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Parkins, Rzewski, Tenney / William Winant, Eclipse Quartet

Release Date: 06/11/2013 
Label:  New World Records   Catalog #: 80740   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Frederic RzewskiZeena ParkinsJames Tenney
Performer:  William Winant
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Eclipse String Quartet
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

RZEWSKI Whimwhams. TENNEY Cognate Canons. PARKINS _s:c:a:t:t:e:r:i:n:g Eclipse Qrt; William Winant (mmb, dr, chimes); Lou Harrison (bell instrument, metal perc) NEW WORLD 80740 (62: 35)

This is an excellent collection of works for string quartet and percussion, with a West Coast bent. Winant and the Eclipse are stalwarts of the Bay area new music scene, and they’ve chosen a program whose works are Read more vividly contrasting yet complementary in their highly personal approaches to the challenges each composer defines for him or her self.

Frederic Rzewski is by now one of our uncontested masters, perhaps the closest we have to a Chopin in our age. By that I refer to his prodigious pianist’s skills, towering body of music for the instrument, and attraction to folk and popular music genres. Add to that a commitment to improvisation as an essential part of his practice, and you have a musician of this time. His Whimwhams (1993) is a light and whimsical piece. Its rigor is in its structure, being made of 11 sections that subdivide into 121 subsections, each 6 seconds long (I know this thanks to David Bernstein’s clear and helpful notes). Within that time-mold, Rzewski pours musical “doodles” that often involve a quick chromatic descent. Indeed, the piece at times sounds like an endless succession of endings, and as such is slyly humorous. In its middle there’s a sudden cadenza for the percussionist that sounds a little like a rock drummer’s solo, though more deadpan.

James Tenney died in 2006, and his influence as a formally rigorous composer, but one spanning an enormous range of techniques, styles, and ideas, is still being sorted out. (To take just one example, his thoughts on process are extremely important for his former student John Luther Adams.) A release of any work of his is for me an event. Cognate Canons (also 1993) have the freshness, strange sense of order, and non-directionality of early Cage. The canons (as far as I can tell from the notes) are between percussion and quartet, moving at different time proportions, in the spirit of Conlon Nancarrow, the work’s dedicatee. As such, especially since the percussion (beyond vibraphone and marimba) is largely unpitched, they are more rhythmic in nature, though one hears constantly recurring motives and harmonic complexes. Over time, the materials feel as though they accelerate and “densify,” though that may be a coincidental by-product of the process. Whatever the case, the resultant atmosphere is precise, austere, ritualistic, and strangely compelling.

Zeena Parkins’s (b. 1956) s:c:a:t:t:e:r:i:n:g (2012) is the wildest ride on the program. She’s been a stalwart of the downtown New York new music scene for decades as an improvising harpist, and has steadily created music for avant-garde theater and dance. The term “creative musician” fits her like a glove. This work is a series of tableaux that incorporate electronic sounds, processing, improvisation, vocal performance, and traditional notation. I wasn’t sure how satisfyingly organized it would feel, but I came away from it with a sense I’d been on a journey that justified itself. Because of its recurrent use of a bell-instrument developed by Lou Harrison, the work often suggests a Harry Partch universe of sounds and tunings. It’s satisfyingly dramatic and colorful, and its flights of fancy aren’t self-indulgent, the apparent product of an aesthetic in the service of music first, rather than creator-ego.

The Eclipse is Sarah Parkins and Sarah Thornblade, violins; Alma Lisa Fernandez, viola; and Maggie Parkins, cello. The performances feel dead-on accurate, and the blend between the strings and percussion makes you wonder why this isn’t a more standard ensemble. Maybe it will be soon!

FANFARE: Robert Carl
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Works on This Recording

Whimwhams by Frederic Rzewski
Performer:  William Winant (Percussion)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Eclipse String Quartet
s:c:a:t:t:e:r:i:n:g by Zeena Parkins
Performer:  William Winant (Percussion)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Eclipse String Quartet
Cognate Canon by James Tenney
Performer:  William Winant (Percussion)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Eclipse String Quartet

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