August 16, 2018


Patrice Michaels: The Long View—A Portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Lori Laitman: Wider Than the Sky; Vivian Fung: Pot Roast à la RBG; Stacy Garrop: My Dearest Ruth; Derrick Wang: You Are Searching in Vain for a Bright-Line Solution. Patrice Michaels, soprano; Kuang-Hao Huang, piano. Cedille. $16.

Walter Steffens: Two Cells in Sevilla, or Don Quixote Is Hungry; Five Songs on Hölderlin. Members of the Greenbrier Consortium conducted by David Kirk; Sonja Bruzauskas, mezzo-soprano; Tali Morgulis, piano. Navona. $14.99.

Michael Wittgraf: Manifold; Improvisation 2; Improvisation 4; Summer and a Half; Topographic Timepiece; Pythagorean Triple. Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, voice; Jesse Langen, guitar; Michael Wittgraf, computer. Ravello. $14.99.

Gina Biver: Mirror; Girl Walking; We Meet Ourselves; The Cellar Door; No Matter Where. Ravello. $14.99.

     Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become a darling of the political Left in the United States for her unashamed and unapologetic determination to interpret the Constitution in accordance with modern society and what she perceives as modern social needs. The politicization of the unelected Supreme Court has a very long history, dating back nearly to the Constitution itself, but the focus on Ginsburg – now sometimes referred to as “the Notorious RBG,” as if she is a rapper or other entertainment celebrity – has reached new heights, as shown on a Cedille recording devoted to unceasing praise of her on both a personal level and a professional one. Within the U.S. political system, there is nothing wrong with any of this: certainly presidents are moved by political considerations in making appointments to the court, and even Franklin Roosevelt’s notorious, failed court-packing plan of 1937 (designed to expand the court so he could appoint more justices guaranteed to back his initiatives) has recently been given new life by some on the American Left. Clearly, the music composed and performed by Patrice Michaels is intended as a tribute to Ginsburg, and the CD is aimed only at those with specific political views – an unfortunate propaganda orientation for music, whatever the merits or demerits of the underlying political arguments. As it happens, Michaels’ extended nine-song cycle is nicely written and conveys a rather well-fleshed-out portrait of Ginsburg as a person, intermingled with excerpts from her opinions that are accepted unquestioningly by Michaels and are intended to preach to the choir through settings that focus on the words and often relegate the musical accompaniment to a wholly subsidiary level. Michaels includes touches of pathos in the cycle, in words from a letter written by Ginsburg’s late husband; touches of humor, in a song about Ginsburg’s prank-playing brother; and touches of cleverness, such as the punning, almost-rap-titled “Dissenter of de Universe.” Michaels sings and declaims the material well and receives careful backup from pianist Kuang-Hao Huang. What is missing in the cycle, clearly intentionally, is any sense of nuance, any indication that perhaps there might be a way to see things that is not Ginsburg’s way (obviously and by definition, dissents mean that most Supreme Court justices disagree with Ginsburg’s views of the cases in which she dissents). Ginsburg is in fact a subtle thinker who happens to hold a position on the Constitution that differs strongly from that of many other justices and many legal scholars – and that is fine and, indeed, strengthening for the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, The Long View is hagiography rather than any sort of considered or balanced biography, and while this will certainly make it attractive to those who agree 100% with Michaels (and by implication with Ginsburg), it makes it unlikely that the work will reach the ears of people of differing political views – the very people who might benefit from hearing it and might even find they enjoy the music, if not the viewpoint. The CD also includes two pleasant tributes commissioned for Ginsburg’s 80th birthday: Vivian Fung’s Pot Roast à la RBG and Stacy Garrop’s My Dearest Ruth. Lori Laitman’s Wider Than the Sky, using words by Emily Dickinson, is included as well, and stands out here for its interesting (and nonpolitical) text and its consideration of issues not directly (or not solely) related to Ginsburg. Finally, the disc offers a very interesting excerpt from the comic opera Scalia/Ginsburg by Derrick Wang. This piece, You Are Searching in Vain for a Bright-Line Solution, offers Ginsburg’s perspective on constitutional matters in an intelligent, well-argued way that, in the opera, contrasts with the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s equally valid viewpoint on how the document should be interpreted. What is heard here is, unfortunately, one-sided, but then that is the way this entire recording comes across – as a bright-line tribute to one single way of looking at one of the United States’ founding documents, arguably both the most complex and the most important of them all.

     A contemporary opera of a very different sort, with literary rather than political pretensions, Walter Steffens’ Two Cells in Sevilla uses a highly intriguing premise and an amusingly conceived libretto to present the imagined thoughts of two famous Spanish authors. The libretto – by the composer’s son, Marec Béla Steffens – imagines that the creators of Don Quixote and Don Juan are in cells of two different types that happen to be served by the same cook, whose culinary favors the authors try to win by producing their most famous works. Miguel de Cervantes’ cell is in a debtor’s prison, while Tirso de Molina (real name: Brother Gabriel Téllez) has a monk’s cell in a cloister. The two men’s differing circumstances are reflected in their differing authorial penchants, and the matter-of-fact elements of their daily lives are contrasted with the fantastical creations they bring to life through their writing. The music is largely tonal, although there is enough dissonance to make its modernity clear, and the singers’ delivery mixes conventional operatic declamation with bits of Sprechstimme. The ensemble seems to have a good time with the material. Tenor Todd R. Miller is Cervantes; bass Octavio Moreno is Brother Gabriel; mezzo-soprano Sonja Bruzauskas is the cook; and baritone Benjamin LeClair sings the role of a servant. The instrumentalists for this chamber opera are Anne Leek on oboe and cor anglais, Alexander Potiomkin on clarinet, Masahito Sugihara on saxophone, Erika Johnson on cello, and Paul Boyd on piano – an instrumental combination that echoes Baroque ensembles that use melody instruments plus continuo, even though the music itself does not nod in any significant way to the time period in which the opera, which was written in 2016, is set. Opera in general is not for all tastes, and modern opera reaches out to an even smaller audience, but Two Cells in Sevilla is a clever and involving enough work to be worth hearing by listeners familiar with Don Quixote and/or Don Juan, even if not with their creators or with the operatic form. Also on the Navona CD are Five Songs on Hölderlin (2008), sung by Bruzauskas with piano accompaniment by Tali Morgulis. These are highly contrasted expressions of poetic sentiments ranging from the idealistic to the painful, written in traditional art-song form, sung in German, and ranging in length from the short to the very short indeed. The settings here are sensitive and in large measure traditional, although the shortest of the songs, arranging a fragment of poetry in just over a minute, has a particularly interesting contrast between its opening of voice without piano and its continuation of a dissonant chord and a piano part that fades into nothingness. Slow in pace, more pensive and less immediately accessible than Two Cells in Sevilla, the songs provide a complementary auditory experience for listeners seeking to hear additional ways in which Steffens handles vocal material.

     The voice appears in only two of the six works by Michael Wittgraf on a new Ravello CD, with the guitar participating in all six and computer-generated sounds (created by Wittgraf himself) being heard in three. Improvisation 2 and Improvisation 4 have a surprising connection to Steffens’ opera in one way: the sounds of vocalist Amanda DeBoer Bartlett are based on medieval chants. But of course those sounds, and indeed the sounds of all the works on this recording, are about as far from older sensibilities (musical and otherwise) as Wittgraf and the other performers can make them. In fact, even the voice itself is “modernized” here, being processed for inclusion in the tracks; whether that constitutes an improvement of any sort is a matter of opinion and taste. The electronic sounds in the two Improvisation tracks and in Topographic Timepiece are nothing special, although the way the guitar actually seems to evoke rather than imitate some of the electronics in Topographic Timepiece is interesting. However, at nearly 12 minutes, the piece is much too long for what it has to say. The non-computer-containing works here are generally more interesting. Manifold is another piece that outstays its welcome: at 13 minutes, it is the longest work on the CD, and sustaining a piece for solo guitar for such a time period would be difficult even if the material had more heft to it than Wittgraf’s does. The other guitar-only pieces are somewhat more modest in scale, a circumstance from which they benefit. The two movements of Summer and a Half are mostly explorations of guitar techniques and will in that regard be of interest to guitarists; certainly Jesse Langen handles the material stylishly and attentively. Pythagorean Triple, the last and shortest work on the disc, is in many ways the most effective piece of them all, from its strummed opening to its hesitant progress toward linear material that never quite becomes thematic. This is one disc among many intended, apparently, mainly for performers (in this case, guitarists) looking for new material that they might consider playing, and for listeners who are either familiar with the composer already or who simply want to hear something new being produced on the contemporary-music scene.

     Another such CD, also from Ravello, features five works by Gina Biver, who, like Wittgraf, participates in some of the performances – once as speaker and once on electric guitar. Mirror (2012), the spoken-word piece, is the only one here using the human voice, and actually includes two of them: Biver’s and that of Colette Inez, whose poem, “Empress in the Mirror,” inspired the work. The voices mingle, deliberately disconcertingly, with violin (Greg Hiser) and piano (Ina Mirtcheva Blevins). The instrumental sounds are typical for contemporary compositions, and the overall effect of the work is one of displacement and uncertainty – again, nothing especially unusual in today’s music. This is the shortest piece on the CD and, in part as a result, seems more tightly knit than the other works. The work on which Biver plays electric guitar is Girl Walking (2014), which also features Jennifer Lapple on flute, Ethan Foote on bass, and Scott Deal playing “found percussion,” notably two teacups that are out of tune with each other. The electric-guitar opening expresses itself in near-vocal sounds to which the other instruments are added over time, but aside from the differing sounds as instruments emerge and drop out of the grouping, the work has little sense of progress or forward motion. We Meet Ourselves (2015) has an unusual inspiration – the psychoanalytic works of Carl Jung, who is best known for his concept of the collective unconscious – and is a piece for Scott Deal, to whom it is dedicated. Deal performs on marimba and “triggered audio,” meaning that Deal brings in pre-recorded sounds by gestural cues or by touching specific parts of the marimba. The marimba’s otherworldly sound here fits nicely with the triggered ones, but the work’s essentially static pace means that it does not seem to go anywhere in particular. The Cellar Door (2011), another Jung-inspired work, is played by Blevins on piano and Pam Clem on cello. Biver’s idea here is to use an audio track to represent the unconscious, while the instruments stand in for conscious life. Knowledge of this intent makes the piece somewhat more comprehensible, although heard purely as music, it comes across as a work in which modest efforts at thematic entry and development are interfered with again and again by electronic sounds. Finally, No Matter Where (2010) is played by Hiser on violin, Blevins on piano, and Angela Murakami on clarinet. Underlying pre-recorded train sounds make it clear that the work represents a journey, and various musical influences – Asian ones being particularly noticeable – indicate something of where the trip takes place. Not really a sound painting or a travelogue, the piece, like the CD as a whole, seems to be aimed at a narrow audience: listeners fond of electro-acoustical composition in general, and ones who are curious about the sounds wielded in various ways by composers in the 21st century.

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