Saturday 27 August 2022

Two moments in time: String Orchestra of Brooklyn with a work written for 2020's Lockdown, and another evoking the opening of Honolulu's contemporary art museum in 1980

Scott Wollschleger: Outside Only Sound; Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti : with eyes the color of time; String Orchestra of Brooklyn, Eli Spindel; New Focus Recordings
Scott Wollschleger: Outside Only Sound; Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti : with eyes the color of time; String Orchestra of Brooklyn, Eli Spindel; New Focus Recordings
26 August 2022 (★★★★)

One work delayed by lockdown, the other created specifically for lockdown conditions, yet both display a dazzling use of texture and timbre with vividly imaginative use of a contemporary string orchestra

This new disc from the String Orchestra of Brooklyn features two works written specifically for the orchestra, one takes us to a day in October 2020, to the height of Lockdown in New York when the orchestra played outside, the other takes us to the day in 1980 when the first contemporary art museum opened in Honolulu.

At the height of the 2020 lockdown in New York, indoor concerts were cancelled and even having an orchestra rehearsing together was problematic. The String Orchestra of Brooklyn's solution was to commission work specifically tailored to the needs of the moment, out of doors performances and minimal rehearsal. One of the results was Scott Wollschleger's Outside Only Sound for strings and percussion. On enfoldingtheir new disc from New Focus Recordings, the String Orchestra of Brooklyn, conductor Eli Spindel, performs Scott Wollschleger's Outside Only Sound with one of the works that were due to be premiered at cancelled performances in 2020, Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti’s with eyes the color of time.

Wollschleger’s solution to the orchestra's commission for 2020 was "to structure music material in which each player was like a single cicada and there was never a need for a conductor. Instead, each player used a stopwatch and functioned as one of a group of insects in a field, or like a gaseous cloud of sound." The recording is intensely atmospheric and we hear an extended sequence of ambient sounds, with remarkable clarity, before the music starts. And it starts gradually, as if arising from the ambient, the situation creating the art. Wollschleger writes for string orchestra and six percussionists, who bow a variety of large metal mixing bowls, but the orchestral players themselves play a series of small bells, thus creating an element of fairy magic in this remarkable cloud.

It is a good three minutes before the formal music making begins, points of string sound emerging from the ambient in a way which makes it all seem part of one single whole. The music coalesces, the cloud develops in intensity and percussion bowls come in, but also we have non-pitched effects from the strings, but then the cloud starts to disperse, the small bells add to the effect and we return to the ambient. Sheer magic.

Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti is a Kanaka Maoli (native Hawaiian) composer and she grew up on Honolulu. with eyes the color of time is inspired by Honolulu's The Contemporary Museum (Spalding House). When this opened in the 1980s, in the historic Spalding House, the museum was the only one in Honolulu devoted to contemporary art. The titles of movements in the work refer to works of art that were featured in the museum when it first opened, along with interludes inspired by the bronze doors created by Robert Graham for the entrance to the museum

We begin with the bronze doors, directly referencing Graham's work, long held string notes which seem to each develop an intensity of their own; a thoughtful movement. Then Open Triangles refers to George Rickey’s kinetic sculpture Two Open Triangles Up, Gyratory III (1988), where the long notes of the first movement seem to grow, developing flourishes and other gestures, though the music remains intensely considered and sober.  Nahele (the bronze horse/forest) is inspired by Deborah Butterfield’s Nahele (1986), and here the texture changes radically. Instead of pitch, we have unpitched effects, quiet and intense. There are moments were pitch is almost present, but it remains tantalisingly out of reach.

Les sortilèges arises from David Hockney’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges, originally conceived as a set for Ravel’s opera. And here, we seem to move into another different world, one of pitch, rhythm and melody, with repeated gestures overlaid and overlapping, but there are unpitched elements too, all linked by the idea of the repeated gesture. Towards the end, the dreams seems to get really fearsome and the pitched ideas are overwhelmed by an unpitched storm, leaving just a single wavering tone at the end. silhouette takes us back to the doors, which feature silhouettes of women on them. Hear the idea of the long held notes is mixed in with other more disturbing gestures, thoughtful but restless. Mirror XV refers to James Seawright’s Mirror XV (1987), and the movement seems to build out of silhouette with restless gestures turning into repeated motifs, again disturbed by unpitched elements. This finally unwinds and resolves in unpitched percussion which leads us into mahina. This movement references Toshiko Takaezu’s moons, a series of sculptures she often referred to by the Hawaiian word "mahina". The movement begins as a long meditative percussion solo, only at the end do other instruments join in. Finally comes the movement enfolding, which gives the disc its title. This develops into a series of repetitive motifs overlayed to hypnotic effect, but gradually things unwind, pitch becomes evasive for a time, then is reasserted in a dramatic way as the strings are replaced by the performers humming, to magical effect.

I admired Lanzilotti's piece immensely, and her imaginative use of the orchestra is stunning in the way she brings in a variety of timbres, textures and more to evoke the very different experiences of seeing and feeling the art that the movements refer back to. But when it came down to it, it was somehow Wollschleger's work that really moved me in the way he creates a timeless work from the specific COVID requirements and also manages something rather moving.

Scott Wollschleger (born 1980) - Outside Only Sound
Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti (born 1983) - with eyes the color of time
String Orchestra of Brooklyn
Eli Spindel (conductor)
Recorded live in Greene Parke, Brooklyn, NY, 17 October 2020; Oktaven Audio, Mount Vernon, NY, 8 August 2021
New Focus Recordings FCR331 1CD [46:41]

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