by Phil Freeman
The Sono Luminus label has been around for 12 years, establishing a reputation for adventurous and beautifully recorded releases. They’ve been nominated for (and won) Grammy awards in the classical categories. Three of their recent releases document fascinating new compositions, performed by forward-thinking ensembles.
ACME (the American Contemporary Music Ensemble) consists of four string players (Yuki Numata Resnick and Ben Russell on violins, Caleb Burhans on viola, and Clarice Jensen on cello), pianist Timo Andres, Peter Dugan on celesta, and Chris Thompson and Chihiro Shibayama on vibraphones. On their latest album, Thrive On Routine (get it from Amazon), they perform five pieces. “Jahrzeit” is a string quartet, written by Burhans; “In Manus Tuas” and “Gustave Le Gray” are pieces for solo cello and solo piano, respectively, by Caroline Shaw; the title piece is another string quartet, composed by Andres; and the album closes with its longest piece, John Luther Adams‘ “In a Treeless Place, Only Snow,” performed by the full ensemble.
“Jahrzeit” is a perfect album opener, expanding slowly in Romantic swells. “In Manus Tuas” cycles through a variety of moods in nine minutes, allowing Jensen to pluck, drone, scrape, and boom, without ever devolving from music to sound. “Gustave Le Gray” is a slow, repetitive piece that strongly recalls Philip Glass‘s Solo Piano album. “Thrive on Routine” is a sharper, stabbier string quartet than “Jahrzeit,” initially stinging the ear like the work of Elliott Carter; as it progresses, it becomes slightly more conventional, but continues to surge and recede unpredictably. “In a Treeless Place, Only Snow” lives up to its title in that the sawing strings, balanced by music box-like vibraphones, sounds like the score that might be laid behind a shot of a magical snow globe in a Christmas-themed TV movie. It’s pretty, but it doesn’t do much, and it does it for 17 and a half minutes. Still, ACME is a terrific ensemble, and the majority of the work here is excellent, and fits into a cohesive album program. (Note that Thrive On Routine is a two-disc set; you get a CD and a surround sound audio Blu-Ray, with the same music on both.)
Stream Thrive On Routine:
Nordic Affect is an Icelandic ensemble whose members include violinist Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir, violist Guðrún Hrund Harðardóttir, cellist Hanna Loftsdóttir, and harpsichordist Guðrún Oskarsdóttir. They’ve been together since 2005, and have been releasing albums since 2007; their latest CD, Raindamage (get it from Amazon), is their second Sono Luminus release, following 2015’s Clockworking. On it, they perform one piece each by Valgeir Sigurðsson, Úlfur Hansson, and Hlynur Aðils Vilmarsson; each composer also contributes one electronic piece, and the group performances also incorporate electronics and some occasionally quite disruptive production strategies.
On the opening title piece, by Sigurðsson, the strings pluck, scrape and swoop, while the electronics add a variety of sounds, from windlike whooshes to pulsing high frequency hums, as well as pops and clicks that can make the listener think something’s wrong with the stereo, or their headphones; it’s like a classical piece remixed by Markus Popp or Alva Noto. Hansson’s “Þýð,” by contrast, is an achingly slow and beautiful piece for strings and wordless voices; it’s both ethereal and weirdly maternal, as though the singers are cooing lullabies to the instrumentalists. That is, until it erupts in its final two minutes. Vilmarsson’s “[:n:],” for strings and harpsichord, no electronics, is a sparse landscape of squiggles, scrapes and small bouncing sounds that frequently sounds like two R2-D2s talking to each other; it’s the closest I’ve ever heard classical music get to Autechre. Although the recording is fantastic, making genuinely novel use of reverb and the stereo field, Raindamage is an album best appreciated on headphones, when you’ve got the time to really let it seep into your brain.
Daniel Bjarnason, a composer in his own right, conducts the Iceland Symphony Orchestra on Recurrence, the newest of these discs. (Get it from Amazon; like Thrive On Routine, it’s a CD/Blu-Ray set.) It includes pieces by Thurídur Jónsdóttir, Vilmarsson, María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, Bjarnason, and Anna Thorvaldsdottir. Each of these runs past the 10-minute mark, with Thorvaldsdottir’s “Dreaming” nudging 16 minutes.
Jónsdóttir’s “Flow and Fusion,” which opens the CD, comes very gradually into being, bells and hisses and slow swelling chords giving it the feel of a blimp inflating, as vibraphones offer delicate commentary. When the horns and strings roar at the two-minute mark, it’s a call to assemble, but the piece never fully erupts; it’s more of an atmosphere, one that crescendos intermittently but mostly chooses to surround without engulfing. Bjarnason’s three-part, 17-minute “Emergence” suite has a more traditionally orchestral feel, with sections calling out to one another and melodies rising and falling, but it’s the unique touches that give it real power. At the beginning of the second segment, there’s a sound like the respiration of some gigantic animal, as the strings dart around like frightened prey-to-be. Thorvaldsdottir has worked with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra before; they performed her “Aeriality” on her 2014 CD Aerial. “Dreaming,” the composition premiered here, is more lush and romantic than “Aeriality,” but it has some of the same qualities, notably a willingness to overwhelm the listener with sudden waves of percussion. Toward the end, the orchestra drops away, leaving a single cellist behind, emitting short bursts and finally a few isolated notes that seem to disintegrate into silence.