April 05, 2018


Moments of Truth: Music of Karl Blench, Martin Vogt “Haywyre,” Monteverdi, Fleetwood Mac, Billie Holiday, Ives, Steve Paul “Elliott” Smith, Bach, and Bob Dylan. Axiom Quartet (Dominika​ ​Dancewicz​ and Ingrid​ ​Gerling, violins; Nina​ ​Bledsoe,​ ​viola; Patrick​ ​Moore,​ ​cello). Navona. $14.99.

Gregory Wanamaker: Des Ondes et les Temps; …Unsettled, Unphased…; Elegy; Ragahoro Breakdown; Of Light and Shadows; Out of Mind, into Body; Counterpunch. Navona. $14.99.

David Taddie: Wayward Country; A Rift in Time; Triptych; Tracer; Category 5 (Echoes); Caterwaul Dreams; Licorice Stick Groove; Convergences. Ravello. $14.99.

Zvonimir Nagy: Angelus; Litanies of the Soul; Prayer; Two Canons; Preludes for a Prayer. Zvonimir Nagy, organ. Ravello. $14.99.

     A great deal of music is about connecting: composer connecting with audience through performers, performers connecting with each other to produce the effects sought by composers, audience members connecting through shared experience with the communicative power flowing both from composer and from performers. Because different music connects with performers and listeners in different ways, there are all sorts of opportunities for concert promoters, recording producers and performers themselves to put sequences of works together in ways designed to elicit a sense of a whole greater than the sum of its parts – that is, to combine works in new ways so as to produce new insights, new ways of connecting with an audience, new ways of getting listeners to connect with their own inner selves. This is exactly what the Axiom Quartet tries to do on a new Navona CD called “Moments of Truth.” That title encapsulates the rather grandiose aim here: to explore what “truth” is and can be in the hands of string players and the minds of composer and listeners. The works on the CD are so different, so disconnected from each other, that its intent is a definite overreach. To try to pull the musical strands together, the quartet plays short pieces by Karl Blench – who also did the arrangements of all the longer music – in between the primary selections. This is a clever but only marginally successful approach: really, nothing Blench writes for the quartet to play ties together an excerpt from Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea with Little Lies by Fleetwood Mac. Blench calls the 29-second connecting work After Monteverdi, but all that does is affirm the piece’s position on the disc. Likewise, after the quartet plays the Billie Holiday/Arthur Herzog Jr. Don’t Explain, Blench’s 66-second Before Ives is a somewhat less than wholly effective transition to a version of The Alcotts from Ives’ Concord Sonata. Still, the attempt to extract or display various forms of truth, musical and otherwise, from such disparate material, makes for a disc that is intriguing throughout and often fascinating. After working through material including Bach’s Erbarme dich from the St. Matthew Passion and Bob Dylan’s Wagon Wheel, the CD eventually builds to the longest piece here, Blench’s Axiom, which is supposed to sum up and expand all the truth-seeking that has come before and point listeners – well, where, exactly? That is not quite clear, and the concluding piece is not strong enough to bear the philosophical weight with which it is freighted. So this musical search for truth, or truths, turns out to be inconclusive – but it is easy to argue that that is the proper conclusion for an exploration that never ends.

     The connections in a new Navona CD of music by Gregory Wanamaker are all sought by the same composer and all focused on woodwinds: saxophones are central to all the pieces here except one, Out of Mind, into Body, which is for solo bass clarinet. This is one of two solo works on the disc: Des Ondes et les Temps, for tenor saxophone, is heard at the start of the disc in a jazz-infused version, then at the CD’s conclusion in more experimental form. Throughout the pieces heard here, Wanamaker is looking for connections not only with listeners – to whom he reaches out in a stylistic mixture that includes folk, dance, ethnic and rock elements as well as jazz – but also among performers in the pieces for multiple instruments: Ragahoro Breakdown for clarinet and alto saxophone, Of Light and Shadows for alto saxophone and piano, and the remaining works for larger groupings of four to six players. Wanamaker is clearly a composer who feels that the same notes communicate different things when played by different instruments: Des Ondes et les Temps  is seen by the composer as a “third movement” for an earlier two-movement piece for solo flute, while Elegy is here arranged for five instruments but was originally written for clarinet and alto saxophone. Wanamaker’s musical language also extends beyond traditional instruments and into electronics in Out of Mind, into Body and the second version of Des Ondes et les Temps. A great deal of the music here is athematic and virtuosic, and will be of special interest to saxophonists and other wind players but perhaps less so to audiences – although jazz fans will quickly pick up on the many riffs and variation techniques that Wanamaker borrows from that style. The shorter pieces here, including Elegy and Counterpunch, make their points rather more effectively than do the longer and more-elaborate ones, which tend toward the repetitive. But some of the longer works, although they are inclined to meander and be overextended, provide effective contrasts of sound: Of Light and Shadows is the clearest example of this. Wanamaker’s skillful writing should help him connect effectively with saxophonists and lovers of contemporary wind music. But emotional connections between these works and a wider listenership are somewhat harder to discern.

     Another single-composer CD, a Ravello release featuring music by David Taddie, looks not only for connections with an audience but also for connections with computers and electronics. Traditional instruments are only one aspect of the material here, being entirely missing in one piece, Caterwaul Dreams – an imaginary entry into cats’ dreams that sounds pretty much like what you would expect from its title – and otherwise appearing only in combination with computer sounds or electroacoustic accompaniment. A great deal of the connection here is between Taddie and the performers: he wrote the pieces for specific people (not necessarily the ones who perform the works here) and accommodated their particular abilities, needs, desires and orientations. Thus, every work here is a highly personal one that connects composer and performer intimately – but direct connections with a larger audience are less clear and will likely depend on how much individual listeners enjoy hearing the mixing of specific instruments with particular forms of electronic sounds and samplings. Certainly there are quite a few combinations among which to choose. Wayward Country is for alto saxophone (Michael Ibrahim) and computer. A Rift in Time is for violin (Andrea Schultz), cello (Michael Finckel), and computer; its title refers to the terrorist murders of September 11, 2001, which occurred as Taddie was finishing the piece. Triptych, the longest work on the disc, is for flute (Nina Assimakopoulos) and electroacoustic accompaniment, and here the communication is taken to a new level: the work includes words written and spoken by Assimakopoulos, whose text expresses her reactions to the electronic elements of the piece – which includes specific sounds that she asked Taddie to introduce. Tracer is for piano (Keith Kirchoff) and electroacoustic accompaniment. Category 5 (Echoes) is for flute, alto flute and piccolo (Francesca Arnone), plus violin (Mikylah McTeer) and computer. Licorice Stick Groove is for clarinet (Marianne Gythfeldt) and electroacoustic accompaniment. And Convergences is for harp (Julia Kay Jamieson) and electroacoustic accompaniment. There are plenty of convergences on this disc, not just in the piece of that title, and plenty of communication as well. However, a general audience is not likely to pick up the many nuances that Taddie introduced into these pieces at the behest of the people for whom he wrote them, so the communicative potential of the music is likely, for most people, to be somewhat muted.

     There is just one instrument rather than a multiplicity of them on a new Ravello CD featuring music written and performed by Zvonimir Nagy – but the instrument here is one that is often spoken of as including all instruments: the organ. An instrument of longstanding association with spirituality and organized religion, one thought to facilitate connection between the soul and God, the organ receives less attention from contemporary composers than do many other instruments – even when the organ itself is quite a new one, as is the case here, with Nagy playing a Jaeckel organ built as recently as 2015. The primary connection invited by these Nagy works is not with an external spiritual figure but between an individual and his or her inner self: these are minimalist, meditative works that could be used as aids to inward contemplation but that tend to be difficult to listen to attentively. The CD runs just over an hour, and is almost impossible to keep in the foreground of one’s awareness if heard straight through: Nagy’s aim appears to be quiet and relaxation, the use of music to induce an internal focus and a connection with one’s sense of spirituality and inner peace. The works all have a sameness about them, although on analysis they can clearly be seen as different in design. Every work on the disc calls by its title on the organ’s traditional liturgical function, even if the music itself does not. Angelus is gentle and develops slowly and quietly. Litanies of the Soul features first and last movements that move upwards and downwards, respectively, plus three internal movements that are slow and quiet. Nagy’s Two Canons are not strictly canonic, using the imitative form to produce somewhat more-complex sounds. Prayer is a short piece whose material ties to Preludes for a Prayer, the longest work here: a seven-movement suite in which the final movement is essentially a lengthy version of the first, while the five inner ones meander through quietude until the sixth becomes briefly more animated before the last one returns to tranquility. Like minimalist music in general, these Nagy pieces are ones in which the composer seems almost to be absent: minimalism facilitates connections within listeners, with the composer as enabler rather than someone who determines what, specifically, will be communicated. In reality, all music encourages listeners to find elements of themselves with which the sounds resonate, both literally and figuratively. But composers have traditionally wanted to guide audiences toward particular experiences, to connect them with what musical creators want hearers to experience. Nagy and other minimalists are content to ask listeners to feel connectedness of some sort without insisting on just what the nature of their feelings and experiences will be.

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