VIDEO PREMIERE: Valencia by Caroline Shaw feat. Jasper Quartet

Fact: the Valencia orange was hybridized in Santa Ana, California in the mid-1800s and has survived through the decades. Whether you enjoy it soccer practice style in wedges or with slightly orange-tinted and moistened fingers after peeling the whole thing, the sweet flesh is a refreshing treat.

Fast-forward to 2017… we have a new interpretation of this fruit to enjoy, also tinged with a Valencia orange hue:

Cellist Rachel Henderson Freivogel of the Jasper Quartet says, “the vibrancy of Caroline Shaw’s “Valencia” is both an evocative representation of a humble orange and a stunning example of the brilliant compositions on Unbound, releasing March 17, 2017. The Jasper String Quartet is delighted to present the definitive recordings of these 7 new remarkable pieces. Packed with energy and brilliance, ‘Valencia’ immediately piques the listener’s imagination.”

Unbound is co-produced by Sono Luminus and New Amsterdam. You can pre-order this March 17 release here.

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Anthracite Fields

by Jill Kimball

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When it comes to contemporary music, the biggest cause for celebration is its determination to find inspiration in unusual places. Increasingly, composers have tossed aside those old standbys–rich royals, first-world travel, God–and have instead embraced the unpredictable.

In the past, composer Julia Wolfe has found inspiration in a Vermeer painting, an Aretha Franklin song, and the idea of a slow-motion scream. Last year, she even released a musical hommage to the American folktale hero John Henry, a steel driver who died trying to compete with a machine.

But this time, Wolfe found her muse unexpectedly close to home.

For Wolfe, writing Anthracite Fields began with a rumination on her childhood home of Montgomeryville, Pennsylvania. The dirt-road town straddled polar opposite worlds: on one side of it lay the big city, Philadelphia; on the other lay an expanse of coal mining fields, where men and boys once toiled long hours in dangerous conditions for a pittance. She’d almost never ventured in the latter direction before. Curiously, she set off to explore the mines and soon found herself consumed by the history of the coal fields. By April 2014, she’d written an hour-long piece dedicated to the hundreds of thousands of people who literally powered upper- and middle-class American lives for more than a century.

It’s no mystery why Wolfe has already won a Pulitzer Prize for this work, which features performances by Bang on a Can All-Stars and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street. The sound is intense, evocative, and completely original. The carefully chosen words, taken from historical documents, interviews, and speeches, are heart-wrenching. Perhaps most importantly, the piece explores themes that are just as relevant to American lives today as they were 150 years ago: class inequality, unfair working conditions, and the social cost of using coal to generate electricity.

“The politics are very fascinating—the issues about safety, and the consideration for the people who are working and what’s involved in it,” Wolfe said in a recent NPR interview. “But I didn’t want to say, ‘Listen to this. This is a big political issue.’ It really was, ‘Here’s what happened. Here’s this life, and who are we in relationship to that?’ We’re them. They’re us. And basically, these people, working underground, under very dangerous conditions, fueled the nation. That’s very important to understand.”

The five-movement piece begins below ground, in the midst of a typical coal miner’s long, dark, and dangerous workday. An uneasy collection of sustained notes is interrupted by a loud, jarring noise every minute or so. The choir names off a series of men named John, found on a list of more than 50,000 Pennsylvania mining casualties between 1869 and 1916. In a genius compositional move, Wolfe chose to pair this heartbreakingly endless list of names with sung text, at turns mournful and fiery, explaining how coal is formed.

Sadly, children in Pennsylvania’s anthracite region started working in the mines as early as age 6 to help put food on the family table. The second movement of Anthracite Fields remembers those working children, called breaker boys. The children sat bent over on planks all day, cutting their fingers up to pick debris out of freshly mined coal. The text Wolfe set in this movement comes from a perversely catchy regional folk song (“Mickey Pick-Slate, early and late, that was the poor little breaker boy’s fate”) and from a heart-rending interview with a one-time breaker boy (“You didn’t dare say anything, you didn’t dare quit, you didn’t wear gloves”). I admit it: this movement made me cry.

In the second half of the piece, Wolfe moves above ground to examine the social implications of underground coal mining. Her third movement, “Speech,” mixes sparse choral writing with rock opera-style solo vocals, using text from a union president’s speech advocating for fair working conditions and compensation.

The last two movements come from two very different non-miners’ perspectives. Wolfe says “Flowers” was inspired by an interview with Barbara Powell, the daughter of a miner who says she never felt poor, thanks to her town’s generous community and the cheerful little things in life, like growing her beautiful garden. The last movement, “Appliances,” is an uncomfortable reminder that coal miners put their lives on the line for next to no pay so that the upper classes could live in comfort, whether they were traveling by train or heating their homes. At the very end, the singers whistle, conjuring the sound of a train grinding against the rails.

Composer Julia Wolfe.

Composer Julia Wolfe.

Anthracite Fields is not an easy listen, but I don’t think Julia Wolfe wanted it to be. We Americans tend to gloss over unpleasant parts of our history when, in order to make peace with our past, we’d do better to confront it. In telling these miners’ stories through vivid music, Wolfe has brought an important but often ignored chapter of our country’s story to the forefront. I encourage people of all backgrounds to listen to this award-winning work, daunting though it may seem. You’ll learn a little about life in late-1800s Pennsylvania, you’ll contemplate energy usage and workers’ rights, and if you’re like me, you’ll have a good cry.

ALBUM REVIEW: ‘Clockworking’ from Nordic Affect

By Jill Kimball

What is it about Iceland? From Björk to Ólafur Arnalds to Jón Leifs, the 320,000-person country seems to churn out more fantastic and original music per capita than any other country on Earth. And with the latest album to come out of the country—whose population, it should be noted, is half the size of Seattle—we have a few more reasons to celebrate this Nordic land.

 

In many ways, Clockworking, the new release from the ensemble Nordic Affect, couldn’t have come from any other country. The music is dotted with the very Icelandic sounds of rushing winds, hummed folk music, and above all, the beautifully stark sounds of silence. The album is characterized by pleasant repetition and meditative simplicity, an accurate musical reflection of life in Iceland’s quiet, cold and wild towns. Listening to Clockworking made me feel like I was the only one in the world one minute, but like a tiny drop in a vast ocean the next.

My absolute favorite thing about Clockworking, aside from the fact that every name in the liner notes ends in –dóttir, is that it’s all about women. Nordic Affect, the performing ensemble, is a small group of females who play on harpsichord, viola da gamba, and other period instruments.  On top of that, all five of the composers featured on the album are female. Today, women make up less than 15% of the world’s living composers; perhaps hearing this album will inspire more women to become composers themselves and turn those statistics around.

The album’s opening track is also its namesake, Clockworking. If you like Sigur Rós, you’ll like this piece, too; it possesses a similar beautiful simplicity. Composer María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir (of the group amiina) does a wonderful job integrating a constant but unobtrusive clock-like pulse into the texture of the work. The instruments may be Baroque and the mood focuses on the passage of time, but the music is timeless.

The next three pieces focus on an interplay between real-life noises and instrumental sounds. In 2 Circles, composer Hildur Guðnadóttir chose to examine a musician’s close relationship with her instrument, which is why you’ll hear the composer herself humming along with the notes she plays on her cello. The lovely, intimate work was recorded in the middle of a chilly Iceland winter, and I swear I could feel the wind howling outside as I listened. In From Beacon to Beacon, composer/guitarist Hafdis Bjarnadóttir recorded the sound of the breeze outside a local lighthouse in midsummer and used it in this piece, which she describes as an imagined musical conversation between two lighthouses.  I was just as interested in the simple sound of the blowing wind between musical phrases as I was in the beautifully random ping-ping of the harpsichord. And in INNI, “Musica da Camera,” the sound of an infant’s gentle murmuring mingles with a buzzing baroque violin.

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Composer Hafdis Bjarnadóttir records the sound of the wind near an Icelandic lighthouse.

If Shades of Silence illustrates anything, it’s that “silence” is a relative term. The only actual silences present in the piece are at the beginning and end. The rest is what some might deem white noise: a viola da gamba’s bow gently scraping along a string here, fingers plucking a few strings there. After a few minutes, I considered the sounds of the piece as good as silence;  like the gentle sounds of keyboard typing or the rustle of papers at work, I’d grown accustomed to hearing it in the background.

The album concludes with Sleeping Pendulum, another work by María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir that had already received an honorary award at the time of this CD’s release. It’s another focus on timelessness, a study in how the music we hear today echoes decades and centuries of music that came before it. The piece begins with a simple interplay between a violin and some tinkling bells, but later it becomes all about strings, with a violin interjecting short, high trills above a foundation of slowly morphing sustained chords.

Clockworking is one of those albums that stands on its own sans explanation but that becomes all the more meaningful after you’ve read the liner notes. The album provides a great excuse to put down the phone, step away from the keyboard, and escape pixelated life for a while. Turn the volume up, close your eyes, and do absolutely nothing but listen. Every single one of this album’s 45 minutes deserves your undivided attention.

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Improvisations for Theremin and Piano

by Maggie Molloy

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The theremin is not just for eerie sci-fi film soundtracks anymore—theremin prodigy Carolina Eyck is proving that the instrument once restricted to flying spaceships and intergalactic sound effects could just maybe have a wider range than we thought.

Eyck studied theremin from a young age with one of history’s most influential thereminists, Lydia Kavina. By the time she was 14, Eyck had developed her own technique, which she later published at age 17 in a book titled “The Art of Playing the Theremin.”

Now one of the world’s foremost theremin virtuosi, Eyck has performed and taught workshops around the world, and has collaborated with many prominent artists in both classical and contemporary musical settings.

In her latest project, she collaborated with pianist Christopher Tarnow to create an album of improvised theremin and piano pieces which push the boundaries of this electronic instrument beyond simply outer space.

 

The result is a new type of otherworldly sound—one that is haunting and ethereal, dark but unmistakably sincere.

The album, titled “Improvisations for Theremin and Piano,” combines primarily classical harmonies and counterpoint with the spontaneity and freedom of more avant-garde and experimental musical genres.

Though the two Leipzig-based musicians had originally considered recording an album of through-composed classical music, after discussing repertoire with their producer Allen Farmelo the three decided to create a fully improvised album.

“I was craving a more daring and collaborative approach to working together, one that would allow the studio to become a site of mutual creation rather than just documentation,” said Farmelo, who produced, recorded, mixed, and mastered the album. Farmelo is the founder and director of Butterscotch Records, the label on which the album was released.

In accordance with this egalitarian spirit, the musicians decided not to edit any of the material on the record. Instead, each of the pieces appears on the album just as it was performed in the studio.

“On this record what you hear is exactly what was played, and in my opinion the absence of editing lends these performances an organic vulnerability that is not always heard from meticulous virtuosos,” Farmelo said. “With vulnerability comes depth as we sense something slightly uncertain moving out on the horizon beyond mastery. I wouldn’t trade that depth for any amount of perceived competency, and I consider it one of this record’s most potent qualities.”

In order to create a sense of focus for each of the pieces, Farmelo wrote short phrases on dozens of sheets of paper and gave them to Eyck and Tarnow. Each phrase provided a general image or free-associative idea from which the musicians then created an improvised piece. The eight pieces which made it onto the album get their titles from the phrases that inspired each of them.

For instance, “Earth and Sky” features Tarnow performing as the earth and Eyck as the sky. Her theremin whispers shrilly above Tarnow’s rumbling and echoing bass chords, creating an austere but entrancing musical texture.

The musicians switch to a fuller sound for “Somber Waking Up,” which features a repeated melodic theremin motif weaving in and out of a softly pedaled piano backdrop.

“A Whale in Love” takes a more thematic approach, with the theremin’s tone as large and lethargic as a whale floating slowly through Tarnow’s intermittent harmonic waves and glistening melodic bubbles.

“Quiet Snowfall” features vivid musical imagery as well. Tarnow’s piano melodies sparkle softly above Eyck’s ambient, icy theremin backdrop, reminiscent of delicate snowflakes twinkling on a foggy winter night.

The timbre changes again for “Deep in the Earth,” in which Eyck’s theremin growls and rumbles as though it is drilling deep into the ground, the piano echoing its descent with its ominous intermittent chords.

The album ends with the unforgettable “Haunted Ballerina.” Tarnow sets the stage with jingling piano motif that repeats itself over and over like an eerie, broken music box. His haunting piano motifs dance with Eyck’s ghostly, low-pitched theremin melodies to create a lingering sense of darkness that lasts long after the final notes have been played.

With its remarkably wide range of musical timbres and textures, “Improvisations for Theremin and Piano” proves that the theremin is capable of much more than just cheesy sci-fi sound effects. It showcases the instrument as a genuinely heartfelt and expressive musical instrument, and in doing so, it pushes the theremin into truly uncharted territory.

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Break of Reality’s “TEN”

by Maggie Stapleton

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Break of Reality is a quartet composed of 3 cellists and a percussionist who perform music ranging from Tool to Radiohead to Bach to their own original compositions inspired by rock, classical, folk, and pop music.

There are a lot of attempts at this genre cross-pollinization these days, but BoR REALLY does it well.  This music is genuine and it doesn’t try too hard.  Percussionist Ivan Trevino says, “Rock is as much in our blood as classical music. Our music is organic; we’re not doing it as a gimmick to play rock music on the cello. We want our instruments to be respected both in the classical and rock worlds.”  Success, I say!

“Ten,” their latest release (buy it here!), is the band’s proudest and most mature record to date.  All of the songs are original compositions by cellist Patrick Laird and/or Ivan Trevino and their sound has transitioned from “heavy metal cello band” to a more mellow, classically influenced sound, which comes across very authentically.  They also experimented with different microphones and recording techniques and invested in a lot of their own equipment with this album.  The result is well-balanced, nuanced, yet totally grooves.

I had the pleasure of talking to Ivan and Patrick about a few of the tracks and learned the following tidbits:

“Star” was written for Patrick Laird’s wife, Marnie, who makes a guest piano appearance on the track.

“Helix” is one of their favorite tunes to perform, with a winding cello riff that travels through all different types of time signatures, leaving one wondering if it’s in 7 or 4.  Can you figure it out?

“Six” is the only track on the album that Ivan Trevino wrote all on his own.  It was a originally a mallet sextet composed for the Eastman Percussion ensemble.  This arrangement is for three cellos, piano, 2 percussionists and features marimba, piano, glockenspiel, and drumset. It has a cinematic, mellow, indie rock flavor, “kind of like Bon Iver meets Steve Reich,” as Ivan puts it.

BoR independently releases all of their records.  Trevino recognizes that as a cello band with no singer, their sound doesn’t appeal to a pop music demographic.  Rather, they use their niche genre to be 100% in charge of the art.  They can take complete control of record sales, keep all of the income from record sales, and have all of the say in the sound and recording process.

Oh, and the sweet cover artwork?  It was done by Lauren Yandell, one of Ivan’s high school marching bandmates!

Keep an eye on BoR’s tour schedule and check them out live, if you get a chance.  Percussionist Ivan Trevino says Break of Reality’s shows have the energy of rock concerts; the music is memorized which helps communication and interaction with the audience and there are elements of improv.  The cellists have more articulate, aggressive, vertical types of bow strokes to get the “rock sound,” while playing with a drummer.  However, they always try to bring the unexpected and keep their classical roots at heart and keep the audience guessing what’s going to come next – rock or Bach.

Cheers to you, Break of Reality, for a fantastic new album!  We can’t wait to hear what’s next to come.

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.

Want this album to be yours?  Hop on over to iTunes.

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.