August 11, 2022


Medieval Songs of Fate, Fortune and Fin’amor. Concordian Dawn conducted by Christopher Preston Thompson. MSR Classics. $14.95.

Aaron Travers: Stillwater Marsh; David Clay Metters: Avaloch Sketches; David Liptak: Two Nocturnes; Margaret Brouwer: Fear, Hiding, Play. American Wild Ensemble (Emlyn Johnson, flute; Ellen Breakfield-Glick, clarinet; Daniel Ketter, cello). New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

Nick Didkovsky: Amalia’s Secret; Frank Zappa: Sinister Footwear II; Whitney George: [These Hands] Hold Nothing; Rusty Banks: Dum Spectas Fugio; Molly Joyce: Less Is More; Aaron Jay Myers: Strabismus; Richard Belcastro: Nepetalactone. NakedEye Ensemble (Susanna Loewy, flutes; Christy Banks, clarinets; Ryan Kauffman, saxophones; Peter Kibbe, cello; Chad Kinsey, electric guitar; Mike Bitts, electric bass; Darren Lin, percussion; Ju-Ping Song, piano/keyboards). New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     A primary attraction of some recordings – sometimes the primary attraction – is their sheer sound. Whatever the merits and interests of the specific pieces performed may be, it is the combinatorial nature of the instruments selected to bring forth those pieces that is the most-engaging element of the presentation. This can be true both in instrumental works and in vocal ones – the latter case being exemplified by a very interesting and very well-sung CD of very old music on the MSR Classics label. The performers here are the members of a medieval-music ensemble called Concordian Dawn, whose thoughtful approach to its chosen material is reflected in the tripartite role of Christopher Preston Thompson as conductor, tenor, and performer on the medieval harp. The other members of the ensemble are soprano Karin Weston; not one but two countertenors (Clifton Massey and David Dickey, with Dickey also playing recorder); bass Andrew Padgett; and Niccolo Seligmann playing vielle, a precursor of the violin that, as this recording shows, has quite a different sound, although clearly a related one. Eight of the 17 works on this disc are anonymous – composers of early music are often unknown – and one is by the intriguingly named Audefroi le Bastart, an early-13th-century troubadour whose name clearly identifies him as the illegitimate child of an upper-class family. With the exception of Guillaume Dufay – the most-recent composer heard here, having lived in the 15th century – all the creators of these vocal works will likely be wholly unknown to most listeners. But that scarcely matters, since it is the elegance, sensitivity and panache of the performers, and the unusual sound of their ensemble, that are the most attractive elements of the recording. Listeners who know about the music of the troubadours are likely familiar with Carl Orff’s modern and intensely rhythmic reinterpretation of it in Carmina Burana, which has considerably more drama and considerably less sensitivity and quiet beauty than the performances here. The title of the CD is a bit of an alliterative affectation: “Fin’amor” is a dialect term (Occitan) for “courtly love.” But interestingly, if some elements of this release, including its title, are somewhat overdone, the performances themselves are not: they are straightforward and quite expressive, not only in the choral works but also in solo-voice pieces such as several moving 12th-century ones, including L’amour dont sui espris by Blondel de Nesles and Jamais rien tal non porroit far amor by Gaucelm Faidit – plus Audefroi’s Fine amours en Esperance. A program of this sort is by definition one for a limited audience, but even those not enamored of music of this time period will find that the lovely interpretations offered here help bridge the very long expanse of time between these composers’ era and our own – while the sound of the instruments and voices, although different from what we are accustomed to, is by no means inferior and is immediately recognizable as being of very high artistic quality.

     The sound is quite contemporary and contrasts as strongly as possible with that of the Concordian Dawn disc on a New Focus Recordings CD featuring the American Wild Ensemble. But interestingly, the music is anything but “wild.” The group’s title refers to its interest in performing in national parks and playing music focused on the natural world. It is, of course, the natural world from a 21st-century perspective, as is clear from the musical language and approach of the four pieces on this rather short (49-minute) disc. Two of the works are for flute and cello: Aaron Travers’ Stillwater Marsh (2018) and David Clay Mettens’ four-movement Avaloch Sketches (2021). The work by Travers (born 1975) is intended to evoke the sounds of a waterfowl-resting area, which to some extent it does; but to an even greater extent it has an electronic-music feeling even though the instruments are not electronically modified. The piece would work better as background for a visual presentation than it does when heard simply as audio. The piece by Mettens (born 1990) is mostly a study in techniques, emphasizing pizzicato here, legato there, individualized lines here, combined ones there. The concluding a-little-bit-of-everything movement, labeled “Playful, quirky,” mixes much of the content of the first three. The remaining two works on the disc include clarinet as well as flute and cello. This makes for a richer and more interesting sound. David Liptak (born 1949) offers paired nocturnes (2018) called “Stone and Leaf” and “Under Starry Skies,” which are not especially evocative of the designated scenes but which intermingle the instruments in attractive ways and offer a feeling that, if not actually nocturnal, is at least crepuscular. Finally, Margaret Brouwer (born 1940) offers the most interestingly conceived work on the CD, called Fear, Hiding, Play and written in 2020 – showing a composer in full command of the musical medium in her 80th year. What is especially noteworthy (pun intended) here is the way the sound of the instruments is changed – that is, extended – without drawing attention to the extension as a technique or a self-consciously contemporary approach. Brouwer’s work really does reflect the three words of its title, using birdsong-like elements more effectively than Travers does in his piece while moving her music in an increasingly outgoing, buoyant direction. Although any direct connection of this piece with the natural world is somewhat obscure, the music itself speaks effectively to an audience interested in hearing the appealing sound that results when flute, clarinet and cello are employed by a composer whose sensitivity to the capabilities of the instruments can fairly be described as fine-tuned.

     The members of American Wild Ensemble may not intend to be thought of as “wild” musicians, but the members of NakedEye Ensemble would seem to be just fine with such a designation. The eight players performing on a New Focus Recordings release offer seven works in all, five written for the group and a sixth arranged for it. The avowed intention here is to present rock-and-roll-inspired music with a mixture of acoustic and electronic instruments, all within the confines of a more-or-less-classical chamber ensemble. The sonic combinations are multifarious if not quite endless, and the varying sounds of the pieces on offer – written for differing combinations of instruments – make the disc a treat for fans of contemporary genre-bending music with distinct electric and electronic elements. Nick Didkovsky’s 10-movement Amalia’s Secret (1994) is the oldest original work here, and is one of those pieces whose form of creation is important to know for an audience to appreciate the piece fully. Didkovsky did not exactly compose the music – rather, he had it composed by software he designed. Interestingly, the work – whose sections range in length from 19 seconds to two-and-a-half minutes – sounds neither better nor worse than many contemporary compositions created first-hand by composers (rather than second-hand by composers’ created software). The rock-derived material is quite clear in the use of drum sets, riffs, fast-changing rhythms and other compositional elements, and if the work comes across as nothing special, it does show that a computer program can produce material as good, bad or indifferent as human-created music. Frank Zappa’s Sinister Footwear II is the piece arranged (in 2015) for NakedEye Ensemble; Zappa’s original dates to 1981. Zappa was a first-rate musician as well as a somewhat Dadaistic thinker, and this piece manages to convey both rock and pseudo-classical idioms more effectively than do other works on the CD that were specifically designed to put across that mixture. Whitney George’s oddly titled [These Hands] Hold Nothing (2018) features a clocklike underlying ticking (hence the “hands” of an analog clock) with various sounds intertwining above, around and through the steady beat – an effective approach, although the piece does not sustain very well for its full nine-and-a-half minutes. Rusty Banks’ Dum Spectas Fugio (2018) also includes clock sounds, here arranged to sound weird, discomforting and almost aleatoric in their combinatorial aspects – again, an intriguing experiment, but one that outstays its welcome at an eight-minute length. Molly Joyce’s Less Is More (2017), the only piece on the CD neither written nor arranged for these performers, uses only piano and percussion; here there is some non-clock-related regularity of underlying pulsation with varying occurrences surrounding it and a mid-work speedup that helps sustain the piece to the end. Aaron Jay Myers’ Strabismus (2016) is a more-direct tribute to Zappa than the other pieces here, but it is imitative rather than interpretative and comes across as trying too hard to reproduce some of the effects that Zappa attained – not effortlessly in Zappa’s case, by any means, but characteristically. The CD ends with Richard Belcastro’s Nepetalactone (2015/2021), whose title refers to catnip and is an affectation – calling the piece “Catnip” would have been just fine. In any case, this is an almost-Impressionistic portrayal of the effect of catnip on a domestic feline, starting languorously (presumably before the cat encounters the catnip) and then becoming considerably more energetic, bouncy and scattered. The overall sound of this work is more in the jazz-and-blues area than the rock-and-roll region, and there is something salutary about that: the pieces on the CD combine the instruments of NakedEye Ensemble in various ways, giving the disc a variegated sonic aura, with Belcastro’s work joining those of Zappa and Joyce as the most-interesting music in sonic terms. And it is in those terms, rather than anything involving compositional techniques or underlying plans and meaning of the works here, that this disc is most enjoyable.

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