04 Modern 01 Nicole LizeeNicole Lizée – Bookburners
Various Artists
Centrediscs CMCCD 20514 (CD+DVD)

In 2013, Canada’s government committed what scientists now call libricide, closing seven Department of Fisheries and Oceans libraries. Ostensibly, it was to save by digitizing materials, but that hasn’t happened. Little attempt was made to preserve the materials and precious collections were lost to landfill. It was 21st-century book burning, but without the symbolic theatre.

Milton wrote that anyone who kills a man kills “a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself.” The striking cover image (by Todd Stewart) of Nicole Lizée’s Bookburners CD/DVD may assert a similar interpretation. Depicting a skeleton holding a smouldering book, the figure may have sought to burn it, but instead self-immolated, consigning her/himself to eternal damnation, rather than squelching the ideas on the pages. Conversely, a dug-up, laughing skeleton having a good read fits in with the rough-hewn and somewhat nostalgic approach to technology and media that permeates the aesthetic of the five works in this collection.

The music and images tease us into dissecting the materials, reference points and tools; a rich exercise with antennae outside European contemporary music and into pop cultural icons that are the shared knowledge of Lizée’s generation. Prog-rock chord progressions, American minimalist repetitions, post-digital glitch techniques, DJ sound gear and uncommon instrumentations are all there, crashing into one another, but listening exclusively that way becomes so fragmented that it prevents the pleasures of listening to the global textures. When identification of materials becomes second to hearing their blended interaction, the music opens up a bright tableau of complex rhythms and timbres, despite the darker undertones of the titles and subject matter.

On the CD, White Label Experiment, for percussion quartet and electronics, is a joyously warped mashup of John Cage and rave culture, with the turntable as the common denominator. Typewriters peck away, combined with stylus/needle drops, noise timbres and omnichord, while metallic percussion takes you higher, in register and experience. Ouijist continues the attraction to sound hacking and an expansive, low-tech electronic palette built on the bent and the broken. On Son of the Man with the Golden Arms, drummer Ben Reimer’s playing stands out with a crisp tone and light touch, relishing in the complexity of notated beats, which are at times reminiscent of Bill Bruford on the Yes Fragile album.

For the DVD, Lizée brings film into the mix. Hitchcock Études (for piano and “glitch”) works with the Lissajou-inspired credits from Psycho, excerpts from The Birds and other middle-period Hitchcock films, looping them and jarring perception of the familiar into the strange and sometimes menacing. Paradoxically, the glitches are a by-product of digital sound techniques, whereas the film sources she’s working with originate from the silver (analog) screen, meaning the glitch element is obtained by imposing new tech on old media. Bookburners is staged footage of turntablist DJ P-Love and cellist Stéphane Tétreault performing in a freight elevator/loading dock. Like the other pieces in this set, it’s a bit longer than the material suggests, yet achieves its goals more tamely. Without exception, these are excellent performances, artfully combined to express a fresh remix of North American musical mannerisms.

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04 Modern 02 Cuarteto TetraktysTetraktys – Contemporary music for string quartet by young Mexican composers
Cuarteto Latinoamericano
Urtext Digital Classics JBCC239

A tetractys is a triangular figure in geometry consisting of ten points arranged in four rows. With tracks such as Fibonacci on the Beach and Triple Point, the term tetractys appropriately represents the ten young Mexican composers featured. Further, common threads intersect each piece stylistically as clear references to popular Latin grooves, rhythms and harmonies are heard throughout.

While each work on the disc deserves mention, three of the ten were particularly successful. First, in the piece Chandrian, composer Mateo Nossa makes excellent use of novel bowing techniques to evoke skeletal tiptoeing amid strong rhythmic play. Use of Col legno bowing conjures a rather danse macabre mood. The title seems to reference a group of seven fairly evil chaps created by American author Patrick Rothfuss in his fantasy trilogy, The Kingkiller Chronicle.

Next, in Ciudades Suspendidas by Jean Angelus Pichardo, glissandi and natural harmonics pass around the quartet creating a seamless ethereal cloud. We are quickly swept into punchy groove-oriented sections with angular melodies. This feature of the nebulous taking shape into a crunchy groove-based section seems to permeate each piece on the disc, a stylistic feature the quartet seems to enjoy.

Lastly, in Roberto Sarti’s  Echoes from the Past, we hear a work that is clearly the most adventurous in terms of texture, harmony and form. Sarti’s use of virtuosic explosions makes for a serendipitous shattering of expectations. The strong imaginative palette of this composer leaves a visceral and pleasantly disturbing atmosphere in the mind of the listener.

It is clear that the members of the quartet thoroughly enjoyed the demands each piece had to offer. This joy of the process can be heard in the bright, crisp and confident expressiveness the quartet offers in this recording.

04 Modern 01 Transfigured NightingaleThe Transfigured Nightingale – Music for Clarinet and Piano
Jerome Summers; Robert Kortgaard
Blue Griffin Records BGR339

Clarinetist Jerome Summers has completed his “Nightingale” trilogy of recordings, a project he began in 1994. This one, Transfigured Nightingale, comprises mostly works transcribed for clarinet, with the exception of Brahms’ Sonata in E-flat Op.120, No.2. Included on a mere technicality (it was transcribed for viola by the composer), it’s really here because Mr. Summers loves it, and why not? Late Brahms is balm to the soul of those who play the nerdiest of woodwinds, the exploding cigar of the orchestra.

Summers handles the instrument with ease. His tone on most of the material is smooth and velvety. Michael Conway Baker’s Canticle for Ryan (originally for violin) and Marek Norman’s Just Think (originally a setting of a poem by Robert Service) are effective if sugary vehicles for Summers’ fluid cantabile. Two Shostakovich symphonic extracts offer an austere counterpoint to these selections. I particularly like hearing the scherzo from the Ninth presented as a solo piece with piano. Taking it at just under full-on Russian March Hare tempo, Summers sounds like he’d fit in with any orchestra in the country.

Pianist Robert Kortgaard provides agreement, support and bundles of musicality. He and Summers agreed to a stately set of tempi for the Op.120, playing the part of elder gentlemen rather than impersonating the young Richard Mühlfeld, Brahms’ “nightingale.” Also included is Rachmaninov’s cello sonata, in Summers’ own transcription. At a hefty 36-plus minutes, it argues better for the cello than the Brahms does for the viola.


04 Modern 02 Current IcarusBrian Current – Airline Icarus
Huhtanen; Szabó; Thomson; Dobson; Sirett; Ensemble; Brian Current
Naxos 8.660356

Airline Icarus by composer Brian Current and librettist Anton Piatigorsky was initially commissioned in 2001 and underwent a series of developments in the ensuing decade. This intense, 45-minute chamber opera transports the listener through an emotional journey as it depicts the reactions of passengers and crew on a doomed commercial flight. The work was inspired by the tragic crash of a Korean airliner that was struck by a Soviet missile in 1983 and descended for nearly 15 minutes before impact.

The opera’s award-winning composer, conductor and music director, Brian Current, presents a cohesive vision for this impressive, multi-layered work that incorporates the myth of Icarus, whose wings melted after flying too close to the sun. It serves as a reminder that our technological advances can have devastating results.

Piatigorsky’s insight into human nature exposes a glimpse of humanity at its most vulnerable as the libretto juxtaposes mundane conversations with the characters’ introspective thoughts. This dramatic fluctuation is sustained, quite extraordinarily, by the chamber chorus and soloists Carla Huhtanen (Ad Exec), Krisztina Szabó (Flight Attendant), Graham Thomson (Scholar), Alexander Dobson (Worker/Pilot) and Geoffrey Sirett (Business Man).

Current’s depiction of turbulence is frighteningly realistic until an eerie stillness, beautifully performed by the instrumental ensemble, underscores the Pilot’s aria, providing an impression of suspended time and space. Superbly sung by Dobson, it ironically describes his joy of flying as the plane descends. The disturbing Epilogue closes the opera with a prolonged, final silence.


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04 Modern 03 JACKáltaVoz Composers
JACK Quartet
New Focus Recordings FCR150

In this latest release by the JACK Quartet, four Latin American composers are featured, each of whom are members of the composer consortium known as áltaVoz. Members of áltaVoz see it as their mandate to promote cutting edge contemporary music concerts, workshops, symposia and interdisciplinary projects with the intension of providing a provocative forum for artists, institutions and the community at large.

The four quartets on this recording represent the confluence of its members’ willingness to embrace a wide spectrum of aesthetics and influences. First on the disc, composer Felipe Lara’s Tran(slate) invites us into a world of daring gestures, pops and slides, that charmingly evoke playful otherworldly sonic landscapes. The vast array of extended playing techniques is masterfully orchestrated and elevates the composer’s language. Next, José Luis-Hurtado’s L’ardito e quasi stridente gesto creates an unsettling mood as quiet meandering dissonances explode with jagged interruptions. Throughout Mauricio Pauly’s Every new volition a mercurial swerve, process-driven swells and pulses propel the listener into a swarm of rhythmic activity. An ethereal contrast is created with a luminous harmonic lightness before the blistering climax bombards the ear. In Jorge Villavicencio Grossmann’s String Quartet No. 3 “música fúnebre y nocturna,” the only multi-movement work on the disc, we receive the clearest allusions to the tradition of the string quartet. The influence of Bartók is quite clear and reminiscences of tonal centres are unmistakable. This, matched with lively groove-driven passages, secures this work as the most accessible of the lot.

The JACK Quartet has approached each work with a passionate virtuosity and impressive attention to detail. The punchiness and clarity of gesture throughout is a fine example of the quartet’s expressive capabilities. The JACK Quartet is known for impassioned interpretations of contemporary works, and this recording certainly lives up to that expectation.


04 Modern 04 Satie SlowlySatie Slowly
Philip Corner
Unseen Worlds UW12

I was impressed with the program notes written by Philip Corner in what was really a small book. His writing was extremely entertaining and informative. The written words really gave a sense of the wit and brilliance of Satie. For example: “Satie is not as great as John Cage would have us believe. Who could be? Certainly not Bach or Beethoven.” My favourite quote has to be: “If his piano pieces are so easy why are they so badly played? […They resist all] added expressivity; they make those who indulge sound ridiculous. Yet nothing is lacking in them.” Corner’s written analysis of each piece reflects the personality of Satie’s music. Critics during the time slandered Satie and called him a “petit maître” alongside Debussy and Ravel. He was not revolutionary in a flamboyant way but cloaked his visions in traditional forms reflected in the more obscure repertoire chosen for these CDs.

A medieval theme is reflected in the selections which are the Ogives, The Feast Given By the Norman Knights to Honour a Young Girl, Preludes of the Nazarene, The Gothic Dances, Fanfares of the Rose+Cross, Chorales. These were all played in a very slow tempo but represented the nature of the music. Gnossienne No.1, Gymnopedies (1,2,3) and the Empire’s Diva didn’t fit the rest of the program but were played in the same tempo. I would have liked to hear more swing in the Gnossienne and Gymnopedies and definitely a more up-beat tempo for the Empire’s Diva, who was a stripper in a music hall. However, I could see a Satie wink in this unique double CD.


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