ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Dublin Guitar Quartet Performs Philip Glass

by Rachele Hales

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Riddle me this: how is it possible that a woman who doesn’t enjoy minimalist music can fall so hard for Philip Glass?  You’ll find the answer in the forty nimble fingers of the Dublin Guitar Quartet.  They’ve taken the music of Glass, transcribed it for guitar (a feat in and of itself – even Glass has never dared to try), and from minimalist compositions created such richness of sound that at times I forgot I was listening to only four instruments.  What pours out of their guitars sounds near-orchestral.  This depth is due in no small part to masterful audio engineering that offers each plucking string a crispness that allows you to really appreciate how flawlessly in unison these artists are.

 

 

The album is replete with technical perfection, but my favorite moments are the pockets of sweet, gentle, understated pieces like “String Quartet #5 – Mvt. 1” that make you feel young again.  Like, really young.  Like you are a sleepy child being lulled to slumber by the sweetness of your mother whisper-singing in your ear except her voice is like a quiet harp.  The piece practically glows!  It’s beautiful.

Even the moments of wild strumming, like in “String Quartet #2 – Company Mvt II,” have a distinct delicate and lyrical quality.  It’s easy to forget you’re listening to four guitars and not one.

Each selection on this disc was transcribed with care, played tightly, and packed with emotion.  It’s a true celebration of the composer and perfectly highlights the immense skill of the performers.  How does a chamber group manage to make four guitars sound simultaneously orchestral and singular?  Clearly there is magic in the hills of Ireland.

ALBUM REVIEW: Maya Beiser’s “Uncovered”

by Jill Kimball

Maya Beiser Uncovered

One of classical music’s worst faults is its superiority, all too often on display. Many of those who perform and listen to classical music believe there is nothing more beautiful, more sacred. Some even believe everything else is noise.

Perhaps that’s why cellist Maya Beiser felt guilty and a little dirty after she heard rock music for the first time. As a child growing up in Israel’s Galilee Mountains, she listened to classical music and practiced on her cello diligently. But “the first time I heard Janis Joplin I felt shaken to the core,” she told her recording label, Innova. “Somehow her unique, raw expression snuck its way into the inner shrine where, until then, only the likes of Bach and Schubert were allowed to enter. It felt so sacrilegious that I was giddy with guilt.”

It was that feeling that inspired the cello diva’s latest album, “Uncovered.” It’s ten tracks of beautifully deconstructed classic rock songs, as spectacular a find for die-hard Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd fans as it is for those who know absolutely nothing about classic rock.

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Beiser has never shied from experimental music and has in fact made cross-cultural genre-bending her mission. She’s worked with the likes of Philip Glass, Tan Dun, Brian Eno and Steve Reich on new compositions. She’s the founding cellist of New York’s Bang on a Can. Her hometown was a cultural melting pot of Christians, Jews and Muslims, and she was born of a French mother and Argentinian father. With that kind of background, it’s no wonder her music resonates with people all over the world. (Her TED talk has been translated into 32 languages.)

“Uncovered” is another excellent chapter in Beiser’s genre-defying book, proof positive that traditionally classical instruments don’t always have to sound prim and polished. In the Nirvana cover “Lithium,” for example, Beiser’s cello scrapes rudely across the strings to channel Kurt Cobain’s gritty, slightly out of tune singing voice. She bends the notes perfectly to capture Jimi Hendrix’s essence in “Little Wing.” And she does a hell of a good AC/DC electric guitar impression on “Back in Black.”


Channeling, rather than imitation, is really what she’s going for in this album, and thank goodness: straight-up covers are often mocked, panned and condemned for their lack of creativity. The covers that everyone remembers are those that shed completely new light on a song, like Janis Joplin’s bluesy take on the Gershwin classic “Summertime.” That track inspired Beiser’s own cover, where she shreds and wails on the cello to create a melody that so accurately imitates Joplin’s raspy vocals.


Other tracks seek to imitate the mood of the original song rather than the vocal quality, such as the balladic “Wish You were Here,” a Pink Floyd cover, and the mournful “Epitaph,” by King Crimson.


In short, the cello diva has done it again. Without giving up her own originality, cellist Maya Beiser captures every rasp, every scream, every bit of edginess and ugliness…everything that made these rock songs so legendary. “Uncovered” is the ultimate homage to the perfect imperfection of rock music.

You can stream the whole album below:

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Orchestra Underground: Tech & Techno

by Maggie Stapleton

Founded back in 1977, the NYC-based American Composers Orchestra is dedicated to the creation, performance, preservation, and promulgation of music by American composers by way of concerts, commissions, recordings, educational programs, and new music reading sessions.  With an esteemed leadership of Derek Bermel, Artistic Director; George Manahan, Music Director; Dennis Russell Davies, Conductor Laureate; and Robert Beaser, Artistic Advisor Laureate this organization is in amazing hands.

Orchestra Underground: Tech & Techno is the fifth digital album from ACO.   Each piece was commissioned or premiered by ACO for Orchestra Underground, “a series stretching the definition of, and possibilities for the orchestra.  The series challenges conventional notions about symphonic music, embracing multidisciplinary and collaborative work, novel instrumental and spatial orientations of musicians, new technologies and multimedia.”  Orchestra Underground just celebrated its 10th anniversary season in 2013-14 and what better way to celebrate than with this collection of live recordings by Mason Bates, Edmund Campion, Anna Clyne, Justin Messina, and Neil Rolnick.

 

This release busts out of the gate with Edmund Campion’s Practice, a full-blasted introduction of orchestral forces, cresting and blending seamlessly into an electronic, computer generated outro in Campion’s cheeky musical response to the age-old question, “How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?” Appropriate, seeing as most of the music on this album was recorded in Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall which seeks to host the latest contemporary sounds from classical, pop, jazz, and world music artists.

Like all of the music on this CD, the fusion of traditional orchestral instruments with electronic forces is brilliantly executed in Justin Messina’s Abandon.  This work is played to an electronic soundtrack Detroit techno from the early ‘90s during which they experienced a musical rebirth in the underground clubs.

Tender Hooks, by Anna Clyne features a pair of laptops operated by Jeremy Flower and Joshue Ott, which transmit and receive live data from the orchestra.  Each element of this recording combines standard notation, written instructions and graphic representation.  It also pays homage to one of the earliest electronic instruments, the Theremin!

Neil Rolnick collaborates with violinist Todd Reynolds, to present their instrument creation, the iFiddle.  As Rolnick puts it this is “not just a concerto for violin, but a concerto for a cyborg violin that has been intimately joined to a computer.”  This union definitely displays both elements of a traditional violin, and yes, I think cyborg describes it best.  This piece is strikingly accessible, with catchy violin melodies throughout.

The opening of Omnivorous Furniture by Mason Bates has the feel of “do your best robot dance,” inspired by down-tempo electronic music which soon leads way to full on dance party/funkadelic triptastic.  Mason Bates uses computer and drum pad with the orchestra in this work heavily influenced with British hip-hop.

If you’re looking for a gateway into electronically inspired orchestral music, this is a great disc!  If you’d like to purchase the collection, you can visit iTunes, Amazon, or the American Composers Orchestra.

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Richard Reed Parry’s “Music for Heart and Breath”

by Maggie Stapleton

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As a gigantic Arcade Fire fan, my heart grew 10 sizes when I found out about Richard Reed Parry’s Music for Heart and Breath, an album of original compositions.  When I actually heard the music and learned about the inspiration for the pieces, I was knocked over like I haven’t been in the longest time.

The musical conceptualization of this album comes from the heart – literally.  Each of the six pieces requires involuntarily moving organs of the body to dictate the tempi and rhythms.   How, you may wonder, does one determine those speeds?

Paging Doctor Beat.  We’ll need your stethoscopes.

Each musician is instructed to play with a stethoscope (and consequently, at a soft dynamic level) in order to be exactly in sync with his or her own heartbeat.  The variety in ebb and flow between the players’ pulses creates a pointillistic effect – in many instances on the album is like that of a relaxing rainfall – that will undoubtedly never sound exactly the same in two different instances.

In fact, the nature of the performance situation can impart serious variation on the length of the piece.  Rehearsals take significantly more time than performances.  “Interruptions,” took 25 minutes to rehearse the first time, and only 19 minutes to perform.  Thanks, adrenaline!

The album journeys between instrumentation varieties and sizes and features an all-star cast of musicians: yMusic, Kronos Quartet, Nico Muhly, Nadia Sirota, and Bryce & Aaron Dessner.  The smallest group is a duet; the largest a 14-member chamber orchestra, with sizes in between to keep depth of sound and dynamic range at varying levels.

 

Quartet for Heart and Breath

Interruptions (Heart and Breath Nonet): Miniature I

Interruptions (Heart and Breath Nonet): String Peaks

Interruptions (Heart and Breath Nonet): Wind’s Idea

Interruptions (Heart and Breath Nonet): Miniature II

Interruptions (Heart and Breath Nonet): Sticks/Tension

Interruptions (Heart and Breath Nonet): French Guitars

Interruptions (Heart and Breath Nonet): Freeform Winds/String Drones

Duet for Heart and Breath

Quartet for Heart and Breath (for Kronos)

While Parry doesn’t have formal training in classical music, he comes from a family of musicians and  enjoys music from Machaut to Debussy to Ligety to Reich.  Influences from all of those composers are hinted at here and there throughout the disc.  Parry presents himself as an extremely well-rounded musician and a revolutionary way of conceiving time and imparting creative innovation into the realm of music performed on orchestral instruments.

I think Parry sums it up best with this lovely phrase, “I think there’s something quite beautiful about the idea of trying to literally play your heart out.”

You can purchase this album at Deutsche GrammaphonAmazon, or iTunes.

 

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Julia Wolfe’s “Steel Hammer”

by Jill Kimball

Julia Wolfe's Steel Hammer

Almost everyone has heard some version of a song about the man called John Henry. Legend has it that John Henry was a steel driver–someone who drilled holes into rock so that explosives could blast entire mountainsides and make way for tunnels and railroads. One day, he tried to keep up with a machine and succeeded, only to die of stress-induced heart failure on the spot.

A statue of John Henry in Summers County, West Virginia.

A statue of John Henry in Summers County, West Virginia.

The character is fictional, but he represented the hordes of exploited laborers who built miles of American railroad in the late 19th century in harsh conditions for next to no pay. To this day, he is a symbol of unfair labor practices, of human strength, and of the skilled worker’s ongoing struggle to find work in an age of machines.

The folk song “John Henry” is well-known across so many genres. Everybody from Bruce Springsteen to Johnny Cash to Aaron Copland to They Might Be Giants has recorded, arranged or referenced it. Rather than being deterred by its ubiquity, though, the composer Julia Wolfe was inspired by it. Believe it or not, she waded through every version of “John Henry” she could find, noted all the lyric differences–since it’s an old folk tale, there are many–and wrote her own tribute in an album called Steel Hammer.

 

Musically, there’s a lot going on in this album. Norway’s vocal Trio Mediaeval provides strange, haunting and ethereal vocals throughout, accompanied by vastly different groups of instruments on each track. But the concept is simple: it’s an amalgamation of every John Henry story ever told, the details of which are often contradictory.

The album begins with mysterious, minimalistic vocals that reminded me a lot of fellow Bang on A Can composer David Lang. Then, a few effects are layered over the voices as they mimic the sound of a train whistle amid what sounds like a steel hammer driving into rock and the constant chug-a-chug of a steam engine.

According to legend, John Henry worked on a railroad in West Virginia. Or perhaps it was Kentucky. Or was it Columbus, Ohio? All of John Henry’s supposed locations are listed off in the folky, meandering second track, “The States,” which is pleasantly dissonant in all the right places. I especially like the introduction of driving percussion later in the track.

Two other tracks, “Characteristics” and “Polly Ann – The Race,” poke fun at the inconsistencies between John Henry stories. Some say he was tall; others say he was small. While some versions call his lover Polly Ann, others call her Mary Ann.

In “Destiny,” we learn that John Henry sealed his fate when he discovered his strength. “This hammer’s gonna be the death of me,” the vocal trio repeats as a piano and a cello play frenetic dissonant patterns and grow ever louder. The whole track ends loudly and abruptly, creating a frightening cliffhanger. We’re on the edge of our seats even though we all know the story’s tragic end.

“Mountain” paints a musical picture of the setting around which John Henry worked. At first it’s contemplative and tonal, but it grows increasingly dissonant as the steel driver’s death sinks in.

The two last movements, “Winner” and “Lord, Lord”, are like the modern answer to a Requiem mass, a seven-minute opportunity to come to grips with John Henry’s death, to grieve, and finally to hope that he is at peace now.

There’s a reason why this album was the runner-up for a Pulitzer Prize. It’s a triumph: beautiful but challenging, modern but accessible, at once relaxed and disquieting. I highly recommend you check it out! It’s available now on Cantaloupe Music‘s website.