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.

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ICE Debuts on Starkland: Music by Phyllis Chen and Nathan Davis


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Starkland is one of those labels whose releases seem to be so carefully chosen that one is pretty much guaranteed a great listening experience even if that experience might challenge the ears sometimes.  If one were to purchase their complete catalog (as I pretty much have over the years) one would have a really impressive and wide-ranging selection of new music.

I recently reviewed a very fine ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble) recording of music by Anna Thorvaldsdottir here. The present disc is the first appearance on Starkland of this ensemble whose performance skills and repertoire choices show the same depth of understanding as the producers of the label upon which they now appear.

ICE was founded in Chicago in 2001 by executive director and flautist extraordinaire Claire Chase.  The discography on their website now numbers 21 albums including the present release.  The group features some 30+ artists and musicians including a live sound engineer (like the Philip Glass Ensemble) and a lighting designer.  Do yourself a favor and check out the ICE Vimeo page to get some ideas about why having a lighting designer is a good idea.  Their performances are visually as well as musically compelling.  And who knows, perhaps there is a Starkland DVD release in their future.

About half their albums feature music by members of ICE and that is the case with this release.  One always has to wonder at the process that is involved in choosing repertoire to perform and/or record but there is no doubt that this group seems to have good instincts in regards to such decisions as evidenced by the already wild popularity of this disc on WQXR and the positive initial reviews so far.

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Phyllis Chen‘s biographical data is a bit sparse on both the ICE website and her own so I am going to assume that this talented young keyboard player likely began playing at an early age.  Like fellow pioneers Margaret Leng Tan and Jeanne Kirstein before her she has embraced toy pianos and, by extension I suppose, music boxes, and electronics into her performing arsenal.  In addition to being a composer she is one of the regular members of ICE.

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Nathan Davis is a regular percussionist with ICE as well as a composer.  His works range from opera to chamber and solo pieces for various instruments as well as electronics.

The tracks on this release pretty much alternate between these two featured composers.

The first track is Ghostlight (2013) by Nathan Davis, a sort of ragged moto perpetuo for “gently”prepared piano.  This is a good example of how these musicians (pianist Jacob Greenberg in this instance) have really fully integrated what were once exotic extended techniques into a comprehensive catalog of timbral options which are used to expand the palette of creative expression.  This is not a second rate John Cage clone but rather another generation’s incorporation of timbral exploration into their integral canon of sonic options.  This is an exciting and well-written tour de force deftly executed.

The next two tracks take us into the different but complimentary sound world of Phyllis Chen.  Hush (2011) for two pianos, toy pianos, bowls (presumably of the Tibetan singing variety) and music boxes is a playful gamelan-like piece played by the composer along with pianist Cory Smythe.

Chimers (2011) is a similarly playful work requiring the assistance of clarinetist Joshua Rubin, violinist Erik Carlson and Eric Lamb (on tuning forks) along with Chen and Smythe once again.  Again we hear these unusual instruments and timbres not as outliers in the musical soundscape but rather simply as artistic elements that are part of the composer’s vision.

Track number 4 features a work for bassoon and live processing.  Davis’ On Speaking a Hundred Names (2010) is played by Rebekah Heller and again the (to this listener) usually uncomfortable fit of acoustic and electronic are achieved very smoothly.  Music like this gives me hope that some day I will be able to drop the inevitable negative connotations I have associated with the term “electroacoustic”.  This is very convincing music and not just in the “golly gee, see what they’re doing” sense either.  The experimentation here (including the multiphonics) appears to have preceded the composition giving us an integrated and satisfying listening experience.

Chen comes back on track 5 with another successful integration of acoustic and electronic in her, Beneath a Trace of Vapor (2011).  Eric Lamb handles the flute here playing with (or against) the composer’s prepared tape.  This electroacoustic trend continues in the following track (also by Chen) called Mobius (201-) in which Chen, Smythe and Lamb are credited with playing “music boxes and electronics”.  Once again the integration of electric and acoustic speaks of a high level of music making.

The final four tracks are the big work here and the work that lends its name to this disc, On the Nature of Thingness (2011) by Nathan Davis.  Apparently taking its title from Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things (ca. 1B.C.) the work earlier also inspired Henry Brant in his spatial composition, On the Nature of Things (1956), but the work in this disc does not seem to make any direct reference to that Roman classic poem except perhaps metaphorically.

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Soprano Tony Arnold

The work here is an exploration of language, sound and expression.  This most eclectic and ponderous of the selections is a wonderful opportunity to hear the considerable skills of resident vocalist Tony Arnold who sense of pitch and articulation are incredibly well-suited to this work.  Her performance leaves nothing to be desired and is likely as authoritative as it gets.  The work seems to require a great deal of concentration and coordination on the parts of all involved and ICE takes the opportunity to demonstrate their well-honed skills as they clearly listen to each other and go all out in terms of achieving the subtlety of expression required in this demanding and complex work.

As usual the Starkland recording is clear and detailed without the sense of claustrophobia that such detail can take on and the liner notes are useful without extraneous detail.  This is an ensemble to watch/listen for both for the performers and for the music they choose to program.  You won’t be disappointed.

 

 

 

 

 

ICE in Iceland, Music of Anna Thorvaldsdottir


In the Light of Air Sono Luminus DSL 92192

In the Light of Air
(Sono Luminus DSL 92192)

For some years now I have greatly enjoyed the contemporary music coming out of the Nordic countries.  Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and the Faeroe Islands.  But I have also been aware of the truly rich musical culture of neighboring Iceland which, it seems, is less well known for its musical heritage.  Composers such as Jón Leifs and Thorkell Sigurbjornssen (among others) have created some wonderful music in the twentieth century that definitely needs to be heard more often and the present composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir is certainly a rising star in the twenty-first century, a proud example of Iceland’s best

Þorvaldsdottir (in Icelandic script) was born in 1977 in Iceland.  She earned a B.A. in music composition at the Iceland Academy of the Arts in 2004 and went on to an M.A. and Ph.D. in composition at the University of California, San Diego finishing in 2011.  She has received numerous awards, most recently the Nordic Council Music Prize in 2012 for her orchestral work, “Dreaming” (2008).

Anna Thorvalsdottir accepting the Nordic Council Music Prize in 2012.

Anna Thorvalsdottir accepting the Nordic Council Music Prize in 2012.

Her music can be found on 8 CD releases of which three, including the present disc, are devoted entirely to her works. The other two discs devoted to her music can be found on Deutsche Grammaphon  and, now only available as a digital download, a disc originally released on Bandcamp and now also available on Innova.  Worth noting is another disc on the Sono Luminus label that contains her chamber work, “Shades of Silence” (2012).  Here her work is presented along with that of several other Icelandic composers placing her in context with her peers.

In the Light of Air (2013-2014) is a five movement suite written for and performed by ICE (The International Contemporary Ensemble).  The work is scored for viola, piano, cello, percussion, fixed electronics and installation. There is an intended visual component here and there is a high definition video of a performance of this work on Vimeo.  It puts this reviewer in the mind of the work of George Crumb some of whose chamber works (Black Angels and Vox Balenae for example) require various stagings that are not conventional in standard chamber music performances.  You can judge for yourself as to whether the staging enhances the work but the music does stand on its own.

The five movements, Luminance, Serenity, Existence, Remembrance and Transitions flow seamlessly into one another evoking a dream-like, even impressionistic feeling.  It would appear that this composer has studied a great deal of compositional techniques and has integrated those most useful to her in her work.  We hear microtones, glissandi, harmonics, alternate tunings, vocalizations, drones, even some spectral passages.  But throughout these techniques do homage to the past by their use in this clearly 21 st Century music.  There is an overall mysterious, somber and meditative tone that seems to evoke the sometimes barren landscapes of the composer’s native Iceland.  She seems  to travel in sound worlds not too distant from Morton Feldman but also Pauline Oliveros with a dash of Debussy perhaps. I don’t know, but quality (and sometimes lack) of light north of the Arctic Circle must certainly affect the way people think and create.  But keep in mind that Iceland consistently makes the top ten lists for happiest countries in the world. Perhaps funding for the arts, such as they provide, contributes to that happiness.  When the result is music like this one can’t help but feel at least hopeful.

ICE executes the performance with their usual virtuosity and care adding another significant work to their large and growing repertoire of contemporary music.  The recording, in keeping with the Sono Luminus mission is lucid and detailed.  (Unfortunately I was unable to evaluate the DVD 5.1 audio which is included in this release.  I have no doubt that this is a great listening experience but that will have to wait until I upgrade my sound system.)

Having heard this disc and some of the excerpts of other works available on the composer’s web page I think this is an artist whose work certainly deserves attention and one whose star will no doubt rise further.   Kudos to Sono Luminus on promoting this music.  Highly recommended.