New Morse Code's 'Simplicity Itself' Glows with Intimacy and Investigation by Doyle Armbrust

New Morse Code - Simplicity Itself.jpg

What is “authenticity” in classical/new music? 

I’m not touching that with a 13 ½-foot pole, as I don’t have the requisite dozen hours to regulate the social-media donnybrook that would inevitably erupt, regardless of the position taken. What I will hazard is that New Morse Code’s new record, Simplicity Itself, is a flag of genuineness raised … and if one is — or isn’t — a sonic citizen of this particular flavor of programming, the indisputable commitment of the performances and intimacy of the delivery will unconsciously draw right hands upwards toward the heart.

Let’s begin at the end. Composer Robert Honstein’s Unwind, which rolls the credits on this album, pulls the cellist half of this cello–percussion duo off her native instrument and over to the marimba and vibes. There is an inherent and dramatic risk — not to mention unexpected possibilities revealed — in removing expertise from the equation, and cellist Hannah Collins brings not only accuracy, but that elusive element of feel to the rising melodic lines and layered polyrhythms within. If there is any justice in the universe, Netflix will lay claim to this uncluttered, heartbreaking number for some upcoming, Nordic crime drama.

At least two of the five scores contained within Simplicity Itself opt for the handles (percussionist) “Mike” and “Hannah” in lieu of “Perc.” and “VCL.” While it’s not uncommon for new-music ensembles to align themselves with like-minded composers, what is abundantly clear on the album is the bespoke nature of the writing — and its corresponding, cooperative realization on the part of New Morse Code. No where is this more evident than the emotional zenith of the record, the third movement of composer Tonia Ko’s Hush, the titular Simplicity Itself, in which percussionist Michael Compitello’s restless flower-pot exaltations are answered by Collins’s ricochet evaporations and fretful investigations up the fingerboard. It is nothing short of a revelation when Collins vocalizes the first utterances of the Virginia Woolf verse, “Rose … fa-lling,” with the text plummeting, expectantly, toward earth. The earnestness of the enunciation is positively gut-wrenching.

What will be clear to any listener of this release is: that warm blanket that is the communion between two artists that have shared flight delays, the trials innumerable hours on stage and in the practice cave — revealing all in the alchemy of the aural interaction. While not all the commissions land with equal weight – I found myself wanting to follow the Caroline Shaw and Paul Kerekes numbers further down their respective rabbit holes in terms of development – the symbiosis between these two collaborators can’t help but seep through into one’s headphones. I, for one, am adding this to my list of highly-addictive, new-music gateway drugs with which to ensnare new listeners.

– Doyle Armbrust

Poetry and Technique on Exquisite Display in Mariel Roberts' 'Cartography' by Doyle Armbrust

When conservatories and music departments finally awake from their (irresponsible) slumber to the reality that they should be teaching new music in earnest, they would do well to ink Mariel Roberts at or near the top of their list of cello professor candidates.

Ms. Roberts first head-butted her way into my consciousness in 2012 with the exceptional Nonextraneous Sounds record, and as with her debut release, I fully anticipate that 2017’s Cartography will remain in my annual Top 10 across the next seven months. The technique is superlative here, but this album is also a feat of inspired and divergent programming, and the technique tends to evaporate behind the poetry of the performances.

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Ted Hearne and The Crossing's 'Sound From the Bench' by Doyle Armbrust

These days, I find that I either want to engage with the news directly, getting a serious rage buzz on, or disengage completely by staring at photos of International Space Station repairs on the NASA app. How to wrestle with our current reality with the hues of gray that are necessary to inspire anything resembling a nuanced discussion? Well, since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, one composer has never disappointed in his attempt to ask just the right questions at just the right time, like a one-person Oblique Strategies deck. 

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Opera Company Trades Limo Seats for Earbuds with 'Hopscotch' Disc by Doyle Armbrust

If anyone were making any money on classical albums these days, news of a Hopscotch release might be initially misinterpreted as a cynical cash grab. How can a site-specific opera – one in which miniature audiences were shuttled around Los Angeles in limos, side-by side with performers – hinged on a singular and deeply personal live experience translate to the static medium of a recording?

Pluck the key-shaped USB drive out of the digipak, set the car stereo to “shuffle,” and shift into drive for the answer.

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Yarn/Wire's 'Currents Vol. 4' by Doyle Armbrust

To set the scene: Donald Trump had pulled off his electoral upset just three days prior to Yarn/Wire’s show at Chicago’s new-music apothecary, Constellation. The audience was a coin toss of composers and performers, and faces were noticeably pallid. What ensued, and what is captured on Currents Vol. 4 at a similar staging in Red Hook, Brooklyn, was an immersive trek inward. This was group meditation… and we levitated.

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Carolina Eyck's Theremin Mines New Expressive Possibilities by Doyle Armbrust

The crux of a film like Blade Runner or Ex Machina – the bit that makes it heartbreaking – is that moment in which a glimmer of humanity escapes the machine. Is the robot’s emotional response really just a product of ones and zeros? Does it matter?

Fascination with this nebulous distance between machine-ness and human-ness is largely the reason that the grooves on my Clara Rockmore LP are worn smooth, and why a ravishing new release by another lion of the theremin is a welcome sight and sound.

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Christopher Tignor Mesmerizes with 'Along a Vanishing Plane' by Doyle Armbrust

Christopher Tignor has created a perfect new-music make-out album. To be crystal clear, this is intended as high praise for this artist, who listeners may already know from his work with A Far CryBrooklyn Rider and The Knights. Sensual, often melancholy, and expansive in its approach to both melody and time, Along a Vanishing Plane is record for drawing the drapes and tucking into a pillowy sofa.

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Tenor Sax Quartet Battle Trance Returns with Scorching 'Blade of Love' by Doyle Armbrust

There is something singularly delicious about an album that ferries the listener all the way across it, allowing not a moment of hesitation in which to consider skipping ahead. There is a visual analog in film. Consider one for which it would be irresponsible to view on a phone screen, say a Julie Taymor or Terrence Mallick picture. It begs to be viewed in full detail, and otherwise deflates. Battle Trance’s second full-length, Blade of Love, is such a record, with its three corpulent tracks fusing bleary chord nebulae, scorching rhythmic bursts, and vulnerable incantations into a philosophic, aural aphrodisiac.

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Lewis Pesacov, The Industry and wild Up Offer Doomsday Delirium by Doyle Armbrust

Prophesying a specific date for the end of times is a sure-fire way to ensure international ridicule (please do check out the comic wormhole that is the broadcast oeuvre of Harold Camping), but memorialize that date with a piece as delirious and trance-inducing as The Edge of Forever, and the entire enterprise takes on a far more potent, mystic hue.

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Cello Ensemble's Collective Virtuosity Shines in 'shadow, echo, memory' by Doyle Armbrust

Discovering that a student of Hans Jørgen Jensen is on the roster of the cello competition in which you’re competing is a bit like finding out that Elon Musk just entered your seventh-grade science fair. The Northwestern University cello professor has been sculpting world-class musicians (and competition slayers) for decades — and is now releasing a stunning album showcasing their collective artistic agility.

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Mivos Quartet's Full Course 'Garden of Diverging Paths' by Doyle Armbrust

Music eats literature and literature dines on music, and Mivos Quartet’s Garden of Diverging Paths is an album of beautiful cannibalism. As a theme, the intersection of words and sounds is a path crowded with footprints, but what elevates this effort is genuinely exceptional programming and the full…digestion…of the scores on the part of the quartet.

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Cellist Michael Nicolas's Debut 'Transitions' Slides, Pummels and Seduces by Doyle Armbrust

If artificial intelligence must necessarily lead to a robot revolt, it’s safe to assume that we’ll be taking cover from a swarm of sex-bots, not T-1000s, statistically-speaking. Whether its streaking automatons or homicidal cyborgs, we can rely on cellist Michael Nicolas to be our Schwarzenegger. His peacemaker is "Transitions," a stylistically manifold collection of works at the intersection of cello and electronics, and one that makes a strong case for their interdependence — and nonviolent collaboration.

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Clint Mansell's Gritty Score to 'Requiem for a Dream' Issued on Vinyl by Doyle Armbrust

As someone who imbibes a perhaps absurd number of filmic hours, I have a habit of bleeding together details of moving pictures in my brain. This is the not the case for Darren Aronofsky’s Y2K masterpiece Requiem for a Dream, due in large part to the iconic score by Clint Mansell. In celebration of Record Store Day 2016, Nonesuch has released this indelible soundtrack on deliciously chunky 180g vinyl, housed in a heavyweight cardboard gatefold sleeve, inviting fans to sink into this ravishing and irrevocable terrarium once again.

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Skylark Vocal Ensemble Delivers Engrossing Meditation on Death by Doyle Armbrust

It is an injustice of life that musical elegies and songs of consolation are customarily saved for the rituals following death, rather than employed in the moments immediately preceding the final breath. Skylark’s nectarous new release, "Crossing Over," lives at this intersection of existence and the void, and one can only hope to have a soundtrack like this at hand when the time comes — rather than keeling over in a grocery aisle to a MIDI reduction of Journey’sDon’t Stop Believing.

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Third Coast Percussion Offers Empathetic 'Steve Reich' by Doyle Armbrust

Steve Reich and Third Coast Percussion (TCP) are both celebrating birthdays this year, and if the latter’s new album is, in part, a gift to the former, all subsequent presents will likely take on a paler hue. Marking its 10th anniversary, Third Coast is surfing substantial momentum, with a residency at Notre Dame, frequent appearances on the country’s choicest music series, and this new album released by Chicago’s premiere classical label, Cedille. 

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Jóhann Jóhannsson's Relentless, Ritualistic 'Sicario' Soundtrack by Doyle Armbrust

It was 1958, and Heitor Villa-Lobos was contracted to write the film score to Green Mansions, starring Audrey Hepburn and Anthony Perkins. He was shocked – BEFUDDLED – to discover that the film would not be edited to his music, rather than the other way around. The story sounds charming these days, and yet how bizarre is it that a composer should expect his music to be weed-whacked to fit a scene?

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Dawn of Midi's Qasim Naqvi Offers a Sci-Fi Companion with 'Preamble' by Doyle Armbrust

Imagine for a moment that you’ve stumbled upon an abandoned estate. Entering, you discover that this place was left in haste, its objects largely left untouched, save for a thin blanket of dust. Like, say, Myst (sidebar: Myst is a PC game mommies and daddies used to play). This is a little what it is like to explore Qasim Naqvi’s latest release, "Preamble" – no ticking time clock, each corner is a reveal, and patience is rewarded with sorcerous encounters.

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Violist Melia Watras Spans Earthy and Luxurious Sounds in 'Ispirare' by Doyle Armbrust

If ass-kicking in classical music could be likened to that of late-80’s-to-early-90’s action heroes, Melia Watras is a Jean-Claude Van Damme of the viola – which is to say (sonically) muscular in all the right places, elegant in delivery of a solar plexus punch, and lousy with narrative-driving passion. A new recording called "Ispirare" showcases the American violist, who teaches at the University of Washington and as a soloist and member of the Corigliano Quartet has premiered dozens of works for her instrument.

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Jane Antonia Cornish's 'Continuum' Unfolds With Wistful, Melancholic Beauty by Doyle Armbrust

Never underestimate the power of a well-situated, cyclical arpeggio – especially in the hands of skilled, vigilant musicians. Much of English composer Jane Antonia Cornish’s portrait album, "Continuum," is built on this most fundamental element of classical music, and as anyone who has attended a concert in which a program swap offered an under-rehearsed, minimalist number can attest, this brand of music is not easily executed.

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Composer-Cellist Peter Gregson's Fervid Midnight Rendezvous, "Touch" by Doyle Armbrust

It is an exquisite thing, when music raises a mirror, impelling the listener past his last defense before the beautiful, or despairing, or anticipative, or terrible, or emboldened thing is felt. At its basest form, it is emotional manipulation, but in the case of Peter Gregson’s "Touch," it is emotional bolstering – the kind that keeps us aural junkies itching for that sonic bump when we’re feeling all the feelings. For his fourth studio album, the composer/cellist strips down to a modest cadre of analog synth, strings hailing from Inscape Chamber Orchestra, cello, and piano, but what arrives through the speakers are voluptuous orchestrations of intimate, ruminative melodies.

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