03 Mike McCormickProxemic Studies Volume 1
Mike McCormick
Smeik SMKCD204 (smeik.no/en; mikemccormickmusic.com)

It is not an obvious concept to combine technical guitar exercises you wrote for yourself with extracts of letters and emails from your former “romantic partners” as a basis for an album of contemporary music. Yet this is what Oslo-based guitarist, laptop performer and composer Mike McCormick, originally from Yellowknife, has done with his Proxemic Studies. The album is both intensely personal (some of the quotations detail sexual intimacy, heartbreak and betrayal) and surprisingly clinical. Befitting our social distancing times, McCormick tells us “Proxemics [is] the branch of knowledge that deals with the amount of space that people feel it necessary to set between themselves and others.” McCormick performs his compositions with Laura Swankey (voice), Emily Denison (trumpet) and Knut Kvifte Nesheim (percussion). Swankey’s vocals are expressive yet measured and Nesheim provides a delicate palette of background accompaniments. One of the most beautiful pieces is Alvorada, on which Denison plays some floating and tasteful trumpet lines reminiscent of Kenny Wheeler, and the vocal intermittently glides between the musical lines. At the other extreme is Madness with fuzzed-out guitar and a series of accusatory and harsh statements vibrating with anger.

The album is intriguing, but one may wonder how McCormick’s former partners feel about their intimate notes being part of a public performance. The text ranges from poetic to banal (“Just got out of the shower, you were kind of there too”) and this contrast may be one of the points being made about human interaction. Proxemic Studies is an uneasy intertwining of personal history with innovative musical expression.

Listen to 'Proxemic Studies Volume 1' Now in the Listening Room

04 Mark John McenroeMark John McEncroe – Musical Images for Chamber Orchestra (Reflections & Recollections Vol.2)
Janáček Philharmonic; Anthony Armore
Navona Records nv6269 (navonarecords.com)

The Australian self-professed “easy listening” composer Mark John McEncroe has made a name for himself in the orchestral world with his audience-friendly and pleasantly digestible output. In this latest release, several piano works by McEncroe have been orchestrated by Mark J Saliba – also an Australian composer – to comprise the selection of Musical Images heard on the recording. 

This music is not trying to be anything other than what it is: gentle and welcoming. While some contemporary composers writing in older Romantic styles still feel pressured to insert some sort of newness into their music, resulting in a confusing clash of aesthetic commitment, McEncroe delivers a straightforward and unburdened nostalgia to the listener. Nevertheless, we still receive contrast throughout the 11 movements. 

At times playful, foreboding, heartwarming, and reassuring, the music does in fact lead the listener on a journey – albeit a highly protected one. There is a filmic quality to McEncroe’s style, an attribute that is furthered by titles such as Natalie’s Theme, Floating Lilies and A Rainy Summer’s Day. This quality perhaps leaves the listener wanting to experience these missing images alongside the music; in contrast to profoundly written program music where the extra-musical elements are so deeply provided in the music, one does not require them in any other form. With that in mind, this disc is perfect for a rainy day with a book, or a relaxing afternoon by the fire.

07 VoxVox
Hearne Ensemble
Innova Recordings 040 (innova.mu/albums)

What is a “test of time” measured against the universe’s, or even our planet’s? On the human scale, George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae for three masked players performing on amplified instruments – flute, cello and piano – has stood up well over the half century since its composition. The Hearne Ensemble opens with this work, whose theme reminds humans of how tiny their lifespan is measured against that of the Earth. Even without the blue ambient lighting Crumb indicated for live performance, the music draws us into the depths: meditation and wonder, awe and exhilaration. Like Messaien’s Quartet for the End of Time, Vox Balaenae (voice of the whale) is a work of praise, threaded through with references to time and timelessness; the object of Crumb’s louanges, unlike Messaien, is the world itself, and his angelic voice is that of the whale. The performances are flawless, and the recording quality excellent; Vox Balaenae is a timeless masterpiece.

Next, Bencharong by Narong Prangcharoen depicts the five colours of classic Thai ceramics. The movements are brief, and while the composer makes no overt claim that he experiences synaesthesia, the musical colours are as distinct as the visual ones. 

Silver Dagger, by Stacy Garrop, references an American folk song she researched and found to have three distinct variants and outcomes, almost a post-modern Romeo and Juliet. Like Berio in his folk song settings, Garrop is content to find mystery and beauty in the simplicity and power of the original. It’s beautiful Americana.

Melodies for Robert by Carter Pann is a celebration in memoriam of “an American war hero,” to quote the liner notes. There are two movements: Sing and Listen. I don’t find myself able to listen to them following the rest of the disc. I haven’t much room left for dessert, especially not one so sweet.

08 Kate AmrineThis is My Letter to the World
Kate Amrine and various artists
Innova Recordings 042 (innova.mu)

It is almost too apt to be reviewing trumpeter/composer Kate Amrine’s new release in the COVID-19 era. Whatever new power music has developed within our collective, it has always drawn us into shared experience. This message from a millennial asks all of us to please reflect on the harm we bring on ourselves. How can the tracks of this disc bend our path away from mutually assured destruction, one is forced to wonder. One supposes: through hope.

Amrine’s own piece, What Are We Doing To Ourselves, addresses climate change and degradation through a combination of electronic underlay made of the recorded sound of a forest fire, simple melodic fragments that join the voices of alto flute, trumpet, viola and cello, and an almost childlike recitation of the text of a suicide note. This latter document was left for media by an activist lawyer who set himself on fire in an act of protest. Heavy stuff. Her very short title track eloquently quotes Emily Dickinson with a bucket-muted trumpet nearly overshadowing the text.

The next track, Thoughts and Prayers, by Kevin Joest, addresses gun violence. A single trumpet line accompanies all-too-familiar news chatter reacting to various mass-murders. My Body My Choice by Niloufar Nourbakhsh, uses the words of the title in a chant rising towards the final bars of a processional featuring trumpet and electronics. 

Sandwiched in among the earnest messages is a clever and entertaining track (omitted in the liner notes): Close Fight sets up a funky dance number using a post-fight interview with a boxer whose cocky answers are chopped into rhythmic bits, and played to by the band. This is such an excellent antidote, it’s why we need to support these young creators like Amrine. I wanted it to go on. We all need it, to go on.

10 Sunny KnableSong of the Redwood-Tree
Scott Pool; Natsuki Fukasawa; Stefanie Izzo; Gina Cuffari; Xelana Duo; Sunny Knable
MSR Classics MS 1749 (sunnyknablecomposer.com)

American composer, pianist and educator Sunny Knable’s four works here illuminate the many sound possibilities that the bassoon produces as a lead instrument and in ensemble. The three-movement title track Song of the Redwood-Tree for soprano, bassoon and piano is based on Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. A California Song opens with bassoonist Scott Pool’s beautiful held notes, pianist Natsuki Fukasawa’s contrapuntal lines and soprano Stefanie Izzo’s high pitches. Death-Chant is understandably more atonal with dramatic high vocal pitches, and Golden Pageant features more tonal cadences, and piano/vocal unisons. 

Tango Boogie combines a bit of tango and swing in a surprising gratifying sonic mix played by the alto saxophone/bassoon Xelana Duo. Double Reed on Charles Wyatt’s poem To the World’s Bassoonists showcases Knable’s understanding of the breath control required to play reed instruments, as he performs on the accordion with soprano/bassoonist Gina Cuffari. Its second movement Tragic Bassoon is especially noteworthy with the solo bassoon melody above the left- and right-hand accordion-held chords and vocal backdrop creating a memorable sound. Lots of familiar true-to-life sounds in The Busking Bassoonist as Pool and Fukasawa perform such Knable-created city-sound effects as trilling birds, rhythmic marching and a distant subway piano pedal echo. 

Knable clearly understands the bassoon’s vast possibilities beyond its traditional instrumental setting. His compositional expertise grounds his explorative instrumental creations and answers his own question “Why does this work have to exist?” Because it is great!

11 Sandbox PercussionAnd That One Too
Sandbox Percussion
Coviello Contemporary COV91918 (sandboxpercussion.com)

Brooklyn NY Sandbox Percussion ensemble members Jonny Allen, Victor Caccese, Ian David Rosenbaum and Terry Sweeney have created long-term close collaborations with the composers who write for them, resulting in smart, diverse, challenging contemporary musical works. Their debut release features four of these.

Andy Akiho’s Haiku 2 observes the 5-7-5 haiku form with minimalistic repetitive hits coupled with tuned percussion sounds. Each movement of David Crowell’s Music for Percussion Quartet was inspired by different environments. Mov. I - Fluctuation and Mov. III - Oscillation feature polyrhythms on drums and vibes, creating a busy city sound. Mov. II - Sky, with its slow meditative ringing vibes and hypnotic repetitive tonal sequences perhaps sound like the sky at dusk. Low resonances abound in Mov. IV – Landscape. Composer/vocalist Amy Beth Kirsten performs her composition she is a myth with great tonal colour on multiple tracks, with Sandbox playing opening percussion like paper, sandpaper and scratches, and subsequent toe-tapping rhythms. Thomas Kotcheff’s not only that one but that one & that too is divided into three parts, each focusing on a different percussion type. Part I features wooden instruments with the opening attention-grabbing “what is this” woodblock taps leading to a wooden percussion sound panorama of pitch and rhythm. Part II is all about drumming rhythms and rolls, while in Part III, pitched metal instruments and finger cymbals create calming effects.  

Sandbox Percussion plays brilliantly with musical accuracy and nuance.

Listen to 'And That One Too' Now in the Listening Room

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