Album Review

Nicholas Cords - Recursions by Doyle Armbrust

The authentic voice of the viola lies somewhere between melancholy and introspection, hued in lustrous ochres and burnished golds. Though the instrument is fluent in countless dialects, it’s this dark patina that violist Nicholas Cords is drawn to on his elegant solo disc, Recursions. With no less than seven composers featured (including himself), the album covers a broad expanse of the instrument’s repertoire while unapologetically sequestering itself to a warm, embracing sound world.

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Jace Clayton - The Julius Eastman Memory Depot by Doyle Armbrust

That equal rights for gay couples are currently being debated before the Supreme Court makes the release of Jace Clayton’s The Julius Eastman Memory Depot all the more poignant. Eastman was a gay, African-American, post-minimalist composer working within the largely white, conservative idiom of classical music in the 1960s–’80s whose radical brilliance has long remained in obscurity. Clayton, better known as DJ /rupture, is a paragon of social consciousness and a preternaturally talented purveyor of sound who aims to amend that with this tribute.

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R We Who R We - [Self-Titled] by Doyle Armbrust

Listening to Ted Hearne and Philip White’s R We Who R We is a bit like attempting to force the beaters of an electric hand mixer through one’s nostrils and into the brain, then flipping the power on…and this is an unequivocally good thing. Using Top 40 hits like Ke$ha’s “We R Who We R” and Madonna’s “Material Girl” as a point of departure, vocal hellion Hearne and electronic conjurer White hook listeners with the familiar while hurtling through often confrontational and exceptionally potent sonic deconstructions. Other than the lyric content, almost nothing remains of the source material, offering not pop-tune covers but compositional reinventions.

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Suzanne Farrin - Corpo di Terra by Doyle Armbrust

Each selection on Corpo di Terra seeks to be a “song without words,” which may be why composer Suzanne Farrin’s music feels so familiar. Structured around texts of the Italian poet Petrarch, with the exception of “Time Is a Cage,” these solos and duets play like field recordings from inside the cerebral cortex.

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Georges Lentz - Works for Orchestra by Doyle Armbrust

The first thing listeners should know about Georges Lentz is that his entire compositional oeuvre is rooted in an existential fear of the sheer magnitude of the universe. That’s right, NASA junkies, you’ve found your composer. The Luxembourg native’s ongoing Caeli enarrant… (“The heavens declare…”) project includes works for prepared piano and string quartet among others, but two orchestral pieces and one concertante work comprise the celestial track listing on Works for Orchestra, a fresh take from the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg and conductor Emilio Pomarico.

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Mariel Roberts - Nonextraneous Sounds by Doyle Armbrust

In the laboratory that is new music, with its accumulation of extended techniques, there are two kinds of performers: those who play “at” these often intractable methods, and those who organically inhabit them. Cellist Mariel Roberts spends the entirety of her outstanding debut album, Nonextraneous Sounds, in the latter category, executing demanding scores with the familiarity of a Bach cello suite.

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Jonny Greenwood - The Master (soundtrack) by Doyle Armbrust

The sumptuous, Copland-esque chords of “Overtones” draw back the curtains on The Master: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, but within seconds they’ve devolved into a low-frequency swarm. Similar to the Scientology-like sect at the heart of the film, this early contamination of Americana tonality in Jonny Greenwood’s score feels familiar at first, then disorienting. Employing a full orchestra for his second collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson (the first being 2007’s There Will Be Blood), the Radiohead guitarist draws on the sonorities and harmonic landscapes of composers like Ravel. Take “Alethia,” where a harp’s altered pentatonic scales buoy a languid clarinet and flute duet, begging for a full-frame shot of a face curled in silent conflict.

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Kim Kashkashian - Kurtág/Ligeti: Music for Viola by Doyle Armbrust

The latter half of the 20th century in classical music was nothing if not an exploration of the beauty to be found in realms beyond that of consonant tonality and traditional lyricism. New compositional vernaculars require fluent translators, and concert soloist Kim Kashkashian “speaks” Kurtág and Ligeti with the eloquence of a poet laureate. For her latest release, Music for Viola, the Armenian-American exquisitely executes György Ligeti’s vocabulary of extremes and György Kurtág’s concise sonic fragments in one of the year’s most exceptional albums.

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Heikki Laitinen and Kimmo Pohjonen: Murhaballadeja by Doyle Armbrust

It’s not often real-life killers grace the covers of classical-music releases, but it’s also not often we come across an album so bleak, weird and captivating. A collection of Finnish reki songs, Murhaballadeja includes ballads of both praise and loathing for the perpetrators of violence. Accordion phenom Kimmo Pohjonen doesn’t so much accompany the brutal texts delivered by fellow Finn Heikki Laitinen as musically conjure horrifically disorienting scenes.

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Third Coast Percussion - John Cage: Works for Percussion 2 by Doyle Armbrust

The Works for Percussion 2 reminds us just how undeniably groovy John Cage’s percussion canon can be. In “Third Construction,” 3CP moves beyond precision to nimbly demonstrate the mesmerizing quality of Cage’s rotating rhythmic structure. David Skidmore breaks into an ecstatic, double-fisted kashishi breakdown, as Peter Martin shoots blasts from a conch shell.

The apex is reached in the final four tracks, “Living Room Music.” Filmed within the red steel rib-cage of the Ruth Ford House in Aurora, the local quartet of Skidmore, Martin, Robert Dillon and Owen Clayton Condon strike floor lamps, handrails and walls with spoons, spatulas and hands. Martin taps out a rhythm of bleeps on a laptop’s space bar. For these details, opt for the DVD package over the CD-only version. Artfully captured on video and masterfully performed by 3CP, the sophomore album deserves an emphatic water-gong crash of approval.

- Doyle Armbrust

published in Time Out Chicago on June 21st, 2012

Sō Percussion - Cage 100: The Bootleg Series by Doyle Armbrust

The new-music scene is in for a heavy dose of John Cage during his centennial this year. Sō Percussion’s Cage 100: The Bootleg Series could very well be the primer for the composer. Gathering some of the Cage’s best known works as well as original scores and collaborations with indie-electro dynamos such as Dan Deacon and Matmos, this sampler album arrives in a limited-edition run of 300, including a blank LP (think 4'33") cased in a handmade, gaffer-tape-decorated sleeve with a download of live, full-length performances.

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Fall 2011 Classical Record Round-Up by Doyle Armbrust

London Philharmonic Orchestra
The 50 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music (X5 Music Group)

The expected fare—Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, Orff’s “Carmina Burana” and the rest—finds the London Philharmonic Orchestra buried in a bass-dominated mix and excessive reverb. While much of the playing is passable, as in Vivaldi’s “Spring (Allegro)” from Four Seasons, the lack of rhythmic flexibility nearly conjures an audible metronome click. “The 50 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music”? Lies! They are not. The LPO finds one measly post–World War II piece throughout the four-disc set, Stanley Myers’s “Cavatina” (famously used in The Deer Hunter), and the entire catalogs of Shostakovich, Berg and Bartók are inexplicably absent.

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Gidon Kremer - Edition Lockenhaus by Doyle Armbrust

Gidon Kremer made a few enemies with his recent indictment of the damaging culture of celebrity at the Verbier Festival. In a letter explaining his withdrawal from the Swiss event, Kremer declared the new breed of performers “quite EMPTY and artistically lost, chasing a hunger for recognition.” Embracing talent over marketability for his own roster, the violinist’s Lockenhaus Festival is a bolster to his argument. Luckily for those unable to attend the annual concerts in Austria, ECM New Series founder Manfred Eicher began capturing the superlative performances soon after the Lockenhaus’s inception in 1981. This essential five-disc box collects material recorded between 1981 and 1986.

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Anna Thorvaldsdottir - Rhizoma by Doyle Armbrust

From string quartet Amiina to electronic conjurer Ben Frost, much of our favorite music has emerged from Iceland in recent years. The latest from the island, Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s debut, Rhízoma, plays like a field recording of the wrinkled crevasses of the cerebral cortex. Structured yet transcendent of bar lines, the scores wander introspectively through a vast spatial plane, as though pivoting the eyes back into the skull.

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Steve Reich - WTC 9/11 by Doyle Armbrust

Not since Lara St. John wore her violin as a bra on Bach Works for Violin has there been such a public kerfuffle over classical cover art as with Steve Reich’s latest, WTC 9/11 / Mallet Quartet / Dance Patterns. The image of the second plane hitting the towers was replaced after the uproar.

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Michael Gordon - Timber by Doyle Armbrust

Music collectors are suckers for creative album packaging, and with Timber, composer Michael Gordon has a winner. It comes entombed in medium-density fiberboard, laser-etched with a starburst of 3-D planks. Thankfully, the Bang on a Can cofounder’s latest is as musically compelling as its mantel-ready wooden case.

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Jacob Greenberg - Schumann and Busoni by Doyle Armbrust

Chicago audiences are accustomed to seeing Greenberg’s dome onstage at the MCA with the International Contemporary Ensemble. Yet Greenberg’s impressive keyboard prowess extends far beyond the labyrinths of a George Crumb score or the intricate weavings of Varèse. For his latest album, the Northwestern grad steps into the age of piano grandmasters Robert Schumann and Ferruccio Busoni for a more tonal exploration of interiors and exteriors.

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