Sunday, August 08, 2021

Record Roundup: Enigmas And Excitations

The composer starts with a blank page - or screen - and fills it with notes or diagrams, which are meant to enable others to issue forth sounds that previously only existed in the mind of their maker. While there may be iterations based on collaboration with the musicians, with a back and forth between writer and performers - or even an invitation to improvisation - the fact remains that it all begins one person's mind. Gain entry to some truly enigmatic and exciting thoughts below.

Spektral Quartet - Anna Thorvaldsdottir: Enigma Beethoven, Bartok, Schoenberg, and Shostakovich - just to name a few - all served to make the string quartet a proving ground for a composer. The exposed format presents both an opportunity and a challenge to translate your individuality and complexity across just 16 strings on four instruments. It's a different matter than a solo piece, which can also present difficulties, as one key element is interaction between the players. Still, the rigidity of the quartet makeup provides an excellent opportunity for the listener to compare approaches, like creating an overlay in he mind of The Beatles and Wire, who both use two guitars, bass, and drums as their essential lineup. Shostakovich also helped establish the idea of the string quartet being an especially personal expression, away from the more public space of the symphonic or operatic.

Those are some reasons I was all aquiver when I heard that Anna Thorvaldsdottir, one of the preeminent composers of our time, had written a string quartet. The work, called Enigma, premiered in Washington DC in 2019 and is finally being released on August 27th in a stunning performance by the Spektral Quartet, beautifully produced by Dan Merceruio for Sono Luminus. Right from the start of the three-movement work it's obvious that Thorvaldsdottir is operating on her own trajectory, with little reference to what's come before in the medium. Beginning with some mysterious alchemy that has the strings sounding like a distant wind, or someone's breath, Enigma is instantly arresting. Long, drawn-out chords further the piece's grip, almost physically pulling you in, as a melody emerges from the drip-drip-drip of the sequences. More breathing, the sound of insects ascending in a swarm, glassy notes interleaving, and sustained drones all assemble in a sound world that seems as visual as it is sonic. 

After listening several times, I'm not surprised to learn that there is a virtual reality component to Enigma, created in collaboration with filmmaker Sigurdur Gudjonsson. While the first release will be a conventional CD, eventually you will be able to  explore this at home with a VR headset. However, I imagine its full expression may be in future performances, each conceived to be a "360 degree full-dome theater live concert experience," premiering in Chicago and Reykjavik in spring/summer 2022. Hopefully additional dates will include New York!

The second movement is a little more active, with dramatic barks underpinning drones and occasional quick-moving passages. What starts to sink in is Thorvaldsdottir's preternatural understanding of the many varieties of sound that can be produced between wood, string, and bow. An extraterrestrial would not need much to be convinced she had conceived and built these instruments herself strictly for the purpose of making this music. Movement three is a bit eerie, as if exploring a pitch dark space, cobwebs dancing in pin-sized shafts of light. Then, ever so slowly, a melody develops, an ascending series of chords that seem to pay homage to the human need for order and narrative. An ancient song to carry you home. Listen to Enigma once and you just may believe it has always existed.

José Luis Hurtado - Parametrical Counterpoint Even as the board chair for Talea Ensemble, who play on six of eight tracks here, it took a random internet occurrence - i.e. luck - for me to learn about this album. At a recent board meeting, I learned it was a surprise to the ensemble as well, having recorded the works back in 2015 and then lost track of the project. Perhaps the delay was due to Hurtado, wanting to fill the album out a little, which he does with the two piano pieces that bookend the collection. Hurtado plays those himself, opening things up with the almost violent The Caged, The Immured (2018), which pushes the piano to some of its limits of volume and sustain. It's a thrill-ride from start to finish, with Hurtado in complete control throughout and the patented excellence of Oktaven Audio's sound on full display. Apparently there's a two-piano version, with the second instrument playing the same score, yet read upside down - must be quite an experience!

Retour (2013) is next, putting Talea through their paces for a dynamic, fragmented seven minutes and change. It's spicy and tart, full of agitated strings, a blatting trombone, and a flute whispering like a shy person trying desperately to get your attention among the noise. It's a delightful introduction to Hurtado's ensemble work, as are the four versions of Parametrical Counterpoint (all 2015), which pit two variable ensembles against each other to play a series of modules in an order of their choosing. Each version is a fast paced swirl of ideas, with the musicians trading melodic and rhythmic ideas with verve and commitment. Incandescent (2015) for 12 amplified instruments, is full of mechanical interactions, like a rusted engine trying to turn over. While still fragmentary, there's a greater sense of unity among the ensemble and a real sense of forward motion. Le Stelle (2015), for piano and fixed media, closes the album, a starlit and occasionally disorienting series of short, linked pieces that have the piano and electronics combining with a masterful organicity. This is the first I'm hearing of Hurtado, but thanks to this stunning collection he's firmly on my radar now.

Rarescale + Scott L. Miller - 05 IX I was eager to hear more from Miller after Tak Ensemble's marvelous recording of his Ghost Layers last year - and he delivered, putting this wild and occasionally wacky collection of telematically created pieces right in my inbox. With the pandemic pausing their usual collaborative methods, Miller and Rarescale, a flexible ensemble based in the UK, explored ways to work together online. As they normally work with graphic scores that encourage improvisation as the instrumentalist reacts to electronic sounds produced by Miller on the Kyma, they needed a platform that would allow them to interact in real time with very little latency, eventually settling on one called (yes) Netty McNetface. You can see some of how this worked in this video, which show Miller and his colleague, Pat O'Keefe (clarinet), in Minnesota jamming with Viv Corringham (voice and electronics, from Long Island) and Rarescale's Carla Rees (flutes, from London), working off of Miller's graphic score. 

OK, that's a lot of the HOW of 05 IX, but what does it sound like? Featuring Rees and her Rarescale colleague Sarah Watts on clarinets, this varies greatly from Ghost Layers in sound and style. Full of witty asides and amusing outbursts, this combo of people and instruments seems primed for play. Round 2 is a perfect example, with Miller's Kyma echoing and leading Rees' flute, like a robot trying to imitate its human companion. Picture C3PO and Luke Skywalker - but in a Marx Brothers comedy - to get some idea. However, there's more to it than that, with moments of repose and atomization, as if each player is returning to a quiet corner before leaping forth and batting sounds around some more. In just under five minutes, the piece takes you on quite a journey, which can certainly be said for the album as a whole. What other tricks does Miller have up his sleeve?

Douglas Boyce - The Hunt By Night Having delighted in The Hunt By Night when it opened Against Method, last year's brilliant album from Counter)induction, I was excited to dig into this collection. As the four other pieces here demonstrate, the man knows what he's doing, generating chamber works that are both splashy and elegant, whether interacting with the genius of the past, as on Quintet "L'homme armé," inspired by that medieval melody, or the future, as on Sails Knife-bright in a Seasonal Wind, inspired by his son as a four-year-old. Alternately playful and contemplative, that piece, like many here, features members of Counter)induction, in this case, Miranda Cuckson (violin), Dan Lippel (guitar), and Jeffrey Irving (percussion), with everyone engaging deeply with Boyce's music. But all the performances and the recording are top-notch, making this a perfect showcase for a composer deservedly gaining wider attention - give him yours.

You may also enjoy:
Record Roundup: Novelty Is Not Enough
Record Roundup: Classical Composure
Witness The Ritual: The Music Of Pierluigi Billone
Information For 16 Strings

Note: The illustration contains part of a work by François-Xavier Lalanne as seen at The Clark.

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