Composers have been writing for their favorite performers and ensembles for centuries. Lisa Bielawa wrote much of the music on her lavish new double cd In Medias Res specifically for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Directed by Gil Rose, they return the gesture with a sweeping, potently attuned performance that does justice to the poignancy, and intensity, and playfulness of the four integral works and suite here. For lack of a better word, this is a deep album, a milestone in the career of a composer who deserves to be ranked as one of this era’s most powerful and compelling. It couldn’t have come at a better moment. It’s a lot more than Bielawa arriving in a cloud of dust to rescue the world of “indie classical” from the simpering, infantile whimsy that’s seeped in from the indie rock demimonde, but that’s part of the deal. Or at least we can hope so.
The first piece here is Roam, dating from 2001, on a theme of exile inspired by Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. It’s a marvelously suspenseful, ambient piece worthy of Tschaikovsky or Bernard Herrmann. A tone poem with unexpected and extremely effective digressions, it works the subtlest dynamics and a chromatic tug-of-war in lieu of any kind of overt consonance, crescendos rising slowly out of slow, plaintive tectonic shifts, wary and absolutely desolate in places. Bielawa wrote her Double Violin Concerto specifically for the solists here: Carla Kihlstedt, who sings an English translation from Faust (along the lines of “let’s get the hell out of here and find some peace”) while playing, and Brooklyn Rider’s Colin Jacobsen. It’s another quiet stunner, plaintive with a vivid sense of longing, shades of Henryk Gorecki. Rapt, quiet, simple motifs diverge and converge austerely in the first movement. The second literally revolves around creepily circling violins as Kihlstedt channels Goethe in a soaring, unadorned high soprano; the third, inspired by the Lamentations of Jeremiah mixes suspenseful horizontality with a distantly Indian melody, which Jacobsen makes the most of, in the same vein of his work on Brooklyn Rider’s delicious new double cd of Philip Glass string quartets. The dance at the end becomes a danse macabre as the two violins close in on each other.
A cantata of sorts, Unfinish’d, was inspired by Shakespeare’s Richard II and his winter of discontent made summer. It packs a wallop in just short of nine minutes, austere and then blustery, and then suddenly down to a chilly expanse, Bielawa’s crystal-cutter soprano leading the way back to a breathless coda. In Medias Res, her concerto for orchestra, is a cinematic tour de force, swooping out of tune, building suspense with locomotive force, a creepily recurring waltz, starlit ambience straight out of the Gustav Holst playbook and a long, apprehensive, deeply satisfying crescendo out.
The second cd , titled Synopses, is a a series of miniatures and extended solo pieces for individual orchestra members. Some of these are actual motifs from In Medias Res; others foreshadow it, others seemingly allow for improvisation (particularly from trumpeter Terry Everson, who tackles it joyously). The most amusing piece is for drums and spoken word, done by Robert Schultz, whose accents are spot-on, but who could have used a voice like Kihlstedt’s or Bielawa’s to deliver a series of disturbingly or entertainingly allusive comments overheard on the street. All together, these pieces demand repeated listening. It was tempting to add this to our ongoing countdown of the thousand best albums of all time. We resisted. That might have been a mistake. Bielawa and an ensemble are playing several of the Synopses with choreography at New York City Center on 56th St. tomorrow, April 16th at 7:30 PM.
How to advertise an evening of new music? Invite the public to hear part of it and be part of the performance itself. Earlier this evening in the high-ceilinged cafe/anteroom leading to Alice Tully Hall, International Contemporary Ensemble premiered group leader Nathan Davis’ gently mesmering electroacoustic composition simply and aptly titled Bells: they were scheduled to play later as part of Lincoln Center’s ongoing avant-garde Tully Scope festival. Perched in the balcony high overhead, Davis judiciously alternated between a series of bells and gongs, sometimes using mallets, other times bowing them for a flute or clarinet-like tone, at times smacking a huge Javanese gong behind him to add contrasting low, practically subsonic sustained tonalities. Below him, the rest of the group – Joshua Rubin on clarinet, Claire Chase on flute, Eric Lamb on both piccolo and gong – interjected occasional terse, sustained notes or simple motives while a dozen other players on “spatialized crotales and triangles” wandering casually, almost imperceptibly through the crowd. When they weren’t adding the occasional, spare accent, they moved among the audience holding up their phones. Taking a page out of the Phil Kline fakebook, Davis wrote the piece for audience participation: an engineer ran the mix through what seemed an endless series of echo and loop effects, then sent it out on four separate phone lines available to audience members to call and then play back on their phones as the group continued to play. Given the limited amplification of the phones in use, the addition of a potentially unlimited number of unique textures never really materialized since the musicians were amped so loudly, but in a larger space the effect would have been more significant.
With the addition of quadrophonic sound – speakers in every corner of the room, each with a different mix – the overall effect was as psychedelic as it was comforting. The piece unwound slowly, a spaciously pinging, ringing, and occasionally booming tone poem of sorts, with breaks where it seemed that it was playing back on itself, other times picking up the pace with all the musicians contributing. Although it spanned what seemed to be the entire audible sonic spectrum, the melody didn’t move around much from a central tone, octaves and overtones playing a large role in the overall picture. There was a brief moment of what seemed to be feedback, which was as bracing as expected; otherwise, a kaleidoscope of tonalities and textures moved through the frame, and out, and then sometimes back again. After roughly twenty-five minutes, nonstop, except for a brief pause about two-thirds of the way through, it wound itself out gracefully if a little unexpectedly. The only thing missing was the interior of a planetarium: imagine what could be done with this at the American Museum of Natural History!
A sonic suspense film, UK ambient music artist Cousin Silas’ twelfth album Canaveral Dreams (on the innovative and intriguing Acustronica label) is tremendously captivating and often absolutely creepy. It works best on good headphones, yet it’s equally good as a late-night passout album. The record label calls this stuff “dark Ballardian soundscapes,” a terrific way to describe these minimalist, nebulously cinematic pieces. Lynchian would be another way to characterize the way these soundscapes build and maintain suspense, vividly finding the menace in the mundane. Some of them center around piano melodies, like the viscerally haunting, apprehensive Concrete Towers, the wistful Through Glittering Trees or the reverberating, noirish A Passing, with the occasionally chilly gust in the background. Arriving Home works off a hypnotic two-chord theme with similarly chilly breezes, comfort beckoning just out of reach.
A couple of others utilize synthesizer tones, like the casually comfortable Crane at Train Station – a rare deviation from the general bleakness here – and the blithe Whitefield Pits, Moog melody set against a swirling backdrop. What Cousin Silas is most adept here is ambient, allusive tone poems loaded with suspense and dread, melody hinted at but never delivered. The mini-suite From a Lighthouse offers the whisper of a distant ragtime band over the waves, familiarity and companionship again well out of reach. The Decay of Concrete and Sawney Hill are marvelously subtle tone poems, every grim shade of grey you could possibly imagine. Sudden, insectoid spectral shifts add a dizzying touch to the viscerally disturbing Black Mold, similar to the junglescape that appears midway through the Art of Noise-style Last Night. A choir (or a clever electronic approximation) plays call-and-response with the shifting shades on To the Other Side; a muffled series of doppler effects, truck horns and sirens allude to an unseen tragedy on Time Lapse Crash, Scene 7, a trick that works even more disturbingly well on the title cut, seemingly a reference to the space shuttle disaster. The album ends with what could be an underwater scene complete with doors crashing above it: Pink Floyd’s Rick Wright would devour this.
Cousin Silas works fast: in the brief two months since this album’s come out, he’s released another, Adrift off the Islets of Langerhans available for free download at his bandcamp site.
It makes sense that pioneering string quartet Brooklyn Rider would feel close to Debussy, considering their background as classical players who, these days anyway, specialize in world music. The perennially cutting-edge Brooklyn group appear on the latest Silk Road Ensemble album; their first cd included strikingly original arrangements of Armenian folk songs plus a tango by Russian-born violist/composer Ljova. With credits and credentials like that, they hardly need a career boost, but this hypnotically beautiful, stunningly imaginative cross-pollinating work is exactly that. The album’s central theme could be summed up somewhat reductionistically as circularity: this is a collection of new commissioned pieces based on elements that return and echo with a deliberately hypnotic effect, tonally, rhythmically and volume-wise. The concept goes back as far as humanity does, expanding over the centuries and when Debussy discovered Javanese gamelan music, that was the quantum leap, in terms of western classical music at least. The genius of this album is simply picking up where Debussy left off.
Smartly, Brooklyn Rider make Debussy’s lone string quartet the centerpiece here rather than the opening or concluding track, setting it in context with the new works around it. It’s amazing how new and fresh it sounds, delivered with particular percussive verve, nudging the listener to tune in to ideas resonating elsewhere here – unison passages, echoes of Russian and Asian tonalities in the first movement, the swirling repetition of the second and gamelanesque allusions in the last one. There are also motifs that have insinuated themselves into rock music over the years: listen closely and you’ll find them!
Ensemble member and violinist Colin Jacobsen’s Achille’s Heel (Debussy’s birth name was Achille-Claude) displays a strong Kayhan Kalhor influence, and no wonder, considering how closely the group has worked with the Iranian compose (their 2008 collaboration Silent City is a high water mark in East/West mashups). The theme insinuates itself quietly, growing more intense with a Kalhoresque insistence alternated with pizzicato passages leading to an absolutely haunting figure where one of the violins pedals a funereal, bell-like tone before the striking contrast of the most rock-oriented passage on the entire album. Jacobsen’s cantabile astringency in the third movement casually sets the stage for the fiery riffage of the final, counterintuitively ending much as it began.
Shakuhachi player Kojiro Umezaki solos with the group on his composition, (Cycles) What Falls Must Rise, fading up with what sounds like actual studio feedback, the big flute alternating between stillness and rapidfire fifth intervals. A call to alarm sounds distantly over ambient strings and a low, crackling tone that could be a short circuit (amazing how sometimes snafus in the studio translate into the best moments a group could hope for!). It ends with a good ambient jape whose ending deseves not to be spoiled here. The first of the two other tracks here is a tone poem, extended, apprehensive stillness punctuated by ambient effects, by another one of the group’s Silk Road cohorts, Uzbek composer Dmitry Yanov-Yanovsky. The other makes a fullscale rondo out of the John Cage composition In a Landscape, Justin Messina’s artful electronic loops sealing the deal as what’s essentially a blues lick runs over and over again, its permutations finally fading out gracefully. Brooklyn Rider are currently on tour: their cd release show is on March 15 at 7:30 PM at the Angel Oresanz Center. Adventurous listeners would be crazy to miss it – advance tix are available here.
Thursday at Trinity Church conductor Dorrit Matson led the pioneering New York Scandia Symphony through a characteristically enlightening and exciting performance that left no doubt that the Scandinavian composers of the early classical era were just as substantial – and could be sometimes just as schlocky – as their counterparts a little further south. This program featured a trio of compositions drawing on Viennese School influences, and as is the custom with the Scandia, one piece was a US premiere and the other, C.E.F. Weyse’s Symphony No. 6, was making its New York debut, two hundred years after it was written.
They opened with Kuhlau’s Robbers Castle Overture. This one you know even if you think you don’t – it’s the kind of piece WQXR plays right before the top of the hour. A blazing, heroic theme, it’s essentially a series of codas, one on top of the other, leaving barely room to breathe. But breathing room is what Matson gave it, enhancing the cleverness of what’s essentially a single, long crescendo. The US premiere, Gunnar Berg’s 1950 composition Hymnos (“That little violin piece,” as a member of the ensemble sardonically characterized it afterward) was a revelation. In the same vein as Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead, it’s a tone poem, striking, static and still, the orchestra bringing out every bit of unrelenting tension in its stark, Stravinskian ambience.
Johan Halvorsen’s Suite Ancienne works off a typical 19th century trope. With a few exceptions (notably Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances), lush orchestrations of old folk tunes often leave an uninspired impression, but not the way the Scandia opened this one, careening with a reckless, beery abandon that proved impossible to resist. The second and third segment are somewhat annoyingly jiggy in places, but to the orchestra’s credit, the boisterous cheer never let up and this paid off in the end when finally some wary intensity arrived in the form of a brief, recurring turnaround, stark in its contrast with the endless celebration all around. The Weyse was the closing number, working a simple, extremely straightforward and considerably effective chordal series building to a heroic theme with some striking textural appositions, horns against the strings. The Largo, which followed, was anything but, only backing off slightly from the majesty that would return with gusto as a big dance number in the third movement and conclude with lively exuberance and echoes of Vivaldi in the fourth. It’s the kind of piece that could easily open a Schubertiade bill.
Fans of brilliant obscurities (the Scandia dedicates itself to premiering works both old and new) are in for a treat, with members of the orchestra playing a series of free outdoor shows at Ft. Tryon Park in Washington Heights this June.