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.

02 BozziniGyula Csapó: Déjà? Kojâ?
Quatuor Bozzini
Collection QB CQB 1821 (actuellecd.com)

Founded in 1999, Quatuor Bozzini are distinguished interpreters of contemporary repertoire, including fine recordings of John Cage, James Tenney and Steve Reich. Here they present a particularly challenging work, a three-part, 73-minute piece composed between 2011 and 2016 by Gyula Csapó, a Hungarian composer currently teaching at the University of Saskatchewan. His music suggests the influences (including scale and depth) of Morton Feldman and Arvo Pärt. Csapó’s brief note about this work is dauntingly abstract (“event-fossils,” “fractals”), but the core is in the title, Déjà? Kojâ? part French, part Persian: “Already?” is easy. “Kojâ?” comes with a poem that suggests “Threshold” as the crucial sense, and that this world is a threshold, the beginning of another experience or existence, a step both inevitable yet deferred.

The work is monumental, developing thick, often dissonant textures. Its long first section is anchored to a repeating oscillation, brief but slow, between low-register cello and viola and high, reedy violins. Seconda Parte is more varied, adding other sonic devices, including moving the contrast of registers to pizzicato lows and whistling harmonic glissandi from the violins. Terza Parte eventually expands the oscillating figures into a still minimalist, but gradually evolving melodic shape.

It’s a demanding work, a dark reverie that suggests anticipation while dramatizing its delay, a sombre meditation shot through with bright highs that are themselves dissonant. At once static and tumultuous, this is depth experience, rewarding all the attention one can give it.

03 Tymoczko Rube GoldbergDmitri Tymoczko – Rube Goldberg Variations
Flexible Music; Atlantic Brass Quintet; Amernet String Quartet
Bridge Records 9492 (bridgerecords.com)

Mid-career American composer and music theorist Dmitri Tymoczko’s music exhibits an attractive blend of jazz, Romanticism and rock, as well as influences from film and cartoon soundtracks. Demonstrating sonic imagination and frequent nods to past composers, his work appears to be equally at home in the American concert hall modernist and popular music streams, a compositional style which has been dubbed polystylistic.

Rube Goldberg Variations, the central work on this album, refers both to a certain J.S. Bach keyboard work, and to the American cartoonist known for his illustrations of machines designed to perform simple tasks in baroque, convoluted ways. The four-movement, 19-minute Variations is scored for brass quintet and prepared piano. In its movement titles Tymoczko refers to his musical ancestor Igor Stravinsky, to kinetic sculpture and to his experiences of fatherhood. Rhythmically and sonically engaging, the prepared piano part in the first movement, To a Leaf, refers to its inventor John Cage. The brass quintet flutters along with idiomatic fanfare-like wind polyphony contrasted by contrapuntal brassy sustained chords. Stravinsky Fountain is another effective movement, with its shards of jazz in a syncopated early-20th-century style, and references to the dedicatee composer’s adoption of it in his concert works. This single movement is a satisfying complete musical statement.

The other album works, S Sensation Something (string quartet and piano) and I cannot follow… (chamber ensemble), are more conventional in instrumentation and form. They are not however without the melodic invention and easygoing charm with which Tymoczko brands his mature scores.

Back to top