Record Roundup: 2023 First Quarter Report, Pt. 2
The surface scratching continues...
After the last post’s selection of 10 High Rotation albums, here are some classical and electronic releases from (mostly) January through March that have also been defining my year.
The 2023 First Quarter Report playlist can be found here or below.
Note: until we come up with a better word, this is the shorthand I use to refer to music that is (generally) composed by a person and (generally) played by another person or people, often on an instrument or combination of instruments that call back to European traditions: violins, pianos, clarinets, you get the idea. In the 21st Century, electronics are often deployed as well as a vast array of “extended techniques,” which can push ancient instruments into entirely new sonic spaces. Despite the fusty, problematic word, this is one of the most vital strains in music today. Ignore it to your detriment!
Loadbang, Ekmeles, et al - The Consent Of Sound And Meaning: Music Of Eric Richards In the first collection of Richards’ work since his death in 2020, the fearless and expert explorers of outer sounds in Loadbang and Ekmeles provide a varied overview of an important figure in the New York avant garde scene. Often referring to external texts, whether in A Fanfare For Diebenkorn (1972), with Andy Kozar’s triple-tracked trumpet paying tribute to the abstract painter, or Owls, Too (2014-15), which sets an Elgar lyric for six female vocalists, Richards always takes his inspirations to new realms. Perhaps the most startling track here and proof of Richard’s everlasting curiosity is Hymn To Santa Muerte (2018), which draws on a song by the Greek metal band Rotting Christ and turns it into a churning invocation for baritone and cuica, the Brazilian friction drum, with Jeffrey Gavett and Jude Traxler overdubbing multiple parts. With peers like Harry Partch and John Cage long gone, Richards was still living firmly in the present and remaking it in his sonic image.
Lei Liang - Hearing Landscapes/Hearing Icescapes In two immersive works linked by Liang’s interest in the natural world, including oceanography, and how people interact with it, whether through exploration or making art, like the Chinese landscape paintings that also serve to inspire him. In the first piece, three movements take us through different zones of experience, whether Ligeti-like constellations of sound, overlapping voices, or a collage of electronics and Chinese folksong. The second piece, which also features David Aguila (trumpet), Teresa Diaz de Cossio (flute), and Myra Hinrichs (violin), consists of two long tracks combining the instruments pushed into abstraction with equally abstract electronics and white noise. As a form of sonic landscape painting, Liang’s work succeeds marvelously.
Brooklyn Rider - The Wanderer: Live From Paliesius, Lithuania On their last album, Healing Modes, this long-running string quartet gave us several fantastic new works interleaved with Beethoven’s 15th. This time around, we get a beautifully recorded live performance of three works, two new and one old. The album opens with Gonzalo Grau’s Aroma A Distancia, six characterful minutes of sweeping melodies, waltz rhythms, and plenty of pizzicato and percussive touches, making yet another argument for the string quartet’s utter versatility. Grau’s piece is a mere overture, however, for the world premiere of Osvaldo Golijov’s Un Dia Bom, his first recorded piece since 2020’s titanic confrontation with grief, Falling Out Of Time. This is also a major work, five movements that find Golijov luxuriating in the textures of the instruments and their capacities for interplay. Throughout, he develops simple song-like elements into expansive explorations into melodic invention and rhythmic dynamism. Nowhere is his compositional skill more evident than in the second movement, Mentre la Pioggia (When the Rain), which takes off on a poem Vivaldi wrote and finds Golijov delighting in the creation of many musical metaphors for water falling from the sky. But the whole thing is wonderful and should be played far and wide, although other groups will have a challenge to match Brooklyn Rider’s deeply engaged and dazzling performance. We also get their take on Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14, D810, “Death And The Maiden,” which has been recorded hundreds of times but manages to sound fresh and fun in their hands. A real crowd-pleaser, then, and the enthusiastic (somewhat intrusive) applause finds the audience well and truly pleased - you will be, too.
Missy Mazzoli - Dark With Excessive Bright I read in a recent interview that Mazzoli, a composer who has crossed many boundaries, particularly between chamber music and indie rock, now primarily considers herself an operatic composer. And she has had a great deal of success in that arena, including a commission from the big Kahuna, the Metropolitan Opera - not normally a friendly place for contemporary music, or female composers for that matter. But while applauding those inroads, I didn’t realize that there had never been a portrait album of her orchestral work. So this album, which collects five pieces of varying vintage is, to paraphrase Pusha-T, kind of like a big deal.
Such was my anticipation that at first I wasn’t feeling it. But a concentrated listen with my good headphones (Grados, if you must know) allowed me to penetrate the surface tension of the title piece, a concerto for violin and orchestra, played here with assured flair by Peter Herresthal with the Bergen Philharmonic led by James Gaffigan. With its lush bed of strings and often piercing writing for the soloist, it has an inherent drama that has always been a part of her music - but time in the opera house seems to have honed it to a fine point. Her experience working with chamber-pop band Victoire may have also helped her find the tools to arrange the piece for amplified violin and string quartet in version requested by Herresthal and included here.
Even with two versions of Dark and a new recording of Vespers For Violin, originally recorded by Olivia De Prato on Streya in 2018, there’s still plenty of variety here. Sinfonia (For Orbiting Spheres), the first of three pieces performed by the Arctic Philharmonic with Tim Weiss at the helm, is starlit and filled with textural invention. A strain of Americana of the Copland variety emerges from These Worlds In Us in winning fashion amidst the mysterious glissandi. Orpheus Undone has perhaps the most inventive orchestration of the lot, with Mazzoli reveling in percussion and brass. I’m not surprised to learn it was based on a ballet score from 2019 as it is often rhythmic and has a strong narrative thrust. Ultimately, Mazzoli is a story teller, whether in the opera house or not - and these are some of her finest tales yet.
Robert Honstein - Lost & Found The first time I played this, I declared to anyone who would listen (i.e. my Twitter followers) that it was instantly my favorite Honstein album, an impression that hasn’t waned with further spins. Consisting of several works for percussion, each played by the best in the biz - Tigue (Matt Evans, Amy Garapic, and Carson Moody), New Morse Code (Hannah Collins and Michael Compitello), and Compitello solo - and featuring a spirit of play and rich emotion, it will serve as the perfect introduction to Honstein’s work should you need one.
Seattle Symphony Orchestra - Walker & Dawson: Orchestral Works After my belated introduction to George Walker via Steven Beck’s marvelous 2022 album of piano music, I was eager for more, which made this collection very welcome. And I knew I would be in good hands with the Seattle, a versatile group who excel in music from the epics of John Luther Adams to 20th century masters like Berio, Boulez, and Ravel. Result? A great overview of Walker’s orchestral music, including the Pulitzer-Prize-Winning Lilacs for Voice & Orchestra (with a luminous performance from soprano Nicole Cabell) with shapely, translucent playing led by Asher Fisch lent an extra charge by being live recordings. Neeme Järvi’s 90s recording of William Levi Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony may be a little leaner and meaner than what we have here, but conductor Roderick Cox manages to give this fine work extra weight without ever letting it get ponderous. So, yes, let’s fill up the shelves with more Walker and Dawson recordings. They’ve got a long way to go to outweigh the more commonly revisited repertoire.
Tongue Depressor/Weston Olencki - Don’t Tell No Tales Upon Us In which the duo of Henry Birdsey (bagpipes or pedal steel) and Zach Rowden (bass or tapes) collaborates with Olencki - the artist behind last year’s “monster of a tape,” Old Time Music - on two multilayered yet monolithic tracks. Tapping Season has Olencki’s trombone combining with bagpipes and bass to create an infernal drone and If Death Be Printed On His Face has his banjo joining forces with pedal steel and tapes to create a shifting series of drones, bends, and percussive shudders. The earth’s crust may be vibrating in response.
Frederic Oberland - Solstices As I said on my podcast, Oberland is unafraid of music’s ritual power, employing pulse, white noise, and densely layered melodies to transform any space - including the one between your ears - into a place where anything can happen.
Ibukun Sunday - Mantra Following up the “languidly seductive” The Last Wave from 2021, the Nigerian violist, composer, and producer returns to Phantom Limb’s Spirituals series to assemble meditative collages of synths, spoken word, and other evocative sounds inspired by Hindu texts. Transporting.
Morena Leraba - Fela Sa Ha Mojela I first started tracking this South African artist (now the name of a band) when he collaborated with BLK JKS a few years ago. This brilliant debut EP, which blends electronic music, dub, hip hop, and traditional music to mesmerizing effect, has me paying even closer attention.
Seabuckthorn - Inlandscape The latest from Andy Cartwright, who puts acoustic guitar (often bowed) at the heart of his soundscapes, finds him cutting into a new clearing with the addition of horns. The expanded instrumentation adds a new heft and sense of purpose to his emotional explorations.
Stephen Vitiello & Bill Seaman - The Clear Distance Following up on last year’s The Other Forgotten Letters, the two mavens of limpid ambience showcase more of their long-distance collaboration. Suspended guitar notes glisten, reflecting off keyboard sounds with the occasional clarinet wending through. It feels like daybreak, the sun through trees, that first day of good weather after a week of rain. Vitiello continues to make the most accessible music of his career, adding to his recent run of gorgeous records.
Collin J. Rae - Pandemia While his fascinating career has had him mostly behind the scenes in recent years as the mastermind behind the excellent Sono Luminus label, Rae has deep roots in both art and music, often of the electronic and avant garde type. Events of recent years, specifically those driven by COVID-19, were extreme enough to have him pursue a multimedia project in an attempt to make sense or at least acknowledge all that’s gone on. It started with a series of portraits, photographs of friends and acquaintances, manipulated to amplify the emotional context and further separate them from those familiarly heroic images of resilience and strength. Getting through this was not always a noble process and it’s important to make art that creates a record of some of the sad, hard, angry, and even depressing side of things. With the pictures compiled into two powerful volumes, Rae next set out devising a soundtrack of sorts. Hence this collection of vignettes of layered noises, each one a static-laden transmission from humanity’s most recent dark night of the soul. Listening is a cleansing and clarifying experience, creating an undertow of disquiet that somehow helps by delineating how challenging things were and still are. It can just as easily be appreciated for its own sake as some well-crafted noise.
Ryuichi Sakamoto - 12 With the death of Sakamoto last month, this now final album seems evermore a gift. Made during cancer treatments to take his mind off of things, the 12 tracks are titled after the dates they were recorded, like postcards or journal entries from someone in an undiscovered country. Not surprisingly for someone so often ahead of his time, it turns out that the sounds Sakamoto found absorbing in his time of need - spare piano notes floating in an ethereous haze - are just what many of us will find satisfying to our own souls. Farewell, Mr. Sakamoto.