August 03, 2017


Michael Kurek: Serenade for Violoncello and Harp; Moon Canticle; Savannah Shadows; Sonata for Viola and Harp; The Sea Knows. Navona. $14.99.

Bill Whitley: Los Cielos; Lily of Force; The Creation of the World; Awake; Little White Salmon. Ravello. $14.99.

ASCEND: Society of Composers, Inc., Volume 31—Music by Patrick Houlihan, Joungmin Lee, Paul SanGregory, Mike McFerron, Justin Writer, Aaron Alon, Michael Pounds, Jeffrey Loeffert, and Stephen F. Lilly. Navona. $14.99.

Doug Bielmeier: Betty and the Sensory World—Experimental Electronic Music. Ravello. $14.99.

     Contemporary composers who seek some level of audience connection and impact often turn to chamber works rather than larger ensembles, seeking the intimacy and connectivity that a small number of instruments can provide. Composers then decide whether to look for emotional connection, which often means using tonal language with which audiences will be familiar and comfortable, or harsher and more-modern techniques that may find greater favor with other composers but not necessarily with everyday listeners. Michael Kurek’s works on a new Navona CD tend toward the Romantic (or post-Romantic) in their use of tonality, but their overall flavor is something closer to New Age music, thanks largely to Kurek’s writing for harp in three of the five pieces on the disc. Serenade for Violoncello and Harp is a pleasant, vaguely impressionistic work of considerable length (17 minutes), well played by Ovidiu Marinescu and Rita Costanzi, that comes across mostly as background music. Moon Canticle is a work for solo harp, played by Soledad Yaya, that has the sort of otherworldly sound often associated with the harp but has little forward momentum; it is in effect an extended cadenza. Sonata for Viola and Harp, played by Peter Pas and Yaya, combines the instruments’ sonorities interestingly and often with unusual effects, the harp at times assuming a distinctly piano-like sound. Moderately paced, this sonata, like the one for violoncello, has an overall meandering feeling. Savannah Shadows, for violin (Wei Tsun Chang), viola (Seanad Dunigan Chang), and cello (Kirsten Cassel Greer), is most affecting in unison passages with a sense of yearning, although there are a few too many of those for full emotional impact. The Sea Knows features Marinescu and the Vanderbilt Strings conducted by Robin Fountain, and includes some well-considered cello writing against a flowing string backdrop with some of the feeling of small-r romantic film music. The pacing of all these works is generally moderate, lending them individually and collectively a feeling of quietude and peacefulness, but not providing any sense of a deeper emotional tie to listeners.

     Bill Whitley’s music on a new Ravello CD uses small instrumental complements very differently – and uses very different combinations of instruments. The three-movement Los Cielos is for piano (Elena Talarico) and soprano saxophone (Federico De Zottis) and uses sound suspension and ostinato passages to propel its musical argument, the bluesy elements of the second movement (“Ixtapaluca”) being most effective. Lily of Force is for vibes (Stefano Grasso), contrabass (Matteo Lorito), piano (Talarico) and soprano saxophone (De Zottis), but despite the intriguing instrumental mixture, makes rather less use of contrasting sonorities than does Los Cielos, although its faster material, toward the end, is nicely propulsive. The Creation of the World, a two-movement work for two guitars (Eni Lulja and Elisa La Marca), features neatly contrasted guitar sonorities in offering creation stories from Southeast Asia and from Chinook legends. The rhythmic pulse of the first movement and the comparatively static dance of the second are appealingly different.  Awake is for soprano saxophone (De Zottis), piano (Talarico) and flute (Francesco Marzano). Intended to express the spirituality of an Indian mandala experience, it is peaceful enough, but at 13 minutes is much too long for what is essentially a slow-paced meditation without apparent direction. Little White Salmon is the most-varied work here: a suite of seven short movements, the last two being the same as the first two in reverse order and the third lasting only 16 seconds. The work is for narrator (Donna Henderson, who co-wrote the words with the composer) and piano (Talarico), and uses the life cycle of a Pacific salmon as a metaphor for the human experience – not an especially unusual parallel (one type of life seen as similar to another), but a nicely handled one in which words and music do indeed flow together and intermingle convincingly.

     There is nothing unified or unifying in ASCEND, the latest Navona release from the Society of Composers, Inc. This is purely an anthology disc in which pieces for chamber group, solo instruments and electroacoustics are tossed about to see whether anyone other than the composers themselves might find something here or there to be of more than passing interest. Recorded between 2007 and 2016, the pieces range in length from four-and-a-half to eight-and-a-half minutes and in instrumentation from the eletroacoustic Breathing 2: Re/Inspiration by Michael Pounds to the clarinet solo Fantasia by Justin Writer (played by David Carter) and the marimba solo If You Walked a Mile by Mike McFerron (played by Andrew Spencer) – and thence to a wide variety of combinations. Stephen F. Lilly is both composer and performer of Embark for kalimba (a kind of thumb piano), egg shaker, and five-bell desert chime. Jeffrey Loeffert’s Bombinate is for three soprano saxophones (played by Jonathan Nichol, Geoffrey Deibel and the composer). An alto saxophone (Caroline Taylor) and piano (Lei Cai) are used for Patrick Houlihan’s Snoqualmie Passages. A traditional string quartet (Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld, violins; John Richards, viola; Kevin McFarland, cello) plays Vexatious by Joungmin Lee. A non-traditional sextet (Akris Hung, oboe; Bonnie Lin and Chun Chang, violins; Hui-Fang Hsu, viola; Rou-An Hou, cello; Yi-Chin Ou, piano) performs Shining Through Cracks by Paul SanGregory. And Aaron Alon’s Dulce et Decorum Est calls for baritone (Mark Whatley) and string quartet (Eva Liebhaber and Kaoru Suzuki, violins; Elizabeth Charles, viola; Jennifer Humphreys, cello). The works are so disparate in methodology and compositional techniques, as well as instrumentation, that the CD cannot possibly be intended to appeal to listeners other than members of the Society of Composers itself – and not necessarily to all of them. Like the earlier discs in the same series, this one has a bit of something for many people and a great deal that will likely not appeal to very many listeners at all. The point seems to be to show that there are a lot of contemporary composers out there creating a lot of types of music for a lot of kinds of performers and performance groups. Whether any of the music will have any staying power at all, though, will be determined in venues other than this one, which is simply a disconnected hodgepodge of professionally created and produced but in no case particularly compelling material.

     Listeners who find themselves attracted by the one electroacoustic work on ASCEND may want to try the new Ravello CD of music composed, recorded and mixed by Doug Bielmeier. Electronic music specifically labeled “experimental,” as is Betty and the Sensory World, is proclaiming itself an acquired, rarefied taste from the start, and that is just what Bielmeier’s material is. Structurally, this is a seven-section suite lasting more than an hour, and it moves very, very, very slowly. There is nothing specific on which to focus here: occasional sounds, such as that of bells, are recognizable, but for the most part, this is an entirely typical mass of electronic swells and softenings, loudnesses and softnesses, which pass from side to side of speakers or headphones and seem to get closer and farther away in no apparent pattern and to no apparent purpose. There is minimal guidance to be had from the sections’ titles: “Echoes of Shadows,” “The Rocking Chair,” “Christie’s Bells,” “On the Monon,” “Reminded Who I Am,” “The Wisdom of the Cave,” and “Pity for a Fellow Prisoner.” But despite the portentous nature of those titles and the pretentiousness of the whole enterprise, what comes through clearly is neither more nor less than a large series of highly modified real-world sounds combined with laboratory-created groans and grimaces, yips and yawps. There may be some usefulness of this music as a background for meditation or incorporation into some sort of visual design – a way in which electronic music has been used effectively for many decades, the works of Gy├Ârgy Ligeti being employed this way to particularly good effect. But only the most committed fan of electronic music for its own sake is likely to try to pay attention for more than an hour to what Bielmeier has created here. Not all composers are really looking to make connections with an audience of any size – some are primarily interested solely in other composers’ reactions, and some create only for their own pleasure and for a small coterie of fans. Whatever Bielmeier’s intentions for Betty and the Sensory World may be, this is music that requires a strong existing attraction to its medium to be of interest, especially of interest at the length needed to hear the entire composition. Listeners who would like to explore electronic music but are not fully committed to hearing it at exceptional length will do much better to sample the many, many shorter and more evocative works of this type – Ligeti’s oeuvre being as good a place to start as any.

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