Anna Gourari: Elusive Affinity (ECM New Series 2612)

 

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Anna Gourari
Elusive Affinity

Anna Gourari piano
Recorded January 2018, Historischer Reitstadel, Neumarkt
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 24, 2019

Water equals time and provides beauty with its double.
Part water, we serve beauty in the same fashion.
–Joseph Brodsky

In the wake of Anna Gourari’s first two ECM New Series recitals, the Russian pianist steps more deeply than ever before into dreamlike repertoire. That said, there’s actually very little in the way of fantasy in the present disc, reconfiguring as it does experiential fragments into an anagram of reality. The album begins and ends with arrangements by Johann Sebastian Bach of slow movements from concertos by Antonio Vivaldi and Alessandro Marcello, respectively. Both are skeletal at first but soon burgeon into a tangle of nerves, veins, and tendons. As fundaments of an ever-growing monument, through whose windows shines a future sun, they send out their pulse as a signal to the unborn. And as a plush interior takes shape, hands lay themselves down as if to sleep and never wake, holding on to melody as a tether to this world before moving on to the next. Elusive, perhaps, but also infinite.

Between these walls, furniture reveals itself to be the seat of our listening. The most prominent sectional is Alfred Schnittke’s Five Aphorisms (1990), which in its cerebral upholstery offers respite for the weary self. Like a tour of a stroke-ridden mind, it holds fast to memories even as it struggles to lasso the words to articulate them. All we emerge with instead is a series of notes, chords, and mosaic rhythms. The central Lento carries its dissonant flesh up a staircase from which gestures leap ahead of the body they describe before finding in the final Grave a double meaning of mood and physical location.

In the shadow of this tower, Giya Kancheli’s Piano piece No. 15 (his theme from Robert Sturua’s adaptation of The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht) dances like a child without a future, just as his Piano piece No. 23 (theme from Sergei Bodrov’s 2002 film Bear’s Kiss) gilds the frame of recall with harmonious alloy. In kindred spirit, Arvo Pärt’s Variationen zur Gesundung von Arinuschka (1977) finds Gourari aligning her emotional y-axis with the score’s x. Each note seems pulled from the keyboard, spinning polyphony into a chamber of prayer.

Rodion Shchedrin’s Diary – Seven Pieces (2002) bears dedication to Gourari herself, and by that association turns friendship and respect into audible communication. Darkly inflected yet chiseled in light, each piece is a window into the otherss, a symbiotic aesthetic given wings by sensitive performances. There are stories to be told here, but not in the manner of linear narratives, for hints of jazz and freer associations assure us that beauty, urgency, and proclamation all share the same oxygen. This leaves only Wolfgang Rihm’s Zwiesprache (1999), which occupies a region liminal to the rest, where an archaeological dig is already well underway. These dedications are playful yet morose, touching impressions as if they might bleed on contact. We, however, know that in Gourari’s purview no such wounds will ever be inflicted, because healing is never too far behind.

50 for the 50th: ECM’s Anniversary Touchstones

Anniversary Touchstones I

The word touchstone dates from the late 15th century, denoting a special black quartz used to test the quality of gold alloys by the streaks left behind on its surface. While it has retained its metaphorical usage as a criterion by which the quality of something—in this case, music—is measured, it feels especially apt in the context of ECM Records. The German label has always been about the object as art, if not also art as object, and through its associative chain of cover imagery, recording technology, and curated musicianship has honed a finely grained stone in its own right across which any other discography might be drawn across to judge its efficacy.

ECM released the first series of Touchstones in 2008. Numbering 40 in total, each album was a world unto itself. It only feels appropriate that ECM should revisit the idea this year in celebration of half a century’s creative operation with a series called “50 for the 50th.” Like its predecessor, this new collection gives opportunities for veteran listeners to revisit old friends and newcomers to make new ones. Label stalwarts Keith Jarrett and Arild Andersen rest comfortably alongside such legendary outliers as Mike Nock and Bill Connors. This alone relegates the choice of banner titles to the realm of near-impossibility.

One thing we can reliably measure is the cartography of cultural, instrumental, and regional depth in these 50 artful selections. Like the cardboard gatefolds in which they are now packaged, each is a streamlined presentation of otherwise uncontainable forces. Some of the farthest reaching of those forces can be found on Bennie Maupin’s The Jewel In The Lotus. Already the subject of a much-needed reissue when it found its way onto CD for the first time in 2008, this 1974 masterpiece marked the only ECM appearance of pianist Herbie Hancock and introduced drummer Billy Hart to the label’s nexus. Alongside drummer Frederick Waits, Headhunters percussionist Bill Summers, Mwandishi bassist Buster Williams, and trumpeter Charles Sullivan, the latter just two months away from Carlos Garnett’s Black Love, Maupin’s reed playing spans the gamut from romantic to extraterrestrial.

Another unmissable album is David Darling’s Cello (1992), which features the titular instrument in both its acoustic and custom 8-string electric forms. The set is entirely improvised, built around deceptively simple arpeggios and motifs from which he unravels some of the most beautiful music to be found anywhere. Floating blissfully between jazz and classical, Cello further treats the border around either category as permeable, as so many other artists under producer Manfred Eicher’s purview have.

Primary among the genre-defiers is Louis Sclavis, whose quintet effort Rouge is graciously included in the new Touchstones. Released the same year as Cello, it finds the reed player and composer in the company of violinist Dominique Pifarély, bassist Bruno Chevillon, pianist François Raulin, and drummer Christian Ville. Rouge is significant for being Sclavis’s first for ECM. “It was my doorway into this very famous label,” Sclavis tells me by phone, “and the beginning of a very long story. Over the years it has become more and moreimportant for Manfred and I to work together and I record almost every one of my projects with him. It’s vital for an artist to have a label that follows you and all your iterations. In addition to helping me and so many other artists find their musical paths, recording for ECM has the added advantage of placing your music into hands all around the world. He fights to keep as many CDs in circulation as possible, so something you recorded thirty years ago is still available. This means the world to me, as I would consider every album I’ve done to be equally important on a personal level.” The inclusion of Rouge and all its wonders is proof positive of this philosophy and speaks to the vitality of ECM as an archive in recorded sound. It also reminds us that neither these nor any other 50 albums plucked from a catalog of over 1600 no more represent ECM than ECM represents them. The circularity of that relationship is the key to their longevity and more than justifies their trajectory into every fortunate ear.

Anniversary Touchstones II

(This article originally appeared in condensed form in the November 2019 issue of DownBeat magazine.)

Rabbia/Petrella/Aarset: Lost River (ECM 2609)

Lost River.jpg

Lost River

Michele Rabbia drums, electronics
Gianluca Petrella trombone, sounds
Eivind Aarset guitar, electronics
Recorded January 2018, ArteSuono Studio, Udine
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 31, 2019

the cold water, the black rushing gleam, the
moving down-rush, wash, gush out over
bed-rock, toiling the boulders in flood,
purling in deeps, broad flashing in falls…
–Robert Duncan, “Styx”

The trio assembled on Lost River was suggested by ECM producer Manfred Eicher, who recognized in their combination something extraordinary. Largely improvised, the music takes shape as much in retrospection as in the spontaneity of given moments. In the intimate tradition of such artists as Jon Hassell (especially in the final track, “Wadi”) and Nils Petter Molvær, yet with a free-flowing energy uniquely their own, these ten tracks circle like birds of prey with in-built thermals who need no other nourishment than the beauty of being heard. In the nexus between Michele Rabbia (drums, electronics), Gianluca Petrella (trombone, sounds), and Eivind Aarset (guitar, electronics), a world unto itself unfolds.

Every amorphous facet of said world is predicated on water in a particular state of being, if not also the state of being imparted to physical bodies in relation to water. Such titles as “Flood” and “What Floats Beneath” turn weeping into a physical substance from which nourishment may be gathered while sailing on a flow of tears. The latter assemblage recalls the biological ambience of Aarset’s Dream Logic, its movements fluid yet latticed by fragmentary impressions whose new coherence is born. Other rivers take form throughout. Where in “Styx” the groaning trombone and voices from afar sound like something out of a science fiction film, “Fluvius” filters pacificism through a twilit arpeggio and brews it into a tea of melodic potency. The title track is the most metaphysical of them all: a float between realms, finding purchase at the molecular level.

“Night Sea Journey” plunges deepest, wherein shifting tectonic plates release repeating signals and itinerant breathing. Field recordings of melting ice and other ballets of renewal animate “What The Water Brings,” while the inchoate “Flotsam” answers those questions of thaw with new life. All of this finds origin, however, in the misty “Nimbus,” which opens with an almighty inhalation. Details emerge from its oceanic possibilities, each grasping a current of wind that might take it to land. Instead, they cohere—suddenly, cinematically—into a vessel in their own right, cutting through waves of electronic processing. A bass line tears up coral and memory, gripping the magma of a long-forgotten volcano to show us its glow before it cools. And so, along for the ride, we leave behind a trail of islands, each smaller than the last, until only a pebble remains: a final token of its own demise.

Below is a video from 2010 documenting an early incarnation of this project at Teatro Astra in Torino, featuring the same trio with Gianluca Lo Presti and longtime ECM photographer Roberto Masotti processing live images in tune with the music being played. Although of a more eruptive quality than what’s documented here, it shines with the excitement of discovery.

Maria Farantouri/Cihan Türkoğlu: Beyond The Borders (ECM 2585)

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Maria Farantouri
Cihan Türkoğlu
Beyond The Borders

Maria Farantouri voice
Cihan Türkoğlu
saz, kopuz, voice
Anja Lechner 
violoncello
Meri Vardanyan kanon
Christos Barbas
ney
İzzet Kızıl percussion
Recorded June 2017, Sierra Studios, Athens
Engineer: Giorgos Karyotis
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: June 21, 2019

“Everything flows.
Out of one thing there comes unity,
and out of unity one thing.”
–Heraclitus

The project documented on Beyond The Borders was born when Greek singer Maria Farantouri first heard Cihan Türkoğlu, a saz virtuoso of Anatolian extraction who had been living in Athens for ten years. After proposing the idea to ECM, producer Manfred Eicher helped shape the program into its present form, debuting it as part of the 2017 Athens Festival. For this live performance, they are joined by Anja Lechner on cello, Meri Vardanyan on kanon, Christos Barbas on ney, and İzzet Kızıl on percussion. Their collective sound is distinctly individual, like a soul of many cities and eras compressed into the flesh of a single body.

Most of the songs are traditional treasures from the lands of Turkey, Armenia, Lebanon, and Greece. Each tells a story preserved by centuries of reiteration, and achieves relevance as a cool drink of water in today’s political firestorm. The scintillating arrangement of “Drama köprüsü” (The Bridge of Drama) finds both Türkoğlu and Farantouri singing the life of Hassan, a legendary Robin Hood-like figure who went rogue after slaying his superior, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor while shadowing the village just to glimpse the woman to whom he was once betrothed. The Sephardic ballad “Yo era ninya” (I Was a Girl) tells of a highborn maiden ruined by a deceitful man. A mournful quality made resolutely genuine by Farantouri’s delivery, as if sung through a cloud, makes this a standout among standouts. Lechner’s cello is remarkable, a red thread drawn through shadows of time.

From Armenia we receive “Kele kele” (Strolling), an anonymous song preserved by Komitas Vardapet around the turn of the 20th century. In it, a lovelorn girl sings: “I am dying for your footsteps, my precious.” An extended intro from Vardanyan paints a wide terrain on which to seek the traces of her loved one. Not all is so gloomy, however, as the Macedonian wedding song “Triantafylia” (Upon the Rosebush) works from a quiet introduction to an energy powerful enough to shine unscathed through a pessimistic future. “Wa Habibi” (My Beloved), a Christian hymn from Syria and Lebanon, unravels with a lifetime’s worth of experience in every throaty word.

The program is rounded out by songs written specially for Farantouri with music by Türkoğlu and words by Agathi Dimitrouka. “Dyo kosmoi mia angalia” (Embraced Worlds) takes Eros as its theme and evokes loving attributes via kanon, in which are felt reflections of sunlight upon a body of water whose surface is a portal between realms. “Ta panda rei” is a setting of Heraclitus, whose blurring of parts and wholes, of lives and life itself, yields percussive details from Kızıl and breaths from the ney of Barbas. Between “Lahtara gia zoi” (Yearning for Life), an empathic song for the uprooted, and “Anoihtos kaimos” (A Secret Yearning), a surreally uplifting dream, we feel the connective tissue of death and life as if it were the very substance of our hearts. With every beat, we get closer to this music, even as it follows its own path through the tragedies of our world.

Turning the Prism: A Review and Interview with the Danish String Quartet

Since making their ECM New Series debut with a program of works by Thomas Adès, Per Nørgård, and Hans Abrahamsen, the young musicians known collectively as the Danish String Quartet have secured a most suitable recording home in the label’s ever-growing annals. Having explored unfamiliar territory as intimately as breathing, they now approach familiar repertoire as distantly as foreign travel. This is, perhaps, something of the meaning behind their PRISM series, which pairs Ludwig van Beethoven’s late quartets with music of Johann Sebastian Bach and, between them, a modern work that ties the two together. When I caught up with the quartet via email, violist Asbjørn Nørgaard had the following to say about the title of this personal traversal:

“Just as a prism breaks light into different colors, we pass a linear beam of light from Bach to Beethoven. The original beam—in this case, Bach—already contains all the colors and directions of the future. In our interpretation, the late Beethoven quartets, typically considered a point of arrival, function as a prism, a pathway into something else. This puts all of the music into a very unusual perspective: Bach is the oldest, but already contains the future. Beethoven isn’t the end of a road. And the modern pieces are created from the oldest mold imaginable.”

I asked Nørgaard to expand on how Beethoven and Bach came to be the frame around these roving images:

“A while ago we found ourselves slightly bored with much of the classical programming (including our own). Too much randomness, too little connection. If art museums were curated like classical concerts used to be, no one would bother going. Then back in 2012 we had a collective ‘aha’ moment when Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic performed in Copenhagen. They started out with Ligeti’s Atmosphères and continued with Wagner’s Prelude to Lohengrin. By connecting these masterworks, he created a completely new framing but with elegance and highest respect. A small trick, but a brilliant way to serve this great old wine in a beautiful new glass. This idea made it into our five-album PRISM project. The specific connection to Bach came after reading Beethoven: The Music and the Life, in which Lewis Lockwood shows a connection between Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier late Beethoven.”

Such tandem dynamics of parallelism and interweaving, of distance and proximity, are particularly evident in the first of the series.

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PRISM I (ECM New Series 2561)

Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen violin
Frederik Øland violin
Asbjørn Nørgaard viola
Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin violoncello
Recorded November 2016, Reitstadel Neumarkt
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 21, 2018

Bach’s Fugue in E-flat major from Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier, as arranged by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, is the opening bookend of this installment, and by suggestion of its resonance sets the parameters, pours the concrete, and delineates the land for purposes of construction. And what a mighty structure we find built on this foundation in the String Quartet No. 15 in E-flat minor of Dmitri Shostakovich. A haunting piece in six movements, its opening Elegy, at 13 minutes in length, takes clear inspiration from Beethoven, and with it starts on a journey through some of mortality’s darkest channels, as Shostakovich crafts the quartet’s existence as a body of organs.

The Serenade that follows has rarely sounded so tactile, and finds itself rendered as a dance of understated capture. The DSQ seems to feel so much about what Shostakovich meant to convey, and by that communication flips details inside out. The sonorities of the Nocturne are of especially brilliant subtlety. Muted strings unmute the soul. After a harrowing Funeral March, they conclude with a dynamic Epilogue, whispering a farewell in E-flat minor before its major counterpart is leaked by Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 12 in E-flat major.

In his liner note for the album, Nørgaard describes their first encounter with the late string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven as a humbling experience. What they first approached with academic flair they quickly found to be brimming with possibility and meaning. To them, Beethoven’s Opus 127 in particular felt “as if it had fallen down from outer space onto our music stands, disconnected from music history and tradition.” It begins with huge swaths of chord fabric, unfurled before instruments sharp as a blade yet not seeking to cut. It renders introverted textures in an extroverted language. The lengthy Adagio is its centerpiece, a 16-minute chain of hymnal variations for which the quartet plays, put so precisely by Paul Griffiths in his booklet essay, as “four hearts differently beating, but at the same rate.” A pall of shadows and softest light given fresh nutrients by this performance. The following Scherzo flies off the bows of the quartet with especial providence, while the Finale speaks in a similar language of planes and caesuras, achieving transcendence in the final stretch.

“When you spend so much time with a certain repertoire, you naturally end up having a very intimate relationship with it. On top of that I think we all enjoy digging into the music we play and finding all the little details that are just below the surface. We are just the lucky vessels that get to convey fantastic music. If you pick the good things out there, you don’t need to push all kinds of intent into it. It’s fine on its own as long as you do it justice in the way you play it. That being said, we never intentionally try to play in a very ‘intimate’ way. Maybe what sounds ‘intimate’ is actually our respect for the music.”

I wonder, then, how he might distinguish this album from their first two programs and, similarly, what binds it:

“Our two initial albums on ECM were ‘standalones.’ Everything is connected in the PRISM series, however. It’s a wonderful feeling doing projects like this. It teaches you so much as a musician. We tend to think that masterpieces are ‘otherworldly’ when in fact they were the result of a bunch of human beings inspiring and learning from each other. Like us. They were just exceptionally good at it! What stays the same is the stable ECM sound that we have come to expect. We truly enjoy working with people who are so passionate about what they do. It clearly reflects in the top-notch albums that come out of ECM and inspires us to do better.”

Listeners can be assured of placing this and the second volume squarely within that top-notch category.

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PRISM II (ECM New Series 2562)

Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen violin
Frederik Øland violin
Asbjørn Nørgaard viola
Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin violoncello
Recorded May 2017, Reitstadel Neumarkt
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 13, 2019

Bach’s Fugue in B minor from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier, in an arrangement by Emanuel Aloys Förster, thus ushers us into the project’s continuation in the manner of an old friend, welcoming with an open door and an open heart. Moving with tenderness and spiritual comportment, it touches a window of reflection into unknown futures, tracing patterns of suspension and transcendence.

Following this is Alfred Schnittke’s String Quartet No. 3, a 1983 composition in which ghosts of antiquity are astir. The opening Andante’s sirens move with grace and finality, even as they activate seeds that will one day grow into life. The contrast between stretches of quietude and heaves of mourning are transfixing. The middle movement’s self-refractive allusions are brilliantly examined, rendering Shostakovich-leaning textures and palpable flavors. The final movement, marked Pesante, returns to that keening quality of the first, treating every sonorous shift as a veil to be dyed and worn as a screen through which to view a monochromatic world. It ends off-center, waiting for something to speak. For me, the Kronos Quartet’s version of this harrowing masterwork on Winter Was Hard has long been my reference recording of choice, and I can say with heartfelt assurance that its throne must now be rebuilt for two.

In light of this darkness, Beethoven’s epical String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat major turns night into dawn. The opening stretch of landscape resolves into a jagged dance of joy. Its adjoining Presto even injects a bit of humor into the proceedings.

The three subsequent movements are like paintings in sound, each portraying the same scene from a different angle. The DSQ opts for the quartet’s original version, including the monumental Große Fuge (op. 133) as the finale. After a declamatory overture, it morphs into some of Beethoven’s most boisterous writing for the genre. A superb account in every way.

Holding both programs together as one, it’s easy to ascribe a visual quality to their emerging narrative. First violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen agrees:

“Schnittke and Shostakovich do create very strong images—to me more so than Beethoven and Bach. I guess that the beauty of music is that every single listener and performer can have different images in mind when hearing/performing it: it’s a very open art form in that regard. Of course as a quartet, we strive to project one common story when performing a piece. Often it’s easier to think in images rather than being too concrete—loud, soft, fast, slow—when studying a piece of music.”

And perhaps we can ascribe a cinematic aesthetic by the hand of producer Manfred Eicher, whose touch so often turns sound into physical action. Says second violinist Frederik Øland:

“It’s always lovely to work with Manfred. His presence exudes great authority, and we always feel very committed when he’s around. His overwhelming passion for recording, plus 50 years of experience in the business, gives you a totally unique and very personal touch on the records that I find rare in today’s music industry. I would argue that he is old school, yet innovative. Timeless, in fact.”

The album’s engineering, every bit as beautiful as the playing, confirms an underlying dedication to recorded art. Øland again:

“Luckily, we have great people working ‘behind the scenes’ on our recordings. I’ve often thought that the producer and engineer’s names should be on the front of the cover, just as much as the musicians. We always start with adjusting the sound, so that everyone is happy and can relate to what they actually hear, but from there much of editing and engineering is left out of our hands. It’s really a matter of trust, but with that said, I think our sound is very well taken care of.”

And listeners can feel confident walking into these beams of light knowing they, too, will be very well taken care of.

Duo Gazzana: Ravel/Franck/Ligeti/Messiaen (ECM New Series 2556)

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Duo Gazzana
Ravel/Franck/Ligeti/Messiaen

Natascia Gazzana violin
Raffaella Gazzana piano
Recorded March 2017, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 20, 2018

For their third ECM New Series recital, violinist Natascia Gazzana and pianist Raffaella Gazzana deepen their conversation as soulful interpreters, if not also as interpreters of souls. Presenting four composers of spatial disparity yet creative overlap, they engage music that requires listening, respect, and emotional integrity. I recently asked them via email to talk about the new album, and how it differs from previous recitals.

“It takes us a long time to put together meaningful and organic programs, either for a recording or for public concerts. Usually in our recitals we span the gamut from established pieces of the classical repertoire to contemporary and less commonly performed pieces—or even totally unknown ones, such as György Ligeti’s Duo in this program. Our previous recordings were mostly focused on repertoire from the 20th up to the 21st century. On this album we went a bit further back in time, as we do in live performances.”

The Ligeti Duo is a brief yet narratively rich piece that receives its premiere recording here. Each character of this newly recovered folktale recalls the joys of childhood in exquisite detail, it searches for dialogue but instead discovers a soliloquy split into its component parts. And why, one wonders, did a piece by such an established modern composer get buried for so long?

“We have always loved Ligeti’s music and were wondering how it could be that he had not written any piece for violin and piano, a combination attempted by all composers. Only after looking through his catalogue attentively did we discover the Duo. Written in 1946, when he was only 23 years old, it was dedicated to György Kurtág and languished in a drawer. Most likely it was performed only for an inner circle of friends.”

The Gazzanas expended much effort to secure the rights to record the Duo, and the score, they note, has yet to be published. Heard alongside the 1932 Thème et variations of Olivier Messiaen that follows, it inhales shadow as Messiaen exhales sunshine. The Thème et variations is a wedding gift to the composer’s first wife, violinist Claire Delbos, and as such glows with adoration. The piano stretches a canvas for the violin, whose brushwork ranges from ponderous to effervescent.

While these two youthful compositions comprise the program’s second half, the first begins with Maurice Ravel’s Sonata posthume. Although composed in 1897, when Ravel was 22, his first chamber work wouldn’t see the light of day until 1975. Its combination of robustness and delicacy is masterfully recreated here. The initial violin line skitters through underbrush, its movements captured by the piano and rolled into a ball of spirited wonder. Fantastical elements omnipresent in Ravel’s later works are foreshadowed, but sway in and out of frame with the lilt of a windblown branch. Like water taking different forms, some moments drip through open fingers, while others evaporating as if from a distant lake, and still others polish to a reflective sheen. When playing such music, say the Gazzanas, “we concentrate on the sound quality and not getting distracted away from the structure of the work. We would think mainly in terms of sound story more than a visual narrative.” In that respect, sound structures are apparent even when silence is in order.

Because Ravel modeled his Sonata posthume on César Franck’s Sonate for piano and violin in A major, it makes for a natural inclusion. The Franck sonata was, in fact, the album’s seed:

“It is a real masterpiece and has a highly structured, cyclical form. Too often, when talking about French music, you may hear it spoken of in terms of delicate and refined sounds, nuances, and colors. Franck gave an impetus to the so-called French School and this sonata represents a cutting edge in composition that significantly influenced many subsequent composers.”

Originally written for Eugène Ysaÿe, it eschews showiness to spotlight the evocative abilities of its performers, who in this instance regard romanticism with a studied gaze. The second movement is a rolling tide of memory made flesh by the touch of these humane performers, while the third bridges a synapse of utter enchantment. As the profoundest example of communication between the Gazzana sisters, it is rich with unspoken language and metaphysical translations. The final movement walks a high tightrope in the violin, scaling down rocky terrain into an immaculately pruned path.

In combination, these selections offer a cumulative effect of consideration:

“Every piece included on the album represents our present vision. We enjoy immensely the fact that everything we have performed over many years has always sounded fresh to our ears. Every time we approach a work, we look for some new details or aspects to bring out. We are perfectly aware that we still have so much to learn and that every state of mind or stage in life can provide new impulse to our performances.”

Aiding in that process are producer Manfred Eicher and engineer Markus Heiland. Their contributions reveal hidden shades of meaning:

“Every stage of the recording process is important in bringing out the best sound quality possible. Manfred and Heiland were particularly attentive to microphone placement, and even before that to the placing of instruments in the studio. A lot of time was dedicated to finding out how to listen to each other, so as to balance the instruments’ levels. We went back and forth to the control room, listening to the results until we were satisfied with the purity of the sound. The final editing, the choice of the order of the compositions on the album, as well as the pauses between a piece and another also contributed to a lengthy creation process.”

By its end, forged together as a seamless story, the album beckons us like an open book, anticipating with great joy the experiences that await us.

Stephan Micus: White Night (ECM 2639)

White Night

Stephan Micus
White Night

Stephan Micus guitars, duduk and bass duduk, cymbals, kalimba, sinding, dondon, voice, cane whistles, nay
Recorded 2016-2018 at MCM Studios
An ECM Production
Release date: April 26, 2019

Though the purity of the moonlight has silenced both nightingale and cricket,
the cuckoo alone sings all the white night.
–Anonymous, Japanese

White Night is Stephan Micus’s 23rd solo album for ECM and might just be his most inwardly focused. Figuring centrally in this sojourn is the kalimba, which through various incarnations hosts us at six of the ten waystations marking our path.

The bronze kalimba—a modern version of this ancient instrument—makes magical appearances in “The Forest” and “The Bridge.” Both tracks feature purely phonic vocalizations. The latter song multiplies the kalimba by four and adds the sinding, a West African harp with cotton strings that resonate through a gourd. As one of his most evocative pieces to date, it seeks meaning in selfless regard. Other vital stars in this constellation include “The Poet” (kalimba, sinding, voice), in which the voice primes soil for harvest; “The River” (2 kalimba, duduk), which elicits gamelan-like textures and suspends the duduk in gentle persuasions of moonlight; and “Fireflies” (kalimba, sinding, 13 Indian cane whistles, 7 voices), which renders the earth an altar for vocal offerings. And then there is the kalimba solo “All The Way,” touched by the souls of a faraway people. Each is a journey within a journey, a story within a story, a prayer within a prayer.

Framing the album are “The Eastern Gate” (5 fourteen-string guitars, bass duduk, Tibetan cymbals, steel-string guitar) and “The Western Gate” (5 fourteen-string guitars, bass duduk, sinding, Tibetan cymbals). Their fourteen-string guitars have a slack, liquid quality, which by virtue of their human construction (they are designed by Micus) reveal more-than-human energies. Harmonics speak of realms beyond the senses, while the bass duduk tenders its grace. From one gate to the other, we embrace the world in the span of 50 minutes, starting the cycle anew. Along the way, we stop to view “The Moon,” wherein a role that might normally have been filled by lone shakuhachi finds a multivalent replacement in the double-reed duduk. Like the nay that appears alongside the Ghanaian dondon (or talking drum) in “Black Hill,” it is a thought made incarnate by contact of skin and breath. Fitting, then, that Micus’s last name should be an anagram of “Music,” as his very being is synonymous with that most connective force.

Marc Sinan/Oğuz Büyükberber: White (ECM 2558)

2558 X

Marc Sinan
Oğuz Büyükberber
White

Marc Sinan guitar, electronics
Oğuz Büyükberber clarinet, bass clarinet, electronics
Recorded October 2016, Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 18, 2018

No matter where I am yet I shall not forget our mournful songs,
Shall not forget our steel-lettered books which now have become prayers,
No matter how sharply they pierce my heart our wounds so soaked with blood,
Even then I love my orphaned and my bloodied, dear Armenia.
–Yeghishe Charents

On White, German-Turkish-Armenian guitarist Marc Sinan and Turkish clarinetist Oğuz Büyükberber join more than forces, blending history and all-but-forgotten biographies into a mosaic of reckoning. After working together in the much larger ensemble of Hasretim: Journey to Anatolia, they now present their first recording as a duo, and the result of their collaboration is one of the most ghostly albums to be released on ECM in recent years.

The program consists largely of a suite by Sinan entitled upon nothingness. Combining field recordings from 1916 of Armenian prisoners of war in German detention camps, it is divided into colored subsections of yellow, blue, green, white, and red. The field recordings add a sense of mystery, trickling from cracks in the wall around this unthinkable past while also seeming to scale said wall from a peaceable future. Caged folksongs—each a cry for freedom in places where such a concept feels as distant as the sky—act as catalysts for our two performers, who in their present clarity touch the looking glass of retrospection as if it were a talisman close to breaking. Electronics flood the air, foregrounding inner turmoil.

Sinan’s guitar is multivalent, at one moment tracing a barbed yet invisible border of hatred around the afflicted while the next igniting that ring as a halo of grace. Tents and squalid conditions peak from the images of a lost era like glaciers whose tips only hint at the immense traumas fanning out beneath the surface of a collective amnesia. As lost souls whose only hope is to be grasped like wisps of creative thought, their echoes give rise to electronic embraces wider than any arms of flesh could accommodate. In the album’s eponymous “white” section—a guitar piece written by Büyükberber and transformed by Sinan—we encounter shooting stars, forced to observe from a darkness without ornament.

Interspersed throughout is Büyükberber’s five-part there. Painting a more straightforward, though no less inspired narrative, it strikes a free jazz kaleidoscope, opening windows into windows into windows. Sheltered by their fragmentary architecture, symbiosis becomes the norm, and we as individual agents the exceptions taking in their stories as if they were our own.