03 Scott Johnson Mind Out of MatterScott Johnson – Mind Out of Matter
Alarm Will Sound; Alan Pierson
Tzadik TZ 4021 (alarmwillsound.com)

I have read, with pleasure, books by secular-humanist philosopher Daniel Dennett on evolution (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea), religion (Breaking the Spell) and consciousness (From Bacteria to Bach and Back). So I was curious to hear this 73-minute, eight-movement work by American composer Scott Johnson (b.1952), using as musical materials the pitches and rhythms of Dennett’s spoken words, recorded at a talk about Breaking the Spell and in interviews with the composer.

Johnson calls his technique, used in this and previous compositions, “speech melody,” adding that Mind Out of Matter contains “musical references ranging from Baroque recitative to retro funk grooves.” Dennett’s speaking style is conversational and Johnson’s instrumental score is conversational, too, lacking extended melodies or dramatic climaxes. Johnson repeats some of Dennett’s words and phrases many times, usually clearly heard but occasionally submerged under the colourful, ambulating music, mixing elements of classical, rock and jazz. It’s performed by Alarm Will Sound, 17 players on strings, winds, brass and percussion, including alto sax and electric guitar, conducted by Alan Pierson. In one movement, the musicians contribute a chanted chorus.

In Surrender, the longest movement, Dennett asserts that religions – “ideas to die for and kill for, even if it doesn’t make sense” – have, like biological organisms, evolved by natural selection.

Dennett’s books drew me to this music. If, in turn, listeners are led to read Breaking the Spell, Johnson’s composition will have helped increase their understanding of why people believe as they do.

04 Make ProjectThe Make Project
Veryan Weston
Barnyard Records BR0344 (barnyardrecords.com)

The Make Project presents pieces realized in Toronto in 2015 by English pianist-composer Veryan Weston with Christine Duncan, Jean Martin and three ensembles, including Duncan’s 45-member Element Choir. The music is a stunning synthesis of two concepts: one is Duncan’s conduction method in which the large choir creates spontaneously in response to her hand signals; the second is Weston’s Tesselations, works he’s been developing since 2000 in which performers move through the 52 possible pentatonic scales, altering one note at a time.

For Tesselations IV, Weston has added 52 corresponding texts, all from women writers and each containing the word “make,” which triggers the shift to the next scale. The authors range through the centuries, from Julian of Norwich to Margaret Atwood, and include telling words whether on creativity (Simone de Beauvoir: “On paper, I make time stand still”) or politics (Emma Goldman: “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal”).

The first piece, the four-minute Hidden Meanings, has a nine-voice women’s a cappella choir creating luminous layers of words and voices with overlapping texts. The second, Hidden Words, is an eight-minute instrumental improvisation with Weston, producer/drummer Martin and four strings (violinists Josh and Jesse Zubot, violist Anna Atkinson and bassist Andrew Downing) that possesses a spiky, Webern-esque clarity.

Then the forces assemble – the musicians, the Element Choir, solo voices Felicity Williams and Alex Samaras – for the 32-minute Tesselations IV (Make), a work of great depth and scale that moves through various combinations of choir, sextet and soloists with expanding meaning and a series of luminous textures. It’s brilliant work that combines genres and techniques to create its own world.

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.

Back to top