Night Triptych - New Music for Guitar / Duo Noire
In this wonderful collection of works for two guitars by a group of composers hailing from many spots on the globe, Duo Noire provides a compelling snapshot of the range of expression in contemporary chamber music for the instrument. Night Triptych opens with Clarice Assad’s (of the famed Assad guitar family) Hocus Pocus, a dynamic work blending the rhythmic intensity and rich harmonic color of the music from her native Brazil with an encyclopedic understanding of the timbral possibilities of the instrument.
Mary Kouyoumdjian’s Byblos is inspired by the ancient Lebanese city of the same name, and involves an accompanying electronic track that subtly deconstructs a Mediterranean traditional dance in hazy washes of sound. The guitar writing at times evokes the figurations of its regional cousin, the oud. With its title, Courtney Bryan’s Soli Deo Gloria signals its alignment with centuries of work dedicated to the glory of a higher being and purpose. The composition’s journey is framed in terms of Bryan’s relationship to the stages of prayer - Contemplative, Unsettled and Searching, Questioning and Hoping, a Prayer, Pursuing, Realization, Acceptance. Iranian composer Golfam Khayam’s title work is in three movements, and one hears echoes of the oud and Middle Eastern music in fleet.
Gity Razaz’s work is more squarely within modern compositional tradition, and her Four Haikus are four tightly crafted pieces. Gabriella Smith’s Loop the Fractal Hold of Rain engages with popular music more overtly than other music on the recording. Duo Noire’s playing throughout is virtuosic, sensitive, and calibrated beautifully to the style of each work.
As compelling as the playing is by American classical guitarists Thomas Flippin and Christopher Mallett on their Duo Noire outing Night Triptych, of equal import is the album’s set-list: world premiere recordings of newly commissioned works by six female composers from around the world. That’s no accident: having noticed the extreme underrepresentation of female composers in classical concert programming and recordings, the Yale School of Music graduates launched the album project in 2015 as a way of making classical music more gender-inclusive. While two of the composers are United States-born (New Orleans native Courtney Bryan and San Francisco Bay area denizen Gabriella Smith), others have roots in Iran (Golfam Khayam, Gity Razaz), Brazil (Clarice Assad), and Armenia (Mary Kouyoumdjian). Such a project is easy to get behind, for all kinds of reasons.
The album begins on a suitably resplendent note with Assad’s Hocus Pocus, a three-part setting that affords the players ample opportunities to strut their magical stuff. After the arresting flourishes of “Abracadabra!,” “Shamans” cools the pace for a brooding meditation packed with mystery, one intensified when spoons are aggressively applied to guitar strings, while “Klutzy Witches” perpetuates the pensive tone of the central movement. In each case, the beauty of the guitars’ nylon strings and the duo’s interactions are well-served by Assad’s writing.
Khayam’s three-part title work, which blends aspects of Persian ethnic and contemporary classical forms, draws on the Tehran-born composer’s extensive familiarity with Persian strummed instruments to apply extended techniques to classical guitar. In the work’s energized middle movement, “Quasi Furioso,” for example, chopsticks and pencils are used to generate aggressive percussive flourishes and scrapes; the contemplative “Rubato, Amoroso, Molto Cantabile,” by comparison, opts for a more delicate intertwine of harmonics and counterpoint.
Razaz, who emigrated from Tehran to the United States as a teenager, is represented on the release by Four Haikus, sketches that present a wide range of moods and techniques with concision. Whether it be the animated “Andante” or the ponderous “Largo,” melodic and rhythmic interplay are accentuated in material that’s designed to be phrased by the performers as a singer might. Bryan’s Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God Alone) roots itself in a sparkling uptempo performance infused with gospel and jazz, the episodic work presenting the guitarists’ playing with the utmost clarity as they advance through the multiple stages of a prayer.
Arguably the recording’s most compelling piece is Kouyoumdjian’s atmospheric Byblos. The composer, a first-generation Armenian-American whose family was directly affected by the Lebanese Civil War and Armenian Genocide, wrote the work after a recent visit to the ancient Lebanese locale after which the piece is titled. Duo Noire’s soft guitar tremolos and aggressive picking are augmented by a portentous backing track that imbues the material with an eerie, unsettling quality; so central is this sound element to the piece, it eventually overpowers the guitarists, whose playing is submerged by the swelling noise. As arresting, if for different reasons, is Smith’s Americana-infused Loop the Fractal Hold of Rain for the way it brings a different kind of energy to the recording. Rhythm moves to the forefront in her nine-minute piece, with funky bluegrass-inflected riffs animating the material with insistent, syncopated momentum and vibrato and glissando effects that wouldn’t sound out of place in an Indian raga.
[The] pieces are a varied lot that speak highly on behalf of their creators, and it doesn’t hurt that the musicians bringing the material to life are Flippin and Mallett, virtuosos who invest their performances with energy and conviction. To claim that the two break new ground in the world of classical guitar music on the hour-long release isn’t overselling it: deploying everything from stabs and strums to trills and taps, the guitarists consistently extend the acoustic instrument into adventurous territory without sacrificing musicality in the process.
Release Date: June 22, 2018
Catalog Number: FCR210
Label: New Focus Recordings
Composer: Clarice Assad, Courtney Bryan, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Golfam Khayam, Gity Razaz, Gabriella Smith
Orchestra/Ensemble: Duo Noire
Performer: Thomas Flippin, Christopher Mallett