10 PatternsPatterns – Chamber Works
Various Artists
Navona Records nv6243 (navonarecords.com)

A musical pattern may be a repeating or recurring rhythm, pitch, dynamic, instrumentation etc. A repeating pattern of surprisingly fascinating, contrasting music by seven composers for diverse small ensembles, including two solo guitar works, makes this an unexpected listening joy.

James William Stamm’s Asymmetry for guitar duet is upbeat with alternating broken chord figures and short melodic sections. Georges Raillard’s guitar solo Disintegration opens with tonal intervals which then change to contrasting strums and atonal intervals. Composer/guitarist Santiago Kodela’s three-movement/pattern solo-guitar work, Two Lords, opens with Of Textures, a rhythmic toe-tapping work with low tones and moving melody. The slower, edgier Of Colours has ringing contemplative guitar tones. The faster Of Mechanics features driving guitar grooves, pitches and repeated note patterns.

Now for percussion patterns. Daniel Adams’ two-marimba work Road Traversed and Reversed opens with attention-grabbing marimba rolls, then lots of exciting repeated notes, tight duet contrapuntal playing and grooves. David Arbury’s Four Snares has four snare drummers performing constantly on the move – snare rolls, effects, taps and dynamic variations.

Bunny Beck’s tango-flavoured expressive Suite for Sarro for string trio encompasses contemporary and Romantic sounds. Fun abounds in Jan Järvlepp’s Bassoon Quartet. The four bassoons emulate car sounds like short beeps in Cadillac. The slower Reaching showcases the instrument’s low pitch abilities. Danceable Jig is rewarding at the low pitch with twirling melodic patterns.

The pattern is completed with impeccable production and performances. Great, great, great!

Kaija Saariaho – True Fire; Trans; Ciel d’hiver
Gerald Finley; Xavier de Maistre; Finnish RSO; Hannu Lintu
Ondine ODE 1309-2 (naxosdirect.com)

Ensemble Musikfabrik
Wergo Edition Musikfabrik 15 (musikfabrik.eu/en)

11a SaariahoKaija Saariaho appears to engage all the senses at full throttle when she is writing music. This tactility is channelled in such a manner that one might conceivably hear the creeping of the shadow of a tree elongating at dusk or a flower weeping in the rain in long inventions and subtly sculpted lines for a cello. All of this appears to make for works that comprise highly complex sound masses, created out of microscopic tangles of intertwined instrumental lines – a kind of musical spider’s web woven with micropolyphony. Through it all she remains completely focused on melody, counterpoint and harmony, with rhythm also surfacing in dramatic outbursts. Saariaho appears to push form to its limit, creating a compelling musical world at once eerie and beautiful.

The music on this disc is made up of three exquisite orchestral works and is beyond tonality, atonality and post-modernization. On Trans, a work in three movements for harp and orchestra, Saariaho creates a vivid storyline and invites the listener to follow her principal character – personified by the harp – as it evolves in the music’s narrative. Harpist Xavier de Maistre’s performance is lustrous and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra is outstanding as they make the work seem visionary, highlighting Saariaho’s gift for creating hauntingly memorable sounds.

Saariaho also reveals her heightened sense of the dramatic in Ciel d’hiver, a retelling of part of the journey of the son of Poseidon, re-orchestrated from her larger piece, Orion. The appropriately smaller symphony orchestra still manages to deliver the work’s supple textures with consummate musicality, allowing for the beauty of the mythic narrative to emerge with compelling force. On True Fire, Saariaho turns to perhaps her greatest strength – the setting of poetry to music. This work is performed by the great Canadian baritone Gerald Finley, who weathers the enormous difficulty of the vocal writing with glorious ease. His vocal outpourings, together with masterful orchestral direction by Hannu Lintu, help the poetry leap off the page. 

11b SturmSaariaho’s music reappears on a second disc also featuring works by two other contemporary composers, Steffen Schleiermacher and Michael Wertmüller. The disc is titled Sturm (or Storm) as the music is evocative of – poetically or otherwise – atmospheric agitation appropriately conjured up by the extraordinary contemporary collective, Ensemble Musikfabrik, joined throughout by soloing guest musicians.

In the case of Saariaho’s contribution, the music translates parts of Shakespeare (The Tempest) reincarnated in a cycle of songs titled The Tempest Songbook and brought to life by the lustrous soprano of Olivia Vermeulen and the ink-dark baritone of Peter Schöne. Schleiermacher’s Das Tosen Des Staunenden Echos (The roar of the amazed echo) captures an agitated journey, its turbulent repeated gestures revolving theatrically, breaking in waves and sounding like fluid birth pangs in the very act of the enigmatic composition itself. Wertmüller’s Antagonisme Contrôlé is a fiery piece that roars between the freewheeling worlds of jazz and avant-garde-music styles as soloists, including the inimitable saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, take the music to dizzying heights.

12 David BowlinBird as Prophet
David Bowlin; various artists
New Focus Recordings FCR237 (newfocusrecordings.com)

This is one disc that achieves so much more than it sets out to do. Bird as Prophet (the composition) is an amalgam of Robert Schumann, a Romantic with a deep and abiding knowledge of literature and philosophy, and Charlie Parker, the iconic bebop genius who revolutionized jazz – and, it may be argued, all contemporary music. But it is the fingers – and bow – of David Bowlin that drives the music of the entire disc much further.

Bowlin brings so much more to the music than mere virtuosity. Combining his absolute mastery of the violin with inspired interpretations, he lifts the black dots off the page in an utterly beguiling performance evocative of the very nature of human endeavour and the mercurial vicissitudes that go with it.

Bowlin’s instrument lives and breathes and takes us to another world. It’s full of glinting illuminations, mysterious depths, expectations, frustrations, hopes and doubts, like the lights and shadows of a quasi-Schumann scherzo glimpsed by moonlight in a forest. Using taped effects and partnered by four other musicians (on three other tracks), Bowlin creates passage upon passage of notes that are at once perfectly transparent yet gorgeously coloured. There’s also a sense of tightly disciplined improvisation everywhere in the music.

Finally, on the mesmerising Under a Tree, an Udātta, an almost-nine minute musical exploration of Sanskrit phonetics (Udātta is the pitch accent of Vedic Sanskrit), he bows out with buoyant, aristocratic grace.

Listen to 'Bird as Prophet' Now in the Listening Room

01 Istvan AnhaltIstvan Anhalt – …the timber of those times…
SALT Festival Orchestra; Hungarian RSO; Ajtony Csaba
Centrediscs CMCCD 26419 (musiccentre.ca)

Right from the portentous opening chords to the ghostly final drumbeats, this recording of Istvan Anhalt’s monumental ...the timber of those times... (...a theogony...) works a spell. It’s is an adventurous, colourful work, depicting the gods who ruled the world of the ancient Greeks and continue to fascinate today. The terrific performance by the Hungarian RSO includes a fiery galvanizing violin cadenza from soloist Vilmos Oláh. Conductor Ajtony Csaba deftly sustains the momentum throughout.

In Four Portraits from Memory, chant-like textures suffuse evocations of loved ones whose recent deaths Anhalt is grieving. I found it deeply beautiful, and profoundly heart-wrenching, the serene atmosphere enriched by rhapsodic passages featuring pianist Tzenka Dianova. The SALT Festival Orchestra brings a level of polish and precision which allows the lines to shimmer and breath, suggesting layers of sounds yet to be discovered.

Anhalt, who was born in 1919, wrote some of his finest works at the very end of his career – he died in 2012. These are his last orchestral works, both from 2006. They differ in striking ways from each other, a testament to his remarkable versatility. But whether focusing inward to contemplate his own experiences, or reaching out to distant times to interpret those experiences, both works are deeply personal – and all the more moving for that.

This significant recording makes a fitting way to honour the centenary of the birth of a matchless trailblazer in Canadian music.

02 JACKFiligree – Music of Hannah Lash
JACK Quartet
New Focus Recordings FCR228 (newfocusrecordings.com)

Experimental, electrifying, a wonderland of colours – Filigree is a laboratory of sounds, impermanent yet consistent. With this recording the JACK Quartet delivers select pieces by American composer and harpist Hannah Lash and does it with their typical commitment and conviction. Every note, every phrase, is placed and nuanced with clarity of musical expression and clear understanding of Lash’s compositional language. JACK plays with an abundant energy that is beaming with emotional fluency.

Although encompassing a period of five years, chamber music pieces on this recording share a similar contemporary approach to multi-layered string technique(s) and a unique balance of intellectual and visceral elements. The album opens with Frayed, my favourite piece on this recording. The opening chords resemble a series of breaths, tense and unadorned, giving the impression of bringing out intimate mementos. That is, however, interrupted with a dynamic and powerfully unsettling section that slowly takes over, and it is the interlacing of different worlds that gives a tangible intensity to this piece.

Suite: Remembered and Imagined, stands in contrast with its playfulness and showcases a variety of textures. The album concludes with Filigree in Textile for harp and string quartet, inspired by the tapestry arts of the Middle Ages. The lush mood of the first movement, titled Gold, is followed with the rhythmically uniform Silver. The harp threads brilliant lines and brings everyone together in Silk.

This album is notable and well worth your attention.

Listen to 'Filigree: Music of Hannah Lash' Now in the Listening Room

The Machine is Broken
Terry Rusling (1931-1974)
Spool Spurn 3 (spoolmusic.com)

Shed Metal
equivalent insecurity (dk & Dan Lander)
Spool Spurn 1 (spoolmusic.com)

Car Dew Treat Us (pages from Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise randomly selected)
dk & the perfectly ordinary
Spool Spurn 2 (spoolmusic.com)

Uxbridge, Ontario-based label Spool’s new Spurn series is titled irreverent. The brainchild of musician Daniel Kernohan, there are currently three releases in this group of possibly difficult-to-classify, yet ear-opening, enjoyable music. Spool also has other series with numerous eclectic releases available.

05a Spool UTEMSAn intriguing cross section of electronic works by Canadian composer Terry Rusling (1931-1974) are featured in the 2019 third Spurn release, The Machine is Broken. Rusling’s experience as an engineer for CBC understandably gave him the necessary technical grounding to create his unique sound. At composer Morris Surdin’s suggestion, Rusling worked at the University of Toronto Electronic Music Studio (UTEMS), which lead to further international studies/work, and tape collaborations with such artists as Earle Birney, Gwendolyn MacEwen and public tape performances at Yorkville’s Bohemian Embassy. Rusling’s short life resulted in an immense creative output that is only touched on here. Producers David Porter and Daniel Kernohan have selected 17 tracks, arranged in a listener-friendly order to maintain interest. The almost two minute opening Reel 1H sets the stage with sound effects, quiet spaces, and brief moments of tonalism. Creaky effects, crackling sounds, loud volumes, slides and glisses highlight Reel 2A’s early electro sound. The spoken male/female statements at the start of Title add a human dimension to the electronic effects. Rusling’s use of silent spaces between electronic sections in his works builds subsequent musical interest, such as Reel 2B where the silences set up such intense effects as the classic electronic sounds of that time, like washes, repeated notes, feedback and for lack of a better description, loud crashing about. Rusling’s early electronic music holds current sound appeal while also, at its very best, foreshadowing future sounds.

05b Spool Shed MetalThe earlier two Spurn releases also feature contemporary sounds. Shed Metal stars Equivalent Insecurity in performance. Kernohan, (named dk on the sleeve), and colleague Dan Lander play 22 tracks on their self-described “instruments, toys, stuff, sound.” Recorded in Toronto in 1987-89, their sound brings back wonderful memories of the Toronto improvisational scene of the time. The clear recording opens with a march-like feel and an almost sing-along melody interspersed with electronic effects. Too much fun being had by the two performers, as the music includes washes, electronic shrieking effects, occasional almost pop groves, pulses, horns, vocalizations, moments of anxiety, etc. Especially love the water sounds in track three. It is a gift to the listener that their music was even recorded, and later released.

05c Spool Car DewCar Dew Treat Us features Kernohan and the perfectly ordinary (Allison Cameron, Rod Dubey and Lawrence Joseph) with different guest artists reciting intermittent text fragments from Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise against an electronic soundscape featuring clicks, held tones, wavering dynamics, wobbling tones, bell sounds, atonalities and percussive effects in a challenging soundscape. Some may find it difficult to listen to but worth the effort to experience.

Bravo to Spool’s Spurn series for these three contrasting releases showcasing amazing Canadian experimental talent.

Back to top