Best of 2018: Orchestral CDs

Best of 2018 – Orchestral CDs

 

In ictu oculi

Kenneth Hesketh

BBC Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Christoph Mathias Mueller

Paladino

 

Three large orchestra works by British composer Kenneth Hesketh are attractively scored in multifaceted, often muscular, fashion. Hesketh’s unabashed exploration of emotionality, imbued with strongly etched motives and intricate formal designs, provides a cathartic journey for listeners.

 

Sur Incises

Pierre Boulez

The Boulez Ensemble, conducted by Daniel Barenboim

Deutsche-Grammophon

 

There is a previous, much vaunted, studio recording of Pierre Boulez’s composition  Sur Incises (1998), one of the composer’s most highly regarded late works (in the year of its premiere, Sur Incises won the Grawemeyer Prize). This 2018 rendition of the work was performed live at a new space dedicated to Boulez, the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin. Acoustically marvelous, it is perhaps the ideal location in which to hear the composer’s music. Barenboim is one of Boulez’s great champions, and the ensemble gathered here play it with supple rhythms (slightly less ‘incisive’ than the studio version, but warmer in affect). They also deftly shape Sur Incises’ labyrinthine form to provide musical “bread crumbs” along its myriad pathways.

 

Berio: Sinfonia – Boulez: Notations I-IV – Ravel: La Valse

Roomful of Teeth, Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot, conductor

Seattle Symphony Media

 

Composed in 1968-’69 for the New York Philharmonic and the Swingle Singers, Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia helped to herald postmodernism in music. Roomful of Teeth has now done the piece with the Philharmonic, providing a new generation of performance history for Berio. It is excellent to have Roomful of Teeth’s performance of Sinfonia documented in a superlative outing with the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot. The orchestra is equally scintillating in Pierre Boulez’s long gestated modernist masterpieces Notations I-IV. The disc is capped off with a rollicking rendition of Ravel’s La Valse.

 

Shostakovich: Symphonies 4 and 11 (“The Year 1905”) Live

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons, conductor

Deutsche-Grammophon

 

Even with an ensemble as fine as the Boston Symphony, it is hard to believe that this is a live recording. Seamless transitions, admirable dynamic shading,  gorgeous sounding strings, and exceptional playing by the brass section. Nelsons has a great feel for Shostakovich’s music.

 

Harbison, Ruggles, Stucky: Orchestral Works

National Orchestra Institute Philharmonic, David Alan Miller, conductor

Naxos

 

David Alan Miller has long been a staunch advocate of contemporary music, recording a number of discs of new works with the Albany Symphony. The National Orchestra Institute Philharmonic’s young players, aged 15-21, are a fantastic ensemble in their own right. Their rendition of Carl Ruggles’ Sun Treader is up there with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Michael Tilson Thomas on the complete works recording; and that’s saying something.

 

Recently departed composer Steven Stucky created a fluently retrospective piece when composing Concerto for Orchestra No. 2 (2003); the piece won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005. It includes quotations from a host of great composers as well as ample amounts of music in Stucky’s masterful contemporary voice.

 

Composed for the Seattle Symphony and Gerard Schwarz in 2003, John Harbison’s Symphony No. 4 is one of his most compelling pieces in the genre. In the debut recording, the Boston Symphony’s rendition of the symphony took a fairly edgy approach. Miller elicits something more lissome from the NOI players. Both versions make an eloquent case for Harbison’s piece.

 

Topophony

Christopher Fox

John Butcher, Thomas Lehn, Alex Dörner, Paul Lovens, soloists

WDR Sinfonie-Orchester, Ivan Volkov, conductor

HatHut

 

Christopher Fox’s orchestral work Tophophony accommodates both renditions for orchestra alone and with improvising soloists. The WDR Sinfonie-Orchester, led by Ivan Volkov, record three different versions of the piece. By itself, Topophony has a Feldman-like, slow-moving, and dynamically restrained surface. It provides fertile terrain for both the duos of trumpeter Alex Dörner and drummer Paul Lovens and saxophonist John Butcher with synthesizer performer Thomas Lehn. All three versions are absorbing: it’s fortunate one doesn’t have to choose between them.

Symphony No. 6, Rounds for String Orchestra, and Music for Romeo and Juliet

David Diamond

Indiana University Chamber Orchestra, Indiana University Philharmonic Orchestra, Arthur Fagen, conductor

Naxos

 

This is the best recording of David Diamond’s music since the iconic CDs by the Seattle Symphony under the baton of Gerard Schwarz. Indiana University has long had one of the best music departments in the country, but they outdo themselves here, with a brilliant version of Diamond’s Rounds for String Orchestra and nimble phrasing in his Music for Romeo and Juliet. But it is Symphony No. 6 (1951) that is the star of this CD.

Those who relegate all of Diamond’s music to American romanticism (which, admittedly, is a fair assessment of some of his work) are in for a surprise from this bold, Copland-esque work. Indeed, when I was a student at Juilliard, Diamond proudly told me that his ballet Tom predated Copland’s adoption of an Americana style. With Symphony No. 6, Diamond made a strong case to have his work set alongside the “usual suspects” in the genre.

 

Best of 2018: Composer Portrait CDs

Best of 2018: Composer Portrait CDs

 

2018 saw the release of a bevy of excellent recordings of music by contemporary composers. These were the portrait CDs that most frequently captivated my ear and captured my CD player.

Ipsa Dixit

Kate Soper

Wet Ink Ensemble (Erin Lesser, flute; Ian Antonio, percussion; Josh Modney, violin)

New World Records

 

Composer and vocalist Kate Soper spent from 2010-’16 creating the multi-movement theatre piece Ipsa Dixit. Working in close collaboration with Wet Ink Ensemble, she has crafted a composition in which theatricality encompasses multiple texts – ranging from Aristotle to Lydia Davis – and the ensemble plays “roles” as well as formidable musical parts.

 

Recently presented in an acclaimed staging at Miller Theatre, Ipsa Dixit is perhaps best experienced live. However, the audio recording captures Soper and Wet Ink in a dynamic, versatile  performance. Whether speaking, singing, or, even in places, screaming, Soper is an expressive, indeed captivating, vocalist.

 

Emblema

Osvaldo Coluccino

Ex Novo Ensemble

Kairos

 

Italian composer Osvaldo Coluccino created a series of Emblema pieces for a commission by the Gran Teatro Fenice in Venice. Slowly unfurling, sustained pitches, deft employment of overtones and harmonics, and varied textures populate the works. On Coluccino’s Kairos portrait CD, the Ex Novo Ensemble performs them with attentive delicacy. One can hear echos of great composers such as Feldman, Scelsi, and Nono in these elliptical emblems, but it is the ghost of Webern that looms largest.

 

Quartets

Laura Schwendinger

JACK Quartet

Albany Records

 

JACK Quartet released a number of fine recordings in 2018, but the one to which I keep returning is their Albany CD of Laura Schwendinger’s string quartets. These feature richly hued harmonies, seasoned with dissonance, and are superbly paced throughout. Schwendinger’s music is some of the most eloquent work in a post-Schoenbergian aesthetic currently being composed. JACK’s  performances of them are a detailed and engaging listen. Jamie van Eyck joins them for Sudden Light, a stirring vocal work.

 

distant song

Reiko Füting

AuditiVokal Dresden, Art D’Echo, loadbang, Byrne:Kozar Duo, Oerknal, and Damask

New Focus

 

A faculty member at Manhattan School of Music, Reiko Füting’s distance song features performers who are MSM alumni as well as European ensembles. An amalgam of various styles and materials notwithstanding, Füting displays a strong hand and clear-eyed perspective throughout.

 

After an introduction of thunderous drum thwacks, AuditiVokal Dresden and Art D’Echo perform “als ein licht”/extensio and “in allem Fremden” – wie der Tag – wie das Licht with marvelous close-tuned harmonies and suspense-filled pacing. Gradually the percussion is reintroduced at varying intervals to provide a foil for the singers.

 

loadbang and the Byrne:Kozar Duo, the aforementioned MSM contingent, perform Mo(nu)ment and Eternal Return (Passacaglia), two pieces featuring microtones and extended techniques alongside Füting’s penchant for off-kilter repetition. The Dutch ensemble Oerknal performs Weg, Lied der Schwänd, in which both spectralism and quotation (of a madrigal by Arcadelt) are explored: yet two more facets of the composer’s palette.  Versinkend, versingnend, verklingend adds the vocal group Damask to Oerknal for a piece that combines still more quotations, ranging from Debussy’s piano music to a Fifteenth century German folksong.

 

Stadium

Eli Keszler

Shelter Press

 

Composer/percussionist Eli Keszler’s Stadium is 2018’s best CD on the sound art, rather than notated, spectrum of composed music.  It deftly weaves percussion and electronics together in an atmospheric collection of pieces that lilt and swing in equal measure. While there is plenty of electronica out there using percussion in innovative ways, Stadium incorporates its various sound sources with a composerly sense of organization, where timbre, beat, and, in some places, pitch, are mapped with a rigorous formal sensibility.

 

Aequa

Anna Thorvaldsdottir

International Contemporary Ensemble, Steven Schick, conductor

Sono Luminus

 

This CD is ICE’s second portrait recording of Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s music, and her third portrait CD overall. Yet Aequa truly stands apart from the others. Each piece has a sense of flow, sometimes akin to churning water or rippling wind, and in others to oozing lava. Amid these fluid forms are also found visceral pools of unrest. In his performance of Thorvaldsdottir’s Scape, pianist Cory Smythe affords the listener a generous taste of reverberation and overtones, marked by trebly plucking inside the piano. The interplay of high and low creates ear-catching wide intervals in Illumine. This texture is later followed by corruscating strings. Another standout is the ensemble work Aequilibria, where undulating lines are pitted against static, sustained harmonic series and harp arpeggiations. It has extraordinarily beautiful low woodwind solos. Both of these pieces are conducted, with characteristic verve and accuracy, by Steven Schick.

 

Alisei

Stefano Scodanibbio

Daniele Roccato, Giacomo Piermatti, double bass; Ludus Gravis bass ensemble, Tonino Battista, conductor

ECM Records

 

The too-soon-departed Stefano Scodanibbio (1956-2012) was an extraordinary bass player and improviser. He was also a formidable composer, as the works for solo bass, duet, and bass ensemble documented here abundantly attest. Two virtuosic solo pieces, featuring an abundant number of harmonics and other special techniques, are impressively and energetically performed by Daniele Roccato. Roccato is joined by Giacomo Piermatti on Da una certa nebbia, a duo that is both an homage to and invocation of Morton Feldman.

 

The centerpiece of the CD is Ottetto (2012) for bass ensemble, one of the last works Scodanibbio completed before succumbing to motor neuron disease. It is sobering that, due to this debilitating illness, he could no longer play the bass at the time of the work’s gestation. Fortunately, Roccato enlisted a veritable who’s who of European bassists to populate the ensemble Ludus Gravis and, after Scodanibbio’s death,  carry the work forward. Ottetto’s recording is a stunning display of the many ways in which this low-end ensemble can be a versatile one, from sepulchral passages to high-lying harmonics, with seemingly every mode of playing in between. The piece showcases the intimate familiarity with his instrument that Scodanibbio developed over a lifetime of practice and playing: an incredible musical valediction.

 

Rube Goldberg Variations

Dmitri Tymoczko

Flexible Music, Atlantic Brass Quintet, and Amernet String Quartet

Bridge

 

Fools and Angels

Dmitri Tymoczko

New Focus

 

In 2018, Princeton professor Dmitri Tymoczko released not one, but two portrait CDs. The first, Rube Goldberg Variations, features three postmodern chamber pieces performed by estimable ensembles: Flexible Music, Atlantic Brass Quintet with pianist John Blacklow, and the Amernet String Quartet with pianist Matthew Bengston. On I Cannot Follow, broken consort Flexible Music performs the plethora of provided off-kilter postminimal ostinatos with elan. The group lives up to their name when inhabiting the piece’s supple dynamic swells. The title composition is also informed by postminimalism, but is more jazzy in terms of its chord voicings. Tymoczko cleverly tropes Igor in “Stravinsky’s Fountain,” and supplies Nancarrow-esque piano canons in “Homage,” over which sustained detuned brass asserts a grounded rebuttal. S Sensation Something ends the album in a triadic landscape distressed with pitch bends and persistent, biting seconds.

 

Fools and Angels is a different musical statement altogether, featuring vocals, electronics, and, often, an art rock aesthetic. Indeed, there is a Zappa-esque zaniness afoot, in which the composer juxtaposes repurposed madrigals, faux bebop slinkiness, and even risque monologues, amid persistent changes of meter, bellicose soloing, and sci-fi synthetic soundscapes. A who’s who of youthful contemporary classical performers — Mellissa Hughes, Caroline Shaw, Martha Cluver, Gabriel Crouch, Jason Treuting, and Pascal LeBoeuf, to name some — supply earnest and accurate performances of Tymoczko’s kaleidoscopic construction.

Waterlines

Christopher Trapani

Lucy Dhegrae, soprano; Marilyn Nonken, piano; Christopher Trapani, hexaphonic guitar; Didem Başar, qanûn, Longleash; JACK Quartet; Talea Ensemble, conducted by James Baker

New Focus

 

Rising flood waters in New Orleans as the theme. Alternate tunings, guitar vs. zither. The incomparable Longleash and JACK being given plenty of extended techniques to dig their teeth (and fingers) into. Lucy Dhegrae singing spectralism-inflected blues songs as only she can. Trapani has a thousand and one good ideas and has enlisted a fantastic slate of performers to realize them. This CD may be one of the few positives to come out of meditating on the catastrophe that was Hurricane Katrina.

 

Best of 2018: Best Violin Concerto

Best of 2018 – Best Violin Concerto

Michael Hersch

end stages, Violin Concerto

Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin,

International Contemporary Ensemble, Tito Muñoz, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

New Focus Recordings fcr208

Composer Michael Hersch consistently writes music with emotional immediacy that explores aching vulnerability with consummate eloquence. His Violin Concerto is like a wound still raw. Soloist Patricia Kopatchinskaja ramps up the intensity, as does ICE, conducted here by Tino Muñoz, rendering the work’s first and third movements with bracing strength and its second with fragile uneasiness. This emotion returns, amplified by high-lying solos and echoing attacks from the ensemble, to provide a tensely wrought close to the piece.

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is renown for their conductor-less approach to chamber orchestra works. Still, the coordination and balance they exhibit on Hersch’s end stages deserves particular praise. Glacial slabs of dissonant harmonies give way to howling French horn and a buildup of contrapuntal intensity. This is succeeded by a tragically mournful tune accompanied by a bee’s nest of clusters and sliced string-led attacks. Taut wind dissonances then punctuate an angular, rambling string melody, succeeded once again by nervous pile-ups of angular crescendos. The seventh movement is buoyed by heraldic trumpet and vigorous repeated string chords, while the finale returns to a colorful, harmonically ambiguous ambience. The piece is Hersch at his most Bergian, bringing together artful organization and visceral emotion. Recommended.

Michael Hersch – end stages and Violin Concerto

Þráinn Hjálmarsson on Carrier Records (CD Review)

Þráinn Hjálmarsson

Influence of Buildings on Musical Tone

Caput Ensemble, Krista Thora Haraldsdottir, Icelandic Flute Ensemble, Ensemble Adapter, Nordic Affect

Carrier Records

Composer Þráinn Hjálmarsson’s latest CD, Influence of Buildings on Musical Tone, revels in the exploratory sound world of effects and extended techniques. That said, his work is more than an assemblage of alternative ways to treat instruments. Rather, the technical extensions serve to expand Hjálmarsson’s considerable palette of expression.

The five different pieces on Influence of Buildings each employ a different ensemble. The title work features the Caput Ensemble, while “Grisaille” is performed by the Icelandic Flute Ensemble. Both pieces deal with an upper register melodic line that is slowly bent and distressed until it is entirely transformed.

 

https://vimeo.com/282605939

 

Kristin Thora Haraldsdottir plays the solo viola work Persona, adopting a penetrating tone and easily reaching stratospheric harmonics and digging in to sections with varying bow pressure. A flair for the dramatic allows this piece to move from pensive to more animated gestures in a captivating meditation. Mise en scéne plays up the percussive capacities of Ensemble Adapter, eventually deploying sustained upper register flute lines against the percussive attacks of harp and percussion and breathy exhalations and plosive pops from bass clarinet. The piece develops into a more harmonic terrain, with shades of spectra creating beguiling verticals.

The album’s closer is the string trio Lucid/Opaque, performed by members of Nordic Affect. The strings repeat pitch patterns that, while not necessarily tonal in orientation, encompass individual partials of a harmonic series. The overall effect is enhanced by a reverberant space, lending a naturally ambient character to the proceedings, even more so the case because of the number of repetitions of the opening gesture. Gradually, the opening shape is altered, with splashes of string noise and edgy bowing, changes in rhythm, and the overall duration of phrase overlaps developing the character of the main line over time. The material becomes even more forceful as octave displacements, notably a low cello line and repeating altissimo violin notes, are added. Here, and elsewhere, Hjálmarsson’s Influence of Buildings on Music Tone demonstrates a judicious approach to the selection of material that is then most imaginatively deployed and developed. Recommended.

 

Low – “Rome (Always in the Dark)” (Video)

 

This week, Low released a video for “Rome, Always in the Dark,” one of the tracks off of their new Sub Pop recording Double Negative (released yesterday).

On Double Negative, Low, probably best known for its work as one of the premier slowcore bands, moves their music closer to an aesthetic involving deconstruction and electroacoustic elements. One saw glimmers of this approach on their previous album, Ones and Sixes (2015), but now the band approaches distressing and reconstituting recorded material, including warped cassette tapes, full on and with aplomb. It is a fascinating new layer that complements, rather than replaces, the duet vocals of group founders Alan and Mimi Sparhawk and the group as a whole’s knack for finding fetching melodies and fashioning memorable instrumental arrangements. Double Negative is one of the freshest-sound and best executed recordings to see release this Fall. For a band in its third decade together, this vitality is all the more remarkable.

 

The band is touring in support of Double Negative (see dates below)

2018 Tour Dates
Sep. 19 – New York, NY – National Sawdust
Sep. 20 – New York, NY – National Sawdust
Sep. 21 – New York, NY – National Sawdust
Sep. 29 – Lisbon, PT – Lisboa ao Vivo
Oct. 01 – De Compostela Santiago, ES – Sala Capitol
Oct. 02 – Madrid, ES – Sala But
Oct. 03 – Barcelona, ES – Fabra i Coats
Oct. 05 – Milan, IT – Teatro Dal Verme
Oct. 06 – Zurich, CH – Bogen F
Oct. 08 – Leipzig, DE – UT Connewitz
Oct. 09 – Berlin, DE – Festsaal Kreuzberg
Oct. 10- Bochum, DE – Christuskirche Bochum
Oct. 11 –  Brussels, BE –  Orangerie (at Botanique)
Oct. 12 – Amsterdam, NL – Paradiso
Oct. 13 – Paris, FR – La Gaîté Lyrique
Oct. 15 – Bristol, UK – Trinity
Oct. 16 – Manchester, UK – Manchester Cathedral
Oct. 17 – Dublin, IE – Vicar Street
Nov. 02 – St. Paul, MN – The Fitz
Nov. 05 – Detroit, MI – El Club
Nov. 06 – Toronto, ON – Great Hall
Nov. 08 – Montreal, QC – La Sala Rosa
Nov. 09 – Boston, MA – Brighton Music Hall
Nov. 10 – Philadelphia, PA – Underground Arts
Nov. 12 – Washington, DC U Street Music Hall
Nov. 13 – Pittsburgh, PA – The Funhouse
Nov. 14 – Cleveland, OH – Grog Shop
Nov. 15 – Grand Rapids, MI – Pyramid Scheme
Nov. 16 – Chicago, IL – Rockefeller Chapel
Nov. 17 – Madison, WI – High Noon Saloon

2019 Tour Dates
Jan. 29 – Glasgow, UK – Tramway
Jan. 30 – Birmingham, UK – Birmingham Town Hall
Jan. 31 – Brighton, UK – St. George’s Church Brighton
Feb. 01 – London, UK – Barbican
Feb. 02 – Kortrijk, BE – De Kreun
Feb. 04 – Groningen, NL – Vera
Feb. 05 – Erlangen, DE – E-Werk (Erlangen)
Feb. 06 – Cologne, DE – Kulturkirche Köln
Feb. 07 – Frankfurt, DE – Sankt Peter
Feb. 08 – Hamburg, DE – Uebel & Gefährlich
Feb. 09 – Aarhus, DK – Voxhall
Feb. 11 – København, DK – The Koncerthuset – Studie 2
Feb. 12 – Gothenburg, SE – Pustervik
Feb. 13 – Oslo – Norway – Parkteatret
Feb. 14 – Stockholm, SE – Kagelbanan (Small Room)
Mar. 08 – Denver, CO – Globe Hall
Mar. 09 – Santa Fe, NM – Meow Wolf
Mar. 11 –  Phoenix, AZ – Valley Bar
Mar. 12 – Tustin, CA – Marty’s On Newport
Mar. 13 – Tijuana, MX – Moustache
Mar. 15 – Los Angeles, CA – Lodge Room
Mar. 16 – San Francisco, CA – Great American Music Hall
Mar. 18 – Portland, OR – Star Theater
Mar. 19 – Vancouver, BC – Imperial
Mar. 20 – Seattle, WA – Neumos
Mar. 23 – Provo, UT –  Velour Live Music Gallery

Christopher Fox: Headlong (CD Review)

 

Christopher Fox

Headlong

Heather Roche, clarinets

Métier CD

MSV28573

 

Composer Christopher Fox has crafted an imaginative output, employing diverse approaches and many different technical resources. His latest Métier CD, Headlong, is devoted to clarinet music, for instruments of varying sizes. Heather Roche is the stalwart interpreter of these pieces. Her own versatility and facility with myriad extended techniques make Roche an ideal performer of Fox’s music. Indeed, the clarinetist’s website serves as a compendious catalog of techniques used to play contemporary works. This recording serves as an ideal accompaniment to her web-based pedagogical forays.

 

Several of the pieces here are ten-minute essays that have time to build and, in places, to breathe (as, one hopes, Roche is afforded as well). Even slightly shorter works like the gentle, fragmentary seven minutes of …Or Just After are given time enough to display significant exploration of the materials used in their construction. Here, there is a contrast between plummy low register melodies and higher single, sustained notes. Gradually and after many iterations, the upper line gains a note or two. This subtle shift in texture feels seismic and changes the registral give and take of the work. Likewise, small shifts are meaningful moments in the six-minute long Escalation. Originally written for Bb clarinet and here played on contrabass clarinet, the piece explores a mid-tempo stream of short phrases of chromatically ascending notes. In this incarnation, the sepulchral register in which these occur accentuates a kind of “walking bass” character that imparts a hint of jazzy swagger.

 

Some of the pieces include overdubs, either of electronics or other clarinets, and a couple are transcriptions of works originally written for other instruments or else for unspecified woodwinds. Originally composed for oboist Christopher Redgate, Headlong includes an ostinato electronic accompaniment that the composer suggests could sound like video games from the 1980s. The real fun here is the morphing of tempos through three different ratios:  5:4, 9:8 and 5:3. It makes for intriguing interrelationships between the instrumental part and the accompanying motoric bleeptronica. Headlong is an engaging mix of tempo modulation and minimal pulsation that shows a different and appealing side of Fox’s creativity.

 

On stone.wind.rain.sun, Heather Roche overdubs a duet with herself. The two clarinets converge and diverge throughout, with sustained and repeating notes in one instrument serving as a sort of ground for the chromaticism of the other voice. Registral changes, such as a leap downward to the chalumeau register to add single bass notes to the proceedings, divide the counterpoint further still, at any given moment affording one the impression of three or four distinct voices in operation.

 

One of my favorite compositions on the CD is Straight Lines for Broken Times, another piece employing overdubs. One track samples bass clarinet playing polyrhythms while the other two explore the “harmonic riches of the instrument,” as Fox describes a plethora of upper partials. Extended techniques are abundantly on offer. Altissimo notes, multiphonics, microtones, and harmonics create a swath of textures. However, the polyrhythmic underpinning assures that the piece feels guided in its course, beautifully shaping what could be a melange of overtone clouds. Straight Lines for Broken Times encapsulates Fox’s proclivity for experimentation in multiple domains: that of the recording medium, a wide palette of pitches that encompasses microtonal harmonics, and fluidly morphing tempos with intricate layers of local rhythms. The result never ceases to be of interest.

 

Fox and Roche are an ideal pairing. While Fox has a number of CDs to his credit, listening to this one, an ideal future project comes to mind. Next time out, one imagines the composer adding a couple other instrumentalists or a vocalist to the mix to provide Roche with more foils and a few less overdubs. Fox’s ensemble pieces also expansively embrace the musical materials that exemplify today’s experimental wing of contemporary music. With Roche aboard as “team captain,” the result would certainly be another serving of diverting performances.

 

James Romig – Still (CD Review)

James Romig

Still

Ashlee Mack, piano

New World Records 80802

Composer James Romig has spent the past twenty years cultivating a body of work that embodies both rigorous structuring and a wide-ranging gestural palette. As is explained in Bruce Quaglia’s excellent liner notes for Romig’s first New World CD, Still, there is good reason for these two aspects to be so important to Romig. His training as a composer was with American modernists Charles Wuorinen and Milton Babbitt, while his background as a performer – a percussionist – included a number of works by minimalists such as Steve Reich.

Extra-musical touchstones also play a significant role as inspirations for the composer. A series of National Park residencies has provided him with natural beauty to contemplate while composing. Abstract Expressionist painters such as Clyfford Still, who is the titular reference point for Romig’s piece on this CD, also enliven his imagination.

Nowhere in Romig’s output to date is this confluence of influences more apparent than in Still, a nearly hour-long piece for solo piano. One can see the pitch material’s progression in a chart in the liner notes and note the comprehensiveness of its organization. Unlike Romig’s portrait disc Leaves from Modern Trees, where the pieces tend towards tautly incisive utterance, here the progression of pitch material evolves slowly in a prevailingly soft dynamic spectrum. Ashlee Mack, a frequent performer of Romig’s music, provides a sterling interpretation. Slow tempi are maintained no matter what local rhythms (some complex) ripple the surface texture. In addition, Mack voices the harmony skilfully, allowing the piece-long progression to be presented with abundant clarity.

One more composerly ghost lurks in the room: that of Morton Feldman. Also an appreciator of Abstract Expressionism, who created long single movement pieces that transformed slowly and remained primarily soft, Feldman could seem to be Still’s natural progenitor. While surface details and scale of composition are similar, there is a significant musical difference between Feldman’s paean to a painter like Philip Guston and Romig’s reference to Clyfford Still. As pointed out by theorists such as Thomas DeLio, the undergirding of a Feldman piece is indeed subject to an organizational structure. That said, his work seems more intuitive than Romig’s, which is methodical in the unfurling of its linear components and their constituent harmonies. Whether Feldman’s surface in any way inspires the depths of Still, I am not sure; it would be an interesting question to pose to Romig. Either way, Still is his most engaging and beguiling piece to date. One looks forward to hearing more works that accumulate Romig’s proclivity for parks, painters, maximalists, and minimalists; these many ingredients make for intriguing results.