John Luther Adams – Become Desert (CD Review)

Become Desert

John Luther Adams

Seattle Symphony, Seattle Symphony Chorale, Ludovic Morlot, conductor

Cantaloupe Music

“Become Desert is both a celebration of the deserts we are given, and a lamentation of the deserts we create.” – John Luther Adams

Born in Mississippi, John Luther Adams first came to the attention of listeners as a composer and author based in Alaska, where he lived and worked for some forty years. Pieces such as Inuksuit, The Place Where You Go to Listen, and Dream in White on White are eloquent expressions of Adams’ time there and how it impacted him both as a creator and as a person. His book, Winter Music, is a required text for composers, as well as an accessible read of significant appeal to non-musicians. In a remarkable change of pace, Adams has recently moved to the desert, staying in Mexico and Chile.

In 2013, Adams was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music for Become Ocean, a work for the Seattle Symphony that mourned the rising seas caused by climate change, posing a timely questions: would land-roaming creatures, humans among them, be subsumed and return to the waters from whence they came. Since then, the piece has become a trilogy, followed by Become River and now Become Desert. The latest piece deals with climate change’s impact on water supply and the effects of warming in dry climates.

Like its performance and recording of Become Ocean, the Seattle Symphony, conducted by Ludovic Morlot, creates beguiling sounds eloquently shaped in their rendition of Become Desert. Whereas the former piece had an apocalyptic cast, moving from low to high and then cascading, the latter is filled with bells and chimes and sustained chords, creating the aura of aridity and hazy lights so appropriate to its subject matter. Partway through, rolling drums give us the only hit of respite from dryness, thundering against reiterated brass chords. Harps and plenty of sixth chords recall Impressionism, while the insistent repetition of overtone chords provides a spectral cast. Its end is a deliciously long denouement leaving us with faint chimes that evoke the piece’s opening.

Become Desert is one of the best recordings of contemporary music of 2019. Recommended.

Jan Garbarek and Hilliard Ensemble (CD Review)

Remember Me, My Dear (ECM, 2019).

Remember Me, My Dear

Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble

ECM New Series 2625

The Hilliard Ensemble disbanded five years ago. Happily, they made a few recordings for ECM that have allowed listeners to continue to enjoy new music from them. Remember Me, My Dear was recorded on their last tour in 2014 at the Collegiate Church in Bellinzona, Switzerland. It celebrates a quarter century of collaboration, beginning with the Officium album, released in 1994 to wide acclaim.

As with their previous collaborations, Remember Me, My Dear features both early music by composers such as Hildegard von Bingen, Pérotin, and the ever ubiquitous Anonymous, as well as twentieth/twenty-first century pieces by Arvo Pärt, Komitas, and Russian liturgical composer Nikolay Kedrov. Often the blending of resources is impressive. Garbarek creates imitative lines that further elaborate Kedrov’s “Litany” and revels in the modal scales found in “Procedentem Sponsum.” The saxophonist solos over the Hilliard Ensemble singing suavely arranged jazz chords on his original “Allting Finns.”

Elsewhere, there is a juxtaposition of disparate elements. On an Agnus Dei by the Renaissance composer Antoine Brumel, the counterpoint from the voices serves as a backdrop for cascading runs by Garbarek. In the title track, which originally appeared on the studio album Mnemosyne, a homophonic chanson is elaborated with saxophone filigrees between phrases.

Garbarek’s original “We are the Stars” is a rapturous piece, with soprano saxophone contributing altissimo register climaxes that are shadowed by countertenor David James in his own upper register. Guilliame Le Rouge’s fifteenth century chanson Se je fayz deuil ideally presents the autumnal warmth of the quartet’s sound in the Collegiate Church’s generous acoustic. Pérotin’s Alleluia Navitas provides a joyous colloquy between Garbarek and the singers. Who knew that medieval organum could so successfully afford rollicking, bluesy rejoinders?

Remember, My Dear amply demonstrates that, until the end of their work together, the Hilliard Ensemble remained in fine voice.  It is always difficult to say goodbye to a group that has played such a pivotal role in one’s study and enjoyment of music. The post-disbandment releases shared on ECM have been a generous surplus. The Hilliard Ensemble, and their collaboration with Garbarek, will be dearly remembered for a long time to come.

-Christian Carey

Urban Playground Premieres Florence Price

On Wednesday May 8th, Urban Playground Chamber Orchestra presents the New York premiere of Florence Price’s Violin Concerto No. 2, music by Harry T. Burleigh,  and a rarely heard oratorio, And They Lynched Him on a Tree, by William Grant Still. The program, titled From Song Came Symphony. fits the ensemble’s mandate to prioritize the performance of composers who are women and people of color. It focuses on the legacy of Burleigh. I recently caught up with UPCO’s conductor Thomas Cunningham, who told me more about the concert.

Cunningham says, ”I found programmatic inspiration in Jay-Z lyrics: Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther could walk / Martin Luther walked so Barack Obama could run / Barack Obama ran so all the children could fly.”

“Burleigh wrote art songs so that the following generation – William Grant Still, William Dawson, and Florence Price – could write symphonies and concert works. Burleigh’s incorporation of African American music into Western art music, and his advocacy for this new American music genre through his work at Ricordi, had a vast influence on remarkable composers of color in America.”

Florence Price’s work has recently been receiving significant attention. Cunningham feels that Violin Concerto No. 2 will be a highlight of the concert. “Price’s second violin concerto is wonderfully idiosyncratic. The concerto is in so many places defined by its subtle and yet robust brass writing, atypical especially for a concerto for string instrument. All the while, this work demonstrates a novel voice, both aware and in touch with various traditions, but carving out singular nuance and identity.”

UNC-Chapel Hill Ph.D. candidate Kori Hill will deliver a pre-concert lecture at the event. Of Price’s work, she says, “This concerto, completed just one year before Price’s untimely death in 1953, is a fascinating example of her applications of African American vernacular and Western classical principles. It is an important component to understanding and fully appreciating her contributions to American classical music. We hope Price’s Violin Concerto No. 2 becomes a staple of the violin repertory in the years to come.”

In addition to the aforementioned works, the program also includes a movement from Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony. Cunningham says that the included excerpt is connected to multiple pieces on the program. “Incorporating the Largo from Dvorak 9 serves a dual purpose: first, to demonstrate the tangible connection between the spirituals sung by Burleigh to Dvorak, and second, to mirror the premiere of Still’s And They Lynched Him on a Tree, which also included the movement.”


This is the fifth year that UPCO has been active. Their advocacy is laudable, and the group has musicianship to match its ambition. Cunningham and company are persuasive performers of both standard-era repertoire and more recent music. May 8th’s concert should be a memorable one.

Event Info

Urban Playground Chamber Orchestra and Harry T. Burleigh Society present

From Song Came Symphony

Wednesday May 8th at 7:30 PM

Langston Hughes Auditorium

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

515 Malcolm X Blvd.

New York, New York 10037

Tickets

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.

 

Unknown Mortal Orchestra – “Hanoi 6” (Video)

During recording sessions in Hanoi for Sex and Food, their last LP, Unknown Mortal Orchestra also worked with local musicians to create IC-01 Hanoi, a set of instrumental tracks. This collection, emphasizing jazz and Krautrock stylistic signatures, will be released October 28, 2018 on the Jagjaguwar label. Check out a teaser video for album track “Hanoi 6” below.

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.

 

This September – Premiere Performances of “A Lady”

Byrne Kozar Duo

 

The Bryne:Kozar Duo – soprano Corrine Byrne and trumpeter Andy Kozar – recently commissioned a quarter-tone piece from me, a setting of Amy Lowell’s poem “A Lady.” They will be premiering the work in Boston on September 9th, one of three performances they will be giving of the piece; the others are in New York and Media, Pennsylvania (see listings below). Also on the program are pieces by Paula Matthusen, Scott Wollschleger, Reiko Füting, Rob Deemer, Scott Worthington and David Smooke.

 

Byrne:Kozar Duo – September Performances

9/9 – A Lady (premiere), Byrne:Kozar Duo, Second Sunday Concert Series, Boston Sculptors Gallery, Boston, Massachusetts; 4 PM.

9/14 – A Lady, Byrne:Kozar Duo, National Opera Center, New York, New York; 7:30 PM.

9/16 – A Lady, Bryne:Kozar Duo, Delaware County Community College, Media PA; 3 PM, $10.