Dominik Wania piano Recorded November 2019, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano Engineer: Stefano Amerio Cover: Fidel Sclavo Produced by Manfred Eicher Release date: September 18, 2020
After contributing so beautifully to two albums—Unloved and Three Crowns—as part of the Maciej Obara Quartet, pianist Dominik Wania offers this studio recording of solo improvisations. While Wania notes a range of influences drawing from his classical background, including Satie, Weber, Scriabin, Prokofiev, Ravel, and Messiaen, he seems to have taken cues from these composers as emotional rather than technical suggestions. In doing so, he unravels a trajectory that feels fresh yet familiar in the sense of reuniting with a friend one hasn’t seen in decades. Thus, the light step with which the title track opens seeks the future as if it were the past. As the atmosphere builds and more notes enter the scene, a narrative structure suggests itself. And yet, the characters seem not to know each other. They walk by without acknowledgement, meshing in their indifference.
“New Life Experience” is the first among a handful of expository wonders. If this and the sharper attack of “Relativity” feel more jarring, it’s only because they speak of a musician unafraid to examine himself. Each agitation unpacks itself with philosophical rigor. And if “Think Twice” and “AG76” are heard as darker autobiographies, then “Subjective Objectivity” and “Indifferent Attitude” reveal a playful side. The latter is especially virtuosic but uses its acumen to tell more than show.
To my ears, Wania understands that music is nothing if not a reifying force. Despite the ephemeral implications of “Melting Spirit” and “Liquid Fluid” in titles alone, their lyrical charge makes them fully present as entities in their own right. They guide us “Towards The Light” by reminding us of the fleshly struggles of which life itself is composed as we now search for something divine in a world bogged down by cloud of a pandemic. Opening our eyes to a brighter tomorrow, “All What Remains” suspends itself in prayer, the requiting of which will never materialize until we close our mouths and open our ears.
This music is a sentient river acknowledging the obstructions that define its winding trajectory. It would be nothing without impediment, each rock and fallen tree a challenge to redefine itself at every turn. This is precisely what Lonely Shadows can be at its freest moments—a continuity through the traumas we carry inside before the ocean of mortality swallows them whole.
Marthe Lea clarinet, voice, percussion Ayumi Tanaka piano Thomas Strønen drums, percussion Recorded August 2018, Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano Engineer: Lara Persia Cover photo: Caterina Di Perri Produced by Manfred Eicher Release date: April 9, 2021
From Thomas Strønen’s Time Is A Blind Guide emerges the drummer/bandleader alongside pianist Ayumi Tanaka, delineating a fresh triangle with clarinetist/vocalist/percussionist Marthe Lea. Though metaphysically grounded in free explorations of musical moments, Bayou has a rhizomatic quality that blends apparent influences ranging from Claude Debussy to Jimmy Giuffre. These genetic strands and more feel cohesive in their new body, intertwining in search of (and in fleeting possession of) wonder.
After immersing myself in this album’s details, I arranged a video chat with Strønen to explore its genesis and inner lives. I first asked him about the relationship between this trio and Time Is A Blind Guide. His response:
“It’s everything and nothing, in a way. I think the similarities are quite obvious in that I like working on space and all the things that are not said. But this trio is totally improvised, while Time Is A Blind Guide is my play garden. I see my role in it more as a composer than as a drummer. I know where the music is heading. The main idea of the trio was to explore ground rather than perform, without the pressure to be or turn into anything. By accident, we got asked to play somewhere. I recorded that concert on one microphone and played it for Manfred. He said it sounded very fresh and insisted that we bring it to the studio. We recorded for three hours in the morning. We had lunch, then started mixing. It was very relaxed. It was also the first time I recorded totally improvised for ECM and we were excited to see whether we could bring about the same interplay we had experienced during rehearsals.”
Having two different versions of the title track speaks to this multifaceted approach, through which one face reveals new features when illuminated differently. Yielding a Norwegian folk tune, it parallels the whisper of Strønen’s brushes with the raindrops of piano, bringing forth a touchless space in which breath becomes the language of primary communication. The song emerges on its own wings but hovers within sight like a hummingbird in dream-like slow motion—watching, waiting, and listening.
Strønen parallels this impression:
“Music is integral to their lives. I think you can hear that in the way they play. It’s not just skills or training but an extremely strong will to create an atmosphere and interplay that’s larger than all of us. We’re different musicians but we have the same attitude toward playing music, despite our distinct roles in a band. Ayumi and I are more delicate, but we never know what Marthe will pull out next. For example, this record was the first time she sung in the context of this trio. She is a free bird who stirs things up and makes them alive.”
“Pasha” skims wider waters, alighting at last on shore. The surface tension of the pond becomes the page for a delicate grammar, the arrangement of which etches its poetry where ink cannot remain. “Water was always with us,” says Strønen, who knew the trio and its music would be aquatic in nature. Beyond that, however, nothing was planned.
Lea’s clarinet in “Duryea” lends insight into the inner workings of flight as it navigates the tangle of forest brush it calls home. To that daylit scene “Nahla” and “Varsha” are the night—a tender submersion of cellular mapmaking for the impending dawn. The creaking of tired trees bracing themselves for winter melds with subtle changes in temperature and air current.
One aspect that makes this music so special is its lack of allegiance to dialogue. It renders different parts of a shared scene while finding sameness through difference. It has no other protagonist than the landscape itself, replete with waterways, pockets of lichen, and lives of its own. Such are the winding journeys of “Eyre” and the amphibious diary that is “Dwyn.” In these are whispers of distant climates as yet untouched by the trio’s collective dreaming. Strønen elaborates on the inner dynamics at play:
“What I like in this ensemble is that we are not necessarily talking to each other but always listening. Parallel musical ideas are going on at the same time with really big ears from all three of us. It’s a challenging way of communicating—trusting that what you do is essential to what the others do but not in a conventional way. The essence is still there whether I am present or not. Jazz is usually about leading to a special point; we are not searching for that. Ours is a more parallel way of communicating.”
Nowhere more so than in “Como” (an album highlight for its suspended qualities and understated glory), which coaxes the sun from its slumber before it dissipates the mist of “Chantara.” This is, perhaps, why Lea hums wordlessly, as no form of human meaning can capture that which refuses to be caged by semantics.
“It’s common for a record to define a band. This has the side effect of getting onto a one-way street. I can find myself wanting to recreate what we did on a record, but listening later I am happy to find out it didn’t. You play what you are.”
A profound reminder that we listen what we are as well. The bayou is a mirror and we are its reflection.
Sinikka Langeland kantele, vocal Recorded December 2019 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo Recording supervision: Sean Lewis Engineer: Martin Abrahamsen Cover photo: Christian Houge Executive producer: Manfred Eicher Release date: April 9, 2021
My eye and God’s eye is one eye, and one sight, and one knowledge, and one love. –Meister Eckhart
After a loosely bound series of five tablets, the most recent being 2015’s The Magical Forest, Sinikka Langeland chisels an authorial portrait of the highest order with her first solo album. With so many multicolored scenes in collaborative form behind her, the Norwegian singer and kantele storyteller offers this monochromatic wonder as an ode to becoming and dissolution.
For the opening “Moose Rune,” she attunes the acoustic signatures of Rainbow Studio through her 15-string kantele, playing it with a bow to bring every molecule into sacred order. So begins an extended prayer of which the 39-string sister instrument breathes like an elder of time perched on a stony crag to oversee the histories Langeland has been blessed to carry. Playing the traditional “Polsdance from Finnskogen,” she expands the sonority at hand with liquidity to spare. Such instrumentals carry themselves with a fleshly quality, leaving footprints in every patch of earth they traverse.
Two “Kantele Prayers” give solace. Played on a 5-string instrument, they are like a child cultivating a mature soul, waiting for the day when, as an adult, she can do the opposite. Thus do the strings resonate in “Winter Rune” with all the force of a life lived circularly—tender yet aware of the rigid climbs one must complete to survey paths of learning. Past traumas blush on the horizon, but the voice gives assurance that not a single drop of their storms will make itself known upon the skin of the here and now. And when Langeland’s bow opens its heart for the second time, she creates a portal of escape for anyone who wishes to follow.
While her heart pumps with the blood of tradition, as in the modest folk tune “The Girl In The Headlands” and the hymnal “I See Your Light,” it also chambers a deeply generative spirit. From the latter is birthed a handful of original melodies. Langeland composes with an ancient sensibility and gives a wealth of experience to every turn of phrase. In “Row My Ocean,” her setting of a text by poet and playwright Jon Fosse, she evokes the movement of oars more emotional than physical, extending every string as a current in its own right, while “The Eye Of The Blue Whale” curls its fingers around her own verses, describing a disembodied whale’s eye as a metaphor for songs that, once sung, belong only to themselves. Such observations take wing in “When I Was The Forest.” Every gesture encoded in these words after 13th-century philosopher Meister Eckhart contains sparkle and shadow in equal measure. At tip of finger and rim of lip, Langeland enacts wandering, supplication, and regard for the natural world in ways that blur the lines between flesh and fern.
The starlit melody of “Don’t Come To Me With The Entire Truth” practices what it espouses: a humbling exaltation of the drop before the ocean, content in knowing just enough to make every breath count. All that’s left to regard is the title track, a rendering of an old rune song in which the Trinity is loosed like a pack of light to roam the darkness of this world, devouring every demon in sight. The stepwise motions of the kantele here are beyond virtuosic: they are fully integrated into their environment.
This is the soul of the forest made clean, a hearth in which to hibernate until the clouds pass over us in search of dawn.
Cymin Samawatie vocals Ketan Bhatti drums Trickster Orchestra Recorded January 2019, Meistersaal, Berlin Engineer: Martin Ruch Assistant engineer: Philip Krause Mastering: Christoph Stickel Cover photo: Fotini Potamia An ECM Production Release date: April 23, 2021
I wait for the LORD, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope. My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning. –Psalm 130:5-6
Since gracing ECM’s catalog with three facets of its musical wisdom, Cyminology reconfigures itself on a larger scale. This time, the group’s leader, singer Cymin Samawatie, and mainstay percussionist Ketan Bhatti drop their stones into the pond of the Trickster Orchestra, forming a 23-piece supergroup poised to interpret a wide repertoire that includes Old Testament scripture and Sufi poetry, connected by linguistic threads spun in Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, and Farsi. Instruments span an even wider gamut, from the koto of Naoko Kikuchi, the kanun of Bassem Alkhouri, and the sheng of Wu Wei to the clarinet of Mona Matbou Riahi, the recorders of Susanne Fröhlich, and the viola of Martin Stegner. Among the resulting music’s many excitements is the feeling that, despite finding themselves in unfamiliar territory, the musicians paint with an exploratory quality that makes every blade of grass their own.
“Shir hamaalot” is one of two songs cowritten by Samawatie and Bhatti. This stark setting of Psalm 130 evokes the inner turmoil born of self-awareness that prompted David to praise God with such fervency, while “Keşke” (“If Only”) melodizes a poem by Efe Duyan. This playful exploration of morbid topics, from trauma and self-harm to disaster and desire of the flesh, presents the human voice as a fluid presence given afterlife through electronic manipulations in what is arguably the album’s expressive apex.
On their own, each composer emotes with a genuinely distinctive quality. Samawatie’s sound-world is designated by its careful attention to syntax, its validation of textual histories, and its uplifting of the human experience. In “Gebete,” the tangible words of Rumi blend into Psalm 23, the former’s resignations easing into the latter’s divine comforts through tribulation before the sun’s radiance shines crosswise through the mesh of Sura 91. Like the verses themselves, the music blurs the line between inner and outer. Samawatie’s voice is joined by those of Rabih Lahoud and Sveta Kundish, who string their incredible harmonies from far and wide. In “Modara” and “Por se ssedaa,” we encounter freer singing and groovy undercurrents, respectively. Both look beyond the veil of religion to a place where reverence can flourish without constriction.
Bhatti’s atmospheres are more overtly about contrast. From the whispered imaginings of “Tounsibuurg,” which constitutes the album’s solar plexus, to the urgency of “Hast Hussle II,” he examines a mélange of influences, cultural touchpoints, and philosophical inquiries. Even the emerging chaos of “Kords Kontinuum” feels narratively structured, especially when the bass clarinet of Milian Vogel peeks above a rim of cloud while the viola works clockwise through its string games.
These songs are sirens of tomorrow gracing the here and now, each strand of their hair fanning out to reveal a possible trajectory across arid land, through murky waters, and over snow-dusted mountains. Still images are so frequent and congruent that, before long, they begin to take on the illusion of movement one would expect to find in the flipbooks of childhood.
This unusually thorough (and thoroughly unusual) experience is an ode to those who feel most at home in liminal spaces.
Vijay Iyer piano Linda May Han Oh double bass Tyshawn Sorey drums Recorded December 2019 at Oktaven Audio Studio, Mount Vernon, NY Engineer: Ryan Streber Mastering: Christoph Stickel Cover photo: Woong Chul An Produced by Vijay Iyer and Manfred Eicher Release date: April 9, 2021
while in the midst of horror we fed on beauty – and that, my love, is what sustained us. –Rita Dove
The term “microaggression,” often thrown around in today’s politically wounded climate, is a misnomer. There’s nothing “micro” about the injustice that a (seemingly) offhanded remark can inflict. Such impacts are felt at the macro level, returning to the systemic ashes from which they spring like so many phoenixes of abuse. These feelings and more circulate throughout my blood vessels as I listen to Uneasy, Vijay Iyer’s seventh leader date for ECM. Says the pianist of his chosen title, “Maybe, since the word contains its own opposite, it reminds us that the most soothing, healing music is often born of and situated within profound unrest; and conversely, the most turbulent music may contain stillness, coolness, even wisdom.” To unpack this semantic time capsule, he welcomes bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey into a studio workout of spectral proportions.
The opening “Children Of Flint,” like much of what follows, bears the scars of recent social history. Dedicated to the residents of its titular Michigan town, where families were tragically deprived of safe drinking water from 2014 to 2019, it blends its first blush into a firmament of bass and piano before cymbals greet a new day. Already, we know that we are in for distinctly animate(d) music that moves like the wind: swift, powerful, and able to adapt to any structure that would threaten to impede its passage. “Combat Breathing” (the latter word, of course, completing a larger-than-ever circuit of tragedy) handles its subjects with equal care. Oh and Sorey till a powerful soil into which Iyer throws handful after handful of melodic seeds. Oh waters them with her solo, keeping one set of fingers on the strings and the other curled around Sorey’s hand as they navigate the rays of a setting sun.
This diurnal cycle of life requires stasis to explode and vice versa. Hence, the melodic forest that is Cole Porter’s “Night And Day,” which in this iteration inhales more than it exhales, as if to protect itself from the political oxygen deprivation of which it was an unwitting(?) reflection. The bassing is so exquisite in its regard for textural detail, a signal of agency and purpose. Drawing on McToy Tyner’s cartographic precedent, it is the very embodiment of exposition as practice. The polyrhythmic “Drummer’s Song” is a nod to another master composer, Geri Allen, whose spirit blossoms in this rendition, born of an obvious amount of consideration. Each movement connects to the next, ball to socket, until the choreography lays itself on an altar of forgiveness.
“Touba” (cowritten with Mike Ladd) has a more insistent quality, which by its understatement pulls a thread of unwavering allyship through varicolored beads. Iyer’s unbound spirit here is glorious, singing of freedom without forgetting the sacrifices suffered to flex it like the historical muscle it has become, while the groove-oriented “Configurations” reveals a sonic Rubik’s cube that trio coaxes it into a solved state by breath alone. In this instance, virtuosity is a necessary means of engagement. Sorey’s drumming glistens with the persuasiveness of an ice cream cone in July.
The title track is the album’s solemn soul. Fueled by self-awareness and grit, it sheds its aquatic nature to run on land. A phenomenal yet brief image takes shape when Iyer plays single high notes, as if suspending the action before diving into the fray. If this one looks inward, then “Retrofit” looks forward, holding on to that which is good instead of merely abandoning it for the sake of the new. This is the trio’s M.O.
“Entrustment” imbues the proceedings with subtle finality. It treads carefully so as not to hurt those it wishes to protect. This primes a canvas for brushstrokes of every imaginable thickness, each a window into a life that matters. Like the solo piano improvisation, “Augury,” that bathes us along the way, it manifests an internal spirit using external vocabularies, weaving a tapestry of foresight into the pandemic that loomed just beyond the horizon of its recording. Its poignancy finds solidarity throughout Uneasy, which affords a bird’s-eye view of our violent world, a place where even unrest must succumb to slumber. Knowing we cannot stop it alone, prayers like this are a necessity because they remind us that, even as we chant the memories of a select view, 99% of those who met the same fate are names we will never know, swept by the largest of brooms under the asphalt carpet. Let us take the five seconds with which this album starts, then, as an opportunity to reflect on what this music touches: the fragility of identity.
Nik Bärtsch piano Recorded September 2020, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano Engineer: Stefano Amerio Cover: Fidel Sclavo Produced by Manfred Eicher Release date: March 19, 2021
The word entendre means “to direct one’s attention.” It’s root, entente, is the Old French from which we get the English “intent.” It’s akin to the modular concept that links the interpretive experiences of composer and pianist Nik Bärtsch—as indeed, each piece is a frame without a window. The nature of any light shining through that window is at the behest of the given moment, which arranges its particles simultaneously through passive and agentic being. Bärtsch serves the music rather than forcing it to bow at his feet. Its ritualistic qualities, therefore, have nothing to do with conjuring energies out of nowhere and everything to do with illuminating energies already around and within us so that we might begin to understand the generative qualities of the body’s interactions with the physical world.
While some of these modules will be known to longtime listeners, one will surely hear them anew when stripped of their brethren, flowing from ocean into river rather than the other way around. It would be challenging, however, to separate these self-directed readings from the bleed-through of their collective predecessors. One will hear the influences of not only his own projects, especially the well-documented Ronin, but also his relationships with producer Manfred Eicher and engineer Stefano Amerio, whose fingers leave their prints in the very air like Bärtsch’s on the keys.
“Modul 58” is a bird in our aural binoculars. It flits from one branch to another to engage the muscular scores with which it has been encoded, bone by bone and feather by feather. Passages of wonder give rise to fallen dances, a clan of hunters stripped of everything they own as a test of their inward focus. In place of swords, they wield a self-awareness that only the martial body can attain: efficient, visceral, and clean. As all of this blends into Modul 12 (an organic transition suggested by nothing more than the Lugano studio in which it was recorded), the touch of flesh, string, felt, and wood coheres into an ideographic language all its own.
The more forthright attack of “Modul 55,” as subtle as it is direct, eschews the violation of injury. Bärtsch shunts his bodily organs onto tracks of far less absorbent purpose so that flesh does not risk the temptation of polishing itself as a one-way mirror. Every time he strums the piano’s strings, the instrument’s very heart shimmers with a delight that can only be described as celestial. Thus, the moods and textures of Entendre are never stable. Realizing this is key to aligning oneself with the granular synthesis that abounds in this sequence. In “Modul 26,” an open sustain leads us into the temptation of a reverie, only to quickly fold itself in sentient origami. Each crease is so slight that the illusion of roundness reveals itself until the minimal becomes maximal. This highlight of the Bärtsch catalog shines with all the power of a supermoon, minus the fanfare. Cut off from all possibility of exaggeration, we stand before it in silent regard. This is enough.
“Modul 13” reveals only slivers of its various profiles, each more beguiling than the last but always within the reach of memory. Perhaps, this where all of this music is meant to live—that is, in a realm content with the idea of space but not its full realization. The seeking of harmonics on the dampened string of “Modul 5” unravels the biography of a half-tone. Loosely guided by variations on a heartfelt theme, it blurs its own skin until it is indistinguishable from the wind that caresses its follicles. Higher note clusters give way to moonlit floors across which only empty armor stands cast their shadows.
In the absence of geographical names, “Déjà-vu, Vienna” brings about the deepest blush of familiarity. Gone as quickly as it arrives, turning as a fallen leaf in search of its resting place, its veins flash a map for future travelers to follow when all is lost and prophecies fall dead, unfulfilled except as fertilizer for that one tree upon which the following verse will be carved:
to those who walk with eyes open be not afraid to see with your ears to those who walk with eyes closed be not afraid to listen with your heart
Nils Mönkemeyer viola William Youn piano Lucerne Academy Orchestra Konstantia Gourzi conductor Minguet Quartett Ulrich Isfort violin Annette Reisinger violin Aroa Sorin viola Matthias Diener violoncello Ny-él Concert recording, August 21, 2016, KKL Lucerne, by SRF Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen, in collaboration with Lucerne Festival Engineer: Moritz Wetter Hommage à Mozart and Anájikon Recorded March 2018, University of Performing Arts Munich Engineer: Peter Laenger Cover photo: Thomas Philios Produced by Manfred Eicher Release date: April 30, 2021
These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. –Hebrews 11:13
When searching the scriptures for truth, one is said to be guided by the Holy Spirit. Similarly, when listening to the music of Greek composer Konstantia Gourzi, one is shepherded by the vibrations it produces. Like the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years, we who receive these melodies remember the taste of manna but, with enough faith, look past the murmuring toward not only the promised land but also the assurance of someday coming face to face with the one who blessed it. In light of faith, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), we know that recognizing the value of audible art requires giving up the colonial notion of tangibility in favor of metaphysical awareness. Hence, the theme of angels in Gourzi’s work, here and elsewhere, which, as Paul Griffiths writes in his liner notes, “seems appropriate for a composer whose work is frequently interrogative.” In a world where answers are longed for as rain among draught-stricken farmers, questions might seem like the last thing anyone wants, but without them we would simply recycle the same tired doctrine. In musical terms, there would be no rests to allow the performers room to breathe.
Gourzi, however, deeply appreciates that every piece of music she composes is a landscape with its own topography, inhabitants, and history. And so, regarding the title of her opus 56, Hommage à Mozart (2014), one could be forgiven for expecting a piece filled with (or at least built around) quotations and recognizable motifs. For as many reasons as there are movements, it unravels two knots for each that it ties, by the end loosing myriad possibilities of flight. First, the viola sings as if for no other reason than to hear itself beyond the reach of a towering monolith so distant that even the tip of its shadow is no longer visible. The piano is the parchment to its ink, which renders a flowering garden in shades of gray. Second, its forest of trees provides ample hiding space for children who don’t wish to be found, reminding us of what it felt like to want to disappear before we knew in whose image we were created. Third, in the wake of a storm, damp foliage offers a scene of organic intimacy. A flutter of the bow indicates an animal shaking off the dew and jumping into the river for a nocturnal swim. So begins a snaking trajectory in which the wonders of slumber tremble in anticipation of waking.
Waking is precisely what we encounter in Ny-él, Two Angels in the White Garden for orchestra, op. 65 (2015/16). What begins with Biblical themes—its first three movements bearing the titles “Eviction,” “Exodus,” and “Longing”—ends in the mystical encounter of “The White Garden.” Thus removed from bondage, hearts and minds wander into speculation even as a chosen generation finds its home. Along the way, the aforementioned lead-ins explore percussion-heavy bursts of clarity, the piano dimpling the sands with its passage in a distinctly cinematic atmosphere that turns orientalism on its head and spins it like a top until its colors blend into one. There are still mysteries to be found here, lingering in the air, in the trees, and among the bushes. Shades of Bedřich Smetana invite fractal conversations. Block chords rise with insistence, silhouetted against a cloud-streaked sky as they march toward us without ever reaching out for contact.
The program ends with Gourzi’s String Quartet No. 3, op. 61 (2015). Under the title Anájikon, The Angel in the Blue Garden, it culminates in a triptych within a triptych. Where the first two parts, “The Blue Rose” and “The Blue Bird,” skim away layer beneath layer of watery surface, showing that the air inhaled through every f-hole is transformed upon exhalation, “The Blue Moon” implies a story in every crater and meteoric scar. Throughout, gestures in the violins give way to a flowing undercurrent in the viola and cello without ever feeling the need to divide them. They are at once parallel and intertwined. (Occasionally, the viola pokes its eyes above water, if only for a brief survey of the quartet’s travels.) Like a huntress in the night, pizzicato footsteps speak of careful survival. Dreams are kept at bay but close at hand, as yet invisible. The eyes continue to hold their awareness through the cages of their lashes. They hope to spot a candle in a window, but no such respite is forthcoming. Instead, they hang their lids from the stars, knowing they will no longer be needed in the life to come.
Throughout the pandemic, I had the honor of conducting a slow-motion conversation via email with composer Matthew Bennett, former director of the Sound + Sensory Design Program at Microsoft. He might just be the most well-known composer you’ve never heard of (yet whose sounds are heard millions of times every day around the world). The interview is now available at Sequenza 21. Click the photo below to read on.
Even in moments of clarity, one comes across rough spots that won’t seem to go away. Similarly, in times of chaos, glimpses of lucidity stand out like meteors against the night sky. In both circumstances, those anomalies often prove to be highly instructive—each a learning moment that may be cultivated only through years of introspection. Such is the humbling opportunity of opening one’s ears to the sonic constellations of Aging. This collaboration between Lucie Vítková and James Ilgenfritz places the latter’s contrabass in the former’s compositional matrix.
Across seven parts, nominally distinguished only by consecutive Roman numerals, the experience unfolds fractally: the closer one gets to an intriguing detail, the more one recognizes the supporting patterns that gave it context in the first place. And while Ilgenfritz plays his instrument with fingers and bow, Vítková’s meticulous preparations and electronic integrations allow the digital soul of its acoustic body to breathe beyond its cage. Hints of sirens resound like voices struggling against a historical silencing, as if the very weight of the past were cause for emergency. And yet, within that tautness is also hope and, perhaps, victory over the tectonic shifts of human error, made palpable when Ilgenfritz sheds his technological clothing (as in “IV”), standing naked before the mirror of time and singing for no other honor than the act itself. But then, there are passages (as in “V”) during which the bass seems barely to breathe in the stasis of self-awareness. And if the more jagged figurations articulated in “VI” jump out with contrast, it’s only because being given something to wield and interpret is a tradition to which we’ve become socially averse.
This is, perhaps, why one cannot help but hear in this grinding a way of speaking that feels even more organic to us in 2021 than when it was recorded in 2016. Wandering inside this veritable hurdy-gurdy of introspection, we cling not to the promise of escape but to the reality of knowing how much work needs to be done to listen.
(This review originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)