01 Jeffrey RyanJeffrey Ryan – My Soul Upon My Lips
Various Artists
Redshift Records TK469 (redshiftrecords.org)

A labour of love by Canadian composer Jeffrey Ryan, My Soul Upon My Lips is a collection of music for solo woodwinds ten years in the making. Two larger works with piano bookend eight short solo pieces for a full complement of instruments from the woodwind family. Ryan captures the essence of each instrument with the use of a variety of 20th-century techniques to masterfully explore a range of colours and emotion. Aside from the use of the usual winds from an orchestra, Ryan also employs the tárogató and the alto saxophone, adding a unique timbre not often showcased in classical music, making this albums’ repertory approach uniquely his own.

In close collaboration with individual performers, each piece has been tailored to play to the strength of their instrument and highlight its spectrum of possibility – ingeniously invoking feelings from haunting to celestial and everything in between. My Soul Upon My Lips is an emotionally inspirational collection of character pieces that gives first place in title to no one instrument, uniting all in a stylish reformation of 20th century form in a 21st-century embodiment. 

With a starry lineup of instruments and Ryan’s soaring imagination, these pieces are a welcome addition to any artist’s repertoire and would prove to be an engaging and exhilarating selection for a recital.

Listen to 'Jeffrey Ryan – My Soul Upon My Lips' Now in the Listening Room

Jan Järvlepp – Concerto 2000 and other works
Pascale Margely; Janáček Philharmonic; Zagreb Festival; Moravian Philharmonic
Navona Records nv6291
(navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6291)

Jan Järvlepp – Flights of Fancy: Chamber Works
Various Artists
Navona Records nv6323
(navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6323)

02a Jarvlepp 2000It is a pleasure to review two retrospective discs of music by Ottawa-based composer Jan Järvlepp (b.1953). Growing up, he played classical cello, popular music on several instruments and studied composition, then turned in a post-modern direction – incorporating influences from pop, jazz and Hispanic, Arab or Nordic folk styles. The disc Concerto 2000 includes orchestral music from the last 30 years while Flights of Fancy contains chamber music composed and recorded in the 1990s. Three orchestras, mostly Czech, were recorded for the former between 2017 and 2019. I am especially impressed by the title work, with outstanding flute soloist Pascale Margely. Each movement is characterized by a folk style: Caliente! with exciting flamenco rhythm, wood instruments and hand clapping is appealing; the atmospheric Nocturne, which evokes Arabic singing, is a deep, increasingly complex and tragic work. In Memoriam (2016) is a processional work for strings that I found solemn and dignified. Camerata Music (1989) is a highly successful minimalist composition, with a pentatonic string ostinato soon doubled at the fifth by a flute. This is an example of the pervasive parallelism that is a fingerprint of Järvlepp’s music. Here it produces interesting harmonies and occasional clashes with increasingly divergent motifs and phrases above, as the ostinato breaks up. Other instruments are added and the work builds well. The other tracks are more pop-influenced, including the recent Brass Dance (2018) in which parallelism applies to diminished chords and train-horn sounds. But though they are entertaining, for me the pop elements sound familiar and somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

Listen to 'Concerto 2000 and other works' Now in the Listening Room

02b Jarvlepp Flights of FancyFlights of Fancy: Chamber Works is the other current release. It opens brilliantly with Pierrot Solaire (1994), an extended tour de force that is clearly pop in derivation, but with substantial smooth and contrasting interludes led by the violin. Later, there is cross-cutting between shorter music segments, and towards the end instruments become frenetic virtuosos. A three-movement Saxophone Quartet (1996) is played by the excellent ensemble, Saxart. The opening movement, Cadillac, is a perpetual motion piece, blues-evoking and witty with virtuosic solo turns by each saxophone for contrast. Space does not allow for every work on this disc, but we must note that the versatile composer has played with and composed for many musicians in the Ottawa area, establishing lasting connections. He appears as electric guitarist on Tarantella (1996) and as cellist on Trio No.2 (1997). In the latter, flutist Margely and violist Kevin James join with Järvlepp in a piece whose opening movement achieves unique and beguiling combinations involving string harmonics. Another aspect of these chamber pieces is the composer’s adeptness with instrumentation for many different instruments, something that has facilitated his orchestral composing. In fact, though the chamber works are earlier than the orchestral ones, these two CD’s belong together – the working out of a long and productive compositional practice.

Listen to 'Flights of Fancy: Chamber Works' Now in the Listening Room

03 Taylor BrookApperceptions
Taylor Brook
Independent (taylorbrook.info)

Canadian-born, US-based guitarist/improviser/composer/lecturer and computer programming whiz, Taylor Brook, performs with a new “improvising colleague” in his self-described “music for human improviser with computer improviser.” He designed audio-corpus-based AI computer software which listened, analyzed and then improvised music to Brook’s preceding new music guitar improvisations.  

Brook tuned his solo electric guitar in a different just intonation tuning on each of the ten tracks. My skepticism vanished immediately as the slow reflective Track 1 E opens with held-note guitar string ringing being matched by the subsequent computer colours which develop into more dissonant intervals alternating with occasional guitar strums. Quiet, calming breaks, contrasting atonalities and surprising dynamic “duo” swells lead to a guitar and computer-generated blended final fade.  

Track 4 F#’s longer, faster guitar melody opening “inspires” ringing computer high tones matching the guitar’s lines which gradually unite to build musical tension. Attention grabbing guitar strums and repeated notes with computer echo ideas in the lower pitched intense Track 5 A+51 which are expanded with cymbal-like computer ringing in Track 6 Interlude

Track 8 G# is a welcome gentler contrast to the other tracks, as Brook’s virtuosic opening guitar playing is answered by high computer single notes and chordal rings. More guitar fun in Track 9 A as computer plucks match the real guitar ones!

As a free improviser myself, I am amazed at Brook’s fantastic creation of a computer program to interact with his live guitar improvisations. Looking forward to future duets expanding on these contemporary sounds.

04 Mirror Lysander Triomirrors – 21st Century American Piano Trios
Lysander Piano Trio
First Hand Records FHR11 (lysandertrio.com)

The formidable Lysander Piano Trio celebrates its ten-year anniversary with an attractive new disc, featuring music hot-off-the-press by living American composers. The trio is fervently committed to new music and to the commissioning thereof: no less than six world-premiere recordings populate this disc.

Ne’er to shy away from muscular playing and athletic feats of prowess, the members of Lysander crack on through these works (generally having been constructed with their triply impressive strengths in mind). The composers represented here do seem to ensure a freshness of concept, sometimes sojourning in new directions. Thankfully, the result is a 21st-century deliverance of the genre from the shackles of a 19th-century canon.

The extra musical inspiration throughout the record is notable. Reinaldo Moya’s Ghostwritten Variations has been inspired by four novels that highlight composers as protagonists, namely those of Thomas Mann, David Mitchell, Richard Powers and Kim Stanley Robinson. Moya’s piece offers a reimagining of what music by these four might sound like – a compelling conceit. The Black Mirror by Jakub Ciupinski turns to the visual arts for incentive, referencing a portable painting aid, curiously known as a “Claude glass.”  And Sofia Belimova’s brief, Titania and Her Suite, reaches our eyes by way of A Midsummer’s Night Dream.

Without doubt, a highlight of this release is Love Sweet by Jennifer Higdon, as sung by Sarah Shafer. The young soprano’s narrative abilities and refined vocal colour bring the new, five-song cycle to life.

05 Wang LuWang Lu – An Atlas of Time
Boston Modern Orchestra Project; Momenta Quartet; Ryan Muncy; Daniel Lippel; Miranda Cuckson
New Focus Recordings FCR277 (newfocusrecordings.com/catalogue)

Chinese-American composer Wang Lu’s works excite like a case of sudden-onset-fireworks display. Frenetic bombast prevails amid haunting breath-like interjections that induce enjoyable sonic nightmares of a welcome kind. This whirlwind of activity is ever-present throughout the composer’s latest release titled An Atlas of Time – a disc with recent orchestral and chamber compositions. 

The title track, performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, is modernist excitement at its finest. Set in five character pieces, this is the gem of the disc and provides compelling landscapes and novel environments for the ear. Another exemplary selection of the release is the solo violin work Unbreathable Colours, performed by Miranda Cuckson. This piece is Wang’s artistic response to the unrelenting smog encountered on a recent visit to China – her native land. The hesitant, yet sharp, plucks and swells in this work truly provoke a suffocating listening experience – one that brilliantly paints a simultaneously eerie and beautiful musical haze. 

Each piece on this release is an example of why Wang is one of the most original voices in contemporary classical composition, and each track unfolds with some of the most organic and strikingly enjoyable pacing in recent memory – I’ll be listening many more times!

Listen to 'Wang Lu: An Atlas of Time' Now in the Listening Room

06 Scott Lee Through MangroveScott Lee – Through the Mangrove Tunnels
JACK Quartet; Steven Beck; Russell Lacy
Panoramic Recordings PAN20 (newfocusrecordings.com/catalogue)

I was lucky to receive this album during the latest COVID-19 lockdown, as it provided a welcome escape from my own four walls. This album is great storytelling, an audio film of tales of imaginative discoveries by the composer growing up wandering the swamps and bayous of Florida. Drawn from Lee’s memories of exploring the Weedon Island nature preserve as a youth, from one movement to the next I was captivated. From the opening track, Through the Mangrove Tunnels, we are transported to a small craft, peeking around corners through overgrown channels, encountering the unexpected. This album is an expertly played audio escapade featuring pianist Steven Beck, drummer Russell Lacy and the JACK Quartet. 

Part historical narrative, and part personal reflection, Lee manages to engage the listener with his blend of contemporary classical and extended jazz techniques, travelling seamlessly between tonalities and polyrhythmic styles without a single extraneous or gratuitous beat. Each track is expertly crafted to tell a tale of mystery: from shootouts, strange figures, ceremonial Native American gatherings, bootlegging, plane crashes and marvellous natural phenomena, the accompanying stories are fantasmic sketches perfectly enhancing each gorgeous composition almost to the scale of Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals. The tracks Playthings of Desire and The Ballad of Willie Cole are both full compositions almost on their own, but presented here they remind us that although the album provides some entertaining and humorous listening, these are compositions of great depth. The final track, Floating Away, takes us home in a way that evokes the end of a long and mysterious voyage.

Be sure to get a hard copy or a download of the booklet if possible, and follow along with the stories, as this is an album that deserves to be experienced as we used to, when a composer shared a journey with us, and we stayed in one place to listen and receive it in full. Perfect lockdown listening.

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