Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Enigmatically Ominous Michael Hersch Works for Soprano, Orchestra and Small Ensemble

Michael Hersch might be the most macabre of all contemporary classical composers. While the macabre is one of many themes in his music, it’s hard to think of anyone who goes as deeply into it as he has, from his chilling musical portraits of the inmates of a closed ward in a mental hospital, to the torments of terminal cancer patients. His latest album The Script of Storms – streaming at New Focus Recordings – comprises two suites.

The first is Cortext and Ankle, a setting of texts by the doomed writer Christopher Middleton, sung by soprano Ah Young Hong and backed by innovative chamber group Ensemble Klang. In the second, she sings the words of Fawzi Karim with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Tito Muñoz.

There’s horror, and fingertips being torn off, “the dead tangled in a heap,” and an ineluctable end to all things in the initial eleven-part sequence. It’s prime material for prime Hersch, although the music itself is generally more airily portentous than sinister.

The brief overture is the closest thing to traditional film noir music that Hersch has written: an anxious, acidic bustle with furtive percussion flickers. Hong enters with a poignant, wistful resonance, until the group explodes with brassy growl and dramatic intensity behind her, a recurrent and judiciously utilized device. Austere, slowly shifting segments follow in turn. Hersch is known for employing a lot of space, and he does that here.

Anton van Houten’s determined trombone crescendos along with sudden bursts of activity from saxophonists Michiel van Dijk and Erik-Jan de With contrast with Hong’s resolute calm, but she leaps without warning to a full-throttle arioso power. Pianist Saskia Lankhoorn is often required to do the same. Percussionist Joey Marijs gets to contribute occasional surreal, clanking industrial textures, while guitarist Pete Harden’s contributions are even more skeletal.

The nine-part title suite, a grim reflection on the 1958 coup d’etat in Iraq and summary execution of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Said, is closer to Hersch’s earlier work, even as it follows much of the same template as the album’s first piece.

Ominous trombone also features heavily here. Anxious clusters of strings and reeds burst in, only to disappear. Familiar and juicily spine-tingling Bernard Herrmann tropes appear everywhere: shrieking high winds, ghostly slithers, and doppler crescendos. The drifting close harmonies and microtonal mist toward the end of the suite are particularly delicious, if disquiet is your thing. The persistent rhythmic overlays are just as clever as they are effective. As fits the subject matter, this is a horror film for the ears and a mighty effective one. Not for the faint of heart, but Hersch is the rare composer who seems committed to never backing away from any subject matter, no matter how disturbing.

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October 27, 2022 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Rapturous, Slashing New Solo Album From One of This Era’s Most Dynamically Brilliant Cellists

Who is the audience for cellist Ashley Bathgate‘s new solo album, simply titled Ash and streaming at Bandcamp? Anyone who gravitates toward thoughtful low-register sounds…and sounds that aren’t so low as well. Bathgate has been one of the most sought-after cellists in 21st century music since joining the Bang on a Can All-Stars back in the zeros. While she seems to prefer pensive sounds and is a brilliant interpreter and improviser in Indian music, she’s also asked to do the impossible more often than not in the world of indie classical and the avant garde. Her extended technique is fearsome, yet she’s known for embracing straightforward tunefulness. The new record, a collection of material written for her, looks back to the Bach suites she’s practiced for years, through the prism of the here and now.

That a composer as celebrated as Andrew Norman would title the album’s opening track For Ashley speaks for itself. Bathgate’s deadpan humor is hard to resist, as the staggered syncopation and sudden staccato mimic a famous Bach theme. The hazy, spacious chords in the midsection offer bracing contrast, as do the increasingly surreal, warpy harmonics as the piece winds out.

Christopher Cerrone’s On Being Wrong is an acerbic electroacoustic piece with echo and doppler effects, Bathgate becoming a one-woman string quartet as she juxtaposes a plaintively slashing, vamping chromatic theme against wary ethereality. Timo Andres’ Small Wonder looks back to Bach very playfully, with sudden rhythmic shifts and jaunty changes in attack, timbre and rhythm, spiced with harmonics and incisive pizzicato.

The album’s most epic piece is Jacob Cooper‘s Ley Line, Bathgate digging into its gritty, steady, ominously hypnotic modal eighth-note runs with a savage determination. It sounds a lot like Julia Wolfe…and that it must be subtly wild fun to play. A Ted Hearne piece with a seemingly random title filters back and forth between techy atmospherics and stark minimalism, Bathgate’s cello taking on a saxophone-like tone at times. The glitchiness of the production toward the end is annoying: nobody wants to suddenly have to check to see if their machine or their phone is melting down.

The album’s final piece is Robert Honstein‘s gorgeous Orison, a slow, tectonically shifting soundscape, textured top to bottom with gravelly murk, fleeting echoes, keening overtones and echo phrases. Beyond the fact that the Ted Hearne piece could have been faded out at about the two-thirds mark, this is a magically fun, entrancing record.

December 4, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment