Sneak Peek Audio Leak: Donnacha Dennehy’s ‘The Hunger’

by Peter Tracy

Donnacha Dennehy is an Irish composer who is intensely interested in the music and culture of his homeland. Whether it be setting Irish poets like William Butler Yeats or incorporating Irish folk traditions into his music, Dennehy frequently celebrates his roots while retaining his colorful, vibrant, and forward-thinking musical style.

This is certainly the case on his upcoming album The Hunger, a collaboration with the always inventive Alarm Will Sound featuring soprano Katherine Manley and Iarla Ó Lionáird, a singer specializing in sean-nós (“old style”) singing—a typically melismatic and highly ornamented style sung in the Gaelic language. The album consists of a stirring cantata remembering Ireland’s Great Famine (1845-1849) by setting first-hand accounts from American humanitarian Asenath Nicholson and utilizing material from a sean-nós style song of the period titled “Na Prátaí Dubha” (Black Potatoes).

One of the most emotionally powerful moments on the album is the movement “I Feared He Would Die,” which depicts a starving old man (represented by Iarla Ó Lionáird) who is continually denied the food he needs for himself and the children under his care to survive. Asenath Nicholson, as represented by Katherine Manley, tells of the callousness of the English officers and the harsh reality of the famine over fluttering strings and undulating harmonies.

Hear it here first ahead of the album’s August 23 release date.


Donnacha Dennehy’s The Hunger is out August 23 on Nonesuch Records. For more information, click here.

ALBUM REVIEW: ‘Teenages’ by Qasim Naqvi

by Peter Tracy

Photo by Smriti Keshari.

The mellow buzzing of synthesizers and electric organs has been used in popular music for decades now, but some of the first people to experiment with these instruments were classical and avant-garde composers. The mid-20th century saw a wide range of composers creating new works that mined the expressive potential of electronic instruments—a trend that is continually unfolding today.

On his new album Teenages, composer Qasim Naqvi shows us that a synthesizer can change and respond to its player just like any other more traditional instrument, creating a surprising and one-of-a-kind journey of an album in the process.

Teenages is played entirely on an analog modular synthesizer, which is a synthesizer made up of multiple synth units connected together without a playable interface like a keyboard. Essentially, the machine generates tones while the player guides it, turning knobs to change frequency, create rhythms, or add timbre filters. What makes Naqvi’s machine so special is that he built it himself over the course of two years, and the process of the instrument’s evolution is catalogued on the album. Reflecting on the process of learning his machine’s quirks, Naqvi found that it seemed to react to his impulses in surprising ways and to mature over time, which inspired the album’s title.

The first five tracks of the album were created in the year leading up to the title track. They give us a sense of the machine’s evolution, beginning with “Intermission,” an atmospheric and ambient track that starts from almost a single tone, expanding slowly to include pulsing sounds of different timbres and pitches.

“Mrs 2E” brings in some more recognizable material, with stuttering beeps and blips fluttering around the steadier rhythms of something resembling a melody and bassline. “Palace Workers” continues this progression, with a quirky but danceable percussion section keeping a steady beat. This is joined by a bouncy, repetitive synth line that starts to give a sense of harmony. By “No Tongue,” Naqvi and his machine have learned to work together to form what sounds like an ensemble of electronics featuring a bright, melodic hook, lively textured rhythms, and scattered beeps and clicks.

While “No Tongue” is animated and restless, “Artilect” takes us into deeper waters with a low, pulsing drone that makes you wonder what could be around the corner. This leads us finally into the main event, “Teenages,” an almost 20-minute track which brings together everything that came before. Multiple synth lines build steadily upward into rich harmonies to form what sounds like an electronic orchestra playing an oddly off-kilter sort of anthem. These chords are then warped and spun through different filters, with fluttering synths imitating and reacting to each other over time to create what feels like a journey through the mind of Naqvi’s machine.

For Naqvi, modular synthesizers feel almost alive in a way that he wanted to capture by treating Teenages like a live album: the title track, for instance, was recorded in a single take, with no edits or overdubs. Showcasing the sometimes-unpredictable behavior of the machine was a priority for the composer, and this makes for an album that is always evolving and transforming into something new.

In the end, it is both Naqvi turning the knobs and the machine interpreting his actions that come together to create something of a collaborative album between a man and his machine.

ALBUM REVIEW: ‘And All the Days Were Purple’ by Alex Weiser

by Peter Tracy

Most of the great song cycles of classical music history are sung in languages like English, German, French, and Italian. In the best examples of art song, the poetry being set and the language it is written in are equally as important as the music itself. It’s significant, then that on And All the Days Were Purple, Alex Weiser gives us something a little less familiar: a song cycle mostly sung in Yiddish, and an attempt to help rehabilitate Yiddish as an artistic language in the process.

Yiddish, the native language of over half a million Jews worldwide, has a long artistic history, one that is largely defined today by the recent decline in native Yiddish speakers. The early 20th century saw a surge in composers who were interested in bringing their Jewish backgrounds into their compositions, often drawing from Jewish folk music or setting Yiddish and Hebrew texts to music. This artistic movement was cut short by the Holocaust, and it never fully recovered. Part of what Weiser is trying to do here, then, is to move Yiddish back into the spotlight, and to show us some of the struggles and triumphs of modern Jewish life in the process.

Alex Weiser. Photo by Jennifer Rodewald.

Much like traditional song cycles, Weiser’s music features a clear distinction between melody and accompaniment, and often depicts the images of its text musically. Most of the songs feature soprano Eliza Bagg singing winding, modal melodies that follow the contours of the poetry, accompanied by a small ensemble of piano, percussion, violin, viola, and cello. The song texts feature Yiddish-language poets from around Europe, the United States, and Israel such as Anna Margolin, Avrom Sutzkever, and Rokhl Korn, as well as Jewish poets writing in English such as Mark Strand and Edward Hirsch.

The song cycle’s opening track, “My Joy,” is an excellent introduction to Weiser’s musical language: the piano forms the backbone of the harmony and keeps the pulse, strings oscillate back and forth on the same harmonies, sometimes breaking off into solos, while Bagg sings Anna Margolin’s poetry about love and death with expressive clarity. The harmonies are seemingly simple as the ensemble rocks back and forth on just two basic chords, but dissonance tends to creep into the plodding of the piano, suggesting the highly tenuous happiness of the poem.

In “Longing,” the whole ensemble seems to be spinning and striving forward, echoing the anxious description of waiting and yearning in Rachel Korn’s poem. The final song in the cycle, “We Went Through the Days,” sets a Margolin poem full of natural imagery atop static string harmonies, pulsing piano chords, and punctuation from the vibraphone and glockenspiel, ending the cycle on a nostalgic and bittersweet note.

Photo by Steven Pisano.

Two instrumental interludes provide moments of reflection that lead into new musical ideas, giving the cycle a sense of flow. In both interludes, the swells, trills, and glissandos of the strings are marked by interjections from the piano and percussion, and the instrumentalists take on a more active and animated role.

Also featured on the album is Weiser’s Three Epitaphs, with English language poetry from William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson, and the Seikilos Epitaph, the oldest complete musical composition in the world. An epitaph is usually thought of as a memorial inscription on a tombstone, but in the case of these three poems it might be more fitting to think of it as a poem written in memory of something that’s been lost.

The poetry is separated by instrumental interludes, but the piece is performed in one continuous movement, resulting in slightly more lively instrumentation and greater sense of unity from one segment to the next. In one particularly beautiful moment in Williams’ poem, as Bagg reaches the words “Love is a young green willow, / Shimmering at the bare wood’s edge,” the piano suddenly breaks into a romantic waltz-like accompaniment, only to recede back into the flow of the piece soon after.

It seems appropriate that Weiser has referred to the poems he sets to music as “secular prayers”—these are pieces that express not only the obstacles and lived experiences of the modern Jewish community, but, in certain sense, of modern society as a whole. More than just a meditation on modern Jewish identity and art, And All the Days Were Purple deals with universal questions of love, death, struggle, and perseverance through the lens of one culture and its language.

ALBUM REVIEW: ‘Spinning in the Wheel’ by Projeto Arcomusical

by Peter Tracy

Arcomusical at Deer Run SP. Photo courtesy of Four/Ten Media.

Circles, cycles, and wheels. These images and ideas are important to musical cultures from around the world, including Western classical music: think song cycles, ritornello form, or theme and variations. On their newest album, Spinning in the Wheel, Projeto Arcomusical finds this same imagery in the Afro-Brazilian musical tradition of the berimbau, and use it to inspire groundbreaking new repertoire for their chosen instrument.

The berimbau, a single-stringed musical bow, is played using a thin wooden stick, a small rattle, and a coin or stone slid on the instrument’s string. This allows the berimbau to incorporate both pitched and unpitched percussive sounds, as well as a wide variety of timbres. If you haven’t heard this instrument before, you might be reminded of instruments like the West African kora, the East African mbira, and even the acoustic guitar, as well as a host of percussion instruments from maracas to marimbas. Each aspect of the berimbau is used to full effect in the ensemble’s latest album to create a surprisingly diverse and colorful musical language.

Spinning in the Wheel is not only the name of the album, but an idea that informs the entire aesthetic of the release, from the cover art to the album’s structure, which moves from larger to smaller instrumentation and back again in a sort of circle. In fact, this idea of a wheel or circle is intimately connected with the berimbau itself and its traditional use as accompaniment to the Afro-Brazilian martial art of capoeira. This art takes place in a roda (Portuguese for “wheel”), where musicians and dancers come together in a circle to celebrate, sing, compete, and play. Capoeira, therefore, could be considered its own kind of spinning in a wheel.

“Roda” is also the title of the album’s opening track, a berimbau sextet by composer Elliot Cole. This work features four movements of varying texture and intensity and cycles back around to end in much the same celebratory and energetic place it began. It gives a broad and exciting overview of the berimbau’s potential, from the contemplative cross-rhythms of “Dreaming” to the joyful grooves and expressive group vocals of “Singing.”

The group also sings admirably in Portuguese on “Traíra,” a sextet by Projeto Arcomusical founder and director Gregory Beyer which reworks and expands upon music from the first commercially released recording of capoeira music in Brazil. Other highlights include Kyle Flens’ drifting and nostalgic “Echoes,” Alexis C. Lamb’s ostinato-filled trio “Ondulação” (meaning wave or ripple), and Beyer’s virtuosic “Berimbau Solo no. 5, ‘For Mô.’”

Throughout the album, the sextet imparts a sense of joy in communal music-making, which is reinforced by the group’s impeccably tight performances. The members of the ensemble are incredibly in tune with each other and their instruments to the point where no one player stands out from the sound of the group as a whole. Though they draw plenty of inspiration from Afro-Brazilian folk music, the ensemble’s roots are in Western classical music, and they approach the music much like other chamber musicians would. Out of respect for the oral tradition of their instrument, however, they perform without sheet music, freeing them to move around and engage with each other in performance just like the musicians of a roda.

Arcomusical at Deer Run SP. Photo courtesy of Four/Ten Media.

It can feel at times when listening to Spinning in the Wheel that the music is quite literally spinning and dancing around one’s head, but it is never spinning in place for long, and the members of the ensemble manage to keep listeners on their toes while simultaneously presenting a calmingly cyclical and trance-like listening experience. With elements of minimalism, traditional capoeira songs, and folk music from around the world, Spinning in the Wheel presents a blend of influences and styles which come together to form a truly unique sound.

In addition to composing and performing new music, Projeto Arcomusical is also part of a broader nonprofit organization dedicated to celebrating and expanding upon the rich musical history of the berimbau. In a sense, it is the communal spirit of this art form which truly shines through in all of Projeto Arcomusical’s endeavors, whether that be educating listeners worldwide about the berimbau and its history, seeking out and engaging with players of musical bows from across Africa and Brazil, or composing and performing a unique music of their own.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Majel Connery’s ‘Rebeam Me’

by Maggie Molloy

Majel Connery had a rather unusual path to the world of pop music.

Originally trained as a pianist, opera singer, and eventual musicologist, she went on to collaborate with a number of wide-ranging artists both within and beyond the genre of “new music.” Among them are the art pop duo Hae Voces, the book-club-band Oracle Hysterical, and the radically experimental Opera Cabal, to name just a few.

Presently, she’s set her ears on exploring her own voice as a solo artist. Her new EP Anything Chartreuse features four original songs that layer her translucent voice over shimmering electronics. The result is dreamy art pop with the sensitivity and nuance of classical music—but none of the inhibitions.

We’re thrilled to premiere the music video for her new song “Rebeam Me.”


Majel Connery’s Anything Chartreuse is out now. Click here to listen.