Scott Wollschleger’s music has great emotional range. Dark Days explores an atmospheric and lyrical side to his composing for piano. Wollschleger has collaborated with pianist Karl Larson for some time, and this collection of pieces created over a number of years attests to the felicitous nature of their work together.
The tile piece is both the briefest and most dissonant piece. It was composed on the day of Trump’s inauguration and channels Schoenberg’s atonal phase, but in a subdued manner. Much of the music here emulates impressionism instead of expressionism. One can often hear the influence of Debussy’s Preludes on works such as Tiny Oblivion and Brontal 2, “Holiday”. Music Without Metaphor resembles Satie in its delicate modal segments and slow rhythmic underpinning. Blue Inscription and Brontal 11, “I-80,” on the other hand, represent another throughline in Wollschleger’s work; his affinity for the New York School, particularly the music of Morton Feldman. Wollschleger is quick to point out that his graduate instructor at the Manhattan School of Music, Nils Vigeland, was one of Feldman’s prominent students and interpreters, and another influence on his music.
It is most interesting when Wollschleger combines these two demeanors, as on Brontal 6, where frequent rests and modal figurations coexist with pointillist fragments. The last two selections, Secret Machine 4 and Secret Machine 6, are considerably charming. They mark a return to the modality, whole-tone scales, and short motives of Debussy, with frequent ostinato repetitions. Dark Days is a well considered collection and it benefits from Larson’s assured interpretations.
Performance of Dark Days at Roulette on May 6, 2021
On February 26th, twenty-five years into their recording career, Mogwai hit #1 on the UK charts. The band’s two previous full length releases were in the Top 10 in the UK, but the success of As the Love Continues, their tenth album, is remarkable.
Known for a live act that is one of the loudest in history, Mogwai retains a musicality that often hews close to the shaping of post-rock, with varied textures supplied both by synthesizers and electric guitars replete with pedals. The looping melody of “Dry Fantasy” evinces minimalist sympathies, as does “Here We, Here We, Here We Go Forever,” the latter combining a looping chordal ostinato with drums supplying one of the more danceable grooves in the band’s catalog.
Vocals treated with vocoder appear on a couple tracks, and the album opens with a spoken word excerpt – Benjamin John Power (Blanck Mass) apparently speaking in his sleep – that also serves as the song’s curious title, “To the Bin My Friend, Tonight We Vacate Earth.” What follows seems to emanate from a dreamstate, with heartbeat drums and haloing of harmonics giving way to overlapping melodies for synth-piano and guitar that provide a slow burn prior to one of the band’s patented anthemic choruses. Mogwai often gives their music enigmatic titles. The track “Ritchie Sacramento” was inspired by a record store clerk’s mishearing of Ryuichi Sakamoto. However, the piece, the only one with non-modified vocals, is more somber than this pun would suggest, referencing grief, not just for the COVID year, but for departed musician friends, among them David Berman. Some emphases have changed, and As the Love Continues shows the band savoring a temperament for exploration. But Mogwai still makes thunderous rock. “Ceiling Granny” is inspired by a scene from TheExorcist, and the terror that Braithwaite experienced upon viewing it is translated into roaring guitars and triple forte drumming.
Listen to an interview with Stuart Braithwaite and some live performances below.
The last live performance I saw before the pandemic hit New York was Caroline Shaw with Sō Percussion at Miller Theatre, which I wrote about for Musical America. It was Shaw’s debut as a solo vocalist (she has performed as an ensemble member in Roomful for Teeth for several years). Hearing these pieces again reminds me of the joy of concert life before the pandemic. I am glad to revisit them.
Two Nonesuch releases document the material she presented at Miller, one featuring Shaw as vocalist and the other the soprano Dawn Upshaw. Upshaw is joined by her longtime collaborator the pianist Gilbert Kalish.
The title piece on The Narrow Sea finds Shaw reworking spirituals from the 19th century collection Music from the Sacred Harp. The centerpiece is “Poor Wayfarin’ Stranger,” with a different tune to the timeless words. The instrumentation that accompanies the five parts of the piece is imaginative, including synthesizers, poured water, flower pots and the piano played like a dulcimer. Kalish and Sō Percussion collaborate well, particularly on the ghostly introduction to Part Three, which depicts shades of Henry Cowell. Upshaw sings with fluid legato and declaims the Sacred Harp texts vividly and emotively.
“Taxidermy” is an additional piece for Sō Percussion, who once again add flower pots to a considerable arsenal of percussion instruments. Steel pan and a hailstorm of chiming attacks swell and recede and are succeeded by layers of pitched percussion. A simple chord progression played by mallet instruments is elaborated by steel pan and a canon of spoken word is followed by the chord progression returning to serve as coda.
Let the Soil Play its Simple Part is a more collaborative venture, in which Shaw and Sō Percussion spent three days in a recording studio together creating an eclectic work, both textually and musically. It begins with “To the Sky,” in which Shaw’s voice is synthetically manipulated and set against mallet filigrees and Jason Treuting’s syncopated drumming. “Other Song” was originally part of an orchestra piece that Shaw composed to celebrate Sarah Bareilles. Here it becomes a banquet of battery, with the Sō Percussion players bringing, as Shaw puts it,”all of their toys to the table.”
Four of the pieces on the recording are duets. The title track is a duet between Shaw and steel pan specialist Josh Quillen. It features Shaw’s characteristic free-floating chordal writing alongside stream-of-consciousness lyrics. “The Flood is Following Me” is a setting of James Joyce that is groove forward with Shaw’s voice blending with keyboard harmonies and synth bass. It may be the first musical depiction of James Joyce with a hook. Joyce makes a reappearance on “A Veil Upon the Waves.”
Perhaps the most enigmatic section of the piece is a radical revision of ABBA’s “Lay All Your Love on Me,” just a small section of the middle of the song for Shaw and a marimba playing a chorale-like progression, with a gradual accumulation of Sō Percussion members joining around the instrument to build out an ostinato. “Cast the Bells in Sand” features both an IDM ambience and elaborate drumming from Treuting. Treuting and Shaw duet on “Long Ago We Counted,” which features nonsense syllables instead of conventional text.
A poem by Anne Carson is the text for “A Gradual Dazzle,” with thrumming bass drum and a vibraphone outlining subtle harmony that underscores some of Shaw’s most chromatic singing. The final song, “Some Bright Morning,” is a duet with Eric Cha-Beach, who mostly plays a single note but finds numerous textures to animate it. Shaw plays with the lyrics from another gospel standard, “I’ll Fly Away,” rendering the result in gentle melismas.
Both of these recordings display abundant imagination and felicitous collaborations. Recommended.
Composer and pianist “Blue” Gene Tyranny passed away in December 2020 of complications due to diabetes. The boxed set Degrees of Freedom Found, a generous six-CD compilation of tracks from 1963-2019, was already in the works and contains liner notes by Tyranny. Thus, it is an endorsed release rather than a posthumous archival grab.
He was associated with a number of prominent musicians, Robert Ashley, Carla Bley, Bill Dixon, and Iggy Pop, whom he joined on an early tour of the Stooges. Most viewed him as a generous collaborator. Ashley, in particular, afforded Tyranny a considerable amount of freedom in crafting the music he played in the opera “Perfect Lives (Private Parts),” in which he enacted the role of Buddy, the world’s greatest piano player.
Like Tyranny’s talents, the boxed set is eclectic in makeup and it is curated roughly by category rather than chronology. The set begins with selections that highlight the extraordinary pianist he was, with a warm touch yet fluid dexterity. The stylistic incorporations of the music, even within a single work, is wide-ranging throughout. Thus, one can be in the midst of listening to a minimalist-inspired piece and suddenly swerve through blues or honky tonk pianism. His detractors took this to be undisciplined and digressive, but appreciators knew better that the amalgamations the pieces underwent were intrinsic to their design.
If one dipped into a later disc first, they might get the impression that Tyranny was more interested in synthesizers, chamber orchestra, jazz, or theatrical vocal works than solo piano: all are here. The performance dates range from 1963, when the composer was still in Ann Arbor, to later presentations in Montana, Massachusetts at Jacob’s Pillow, Philadelphia, and a number in New York, which became his longtime base of operations, culminating with a valedictory piece featuring winds from 2019, titled “The Forecaster Hopes.”
Some of the included works are aphoristic, the length of pop songs. Often the most evocative all too quickly vanish. One piece, “Meditation” for trio and chamber orchestra, is spliced together (seamlessly) between two performances thirty years apart. There are also large-scale pieces, such as Tyranny’s epic monodrama “The Driver’s Son,” the half-hour long piano work “We All Watch the Sun and the Moon (for a Moment of Insight), and “Barn Fever,” a substantial synthesizer piece with a rollicking groove and fiendishly fleet soloing.
Degrees of Freedom Found is a substantial amount of music, but a deep dive into Tyranny’s work is amply rewarding.
“The name of the album is about this feeling that I have. I believe that playing music is a non-cerebral thought form; thought in the sense of being a channel to see, to reveal, a channel that opens through intuition, observation and attention but not through thinking.”
Argentinian composer Sergio Merce frequently records at home, but the results aren’t rough hewn as a result. Employing a microtonal saxophone of his own design, synthesizer, and an electronic wind instrument, Merce creates music that encompasses drones, layered sine waves, complex overtones, and periods of silence. The first piece, “Forma Circular” is an enclosed shape. It repeats twice on the recording. Often, a single interval is isolated for a period of time, to be followed by silence and then a more complex, microtonal sonority. An additive process of building from a simple interval to a stack of harmony is another common approach in the piece. Partway through, pitched pulsations animate the soundscape, moving the proceedings from a prevailing feeling of stillness to a mid-tempo presentation. Even when it is absent at the beginning of the second pass through the form, a subliminal urgency is still felt.
In “Forma Continua,” straight tone intervals are morphed with microtonal beating. Single sine tones act as interludes between each wave of distressed dissonances. Merce prioritizes seconds among the intervals, but nearly each one gets to take a turn at being central to the music. Silence plays less of a role than sustain in this piece, with one attack beginning while another sustained chord is held. At times the instruments are recognizable as distinct entities. At other points in the piece their textures overlap, creating beautiful blurred sounds. Merce’s hand-fashioned instruments and home recording practices are in service of sophisticated music-making.
Ian Pace, piano (Ben Smith, piano on Sonata for Two Pianos)
The Anatomy of Melancholy
Ian Pace, piano
Prima Facie CD
Ian Pace is one of the finest interpreters of complex contemporary music currently active. Two recent recordings of music by British composers of exquisitely intricate scores – Brian Ferneyhough and Marc Yeats – serve to further cement his reputation as the go-to artist for this repertoire.
Brian Ferneyhough studied with Klaus Huber and others, but a great deal of his early work in the 1960s consisted of autodidactical pieces. Invention, Epigrams, Three Pieces, and Sonata for Two Pianos all date from 1965-’67 and fall into this framework. Apart from the sonata, they are aphoristic creations, dealing with the surface textures of total serialists Boulez and Stockhausen but with a more intuitive approach to construction. Joined by Ben Smith, Pace underscores the vivid dynamic contrasts and registral stratification of Sonata for Two Pianos.
By 1980, Ferneyhough’s reputation had been enhanced from prodigious emerging talent to that of one of Europe’s pivotal figures. The New Complexity tag was coined for his work and that of a few other composers (Michael Finnissy, Chris Dench, and James Dillon prominent among them). However dubious and reductive any stylistic pigeonhole may be, Ferneyhough has created scores of exacting technical difficulty and interpretative requirements. A watershed work in this regard is 1981’s Lemma-Icon-Epigram, which Pace first performed while a student at the Juilliard School in the early 1990s and has presented many times since. Ferneyhough has suggested that the sixteenth century poetic form the Emblema provided a formal design for the work, with references between the movements culminating in the hyper-distillation of its Epigram.
Three excerpts from Shadow (Opus contra naturam) are reconfigured from the opera Shadowtime. In his note, Ferneyhough suggests a Liberace or Joker styled performance, one that allows for the piece’s abundant virtuosity and periodic vocalizations to take on a kind of macabre lightness.
Quirl is Ferneyhough’s most intricate piano score to date, with a self-similar rhythmic structure based on fractal geometry from which are deployed gestures within gestures in a whorl of activity (hence the title). There is also a renewed interest in linear counterpoint reflective of the composer’s exploration over the past two decades of Renaissance music. El Rey de Calabria (2019) provides a brief recapitulation of Ferneyhough’s early style. The piece is an affectionate remembrance of his family’s three-legged cat.
Pace’s program essay on Ferneyhough’s piano music acknowledges the difficulties of realizing its notation while strenuously rebutting the notion that it is impossible to play accurately or perversely written to look more complex than will actually be realized. The pianist underscores the increasing number of performers who convincingly present Ferneyhough’s music. He suggests that his own journey with the scores has been an evolving one, with the current recordings a snapshot of his understanding of their rich details.
Marc Yeats specializes in polymetric composition, using multiple meters in an asynchronous fashion in pieces for large ensemble and layering polyrhythmic designs in solo works. Yeats takes the polyrhythmic investigations of Elliott Carter and Conlon Nancarrow and puts them on steroids. His piano pieces are in single movement design, ranging from 10 to 18 minutes in duration. Dense and detailed, dynamic extremes, formidable technical challenges, and mercurial gestures with sharp turns in demeanor make Yeats’s music a daunting prospect for performers.
However, Pace supplies powerful and extraordinarily detailed renderings, once again making the case for the playability and interpretive potential of tremendously complex music. Each piece is distinctive. Particularly memorable are the whipsnap contrasts of Enûma Eliš, the delicate and rhythmically supple lines in Ouroboros, and the layered structure of the title work. Yeats has a strongly individual voice, and he effectively ups the ante on complexity.
Congratulations to Tania León for being awarded the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her work Stride. The piece was commissioned and premiered by the New York Philharmonic as part of its Project 19 initiative, which marked the centenary of the 19th amendment with nineteen commissions from female composers. The Oregon Symphony shared in the commissioning of Stride.
Below is a rehearsal of Stride. You can hear the whole thing by heading over to NYPhil+ (paywall).
Patrizia Ciofi, soprano; Dietrich Henschel, baritone; Noa Frenkel, contralto; Terry Wey, countertenor; Frauke Aulbert, vocal artist
Deutsche Oper Berlin, Johannes Kalitzke, conductor
Chaya Czernowin’s opera Heart Chamber deals with the emotional journey involved in navigating a relationship. It does so with large-scale forces; in addition to vocal soloists, a substantial orchestra, a chorus and chamber ensemble placed on the sides of the stage, and surround electronics. Because this is a love story that is not without its travails, and the interior lives and subconscious feelings and fears of the characters are so potent, the use of all of these resources seems fitting.
The involved couple, played by soprano Patrizia Ciofi and baritone Dietrich Henschel, are paired with two additional singers, Ciofo with alto Noa Frenkel and Henchel with countertenor Terry Wey. They serve as reflections of the deep unconscious of the protagonists, sometimes revealing hidden truths that contradict what is overtly stated. Czernowin crafted the libretto, which is non-linear in its narrative but touches on many essential themes: courtship, commitment, conflict, and parenting among them. The viewer is often invited to see the distortions of memory playing a formative dramatic role. The meeting scene, which takes place on a staircase where Ciofi drops a jar of honey and Henschel retrieves it for her, is replayed a number of times with variations, suggesting that memories are pliable and renewable dependent on a person’s current mindset.
All four of the soloists display superb control, detailed musicality, and considerable acting abilities. Vocalization moves from hushed whispers to full-throated cries, with glissandos prominent in the declamation. When the vocalists are enacting the plot, Czernowin likens the sections to close-ups in a film. The electronics incorporate vocal samples, which allows for elaborations of the singing that at times take on a prismatic cast, particularly when coupled with additional layers of singing from the chorus. Some of these can be quite delicate breath and mouth noises. The opera’s dream sequences all feature interactions between the singers and chorus, some of the best music in Heart Chamber.
The relationship between the chamber group – the Ensemble Nikel – and the Deutsche Oper Berlin is similarly multifaceted, sometimes cooperative and at others acting independently. Bassist Uli Fussenegger joins Ensemble Nikel and serves a featured role; the weight of the double bass is used in what Czernowin calls “sound floods/surges,” and it often announces and depicts pivotal dramatic sequences. Different fractals of the ensemble play “Forest” segments. Conductor Johannes Kalitzke has been set a formidable task, and he rises to the occasion, eliciting a detailed and vivid rendering from the performers. The production values of the DVD are strong, capturing arresting visuals and many vantage points of the performers that allow for the viewer to get a sense of the enveloping live experience. Heart Chamber is a potent work ripe for additional productions.
Icelandic composer Gunnar Andreas Kristinsson’s second CD, Moonbow, presents a selection of pieces written during the past decade for sinfonietta and chamber forces. Clarinetist Ingólfur Vilhjálmsson joins Caput Ensemble, conducted by Guðni Franzson, in Sisyphos. Written in 2014, this is the composer’s most acclaimed piece, and one can readily hear why. Based on the mythological tale of the title character ceaselessly rolling a boulder up a hill as punishment in Hades, the concerto features eruptive outbursts, virtuoso solo turns, a middle section of minimal repetitions, and a closing danse macabre.
Patterns IIb, for violin, bass clarinet, and percussion (mostly mallets) is a set of variations on the Icelandic folksong “Fagurt er í Fjörðum” providing a further exploration of ostinato. Kristinsson adopts the patterning of minimalism, but uses a collection of semitones to construct a chromatic pitch structure that prioritizes semitones. Passacaglia B is a trio for bass clarinet, harp, and percussion, the bass melody traded between all the instruments – the percussion once again featuring mallets – and overlaid with differently paced repeating melodic patterns in the alto and treble registers. The passacaglia itself infiltrates the upper register at times, leaving the bass clarinet to take up a scurrying low register melody.
The Siggi String Quartet have been stalwart advocates of Icelandic composers, and their performance of the CD’s title work is no exception. Moonbow refers to a lunar or “white” rainbow. Sustained cello melodies ground syncopated upward directed repeating phrases. Again, there is a confluence of chromaticism and minimalism distinctive in its deployment. A poignant slow section arrives near the end of the piece, with yearning melodies offset by pizzicatos. This proves to be an interlude rather than a coda, as the patterned passages return, now juxtaposed against the plucked strings. The dynamic and intensity build to a double-time, but harmonically unresolved, finish.
Roots is a three movement ensemble work based on spectralism. The “roots” in question are fundamentals of the overtone series. The first movement uses only one series, the second movement uses multiple series that shift into and out of focus. In the final movement, melodies are crafted from the upper partials of the series, with microtonal shadings used to better replicate their tunings. This is a well trod, but durable, version of microtonality, and it provides a contrasting approach to the other pieces on the CD, one that Kristinsson might profitably further examine. Moonbow demonstrates consummate craftsmanship in winning performances. Recommended.
Giya Kancheli died in 2019, leaving behind an imposing catalog that included a number of late large works for orchestra and chorus. The Georgian composer also wrote in a more intimate style, often for films and theater. These pursuits kept his work out of view of the censors of the Soviet era, so eager to hunt down modernist composers. Thirty-three of these pieces, ephemeral but attractive, are collected in Simple Music. Pianist Jenny Lin and accordionist Guy Klucevsek realize these works on a Steinway CD.
They are not the first to create a duo version of the pieces – another recording is for piano and cello. The accordion and piano create a cabaret ambience often heard in European cinema. Lin and Klucevsek are well matched musical partners. They allow gentle, jazzy, material like “Theme from ‘When Almonds Blossomed’” and “Theme from ‘Mimino’” to unfurl with lyricism, but without undue sentimentality. Jaunty selections like “Theme from Mother Courage and Her Children” and a “Rag-time from Richard III” are clever and instantly hummable. The pieces also reference a number of classical composers, Chopin, Johann Strauss, and Stravinsky among them. Kancheli had a distinctive voice of his own, but it is fascinating to hear him working in a milieu that encourages pastiche. Lin and Klucevsek explore Simple Music’s considerable charms with a sense of wonder and adventure.