Sneak Peek Audio Leak: Ken Thomson’s Sextet

by Maggie Molloy

Photo by Naomi White.

Ken Thomson’s music dances at the crossroads of contemporary classical and jazz—filled with boundless verve, blistering improvisations, and contrapuntal complexity. When he’s performing, his energy shines onstage—and when he’s writing music, it leaps off the page.

Though the clarinetist and saxophonist is perhaps best known as one of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Thomson’s new album of original compositions, titled Sextet, features him performing alongside a hand-picked cast of jazz all-stars: saxophonist Anna Webber, trumpeter Russ Johnson, trombonist Alan Ferber, bassist Adam Armstrong, and drummer Daniel Dor.

The album begins with Thomson’s own arrangement of György Ligeti’s melancholic Passacaglia Ungherese before spiraling through a collection of six original groove-driven compositions that float freely between the rigor of through-composed music and the spontaneity of improvised solos.

We’re excited to premiere a track from the brand new album ahead of its September 7 release date. Click below to hear Thomson’s “Phantom Vibration Syndrome.”

Learn more about the music from the performers themselves in the trailer below!


Ken Thomson’s Sextet comes out September 7 on New Focus Recordings. Click here to pre-order the digital album.

ALBUM REVIEW: Eighth Blackbird’s Hand Eye

by Maggie Molloy

Six composers. Six instrumentalists. Six works of art. Six brand new musical compositions. One evening-length adventure into the exquisite power of art and music.

Eighth Blackbird - Hand Eye

Hand Eye is a collection inspired by a collection. Recorded by the four-time Grammy Award-winning sextet Eighth Blackbird, the album is comprised of six new pieces, each composed by a member of the Sleeping Giant musical collective—and each based on a work of visual art featured in the Maxine and Stuart Frankel Foundation for Art.

In fact, listening through the album is a lot like walking through a museum: each piece its own extraordinary work of art, each with its own distinct colors, creative spark, and inspiration. Perhaps one work’s use of texture catches your eye—or another work’s subject matter, size, shape, or color palette.

Likewise, for Hand Eye some of the composers chose to recreate their chosen artwork aurally, while others responded more broadly to the work’s subject matter, character, themes, or artistic process. And to help bring to life this incredible variance of color, content, and artistic media, each piece on the album highlights the unique talents and timbre of a single instrument from the ensemble.

 

The album begins with a work by Timo Andres titled “Checkered Shade.” Based on the patterned pen-and-ink abstractions of artist Astrid Bowlby, the piece is a labyrinth of tangled strings and circling woodwinds. Gradually the persistent rhythms and aggressive bowings zoom outward until the lines begin to blur, and the black and white turn to softer, slower, and ever-varied shades of grey.

“9.8.08 (Varigated Spirals)” © Astrid Bowlby

“9.8.08 (Varigated Spirals)” by Astrid Bowlby

Andrew Norman’s “Mine, Mime, Meme” explores a different type of musical maze. It was inspired by rAndom International’s installation piece Audience, a modern-day fun house of sorts in which a field of mirrors rotate to follow the movements of any viewer who walks in their midst. In Norman’s musical interpretation, the cellist becomes the equivalent of that viewer. The other five instruments mimic the cello’s musical gestures, innocently enough at first—but as the music progresses, the followers get better and better at predicting the cellist’s next move, eventually consuming him altogether.

“Audience” by rAndom International

“Audience” by rAndom International

Man and machine is the main theme of the next piece, Robert Honstein’s “Conduit.” The piece takes its cue from an interactive sculpture by digital artists Zigelbaum and Coelho titled Six-Forty by Four-Eighty, in which the human body merges with computational process. Honstein recreates this synthesis sonically through bold waves of sounds and electric bursts of color that transport you straight into the computer itself.

“Six-Forty by Four-Eighty” by Zigelbaum + Coelho

“Six-Forty by Four-Eighty” by Zigelbaum + Coelho

Another interactive light sculpture provides the basis for the next piece on the album: Christopher Cerrone’s “South Catalina.” Inspired by rAndom International’s Swarm, an art installation which responds to sounds with a blast of delicately asynchronous lights, Cerrone’s composition features gentle illuminations of sound which twinkle like wind chimes in response to the piano’s heavy steps.

“Swarm Light” by rAndom International

“Swarm Light” by rAndom International

Ted Hearne’s contribution to the album, “By-By Huey,” takes as its basis Robert Arneson’s chilling painting of the same name. It’s a portrait of Tyrone “Double R” Robinson, a member of the Black Guerilla Family who murdered Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, in 1989. Like Arneson’s painting, Hearne’s piece is meant to memorialize the self-destructive: jazzy piano motives snarl and growl restlessly forward as the rest of the instruments are forced to follow or be left behind.

By-by Huey © Estate of Robert Arneson/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

“By-By Huey”  by Robert Arneson

A frenzied interlude transitions into the final piece of the album, Jacob Cooper’s “Cast.” Drawing inspiration from Leonardo Drew’s paper casts of everyday objects, Cooper’s composition creates “sonic casts” of individual instrumental gestures—gradually removing the melodic gestures themselves to leave only the empty casts that surrounded them.

“Number 94” by Leonardo Drew

“Number 94” by Leonardo Drew

True, paper casts are a pretty far way from the pen-and-ink abstractions that began the album (though perhaps even farther from the interactive light installations at the center of it), and yet the album feels wholly unified by the precision, momentum, and bold musicality of Eighth Blackbird. Stylistically, each piece stands confidently on its own—but together as an album, the pieces illuminate the endless possibilities when art and music collide.

And as you exit the gallery in stillness and silence, you begin to listen to art in quite a different way than you ever have before.

ALBUM REVIEW: Third Coast Percussion | Steve Reich

by Maggie Molloy

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Minimalist composer Steve Reich is best known for his experiments into “phase music”—that is, music which features two (or more) musicians playing identical lines of music, synchronously at first, but gradually shifting out of unison with one another. As the cycle slowly unfolds, new melodies are created by the ever-changing aural interactions of the two identical lines of music.

But just like his phase music, Reich never repeated the same thing exactly twice—in fact, over the past five decades he has built an extraordinary compositional career by maximizing very minimal melodic content. That’s because his compositions are music of process, and his melodies are created through use of repetitive figures, slow harmonic rhythm and canons, perpetual cycles, and, of course, unwavering originality.

With his explorations into rhythm and articulation, Reich redefined the melodic possibilities of percussion instruments in particular—which is why Third Coast Percussion decided to pay tribute to the minimalist mastermind in their latest album, titled “Steve Reich.”

Third Coast Percussion

Comprised of percussionists David Skidmore, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and Sean Connors, Third Coast Percussion is committed to exploring and expanding the vast sonic possibilities of the percussion repertoire—and there is plenty to explore in Reich’s work alone.

In their new album, the quartet surveys the composer’s works for percussion over a four-decade span, beginning with the most recent: his three-movement Mallet Quartet. Composed in 2009, the work is scored for two vibraphones and two five-octave marimbas. Third Coast Percussion twirls effortlessly through the circling motives and interlocking canons of the two outer movements, transitioning seamlessly both in and out of the central slow movement. A stark musical contrast between the thinly textured, almost transparent middle movement against the persistent pulse of the outer two brings color and narrative to the piece.

What follows is a performance of Reich’s 1985 Sextet featuring pianists David Friend and Oliver Hagen. Scored for three marimbas, two vibraphones, two bass drums, crotales, sticks, tam-tam, two pianos, and two synthesizers, it’s safe to say it’s not your average percussion lineup. And yet, Third Coast and company succeed in creating a sonically cohesive narrative, each instrument carefully balanced against the rest of the group. Over the course the piece’s five continuous movements, repeating melodic motives and chord cycles form expansive, gradually evolving musical textures—and the musicians glide through these timbral changes with the utmost sensitivity and precision.

Peter Martin and Sean Connors perform the next duet on the album: the virtuosic “Nagoya Marimbas.”  Composed in 1994, the piece harkens back to some of Reich’s earlier explorations into phase music, though in this work the repeating patterns are more melodically developed and change more frequently. Martin and Connors delicately shape and shade each pattern with artistry and finesse—making this deceptively buoyant piece sound deceptively easy.

The album comes to a close with a performance of Reich’s 1973 composition “Music for Pieces of Wood” featuring percussionist Matthew Duvall. Scored for just five pieces of wood tuned to specific pitches, the work reminds us of the primeval nature of percussion—and the vast possibilities for music with even the simplest of instruments. Of course, it also allows Third Coast an opportunity to showcase their incredible rhythmic precision and skill without timbral or textural distractions. The piece is an entire kaleidoscope of sound, a pointillist painting of constantly shifting musical patterns.

Because if there’s one thing Reich has taught us, it’s that a little musical material can take you a very, very long way. And if there’s one thing Third Coast Percussion has taught us with this album, it’s that Reich’s music is so much more than just a phase.

Steve_Reich_photo_credit_Jeffrey_Herman

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Richard Reed Parry’s “Music for Heart and Breath”

by Maggie Stapleton

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As a gigantic Arcade Fire fan, my heart grew 10 sizes when I found out about Richard Reed Parry’s Music for Heart and Breath, an album of original compositions.  When I actually heard the music and learned about the inspiration for the pieces, I was knocked over like I haven’t been in the longest time.

The musical conceptualization of this album comes from the heart – literally.  Each of the six pieces requires involuntarily moving organs of the body to dictate the tempi and rhythms.   How, you may wonder, does one determine those speeds?

Paging Doctor Beat.  We’ll need your stethoscopes.

Each musician is instructed to play with a stethoscope (and consequently, at a soft dynamic level) in order to be exactly in sync with his or her own heartbeat.  The variety in ebb and flow between the players’ pulses creates a pointillistic effect – in many instances on the album is like that of a relaxing rainfall – that will undoubtedly never sound exactly the same in two different instances.

In fact, the nature of the performance situation can impart serious variation on the length of the piece.  Rehearsals take significantly more time than performances.  “Interruptions,” took 25 minutes to rehearse the first time, and only 19 minutes to perform.  Thanks, adrenaline!

The album journeys between instrumentation varieties and sizes and features an all-star cast of musicians: yMusic, Kronos Quartet, Nico Muhly, Nadia Sirota, and Bryce & Aaron Dessner.  The smallest group is a duet; the largest a 14-member chamber orchestra, with sizes in between to keep depth of sound and dynamic range at varying levels.

(music streaming for this album is no longer available)

While Parry doesn’t have formal training in classical music, he comes from a family of musicians and  enjoys music from Machaut to Debussy to Ligety to Reich.  Influences from all of those composers are hinted at here and there throughout the disc.  Parry presents himself as an extremely well-rounded musician and a revolutionary way of conceiving time and imparting creative innovation into the realm of music performed on orchestral instruments.

I think Parry sums it up best with this lovely phrase, “I think there’s something quite beautiful about the idea of trying to literally play your heart out.”

You can purchase this album at Deutsche GrammaphonAmazon, or iTunes.