Red Light New Music: Barbary Coast
New Focus Recordings

This would appear to be an especially fruitful time for contemporary composers, given the number of ensembles currently dedicated to performing adventurous modern classical works. Bang On A Can All-Stars, NOW Ensemble, Alarm Will Sound, and yMusic are among those specializing in new music, and the release of Barbary Coast argues that Red Light New Music should be added to that small but distinguished list. On its debut album, the New York-based contemporary chamber music outfit presents works by Christopher Cerrone, Vincent Raikhel, Liam Robinson, Scott Wollschleger, and Ted Hearne, also the group's conductor.

Each setting on the sixty-six-minute recording was created with the ensemble's musicians in mind, a move that definitely strengthens the impression of cohesiveness established by the album. Ostensibly a nine-minute riff on time that focuses alternately on its cyclic and static aspects on the one hand and the transformations that linearly develop on the other, the opening Cirques is by Raikhel, a Brooklyn-based composer and scientist whose work explores nature's beauty and complexity. The title references a geological formation produced by glaciers, though it's the glacier itself, a physical entity that's always evolving even when it appears unchanging, that as a phenomenon most aligns with the piece. Up next, Robinson's three-movement Chamber Concerto puts pianist Yegor Shevtsov in the driver's seat as it advances through playful episodes influenced by American minimalism (more John Adams than Glass or Reich) and dazzles the listener with splashes of kaleidoscopic colour; certainly the high-spirited framing parts “Sonata” and “Rondo” offer no small amount of stimulation, but it's the delicate central movement “Hymn” that proves to be the most affecting. Regardless, as a showcase for Red Light New Music and the breadth of effects its eight musicians can produce, Robinson's piece is a hard one to top. And just as his contribution is a showcase of sorts for Shevtsov, so too is Hearne's wildly shape-shifting Crispy Gentlemen for bass clarinetist Christa Van Alstine. On Wollschleger's album-closing Brontal No. 3, violist Erin Wight takes the lead, as it's she who first voices the work's key melodic motif, a low note followed by a high one, the combination of which Wollschleger describes as an “Ur-melody” or “Ur-motion.” Though Brontal No. 3 supposedly nods to Morton Feldman's The Viola in My Life, the rather woozy, even sickly quality of Wollschleger's creation more reminds me of Mark-Anthony Turnage's work.

The album material is impeccably performed by the musicians, and the works themselves are a consistently engaging bunch. Some, however, are more memorable than others, The Night Mare arguably the most memorable of all. For this nine-minute setting, Cerrone drew inspiration from a Jorge Louis Borges lecture, specifically its characterization of nightmares as chaotic series of images that are fashioned into coherent narrative forms upon waking. Cerrone incorporates into the work's design electronic effects derived from a field recording of a train and bolsters its haunting quality by exploiting the instrumental resources of the group to sculpt a powerfully atmospheric sound design. Droning, slightly dissonant tones gradually morph into short melodic statements that retain the unsettling tone established at the outset, and Cerrone exercises admirable restraint in the way the subtle modulations in mood are effected from beginning to end. In fact, so strong is the composition, one longs to hear an album-length presentation of Cerrone's work rather than a single setting only.

October 2015