ALBUM REVIEW: Thrive on Routine by American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME)

by Maggie Molloy

Photo credit: Ryuhei Shindo

We all have our morning routines. Some of us like to go for a brisk morning walk, read the newspaper, flip through the daily comics, or have a leisurely cup of coffee. Some of us like to hit the snooze button six or seven times, roll out of bed, rub the sleep from our eyes, and scramble to work. American modernist Charles Ives liked to wake up at 4 or 5 in the morning, garden in his potato patch, and play through some of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. (How’s that for a little early morning exercise?)

Ives’ idiosyncratic early morning regimen was the inspiration behind composer-pianist Timo Andres’s Thrive on Routine, the title track of a new album by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME). A flexible music collective comprised of over 20 musicians (Andres among them), ACME is an ensemble known for championing masterworks of the 20th and 21st centuries. Their newest album is no exception: Andres finds himself in good company amongst works by John Luther Adams and fellow ACME members Caroline Shaw and Caleb Burhans.

Andres’ “Thrive on Routine” was, in fact, first commissioned and premiered by the ACME string quartet in 2009. Structured in four short, continuous movements, the piece offers abstract imitations of Ives’ Bach-and-potatoes routine, evoking a rustic alarm jingle, the pastoral drone of the potato patch, and a folk-infused passacaglia. The earthy, textured landscapes come to life under the fingers of violinists Yuki Numata Resnick and Ben Russell, violist Caleb Burhans, and cellist Clarice Jensen.

That same group gives voice to Caleb Burhans’ composition “Jahrzeit,” a requiem for his late father. In Judaism, the jahrzeit is a time of remembering the dead by reciting the Kaddish, lighting a 24-hour candle, and remembering the person who has died. In Burhans’ piece, the strings flicker and glow like a quiet flame, the colors blending and separating in a warm and pensive haze.

The work is followed by two similarly introspective compositions by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw. The first is her solo cello suite “in manus tuas,” inspired by a 16th-century motet by Thomas Tallis and performed by ACME Artistic Director Clarice Jensen. Shaw’s composition makes the cello sing, its strings echoing like sacred choral music against a serenely silent cathedral.

Shaw’s second work, the achingly gorgeous “Gustave le Gray” for solo piano, features Timo Andres as the performer. Inspired by Chopin’s Op. 17 A Minor Mazurka, Shaw maintains the poignant, long-breathed melodies but forgoes the trademark Chopin ornamentations. The resulting music plays like an improvisation on Chopin, transforming phrases of the original mazurka as it blossoms ever outward into new chromatic melodies and characters.

The album closes with John Luther Adams’ breathtakingly beautiful “In a Treeless Place, Only Snow,” featuring the ACME string quartet along with Andres on piano, Peter Dugan on celesta, and Chris Thompson and Chihiro Shibayama on vibraphones. Atmospheric melodies, delicately detailed textures, and enchanting celesta embellishments bring this immersive sonic landscape to life, evoking the extraordinary vastness of the natural world and the overwhelming sense of awe that comes with simply being in its presence.

Because whether it’s a potato patch or a snowy mountainside, there’s beautiful music to be found all around us—sometimes we just need to step out of our routine.

 

ALBUM REVIEW: Carolina Eyck’s Fantasias for Theremin and String Quartet

by Maggie Molloy

If you thought the theremin was only for corny sci-fi film soundtracks and intergalactic sound effects, think again. It may be October, but the theremin makes (electromagnetic) waves all year round.
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Just ask Carolina Eyck, one of the world’s foremost theremin virtuosi—in fact, she quite literally wrote the book on it. For the past decade, her performances in classical and contemporary music around the world have helped promote the instrument and build its repertoire.

For Eyck’s latest project, she composed and recorded Fantasias for Theremin and String Quartet: an entire album of works highlighting the theremin’s unique capacity for improvisation and imagination. Oh, and she didn’t collaborate with just any old string players, either: the album features American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) members Caroline Shaw and Ben Russell on violins, Caleb Burhans on viola, and Clarice Jensen on cello.

Conceptually, the album was inspired by Eyck’s vivid childhood memories of the woods of Northern Germany where she grew up. In keeping with the whimsical, free-spirited explorations of childhood, Eyck composed the Fantasias for the 12” vinyl LP format—meaning that all performances were recorded in full takes with no editing. The string players tracked the scores first, and then Eyck overdubbed her deft, fluid, single-take improvisations—hence the title Fantasias.

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The result is an organic virtuosity that leads the listener through the hazy and nostalgic soundscapes of Northern Germany, each piece an open window into Eyck’s imagination. And to add another layer of whimsy, the titles for each piece were devised by Eyck and the album’s producer, Allen Farmelo, by scanning multiple Scandinavian languages for pleasing lingual combinations.

The album begins with “Oakunar Lynntuja (Strange Birds),” Eyck’s nimble hands flittering up and down the theremin’s two antennas to produce the sound of metallic birds chirping amidst a forest of angular strings.

“Leyohmi (Luminescence)” shows a very different side of the instrument: Eyck’s patient fingers pull thoughtful whispers from the theremin, its gentle voice shimmering softly among luminous harmonics. Alternative bowing techniques blur the line between the theremin and strings, immersing the listener in a glistening and ethereal soundscape.

Then, as if having drifted into a fairy tale, “Nukkuva Luohla (Sleepy Dragon)” picks up with a sputtering sparkle of strings. A snarling theremin grumbles across its lowest registers like a drowsy dragon tossing and turning—and the strings flicker about like sparks from its snoring breath.

The strings swell and tumble like waves in the next fantasy, “Metsa Happa (Jumping River).” Eyck’s theremin melodies playfully hop in and out of the rolling river, soaring high above the waves and diving deep beneath their iridescent surface.

Another idyllic forest scene inspires “Dappa Solarjos (Dappled Sunlight).” Wavering string arpeggios imitate the forest of mottled leaves, with Eyck’s theremin painting the full spectrum of sunlight: light and dark, daytime and dusk.

The album closes with a more abstracted fantasia: “Nousta-Needad (Ascent-Descent).” A staggered string backdrop sets the stage for Eyck’s theremin as it hums quietly up and down from its highest, airiest registers to its lowest, earthiest grumbles—at times even crossing the realm into a distinctly humanlike voice.

It’s incredible that an instrument played with no physical contact by the performer could ever sound so human—that music once confined solely to intergalactic sound effects could ever be so intimate. These fantasias are proof of Eyck’s profound understanding of her instrument and, perhaps even more inspiring, her playful and imaginative musical voice.

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ALBUM REVIEW: Unremembered by Sarah Kirkland Snider

by Maggie Molloy

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Childhood is a time of youthful innocence, joyous discovery, and wondrous possibility—but along with that unbridled and enchanting sense of imagination can also come dark creatures, mysterious horrors, and haunting memories.

Composer Sarah Kirkland Snider braves these mystical terrors and takes on the full beauty and vast musical scope of childhood imagination in her latest release, “Unremembered.” The album is a 13-part song cycle, and each piece is its own narrative—a tender memory, a ghostly mystery, or a haunting message. Together, the cycle is a rumination on memory, innocence, imagination, and the strange and subtle horrors of growing up.

Composed for seven voices, chamber orchestra, and electronics, the songs were inspired by the poems and illustrations of writer and artist Nathaniel Bellows, a close friend of Snider. The poems depict poignant memories of Bellows’ own childhood upbringing in rural Massachusetts—tales which in turn triggered memories from Snider’s own childhood, giving shape to her musical settings of the text.

The album was released on New Amsterdam Records, a label Snider co-created with Judd Greenstein and William Brittelle in 2008 to promote classically-trained musicians who create outside the confines of the classical music tradition. The album features vocalists Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond), Padma Newsome (of Clogs), and singer-songwriter DM Stith gliding above the instrumental talents of musicians from contemporary ensembles like ACME, Alarm Will Sound, ICE, The Knights, and Sō Percussion.

A follow-up to Snider’s critically-acclaimed 2010 song cycle, “Penelope,” the new album lives somewhere in the mystical, mythical world between classical and pop genres. Each song is its own vividly colored vignette, a mesmerizing narrative brought to life through Snider’s rich textural and temperamental palette.

“I think that all of my music is narrative driven—that’s what I’m the most interested in musically—mood and storytelling and atmosphere,” Snider said in an interview with Molly Sheridan of NewMusicBox. “I’m fascinated by complex emotions—the places where affection crosses over and merges with dread, or regret merges with gratitude.”

From the ghostly echoes and somber lyricism of “Prelude” to the surreal dark carnival dance of “The Barn,” each piece tells a different tale of childhood; a memory embellished, ornamented, and altered over the years. In a way, Snider also embellishes memories of the classical genre—musically she recalls the strict rules and structures of the classical tradition, but she does so in a way that is blurred, broken, and beautifully contorted. Her collaboration with Worden helped breathe life into this eclectic collection of musical influences.

“Shara [Worden] had become my closest friend and we’d had so many conversations about classical versus pop music, and all of the frustrations that we had dealing with the lack of infrastructure to support music written in the cracks between those worlds,” Snider said in her interview with NewMusicBox. “She also just so comfortably can inhabit both worlds, which is something that so few singers can do, so I felt like I could really let it rip.”

Worden’s operatic voice drifts above the restless woodwind motives and dreamlike themes of “The Guest,” glides gracefully above the delicately swelling orchestral backdrop on “The Swan,” and echoes just as sweetly above the subtle, soft strings of “The Song.”

The album climaxes with “The Witch,” a ruthless and rhapsodic witch hunt played out across a programmatic musical arc. Worden’s low voice hisses against the aggressive strings and militant drums of the orchestra. She sings the ghostly tale of a witch hunt while the strings and percussion chase after her, brewing with melodrama and theatrical orchestral nuances. The piece ends with twinkling celeste motives as the haunting witch hunt fades back into a distant memory.

“The Slaughterhouse” is similarly grim, though it begins with a sweet reprieve: a gorgeous, achingly tender solo piano melody. The gentle rumination gives way to a somber tale of slaughtered animals, a collection of beasts buried beneath the winter ice—the cold memory and throbbing melodies sending shivers down the listener’s spine.
“The Girl” tells of a tragic small-town suicide—a girl hanged in an entire forest of musical timbres. Snider paints a vivid musical picture of the wind blowing through the trees, birds chirping in the early morning sky, and inquisitive animals peeking out behind woven beds of flowers. “The River” tells another solemn tale, with somber vocals flowing above fragmented melodies and a slowly rumbling bass.

The album comes to a close with “The Past,” a fractured montage of childhood memories echoing musical fragments from earlier songs in the cycle. But this time, the piece sounds hopeful—like a lullaby alive once again with the warmth and sweetness of childhood.

And just like that, the melancholy requiem of “Unremembered” evaporates into a softly twinkling silence, like an enchanting music box tenderly closing—and while the exact details of the memories may fade with time, the album itself is unforgettable.

ALBUM REVIEW: “Render” by Roomful of Teeth

by Maggie Molloy

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Classical vocal music is always nice—but if you’re looking for a contemporary vocal ensemble with a little more bite, look no further than Roomful of Teeth.

The Grammy Award-winning a cappella ensemble is dedicated to exploring the vast and limitless musical possibilities of the human voice. In fact, Roomful of Teeth’s eight vocalists have studied singing traditions from around the world, including vocal techniques as diverse as yodeling, belting, Tuvan throat singing, Inuit throat singing, Korean P’ansori, Georgian singing, Sardinian cantu a tenore, Hindustani music, Persian classical singing, and more.

And now, you can hear the fruit of the group’s musical travels on their sophomore album, “Render.” The record is an eclectic collection of original compositions and commissioned works which push beyond the boundaries of traditional vocal music.

Founded in 2009, Roomful of Teeth is comprised of sopranos Estelí Gomez and Martha Cluver, altos Caroline Shaw and Virginia Warnken, tenor Eric Dudley, baritone Avery Griffin, bass baritone Dashon Burton, and bass Cameron Beauchamp. Together, the eight singers create a mesmerizing vocal panorama spanning over four octaves.

Their new album begins with a performance of Missy Mazzoli’s “Vesper Sparrow,” an enchanting and otherworldly piece which features the text of Farnoosh Fathi’s poem “Home State.” The sopranos soar sweetly above a percussive a cappella backdrop, creating a fascinating range of vocal timbres and musical characters.

“The piece is an eclectic amalgamation of imaginary birdsong and my own interpretation of Sardinian overtone singing,” Mazzoli said. “I tried to capture the exuberance and energy of these individual singers as well as a bit of the magic that is created when this group comes together.”

The piece is followed by Wally Gunn’s “The Ascendant,” a dramatic three-part composition which illuminates the haunting, poignant poetry of Maria Zajkowski. Glorious vocal harmonies glide above a hypnotic hocket backdrop, creating a slow but steady groove and an unbelievably rich chordal texture—Roomful of Teeth’s voices will echo in your head long after the piece is over.

William Brittelle’s “High Done No Why” is next on the album, showcasing the vocal virtuosity of each member of the ensemble by experimenting with a colorful palette of extended vocal techniques that reach far beyond the borders of the Western classical music tradition.

Caleb Burhans’ slow and somber “Beneath” is a similarly virtuosic feat: it is a 12-minute exploration into the ensemble’s unbelievably wide vocal range. Throughout the piece, the spellbinding blend of wordless vocals creates an utterly ethereal, borderline eerie soundscape.

The ensemble switches to the other end of the musical spectrum for “Otherwise,” composed by the group’s artistic director Brad Wells. The piece is vibrant, visceral, and full of color—it features singing, belting, yodeling, and even a few elements of Sardinian polyphonic folk singing. Baritone soloist Dashon Burton cuts through the rest of ensemble’s rhythmic chanting with a beaming bel canto voice, his classical singing contrasting beautifully against a striking harmonic backdrop.

Eric Dudley’s “Suonare / To Sound” explores a different element of vocal music: words. The piece is a meditation on timbre and language, featuring the same poem sung in both English and Italian—at the same time. The eight voices overlap and intersect as they echo across a constantly shifting soundscape, with the lower voices tracing the English text through slowly changing harmonies as the sopranos echo far above them.

The last piece on the album is the title track, also composed by Brad Wells, which was inspired by David Eagleman’s short story “Search.” The ensemble’s voices ebb and flow in soft waves, gracefully gliding in and out of near-silence to create a serene and mystical sound world.

“The story describes a vision of the afterlife as the periodic unraveling of our material, molecular selves into other forms in nature, occasional re-gatherings of our disparate molecules over millennia, and the complete continuity and maintenance—in spite of the unraveling—of our consciousness and feeling,” Wells said.

Of course, Roomful of Teeth says all of this without using any lyrics—proving that the possibilities of the human voice are far beyond words.

 

ROOMFUL OF TEETH

by Maggie Stapleton

Founded in 2009 by Brad Wells, cutting-edge vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth‘s stated mission is to “mine the expressive potential of the human voice,” and that they do.  They’re extremely versatile, excelling in styles ranging from renaissance polyphony to vocal techniques from around the world, such as yodels, grunts, audible exhalations, and drones, all heard on their self-titled debut album (which, by the way, won the 2014 Grammy for “Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance”).

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Roomful of Teeth is dedicated to new music and composers of today, they’ve commissioned works by Rinde Eckert, Judd Greenstein, Caleb Burhans, Merrill Garbus (of tUnE-yArDs), Sarah Kirkland Snider and Missy Mazzoli, and William Brittelle, who says his melodic sensibility tends more toward the pop side than classical or experimental side, resulting in some very fun music.

Roomful of Teeth was the first all vocal program presented by TownMusic in September 2013. We have some selections from this concert for your listening pleasure, including a couple of movements from Caroline Shaw’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning piece, Partita for 8 voices!

There’s one more concert on the 2013-14 TownMusic Series on June 24, featuring four world premieres and soprano Mary Mackenzie to sing Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire.