01 Night LightNight Light
Lara Deutsch; Phil Chiu
Leaf Music LM249 (leaf-music.ca)

Kudos to Leaf Music of Halifax for its confidence in these young musicians, flutist Lara Deutsch and pianist Philip Chiu. The program is built around the theme of dreams, which opens such possibilities, for example, including a work by Franz Schubert – Introduction and Variations on Trockne Blumen – in a program of music by contemporary composers. 

The disc opens with Takashi Yoshimatsu’s Digital Bird Suite, Op.15, the opening movement of which, Bird-phobia, described by Deutsch as “fiendishly challenging,” is at the nightmare end of the dream spectrum, but shows both consummate command of her instrument and her partner’s uncanny ability, despite the formidable challenges of his own part, always to be in sync with her. In the contrasting lyrical second movement, A Bird in the Twilight, their exquisite phrasing and consistent sensitivity to each other lift the notes off the page.

The dreamlike atmosphere is perhaps most eloquently expressed in the first movement of Jocelyn Morlock’s I Conversed with You in a Dream, which traverses the gamut from lyrical reverie to reality-defying pyrotechnics.

In the Schubert, Chiu reveals himself as a lieder collaborative pianist of stature, convincingly telling the story and revealing the atmosphere of the music. For example, his playing of the repeated quarter and two eighth note motif at the very beginning is full of eerie foreboding; you know at once that this is not going to end well!

Individually and as a duo Deutsch and Chiu are consummate interpreters, who move with the music, so to speak, and reveal the meaning behind the notes.

Listen to 'Night Light' Now in the Listening Room

03a Bozzini OesterleMichael Oesterle – Quatuors
Quatuor Bozzini
Collection Quatuor Bozzini CQB2229 (actuellecd.com)

Tom Johnson – Combinations
Quatuor Bozzini
Collection Quatuor Bozzini CQB 2230 (actuellecd.com)

Quatuor Bozzini has energetically championed the newest in classical music since 1999 in their Montreal hometown, on tour and on outstanding albums. Their mission is to cultivate risk-taking music, evident in the creation of an impressive commissioning program of over 400 pieces. Frequent collaborations with other musicians and cross-disciplinary projects have been another career feature. An example of an unusual collaboration, one that I took part in, happened in 2012 with the development of new concert repertoire with Toronto’s Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan, performed live and subsequently released on the album Higgs’ Ocean. The title track, scored for string quartet and gamelan degung, was by prolific mid-career Canadian composer Michael Oesterle.

Oesterle’s mature compositional style balances two late-20th- and early-21st-century streams: American minimalism and European postmodernism. The latter comes through in his exploitation of sonorities, formal, timbral and harmonic sophistication, allusions to historical Euro musics and an identifiable Oesterlean lyricism. This album’s four substantial string quartets offer an appealing balance between musical straightforwardness and complexity. Oesterle often generates drama from the friction between the idiomatic and the completely unexpected.

Daydream Mechanics (2001), which evokes the “awkward adventures of childhood when the backyard seemed as full of disturbing possibilities as any uncharted territory,” offers an example of Oesterle’s use of extra-musical inspiration. On the other hand the composer describes his Three Pieces for String Quartet as “three short pieces [composed with] modules drawn from a system of triangular numerical sequences….” I however hear surprisingly Renaissance- and Baroque-infused character homages to the three animals Oesterle titles each movement after: kingfisher, orangutan and orb weaver. 

03b Bozzini JohnsonAmerican-born composer and longtime French resident, Tom Johnson (b.1939), served as The Village Voice’s influential music critic from 1971 to 1983 covering the era’s exciting new classical music scene. The first to apply the term “minimalist music,” Johnson’s personal compositional style leans toward minimalist formalism. Quatuor Bozzini has collected his complete works for string quartet covering four compositions from 1994 to 2009 on this album. 

Dwelling on mathematic sequences and permutations of a limited core musical material, in Johnson’s hands the musical whole emerges satisfyingly greater than the sum of its lean components and intellectual procedures. Each relatively brief movement vibrates like a sonic poem. For example, the opening six-note motif of Johnson’s Tilework for String Quartet (2003) is transformed through his exploration of the myriad ways in which lines are “tiled using six-note rhythms,” relying on a computerized list of rhythmic canons. The composer helpfully adds, “Of course, composers, performers, and listeners don’t have to know all of this, just as we don’t need to master counterpoint to appreciate a Bach fugue… [because] music allows us to directly perceive things that we could never grasp intellectually.”

Performed senza vibrato, Quatuor Bozzini renders these scores with virtuoso precision along with warmth and a subtle lyricism, a winning combination I grew to appreciate after repeated listening.

04 India Gailey to you throughto you through
India Gailey
Redshift Records (indiayeshe.com)

Halifax-based cellist India Gailey’s first album includes a diverse mixture of contemporary composers, including a McGill colleague and a work of her own. Though sometimes sounding improvised, each piece is fully scored for cello, some with voice and occasionally multitracked with electronics. Gailey’s album flows like poetry, and she includes in her CD booklet descriptions of each track as a collection of thoughts and photographs that reads more like a journal, giving the collection almost a gallery setting, as if you could walk room by room to experience each work. Gailey’s writing includes personal reflections on her own feelings of place, being uprooted by the pandemic, emotions of disconnection and loneliness, the difference between a material home and feeling at home, and letting go of the perpetual search for a place to land.

While the album is an excellent introduction to Gailey’s breadth of skill as a cellist, the most outstanding tracks for me were the more recent works: compositions by Fjóla Evans, Yaz Lancaster and Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti. Gailey’s own 2020 composition Ghost, for acoustic cello and voice, is a delicate lament for the destruction of the Earth inspired by the Australian bush fires. Michael Gordon’s 2004 Light is Calling, written after the destruction of 9/11, is outstanding. Making use of stereo panning and seven layers of electronics plus cello, it encapsulates the climate of moving somewhere while staying rooted in place, much like our recent years, and ends with a sublimely organic deconstruction. If I could have a soundtrack playing the next time I am surfing a standing wave in a canoe, this would be it.

06 Mark EllestadMark Ellestad – Discreet Angel
Cristián Alvear; Mark Ellestad; Apartment House
Another Timbre at185 (anothertimbre.com)

Hesitancy, or possibly abstract detachment, might describe the communicative mode of Mark Ellestad’s Discreet Angel. Instead of passages, we are presented with spaces between notes, plucked one or two at a time by guitarist Cristián Alvear. At just over 20 minutes in length, this is the second longest work presented. I’m reminded of Linda C. Smith’s music, or Martin Arnold’s. A more active middle section buoys one along on something more like a quiet brookside walk in a treed ravine, following the sleepy spring dawn.

Sigrid features Ellestad performing this short work on Hardanger fiddle and pump organ. Disagreement between pitches seems almost to be the point of the thing, the reed organ tuned one way and the fiddle strings another. Underlying the plain chorale is the ceaseless counter rhythm of the foot pedals, pumping the organ’s bellows full. Imagine Ellestad bowing and pedalling simultaneously while elbowing the organ keys (or more likely overdubbing). It’s pretty and quirky.

In the Mirror of this Night, a duet for violin and cello, weighs in at nearly 46 minutes. Opening in a misterioso unison (well, in octaves) passage, the chant-like melody spins beautifully in tune, senza vibrato, then begins to refract into parallel pitches, sounding sometimes almost like the pump organ. It’s a workout for the attention span, or a soundtrack for meditation.

Canadian Ellestad (b.1954) abandoned composing for nearly 20 years; he wrote these pieces in the 1980s and 90s but never recorded them to his satisfaction. He’s now brought them to light, encouraged by the quality of performance of his collaborators. Kudos especially to Mira Benjamin (violin) and Anton Lukoszevieze (cello, as well as the cover art).

08 All Worlds All TimesAll Worlds, All Times
Bright Shiny Things BST-0167 (brightshiny.ninja)

It’s not every day woodwind quintet music will make you want to get up and dance. Seize this disc and the day, says me. Opening things, Theia from Apollo by Marc Mellits, almost literally bops from the get-go. The piece is moon-themed – modern and ancient references abound – but mostly it all feels like a set list of a really good and interesting dance band. If rhythm is their strong suit, pitch is not. The second movement, Sea of Tranquility, opens with intonation issues so glaring one is left wondering whether it’s intentionally spectral, but I doubt it. It’s a flaw that could have been addressed prior to releasing the recording. Chords do not settle, unisons clash. But carping aside, the music itself is just so darned chipper. The finale, Moonwalk, scoots along; if this was the pace those first moonwalkers took, I’m an Olympic sprinter. Toe-tapping fun. 

Composer and percussionist Ivan Trevino joins the ensemble for his Song Book Vol.3, and the dancing just gets better. The titles refer to singer-songwriters: St. Annie (St. Vincent) is really sweet. Byrne (David) captures that enigmatic manchild’s spirit. Jónsi (Birgisson, of Sigur Rós from Iceland) is better than the original, and Thom (Yorke) is, of course, the coolest.

Miguel del Aguila’s Wind Quintet No.2 matches the character of the rest of the disc, but it has less depth and seems more gimmicky. It’s nice to hear the voices of the instrumentalists chant alongside the flute melody in Back in Time, the first movement. (They sing in tune!)

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