Sunday, October 07, 2018

Three Portraits: Cheung-Trapani-Du Yun

Albums by ensembles featuring multiple composers are a great way to focus on a group’s skills, both as curators and players. But the “portrait album” is another thing, giving listeners a valuable opportunity to focus on a range of works by one artist. Here are three of the best from recent months. 

Anthony Cheung - Cycles and Arrows One common criticism of post-modernism when it first became widely known in the 80’s was that it was a movement based on superficialities. For example, when an architect used some vestige of a Greek column in their work it was just there because it looked good or called up certain associations. There was seemingly no reference or understanding about why the ancients might have developed such a form or what mathematical principles lay behind its visual perfection. 

The music of Anthony Cheung is a firm rebuttal to that line of thinking. When you read his program notes for this, his third portrait album, you quickly realize that any echo of past forms or other compositions comes from a place of deep scholarship and musical understanding. Combined with a sureness of orchestration that feels natural and intuitive but is surely the product of much study and experimentation, the result is a delightful array of compositions from the last five years. Take the opening work, written for flute and string quartet and cheekily entitled The Real Book Of Fake Tunes. Over five short movements, the dialogue between the players unfurls with such wit and elegance you almost forget there are five people working together to produce the sounds. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the players are the genius flautist Claire Chase and the excellent Spektral Quartet, who also appear on the angular Bagatelles with pianist Winston Choi. 

So it goes throughout the album, whether combining Chinese instruments with Western ones in More Marginalia (played by the astonishing Atlas Ensemble) or composing for solo oboe in Après Une Lecture, which is cleverly based on notated speech patterns Cheung saw in the notebooks of Leos Janacek and played to perfection by Ernest Rombaut. The International Contemporary Ensemble appears on two pieces, the swaggering Assumed Roles with violist Maiya Papach, and Times Vestiges, which ends the album with a sense of unresolved mystery, like a flashlight’s beam being swallowed by tunnel. Cycles And Arrows is, like Dystemporal from 2016, further proof that Cheung is one of the finest composers of our time. 

Christopher Trapani - Waterlines While it’s usually terrible when visa problems derail a concert, it was actually to my benefit when Talea Ensemble had to shift gears for their slot at last month’s Resonant Bodies festival. Instead of playing a world premiere by a European composer, the group decided to revisit Trapani’s Waterlines. As a board member of Talea, I saw this happening in real time but still had no idea what to expect as I had missed a previous performance of the piece. 

“Home is the pull of a tonic chord,” Trapani writes in his liner notes for Waterlines, “Home is the warm glow of consonance, radiating through a hissing layer of noise.” He then goes on to describe the gestation of the piece, from being in Paris and watching Katrina hit his home city, to seeking solace in the old country and Delta blues records that animate this five-song cycle, especially ones about the great flood of 1927, to finding parallels between those old shellacs and the spectral music of Gerard Grisey and others.

I felt that pull and warmth right from the first strummed dulcimer chords that open the first song, Can’t Feel At Home, a feeling that only increased when Lucy Dhegrae began singing with the perfect combination of real feeling, theatricality and classical control. Waterlines brought me back to the first time I heard Barstow by Harry Partch, to that feeling like it had been with me all my life. All five songs in Waterlines were riveting and I marveled at the fractured vernacular, the lean orchestration, which has a few unusual instruments (fretless Turkish banjo) but no gimmicks, the quotes from Mahler and others that somehow fit just right...before it was over I knew I was in the presence of an instant classic. Dhegrae was fantastic throughout and Talea's playing, led by conductor James Baker, was intricate, powerful, and immaculately balanced. And now we have this recording featuring the same forces and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

There are four other excellent works here as well. Passing Through, Staying Put is a tart piano trio stylishly played by Longleash, who put such a stamp of greatness on Scott Wollschleger's Soft Aberration last year. The JACK Quartet takes on Visions And Revisions, elucidating its harmonic and melodic ties to Dylan's Visions Of Johanna with what sounds like great affinity for the music. There's further magic in the way Marilyn Nonken's sparkling piano in The Silence Falling Star Lights Up A Purple Sky segues into the final work, Cognitive Consonance.

The longest piece on the album, it consists of two long movements for stringed instruments bookending a brief electronic interlude. Talea Ensemble also contributes here and the electronics were crafted at IRCAM, the electronic music incubator founded by Pierre Boulez. The first part, Disorientation, uses a specially modified qanun (a kind of zither), played with extraordinary facility by Didem Basar, to explore a tactile landscape of immersive microtonality. I hung on every pluck and sweep of the strings, taking great pleasure from the way they interacted with the electronic textures. The second part, Westering, is played by Trapani himself on a hexaphonic electric guitar, which has transposition controls for each string, each of which is amplified by its own pickup, allowing for great control of pitch, timbre, etc. But you won't need to think about any of that as you listen - just enjoy the journey, which has no shortage of mystery.

While Trapani's music has been played by many distinguished performers over the years, and included on some fine albums, Waterlines is the first album devoted solely to his work and its display of his scholarship, emotional depth and originality could not be more successful or musically satisfying. I can only imagine what he will do next.

Du Yun - Dinosaur Scar I'm one of those slightly clueless types who actually needed Du Yun to win the Pulitzer Prize (as she did last year for Angel's Bone, her second opera) for me to become fully aware of her music. Seeing her furious concentration as a performer at the MATA Festival last spring was only a reiteration of her talents. Now we have this album, which is probably the most complete overview of her shorter works to date. I could be churlish and point out that six of the ten tracks have been in the can since 2009 - almost a decade, which is far too long for an artist as protean as Du Yun. 

But there are many wonders within Dinosaur Scar, such as Air Glow, which combines five brass players with electric guitar and bass for a sinuous, atmospheric experience that goes on for nearly 11 glorious minutes. The performers are all from the International Contemporary Ensemble, a testament to their 20-year working relationship with Du Yun and an assurance that they are all at the top of their field. Special note must by paid to guitarist Dan Lippel, whose does stunning work all over the record. Claire Chase is also here and in full effect on Run in a Graveyard, which she first included on her debut solo album in 2011. Pitting her alto flute against Du Yun's gnarly electronics creates a unique blend indeed, its strong narrative drive keeping you in suspense throughout.

The title track is the oldest piece, written for solo saxophone in 1999 when Du Yun was a sophomore in college, and played like it was hot off the sheet music by Ryan Muncy. This well-rounded collection also includes two scintillating improvisations, one which features Du Yun on kazoo, toy harmonica and phone, showing her humor. The electrifying and episodic by, of...Lethean ends the album, effectively soundtracking a movie I made up in my mind as I listened. What stories will Du Yun tell you? 

P.S. A number of the works on Dinosaur Scar will be performed as part of Du Yun's Composer Portrait at the Miller Theater on November 15th. Perhaps I will see you there!

Find tracks from all of these albums and other notable classical releases from 2018 in this playlist - and, as always, tell me what I'm missing.

You may also enjoy:

Record Roundup: Electronic Excursions
Record Roundup: Avant Chamber And Orchestral
MATA's Bad Romance At The Kitchen
Record Roundup: Electro-Acoustic Explorations
Record Roundup: On The Cutting Edge
Best Of 2017: Classical

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