Tafelmusik Brings Otherworldly Sound to Cornell

The Galileo Project: Music of the Spheres
Bailey Hall, Cornell University
November 15, 2014

English physicist Norman Robert Campbell once wrote, “Science would not be what it is if there had not been a Galileo, a Newton or a Lavoisier, any more than music would be what it is if Bach, Beethoven and Wagner had never lived.” This statement has rarely been so obvious as it was on Saturday night, when Toronto-based Tafelmusik proved distinction as one of the world’s finest Baroque ensembles with its presentation of The Galileo Project. The orchestra’s double-bass player, Alison Mackay, conceived the program when she was invited to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Galileo Galilei’s astronomical telescope. The result could hardly have been more apt, for the Italian astronomer’s love of physics was known to extend almost as deeply into the heart of music as to the heavens that set it beating. Father Vincenzo, in fact, passed on to his son a love for the lute, an instrument Galileo continued to play throughout his final years, blind though he was and under house arrest for heresy by order of the Inquisition.

Tafelmusik’s performance—last of the fall Cornell Concert Series—was a master class in pastiche, shuffling evocative readings (courtesy of actor Shaun Smyth) of Shakespeare, Ovid, Kepler and Galileo himself, among others, into a contemporaneous playlist, all while images from the Hubble and tasteful computer-generated sequences were being projected onto a circle suspended at stage rear. Even more delightful was the fact that Tafelmusik played without scores. Originally a logistical necessity brought on by the low lighting required for the visuals, this dynamic liberated the 17-member orchestra—save for its bench-bound harpsichordist—in remarkably creative ways. Choreographic variations grew organically out of sonic ones and found the musicians sometimes among the audience, playing in the wings of the hall, or ambulating about the stage in veritable planetary orbits. These movements further translated into conversational banter, which on occasion threw the two cellists into intense dialogues or, as in the case of the Vivaldi concerto that opened the program, goaded the violin soloists with syllogistic zeal. The musical infrastructure was thus pillared by its most popular culls, by which was served a delectable assortment of incidental music by Lully, Monteverdi, Purcell and Rameau, all leading to the glorious sinfonia from J. S. Bach’s 29th cantata.

Central to the program’s conceptual integrity, however, was something quantifiable by no mere intersection of sound and science. It was, for lack of a more effective connotation, the timeless “spirit” of invention, observation and revolution that made every note sing. In this respect, some of the darkest moments of the concert were also its most compelling, as when a narrative description about the death of Galileo’s beloved daughter gave way to a toccata for solo lute composed by his younger brother Michelangelo. The intimacy of this downtime said more about celestial mysteries than the numbers employed to explain them.

Tafelmusik’s slogan may be “World-renowned, Future-bound,” but The Galileo Project showcased an unbreakable bondage to the past in kind. The end effect continues to reverberate in this reviewer’s mind, which nevertheless labors to return the favor in these constellations of words and hopes that, somewhere in the universe, Mr. Galilei was listening.

(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun here.)

Steve Kuhn Trio: Wisteria (ECM 2257)


Steve Kuhn Trio

Steve Kuhn piano
Steve Swallow bass
Joey Baron drums
Recorded Sptember 2011 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Tim Marchiafava
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Pianist Steve Kuhn, bassist Steve Swallow, and drummer Joey Baron make sweet music together, for sure, but an unquantifiable feel for that music is what sets this dream trio apart, and nowhere so clearly as in the lion’s share of Kuhn’s tunes presented on Wisteria. The complexities thereof become more readily apparent in these core settings. Above all, “Adagio” reveals a triangle within a triangle within a triangle. First is Baron’s sparkling pool, next bordered by Swallow’s equilateral bassing, all molded by Kuhn’s resounding redraws, and with a multi-dimensional sound enhanced to crystalline effect by engineer James Farber, fewer geometries could be more sublime. Further gems last heard on Promises Kept include the study in contrasts that is “Morning Dew,” the lyrical “Pastorale” (then again, when is Kuhn not lyrical?), and that album’s title cut, which achieves here even greater densities than in the former’s orchestral couch.

Wisteria is not without its groovier moments (cf. “A Likely Story”), but tends toward the softer end of the spectrum whenever possible. This only serves to gel the intensity of emotion throughout. Exemplary in this regard is the album’s opener, “Chalet,” in which the trio’s mesh sets a unified tone. It also reveals the inimitable presence of Swallow, whose early solo unlocks much of the joy about to ensue, and whose two contributions—“Dark Glasses” and “Good Lookin’ Rookie”—span the horizon from solemn to ecstatic, sunset ochre to raindrop blue, with class.

Three standalone tracks complete the set. Carla Bley’s “Permanent Wave” lays on the nostalgia so thick that you’ll swear you heard it a long time ago, with a drink in hand and only a memory to keep you company. “Romance” (by Brazilian singer-songwriter Dory Caymmi) brims with blind affection and proves yet again just how masterfully Kuhn approaches the art of the finish. And then there is the title track by Art Farmer, in whose band Kuhn and Swallow played half a century ago. This shadow-swept reverie says it all with so little.

Wisteria is about as positive as jazz gets. So much so that one can feel the smiles rippling all around as one pebble after another is dropped into the sacred font of improvisation from which each of these musicians so artfully drinks, and with enough tenderness to go around for even the most resilient soul.

(To hear samples of Wisteria, click here.)

Meredith Monk: Songs of Ascension (ECM New Series 2154)

Songs of Ascension

Meredith Monk
Songs of Ascension

Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble
Ellen Fisher, Katie Geissinger, Ching Gonzalez, Meredith Monk, Bruce Rameker, Allison Sniffin voices
Bohdan Hilash woodwinds
John Hollenbeck percussion
Allison Sniffin violin
Todd Reynolds Quartet
Todd Reynolds violin
Courtney Orlando violin
Nadia Sirota viola
Ha-Yang Kim violoncello
The M6
Sasha Bogdanowitsch, Sidney Chen, Emily Eagan, Holly Nadal, Toby Newman, Peter Sciscioli voices
Montclair State University Singers
Heather J. Buchanan conductor
Recorded November 2009, Academy of Arts and Letters, New York
Engineers: James Farber and Paul Zinman
Assistants: Nelson Wong and Sean Mair
Editing engineer: Paul Zinman
Location Recording Service: SoundByte Productions Inc., New York
Mixed at Avatar Studios, New York by James Farber, Manfred Eicher, and Meredith Monk
Assistant: Akihiro Nishimura
Produced by Manfred Eicher

These pieces grew out of inspiration from poet Paul Celan, whose “Song of Ascents” suggested heavenly upward motion, and by extension a project to explore the sacrality of directions. Fortuitously, composer Meredith Monk was asked by artist Ann Hamilton to perform on site in Geyserville, California, where an eight-story tower with staircases in the shape of a double helix awaited Monk and her dedicated musicians. The beauty of the image, despite its live-giving implications, is that a helix has no up or down—or, rather, embodies both simultaneously—so that divinity comes to be expressed through suspension of the body.

As Monk’s subtlest assemblage, Songs of Ascension births a masterfully realized bioform. I use the adverb not lightly, because only mastery could stretch such a stable tightrope between being and non-being and walk between the two as easily as falling. To her vocal montage Monk adds string quartet, percussion, and woodwinds, for an amalgamated effect of such intimate proportions that the seemingly massive roster only serves to compress the music’s molecules into a galaxy of interpretation: it holds its shape by strength in numbers, an ethereal note inked in long before the earth dotted it on the then-blank score of outer space.

Indeed, one might trace an evolution of global life in the album’s embedded structures. Four seasonal “variations” and three so-called “clusters” are its spiritual campgrounds, from which sparks fling themselves into the night sky as the firewood settles. Songs are intoned and invoked, touched by percussion and overlapping strings, and moving in unison renderable only through total corporeal commitment. Gatherings and inner psalms blur into one another until the topography changes into air. Whether in the pointillism of “cloud code” or the ricocheting pings of “burn,” the topographic circles of “mapping” or the piercing meditation of “fathom,” a consistency of vision prevails. The instrumental passages are just as vocal, the vocal just as instrumental.

Songs of Ascension brings the atmosphere down to soil level. It speaks a continuity of earth and sky, the elemental composition of which draws notecraft from the farthest reaches of the universe, which happen to reside between our ears.

Stefano Battaglia Trio: The River of Anyder (ECM 2151)

The River of Anyder

Stefano Battaglia Trio
The River of Anyder

Stefano Battaglia piano
Salvatore Maiore double-bass
Roberto Dani drums
Recorded November 2009, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Stefano Battaglia always seems to have a root planted in mythical worlds. Where often he embraces those worlds as hidden inspirations, here the Italian pianist turns them inside out, yielding the journey that is The River of Anyder. Named for the river of Thomas More’s Utopia, the word “Anyder” is a pun meaning “waterless.” Like the music spun from its current, it embodies a contradiction between word and action. With this in mind, we might very well dismiss this album’s track titles altogether, for they mark not a mapping but a deconstruction of space by way of melody and affect.

Battaglia 1

We may indeed recognize “Minas Tirith” as the capital of Gondor in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and imagine its fortress hewn in white rock. But then we might miss out on the music’s decidedly ashen palette, the wide-mouthed net of shadows cast by Battaglia’s ascending arpeggios in unity with bassist Salvatore Maiore, or the cymbals of drummer Roberto Dani rattling like coins in a giant’s pocket. We may hear the poetry of Rumi suffused in “Ararat Dance” and “Ararat Prayer,” risking too deep a reading by ignoring their already ornate surfaces, the standalone evocations of Maiore’s bassing, or the gilding of inaction that holds it all together.

We may get swept away by two tracks referencing the mythical island of Bensalem in Sir Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, but fail to see that the trio’s interactions at moments leave the earth altogether. From the soft padding of his left hand to the tireless runs of his right, Battaglia navigates a profoundly varied topography with the freedom of one who walks without compass, who stops the wind and redirects it with every step taken. Whether contemplating the prayerful disposition of Hildegard von Bingen in the droning “Sham-bha-lah” or rowing the currents of the title track, Battaglia and his bandmates somehow slingshot around the dark side of the moon every time, placing them far from where they started.

Perhaps the only unity between spirit and production is “Anywhere Song.” This defining track concludes the set with a vision from Oglala Sioux Black Elk, who from atop the highest mountain sees all children of earth under one tree. It is, perhaps, the album’s deepest message: that in this tangle of keys, strings, and sticks, something so humble as a so-called jazz trio can look beyond its means and into the face of origins that compels those means to begin with. These are musicians who tell story and scripture alike.

The River of Anyder, then, is more than a catalogue of allusions. It is a pacifist’s statement, a bid for peace for a world in pieces.

(To hear samples of The River of Anyder, click here.)