Dominique Schafer on Kairos (CD Review)

Dominique Schafer

Vers une présence réelle

Ensemble Proton Bern, Matthias Kuhn, conducter

Kairos CD 0015036KAI

Born in 1967, Swiss composer Dominique Schafer spent time in Paris and Boston before taking up his present academic position at Chapman University in California. This is his first monograph CD. Ensemble Proto Bern supplies the recording’s eloquent performances, illuminating intricate timbres and revelling in the rhythmic intricacies of Schafer’s music. 

While musical style and geography of scenes aren’t always complimentary, Schafer’s time in Paris is a clear point of departure for post-spectralist works Cendre, for bass flute and 8-channel electronics, and Ringwood, for clarinet and live electronics. Both flutist Bettina Berger and clarinetist Richard Haynes are estimable advocates who take extended techniques in stride. Microtones and colorful alternate fingerings are haloed by electronically deployed harmonic series.The varied, muscular gestural palette that ensemble works such as the title composition, Anima, and INFR-A-KTION possess suggests that Schafer’s time at Harvard may have imbued his work with more than a hint of East coast modernism. Whatever the source of his inspiration, Schafer’s is an attractive, polyglot musical language.  

Vers une présence réelle  demonstrates the variety Schafer seamlessly brings to bear. Verticals are frequently treated to intervals that fall outside of the equal temperament spectrum, coloring chords with tart microtones and overblown howls. Piano and harp, both playing in equal temperament, supply a contrasting harmonic spectrum. These are offset by half-step oscillations and repeated notes in the strings and dissonant trumpet fanfares. Surging wind harmonics, contrasted by wide-ranging piano arpeggiations and flurries of violin, populate the coda with echoes of the main body of the piece.   

The instrumentation of most of the pieces can be accommodated by standard instrumentation. However, INFR-A-KTION features lupophone, an extremely low oboe, played by Martin Bligginstorfer, and contraforte, a contrabassoon on steroids played by Elise Jacoberger.  The overall registral deployment of the piece sits low, providing a sepulchral environment in which to hear these portentous low winds to good effect. Strings arc overhead, playing angular filigrees in contrast to the bass register utterances.  

Vers une présence réelle provides an excellent introduction to the breadth of expression in Dominique Schafer’s music. One eagerly awaits future recorded documentation, perhaps of some of his orchestra music.

-Christian Carey

Erika Fox – Paths (CD Review)

Erika Fox

Paths

Goldsfield Ensemble, Richard Baker, conductor

NMC Recordings

Once one hears Paths, the octogenarian Erika Fox’s first CD, their first reaction may mirror mine: one of incredulity. How is it possible that a composer this talented with such a distinctive and assured musical voice had to wait so long for a monograph recording? To their credit, NMC has been a strong advocate of female composers for a number of years; I’ve recently been enjoying their recordings of Elizabeth Lutyens’s music. Thank goodness they have partnered with the Goldfield Ensemble to present Fox’s work while she is still alive to hear the results.

Born in Vienna in 1936, Fox was a war refugee who moved as a child to England. Her music is strongly infused with cultural heritage; Chasidic chant plays a large role in its conceptual framework. A strong sense of linearity is offset by a piquant harmonic palette and lively rhythms. In addition to a deft hand with pitched instruments, the works on Paths display Fox’s imaginative sense of timbre in her use of percussion. Goldfield had to retain a large battery of instruments to realize the CD’s program. Ensemble member Kate Romano points out in personable and informative liner notes that traditional development isn’t deployed. Instead a single line will weave discontinuous musical arguments that don’t return for a recapitulatory visit. 

The CD begins withPaths Where the Mourners Tread,a substantial work in which the aforementioned linear narrative is passed from instrument to instrument. One gets the sense of wending through a labyrinth of contrasting textures, holding on to the aforementioned linear thread like breadcrumbs through the forest. Fox’s provides a delightful, mysterious sound world in which to get lost. This is equally true of Quasi una Cadenza, which contains beguiling writing for winds. A downloadable bonus track, Kaleidoscope, is equally varied and compelling.

Pianist Richard Uttley supplies an incisive and persuasive performance of the solo work On Visiting Stravinsky’s Grave at San Michele, where Fox embraces the influence of other composers. Blocks of material and incisive rhythms evoke Stravinsky, particularly his late dodecaphonic pieces. There is also a hint of Messiaen in the bird call-like cries of the upper line. Another piece indebted to a twentieth century composer is Malinconia Militaire, which is based on a poem that references Anton Webern’s Opus 4 songs. 

Café Warsaw 1944 closes the CD. It is a piece inspired by the Czeslaw Milosz poem “Café. All four, relatively brief, movements, are led by the percussion section. The poem’s discussion of “the quick and the dead” and the small distance between them once again inspires Fox to inhabit the work of the Second Viennese School, but pointillism and chromaticism are contrasted with repeated chords and arpeggiations from the piano and taut percussion lines. 

Fox’s music often seeks rapprochement with the past, addressing the experiences of her refugee childhood and Jewish background as well as the ghosts of midcentury concert music. Still, the manner in which the composer synthesizes these elements supplies vividness and urgency very much in keeping with present day concerns. The Goldfield Ensemble plays assuredly throughout, giving these underserved works excellent documentation. Now it is up to the rest of the musical world to take up Fox’s compelling music and make it much more widely known. One hopes this will happen forthwith. 

-Christian Carey

Helen Grime in Tempo

The July 2019 issue of Tempo includes three contributions from yours truly: an analytical article on Helen Grime’s music and reviews of Joseph Straus’s latest book on disability studies and musical modernism and Zeno Baldi’s portrait CD on Stradivarius.

CD Review: Riot Ensemble

Speak, Be Silent

Riot Ensemble, Aaron Holloway-Nahum, conductor

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

Huddersfield Contemporary Records HCR20CD

2019


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Christian Carey

Caroline Shaw – Orange (CD Review)

Caroline Shaw – Orange

Attaca Quartet

Nonesuch/New Amsterdam CD

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

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

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

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

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

  • Christian Carey

Matthew Shipp Trio – “Signature” (CD Review)

Matthew Shipp Trio, ‘Signature’ (ESP, 2019)

Matthew Shipp Trio

Signature

ESP (ESPDISK 5029CD)

Pianist Matthew Shipp has recorded prolifically, but Signature is the first outing of his current piano trio. Joined by bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker, Shipp thrives in this configuration, one of the most celebrated and venerable in jazz history. Indeed, taking the piano trio to new places seems tailor-made to his adventurous style and superlative musicianship.  

All of the pieces here are improvised first takes. The title track hews the closest to a more traditional approach, with post-bop chord voicings and engaging colloquy between the three performers. Pleasing twists and turns in the sequencing make for welcome surprises. The collaborators take solo turns that intersperse group ventures. Bisio’s “Deep to Deep” serves as an arco droning intro to “Flying Saucer,” in which the piano and bass lines are both nimbly played yet forcefully delineated while the drums provide a propulsive underpinning; a thunderous, virtuosic excursion. Baker presents a New Orleans inflected solo called “Snap.” As if to belie its lineage, the drum solo is followed by the group in a contemporary mindset on “The Way,” which begins suavely only to build to somber cadence points that sound like dissonant chorales. A return to delicacy allows room for Bisio to take an arcing solo, only to have it washed away by a stentorian oscillating pattern from Shipp. This encourages a convergence on an ostinato which builds the piece to a boisterous climax, with fleet soloing matched beat-for-beat by rollicking rhythms.

“Stage Ten” features Shipp performing inside the piano against a swinging bass line from Bisio and drumming by Taylor Baker filled with fills. It is an arresting melange of modernity, both of the classical and jazz varieties, like Henry Cowell meeting Thelonious Monk. “Speech of Form” finds Shipp playing solo in a vein of chromatic, modally inflected jazz that he has mined before and returns to here with good results. “Zo #2” is an uptempo number that owes debts both to Bud Powell and Cecil Taylor. Shipp’s elegant pirouettes and unison octave lines are complemented by skittering drums and articulate bass.

“New Z,” another solo, gives Taylor Baker an opportunity to use world music percussion alongside shimmering cymbals. The CD concludes with “This Matrix,” the most extended cut on the date, clocking in at more than sixteen minutes. Driving playing, with quick angular melodies punctuated by booming clusters, “This Matrix” is an excellent example of the trio at its best: ardent, musically sophisticated, and capable of turning on a dime. The piece builds to a tremendously dexterous double time section. It is  followed by a languorous solo from Bisio that starts a long denouement, gradually reintroducing the entire trio in a coda of poignant delicacy.

Signature is very much an album of 2019, in which jazz seems more capable than ever of acting in dialogue with its long tradition while simultaneously forging promising pathways forward. Shipp has a large discography, but each successive release captures the moment in which it lives, epitomizing the essence of improvised music. Recommended.

  • Christian Carey (christianbcarey.com)

Anna Webber: Clockwise (CD Review)

Anna Webber

Clockwise

Pi Recordings (2019)

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

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

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

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

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