Three very different albums showed up on my desk recently. One came from a friend, another from a friend of a friend, and the last from out of the blue, and the wildly varied music reminded me of what NewMusicBox is all about: exploding the idea that contemporary American music is any one thing.
Violinist Nicholas Leh Baker and violist Faith Magdalene Jones form the Houston-based chamber group Duo Scordatura. Their eponymous debut album is the result of collaborations with all the composers featured on the album and each of the works came from their ongoing commissioning project.
Jordan Kuspa’s Beneath the Magma starts out with quietly growling unisons glissing and whining wider and wider into small turns. High energy, quasi-Balkan (or maybe real Balkan?) rhythms evolve from these opening gestures, populating alternating odd time signatures. While not straight-up tonal, the piece is centered in this ballpark for the most part and serves as a strong opening to the album. Robert Garza’s Ill-Tuned Illusions is one of the two works that reflects the duos namesake. Here the violin is tuned G D A# E and viola C G D# A, and the extra tension on the instruments can be heard in the work. A series of truncated vignettes, the piece is almost cartoon-like in its extreme changes of mood and texture. This is not meant pejoratively and, while there are a number of disparate sections, it certainly holds together quite well.
Jack Benson’s Tightrope Sonata is in two movements, and the first features long lines, each instrument having a turn at shaping them. Long soliloquies traded between the players merge into a languid dialogue, the back and forth spiraling upward in register before returning to material reminiscent of the opening. The second movement comes out guns blazing with its muscular jetés across double-stopped lower strings. Throughout the movement, one player plays chordal material in the chunky double-stop vein while the other lays out melodic material above. There are larger, more distinct sections, some of which have enough character to possibly warrant their own movements.
George Heathco’s Turbine features a Q&A between the two instruments that quickly overlap and become a sort of hockety canon starting in the lower registers and ascending by and by as the piece develops. A bright harmonic tonal center sways from dark to light and back again, as an ostinato in the viola plays against double stops in the violin. Pizz moments make their way into this trading texture, one that never gets too busy but always feels full and focused. This leads to a more legato section followed by a reductive ending in which a long phrase played between the instruments gets pared away until there is nothing left. Alexandra T. Bryant’s All True Passion Comes Out Of Anguish begins with a single keening line drawn out and punctuated with pizz. Glissando on the viola begins to break up the call while gentle dips in the violin mark the start of a new section, one in which arguably brighter harmonic content prevails. Chords long held by the violin are coaxed upward by sharp stabs in the viola, which upon dying away make way for a new and welcome texture of light arpeggiation from the violin and slowly gliding double stops in the viola. The arpeggiation moves into the realm of harmonics and dies away at the closing of the work. A final work by Benson, Fringe, provides an approachable and visceral close to a spectacular debut by the Houston duo.
Odessa Chen and the Invisible Stories Ensemble—The Act of Loving You
Odessa Chen’s chamber-folk EP The Act of Loving You is certainly an album of its time. Chen’s lyrical content and vocal delivery would fit comfortably in the pop rotation, though the former is more richly varied than much of that rotation and the latter has a breadth of character that outshines the average pop singer. Accompanying Chen are nine seasoned classical musicians and a composer/arranger. (Full disclosure: the last is my friend Max Stoffregen.) The Act of Loving You has four charming tracks, each with their own character but wonderfully connected as well. The first thing that struck me about the opening song, “Our Hearts Boom Boom,“ was the distinctly different mic positions and distances between the vocal parts and the instrumental arrangements. Chen’s breathy vocal treatment is largely in line with typical pop production (the reverb is lush but not over the top) while the instruments are somewhat drier and more present. Delicate, intricate, and linear, the largely polyphonic arrangements set the piece apart from a pop track simply sweetened with orchestral instruments, though I admit that I missed the homophony a little bit in the choruses where, in pop, all things are tutti. Just a little.
In “Spring Comes On” a less rhythmically driven texture dominates. Filigree flute lines play around piano and bassoon while seagull strings serve to fill the space. The rhythmic activity does ramp up towards the end of the track, but the piece continues to float along by and large. “Objects May be Closer” begins with guitar and continues with a pulsing texture which at first blush is quite conventional. However, as the piece progresses and is overtaken by the orchestral instruments, one can hear the possibilities this sort of treatment has both in terms of density as well as timbre. Frankly, the pop world has no shortage of timbral possibilities, and that embarrassment of riches certainly plays a role in too many overly simplified broad-stroke arrangements. Here a strong understanding of each instrument and its timbral characteristics works strongly in favor of emphasizing the lyric at times, as well simply matching the quality of Chen’s voice, occasionally fusing the voice and instruments into a single entity.
The title track finally brings the homophony that I personally craved in the preceding arrangements while retaining the timbral matching of “Objects May be Closer.” While still floating along like “Spring Comes On,” “The Act of Loving You” is somehow bigger and thicker in spots, and when the piece ends like an indrawn breath, one is certainly left wanting more.
David Dominique’s album Ritual reminds me of the best parts of the tradition of “rock band plus horns,” albeit with violin, flute, and flugabone in this case. The ten tracks feature four “Rituals” in spots one, three, seven, and nine, the first of which was salvaged from an opera and reworked from the original in which the piece acted as a sardonic fanfare for Saddam Hussein. As Dominique explained it to me:
The four “Ritual” tracks are all tied together by an emphasis on cellular repetition. In Ritual 1/BDB, that repetition gets a bit of development. Ritual 2/Dirge has a long chord progression that repeats once with repetitions in the way Andrew Lessman is improvising (not all exactly cellular). Ritual 3/Hostage overtly repeats almost the same material six times in a row, with small variations at the end of the “phrase.” And Ritual 4/Release takes an opening series of motives and deconstructs and varies them through processes of literal cellular repetition followed by a motivic group improvisation.
While the album is by no means derivative, listeners of a certain vintage will pick up on Zappa and Waits, while others may hear elements of Morphine and early Mr. Bungle channeled through Dominique’s tight arrangements. The album has a dirty, visceral quality, and while there is no story per se, there is a quasi-narrative forward motion—kind of like Zorn’s “Naked City,” without the hyperkinetic/schizophrenic arrangements and vocals.
In addition to the eponymous tracks, highlights include Golden Retriever, with its wandering pizzicato strings and lowing tenor sax, and Mulatto Shuffle, which marches in on its namesake before shuffling off, and last but not least, Drunk Hump, which sounds like the end of the night, no doubt. The album is very evocative, totally begs live performance, and to my ear lends itself to additional elements of theater and dance. Dominique’s performing contribution to the album is on flugabone on all ten tracks, and my only criticism is that with an album with a vibe like this, if you play a flugabone, you should name one of your tunes after it. Ritual 5, anyone?