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at107 Isaiah Ceccarelli ‘Bow’ Canadian Composers Series #3
1. ‘Sainte-Ursule 11’ (2014) Katelyn Clark (organetto) & Isaiah Ceccarelli (percussion)
2. ‘Falsobordone’ (2015) Mira Benjamin & Galya Bisengalieva (violins), Robert Ames (viola) & Gregor Riddell (cello)
3. ‘Oslo Harmonies Part 1’ (2014) Mira Benjamin (violin) & Isaiah Ceccarelli (percussion)
4. ‘Bow’ (2015) Mira Benjamin & Galya Bisengalieva (violins), Robert Ames (viola) & Gregor Riddell (cello)
5. ‘Oslo Harmonies Part 2’ (2014) Mira Benjamin (violin) & Isaiah Ceccarelli (percussion)
6. ‘Dunstable’ (2015) Mira Benjamin (violin), Robert Ames (viola) & Gregor Riddell (cello) youtube extract
7. ‘Sainte-Ursule 2’ (2014) Katelyn Clark (organetto) & Isaiah Ceccarelli (percussion) youtube extract
The third CD in the Canadian Composers Series contains seven pieces by Isaiah Ceccarelli, a composer-percussionist who lives in Montreal. The music Ceccarelli composes falls broadly into two categories: timbrally-based music in which he himself performs, and through-composed pieces that focus on harmonic progressions. His CD ‘Bow’ presents both of these sides of his work: the title track, ‘Falsobordone’ and ‘Dunstable’ are compositions for string trio or quartet, while the ‘Oslo Harmonies’ and ‘Sainte-Ursule’ tracks are semi-improvised duos in which Ceccarelli plays alongside violinist Mira Benjamin (Oslo Harmonies) and Katelyn Clark, who performs on a rarely-heard medieval keyboard instrument, the organetto on the Sainte-Ursule pieces.
In this extract from his interview in the booklet accompanying the Canadian Composers Series CDs, Isaiah talks about the two sides of his compositional work, and what unifies their apparently different surfaces:
“Two very different soundworlds co-exist on your CD. Does this represent a schizophrenic music personality, or do they actually connect more closely than is apparent?
It’s probably that I’m a little bit schizophrenic in music because I’ve always liked so many very different things. But specifically I’d say that the way that I play on the tracks with Katelyn Clark and Mira Benjamin is only outwardly different from the music I compose on the string pieces. When I’m making that kind of timbral music I much prefer to be involved playing as part of the sound. I think if I just composed it and handed it over to musicians – even fantastic musicians – then it probably wouldn’t come through in the same way and I wouldn’t be happy with the outcome. It’s not that they wouldn’t do it well, but if I wasn’t involved I just wouldn’t quite get the timbral sounds quality that I wanted (mostly through my own faults as a composer!), so in the end it would feel that composing like that was like banging my head against a brick wall.
But working alongside Katelyn or Mira, we don’t have to worry too much about what’s written on the page, but we can talk about it and try things out and the page is just to remind us about where we’re going with the next step. With Mira, I feel that it’s more comfortable to have even just two notes written on a page than to be freely improvising – even if those two notes have got to last an hour, she’ll make them sound great. With Katelyn on the Sainte-Ursule pieces we talked about it and found sounds that we liked and then did many takes of the same thing – or it was always a bit different, but it sounded generally the same. I think when we play it’ll probably always sound a bit like that – kind of clanky metallic percussion with drones.But back to the album, for me the more improvised pieces – Oslo Harmonies and the Sainte-Ursule tracks – are really like the same music as the string pieces but behind a veil. It’s as if you’re further away, are listening from a distance, or it’s just more opaque. Especially with the reed organ on Oslo Harmonies Part 1. The reed organ is like the strings in the string pieces but has such a peculiar sound. But the timbral quality of the reed organ doesn’t hide the fact that the harmonies are kind of the same as in those string pieces. The string music is more in your face; it’s 95% clear and is directly there in front of you.
But the underlying sound is basically the same across all the album. It’s just that when we’re playing the more open stuff we’re adding layers of veils on top of the harmonies. But none of the music is melodic; it’s all harmonic, it’s just the string pieces are more clear and directly harmonic than the others.
How did you come to study with Laurence Crane, given that he’s in London and you live in Montréal?
I booked half a dozen lessons with him and came to stay in London for four weeks. Laurence told me to bring pretty much everything I’d ever written, so I collected everything I had together and burned lots of CDs, and we essentially just went through it. We talked about how to make ideas clear, and he told me how not to waste time and space in composition, and how not to have seventeen ideas packed in where two would work. And he also told me about various practical aspects, like how the score looks, how the parts look, how many measures or bars to have on a line – just practical things that all help to clarify the work. It was a mixture of creativity and just nuts and bolts, which is something I really like.”
You can read the whole of Isaiah Ceccarelli’s interview in the Canadian Composers Series booklet. The booklet comes free with any order of two or more of the Canadian series CDs, or you can order it separately below for £4.
£9 for special offer of all 5 Canadian CDs with £12 off go to home page
There are several reviews of ‘Bow’ along with the other discs that form the Canadian Composers Series which you can see here Below are reviews which just cover ‘Bow’
“Unifying Aesthetics in Canadian Art’ by Nolan Sprangers
"In November the lights shine after seven o'clock on the stained-glass windows. The windows show the crucifixion or one of the saints praying. The hills where those saints lived and dropped their blood looked soft, distant and blue; the roads wind like purple ribbons toward the Mount of Olives. It is all so different from real nature with its roaring waters over valleys of harsh timbre where I tore an inch and a half of skin from my calves. Or Miramichi bogs of cedar and tamarack and the pungent smell of wet moosehide as the wounded moose still bellows in dark wood. I often wanted to enter the world of the stained glass–to find myself walking along the purple road with the Mount of Olives behind me."
Upon first hearing Isaiah Ceccarelli's album Bow, I was immediately confronted with Margaret Atwood's idea of bare survival, which she addresses in Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Atwood argues that within Canadian literature there is a common theme in which "the survivor has no triumph or victory but the fact of his survival; he has little after his ordeal that he did not have before" (33). Atwood has identified, in literature, a theme which is indicative of a much broader aesthetic present in Canadian art: inspired by the beauty, power, and danger of the Canadian landscape, a significant volume of Canadian art shares a similar stark style akin to Atwood's literary theme of bare survival.
Ceccarelli’s music evokes images of vast landscapes; it is glacial, harsh, and beautiful. His pervasive use of dissonance, and inventive scoring have helped develop a musical style that captures what Emily Carr did in paintings, and David Adams Richards does with words. This style is largely developed through Ceccarelli’s harmonic language, and is most obviously present in Sainte-Ursule #11, Sainte-Ursule #2, Oslo Harmonies Parts 1 and 2, and Dunstable. For all intents and purposes, these pieces are tone poems—although they feature drastically reduced instrumentation compared to their romantic predecessors—that depict a geographical place.
For me, the idea of bare survival was most obvious at the beginnings and ends of these tone poems because they are always remarkably similar. As Atwood points out, “the survivor […] has little after his ordeal that he did not have before” (33). Ceccarelli's simple way of opening and closing pieces with a few sustained or slowly repeated notes gives the impression that one has travelled through a space without losing or gaining anything of importance; the listener is left with almost exactly the same notes as the piece begins with. Furthermore, Ceccarelli's tone poems are quite impressionistic: the lack of melodic and perceivable rhythmic structure provide the listener with an abstract image of the landscape rather than using specific programmatic motives.
In Sainte-Ursule #11 and Sainte-Ursule #2, the dissonant organetto and pointalistic percussion are bone-chilling and aquatic. I found these pieces to be most closely aligned with Atwood's theme—unsurprisingly, they are the only pieces depicting a Canadian location—because they are most effective at evoking a powerful and harsh landscape through musical means.
Oslo Harmonies Parts 1 and 2 are similar stylistically to the Sainte-Ursule pieces: they develop slowly and emphasize gradual changes in harmony rather than motivic development. The two parts of this piece contrast each other completely: Part 1 has a thick texture with complex harmonies, while Part 2 is remarkably thin in texture and timbre, which is emphasized by cymbal scrapes and other metallic noises in the percussion.
Dunstable uses many of the same harmonic techniques as the first two pieces; however, it differs in that it has more obvious metrical organization. I think this piece showcases Ceccarelli's unique ability to utilize consonance and dissonance in equally beautiful ways.
Falsobordone and Bow are quite different stylistically compared to the tone poems because they are generally less abstract. The harmonic language is consistent with the rest of the album, however, these pieces differ in melodic and rhythmic content. The title Falsobordone provides some insight to Ceccarelli's harmonic language. Developed in the late fifteenth century, falsobordone was a technique used to harmonize Gregorian chants using root position triads. Ceccarelli makes use of this technique throughout the album, with seconds, fourths, and sevenths further complicating the harmony. In Falsobordone, we also hear the repetition and development of melodic ideas being passed between instruments, which are unique to this track.
Finally, I think Bow is the pièce de resistance of this album—as I'm sure it is for many listeners. It includes the complex harmonies explored in the tone poems, as well as including more familiar harmonies like the resolutions of fourths and flattened thirteenths, and clear meter. The joyful outbursts in the violins at the end of the piece provides a welcome change from the stark aesthetic that is present in the rest of the album.
Ceccarelli's compositional style envokes images of an unromanticized and powerful Canadian landscape, placing it in dialogue with visual and literary works that had already begun to develop this style in Canadian art.
Adams Richards, David. Mercy Among the Children. Toronto: Anchor Canada, 2001. p 11.
Atwood, Margaret. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1972.
Carr, Emily. Grey. 1930, oil on canvas, Private Collection.
Harris, Lawren. Lake Maligne. 1925, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.
Harris, Lawren. Lake and Mountains. 1928, oil on canvas, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.
“Bow brings together a selection of modern classical/ improvised pieces from this Canadian based composer & percussionist. The seven tracks offered up here move from often angular improvising to lush & harmonic string composition. All making for a release that quite a unbalancing-yet- enjoyable proposition that shifts between skewed ‘n’ soured, majestic ‘n’ lush, and somewhere in between the two.
Bow is the third release in Another Timbre’s Canadian composers series, and as usual, it comes in the label house style stark, simple yet effective white mini gatefold sleeve. The front cover takes in a murky & overlaid illustration of what looks like hundreds of ruled black lines over a gray backdrop.
The seven pieces presented here were composed between 2014 & 2015, with each piece having running times between three & seventeen minutes. All of the seven tracks are live recordings, though as you expect with an Another Timbre release - each is captured with perfect sonic definition & balance.
The release opens up with "Sainte- Ursule #11", and this finds the more angular & improvised side of Mr Ceccarelli compositions. The three minute twenty track features the sound of the Organetto- a rarely-heard & distinctive sounding medieval keyboard instrument, and percussion played by Ceccarelli himself. The piece brings together the sour & sometimes shrill sound of the Organetto, with clip-clopping & wondering gong & percussive elements. The track starts off proceeds in a suitable unbalancing-yet fragile form.
After this, we have the just over nine minutes of "Falsbordone"- which is a more formal string work piece for violins, viola & cello. The piece is built around a sombre-yet-harmonic progression, that has a few more sustained & soured edges later on. In my mind, it rather summoned up images of a small group of prospectors, making there way across the huge landscape of the Americas in a ragtag covered wagon in the early 19th century. Very much bringing together the feelings of adhesion & fear, with moments of hope & grandeur.
And really these two tracks nice show the contrast between the two sides of Ceccarelli sound - the remaining five tracks move between these two settings, mostly staying in one or the other, but at times the more sour & angular moments do make them selves felt in the more formal string works.
I enjoyed much of what Bow had to offer. Throughout Ceccarelli shows his scope as a composer- yet the whole release flows effectively in its see-sawing between sour unpredictable & harmonic yet sombre grandeur.”
Roger Batty, Musique Machine