The taxonomy of contemporary classical music—new music, contemporary music, whatever you want to call it—is a thorny issue. But every two months, we’ll take a look at some of the best composer-driven music to surface here on Bandcamp, that which makes room for electronic experimentation, improvisation, and powerful takes on old classics.
Caroline Shaw & Attacca Quartet
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP
Caroline Shaw won a Pulitzer Prize for her 2013 vocal composition Partita, composed for Roomful of Teeth, an ensemble in which she sings. But her first connection to classical music was as a violinist—an instrument at which she continues to excel; she’s retained a deep attachment to classic string quartet music since first playing one by Haydn or Mozart (she can’t remember which). On this enjoyable collection of quartets composed for Attacca Quartet, she reveals her ongoing ardor for the format while subtly reimagining its possibilities. Accordingly, her liner notes cast the work not as an album but rather a garden, tended to by herself and Attacca.
Rather than upend tradition, Shaw embraces it, while jiggering compositional mechanisms to see where things go. The stately “Entr’acte” experiments with a key shift used in Haydn’s “Op. 77, No. 2,” spreading it all over the piece to implant a tension that perpetually threatens to topple the sense of grace. The five movements of “Plan & Elevation” sprinkle in fragments of Ravel and Mozart, as well as some of Shaw’s own past works, while “Limestone & Felt” succeeds at conjuring a variety of tactile sensations, whether deploying feather-stroke pizzicato or jagged snapping.
On their second album, this agile quintet of single and double reed instruments embrace a more challenging and rigorous set of pieces, including four that were commissioned by the group. These seven pieces draw upon Splinter Reeds’ technical skills in a way that eschews serious athletic display in favor of playful showiness. “Line and Length” by Matthew Shlomowitz suggests a circus-like attitude, with slashing lines at once whimsical and breathtaking, as a couple of key melodic phrases appear in one new permutation after another. A complementary sense of fancy turns up on Sky Macklay’s “Choppy,” which unleashes febrile, fast-moving multiphonic exercises amid a pull between stern low-end figures and upper register passages that makes me think of acrobats flipping inside a tent, their dazzling physical command delivering a sense of wonder rather than a dry workshop.
Cara Haxo’s “Exercices” are more serene and measured studies which clear the air for the onset of Eric Wubbels’s “Auditory Scene Analysis,” a blistering critique Albert Bregman’s writings on sonograms, that draws upon all manner of extended technique, but funnels them into a corkscrewing flow of fractured riffs, electronic-sounding trills, and upper register long tones at the threshold of audibility. It’s hard to think of another reed ensemble project that drives so relentlessly.
The third in a brilliant series of solo albums from the 1970s that sought to erase the boundaries between the anything-goes experimentalism of New York and the rather staid conventions of European modernism, Canti Illuminati is Alvin Curran’s delirious celebration of the human voice. The composition is performed in two divergent iterations, both of which center around the composer’s exuberant singing. The first, wildly psychedelic suite contains layers upon layers of Curran’s quirky, structured, electronically-enhanced vocal improvisations—whether nonsensical gibberish, ecstatic ululations, or mesmerizing throat singing. He’s joined by an abstract, somewhat buried choir of guest singers, tape-driven microtones and harmonics, and subtly sparkling Serge synthesizer tones—elements that wend their way through a steadily shifting landscape of incantatory hallucinations.
Curran’s voice also takes center stage on a second, more stripped-down interpretation, where overdubbed parts and more extreme electronic manipulations elevate the performance to something equally compelling and trippy. Here the composer channels Al Jolson-style crooning, massed long tones, chanting with a cosmic feel, and sky-high yodels, interspersing them with field recordings of an Italian woman singing and whistling while attending to household chores, and piano that pivots between parlor room sentimentality and minimalist hypnosis.
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
Before her death in 2009, the composer Maryanne Amacher devoted most of her career to designing perception-altering installations—daring explorations of the physicality of sound. She created stunning multi-channel electronic works that allowed listeners to experience sound in fascinating new ways. Moved by one such installation, Swiss pianist Marianne Schroeder commissioned Amacher to write for her. Years passed, and the original commission for a trio ended up as a single-movement work for two pianos. Petra gives us a rare glimpse into Amacher’s use of conventional instrumentation. It was shaped in part by her visit to the cathedral in Boswil, Switzerland, where Petra would premiere in 1991. She noted the environment, ambience, and architecture of the church, and deployed those qualities with the storyline from a short story by science fiction writer Greg Bear (which gave the piece its title), in which various gargoyles, saints, and other figures captured in stone and stained glass come to life and breed with humans in the cathedral of Notre Dame.
Amacher used these characters as abstracted narrative elements in the piece, although it’s hard to deduce a clear plotline. And it doesn’t ultimately matter. This performance is rendered beautifully by Schroeder and fellow pianist Stefan Tcherepnin, moving from melancholic fragility to harrowing density. On the most delicate passages the pianists achieve something ineffably light, but rumbling through patterns on the left end of the keyboard, they also summon a spirit of troubling darkness.
Collected Works Vol. II (2005-2018)
Australian pianist and composer Anthony Pateras is a serious polymath whose prolificacy is matched only by his curiosity and range. This monumental anthology shows off his dazzling energy and imagination; despite how many different approaches and styles he embraces, it also feels cohesive. Pateras has an abiding interest in acoustic phenomena, an interest expressed straight out of the gate with the 2018 piece “A Happy Sacrifice” in which deeply resonant, open-stringed improvisations by bassist Jonathan Heilbron are deftly mirrored by the composer’s tape work. This elegantly blurs the line between what is played on the bass and what’s electronically manipulated. The play of electronics with the piccolo of Rebecca Lane in the piercing “Burning is the Thing,” on the other hand, produces otoacoustic mayhem.
Improvisation plays a big role in much of the music, but it’s almost always situated within a rigorous compositional conceit. The 2013 piece “As Long as Breath or Bow” features nine superb players, who straddle the classical/improv divide, working in concert to weave a mesmerizing, constantly changing fabric of sound riddled with subtle interplay and luminescent color. Over the course of more than five hours, Pateras demonstrates not only a wealth of related ideas, but the ability to get the most out of his collaborators, who readily give their all.
As a member of the long-running Austrian ensemble Polwechsel, bassist Werner Dafeldecker has spent decades formulating opaque or invisible compositional structures to organize free improvisation. He didn’t write his 2004 piece Small Worlds specifically for his own group—in fact, I wrote about a rendering of the piece by the Australian group Quiver in this column in September of 2017—but this recording, made back in 2004, does feature members of Polwechsel. Those members include himself, cellist Michael Moser, and percussionists Martin Brandlmayr (Radian) and Burkhard Beins, along with two close associates, pianist John Tilbury (AMM) and organist Klaus Lang.
His score charts a temporal timeline, divided in three-minute increments, in which shifting trios within the group are led by directed by a “dynamic leader.” The players not only need to pay close attention to these temporal shifts when a new leader emerges, but they must also listen to and relate to the activity in the other trio as well as their own. This richly dynamic performance moves with a slow luxuriance, but also contains gripping tension, its ever-changing focus propelled by meticulously interwoven gestures. The sound flows like lava, but every grain and motion is clearly defined.
In Search of Lost Beauty...
Compact Disc (CD)
Notre Dame Cathedral may be in the news recently, but its appearance twice in this month’s column is purely coincidental. This 10-part work from emerging Lithuanian composer Žibuoklė Martinaitytė was crystallized one evening in Paris while she strolled outside of the iconic structure, catching its fragmented reflections in small puddles that pocked the sidewalk upon which she walked. The images triggered an exploration into the ephemeral, particularly in light of the way technology has riveted so much of our time and attention with glowing screens. The music is performed with great precision by the Lithuanian piano trio FortVio (pianist Indre Baikstyte, cellist Povilas Jacunskas, and violinist Ingrida Rupaite-Petrikiene) and their gauzy readings are sometimes overlaid with subtle electronics and haunting choral accents, all summoning an otherworldly universe of sound. As Martinaitytė writes in a liner note essay, the sections “are hints of our memories continuously coming back in multiple metamorphoses, attempting to suggest a storyless narrative.”
The original performance of the work featured video accompaniment, but the music stands easily on its own. While many of the pieces, such as “Blue,” shimmer amorphously with a floating, aerated texture, other sections take on a more defined quality, with specific instrumental passages standing out, whether the astringent cello wending through “Ephemeral,” or the insistent violin of “Serenity Diptychs,” which cuts across a levitating drone, sharpening its edge as it goes, until an agitated climax ruptures any sense of tranquility inferred by earlier sections.
ghostses by Casey Anderson
Compact Disc (CD)
This peculiar piece by Los Angeles composer Casey Anderson was developed between 2016–2018 for Bent Duo (keyboardist David Friend and percussionist Bill Solomon). “Ghostses” is a tricky rhythmic system derived from the first chapter of W.G. Sebald’s novel The Rings of Saturn, using the programming language Python. It parses the text into elliptical layers translated onto stacked transparencies, with a sheet of paper containing the full Sebald text at the bottom that the performers read both silently in full (to themselves) and selected words and phrases aloud. For each performance, a different iteration of the spoken portion of the text is produced. The duo’s matter-of-fact delivery turns Sebald’s writing, itself already somewhat enigmatic, into something beautifully mysterious.
Anderson assigns different sounds meticulously activated according to the score by the performers to different parts of speech—nouns highlighted in the text score correspond to bits of transmissions on FM radio, while verbs ask Bent Duo to strike one in a series of tuning forks. Among the other sonic devices are a harmonica, assorted small percussion, and a kitchen timer with a bell. There are delightful moments of random synergy, as when one of the performers says, “We believe that we see, what they saw then,” and the phrase “Try to see it my way” from “We Can Work it Out” by the Beatles suddenly plays on the radio.
Anthony Burr and Charles Curtis
Chamber Music: Alvin Lucier & Morton Feldman
Compact Disc (CD)
Clarinetist Anthony Burr and cellist Charles Curtis are among the most devoted and experienced practitioners of Alvin Lucier’s music, which requires a serious engagement with the way his studies of acoustic phenomenon operate. This superb program finds them tackling three of his works—two of which have never been previously released on a recording—and three by New York school giant Morton Feldman. A partial transcription of a Lucier lecture from 2002 that discusses Feldman functions as the collection’s liner note essay, and it goes a long way in explaining the curation of this album. “For Feldman, dynamics serve an acoustical function,” Lucier says. “When he mitigates a piano attack he reduces that spike of noise that’s at the onset of every piano sound leaving only the sinusoidal pure after-sound. It’s as if he invented electronic music with the piano.”
The explorative performances deliver stunningly beautiful results, and while the opening Lucier piece “August Moon” (2015)—played by Curtis, Burr (on piano rather than clarinet), and Nicolee Kuester on horn—evinces his trademark investigations in sonic phenomenon in the way overtones interact and dance, it becomes easier to hear the connections Lucier heard in Feldman’s work, such as his 1958 work “Two Instruments” played by Curtis and Kuester, even without the explicit interest in pure acoustics.
Berlin Head Metal
The trajectory of San Francisco’s Matthew Goodheart from prolific free jazz pianist to electro-acoustic composer might be surprising, but with the first recorded iteration of his ongoing sound installation practice captured on Berlin Head Metal he’s made his creative shift count. He calls his work “reembodied sound,” which involves using various metal objects as sonic devices. His array of percussion isn’t struck, but instead outfitted with transducers that trigger vibrations, generating a veritable symphony of resonant clangs, hums, and drones.
Goodheart generated an array of sounds from gongs and cymbals, using various traditional and extended techniques (striking them with mallets, circling them with knitting needles, scraping the surfaces with fingernails) and recording that output. Then, those sounds were fed into transducers placed on the same instruments in a process that produces resonances from the percussion instruments, which is also recorded, in the manner of Alvin Lucier’s elemental “I Am Sitting in a Room.” The resulting tones were fed into a computer, and Goodheart constructed the music using “raw, resynthesized, cross-synthesized” iterations of the source material, deploying more than 1,000 samples in the first three movements. The fourth movement was recorded at an installation in Florence, Italy that combined the above techniques, with additional samples of “local birds, water, voice, and breath.”