Classical CD Reviews

“Meanwhile” = MISSY MAZZOLI: Still Life with Avalanche; PHILIPPE HUREL: a mesure; ROSHANNE ETEZADY: from Damaged Goods; STEPHEN HARTKE: Meanwhile: music to imaginary puppet plays; PHILIP GLASS: Music in Similar Motion; THOMAS ADES: Catch – eighth blackbird – Cedille
BENJAMIN BROENING: “Trembling Air” = like dreams, statistics are a form of wish fulfillment; Dark Wood; Traces (i); Nocturne/Doubles; Traces (ii); Arioso/Doubles; Changing Light – eighth blackbird – Bridge

Two great discs, six amazing musicians, seven interesting composers – eighth blackbird does it again!

Published on January 2, 2013

“Meanwhile” = MISSY MAZZOLI: Still Life with Avalanche; PHILIPPE HUREL: a mesure; ROSHANNE ETEZADY: from Damaged Goods; STEPHEN HARTKE: Meanwhile: music to imaginary puppet plays; PHILIP GLASS: Music in Similar Motion; THOMAS ADES: Catch – eighth blackbird – Cedille</br>        BENJAMIN BROENING: “Trembling Air” = like dreams, statistics are a form of wish fulfillment; Dark Wood; Traces (i); Nocturne/Doubles; Traces (ii); Arioso/Doubles; Changing Light – eighth blackbird – Bridge

“Meanwhile” = MISSY MAZZOLI: Still Life with Avalanche; PHILIPPE HUREL: a mesure; ROSHANNE ETEZADY: from Damaged Goods (III. About Time, IV. Eleventh Hour); STEPHEN HARTKE: Meanwhile: Incidental music to imaginary puppet plays; PHILIP GLASS: Music in Similar Motion; THOMAS ADES: Catch – eighth blackbird – Cedille Records (Distr. by Naxos) CDR 90000 133, 68:28 ****:

BENJAMIN BROENING: “Trembling Air” = like dreams, statistics are a form of wish fulfillment; Dark Wood; Traces (i); Nocturne/Doubles; Traces (ii); Arioso/Doubles; Changing Light – eighth blackbird – Bridge Records 9384 (Distr. by Albany), 68:42 ****:

Chicago-based eighth blackbird is by all accounts one of contemporary music’s finest and most respected ensembles. Each member of this superb sextet is a new music specialist of sorts. These musicians have made modern American music their calling card and to continuing great success. Further, each of their albums has a theme or concept to it; “Meanwhile” being no exception.

As the well-done booklet notes explain, the collection imagines the eighth blackbird ensemble “wander(ing) through an unfamiliar house. With each new track a new door is opened, releasing unexpected sounds and dramas”.  The album title, “Meanwhile” also bears a sort of untold mystery given in a tantalizing introduction to the program notes. The story or theme is clearly up to the listener but the music itself is fascinating and holds many wonderful discoveries.

For example, Still Life with Avalanche by Missy Mazzoli is a rhythmic, propulsive but somewhat ominous excursion filled with jazz and minimalist-inspired licks and ending quite eerily, with an element of the unresolved. Mazzoli was a new name for me but a terrific discovery. This young New York composer is a find and I am anxious to hear more of her music. The mysterious end of the “Avalanche” gives way to a jolt in Frenchman Philippe Hurel’s …a mesure, the title coming from a French expression for “little by little.” This is a frantic, sudden and unpredictable work that slows down gradually, only to become very steady and then…unpredictable. This music is amazing in its highly structured faux chaos and sounds like it would be quite difficult to perform!

There are two movements, at strategic program points, of Roshane Etezady’s Damaged Goods. Etezady claims an early influence by the music of Philip Glass and is presently a Chicago native working with eighth blackbird as well as other groups. The two movements of Damaged Goods shared here are About Time and Eleventh Hour. The work has a hidden drama to it that implies something about the title. Etezady explains that the music and the title will hold different meaning for different people but it is compelling. There is a melancholy to each movement that is most attractive. I would like to hear the whole.

Stephen Hartke’s Meanwhile: Incidental music to imaginary puppet plays is – in many ways – just what is says. Hartke has been influenced by Javanese shadow puppets as well as their relatives in Japanese Bunraku for a while and this fascination has shown up in other works. This is a very picturesque six-movement work that relies on prepared piano, retuned strings and some very creative use of percussion. The sounds of what might be a live puppet show are clear and the music suggests actions, mysteries and dramas in the mind’s eye. The work is also a technical tour-de- force and each member in eighth blackbird is quite busy herein!

The inclusion of Philip Glass’ Music in Similar Motion may seem just a little out of place were it not for its ground-breaking hypnotic quality and the insistent use of traditional major-minor arpeggiations and triadic harmonies that made Glass and his music a true maverick – and a bit of a mystery – to the academic world of contemporary music as it was in the late 1960s. Music in Similar Motion is one of Glass’ first and most renowned works that helped to define “minimalism.”

Thomas Ades’ Catch is based on the many different versions of the classic children’s playground game (“Catch, Monkey in the Middle, Keep Away”, etc.) familiar to many in America or the UK. Musically, the work is – like much of Ades’ music – incredibly difficult and sounds far more random than it actually is. Each instrument almost literally plays “catch” (or “keep away”…) with each other in a wild array of pointillism, waltzes, chaconne-like passages and repeated bursts. Most notably, the clarinetist in live performance must move all over the stage; circling the piano, dashing across the stage (sometimes playing coy little musical children’s taunts like the minor third based “monkey in the mid-dle…”) This is an odd and somewhat wild work, somewhat like Ades’ style in general but just like most of his music; the end result is disturbing yet pensive.

Moving into to the equally Bridge release, “Trembling Air”, means discovering the music of Benjamin Broening. I did not know of Broening until this release but I am sure glad to have discovered his music!

Benjamin Broening is a composer of orchestral, choral, chamber and electroacoustic music. Broening is founder and artistic director of Third Practice, an annual festival of electroacoustic music at the University of Richmond, where he is Associate Professor of Music. He holds degrees from the University of Michigan, Cambridge University, Yale University, and Wesleyan University.

Recent works include a piece for flute and electronics for Camilla Hoitenga, a clarinet concerto for Richard Hawkins, a multi-movement work for Zeitgeist, a sextet for Ensemble U: (Estonia), two works for clarinet and electronics for Arthur Campbell and choral/instrumental works for the Choral Arts Society of Philadelphia, the James River Singers as well pieces for pianist Daniel Koppelman and eighth blackbird.

“Trembling Air” is a wonderful collection of seven of his chamber pieces, performed in spectacular fashion by the members of eighth blackbird. Of the whole set, Changing Light and the amazingly titled “like dreams, statistics are a form of wish fulfillment” feature the whole sextet while the other works use solo players or smaller combinations.

Of the solo works, Trembling Air for solo flute is an especially alluring work, very difficult to play and quite interesting to listen to. Similarly, Arioso (one of two works represented from Broening’s “Doubles” series) for clarinet and electronics (played here on bass clarinet, and astonishingly, by Michael Maccaferri) is an intriguing work.

Arioso and Trembling Air also illustrate well the composer’s penchant and skill for writing for instruments with electronics. Dark Wood, for cello and electronics (in this case, an amazing mix of processed sounds intended to evoke the twisting tree trunks in a forest) is a terrific piece.  Broening had spent time in Estonia on a Fulbright fellowship in 2007 and many of these works are a product of his experiences there; including the captivating Changing Light.

The two movements from Traces are also noteworthy in that they illustrate a trend in the composer’s music, which he acknowledges, that, with Traces the electronic component to his music is becoming more organic, less prominent and (as the notes by Thomas Anderson state) less “electronic.”

I am a big fan of anything eighth blackbird comes up with but mostly for their incredible talent for finding and utilizing works that are a bit off the beaten path and constructing fascinating concept programs such as this. In addition they are superb musicians and I cannot say enough positive things about either of these albums which should be on your “must hear” list. Kudos to both Cedille Records as well as Bridge for again providing sonically clean and lively recordings packaged artistically and informatively.

—Daniel Coombs




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