Boulder’s new music label has added three albums to its catalog
Original article published on Sharps & Flatirons here.
Boulder-based label Starkland recently issued three CDs that explore contemporary music’s different personalities. Listeners who favor the familiar should begin with Danielle Buonaiuto’s aesthetically pleasing Marfa Songs, while adventurous listeners should dive headfirst into Kathleen Supové‘s bold Eye to Ivory and then Instruments of Happiness’ The Happiness Handbook.
Instruments of Happiness: The Happiness Handbook Music by Scott Godin, Tim Brady, Jordan Nobles, Maxime McKinley, Gordon Fitzell and Emily Hall, performed by Instruments of Happiness. Starkland ST-232
Instruments of Happiness’ new release The Happiness Handbook explores eclectic guitar sounds, wandering through diverse textures and colors.
The guitar collective Instruments of Happiness is led by Tim Brady, an innovative Canadian guitarist and composer. Since 1988, Brady has released 24 CDs. Instruments of Happiness is a diverse ensemble of electric guitarists that exists in three sizes: the original quartet, a chamber orchestra, and a 100-piece ensemble. Their second studio album The Happiness Handbook, which features music by Canadian composers, received Global Music Award’s Gold Medal in 2019 and Prix Opus in Quebec in 2020.
The opening track, Scott Godin’s “Martlandia,” pays homage to British composer Steven Martland, who combined European minimalism with British aesthetics. After a convincing imitation of a Haydn string quartet, the electric guitars emerge with a minimalistic melody that after eight minutes peaks with light distortion.
Meandering through different aural textures, the next four tracks at times lack cohesiveness. Brady’s “Equal But Opposite Reaction” begins with an ambient, foreboding texture, randomly exploding into riffs. Jordan Noble’s “Deep Field” sounds like bluesy improvisations wandered into a science fiction soundtrack. Maxime McKinley’s “Reflects de Francesca Woodman” opens with effervescent harmonics that later fall into distorted hard rock riffs. Gordon Fitzell’s “Bomb Crater Garden” emulates scraping space noises, rocket beeps and robotic bird sounds, with no clear direction.
But the final work, Emily Hall’s “The Happiness Handbook,” finds a sense of cohesion and definitive personality. In five movements, Hall constructs a minimalistic texture, underpinned by ambient noise, as rapid slurs, distortion, warbles, slides, harmonics and beeps fade in and out above. Intensity builds through the movements, and a direction emerges, until finally the last movement hints at a melody. Guitars strike bluesy chords and repeated notes amidst an echoey reverb, bringing a satisfying closure to the 15-minute adventure.
The Happiness Handbook shows an expertise and mastery of electric guitar. The guitar collective can emulate nearly any natural sound and weave multi-layered textures with ease. At times, the tracks might seem aimless, but perhaps Instruments of Happiness is more focused on the journey than a clear destination—the first step toward happiness.
# # # # #
Kathleen Supové: Eye to Ivory. Music by Mary Ellen Childs, Guy Barash, Nick Didkovsky, Randall Woolf and Dafna Naphtali, performed by Kathleen Supové, piano. Starkland ST-233
Kathleen Supové’s Eye to Ivory is an unforgettable album. It evokes overpowering visceral reactions, from confusion to fear to embarrassment, and leaves a pervasive sense of unease. My advice is don’t listen to it at night or when you are home alone.
Supové knows how to push musical boundaries. As a young pianist, she won top prizes in the Gaudeamus International Competition for her interpretations of contemporary music. In the Exploding Piano, her ongoing solo concert series, she has championed many contemporary composers, including Terry Riley, Frederic Rzewski and Louis Andriessen. Her work earned her the prestigious ASCAP John Cage Award in 2012. On her newest project Eye to Ivory, she continues to stretch the limits of piano repertoire.
The album begins eerily with the title track “Eye to Ivory” by Mary Ellen Childs. Housed in the piano’s lowest register, the opening notes blend together into a low hum, building to an angry crescendo. It is grimy and hazy with lots of pedal. Sometimes sharp high notes float in, fighting against the dark low sounds. The piece lacks clear direction—it is a collage of developing textures, all with the undercurrent of unease.
Guy Barash’s “Talkback IV” creates aural confusion. Static and garbled piano sounds bounce between the left and the right speakers. At times, the sounds seem to be coming from all directions, even bouncing straight through the listener’s brain.
With the next two tracks, “Rama Broom” and “In the Privacy of My Own Home,” the creepiness sets in. “Rama Broom,” composed by Nick Didkovsky, is an unsettling mind-twister. Using a homicidal fantasy text, Didkovsky introduces syllables out of order, leaving the listener to decode the threatening text. It’s like a drawn-out childhood nightmare.
“In the Privacy of My Own Home” shows the different sides of laughter. It gets weird pretty fast. Supové’s husband Randall Woolf created the composition by mixing live piano with samples of Supové’s laughs during Abbot and Costello’s skit “Who’s on First?” The composition captures laughter in the contexts of humor, sadness, intimacy and insanity. At first, it’s interesting, but by the third or fourth movement, it’s unbearably awkward, creepy and a bit too personal.
The final track, Dafna Naphtali’s “Landmine,” is a slight respite, though certainly not conventional. The composition seamlessly blends the acoustic piano performance with real-time processing. The music feels otherworldly, as if a conventional piano performance has been interrupted by space noise.
Eye to Ivory is emotionally challenging to listen to. At times, it’s not even aesthetically pleasing, but that doesn’t seem to be its goal anyway. Instead, the album succeeds where it counts—in its commitment to being fearless and memorable.
# # # # #
Danielle Buonaiuto: Marfa Songs. Music by James Young, Cecilia Livingston, Natalie Draper and Douglas Buchanan, performed by Danielle Buonaiuto, soprano, and John Wilson, piano. Starkland ST-234
Danielle Buonaiuto’s Marfa Songs is a conservative contrast to Eye to Ivory. With only soprano voice and piano, the album is beautifully raw and authentic.
Buonaiuto is known for promoting contemporary art songs and chamber music. She has received grants from the Peabody Institute and New Music USA. In 2018, she received the Brooklyn Arts Council grant to launch ChamberQUEER, a LGBTQ+ chamber music series in Brooklyn, New York. She has been a founding member of several contemporary music ensembles, including REXDuo and the Lunar Ensemble.
The final three tracks are the highlight of the album—Douglas Buchanan’s “Psalm 23,” “The Skye Boat Song” and “Loch Lomond.” Buchanan transports traditional Scottish folk melodies into the 21st century with colorful harmonies and dissonance. These tracks are a delight for adventurous Celtic music aficionados.
“Psalm 23” and “Loch Lomond” stay true to the original Celtic tunes, though with reimagined harmonies. The simple melodies show off Buonaiuto’s delicate touch and vocal control. “Loch Lomond” mostly resides within her rich mid-range, building to a sparkling, mournful ending, as she laments “me and my true love will never meet again / on the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.”
“The Skye Boat Song” is more romantic and experimental. Pianist John Wilson’s Debussy-esque arpeggios undulate like waves beneath free, improvisatory vocals. In the chorus, the ornamented vocals of “Speed, Bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing” seems to sway in the wind before taking flight.
James Young’s “Marfa Songs” are another notable work on the album. With nine movements in 14 minutes, “Marfa Songs” celebrates Young’s youth on the great plains of West Texas. The lyrics come from Anthony Madrid’spoetry collection I am your slave, now do what I say.
This work is more unpredictable and volatile than the Celtic tunes. At times, it sounds like an operatic, Wild-West version of Bernstein’s West Side Story.
”Heathen” sets the violent scene of western settlement, as Buonaiuto begs a “war-weary general” to “call back your army, invincible army / show mercy to the heathen people.” The violent theme continues in ”Rope” and “Dragon,” before exploring love and heartbreak in “Mattress,” the jazzy lament ”Rival” and the cruel, mocking “Olympus.” “Olympus” is particularly aggressive, as Buonaiuto leaps to the top of her range, nearly screaming the word “Olympus.” Then the set waxes reflective on love and life with “Forgiveness,” “Ghost” and the eerie lullaby “Saguaro.”
Buonaiuto’s vocal and stylistic flexibility on Marfa Songs is impressive. From delicate Celtic folk songs to energetic western songs, Buonaiuto proves her profound vocal control—she can sing nearly anything convincingly and beautifully.
# # # # #
All Starkland recordings may be purchased through the label’s Webpage.