Saturday, August 29, 2020

Record Roundup: Vox Humana

From choruses to individual singers, there is something about the sounds of other people's voices that can elicit strong emotions - and make us feel less alone. In sorting through the flood of new music from the last few months, I found my attention drawn by several albums that put the focus the human voice, making them perfect for these times of isolation and limited contact with others. 

Roomful Of Teeth - Michael Harrison: Just Constellations It's easy to take this vocal ensemble for granted, such is the consistency of their excellence. But they continue to push into new territories and this EP, reflecting a deep collaboration with the composer, is a great example of how their preternatural skill can translate into a heavenly listening experience. The difficulty of the piece, sung in just intonation and designed to be heard in the extremely resonant space of The Tank in Rangley Colorado, is all under the hood, as the results sound as natural as breathing. Read their notes to go deeper into the La Monte Young influence and look at Harrison's titles to pick up the poetry behind his conception, but neither is necessary to be transported by this remarkable work.

Roomful Of Teeth - Wally Gunn: The Ascendant Based on the evocative, high modernist poetry of Maria Zajkowski, this enigmatic work shows the range of Roomful, both stylistically and in terms of octaves. The deep bass and higher notes are knit together by the metronomic percussion of Jason Treuting of SO Percussion, which also lends a sense of ritual occasion to the piece. There's a barely banked wildness to The Ascendant, like a placid landscape where nature's violence is hidden only by distance from which you're viewing it. In short, it's furiously compelling, and the power of the piece is even greater than I imagined based on the three parts sprinkled throughout Roomful's 2015 album, Render. It's easy to see why the vinyl edition of this (and Just Constellations) sold out in short order!

Lorelei Ensemble - David Lang: Love Fail (Version for Women's Chorus) 
Quince Ensemble - David Lang: Love Fail
This beautiful work from 2012, which weaves legends of Tristan and Isolde from various sources with short stories by Lydia Davis, was originally recorded in 2014 by those masters of the Medieval, Anonymous Four. Now, we have two new recordings, with one being a reworked version for more voices, which Lorelei premiered in 2016. The Quince Ensemble display more verve and warmth than Anonymous Four, making their recording the new go-to in the original scoring. But it's the Lorelei Ensemble, and Lang's brilliant use of harmony, that fully illuminates the haunting power of the piece, giving it a spacious 3-D quality that is truly immersive. A triumph on every level, lot least in the way the percussion is integrated into the sound world, which neither of the other recordings seem to get quite right. That two note refrain in the last movement, played on tuned bells in, takes on a burnished weight that lingers long after the music stops. While all three recordings are more than worthwhile, it's to the Lorelei's version that I will be returning most often.

Michael Hersch - I hope we get a chance to visit soon There's so much positivity around "fighting cancer" in American culture that it is unexpectedly satisfying to hear it addressed as being as awful as it really is. Which is exactly what Hersch does in this painfully searing and intense work. Drawing on letters between him and his friend Mary Harris O’Reilly, some written while they were both being treated for cancer, and weaving in poems by Rachel Elson, the piece is as unflinching in its text as it is in its scoring. The music, is sharp and fragmentary, sometimes adjacent to the words and sometimes acting as an anguished Greek chorus. Hersch's mastery begins with his conception, which is scored for two sopranos (Ah Young Hong and Kiera Duffy, both outstanding), with one singing the poems and the other speaking the letters in a halting and slightly horrified tone that perfectly captures the way the mind protests the mere fact that you've been diagnosed with cancer. Like all of Hersch's work, I hope... is a very serious work of art, but the dignity and compassion he brings to this lacerating material elevates it to a point where anyone who has suffered loss in their lives (which is everyone, right) will ultimately find it a balm for their wounded soul. We owe Hersch a debt of gratitude for never turning away from subject matter that would make other artists uncomfortable. Kudos, too to the Musicians of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Tito Muñoz, who find the perfect emotional balance between restraint and rage in this beautifully recorded live performance.

Sarah Kirkland Snider - Mass For The Endangered While at first this felt a bit traditional for my taste, it is so sincere and eloquent in its absorption of the great masses of the past by Bach, Palestrina, etc. - and so sheerly gorgeous - that it is undeniably uplifting. The text is by Nathaniel Bellows, the poet, musician, and artist (he also did the album cover art) with whom Snider worked on her lush and dramatic song cycle Unremembered, which was released in 2015. The "endangered" in the title is all the flora and fauna put at risk by human activities, and the mass appeals, in Snider's words, " a higher power--for mercy, forgiveness, and intervention--but that appeal is directed not to God but rather to Nature itself." But even without those details, the sublime counterpoint and expert architecture, all perfectly executed by Gallicantus, an English ensemble conducted by Gabriel Crouch, would be enough to reward full immersion in the piece. May it be performed in many houses of worship - and elsewhere - when in-person gatherings are again safe and people themselves no longer feel endangered.

Miyamoto Is Black Enough - Burn / Build This incendiary album comes on with such elemental force that at first I was repelled. But upon revisiting, I leant into the heat and let it cleanse me. Catharsis. It also helped that as I was trying to grasp what was going on, I made the connection between Roger Bonair Agard's vocal approach and that of the great Linton Kwesi Johnson (whose Bass Culture celebrated its 40th anniversary earlier this year). Both are poets of Caribbean origin who worked in spoken word before combining their talents with music. Agard also has a little of Johnson's quality of rage - restrained, vaguely amused, but ready to explode if just one more ember lands on him. The musical backing is quite different from the roots reggae Johnson employed, however, which also stopped me in my tracks. Centered around Andy Akiho's steel pans and Jeffrey Zeigler's cello, and anchored by Sean Dixon's drums, bass, and electronics, it references reggae and hip hop, but is also angular and post-punk, ending up sounding like nothing else. The subject matter, including songs about Blackness and gentrification, is firmly on the pulse of our moment and served up with the immediacy of a status update yet with the craft only a true poet can deliver. If you're curious about the name they chose for the group, Google "Ariana Miyamoto" - but whatever you do, don't miss this album.

Missy Mazzoli - Proving Up While I've seen parts of Mazzoli's first opera, Song From The Uproar, I've managed to miss both of her other collaborations with librettist Royce Vavrek, Breaking The Waves and Proving Up. Fortunately, we now have a complete recording of the latter, and it is a revelation. A compelling exposé of the lie behind the American dream told through the stories of Nebraskan homesteaders in the 19th century, it puts many of Mazzoli's virtues on display - the forward motion, the sleek embrace of darkness - while foregrounding some new ones. As much of her music as I've heard in the last eight years, I was not prepared for something that was as utterly American as Aaron Copland and as cannily theatrical as Benjamin Britten. I'm sure Vavrek helped with the latter, but without the libretto in front of me (or performers on a stage, for that matter), I'm enjoying it mostly as a musical experience with a strong narrative thrust. While the baritone of John Moore is a standout, the singing is uniformly fantastic, as is the playing by members of the International Contemporary Ensemble, ably conducted by Christopher Rountree. Proving Up is easily the best new opera I've heard in years and further proof of Mazzoli's mastery. Hope we get a recording of Breaking The Waves soon.

Du Yun - A Cockroach's Tarantella We hear a lot about "resilience" in these quarentimes, and there is no better symbol of resilience than the lowly cockroach, a survivor's survivor for over 350 million years. In this piece, which Du Yun completed a decade ago, the wonderfully imaginative composer goes Kafka one better, arriving at a complete mind meld with the titular insect. And her roach is a true individualist, sick of lugging around her eggs and longing for human emotions. For all the times when our feelings are a burden, consider seeing 20 of your children exterminated and not being able to feel anything. Du Yun, as committed a performer as she is a composer, delivers the roach's tale in a tart, conversational fashion, in both English and Chinese, not overselling the fantastical nature of the piece. If this all sounds a bit abstract to you, get a gander at Julian Crouch's wondrous short film, and all will become clear.

In this recording, miraculously made just a month or two ago, Du Yun is given the perfect accompaniment by the JACK Quartet, who navigate the dynamics of the piece perfectly. They also shine on Tattooed On Snow, a 15-minute piece for string quartet from 2014 getting its first recording here. It has a cinematic sweep and no small amount of insectile sounds of its own, making for a compact introduction to Du Yun's sound world. The album is bookended by two short pieces,  Epilogue and Prologue (in that order), with the former featuring field recordings from Wuhan's market just after the lockdown was lifted. While the subjects of alienation and feeling uncomfortable in one's own skin are evergreen, this is an album that will help us locate what it meant to human in 2020. 

Listen to selections from these albums in this playlist or below.

You may also enjoy:
Concert Review: Shadows And Hope At Carnegie Hall
Three Portraits: Cheung-Trapani-Du Yun
Focus On: Contemporary Classical
Record Roundup: Electro-Acoustic Explorations
Missy Mazzoli: Lush Rigor
Skylark's Liminal Journey
Best Of 2017: Classical
Conversing Across Centuries, Part 2: Italia

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