The new Sonograms compilation contains the most interesting contemporary classical music I have heard in a while. The 15-track collection from Labor Records welds traditional instrumentation with some very adventurous compositional forms. Mysticism, mathematics, and “musical watercolors” are invoked to create some truly incredible atmospheres. Most of the music was recorded in 1996-97, but that hardly matters. These wildly adventurous pieces of music are so impressive as to stand outside of time.
Sonograms features the work of six composers, five of which hail from Eastern Europe. These are Yannis Xenakis, Arvo Pärt, Gheorghi Arnaoudov,
Pawel Szymanski, and Georgi Minchev. The lone Western European artist is the German Walter Steffens. The music of Szymanski, Xenakis, and Michev has been realized on solo piano by Angela Tosheva. The pieces from Arnaoudov, Pärt, and Steffens, are performed on recorder by Benedikta Bonitz. There is also a recording from 1974 of Steffens’ “Ecstasy op. 2b,” played by The Panorma Quartet.
The collection draws the listener in right from the start. Arnaoudov‘s “Thyepolia” opens the set and is a showcase for the recorder of Bonitz. Adding to the mystery of the piece is her performance on the Khandjari, which is a Tibetan drum with small bells. The piano of Tosheva makes its first grand appearance in the second track, “Two Studies” by Pawel Szymanski. Her performance of “Two Studies” is an 11-minute tour de force and announces her arrival in no uncertain terms. This is confirmed later during the incredible “Sonograms/Five Concerto Reminiscences,” which is the longest piece on the album at 16:55.
Ever since his landmark Tabula Rasa was released by ECM in 1984, Arvo Pärt has been one of the most respected musicians in New Music. The mysticism inherent in his compositions deeply suffuses both of the tracks he is credited with here. The first features the unusual combination of seven recorders and three triangles and is titled “Arbos.” The minimalism of Pärt’s music has always held a sense of mystery. This is no exception. “Arbos” is a beautifully rendered piece of atmosphere, made even more enticing by the sparing use of the triangles.
The Xenakis composition is titled “Evryali” and is a piano piece long thought unplayable. “Evryali” is one of the earliest compositions he devised through mathematical processes and is very intriguing. Tosheva’s playing is remarkable and reason enough to pick up this impressive collection.
Sonograms closes with the second Pärt composition, “Pari Intervallo,” which features four recorders. “Pari Intervallo” is of a piece with the earlier “Arbos” as it invokes a sense of the mystic through the remarkably calming use of minimalism. The sound of Bonitz’s overdubbed recorders is sublime as well.
The Sonograms compilation is clearly intended to highlight these many East European composers, as well as the main two performers. It is a fascinating and truly timeless look at some of the most intriguing music of the late 20th century. This is a remarkable recording, recommended to those who may be interested in music a little outside of the mainstream.