New works, virtuoso performances
By Peter Alexander Dec. 28 at 12:25 p.m.
With 2018 coming to a close, now is a good time to take note of the past year’s three releases from Boulder’s Starkland Recordings. Specializing in new works, Starkland features performances of the highest quality. And in keeping with the label’s wide-ranging catalogue, the new recordings are very different, but each adventurous and challenging in its own way.
Nakedeye Ensemble: Storylines Crossing. Jonathan Russell: Sextet. Zack Browning: Decade of the Dragon. Richard Belcastro:Smoke n’ Wid. Rusty Banks: Surface Tensions. Randall Woolf: Punching the Clock. Frederic Rzewski: Coming Together, arr. by Belcastro. Starkland ST-228.
The NakedEye Ensemble is a group of eight young musicians based in Lancaster, Penn. Directed by pianist Ju-Ping Song, they have been performing together since at least 2014, and have now released their first recording.
Characterizing themselves as an “electro-acoustic group with classical, rock, and jazz DNA,” their mostly new repertoire reaches back to an arrangement of a work from 1971 by Frederic Rzewski, who remains a touchstone for younger, politically motivated composers. The other five works on the disc all date from the current century. Settings range from a quartet to the full ensemble of eight.
With six such accomplished performances, it seems unfair to single out specific works, but as a child of the 1960s I have to start with Zack Browning’s Decade of the Dragon. Written for NakedEye to mark the 50thanniversary of the beginning of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War—the dominant event of my generation’s younger lives—it refers to two searing, Pulitzer-Prize winning photographs from that struggle, “Saigon Execution” and “Napalm Girl” (the first and third images here).
The jazzy, rock-inflected score incorporates a traditional Vietnamese song, “City of Dragons.” The music is marked by sudden shifts of sound and mood, including suggestions of the ‘60s and even a trace of Hendrix. Decade of the Dragon is too energetically likable to quite evoke the horror of the subject, but it clearly deserves a place among works inspired by the Vietnam War.
In Randall Woolf’s intriguing Punching the Clock, recordings of work songs from around the world are embedded in the musical texture. The episodic score darts from one musical world to another. It is fascinating to follow Woolf’s blues-inspired imagination from scene to scene, even if it doesn’t quite add up to much more than the individual parts.
Two works on the album are sheer fun to hear. Jonathan Russell’s Sextet is a delight, from the “groovy little bass line” (in the composer’s fitting words) that opens the piece to the long, teasing fadeout ending. Richard Belcastro’s Smoke n’ Wid must be the most playful, cheerful piece ever written about cats in a box with catnip.
Another work that grew from the Vietnam War is Rzewski’s Coming Together, the tour de force and culmination of the album. It is based on a letter written by Sam Harris, who was arrested and convicted for eight bombings in New York protesting the war. Incarcerated at the infamous Attica Prison, he died there in the 1971 riots that he helped organize.
Readings from Harris’s letter are underlaid by repeated bass lines and improvised parts that reflect and surround the spoken texts. The effect is cumulative over the 20-minute duration: the combination of Rzewski’s boundless musical creativity and commitment have made this a masterpiece of political music theater.
NakedEye Ensemble plays with virtuosity and verve, demonstrating what a wealth of musical talent there is beyond our experience in Boulder. This meticulously played, fun and varied album has landed near the top of my list of favorite Starkland albums. Adventurous listeners in love with the new should make it a priority.
Peter Garland: The Landscape Scrolls. 1. mid-day 2. sunset 3. after dark 4. late 5. early morning. John Lane, percussion. Starkland ST-229.
The Landscape Scrolls feature virtuosity of another dimension. There are five monochromatic movements, each inspired by a time of day and an imagined landscape, and each calling for a single percussion sound.
The tour de force here is clearly for percussionist John Lane, who must in sequential movements perform on a set of eight drums, nine rice bowls, three triangles, the glockenspiel, and tubular bells; and then create an arc and a sense of direction out of a limited sound palate in each movement. That he does so is indeed a virtuosic accomplishment.
The drums of the first movement effectively evoke the subject, “jagged peaks, endless mountains, receding in the distance—early spring.” In the second movement, ringing rice bowls recreate the effect of “peepers”—pond frogs—near the composer’s home. In the third movement, the magical sight of fireflies in the summer is reflected in the sound of triangles. That Lane maintains the effect for 10 minutes is a triumph of concentration as much as musical technique.
My favorite movement is the fourth, which refers to van Gogh’s famous painting “Starry Night” through the sound of the glockenspiel. The reference to a much-loved painting , the greater compass of pitch provided by the instrument and the rhythmic variety make this movement stand out from those that went before.
The longest movement is the last, “early-morning: sea smoke on the river—winter.” Using tubular bells—commonly called chimes—the composer aims create a fog of sound that duplicates aurally the sight of the thick fog that often hovers over cold or frozen water. In this he is successful; whether it is worth of 20 minutes of listening will depend on your interest in pure sound and tolerance for near stasis as a single musical idea is repeated and slowly transformed—just like the fog slowly swirling over the river.
Tim Brady: Music for Large Ensemble. Désir: Concerto for electric guitar and large chamber ensemble; Eight Songs about: Symphony #7. Bradyworks Large Ensemble, Tim Brady, electric guitar and conductor; Cristian Gort, conductor; Sarah Albu, soprano; Vincent Ranallo, baritone. Starkland ST-230.
This disc is Tim Brady’s second appearance on the Starkland label following the strikingly original Instruments of Happiness of 2016. It represents a turn in a different direction from the former recording, which featured an electric guitar quartet.
This time Brady is featured, first as soloist in his Désir: Concerto for electric guitar and large chamber ensemble, and then as conductor in Eight Songs about: Symphony #7. His own Seventh Symphony, this is also a highly original response to the Seventh Symphony of Shostakovich.
The concerto is in the traditional three movements in the order fast-slow-fast. Nothing else about it feels traditional or predictable, however. The first movement, titled “Ecstasy,” is marked by frenetic, driven activity interrupted by sudden stops, then a total change of sound. The frenetic activity returns, as if powered by an internal engine, until it tapers into a cessation of movement at the outset of the second movement, “Beauty.”
In some ways this movement represents a conventional concept of musical beauty—slow moving, more consonant. But it is also uneasy, edgy, unpredictable. This is an uncomfortable beauty that leads into the third movement and a return to frenetic activity. It is titled “Wisdom,” but this is no reflective, contemplative wisdom. It is rather the wisdom of the virtuoso who can make any difficulty seem effortless.
Shostakovich dedicated his Seventh Symphony to the City of Leningrad, where it was performed in 1942, during the German siege of the city. That performance, by a pickup group of Soviet musicians, was broadcast on loudspeakers throughout the city and even to the German troops outside the city.
Eight Songs about: Symphony #7 is a setting of texts by Douglas Smith, forming a fever dream of that performance as experienced by different people, including a German soldier, a Russian prostitute in the city, musicians in the orchestra and Stalin himself. The texts are sung and declaimed by a soprano and a baritone, accompanied by an ensemble of players who provide what critic Alan Kozinn accurately describes as “ominously opaque musical textures.”
Brady’s music expresses something basic about the despair and brutality of war, and does it in a powerfully original way, but it is not necessarily enjoyable to listen to. The two soloists present vivid characterizations while taking very different approaches to the material: soprano Sarah Albu sounds conversational, almost detached, while baritone Vincent Ranallo gives a more mannered delivery. Brady’s conducting is naturally assured, and the Bradywork’s Large Ensemble performs with commitment.
All Starkland recordings may be purchased through the label’s Webpage.