Sunday, April 25, 2021

Record Roundup: Chiaroscuro

There are times when unremittingly bleak music can provide necessary catharsis. At other times - like our current moment, I believe - a more nuanced sound world can give us the sound support we need. The five excellent releases below all include some light with their shade. 

Scott Wollschleger & Karl Larson - Dark Days Played with deep engagement by Larson, a longtime collaborator, this series of short piano pieces works together so seamlessly you might think they were all part of a longer work. But that's more due to the expert assembly of the album rather than a sameness of tone, texture, or mood. While the bleak outlook implied by the title does leach into that work, the overall sensation is one of quiet yet glimmering contemplation. Although I don't have synesthesia, unlike Wollschleger (who uses the "colors of sound" in his process), I associate the album with iridescent jewel tones that grow more complex the longer you look at them. Pre-release, I spent many a morning with Dark Days, finding it quickly assuming a place in the soundtrack of my 2021. Let it happen for you.

Akropolis Reed Quintet - Ghost Light The sheer sound of this group, made up of oboe, clarinet, saxophone, bassoon, and bass clarinet, is instantly captivating. There's a sublime smoothness of tone, texture, and ensemble that brings to mind the reed sections of great American orchestras like that of Duke Ellington or Glenn Miller. The Akropolis are sure-handed in their curation and collaboration as well, as the five pieces here interact and relate to each other in thought-provoking ways, exploring everything from the Egyptian Book of the Dead to racial violence in their native Detroit. Their choice of composers - all unknown to me except for Jeff Scott who I know as a member of Imani Winds - leads to a wide variety of sonorities and emotional impacts. Stacy Garrop's Rites For The Afterlife, takes us through the narrative of the Egyptian Book of the Dead with an appropriate sense of mystery and even a little Kurt Weillian wit in the third movement, The Hall of Judgement. Kinds of Light by Michael Gilbertson provides portraits in sound for Flicker, Twilight, Fluorescence, and Ultraviolet in colorful fashion, without leaning on the concept too hard. 

In Niloufar Nourbakhsh's Firing Squad - inspired by the first line of One Hundred Years of Solitude - the quartet is mirrored by a recording of themselves, occasionally sounding like an infinite loop. Theo Chandler's Seed To Snag has almost has the whimsy of a classic Disney score as he describes the lifecycle of organic material, adding yet more colors to Akropolis' palette. Scott's piece, Homage To Paradise Valley, closes the album and incorporates spoken word as Marsha Music reads her poems about Detroit's earlier days. Scott's music is tuneful and sparkling, with nods to jazz, and Music's poems are lively and nostalgic, with their tales of her father's record shop and the musical luminaries that put the city on the map. The readings do interrupt the overall flow of the album for this listener and I can imagine programming them out after a few plays, but that's a minor quibble about this powerful artistic statement.

Žibuoklė Martinaitytė - Saudade Given her expert and brilliantly original deployment of small forces on In Search Of Lost Beauty... from 2019, it should be no surprise that this Lithuanian-born composer now presents symphonic works of a similar mastery. Of the four pieces here, perhaps Horizons is the most extraordinary, a gripping and sustained exploration of dynamics and darkness that also highlights the glories of the recording and work of Giedrė Šlekytė and the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra. Hints of past masters like Sibelius are certainly evident but this absorbing and inventive music is in no way retrograde. Yet it is accessible enough that American orchestras should be clamoring to program Martinaitytė. With Saudade as a calling card I can imagine that happening quite soon.

Christopher Cerrone - A Natural History of Vacant Lots and The Arching Path These two releases feature Cerrone at his most contemplative, with hanging chords, decaying notes, and chord progressions that seem to search their way through personal memories and shared histories. Vacant Lots is a brief piece originally written for percussion quartet and presented here as a solo piece for vibraphone and electronics, played by Andy Meyerson. It works equally well in either setting, perhaps even benefiting from the sonic focus of the solo version. 

The Arching Path (due on May 21st from In A Circle Records) includes four pieces from the last decade, with three of them being deeply embedded in place. The three-movement title piece refers to the Ponte sul Basento, a concrete modernist masterpiece in southern Italy, but Cerrone avoids any of the obvious musical tricks that might imply, instead using a chiming and percussive piano (played by Timo Andres) to unfurl melodies that are deeply affecting while avoiding the sentimentality that can mar the work of Nils Frahm. Double Happiness adds field recordings from Umbria and Cerrone’s lapidary electronics to the soundscape along with percussion played by Ian Rosenbaum. The five movements are distinct in their textures while maintaining a general air of rain-streaked reflection.

I Will Learn To Love Somebody, the third piece, sets five poems by writer-provocateur Tao Lin for soprano (a spectacular, gleaming Lindsay Kesselman), piano, percussion, and clarinet (Mingzhe Wang). It pulls the collection in a slightly more dynamic direction, with leaps in range that recall some of Scott Walker’s dramatic flair - appropriate, when you consider the attention Cerrone is paying to every word. The words themselves combine a conversational style with enough ironic distance to keep them from being diary entries with line breaks. Even without close attention to the words, however, these are gripping art songs that are an even more fabulous showcase for Kesselman's talents than The Pieces That Fall To Earth from the 2019 album of the same name.

The final piece takes us to a New York subway station, Hoyt-Schermerhorn, using piano limned with electronics and evoking an air of solitude, as if during a late night transit where the next train can’t come soon enough. I’m already peering down the tracks, looking for more from Cerrone.

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Record Review: Beauty...And Darkness

AnEarful acknowledges that this work is created on the traditional territory of the Munsee Lenape and Wappinger peoples.