Siamak AGHAEI (b. 1974)/Colin JACOBSEN (b. 1978)
Ascending Bird [6:58]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Rusalka: Song to the Moon (arr. Jess Diener-Bennett) [5:24]
Osvaldo GOLIJOV (b. 1960)
Karlheinz STOCKHAUSEN (1928-2007)
Tierkries: Leo (arr. Caroline Shaw) [3:27]
Sufjan STEVENS (b. 1975)
Suite from Run Rabbit Run (arr. Michael P. Atkinson) [14:31]
Yo-Yo Ma (cello)
Michael Ward-Bergeman (hyper-accordion)
Jamie Haddad (percussion)
Cyro Baptista (percussion)
rec. 2015, BRIC, Brooklyn, New York
WARNER CLASSICS 9029 587521 [58:43]
The concept behind this disc can be gleaned from the thoughts astronaut Charles Walker expressed on seeing our planet from his spaceship:
“My first view—a panorama of brilliant deep blue ocean, shot with shades of green and gray and white—was of atolls and clouds. Close to the window I could see that this Pacific scene in motion was rimmed by the great curved limb of the Earth. It had a thin halo of blue held close, and beyond, black space. I held my breath, but something was missing—I felt strangely unfulfilled. Here was a tremendous visual spectacle, but viewed in silence. There was no grand musical accompaniment; no triumphant, inspired sonata or symphony. Each one of us must write the music of this sphere for ourselves...”
The compilers have, therefore collected together five pieces that in some way articulate in music feelings concerning our universe and our place within it, otherwise inexpressible in words. The chosen works are widely varied but feel united in the compilers’ genuine attempt to provide a possible accompaniment to what Charles Walker experienced; I wonder what he thinks of the selections and whether he would be happy to have them play while he saw those views again.
The first piece is the result of collaboration between Iranian musician and composer Siamak Aghaei and Colin Jacobsen. They have fused together some Iranian folk melodies which Siamak, like Bartók, collects around the country, with Colin’s original introduction and coda plus some textural layers. The title comes from a small instrument made from the fusing together of small bones from a bird. The result is an inspiring and exciting piece that has just the right amount of music from the contemporary Western tradition coupled with the enticing sounds of Iranian folk-inspired music that one imagines a “whirling dervish” might dance to.
I have always felt that Dvořák’s Song to the Moon to be perfect in every way. It just ticks all my required boxes for what music should achieve, so this beautifully arranged version for cello and orchestra is for me a sure-fire winner.
Olvaldo Golijov is a fascinating composer. He is always searching for new ways to express himself in music that is never dull but always innovative. His cello concerto Azul is certainly that; just look at the
orchestration: in addition to solo cello, 3 flutes (all doubling piccolo), English horn, clarinet, basset horn, bassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (bells, bottle shaker, cajon, caxixi, conga, cricket, 2 djembe, dumbek, finger cymbal, flat tom-tom, goat’s nail, gourd, kanjira, pandeiro, seed rattles, shaker, sleigh bells, spring, static whip, surdo, talking drum, temple block, triangle, waterphone, wind whistle), celesta, harp, hyper-accordion, and strings. Whether all those make an appearance on this recording I cannot say but the music’s effect is extremely impressive and very moving. Golijov has managed in his music to filter his Jewish-Romanian origins, klezmer and folk music, and fuse them with the influences he experienced growing up in his birth country of Argentina with its traditions of tango and the bandoneon.
The four-movement work opens with the sub-titled Paz Sulfúrica which comes from a stanza in the poem
The Heights of Macchu Picchu by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda:
I leaned my head into the deepest waves,
I sank through the sulphuric peace,
and, like a blind man, returned to the jasmine
of the exhausted human springtime
Golijov immediately creates a feeling of infinite space in which the cello and its later accompanist, the hyper-accordion (an invention of the soloist here), inject an ethereal atmosphere via a passionate melody that seems to float and hover above an imagined Earth. The orchestral accompaniment, meanwhile, describes the heavens with its myriad stars as well as its overall majesty.
The second movement subtitled Silencio is a glorious and slowly shifting patterned backdrop for the again ethereal cello to soar with interesting sounding percussion instruments “tweeting” their interjections. Towards the end of this movement the described silence gives way to an eruption of sound as if the silence had experienced some kind of violent interruption. Echoes of Bach’s cello suites, cross-cut by the panoply of percussion instruments, form the basis of the third movement Transit which also successfully describes the vastness of deep space. Finally, Yrushalem revisits themes from the work’s opening but in expanded form. This leads to a double-coda “Pulsar” and “Shooting Stars” which are palpably brought to musical life.
Drawing from his previous work Tenebrae that he wrote as a response to Israel’s “renewed wave of violence”, Golijov is perhaps reminding us that, whereas space is (as astronaut Loren Acton put it) full of “...majesty—but no welcome”, the Earth offers sanctuary and joy. He went on to make the point that “Below was a welcoming planet. There, contained in the thin, moving, incredibly fragile shell of the biosphere is everything that is dear to you, all the human drama and comedy. That’s where life is; that’s where all the good stuff is.” I like to think that was Golijov’s aim: to have us reflect upon all that is wonderful, magical and worth living for on Earth, and how easily we could destroy it all, a message which his music certainly imparted to me.
Karlheinz Stockhausen’s name used to have the same meaning to me as Bartók, Ligeti, Cage and others did: that I would probably not like his music very much based on nothing more than an irrational idea. Leo, one section from his work Tierkreis (Zodiac) dispels that nonsense within seconds. I shall be looking out for a recording of the whole 12 parts as soon as I can. It is a great piece, and could hardly be described better than by critic Ivan Hewett who put it that they were “...touching in a way that combines awkwardness and grandeur, as if superior beings from outer space were trying to ingratiate themselves with humanity by writing something catchy.” You have the space connection and the ingeniously scored work that has the solo violin orbited by the single winds and brass contrasted with the percussive nature of the china bowls, kick drums and other instruments creating a perfect mental picture of outer space. Brilliant!
The final work is an arrangement of four parts of Sufjan Stevens’s work Run Rabbit Run. From reading the booklet notes it is clear that—not unlike Arvo Pärt’s Fratres—Stevens’ composition has been the focus of several arrangements. The difference, however, is in its origins as an experimental work comprising electrophonics and sampling. Sometimes the whole or parts of it have been subjected to different visions but, unlike Fratres, Stevens’s work has been fashioned by other hands. Arrangements vary from Michael P. Atkinson’s version for string quartet and the present one for orchestra to one for a mixed ensemble and even for a dance work by choreographer Justin Peck. Clearly in common with Fratres, Enjoy Your Rabbit, the original work’s title, is a versatile and flexible musical construction that lends itself to many and varied interpretations. The bottom line is that the work in the present form is huge fun with its jaunty, tongue-in-cheek persona (unsurprising when you read that a label Stevens founded he named Asthmatic Kitty). It would be extremely interesting to hear the other versions since this one is brilliantly successful. The players are asked to produce sounds that hitherto had been the responsibility of a computer. Impossible to describe in words, this is something that must be heard.
Yo-Yo Ma proves once again why he is regarded as one of the great cellists of the last several decades. The guest musicians on this recording, hyper-accordionist Michel Ward-Bergeman and percussionists Jamey Haddad and Cyro Baptista provide the extra spice to this heady mix. They are essential ingredients in lifting the works in which they appear to another level. The Knights is an orchestra of some 50 musicians dedicated (so the booklet has it) “...to transforming the orchestral experience and eliminating barriers between audiences and music”. This disc is good testimony that their aims are well represented and the whole listening experience is as joyful as it is involving.