December 01, 2022


Mihailo Trandafilovski: Chaconne; Sandglass; Sarenilo; Weaxan; Polychromy; String Dune(s); Grain—Song. Métier. $18.99.

Aaron Myers-Brooks: The 11th and 6th Caves; Prelude and Entity; Energy Shapes No. 3; Triads and Arpeggios; Sonata for Solo 17-Tone Guitar; Eight HighC Miniatures. Aaron Myers-Brooks, guitar and electronics. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

Sarah Hennies: Border Loss; Michael Pisaro-Liu: side by side. Greg Stuart, percussion. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     There have always been composers seeking a specific sound for their works, choosing instruments individually and in combination so as to produce an aural environment reflecting or expanding upon what they want their music to communicate. In more-recent times, composers have changed the way in which music itself is written so as to accommodate specific sound forms: that is what Arnold Schoenberg and his followers did in dodecaphonic music, what Harry Partch did with microtones and unequal intervals (and instruments he invented to produce the aural environment he sought), and so on. This form of creativity continues among composers today, although its effectiveness will depend largely on the extent to which listeners perceive the communication inherent in the music as going beyond the sound itself – because if all an audience gets is something that sounds “different,” that is not in itself particularly interesting (a frequent criticism, rightly or wrongly, of electronic and electroacoustic music). Mihailo Trandafilovski (born 1974), a Macedonian composer with a strong how-it-sounds orientation, shows on a new Métier CD that he can compose for both traditional and experimental aural sonorities – and can do so for familiar instruments and familiar instrumental combinations. Two of the works here are for solo violin (played by Peter Sheppard Skærved): Chaconne, at 13-plus minutes the longest work on the disc, which shows Trandafilovski reinterpreting a venerable form, and Grain—Song, whose first movement’s ultra-high register contrasts with the more-lyrical, more-central register used in the second. Two other works on the disc are also for solo performers. Sandglass is for solo clarinet (Roger Heaton) and is not especially cognizant of the instrument’s warmer and more emotive capabilities. Polychromy is for solo cello (Neil Heyde) and tries to combine some nontraditional, percussive approaches to the instrument with more-usual ones. The CD also includes a couple of works for two instruments. The two-movement Sarenilo is for two violins (Skærved and the composer) and seems to struggle in trying to decide whether its sonic environment should be wholly dissonant or should admit of a certain degree of lyricism. String Dune(s), with its odd title, is for a pair of guitars (Saki Kato and Hugh Millington) and includes some interesting technical elements, although it goes on using them for rather too long. There is also a trio here: Weaxan for clarinet (Linda Merrick), violin (Skærved), and piano (Roderick Chadwick). This is, in many ways, the most purely “sonic” work on the disc, combining the instruments in ways that go beyond their usual sounds and make them almost come across, collectively, as if they were something electronic. No work here stands out for aural inventiveness or for putting instrumental sound capability at the service of audience communication, but Trandafilovski does show skill in composing for a variety of individual and chamber-size instrumental mixtures – even if the pieces do not ultimately seem to have very much to say beyond “listen to this.”

     Aaron Myers-Brooks is a guitarist and composer who seems determined, for reasons of his own, to out-Partch Partch. True, Partch divided the octave into 43 unequal tones, while Myers-Brooks uses only 17 – and divides the octave equally (hence “17 EDO tuning,” referring to 17 equal divisions of the octave). But Myers-Brooks has his own take on microtonality, and performs his works himself using guitar and electronics – instead of inventing all-new instruments with which to explore his tone system. Myers-Brooks also combines microtones with polyrhythms, creating a strange sound world that tends to be best in smaller doses – a fact of which he seems to be aware, since most pieces on a New Focus Recordings release of his music are in the one-minute range and all run less than seven minutes. Myers-Brooks is actually willing to work in systems other than 17 EDO: one work here, Eight HighC Miniatures, was created using a music-drawing program that does not use the 17 EDO approach. Interestingly, this piece, whose movements range in length from 50 seconds to two minutes, is more atmospheric than the other five works on the disc, all of which employ 17 EDO. The movement titles within Eight HighC Miniatures are actually reflected in the music: “Thunk” really sounds like something thunking, for example, and “Chitter” like recognizably insectoid sounds. As for the 17 EDO pieces on the disc, The 11th and 6th Caves sounds like a series of overdone rock-music riffs (Myers-Brooks also works in rock music). Prelude and Entity uses electric guitar plus a digital piano with 17 EDO tuning, and has a modest forward pulse along with the usual electronic sound overlays. Energy Shapes No. 3 is a five-movement work with its own rock-style elements (in “Oblique”) that contrast with a series of talking-to-themselves electronic sounds that would not be out of place as the background music for cartoons. Triads and Arpeggios is for electronics without guitar, but that turns out to matter very little in terms of the sound of the piece, which zips through the usual electronic bips, boops, skritches, scratches and a few vaguely bell-like clangs and bangs. Sonata for Solo 17-Tone Guitar is an interesting concept marred by constantly over-processed sound. The first movement, “Wistful and Halting,” is far more the latter than the former. The second, “Angular and Aggressive,” is another rock-infused sonic assault that, in this case, does reflect its title accurately. The third, “Somber and Deliberate,” is the only 17 EDO item on this disc that suggests expressive capability rather than an intellectual exercise being embodied within Myers-Brooks’ system. It is an outlier, a welcome one, among the vivid but vapid-sounding 17 EDO items elsewhere on the CD.

     The Myers-Brooks CD contains 19 short tracks; another New Focus Recordings offering, featuring percussionist Greg Stuart, contains only three, and they are very long ones. And that is not the only strong contrast between the discs. Instead of seeking a new tuning system to create a different kind of sound world, Stuart has collaborated with two composers to create pieces for solo percussion that, despite using conventional notation, establish a series of aural profiles that are quite different from each other and from what audiences may expect from percussionists. Border Loss by Sarah Hennies (born 1979) lasts 22 minutes and presents a series of 10 different soundscapes, delineated through differing use of percussion instruments and differing methods of playing the ones employed. The borders are not 100% distinct, tending to blend into one another – hence reflecting the work’s title – and are intended to have some real-world political overtones through the notion of official borders being less than meaningful since, as one approaches them, differing cultures become blended. The political element is not particularly clear or important to the work, however: its interest lies in the way Hennies creates and Stuart reproduces a series of differing aural environments, using irregularity here, comparatively rhythmic sections there, stroked instruments in one place, struck ones elsewhere, individuated sounds in some places, massed ones in others. The piece is interesting rather than compelling: certainly it is a tour de force for Stuart and will be of considerable interest to other percussionists, but the sheer extent of its reach for and use of percussion sounds of all types becomes, after a while, rather wearisome. Michael Pisaro-Liu’s side by side (one of those modern pieces with the affectation of a no-capital-letters title) is even longer than Hennies’ work, running half an hour, but is divided into two parts labeled, logically enough, “Part I” and “Part II.” The two parts are differently scored, so the subdivision does make sense: the first is for cymbals and bass drum, the second for vibraphone and glockenspiel. This means the first is for instruments usually used for purposes of accompaniment or emphasis, while the second is for ones designed more to handle melodies and rhythmic subtleties. This is not, however, indicative of the way Pisaro-Liu (born 1961) uses the instruments. Like many contemporary composers who seem to prefer sounds that instruments produce “against type,” Pisaro-Liu determinedly looks for ways to create rhythmic (if not melodic) flow in “Part I,” followed by percussively struck sounds separated by periods of silence in “Part II.” This work has an overall feeling of elaborate design, but the execution is comparatively straightforward from an audience’s point of view: there is little surprising in the basic sound of the instruments in either part, even though they tend to be used in counterintuitive or at least less-frequently-heard ways. Once again, this is a piece for connoisseurs – which in this case definitely encompasses percussionists above all – rather than one likely to attract and hold the interest of a wider audience. But as in so many other attempts to create new and unusual sonic environments, the point seems to be to showcase the composer’s capabilities and the implementation – that is, performance – abilities of the musicians who bring these sound worlds to life. There is less concern with immersing a wider audience in these experiences and still less interest in connecting on a visceral rather than intellectual level with whatever listeners may find the material worth hearing.

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