Sounds Heard: Michael Harrison & Maya Beiser—Time Loops

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Time Loops
by Michael Harrison & Maya Beiser
(Cantaloupe)
Performers:
Maya Beiser: cello(s)
Michael Harrison: piano
Young People's Chorus of NYC
Payton MacDonald: tabla and shaker

The cello is an ideal instrument for extensive multi-layering in performance—whether via pre-recorded tracks or live ensemble of multiple instruments—and arguably one of the performers who most expertly utilizes pre-recorded layers of sound is Maya Beiser. For the recording Time Loops she teams up with composer and pianist Michael Harrison to perform a number of Harrison’s works inspired by “music from ancient Greece and the Renaissance, Indian ragas and Minimalism.” All of his music is performed in just intonation, and the result is an ear-openingly clear, bright sound that fits the instrument beautifully and highlights the ecstatic, spiritual nature of the compositions.

The album begins with the three-movement Just Ancient Loops, which is by far the strongest and most engaging work on the disc. The first movement, titled “Genesis,” opens with bubbling, virtuosic pizzicato lines over a steady drone. This is soon joined by soaring melodic lines juxtaposed with hunks of chordal material that take a loose chorus-verse song format. The layers gradually pile up on one another and are then stripped away to reveal more minimal textures with opening lines peeking out from the melodic forest, only to snowball again and again.

The activity calms down in the serene second movement, “Chorale,” in which the focus is on long sinewy non-vibrato lines that rub against one another and wiggle with melismatic material over top a sparser pizzicato accompaniment. The third movement, “Ascension,” amps up the energy with a steady repeated 16th-note line that serves as grounding for short, excited bits of melodic material. These snippets swoop into and out of the foreground and start to rise in pitch to the outer reaches of the instrument to a dramatic climax and ending. To my ears the music evokes images of what the flight of Icarus would have been like had the wax on his wings not melted. Not included with the recording is a video by Bill Morrison which was created to accompany the piece; an excerpt can be seen in the video sample below.

The following two works are interpretations for piano and cello of Gounod’s Ave Maria (which is itself a reworking of Bach’s Prelude in C Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier). In Time Loops Harrison reassembles the piece by playing a recording of the piano part backwards, accompanied by a retrograde live version of the primary melody on cello, and this work is immediately followed by a (literally) more straight-forward performance of the Bach/Gounod original by Harrison and Beiser. Arvo Pärt’s Speigel Im Speigel is also given a strong performance by the two performers, though I cannot help but wonder the reason for including these works—other than to demonstrate the creative impulses behind Harrison’s pieces—when Harrison’s compositions are so compelling in their own right.

One can hear how these three works serve as inspirational stepping stones for the works by Harrison, most apparently in Raga Prelude I (Yaman) for cello and piano, which employs melodic material from the North Indian Raga Yaman as well as whispers of the Gounod and Pärt.

The final and largest work Hijaz is composed by Harrison for Beiser and the composer himself with the Young People’s Chorus of New York City under the direction of Francisco J. Nuñez, as well as Payton MacDonald on tabla and shaker. The text combines a prayer written by Harrison, and spoken South Indian rhythmic syllables that offer a dynamic and textural contrast to big washes of more standard choral material. Intended to invoke a sense of pilgrimage to a wondrous place, according to the notes, it is a soaring, exultant work that indeed takes the listener on a journey through multiple states of emotion and a variety of shimmering sound worlds.

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