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Saturday, October 19, 2019

Record Roundup: String Theories

Plucked, bowed, tapped, strummed, or otherwise perturbed, taut strings, whether made of metal, plastic, or animal fiber, and perhaps attached to a resonant chamber, can be employed for as broad a range of expression as music can contain. The six albums below all have stringed instruments as their focus and represent peak artistic achievements for all involved. There’s also enough variety between them to suit every mood and setting, from challenging extended techniques to deeply meditative explorations into ambient realms. Enough of my yakking, let’s get on with it!

Ben Melsky/Ensemble Dal Niente I’m constantly telling people I love the harp. But it wasn’t until the opening notes of Tomás Gueglio’s After L’Addio/Felt (2014), the solo piece that starts off Melsky’s fascinating new collection, that I felt I was hearing the harp music I needed. Combining dry strums with the sweeping glissando for which the harp is known with brightly plucked notes, Gueglio gives us a sassy overview of the instrument’s reimagined sonic possibilities. The fact that the dry sounds are the result of a new technique of dragging Melsky’s calluses across the strings, speaks to not only a tight connection between composer and performer but also to Melsky’s dedication to his craft. In Alican Camçi’s Perde (2016), Melsky’s harp goes mano a mano with his Ensemble Dal Niente colleague Emma Hospelhorn’s bass flute, his swipes and melodic fragments moving in parallel with her husky whispers and staccato vocalizing. It’s slightly combative and if they never quite agree an invigorating detente is eventually reached. 

Next is Frederick Gifford’s Mobile 2015: Satirise (2015), part of his series of indeterminate pieces, which five agency to the players in how they order the elements during their performance. This one is designed for harp and guitar, played here by Jesse Langen, and finds the players embracing the similarities between their instruments as much as the differences, creating a unified landscape of sound rife with topographical interest. Wang Lu, whose debut portrait album made such a splash last year, contributes the cheekily titled After some remarks by CW on his work (2018), with the CW standing for composer Christian Wolff, one of her inspirations. A dialogue for Katie Schoepflin Jimoh’s clarinet and Melsky’s harp, the piece is a reflective gem. 

Igor Santos’s Anima (2019) is the longest piece here at 13 minutes plus and turns Melsky’s harp into a cog in a machine created by a delightfully witty percussion part played by Kyle Flens. It must be a joy in concert. On-Dit (2014), Eliza Brown’s piece incorporating a short fragment of text by Voltaire, closes the album with dynamic writing for harp accompanied by an hypnotic vocal part sung by soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett. It’s a mysterious yet energizing conclusion to a landmark recording for Melsky’s chosen instrument. I put it alongside Michael Nicolas’s Transitions and Olivia de Prato’s Streya as an exemplar of what a modern collection like this can look like. And speaking of looks, New Focus Recordings has really gone above and beyond with the packaging for this one, giving it a wonderfully handmade feel. If you still buy physical media, put this at the top of your shopping list. 

Pauline Kim Harris - Heroine This album is some kind of miracle. It was an instant hit in my house, too, assuming the status of a classic with stunning rapidity. The fact that it goes down so easy belies the amount of thought and craft, as well as heart and soul, put into it by Harris, a violinist with wide-ranging interests, and her co-composer, Spencer Topel. The first of the two pieces is an ambient exploration of the fourth movement of J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor (BWV 1004). Over more than 40 minutes, Harris and Topel blend live and recorded violin with electronics that at times shimmer and sparkle and at others seem to interrogate the source material. It’s mesmerizing and immersive, with the richness of the experience no doubt aided by Sono Luminus’s exquisite recording. To me, this the ideal use of Bach in the 21st century, especially when it comes to making records. 

The second pieces is equally wonderful, even if the source material, Johannes Ockeghem’s Deo Gratias of around 1497, is less familiar. Harris and Topel take the composer’s medieval canon through what feels like a natural evolution into infinity. One can only imagine what Kubrick would make of this glorious music and what images he would create to accompany it! Just as both Bach and Ockeghem used structural forms to make heavenly music filled with compassion and love, so do Harris and Topel create a sense of warmth and peace out of the application of intellectually rigorous approaches. There’s something healing about Heroine and I recommend listening to it without delay. 

Ashley Bathgate - Sleeping Giant: Ash Anyone who has seen Bathgate perform with the Bang On A Can All-Stars or solo has no doubt been riveted by her total involvement with everything she plays. It goes beyond her sheer virtuosity into what seems to be a mind-meld with the composer's intentions, a quality which comes through very clearly on her second solo album. Like Harris and Topel, Bathgate has found a wonderful way to keep Bach in the present without simply recording his work again. Arising out of a deep collaboration with the composers of the Sleeping Giant collective and inspired by Bach's Cello Suites, this series of six pieces was played in concert for two years (where was I?) before Bathgate made the recording. The result is a triumph for all involved and a better argument for the continuing life of these works in the repertoires of other players could not be imagined. 

Andrew Norman's For Ash opens the album, well-placed as you can hear the fragments of the Prelude of Bach's Fourth Suite coming through like a palimpsest. Chris Cerrone contributes On Being Wrong, which has features gorgeous harmonics and sections of Bathgate accompanied by more and more recordings of herself. There's a bit of darkness and melancholy to Cerrone's writing here as well, widening the emotional landscape of the album. Little Wonder, which composer Timo Andres calls "a madcap gigue," builds upon itself, repeating a line then adding a new phrase (or "cell"), only to go back to the beginning and play it all again, adding yet another cell. There's a woozy playfulness to it that I can imagine Bach enjoying quite a bit - especially after a stein or two of Bock. Jacob Cooper's Ley Lines takes the pedal stop at the end Suite Five's Prelude through a series of repetitions that almost arrives at 10 minutes of pure intensity. Bathgate's commitment to the short phrases, many of them on open strings, is incredible. 

The perfect follow-up to that is Ted Hearne's clever DaVz23BzMHo, which has Bathgate's cello triggering samples from a 1990's commercial, arriving at a lush noir exploration that wouldn't sound out of place in the next Blade Runner film. Robert Honstein's Orison closes Ash on a somber note, long lines stretching off into some unknowably distant inner space. It must be stunning in concert, especially after all that has come before, completing the circle that started with For Ash. That said, any one of these pieces can stand on their own and together they represent an impressive injection of new works for solo cello into the music of our time, a testament to Bathgate's dedication to her craft and to her connections to composers. 

andPlay - playlist There’s so much overlap in NYC’s fecund new music scene that it took me a minute to connect the Hannah Levinson I was watching play Catherine Lamb with Talea Ensemble at Tenri Cultural Center last month with this album, which I already had on repeat at the time. But, yes, this is the same violist, here paired with violinist Maya Bennardo, whom I also know as a member of Hotel Elefant. Though they founded andPlay about seven years ago and have commissioned many works, this is their debut album. The five world-premiere recordings make a perfect statement of the versatility and even power of this combination of instruments. 

Ashkan Behzadi’s Crescita Plastica (2015) opens the album with dramatic swoops and glides, guttural stops and eerie harmonics in a bold statement of purpose. Bezier (2013), the first of two works by David Bird, turns the viola and violin into glitchy simulacra of electronic instruments, with bird-like tones intruding playfully before the real fireworks start. It’s a tour de force and quite a calling card for this composer, who was new to me. Clara Iannota’s Limun (2011) is next, adding a harmonica to the sound world, which provides a drone over which Levinson and Bennardo alternately duel and join forces. Bird’s Apocrypha (2017) further expands things with electronics and brings the album to a stunning close. He is a composer I hope to hear more from soon. Bennardo and Levinson have made such a strong case for this instrumentation that I hardly thought about it, just reveling in all the fantastic sounds, expertly captured by New Focus. I hope andPlay is prepared to be overwhelmed next time they put out a call for scores!

David Bowlin - Bird as Prophet While Bowlin’s name was not immediately familiar, I’ve seen him perform as a founding member of the International Contemporary Ensemble many times. Here he has assembled a mostly spectacular selection displaying his dazzling gifts as a soloist, starting with Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronisms #9 for violin and electronics - still bending minds over 30 years after it was premiered. Kastena, a duo for violin and cello (Katinka Kleijn) by Alexandra Karastoyanova-Hermentin is a rich reminder of the Russian heritage from which she takes inspiration. The title piece by Martin Bresnick, which adds Tony Cho on piano, seems a bit prosaic in this company and doesn’t quite add up over its ten-minute span. George Walker’s Bleu for solo violin is a brief burst of near-romanticism, nicely cuing  up another piece by Karastoyanova-Hermentin. Mari Mamo features Conor Nelson on flute and Ayano Kataoka on percussion alongside Bowlin for an even deeper transmutation of Eastern European folk traditions. Du Yun seems to create her own traditions and Under a tree, an Udātta is one of her most ritualistic works, with its dense violin writing accompanied by recorded Sanskrit chants. Having a version of it recorded by a consummate musician like Bowlin is a real treat, a word that applies to this fine collection as a whole. 

Kronos Quartet - Terry Riley: Sun Rings Fans of both composer and quartet have been waiting for a recording of this celestial suite since it was premiered in 2002. While I can only speculate, I wonder if part of the delay was coming to a rapprochement between the various elements in what is a complex conception to realize in the studio - nearly "rocket science," in fact! Using "space sounds" captured by NASA spacecraft and received on "plasma wave instruments" designed by physicist Don Gurnett, Riley has composed music for quartet and vocal choir (the San Francisco-based ensemble Volti) that, rather than simply following along, interacts with them, perhaps most spectacularly in Venus Upstream. The 72-minute work takes us through a narrative that connects to many of the feelings around humanity's exploration of space, from the pride at our achievement and the danger we faced to get there, to the wonder of the beyond and our astonishment at our own small stature when set against the backdrop of the universe. While it seems less about the astronaut's experience than, say, Apollo by Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, and Roger Eno, at several places it evokes the starlit darkness of what lies beyond earth's atmosphere. The voice of Alice Walker, speaking after 9/11, saying "One earth, one people, one love" becomes a mantra in the final movement, and one we would all do well to keep front of mind. Sun Rings is full of creative leaps that only Riley would make and it is perfectly acceptable to put all the astrophysics to the side and just enjoy a perfectly realized and transporting work of music by one of our finest (and, though he would probably hate to hear it, most venerable) composers. If you're in the DC area, catch it live on March 13th, 2020 at Washington Performing Arts - I'd get there if I could.

Hear all of these albums in the playlist below and keep up with all the classical music that's caught my ear in 2019 here.

You may also enjoy:
Tristan Perich's Divine Violins
Record Roundup: Strings And Things
Cello For All Part 2: Michael Nicolas
Cello For All Part 1: Laura Metcalf

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