05 SteveSwelCD007Music for Six Musicians: Hommage à Olivier Messiaen
Steve Swell
Silkheart SHCD 161 (silkheart.se)

Taking the post-modern concept of saluting favoured musicians without recreating their work, trombonist Steve Swell convened a sextet of New York improvisers to play five of his compositions expanding on the work of French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). Extrapolating Messiaen’s complex harmonies, rhythms and melodies to the 21st century, this 76-minute suite manages to replicate orchestral verisimilitude with violist Jason Kao Hwang, cellist Tomas Ulrich, alto saxophonist Rob Brown, keyboardist Robert Boston and drummer Jim Pugliese.
Boston’s ecclesiastical organ fills create the perfect environment for a sly takeoff on Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, titled Sextet for the End of Democracy. Quiet but sardonic like the 1941 classic, this piece features appropriate aviary cackles from the strings and plunger variables by Swell. Contrasting melodic cello and astringent reed timbres contribute to the juddering swing as the tune climaxes with swelling organ pulsations. Comparable transformations advance the other tracks, with the polyphonic and nearly atonal final Exit the Labyrinth filled with squeaking strings and blowsy horns reaching a passionate crescendo; and Joy and the Remarkable Behavior of Time outright jazz, matching drum shuffles and pseudo-tailgate trombone with cascading piano chording.

Tellingly it’s the nearly 25-minute Opening track which sets up compositional tropes from the dynamic to the compliant, with as many dual contrapuntal challenges and pseudo-romantic tutti outbursts as solos that measure technique against inspiration. More than a Hommage, the performance demonstrates how considered inspiration can create a work as memorable as its antecedent(s).

01 Beckwith CallingJohn Beckwith – Calling: Instrumental Music 2006-2016
Various Artists
Centrediscs CMCCD 24917 (musiccentre.ca)

Canadian composer, music educator and writer John Beckwith segued into his tenth decade last year with a fertile 70-year back catalogue, which includes well over 130 major compositions covering solo, choral, stage, orchestral and chamber genres. Calling, an album of his newest instrumental works, demonstrates that his inquisitive sonic imagination and desire to express it with both conventional and unconventional instruments and unusual sound textures shows no signs of ebbing. Let’s listen in on just two of the seven works therein.

A choice example of Beckwith’s exploration – framed within a modernist aesthetic – is his Fractions (2006), scored for Carrillo piano and string quartet. With 97 keys packed within its single octave, the Carrillo piano is tuned in 16th tones. While it looks like a conventional upright, it certainly doesn’t sound like one. In Fractions, linear melodies snake expressively, almost appearing to pitch bend over the dramatic gestures and elegiac statements provided by the Accordes String Quartet. Heightening the microtonal tension even more, two members of the quartet tune their instruments a quarter tone higher than the other two. The result is a compelling and sometimes haunting listening experience.

Quintet (2015) also questions conventional instrumental groupings. Beckwith scores it not for a standard woodwind, brass or string quintet, but rather opts for a mixed ensemble: flute, trumpet, bassoon, viola and string bass. Performed by members of Toronto’s venerable New Music Concerts, the oft jaunty work satisfyingly completes this musical survey by a composer in his prime.

02 Gryphon TrioThe End of Flowers
Gryphon Trio
Analekta AN 2 9520 (analekta.com)

There’s no explanation in the booklet about the CD’s title, The End of Flowers. An online search led to Gryphon cellist Roman Borys’ comments: “The First World War brought with it unprecedented loss of life, youth and hope. It was the end of flowers… fields lay barren, blasted and churned beyond recognition.” Borys continues: “In the winds of war Ravel and Clarke composed two remarkable piano trios… not intended as memorials but [which] stand as a testament to the enduring power of life and art.”

Rebecca Clarke left no programmatic description of her 1921 Piano Trio, two years after her other major work, the richly melodic Viola Sonata. Unlike the sonata, her trio evinces the influence of the war. Turmoil erupts immediately with the explosive opening of the Moderato ma appassionato, a movement marked by turbulent melodies, restless rhythms and a distinct bugle-call motif. The mournful Andante molto semplice is followed by the final Allegro vigoroso, alternating between a life-affirming folky tune and quiet reflection. There’s a reprise of the first movement’s agitation and the bugle call, but the trio ends on a positive, buoyant note. This gripping, emotion-filled work deserves to be much better known. Hear it!

Ravel’s familiar Piano Trio lacks obvious war-references, but it garners an especially gravitas-laden interpretation from the Gryphon Trio – University of Toronto artists-in-residence currently celebrating their 25th anniversary. Both of these marvellous works receive exemplary performances in a disc to hear and re-hear.

03 Megumi MasakiMusic4Eyes+Ears
Megumi Masaki
Centrediscs CMCCD 24017 (musiccentre.ca)

The title of this (Blu-ray+CD) package is an obvious giveaway. If you’re about to dive into its contents, then do so Blu-ray first. The reason is simple: the cover not only reads Music4Eyes+Ears, the visceral excitement of the music is also magnified exponentially by viewing Megumi Masaki perform her music on the Blu-ray. Although Keith Hamel’s Touch is the only work performed on both, its enormous impact when viewed on Blu-ray is absolute proof of the visual experience. Remember also that music was a visual experience long before the invention of recording technology. Those eager listeners who decide to jump in CD-first anyway are hardly likely to be disappointed, though.

Music4Eyes+Ears is made up of repertoire that is simply breathtaking. That has principally to do with Masaki’s pianism. Her depth of understanding of narrative is unprecedented and her ability to translate musical composition into something emotionally vivid and alive is quite extraordinary. Orpheus Drones by T. Patrick Carrabré is an evanescent work in which the legendary Greek protagonist, musician, poet and prophet is served by the closest approximation of what might be described as divine music. The follow-up, Orpheus (2), is superbly related to death and descent – the politically motivated murder of Chilean singer Victor Jara becoming its principle contemporary metaphor via Margaret Atwood’s poem.

The performance of Touch is where the worlds of eyes and ears meet. But while the music itself is statuesque and graceful, it is in the balletic performance by Masaki on the Blu-ray that it comes magically alive. The floating melody and harmony, egged on by a plethora of ethereally sounding bells (played electronically) is heightened also by the sweeping hand movements, often in the air above the keyboard, which become visual metaphors as they tell a tactile story of dancers coming together and drawing apart.

In Ferrovia, Masaki aligns her visionary performance with the ethereal conceptions of composer Brent Lee and multimedia artist Sigi Torinus. The near-impossible realities of physical and mathematical sciences collide with a human presence, around which dynamic images provoke grief-suggesting sounds. Meanwhile the powerful music of Hamel’s Corona echoes with its own intercessory, who appears in the form of a spectral Gérard Grisey. And the often-terrifying Stanley Kubrick film The Shining comes alive in Kubrick Études by Nicole Lizée, which incorporates (often glitched) clips from his films. However, throughout the discs, despair and ugliness are compellingly resolved by the beauty and hope of Masaki’s musicianship.

04 KumbosKumbos
Paulo J Ferreira Lopes; Karoline Leblanc
Atrito-Afeito (atrito-afeito.com)

Even if you really, really dislike electroacoustic music, give this release a try because its strength in sound, collaboration and experimentation lead to accessible listening. Montreal-based composer/performer Paulo J Ferreira Lopes utilizes his many, many clever and established electro and percussion skills to create a fascinating musical conversation with his collaborator, acoustic keyboards performer Karoline Leblanc, in this one-track, hand-numbered 200 limited edition sound adventures release.

Kumbos begins with an attention-grabbing recurring percussive opening and dense piano chords. The subsequent soundscape of high pitched squeaks and cymbal washes against piano textures is a pleasing juxtaposition of sound effects. More melodic piano lines provide contrast in the quieter sections. Love the sudden loud electronic crashes. Highly effective are the numerous silences interspersed throughout the work, which are welcome escapes from sound, and music in their own right. These add to the creation of musical intrigue leading to the final climactic conversation of more intense electroacoustic rhythms, large held piano chords and washes of sound colour.

There are touches of field recordings by Leblanc which are a bit of a strain to hear but are colourful musical diversions. Additional melodic piano sections would be welcome, as well as more drum kit against electronic effects. The production is clear and the instrument levels are balanced. Repeated listening adds to a gratifying appreciation of detail in performance and composition.

05 Shadow EtchingsShadow Etchings – New Music for Flute
Orlando Cela
Ravello Records RR7982 (ravellorecords.com)

Orlando Cela’s Shadow Etchings is a nine-track collection of recent compositions for flute using “extended techniques,” whistle tones, harmonics, vocalizing and playing at the same time, blowing air quickly through the flute without making an actual pitch and so on. Having some experience with extended techniques I can say with some conviction that Cela does them very well.

A brief description of each track will provide an idea of what is on this recording: Jean-Patrick Besingrand’s Le soupir du roseau dans le bras du vent, the first track, is derived from Claude Debussy’s Syrinx. Beginning with the first couple of phrases of Syrinx, variations are added using vocalizations, breath tones, throat flutters and other distortions of which the flute is capable. Lou Bunk’s Winter Variations consists of distorted long tones on the flute with percussive discords on the piano. Robert Gross’ Variations on a Schenker Graph of Gesualdo, combines manipulated electronics with harsh multiphonics and vocal punctuations by the flutist. Dana Kaufman’s Hang Down Your Head is a disjointed version of the original Tom Dooley folk melody complete with vocal growls, whistles and shrieks. The three movements of Stratis Minakakis’ Skiagrafies II offer lots of multiphonics, overtones, shimmers, vibes and twitters. A Turning Inwards by Edward Maxwell Dulaney gives us high alternating overtone whistles and Self-Portrait by Ziteng Ye is built on wavering, breathy tones with some voice added.

All in all, this disc offers an intriguing introduction to some of the new sounds available to the contemporary flutist.

Listen to 'Shadow Etchings' Now in the Listening Room

Back to top