01 Michael ColgrassMichael Colgrass – Side by Side; Letter from Mozart; The Schubert Birds
Joanne Kong; Boston Modern Orchestra Project; Gil Rose
BMOP Sound 1064 (bmop.org)

You receive a letter from “your favourite composer” signed “Your friend, Mozart,” requesting a 20th-century take on his style using extra percussion which “in my day wasn’t dignified.” The resulting 15-minute Letter from Mozart (1976) is a wonky, percussion-heavy series of dreamlike, stream-of-unconsciousness episodes, a drug-induced merging of the 20th and 18th centuries, requiring two conductors to avoid complete chaos. It’s great fun!

Side by Side (2007) presents Joanne Kong playing both piano and harpsichord, set 90 degrees to each other. To balance the disparate instruments, Colgrass first muted the piano strings, then amplified both to compete with the orchestra. Colgrass never severed his roots as a jazz drummer, so the 24-minute concerto exploits the percussive qualities of both keyboards and orchestra.

Colgrass wrote that The Schubert Birds (1989) is “a crazy quilt of theme and variations… based on Franz Schubert’s Kupelweiser Waltz, a little-known piano piece.” The title refers to “Schubert as a bird who spent his life singing, surrounded by a circle of others who… sang with him.” Like the CD’s other two works, the 19-minute piece revels in kaleidoscopic fragmentation and glittering sonorities.

The prolific, always-inventive Colgrass, the 1978 Pulitzer Prize-winner who died at 87 this past July, is less well-represented on disc than he should be. A Chicago native, he’d lived in Toronto since 1974, yet titled his 2010 memoir Adventures of an American Composer. Please, record companies, give us more CDs of the adventurous Michael Colgrass!

02 Lands End EnsembleKickin’ It 2.0
Land’s End
Centrediscs CMCCD 26819 (musiccentre.ca)

Two works by Vincent Ho, artistic director of Calgary’s Land’s End Ensemble, bookend this CD that spotlights as soloists the ensemble’s three musicians. First, cellist Beth Root Sandvoss performs Morning Sun, a lyrical, somewhat melancholy piece, just under four minutes long, that Ho composed while watching a sunrise in California.

In Derek Charke’s Tree Rings, violinist John Lowry and Ben Reimer on marimba depict a tree’s life under ever-changing weather conditions. The music’s moods and energies keep changing, too; it’s compelling listening throughout its own 11-minute “life.” Stelco is Omar Daniel’s “homage” to industrial machines and the Canadians “who risk life and limb” operating them. Pianist Susanne Ruberg-Gordon and Reimer on vibraphone manufacture ten minutes of metallic percussion, ranging from near-subsonic vibrations to pile-driver pounding, with clanging piano bass notes. The trio reunites in Analía Llugdar’s seven-minute Don Liborio Avila, based on a portrait of an old man in a small Argentinian town. “But,” says Llugdar, “violence haunts the picture.” The music is violent, too, the ensemble simulating angry electronic bursts, buzzes and squeaks.

Ho writes that Kickin’ It 2.0, performed by the ensemble plus Reimer on drum kit, was inspired by “Squarepusher, jazz, gamelan music, Chinese folk music and the crime novels of James Ellroy.” Ellroy’s novels notwithstanding, Ho’s 20-minute, four-movement work offers jazzy aggression, gentle gamelan-like tinkles, a drum-dominated cadenza and a powerful, sustained motoric finale, ending a fascinating disc that gathers steam (and steam engines!) from start to propulsive finish.

03 Carmen BradenCarmen Braden – Songs of the Invisible Summer Stars
Various Artists
Centrediscs CMCCD 27119 (musiccentre.ca)

The idea of north is central to Canadian composer Carmen Braden’s latest release, titled Songs of the Invisible Summer Stars. The imagery of shimmering icy planes at dusk – an impression imbedded within all Canadians whether physically experienced or not – is ever present in Braden’s writing for various chamber ensembles. But this imagery is not obvious, nor is it obfuscated through artistic trickery. Braden’s music is clear, and it is bright. It drifts, lingers, dances, and breathes at rest. It is at once far and near – a personal representation of a liminal landscape that is at once distant and comforting. One true gift (among many) on the release is the second movement from a piece titled Raven Conspiracy. Braden gives this movement the subtitle of Waltz of Wing and Claw. This music, written for strings, paints the density and impossible geometry of the dream cloud of birds – that dark unbroken remoulding of the sky against sun, ice and smoke. This recording is captured psychogeography – a process that asks us to embrace the playfulness of our surroundings, and to drift among those places without cause. It is clear that Braden is trying to provide a portrait – but also a release – between life and surroundings. With a wide range of instrumentations, colours, and ambiences, the sounds on this recording will haunt and comfort – much like the strange beauty of the northern terrain.

04 McGregor Lutalica CD CoverLutalica
Mark Takeshi McGregor
Redshift Records (redshiftrecords.org)

Vancouver flutist Mark Takeshi McGregor is an internationally recognized interpreter of classical flute music, particularly of the experimental kind. As he writes in the liner notes, the motivation for his new album came from an exploration of his identities. “Lutalica [the word invented by John Koenig] meaning ‘the part of one’s identity that doesn’t fit into categories’ is a solo flute project that grew out of an identity crisis.”

McGregor has been performing music of predominantly European composers on the metal concert flute, even though he was “anything but Western European. I am half-Japanese, half-Australian, born and raised on the West Coast of Canada: a true product of the Pacific Rim.” His geographically informed search culminated in Lutalica, an album of nine recent widely varied solo flute works by composers hailing from Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, New Zealand, Taiwan and the USA.

Bookending the album are works by two composers with strong Canadian connections. Hope Lee’s moving requiem for her father, forever after (2000), alternates moments of lyrical grief with percussive anger. Emilie LeBel’s 2017 Hiraeth (Welsh for homesickness, nostalgia, grief for lost places of the past) explores at length the “traveller’s desire to be free… all the while longing for a home to which they cannot return… which maybe never was.” The final alternating long low tones make a beautiful and satisfying ending to this album’s musical journey around the Pacific rim.

Should you consider listening to an entire album of contemporary solo flute music? When it’s so well composed, thoughtfully curated, and impressively performed as Lutalica is, my answer is a resounding yes.

05 What Goes Around Front CoverFrank Horvat – What Goes Around
Various Artists
Centrediscs CMCCD 27419 (musiccentre.ca)

I once developed a liking for a pricey mosaic backsplash tile with sharp colours featuring tiny images reminiscent of Roy Lichtenstein’s pop-art icons. If minimalist music has an analogy in the visual arts it is with mosaics. Frank Horvat’s minimalism is attractive, bright-coloured and poppy. Also surprising. Also, somewhat formulaic. This last is not a criticism of the quality or value of his writing; I’m no judge in that regard, but it does strike me that five of the six cuts on the newly released What Goes Around clock in at roughly ten minutes, suggesting a pattern of construction he consistently follows.

Breaking with this pattern, at nearly 15 minutes, is the most powerful piece, 7 Pianos, recorded on several tracks and performed by the composer. A concentration exercise for the listener, it’s almost a game of recognizing the extremely gradual variations away from the initial minute of a repeated gesture. Maybe it’s me being jaded, but this one challenges me to truly listen and not let the patterning lull my attention. Fatigue for the performer is sometimes a cherished aesthetic of the composer (those guys burn me up), and if it is so for Horvat, he has at least chosen a willing victim: this is intensity from start to finish.

A curiously titled piece referencing the late Rob Ford is similarly a multi-track recording with Peter Stoll ably accompanying himself on multiple clarinets in melancholy tunefulness; apparently Horvat felt more compassion than outrage regarding the misguided mayor. Other performers include the redoubtable Bev Johnston on mallets, and the disc ends with a strangely offensive (to me, I have issues) voice loop on the repeated phrase “I Love You.”

06 HartenbergerRussell Hartenberger – Requiem for Percussion and Voices
Nexus; TorQ; Lindsay Kesselman; Cory Knight
Nexus 11031 (nexuspercussion.com)

The requiem mass has provided composers with inspiration for centuries, from which has come some of Western music’s greatest works, including the Requiems of Verdi and Mozart, Fauré and Duruflé, as well as those incorporating external texts, such as Britten’s War Requiem.

Russell Hartenberger’s Requiem for Percussion and Voices is a work in the latter form, eschewing the traditional requiem texts in favour of an eight-movement reflection on death and nature. Incorporating tolling bells, funeral drum beatings, a Bach chorale, bird songs and bugle calls, this requiem is an eclectic and wide-ranging synthesis of musical style that suggests a broad, universal outlook.

The disc’s liner notes, written by Hartenberger (who is also a member of Nexus), are exceedingly insightful and highly recommended to anyone who listens to this piece, for within them one will find a personal story behind each movement, from Hartenberger’s days in the United States Air Force Band to his study of West African drum music. In a work with such wide-ranging and globally sourced material as this Requiem, such commentary serves as a road map, guiding the listener in an invaluable way.

In an area of the arts so often committed to reviving the works of the past, it is vitally important to explore new material in addition to the old standards. This recording provides a splendid example of why this is: tuneful, contemporary (in its truest sense), and a fine display of vocal and instrumental ability, Requiem is worthwhile listening for all.

Back to top