Bielawa: A Handful Of World

Release Date: 9/25/2007
Label: Tzadik
Catalog Number: 8039
Composer: Lisa Bielawa
Number of Discs: 1

Physical Format:

Notes and Editorial Reviews

BIELAWA Kafka Songs. 1 Lamentations for a City. 2 A Collective Cleansing 3 Kristina Boerger, cond; Karla Kihlstedt (voc, vn); 1 Jacqueline Leclair (Eng hn); 2 Lisa Bielawa (voc); 3 Cerddorion Vocal Ens TZADIK 8039 (48:10)

I’ve heard about Lisa Bielawa for a long time, as a composer, singer, and one of the founders/organizers of the MATA festival, which has been a force for presenting new voices of emerging composers in New York for some time now. I’d heard snatches of her music, but nothing that gave me a strong fix or blew me away. That changes with this disc, which is a gem.

Not surprisingly, considering the composer’s performance background, all these are vocal works. The standout is the leadoff, which itself is an act of extraordinary chutzpah on two counts. First, Bielawa takes up an enormous challenge by using the same medium and general text source as György Kurtág (and almost the same title!). This could be a disastrous comparison, but she meets it (and differentiates herself) with both the quality of the music, and by the second challenge she sets herself: her 2001–03 Kafka Songs is a setting for voice and violin of fragmentary texts by the writer, but both executed by the same performer. Karla Kihlstedt, herself increasingly visible as a composer, and as part of avant-garde crossover collective Tin Hat, gives a dazzling performance (which the notes make clear involves no overdubbing). The result reminded a little of both the songs and stylings of Björk—clear, edgy, folk-tinged, but not identifiable with any single ethnicity.

The other two works are a little more conventional, though hardly conservative. Lamentations for a City (2004) is a setting of Jeremiah for chorus and English horn, and A Collective Cleansing (2000) sets excerpts from Aeschylus’s The Suppliant Maidens (in Janet Lembke’s translation) for the composer as performer, in turn processed and mixed in the electroacoustic domain (it was the aural component for a video installation by Cynthia Cox). One thing that’s winning about it is the way it gradually introduces electronic artifacts like digital pops and skips, turning them into a subtle accompaniment. Both pieces, though, are most distinguished by the fact that the music is quite simply good . Bielawa has a knack for the tune—not a showstopper, but hooks that seem primal, are hummable and rooted in some folk tradition, but very much of this time. The end of A Collective Cleansing, with its repetitive little chorus, feels to me like something descended from Bernstein.

Texts are not included, but at least Tzadik directs you to the composer’s Web site, where you will find them (go to, roll over The Obligatories, choose Works, and then the respective pieces). Performances are all excellent to outstanding. The gist is that this is music of compelling imagination, naturalness, and progressive engagement with our moment. That’s a hard combo to pull off, but Bielawa does. I’ll keep this in mind for Want List material.

FANFARE: Robert Carl
Works on This Recording
1. A Collective Cleansing by Lisa Bielawa
Performer: Carla Kihlstedt (Violin), Lisa Bielawa (Soprano)
Period: 20th Century
2. Lamentations for a City by Lisa Bielawa
Performer: Carla Kihlstedt (Violin), Lisa Bielawa (Soprano)
Period: 20th Century
3. Kafka Songs by Lisa Bielawa
Performer: Carla Kihlstedt (Violin), Lisa Bielawa (Soprano)
Period: 20th Century
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