05 MortensenFinn Mortensen – Symphony Op.5
Stavanger Symphony Orchestra; Peter Szilvay
SSO Recordings 3917-2 (sso.no)

Weighty Brucknerian moods and gestures imbue the dark-hued, dramatic Symphony by the previously unknown to me Norwegian composer Finn Mortensen (1922-1983), enhancing a powerful and rewarding listening experience, so much so that I played and enjoyed it again immediately after my first hearing.

A restless, long-lined chromatic melody in the lower strings launches the Allegro Moderato. A gentle English horn solo then creates a moment of calm before a storm of prolonged, repeated thunderbolts, followed by a return to the grumbling opening theme. Finally, a solo flute breaks through the gray clouds with a ray of sunlight and the movement ends in radiant glory.

The Adagio continues the pervading noir-ness, a gripping musical counterpart to the popular, bleakly brooding Nordic detective novels. The scherzo, marked Allegro Vivace, alternates dancing, light strings and woodwinds with heavy, ponderous brass and percussion. In the final Allegro Moderato, an aggressive fugue leads to the English horn melody of the first movement, now transformed into a triumphant concluding brass chorale.

This tempestuous, late-Romantic music receives a full-blooded performance from the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Peter Szilvay, who first fell under the Symphony’s potent spell as a teenage violist performing it with a Norwegian youth orchestra. At only 37 minutes, this CD may seem less attractive than the two other CDs of the Symphony, both of which include additional Mortensen works; nonetheless, this splendid recording of this splendid symphony is well worth your consideration.

06 Chambers coverKenneth Newby – Chambers: Emergence Trilogy Volume 1
Flicker String Quartet; Flicker Ensemble
MP3-320 digital edition, CD Baby, Spotify, iTunes, Apple Music (flickerartcollaboratory.org)

A member of the Computational Poetics research group, British Columbia composer-performer, media artist and senior researcher at UBC’s Centre for Culture and Technology, Kenneth Newby’s music is not well known among the general audience on this side of the country. Newby’s music uses computational techniques in combination with acoustic ones, marked by his training in classical and improvised musics, as well as his extensive music studies in Bali and Java during the 1980s. His current work involves interdisciplinary collaborations in the creation of audiovisual installation works that represent complex images of multicultural identity. The composer writes that his Emergence Trilogy is “the culmination of a five-year research-creation process that involved the formulation of a personal theory of music which guided the development of a set of generative processes for music composition...”

Consisting of 23 primarily aphoristic tracks, Chambers is the first album of Newby’s Emergence Trilogy, the other albums being Elegeia, and Spectral (Golden) Lyric, also available for download. The works are performed with precision and panache by the Flicker String Quartet and Flicker Ensemble. For Mingus is Newby’s longest composition at just under ten minutes. It is also the most varied texturally and timbrally. It prominently features the double bass – as one might expect given the title – the prepared piano, a lacey battery of bells, bowed cymbals and other metal percussion, plus an inventive use of winds. The pointillistic texture is revealed over time via a motoric rhythm, lending the colourfully orchestrated work an attractive forward momentum. For Mingus exhibits several facets of Newby’s advanced transcultural musical aesthetic where echoes of gamelan mingle successfully with Edgard Varèse and John Cage. It certainly deserves to be more widely heard and performed.

Listen to 'Kenneth Newby – Chambers: Emergence Trilogy Volume 1' Now in the Listening Room

07 Music for Empty EarsSeán Mac Erlaine – Music for Empty Ears
Seán Mac Erlaine; Jan Bang; Eivind Aarset; Sadhbh Ní Dhálaigh
ergodos ER28 (ergodos.ie)

Music for Empty Ears gives the perfect hint to what you are about to hear on this new release by Dublin-based woodwind instrumentalist, composer and producer Seán Mac Erlaine. It comes as no surprise that he was noted as one of the most progressive musicians of his generation in Ireland – his music is truly unique. On this album, Mac Erlaine collaborated with two Norwegian artists, live sampling pioneer Jan Bang and guitarist Eivind Aarset. Together, they have created a sonic story that will play with your perceptions of time and space, and make your ears beat with pleasure.

I was immediately taken by the first track on this album, Winter Flat Map. The music ushered me into the post-apocalyptic space of pulsating sound waves, enriched with ethereal clarinet lines. This tune was followed by The Melting Song, featuring tranquil vocals (the fantastic Sadhbh Ní Dhálaigh) and gentle minimalism. And so the journey begins into the world of Mac Erlaine. Although sparse at times, the music is so richly textured that one truly needs to start listening with empty ears or, rather, without any preconceived notion or expectations. Layers upon layers are laid down with a variety of woodwind instruments, electronics, guitar, keyboards and vocals, creating a world of wonders, surprises, haunted melodies and melancholic impressions. This album is a gem.

08 Stephen AltoftRASP (trumpet in 19 divisions of the octave)
Stephen Altoft
Microtonal Projects MPR008 (microtonalprojects.com)

Stephen Altoft is an explorer who draws maps of musical terrain with his trumpet. The title track, his own composition Rasp, is a slow motion expansion from a breathy hiss to an intense broken buzz, like an angry housefly on a window pane. The logic of the progression is as stark as the material itself: a fearless opening statement and sensible at the same time, announcing to the listener “this is what I work with.”

The following tracks (especially the tenth, Studie by Manfred Stahnke) demonstrate the microtonal potential of Altoft’s remarkable customized trumpet. An extra valve and tubing permit him to divide the scale into 19 pitches without the guesswork of constantly adjusting a tuning slide mid-phrase. The effect is both comforting and disconcerting: one hears unusual pitches securely nailed instead of groped for, and wonders if one is hearing the “normal” tuned notes or the “altered.” And that’s the point, I believe – to re-normalize the various tunings that equal temperament has hidden behind its bland reductiveness.

I’d love to better understand the effects produced on many of the tracks. Electronics play a significant role in some, including the MalletKat, a digital marimba. Despite a promise on the jacket, I could unearth no information on the site about the 11 different composers or their pieces. Nevertheless, the succession of short pieces (none more than eight minutes, most five or less) provides a fascinating trip through this new (or forgotten) country.

Listen to 'RASP (trumpet in 19 divisions of the octave)' Now in the Listening Room

09 PipaOn & Between – New Music for Pipa & Western Ensembles
Lin Ma; Zhen Chen; Various
Navona Records NM6146 (navonarecords.com)

In On & Between, composer and pianist Zhen Chen weaves the musical tale of a Chinese immigrant newly arrived in America. Employing conservative tonal language and instrumentation (except for the pipa, the Chinese lute), the work deftly demonstrates Chen’s bicultural sensibility.

In a recent China Daily.com.cn interview, pipa soloist Lin Ma outlined the work’s narrative. “The pipa is the main character [threading] through the whole album,” Ma explained. “It stands for a Chinese girl who just came to New York City. She wandered, struggled and went through phases of growth. After years, she finally gained a foothold in the new land.” It sounds quite cinematic, and the music would be effective at the movies.

Several times in the suite Chen quotes the well-known English horn melody from Dvořák’s Symphony No.9 “From the New World” (1893), composed while Dvořák worked in the USA. In 1922 it was adapted for the song Goin’ Home by Dvořák pupil William Arms Fisher. For Chen it represents the “respect and sense of promise the United States [has] in the hearts of new immigrants.”

It’s interesting to note that Chen’s setting of the melody owes as much to neo-Romantic 20th-century Chinese patriotic compositions for Western orchestra such as the Yellow River Piano Concerto, as much as it does to Fisher’s song with lyrics cast in dialect and Dvořák’s original setting.

Then there’s my favourite track, Cocktails. It features just Ma’s cantabile pipa playing and Chen’s grand piano, effectively evoking a sophisticated, languid hybrid pipa-spiked-lounge jazz-meets-Satie atmosphere.

01 Eve EgoyanMaria de Alvear: De puro amor & En amor duro
Eve Egoyan, piano
World Edition 0033 (world-edition.com)

It’s been over 20 years since Canadian pianist Eve Egoyan gave the North American premieres of De puro amor (Of Pure Love) and En amor duro (In Hard Love) by Maria de Alvear. After hearing those performances, de Alvear, an innovative Spanish composer, performer and multimedia artist, composed three works for Egoyan. In 2001 Egoyan recorded one of those, Asking. Now, on this stunning new two-disc set, come De puro amor and En amor duro.

In her scores, de Alvear likes to give performers the freedom to make decisions about elements as fundamental as rhythm, metre and dynamics. With her fearless imagination, boundless sense of adventure and brilliant technique, Egoyan pushes beyond what seems possible on the piano. Floating melodies, expressive rhythmic shapes and ringing intervals plucked from the harmonic series weave a contemplative mood in both works, though disruptive undercurrents do intermittently surface.

De Alvear is a charismatic figure in the world of experimental music, especially in Germany, where she now lives. But her music is so personal that it either speaks to you or it doesn’t. For me, it does. I love the honesty, the passion and the openness, which lead her to colourful titles like Sexo and Vagina to evoke the more intimate aspects of love.

This set features drawings by de Alvear’s sister and frequent performance partner, Ana de Alvear, and booklet notes by Tim Rutherford-Smith, who has just published a groundbreaking book on contemporary music, Music After the Fall.

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