A Far Cry: The Law of Mosaics
Crier Records

The most memorable thing about The Law of Mosaics isn't, it turns out, the premiere recording of Ted Hearne's eponymous string orchestra piece or Andrew Norman's string trio The Companion Guide to Rome (a 2012 Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize) but rather the actual renderings of said pieces by the Boston-based, self-directed orchestra A Far Cry. But that shouldn't be interpreted to mean that the compositions themselves are in any way wanting; instead, it's a testament to the robustness of A Far Cry's performances on this hour-long recording. Drawing inspiration from the patchwork design of David Shields' 2010 mashup text Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, Hearne's Law of Mosaics pilfers phrases from familiar works in the classical canon to dazzling effect, whereas Norman's Companion Guide to Rome presents in musical form nine distinct portraits of the New York composer's favourite churches in the Eternal City.

A Far Cry tears into “Teresa,” the opening movement of The Companion Guide To Rome, like souls possessed, before dialing the intensity down ever so slightly for the architectonics of “Benedetto.” Some of the composition's sections are so fleeting, they verge on disorienting; others allow the listener more time to become acquainted with their spaces and seem structured to mirror a visitor's movements within the physical setting and reflect the various impressions he/she might experience while doing so. While The Companion Guide To Rome isn't as radical in its approach as Hearne's Law of Mosaics, Norman threads all manner of techniques into the pieces, from swirling waves of glissandos in the fifth, “Ivo,” to stirring nachtmusik effects in the sixth, “Clemente.” The solo violin passages in the eighth, “Cecelia,” prove haunting, especially when they're located almost entirely in the upper register, while the oft-elegiac final part “Sabina” catches one's ear with an arresting change in key near the end of its nine minutes. The passion with which A Far Cry brings this concluding section to life is representative of the orchestra's performance in general.

The brash title work by Hearne (b. 1982, Chicago), a composer and singer known for his modern-day oratorio Katrina Ballads and a recent collaboration with Erykah Badu, presents a provocative exercise in juxtaposition and contrast that's as much indebted to the classical composers whose works it plunders as the sampling methods associated with hip-hop producers such as Kanye West (in a move that would no doubt delight Shields, one of the pieces referenced by Hearne is Norman's). Some of the quotes are clearly audible and their authors identifiable whereas others are camouflaged by treatments the composer applied to the source material (in an album-related interview, Hearne discussed how he used Ableton Live to slow down or speed up sampled bits). Regardless, wordy movement titles such as “Climactic moments from Adagio for Strings and The Four Seasons, slowed down and layered on top of one another” and “Climactic moments from movement three, three times as slow as before” reveal that Hearne isn't trying to hide anything about the sampling methods applied.

Coming as it does after the scaled-down arrangements of Norman's work, Hearne's string orchestra material sounds luscious by comparison, and the richness of A Far Cry's playing is showcased to strong effect in the spirited allegro of the opening “Excerpts from the middle of something.” The playful character of Hearne's piece is well-accounted for in “Palindrome for Andrew Norman,” each of whose samples is altered from the original composition in some manner. As committed as Hearne is to his methods, the final outcome of a given movement indicates that he never loses sight of the fundamental need for musicality. The listener, in other words, doesn't come away from the movement hearing it as a palindrome but simply as a compelling and stimulating piece of music that in different moments references Mahler, among others. In stark contrast, “Beats,” inspired by noise, punk, and electronic music, underpins its raw sawing and scraping with a decidedly funky rhythm. Still, as credible as Norman's and Hearne's compositions are, it's the exuberance and conviction of A Far Cry's playing that impresses above all else.

January 2015