Monday, August 07, 2017

Record Roundup: Strings And Things

Before microscopy was invented to reveal the little hooks on horsehair, generations of instrument makers and musicians knew that if you dragged a collection of the hairs across a length of dried gut, you got a wondrous sound. Or an awful one, depending on which part of the learning curve the player currently occupied. Now we have all the science we need to explain the interaction between fingers or bow, strings, wood, and acoustic chamber, but that doesn't change the ability of the sounds of stringed instruments to move us in body, mind, and spirit. Here are some of the best practitioners of the art, circa 2017. 

Melia Watras - 26 Once upon a time "classical" music was not only popular culture, it was also family culture. Mother taught you piano so you could accompany her violin; father's baritone sounded fine alongside sister's cello, especially after a few brandies; and you might meet your future husband across the spinet during a parlor duet. This is the world violist Melia Watras would call us back to, if in a thoroughly 21st Century fashion, on her latest album for Sono Luminus. The number 26 refers the total amount of strings on the instruments used by Watras's collaborators, who include her husband, Michael Jinsoo Lim and her treacher, Atal Arad. See what I mean - a family affair. Another participant is Garth Knox, who plays Viola D'Amore alongside Watras on his composition, Stranger, which ups the string count a fair bit. 

But Watras is the main focus, and she really is a remarkable musician. The sheer tone of her playing, often a honeyed ribbon of sound, is so rich that 26 never feels spare even when she is playing solo, as on a number of pieces here, including her own Sonata, 20 enthralling minutes of melody and rhythm that has the spontaneity of an improvisation. But the album opens with Tocattina A La Turk, a viola duet written by Arad that is pure charm. Yes, there's a reference to Brubeck's Blue Rondo, which is slightly ironic as Arad's own inventions reference his Turkish heritage, but it's all in good humor. The Knox piece is based on a 17th Century Irish folk song, with all the haunted melody you could imagine, amplified beautifully by the resonating strings on Knox's antique instrument. Liquid Voices, a duet for Watras and Lim, has a visual flair that allows you to picture the sounds of the violas intertwining in the room. Those are just some of the more notable tracks, but overall this is a more consistent album than her last, Ispirare, which was quite fine. 

26 is wonderfully recorded, with a full sound that feels very natural and neither too close not too distant. So, an exemplary musical experience awaits you, with additional inspiration to be found in Watras's entrepreneurial spirit. She's not waiting for new viola music - she's commissioning it, or writing it herself. Artists in any medium could learn from her energetic example. Long may she reign!

Rupert Boyd & Laura Metcalf - Boyd Meets Girl Speaking of family affairs, here we have the charming couple of Boyd and Metcalf, who have converted their happy marriage into the unusual musical pairing of cello and guitar. Either through their own arrangements (Bach, Fauré, Pärt, de Falla, Piazzola, etc.), or some applied research (works by Jaime Zenamon, Ross Edwards, and Radames Gnattáli, all composers unknown to me), the duo has managed to assemble a varied and highly satisfying collection. 

Like their recent solo albums, Boyd's Fantasias and Metcalf's First Day - both standouts of 2015 and 2016 respectively - Boyd Meets Girl doesn't so much as challenge the listener as elevate any environment in which it is played. It is not a knock at all to report that I put it on during a sun-dappled country dinner and found the experience wholeheartedly improved - and my companions curious about what I was playing and wanting to hear it again. And that was even before we heard the ingenious and sparkling arrangement of John Bettis and Steve Porcaro's Human Nature, a massive hit for Michael Jackson. It really works - but don't take my word for it; go listen to the whole album. The only doubt in my mind about Boyd Meets Girl is whether they can find enough material to come up with a sequel. They may have to take a leaf from Melia Watras's book and do some commissioning and composing themselves!

Sebastien Llinares - Erik Satie I believe that Satie's spikier, more satirical side deserves more play, so I am grateful to Llinares for looking beyond the greatest hits somewhat when choosing pieces to arrange for guitar. Yes, you get all the wonderful Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes you want, but he also takes on Parade, a six-part suite written for a ballet Satie concocted with Picasso and Cocteau, which is rather ambitious. It makes for a very satisfying, well-balanced album. It certainly helps that Llinares's technique and musical approach are flawless, with no pandering to the sentimental, and the neutral acoustic of the recording serves both well. I have A LOT of Satie records and this is a more than welcome additions to my collection. 

Cornelius Dufallo - Journaling 2 One way I track new releases in the tsunami of classical music is by following composers I love - on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, etc. So, when Missy Mazzoli, for example, has a new piece on an album where she is not the primary artist, I'll at least know about it enough to check it out. That's how I got to this Cornelius Dufallo album, a haunting collection of music for violin and electronics. I was certainly aware of Dufallo, as a member of the string quartet Ethel and as a composer of soundtracks and other pieces. But if Journaling 2 didn't include Mazzoli's Dissolve, O My Heart, then it likely would have passed me by. I'm really glad it didn't, however, because this powerful, intense, and dazzling display by Dufallo is a high water mark for his career and one of the essential new music releases of the year. 

Journaling 2 opens with Kinan Azmeh's fiery How Many Would It Take?, which draws on Azmeh's Syrian ancestry and throws Dufallo's violin into dark waters infested not by sharks but pulsing electronics. It stirs up an amount of atmosphere that belies its brief duration, leading us neatly into Guy Barash's Talkback II, an update on post-war angularity for furiously bowed and plucked violin and interactive digital processing. Mazzoli's piece is gorgeous - full of dark lamentations and Dowland-esque yearning - and would make a nice complement to Garth Knox's piece on the Watras album. 

Lats' aadah by Raven Chacon is even more haunted, pushing Dufallo's violin into stressed harmonics and overtones reminiscent of Morricone's Harmonica theme from Once Upon A Time In The West. Tusch by Armando Bayolo starts off like another jagged overdubbed duet with echoes of Bach, but soon goes into hyperspace with drones and swooping electronic treatments. The album finishes with Dufallo's own composition, Reverie, which, although inspired by an "electronic structure" created by John King, almost has the feel of a series of variations on all that has gone before. Encompassing technology, harmonics, searing melodic passages, extended techniques, and more, it's flashy in all the right ways. In other words, a perfect ending to a mesmerizing album that finds Dufallo shining a brilliant spotlight on 21st century violin music. 

Yaron Deutsch - Pierluigi Billone: Sgorgo Y, N & Oo I've been a fan of Billone's sometimes baffling music for a while so when I noticed this playing on Eule Chris's Spotify account I got excited - a sensation that only increased once I listened. These three works for solo electric guitar give you the sensation of being the instrument. Billone exploits the resonance and sustain of the guitar to the fullest and Deutsch executes every twang and thrum with perfection. It's almost as if Billone asked himself, "If a guitar could dream, what would that sound like?" Or maybe he was an electric guitar in a former life. It's hard to fully describe what's happening in this music so I will just say that fans of Hendrix, Noveller, Luciano Berio, and Jimmy Page's Kenneth Anger soundtracks need to get up on this - STAT. There's another recent Billone release on Kairos but I confess I haven't gotten to it yet - perhaps you'll hear more later.

Del Sol String Quartet - Terry Riley: Dark Queen Mantra Color me embarrassed for continuing to think of Terry Riley as the "In C guy" for all these years. While that landmark work deserves its iconic status, based on this excellent - and addictive - new album (coming out on August 25th), I clearly have some catching up to do. But let's deal with the matter at hand. The title piece was commissioned by the Del Sol in 2015 to celebrate Riley's 80th birthday. It was also an opportunity for them to work with Riley's son Gyan, a shapeshifting and exceptionally skilled guitarist. The three movement work is stylish, substantial and deeply involving. Incorporating melodies inspired by Riley's time in Spain, the intertwining of the five instruments is consistently dazzling and really goes through the roof when Gyan cranks up the distortion in the last movement, furiously chording and playing stinging leads as the strings tag along for the ride. I hear echoes of Scott Johnson's remarkable soundtrack for Paul Schrader's Patty Hearst but this simply brilliant piece more than stands on its own. 

The middle work on the album is the five-movement Mas Lugares by the late bassist/composer Stefan Scodanibbio, a lovely fantasia on themes by Monteverdi. You can hear tendrils of the source material processed through Scodanibbio's thoroughly modern harmonic sensibility in a very effective manner. The piece is dedicated to Luciano Berio, who was also very good at this sort of thing, and the work of both composers is a reminder of a plainchant austerity that meshes so well with 20th and 21st Century music. Riley's The Wheel & Mythic Birds Waltz, an episodic movement full of variety, energy and color, caps off a truly fantastic album. Take my word and pre-order the thing!

This is just the string-driven tip of the iceberg of "classical and composed" music I've been listening to this year. Follow this playlist to find some other things that have caught my ear in 2017 -  and please tell me what I'm missing.

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