April 29, 2021


Sérgio and Clarice Assad and others: Archetypes. Third Coast Percussion. Cedille. $16.

Curtis K. Hughes: Flagrant; Antechamber; Lesson Plan; Merger; Wingtones; It Was Not Raining; Tulpa. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

Ghost Light: Music by Stacy Garrop, Michael Gilbertson, Niloufar Nourbakhsh, Theo Chandler, and Jeff Scott. Akropolis Reed Quintet (Tim Gocklin, oboe; Kari Landry, clarinet; Matt Landry, saxophone; Ryan Reynolds, bassoon; Andrew Koeppe, bass clarinet). New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     The notion of music as an intensely personal art, with material created by a single individual, flies in the face of some collectivist leanings of certain musical groups – and is also at variance with the current social emphasis on things being better when many people work together. Whether creativity spread across multiple individuals makes sense, at least in special cases, is at the heart of a new Cedille release called Archetypes, in which two primary composers (Brazilian guitarist Sérgio Assad and his daughter, Clarice Assad) create musical impressions of eight archetypal figures, while four other composer/performers (David Skidmore, Peter Martin, Robert Dillon, and Sean Connors) produce four more – the result being a dozen differently limned archetypal characters brought to musical life through the Third Coast Percussion ensemble. The whole hour-long production is an experiment in composition, performance and communication. The percussive elements, not surprisingly, tend to dominate, but there is also plenty of vocalizing (some with a distinctly Brazilian sound) and a good deal of fine guitar playing – although Sérgio Assad is often placed in an ostinato role instead of being heard front-and-center. The biggest issue with Archetypes is that almost none of the dozen pieces really sounds like or reflects its title particularly well. The electronic-keyboard sound of Lover is attractive, for example, but the work does not explore this archetype except perhaps through a generally warm rather than strident sound (and it is stretching things to say that). Ruler has no particular sense of dominance, and while Jester does have some straightforwardly joking kazoo-like material, its overall feeling is not very different from that of Rebel. There is scarcely any sound of wisdom in Sage, which sounds mostly like in-a-cave music with trickling water somewhere; and Hero is very close in sensibility to Explorer, a stance that may be deliberate on the composers’ part, but one that makes the portrayals a good deal less than archetypal. The remaining works here – Innocent, Orphan, Magician, Caregiver, and Creator – all contain attractive instrumentation without relating in significant ways to their titular characters. The playing of Archetypes is excellent throughout, as is only to be expected from Third Coast Percussion. But the overall work, despite many interesting musical moments within its component parts, never makes a strong representational impression.

     The intent is variety of both effect and instrumentation on a New Focus Recordings release of music written over a 22-year time period by Curtis K. Hughes (born 1974). This too is in some ways a collaborative venture, with Hughes working closely with the performers who bring his works to life; and this too is a variegated recording, because the seven works offered on it not only date to different time periods but also use very different instrumental complements. The sound of the instruments seems itself to be the main point that Hughes makes in many of these pieces, as in the opening snare-drum solo, Flagrant, which is an intriguing concept piece that highlights more sounds than the snare drum usually produces – but which wears out its welcome well before the end of its three-and-a-half-minute time frame. Rhythmic variation as much as sonic differentiation is at the heart of Antechamber, which is played by the Boston Percussion Group (Matt Sharrock, Brian Calhoon, Greg Simonds, and Aaron Trant) and which, again, shows Hughes’ command of writing for differing sonic combinations but which, also again, continues longer than its content can justify (nearly 14 minutes in this case). Next on the CD is Lesson Plan for solo bass clarinet (Amy Advocat), and this is a pleasant miniature that nicely contrasts more-lyrical and more-pointed material. It is followed by Merger for two cellos (played by “Sentient Robots”: Bri Tagliaferro and Ben Baker). This is one of those competition-plus-cooperation pieces in which the cello’s inherent warmth and exceptional range play second fiddle (so to speak) to special effects and extended performance techniques. The work structurally somewhat resembles the duet that appears next on the CD, Wingtones for clarinet (Advocat again) and piano (Yuko Hagino). This is a two-movement piece in which the instruments’ contrasting sounds are used mainly for purposes of destabilization rather than emotional or tonal consonance. As in Merger, the focus is more on technique than on expressive communication. Next on the disc is the short marimba solo, It Was Not Raining, played by Sharrock and based on Samuel Beckett’s bleak and self-referential novel The Unnamable – whose interior-monologue style it does not, however, reflect in any significant way. The final work on this disc, and the longest, is the four-movement Tulpa, for soprano (Rose Hegele) and a 10-piece chamber ensemble conducted by Sharrock. Instead of a response of sorts to a novel of sorts, Tulpa is Hughes’ response to a film: David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. It is impossible to get the full flavor of Hughes’ work without being familiar with the 18-hour version of Lynch’s film, and without that familiarity, listeners are left simply with four oddly titled movements characterized mainly by contrasts between brief lyricism and strident dissonance – plus, in the third movement, a soprano quoting Proust’s Swann’s Way. The movement titles, all non-capitalized, are telophase, manufactured (for a purpose), “un amour inconnu…” (with ellipsis), and the number of completion – the last of which focuses on combinations of all 10 performers. There is a good deal of intriguing sound in Tulpa; the title word refers to the concept in mysticism of a being created through pure mental or spiritual power. But the whole piece is so much a personal expression and reaction by Hughes to a very personal film by a frequently deliberately obscure director that Tulpa feels as if it was written as a kind of intimate conversation between two auteurs who care little for anything beyond their own egos. Indeed, all the Hughes music on this disc seems written mainly for the composer himself, secondarily for the performers, and in only a tertiary way for anyone else.

     Another New Focus Recordings disc with a strong orientation toward instrumental sound features the Akropolis Reed Quintet playing five works intended to explore darkness, light and life cycles. The concept is ambitious and, realistically, more of a hook on which to hang some very different pieces than a fully thought-through theme for the CD. The five composers all show themselves adept at writing for the wind forces available to them here, but none of the works is strongly indicative of the supposed overall theme of the disc. Stacy Garrop’s four-movement Rites for the Afterlife is filled with suitably eerie, film-music-like scene-setting, with occasional solos for individual instruments bursting through what is mostly an ensemble piece that is intended primarily to be serious – although the third movement, The Hall of Judgment, is (unexpectedly in light of its title) almost scherzo-like. Michael Gilbertson’s Kinds of Light is also in four movements – short ones – and manages to reflect (so to speak) the titles rather effectively. Thus, Flicker is full of starts and stops; Twilight is slow-moving and crepuscular; Fluorescence flickers differently from the first movement, with something of an ostinato quality; and Ultraviolet pulsates almost constantly, to the point of annoyance. This is an interestingly interpretative work that, at just nine minutes total, manages not to overstay its welcome. Firing Squad by Niloufar Nourbakhsh is an atmospheric single-movement foray into sound combinations and permutations, featuring varying linear and chordal sections. Theo Chandler’s Seed to Snag includes three movements labeled Sprout, Stretch and Sow, the first giving a good but rather overlong impression of initial striving, the second using the winds effectively to encompass the idea of spreading out, and the third bouncing along brightly with intermittent pauses. The final work on the disc, and the longest by far, is Jeff Scott’s four-movement Homage to Paradise Valley, which incorporates scene-setting poetry by Marsha Music as introductions to the first, second and fourth movements. This is an ambitious work in “social awareness” mode, intended to pay tribute to various onetime African-American communities in Detroit. Like so many other advocacy pieces, it insists on its own importance and basically tells listeners that they ought to care about its topic. This is much less effective than simply creating engaging material to draw in an audience that is not already predisposed to become involved in the subject matter. The readings are fine, but they are far less evocative than Scott’s music – which, however, does not point with any level of specificity to a single city or specific locations within it. Music has inherent representational limits – even works constructed as carefully as Liszt’s symphonic poems tell their stories effectively only to listeners who already know what those stories are – so the issues of Homage to Paradise Valley are nothing new or unusual. But the extreme specificity of Music’s words, dealing as they do with very particular streets and neighborhoods in Detroit, means that only people who are highly knowledgeable about the city – or believe they should be highly knowledgeable about it – will get the full flavor of what Scott is trying to communicate. That is too bad, because the music on its own has many interesting elements, especially in the way it blends the sounds of the wind instruments. Homage to Paradise Valley is more effective as a non-referential woodwind suite than as an insistent tribute to a particular time, place and culture. Although not quite as intriguing as Kinds of Light, it is a satisfactory conclusion to an interestingly varied CD of very well-played contemporary woodwind music.

No comments:

Post a Comment