Ilari Kaila is a Finnish composer and sometime journalist who currently teaches at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, after teaching at Columbia University and as a teaching artist with the New York Philharmonic. His pieces have been performed extensively, but not many have been recorded. In fact, The Bells Bow Down — Chamber Music of Ilari Kaila, performed by the Aizuri Quartet, pianist Adrienne Kim and flautist Isabelle Gleicher, is the first full CD of his work.

The album opens with the title piece, for piano and string quartet. It’s going along quietly for about two minutes, the strings murmuring gently in your ear, when all of a sudden the piano comes in with a clang, like someone invited Galina Ustvolskaya to the party without telling anybody. In an instant, the entire character of the piece changes and it becomes a surging wheat field of strings, with the piano hammering along, pumping everyone up and getting them running in elaborate patterns. Close your eyes and you can picture a company of capering dancers, occasionally thrown off track when Kim slams out a jarring chord.

The second piece, Cameo, is performed by Gleischer, quartet violist Ayana Kozasa, and Kim. It’s partly inspired by Indian music, which gives it an overlapping, droning rhythmic quality, but also by 1970s progressive rock, from which Kaila takes the complex, multi-part harmonies and the sudden outbursts that send the musicians skittering in a new direction every few minutes. The flute is the lead voice, with the viola providing a sense of constancy and the piano a trilling accompaniment and, later in the piece, a limpid solo passage.

About a quarter of the disc’s one-hour running time is taken up by Taonta, a five-movement suite for solo piano. The first three-minute section, “Sarabande,” feels like a string of warm-up exercises, fingers rippling speedily up the keyboard then striking individual notes with precision and force. This is succeeded by “Rosary,” a series of concentric waves, and “Xianwei. Tail-Biting Fish,” a minimalist and somewhat romantic ballad. The fourth section, “Taonta,” is the most interesting; it begins with what seems like a simple melody, but becomes more of a minimalist exercise in repetition and gradual change, and the concluding section, “The Caudal Fin,” draws some very interesting resonances from the keyboard’s lowest register.

It’s hard to get a strong sense of Ilari Kaila‘s essential voice as a composer from the six pieces included here. There’s strong melody, and an interest in unexpected tones, but any particularly strong obsessions he may have don’t leap out right away. The pieces are too distinct from each other; it’s mostly the touch of the players that holds the whole thing together. So what’s most important is that there’s not a bad track here, and he’s a composer I’ll be looking out for in the future.

Phil Freeman

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