Saturday, November 30, 2019

Record Roundup: Contemporary Kaleidoscope

Before the Best Of lists begin, here's one more “regular” post, a quick run through just a few spectacularly colorful recent releases in the contemporary classical arena. Push "play" on this playlist to listen along in real time.

Zosha Di Castri - Tachitipo Color. Texture. Emotion. Craft. All those virtues are fully on display on this stunning portrait debut from Di Castri, a Canadian composer with whom I was completely unfamiliar. If you’re in the same boat, paddle over and climb aboard a luxury liner packed with talent. In the engine room are Di Castri’s compositions, which demonstrate an astonishing facility with a variety of forces, from vocal group to string quartet, and from solo piano to chamber ensemble. Then, you have the staterooms, appointed with such luminaries as Ekmeles, Talea Ensemble, JACK Quartet, Julia Den Boer, International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), and Yarn/Wire, each one performing at the top of their game. That’s no mean feat when you consider something like the opening track, The Animal After Whom All Other Animals Are Named (2013), which has Ekmeles dishing out all manner of vocal effects while engaging in a fractured duet with glitched-out electronics. It’s a gauntlet thrown and one ably picked up by Cortège, which has Lorraine Vaillancourt through a dark funhouse of tension, release, and smart orchestration. 

String Quartet No. 1 (2016) is like raw steak tossed into the JACK’s cage: they attack the score with gusto and make quite a meal for all of us. While deeply connected to the tradition, Di Castri also approaches it with a disarming freshness. May it be played often by string quartets everywhere. Dux (2017) also gives Den Boer a lot to chew on, whether it’s the keyboard spanning runs or techniques seemingly derived from Cage and Nancarrow. Unlike those two masters, however, Di Castri seems to be leading with her heart more than her head. La Forma Dello Spazio (2010), performed by ICE, is next, all flashing swords and lances, like knights on skittish horses. The percussion part adds atmosphere and the inventiveness continues to the very last note.

Yarn/Wire, a quartet of two pianos and two percussionists, now have, in the title track (2016) a new piece that should long find a place in their repertoire. Named after a brand of typewriter, it’s a showpiece for both players and composer, full of wit, charm, and moments of limpid beauty. And if all of this variety has you wondering if there's is anything she can't do, witness Diego Espinosa Cruz Gonzalez performing How Many Bodies Have We To Pass through, a deep exploration of percussive possibilities. The name Zosha Di Castri is memorable all on its own, but this knockout album guarantees it will be on the lips of anyone who loves new music. Shell out for the CD - it comes in a letterpress package by Kiva Stimac that is the ideal visual and tactile companion to the sounds within. Dare I say it's the perfect stocking stuffer?

Mario Diaz de Leon - Cycle And Reveal Both Talea Ensemble and ICE appear on this latest collection of works by Diaz de Leon, each the result of long collaborations between artist and performer going back at least a decade. The four works here find Diaz de Leon using space and silence in new ways without losing the sense of wonder and ceremony that I have come to expect from him. Sacrament (2017) opens the album with the beautifully rounded sounds of the marimba (played by Alex Lipowski) combined with flute and eventually clarinet and electronics, moments of dense sound synthesis alternating with fragmented sections, the instruments seeming to chase each other around the room.

Labrys (2017), composed for and performed by ICE bassoonist Rebekah Heller, also has a fragmented feel, with plenty of air around the expectorations of the reed instrument and the bright synth tones. Part of the fun is putting it all together in your head an effort which comes to a crashing halt when the commanding tones of Mariel Roberts's cello digs into the opening notes of Irradiance (2016), a cavernously involving piece. Diaz de Leon as master of darkness and electronics (and deeply informed by pop and metal) comes to the fore here, releasing startling images in my mind such as a black rose crushed into diamonds, glinting with all the colors of the universe against a velvety night sky. It must be heard to be believed! The ICE trio of Heller, Claire Chase (flute), and Joshua Rubin (clarinet) finish the album with Mysterium (2016), which lives up to its name with the narrative tension of a great Lalo Schifrin score. If you haven't been tracking Diaz de Leon's career thus far, Cycle And Reveal is a ideal point of entry.

Tak Ensemble - Oor This no-holds-barred group debuted in 2016 with Ecstatic Music, devoted to the compositions of Taylor Brook and one of the best classical releases of that year. They dedicated their second recording to Diaz de Leon for another remarkable excursion into his sound world. If those weren't proof enough that they were ready for anything, Oor will convince you that nothing is too wild or wooly for Tak. Naturally, Tyshawn Sorey is an ideal co-conspirator and Laura Cocks (flute) and Carlos Cordiero (clarinet) easily meet the demands of his aggressive and witty Ornations (commissioned by Tak in 2014), which I had the privilege to see Claire Chase and Josh Rubin perform at the Miller Theatre earlier this year. That's not even as much fun as album closer, The Colors Don't Match by Natacha Diels, who puts vocalist Charlotte Mundy (who also sings with Ekmeles) through her paces as she she recites the names of notes ("D flat...E...E flat") in a variety of attitudes while the rest of the band tries to keep pace. Def puts Diels on my radar. 

David Bird's works shone on AndPlay's wonderful Playlist so it's great to hear his talents applied to the wider palette of Tak, who take his ball and run with it a long distance. Ashkan Behzadi, who also had a piece on Playlist, takes full advantage of Mundy's adventurous spirit in Az Hoosh Mi..., almost casting Marina Kifferstein's violin as another vocalist in an investigation of a modern piece of poetic Persian erotica. The album also includes Erin Gee's Mouthpiece, which gives Mundy even more space to play, and Anne Cleare's Unable To Create An Offscreen World, a colorfully harsh fantasia with some splashy moments for percussionist Ellery Trafford and guest cellist Meaghan Burke. Equally as exciting as Oor itself is the fact that it was released on their own Tak Editions label - perhaps a hint that their is much more to come from this extraordinary bunch of players.

Jessica Meyer - Ring Out In which supremely talented violist Meyer reveals herself as a delightfully varied, and emotionally connected, composer. Not surprisingly for someone who only began composing five years ago, many of the most assured works are for strings, whether the headlong rush of cello (played by Andrew Yee of Attaca Quartet) in Released (2014), or the skillful intertwining of violin and cello, played by Miranda Cuckson and Caleb van der Swaagh respectively, in the Rumi-inspired three-part suite, I Only Speak Of The Sun (2018). But Meyer also branches out beautifully in a song cycle, Seasons of Basho, written for viola, countertenor (Nicholas Tamagna), and piano (Adam Marks), and Ring Out, Wild Bells (2017), composed for the vocal octet Roomful of Teeth, and taking full advantage of the unique resonance of the TANK in Colorado. Bringing together the words of Alfred, Lord Tennyson,and field recordings of Parisian church bells, it spins off many possibilities for Meyer's future as a composer. If you listen to Ring Out you'll likely be waiting with bated breath for more.

Ted Hearne - Hazy Heart Pump Composer/performers don't come much more polyglot than Hearne, who is equally at home deconstructing Madonna songs or composing a choral dissection of the Citizens United ruling. But I think his personality (personalities?) as an artist have never been as searingly committed to a single album as they are here. You can almost visualize the funnel going into his brain, with Charles Mingus pushing past poetry (Saul Williams and Dorothy Lasky) and jockeying for space with David Lang and, say, Bela Bartok, where it's transmuted into his own particular art. The wonder of this album is in the full package, too, thanks to the liner notes from Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti, which not only describe their friendship but also superbly explicate the background to each piece. Lanzilotti is present as a performer as well, adding her viola to Hearne's piano and the violin of Miki-Sophia Cloud for Vessels (2008), which employs alternate tunings and muted strings to arrive at a chopped and screwed vision of Neue Weiner Schule serialism. At least that's what happens in my head - your results may vary.

The album kicks off with For The Love Of Charles Mingus (2016), which finds Cloud layering six violin parts for an oblique response to the universe of the great jazz bassist. Williams joins forces with the Mivos Quartet for The Answer To The Question That Wings Ask (2016), a series of questions ("What time is it? Who set the clock? Who coded/decoded time? Are there different ways of keeping it?) with the Mivos either following or competing with the poet's intense recitation. The four jagged and funky parts of Furtive Movements (2015) will have you questioning why more works aren't written for cello and percussion - then again, not everyone has Ashley Bathgate and Ron Wiltrout at their disposal to make those dreams a reality. Nobody's (2009) is wisely at the center of the album, a short bit of shattered Appalachia for solo viola (Diana Wade - and her stomping feet) that leads perfectly into Vessels. The album closes with the Argus Quartet's reading of Exposure (String Quartet No. 1) (2017) and you would be correct in thinking that the subtitle indicates a confrontation with the storied tradition of string quartets. Hearne's pen is more than up to it, too, resulting in a piece that should be played far and wide in halls big and small. Trust me, Hearne's latest will have your heart pumping in ways that are not at all hazy.

Daniel Lippel - Mirrored Spaces Even if Lippel never released another album under his own name, we would all owe him a debt for his wise and generous steering of the ship that is New Focus Recordings, which issues a seemingly endless stream of great albums each year. And that's not to mention his superb work within many ensembles, ICE and counter)induction among them. But here he has followed up last year's remarkable ...through which the past shines with yet another gift, a vast collection across the possibilities of guitar music as sprawling and adventurous as the White Album, featuring pieces by Orianna Webb, John Link, Kyle Bartlett, Douglas Boyce, Ryan Streber, Ethan Wickman, Christopher Bailey, Dalia R. With, Sergio Kafejian, Karin Wetzel, Sidney Corbett, and Lippel himself. From solo acoustic gems like Wickman's Joie Divisions to electro-acoustic works like the alternately sparkling and serrated Like Minds by Link, Lippel wants us to hear it all, feel it all, and marvel at it all. 

The project has its roots in a 2008 performance, represented here by a live recording of Lippel's own Scaffold for electric guitar, full of moody string-bending, feedback and distortion, which will echo in your head long after the album ends. I'll leave it to the sociologists to look into why, after a peripatetic series of collaborations, premieres and recording sessions, Mirrored Spaces comes to us in the same season as All Mirrors by Angel Olsen or mirrored heart by FKA Twigs, but I will say it is as vital a reflection of our times as either of those fertile and exploratory journeys into the heart of pop expressionism. I will be listening to, and taking nourishment from, Mirrored Spaces for quite some time. I suggest you start now.

Dither - Potential Differences If it's more guitar goodness you seek, don't, er, dither about grabbing on to this third album from a most versatile electric guitar quartet made up of Taylor Levine, Joshua Lopes, James Moore, and Gyan Riley. Whether exploring various techniques and tones in Jascha Narveson's marvelous four-movement suite, Ones (2011) or going full atmo-prog in Mi-Go (2012) by Lopes, these guys can do it all. Each of them contributes a piece, in fact, with Riley's hypnotic The Tar of Gyu (2013) and Levine's post-punk freakout, Renegade (2013), being especially memorable. We also get more Ted Hearne in Candy (2010), which is filled with patterns and textures you can imagine David Torn contributing to a Bowie album. Maybe we can get someone to commission a guitar quintet and have Lippel sit in with Dither...a person can dream. Until then, I'll just continue enjoying the ride. 

There's something for all tastes and occasions above - let me know which ones move you the most.

You may also enjoy:
Record Roundup: String Theories
Concert Review: JACK In The Crypt
Record Roundup: Past Is Present
Record Roundup: Composed, Commemorated, and Beyond
Glints In The Darkness: Mario Diaz de Leon

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