01 IntersystemsIntersystems
Alga Marghen Number One (forcedexposure.com)

Intersystems’ outer limits musique concrète began as the soundtrack to the suitably named “Mind Excursion” event at the University of Toronto in 1967. This immersive environment filled ten rooms with sights, sounds and smells for a sensory overloading psychedelic experience.

The team behind this “electrosonic presentation” was sculptor Michael Hayden, architect Dick Zander, electronic composer John Mills-Cockell and poet Blake Parker. Over the next two years, Intersystems masterminded a series of similarly mind-massaging installations along with three albums, now lovingly enshrined in this lavish box set from Italy’s Alga Marghen.

The reproduced sleeve of 1967’s Intersystems Number One credits Mills-Cockell’s “musical visitations” and Parker’s “chaste mouthings,” as introduced on the immortal Orange Juice & Velvet Underwear. Scraping strings and hypnotic drones propel Parker’s deadpan conjuring of “gentle boys,” “smells of oranges” and “marmalade on velvet.” As Nick Storring offers in his essay, “it may be the most typically capital-p Psychedelic cut of their entire catalog,” but simply sets the scene for what’s to come.

Parker’s blending of the sensual with the surreal and the banal never quite becomes clear in the shimmering subaquatics of Intersystems’ debut. Sonic equivalents of his Burroughsian cut-ups are John Cale’s The Gift, Throbbing Gristle’s Hamburger Lady or the foghorn oration in an ocean of din from Bill Exley of the Nihilist Spasm Band (later signed to Intersystems’ label Allied Records on Hayden’s suggestion.) Parker’s poetry is far more kitchen sink, yet its power is felt subliminally, changing the temperature in any room where it’s played.

As Mills-Cockell explains in his essay, a device called “The Coffin” created the ominous acousmatics of Intersystems Number One. This satin-lined box was the resting place for piano wire, tuning pegs and contact mics to switch between ghostly samples like a radio station from beyond. By 1968’s Peachy, he had become one of Canada’s earliest owners of a Moog Mark II synthesizer, voyaging even further out.

Peachy opener Experienced Not Watched is comparable to the prog fantasias of Mills-Cockell’s later project Syrinx, but proves to be another fakeout. Intersystems’ masterpiece flows through a jump-cut collage of sputtering sound effects, orchestral swells and Parker’s disembodied Dalek buzzing. Their final album, Free Psychedelic Poster Inside, amps up the agitation with lobe-slicing sine waves and seasick stereo pans, alongside the story of a “plastic” couple on the brink.

Emerging from this spawning pool, Mills-Cockell’s Moog would be employed by the likes of Kensington Market, Bruce Cockburn and Anne Murray. He would see brighter lights, but these avant-garde origins deserve a flashback. Nearly 50 years later, the remastered LPs are packaged with 132 densely packed pages of images and essays, finally giving listeners the chance to lucidly experience Intersystems’ mind excursions in the mind’s eye.

Author: Jesse Locke
For a list of writings by this author, click the name above

02 Ana SokolovicAna Sokolović – Folklore Imaginaire
Ensemble Transmission
Naxos 8.573304


Folklore Imaginaire is the name of Serbian-born Canadian composer Ana Sokolović’s newest CD. With six works performed by Montreal’s Ensemble Transmission, a mixed chamber ensemble for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, percussion and piano, the recording is a vibrant demonstration of the rhythmic vitality and scope of Sokolović’s compositional talents. Each piece is scored for different combinations of instruments, ranging from the haunting and atmospheric sounds of bass flute and piano in Un bouquet de brume to the effervescent Ciaccona for the full ensemble.

One of the most striking characteristics of Sokolović’s music is the influence of her roots in Balkan music. Her music never descends into pastiche folk music, but rather it’s the driving spirit of her heritage that shines through in unique ways in dialogue with her own creative strategies. Her sense of humour is evident particularly in Portrait parle, a trio for violin, cello and piano, in which she uses a police document from around 1900 that gives tips on how to describe the human body when filing criminal reports. She uses these depictions of the forehead, hair, nose and lips, for example, as a basis for her musical transformations. In Mesh, she uses the instructions for how to use a hair dryer as her inspiration.

Sokolović’s music appeals to a wide variety of listeners. Her ear for unique sonorities combined with classically based strategies for musical transformation blended with a dynamic pulse that runs throughout each piece makes this CD a multi-varied and rich listening experience.

03 Evergreen BozziniHiggs Ocean – Music for Gamelan and String Quartet
Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan; Quatuor Bozzini
Artifact Music ART-042 (evergreenclubgamelan.ca)

Toronto’s Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan has just released a superb CD entitled Higgs Ocean that features five works for the ECCG performing on their unique Indonesian-based bronze and wood instruments in counterpoint with the sounds of the Quatuor Bozzini string quartet – a daring combination of soundworlds, cultures, tunings and timbres. Since their beginnings in 1983, the ECCG have been steadily building a repertoire of works through the commissioning of Canadian and international composers. This CD is no exception with five commissioned works composed by Canadians.

The first, In the High Branches by Linda Catlin Smith, tackles head-on the fundamental challenge in pairing the two groups of instruments. Smith calls it an “oil and water situation.” Her solution was to allow both ensembles to have their own distinctive space to establish their identities. Gradually one hears these two worlds merging in such a way that they blend seamlessly.

Smith’s work sets the stage for the remaining pieces, each of which handle this challenge in different ways whether that be through the use of repeating rhythmic patterns and melodic motives, such as in Michael Oesterle’s Higgs Ocean and Ana Sokolović’s In Between or the more starkly pointillist style in Spe Salvi by Petar-Kresimir Klanac. One distinctive feature in Sokolović’s piece is the use of glissandi on the flute-like suling that swoop and soar around the string and gong-like textures. Overall, the CD displays a sense of surety and conviction in its exploration and blending of two cultural legacies.

04 MoravecAmorisms – Music of Paul Moravec
Portara Ensemble; ALIAS Chamber Ensemble
Delos DE 3470

The word amorism is defined as the state of someone who is preoccupied with love and lovemaking or with writing about love. Certainly the case with the Elizabethans; Shakespeare was surely the most prolific in this regard. Composer Paul Moravec joked that “William Shakespeare is a sort of silent partner who has been very good to me over the years.” Two of the three works on this recording, Amorisms and Tempest Fantasy, are based on the Bard’s works. In writing Amorisms, which was jointly commissioned by ALIAS Chamber Ensemble, vocal ensemble Portara and the Nashville Ballet, Moravec speaks of the challenges of writing engaging music for both, whilst not detracting from the dance performance. The resultant music, with recurring, carefully pruned texts, provides a gorgeous and evocative palette to enhance the stage performance.

The second work on the album, Tempest Fantasy, earned the composer a Pulitzer Prize in 2004. Scored for violin, cello, clarinet and piano, each of the first three movements evokes one of the play’s characters: the sprightly Ariel, the mystic Prospero and the earthy Caliban. A fourth movement portrays the island soundscapes and the finale a challenging flight of fancy only for the most adept of players; ALIAS certainly rises to the task.

The outstanding Portara vocal ensemble joins the instrumentalists again for the third work on the recording, Sacred Love Songs, settings of biblical texts as well as the Prayer of St. Francis, with an instrumental interlude as the penultimate movement.

06 Eighth BlackbirdHand Eye
Eighth Blackbird
Cedille CDR 90000 162

Hot off their fourth Grammy Award win (2016 Best Small Ensemble/Chamber Music Performance for Filament) Eighth Blackbird’s latest record Hand Eye might be better described as a natural phenomenon – an autonomous, multimedia collage which seems to have arisen inevitably from the storm of information whirling in a data-saturated world.

For this project, Eighth Blackbird, all Oberlin alumni, collaborated with the composer supergroup Sleeping Giant, all Yale alumni. The two groups are made up of six members each, a handsome symmetry which is artfully exploited here: for each piece, one composer paired up with one performer to develop a work centering around that performer’s particular instrument. This is just one of Hand Eye’s organizational layers, however. In another, the composers take inspiration from works of art in the Maxine and Stuart Frankel Foundation for Art collection; in yet another the six pieces form one continuous narrative with a motivic continuity that is perceptible on the first listen.

As such, Hand Eye is meant to be taken in all at once – but there are certainly standout works. By-By Huey (by Ted Hearne) marshals bass clarinet wails, Ligeti-esque muted piano ostinati and a solo jazz piano pastiche into something not only internally coherent, but coherent with the works which surround it as well. Checkered Shade (Timo Andres), which owes much to David Lang, is inspired by a fractal drawing, and feels like the musical equivalent of scrolling out on a satellite map of earth until only a dot remains. In Hand Eye, Eighth Blackbird strides over the boundary between inspiration and art.

01 Prokofiev Piano ConcertosProkofiev – Piano Concertos 2 & 5
Vadym Kholodenko; Fort Worth Symphony; Miguel Harth-Bedoya
Harmonia Mundi USA – HMU 807631

Among the plethora of emerging piano virtuosos a name to watch is Vadym Kholodenko, the Ukrainian winner of the 2013 Van Cliburn competition. Of special interest is his partnership with the Fort Worth Symphony including the recording of all five Prokofiev piano concertos. Kholodenko’s stylistic and technical rapport with conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya and orchestra shows in fine ensemble playing. I come to this Prokofiev Concerto No.2 (1913) with memories: Yefim Bronfman’s blazing performance with the Toronto Symphony; also novelist Philip Roth’s astounded account of Bronfman’s Prokofiev Two in The Human Stain. Khodolenko’s technique is fully sufficient yet he emphasizes expressive, lyrical aspects more, starting with the expansive opening melody. He even manages to make the cadenza’s romantic ballast sound meaningful. The perpetual motion Scherzo and heavy tramping Intermezzo have fewer expressive opportunities. The Finale does however, amid much virtuosic bravado that Kholodenko also navigates successfully.

By 1932 when he wrote Concerto No.5 Prokofiev was seeking stylistic simplicity, no doubt under increasing pressure from the Soviet regime. Many passages show that he still had the ability to be both musically childlike and inventive. For example, the second movement’s clock-ticking motion becomes interesting with lightning quick scales and staccatos that pianist and orchestra make sound crystalline. In the fourth movement, the piano weaves beautifully around lyrical winds; later on, the performers achieve the required solemnity. I look forward to the other three concertos from this team.

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