Open Polar Sea. Works by Col Fuhler, Salvatore Sciarrino, Morton Feldman, Damien Barbeler, Daniel Blinkhorn and Anna McMichael

Anna McMichael, solo violin, with Col Fuhler on one track
Classical, Electronic Music, Experimental Music, Improvisation, New Music
unsounds 46u (digital download)
http://unsounds.com/shop/open-polar-sea
Reviewed by , February 1st, 2015

Not so long ago, the fashion was for completeness in CD recordings: the complete works of Morton Fledman for violin and piano, for example. In the past several years, however, we have seen a growth in the popularity of the anthology-recital; albums of often short pieces (sometimes only parts of larger works) by different composers in varied styles built around a poetic or philosophical theme. There are many nice things about this style of recorded release, in particular that it often allows for a very personal approach to both the playing and the repertoire on the part of the performer. It offers an opportunity for the performer to act as a curator, and for the listener to appreciate some of the interests and insights of experienced musicians in a novel way. Add to this the newish format of the download-only release and we have something that feels very pleasantly contemporary.

Anna McMichael, violinist and composer

Anna McMichael, violinist and composer

Open Polar Sea (unsounds, 2014), is just such an intelligently curated album, in which we join Australian violinist Anna McMichael on a fascinating journey through contemporary and late-20th century music that ranges from the classic (Sciarrino) to the experimental (multi-tracked improvisation). McMichael is a great exponent of new music, as well as a noted performer of early music. After years of study and professional playing with leading ensembles in Europe, she and her husband (composer and multi-instrumentalist Cor Fuhler) made the brave decision to return to Australia in 2010. The theme, or inspiration, of the album is the old navigator’s fantasy of the arctic sea as a short cut between the continents of the northern hemisphere—a myth that the violinist observes may become true thanks to global warming.

The album opens with the title track, McMichael improvising over a ‘soundtrack’ produced by Cor Fuhler, playing piano, guitar, melodica, and other things. It is a spacious, ambient piece that serves as a nice introduction.

Col Fuhler

Col Fuhler

Damien Barbeler’s Confession series is a set of six pieces originally composed for Genevieve Lacey, the recorder virtuoso, and electronics. Here, McMichael plays on violin numbers 1-3 of the series, together with ‘Confession 7’, presumably a new work. These are elegiac, playful, and melodious pieces that work well for violin, like half-remembered fiddle-tunes.

By far the longest work on the album, Morton Feldman’s untitled and unpublished piece for solo violin (1984) is also, at just over 10 minutes, remarkably short for one of his late pieces. This work has been only rarely played and recorded, so it is a real treat to hear it. In fact, it seems fairly clear that the piece as it survives is more a sketch than a finished work. Although the manuscript is written out more-or-less in Feldman’s ‘neat’ format, I suspect that it is incomplete—a statement of possible materials, rather than a fully developed work. Nonetheless, it is a fascinating piece for anyone interested in Feldman’s late works, especially for the complex notation of intervals suggesting grey shades of semi-tempered tuning. McMichael makes something fairly convincing of the piece, although it seems in this recording to sit around a mezzo-forte dynamic level… I can’t help but imagine Feldman interrupting loudly, ‘shhhh!!’. I feel that it is also slightly too fast—a slower speed would help the strange intervals to speak, for both the instrument and the listener’s ear, and a more settled pace would also allow space for Feldman’s linear structures to breathe.

Sciarrino’s six Capricci for solo violin have become, at least for young European violinists, almost standard repertoire. Certainly, they are essential studies for anyone interested in late-20th century violin technique. McMichael seems right at home with this music, and in her hands the pieces have a fine balance of the poetic and the virtuosic. In this anthology, she plays only numbers 1, 3, and 4—one hopes that she will also find time to record the complete set one day. Cor Fuhler’s Dozijn is also a kind of caprice, built around a cute little four-note motif and using varied pizzicato and harmonic effects.

Daniel Blinnkhorn in the Antarctic

Daniel Blinnkhorn in the Antarctic

Daniel Blinkhorn’s frostbYte drift, is a lovely work for electronics and violin improvisation. Based upon field recordings made at Svalbard in the arctic, Blinkhorn’s electro-acoustic soundscapes served as an improvisatory platform for McMichael, and her playing in turn influenced the unfolding soundscape as Blinkhorn developed it. This is a beautiful collaborative piece, which should almost have a film to accompany it.

The album closes with a multi-tracked improvisation piece of McMichael’s own creation, titled Adrift. Here, she creates a work that has a special, monochrome mood of vast icy horizons, although not without flickers of surreptitious activity and tension. As a voyage of the imagination, I like it very much and it makes a splendid conclusion.

Anna McMichael

Anna McMichael

McMichael’s playing throughout the album is terrific, and the recorded sound is very nice—relatively closely miked and not overly reverberant, the acoustic environment is intimate and clear. My only small complaint is in the relative volume levels of the tracks, which could have been mastered more carefully to match each other. While Feldman seemed distinctly too loud, I found myself consistently turning up the volume to hear all the details in Sciarrino, and turning it down again for other tracks. This would be a relatively easy thing to remedy, and would make the overall pleasure of listening through the album from start to finish even more of a pleasure than it already is.

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