• Contemporary Violin Duos with andPlay


    Maya Bennardo, violin. Hannah Levinson, viola.
    New Focus Recordings fcr233
    Total Time:  48:04
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Two former Oberlin Conservatory musicians come together to explore four very recent works for violin and viola from the over 25 pieces they have commissioned to date.  The combination of ranges for these two instruments informs each of the works recorded here.  For the most part, these are highly experimental works focusing on seemingly random sounds and effects.  The harshness of the pieces may put off some who prefer some tonal reference in their modern music.

    First up is Crescita Plastica (2015) by Ashkan Behzadi gives us an immediate introduction to the sheer virtuosity of Bennardo and Levinson.  The piece feature some rather stark and intense musical gestures that zip through the upper registers of the instruments as often violent attacks insert themselves into the musical argument.  Contemporary effects that explore double stopping, ponticello, and even microtones are also on display.

    David Bird’s Bezier (2013) continues this expansion of effects and sounds possible on the instruments with a variety of percussive effects exploring other means of sound creation.  The piece morphs into an exploration of trills and chirp-like sounds.  Apocrypha (2017) is one of his more recent works and will close out the album.  It adds electronic effects and sets up interactions between the acoustic sounds and the artificially-created ones.  This is a more compelling piece and might better have serves as an introduction to this avant-garde music.

    The penultimate piece is Clara Iannotta’s Luna (2011).  Here the harmonics of the violin and viola are explored along with other techniques of glissandi and ponticello  effects.  These become integral gestures that help provide a formal structure to the music.  A drone effect on a harmonica adds an additional other-worldly quality.

    These are each quite intense modern pieces not for the faint of heart.  The duo creates a real sense of intensity throughout the album.  Intonation is crucial to pieces like this and here this is attained impeccably.  The dramatic thrust of these pieces is also quite intriguing.  The sound of the album captures both instruments well and images them with just enough distance to provide some ambient support and distancing between the two.  Unfortunately, there is just a lot of resulting similarity here in a way that keeps any of these pieces from standing out fully on their own.  The concepts of the music are solid but could use some contrasting program to help them stand out more as collected here.  Fans of contemporary music in the New York area will certainly want to be on the lookout for andPlay’s local performances.


  • Birthing Experimental Jazz Improvs

     Haney: Birth of a City

    Jason Kao Hwang, violin. Melanie Dyer, viola. Adam Lane, bass. Tomas Ulrich, cello.
    Julian Priester and Steve Swell, trombones.
    Dave Storrs and Bernard Purdie, percussion.
    Big Round Records 8956
    Total Time:  52:14
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Composer David Haney’s new album Birth of a City is an intriguing collection of conceptualized improvisations.  There are two works here that explore blends of percussion with trombones and string instruments.  The title work is a series of eight different sections that explore rhythmic, or melodic fragments.  These are then improvised between whatever combos Haney intends to explore.  A host of percussion instruments are used to add a variety of intriguing sounds and punctuations with an occasional rhythmic idea providing a foundation from which the other material then springs.  The use of the trombones in the opening section gives the music an almost noir-ish quality.  When this switches to add strings, the music takes on a more intense quality and moves closer to a more classical avant-garde style.  Haney uses interesting bent pitches alongside gongs and different cymbals.  Even the melodic contours of the third part have an almost Asian-quality in their aesthetic.  As each of these different sections plays out, we get a sort of musical birthing image of different parts of this single thematic thread that provides the link between these different sections.  It connects with this concept of birthing sections of a city where different ideas will interact and where the listener seems to stand at one corner that can take them in any one direction.  The music overall has this jazzier underpinning upon which Haney also crafts music that might be more on the aleatoric classical realm, but the harmonic ideas are built around jazz progressions laid against these various explorations of line.  The music moves toward more intense writing as the parts build on one another gradually moving towards using all the different instrumental sounds.  Dissonance becomes far more pronounced as the piece progresses adding to this bustling intensity.  Sometimes, as in the seventh section here, the music has moments of emotive lyricism that move into extreme dissonance.  The work thus moves towards these denser textures becoming more forceful and dramatic culminating in the final smashing together of all the instrumental ideas in an atonal jumble of ideas and sounds.  It is as if the opening music has been deconstructed away from its harmonic and melodic roots to an exhaustive conclusion.  Part three explores a waltz tempo

    The five parts of Variations on a Theme take a specific part of a thematic idea for improvisation and development.  This allows for the creation of a variety of different sonic textures and sounds.  The piece opens with the modified string quartet which lends the music a more classical sensibility.  The cool bass ostinato pattern in the second part, coupled with the brush snare, moves us more into the jazz realm.  The music dissolves into a trombone duet for its final part.

    Birth of a City is in that third-stream universe that brings in aspects of classical chamber music with jazz for a more cerebral experience of musical material.  However, Haney’s lines are quite clear and this allows for an instantaneous entry into the soundworlds that he creates in both of these improvisatory works.  Certainly an album worth exploring for those who like their jazz and classical combos a little chunkier.