators, to a person, are stellar. Clockwise is heartily recommended. 

Blue Heron in New York (Concert Review)

Blue Heron. Photo: Liz Linder

Blue Heron: The Lost Music of Canterbury

Music Before 1800

Corpus Christi Church

February 10, 2019

Sequenza 21 

By Christian Carey

NEW YORK – On February 10th, the Boston-based early music ensemble Blue Heron made one of its regular appearances at the Music Before 1800 series at Corpus Christi Church in Morningside Heights. Directed by Scott Metcalfe, an ensemble of a dozen vocalists performed five selections, all votive antiphons, from the Peterhouse Partbooks. 

Copied by John Bull during the reign of Henry VIII, the partbooks now reside at Peterhouse College of Cambridge University. The tenor book is missing, as are large sections of the treble book, but musicologist Nick Sandon has spent his career reconstructing pieces from the collection. Apart from a few performances and recordings made by British and Canadian ensembles, Blue Heron have been the principal advocates for this rediscovered cache of polyphonic music written for the Catholic Church. Bull compiled the music just a few years prior to the establishment of the Church of England, which brought with it entirely different liturgical practices that rendered the music obsolete. Many partbooks were destroyed during the ascendency, successively, of Anglicanism and Puritanism. This makes Sandon’s contribution all the more noteworthy, in that it restores enough music to significantly add to the choral repertoire available from the pre-Reformation period.   

Blue Heron recently released The Lost Music of Canterbury,a five-CD boxed set of music from the Peterhouse Partbooks with selections by a range of composers, from the well-known Nicholas Ludford to the entirely obscure Hugh Sturmy. The quality of both the music and recorded performances is extraordinarily high. Blue Heron have a beautiful sound custom crafted for this repertoire and display impeccable musicianship. Sadly, none of the antiphons presented on the Corpus Christi concert have yet been recorded by Blue Heron. Indeed, there is a massive amount of music left in the Peterhouse collection yet to be documented. While the group has moved on to other projects – they are currently at work on recordings of the complete songs of Ockeghem and works by Cipriano de Rore – one hopes that at some point funding might allow them to commit the votive antiphons from the Peterhouse repertoire to disc. They proved most compelling in a live setting.  

Votive antiphons were extra-liturgical and traditionally performed in the evening, after Vespers and Compline, by a group of singers gathered around an altar or icon. Marian antiphons were most common and were represented on the concert by two pieces, Arthur Chamberlayne’s Ave Gratia plena Maria and Ludford’s Salve Regina. The former is a vibrant piece articulating a thoughtfully expanded trope of the “Hail Mary” text. Described by Metcalfe as “a word salad,” it does indeed contain a great number of independent lines in overlapping declamation. The sole piece attributed to its author, it provided a tantalizing glimpse of the idiosyncrasies permitted during this time of musical innovation and diversity. Ludford’s uses a more traditional text and is gentler in demeanor; as Metcalfe suggested, a valediction wishing those gathered to hear the antiphon a peaceful evening. 

The other three antiphons invoked various saints. O Willhelme, pastor bone, by John Taverner, was the lone short work here, clocking in at around three minutes; the rest were each about a quarter of an hour in duration. The piece has a fascinating backstory for those who study the history of the Tudors. It was written for Cardinal College, Oxford, where Taverner was instructor of the choirboys, to its patron Saint William, Archbishop of York. It also includes a verse uplifting Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who founded Cardinal College. Yes, that Cardinal Wolsey, the one who ran afoul of Henry VIII because of his thwarted attempts to obtain a divorce for the monarch. The piece itself is full of Taverner’s characteristic sustained high lines and contains some lovely harmonies. 

Blue Heron at Corpus Christi Church. Photo: Alex Rainer.

One of the composers that Sandon has helped to reinvigorate with his scholarly writings, as well as score restorations, is Hugh Aston. Blue Heron have been champions of Aston since 1999, their founding year. The composer is well-represented on the Lost Music of Canterbury, which, among several pieces, includes his own Marian motet, Ave Maria dive matris Anne, a work of eloquence and fervent yearning: one of the highlights of the CD set. The concert program featured Aston’s O baptista vates Christi, a supplication to Saint John the Baptist. One can see why Blue Heron would like to sing O Baptista: the text asks for protection for the choir, and what choir doesn’t sometimes need protecting? Of course, no such safeguards were necessary at Corpus Christi Church: Music Before 1800 attracts a friendly audience for the group. 

While the aforementioned antiphons impressed, the most remarkable composition on the program was the first one the group performed, O Albane deo grate by Robert Fayrfax. This piece features prominently in Fayrfax’s output. He also fashioned a setting of it dedicated to Mary, O Maria deo grata, with the same music but different words, and used its material as the basis for his parody mass Missa Albanus. The words here commemorate Saint Alban, traditionally considered the first British Christian martyr. Metcalfe usually allows the music to speak for itself, limiting himself to brief introductory remarks. However, before beginning the performance of O Albane, he gave a short demonstration of just a few of the myriad musical treatments by Fayrfax of the plainchant on which it is based. This proved most illuminating, as one could look forward to hearing the hymn fragment interwoven into the counterpoint at key places in the work. Equally enlightening was Metcalfe’s post-concert talkback, in which he fielded questions on a variety of topics, from Reformation worship practices to score restoration to sixteenth century tuning in England. I look forward to hearing Blue Heron again very soon. On March 9th,I will be making a pilgrimage to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to hear them sing Ockeghem’s Missa Prolationum. Look for coverage here on the site. 

(For more about the Lost Music of Canterbury 5 CD boxed set, see www.blueheron.org)

Fred Hersch Trio – Live at the Village Vanguard

Fred Hersch Trio.
Photo: John Rogers.

Fred Hersch Trio

Village Vanguard

January 5, 2019

Sequenza 21

By Christian Carey

 

NEW YORK – Beginning the new year with a six-night long residency at the Village Vanguard, pianist Fred Hersch had a lot to celebrate. His current trio, in which he is joined by bassist John Hebert and drummer Kevin McPherson, has been together for a decade. They have received a Grammy nomination for their 2018 Palmetto Records CD Live in Europe. In December, Palmetto released another recording of Hersch in a trio setting, this one from 1997 with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Tom Rainey. 97 @ The Village Vanguard is the only live recording of this acclaimed ensemble. The CD also documents Hersch’s debut as a leader at the Village Vanguard.

 

Many celebrations include guests and Hersch’s residency was no exception. For the last three nights of shows, alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón, a Grammy nominee himself and a Guggenheim Fellow and MacArthur Award winner to boot, joined the trio. It proved to be a felicitous pairing. After the trio opened the set with Hersch’s meditative “Plainsong,” Zenón joined them on the pianist’s salsa original “Havana,” sending its sinuous melody soaring and building an exquisitely paced solo. Hebert and McPherson created a fulsome groove. McPherson’s ability to move from the pianissimo textural playing of “Plainsong” to the driving polyrhythms of “Havana” demonstrated versatility that turns on a dime. Hebert keenly targeted his playing too, moving between registers, engaging in melodic colloquy with Hersch, supporting the changes, and acting in concert with McPherson. All of this is even more noteworthy when one considers his uncanny ability to know exactly when and where to provide Hersch’s playing registral space.

 

Hersch’s music is often rhythmically intricate. In addition to the facility of the rhythm section, Zenón proved his mettle in the abstract phrasing and polyrhythmic environments of Hersch tunes “Snape Maltings” and “Skipping.” The latter tune elicited a verve-filled solo from Hersch. The pianist and saxophonist also made great foils for each other, one developing melodic breadcrumbs that the other had strewn in a previous solo. Zenón’s playing had a bite in the post-bop material, but was smooth and suave in the Lerner and Loewe’s “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” Zenón’s composition “Temes” was an engaging part of the set, and it was fascinating to hear Hersch go to town on material new to him, displaying  a vivid imagination.

Hersch frequently writes compositions in homage to other jazz artists. “Lee’s Dream” is a contrafact tune, using the changes of Nacio Herb Brown’s “You Stepped Out of a Dream” with a new melody. It is dedicated to Lee Konitz. “Monk’s Dream” is dedicated to Thelonious Monk. During his set at the Vanguard, Hersch had Monk in mind. The closer was a one-two punch of the pianist’s harmonically inventive version of “Round Midnight,” followed by the group playing a rousing rendition of “Let’s Cool One.” Obliged by applause to share an encore, Hersch chose Billy Joel’s “And So it Goes,” starting in eloquent simplicity and then transforming the tune with intriguing modulations into a Chopin-esque reverie. The sold-out crowd seemed delighted to share in the celebrations.