September 09, 2021


J. Kimo Williams: With Malice Toward None; Pamela Z: The Unraveling; Christopher Theofanidis & Mark Wingate: What Is the Word?; Themes of Armenian Folksongs; Eve Beglarian: We Will Sing One Song. Apollo Chamber Players. Azica. $16.99.

Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti: the space in which to see; Jay Vosk: Passing Ships; Vivian Fine: Songs and Arias; Charles Daniels: Dream Machine; Alejandro Vera: Ometéotl; Traditional, arranged Bill Tyers/Johanna Lundy: La Llorona; Alfredo Gil & José de Jesús Navarro: Sin un Amor; Juventino Rosas: Sobre las Olas. Borderlands Ensemble. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

Erberk Eryilmaz: Dances of the Yoğurt Maker; Hoppa! 3; Miniatures Sets Nos. 4 and 5; Thracian Airs of Besime Sultan; Insistent Music. Carpe Diem String Quartet (Charles Wetherbee and Marisa Ishikawa, violins; Korine Fujiwara, viola; Gregory Sauer, cello); Erberk Eryilmaz, darbuka, davul, wooden spoons, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

     The problem with “cause” music is usually the cause. No matter how sincere a composer’s or performer’s belief in a particular concern or topic, no matter how forcefully the composer or performer believes the music reflects that concern or topic, no matter how much someone wishes that the music will uplift an audience and/or change minds and/or make the world better, the music is simply incapable of doing this. If the music does not succeed in engaging people purely as music, without reference to the cause of its creation and without requiring listeners to accept/understand/endorse that cause, then there is just no reason for an audience to pay attention – unless, as so often happens, composers and/or performers are “preaching to the converted” by presenting cause-based material with which the audiences they seek will already agree. The great composers transcend the causes underlying their music – indeed, this is one thing that makes them great. One simple example: Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7, arguably his greatest symphonic work, was written to reflect and endorse Czech resistance to political oppression. The composer explicitly asked God to “grant that this Czech music will move the world” on behalf of his beloved Fatherland. Nobody but historians cares about that anymore, and few people cared about it even when the work had its première in 1885: the symphony was a tremendous success as music, not because of its programmatic and “cause” content, and it is as music that it remains a monumental achievement today.

     Contemporary “cause” composers and the performers who support them consistently misunderstand the power of their causes to energize audiences that are not already like-minded. Thus, a new Azica Records release featuring the Apollo Chamber Players focuses, thematically, on a variety of social and cultural issues; but although the performances are certainly heartfelt and committed, the material is only of interest to the extent that the music itself reaches out beyond advocacy. It does this, at best, only intermittently. With Malice Toward None by J. Kimo Williams is full of not-very-surprising intersections of electric and acoustic instruments, none of them reflecting the words of Abraham Lincoln that give the piece its title. The Unraveling by Pamela Z (who lends the work her voice and also performs its electronics) is a four-movement folk-music-inspired piece that keeps hinting at being more meaningful than it is (as in the count from “Lord I’m One” through “Lord I’m 13” in the second movement, and then more “Lord I’m” numbers afterwards). What Is the Word? by Christopher Theofanidis and Mark Wingate has seven short movements based on a Samuel Beckett poem (whose reading constitutes the first movement) – the tongue-twisting, logic-twisting poetry is more intriguing, in Beckett’s oddball manner, than the six following movements, which combine bits of the poem with string-quartet sounds. Next on the CD are three Themes of Armenian Folksongs, which, perhaps because of their origin as simple, evocative tunes, provide a strong contrast with earlier material on the disc and have a directness of expression – both upbeat and distinctly sad – that communicates more effectively than the cleverness and elaborations of the other works here. The CD concludes with Eve Beglarian’s We Will Sing One Song, a piece that also has Armenian ties, having been inspired by a work by Armenian-American author William Saroyan. This piece incorporates instruments including duduk, tombak, kuzeh and others, and strives constantly for a balance between exoticism and forthright communication. But it never comes across as directly as the folk-based material that precedes it, which is offered to listeners simply with a traditional string quartet plus an additional viola. Everything on the disc is certainly sincere, well-meaning, and even at times intermittently moving. But it is interesting – although not surprising – to discover that the simplest and most-direct music, the short pieces without agendas underlying them except in the most general sense, come across best.

     A New Focus Recordings release featuring the Borderlands Ensemble has interlocking causes, as hinted at in the performers’ name: it seeks to explore relationships between American (specifically Native American) and Mexican music and also wants to blur the distinction among genres to create a new blend that reaches across the social boundaries reflected in various groups’ preferences for different forms of music – the latter aim also being an element of the Apollo Chamber Players’ CD. However lofty these goals (which are common ones in music today), these pieces too reach out successfully only to the extent that they work as music rather than social dogma. Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti’s the space in which to see (no capital letters – a not-uncommon affectation) is on the topic of Native American feelings and identity (it is based on a text by a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation). The music is of course unsettled, dissonant and athematic, its most interesting element lying in the “blended genres” area, since it uses a bit of Stravinsky here and there. Jay Vosk’s Passing Ships is more aurally accessible: a horn weaves a consistently expressive, rather dour sound above a string quartet. The work wears out its welcome rather quickly (it goes on for 11½ minutes) and does not directly reflect on the migrant experience, which is what it intends to do – but this is well-constructed music, even if it is a touch on the self-important side. In Songs and Arias by Vivian Fine, the blending and contrasting of genres is very direct and at times amusing (humor tends to be noticeably absent from “cause” music). One of Fine’s seven movements pays direct homage to Debussy; two others, more lightheartedly, present material from a nonexistent opera and a nonexistent sort-of-Bach-like cantata. The mildly sarcastic material, for what it may be worth, is not all that different from music created in all seriousness by other contemporary composers – there may be a lesson in that somewhere. After  this, Dream Machine by Charles Daniels is textural rather than rhythmic or thematic, and it is intended not as parody but as a reflection of dream experiences. Then, Alejandro Vera’s Ometéotl, the title being the name of the Aztec god of creation, comes up with some interesting effects to indicate ancient belief systems and very old instruments (which are imitated, not actually used). The work is one of those formless-and-of-the-void pieces for which György Ligeti was well-known. The disc concludes with three arrangements of Mexican music – which, like the arrangements of Armenian folk tunes played by the Apollo Chamber Players, prove to be more aurally attractive and more directly communicative than the more-sophisticated, carefully composed works on the rest of the CD. This is not merely a matter of pleasant sounds, although certainly these three pieces have those (Sobre las Olas is a very well-known waltz tune indeed) – it is a matter of unassuming music, music that does not seek to force engagement of the audience with a specific cause or attitude, being better able than more-intense works to communicate a sense of style and cultural connection.

     All this may explain the enjoyment inherent in music by Turkish-American composer Erberk Eryilmaz on an MSR Classics CD. Instead of trying to blend Armenian, Mexican, Native American or other sensibilities with other genres, Eryilmaz (born 1989) simply uses the folk music of Turkey as a starting point for creating a whole series of short – sometimes very short – movements performed by string quartet, many in combination with Turkish instruments. The brevity of most of these pieces is a distinct plus: they establish themselves, say what they have to say clearly, then exit the stage. The nine-minute Dances of the Yoğurt Maker offers eight movements, three of them lasting fewer than 60 seconds. Hoppa! 3 consists of five movements, each in the two-minute range; these are more expressive, even lyrical, than the brief dances, although the exoticism of their blended sound is at the same level. The two five-movement sets called Miniatures are interestingly contrasted, with No. 4 being only for string quartet and No. 5 including some of the Turkish folk percussion heard earlier on the disc. In some ways, No. 4 is the best blending of styles anywhere on the CD, since Eryilmaz here writes entirely for traditional Western instruments but has them playing themes, rhythms and harmonies drawn directly from Turkish music. The expressive fourth movement, Taksim, which at three-and-a-half minutes is one of the longest pieces on the disc, is especially effective in providing lyricism that is scarcely typical for string quartets but that speaks directly to listeners in an affecting way. The six-movement Thracian Airs of Besime Sultan is also for string quartet alone – but by this point on the CD, some of what Eryilmaz is doing starts to wear thin, since this too is a series of brief movements incorporating gestural, melodic and rhythmic material from Turkey played on instruments usually heard in a different guise. This is just a 60-minute CD, but by now it has started to seem longer – Eryilmaz’s approach is more palatable in small doses. That approach may best be described as insistent – and the final work on the disc is in fact called Insistent Music (that could have been the title of the whole CD). This set of five short movements is one of the pieces using string quartet plus Turkish instruments – and piano. And much of the material is, indeed, insistent – including some that is driven and even relentless. This disc of world- première recordings is not exactly “cause” music, in the sense of being designed to further any specific belief or viewpoint – but it does show clearly that Eryilmaz is seeking ways to bridge genres and produce works that straddle the divide of West and East, as Turkey itself does. On the level of individual pieces and some of the individual collections of pieces, Eryilmaz makes a good case for his approach, and at times his dancelike material even recalls the folkloric explorations of Bartók and Kodály. However, there is a bit too much sameness in Eryilmaz’s offerings here for this frequently insistent music to provide a full hour of convincing aural engagement.

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