July 25, 2019


Quadrants, Volume 3: Music for String Quartet by Bruce Babcock, Nora Morrow, Gary Smart, Jonathan Newmark, Alastair White, Janice Macaulay, Beth Mehocic, and Phelps Dean Witter. Altius Quartet (Joshua Ulrich and Andrew Giordano, violins; Andrew Krimm, viola; Zachary Reaves, cello). Navona. $14.99.

David Haney: Birth of a City; Variations on a Theme. Jason Kao Hwang, violin; Melanie Dyer, viola; Adam Lane, bass; Tomas Ulrich, cello; Julian Priester and Steve Swell, trombones; Dave Storrs and Bernard Purdie, percussion. Big Round Records. $14.99.

Elliott Miles McKinley: Six Movements for Brass Quintet; Aria for Saxophone Quartet and Fixed-Media; Four Grooves—A Chamber Concerto. New York Festival Brass Quintet and Estrella Consort. Navona. $14.99.

     The third string-quartet anthology offered by Navona under the title Quadrants is, like the first two, a showcase for the performers and a chance for listeners to dabble in contemporary pieces from different composers, created in different styles and with different approaches to the quartet medium. Bruce Babcock’s single-movement The Present Moment is unafraid of being largely tonal and melodic, and Babcock’s use of two main themes – plus a third, recurring one – makes the work easy to follow. Nora Morrow’s Rose Moon, in three movements, is even more lyrical and warm, to the point of being a bit overly sentimental – unusual for a modern work. Gary Smart’s Three Fantasies on African American Songs, on the other hand, is determinedly contemporary in sound, to the point that “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Black Woman” and “Shortening Bread” pretty much disappear into the aural landscape. Smart’s work is an extended one, nearly 20 minutes in all, and is a bit more than the underlying material can handle – although, like everything on this disc, it is played with enthusiasm and strong involvement by the Altius Quartet. In contrast, Jonathan Newmark’s very short Tom Dooley without the fringe on top whizzes by speedily, its snippets of well-known tunes gone almost as soon as the ear registers them. Also short, Two Panels for String Quartet by Alastair White has much of the underlying speed of Newmark’s work but none of the tunefulness: it is entirely atonal. Three Pieces for String Quartet by Janice Macaulay, another atonal work, is mainly interested in soundscapes and extending the instruments’ ranges; it is more an intellectual exercise than anything with an emotional connection. Beth Mehocic’s Picasso’s Flight is not about the painter but about the composer’s parrot: the music paints an agitated picture of what sound like multiple unsuccessful attempts to take off. This is effective the first few times but wears thin after a while. Finally, Phelps Dean Witter’s three-movement String Quartet No. 4 returns to the emotional landscape of some of the earlier works on the disc, with a distinctly and rather surprisingly melodic second movement following a highly dissonant first, and with a finale that combines the sound worlds of the first two movements. Here, as usual on anthology discs, there will be something for many people interested in the basic idea of new string-quartet works to enjoy, but the CD as a whole will likely appeal to only a subset of the audience intrigued by a few of its elements.

     The Big Round Records release of two extended works by David Haney seems to feature far more than a quartet of musicians, but in fact the disc is designated as including works for “string quartet and improvising quartet.” That is, Haney uses eight people in mix-and-match fashion in the eight movements of Birth of a City and the five of Variations on a Theme. It is Haney’s combinatorial prowess that is the most interesting element of this disc. Birth of a City starts with two trombones and two percussionists; moves to a trio of bass, cello and percussion; returns to the trombone/percussion mixture; continues with a section for violin, viola, bass and cello; and so on. The string-quartet portions are written out; the others are improvised (although the strings also play some improvised parts). The net effect is on the chaotic side, not so much because of the improvisatory elements (aleatoric music is nothing new) as because of the absence of any particular style or even styles, plural. There is a bit of blues here, a touch of more-upbeat jazz there, some largely nonmusical sounds emitted by musical instruments from time to time, some written-out material that nevertheless sounds improvisatory (which is surely part of Haney’s intent), and whole sections that are static sound blocks offered in contrast to segments that meander in no particular direction. This is music for listeners intrigued by the sound combinations that Haney devises – and not expecting too much communication beyond the sounds themselves. As for Variations on a Theme, it does not offer variations on a theme, but is one of those contemporary works whose title is not so much misleading as it is abstruse. Haney basically takes a theme and breaks it into pieces, then builds each of the work’s five movements from a different piece. What results is, perhaps, variations on pieces of a theme. But the theme itself is scarcely notable and does not really seem worthy of such extended treatment. And the instrumental combinations here, unlike those in Birth of a City, seem disorganized: the first “variation” uses violin, viola, bass, cello and percussion, but by the third there are seven instruments involved – the initial four plus two trombones and percussion. Yet there is no attention paid to the different sonorities of which the differing mixtures are capable, and the emphasis on improvisation – which pervades Variations on a Theme as well as Birth of a City – mainly draws attention to the underlying vapidity of the thematic material. Haney is primarily a jazz pianist, so his fondness for improvising is no surprise, but his approach on this CD simply seems over-extended and without the sort of rhythmic impetus that can make jazz so attractive.

     There are a couple of “quartet” elements on a Navona release of the music of Elliott Miles McKinley. Aria is a work for saxophone quartet (soprano, alto, tenor and bass) plus an electronic background drawn from Glenn Gould’s 1955 piano recording of the Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations. This is a very curious mixture and a surprisingly affecting one: the saxophones’ ranges overlap at times, overextend at others, and the blending of sax voices carries with it a warmth that provides a peculiar but frequently intriguing foreground for the background Gould. The piece goes on rather too long (12 minutes) and tends to get mired in its own cleverness, but it certainly proffers some intriguing sounds. The other “four” work here is a chamber concerto called Four Grooves, a very extended piece (running nearly half an hour) whose four movements clearly show what McKinley is after: “Marimba Madness,” “An African Dream,” “Heavy Metals,” and “A Different Drummer.” What is not a “four” here is the ensemble: the work requires seven players and a conductor. The four movements themselves are well-contrasted: the first is full, warm and melodic; the second, after a slow beginning, is strongly rhythmic; the third is indeed metallic in sound but is primarily light rather than heavy; and the fourth, opening with an extended snare-drum passage, is bouncy and percussive throughout, with a strong jazz beat. Also on the CD and also running nearly half an hour, Six Movements for Brass Quintet shows McKinley in what is generally much more serious mode. The movements are called “Glass Towers,” “Dirge,” “Fanfare,” “Dawn Breezes,” “Frozen Fire,” and “Elegy for Dad,” and are filled with stops and starts, portentous pauses and swells, and frequently complex interplay of the sounds of two trumpets, horn, trombone and tuba. Structured as a suite of sorts – the movements are labeled “Introduction,” “Episode I,” “Interlude I,” “Episode II,” “Interlude II,” and “Epilogue” – the work, at least through four movements, leaves a primarily static impression, as if the players are building on each other chordally rather than progressively. The fifth movement retains some of that approach but also offers greater momentum, while the finale moves at a leisurely pace and seems less elegy-like than introductory – although to what is less than clear. The New York Festival Brass Quintet, which performs these six movements, is a first-rate ensemble, but the work itself never quite seems to gel or to know where it is going. Members of the Estrella Consort handle Aria and Four Grooves, and they have a somewhat easier time putting across what McKinley is trying to do in these pieces. All the music is skillfully put together, and all the works have elements that are worth hearing, but none of the three has a completely convincing totality.

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