ALBUM REVIEW: A O R T A from Vicky Chow

by Seth Tompkins

Pianist Vicky Chow’s recent release A O R T A is above all else a triumph of curation. Chow’s performance, the editing, and the mixing are all laudable as well, but the real story of this album is the strength of the playlist and its presentation. A O R T A is a rare instance of an album in which the delivery of the audio itself contributes to the artistic goals of the project in a meaningful way.

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Even before the music begins, curatorial strength shapes the album. A O R T A is packaged with only minimal notes and there is no explanation of the project’s genesis nor discussion of the artists involved or their biographies. While this may initially appear to be a simple stylistic choice in favor of minimalist packaging, after listening it is apparent that this lack of detail is, in actual fact, a bold statement about how well the music on this release hangs together. The lack of notes seen on A O R T A would diminish other albums, but in this instance, the dearth of information makes this release stronger. It is a symbol of how well-designed the album is as a whole, letting the music and its curation stand on their own.

However, if you are curious, a more detailed explanation of the release is available here.

 

Musically, the supreme design of A O R T A takes the shape of remarkable continuity between the first three tracks. These tracks, which encompass Christopher Cerrone’s Hoyt-Schermerhorn, Jacob Coopers Clifton Gates, and the first movement of Jakub Ciupinski’s Morning Tale, all for piano and electronics, flow seamlessly from each into the next. That is not to say that these pieces are continuous or homogenous; upon closer listening these tracks each yield interesting features deserving of investigation and fascination.

These first three pieces make up the programmatic section of the release. All three, while they do have their own individual characters, are touching meditations on real-world human experiences ranging from the concrete to the notional.

The smoothness with which the initial three tracks flow from one to the next is a perfect aperitif for the rest of A O R T A. Only when the second movement of Morning Tale arrives does this CD begin to deliver sequential sounds juxtaposed in a manner that obviously marks the beginning of a new track. This slight shift marks a turning point in this release; this is the point after which more surprising and disparate sounds can be expected.

 

Those disparate sounds take the shape of Molly Joyce’s Rave, and Daniel Wohl’s Limbs and Bones, all three of which explore different facets of the interaction of live piano with electronic sound. While these heady tracks are distinctly different from the first three pieces, they somehow fit together into the larger arc of this album. This continuity of artistic trajectory is further evidence of expert curation. These pieces, in this order, tell a story that is in and of itself a work of art.

Finally, A O R T A ends with Vick(i/y), by Andy Akiho. While the preceding six pieces lean toward the atmospheric, Vick(i/y) has a completely different character that trends toward immediacy. This piece was written for Vicky Chow (as well as for Vicki Ray – hence the title) and is the only piece on this release that is NOT for piano and electronics. Vick(i/y) is for prepared piano. Additionally, while the preceding pieces on A O R T A tend to individually remain within one or two sound areas, Vick(i/y) is a veritable symphony within a prepared piano. The extended range of sounds, combined with Chow’s presumed heightened intimacy with this music (which was written with her in mind), result in a piece that acts an exclamation mark. Vick(i/y) is Chow’s indelible signature at the end of an already markedly individualistic album.

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Even though A O R T A cycles through an expansive of range sounds and expressive modes, this disc never loses sight of the instrument at its center. Every bit of this music is completely focused on the piano, with all sounds either produced by or strongly referring to the instrument. Also always in sight here are the composers who inspired much of this music. Pieces on this album explicitly reference John Adams and John Cage while slightly more covertly recalling the music of Steve Reich, Erik Satie, and Thom Yorke.

A O R T A is packed with smart, fully-conscious music that is quite aware of the giants upon whose shoulders it stands. This awareness of the past, combined with bold steps toward the future and omnipresent consummate curation, results in a well-balanced and highly interesting release that is at once calming, stimulating, and invigorating.

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STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from this Friday’s playlist. Tune in during the indicated hours below on Friday, August 12 to hear these pieces. In the meantime, you’ll hear other great new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre 24/7!

Daniel Wohl: 323 (Transit) on New Amsterdam Records

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Like so much of what we play on Second Inversion, “323” by Daniel Wohl is difficult to categorize.  It’s an exuberant piece full of interesting sounds, found noises, and jangly percussion that I’m fairly sure is pots and pans yet the overall feel of the piece can be summed up with the word “radiant.”  It’s music that pulsates and cuts into your tympanic membrane with its soft edges.  “323” is like if drone and a junkyard gave birth to… a solar system?  It’s confusing, but it is a bold confusion that truly works and inspires. – Rachele Hales

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 1pm hour today to hear this recording.


Darcy James Argue: Phobos (Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society) on New Amsterdam Records

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If you’re someone who is immersed in (small ‘c’) classical music most or all of the time, it can be refreshing (and necessary) to bend your ears on something that really challenges you to think about what makes music “classical.”  Where are the boundaries of the art form?  Darcy James Argue’s track Phobos can help you grapple with (if not answer) these questions.  This is first and foremost jazz, but it has so many elements more closely associated with other types of music that it really forces listeners to ask themselves some tough questions (if they are insistent on classifying the music at all!).  Among the shades of minimalism and post-rock, those big-band “jazz” chords begin to sound like tone clusters…  Listen to the barriers fall!  Wonderful! – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 4pm hour today to hear this recording.


Missy Mazzoli: Vespers for a New Dark Age (Victoire, Lorna Dune, and Glenn Kotche) on New Amsterdam Records

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The Western classical music tradition as we know it began in the Church. And both the Church and the Western classical music tradition have historically excluded women from positions of power and authority.

Which is a big part of what makes composer Missy Mazzoli’s 30-minute masterwork Vespers for a New Dark Age so striking, so liberating, and—for lack of a better word—so brilliant. Performed with her all-female new age art pop ensemble Victoire, electro keyboardist Lorna Dune, and rock drummer Glenn Kotche, the piece reimagines the traditional vespers prayer service in the modern age, replacing the customary sacred verses with the haunting and elegant poetry of Matthew Zapruder.

The result is a 21st century version of the vespers service which explores the intersection of our modern technological age with the old-fashioned formality of religious services. Oh, and I guess it could also be heard as a feminist assertion of women’s immense (and too often forgotten) contributions to the classical music tradition. – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 6pm hour today to hear this recording.


Kevin Puts: River’s Rush (Marin Alsop, Peabody Symphony Orchestra) on NAXOS Records

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With its churning arpeggios and big, muscular orchestration, this piece reminds me of hurtling down the Salmon River in Idaho on a whitewater rafting trip. The tremendous excitement that the opening music generates is matched by the beauty of a lushly-orchestrated, flowing middle section. A winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his opera Silent Night, Puts is known for his flute and piano concertos and four symphonies, but this stand-alone work might be my new favorite. – Geoffrey Larson

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 9pm hour today to hear this recording.

ALBUM REVIEW: “Holographic” by Daniel Wohl

by Maggie Molloy

In the realm of contemporary classical, the line between acoustic and electronic is sometimes blurred. In the realm of L.A.-based composer Daniel Wohl, that line simply does not exist.

download photo by Nathan Lee Bush

Photo by Nathan Lee Bush

Wohl’s newest release, titled “Holographic,” bends the rules of light and sound altogether, creating a new dimension in art and music. Released on New Amsterdam Records, the album blends electronic elements with the musical talents of the Mivos Quartet, Mantra Percussion, the Bang on a Can All Stars, Iktus Percussion, Olga Bell (of Dirty Projectors), and Pulitzer Prize-winner Caroline Shaw (of Roomful of Teeth). Not a bad roster for an electro-classical experiment.

The album begins with “Replicate,” a dense two-movement tapestry of sound featuring Iktus Percussion and a whole lot of electronics. Pitched percussion figures circle above a two-note drone, creating a warm, tranquil sound world that slowly builds in density as the piece progresses. The first movement is liquid, like echoes rippling across an ocean of sound—but the second movement picks up the pace, transforming into a chaotic wind tunnel of machines clinking, glass breaking, foghorns blasting, and electronics oscillating.

Mivos Quartet and Mantra Percussion team up with Wohl to perform “Formless,” a five-minute musical soundscape which oscillates from ear to ear. The string players slither and slide through cyclical harmonies amidst a web of muted electronics and softly pulsing percussion, blurring the boundaries between acoustic and electric, man and machine.

The album’s title track is more kaleidoscopic in nature. Performed with the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the two part “Holographic” is a something of an aural illusion—it is filled with small clusters of musical material which distort and transform to create ever-changing colors, timbres, and musical textures. It’s no wonder the work was originally conceived as a multimedia piece (which, by the way, featured a synchronized visual component designed by artist Daniel Schwarz). And though the album doesn’t include any visuals, the piece is just as vivid without them.

In keeping with vibrant musical imagery, Wohl’s next piece on the album is perfectly titled “Pixelated.” Performed with Mantra Percussion, the piece sounds sort of like a cross between a winning slot machine and a bag full of brightly-colored bouncy balls flying off the walls. It is light, bright, colorful chaos, like spilling rainbow sprinkles all over the kitchen floor.

“Source” is slightly less frenzied, though every bit as striking. The wordless vocals of Olga Bell and Caroline Shaw flow in and out of focus in this eight-minute rumination on computer music and sampled sounds, as if ghosts in an eerie electronic landscape. 

The album climaxes with the hyperactive “Progression,” a maverick mashup of unusual sonorities and even more unusual rhythms. The frantic strings of Mivos Quartet intertwine with the frenetic percussion of Mantra to create this fast-paced and fretful sound world.

The album ends with Wohl’s atmospheric “Shapes,” co-written with the L.A.-based experimental music outfit Lucky Dragons. Mivos Quartet’s transparent strings mingle with humming electronics in this ethereal meditation, immersing the listener in warm waves of sound.

And in these liquid musical moments, it’s difficult to tell exactly where one instrument ends and another begins. The beauty of this album is that with each piece, Wohl artfully erases the line between acoustic and electronic, creating three-dimensional, holographic sound worlds which engulf the listener in their textures, timbres, shapes, sounds, and of course, their shimmering colors.

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