ALBUM REVIEW: ‘a tangle of stars’ by Mary Halvorson and John Dieterich

by Peter Tracy

John Dieterich and Mary Halvorson.

Whether it be pop, rock, punk, or bossa nova, the guitar is a staple of many of the musical styles we know and love—and it has even carved out a unique niche in contemporary classical music as well. For guitarists, bridging and fitting into the many genres and styles of guitar-playing can be a daunting task, but Mary Halvorson and John Dieterich are well-equipped for the challenge.

On their new collaborative album a tangle of stars, the guitarists draw on the genre-crossing versatility of their instrument, coming forward with a wide-ranging album that is somehow grooving, mellow, sharp, and aggressive all at the same time.

That Dieterich and Halvorson are collaborating at all can seem like something of a miracle. As a member of the popular noise-rock band Deerhoof, Dieterich has become a renowned and influential guitarist, but it wasn’t until 2017 that he met Halvorson, whose work as a composer and bandleader in avant-garde jazz has earned her widespread praise. A completely improvised live set on acoustic guitars led to further collaboration in Dieterich’s home studio, where they co-composed, arranged, and recorded a tangle of stars over the course of three days, resulting in a collaborative album that mines their mutual interest in experimental jazz, pop, rock, noise, and improvisation.

With various types of guitars including acoustic, electric, 12-string, and baritone, as well as countless effects and occasional drumming by Dieterich, the album provides a wide range of emotions and styles. “Drum the Rubber Hate,” for instance, kicks off with a spinning, plucky, and bright theme supported by a grooving baseline. Quickly, though, a steadily ascending, almost classically minimalist baseline is introduced, making room for virtuosic solos that strike a balance between the rhythmic complexity of jazz and the distorted, edgy sounds of rock music. “Balloon Chord” provides a totally different mood: warm acoustic arpeggios support a flinty, picked melody that seems to wash into the droning background of reverb and watery effects. The wall of reverb sometimes takes on an uneasy edge, making for a song that is somewhere between atmospheric and unsettling.

The duo take a totally different approach  on “Short Knives,” a tense song featuring sharp, stabbing strums that bend in pitch and explode into winding, dissonant passages of warped electric guitar. Despite the occasional rough edges, though, the album also provides plenty of warmth: “Lace Cap,” for instance, is a reassuringly melodic and lilting track with relaxed arpeggios and bended notes, making for a watery, off-kilter sense of calm. “Vega’s Array” is another moment that feels more relaxed and playful: here, an intricate background of contrasting guitar timbres swings underneath wandering melodic lines and plenty of odd little slides reminiscent of shooting stars. 

On the noisier, more experimental side of things, “The Handsome” is full of wailing, distorted electric guitars that imitate each other almost like a canon, phasing in and out of sync before being swallowed up by distortion. The last third of the track becomes increasingly frantic, as the guitars get more rapid and static-filled before giving way to stuttering electronic effects that sound like a record scratching and skipping.

“Better Than the Most Amazing Game” is the album’s longest track by far, and is another moment on the album that feels close to the worlds of avant-garde and free jazz. Here, mechanical, almost industrial effects and drums collide to form an off-kilter and unsettling beat ridden by freely wandering guitar chords and melodies. These elements never quite seem to settle into a stable groove, and the whole track stops and starts jerkily, making for what sounds like an amazingly unhinged piece of music created by a computer program. “Continuous Whatever” brings us into another world yet again, ending the album with a short and sweet bit of relaxed guitar counterpoint.

Despite these rapid-fire stylistic shifts, though, Halvorson and Dieterich manage to craft a cohesive album out of their many musical influences. With its thrilling sonic detours and stylistic excursions, a tangle of stars reflects the huge and tangled variety of music being made for guitar, and speaks to the versatility of not only the instrument, but the composers and performers themselves.

ALBUM REVIEW: Caroline Shaw’s ‘Orange’

by Peter Tracy

Caroline Shaw. Photo by Kait Moreno.

It’s not often that we stop for a while to enjoy the simpler things in life: a juicy orange, for example, or a Haydn String Quartet. For composer, violinist, and vocalist Caroline Shaw, these moments taken to stop and reflect are important sources of inspiration. Even a sparse, elegant image of an orange can turn into “a celebration of the simple, immediate, unadorned beauty of a natural, every day, familiar thing.”

On her collaborative album with the Attacca Quartet, Orange, Shaw invites us to pause for a bit of thought about the familiar forms of both plants and string quartets, resulting in an album that is as vibrant and colorful as any garden.

Best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning composition Partita for 8 Voices, Shaw is something of a musical polymath: as a vocalist in Roomful of Teeth, violinist with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, award-winning composer, and wide-ranging collaborator, Shaw has proven herself to be an artist and musician who is wonderfully difficult to pin down.

This is certainly the case in her newest album collaboration, which consists of six works for string quartet written over roughly the past ten years. Here, you can find much of the same deconstruction of classical forms found in her Partita for 8 Voices, but using a musical language tailored to the quirks and traditions of the string quartet.

The album begins with Entr’acte, a warping extension of the traditional minuet and trio form. After opening with dramatically swelling and pulsing chords, the music seems to wind its way into some more unfamiliar territory, eventually growing to include harmonics, unpitched brushing of the bow, and pizzicato. Throughout, Shaw continues to weave in and deconstruct more traditional sequences, harmonies, and chord progressions in fresh and sometimes startling ways.

Rather than a classical form, the next piece celebrates the form of the humble Valencia orange. Bright, arpeggiated harmonics and pizzicato open Valencia, but the music quickly loses stability as glissandos and powerful chordal swells are added to the texture. Shaw describes her use of “somewhat viscous chords and melodies” in this brief work, which could find parallels in the bold tanginess of an orange’s taste. At its core, though, it is a celebration of the rounded, brightly colored curves of this simple and abundant food.

The longest piece on the album, Plan and Elevation (The Grounds of Dumbarton Oaks), is a five-movement meditation on a different natural landscape: the sprawling garden at Dumbarton Oaks, where Shaw spent time as a musician in residence. Here, Shaw draws inspiration from fixtures of the estate, such as a stately beech tree or the sunlit orangery. In the second movement, Shaw quotes passages from classic quartet repertoire, such as Ravel and Mozart, cutting out and reinterpreting this older material alongside segments of her own work much like you might arrange a bouquet of flowers. The final movement begins with strummed chords in the cello and chirping, high-pitched pizzicatos from the violins before growing to include dramatic sustained harmonies. Eventually, the rest of the quartet fades away to leave a violinist quietly strumming the same contemplative chords, like a bird singing at twilight.

Attacca Quartet.

In the next three pieces, Shaw continues to find inspiration in classic forms and music of the past. Punctum, which Shaw calls “an exercise in nostalgia,” is a winding, sequence-filled exploration of what happens when classical techniques and harmonic progressions are used in a fragmented, non-classical way. Her 16-minute string quartet Ritornello 2.sq.2.j.a deconstructs the classical ritornello form, in which a musical idea continues to return with little digressions in between. In Shaw’s reimagining, a simple musical idea begins the piece before being warped and spun through passages featuring the Attacca Quartet playing wild, fluttering harmonics and glissandos, striking the string with the wood of the bow, and droning on powerful, open chords.

Limestone and Felt finishes off the album by drawing inspiration from both the warm resonance and cold stone features of a cavernous gothic chapel, making for a piece that is by turns percussive and plucky or resonant and contemplative.

Much like the rest of Shaw’s wide-ranging work as a musician, Orange draws on a variety of techniques, traditions, and forms. Certain themes, though, continue to inspire and tie these pieces together, such as the order, simplicity, and beauty of nature or the forms and ideals of our musical traditions. On Orange, Shaw and the Attacca Quartet find elegance and charm in both the humble orange and the well-loved music of the past, inviting us to discover something new amid the familiar.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Michael Gordon’s ‘To the West’

by Maggie Molloy

The vast landscapes and rich histories of Big Sky, Montana are the inspiration behind a new large-scale collaboration between composer Michael Gordon, filmmaker Bill Morrison, and the chamber choir The Crossing.

Montaña is a project unfolding over the course of four years, with the artists meeting each summer in Big Sky to invest in chapters of what will ultimately become a long-form spatial work for a cappella choir and film. Drawing on frontier ballads, cowboy songs, and historical texts, the piece explores not only the expansive geography of Montana but also sounds and stories from the American frontier. The ongoing project invites the public into the artistic process through performances at the end of each summer at the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center.

But you don’t have to be in Montana to hear it. We’re thrilled to premiere a new video from Four/Ten Media featuring a section from Montaña titled “To the West,” which sets words from Chief Tecumseh and Thomas Jefferson.


For more information on Montaña, including interviews with the creators, click here.

ALBUM REVIEW: ‘Celesta’ by Michael Jon Fink

by Peter Tracy

Even at their most outgoing, instruments like the celesta tend to hide in larger ensembles, coming out of the texture for little moments here and there. Perhaps this is because the celesta tends to be a quiet instrument: its tuned metal bars give off a delicate ring that is subtle and long lasting, but won’t compete with a horn section or timpani.

On his latest album, appropriately titled Celesta, Los Angeles-based composer Michael Jon Fink moves the instrument to center stage. Rather than burying the instrument in a larger ensemble, Fink applies his sparse, tranquil, and quietly mysterious musical language to this often-overlooked instrument, creating what is among the largest ever collections of music for solo celesta.

Comprised of twelve short pieces performed by the composer, this is an album in which less is more. Ranging from under one minute long to just over six, the pieces as a whole form something of an arc, at times melancholic, joyful, nostalgic, or pensive, but always quiet and spacious.

This suite of sorts begins with “Call,” a gently lilting melody over bell-like arpeggiations that is reminiscent of a tune from an ancient music box. “Cold Pastoral” features two lines in sparse counterpoint, with a simple and repetitive, yet slowly varying melodic phrase that brings to mind a lake frozen in the dead of winter. The pensive stillness takes on a nostalgic tone in “Bells,” with pentatonic melodies that twinkle like a wind chime. “From the Singing River” turns things in a more mysterious direction, with little melodic variations that seems to circle around without ever arriving at their final destination.

The following two pieces, “First Star, Last Star” and “Post-Impression” continue this trend, tending toward pensive arpeggiated melodies with plenty of space to let the instrument’s soft tones reverberate. By “Ruins,” things have settled into a meditative trance, with the title helping to inspire a feeling of something that has been lost to the past. Slightly more active pieces follow, with the tenuously hopeful “Sunless” incorporating some of the lower notes of the five-octave celesta and the eerie “Nocturne for the Three Times” drifting through incredibly sparse and atmospheric textures.

“Softly Yellowed Moon” is equally enigmatic, with two lines providing melody and harmony that wind their way down into the longest piece on the album, “Triptych.” Loosely divided into three parts, the piece begins with a quietly wandering melody over a left-hand ostinato before moving into what is the most openly joyful music of the album. Eventually, the music reaches an almost animated conclusion featuring crescendos in tight harmony and the celesta sounding more bell-like than ever. The appropriately named “After the End,” then, seems to question this borderline excitement, leaving us with a somber and unsettlingly harmonized reflection.

Still, the album avoids drawing a clear conclusion. Is there a story here in the space between the notes, or are we just meant to reflect on the round tones of the celesta as they fade into silence? Each piece feels like a small and crystalline world of its own, inviting the listener to discover their own meaning for themselves.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Derek Hunter Wilson’s ‘Catalogue of Trying’

by Maggie Molloy

Derek Hunter Wilson. Photo by Nika States.

Expansive panoramas of Willamette Falls form the basis of a new music video for Derek Hunter Wilson’s “Catalogue of Trying.” Shot by Portland photographer and filmmaker Chloé Jarnac, the images reflect the inherent tension between nature and industry.

It’s a theme echoed throughout Wilson’s new album Steel, Wood, & Air (named after the instruments it features: piano, strings, and bass clarinet). In it, the pianist and composer focuses on the elemental aspects of music, exploring color, texture, and timbre through introspective works that highlight the essence of the instruments themselves. Recorded live in the studio with minimal overdubbing, the resulting works highlight the organic nature of music-making, even amid a technology-driven world.

We’re thrilled to premiere the music video for Wilson’s “Catalogue of Trying.”


Derek Hunter Wilson’s new album Steel, Wood, & Air is out now on Beacon Sound. Click here for more information.