Violist Jessica Meyer has an intriguingly vivid new solo electroacoustic album, Sounds of Being, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s her first collection of original compositions. Its seven instrumental tracks are explorations of specific emotions, from unabashed joy to clenched-teeth angst. You could lump these pieces under the wide umbrella of indie classical, although they also have echoes of film music, ambient music and the spectral side of the avant garde. She’s playing the album release show at 8 PM on Dec 15 at the Cell Theatre, 338 W 23rd St (8th/9th Aves); cover is $20.
Although this is a loopmusic album, Meyer often creates the effect of a one-woman orchestra, with animated dynamic shifts and changing segments, rather than long, hypnotic one-chord jams in the same vein as her fellow string players Jody Redhage and Nadia Sirota have recorded in the recent past.
Meyer builds a steady theme that rises toward a shivery franticness on the opening track, Getting Home (I Must Be…), ending with a big, distinctly Indian-flavored crescendo. The second track, Hello is more of a soundscape, assembled around subtle, dancing Steve Reich-ish variations on a simple, cellular theme. She orchestrates Into the Vortex with deft swoops, washes, frenetic clusters and microtonal displays of extended technique, sort of a mashup of Rasputina and the Mivos Quartet in particularly experimental mode.
Afflicted Mantra introduces another Indian-tinged melody and variations – albeit more tense and menacing – out of a keening, enervated intro. A simple, morose spoken phrase anchors its increasing agitation. By contrast, Source of Joy builds a jauntily leaping if considerably more measured, pensive atmosphere than the title suggests. The album’s most expansive piece is Touch, again reaching for distantly Indian overtones with a gently pulsing rhythm that contrasts with its enveloping sonics. The final piece, Duende follows a troubling trajectory upward out of more of hints of the Indian music that Meyer seems to love so much, to a cruel false ending. Who is the audience for this? Fans of the more edgy, intense side of classical music, obviously, as well as anyone who enjoys any of the abovementioned artists.
Violists don’t usually play solo. It’s rarer still that a violist puts out a solo recording, considering the relative paucity of solo works for the instrument. But Brooklyn Rider’s brilliant Nicholas Cords – “The Sheriff” to his string quartet bandmates – has just released his solo debut, Recursions. Inspired by the theoretical glimpse into the infinite – some would say the supernatural – created by setting two mirrors face to face, the album explores repetitive patterns from across the ages. In so doing, Cords potentially puts himself on the hot seat in terms of sustaining interest. And he pulls it off – as he reminds in the liner notes, with repetition comes familiarity and then insight. Not only is this a very comforting album, it’s sonically gorgeous: the natural reverb at the “Orchard” where it was recorded enhances the music’s often otherworldly quality.
Cords opens with a Heinrich Biber passacaglia (postlude to the composer’s 1676 Rosary Sonatas), variations on a simple four-chord descending progression, hypnotic yet dynamically-charged, with subtle rhythmic shifts and a resilient sostenuto. A violin piece that’s translated well to the viola, it sets the stage for the rest of the record.
Cords’ trance-inducing, marvelously ambient arrangement of the Irish traditional tune Port Na BPucai follows. Edmund Rubbra’s Meditations on the Byzantine Hymn O Quando El Cruce works its way methodically from an oddly Celtic-sounding pulse to vibrant pizzicato chromatics, suspensefully crescendoing, insistent motives and then a rapt calm. Alan Hovhaness’ Chahagir (Armenian for torchbearer) is plaintive and haunting, emotionally what one would expect from the year 1945 – although it has a baroque tinge – Cords loosening his vibrato and letting the phrases linger. His own multitracked suite Five Migrations builds a series of looped melodies: an echoing Kayhan Kalhor-esque miniature; slow wary circles spiced with edgy doublestops; and Middle Eastern allusions (no surprise considering Cords’ long association with the Silk Road Ensemble).
Cords achieves cello-like lows throughout a tersely brooding take of Stravinsky’s Elegie for Solo Viola. The album closes with Hindemith’s Sonata for Solo Viola, its somewhat peevish motives getting a lively bit of Bartokian agitation and moving from there through bracing morosity, jauntiness and austerity. Who is the audience for this album? Anyone with a taste for quiet, contemplative sounds with an edge.
As much as musicians are accustomed to playing solo, it’s another thing entirely to play unaccompanied instrumentals in front of an audience. Thursday at Trinity Church, violist Yoon-Kyung Shin was up to the challenge. An intense, dynamic presence, she began the concert with Bach’s Suite No. 4 in E Flat, BWV 1010. It’s a series of six dance pieces: some of it, like the opening Prelude and lively Courante have the feel of etudes. But the rest of it, especially the brooding Allemande and slinky Sarabande gave Shin the chance to sway and dip for poignancy while keeping the stately beat. After all, this was party music, high-class 18th century style.
The party continued as Shin was joined by pianist Alexandria Le for Brahms’ Sonata for Viola and Piano in E Flat, Op. 120, No. 2. It’s a pretty amazing piece. On one level, from a 21st century perspective, it’s astonishing how Brahms was able to achieve so much diversity with it, and to keep it interesting for so long (it went on for at least fifteen minutes) using what appears to be simple major and minor chords. Of course, that’s not all that’s going on. Rich with allusions that artfully set up joyous resolutions, it’s anything but predictable, and Le had a great time with it, firing off one bullseye after another when the opportunities came along. With a playful camaraderie between the musicians, Shin’s steely resolve made a wryly fascinating contrast. Moving from the glittering, beery cheer of the opening Allegro Amabile, they backed away and let the starlit ambience speak for itself throughout the two closing movements
The two closed with Efrem Zimbalist’s Sarasateana Suite of Spanish dances, a considerably lighter suite, but not easy to play. Shin handled the lightning doublestops of the gypsy-rock flavored opening tango and miles-high astringencies of the Malaguena dance with effortless aplomb, Le digging in and lending a resonantly potent, Satie-esque plaintiveness to the quieter second movement. The party ended as it had began, the two joining forces energetically for the percussive clog dance movement to end it on a boisterous, carefree note.
Were Hungarian violinist Felix Lajko and his violist cohort Antal Brasnyo at Bang on a Can on Sunday? Actually not. Carving out new territory embodying elements of gypsy music, classical, jazz and the avante-garde, they would have fit in well at Sunday’s marathon. In their duo performance, Lajko played lead, Brasnyo’s viola functioning much like a harmonium, creating washes of chords anchoring Lajko’s wild glissandos and stark, rapidfire staccato passages. How much was composed and how much was improvised was hard to tell, other than several false endings after which Lajko would meander mysteriously before winding up with a big crescendo or a sudden, cold stop. A couple of the pieces were straight out of the mid-70s Jean-Luc Ponty songbook, fast two-chord jams where Lajko would cavort with a gypsy dance feel. Another was a straight-up four-chord rock melody with a soaring, upbeat chorus.
Lajko switched to zither on a couple of numbers, Brasnyo maintaining the ambience while his partner picked away frenetically (with the size of the auditorium, it would have been nice if the zither, with virtually no sustain, could have been amplified). After a solo series of variations on a gypsy dance by Lajko, the duo played a capitivatingly morphing number that moved from a vintage soul melody to a tango to a joyous dance before closing with another two-chord jam. Despite the blazing speed of pretty much everything they played, neither musician looked like they broke a sweat. Bang on a Can ought to enlist these guys next year. This show was part of the ongoing Extremely Hungary festival, featuring a diverse series of musical, literary and theatrical events running through the end of the year in both New York and Washington, DC.