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Linda Catlin Smith Drifter

at105x2   Linda Catlin Smith    ‘Drifter’                        Canadian Composers Series #1

Disc One

1 -  Cantilena               (2013)     14:28       Emma Richards (viola), Simon Limbrick (vibraphone)    

2 – Piano Quintet          (2014)     13:32      Quatuor Bozzini with PhilipThomas (piano)           

3 – Drifter                    (2009)     21:53       Philip Thomas (piano), Diego Castro Magas (guitar)    youtube extract

4 – Gondola                  (2007)     15:38      Quatuor Bozzini

5 – Moi Qui Tremblais   (1999)       8:21      Philip Thomas (piano), Mira Benjamin (violin), Simon Limbrick (percussion)   

Disc Two

1 – Ricercar                 (2015)       9:48       Anton Lukoszevieze  (cello)   

2 – Far From Shore      (2010)     16:55       Philip Thomas (piano), Anton Lukoszevieze (cello), Mira Benjamin (violin)

3 - Galanthus               (2011)       6:35       Mira Benjamin (violin)

4 – Poire                     (1995)       3:46       Philip Thomas (piano)  

5 – Folkestone             (1999)      32:50      Quatuor Bozzini                                                    youtube extract

Linda Catlin Smith

The first in the Canadian Composers Series of CDs is a double album of chamber works by Linda Catlin Smith, who was born in New York, but studied in Canada and has lived in Toronto for over 25 years.  The album ‘Drifter’ contains ten pieces dating from 1995 to 2015 played by Quatuor Bozzini and Apartment House. In his introductory essay to the booklet accompanying the Canadian Composers CDs, Nick Storring says that “One of the primary tensions in Linda Catlin Smith's music is between its equal and simultaneous drive toward abstraction and lyricism…. Those who gravitate to the alluring melodic contours of Smith’s music and expect it to unfold along familiar lines will struggle when confronted with its lack of dramatic arc or formalised development. Conversely, those who are initially repelled by this same appearance are apt to be won over by its singular lucid-dream atmospherics.”

In this extract from her interview in the Canadian series booklet, Smith talks about the music she liked as a student, and how she moved towards composing by ear rather than using a system or formal compositional method:

“What kind of music were you most interested in, and writing, when you were at University?

I was interested in everything, I was always curious about new things. In high school, I was very attracted to Stravinsky, Ives, Bartok and Satie. At SUNY Stony Brook, I had a job ordering recordings for the music library, so I was able to listen to music from all over the world that was completely unknown to me. The library at the University of Victoria was also very good, and students were allowed to take out 6 records (LPs!) per week, so I would browse the stacks, bringing home armloads of recordings. The most influential pieces for me were John Cage's String Quartet in Four Parts from 1950, Anton Webern's Symphony Op. 21 and Morton Feldman's False Relationships and the Extended Ending, the only Feldman recording they had at the time. I listened to them over and over, as well as some early music recordings, particularly the music of Francois Couperin, Josquin des Prez and Guillaume Du Fay. When the composer Jo Kondo came to teach for a year at UVic, I had my ears completely opened by the course he gave on traditional Japanese music, especially Gagaku. Kondo's recording of his piece Standing was a complete inspiration to me. Kondo, Webern, Feldman, early Cage, Gagaku - these were my worlds.

The music I was writing was generally exploratory: I toyed with 12-tone pitch methods, and other systems and processes. And then one year I had a key moment: I had written a chamber piece that was filled with complex rhythms and gestures, all derived by rather academic means. I just didn't feel attached to it at all. So I scrapped it entirely, and started over, writing only what I could hear. In the end, writing by ear made me feel more connected to what I was doing. The works became simple, more harmonic, and very much focused on orchestration and colour. In those years, I wrote my first string quartet, my first orchestra piece, and several chamber works including my first piece for Baroque instruments (soprano, Baroque flute and harpsichord), a sound world I love to this day.

So do you still compose completely ‘by ear’ with no system at all?

I would say that composing by ear is my system. I think of this as speculative composition - that is to say, I don’t plan everything in advance; rather, I respond to the material at hand on a moment-by-moment basis during the course of the creation of the work. This is not improvisation – not just writing whatever comes into my head, it’s not ‘anything goes’. It's a mode of working that calls for intense scrutiny, questioning, experimentation and a kind of ruthlessness in the process. This way of working – this system – is a combination of intuition and reflection, and most of all, listening. Behind it all, I am always wondering: what if…?  What if it was longer, what if it was thinner, or higher, or brighter or more fluid? For the longest time with each work, I am unsure of what I am doing. But for me, when I don't know what I'm doing, I feel I am on the right track.“

You can read the whole of Linda Catlin Smith’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.

Linda Catlin Smith

 for special offer of all 10 Canadian CDs go here


* see also reviews of the Canadian Composers Series here

“The experiment is always about whether something will hold,” says Toronto-based US composer Linda Catlin Smith, whose music tests how sounds can be longer or shorter, thicker or thinner, higher or lower, more distant or more intimate. The results are beautiful: poised and thoughtful, never forced. Often the music is soft but tactile – Catlin Smith lets us sit with the texture of the sounds, like feeling fabric between the fingers. This album of chamber music from the past two decades follows last year’s Dirt Road, also on Another Timbre. Drifter features Montreal’s Quatuor Bozzini playing the lilting Gondola, the Turner-inspired Folkestone and the Piano Quintet with Philip Thomas in graceful form; members of the ensemble Apartment House bring lonely elegance to Cantilena for viola and vibraphone and to the lissom title track for piano and guitar.”

5-star review in The Guardian by Kate Molleson

“Linda Catlin Smith operates out of bustling urban Toronto, although her work puts you in mind of remote no-man’s-lands, places where music would normally fear to tread. This two-CD album of selected chamber and instrumental compositions opens with Cantilena, a 2013 duo for viola (Emma Richards) and vibraphone (Simon Limbrick) that acts as a telling entry point into Smith’s instantly alluring though cryptic sound world. Personally the plugged-in, motorised whir of the vibraphone feels instinctively urban; I’m hearing Steve Reich and the Modern Jazz Quintet’s Milt Jackson. But Smith lets gut(sy) strings and metal bars that clink like ice in a fizzy drink co-exist in a magical way, the poker-faced vibraphone tiptoeing round the viola’s guttural double-stopped intervals – she notes that the range of both instruments is almost identical.

Structurally, echoes of a verse-and-chorus form emerge, although points of demarcation seem endlessly flexible – qualities shared by her 2014 Piano Quintet and the conspicuously bold Drifter for piano (Philip Thomas) and guitar (Diego Castro Magas) from 2009. A paradox grows curiouser and curiouser in the Quintet, with melodic fragments becoming increasingly tangled as the underlying harmony remains unflappably translucent; a comparable process in Drifter ends up with the guitarist moving from definitive pitch towards percussive slides and knocks. Anton Lukoszevieze and Mira Benjamin play unaccompanied string pieces while the Montreal-based Bozzini Quartet offer two string quartets – including the JMW Turner-inspired Folkestone (1999) which, referencing the master’s sketchbooks, offers 24 subtly shaded, then re-shaded then re-reshaded, perspectives on the same pool of material.”

Philip Clark, The Gramophone

“Anyone who caught Canadian composer Linda Catlin Smith’s Dirt Road, a composition for violin and percussion which came out on Another Timbre last year, got pulled in to a musical language that seamlessly mines the overlay of strident abstraction and lush lyricism. When label-head Simon Reynell subsequently found himself in conversation with three Canadians about in-depth portrait releases of their music, things exploded into a series of 10 releases accompanied by a book of essays and interviews with the composers. The series kicked off this spring with five initial releases including a stellar two CD set exploring the breadth of Smith’s music in more detail. The consummate performances of her music by members of the British ensemble Apartment House and the Canadian string quartet Bozzini Quartet makes this one particularly noteworthy.  

In an interview, Smith talks about how her thoughts about composition evolved, from experiments with 12-tone pitch methods and exploratory processes, to an approach that focuses on harmonic simplicity, orchestration and color. Smith explains, “I respond to the material at hand on a moment-by-moment basis during the course of the creation of the work. It is not improvisation — not just writing whatever comes into my head, it’s not ‘anything goes.’ It is a mode of working that calls for intense scrutiny, questioning, experimentation and a kind of ruthlessness in the process. This way of working – this system – is a combination of intuition and reflection, and most of all, listening.”  

That focus is amply displayed in this set, providing a striking portrait of the composer, with pieces for string quartet, solos for cello, piano and violin, and small ensemble pieces. Listening to “Ricercar” for solo cello, “Galanthus” for solo violin and “Poire” for solo piano, one hears how shadings of historical compositional languages are absorbed and distilled with an abstract lyricism and unhurried lines, which let the notes and phrases establish a commanding presence.

The duos, likewise, show a keen ear for the refinement of harmony and timbral juxtaposition. Intertwining viola and vibraphone on the opening “Cantelina,” revels in shifting harmonic counterpoint that plays off of the respective resonances of the instruments. The title piece, “Drifter,” for guitar and piano shows a masterful consideration of the congruencies of plucked strings, drawing out nuances of each instrument, particularly attack and decay, as the parts intertwine and overlap, accruing a potent spare beauty reminiscent of Gagku which Smith was exposed to when studying with Jo Kondo. The violin, percussion, piano trio “Moi Qui Tremblais” is also a standout, with dark shifting layers of extended quavering violin tones, waves of piano chords and deep, shimmering damped crashes that progresses with a tremulous momentum.  

Smith’s writing for string quartet is also amply featured, expertly performed by The Bozzini Quartet. “Gondola” shifts and sways along built from, in Smith’s words, “not-quite-unison melody — the slightly unraveled line — and quietly rocking chords” seamlessly moving in and out of lush tonality. The 32-minute “Folkestone” is a meditative study in the musical terrain of the string quartet, moving across 24 events, each a consideration of the unisons and countervailing voicings of the instruments with each respective miniature layering into the flow of the piece. There are beguiling moments where the quartet conjures up the reedy wheezings of an accordion. At other times, the overlapping harmonies amass into verdant scrims. “Piano Quintet” adds Philip Thomas piano in to the mix, and the layers become kaleidoscopic while always maintaining a staunch focus.  

Reynell muses on the series that “the idea of producing a Canadian series emerged, covering at first three, then five and finally ten CDs as I became more and more taken with and drawn to the richly diverse works being produced by musicians living in, or originating from a country that is so often eclipsed by its more powerful, populous and louder neighbor.” The result is a diverse set of music in both instrumentation and compositional approach. This entire first batch of the series is well worth investing time in, and on the basis of these, the next round should be another winner.”

Michael Rosenstein, Dusted

Having much enjoyed composer Linda Catlin Smith’s “Dirt Road” release for UK label Another Timbre, as well as Eve Egoyan’s recordings of her piano music collected on “Thought and Desire”, I was very much looking forward to this new double album of pieces for solo and small ensemble from the Canadian composer. To cut to the chase, “Drifter” doesn’t disappoint: it takes everything I liked about previous releases and casts it into new contexts, drawing out new shades of colour from what is still quite a limited range of instruments. Impeccable playing from Apartment House and Quatuor Bozzini, the Barcelona and Real Madrid of small experimental music ensembles, and great quality recordings only add to the enjoyment.

Though this is relatively quiet music, it is by no means sedentary: on the contrary, it’s constantly on the move, sometimes hurrying on by, sometimes caught in an aimless drift or relaxed meander. Smith’s melodies are often plaintive and built from a small selection of pitches, circling back without repeating themselves exactly. Like paths through the forest, you can follow them easily enough, without being sure where they will lead. At the same time, there’s a harmonic centre that remains constant throughout a piece, like the persistence of consciousness or personhood on an ever-changing path. What changes, and what stays the same — or perhaps merely contrasting rates of change, some fast enough to be audible and others not.

The influence of folk music is often mentioned in reference to Smith’s music — perhaps even more so because it seems to belong in the woods and in the fields and on the mountain than because of any explicit use of folk music tropes — and this is no less relevant to the pieces collected on “Drifter”. What is perhaps less discussed is the tinge of jazz harmonies and syncopation that tints pieces such as ‘Piano Quintet’, heard in augmented chords, flurries of strings, and gusts of piano. Where two or more players are performing, melodic lines will often echo or mirror each other very closely: the effect, perhaps most clearly in evidence on the title track for guitar and piano, is like two identical translucent images that are laid one on top of the other and then rotated ever so slightly, so that the edges of the bottom layer are partially visible from underneath the top one. This subtle almost-identity makes me listen again, and listen more closely.

The drowsy piano, cymbal crashes, and high whining violin of ‘Moi Qui Tremblais’ (‘I Who Trembles’) evokes uneasy dreams, tossing and turning in the depths of sleep. It’s perhaps the most memorable piece on the album, and one of only two to feature an unstringed instrument — if there’s a criticism to be made of “Drifter”, it’s perhaps the lack of variety over its two-and-a-half hours. It’s a double-edged sword: listening to such complex and powerfully affective music being made from such constrained resources — a small selection of pitches, steady harmony, and a limited range of timbres — is a pleasure in itself.”

Nathan Thomas, Fluid Radio

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