San Francisco-based arts journalist and broadcaster Chloe Veltman has contributed articles and reviews to The New York Times, BBC Classical Music Magazine, Gramophone, the Los Angeles Times, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal and many other media outlets. She is the host and executive producer of VoiceBox, a weekly, syndicated public radio and podcast series about the human voice, and blogs at ArtsJournal.com. Follow Chloe on Twitter at @chloeveltman.
The Volatile, Maverick Music of Michael Harrison
Q2 Music Album of the Week for October 29, 2012
Monday, October 29, 2012
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The word “maverick” is overused in the contemporary music world. But in the case of composer Michael Harrison and cellist Maya Beiser, the descriptor is deserved.
So it comes as a bit of a shock, in the middle of Harrison and Beiser’s new album, Time Loops, to hear this most musically experimental of duos giving a heartfelt, almost schmaltzy, rendition on piano and cello of the J. S. Bach/Charles Gounod Ave Maria.
A staple of weddings, funerals and qinceañeras since the mid-19th century, Ave Maria appears upon first listening to be a strange addition to an album that otherwise mostly showcases Harrison’s inventive, melody-forward compositions written in “just intonation,” an esoteric form of tuning based on whole number proportions that went out of style with the arrival of the now ubiquitous “well-tempered” tuning, and Beiser’s careening, multi-textured playing.
But upon closer inspection, the inclusion of Ave Maria makes sense. For one thing, it provides the inspiration for the album’s title track, in which the piano part of the Bach/Gounod piece is recorded and played backwards through a computer to eerie effect while the cello performs the original’s lush melody in retrograde.
For another, Ave Maria, which cleverly superimposes a Romantic melody over a Baroque prelude written around 140 years earlier, beautifully symbolizes this album’s overall preoccupation with marrying the old and the new to ear-tingling effect.
Just Ancient Loops, a kaleidoscopic, three-part meditation for cello, combines ancient scales and harmonies with contemporary looping techniques that make Beiser’s solo instrument sound like an orchestra. Meanwhile, Hijaz, a brilliantly schizophrenic work that veers between slow, lyrical passages and fast, rhythmic spasms, unites an aged Middle Eastern and North African mode with the youthful voices of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City.
Because every track on the album is composed and performed in just intonation, the music sounds startlingly fresh. After all, even a chestnut like Ave Maria has maverick roots.