ALBUM REVIEW: Bearthoven’s Trios

Photo by Jaime Boddorff.

by Seth Tompkins

Trios, the new release by New York City-based piano trio Bearthoven is a masterclass in eclecticism.  With this album, the trio, which consists of percussion (Matt Evans), piano (Karl Larson), and bass (Pat Swoboda), set out to create a collection that presents a sample of the more than 20 new works that Bearthoven has commissioned as well as to showcase music from composers with markedly different musical backgrounds.  Trios more than achieves these goals; the blend of sharply contrasting aesthetics and exceptional musicianship here yields a fascinating and joyful product that fuses exuberant eclecticism with top-quality performance.

Although each of the six pieces on Trios comes from quite different musical places, there is an overarching structure.  Broadly speaking, these selections fit into two groups: three of the six tracks are rhythm-forward, “post-minimalist” pieces, while the other three tend toward soundscape and abstraction.  Trios begins with one of the post-minimal compositions, and alternates between the two categories, ending with Adrian Knight’s peaceful and contemplative “The Ringing World.”

While Bearthoven identifies as a “piano trio,” their instrumentation (percussion, piano, and bass) is decidedly unusual.  This setup is common in other types of music (jazz, pop, etc.), but is largely unexplored as a vehicle for contemporary classical.  One other notable group that shares this interesting space is the all-acoustic ensemble Dawn of Midi, similarly composed up of drums, piano, and bass, and also based in New York City.  Both groups occupy similar inter-genre spaces.  However, their divergent raisons d’être result in musical outputs that are complementary and non-duplicative: while Dawn of Midi focuses on self-composed and improvised groove-based music that is influenced by global traditions, Bearthoven is oriented around collaboration with a diverse range of composers whose music tends strongly toward contemporary classical.

That is not to say that Bearthoven has an aversion to grooves, however.  In fact, the opening track, Brooks Frederickson’s “Undertoad,” and the second-to-last track, Brendon Randall-Myers’s “Simple Machine,” have collections of grooves that are both wantonly energetic and fascinating in their complex construction.  Bearthoven executes both enjoyably and with great attention to detail, which is typical for tracks on this release.

The more atmospheric pieces on Trios also showcase Bearthoven’s remarkable energy and outstanding musicality.  Especially in these tracks, the constant communication between the players is obvious.  On Knight’s “The Ringing World” and Fjóla Evans’ “Shoaling” particularly, the unity with which the trio executes (sometimes quite subtle) shifts of volume, intensity, and time is a triumph.  The responsiveness and individual mastery necessary to pull off that kind of seamless groupthink is rare and requires real dedication.

Diversity of repertoire, attention to detail, flexibility, and commitment to individual and ensemble excellence are Bearthoven’s strengths.  With these assets, Bearthoven has achieved a consistent ensemble sound that is apparent even in the face of broad eclecticism.  Based on Trios, Bearthoven is an ensemble that can be counted upon to deliver with poise, mastery, and style—and to produce new material that is both diverse and superlative.

Photo by Jaime Boddorff.

ALBUM REVIEW: Andy Meyerson’s “My Side of the Story”

by Seth Tompkins

mysideofthestory

On its face, Andy Meyerson’s new album My Side of the Story does not have an obvious message or agenda. That’s ok; most albums don’t. However, as the album progresses, a distinct overarching narrative emerges. The story is not specific and it makes no grandiose statements. However, it does make for a superb listening experience. Each of the five selections on this release are not only fabulous on their own, but are elevated and intensified when taken together in order. This is a laudable feat – one not achieved by many new releases of contemporary classical music. This success is directly related to a specific thread of continuity that runs from beginning to end.

The continuity that binds My Side of the Story is mostly manifested in the fact that four of these five pieces have a “turn”- that is, a moment when the mood of the piece shifts suddenly and reveals something new. These similar shifts in four wildly different pieces stich this release together. These moments pull back curtains revealing new landscapes. These artesian revelations come, of course, in the context of what came before, thrusting listeners forward and creating an experience that becomes a journey, rather than just a session.

Adrian Knight’s Humble Servant, the first track on this album, stands out for beauty achieved through economy. This is just good orchestration, plain and simple. The vibraphone can sound dated and cheesy, but here its unmistakable sound is used effectively, melodramatic overtones and all. Knight does use the over-the-top emotional connotations conjured up by the vibraphone, but, in sticking to a responsibly confined mode of expression, does not let the melodrama take over. In fact, the emotional connotations of the vibes become a positive aspect of this track, signaling the underlying emotion of the topic at hand (tragic death) while the composer’s skill keeps the potential hokeyness reigned in. Also, the extra-slow speed setting of the vibraphone’s motor allows each pitch to be heard and considered individually. This supports the inward-looking and pensive nature of this track.

Samuel Carl Adams’s Percussion Music for Robert and Andy starts out as an apparently straightforward contemporary work for mixed percussion ensemble. However, at a certain point, the overriding acoustic textures gradually give way to a transformative electro-pop-inspired sound palette that leads in a completely new and unexpected direction.  Originally composed for a solo dance performance by San Francisco-based Post:Ballet, the live performance of this piece must have been revelatory.

Jude Traxler’s Structural Harm marks the beginning of the experimental section of this album, blurring the line between composer and performer. While Traxler assembled the final product, the performance by Meyerson was executed with little input from the composer. Meyerson improvised on MIDI-connected triggers to create the bones of the piece, to which Traxler later assigned sounds and rendered audible in production. The result is pleasant and interesting. This is music that was clearly not designed for an acoustic listening environment – and that’s ok. Structural Harm’s interaction of rhythmic exploration with a gently gradient of purity of sound yields a fascinating matrix.

 

Continuing in an experimental direction, Brendon Randall-Myers’s piece Sherlock Horse: Disintegration Machine is for solo “suitcase drum kit” and production. This piece fits into the tradition of music for acoustic instruments and “tape.” While music in that format often seems to be a dusty relic of 1980s university music programs, this piece happily places the format in the present. Many of the electronic sounds used would not be out of place in punk, rap or indie-pop music. These pleasantly fresh sounds place this piece squarely in the modern-day, despite its connection to the more staid traditions of some electroacoustic music. The only piece without a clear “turn” on this album, this work represents the height of drama in the larger arc of this album.

After the increasingly wayward tack of the previous four pieces, Danny Clay’s May you find what you’re looking for and remember what you have feels, at first, like returning home. However, as the piece progresses, experimental elements reappear and build to a climax unlike anything else on this album. After this sonic Rubicon, the mellow sounds of homecoming return, to be later rejoined with some of the complexities from earlier in this piece. The effect here is the following message: “Everything is okay. Things might not be the way you thought they were – they might be much more complicated and messy. But that doesn’t matter, because everything is going to be alright in the end.”

Only after experiencing the final track does the overarching narrative of this album become clear. Throughout My Side of the Story, the increasingly complex and adventurous sound explorations return to a point of equilibrium, creating at once a sense of peace and a deeper comfort with a more diverse ecosystem of sounds. My Side of the Story will stretch the ears of some listeners, but will reward those challenges with a deep satisfaction that comes after the narrative arc of this album becomes clear.  That said, it bears repeating: this release should be experienced as the “album” that it truly is. Do yourself a favor and listen to this in one sitting. Your ears will thank you.