This 2-CD compilation that I have in hand makes me believe, via its dark gradients and simple cover design, that I will be listening to something along the lines of minimalist pumpkin pie until I give it a whirl. Think not of a pumpkin pie but a Rorschach test version of said pie whose entire recipe delves into an analytical process of how the composers intentionally subverted the conventions of pie. Not only that, but Daniel Lippel plays all this on the guitar. No actual pie involved. Amazing.
The 15-track album just over two hours long is entitled Mirrored Spaces (New Focus Recordings) and is produced and performed entirely by Daniel Lippel, using electric and acoustic guitars and classical technique, along with unconventional tunings. So already, you’ve got to know that this album conjures up one mother of a Claes Oldenburg, not muslin-soaked in plaster over a wire frame, but certainly manipulated electronically through a guitar.
Lippel states that the album is “loosely organized around a metaphorical exploration of mirrors within a musical context…” with its pieces, written by various composers, including Lippel himself, all connecting as a collaborative and thematic call-and-response. Rather than go into the academic details of how each piece was composed, using a hemidemisemiquaverspoonful of sugar, a stave of flour, tempered cream and a clef of fresh pumpkin, I’m simply going to report how it sounds.
CD #1: The first piece, Amorphose 2, written by Karin Wetzel and performed by Philip White, sounds like a guitaristic version of what you might hear if you place a stethoscope to the abdomen of someone experiencing a bad case of gurgling guts, and I don’t mean that facetiously at all but as a compliment. It’s a superb example of guitaristic indigestion. Why not? The press release states the piece is a “meditation around central pitches created by an unorthodox [tuning] as 16 live electronic cues generate various delays and processes of the guitar, at times shadowing the performer, and at others, asserting a life of their own.” Indeed.
Kyle Bartlett’s Aphorisms “Whom the Gods” opens with a singular and pensive movement, to be continued further in the album. Mirrored Spaces, the recipient of Harvard’s Fromm Music Foundation grant, is a brilliant 6-movement piece written by Oriana Webb and Daniel Lippel. The piece opens with a deliciously off-key and eerie movement “Refracted,” broken by thunderously echoing whacks upon the guitar soundboard. The music soars and ascends like a beautifully strange shadow of an unidentifiable varmint (cat? rat?) scaling nimbly across tiled rooftops of an old city in the dusk. The second movement, “Sturdy,” conveys a stride of normal tonality, modernity, and sweetness to the point where I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.
The third movement, “Cadences,” returns to a gloriously spry tonal off-ness (described by Lippel as a quarter-tone alternate tuning) that descends into a pooling quiet and stillness before returning to its original rhythms with insistent urgency haloed by a hovering set of gnat-like harmonics. The fourth movement, “Reflected,” echoes the second movement’s graceful tonal personality. The fifth movement, “Rondo,” is punctuated and sassy in its swooping glissandos and snapping strings that evolves into a wonderful creep, haloed by the same gnat-like harmonics of the earlier third movement. The 6th movement, “Song,” concludes in a normal tuning with a temperate melody, merrily minding its own business, as if nothing dramatic happened at all within the past twenty-four minutes.
Bartlett’s Aphorisms “When Music Itself” returns for a second, gloomily ponderous wisp of a movement that opens with a strum followed by a few sharp percussive thumps upon the guitar soundboard, concluding with querulous arpeggio. Ryan Streber’s Descent opens with a tickle of electric guitar in a cello tuning, followed by rudely intense strums that ascend into a sprinkling of harmonics, more tickles and a delicate arpeggio, lashed by even more wakeful strums. The piece develops more insistence, pointed delivery and defined sharpness to its arpeggios before settling into an afternoon sugar crash of wandering doldrums and a muddied, bad mood.
Bartlett’s Aphorisms “Solon the Lawmaker” returns for a brief interlude of a palate-wiping arpeggio and a grammatical ellipse of the same repeated note. Dalia Raudonikyté With’s gentle Primo cum lumine solis billows like a breeze caught in a sail. Bartlett’s Aphorisms “It Needs a Body” returns for a final movement of a beautifully ominous lurch punctuated by an ascending melody. CD #1 closes with John Link’s Like Minds, sounds like a wordless afterthought during a busy day, ending with a gurgling pizzicato echo of Wetzel’s Amorphose 2 earlier, opening bout of musical indigestion. This is, after all, a lot of pie.
CD #2: São Paulo-based composer Sergio Kafejian’s From Scratch, distant soundboard percussion, descending percussive effect, like a series of jar lids eased and wrenched off before notes spill out. The effect of a plastic ruler scraped along the guitar strings is amusing for the first minute before it becomes repetitive. The piece shifts gears after the third minute, unleashing a sprinkling of notes played above the guitar nut, yet it devolves quickly into more uncomfortable slithering and scraping. At the 7th minute mark, the scraping concludes with galloping strums followed by evenly spaced, low chimes layered with more upper nut string dither.
Kyle Bartlett’s Aphorisms “Whosoever is Delighted” continues on this second disc, spread out as they are in the first. A few raw strums trailed by pensive legato notes concludes with a trill slashed by a strum. To be honest, I couldn’t really tell the difference between where track 1 of this CD ended and where track 2 started, except that the 11 minutes of track one had, at some point, expired. I had to rewind and re-listen, as the pie has become ponderous.
Sidney Corbett’s Detroit Rain Song Graffiti offers sweetly chiming yet random treble notes, representing urban unease in E-flat. Bartlett’s Aphorisms: “We Seek Destruction,” presents a soft yet still prickly interlude, like the sonic texture of a ball-tipped hairbrush gliding through your hair rather than say, using a hedgehog.
Douglas Boyce’s 5-movement Partita opens with slow introductory movement followed by notes that tinkle and burp as a more lively change-up. The third movement is resonantly muddied yet pleasant in its distant brooding. The fourth movement opens sinuously and gently before it is shaken awake by the frittered, jagged energy of the last movement that conducts itself like two lanes commuter traffic shoving and jostling past each other on subway stairs during any given night. The piece concludes with an atonally drifting sunset of notes fading on the horizon.
Bartlett’s Aphorisms, “There Is No Excellent Beauty,” features percussion and ascending slithering along the strings that escalates into high-pitched, frenzied wiping and a dramatic fall-off to gently-played treble notes that turn querulous before getting slapped back into timidity.
Ethan Wickman’s Joie Divisions, lively jagged strumming interspersed with an ascending arpeggio. The piece turns into an elegantly modern andante that reintroduces the jagged strumming before breaking into a tremolo with a melody that turns more New Yorkers-at-rush-hour in tempo. It’s a lovely piece, which, given its present company with the other tracks, may be seen as either quaintly or mercifully conventional.
Bartlett’s Aphorisms, “Man Comes into the World” offers a quasi-tinkle-burp ponderous interlude. Christopher Baily’s 16:27 minute-long Arc of Infinity is described as placing the guitar “inside a sonic house of mirrors comprised of three ‘virtual instruments’: bell-like sounds, a ‘dirty sampler’ composed out of guitar notes from recently recorded repertoire, and flanged/delayed/filtered sounds. This piece abruptly cuts out into very intentional mutes of silence that will lead you to believe your CD-player has malfunctioned.
Bartlett’s Aphorisms, “Love is Necessarily” sweetly tonal notes that quickly lose their promise of melody to sour fudging followed by more of the infamous tinkly-burps of earlier, concluding with a meandering, descending trudge.
Daniel Lippel’s Scaffold, the electric guitar piece that inspired this album, is a 2008 recording that took place at The Tank, recorded in the presence of this writer, who recalls that particular performance well, as the original space had been a recently-shuttered Soho speakeasy burlesque house. The prior stage furniture, props, and bar counter had been hastily ripped up, leaving behind prominent nail holes along with lighter gradations and faint outlines upon the wooden floorboards (and much else to the imagination) where musicians now sat, performing pieces like this one: plaintive and eerie siren swoops of electric guitar.
Let’s face it: modern music is not about to inspire any cowboy-hatted yowling, country music sing-along cat memes unless turned Cubist, but even Cubism would be considered the more approachable cousin at this party.
This is the kind of music that forces you to listen and consider its techniques and approach–that is, if you’ve managed to resist any first impulse to run away. I’ve always been open to hearing what contemporary composers are up to on the guitar as a refreshing exchange to historical classical guitar, but I don’t kid myself that just because it’s contemporary and new means that it escapes bearing out its own tropes. It’s a challenge to create and coordinate an album of new music that wants to defy what the ear is accustomed to hearing. When new music works, it’s because it’s found a way to embrace and spark the imagination rather than alienate its listener.
Lippel excels at structure and balance, not just within his own compositions but also with his careful thought in the layout of this album. A 2-disc CD set of modern guitar music speaks of Lippel’s generosity as a producer to showcase a number of new contemporary voices for both solo and electric guitar.
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