Two composer portrait CDs on Sono Luminus (CD Review)

Páll Ragnar Pálsson

Atonement

CAPUT Ensemble, conducted by Guðni Franzson, Tui Hirv, Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir

Sono Luminus CD/Blu-ray (2020)

Halldór Smárason

Stara

Siggi String Quartet, Emilía Rós Sigfúsdóttir, Geirþrúður Ása Guðjónsdóttir, Helga Björg Arnardóttir, Tinna Thorsteinsdóttir, Gulli Björnsson

Sono Luminus CD/Blu-ray (2020)

In recent years, the prominence of Icelandic composers on the international stage has grown considerably, many of them championed by the Sono Luminus label. New discs on the imprint are portraits of two more composers whose careers are in ascent: Páll Ragnar Pálsson (b. 1977) and Halldór Smárason (b. 1989). They are abetted by some of Iceland’s finest chamber musicians, the Siggi String Quartet and CAPUT Ensemble.

This is Pálsson’s second solo CD, consisting of works written from 2011 to 2018. He has a varied background. In his twenties he was a rock musician and then took an extended sojourn for studies in Estonia. Atonement encompasses those experiences and is also about the composer’s return to Iceland after his time abroad. Pálsson says that the importance of place is a significant touchstone for his approach to composing.

Relationships also play a pivotal role in his work. The abundantly talented soprano Tui Hirv is Pálsson’s spouse. She features prominently in several pieces, singing minute shadings and sustained high passages with tremendous dynamic control and expressivity in the title work. On Stalker’s Monologue, singing a text adapted from the Tarkovsky film, Hirv demonstrates more vocal steel and the accompaniment takes on a bleary-eyed cast. Midsummer’s Night features recited text instead of singing, with a poem by Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir.

The CAPUT Ensemble acquits themselves admirably as well. Lucidity features the ensemble crafting microtonal shadings and exaggerated trills, the latter sometimes doubled in strings and winds to kaleidoscopic effect and punctuated by swells of percussion. The extended ensemble passages on Wheel Crosses Under Moss are an excellent response to the keening part sung by Hirv. 

Smárason’s debut solo CD features the Siggi String Quartet. The title work is a good example of the composer’s aesthetic. Spacious use of silence is complemented by long sustained notes that generally have an “edge to them,” in terms of dissonance or playing technique. The quartet are dispatched on a similar errand on the piece Draw and Play, but the gestures between the rests are more animated. Blakta, also for strings, features gentle pizzicato against harmonics and upper register pileups of verticals. 

A guitar and electronics piece, Skúlptúr 1, requires the performer, Gulli Björnsson, to make his way through a challenging hop scotch of techniques in a specified time frame in order to avoid an alarm from the electronics part. Happily he makes it on the recording. 

The best piece on Stara is also the one for the largest ensemble, Stop Breathing. The Siggi Quartet is augmented with bass flute, clarinet, and piano. Breathy whorls and wind glissandos are set against harmonic ostinato passages as well as aggressive squalls of sound. 

A number of current composers are concerned with silence and pianissimo stretches. On Stara, Smárason distinguishes himself by filling in the silence with music of an uneasy demeanor from which one receives little respite or release. His work is unerringly paced and delicately unnerving. Both Atonement and Stara contain excellent performances of provoking works: recommended. 

-Christian Carey 

Best Chamber Recording 2017

Dark Queen Mantra

Terry Riley and Stefano Scodanibbio

The Dark Queen Mantra

Del Sol String Quartet; Gyan Riley, guitar

Sono Luminus

 

On this Sono Luminus CD, Terry Riley’s chamber works are superlatively performed by Del Sol String Quartet. Joined on the title piece by the composer’s son, guitarist Gyan Riley, the group navigates an array of rhythms, many of Spanish origin. Movement titles evoke the Basque region Vizcaino and the paintings of Goya. The final, eponymous, movement builds to an intense conclusion; Gyan Riley incorporates distortion and high volume, matching the whirling dance of the quartet in a rock-inflected finale.

 

Stefano Scodanibbio, who died in 2012, was a friend to both Rileys. Diamond Fiddle Language (Wergo, 2005), his collaboration with Terry Riley, is a standout in both of their respective catalogues. After his passing, Gyan Riley presented a memorial concert of Scodanibio’s music at New York’s The Stone. He invited Del Sol to play the composer’s Mas Lugares ( su Madrigales di Monteverdi), a work they have since made their own. A five-movement homage to the early Baroque master, Scodanibbio takes his source material on all sorts of fascinating of twists and turns. A virtuoso bass-player himself, Scodanibbio wrote prolifically and eloquently for strings. Channeling and transforming early music was only one aspect of his work – he was well known for extended techniques and as a formidable improviser. This is reflected in Mas Lugares … : The piece isn’t a neoclassical take on its source material. Instead, it is a persuasive update with considerable refashioning.

 

Originally premiered by Kronos Quartet, The Wheel and Mythic Birds Waltz is more of a minimalist affair than The Dark Queen Mantra. That said, few of Terry Riley’s pieces for quartet are unadulterated minimalism – apart from In C, his is a polyglot musical language. There are a considerable number of extended chords, folk-like melodies, and jazz-inflected wrinkles amid the repetitions. As such, the piece pairs well with the other two on the CD, and serves as a fitting closer.

The Dark Queen Mantra is Sequenza 21’s Best Chamber Recording 2017.

 

 

LA Percussion Quartet – Beyond (CD Review)

Los Angeles Percussion Quartet

Beyond

Works by Daniel Bjarnason, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Christopher Cerrone, Ellen Reid, and Andrew McIntosh

Sono Luminus 2XCD

Los Angeles Percussion Quartet performs on one of the most compelling releases of early 2017. Beyond (Sono Luminus, June 16, 2017) is a double-disc helping of new works for percussion ensemble by Daniel Bjarnason, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Christopher Cerrone, Ellen Reid, and Andrew McIntosh. All of these composers are up and coming stars in the new music world. Both Reid and Cerrone are New Yorkers (Reid is now based in NY and LA) who have taken Los Angeles by storm in recent seasons with opera and orchestra projects. Bjarnason and Thorvaldsdottir are Icelandic composers who both have a strong connection to the West Coast. McIntosh is very strongly identified with the LA scene, as a composer, string performer, and the guiding force behind Populist Recordsone of the most interesting experimental labels out there (here is my recent review of a Populist release by Daniel Corral).

One of the fascinating things to hear on Beyond is the way in which each composer translates their musical approach to the percussive idiom. Thus, Bjarnason’s penchant for dynamic and scoring contrasts is demonstrated in Qui Tollis, a composition equally compelling in both its pianissimo and fortissimo passages. Thorvaldsdottir’s Aura maintains its creator’s fascination with pitched timbres and colorful clouds of harmony; these are deployed with a deft sense of ensemble interplay. Cerrone imports acoustic guitar and electronics in the five-movement suite Memory Palace. The places he references are familiar to New Yorkers, from the pastoral hues of “Harriman” to the tense ostinatos of “L.I.E.” (Long Island Expressway, for those of you who have the blissful fortune to be unaware of this stress-filled commuter highway), and his depictions ring true. Fear-Release by Reid presents a dramatic use of unfurling cells of rhythmic activity alongside pensive pitched percussion. Its coda for metallophones is particularly fetching; after all of the built up tension of the piece’s main body, it serves as a kind of exhalation.

The culminating, and most substantial, work on the recording is McIntosh’s I Hold the Lion’s Paw, a nine-movement long piece some three quarters of an hour in duration. Much of its composer’s music concerns itself with microtones and alternate tunings – he is experienced in playing both Early music’s temperaments as well as contemporary explorations of tuning. Thus it is no surprise that McIntosh’s pitch template for I Hold the Lion’s Paw is an extended one. However, this is just one aspect of a multi-faceted piece, which also makes extensive use of low drums and cymbals for a ritualistic colloquy. Still more ritualized, taking on an almost sacramental guise, is the pouring of water and striking of ceramics filled with water. Every percussionist I know loves an instrument-making assignment and McIntosh doesn’t disappoint: DIY elements include aluminum pipes, cut to fit. None of the elements of this significant battery of instruments seems out of place: despite the use of water, I Hold the Lion’s Paw is no “kitchen sink” piece. On the contrary, it is a thoughtfully constructed and sonically beguiling composition. Several excellent percussion ensembles are currently active: Los Angeles Percussion Quartet is certainly an estimable member of this elite cohort.

Del Sol Quartet

Congratulations to my friend Ken Ueno, whose work Peradam features prominently on Del Sol Quartet’s new Sono Luminus release Scrapyard Exotica. The Blu-ray/CD recording also features music by Mason Bates for quartet and electronics and a piece by Mohammed Fairouz.

ZOFO Plays Terry Riley

ZOFO Plays Terry Riley

Sono Luminus Blu-ray/CD

Piano four hands duo Eva-Maria Zimmerman and Keisuke Nakagoshi once again bring energy, virtuosity, and imagination to a composer’s work on their latest recording, a portrait of Terry Riley.

ZOFO arranged a few of the pieces on the album for four hands. Their rendition of “Half-Wolf Dances Mad in the Moonlight” is a powerfully incisive standout and “G Song” is supple and, given the breathlessly fast tempo, played with impressive rhythmic integrity. There is also a new piece on the CD, commissioned by the duo: the sprightly, syncopated, and surprisingly stylistically faithful Praying Mantis Rag.

The rest of the programmed pieces are from The Heaven Ladder, Books 5 & 7, collections commissioned by pianists Sarah Cahill and Gloria Cheng. The most expansive of these selections, “Cinco de Mayo,” is given a sterling rendition, filled with dynamic shadings, fleet passagework, and tightly knit exchanges.

Pointed up on the album is Riley’s versatility as a composer. While he can create churning ostinatos with the best of them, his connections to jazz, raga, and dance music of many varieties are just as prominently felt here as his status as an elder statesman of minimalism. Given their chameleon-like presence on previous recordings, ranging from Rite of Spring to Samuel Barber to David Lang, it is hardly surprising that ZOFO relishes in the eclecticism of the fare here. Recommended.