Coming Out Electric: Trevor Babb’s Warmth



Steve Reich’s masterful Electric Counterpoint (1987) opens this disc.  That work originally written for Pat Metheny  and has become pretty much a classic as well as a fine way to demonstrate a musician’s facility with multi-tracked guitar music.

Trevor Babb is a doctoral student at Yale and this appears to be his first album.  And what an album it is.  The choice of the opening work serves to demonstrate Babb’s ability to interpret, in his own individual manner, a work that has been recorded many times.  It remains a classic and very listenable work which belies the difficulties inherent in its performance.  Babb seems to take a bit more of a legato approach than previous interpretations but is definitely highly effective and this is a wonderful recording of the work.

It also serves to set the tone for the rest of this truly fine solo guitar and electronics debut album.  Electric Counterpoint is the first of 6 total works represented on this disc.  The remaining five selections fit the rubric of this collection in the overall sense but are definitely unique and challenging in their ways.

Paul Kerekes is not a familiar name to this writer and perhaps a new name to many.  His inclusion here introduces many to this composer and places him in the context of this interesting collection.  This young composer is apparently well known in the New York scene and seems to travel in the circles that include some of the most interesting artists currently working.  Trail is a very different piece than the Reich but demonstrates the range of the solo guitar and electronics genre.  This is a gentler, more meditative piece overall and one which piques interest in hearing more.

David Lang is a well known and very welcome name in new music and is here represented by Warmth, a classic Langian post-minimalist work which delights the listener while challenging the performer.

Septet by the late great James Tenney is one of those masterful compositions that is respected as a masterpiece but not often programmed.  This is due at least in part to it’s critical use of alternate tuning.  The effects intended by the composer can only be heard if the performer can play accurately the tuning involved.  It is a wonderful and listener friendly experience typical of the finest of Tenney’s grasp of how to use such tunings in the compositional process.  Babb executes this piece lovingly and this performance will likely help to nudge this work to a more frequent experience in the concert hall.

Babb introduces himself as a composer in Grimace, an impressionistic exercise in which he attempts to imitate both the style of Ligeti and evoke the image of a mask seen in an art exhibit.  Long tones and extended techniques predominate in this meditative drone-like work that demonstrates fine technique in both composition and instrumental facility.

The album concludes with Slope 2 by the emerging bass player and composer Carl Testa.   Again Babb introduces a new voice for the listener to explore.  This extended composition, more drone than pattern based, is one that deserves multiple hearings to discern its substance and to demonstrate its position in the larger rubric of this collection.

Babb produces a great debut here and makes a strong case for the genre of electric guitar with supporting electronics as being a viable format for a live concert.  He also seems to be defining that genre much the way that many solo artists are doing these days.  He seems to be constructing a repertoire establishing the classics (Reich, Tenney) and promoting the viability of works that he feels deserve a place in that repertoire.

This is a really delightful album and that extends, at least in this writer’s eye, to the cover design as well.  Again I will bemoan the loss of the 12  inch square format of LPs which could have made more prominent this lovely design by Colin Meyer and Trevor Babb.  Perhaps a 12 inch vinyl release may happen.  But until then the listener can settle most comfortably in the warmth of this truly fine release even in the smaller CD format or even as a digital download.

 

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Emanuele Arciuli, Defining a Genre: Walk in Beauty


walk in beauty

Innova 255

This 2 CD set virtually defines a genre.  Following in the traditions of such notable compilations as Robert Helps’ “New Music for the Piano”, Alan Feinberg’s wonderful series of discs on Argo records among many others we see Arciuli displaying his grasp of music in the tradition of the gentle musical anthropology found in the music and scholarship of Peter Garland.  The album’s title comes from Garland’s lovely multiple movement Walk in Beauty (1992) released on New World records in the 1990s.  The present collection is both nostalgic and forward looking reminding us of great past efforts and introducing us to new work.  It is a look at a loosely defined style of mostly late 20th century American piano music through the lens of a non-American artist.

Garland’s interest in Native American myths and music inform his post minimalist ethic and the additional pieces chosen for this two disc set reflect similar artistic sensibilities.  Emanuele Arciuli is an Italian pianist whose interests range from the Second Viennese School to the unique compositions of Thelonius Monk.  He also has a strong interest in classical music from Native American traditions which puts him very much in sync with Garland’s work as well.  Here he has chosen music which he clearly understands and which appear to have deep meaning for him.

There are 28 tracks on 2 discs representing 13 composers.  Five of these composers are explicitly affiliated with their respective Native American traditions and the remaining eight composers take their inspiration at least in part from the rich music and/or mythology of those cultures.  The bottom line here is that these are carefully and lovingly chosen works which open a window on one fine musician’s perception of a certain Western/Native American/New American style which, at worst, holds up a mirror and, whether we like it or not, it tells us something about who we are and from whence we came.

Connor Chee‘s “Navajo Vocable No. 9” opens the album and sets the tone.  This is one of a series of piano pieces by this fascinating composer/pianist whose star is deservedly rising.  His work celebrates Navajo culture and is informed as well by his training in traditional western art music.

This is followed by Peter Garland‘s “Walk in Beauty”.  This piece is representative of Garland’s post-minimalist, impressionistic style.  It was previously recorded so wonderfully by Aki Takahashi on the eponymously titled New World Records album from the early 1990s.

Garland’s music is fairly well documented but deserves a wider audience. (Curiously he does not have a dedicated web site.)  His scholarship and promotion of new music also serve to place him very highly among this countries finest artists and scholars.  In addition to his compositional output he is known for his Soundings Press publications and his papers are now held by the University of Texas at Austin.

Kyle Gann is, similarly, a scholar and a prolific composer.  He has for many years demonstrated a keen interest in Native American myths in his diverse and creative output.  Gann is here represented by his “Earth Preserving Chant”.

Michael Daugherty is known for his incorporation of pop culture in his work and has been recognized with no fewer than three Grammy Awards.  His work is rooted in pop Americana and “Buffalo Dance” is his homage to Native Americana.  And if his homage seems a bit P.T. Barnum at times, that too is Americana.

John Luther Adams, a recent Pulitzer Prize winner for his orchestral work, Become Ocean, is a prolific composer who derives much of his inspiration from the mythology of Alaskan natives.  Adams spent many of his creative years in Alaska working with ecological projects as well as musical ones.  “Tukiliit” is representative of this work and pays homage to Native American/First Nation peoples.

Raven Chacon is an emerging composer who has produced a great deal of work though little appears to be available on recordings.  “Nilchi Shada’ji Nalaghali” (Winds that turn on the side from the Sun) is an electroacoustic work serves as a little sample of this artist’s work and its inclusion in this fine collection alone suggests that the remainder of his work deserves to be explored.

Martin Bresnick is an honored member of the American Institute of Arts and Letters and his work is fortunately well known.  The present piece, “Ishii’s Song” is a reference to an American Indian, the last of his tribe who lived out his life under the protection and scrutiny of anthropologist Alfred Kroeber at the University of California Berkeley.  His spirit still seems to linger in the Bay Area and this piece is a sort of homage to him.

This set contains two works by Louis W. Ballard (1931-2007) who was a Native American composer that composed classical concert music.  His work is steeped in Native American mythology and deserves to be better known.  Leave it to a non-American to point out this deficit.  Arciuli makes a strong case for listeners and for other musicians to embrace this neglected artist.  Disc Two track 2 contains the “Osage Variation” and Disc two tracks 13-16 contain his “Four American Indian Piano Preludes”.

Jennifer Higdon is a star already very much risen on the musical scene and she is here represented by a substantial piano piece called “Secret and Glass Gardens”.  Higdon, also a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, is one of those composers who manages to be friendly and accessible as well as modern.  Arciuli seems to perceive similarities in her vision that make this work fit in convincingly in this collection.  Hers is seemingly a similar romanticism and nostalgia and Arciuli has convinced at least this listener of the kinship of this piece in the vision of this collection.

Arciuli introduces another composer unknown to this reviewer, Peter Gilbert.  This young composer with an impressive resume is the co-director of the composition program at the University of New Mexico.  The offering here is his set of four “Intermezzi” for piano.

The inclusion of Carl Ruggles‘ “Evocations-Four Chants for Piano” seem at first to be a strange choice but following the Gilbert Intermezzi one gets the impression that the Americana that is Ruggles is a part of the provenance of this collection.  Ruggles coarse and famously racist attitudes hardly fit with the generally romantic vision of this collection but Americana as perceived by a non-American need not edit the unsavory from the overall picture.  The music is what this is about and these are indeed masterful little essays and a part of the American grain.

Another new name is given a brief appearance in the “Testament of Atom” by Brent Michael Davids.   This young composer’s clever website lists a plethora of works whose titles resemble many of the pieces on these discs.  Again we must trust the artist that his inclusion of this work is representative of his vision of this version of Americana.

For his concluding track Arciuli does a wonderful thing by including the work of Talib Rasul Hakim (1940-1988), another too little known American composer.  Born Stephen Alexander Chambers, he changed his name in 1973 when he converted to Sufism, a spiritual sect of Islam.  The music, “Sound Gone”, is a fitting finale to this beautiful, challenging, and ultimately inclusive collection of Americana.  Bravo, Mr. Arciuli and thank you for the gift of showing us some of the best of how we Americans look to you.

 

 

Nordic Affect: Raindamage, Wonderful Music from Iceland


Sono Luminus SLE-70008

Definitely an unusual beginning to this sonorous album of chamber music from the happy, creative place called Iceland.  Some of these tracks are electroacoustic combining some sort of electronic sound producing and/or manipulating components along with the live musical performance.

Nothing familiar here but a lot worth listening to.  This is a collection of recent chamber music from what is apparently some of the finest composers working in Iceland today. And as a Sono Luminus product it is a sound object of the highest order.  It is a beautifully recorded set of pieces that goes a long way to demonstrate the high quality and creativity of both the compositional and performance to be found in this distant corner of the world.

There are six works represented here.  Three are exclusively electronic, one for acoustic instruments with electronics and two are for acoustic instruments alone.  All seem to share the eclecticism of modern composers and, to this writer’s ear, a rather distinct style which seems to come out of the Nordic regions these days.

Iceland has a long and proud musical history and has amassed a large creative classical repertoire in (at least) the 20th and 21st centuries.  Perhaps one can hear the “sounds of the north” in these works or perhaps that is simply the analogous associations of this listener’s mind but there does seem to be some affinity between the lovely cover photograph of melting ice and some of the sounds herein.

At any rate this is fascinating music beautifully performed by Nordic Affect, a more or less fixed ensemble of violin, viola, cello, and harpsichord with occasional electronic supplementation.  Performers include Halla Steinun Stefásdóttir, Violin; Guòrún Hrund Haróardóttir, Viola; Hanna Loftsdóttir, Cello; Guòrún Óskarsdóttir, Harpsichord with Nava Dunkelman on drum in the last track.

The composers Úlfur Hansson, Valgeir Sigurðsson, and Hlynur Aðils Vilmarsson are completely unknown to this writer though it is noted that Hansson studied at Mills College in California, itself quite a hotbed of new music innovation.  No matter, though, these are some amazing composers doing cutting edge work and deserve your attention.

All in all this is one fine disc of chamber music.

 

 

 

Eclipse of the Son: Mischa Zupko


zupko

Mischa Zupko (1971- ) is a composer, a pianist, and a professor of music at Chicago’s De Paul University.  He is the son of avant garde composer Ramon Zupko (1932- ).  Mischa’s work featured on this Cedille release suggests that the proverbial apple has fallen quite a distance from the family musical tree.  That is neither bad nor good but it is striking.

The elder Zupko’s work, despite its significance, is too little known.  A few recordings exist on the old CRI recordings label and this writer recalls being impressed by them. According to the Chicago Reader article he really didn’t want his son to go into the music business but apparently what is in the blood is in the blood.  A curious note too is that one can find articles on both these composers on Wikipedia but not the English/American one, rather curiously both are to be found on the Dutch Wikipedia site.

The present disc is apparently the first dedicated entirely to this emerging composer’s work (now numbering some 50 pieces).  It is a disc of chamber music and from the first the listener is immediately aware that the younger Zupko is possessed of a sort of retro romantic bent.  Think of the great virtuoso composer/pianists of the 19th century like Franz Liszt and Anton Rubinstein.  He does gratefully acknowledge his father as inspiration but clearly follows a different path.

This music is about passion and virtuosity.  The composer defines this clearly in his liner notes.  The performers Mischa Zupko on piano, Wendy Warner on cello, and Sang Mee Lee on violin demonstrate both passion and virtuosity on this lucid recording.  They play very well together and they all have ample opportunities to show off their respective skills.

There are seven works on ten tracks dating from 2005 to 2015.  The first five tracks consist of “Rising” (violin and piano, 2009), “Fallen” (cello and piano, 2010), “From Twilight” (solo violin, 2015), “Eclipse” (violin and cello, 2014), and, “Nebula” (solo cello, 2015).

There then follows the four movement”Shades of Grey” (2005) for violin and piano.  This is the earliest work on the disc but stylistically it is consistent with the rest of the disc. Zupko certainly develops as a composer but his style seems pretty firmly established.

The last track seems to be the big feature here.  “Love Obsession” (cello, piano, 6 pre-recorded cello tracks; 2013) is perhaps the most adventurous and grand of the works on this recording.  As with the other works on the disc the composer cites various literary influences and inspirations consistent with the apparently romantic ethic which seems to drive his creativity.  And as with the other tracks we hear a tonal romantic idiom filled with passion.

My title for this review is not intended to suggest that the younger Zupko has surpassed his father in any way except perhaps in that his work has, whether by accident, timing, design, or whatever, gotten more attention.  This is not a case of Johann Strauss Jr. and Sr. in jealous competition, this is simply another generation responding to it’s muse and that is worth celebrating.

 

 

Exploding Debussy, Kathleen Supové


New Focus FCR 170

Increasingly it seems that new music performers take on a persona which includes a unique selection of repertoire and frequently a distinctive physical presence.  Kathleen Supové is a fine example.  Her distinctive physical appearance and attire becomes a metaphor for her very personal and intelligent choice of repertoire which sets her apart from her peers.  In addition to unquestioned virtuosity and beautiful interpretive skills her persona takes on an adjectival quality which prompts this reviewer to ponder the “Supovian” experience.


I may live to regret that neologism but the present album is offered as exhibit one (of about 20 albums) attesting to the distinctive choices of music that characterize her work.  This two disc album, The Debussy Effect, is a very modern homage (even sometimes with apologies) to the impressionist master.  Twelve tracks on the two discs feature seven contemporary composers.  Only three tracks are for solo piano.  The rest involve electronic enhancements and or “soundtracks”.

Initially I had hoped to be able to say something useful (if not particularly insightful) to prospective listeners/buyers of this album about each of the pieces here but after several listens I can only reliably say that the material makes for a great and entertaining listening experience.  It harbors complexities that cannot be fairly recounted in such a brief review.  (And this reviewer has a limited knowledge of Debussy as well.)

Here are works by some of the finest of the New York “downtown” music traditions that reflect some amazing and very deep appreciations that will likely change the way you hear Debussy.

Here is the track list:

Disc One

1.  Storefront Diva: a dreamscape by Joan La Barbara

2.  Dr. Gradus vs. Rev. Powell by Matt Marks

3.  Layerings 3 by Eric Kenneth Malcolm Clark

4.  What Remains of a Rembrandt by Randall Woolf

Disc Two

1-4.  Shattered Apparitions of the Western Wind by Annie Gosfield

5-7.  Cakewalking (Sorry Claude) by Daniel Felsenfeld

8. La plus que plus que lente by Jacob Cooper

All are engineered by the wonderful Sheldon Steiger for the New Focus recordings label.

So the take away here is as follows:  If you are a Debussy fan you will want to hear this album.  If you are a Kathleen Supové fan you will want to hear this album.  It is the second reason the seems the most salient here.  I expect to be listening to this many more times.  Enjoy.

 

Edgy Saxophone, Ryan Muncy’s “ism”


Tundra

This one wins the prize for the most charming and unusual presentation of a review copy that this writer has ever seen.  I received this rather plain looking slip case and contained therein was a little data card glued to a saxophone reed.  Fortunately I have just enough tech skills to find the little data card slot on my laptop and was able to then burn a CDr.

It was well worth the effort.  Ryan Muncy is a saxophone player with the increasingly venerable ICE.  (That is the International Contemporary Ensemble and not the less venerable immigration and customs enforcement by the way.)  He here takes the opportunity to demonstrate his considerable fluency on his instrument.  The deceptively simple cover belies some serious complexity in this release.

Beginning with James Tenney’s too seldom heard Saxony (1978) Muncy decisively lets the listener know that this is a hard core saxophone album with music that demands a level of skills and interpretive ability within the reach of only the finest musicians. Tenney’s piece is a multitracked composition concerned with acoustic phenomena produced by different tunings as do many of his works.  This piece is a species of minimalism, drone, even meditative music.  It’s slow unfolding demands and then rewards patience as it envelops the listener in lovely, trippy sound masses.  At over 20 minutes it is the biggest piece here and alone justifies purchasing this album.

What follows are 5 more tracks of similarly extreme experimental music with various extended techniques albeit on a much smaller scale.  Each is like a little study focusing on one or more extended techniques.  All but one are recent compositions by composers yet unknown to this reviewer.  The last piece is by the late great Lee Hyla (1952-2014) and is from 1979, making it contemporary with the opening Tenney piece.  Muncy demonstrates his facility with tuning, multiphonics and other creative techniques demanded by these composers.

Here is the track list:

James Tenney-Saxony (1978)

Erin Gee-Mouthpiece XXIV (2015)

David Reminick- Gray Faces (2011)

Morgan Krauss- masked by likeness (2014)

Evan Johnson- Largo caligrafico (2012)

Lee Hyla- Pre-Amnesia (1979)

Each of these pieces is seemingly a self contained universe and repeated listenings reveal more than simple experimentalism.

This is a disc for serious saxophone aficianados with an appreciation for free jazz and cutting edge instrumental techniques.  Truly a wonderful release.

Lavinia Meijer, New Superstar of the Harp Takes on Philip Glass



This is the ninth CD and the fourth Sony release by harpist Lavinia Meijer (1983- ).  This South Korean born artist was raised and educated in the Netherlands by her adoptive parents.  Her musical talent has earned her Cum Laude Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in music and she has successfully pursued a career as both a soloist and an orchestral musician.  She appears to have a thorough grounding in both classical and contemporary harp repertoire and a passion for music.

In this double CD she presents her own transcriptions of ten of Philip Glass’ piano etudes and a second disc of music inspired in part by Glass’ style.  The Herculean tasks of transcribing and learning these etudes elicited collaboration with the affable composer and any Glass fan will want to hear her take on these pieces.

Meijer has chosen ten (of the now twenty) piano etudes for this album.  Now the harp is very close to the piano in many ways.  I believe it has basically the same pitch range and it does rely on strings and a sounding board.  However the playing of the instrument and the range of possibilities playable by two trained hands differs quite a bit.  There are problems on transcribing piano music for the harp.  It is not clear that all twenty can ever be successfully transcribed and played on Meijer’s instrument but this reviewer is truly grateful to hear the ten she has done and holds hope for the future that the remaining ten may find their way to a future release.  Her interpretation of these works help to provide the listener with insight to their complexities both technically and in their interpretation.  

The sassy neo-punk haircut on the album cover conjures comparisons in this reviewer’s mind of the hipness in both dress and presentation that characterized the wonderful Kronos Quartet, especially in their early days.   Indeed she does seem to be following a similar trajectory and Sony no doubt has hopes that she will establish a similar marketing niche doing for her instrument what the Kronos did (and continues to do) for the string quartet.  It certainly appears to be a safe bet.

One need only look to the second of the two discs to find Meijer championing some recent works written in contemporary styles that owe something to Glass’ compositional style.  The disc which includes Meijer’s take on portions of Glass’ Koyaanisqatsi score along with compositions by five other composers is definitely a lighter even more pop-inflected experience at times.  That is not to say that this disc is lesser in any way but that it does seem to be reaching perhaps for a younger audience less versed in the classical harp repertoire.  Classical music needs to embrace other genres as the very concept of genre becomes more divisive than useful.  Another Strategy reminiscent of the Kronos.  

Whether or not this album manages to attract a wider audience to the charms of her instrument it does serve to showcase the range of this artist’s technical skills and the delightfully broad reach of her repertoire.  This rapidly rising star seems poised to be writing a bright new chapter in the life of the concert harp, a truly exciting prospect.