07 Drew WhitingIn Lights Starkly Different
Drew Whiting
Innova Recordings innova 032 (innova.mu)

American saxophonist Drew Whiting’s wide-ranging musical expertise performing on soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones, combined with his interest and dedication to contemporary electronic music, make his release featuring seven recent sax/electronics compositions memorable.

In Lights Starkly Different, composer Robin Julian Heifetz created loud and hyper-digital sounds using REplayPLAYer software and later processed with GRAM Tools. Chance and notation drive the piece as the tenor saxophone’s fast flourishes and tones ground the background electronic crashing, echoes and intense atonal effects. More unsettling sounds in Ed Martin’s Break, as Whiting plays baritone loud/soft contrasts, wailing atonalities and pitch slides against intense electronic washes and crashes. In Ötzi (named after a 5,000-year-old mummy) composer Alexis Bacon’s recorded rocks and metal noises make eclectic clicks, crashes and walking sounds against the tenor sax. 

For the Fallen, by Judith Shatin, has its slower, lyrical, emotional soprano sax lines lock into electronics created from recordings of Italy’s Capana dei Caduti (Bell for the Fallen). Love the multiple contrapuntal saxophone lines in John Mayrose’s Random Access, as Mayrose uses live electronics to layer Whiting’s alto sax (stored in RAM) for effects. In Jeff Herriott’s As brightness is smeared into memory, the reflective romantic soprano sax part is closely connected to electronic washes. Nathan Edwards’ Saudade Study, with tonal ambient tenor sax and delay/reverb effects is sad, thought-provoking emotional moods music.

This is contemporary music at its best as Whiting breathes and plays saxophone in contrasting intensities and styles with diverse electronics effects.

08 Amanda GookinForward Music Project 1.0
Amanda Gookin
Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0135 (brightshiny.ninja)

It is the highest level of artistry that can realize a message, a story or an emotion while seeming to have not performed it at all. This was my takeaway from my introduction to cellist Amanda Gookin. 

Forward Music Project 1.0 is a collection of seven pieces for solo cello and electronics ranging in length from five to 12 minutes by seven culturally diverse women composers. I rarely found myself thinking of the stunning level of execution; I was so immersed in the inspired delivery of these seven miniature works of art. Beginning with Natalie Joachim’s Dam mwen yo, a picturesque blending of the voices of Haitian women lovingly embraced with cello, to the dynamic and powerfully joyous final track of Jessica Meyers’s Swerve, each work outlines themes of the cross-cultural injustice and suffering of women. From one track to the next I was moved by the stunning technique that beautifully unified the collection. Gookin keeps the unique and accessible collaboration on message by including the voices of the composers themselves, available as short descriptive introductions in their own voices on YouTube, thus keeping this album refreshingly free of ego. But the music itself warrants attention regardless of the storytelling. 

“For mothers. For sisterhood. For brave storytellers and quiet listeners. I sing, I gasp, I fight, I breathe life into the work of these fearless artists. I founded Forward Music Project for you. And you are not alone.“

I was woefully ignorant of Amanda Gookin before this inspired listen, but I have surely become among her greatest fans. A significant and most welcome collaboration for the times. 

09 Mark AbelMark Abel – The Cave of Wondrous Voice
David Shifrin; Fred Sherry; Hila Plitmann; Sabrina-Vivian Höpcker; Dominic Cheli; Carol Rosenberger; Sarah Beck
Delos DE 3570 (naxosdirect.com)

California-based composer Mark Abel explains in the liner notes that his father was a “devotee” of such classical chamber music composers as Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven and Dvořák, which clearly influenced his emotionally driven compositions grounded in modern and classical styles.

Abel is renowned for his vocal works. His exciting song cycle Four Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva features four Russian poems translated to English for the first time by Alyssa Dinega Gilliespie. Soprano Hila Plitmann sings with dramatic clarity, musicality, tuning and high pitches. Carol Rosenberger (piano) and Sarah Beck (English horn) support with technical/musical control as the words and music are one.

Diverse tonal and stylistic storytelling is featured in Abel’s chamber works. Intuition’s Dance features Rosenberger and clarinetist David Shifrin playing contrasting happy bouncy faster, and slower spooky lyrical sections. Cellist Fred Sherry joins them in the three-movement Clarinet Trio in which they each are almost soloists, especially in Taking Flight, with its energetic pulsing opening, and upbeat jazz-flavoured closing. 

Another wordless musical story suggesting “the subconscious mind’s journey through the course of the day” is The Elastic Hours, performed by violinist Sabrina-Vivian Höpcker and pianist Dominic Cheli. What Friday Brought opens with a positive end-of-the-work-week mood until stuff happens with moody tremolos, and held notes. Saturday’s Circumference is a driving tonal duet featuring intermittent happy toe-tapping and slower reflective sections.

Abel is a compositional master of intriguing contemporary music.

01 Bev JohnstonThe Spirit and the Dust
Beverley Johnston; Mark Djokic; Amici Ensemble
Centrediscs CMCCD 27920 (cmccanada.org/shop/cmccd-27920) 

Dubbed, “a champion of new, genre-busting works” (DRUM! Magazine), Canadian percussionist Beverley Johnston is a rara avis in this country: a percussion soloist with an international career. Over four decades Johnston has built an enviable reputation for her musically intelligent performances, her deft classical transcriptions sharing the stage with contemporary compositions and dramatic presentations. Her career highlights and honours have been too many to list here. 

In 1986 Johnston released her first solo album Impact (Centrediscs, JUNO Award nominee), followed by seven more, as well having appeared on numerous other recordings. Her newest, The Spirit and the Dust, features her signature instruments, marimba and vibraphone. She is joined by violin virtuoso Mark Djokic and the illustrious Amici Chamber Ensemble in six works by four prominent Canadian composers, Christos Hatzis, Richard Mascall, Norbert Palej and Dinuk Wijeratne.

The Spirit and the Dust for solo marimba by Wijeratne is a dual musical meditation, skillfully reflecting on themes of life and death inspired by world literature, as well as on the richly varied tonal palette of the marimba itself. Johnston reveals her vulnerable side in Palej’s dramatic yet intimate ser con Él (be with Him). She whispers and sings words of yearning for someone unnamed while simultaneously playing vibraphone. Two fragmentary Chilean texts are separated by five centuries, one by an anonymous Inca poet, the other by Gabriela Mistral. 

While the absence these poets suggest may only be an illusion, the musical and emotional landscapes Johnston evokes on this album feel only too real.

02 PEP CD Vol 3PEP (Piano and Erhu Project)
Volume 3
Redshift Records (redshiftrecords.org/releases/tk474/) 

The duo of erhu virtuosa Nicole Ge Li and contemporary music specialist, pianist Corey Hamm, known as PEP (Piano and Erhu Project), issued its first CD release in 2015, the second following soon on its heels. I reviewed both for The WholeNote, commenting that PEP’s core repertoire exemplifies a “fluid interplay between these two instruments, each an icon of its respective culture. Rather than an intercultural vanity project, their collective music-making focuses on polished, musically engaged readings of recently commissioned scores.”

PEP’s Volume 3 extends that project to nine richly varied compositions. The carefully curated collection includes international composers working in many of today’s classical music streams. In addition to two Canadian works by Lucas Oickle and Stephen Chatman, new compositions by Michael Finnissy (UK), Gao Ping (China), plus existing works by Sergei Prokofiev (Russia/USSR), his grandson Gabriel Prokofiev (UK), Somei Satoh (Japan) and Marc Mellits (USA) are on this rich smorgasbord.

The album gets off to a rollicking start with the percussive first movement of Chinese-born composer Gao Ping’s Hu Yan (2017). The work’s six sections are each characterized by contrasting techniques and moods. Pizzicato passages in both piano and erhu in the third movement are certainly arresting, as are the eerie finale’s final moments: bass piano clusters thud while the erhu holds a still, high vibrato-less tone. 

The album concludes with an arrangement of Sergei Prokofiev’s Scherzo from his Flute Sonata (1943), later arranged for violin and piano by the composer. Hamm energetically nails down the two-fisted piano accompaniment while Li handles her difficult erhu part with panache. She makes it sounds like the 77-year old work was written for her. It’s an espresso nightcap to PEP’s exhilarating program.

Listen to 'PEP (Piano and Erhu Project)' Now in the Listening Room

03 chiaroscuroJordan Nobles – Chiaroscuro
Various Artists
Redshift Records TK477 (redshiftrecords.org/releases/tk477/) 

Gentle pulse, deep echo, and the alluring heat of mirage; this is the mysterious sonic imagery evoked throughout the enchanting music of Chiaroscuroa new release by Canadian composer Jordan Nobles. Chiaroscuro is a term used in visual art referring to the careful use of light and dark to create the illusion of three-dimensional volume on a flat surface. Nobles’ brilliant use of instrumental colour does exactly that: the artifice of tone painting creating multi-aural brush strokes of vast hyper-chroma. 

Although the music seems to provide a static environment on the surface, a masterful and beautiful complexity unfolds beneath. It is a space propelled forward by shimmering strings, luminous harp flourishes, fluttering winds and vocal wisps – messages from another world that travel by wind to ear. Nobles treats the large instrumental forces with such care that one seems to forget that there are separate voices: the resultant amalgam presented as unified iridescence. The two pieces on the disc offer oceans of spiritual radiances for the listener – make the time and dive in. 

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