02 ShoujounianNoravank: Petros Shoujounian – String Quartets 3-6
Quatuor Molinari
ATMA ACD2 2737

Composed to mark the centenary of the Armenian genocide, Noravank’s title is derived from a homeland monastery that was Petros Shoujounian’s inspiration. Its 14 sections, divided into string quartets of three, three, three and five movements, are symbolically named after rivers and are based on liturgical chants.

Quartet No.3 was the most affecting for me, through its tiny echoes of melodies and treatments heard in Morricone’s Gabriel’s Oboe and Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel; it concludes with the provocative Dzoraget. The contradictions of Quartet No.4’s depressive second movement, the energetic third and Quartet No.5’s lamentoso first movement brought to mind the power of nature and the current plight of evacuated Fort McMurray folks – if that’s not the musical equivalent of theological proof-texting. The balance of Quartet No.5 and all of No.6 more overtly reflect the influence of eastern folk songs, both in the keys and the lilts they comprise. Another memory of song, from Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude in D-Flat Major No.15 Op.28, is heard in the onomatopoeic burbling waters of the Vedi.

This CD was suggested to me, a Pärt fanatic, as a possibly similarly contemplative recording. While these aren’t tracks for mindful meditation, there is an introspective quality to all the movements. Maybe the invoked theme of migration is apt, after all: fires, oppression, the liturgical life – these all involve movement and change. But this introvert was soothed rather than discomfited via the talent of the Quatuor Molinari, who commissioned this work that is ultimately about renewal. Fine liner-note editing and the eponymous cover photograph round out a very marketable product.

03 Finding a VoiceFinding a Voice: The Evolution of the American Sound
Walden Chamber Players
Independent (waldenchamberplayers.org)

Review

This new disc from the Walden Chamber Players features compositions which might be described as the linking species of the American music family tree. Ably performed here are works by little-known composers (Marion Bauer 1882-1955), lesser-known works by composers well known (Aaron Copland’s Threnodies), and works by modern composers who write close enough in time to us that they might remain in our blind spot (Ned Rorem).

Rorem is best-represented here, and rightfully so – after all, he is a still-living and underappreciated American composer whose healthy sense of deference to American musical heritage is best exemplified by his Ives-tinged The Unquestioned Answer (2002). But it is actually Virgil Thomson’s ghost that looms largest over this recording. In the middle of the 20th century, Thomson achieved more infamy as cantankerous critic than fame as a composer. As far back as 1944, he took aim at the cult of the warhorse, noting that “the enjoyment and understanding of music are dominated in a most curious way by the prestige of the masterpiece.” In that same essay, he wrote, “this snobbish definition of excellence is opposed to the classical concept of a Republic of Letters.”

These words could serve as this disc’s manifesto; it demands that we re-evaluate these works which might have otherwise been lost to the murk of history. They may not be capital-M masterpieces (whatever that actually means), but they are nonetheless worth hearing.

04 FinnissyWAM
Michael Finnissy; Michael Norsworthy
New Focus Recordings FCR157 (newfocusrecordings.com)

While it may not move you to tears or laughter, the music of Michael Finnissy should hold you in a kind of rapt fascination, like an elaborate mechanism with multi-coloured parts moving according to mysterious laws. This new release features American clarinetist Michael Norsworthy. The composer provides the piano accompaniment; also performing are violinist William Fedkenheuer and the New England Conservatory Wind Ensemble.

Brief liner notes by the composer offer some helpful information: his substantial Clarinet Sonata unfolds calmly, the piano part presenting a cantus firmus derived from a late Beethoven piano sonata (Op.110). There is no obvious link, but each bar of the original is presented in retrograde (but presumably in the original order) while the clarinet line swans about lazily above. The second track, for E-flat clarinet, two pianos and two bass drums, uses a chance element: though the material is defined, its synchronicity is not. The E-flat colour is shocking; one at first wonders if Norsworthy has forgotten his better reeds at home.

Track three introduces cat screeches (yes, literally) and still more chance elements. I do believe my allergies were acting up so I found it hard to concentrate. I kept waiting to sneeze at the next feline interjection. As cute as the kitties are, I preferred the jazzy final track with wind ensemble: Giant Abstract Samba is fun.

Just as Finnissy recomposes  Beethoven earlier, on the title track his musical source is Mozart. He obviously has no fear of vengeful ghosts seeking him out. WAM moves the performers on- and offstage, a theatrical effect somewhat diluted on record. You’ll hear the violin and later the clarinet at a distance at different moments. I have no idea what it all means, but it’s…fascinating.

05 Sirius QuartetPaths Become Lines
Sirius Quartet
Autentico Music AMCDA00004 (autenticomusic.com)

Far from being a spin-off or a clone of the Kronos Quartet, the Sirius Quartet is a fiercely – individually and collectively – creative ensemble that explores an aural landscape with no definable borders. Violinists Fung Chern Hwei and Gregor Huebner, violist Ron Lawrence and cellist Jeremy Harman are composers who worship at the altar of creativity. These are musicians who enter the very grain of the wood of their instruments, emerging after being subsumed in the mysterious vibrations of the air within. Wave after wave of sound forms rippling tonal colours that come alive swathed in the timbres of their instruments. Each time their music is heard one can’t help being impressed by their devilishly good virtuosity.

The present recording offers ten classic selections – including a four-part suite – from recent, original repertoire and also furnishes further evidence of the development of the ensemble as they mine an impossibly deep world where jazz meets the classics. Alongside the high spirits of Huebner’s Racing Mind, for instance, a profound contemplative tone is struck in Huebner’s composition, The Wollheim Quartet, a remarkable piece of visceral drama as well as sweetness of tone, with superbly poised rhythm in its Presto movement. Harman’s Paths Become Lines bursts out in expansive chords and heaving with thick-textured agitation before the music builds into a heated climax. And that is just the beginning of a disc full of excitement and drama.

06 Tower MusicTower Music – Bertolozzi Plays the Eiffel Tower
Joseph Bertolozzi
Innova 933 (innova.mu)

American composer/percussionist Joseph Bertolozzi’s Tower Music is the culmination of a ten-year project to “play” Paris’ Eiffel Tower using various percussion mallets, etc. The over 10,000 samples recorded live by contact microphones were then reduced to 2,800 descriptively named sounds which he then used to compose the nine exciting tracks. Bertolozzi stresses that only tones made by playing the actual surfaces of Eiffel Tower are heard, and that no added effects were utilized.

The to-be-expected rhythmic percussive sounds are heard on A Thousand Feet of Sound and the jump-up-and-boogie grooves of Tower Music. A big surprise is the range of pitches and dynamics comprising the ear-worm melodies of the lilting waltz Elephant on the Tower. Especially intriguing is Evening Harmonies, in which the composer abandons rhythmic and melodic compositional traditions and lets the Tower play for its own sound sake. The rich sonorities and soundscapes of this composed yet free-improvisational-feel-piece turn the Eiffel Tower into a musical instrument of inherent deep tone, abrasive power and wide dynamic range. An informative bonus track has Bertolozzi explaining the ins and outs of the recording, production and details of this project.

This is more than just a raised eyebrow joie de vivre sound installation. Bertolozzi is a sensitive musician attuned to quality sound production and dynamic rhythmical nuances. His compositions are concise, clear and accessible. There are plans for a future live performance. For now, listen and enjoy!

01 IntersystemsIntersystems
Intersystems
Alga Marghen Number One (forcedexposure.com)

Intersystems’ outer limits musique concrète began as the soundtrack to the suitably named “Mind Excursion” event at the University of Toronto in 1967. This immersive environment filled ten rooms with sights, sounds and smells for a sensory overloading psychedelic experience.

The team behind this “electrosonic presentation” was sculptor Michael Hayden, architect Dick Zander, electronic composer John Mills-Cockell and poet Blake Parker. Over the next two years, Intersystems masterminded a series of similarly mind-massaging installations along with three albums, now lovingly enshrined in this lavish box set from Italy’s Alga Marghen.

The reproduced sleeve of 1967’s Intersystems Number One credits Mills-Cockell’s “musical visitations” and Parker’s “chaste mouthings,” as introduced on the immortal Orange Juice & Velvet Underwear. Scraping strings and hypnotic drones propel Parker’s deadpan conjuring of “gentle boys,” “smells of oranges” and “marmalade on velvet.” As Nick Storring offers in his essay, “it may be the most typically capital-p Psychedelic cut of their entire catalog,” but simply sets the scene for what’s to come.

Parker’s blending of the sensual with the surreal and the banal never quite becomes clear in the shimmering subaquatics of Intersystems’ debut. Sonic equivalents of his Burroughsian cut-ups are John Cale’s The Gift, Throbbing Gristle’s Hamburger Lady or the foghorn oration in an ocean of din from Bill Exley of the Nihilist Spasm Band (later signed to Intersystems’ label Allied Records on Hayden’s suggestion.) Parker’s poetry is far more kitchen sink, yet its power is felt subliminally, changing the temperature in any room where it’s played.

As Mills-Cockell explains in his essay, a device called “The Coffin” created the ominous acousmatics of Intersystems Number One. This satin-lined box was the resting place for piano wire, tuning pegs and contact mics to switch between ghostly samples like a radio station from beyond. By 1968’s Peachy, he had become one of Canada’s earliest owners of a Moog Mark II synthesizer, voyaging even further out.

Peachy opener Experienced Not Watched is comparable to the prog fantasias of Mills-Cockell’s later project Syrinx, but proves to be another fakeout. Intersystems’ masterpiece flows through a jump-cut collage of sputtering sound effects, orchestral swells and Parker’s disembodied Dalek buzzing. Their final album, Free Psychedelic Poster Inside, amps up the agitation with lobe-slicing sine waves and seasick stereo pans, alongside the story of a “plastic” couple on the brink.

Emerging from this spawning pool, Mills-Cockell’s Moog would be employed by the likes of Kensington Market, Bruce Cockburn and Anne Murray. He would see brighter lights, but these avant-garde origins deserve a flashback. Nearly 50 years later, the remastered LPs are packaged with 132 densely packed pages of images and essays, finally giving listeners the chance to lucidly experience Intersystems’ mind excursions in the mind’s eye.

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