Ross Feller: X/Winds


feller-x-winds

Innova 911

 

This album is both an auspicious debut and a fine representative sampling of the compositional efforts of Ross Feller.  Feller holds MM and DMA degrees from the University of Illinois Champaign/Urbana, that venerable rural Illinois institution which oversaw some of the most significant early developments in computer technology.  More importantly for the present context it is has been the home of many important composers whose works have incorporated this technology directly or indirectly.  Like similar centers in New York (Columbia-Princeton), Oakland (Mills College), Stanford (CNMAT), Berkeley (CCRMA) among others a distinctive musical thread developed in that rural outpost and it is this provenance that makes this recording of particular interest.  Feller is also an editor at the Computer Music Journal and teaches at Kenyon College.

Ross Feller at the Paul Sacher Stiftung

Feller represents the current state of the art whose ancestry includes the likes of Lejaren Hiller and Salvatore Martirano, both major innovators in both music and technology.  Martirano was one of his teachers and Martirano’s widow, the fine violinist Dorothy Martirano, performs on this recording.  This writer had the pleasure of hearing the Martiranos in concert some years ago and can attest to the astounding quality of the work of this too little known composer.  Judging by the works on this recording Feller appears to be a worthy successor.

Eight works are represented here ranging from solo to acoustic ensemble to electroacoustic works.  The only thing missing is a purely electronic work and one hopes this will occur in a future release.  Composition dates range from 1994 to 2008 though, properly speaking, the 1994 work was revised in 2006.

Triple Threat (1994, rev 2006) is a sort of mini concerto for three soloists (B flat clarinet, trumpet and violin) and an ensemble of nine.  It is a sort of contemporary concerto grosso in that the soloists are more integrated into the overall texture of the piece.  It is a taught, well organized composition whose technical aspects discussed in the composer’s very useful notes are beyond the scope of this review.  What is well within the scope of this review is the fact that this is a marvelously engaging work in a sort of neo-mid century modernism sort of vein.  The technical aspects which will no doubt entertain theorists function in service of the music and are not an end in themselves.

Still Adrift (2013) is the first of three electroacoustic pieces on the disc.  This is an intense and virtuosic essay ably handled by soloist Adam Tendler.  It is obviously a very personal work evidenced both by its intimate focus and the composer’s own liner notes.  One suspects, however, that something is lost without the visuals and immediacy of seeing a live performance.  Nonetheless this piece easily stands on its own sonic merits.

Bypassing the Ogre (2006) is the first of two tracks for soloist without electronics.  This is perhaps the most experimental of the pieces on this disc.  It is essentially an etude focused on the soloist’s (Peter Evans) formidable improvisatory techniques on the trumpet.  It reminds this reviewer at times of the more experimental work of the justly lauded West Coast composer Robert Erickson (1917-1997) whose work also pioneered developments in electroacoustic musics as well.

Disjecta (2006) for percussion ensemble is actually the most extended work here at 14’10”.  It is sort of a catalog of Feller’s experiments with writing for percussion ensemble using playing techniques and naturally occurring (instead of electronically mediated) acoustic phenomena.  The title comes from Samuel Beckett’s term which he applied to a collection of miscellany.  This one requires close ,multiple listenings to grasp the composer’s intent but it appears to point the way to innovations in writing for percussion.

Sfumato (2006) for violin, bass clarinet and electroacoustic sound comes from the same apparently very productive year, 2006, as do three other tracks on this album.  This is the second electroacoustic track here.  As is often the case with electroacoustic compositions it is frequently difficult for the listener to determine whether the sounds heard are acoustic, electronic or some combination of the two without seeing a score or at least seeing the performance.  What is important is the sound and the impact of the music.  Again the music is engaging and satisfying.

Retracing (2009) for violin and electroacoustic sound is related to Still Adrift in that it incorporates gestures as well as textiles and dancers but stands on its sonic merits as a concert piece as well.  This is a very intense essay beautifully handled by Dorothy Martirano.  Even without the visuals there is much to engage the listener.

Glossolalia (2002) is the second of the two unaccompanied solo pieces here.  This one is for cello.  Unlike Bypassing the Ogre this piece seems to have impressionist leanings.  It is certainly filled with a variety of techniques but the end result is a coherent musical narrative.  It is abstract without an obvious narrative so the listener is free to apply their own impressions elicited by this very intense piece.

X/Winds (2008) for symphonic woodwind ensemble is the piece from which the album derives its title.  Here we return to the rich orchestral palette of the opening track.  Feller seems particularly strong in his ability to write meaningful and engaging music for large ensembles.  It left this reviewer wanting more.

These are incredible performances by highly competent and creative musicians of music which is well served by these skills.  Very engaging music very well performed and recorded.  

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The Varieties of E#, a new Elliott Sharp Release on Starkland


Elliott Sharp

Elliott Sharp

I think the first time I heard of Elliott Sharp was when a friend played a vinyl copy of 1988s Larynx. I later got hooked on the delightfully noisy string quartets of 1987s Hammer, Anvil, Stirrup. With 89 albums to his credit (according to discogs.com) Sharp writes and plays music in a range of styles and for a range of ensembles.

Only two years older than John Zorn their musical paths are similar in that they both learned multiple instruments as children. While they are both incredibly creative, intelligent and productive artists, Sharp initially took a more traditionally academic path while Zorn is largely self taught (an amazing feat in itself).

Sharp studied music, anthropology, improvisation and electronic music with teachers like Benjamin Boretz, Roswell Rudd, Morton Feldman and Lejaren Hiller. His music frequently uses Fibonacci numbers, fractals, chaos theory and genetic metaphors. His collaborators have included blues guitarist Hubert Sumlin, Qawalli singer Nusret Fateh Ali Khan (and many others) and practically a who’s who of the Downtown New York scene.

He produced the Nonesuch album of Ornette Coleman covers by John Zorn (Spy vs. Spy, 1988) which is definitely worth a listen. It is one of a series of such recordings of covers of various artists which have also included Ennio Morricone among others.

The present recording comprises works written between 2004-2008 and, like the previous release of music by Martin Bresnick (reviewed previously in this blog here), comprises a sort of snapshot of the composer’s recent work. Like the Bresnick disc this recording samples Sharp’s writing for a variety of ensembles and is an effective portrait of his mature style.

As a long-standing performer in the New York downtown scene Sharp experimented with a variety of compositional and  instrumental techniques consistent with his scientific interests.  Now such experimentation by itself is of little interest except on a theoretical level but what we hear in the works in this recording is a composer who has integrated these techniques into a sound that is pretty uniquely identifiable as Elliott Sharp much as J.S. Bach’s techniques are easily recognizable in identifying that composer.

The first work (and the one that lends its title to the album) is The Boreal (2008).  It is the most recent of the compositions and is another chapter in Sharp’s reinvention of string quartet writing.  Written for the noted JACK quartet, it involves the use of different types of non-traditional bows fashioned by the composer and creates sounds full of harmonics. It is probably unlike any string quartet music you have ever heard and it expands the notion of what that traditional classical ensemble can do.  The recording, though recorded live at the Ostrava Festival, is remarkably free of ambient noise which allows the listener to hear the subtleties of the rather wide dynamic range to be heard without the interference.  The work resides in more or less the same sound world as his other quartets and its four movements seem to follow logically creating a conceptual whole as with any of the more conventional quartets in the repertory.

Jenny Lin

Jenny Lin

The second work, Oligosono (2004) is for solo piano.  As the liner notes tell us it is Sharp’s application of extended instrumental techniques which he developed on his guitars to the piano (a pretty interesting accomplishment).  It is written for and played by the wonderful Jenny Lin who navigates the inside of the piano as well as the keyboard in some rhythmically complex and virtuosic playing.  She executes the three movements with seeming ease.

Paul Erdös "Erdos head budapest fall 1992" by Topsy Kretts - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Erdos_head_budapest_fall_1992.jpg#/media/File:Erdos_head_budapest_fall_1992.jpg

Paul Erdös

Now we come to the composer’s work for larger ensembles.  Proof of Erdös (2006) is named for the mathematician Paul Erdös (1913-1996) perhaps most famous for the Erdös Number which is an indicator of the degree of separation a given person has with another (Erdös’ number would be a zero and his direct collaborators would be a one.  I’m guessing my Erdös Number with regard to Mr. Sharp would probably be at best a three for having reviewed this album).

Proof of Erdös is a four movement work written for Orchestra Carbon (one of Sharp’s various ensembles) and it is ably conducted by the American composer/conductor David Bloom.  It is a studio recording.  The work shares some of the sound world of the last piece on the album but the ensemble is more of a chamber group than the full orchestra but produces a similarly large and complex sonic image.

On Corlear’s Hook (2007) is a work for full orchestra and, for this reviewer, it is a great opportunity to hear Sharp’s ability to write for large orchestra.  It’s title is taken from a the lower east side neighborhood in Manhattan where Sharp resided with his family.  As the composer says in the notes there is no attempt to be programmatic or pictorial that the music is, “a reflection of the spectra of my existence (there) from one frequency band to another”.

The performance by the fine Janacek Philharmonic is conducted by the German conductor Peter Rundel (1958- ). Rundel, whose credits include a Grand Prix du Disque for his recording of the works of Jean Barraque (1928-1973), delivers a convincing performance of this tour de force.  The four movements, reflecting Sharp’s “spectra” coalesce to a unity which suggests that this piece could easily be called “symphony” if one wanted to use that apparently dated term.  The audience seems attentive or at least respectfully quiet which makes for a pretty definitive recording.

A great debt is acknowledged here to the fine work of the Ostrava Days festival under the guidance of Petr Kotik (1942- ) for curating this amazing annual new music event.  There are very useful liner notes by legendary boundary defying cellist (and sometime Sharp collaborator) Frances-Marie Uitti.   Sharp himself provides notes in the accompanying booklet. As usual with Starkland the recording is of very high quality and Tom Steenland’s gift for graphic design (using an 1888 photo of electrical “effluvia” from the surface of a coin) is well suited to represent the contents of the recording.

The Boreal Starkland ST-222

The Boreal
Starkland ST-222

Like many of Starkland’s releases this album challenges the listener but meeting that challenge and giving this a serious listen is ultimately very rewarding.  This is a fine example of a composer whose work deserves to be better known and this is a good sampling of some of his most refined work.  Hopefully this release will help to position Sharp as a composer with roots in the downtown improv scene who has taken his experimentation successfully into the larger world of the contemporary classical scene.