MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Lavena: in your hands

My review of the cellist Lavena is in the July issue of Gramophone:

An enigmatic soundscape shivers into being in Gemma Peacocke’s Amygdala for solo cello and fixed electronics. The cellist wends her way, tentatively, towards acoustic clarity, playing richly expressive double-stops as if coming up for air….

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Filed under: CD review, Gramophone

Yuri McCoy, Symphonic Roar

My latest review for Gramophone, in the May issue, is of organist Yuri McCoy’s debut album, Symphonic Roar:

The impetus for this debut album by Yuri McCoy was to celebrate the French Romantic organ and the gloriously rich, ‘symphonic’ sonority associated with it. But the American organist has set about doing so with a bracingly original programme of pieces…

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Filed under: CD review, Gramophone, organ

Robert Carl: White Heron

My review of this marvelous BMOP anthology of Robert Carl’s music for Gramophone has now been posted here.

Aficionados of contemporary music will already be familiar with the name Robert Carl as a writer. He has authored extensive reviews for Fanfare and a recent, thought-provoking collection of essays on the challenges faced by 21st-century composers…

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Filed under: American music, CD review, Gramophone

Bruits from Imani Winds

I reviewed the latest release from Imani Winds for Gramophone:

Musicians have felt an increasing urgency over the past year to become engaged with issues of social justice. Imani Winds were already there well before most, having devoted themselves to giving a platform to marginalised voices since they started out in 1997. So the moral focus of their new album, which addresses the effects of systemic racism, reflects much more than a current trend.

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Filed under: CD review, Gramophone

Golijov’s Falling Out of Time

Here’s my review for Gramophone of Osvaldo Golijov’s remarkable new collaboration with Silkroad Ensemble, Falling Out of Time.

Though conceived and created well before the pandemic, Osvaldo Golijov’s latest collaboration with Silkroad Ensemble seems uncannily well suited to the era of corona.

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Filed under: CD review, Gramophone, Osvaldo Golijov, Silk Road Project

A Remarkable Solo Debut from Shanna Pranaitis

Here’s a new release of contemporary music I’m very glad to have discovered: Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf Flute Music from the NEOS label, now available in the US and Canada on most of the common platforms (Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon Music, Naxos, Qobuz).

Mahnkopf is usually identified (or, tbh, pigeonholed) with the so-called New Complexity aesthetic — a catch-all label for composers like Brian Ferneyhough, who, as Christopher Fox puts it in Grove Online, have “sought to achieve in their work a complex, multi-layered interplay of evolutionary processes occurring simultaneously within every dimension of the musical material.”

But even without being aware of the intricate processes Mahnkopf deploys and manipulates, his music coaxes you into new, unaccustomed relationships with sound, each breath and articulation registering an unpredictable discovery — especially in these intensely committed performances by Shanna Pranaitis, here in her solo debut album.

Mahnkopf, who was born in 1962 in Mannheim, studied with Ferneyhough and with Klaus Huber (who also taught Ferneyhough), and he is also deeply committed to philosophy and was mentored by Jürgen Habermas. Along with his impressive musical distinctions — including an Ernst von Siemens Composer’s Prize — Mahnkopf wrote his dissertation on Schoenberg and has published writings on aesthetics and critical theory and a book titled Philosophie des Orgasmus.

The Chicago-based flutist Shanna Pranaitis, who studied with Amy Porter at the University of Michigan and Walfrid Kujala at Northwestern University, sees her mission as intensively experimental. In her own words, she “specializes in expanding the sonic possibility for my instruments.”

A founding member of Dal Niente and Collect Project Ensemble, she “integrates new and historically reimagined works with electronics, movement, and multi-disciplinary elements to create seamless, immersive concert experiences in collaboration with colleagues around the globe.”

One of those colleagues is Mahnkopf, with whom Pranaitis has worked closely over the past decade. This resulting portrait album presents Mahnkopf’s complete works for flute. He has also contributed important pieces to the contemporary oboe repertoire, remarking that both the flute and oboe hold “a special place” in his work. “What draws me to [the flute] is not simply the sound, but also its particular virtuosity, agility, and ease in crossing large sonic spaces,” writes Mahnkopf.

The album’s six pieces range from the composer’s student years to more recent achievements, in which his music has acquired what Pranaitis regards as “a more lyrical approach despite the continued complexity.” Three of the works on this album were written for Pranaitis, specifically taking into account her specially altered open-hole piccolo and open-hole Kingma System bass and alto flutes. These and one other track are all world-premiere recordings (tracks 1, 2, 4, and 6); two other tracks (3 and 5) are additionally the first studio-recorded versions.

Mahnkopf’s web of allusions is far-reaching. What especially fascinates me is his desire to integrate unique formal designs involving rhythmic and motivic processes — “absolute music,” so to speak — with inspirations from such sources as medieval mystical philosophy, the fractal geometry of Benoît Mandelbrot, or the prose of David Foster Wallace (Finite Jest, which also calls for soprano, performed here by Frauke Aulbert).

La terreur d’ange nouveau (1997-99), for example, unfolds from “sonic types” classifiable as “harmonic,” “melodic,” and “rhythmic-motivic” (the composer’s labels). At the same time, it’s part of the cycle comprising Angelus Novus, his music theater work based on Walter Benjamin, which premiered in 2000.

Or take coincidentia oppositorum for alto flute — the earliest piece here, from 1986. Its title refers to the dialectical mysticism of Nicholas of Cusa, a German philosopher/theologian from the transition between medieval and Renaissance thought. Mahnkopf explores this concept of “the unity of opposites” using “two diametrically opposed types of material that alternate abruptly, each following its own laws” but that are eventually “brought together to form a unity.” The process calls for an astonishing array of extended-playing techniques — various kinds of lip pizzicato, tongue clicks, articulating consonants into the instrument, to mention a few.

In these performances by Pranaitis, the resulting palette of sonorities is completely spellbinding, as if inviting us to partake of a rediscovered language and the secret knowledge it encodes. This is my impression above all in Kurtág-Cantus II for piccolo (2013), which closes the album. This is one of the pieces Mahnkopf wrote for Pranaitis (listen to the clip at the top).

Mahnkopf asks her to play sempre volante, quasi privo di gravità (“always flying, as if weightless”). It brings to mind — not musically, but existentially — the tight-rope walk of Der wahre Weg (“The True Path”), that incredible turning-point in Kurtág’s own Kafka Fragments.

List of tracks:
[01] atsiminimas for bass flute (2016) 13:58
[02] coincidentia oppositorum for alto flute (1986) 07:21
[03] La terreur d’ange nouveau for flute (1997-1999) 12:03
[04] Finite Jest for flute and soprano (2014) 10:52
[05] succolarity for flute (1989) 06:20
[06] Kurtág-Cantus II for piccolo (2013) 12:31

Filed under: CD review, flute, New Complexity, new music

Archipelago: PassMúsica’s Prize for Best Album of Classical Music 2020

Hearty congratulations to Luís Tinoco and Drumming GP for winning this year’s award for Best Album of Classical Music in the recently announced Prémios da Música Portuguesa (Portuguese Music Prizes).

I reviewed the album, Archipelago, here last year. Delighted to see my high opinion of this music corroborated by the jury.

Filed under: CD review, Luís Tinoco, percussion

Recommended New Release: Luís Tinoco’s  Archipelago

Have you heard the wonderful music of Luís Tinoco? I invite you to try out the latest album of his work, Archipelago, recently released on the Odradek label.

I first encountered this excellent Portuguese composer and acclaimed radio host — who grew up in the post-revolution generation — in the early Morlot days with Seattle Symphony, when they played FrisLand, a kind of orchestral ode to Bill Frisell. (FrisLand is available, along with such works as Tinoco’s Cello Concerto, on his previous Odradek album, The Blue Voice of the Water).

Tinoco, 50, has written some pieces for the stage as well as vocal and orchestral works. Archipelago focuses on chamber pieces featuring percussion and surveys Tinoco’s musical language over the past two decades.

The composer’s father was a professional painter and an amateur jazz musician, and the obvious camaraderie Tinoco enjoys with the Porto-based Drumming Grupo de Percussão (Drumming GP) — though he himself is not a performer — suggests an intriguing blend of working with a classical chamber ensemble and a tight-knit jazz band.

Drumming GP, led by Miquel Barnat and celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, has earned a strong reputation for its boundary-crossing projects. Tinoco first collaborated with the group when they commissioned him in 2003, and he dedicates to them the album’s culminating work, Steel Factory (another of the several pieces they have commissioned from him over the years).

Archipelago was recorded in the monastery of São Bento da Vitória in Porto. The album is also available in 5.1 surround, so you can immerse yourself entirely in the expert production by sound engineers Hugo Romano Guimarães and Santi Barguñó.

Tinoco has included several pieces from the early 2000s. The opening track, Short Cuts, revisits his 2004 saxophone quartet, refashioned here for percussion. Already in this early stage of his career, Tinoco was developing a language centered on deftly channeled currents of energy, here intensified through the alluring timbral combinations he has devised anew for the percussion ensemble.

Another early piece, the circular Ends Meet, is for marimba and string quartet and was originally written for the percussionist Pedro Carneiro. Tinoco derives fascinating dramatic impulses from the combination of these sound worlds over the course of this four-movement piece as it continually revisits material from different perspectives.

Mind the Gap from 2000, is the earliest piece here, a product of Tinoco’s years as a postgraduate student in London, and charts a variety of journeys with solo marimba.

If Tinoco’s neatly chiseled rhythmic patterns evoke a sense of distances traveled, the recent Genetically Modified Fados (2018, a commission from Drumming GP) oscillates back and forth in time. Tinoco juxtaposes music for percussion quartet with archival recordings of Portuguese Fado featuring male and female singers. These faded, embedded artefacts strip away any sentimentality from the nostalgia. The radiant ghostliness of the triptych’s third panel, Camellias, is especially spellbinding.

In Zoom in – Zoom out, another Drumming GP commission (2010, dedicated to Bernat), Tinoco turns to the popular music of Brazil subliminally by alluding to its rhythmic patterns and melodic structures. It is scored for a trio playing vibraphone, two marimbas, and two bass drums.

The most recently composed music is the title track (2019, also dedicated to Bernat), which is for solo vibraphone and eight wah-wah tubes. Archipelago is a stunningly beautiful poem made of subtly timed resonances, exquisitely micro-tonal differentiations in the tuning of the tubes, and a carefully calibrated dramaturgy of varying mallets and bowings (and even hands). Archipelago submerges the listener in a hauntingly liquescent environment. Add it to your list of evocative water musics.

Archipelago also makes for a fascinating contrast with the grand finale and longest track, Steel Factory (2006). In this piece for an ensemble of steel drums, Tinoco again foregrounds his music of energy, starting with deep, ominous pulsations that set the stage for its highly theatrical gestures. The sound world here also incorporates bongos and steel bars (sixens) and elicits an astonishing variety, later building to a thrillingly clangorous climax.

Review (c) 2019 Thomas May — All rights reserved

Filed under: CD review, new music, new release, percussion, Uncategorized

Listening to Iceland

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With just a few hours here and there over the years spent during layovers at Keflavik Airport, I have yet to make a proper excursion to Iceland (and that most certainly is on my list). But for the time being there’s the composer Anna Thorvaldsdottír.

Her recent release on Sono Luminus, titled In the Light of Air, might seem like another “soundscape” to the casual ear: a cinematic evocation that comfortably conforms to the images we’ve filed away for a specific place on the planet.

A lot of Sibelius gets talked about this way, and it’s happened to John Luther Adams and Alaska as well. But — as with Sibelius and JLA — that’s only a superficial point of entry with Thorvaldsdottír. If these are soundscapes, they’re filled with surprises that question the clichés.

The pregnant repetitions of notes, eerie glides along the strings, the harp’s piquant fall: they all become strangely, even disturbingly, alluring, their gathered patterns distilling an unusual blend of calm and unease: Thorvaldsdottír awakens slumbering mysteries.

Scored for viola, cello, harp, piano, percussion, and electronics, In the Light of Air is a suite comprising four movements: “Luminance,” “Serenity,” Existence,” and — the longest of the four — “Remembrance.” Thorvaldsdottír builds lucid but unpredictable textures using this lovely instrumentarium, with each player eventually emerging as a soloist against the context of the others. The result touches on the archaic, with early musicy drones, but also brings to mind a sci-fi adventure Morton Feldman might have imagined.

Thorvaldsdottír conceived In the Light of Air as an installation integrating music and a lighting design that reacts to both the playing and the breathing of the musicians: the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), who premiered the work at the Reykjavik Arts Festival on May 25th 2014.

“Internally I hear sounds and nuances as musical melodies and enjoy weaving various sounds together with harmonies and lyrical material,” says the composer. “Structurally I like working with perspectives of details and the unity of the whole and the relationship between the two.”

Thorvaldsdottír additionally designed an installation of metallic ornaments tom complement her music — known as klakabönd (“a bind of ice”) in Icelandic — which were realized by Svana Jósepsdóttir. Here’s a video that gives at least a little flavor of that experience:

Filed under: CD review, new music

Terry Riley at 80, on 20 Fingers

zofo

“That’s the sort of thing that’s always interested me: things where you can’t quite figure out what you are hearing,” says Terry Riley — and the maverick composer’s curiosity hasn’t abated a bit over the years.

Today Terry Riley has reached the milestone age of 80. “In addition to his artistic legacy — a long and varied creative record that includes some of the most notable works in the history of minimalism and post-minimalism — Riley must hold some kind of record as the happiest and least stress-afflicted musician now working,” writes Joshua Kosman in his recent profile.

A new release from the piano duo ZOFO offers an intriguing perspective on the work of this Minimalist pioneer (who played jazz piano early in his career).

Eva-Maria Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi — the pianists who comprise ZOFO (decoded as a visual pun for “20” plus “fingered orchestra”) — started their collaboration with a performance of “Cinco de Mayo” from The Heaven Ladder, Book 5, a collection of the native Californian’s pieces for piano-four-hands originally commissioned by Sarah Cahill.

“There is nothing quite like hearing the full eight octaves of a piano sounding in all its orchestral richness,” according to Riley. “ZOFO realizes the full potential of four-hand playing. They think and play as if guided by a Universal mind.”

Riley was so impressed by what ZOFO had done with “Cinco de Mayo” that he encouraged them to take on the rest of his four-hand piano oeuvre, which consists of the four other piece in The Heaven Ladder, Book 5: “Etude from the Old Country,” “Jaztine,” “Tango Doble Ladiado,” and “Waltz for Charismas.”

To expand this body of work into a full-length CD, Nakagoshi made arrangements of two additional pieces, consulting and collaborating with the composer: “G String” and “Half-Wolf Dances Mad in Moonlight” (both string quartets). Zimmermann meanwhile made a four-hand arrangement of “Simone’s Lullaby,” a solo piece from Book 7 of The Heaven Ladder originally written for Gloria Cheng. ZOFO commissioned Riley to write a short additional piece, “Praying Mantis Rag.”

Regarding the role of improvisation in Riley’s aesthetic, Zimmermann says: “For me to see Terry perform also played a big role in how I approached this recording session. He is so totally free when he performs, improvising over his own ideas. It’s so much about the moment and the essence of the music. This is so healthy for me as a perfectionist….”

Filed under: American music, anniversary, CD review, piano

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