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.

The “Past” as Musical Prologue

by Dacia Clay

Composer and multi-instrumentalist Caleb Burhans. Photo by Alice Teeple.

Caleb Burhans was just 17 when he saw his father die. Yet even while struggling with immense grief and an eventual alcohol addiction, he racked up two degrees from Eastman, worked with artists from Yoko Ono and Arcade Fire to Steve Reich and Meredith Monk, helped found Alarm Will Sound, played with ACME, had his work performed by ensembles like the JACK Quartet, and released four studio albums (one of which—Evensong­—was named one of NPR’s Top 50 Albums of 2013).

Many of Burhans’ colleagues and friends didn’t make it out of alcohol and substance abuse. And now, after five years of sobriety, Burhans has come out with a very personal new album called Past Lives that reflects on “years lost to addiction and fallen friends.”

In this audio interview, Burhans talks about what creating is like now that he’s sober, the people behind the music on the album, his collaboration with guitarist and composer Grey Mcmurray, and the music itself.

Music in this interview from Caleb Burhans’ Past Lives.
Audio production by Dacia Clay with production assistance from Nikhil Sarma.

Caleb Burhans’ new album Past Lives is out now on Cantaloupe Music. Click here to learn more.

VIDEO PREMIERE: ‘Silver Lacquer’ by Julian Loida

by Maggie Molloy

Julian Loida hears music a little differently than most people. In fact, he actually kind of sees it.

Loida has synesthesia, a unique sensory phenomenon in which one sense (in this case, sound) triggers another sense (such as sight), at the same time. For him, music is a full-body experience, each sound evoking a different color, texture, or even taste.

The percussionist and composer explores the full spectrum of senses in Wallflower, his debut solo album of original works coming out this fall. Shimmering vibraphone melodies are textured with piano, voice, samples, and subtly processed sounds to create immersive sensory experiences.

We’re thrilled to offer an exclusive video premiere for Loida’s first single from the album, “Silver Lacquer.”

Julian Loida’s debut solo album Wallflower is out September 6. For more information, click here.