Blue Gene Tyranny Boxed Set (CD Review)

“Blue” Gene Tyranny

Degrees of Freedom Found

Unseen Worlds

6XCD boxed set/digital

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.

-Christian Carey

Sergio Merce, “En lugar de pensar” (CD Review”

Sergio Merce

En lugar de pensar (Instead of thinking)

Wandelweiser CD                                              

“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. 

-Christian Carey

Ian Pace Plays Ferneyhough and Yeats (CD Review)

Brian Ferneyhough

Complete Piano Music 

Ian Pace, piano (Ben Smith, piano on Sonata for Two Pianos)

Metier CD


Marc Yeats

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. 


-Christian Carey


Tania León Awarded Pulitzer Prize

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).

Chaya Czernowin’s Heart Chamber (DVD Review)

Photo: Michael Trippel

Chaya Czernowin

Heart Chamber

Naxos DVD

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.

Photo: Michael Trippel

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. 


-Christian Carey


Moonbow (CD Review)

Gunnar Andreas Kristinsson


Sono Luminus CD

Caput Ensemble

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. 

  • Christian Carey

Simple Music by Giya Kancheli (CD Review)

Giya Kancheli

Simple Music

Jenny Lin, piano; Guy Klucevsek, accordion

Steinway and Sons CD

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. 

-Christian Carey

Louis Andriessen on Nonesuch (CD Review)

Louis Andriessen

The Only One

Nora Fischer, soprano

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor

Nonesuch Records

Louis Andriessen is in poor health. The eighty-one year old composer finished his last work, May, in 2019. It received a belated premiere (sans audience due to the pandemic) in December 2020 by Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century and Cappella Amsterdam, conducted by Daniel Reuss (the linked broadcast of the piece starts forty-eight minutes in).

The Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, has released another of Andriessen’s final works, The Only One (2018), on a Nonesuch recording. It is a set of five orchestral songs, with an introduction and two interludes, for soprano soloist Nora Fischer. The texts are by Flemish poet Delphine Lecompte, who translated the ones used into English. 

Fischer is a classically trained vocalist who is also adept in popular and cabaret styles. Her singing is abundantly expressive, ranging from Kurt Weill style recitation through honeyed lyricism to raspy screams. This is particularly well-suited both to the texts, which encompass a range of emotions, from rage to resignation, and to the abundantly varied resources Andriessen brings to bear. In The Only One, his inspiration remains undimmed; it is a finely wrought score. Much of it explores pathways through minimalism equally inspired by Stravinsky that have become his trademark. Andriessen is also well known for resisting composing for the classical orchestra for aesthetic reasons. Here he adds electric guitar and bass guitar and calls for a reduced string cohort, making the scoring like that used for a film orchestra. Harp and piano (doubling celesta) also play important roles. Esa-Pekka Salonen presents the correct approach to this hybrid instrumentation, foregrounding edgy attacks and adopting energetic tempos that banish any recourse to sentimentality. 

“Early Bird” begins with birdsong, which morphs into a melody akin to cuckoo clock birds. Unlike Messiaen, the bird doesn’t indicate spiritual uplift, the song ends with the narrator abased by a humiliating situation. Memento mori are to be found frequently in both words and music, even a tongue in cheek rendition of the Dies Irae chant. Right alongside these are defiant retorts and much dance music. “Twist and Shame” is a (near) dodecaphonic dance. The bird call from “Early Bird” returns harmonically embellished in the final song, “Grown Up,” to signify a grotesque heron, part of a grim cast of characters that join in a waltz macabre. Afterwards, the piece closes simply with the words, “The grown-up that betrayed my inner child,” followed by eight quiet dissonant chords: the curtain falling irretrievably. As valedictions go, “The Only One” is an eloquent summary of a composer’s life and work. 

-Christian Carey

Marco Stroppa on Kairos (CD Review)

Marco Stroppa

Miniature Estrose – Primo Libro (1991-2003, revised 2009)

Erik Bertsch, piano

Kairos CD

Pianist Erik Bertsch’s debut recording for Kairos is of composer Marco Stroppa’s most highly regarded piano works, the first book of Miniature Estrose. Bertsch was the first pianist to perform it in its entirety in Italy. The overall arch of the complete cycle of piano pieces, including a second book, has been sketched but not yet released. Even its partial completion is an impressive hour long demonstration of the capabilities of the piano in the twenty-first century. 

The first selection on the CD, Passacaglia canonica, in contrappunto policromatico, is dedicated to Pierre-Laurent Aimard, reminding one of the auspicious pianists who have undertaken Miniature Estrose. Bertsch more than holds his own, crafting a detailed and energetic rendition of the piece with clear counterpoint and clarion interjections. On Birichino, come un furetto, incisive repeated notes in all registers are wittily deployed to demonstrate the roguish ferret of the title. Moai features sustained chords against rapid repeating notes, trills, and dissonant dyad pairs. As the piece progresses, intricate arpeggiations unfurl amid an increasingly emphatic demeanor. 

Ninnananna is an exploration of repetition, but of a far more chromatic and embellished fashion than that of minimal music, concluding with enchanting bell-like timbres. Based on the Easter Island “bird-man” ritual, Tangata Manu is a varied creation, juxtaposing avian calls, ascending scales, insistently repeated notes, trills, inside-the-piano effects, and sustained bass sonorities. Innige Cavatina was written for Luciano Berio’s seventieth birthday. It is the piece most closely evoking the Romantic tradition, with bass octaves announcing dissonant verticals that are often echoed by enigmatically soft passages. The interplay of gestures in a wide dynamic range supplies the feeling of being aloft that is suggested by the composer’s description of the piece. 

The CD’s final work, Prologos: Anagnorisis I. Canones diversi ad consequendum, is also its most expansive. A prologue, five sets of cyclic canons, and an extended epilogue, Stroppa likens the piece both to the toccata genre and to the moment of climax, the recognition of truth, in a Greek tragedy. The composer is artful in his deployment of the venerable genre of canon amid a virtuosic, postmodern atmosphere. Bertsch’s strategic pacing of Anagnorisis reveals its intricate dramatic structure. This is also true on a larger level. The pianist does a masterful job of navigating the entirety of Book 1 with assured technique and clarity of expression. One presumes he will be one of the first to assay Book 2.

-Christian Carey

Curtis K. Hughes – Video Premiere and CD Review


Curtis K. Hughes

New Focus Recordings

“Tulpa is a term appropriated by 20th century theosophists from Tibetan Buddhism to refer to a manifestation of a physical being generated purely by thought, sometimes also likened to an imaginary friend, a doppelgänger, or a shadow version of the self.”

  • Curtis K. Hughes

Curtis K. Hughes is Professor of Composition at Boston Conservatory. Tulpa is his second portrait CD and the programmed works span from 1995 to 2017. There is a consistency from the earliest to most recent works, with the principle change being an ever more assured compositional voice and a major work in Tulpa, a 2017 piece for ensemble.

The program is designed with several miniatures between the larger works, serving as interludes. Flagrant (2008) is a snare drum solo. Despite the reduced means at his disposal, Hughes imaginatively deploys various techniques and an overall approach to strikes on the drum that bring out a number of colors in zesty gestures. This segues nicely into the percussion ensemble piece Antechamber (2015). Played by the Boston Percussion Group, the piece is both colorful and varied in gestural profile. Some parts adopt fulsome grooves, while others are pointillist, with seamless transitions between demeanors.

Lesson Plan (2007) is a piece for bass clarinet dedicated to Lee Hyla on his departure from Boston for Chicago. Since the composer’s untimely passing, it serves as an affectionate homage through various quotes and a buffo blues cast. Merger (2016), for two cellos, is one of the finest pieces here in terms of construction. Angular counterpoint and hockets between the instruments are offset by piquant harmonies.

Wingtones (2009) for clarinet and piano, is cast in two movements. The first is a loose rondo. After a potboiler introduction, there is a Hindemithian fugue opener that is gradually discarded for a swing section. A slower paced fantasy ensues that once again returns to the swing section followed by a coda with flutter tongue and unison melodies. The second movement is more reflective, a fantasy that part way through speeds up and interpolates the swing from the previous movement. Despite occasional interjections of fast music, cascades of arpeggios and altissimo clarinet playing are reasserted. The piece closes with lush harmonies and tremolandos.

It Was Not Raining (1995) is the final interlude, a piece for solo marimba that features rhythmic canons and multi-mallet technique. This is followed by the title work, a piece for large ensemble cast in four movements. The first movement, “i. telophase,” features pitched percussion and piano creating a swath of disjunct melodies. The other instruments join in a contrasting lyrical section. Gradually the two strands merge in a propulsive stream now buoyed by ostinatos. A brash unison melody provides the first climactic passage of the piece. Things go sideways in “ii. manufactured (for a purpose),” with a section for low winds followed by a tantalizing brief violin solo interrupted by a cadenza for piano and percussion. Winds and percussion cohere into a fast-shifting section of glinting harmonies. The strings, led by two low cellos, are then added to the proceedings, providing a syncopated backdrop for a more straightforward ostinato by clarinet, percussion, and piano. Gradually, their disparate grids combine into a fulsome workout, which leads directly into “iii. ‘un amour inconnu’,” an evocative setting of a short passage from Proust’s Swann’s Way, sung with impressive microtonal inflections by soprano Rose Hegele. The final movement, “iv. the number of completion,” begins with a bassoon solo that is quickly succeeded by vibrant percussion, into which it reinserts itself, both gradually taking up a unison theme before the entire ensemble takes up disjunct fast lines that are passed from instrument to instrument. The piece concludes with a ferocious pileup of thick chords in repeated eighth notes. Tulpa is engaging throughout, and seems to be a culmination of the other, smaller, compositions on the CD. Whether for soloists or writ large, Hughes writes compelling music that is artfully crafted and energetically appealing.

Sequenza 21 has the pleasure of premiering a live performance video of Merger.

Tulpa will be released on Friday April 16th.

Tulpa by Curtis K. Hughes