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Mirage / Elizabeth Brown, Momenta Quartet

Brown / Momenta Quartet
Release Date: 07/09/2013 
Label:  New World Records   Catalog #: 80751  
Composer:  Elizabeth Brown
Performer:  Elizabeth BrownBenjamin Verdery
Conductor:  Yasushi Inada
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Momenta String QuartetNewbandPro Musica Nipponia

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BROWN Seahorse. 1,4 Arcana. 2 Piranesi 1,5. Three Arias from A Bookmobile for Dreamers. 1 Atlantis. 1,6 Mirage. 3,5 Shinsh?f?kei, or An Imaginary Landscape 7 Read more Elizabeth Brown ( 1 theremin, 2 fl, 3 shakuhachi); 4 Dean Drummond (gtr); 4 Jared Soldiviero (harmonic canon 1); 4 Dave Broom (chromelodeon); 4 Bill Ruyle (diamond mmb); 4 Joe Bergen (bs mmb); 4 Joe Fee (zoomoozophone, juststrokerods); 5 Momenta Qrt; 6 Ben Verdery (amplified gtr played with slide bar); 7 Yasushi Inada, cond; 7 Pro Musica Nipponia NEW WORLD 80751 (73:00)

The promo blurb for this CD, sent to me with the disc, says that “The strangeness of [Elizabeth Brown’s] music sneaks up on you.” No, it does not “sneak up” on you; it hits you over the head like a 2x4. This is not necessarily a bad thing: I like “strange” music so long as as it’s creative, and Brown’s music is indeed that. But when the very first notes of Seahorse sound like the humming of an alien spacecraft, with the otherworldly sound of a theremin above the fray, you are certainly not, as the cliché goes, “in Kansas any more.” I’ve listed the individual musicians on this track in the headnote because they are all playing “Partch instruments,” which is to say, the inter-tonal instruments invented by the renegade composer Harry Partch, but it should also be noted that they are collectively known as “Newband.” The music is not so much tonal as modal, and curiously enough, its modal construction resembles, at times, Native American music. The performance is truly exceptional, the various instruments somehow, curiously, blending rather than standing out as one would expect them to do.

The aptly titled Arcana was composed, the notes tell us, at the request of Itzhak and Toby Perlman for their daughter Arelia, who is a flautist. The pre-recorded “electronic sounds” also include Brown on theremin, so technically she plays both instruments here, but only the flute part was played by her at the time of recording over the background soundtrack. Not too surprisingly, if one did not know that this was prerecorded sound, one might be fooled into thinking it was yet another performance by Newband.

By the time we reach Piranesi for theremin and string quartet, the pattern has become clear: Brown’s music has become well-composed and highly original ambient music. Here, particularly, she employs the strings in a slithery manner to complement her own theremin playing. One wonders if her technique on the instrument equals that of the late Clara Rockmore; it’s difficult to tell from these tracks, which do not push her technique to the limits, the music being geared more towards ambience and strangeness of expression. Indeed, in this piece—which, incidentally, was written as the score for a multimedia presentation by the composer’s husband—Brown employs several passages of “wavering pitch,” almost as if one were listening to an old recording pressed off-center. (Collectors often refer to them as “swinging copies.”) The piece, say the notes, is based on the engravings of the 18th-century artist of the same name, known for their “elaborate and phantasmagorical prison interiors.” Here, I almost felt as if I were listening to Popul Vuh’s equally strange soundtrack for Werner Herzog’s 1970s film version of Nosferatu.

The Three Arias from A Bookmobile for Dreamers, composed for theremin with recorded sound, distorts pitch to an amazing degree, yet somehow sounds comfortable while doing so. I should perhaps point out that the prerecorded sound here, as in Arcana, sounds so much like the Partch instruments in Seahorse that the casual listener will possibly be fooled into thinking they are played by them.

In Atlantis, where the theremin is mated with an acoustic classical guitar played with slide bar, we once again feel as if we’re back in the world of Harry Partch. The notes tell us that this was achieved by the slide bar, which alters the pitch of the notes played on the instrument so that they become microtonal, despite the music being more or less in D Minor. Once again, the fluidity of pitch leads to a feeling of not being “centered” in any particular tonality; or, perhaps more accurately, as if the tonality were melting and morphing before our very ears. And in Mirage, Brown switches to the shakuhachi or Japanese bamboo flute, here combined with string quartet. Once again, pitch slides are required of the quartet’s musicians, yet oddly the shakuhachi part is somewhat more conventionally played. This creates an unusual tension between the two elements, although in some respects this is the closest thing to a “conventional” piece on this CD. And perhaps because of this, or maybe just my own perception, it was the least consistently engaging piece on the disc, or at least the one that just seemed to go on longer than I thought the musical material could bear.

The liner notes tell us that the group that plays Shinsh?f?kei is not really comprised of “traditional Japanese instruments,” such as the ones that would perform gagaku, the ancient Imperial court music, but rather of Japanese instruments, using Japanese musical notation, and that the group is dedicated to performing contemporary music. Shinsh?f?kei is certainly that, and the Japanese instruments, which here include the shakuhachi, have a peculiarly “tinny” sound. Perhaps conditioned by the instrumental group she was writing for, Brown’s music here sounds almost entirely Oriental—almost, but not quite. It is divided into four movements, titled “Stroll Garden,” “Aged, Mossy Rock,” “Praise Poetry—Landscape Haiku,” and “Departure,” yet its total playing time is only two minutes longer than Piranesi. The musical content of each piece, to my ears (and the notes confirm this) has more of a meditative quality, the music purposely written in a form of rhythmic stasis. So much of this music is just that—meditative states—that it could easily be used as an induction into Zen meditation. It seems to be music that simultaneously includes the low buzzing and the stillness of nature while cutting off the hubbub of the outside world. One gets the feeling, listening to it, that this is 14th-century music, even though it is not.

I cannot praise this CD highly enough. I don’t know if all of Brown’s music falls into this exact same pattern or category—I can imagine that too much of it may produce over-saturation on the part of the listener—but within the 73 minutes of this disc, one is captivated by the “inviting strangeness” of Brown’s aesthetic.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

Mirage by Elizabeth Brown
Performer:  Elizabeth Brown (Flute)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Momenta String Quartet
Written: 2008 
Seahorse by Elizabeth Brown
Performer:  Elizabeth Brown (Flute)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Newband
Written: 2008 
Arcana by Elizabeth Brown
Performer:  Elizabeth Brown (Flute)
Written: 2004 
Piranesi by Elizabeth Brown
Performer:  Elizabeth Brown (Theremin)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Momenta String Quartet
Written: 2007 
An Imagined Landscape by Elizabeth Brown
Conductor:  Yasushi Inada
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Pro Musica Nipponia
Written: 2010 
A Bookmobile for Dreamers: Arias (3) by Elizabeth Brown
Performer:  Elizabeth Brown (Theremin)
Written: 2011 
Atlantis by Elizabeth Brown
Performer:  Elizabeth Brown (Theremin), Benjamin Verdery (Guitar)
Written: 2007 

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