March 31, 2022


Edward Cowie: Where Song Was Born—24 Australian Bird Portraits. Sara Minelli, flute; Roderick Chadwick, piano. Métier. $18.99.

Music for the Afro-Brazilian Berimbau Musical Bow by Jeremy Muller, Gregory Beyer, Matt Ulery, and Alexandre Lunsqui. Arcomusical. Panoramic Recordings. $16.99.

Chris Votek: Memories of a Shadow; Bhimpalasi—Chota Khyal. Chris Votek, cello; Wild Up (Andrew Tholl and Adrianne Pope, violins; Ben Bartelt, viola; Derek Stein, cello); Neelamjit Dhillon, tabla. MicroFest Records. $14.95.

     Contemporary composers, even within the loosely defined “classical” world (whose definition becomes looser all the time), are only too willing to look afar and sometimes askance in their search for new forms of inspiration and new sounds with which to experiment. Sometimes, however, the “new” sounds turn out to be very old ones indeed, as in Edward Cowie’s birdsong-inspired hour-plus chamber suites. Cowie (born 1943), a painter and author of books on nature as well as a musician, was the first Artist in Residence with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Great Britain; accordingly, he produced a 24-movement suite called Bird Portraits based on British birds – creating music designed to comment on the avian species and their environment, not to duplicate their songs. In addition to that suite, for violin and piano, Cowie has created one for flute and piano, available on the Métier label and called Where Song Was Born – also in 24 movements, but this time based on the birds of Australia. The flute would seem a more-natural fit for birdsong than the violin, but that is not quite the way things turn out in Cowie’s work, since Where Song Was Born is another attempt to comment on birds and place them in their various environments, not to duplicate or expand upon their actual songs. This means, for example, that Sara Minelli’s flute is deliberately a bit screechy for “Australian Masked Plover,” while “Eastern Whipbird” is portrayed more by Roderick Chadwick’s piano, which also takes the lead for “Willy Wagtail.” Australia has many bird species that are unique to the continent, and a few that are world-famous, including “Kookaburra” (for which both piano and flute skip about here and there, with some well-placed trills) and “Lyrebird” (which seems genuinely strange on the basis of the flute sounds that Cowie employs). Non-birders will enjoy simply learning the names of some of the birds portrayed here, such as “Wampoo Pigeon,” “Tawny Frogmouth” and “Pied Currawong.” As in his suite on British birds – and as will presumably be true of two additional suites that Cowie plans to write, on birds of Africa and the Americas – the music in Where Song Was Born will be of greater interest to birders than to a general audience: if you do not already know what birds these are, what they look like, where they live, how they sing and put on displays, and how they fit into the overall environment, then the music associated with them by Cowie will be no more than intermittently interesting. If you do enjoy avian studies, however, you will find these musical bird portraits quite intriguing.

     The source of inspiration is Africa and Brazil for the music on a Panoramic Recordings disc featuring the ensemble Arcomusical. This group has a specific focus and purpose: music for the berimbau, a single-string percussion instrument that originated in Africa but is now more closely associated with Brazil and specifically with the martial art known as capoeira. The instrument is a four-to-five-foot wooden bow with a tight steel string running from one end to the other, and a dried and hollowed-out gourd attached at the bottom as a resonator. The string is played by being struck with a small stone or coin; the sound is basically rhythmic. The berimbau is sufficiently unusual to have attracted a number of international composers and performers, one of whom is Arcomusical’s leader, Gregory Beyer. Beyer (born 1973) is a percussionist who here holds forth not only on berimbau but also on glockenspiel, vibraphone, marimba and other instruments, combining them intriguingly in the three works of his own on this disc: Fios e linhas, Berimbau Duo No. 3 “for Adam and Jess,” and Berimbau Duo No. 4 “Sakura Park.” The first of these is a combinatorial work, the second a duo, and the third (despite its title) a solo piece. Among them, these three works show a number of different ways in which the berimbau can be used to complement other instruments and to provide some surprisingly expressive sound. Pieces by three other composers – two shorter works and one long one – are also on this disc. The extended piece is Emigre and Exile, a six-movement suite by Matt Ulery (born 1981), who performs on the double bass along with a sextet of berimbaus. The work is impressive in the breadth of its ambition, creating a wide variety of melodies and interlocking rhythms for what is essentially a very simple instrument (even when there are six of them). The berimbau’s basic sound, however, does not stand up particularly well through an entire 25-minute work: individual movements and, even more, portions of individual movements, provide sit-up-and-take-notice moments, but as a whole, the piece somewhat overstays its welcome. Singularity by Jeremy Muller (born 1982) is also a berimbau-ensemble piece, but its focus is regularity of pacing and presentation rather than any attempt to create multiple types of music and combinations of berimbau sounds. Repercussio by Alexandre Lunsqui (born 1969), which closes the disc, is a work that is intellectually interesting in its contrasts between chords and individual notes, between pitched and unpitched sounds, but most of it sounds like an experiment rather than anything musically involving: it basically seems to be about the berimbau, more of a demonstration piece than an engaging one. Actually, the CD as a whole may be thought of as an exploration of what the berimbau is and how it can be used in a concert-musical context rather than its more-usual role in capoeira. Listeners seeking something on the musically exotic side will find at least portions of this disc worth their time, although hearing its full 54 minutes straight through can be somewhat wearing.

     There is also considerable sameness of sound – in this case by intention – on a MicroFest Records CD featuring composer/cellist Chris Votek. What matters here is that the disc does not feature Votek as a cellist, at least in any traditional sense. Votek’s interest here is the thorough exploration of Indian ragas, both with traditional Western instruments and with his cello in combination with the two-drum set called tabla (whose method of playing and wide potential range of about 30 different tones make the tabla sound bear little resemblance to that of any drums in Western music). While Arcomusical’s focus is a specific instrument with which many listeners will be unfamiliar, Votek’s is a form of music that is quite different from what Western audiences typically hear – presented by him, however, largely through the use of a familiar orchestral and solo instrument. Whether Votek’s approach works is very much a matter of listeners’ personal taste. There are just two works on his CD, the three-movement Memories of a Shadow, which runs nearly half an hour and utilizes a string quartet plus Votek’s own cello; and the extended single-movement Bhimpalasi—Chota Khyal, a duet for Votek with Neelamjit Dhillon on tabla. Indian ragas pervade both these pieces. Votek calls Memories of a Shadow a “string quintet based on raga melody and medieval polyphony,” while Bhimpalasi is explained as a “traditional Hindustani raga in singing style gayaki-ang,” meaning a specific style of singing that reproduces the nuances of the human voice on an instrument. Clearly this is a disc of very esoteric appeal, aimed at those connoisseurs of Indian music who will appreciate the way ragas are used with Western instruments as well as with Indian ones. The material here needs to be studied and understood to have its intended effect; it is not (at least for ears accustomed to Western music) simply to be heard and enjoyed. Indeed, “enjoyment” may not be quite the right word – “appreciated” and “engaged with” seem better to express what Votek is hoping will result here. The three movements of Memories of a Shadow are called “Serpents,” “Fossil Dance,” and “Migration of the Fires,” but while the titles are evocative, they are so in unexpected ways. The first movement has nothing particularly sinuous about it, the second nothing whatsoever of fossils in Carnival of the Animals terms, and the third nothing flaming. Votek certainly understands string technique and has figured out how to combine specific elements of individual ragas with European material such as plainchant – indeed, the most-interesting material here is in “Fossil Dance,” where peaceful and uplifting Western church music is contrasted with faster and more intense raga-derived material. The overall feeling of Memories of a Shadow, though, is of a work constructed by Votek and largely for Votek and those who are strongly in tune (so to speak) with his personal sensibilities and interests in the music of India. As for Bhimpalasi—Chota Khyal, although it is not minimalist music, it produces some of the same effects, using repetitive phrases and a constant pulse almost throughout, with the tabla sounds continuously underlining Votek’s cello in such a way as to carry a single mood almost throughout the piece’s entire 23 minutes. As an exploration and an effort to combine differing musical cultures into an aural amalgam, Votek’s disc is certainly of interest, but it is hard to imagine it being highly attractive to any considerable number of listeners: it is quite rarefied, and reaches out only to people seeking a particular kind of multilateral musical engagement that includes Europe, India, and Votek himself.

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