Thursday , June 20 2024
Julia Werntz – Someone Who Loves You Throws Me at You

Music Reviews: Julia Werntz Opens Up a Microtonal Universe; Tyler Duncan and Erika Switzer Hail British Columbia with Art Songs

Julia Werntz: Someone Who Loves You Throws Me at You

Julia Werntz’s microtonal music throws open a door to new possibilities, a door one might not have known existed. Her music lifts the listener off the everyday checkerboard of the 12-tone scale while keeping within the sound world of standard Western instruments and the human voice. This way she shows us that we’re part of a wider natural world than the one we usually inhabit when we listen to music.

Wisely, New Focus Recordings gives us this gift in small, digestible doses on Someone Who Loves You Throws Me at You. A selective retrospective of Werntz’s work over the past two decades, the album begins with “Five Vignettes from the Garden by the Sea” (2009), where violin and cello shunt away notions of “in tune” and “out of tune.” While this can be a challenge for the ear, it’s a good opening feint: These familiar fretless string instruments have always contained the possibility of microtones, in any fractions that a composer might desire and a musician be able to finger; and listeners familiar with how these instruments sound are at least unconsciously aware of this.

“Tantrum,” a short piece for piano and the album’s earliest-composed (2001), expresses by contrast the composer’s distinctive harmonic language on an instrument without bendable notes. But it’s in the more recent pieces where Werntz most fully realizes her vision. “Songs of Thumbelina” sets two poems by Dana Dalton that both address the natural world, to music for viola, clarinet, bass clarinet, and soprano. The piece uses microtones to engage with the sound-universe of nature more minutely than Western music usually can.

The human voice is absent in the three parts of “Flying, Nesting, and Calling.” Instead Werntz brings in a larger ensemble to ascend to the world of birds, who know no 12-tone rules. By this point in the album we are well acclimated to microtonality. This music, together with the eerie dreaminess of the five miniatures comprising “Kaspolea Melea” for two sopranos and mezzo-soprano, completes the revelation of a new mind-expanding universe.

Just as the strings of the “Five Vignettes” lack tonal restrictions, the human voice can glide to notes between the familiar 12 and gather to expose unthought-of harmonic possibilities. Thus the album ends with the purest distillation yet of this composer’s persistently unconventional vision.

Someone Who Loves You Throws Me at You is out now on New Focus Recordings.

Tyler Duncan and Erika Switzer: A Left Coast

This tribute to their native British Columbia by two longtime collaborators sits within a more familiar universe: that of 20th-century and contemporary art songs. The songs on A Left Coast are settings by Canadian composers of widely varying texts, from Omar Khayyám and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to Canadian poet and philosopher Jan Zwicky. But what unites the tracks more than any “Canadian” musical sensibility are Tyler Duncan’s supple baritone – including his silky high register – and Erika Switzer’s rainbow-brilliant piano accompaniment.

Jean Coulthard’s Three Love Longs stand out for their elevated lyricism. Jocelyn Morlock’s Involuntary Love Songs convey drama and delicacy, alternately Sondheim-esque and Schubertian. The music aligns perfectly with three poems by Alan Ashton (about whom I can find absolutely nothing online) revealing the inner world of a lover in pursuit of a love supreme. The piano part of the third song, “Script,” rides on a lovely piano part performed feelingly by Switzer.

“Snowflakes” is a youthful composition by Melissa Hui that displays sure melodic instincts. The album wraps up with its most substantial selection, the four-song cycle “Everything Already Lost” by Jeffrey Ryan, who has set beautiful and compelling poetry by Zwicky. The nine-minute setting of the poem “Schumann: Fantasie, Op. 17” creates a marvelous Brahmsian darkworld of its own. The poem seems to address the listener: “you will be spoken to / stunned, helpless, the wave rising through you / in the dark…” But darkness is just a metaphor. The music illuminates.

Duncan impresses throughout with his precise tone, lyric-sensitive coloration, and range. Switzer accompanies with balanced dynamics and an imaginative sense of space. A Left Coast celebrates composers of British Columbia, but the door it opens welcomes all. It’s available now from Bridge Records.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.