Scelsi revisited (Best of 2020)

Scelsi Revisited

Klangforum Wien, Sylvain Cambreling, Johannes Kalitzke, conductors

Kairos 2XCD

A number of prominent European composers took part in Scelsi revisited, a festival, documented on this double-CD, celebrating Giacinto Scelsi’s music. Their tribute pieces were based on unrealized tapes of Scelsi playing the Ondiola, a three-octave tube synthesizer that was his preferred instrument for making drafts of his works. Some are incorporated directly into pieces, others remixed and morphed as part of larger electronic designs, and some merely outline materials subsequently reworked by the selected composers. The forces used are often that of Anahit, Scelsi’s piece for violin and ensemble, previously recorded by Klangforum Wien for Kairos.

Michael Petzel’s Sculture di Suono addresses the beating, tremolo, and fading in and out of material often present in Scelsi’s tapes. The piece contains beautifully distressed microtonal bends, particularly among the winds, ornaments by the oboe, and references to Scelsi’s “organ sound,” with its tonal implications and plethora of thirds and sixths. Michel Roth’s Moi (see the article referenced below) also demonstrates beating, including the rhythmical quality found on Scelsi’s tapes, difference tones, and a particularly varied and engaging orchestration.  

Tristan Murail had a long association with Scelsi, performing some of his works with the ensemble L’itineraire in the 1970s. In Murail’s Un Sogno, the composer reworks Scelsi’s tapes, augmenting them with his own electronics and spectral harmonies for the ensemble, creating an imaginative tribute piece. Introduktion und Transsonation, by Georg Friedrich Haas, allows tapes to roll and encourages Klangforum Wien to improvise along with them. 

Nicola Sani’s “Gimme Scelsi” deals with long sustained sounds that are then morphed by microtonal ornaments  and harmonics, made all the more powerful by space in between the utterances. Later in the piece, block harmonies once again recall Scelsi’s “organ sound.” Clocking in at more than 42 minutes, Ulli Fussenegger’s San Teodoro 8 is the most expansive work on the recording. Fussenegger made tapes from Scelsi’s archives for all of the participating composers and he uses a great deal of this material in his own piece, which is also arrayed with original electronic components and melodic material based on monad and dyad formulations. The Ondiola material is front-loaded in a way that is seldomly done in the other pieces.Like Anahit, it also features a violin soloist, but a number of members of the ensemble get a chance to take a solo turn. Á tue tet by Fabien Levy is for nine winds distributed throughout the performance space. It juxtaposes pointillist shards of ricocheting fragments into gradual pile-ups of texture. The second disc closes with Cardinald by Ragnhild Bergstad, who takes the more gentle aspects of Scelsi’s artistry, as well as nature sounds, notably the song of the robin, to create a more placid surface than the other works presented here. An appealing denouement and gentle coda to a fascinating collection of pieces. 

The booklet notes are excellent, including the Scelsi’ “symbol,” a rare photo of the composer, and Ragnhild Berstad’s thoughtful essay on reception history and the revisited project itself. Berstad doesn’t shy away from the controversies surrounding Scelsi’s legacy, notably the article “Scelsi c’est moi” by Vieri Tosattis, one of the musicians who helped Scelsi to transcribe his tapes to musical notation. Of the revisited project, Berstad instead suggests “Scelsi, c’est nous,” pointing out the myriad ways that the composer has made his presence felt here and elsewhere. Scelsi continues to inspire, as the composers and performers on this recording readily attest. One of the best releases of 2020.

-Christian Carey

Best of 2020: Michi Wiancko

(Over the next couple of weeks, I will be sharing some of my favorite recordings of 2020. -CC)

Michi Wiancko

Planetary Candidate

New Amsterdam

Violinist-composer Michi Wianko’s recording Planetary Candidate presents a selection of solo violin works by Wianko and several of her composer contemporaries. They are “solo” in the sense of having a single performer, but Wiancko’s voice, overdubs of her playing, and electronics are often added to season the pieces. The title work is a case in point, with pizzicato and bowed sections overlapped. Midway through, Thich Nhat Han’s breathing mantra is intoned with vocoder style sonic manipulation. Lest one think that the music is merely meditative, there is a considerably ecstatic ambience that propels it forward. 

Jolie Sphinx by Christopher Adler is a study in perpetual motion, beginning modally and gradually adding chromaticism, the range expanding to encompass the instrument’s altissimo register. Paula Matthusen contributes two pieces for violin and electronics. In the first, Songs of Fuel and Insomnia, violin glissandos and tremolos are combined with electronic drones and percussive sounds. Distortion morphs the violin in a solo reminiscent of electric guitar that ends the piece with a flourish. Matthusen’s second piece, Lullaby for Dead Horse Bay, is gentler, with a slowly undulating solo haloed by sine waves. 

Skyline by Mark Dancigers is built primarily of upward arpeggiated chords with bright, neotonal harmonies in limpid phrases. A central section offsets this with descending scalar filigrees. When the arpeggios return, they are double time, adding a dash of urgency that builds to a quick cadenza. Jessie Montgomery’s Rhapsody No. 2 begins where Dancigers left off, with attractive upper register flourishes, followed by scalar passages throughout the instrument’s compass, a slow section consisting of harmonics and double-stops, and a brief return to the initial section’s virtuosic passagework. 

Two pieces by William Brittelle round out Planetary Candidate, both featuring electronic contributions from the composer. So Long Art Decade combines amplification and  echo-laden effects with analog synth sounds, including some particularly attractive bell-like timbres. Wiancko makes the most of the piece’s effulgent glissandos; at times the instrument inhabits rock solo terrain. A tender passage of double-stops provides an enigmatic coda. Disintegration (for Michi) uses similar effects on the violin and revels in loops in counterpoint. Brittelle once again punctuates the proceedings with synth insertions. The buildup to a swinging moto perpetuo is ephemeral, cut off by a slow section of string chords and a winsome major key tune, which closes the piece and the album in a gradual fade out. Imaginative selections immaculately played throughout, Planetary Candidate is one of my favorite releases of 2020.  

Ora Singers – Spem in Alium.Vidi Aquam (CD Review)

Spem in Alium. Vidi Aquam

Ora Singers, Suzi Digby

Harmonia Mundi, 2020

English choral group the Ora Singers, led by Suzi Digby, present Thomas Tallis’s magnificent forty-part motet Spem in Alium on their latest Harmonia Mundi recording. Split into eight choirs of five apiece, the singers are given many opportunities to overlap in successive entrances, interact among cohorts, and sound immensely scored chords. The Ora Singers present a beautiful performance that combines purity of sound with thrilling forte climaxes. Digby deserves plaudits for her careful shaping of phrases and mastery of Spem’s myriad challenging balancing acts. 

Most of the rest of the recording contains Latin works by composers active in England during the sixteenth century. These include three of foreign descent – Derrick Gerrard, Philip Van Wilder, and Alonso Ferrabosco the Elder. Van Wilder’s Pater Noster is filled with delicately corruscating lines and the composer’s Vidi civitatem is particularly poignant, with arcing entries blending with subdued declamatory phrases. Ferrabosco is as well known for suggestions of criminality and spying (for Queen Elizabeth, no less) as he is for his music. Ferrabosco’s In Monte Oliveti contains widely spaced, sumptuous harmonies while Judica me Domine is performed with long flowing imitative lines and solemn pacing. Gerrard’s O Souverain Pastor est maistre is a deft display of canonic writing, while his Tua est Potentia employs pervasive imitation. There is relatively little by Gerrard that has been recorded, which is a pity: he is a fine composer. 

Works by more famous composers include Tallis’s covertly recusant motet In jejunio et fletu, in a particularly moving performance, and a delicately shaded Derelinquit impius. William Byrd is represented by two motets,  Domine, salva nos, its introductory homophonic passages tinged with chromaticism and succeeded by elegant imitative entries, and Fac cum servo tuo, which instead begins in canon straightaway. 

The recording’s closer is a contemporary piece written in response to Spem in Alium, Vidi Aquam, a forty-part motet by James MacMillan. Using small paraphrases of the Tallis piece interwoven with new material, MacMillan creates an exuberant composition  filled with an abundance of stratospheric ascending lines.  it is a thrilling, and tremendously challenging, companion work.

-Christian Carey

Anna Höstman’s Harbour (CD Review)

Anna Höstman 


Cheryl Duvall, piano 

Redshift Records, 2020 

Harbour, a recital recording of Anna Höstman’s piano works played by Cheryl Duvall, reveals an emerging composer who both synthesizes her research interests – she has written about Feldman and Linda Caitlin Smith – while developing a significant voice of her own. Thus, gradually developing fields of sound remind listeners of the aforementioned composers, but Höstman’s gestural palette is significantly different. Examples of this include the ornaments on “Allemande” and the blurring gestures of “Yellow Bird.”

The title piece is a twenty-five minute long essay that begins with flourishes that remind one of Messiaen’s birdsong, as well as gliss-filled descending lines, set against a slow moving series of polychords. Registral expansion affords these three elements considerable latitude and points of intersection. The verticals take on a reiterated ostinato that alternates with linear duos and the glissandos, allowing for the music to gradually grow more emphatic in demeanor. There is a long-term crescendo that allows for these elements to take on a certain bravura that transforms them, at least for the moment, into emphatic post-Romantic material. However, the sound soon scales back and Harbour returns to a quietly mysterious space.

Pianist Cheryl Duvall is an excellent advocate throughout, bringing a graceful touch and finely detailed shadings of dynamics and voicing to the music. Composer and pianist seem to be an ideal pairing on this consistently engaging release. 

-Christian Carey 

Anna Höstman 

Ralph van Raat Plays French Piano Rarities (CD Review)

French Piano Rarities

Ralph van Raat, piano

Naxos 8.573894

I was fortunate to hear the US premiere at New York’s Weill Recital Hall by Ralph van Raat of Pierre Boulez’s early work Prelude, Toccata, and Scherzo (1944). Composed when he was just nineteen, the piece is a substantial one, twenty-seven minutes long. Unlike Boulez’s works from 1945 onward, as is evidenced by a recording here of 12 Notations from that year, the piece predates his fascination with Webern and total serialism, instead seeking a rapprochement between tradition and Schoenbergian dissonant harmonies. Van Raat’s recording of the work for Naxos is authoritative, details large and small shaped with impressive care and bold playing. 

“Prelude, Toccata, and Scherzo” serves as the centerpiece of the French Piano Rarities recording, but it is accompanied by fascinating fare. In addition to the aforementioned, a late Boulez piece, Une page d’éphéméride, is also included, resembling late Stravinsky in its use of small repeating collections in post-tonal fashion. Olivier Messiaen is represented by three pieces, Morceau de lecture á vue from 1934, with strong polychordal verticals, two movements from the piano version of Des canyons aux étoiles…, filled with birdsong and color chords, and La Fauvette passerinette from 1961, a rapid birdsong essay.

Three earlier works by French masters are included: a gently ephemeral Menuet from mid-career Maurice Ravel, and two late pieces by Claude Debussy: Étude retrouvée and Les Soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon. They all prove that, past the well-worn selections one frequently hears on recitals, there are many underserved pieces that hardly deserve to be “rarities.” 

-Christian Carey

Amanda Palmer and Rhiannon Giddens: “It’s a Fire”

Amanda Palmer and Rhiannon Giddens have collaborated on a cover of Portishead’s “It’s a Fire,” which you can hear via Bandcamp (embed below).

Proceeds from the single benefit Free Black University.

Spektral Quartet (Recording review)

Spektral Quartet

Clara Lyon (violin), Maeve Feinberg (violin), Doyle Armbrust (viola), Russell Rolen (cello)

Experiments in Living

New Focus Records (digital release)

The Spektral Quartet takes advantage of the open-ended playing time of a digital release to create effectively a double album for their latest recording, Experiments in Living. While double albums often suffer from a bit of flab, this one doesn’t have an extraneous moment. It is a well curated release that attends to meaning making in contemporary music with a spirit that is both historically informed and deeply of this moment.

A clever extra-musical addition to the project is a group of Tarot cards that allow the listener to ‘choose their own adventure,’ making their way through the various pieces in different orderings. These are made by the artist/musician øjeRum. The tarot cards may be seen on the album’s site

It might seem strange to begin an album of 20/21 music with Johannes Brahms’s String Quartet Op. 51, no. 1  in  C-minor (1873). However, Arnold Schoenberg’s article “Brahms as Progressive”  makes the connection between the two composers clear. It also demonstrates Spektral’s comfort in the standard repertoire. They give an energetic reading of the quartet with clear delineation of its thematic transformations, a Brahms hallmark. 

Schoenberg is represented by his Third String Quartet (1927). His first quartet to use 12-tone procedures, it gets less love in the literature than the oft-analyzed combinatorics of the composer’s Fourth String Quartet, but its expressive bite still retains vitality over ninety years later. Ruth Crawford Seeger’s String Quartet (1931), an under-heralded masterpiece of the 20th century, receives one of the best recordings yet on disc, its expressive dissonant counterpoint rendered with biting vividness.

Sam Pluta’s Flow State/Joy State is filled with flurries of glissandos, microtones, and harmonics to create a thoroughly contemporary sound world punctuated by dissonant verticals. One of Pluta’s most memorable gestures employs multiple glissandos to gradually make a chord cohere, only to have subsequent music skitter away. Charmaine Lee’s Spinals incorporates her own voice, replete with lip trills and sprechstimme that are imitated by string pizzicato and, again, glissandos. 

Spektral is joined by flutist Claire Chase on Anthony Cheung’s “Real Book of Fake Tunes,” which combines all manner of effects for Chase with jazzy snips of melody and writing for quartet that is somewhat reminiscent of the techniques found in the Schoenberg, but with a less pervasively dissonant palette. Cheung’s writing for instruments is always elegantly wrought, and Chase and Spektral undertake an excellent collaboration. One could imagine an entire album for this quintet being an engaging listen.  

The recording’s title track is George Lewis’s String Quartet 1.5; he wrote a prior piece utilizing quartet but considers this his first large-scale work in the genre. Many of the techniques on display in Pluta’s piece play a role here as well. Lewis adds to these skittering gestures, glissandos, and microtones the frequent use of various levels of bow pressure, including extreme bow pressure in which noise is more present than pitch. The latter crunchy sounds provide rhythmic weight and accentuation that offsets the sliding tones. Dovetailing glissandos create a blurring effect in which harmonic fields morph seamlessly. The formal design of the piece is intricate yet well-balanced. More string quartets, labeled 2.5 and 3.5, are further contributions by Lewis to the genre. One hopes that Spektral will take them up as well – their playing of 1.5 is most persuasive.

-Christian Carey

Complete Organ Works Published by Zimbel

My Complete Organ Works have been published by Zimbel Music

Thanks to Carson Cooman for his advocacy as a performer and for shepherding this through to publication and to Joseph Arndt for commissioning and widely performing several of the pieces.

A few are dedicated to composer friends: Robert MorrisAndrew Mead, and Ken Ueno

In addition to organ compositions, two hymns co-authored with Kay Mitchell, and pieces based on them, are included for congregational use. 

Here is Carson Cooman’s recording of one of the selections in the book, Chanson Variations.

Ashlee Mack – Bagatelle for Piano (Video)

Ashlee Mack has just posted a performance video of my Bagatelle for Solo Piano. It is one in a set of three, the others being for alto flute and then a duo for alto flute and piano. You can stream or purchase a studio recording of the whole set via the Bandcamp embed below.

Three Bagatelles by Christian Carey – composer