Confined To Quarters

Modern classical music from Ensemble Dal Niente, a Chicago music group whom we did hear in 2014 with their fine interpretation of Aaron Einbond’s compositions…and there was also the album by pianist Mabel Kwan where she played the music of Georg Friedrich Haas.

On today’s confined.speak. (NEW FOCUS RECORDINGS FCR 308), we get to hear compositions by the Ensemble themselves, all emerging from a time when they overcame the challenges of world-wide lockdown and staged a series of streaming concerts online. The music is mostly quite complex, dense, challenging, and every one of these six pieces represents a specific conception or idea, worked out and expressed in musical form. A good deal of the material is also quite melancholic and forlorn in tone, such as ‘Triste y Madrigal’ by Tomas Gueglio, and ‘Es casi como el inicio…y comienza’ by Melissa Vargas. The former is especially unusual – starting life as a 21st-century vocal work full of “nocturnal utterances”, it moves into using short clips from 1940s melodramas (radio plays perhaps), that add extra layers of meaning and also a faint patina of nostalgia.

For me, the two crucial pieces are those at the start of the disc – ‘Demente Cuerda’ by the harpist Hilda Paredes, and the title composition by Igor Santos. The Paredes piece features quite a large ensemble and the rich blend of woodwinds, percussion and strings is used to great effect, producing mostly short but elaborate phrases, while Ben Melsky’s harp finds ingenious ways to insert counter-arguments into the interstices. The title here translates as ‘demented string’, but has another meaning which allows a veiled comment on mental health, a subject dear to all of us who struggled through the confinements of lockdown while attempting to retain our sanity. Conversely, Santos’ ‘confined.speak’ is just two instruments – violin and piano, and both instruments speak to us through layers of extra filters, including the use of mutes, inside-piano techniques, different bowing pressures…which are deployed to express a very limited range of note and many repeated phrases. All of this, natch, is used to express the ideas of “confinement”, so that the instruments pretty much sound like caged animals scratching at the bars, a very neat way of evoking the claustrophobia and tensions of being shut in at home.

There’s also ‘Merce and Baby’ by George Lewis (that’s right, the AACM genius himself) which is trying to imagine a meeting between dancer Merce Cunningham and the jazz dancer Baby Douds; and ‘Beyond her Mask’ from the South African composer Andile Khumalo, a brooding work with a vocal recit which is directly intended to address the issue of violence against women in his own country. In all perhaps a fairly downbeat and troubling set of music, reflective of the troubling times when it was produced. From 19 October 2021.