Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

An Intriguing, Diverse New Album from Percussionist Justin DeHart

Who would be interested in an album of solo percussion, other than a fellow percussionist or composer? Justin DeHart’s new album Strange Paths addresses that question with a playful and virtuosic mix of contemporary and 20th century works, just out on Innova. Steadily and ambidextrously, DeHart builds a sonic spectrum ranging from hypnotically soothing, to suspenseful, with many shades in between: it rises to the challenge of entertaining a jaded listener who might not ordinarily gravitate to music made on things meant to be hit with a stick of some kind, over and over..

The opening number, Michael Gordon‘s XY is insistent and has a hard-hitting, subtly polyrhythmic, mechanical aspect, yet the way it’s done here, it’s more of a peaceful drummers-in-the-park tableau than annoy-your-neighbors assault. It sounds easy but in reality is cruelly difficult, requiring a Bach-like precision and an attention to minute detail that overcomes the work’s hypnotically echoing aspect. DeHart is up to the task.

Iannis Xenakis’ Psappha, the best-known of the pieces here, empowers DeHart to become a one-man orchestra via tuned drums in all sorts of timbres, up and down the register,  precisely marching yet lively, playing intricate variations on and off a series of polyrhythms, some bracing, some very subtle, particularly on the more emphatic, lower notes. The space between increased to the point of suspense and then comedy, a musical Waiting for Godot. Breathy cymbals add a syncopation that, when written in 1975, foreshadowed the loping groove of hip-hop.

Brian Ferneyhough’s Bone Alphabet, perhaps predictably, has a more skeletal feel and a thicket of constantly changing sonics, some woody and hollow, some metallic and booming, a restless prowl through a junkyard of the mind. The final track here, Stuart Saunders Smith’s four-part vibraphone suite They Looked Like Strangers draws on a memory of childhood humiliation, a small boy realizing how far estranged he’s become from his family as they ridicule him for a slip and a fall into the lake: he vows  not to let this disrespect slide. A slow, gingerly hazy summery ambience builds to eerie music-box ambience; wiith its lingering, otherworldly resonances, it draws a straight line back to Bernard Herrmann’s Hitchcock film scores. Then, casually and methodically, DeHart takes it into full-blown, resonant Lynchian menace. It’s a creepy piece of music in every sense of the word.

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March 2, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Rhizoma Evokes Vast, Haunting Vistas

Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s debut collection, Rhizoma, came out late last year on Innova. This minimalistic yet lush, desolate yet forcefully immediate, dark masterpiece hasn’t yet reached the audience it should. Interpolated between its three orchestral works is a murky five-part suite, Hidden, for solo percussed piano, played with judiciously brooding intensity by Justin DeHart. A series of low rumbles punctuated by the occasional sepulchral brush of the piano strings, with deftly placed single notes or simple phrases, the motifs are spaced apart with considerable distance, to the point of creating a Plutonian pace. The piece compares favorably with Eli Keszler’s recent, stygian work – and is best enjoyed as a cohesive whole, resequenced so its segments play consecutively.

The big orchestral works are showstoppers, to put it mildly. The first, Hrim (the Icelandic term for the growth of ice crystals) is performed by the seventeen-piece chamber orchestra Caput Ensemble conducted by Snorri Sifgus Birgisson. A tense, wary tone poem spiced with sudden, jarring cadenzas from the brass, strings, percussion or piano, it begins with a muffled rumble eventually balanced by a high, keening string drone, building to long, shifting tones, a brief, horror-stricken interlude with the piano grappling against fluttering agitation from the violins and then follows a long trajectory downward to eventual silence. Far more dramatic is the potently cinematic Streaming Arhythmia. Once again, mutedly minimal motifs from a long series of voices over a droning rumble build to a scurrying crescendo where everyone seems to have frantically thrown their windows wide to see what horrific event is about to take place. From there the orchestra builds a big black-sky theme (like a wide-open, expansive blue-sky theme but vastly more menacing), low strings in tandem with the timpani and brass at the bottom of their registers. Autumnal hues eventually ebb and fall over the drones; it ends on an unexpectedly playful note, the horror having gone up in smoke, or back into ocean.

The centerpiece, performed by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Bjarnason is sardonically titled Dreaming – but it’s a fullscale nightmare. Fading up with suspenseful Art of Noise-style footfalls over an amber glimmer, microtonal sheets of sound rise with a stately swirl and a distant menace. Waves of muted, rumbling percussion introduce an ominous cumulo-nimbus ambience and allusively tense minor-key phrases (from a compositional standpoint, this is a clinic in implied melody), fading elegantly to ghostly knocks, flutters and flurries.

To say that this album engages the listener is quite the understatement: obviously, these works were made first and foremost for live performance. On cd, the vast dynamic range Thorvaldsdottir employs requires constant attention to the volume level. This does not facilitate casual listening: it’s inaudible if you turn it down too low, and it can become extremely jarring if you turn it up. But maybe that’s the point of all this. Minimalism has seldom been so in-your-face. Who is the audience for this? Fans of dark sounds in general, dark cinematic composers like Bernard Herrmann, and also those who gravitate toward the horizontal work of Gerard Grisey or Henryk Gorecki but wish it had more rhythm and dynamics.

August 16, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment