11 Malcolm LipkinMalcolm Lipkin – Recollections
Various Artists
Divine Art dds 25202 (naxosdirect.com/search/809730520228) 

I first listened to chamber works by British composer Malcolm Lipkin (1932-2017) while studying music in Europe in 1982. I was strongly moved by his combination of traditional compositional sounds with touches of the modern. I do not remember what the works were, but this collection of seven compositions spanning 50 years of creation is fabulous and respectful.

Three remastered recordings from a 1986 Hyperion Nash Ensemble vinyl release are included. String Trio (1964) is well written with compelling fourth movement rhythms. Repeated tonal chord rhythms and strings above distant horn lines resound in Pastorale (1964), a work evoking its title’s traditional form. Clifford’s Tower (1977), commemorating a 12th-century York Jewish massacre, features scary jagged notes and rhythm patterns, harsh loud winds and contrasting calming held notes.

The four recent recordings contribute to Lipkin’s legacy. Prelude and Dance (1987) is his tribute to Jacqueline du Pré. Its tonal Prelude has interesting piano chordal pitch jumps and ascending cello runs. Dance is fun with subtle major/minor tonality shifts and high tinkling piano with repeated cello notes. The Journey (2016), a tribute to John McCabe, is delightfully played by John Turner on recorder, with memorable ornamental turns breaking up the colourful held notes. Naboth’s Vineyard (1982) and Interplay (1976) complete this over 80-minute long release.

Repeated listening adds to my appreciation, as the musicians all perform with thoughtful, precise musical detail. Lipkin’s works may be slightly old-fashioned but they are memorable.

Bang on a Can was founded in 1987 by three American composers who remain its artistic directors: Julia Wolfe, David Lang and Michael Gordon. During the current COVID-19 crisis, particularly devastating in New York City, the renowned Bang on a Can Marathon, a celebration of the best and latest contemporary music from the Big Apple, has migrated to the internet, morphing from an annual live event into periodic streaming blasts. There have been three six-hour iterations so far (May 3, June 14 and August 16) and plans are to continue these online activities until performances for live audiences can fully resume. You can stay apprised of future events at bangonacan.org

Michael Gordon – Anonymous Man
The Crossing; Donald Nally
Cantaloupe Music CA 21154 (cantaloupemusic.com)

Meredith Monk - ..M…EM..O.R…Y ….G.A….ME….
Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble; Bang on a Can All-Stars
Cantaloupe Music 21153 (cantaloupemusic.com)

Singing in the Dead of Night
Eighth Blackbird
Cedille Records CDR 90000195 (cedillerecords.org)

David Lang – Love Fail
Lorelei Ensemble; Beth Will
Cantaloupe Music 21158 (cantaloupemusic.com)

David Lang – Love Fail
Quince Ensemble
Innova 056 (innova.mu)

The human voice, one of the first instruments in our world (there are likely others, such as interstellar “noise”), has rarely been glorified in better circumstances than in the five recordings mentioned above. Perhaps this is because in all of the recordings in question the purest of sound – that of the human voice – has been pushed to both define exactly what it means to give praise to the arts melodically, harmonically and rhythmically. But each of these works also redefines polyphony – within the continuum of music – in the grand manner. Coincidentally (or perhaps not at all) members of the ineffably brilliant musical New York City cooperative, Bang on a Can, have been associated with each of the recordings and this means, of course, that you can expect the unexpected in the most sublime sense of the term.

Musicians such as Meredith Monk, Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon and David Lang are – together and separately – proverbial forces of nature. They represent everything that is transcendent about human vocalastics. Impossible leaps in register, manipulating breathing whether nasal, throat or diaphragmatic, weaving voices (using harmony and electronic manipulation) into diaphanous musical fabrics of breathtaking beauty or simply singing with lustrous simplicity and honesty are just some of their many phenomenal characteristics. And then there is the interpretation – or sometimes using the non-interpretation of the works to deliver the finest quality of music and musicianship – which catches us off guard. This is something that happens across all of the works and recordings in question. 

01 Michael Gordon

Michael Gordon’s Anonymous Man deals with the existential loneliness of community. The music describes both the discovery and effects that something like that could have on the human sensibilities. Gordon’s work comprises the music and accompanying narratives that, when sung solo or in ensemble, speak to the existential angst of Gordon’s character as the Anonymous Man. The music startles and the words constantly enliven it through their beautifully bizarre and almost neurotic sensitivity to feeling and experience. The musicians of The Crossing, conducted by Donald Nally, capture all of Gordon’s angst by investing the music with just the right amount of drama and emotion – which is also often delightfully deadpan. The textural light and shade of music in On That Terrible Beautiful Morning is perfectly judged in terms of both phrasing and intonation.

02 Meredith MonkMeredith Monk’s work on Memory Game is a traversal through the topographical landscape of the mind and is somehow viewed through the spatial and the horological. Just as you would need a small leap of imagination to see hour in horology, but could nail the meaning by envisioning the study of time and the art of making timepieces, in Monk’s case you are drawn forwards and backwards in time by playing the proverbial Memory Game. The members of Bang on a Can bring with them instruments to evoke a kind of musical séance in the fullest and most magical sense of things supernatural and brilliantly entertaining. In these nine pieces the listener is led slowly through subtly changing mental-musical scenery. There are often deliberately comical (spoken, sung and instrumental) effects. Slowly, like a brilliant jigsaw puzzle these brightly coloured musical fragments evoke a Memory Game that is dismantled and reassembled in constantly hypnotic patterns. 

03 Eighth BlackbirdThe eighth stanza of Wallace Stevens’ poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird describes metaphorical antecedents of the dizzying exploits of the ensemble Eighth Blackbird who make music by means of “…noble accents/and inescapable rhythms…” While not strictly speaking a vocal recording, the album, Singing in the Dead of Night, is certainly creatively and evocatively a singing one. Although it is David Lang, Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon of the formidable group Bang on a Can, who have splintered the iconic Beatles song, Blackbird, by reimagining it in five fractured segments of the original lyric in a somewhat darker realm than its original creation, Eighth Blackbird must also be credited with its most magical reconstruction. Instruments – specifically the exquisite manner in which they have been played – don’t simply recreate the whispers, murmurs, moans and groans of the human voice as well as the proverbial flutterings of the blackbird of the Beatles song, but, in fact, propel the music into a proverbial orbit. 

04 David Lang LoreleiFinally, David Lang’s deeply introspective almost operatic meditation Love Fail fuels the endeavours of two accomplished chamber groups – the Lorelei Ensemble and the Quince Ensemble. The release of both concurrently is probably a coincidence but to imagine that this fact may not do either release any favours would be a fallacy. Both releases are superb and recommend themselves for different reasons. The Lorelei’s a cappella version affects with a performance that is forthright and deeply moving; unravelling in the ensemble’s wonderfully flexible approach, creating imagery that befits something of great density and import as well as something delicate and light.

05 David Lang QuinceQuince Ensemble’s performance adds minimalist instrumentation and is equally profound, bringing wonderful shape and motion to the simpler pieces and musical clarity to the most dense. 

Together these five recordings offer a rare and uplifting musical repast in this time of great consternation and stress.

01 Samuel AndreyevSamuel Andreyev – Iridescent Notation
Dina Pysarenko; Maren Schwier; Ukho Ensemble Kyiv; Luigi Gaggero
Kairos 0015002KAI (kairos-music.com)

In this latest release from Canadian composer Samuel Andreyev (b.1981), the virtuosic Ukrainian Ukho Ensemble Kyiv and guest soloists expertly deliver a collection of chamber works that highlight an artistic voice of obvious contemporary importance – a voice well beyond its years in maturity and control of expressive intent. 

This disc begins with the title-track work, a piece in seven movements for soprano and ensemble, with text by well-known English-Irish poet Tom Raworth. Here, the strong ensemble writing expertly punctuates elegant beacons that complement the soaring soprano part remarkably well. The extended techniques (unusual ways of playing the instruments) used throughout are decidedly modernist in their application, but the utility of these procedures is not used merely for surface effect: the resultant atmosphere heightens the quality of the text setting through highly creative musical pronouncements. A big standing ovation must go to soprano Maren Schwier for an incredible display of vocal acrobatics and control of colour, in what is quite a challenging work for the voice. 

With a collection of works that make use of many impressive jagged gestures that never seem to disappoint despite their frequency, there is a brilliant moment of contrast on the disc in a piece titled Nets Move Slowly, Yet. This piece is mysterious and elegant as it unfolds throughout pulsing hypnotic panoramas. Expectations are not redirected through punchy instrumental interjections, but through abrupt yet gentle shifts in mood – a quality that produces beauty through lucidity. 

With a collection of successful and sophisticated works, it is no wonder Andreyev continues to make his mark on the contemporary music world. We all look forward to more exciting music from this young talent.


02 Jon Siddall BelvedereBelvedere
Jon Siddall
Independent (jonsiddall.com)

Veteran Vancouver-area composer, guitarist, pianist and music producer Jon Siddall from his website: “I write slow music. With my new album Belvedere I’ve returned to that approach. The music develops, but slowly, or maybe hardly at all.” Siddall’s music could also be tagged minimalist or experimental ambient, genres that Siddall has deep roots in: his teachers have included leading maverick composers James Tenney (York University, Toronto), Terry Riley and Lou Harrison (California).

Siddall plays four of the Belvedere tracks on electric guitar, electric bass, mandolin and electric piano. The fifth track, Hello Snowflake, is played on the gamelan degung of West Java, Indonesia performed by the eight musicians of Gamelan Si Pawit, Siddall’s Vancouver group.

Degung, a kind of tuned percussion ensemble, also features a solo suling (bamboo ring flute). In this score however, Siddall chose not to use the suling and kendang set (barrel hand drums), but rather adds two kacapis (plucked West Javanese zithers). The result: exclusively struck and plucked sounds which naturally decay each at its own rate, evoking a non-pulsed, unhurried, contemplative mood.

Siddall’s rock guitar background shines through in Bliss Curve and in the spacious Belvedere for electric guitar trio. Clementine Mandala, for vintage Fender Rhodes (electric piano), is constructed of a long ascending melody performed at different speeds, superimposed in various ways, a texture common also in gamelan music. The composer writes evocatively, “Belvedere – is a vista, a beautiful view [to leisurely contemplate]. This album … invites immersion into that space. It’s music for dreamers, music to dream with, music with which to awaken calm.”

03 Quisin NachoffQuinsin Nachoff – Pivotal Arc
Nathalie Bonin; Molinari String Quartet; Quinsin Nachoff; JC Sanford
Whirlwind Recordings WR4761 (quinsin.com)

Composer and saxophonist Quinsin Nachoff has been merging formal composition and an expansive jazz vocabulary since conjoining a string quartet and a jazz group on his 2006 debut Magic Numbers. However, the blurring of traditionally distinct musical categories has reached its high point in the three compositions heard on Pivotal Arc

The CD’s major work is Nachoff’s Violin Concerto for soloist Nathalie Bonin, a 46-minute work in the traditional three-movement format. Fusing elements of Berg and Stravinsky and occasionally reminiscent of William Russo’s music, the work is written in a heterodox personal idiom for an ensemble that includes the Molinari String Quartet, seven brass and woodwinds, and a jazz-based rhythm section with bassist Mark Helias, drummer Satoshi Takeishi and vibraphonist Michael Davidson providing special propulsion. Conducted by JC Sanford, the performance brims with life, with Bonin bringing a special animation to its tango and Balkan-suffused elements and a cadenza that mingles composed and improvised materials.

Nachoff’s String Quartet is filled with dense harmonies and sudden explosions, eschewing any immediate references to the elements of jazz. Each of the four movements is based on a different lead voice, the device contributing to each segment’s distinctive quality. The concluding Pivotal Arc, more traditional in its harmonic language, is also the piece that brings improvisation to the fore, from Helias’ elegiac arco solo to Nachoff’s own tenor saxophone oration, pensive, expressionist, rhapsodic by turn, whether etched in abrasive split tones or soaring highs.

Listen to 'Quinsin Nachoff: Pivotal Arc' Now in the Listening Room

04 Walter KaufmannChamber Works by Walter Kaufmann
ARC Ensemble
Chandos CHAN 20170 (chandos.net)

This, the first-ever CD devoted to the music of Walter Kaufmann (1907-1984), is the latest in the Music in Exile series by Toronto’s ARC Ensemble (Artists of The Royal Conservatory), showcasing unheralded composers who fled Nazi Europe. In 1934, the Czech-born Kaufmann left Germany, becoming director of European music for Bombay’s All India Radio, composing, conducting, playing viola and piano in chamber ensembles and researching Indian, Nepalese, Bhutanese and Tibetan music. Moving to Canada in 1947, he served as the Winnipeg Symphony’s first music director (1948-1958) before teaching ethnomusicology at Indiana University.

Although Kaufmann composed prolifically throughout his career, including six symphonies and over 20 operas, each piece on this disc dates from his years in India. String Quartets Nos.7 and 11 receive visceral performances from the stellar foursome of violinists Erika Raum and Marie Bérard, violist Steven Dann and cellist Thomas Wiebe. Raum and pianist Kevin Ahfat collaborate in Violin Sonata No.2; clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas and Ahfat perform Sonatina No.12 (originally for violin and piano); violinist Jamie Kruspe and cellist Kimberly Jeong join the ensemble in Septet for three violins, viola, two cellos and piano.

These are substantial works, in which plaintive solemnity alternates with emphatic, syncopated dances, all heavily imbued with Indian modal, melodic and rhythmic sequences. I found this engrossing mix of European and Asian traditions richly rewarding and hope that this superb CD will inspire more recordings of Kaufmann’s music. I’d love to hear them.

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