Sunday, September 27, 2020

Record Roundup: Fall Classics, Vol. 2


Continuing on from last time, here are six more albums from the vast universe of contemporary classical music in 2020. As promised, the playlist has grown...and will keep growing!


Grossman Ensemble - Fountain Of Time This powerhouse chamber ensemble, founded by composer and educator Augusta Read Thomas, has been growing in Chicago for the last few years, already amassing a portfolio of 36 commissioned works. Featuring five works from their first season, each one the result of a uniquely collaborative process directed by composers Anthony Cheung and Sam Pluta, it's hard to imagine a better introduction to their virtuosic interplay than this debut album. I'm sure it helps that all the players, including Tim Munro (flute), Ben Melsky (harp), Daniel Pesca (Piano), and the Spektral Quartet (strings) are brilliant on their own, but their sense of unity is a rare thing indeed. This is also no doubt aided by the spectacular recording, warm and nearly three dimensional, and the conducting of Ben Bolter, Michael Lewanski, Jerry Hou, and David Dzubay. 

The music ranges from Shulamit Ran's picturesque Grand Rounds, with its splashy percussion (played by Greg Beyer and John Corkill), and Cheung's supremely colorful Double Allegories, to the occasionally spectral PHO by Dzubay and the skeletal soundscape of Tonia Ko's Simple Fuel, which has some of the tension and release of a Lalo Schifrin score. The album ends with David Clay Mettens' Stain, Bloom, Moon, Rain, as spare and dramatic as the Japanese poems which inspired him. Kudos to Thomas for kicking this thing off and to the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition and the University of Chicago for giving it a home. Thanks to this spectacular album, the Grossman Ensemble is no longer solely the property of the windy city.

Páll Ragnar Pálsson - Atonement Quake, Pálsson's piece for cello and orchestra, was a highlight of not one but two albums in 2019, Vernacular by Saeunn Thorsteindottir and Concurrence by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, so I welcomed this opportunity to go deeper into his music on his first collection since 2017's Nostalgia. These are all chamber works, performed by Iceland's Caput Ensemble, and most feature voice, either the soprano Tui Hirv or poet Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir. These forces combine in sympathetic performances that manage to give equal weight to the darkness Pálsson evokes through his harmonic invention and the sparkle he creates through his orchestration, which often takes on a form of serial interaction, with piano sparking flute, which in turn triggers violin, and so on. Hirv's rich voice is the perfect foil for the instruments on Atonement, Stalker's Monologue, which takes its text from the Tarkovsky film, and Wheel Crosses Under Moss, while Gunnarsdóttir recites her own poem for Midsummer's Night. The theatricality of the music in that last piece, combined with Gunnarsdóttir's understated delivery, makes for an enthralling experience - a feeling that will grow more familiar with repeat listens to Atonement.

Sarah Frisof and Daniel Pesca - Beauty Crying Forth: Flute Music By Women Across Time Literally a breath of fresh air, this album expertly compiles music composed by women for flute and piano (mostly), stretching from Clara Schumann's Three Romances (1853) to Shulamit Ran's Birds of Paradise (2014). Tania León's Alma (2007), brightly sets the tone of the album, which is rarely less than sunny. The one exception is Kaija Saariaho's Cendres (1998), which adds cello (Hannah Collins) to Frisof's flute and Pesca's piano. With wild flutterings from the flute and hard-driven cello, often slicing into harmonics, Cendre is a mysterious knockout, like a smoky cocktail that forces you to lay down and contemplate the inside of your eyelids. Pour me another!

Bára Gísladóttir - Hīber If you fell in love with the sharp sound of Saariaho's cello on Cendre's, you will be enraptured by Gísladóttir's blazingly brilliant song cycle for double bass and electronics. Taking her instrument to the limit, with whispering harmonic highs and grinding lows, she creates a universe that pulls you in from the start. Titles like No Afterlife Thanks and Fists Clenched give an idea of some of the emotional realms she's drawing on, but just listening will give you all the clues you need to get there. And get there you must - even if it means signing up for your first streaming account, as this is only available on those platforms. You'll want to be prepared for her upcoming release on Sono Luminus...

Patchwork This debut album for the saxophone and drum duo of Noa Even and Stephen Klunk goes a long way toward establishing a repertoire for a combo that is surprisingly versatile. Featuring five commissioned pieces by Osnat Netzer, Hong-Da Chin, Eric Wubbels, Erin Rogers, and Dan Tramte, and recorded in an appealingly dry acoustic, which allows every pop, tick, and scrape their own moments in the spotlight, it's an entertaining ride, too. Rogers' Fast Love is a perfect example of what Even and Klunk can do. If you've ever seen Rogers play, you know how brave it was for Even to assay a piece by her! But, in Even's hands, Fast Love sounds remarkably tossed off and spontaneous, especially during the wild fourth section, full of gutbucket honks and Desi Arnaz grunts. Klunk distinguishes himself throughout, up for any challenge thrown his way - check him out in Tramte's G®iND, inspired by a YouTube clip about wind-up toys. It's a nifty, inventive piece and as good a proof of concept as anything on this inspiring collection.

Hildegard Competition Winners Vol. 1 Since 2018, National Sawdust has been running this mentorship program for "outstanding trans, female, and nonbinary composers in the early stages of their careers," which provides a cash prize, guidance from established composers like Du Yun and Angélica Negrón, and a live performance led by cellist Jeffrey Zeigler. Having managed to miss every one of those performances, I'm thrilled to have works by the first six winners available for on-demand listening. Eclectic in both conception and sound, works like the tremulous and lyrical Openwork/Knotted Object/Trellis In Bloom/Lightning Ache by inti figgis-vizueta or Casual Champagne + Cocaine by X Lee, with its iPhone noises and scrabbling violins, make a clear case that what may now be on the margins needs to move closer to the center. In addition to the two composers mentioned above, remember the names Kayla Cashetta, Niloufar Nourbakhsh, Emma O’Halloran, Bergrún Snæbjörnsdóttir, not to mention those of the 2020 winners (Flannery Cunningham, Jimena Maldonado, and Sonja Mutić), who have yet to be recorded. What National Sawdust is doing here is certainly noble, but there is nothing academic or appeasing about the music they're ushering into the world. Let it open your mind and your ears.

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Sunday, September 20, 2020

Record Roundup: Fall Classics, Vol. 1


As we enter autumn and the FOURTH QUARTER of 2020 is staring me in the face, I'm attempting to catch up with classical releases stretching back over the last few months. Prepare to be dazzled - and make sure to subscribe so you don't miss Vol. 2...and maybe even Vol. 3! 

Sample each of these albums in this playlist, which will grow with each volume of reviews.



Michi Wiancko - Planetary Candidate I've written in the past about instruments as a form of technology and Wiancko's new collection is a perfect example. Whether combining her violin with her voice or shimmering electronics, the blend is so natural it can be hard to separate the constituent parts. Over eight tracks, including commissions from Christopher Adler, Paula Matthusen, Mark Dancigers, Jessie Montgomery, and William Brittelle, Wiancko deftly navigates a wealth of expressive possibilities. From the mantric minimalism of her own title piece to Matthusen's dense, knotty Songs of Fuel and Insomnia, and on to the exposed single line of Danciger's Skyline, her commitment is absolute. William Brittelle's So Long Art Decade pays homage to the icy and adventurous grandeur of David Bowie's Low, and is just one highlight on an album that represents a new peak of achievement for this protean musician.

Clara Iannotta: Earthing  - JACK Quartet Thank goodness for Spotify, because none of my other sources alerted me to this extraordinary collection of Iannotta's string quartets. Over four pieces composed since 2013, Iannotta turns the awe-inspiring JACK into a psychedelic tone generator that could soundtrack an Italian giallo. Dramatic, startling, and truly consciousness-altering, Iannotta amazes time and time again here. I loved her piece on andPlay's Playlist, but this is the most concentrated dose of her music since her 2016 portrait debut, A Failed Entertainment: Works 2009 - 2014, and I still want more.

Gyða Valtýsdóttir - Epicycle II The sequel to her 2017 album, which featured unique interpretations of music from 2,000 years of history, Epicycle II is almost all world-premiere work, much of it existing in a liminal, luminous space where art rock, ambient music, and contemporary classical not just coexist but cohere. It is also peppered with Icelandic all stars, with contributions from Jónsi (Sigur Rós), Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, Ólöf Arnalds, Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir (of my beloved Nordic Affect) and others, to the point where only Björk seems to be missing. But the primary sounds are made by Valtysdottir's cello and voice, and the whole collection is suffused with her dark, sensual personality, creating a world unto itself. Book a trip - you will find her itinerary most enticing.

Tomás Gueglio - Duermevela My introduction to this Argentine-born composer was his piece After L'Addio/Felt on Ben Melsky's marvelous New Music For Harp, which is also included here among a kaleidoscopic array of his other chamber works. JACK Quartet's Austin Wulliman kicks it off with Mil Panaderos for solo violin, a spiky, spicy rush of plucks and scrapes that serves as a tonic for the ears - tart and bracing. Some of the same material is repurposed for a sextet, Apostillas a Mil Panaderos, played with flair and nuance by Latitude 49, before things slow down slightly for 1901: Un Oiseau, a duo for bass flutes with some impish vocalizing. Ending the album is Cancion en Duermevela for four guitars, given an assured performance by the Nuntempe Ensemble, a shimmering piece that seems to turn the quartet into one large instrument, not unlike a harp. Duermevela is a Spanish word that can refer to the line between sleeping and waking and also means "restless sleep" - and there is a restlessness to Gueglio's music, a refusal to take instruments at face value and a need to keep moving. This excellent collection is an invitation to take the pulse of his creativity at a moment in time. When we next check in with Gueglio, he could be somewhere else entirely.

Kaufman Music Center - Transformation These times of social distance and remote learning have engendered much creativity, such as this delightful album created by the 10th grade class of the Kaufman Music Center’s Special Music School in collaboration with Nathalie Joachim, their Artist-in-Residence for the 20-21 year. Working together over email and Zoom, these students have created a brief oasis full of bright colors and sonic adventure. Texture is a key element of each piece, whether all electronic, like Digital Tears, or acoustic, like the violins of Singing Summer, which seem to overlap and move apart as you listen. Soon is almost a pop song, with a drum machine groove and some jazzy chords, and its mood of chill melancholy is a place I in which I would like to spend a lot more time. Transformation is a fascinating window into developing musical minds and I hope I hear about it when these young composers make more music. If you're looking for hope about the future of contemporary composition and performance, look no further.

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Sunday, September 13, 2020

Record Roundup: Songs And Singers


What is it about a song - an idealized, often compact blend of melody, harmony, rhythm, and words - that can lift you up, comfort you, and put language to your inchoate emotions? Find your answers where you may, I prefer to embrace the mystery of one of humankind's greatest achievements. Here, then, are some masterful examples of the power of song on albums could help you get through the hellscape of 2020.

Jenny O. - New Truth Jenny O. is a major artist around my way, her pensive and tuneful indie rock always a highlight of any year she puts out something new. In fact, her first full-length album, Automechanic, was on my list of the 100 best albums of the 2010's. Now we have her third album, and first without Jonathan Wilson in the producer's chair. This time around she's working with Kevin Ratterman, who's been in the trenches for years as a band member (Wax Fang), mixer, masterer, engineer, and producer, and who also plays drums on most songs. Almost all the other instruments are played by Jenny herself, along with the layers of background vocals that enrich some of the tracks. But the new collaboration has done nothing to impede her growth as a songwriter and singer, with her melodies sounding more inevitable than every and her voice at its most confident and relaxed. 

Her lyrics have the same conversational, relatable quality that's distinguished her work from the jump. A song like Small Talk is a perfect example: "Case you didn't notice, I been suffering/Some days are better, others are OK/It doesn't matter what you say/I know you're suffering too, like everyone/Tell me how you feel/How'd your brother die?/How you doing now?/Small talk, small talk." There's also a new dreaminess in the bossa-psych of Color Love, with it's aching melody and distorted guitar. And then you get a song like Even If I Tried, a jangle-pop wonder which should be played on public radio stations across the land - at any other time it would be a huge hit. And if you go to her Bandcamp ASAP, you can still grab a copy on beautiful "Professor Plum" vinyl. When it arrives, just do as Jenny says in Color Love: "Put on a record, let it move you and turn it over/Listen to it all the way through."

Richard Aufrichtig - Perfume Cigarettes
"Take my hand, for a minute/If you can/There's a world in my pocket/And I cannot stop it," Aufrichtig sings in Fragment, which kicks off this companion album to last year's Troubadour No. 1, and there may be no better metaphor for his seemingly endless ribbon of creativity. Consider the fact that all of these songs were drawn from a pool of 400 songs Aufrichtig wrote in his 20's! Like Troubadour No. 1, Aufrichtig worked on Perfume Cigarettes with Josh Kaufman, the genius multi-instrumentalist and producer who is also one-third of Bonny Light Horseman, and the symbiotic relationship between song and sound is as complete as it was on the earlier album. This one is slightly more relaxed of vibe, however, with spare arrangements that mesmerize on their own while highlighting Aufrichtig's warm, wise vocals. Take So Far Gone, for example, which is just bass, drums, and a reverb-drenched piano played with the wide-splayed power of Dylan warming up in Don't Look Back while Aufrichtig takes us to a church built of memories. The whole album is a journey, touching down in New Mexico, Paris, California, on to New York City and "that holy sound," as Aufrichtig sings in RNK 3, which ends the album on a reflective note in an ambient cloud of wordless vocals and and echoing drum machine. Let this album osmose into your soul, which will be forever enriched in the process.

Caitlin Pasko - Greenhouse Speaking of ambient clouds, Pasko's whole album is essentially a formation of sky-sailing soft events, mostly made up of synths and with her voice floating through the haze. A cross between art song and electro-folk, Greenhouse is an album made for lying in the grass and watching the chiaroscuro of life go by your closed eyelids. 

The Dead Tongues - Transmigration Blues While this might be more conventional than the haunted Appalachia of Ryan Gustafson's earlier work, it's also his most assured - and even lush - album yet. It's one long woodsy swoon, with a touch of Keith Richards swagger, full of memory, yearning, and regret. Sheer beauty, and when that tube-driven guitar solo leaps out of Nothingness And Everything it's a startling reminder of the deep well Gustafson draws from for his music.

Alex Rainer - Time Changes I know Alex mainly as a member the team at Unison Media, who keep me in the loop on things like what the JACK Quartet is up to - or that amazing Miyamoto Is Black Enough album that I reviewed recently. But he is also an exceptionally fine folk singer/songwriter and Time Changes, his first album in four years, is loveliness itself. While Nick Drake or Robin Pecknold might come to mind when listening to his intricate finger-picking and slightly husky voice, there's an emotional ease here that is worlds away from Drake's haunted searching or the existential questions of a Fleet Foxes track. Beneath the calm surface, however, lies hidden strength that you can draw on as you navigate these difficult times. If your steps are faltering, take Rainer to heart when he sings on Take One: "Don’t waste what you’re given/Just do what you got to do/And don’t worry, good things/will come to you soon." Good things, indeed - like this wonderful album. Let it come to you soon.

Emma Swift - Blonde On The Tracks That Bob Dylan is the greatest songwriter of the 20th and 21st centuries needs no further proof than this marvelous collection by Swift, an Australian transplant to Nashville who released an EP of limpid Americana in 2014. Everything I said above about the power of song seems to have been what attracted Swift to this material as she struggled though her own dark times and she sings each one as if it were her own. Much of the album was recorded in the last few years, aided by the sensitive production and musicianship of Pat Sansone, and a band of Nashville all-stars: Jon Radford (drums), Jon Estes (bass), and Thayer Serrano (pedal steel). But it wasn't until the combination of her tour being cancelled ("I lost my job," as she puts it - correctly) and Dylan's release of I Contain Multitudes that Swift was able to summon the impetus to release the album, quickly recording her own version, which reveals the song as an all-time great even beyond the original, and Simple Twist of Fate to fill out the track list. Living with cult legend Robyn Hitchcock, who has been Swift's musical and romantic partner for several years (here they are performing Dylan together in 2016), and who also contributes guitar, no doubt helped get these last tracks done. 

But the true star is Swift's voice, clear as an Appalachian spring, or whatever the Australian equivalent may be, as that is from whence she hailed before settling in Nashville. She seems hardwired into the emotional through-line of each song, whether stone-cold classics like Queen Jane Approximately or neglected gems like Going Going Gone. Perhaps even more audacious than jumping right into I Contain Multitudes is Swift's magisterial take on Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands. Her singing is both finely concentrated and at ease throughout its length, jaw-dropping when you think about it. Swift is far from running out of gas with Dylan, either - when she performed the album live at Grimey's a few weeks ago, she added a deeply affecting take on I've Made My Mind Up To Give Myself To You, another track from Rough and Rowdy Ways. I'm hitting refresh on Bandcamp, hoping she releases it as a single. Unlike many covers albums that arise from a place of contrivance, this album carries with it the weight of something that simply had to be. If you're looking for "folklore" from someone named Swift, look no further than Blonde On The Tracks.

Christopher Trapani - Waterlines Avid readers of AnEarful will be familiar with my rhapsodic response to Trapani's brilliant piece, whether in concert or on record, connecting instantly with his collage-like approach to old blues and country songs. So I'm like a kid in a candy store as I absorb a second world-class recording, this one by Belgium's Ictus Ensemble featuring Christie Finn, an American soprano. Their version differs somewhat from Talea Ensemble's world-premiere recording and may even have benefited from their example in that it's a bit more naturalistic. If you didn't know Trapani was behind it, you could almost think this was just a group of supremely skilled musicians who had an unusual approach to these songs that they loved. A bonus on the Ictus album is Trapani's Two Folksong Distortions, which has him deconstructing Wayfaring Stranger and Freight Train to remarkable effect. As sung by Liesa Van der Aa who also plays violin, accompanied by Tom Pauwel's guitars, they have a wonderfully hazy quality, like a photo printed out of register. This is my first exposure to Van der Aa and now I want to hear her interpret Dylan! In the meantime, I'll enjoy her work here while also exploring her album, Easy Alice, released this past February. It's so rare that the cream of contemporary composition gets more than one recording. Show your appreciation for this embarrassment of riches by diving deep into both versions of Waterlines.

Billie Eilish - Live At Third Man Records Billie Eilish became as famous on eBay as she is everywhere else when Third Man Records released the first pressing of this acoustic show in-store only. As I don't live in Nashville or Detroit, nor have infinite funds, I bided my time and, voila, look what Record Store Day brought me! So was the 10-track LP worth the wait? Mostly yes. While I could tell that her songs (co-written with her brother Finneas, who accompanies her here) had the bones to be presented in any number of arrangements, it's nice to be proven right by these stripped-down arrangements. Bury A Friend, Come Out And Play, and I Love You probably work best but there's no sore thumbs here. Her stage presence is great, too, warm and slightly bemused by all the love she's getting from the audience. The only caveat here is the audience, in fact, as they are very loud in their appreciation and when they sing along. This works a treat in my bootleg from Sydney's Horndern Pavilion in front of 5,500 people, but in this setting it seems a little...extra. This could have been helped in the mix, but part of the point of these Third Man recordings is that they are raw and uncut. As a souvenir of Eilish's first flush of stardom, I think this will only accrue value, and I don't mean monetarily. That's possible as well, with all 17,000 copies of this pressing already in the hands of either happy owners (like me) or resellers. If you're a fan, it's a must.

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