janus: Book of Memory
New Focus Recordings

Trio Kavak: Heirlooms: New Music Inspired by Young Children
New Focus Recordings

It's rare enough for one flute-viola-harp recording to see the light of day; it's even more unusual for two to be released on the same date and label. But that recently happened when Book of Memory and Heirlooms: New Music Inspired by Young Children, new collections by janus and Trio Kavak, appeared on New Focus Recordings last November. For the record, flutist Amanda Baker, harpist Nuiko Wadden, and violist Beth Meyers constitute the Brooklyn-based janus, which formed in 2002, whereas flutist Amelia Lukas, harpist Kathryn Andrews, and violist Victor Lowrie make up Trio Kavak. However much the two groups overlap in terms of instrumentation (it bears worth mentioning that on its release janus supplements its three core instruments with banjo, melodica, vocals, and percussion), their releases are fundamentally different.

Don't think for a moment that the flute-harp-viola format of these groups means their playlists are dominated by Renaissance tunes. Both recordings are firmly grounded in the present, with the musicians bringing a modern sensibility to recently created works. The reason for that in part stems from necessity: as pieces written for the trio combination aren't plentiful, janus formed with the idea of building the repertoire for the flute-harp-viola format as a key part of its MO. To that end, the group has added more than twenty new settings to the trio canon, with pieces written for the group by Caleb Burhans, Andrew McKenna-Lee, Angelica Negron, Barbara White, and others. The choice of janus as a group name, by the way, is no accident: the Roman god Janus is marked by a double-faced image that peers into the past and future, the past in janus's case signified by its choice of instrumentation and the future by the material it performs. One of the things that immediately appeals about Book of Memory is that while there are twenty indexed tracks on the release, it features two compositions only (both written for janus, incidentally) and thus feels compact. Lansky's large-scale title composition is obviously the dominant one, but Pluck, Bow, Blow by So Percussion member Jason Treuting has so much charm, its mark proves to be equally strong.

Described by Lansky himself as “a composer's conversation with older music,” Book of Memory playfully combines seven distinct movements and six interludes in striking manner, the work's realization enriched by the addition of voices and percussion. It's within the interludes that the latter elements surface, which leaves the longer movements to concentrate on formal trio arrangements and thus present the members' interactions in a purer form. The general character of the movements is conveyed by titles such as “Antique Cadences,” “Pastoral Counterpoint,” “Scherzo,” and “Lament,” and Baker, Wadden, and Meyers render all thirteen parts with gusto and conviction. Their voices blend superbly, a fact no doubt attributable in part to the many years they've played as a unit, and the clarity of the recording enhances the music's impact, too, when the separation between the three instruments is so well-defined.

Consistent with its title, Pluck, Bow, Blow literally explores the possible modes of sound production associated with each group instrument. Using hocketing, the members' voices collectively recite definitions for the works's three components in the first, third, and fifth parts, with the arresting voice-only “Pluck,” for instance, followed by the related setting “Pluck defined,” which, naturally, limits itself to pluck-generated sounds. To more fully realize the work's concept, Treuting expands on the trio's core sound by adding banjo, melodicas, and bowed harp to the arrangements, such that “Blow” builds from a flute-only intro into a veritable swarm of melodicas. One imagines Treuting's piece as a definite highlight of a typical janus show.

There's little mystery surrounding the conceptual impetus for Trio Kavak's release, with the five composers featured on Heirlooms: New Music Inspired by Young Children having catalyzed the experiences of being new parents and raising young families into compositional form. Much as janus does on Book of Memory, flutist Amelia Lukas (a member of the American Modern Ensemble), harpist Kathryn Andrews (one-half of Duo Scorpio), and violist Victor Lowri (a Mivos Quartet member) bring the composers' works to life with zestful performances that flatter their creators. Once again we're presented with a forward-thinking ensemble dedicate to enriching the flute-harp-viola repertoire with adventurous new material. It's worth noting that the composers involved—Carl Schimmel, Orianna Webb, Armando Bayolo, Adam B. Silverman, and Daniel Kellogg—didn't set out to write child-like works but rather pieces that capture the life-affirming quality of their time with their children and the emotions inspired by those transformative experiences. Moments of tenderness appear, as do exuberant episodes that evoke the innocence and carefree spirit of children at play.

Drawing from a Japanese story involving God dressing as a beggar to test the kindness of a monkey, fox, and rabbit, Schimmel's four-part The Moon Rabbit Syllabary incorporates elements of Japanese children's songs and a Radiohead tune (“Sail to the Moon,” written by Thom Yorke for his own son) into its mystical sound-world. Schimmel's music is at its dreamiest and most mysterious during the second movement (“he gazes mournfully at the waxing moon”), but there's also a pronounced fantastical character to the writing that mirrors a tale involving a rabbit ascending into the night sky. As suggested by its title, Silverman drew inspiration for Would Not Could Not from Dr. Seuss's 1960 book Green Eggs and Ham, even going so far as to transcribe the story into instrumental form, the viola personifying the character Sam and the flute the green-food-detesting character. As a result, Silverman's animated music is driven by ‘dialogue' between the instruments, with the harp acting as an intermediary for the other two.

Dedicated to her young daughter, Webb's The Love We Save threads multiple elements into its eight-minute structure, among them the delight with which a child explores its environment and the contrast between moments of high-energy and restful recharge that characterize an infant's days. Though the music is largely buoyant, the love Webb feels for her child comes through loud and clear in this album highlight. Also affecting is Kellogg's three-part Songs for Grandma, which grew out of the relationship his daughter formed with her grandmother before she passed away and is thus suitably tender in tone, nowhere more so than in the heartfelt movement “Longing.” Moments of levity arise, too, with “Christmas Squirrels and Candy” conveying the joy the two shared during the last Halloween they spent together.

And let's not forget Bayolo's Six Portraits in Flowing Time, a multifaceted, suite-like rendering of the composer's family that encompasses various moods, from joyous (“Giggles”) and mischievous (“The Little Risk Taker”) to ponderous (“Bridal Song”) and elegiac (“A Song Before the End”). As interesting and imaginative as the five composers' works are, they wouldn't be anywhere near as affecting had Trio Kavak not realized them with so much care. One comes away from this fine recording hearing the group as a perfect fit for the material.

January 2017