Tuesday 16 April 2024

The sound of an image: recent chamber music by New York City-based, Puerto Rican-born composer Gabriel Vicéns

Mural: chamber music by Gabriel Vicéns; Stradivarius
Mural: chamber music by Gabriel Vicéns; Stradivarius
Reviewed 15 April 2024

At times fierce and concentrated, Gabriel Vicéns music can evoke Webern and Feldman, but it also brings in his own visual element

New York City-based, Puerto Rican-born composer, guitarist, and visual artist Gabriel Vicéns' fourth studio album Mural, released on the Stradivarius label, features seven of Vicéns chamber pieces for various ensembles including piano trio, Pierrot ensemble, and woodwind quintet. 

Gabriel Vicéns is a gifted guitarist and improvisor, as well as performing with a free jazz/experimental ensemble. He is also a painter [see his website], and you feel that many of these different aspects coalesce in this sharply imagined a crisply austere music.

The first track is Mural (2021) for clarinet, violin, and piano, performed by clarinettist Raissa Fahlman, violinist Joenne Dumitrascu, and pianist Corinne Penner. Vicéns constructs the piece out of motifs and fragments, rhythmic motifs on piano under pinning everything. Rhythm approaches the jazzy, but the work is more about individual points of instrumental colour. Perhaps there is something quasi-Webern about the compression of Vicéns' imagination, and the work unfolds with something of a coolness.

Sueños Ligados [Linked Dreams] (2020) for piano trio, features violinist Adrianne Munden-Dixon, cellist Rocío Díaz de Cossío, and pianist Mayumi Tsuchida. Again, it uses a pointillist, fragmented approach with flurries of notes that never seem to quite coalesce, the texture taking on a nervy uncertain quality. When the instruments do come together, the two string instruments play motifs over a circling piano accompaniment that has a modernist ground-bass feel to it.

The third piece, El Matorral [The Bush] (2022) for is Pierrot ensemble, Roberta Michel, flute, Raissa Fahlman, clarinet, Joenne Dumitrascu, violin, Wick Simmons, cello, Corinne Penner, piano, and John Ling vibraphone, conducted by David Bloom. We return to the ground-bass idea here, as the work begins with a sort of classic walking bass on the piano over which vibraphone and then other events occur. Then rather then accumulating, Vicéns subtracts, he removes the piano and leaves instrumental motifs floating in air, so that the space around them becomes as important as the notes themselves. The use of colour here is striking, and this is one of those piece where it is worth remembering that Vicéns is a painter too. I am not quite sure what an Abstract Expressionist picture would sound like but perhaps we have it here.

Una Superficie Sin Rostro (2020) for solo piano, features Corinne Penner. The music here is quiet, concentrated with a superb use of space and not for the first time on the album, you think of Morton Feldman, the pointillism here offset by the piano's innate resonance.

Violinist Adrianne Munden-Dixon and pianist Mayumi Tsuchida return with, Carnal (2019). Here the violin's smudge-like motifs, scratchy and pointy, are answered by calmer piano chords as if the nervy one is being quietened by the other. The is a sense of emotionalism and innate narrative here, that makes the music move away from its Webern-like roots. 

The ensemble Nu Quintet features on, Ficción (2021) for woodwind quintet. Here we have chords in space, the relationship between them and the spaces far more important than any idea of harmonic progression. Finally, there is La Esfera (2021) performed by cellist Julia Henderson and pianist Mikael Darmanie. Nervy and jagged, this is less about cello and piano, and more about two instruments who happen to be playing at the same time, much as Stravinsky's movements for string quartet are more about four individual instruments. 

Gabriel Vicens, Untitled, 2021, Acrylic on canvas,
Gabriel Vicens, Untitled, 2021, Acrylic on canvas,

This is precise, concentrated music that has real edge to it. It requires a lot of the listener, you need to concentrate and attend to the detail. The performances are excellent, and just as the pieces challenge the audience I suspect that they challenge performers too, requiring of them crispness and precision. 

1. Mural (2021) [11:54]
2. Sueños Ligados (2020) [07:57]
3. El Matorral (2022) [14:33]
4. Una Superficie Sin Rostro (2020) [08:14]
5. Carnal (2019) [06:25]
6. Ficción (2021) [10:24]
7. La Esfera (2021) [10:32]

Roberta Michel, flute [3], Raissa Fahlman, clarinet [1, 3], Joenne Dumitrascu, violin [1, 3], Adrianne Munden-Dixon, violin [2, 5], Rocío Díaz de Cossío, cello [2], Wick Simmons, cello [3], Julia Henderson, cello [7], Corinne Penner, piano [1, 3, 4], Mayumi Tsuchida, piano [2, 5], Mikael Darmanie, piano [7], John Ling, vibraphone [3], David Bloom, conductor [3]
Nu Quintet [6] (Kim Lewis, flute, Michael Dwinell, oboe, Kathryn Vetter, clarinet, Tylor Thomas, bassoon, Blair Hamrick, horn)
Recorded by Nolan Thies at Bunker Studio, NYC on August 2022

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