It’s frequently noted that we are experiencing a golden age of string quartets: witness the Dover, Danish, Escher, and some dozen or more others setting the scene ablaze. Amidst a crowded field, the outstanding Attacca Quartet (amazingly, already in its fifteenth season) distinguishes itself with its headstrong embrace of contemporary fare. Their 2013 release of John Adams’ complete works for string quartet remains one of the most memorable chamber music albums in recent years.
The Attacca’s latest release is another portrait disc: Songlines features six works for quartet by the thirty-two-year-old American composer Michael Ippolito. Throughout the disc, the quartet plays with a bright, forward sound, well-suited to Ippolito’s language, luminous and direct.
The album begins on an evocative note with the title track. Ippolito’s String Quartet No. 3, “Songlines,” constitutes something of a modern-day equivalent to Beethoven’s Serioso Quartet, a distillation of Classical sonata form, designed for the edification of Vienna’s musical connoisseurs. In equally pithy fashion, Ippolito’s Songlines compresses a broad spectrum of techniques and ensemble textures into a single ten-minute movement. In the Attaccas’ hands, the work fluidly navigates a broad expressive range, from gravitas to soaring lyricism.
Much of the rest of the album grabs the ear with a similar immediacy and urgency of expression. The ethereal haze of Trace coalesces into a laser show of repeated chords; the breathless optimism of Big Sky, Low Horizon follows, offset by the lazy lilt of Smoke Rings.
The album’s center of gravity is the three-movement String Quartet No. 2, which reveals Ippolito’s incisive awareness of the quartet repertoire tradition. It is a muscular thing, marked by the dramatic vigor of Shostakovich, the taut expression of Bartók. It’s worth noting too that, far from specializing exclusively in new music, the Attacca Quartet can sling Haydn and Beethoven with the best of them. Their performance of Ippolito’s Second Quartet demonstrates, on the part of both composer and ensemble, a craft redolent of the masters, expertly deployed to emote something irrepressibly fresh.
Attacca Quartet | Michael Ippolito: Songlines
Azica | Released Feb. 17
Performers of the minimalist music pioneer, a series of works composed during that year, confront an eclectic shopping list: a fire, a butterfly (but any number will do), a bale of hay and a bucket of water (with which to feed the piano), possibly a whirlpool.
Materials assembled, there is then the matter of what to do with Young’s instructions, one per composition. A few of the compositions are more easily incarnated than others. “Composition #6” requests that the performers sit on the stage, watching the audience as audiences are taught to watch performers.
Some compositions require caution.“Composition #2” from La Monte Young’s Compositions 1960. (La Monte Young)
Others, patience.“Composition #5” from La Monte Young’s Compositions 1960. (La Monte Young)
“Composition #10” is a shrug and a wink.“Composition #10” from La Monte Young’s “Compositions 1960.” (La Monte Young)
#10, like all of the compositions, is open to interpretation. Here is one:
“Composition #7” is perhaps the most popular. It is the only one to require specific musical notes.“Composition #7” from La Monte Young’s Compositions 1960. (La Monte Young)
Here it is performed on a piano:
... and on a few other instruments.
Born in 1935 in a log cabin in Idaho, Young was raised by his father, a Mormon sheepherder. His first memories of sound were of the wind blowing through the cabin and, outside, the grasshoppers, which make an appearance in the composition titled “Piano Piece for David Tudor #3.”“Piano Piece for David Tudor #3.” (La Monte Young)
(Also up for interpretation.)
Young’s father and his aunt, a rodeo performer, introduced him to music, and he went on to pursue a graduate degree in composition at UC Berkeley. His formative musical experiences were with jazz, serialism, and Indian classical music. Cage’s philosophy of chance and indeterminacy, which Young learned about in a lecture by pianist and composer David Tudor at the Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music in 1959, also proved profoundly influential, and jumpstarted his work on Compositions. In a 2003 interview for New Music Box, Young also described Compositions 1960 as a “sociological reaction” against Berkeley, whose academic environment Young found restricting. In 1960, Young flew to New York to study with Cage and Richard Maxfield, and premiered some of the Compositions at Yoko Ono’s loft.
Around this time, he also presented some of his experiments, as well as work by Cage, Maxfield, and others, in a series of noon concerts at Berkeley that “kids were nowhere near prepared for.” “It was at that point ... that I began to realize how easy it is to manipulate an audience,” he concluded. Not all were impressed by his latest explorations: at a later performance of one of his works involving sustained displays of friction — dragging a gong against cement, for instance — his parents wept, devastated at the direction their son’s life was taking. Young had only begun to embark on a career that, as he himself has put it, “changed music forever”; Andy Warhol, Catherine Christer Hennix, and Lou Reed are among the many to have cited Young’s work, especially that involving sustained tones at high volumes, as an influence.
Today, Young lives and works in New York City with his partner, the visual artist and musician Marian Zazeela. His definition-defying work — the most notable of which includes the Well-Tuned Piano and the Trio for Strings, both of which draw on his fascination with drones in exceptionally slow motion — is performed worldwide. With Zazeela, he also opened the Dream House on Church Street, which you can visit on Wednesday through Saturday. Other current projects include the Just Alap Raga Ensemble, founded by Young, Zazeela, and their disciple Jung Hee Choi.
Few recorded examples exist of Compositions 1960, the full list of which is here. Perhaps because, for many of them, you had to be there:
Compositions gets audiences to ask questions. What is a performance? Who is performing for whom? How long is long? What is the piano’s relationship to the player? What is the potential in a grasshopper? (What are the fire safety regulations in this performance venue?) As usual, there are no right answers.
WQXR’s Artist-in-Residence program has hosted the likes of superstar soprano Deborah Voigt and New York Philharmonic principal clarinetist Anthony McGill. This year, WQXR has played host to the award-winning Brooklyn Youth Chorus with three shows in The Greene Space and served as a commissioning partner to Silent Voices — the Chorus' year-long initiative to address issues of social inequality through music-making.
For this chorus, led by conductor Dianne Berkun Menaker, singing is much more than just an after-school hobby; it's an opportunity and a calling.
Before the Chorus' final Greene Space concert this past March — celebrating the release of their first album, Black Mountain Songs — we spoke to a few members of the choir to hear about their individual journeys within the ensemble and how music has changed them.
With their trademark musical versatility, this advanced youth ensemble illuminates the story of North Carolina’s Black Mountain College — a progressive educational environment that housed great thinkers amidst the backdrop of the Jim Crow era. With the Chorus’ emphasis on social awareness and individual empowerment, each member has specific insights into what the music means to them and can mean to society at large.
Watch Q2 Music's album release party for Black Mountain Songs:
Iceland's Nordic Affect is a quartet comprised of violin, viola, cello and harpsichord. It's not-unusual instrumentation for Baroque composers like Telemann and Handel, but as a virtuosic vehicle for modern, field recording-colored music of Iceland's innovative and insular scene of composers, it makes for a sound unlike any other chamber ensemble out there.
Touring on the heels of their latest release Raindamage, the ensemble was recently a part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Reykjavík Festival, a celebration of Icelandic composers curated by Esa-Pekka Salonen and Daniel Bjarnason. We invited Nordic Affect in for intimate in-studio performances of Valgeir Sigurðsson's Raindamage and Úlfur Hansson’s Þýð (pronounced “Theeth”). The latter features an impromptu drone performance from members of the WQXR staff.
Nordic Affect is Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir, violin; Gudrún Hrund Hardardóttir, viola; Hanna Loftsdóttir, cello; Gudrún Óskarsdóttir harpsichord.
How do artists refresh and maintain their creative lives? Every week, one of our favorite artists will take over our Instagram to reveal his or her favorite forms of downtime and/or preparation. We then compile the takeover into a web feature for you! Follow the takeovers live on our Instagram account and catch the write-up from the latest feature below.
Brought together by their love of chamber music and the simple joy of playing together, Sandbox Percussion seeks out compelling collaborations with composers and performers.
Together, Jonathan Allen, Victor Caccese, Ian Rosenbaum, and Terry Sweeny have premiered works by Robert Sirota, Amy Beth Kirsten, Tonia Ko, David Crowell, Thomas Kotcheff and Alex Weiser, to name a few. Check out Sandbox Percussion’s favorite jams in the car, on the stage and on the plate.
April 10, 2017 – 11:53 am:
Sandbox Percussion is in Nashville today performing at Vanderbilt University. Prepping with some Dirty Projectors.
A post shared by Q2 Music (@q2music) on Apr 10, 2017 at 9:53am PDT
Soundchecking Chris Cerrone's Goldbeater's Skin at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music. Tonight is our first performance!
A post shared by Q2 Music (@q2music) on Apr 10, 2017 at 11:54am PDT
Sandbox Percussion says eat your veggies! That's what we do when nice people cook for us.
A post shared by Q2 Music (@q2music) on Apr 10, 2017 at 3:35pm PDT
Had such a great time in Nashville hanging with JiHye Lee and the percussionists of the Blair School of Music! Thanks Q2 Music for letting us take your insta today!
A post shared by Q2 Music (@q2music) on Apr 10, 2017 at 8:38pm PDT
These days, I find that I either want to engage with the news directly, getting a serious rage buzz on, or disengage completely by staring at photos of International Space Station repairs on the NASA app. How to wrestle with our current reality with the hues of gray that are necessary to inspire anything resembling a nuanced discussion? Well, since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, one composer has never disappointed in his attempt to ask just the right questions at just the right time, like a one-person Oblique Strategies deck.
Ted Hearne’s arms must be exhausted, carrying around that giant mirror that he so effectively holds up to the horrors and hypocrisies of modern life. And miraculously, he does so without soap-boxing, as is often the danger with music of this sort, “this sort” being Hearne’s new collaboration with Philadelphia’s The Crossing, led by Donald Nally. Sound from the Bench lays bare rape culture, Citizens United, military-sanctioned murder, and white privilege … somehow fusing entertainment and bewilderment, beauty and hideousness in a sonic space in which it is safe to laugh, cry, foam at the mouth and rejoice … all within an hour.
“Consent,” which launches this extraordinary album overlays the lines “I want to” and “I want you,” the texts extracted from Hearne’s personal love letters/texts and those of his father, as well as transcripts from the 2013 Steubenville rape trial. The intermingling of earnest professions of love with malicious ones exposes a central theme: all of these declarations are directed, imposingly, from the male perspective. The heart-rending outro is a cycle of the Catholic wedding phrase, “Who gives this woman?” Four words that I’ve heard hundreds of times, and yet in this context reveal themselves to be indisputably transactional. I’m late to that particular party, and happy to have been led there through such riveting music.
Hearne mines traditional harmonies across this album, not shying away from but exploiting the historical contexts of choirs and choral music, and The Crossing proves itself an ensemble of exemplary flexibility across the entirety of Sound from the Bench. Soak in the way this ensemble unleashes the word “money” in track four’s “(Ch)oral argument” or the delivery of “occupants” at 6’50” into “Ripple” (text surrounding the firing of marines on a vehicle in Fallujah). These aren’t just vocalists expertly executing challenging scores. It is more akin to watching an actor forgetting that they exist outside of this role. The ensemble, balance and tonal variety are choice, but the vocal embodiment of these often emotionally complicated themes is something quite rare.
The composer’s omnivorous musical tastes are on display here, especially with the eponymous “Sound from the Bench” suite, in which liturgical cadences bump up against proggy guitar interruptions and exuberant drum fills. The musical vigor of the writing plays trades with the rise of corporate power, illuminated here through Jena Osman’s poetry. It is exasperating and enthralling, and this alchemy, found throughout his music, leads me to believe that Hearne is one of the essential composers of our era.
Sound From the Bench: Ted Hearne and The Crossing
Cantaloupe Music | Released March 24
Ahead of the release of Béla Fleck’s new album Juno Concerto, the banjo virtuoso visited the WQXR studios to discuss his new project. He was joined by the string quartet Brooklyn Rider, who appear on three of the concerto’s companion pieces: Griff (Parts I and II) and Quintet for Banjo and Strings (Movement II).
Fleck’s recent release and music, Juno Concerto, was named for his son and commissioned by the symphonies of Canton, Colorado, Louisville and South Carolina. He is quoted in a Rounder Records post saying of the album, “Every note of the concerto is colored by the experience of being a new father, and how that has changed what is important to me as a person, as well as what I wish to express through music.”
During their Facebook Live interview, Fleck and Brooklyn Rider opened with Griff (Part I). The piece was written shortly after the birth of Juno, right before a tour. Fleck realized he had no new music to play. With Griff, he was hoping to “get better at connecting ideas more, and develop more ideas and not be afraid of my bluegrass past.” Take a listen below and hear how he did.
Thursday, April 13 at 7 pm, watch a livestream below from The Greene Space at WQXR as Vijay Iyer — the pianist-composer whose music is “at once provocative and accessible, intellectually substantive and sensually attractive” (Chicago Tribune) — shares the stage with a diverse array of musical collaborators. Helga Davis hosts.
Included on the program are solo piano music by Iyer, and duets with the dynamic drummer-composer Tyshawn Sorey and with Iyer's longtime performing partner saxophonist-composer Rudresh Mahanthappa.* Acclaimed violinist and champion of new music Jennifer Koh performs Esa-Pekka Salonen’s lyrical Lachen Verlernt, while George Lewis, the pioneering composer, scholar and member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, joins Ms. Davis on stage for a conversation.
*Rudresh Mahanthappa has graciously agreed to step in last-minute for trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith who was going to perform excerpts of his and Iyer's A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke, but who had to withdraw due to a back injury.
This event is presented in partnership with the 2017 Ojai Music Festival in California where Iyer is serving as music director, and where he will be joined by diverse artists, including the above, for a four-day festival of premieres and bold new music. For more information about the upcoming Festival, please visit www.ojaifestival.org.
On March 3, Malian kora player Ballaké Sissoko and French cellist Vincent Ségal performed selections from their improvisational 2015 release “Musique de Nuit” live at New York City’s French Institute Alliance Française. The program was co-presented with the World Music Institute as part of their Collaborations series.
Released on Six Degrees Records, “Musique de Nuit” was originally conceived in two sessions on a rooftop in the Malian capital of Bamako. The duo had previously toured together in support of their debut “Chamber Music.”
The music, as noted on Six Degrees’ page, “draws on the ancient well of West African troubadour songs, the rich heritage of Baroque music, and an elusive but somehow clearly modern sensibility.”
Listen to the full performance at the top of this page.
German percussionist Peter A. Bauer created a simple — dare we say minimalist — tribute to Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Titled “80 Years in 80 Bars,” the audio-visual project features some sketching, ideophones and samples of Glass and Reich music.
The video features a hand sketching the number “80” — the age of both Glass and Reich in 2017 — in time with the steady pulse of vibraphone, marimba and piano. Bauer then introduces a single measure of Reich’s seminal 1967 composition Piano Phase as an additional musical layer. Next up is a bar from some of Glass’ ominous “Koyaanisqatsi,” a track from the soundtrack for the 1982 film of the same name. 80 bars after it begins, the mesmerizing music comes to a halt, tempting you to just play it again.
The short-lived, legendary Black Mountain College was a bold educational experiment and the epicenter of a mid-century explosion of creativity in American arts. It was a ground for cross-pollination between avant-gardists in every medium. On its campus, the collaborations of John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Raushenberg, Charles Olson, David Tudor and others helped cultivate a new energy that would transform 20th-Century art.
Black Mountain Songs, a new, collaborative choral song cycle curated by Bryce Dessner and Richard Reed Parry, certainly gives off waves of energy. But these composers, and the others they have brought onboard the project, pursue a far more lucid aesthetic than that of, say, a John Cage circa 1952. Dessner and Parry are both rock stars as well as composers – Dessner celebrated for his work as guitarist with the National, and Parry as a multi-instrumentalist in Arcade Fire – and it may be, in part, their firm grounding in the musical vernacular that keeps Black Mountain Songs so seemingly simple and direct.
It may also be – again, in part – the forces they have written for this time around. The Brooklyn Youth Chorus, under Dianne Berkun Menaker, sings each of these numbers with the light, rounded sound of young voices, warmed with gentle vibrato and brightened by idiomatic American diction.
But Parry and Dessner have also written far denser, less song-like scores, as have the half-dozen composers who have joined them for this project, including Tim Hecker, Nico Muhly and Caroline Shaw. And the Chorus is capable of singing with great subtlety and precision, as demonstrated in their easy mastery of some of the rhythmic challenges thrown their way here.
More likely, the folkish clarity of the writing in Black Mountain Songs stems from a desire to make the piece as much fun to sing as possible. John King's ars imitatur naturam and Alexandra Vebralov's Bubbles aren't so much simple as simply entertaining, and one suspects that the pleasure of singing these wild, energetic scores must extend to these young performers as surely as it does to the audience.
Listen to the album and watch last week's entire album release party from The Greene Space featuring a special appearance by Richard Reed Parry below.
Brooklyn Youth Chorus: Black Mountain Songs
New Amsterdam Records | Rel. March 30
Playing John Zorn’s Cobra is akin to playing Monopoly with an ogre: the rules apply until your opponent, gristly hands snapping the board in two, decides they don’t. There is no sheet music, no conductor, no requisite number of players, no instrumentation. A cherished staple of experimental music, Cobra is a game piece—a genre that Zorn in part originated—in which players improvise according to rules that can change at anyone's whim. Watch Zorn lead a Cobra rehearsal in the clip below from Derek Bailey's 1992 documentary On the Edge: Improvisation in Music.
In a 2013 interview with Fresh Air's Terry Gross, Zorn explained the circumstances under which he works: in the East Village apartment where he has now resided for over 40 years, he sits cross-legged on his childhood rocking chair, at his childhood desk, and writes. A fixture of New York’s 1980s downtown music scene, Zorn, now 63, evolved over the course of his varied career from enfant terrible to celebrated father of a musical strain — inspired by experimental improvisation, jazz and klezmer, among other genres — born of his rambunctious refusal to work like anybody else. Cobra, which is among his most famous creations, is documented on a few pages of instructions that Zorn, intending to keep the piece an oral tradition that musicians would pass down, has refused to publish. The instructions are easily sought on the Internet, but his intentions have survived in spirit; musicians have continued to spread the word about and perform Cobra, often giving the rules a personal touch.
Zorn, who is also a saxophonist and founder of the avant-garde and experimental record label Tzadik, wrote Cobra in 1984, inspired by the World War II simulation game of the same name. Cobra's instructions draw from war vernacular: leading the group is a “squad leader” who can make use of “guerrilla systems,” among which are “tactics” and “operations” influencing the music's tempo and style. At any point, players may inform the squad leader which events they want to initiate through gestures made by touching one to four fingers to any of six body parts (mouth, nose, eye, ear, head, and palm). For instance: two fingers by the player's lips means that everyone else drops out while the player takes a solo; one finger by the player's ear means that the people currently playing must change their style radically. The squad leader chooses which of the players' gestures to follow and holds up a color-coded card indicating the event.
While anyone can participate in Cobra, Zorn has emphasized that organizers should ensure good group chemistry for the piece to succeed. In an interview published in the compendium Soundpieces 2, Zorn said: “You want to pick someone not just because they can play well, but because they have a good sense of humor, or they get along with the guy across the room; because they believe in democracy, or because they don’t believe in it; because they want to subvert the shit or because they just want to sit back and do what they’re told; because they have a lot of compositional ideas (and maybe play awful) but they’re going to make good calls. There’s a lot of reasons to call someone into the band in a game piece.”
Cobra gives the player certain constraints, but resists limits. All sounds—all sounds—are permissible. Gameplay proceeds for as long as the players like. You don’t need an instrument; the voice is plenty. Cobra works as well in a concert hall as it does in a living room, crowded with bewildered friends. As much fun as the audience is having, the players usually seem to be having more.
Below check out a more recent performance of Zorn's game piece Cobra featuring the NEC Cobra Ensemble led by Anthony Coleman.
This Friday, March 31, at 7:30 pm, watch a live video-stream of the sold-out album release party for Brooklyn Youth Chorus' Black Mountain Songs, featuring Arcade Fire's Richard Reed Parry and composer Aleksandra Vrebalov. The evening is hosted by Q2 Music's Helga Davis.
At North Carolina's Black Mountain College, former commune and artistic playground of John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg and many others, a spirit of radical democracy prevailed. Students and teachers shared roles and work, boundaries between disciplines dissolved, and art bled into life, nurturing an atmosphere of unfettered creative collaboration.
In Black Mountain Songs — commissioned and produced by Brooklyn Youth Chorus and Brooklyn Academy of Music, curated by the National's Bryce Dessner and Richard Reed Parry and performed by the Chorus — that collective thread is renewed. Composers featured on the album include Dessner, Parry, Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Shaw, Nico Muhly, Aleksandra Vrebalov, John King and Tim Hecker.
Black Mountain Songs comes out March 31 on New Amsterdam Records. Watch the complete show via the video below.
Celebrating its 25th anniversary, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus serves as WQXR’s 2016-2017 Artist-in-Residence. Throughout the season, the Chorus appears in The Greene Space at WQXR, performs at venues around New York City in concerts webcast live on Q2 Music, and will be featured in associated on-air and online programming at wqxr.org.
On January 14-15, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus (BYC) offered an early listen to their Silent Voices project, an initiative that gives voice to those who have been “silenced or marginalized by social, cultural or religious circumstances.” The performance was hosted by Helga Davis and presented as part of the annual Protoype festival of opera and music theatre, live at the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF).
The evening focused on the voices of immigrants and African-American men and women, with commissioned music by DJ Spooky, gospel/blues composer-performer Toshi Reagon, Iranian-born composer Sahba Aminikia, American-Armenian composer Mary Kouyoumdjian and Jeff Beal, perhaps best known as the composer for the television series House of Cards.
The songs are interspersed with original text by The New Yorker's Hilton Als and additional text by chorus members Michelle Alexander, Smad Behrangi and Pauli Murray. Members of the International Contemporary Ensemble accompanied the chorus.
A year-long series of performances, Silent Voices culminates in a world premiere May 12-13 at Brooklyn Academy of Music. The project is presented in conjuction with BYC's artist residency with WQXR/WNYC.
Listen to the full concert, including the spoken-word text, at the top of the page, and individual pieces below.
Jeff Beal - Hope and Dear Ms. Roosevelt
Shara Nova - Blind to the Illness
Toshi Reagon - Brooklyn Bound
Mary Kouyoumdjian - I Can Barely Look
Sahba Aminikia - The Little Black Fish
DJ Spooky (Paul Miller) - Go Tell It
Shara Nova - Let Freedom Ring
Sufjan Stevens, The National's Bryce Dessner, composer Nico Muhly and Sufjan drummer James McAlister are on the verge of releasing an album version of Planetarium, the solar-system inspired collaboration that had its U.S. premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2013.
The idea for Planetarium originated when the Dutch concert hall Muziekgebouw Eindhoven commissioned Muhly for a large-scale piece, but the album itself did not take shape until the quartet of musicians decided to revisit live-performance recordings of the piece. “Years later when we all kind of settled down, we said, ‘Let’s open Pandora’s box,’” says Stevens.
Supported by a battery of seven trombones and a string quartet, Planetarium is an epic, genre-bursting opus blending the wistful vocals of Sufjan Stevens, the distinct virtuosities of guitarist Bryce Dessner and drummer James McAlister, as well as the symphonic conceit of composer and keyboardist Nico Muhly.
Planetarium comes out June 9 on 4AD.
It's a cliché to call Icelandic music evocative of the country's landscape and of the Norse myths so intrinsically tied with Western imagination, from the Prose Edda to the Icelandic Sagas to the books of J.R.R. Tolkien. Yet it's virtually impossible to listen to the latest from composer-conductor Daníel Bjarnason and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra without losing oneself to images of misty volcanic beaches, the eternal twilight of Northern winter, the mind-boggling immensity of a pitch-black sky.
“Recurrence” brings together five fast-rising, particularly imaginative Icelandic composers taken with explorations of texture and glacial movement. Each piece is charged with slow-churning cinematic beauty that builds from eerie stillness to climaxes that seemingly mimic the intense savagery of natural and supernatural worlds.
In Thurídur Jónsdóttir's Flow and Fusion, figures emerge from and disappear into a swirling fog of microtonal strings and scraped cymbal. Volcanic surges of brass give way to unsettling waves that swell and dissipate before rolling out into the ether.
The orchestration that begins Hlynur A. Vilmarsson's BD — shuffling sul ponticello strings and bass drum; pointillistic flute pops and bells — emulates the nocturnal song of whales and slow cracking of ice, shape-shifting into the metal-driven movement and industry of a dwarf workshop. María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir's Aequora emerges from predawn silence: mallets and strings gradually coalesce into a sustained, luminous sunrise before retreating again into darkness. Daniel Bjarnason's evocative Emergence pivots between beginning-of-the-universe-like slow builds with frenetic flurries of counterpoint and lush string hooks, ultimately untethering itself into the ambient expanse of deep space.
The drama of the music is intensely amplified by the production quality of the recording. As we've come to expect from audiophile label Sono Luminus, this is an orchestral album made for headphones: almost uncomfortably close-up clarity, string swells that move antiphonally between speakers; phrases passed across the stereo spread. It's the kind of mixing usually reserved for art rockers and IDM producers, one that brings each particle of the texturally-driven music up close for magnified inspection.
Anna Thorvaldsdottir's Dreaming is a fitting closer for "Recurrence." A distant ethereal haze taken under a microscope becomes a latticework of orchestrational intricacies, morphing from silent weightlessness to monolithic storms before dissolving into quiet, granular string scrapes, a cycle to continue infinitely across the Icelandic landscape.
Iceland Symphony Orchestra: Recurrence
Sono Luminus | Released April 7
Today's bonus track is an exclusive arrangement of a nutso, sci-fi-y electronic piece John Adams wrote in 1993. Originally part of a larger work, Hoodoo Zephyr, Coast was never intended to be performed live. However, the 20-person chamber ensemble Alarm Will Sound has often been tempted by electronic works. Violinist, composer, and Alarm Will Sound member Caleb Burhans, who cut his teeth arranging works by Aphex Twin for the group, adapted Adams' work. While Alarm Will Sound has performed this piece several times, we're proud to bring this you exclusive recording!
Any record that pairs The Crossing with the International Contemporary Ensemble is virtually guaranteed to be a new-music lover's dream. ICE is one of the most remarkable little orchestras in the country, and not just among specialists in contemporary repertoire: they're a collection of virtuosi and a tightly unified ensemble that also happens to commission and perform music from a spectacular range of living composers. The Crossing, under conductor Donald Nally, is a chamber choir that manages to generate the power, range, blend, and accuracy of a symphony orchestra.
But Seven Responses is not just any record. A double-length answer to the Membra jesu nostri, Baroque composer Dieterich Buxtehude's meditation on the body of Christ, this tenebrous collection of seven new cantatas offers a startlingly broad survey of contemporary composition.
The album is characterized by a mournful stillness, as piece after piece seems to struggle against the passage of time itself with a sheer, glacial slowness of motion. Hans Thomalla's I come near you and Anna Thorvaldsdottir's Ad genua/To the knees seem to timestretch passing Baroque dissonances into collisions of ear-bending drones; Dog Days composer David T. Little's dress in magic amulets, dark, from My feet evokes the sludge of doom metal with acoustic voices and instruments.
Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen's Ad cor stands out—mercurial, facetious and cynical, yet oddly moving—stands out from the earnest program, as does the dense dramatic cantata, Common Ground, by the American composer Lewis Spratlan.
The ethereal My soul will sink within me, by the Latvian composer Santa Ratniece, pushes the choir to its limits over the course of one long, sweeping movement, while To the Hands, by Spratlan's fellow Pulitzer laureate Caroline Shaw, offers an intense intimacy. With its short loops of material and subtle shifts of tone, it sounds almost private, like a bedroom demo recording extrapolated to majestic proportions—but it also, like so much of the music on this album, suggests a deep understanding and appreciation for the solemn 17th-century cycle that inspired it.
The Crossing / International Contemporary Ensemble: Seven Responses
Innova Recordings | Released Feb. 3
Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov’s cello concerto Azul was first commissioned for Yo-Yo Ma by the Boston Symphony, and received its premiere in 2006. Now, over 10 years later, Azul is seeing its first studio release. It’s the centerpiece of Brooklyn-based orchestral collective The Knights' project of the same name, set to be released on March 31.
Colin Jacobsen, who leads The Knights alongside his brother Eric, is a touring member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. In the liner notes for the new album, Colin recounts a 2004 trip to Iran, the home of his fellow Silk Road musicians Siamak Aghaei and Kayhan Kalhor. He immersed himself in Iran’s rich cultural heritage, learning from and listening to his friends at length. Siamek, who Colin writes “evokes a modern-day Bartok,” shared one of his field recordings that featured a small instrument made from the bones of a bird. The music that came from it was connected to an old myth that concerned a bird trying to fly towards the sun. Its first attempts were failures; it wasn’t until the bird shed its physical shell that it could transcend earthly limitations. Inspired, Colin wrote Ascending Bird for string quartet. Now, he is unveiling a full orchestral arrangement of the piece, to be included on the forthcoming album.
Here’s Ascending Bird in full, as performed by The Knights featuring Yo-Yo Ma.
What happens when the composer shows up to the first rehearsal of his brand-new piece? Would a living Beethoven sue for intellectual property? Are you the hit, or are you in the hole? For this episode, we collaborated with the 20-member chamber ensemble Alarm Will Sound and its conductor Alan Pierson to take a close look at the music of John Adams, specifically his two insanely difficult chamber symphonies. This episode offers unprecedented access to not only to the creative process, but the weird, wooly procedure of putting these massive pieces together.
Heard a piece of music you loved? Discover it here!
1:48—John Adams: Chamber Symphony | Listen | Buy
2:12—Arnold Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire, Mondestrunken | Listen | Buy
2:29—Richard Strauss: Five Piano Pieces, op. 3: IV, allegro molto | Listen | Buy
3:08—Ray Noble: The Midnight, The Stars and You | Listen | Buy
3:13—Busby Berkeley: Hooray for Hollywood | Listen | Buy
3:55—Louis Armstrong: You're Lucky to Me | Listen | Buy
4:37—George Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue | Listen | Buy
5:20—John Adams: Chamber Symphony | Listen | Buy
5:58—John Adams: The Death of Klinghoffer | Buy
7:30—Arnold Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony | Listen | Buy
8:53—John Adams: Chamber Symphony | Listen | Buy
19:10—John Adams: Son of Chamber Symphony | Listen | Buy
20:46—Danny Elfman: Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, The Breakfast Machine | Listen | Buy
21:10—John Adams: Son of Chamber Symphony | Listen | Buy
22:19—John Adams: Son of Chamber Symphony | Listen | Buy
24:25—Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9, mvt. I | Listen | Buy
24:51—Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9, mvt. II | Listen | Buy
25:00—John Adams: Son of Chamber Symphony | Listen | Buy
26:01—Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9, mvt. II | Listen | Buy
26:28—John Adams: Son of Chamber Symphony | Listen | Buy
31:33—John Adams: Fellow Traveler | Listen | Buy
31:42—John Adams: Nixon in China | Listen | Buy
31:56—John Adams: Son of Chamber Symphony | Listen | Buy
32:24—John Adams: Fellow Traveler | Listen | Buy
32:33—John Adams: Son of Chamber Symphony | Listen | Buy