03 Golijov Yo YoGolijov – Azul
Yo-Yo Ma; The Knights; Eric Jacobsen
Warner Classics O190295875213 (theknightsnyc.com)

The Knights is a collective of younger generation New York-area musicians specializing in programs that encompass received classics of Western music as well as embracing vernacular and world-music genres. The orchestra is led by artistic directors and brothers, Colin and Eric Jacobsen.

This CD begins with Ascending Bird, a reimagining of a Persian instrumental folk tune by Iranian musician Siamak Aghaei and The Knights’ principal violinist Colin Jacobsen. Jacobsen’s initial solo evocatively imitates the Persian kamancheh’s ornaments and melodic gestures in a languid rubato before the drum section kicks in. The second half of Ascending Bird is marked by straightforward harmonic changes elaborated by swooping melodic fragments and highly saturated orchestration.

The title track of the CD is Osvaldo Golijov’s Concerto for Cello “Azul” (2006), composed for and performed by master cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Partly inspired by a poem by Pablo Neruda, it’s a major statement extending over four movements lasting over 26 minutes. The first movement Paz Sulfúrica evolves from a falling minor second interval in the strings, elaborated by Ma’s beautifully rendered sustained cantabile tonal cello melody, flecked with instrumental birdsong.

The work’s last movement Yrushalem, initially recaps the first movement, but eventually explodes in two brass-heavy climaxes, twin codas titled Pulsar and Shooting Stars. The second coda is perhaps the most cosmic-sounding and impressive moment of the work, in which the eerie denatured music very slowly disappears into the sonic ether.

04 Boyle clarinetRory Boyle – Music for clarinet
Fraser Langton; James Willshire; Trio Dramatis
Delphian DCD43172

Composer Rory Boyle should be a better-known quantity than he is. Music for Clarinet, presented by Fraser Langton on clarinet, (with pianist James Willshire and violist Rosalind Ventris) on the Delphian label, frames Boyle as creative and crafty, thoroughly versed in the capacities of the instruments, free to generate an easy and broad spectrum of mood and character. Boyle’s modest bio in the liner notes hints at what his music makes explicit: he is a musician who became a composer by thorough study and application, with commendable results.

Listen to the aptly named Burble (2012), a brief and hilarious bit of nonsense for solo clarinet. Part mad dramatic monologue, part exploration of the extremes of range, volume and articulation, loaded with fascinating extended techniques, not a single second of these seven-plus minutes is wasted. Tatty’s Dance (2010) is a lyrical and loving ode to the composer’s wife, reworked as a duet from the original for solo piano. Dramatis Personae (2012) gives a compelling psychological triptych portrait in sound, in a three-movement sonata form. Earlier works (the Sonatina and Bagatelles both date from 1979) show the composer influenced by structural classicists like Paul Hindemith. Arthur Honegger is evoked in the final work, Di Tre Re e io (2015), a challenging and substantial trio that draws reference to that composer’s Fifth Symphony.

Throughout, the performances are rewarding and equal to the composer’s musical demands. For the most part I felt the sound engineering was perfect, but on my system the mic placement for the trio seemed to put the voices into distinct rooms rather than enhance the blend.

05 Amirkanian LexicalLexical Music
Charles Amirkhanian
Other Minds OM 1023-2 (otherminds.org)

Composer Charles Amirkhanian’s Lexical Music, originally released as an LP in 1980, was quickly recognized as a milestone in the emerging American text-sound poetry scene. Its roots can be traced to the European Futurist and Dadaist movements whose participants first pioneered several forms of sound poetry after World War I. In the late 1960s and 1970s this work was further developed in electronic music studios across Europe, especially in the well-equipped Swedish public-radio studios.

The performance genre trolling the borders between music and poetry also had a few key early American practitioners. William S. Burroughs’ audio cut-ups and the early tape loop experiments of Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Pauline Oliveros come to mind. California-native Amirkhanian was also an early adopter. He participated in the 1972 Text-Sound Festival in Stockholm where he was introduced to the European sound-poetry scene. He soon adopted the moniker “sound-text composer.” Amirkhanian’s support of the genre through his position as music director of Berkeley’s KPFA-FM Radio helped enrich the ground for the production and reception of text-sound work on the West Coast.

I should add that Canadian poets also played an early and significant role in the genre. For example, Steve McCaffery and bpNichol were among the local poets instrumental in organizing the ambitious seven-day Eleventh International Sound Poetry Festival (1978) held in Toronto.

Amirkhanian’s landmark recording Lexical Music, sensitively remastered from the original analogue tapes, is accompanied by two informative critical essays in the 31-page booklet. Amirkhanian also serves as the primary vocalist on the album. His percussionist training coupled with his mellow, articulate, radio voice lends rhythmic precision, polished tone and a sense of gravitas to his recordings.

Through extensive repetition and stereo-channel (dis)placement, individual words are bleached of their usual meaning. Non-sequitur text-phrases are transformed into hypnotic washes of pure music. Amirkhanian masterfully challenges and plays with the borders between intelligible text and organized sound throughout the six works here. Just try to get the 2’02” Dutiful Ducks (1977) out of your mind once you’ve heard it.

02 Adam SchoenbergAdam Schoenberg – American Symphony; Finding Rothko; Picture Studies
Kansas City Symphony; Michael Stern
Reference Recordings RR-139 SACD (referencerecordings.com)

Another Schoenberg? Anyone who thinks even one is too many can relax, as Adam Schoenberg (b.1980) bears no relation to Arnold, genealogically or musically. Currently teaching at Occidental College in Los Angeles, he’s a rising star, his tonal, tuneful, colourfully scored music performed by orchestras across the US.

Schoenberg composed Finding Rothko (2006), depictions of four Rothko paintings, while a doctoral student at Juilliard, mentored by John Corigliano. The music successfully mirrors Rothko’s art – atmospheric, meditative and imposing, with shimmering colours that effectively play against each other in unexpected ways.

Schoenberg’s five-movement American Symphony (2011) begins and ends with buoyant optimism, powered by quasi-minimalist ostinatos. Two solemn, slow movements, built on sustained Coplandesque pastoral harmonies, frame the jazzy, syncopated middle movement. Schoenberg says, “I set out to write a modern American symphony that paid homage to our past and looked forward to a brighter future.” Indeed, it all sounds very “American.”

In 2011, the Kansas City Symphony and the city’s Nelson-Atkins Museum commissioned Schoenberg to compose “a 21st-century Pictures at an Exhibition,” based on pieces in the museum’s collection. Picture Studies (2012) depicts paintings by van Gogh, Kandinsky, Miró and Albert Bloch, a Calder sculpture and three photographs. The brilliantly orchestrated music is variously perky, sentimental, vehement and exultant.

Conductor Michael Stern elicits playing with rhythmic brio, precision and wide dynamics in these audience-pleasing works. Whether Schoenberg can create music that digs deeper than “audience-pleasing” still remains to be heard.

03 Amy BrandonScavenger
Amy Brandon
Independent (amybrandon.ca)

The first sounds to greet the listener on Amy Brandon’s debut CD are electronic swirls and squiggles, likely guitar-based and clearly running backwards. Within seconds, however, one is in for a surprise, as the very pure sound of her acoustic, nylon-string guitar emerges. Brandon is a Nova Scotia-based musician whose work here regularly combines contrasting elements: her musical identity is a composite, arising in the gap between the electroacoustic elements and acoustic melodies and improvisations.

On Scavenger, most tracks include these pre-recorded sounds, some of them clearly reworked from her own guitar tapes, others likely using other elements, whether the sound source of the War Games backing tape is thunder, actual combat, a reverb unit or the resonant bass strings of a piano. The results are fascinating, in part because of Brandon’s instrumental approach: it’s a model of classical guitar clarity in the tradition of Segovia, Yepes and Bream, with lyricism and triadic harmony that can suggest idiomatic composers like Villa-Lobos and Rodrigo.

Along the way, Brandon invites others into her musical world. VL is a duet with the distinguished Montreal jazz guitarist Mike Rud, his glassy sound contrasting with Brandon’s warmth between otherwise similar approaches; in contrast, her duet with Ottawa-based acoustic guitarist Roddy Ellias on Ecoando is a clear mirroring of sound. This is a fascinating debut, and one looks forward to Brandon’s further explorations.

01 RomanzaRomanza – Music from Spain and South America
Azuline Duo
Independent (azulineduo.com)

The Azuline Duo’s program on this, their first CD, is a winning combination of well-known pieces by Granados, Villa-Lobos, da Falla and Piazzolla and music new to most of us by two Argentinean guitarists/composers, José Luís Merlin and Máximo Diego Pujol.

Some highlights are Villa-Lobos’ Distribuiçao los flores, where flutist Sara Traficante’s controlled vibrato and evocative changes of tone colour and dynamics are just right. In Piazzolla’s Libertango her extended technique tone-bending gets things off to a great start and she plays the tango as if she knows how to dance the tango (maybe she does!). She brings a lovely, haunting sound – a bit husky and not too loud – to Merlin’s Evocacion – conjuring up an air of mystery; and in his Joropo (a joyful Venezuelan dance, according to the notes) she handles the technical challenges with verve. However, particularly in the Spanish Dances by da Falla and Granados and in the Suite by Pujol I longed to hear more depth in her sound.

Emma Rush is a fine guitarist, a rock of stability, poised and rhythmically solid – a joy to play with, I’m sure Traficante would agree – although sometimes I found myself wishing she would let down her hair a bit and let her guitar “gently weep.”

These qualities, we all understand, take time and life experience to develop, and the excellent work so evident in this CD gives me confidence that they will come.

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