05 modern 05 through the looking glassThrough the Looking Glass
Dacapo 8.226579

This sonic offering presents several pieces by four of Denmark’s most celebrated living composers, as re-visioned by Alpha, a trio playing recorders, saxophones and percussion. The CD opens in sparkling fashion with two short pieces by Poul Ruders. Alpha’s version of his rhythmically energetic Star Prelude makes clever use of high recorders and pitched percussion, and the fun continues with the same composer’s Love Fugue in which saxophone plays a more central role. Later on in the program, Bolette Roed gives a great rendition of his funky Carnival, originally scored for alto flute. Hans Abrahamsen’s Flowersongs, originally composed for three flutes, gets a broader stroke of colour from Alpha’s musical paintbrush, and Per Nørgård’s Heydey’s Night is sweet and humorous. Saxophonist Peter Navarro-Alonso’s arrangements of Nørgård’s Isternia and Bent Sørensen’s Looking on Darkness provide some welcome contemplative turns to this generally chipper program.

There is much to admire in Alpha’s elegant playing, both as individuals and as an ensemble. With a fairly minimalist slant this program might not be to everyone’s taste, but it proves that things are vibrantly alive and well in contemporary Danish music. Unfortunately though, while the booklet notes describe Alpha in glowing terms, there’s no information whatsoever about the original composers or the pieces reworked here. I didn’t particularly mind googling them, but considering that these composers not only created the original material but also gave their blessing to this project, this omission seems quite regrettable.

It’s been close to 25 years since the founding of the unique Montreal-based label empreintes DIGITALes (empreintesDIGITALes.com) in 1989 by Jean-François Denisand Claude Schryer. Solo-directed since 1991 by Denis, the label has produced 130 discs representing 107 composers and specializes in contemporary electroacoustic music, acousmatic and musique concrète. Although these genres of music are not the common fare for most of the concert events listed by The WholeNote, it is important to realize that the technical innovations and ways of thinking that have been pioneered by the practitioners of this music have had a wide influence on a vast array of musical forms and styles as well as media-based art forms.

One of the most distinguishing features of electroacoustic music in general is that it is composed primarily within a studio environment and is designed to be listened to through loud speakers. And although the ingredients of melody, rhythm and harmony can be an aspect of electroacoustic music, its primary focus is on the sound itself, which can originate from recordings made in a particular acoustic environment, or generated and processed through purely electronic or digital technologies. Sometimes the original sound source is recognizable – such as recordings of ocean waves or the inside of a piano, and in other situations, the sounds have been studio processed beyond recognition of their original context.

Back in 1990, empreintesDIGITALes offered its own vision of the wide array of possibilities within the electroacoustic genre. It published the groundbreaking Électro Clips CD which featured three-minute miniatures by 25 different composers, each one representing a unique approach to working in a studio environment.

More recently, the label has released four new albums by four unique composers: Martin Bédard (Montreal), Pierre Alexandre Tremblay (Montreal/UK), Andrew Lewis (UK) and David Berezan (Calgary/UK). Although the pieces are of longer duration than the three-minute clips, each disc presents four unique approaches and aesthetic visions.

bartley 01 bedardEach of Bédard’s five acousmatic compositions on his Topographies CD (empreintesDIGITALes IMED 13121) creates a sonic picture of specific acoustic environments, ranging from recordings made in restored jail cells to the soundworld of trains. He also weaves in tributes to what he calls “phonoculture” – lyrics from a Rush song or the audio heritage of a specific community. He is captivated by specific behaviours, whether those be of a night watchman or of metal under stress, and his compositions are expressions of his curiosity.

bartley 02 tremblayThe five compositions on Tremblay’s 2-disc set entitled La Marée (IMED 13123/124) are excellent examples of the interaction between live performers and a form of live processing of the solo instrumentalist. I found his piece La tombeau des fondeurs particularly engaging with its rhythmic and timbral pulsations that create a seductive sonorous quality suggestive of the casting of a metal or bronze bell or gong. All his pieces are meditations on life, a balancing of contradictions.

bartley 03 lewisThe music of Lewis on his CD Au-delà (IMED 13125) is a great example of pure acousmatic music in which the original sound sources are heavily processed and the original context is predominantly unrecognizable. However, Lewis’ skill at weaving sounds together creates strong impressionistic and imaginary soundscapes. His track Cân, the Welsh word for song, takes the Welsh musical heritage beyond the traditional sounds of harps and male choirs. Short interjections of these traditional sounds are juxtaposed with more abstract sonic textures.

bartley 04 berezanAnd finally, the music on Berezan’s Allusions Sonores (IMED 13122) offers the listener a window into the places he has visited. Seeing himself as a composer who collects and “uncovers” sounds as part of his creative process, each of the five pieces reflects places he has personally visited or interacted with. Ranging from the sounds of a Balinese thumb piano to recordings made in Alberta’s badlands to the chirping sounds of temple and palace floors in Japan, listening to Berezan’s music is similar to listening to the ocean. Each piece has a very distinctive wave-like motion with the constant ebb and flow of the sound textures rising up and then falling away.

These four discs are a testament to the ongoing commitment this independent label has for a very unique and distinct genre of music. It is known and respected internationally and considered the go-to place for the keen listener and connoisseur of electroacoustic music in all its varied forms. 



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05 modern 01 hindemith clarinetResolve – Hindemith masterworks for clarinet
Richard Stoltzman; Various artists
Navona Records NV5934

One has to thank Richard Stoltzman, dean of the clarinet in North America, for this latest addition to a long list of recordings, in this instance a celebration of Paul Hindemith’s clarinet music. Missing only the Quartet (1938), this disc features the Concerto (1947), the Sonata (1939) and the Quintet with strings (1923, revised in 1954). The last is the most curious of the lot, at times starkly modern and strange, reflecting the composer’s early experiments with form and tonality, at others oddly restrained. No clue if this is on account of the later revisions. Recorded two and a half decades ago, it’s certainly fun to hear a younger Richard Stoltzman strut about with the E-flat (piccolo) instrument in the middle movement.

It can be lonely work sticking up for Hindemith among colleagues who champion the work of more adventurous composers. I love his music, its assured quality, its exploration of the instruments’ possibilities, and okay yes, his adherence to a form of TONALITY! His writing for strings in the quintet is masterful, recalling somewhat the character of his ballet: The Four Temperaments. Tashi, the chamber group co-founded by Stoltzman and Peter Serkin, plays with mad commitment. This is the earliest recording of the set, dating from 1988. He recorded the Concerto with the Slovak Radio Orchestra in 2003.

Now in his early 70s, Mr. Stoltzman seems not ready to pack up his horn. The sonata was recorded just last year, with Yehudi Wyner on piano. If Stoltzman has lost some of his beautiful tonal focus over time, his ability to form la phrase juste has not diminished.

This disc bears a dedication to the late great Keith Wilson, his (and my) one-time professor at Yale. It’s a fitting tribute to both men.


05 modern 02 edmonton symphonyA Concert for New York
Edmonton Symphony Orchestra; William Eddins
ESO Live 2012-05-1 (edmontonsymphony.com)

This two-disc live recording (from the Windspear Centre) of the program from the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s Carnegie Hall debut concert is an impressive package. It demonstrates the ESO’s remarkable growth and features works by its three composers-in-residence to date, John Estacio, Allan Gilliland and Robert Rival, along with a rarely heard symphony by Bohuslav Martinů. I recommend Estacio’s Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano (1997) with first-rate soloists Juliette Kang, Denise Djokic and Angela Cheng. In brief, this might be described as neo-romanticism with mystical tendencies. Wonderful music.

In his Symphony No.1 (1942) Bohuslav Martinů melds elements of modernism, jazz, and Czech folk melody into his distinctive neoclassical style. The large orchestra and prominent piano part add resonance, helping avoid the spiky dryness of some neoclassical works. Strange ascending chromatic passages seem to steam up from a chemist’s vat, and there are premonitions of minimalism! William Eddins keeps everything balanced in an exciting performance.

Robert Rival’s tender, slightly Ravelian Lullaby (2012) uses changing metres, rather than the triple time of cradle-rocking, to evoke walking and rocking his first child. Dreaming of the Masters III (2010) continues Allan Gilliland’s concerto series referencing older jazz styles. With Jens Lindeman as soloist on trumpet and flugelhorn, potential for virtuosity is realized and all involved have a great time. Ditto in the concert encore -- theMambo” from Bernstein’s West Side Story – where the ESO percussion add a “Wow!” factor.

(Note: On my copy the recording’s volume needed to be cranked up considerably to reach normal listening levels.)


05 modern 03 ho glistening pianosGlistening Pianos – Music by Alice Ping Yee Ho
Duo Piano 2X10
Centrediscs CMCCD 19714

There is a plethora of exquisite aural delights in this new release featuring the music of Hong Kong-born Canadian composer Alice Ping Yee Ho.

As to be expected from the Canadian Music Centre Centrediscs label, the usual high production qualities, first class performance, musicianship and strong compositions create a great listening experience. The five very distinct and contrasting pieces offer a superb cross section of styles, tonal sensibilities and musical forays, making Glistening Pianos the perfect calling card for the composer. Each work features the core piano duo 2X10 – pianists Midori Koga and Lydia Wong are powerhouse technicians who both easily jump through demanding technical and musical hoops. Their expertise glistens, sparkles and glitters when they sound like one piano in the more tonal opening title track while their keyboard conversations in An Eastern Apparition reveal two distinct yin and yang musical beings. The closing track Heart to Heart features a calmer ethereal mood reminiscent of 19th century romantic piano repertoire. Flutist Susan Hoeppner joins the duo in the emotive Chain of Being. There is just too much fun taking place in War!, a funky LOUD frolic, inspired by Ho’s daughter Bo Wen Chan’s spoken lyrics, featuring percussionist Adam Campbell, electronics.

Only the omission of composition dates beside the titles keeps the listener from fully appreciating the development of Ho’s firm grasp of writing for piano, from florid fast ascending and descending lines to rhythmic marching backdrops and glistening piano timbres.


05 modern 04 kitchen partyKitchen Party
Derek Charke; Mark Adam
Centrediscs CMCCD 19814

The idea behind this CD is simple: give a theme to seven East Coast composers and ask them to write something four to ten minutes long for flute and percussion and premiere the outcomes at a traditional Nova Scotia kitchen party for 70 guests. The flute-percussion duo comprises “extended techniques” specialist flutist Derek Charke and “veteran of virtually every percussion genre,” Mark Adam, now both music professors at Acadia University in Wolfville. The composers may all be from Nova Scotia but their music is from all over the map (in a good way!).

Redundancy is out and originality is in; everyone has something different and interesting to say.

There is, as one would hope, lots of extended flute technique – whistles, harmonics, multiphonics, pops and buzzes, as in some of the variations in Charke’s contribution, ‘Reel’ Variations on a Jig and Jim O’Leary’s Music for Amplified Bass Flute and Drum Set.

There is also lots of very contemporary melodic writing as in John Plant’s Capriccio, in which the forward momentum of the marimba’s arpeggiated ostinato is matched by the flute’s equally dynamic melody line, and even a toe-tapping jig in Charke’s piece. And then there are the fascinating rhythms, as in Anthony Genge’s Third Duo, Jeff Hennessy’s Balor’s Flute and Robert Bauer’s Café Antiqua. Yes, there is even some Japanese-inspired music in Charke’s improvisation, recorded live at the kitchen party.

So you don’t think you like contemporary music? Think again!


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