MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

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

Christopher Cerrone’s Liminal Highway

The remarkable composer Christopher Cerrone has posted excerpts from Liminal Highway, his recent work for flute and electronics premiered by Tim Munro (formerly of eighth blackbird fame).

I had the privilege of writing the notes for this and the other works Tim programmed on his New York solo debut concert last fall at Miller Theatre. From my piece on Liminal Highway:

The issue of resonance and how it relates to the process of memory is a central preoccupation in much of Cerrone’s music. As the winner of the 2015 Samuel Barber Rome Prize, he spent his year in the Eternal City exploring the intersections between music, architecture, and acoustics, building an installation in a stairwell in the American Academy…

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Filed under: electronic music, flute, new music

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