02 Jon Siddall BelvedereBelvedere
Jon Siddall
Independent (jonsiddall.com)

Veteran Vancouver-area composer, guitarist, pianist and music producer Jon Siddall from his website: “I write slow music. With my new album Belvedere I’ve returned to that approach. The music develops, but slowly, or maybe hardly at all.” Siddall’s music could also be tagged minimalist or experimental ambient, genres that Siddall has deep roots in: his teachers have included leading maverick composers James Tenney (York University, Toronto), Terry Riley and Lou Harrison (California).

Siddall plays four of the Belvedere tracks on electric guitar, electric bass, mandolin and electric piano. The fifth track, Hello Snowflake, is played on the gamelan degung of West Java, Indonesia performed by the eight musicians of Gamelan Si Pawit, Siddall’s Vancouver group.

Degung, a kind of tuned percussion ensemble, also features a solo suling (bamboo ring flute). In this score however, Siddall chose not to use the suling and kendang set (barrel hand drums), but rather adds two kacapis (plucked West Javanese zithers). The result: exclusively struck and plucked sounds which naturally decay each at its own rate, evoking a non-pulsed, unhurried, contemplative mood.

Siddall’s rock guitar background shines through in Bliss Curve and in the spacious Belvedere for electric guitar trio. Clementine Mandala, for vintage Fender Rhodes (electric piano), is constructed of a long ascending melody performed at different speeds, superimposed in various ways, a texture common also in gamelan music. The composer writes evocatively, “Belvedere – is a vista, a beautiful view [to leisurely contemplate]. This album … invites immersion into that space. It’s music for dreamers, music to dream with, music with which to awaken calm.”

03 Quisin NachoffQuinsin Nachoff – Pivotal Arc
Nathalie Bonin; Molinari String Quartet; Quinsin Nachoff; JC Sanford
Whirlwind Recordings WR4761 (quinsin.com)

Composer and saxophonist Quinsin Nachoff has been merging formal composition and an expansive jazz vocabulary since conjoining a string quartet and a jazz group on his 2006 debut Magic Numbers. However, the blurring of traditionally distinct musical categories has reached its high point in the three compositions heard on Pivotal Arc

The CD’s major work is Nachoff’s Violin Concerto for soloist Nathalie Bonin, a 46-minute work in the traditional three-movement format. Fusing elements of Berg and Stravinsky and occasionally reminiscent of William Russo’s music, the work is written in a heterodox personal idiom for an ensemble that includes the Molinari String Quartet, seven brass and woodwinds, and a jazz-based rhythm section with bassist Mark Helias, drummer Satoshi Takeishi and vibraphonist Michael Davidson providing special propulsion. Conducted by JC Sanford, the performance brims with life, with Bonin bringing a special animation to its tango and Balkan-suffused elements and a cadenza that mingles composed and improvised materials.

Nachoff’s String Quartet is filled with dense harmonies and sudden explosions, eschewing any immediate references to the elements of jazz. Each of the four movements is based on a different lead voice, the device contributing to each segment’s distinctive quality. The concluding Pivotal Arc, more traditional in its harmonic language, is also the piece that brings improvisation to the fore, from Helias’ elegiac arco solo to Nachoff’s own tenor saxophone oration, pensive, expressionist, rhapsodic by turn, whether etched in abrasive split tones or soaring highs.

Listen to 'Quinsin Nachoff: Pivotal Arc' Now in the Listening Room

04 Walter KaufmannChamber Works by Walter Kaufmann
ARC Ensemble
Chandos CHAN 20170 (chandos.net)

This, the first-ever CD devoted to the music of Walter Kaufmann (1907-1984), is the latest in the Music in Exile series by Toronto’s ARC Ensemble (Artists of The Royal Conservatory), showcasing unheralded composers who fled Nazi Europe. In 1934, the Czech-born Kaufmann left Germany, becoming director of European music for Bombay’s All India Radio, composing, conducting, playing viola and piano in chamber ensembles and researching Indian, Nepalese, Bhutanese and Tibetan music. Moving to Canada in 1947, he served as the Winnipeg Symphony’s first music director (1948-1958) before teaching ethnomusicology at Indiana University.

Although Kaufmann composed prolifically throughout his career, including six symphonies and over 20 operas, each piece on this disc dates from his years in India. String Quartets Nos.7 and 11 receive visceral performances from the stellar foursome of violinists Erika Raum and Marie Bérard, violist Steven Dann and cellist Thomas Wiebe. Raum and pianist Kevin Ahfat collaborate in Violin Sonata No.2; clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas and Ahfat perform Sonatina No.12 (originally for violin and piano); violinist Jamie Kruspe and cellist Kimberly Jeong join the ensemble in Septet for three violins, viola, two cellos and piano.

These are substantial works, in which plaintive solemnity alternates with emphatic, syncopated dances, all heavily imbued with Indian modal, melodic and rhythmic sequences. I found this engrossing mix of European and Asian traditions richly rewarding and hope that this superb CD will inspire more recordings of Kaufmann’s music. I’d love to hear them.

07 Drew WhitingIn Lights Starkly Different
Drew Whiting
Innova Recordings innova 032 (innova.mu)

American saxophonist Drew Whiting’s wide-ranging musical expertise performing on soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones, combined with his interest and dedication to contemporary electronic music, make his release featuring seven recent sax/electronics compositions memorable.

In Lights Starkly Different, composer Robin Julian Heifetz created loud and hyper-digital sounds using REplayPLAYer software and later processed with GRAM Tools. Chance and notation drive the piece as the tenor saxophone’s fast flourishes and tones ground the background electronic crashing, echoes and intense atonal effects. More unsettling sounds in Ed Martin’s Break, as Whiting plays baritone loud/soft contrasts, wailing atonalities and pitch slides against intense electronic washes and crashes. In Ötzi (named after a 5,000-year-old mummy) composer Alexis Bacon’s recorded rocks and metal noises make eclectic clicks, crashes and walking sounds against the tenor sax. 

For the Fallen, by Judith Shatin, has its slower, lyrical, emotional soprano sax lines lock into electronics created from recordings of Italy’s Capana dei Caduti (Bell for the Fallen). Love the multiple contrapuntal saxophone lines in John Mayrose’s Random Access, as Mayrose uses live electronics to layer Whiting’s alto sax (stored in RAM) for effects. In Jeff Herriott’s As brightness is smeared into memory, the reflective romantic soprano sax part is closely connected to electronic washes. Nathan Edwards’ Saudade Study, with tonal ambient tenor sax and delay/reverb effects is sad, thought-provoking emotional moods music.

This is contemporary music at its best as Whiting breathes and plays saxophone in contrasting intensities and styles with diverse electronics effects.

08 Amanda GookinForward Music Project 1.0
Amanda Gookin
Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0135 (brightshiny.ninja)

It is the highest level of artistry that can realize a message, a story or an emotion while seeming to have not performed it at all. This was my takeaway from my introduction to cellist Amanda Gookin. 

Forward Music Project 1.0 is a collection of seven pieces for solo cello and electronics ranging in length from five to 12 minutes by seven culturally diverse women composers. I rarely found myself thinking of the stunning level of execution; I was so immersed in the inspired delivery of these seven miniature works of art. Beginning with Natalie Joachim’s Dam mwen yo, a picturesque blending of the voices of Haitian women lovingly embraced with cello, to the dynamic and powerfully joyous final track of Jessica Meyers’s Swerve, each work outlines themes of the cross-cultural injustice and suffering of women. From one track to the next I was moved by the stunning technique that beautifully unified the collection. Gookin keeps the unique and accessible collaboration on message by including the voices of the composers themselves, available as short descriptive introductions in their own voices on YouTube, thus keeping this album refreshingly free of ego. But the music itself warrants attention regardless of the storytelling. 

“For mothers. For sisterhood. For brave storytellers and quiet listeners. I sing, I gasp, I fight, I breathe life into the work of these fearless artists. I founded Forward Music Project for you. And you are not alone.“

I was woefully ignorant of Amanda Gookin before this inspired listen, but I have surely become among her greatest fans. A significant and most welcome collaboration for the times. 

09 Mark AbelMark Abel – The Cave of Wondrous Voice
David Shifrin; Fred Sherry; Hila Plitmann; Sabrina-Vivian Höpcker; Dominic Cheli; Carol Rosenberger; Sarah Beck
Delos DE 3570 (naxosdirect.com)

California-based composer Mark Abel explains in the liner notes that his father was a “devotee” of such classical chamber music composers as Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven and Dvořák, which clearly influenced his emotionally driven compositions grounded in modern and classical styles.

Abel is renowned for his vocal works. His exciting song cycle Four Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva features four Russian poems translated to English for the first time by Alyssa Dinega Gilliespie. Soprano Hila Plitmann sings with dramatic clarity, musicality, tuning and high pitches. Carol Rosenberger (piano) and Sarah Beck (English horn) support with technical/musical control as the words and music are one.

Diverse tonal and stylistic storytelling is featured in Abel’s chamber works. Intuition’s Dance features Rosenberger and clarinetist David Shifrin playing contrasting happy bouncy faster, and slower spooky lyrical sections. Cellist Fred Sherry joins them in the three-movement Clarinet Trio in which they each are almost soloists, especially in Taking Flight, with its energetic pulsing opening, and upbeat jazz-flavoured closing. 

Another wordless musical story suggesting “the subconscious mind’s journey through the course of the day” is The Elastic Hours, performed by violinist Sabrina-Vivian Höpcker and pianist Dominic Cheli. What Friday Brought opens with a positive end-of-the-work-week mood until stuff happens with moody tremolos, and held notes. Saturday’s Circumference is a driving tonal duet featuring intermittent happy toe-tapping and slower reflective sections.

Abel is a compositional master of intriguing contemporary music.

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