Adam Roberts: Bell Threads

, composer


Composer Adam Roberts releases a collection of his chamber music which highlights his depth of expression, lyricism, and powerful command over structure and compositional arc. Featuring performances by andPlay, harpist Hannah Lash, Bearthoven, oboist Erik Behr, and the JACK Quartet, Roberts' music embraces a wide range of influences while integrating them into a focused frame.


The music on composer Adam Roberts’s portrait album Bell Threads is emblematic of his focused approach — he often establishes continuity in one musical parameter in order to facilitate deep investigation into another. From pitch vocabulary to timbre to structure, Roberts has a keen intuition for how to draw the listener towards one component of the musical fabric while anchoring on another. Whether or not he is developing motivic ideas or experimenting with sonic parameters, there is always a through-line present to guide the listener forward in the unfolding of the piece. Roberts balances this focus on handling material with an interest in exploring a wide range of stylistic references. The result is thoughtful music that prizes subtle moment-to-moment semantic meaning while advancing a structural narrative.

The violin and viola duo andPlay (Maya Bennardo and Hannah Levinson, respectively) is featured on two tracks on the album that explore resonance in various ways. Shift Differential opens in a quasi-spectral sonic space, with harmonic glissandi in the viola laying a foundation for an improvisatory line in the violin reminiscent of a North Indian alap, or prelude. Taut, sinewy figures between the two instruments mark a vigorous middle section before the final section returns to the original music, but with the instrumental roles reversed. Diptych was the second work Roberts wrote for andPlay, and was conceived as two opposing parts meant to be considered simultaneously as opposed to teleologically. The first engages with similar concerns to Shift Differential as the duo navigates a continuum of touch and timbre on the strings, often in relation to a fundamental pedal point. The second part opens with a quasi-didactic presentation of ascending scale patterns that tease microtonal gradations from the intervals between the two voices, before evolving into faster scalar passagework that anchors most of the rest of the movement. Bell Threads, written for Garth Knox and performed here by andPlay’s violist Hannah Levinson, establishes a duet of sorts between two registers of the viola, with fragile, plaintive high music contrasted by grounded long tones on the low C string. Again, we hear Roberts’ rich vocabulary of touch on string instruments, developed in service of an extension of the lyrical capacities of conventional playing as opposed to a collage of sounds that are disconnected from the core expression of the instrument.

Commissioned to be performed alongside Mozart’s oboe quartet, Roberts’ Oboe Quartet is the most self-consciously “classical” work on the program, with a fast-slow-fast movement organization, embedded quotations, and a conventional orchestration approach that balances the oboist against the string trio. Roberts cuts through the neoclassical frame with regular frequency. In the opening movement, the jaunty dance is sprinkled with multiphonics, sul ponticello glissandi, and overpressure in the strings. The chaconne-style cycle of the second movement explodes into a highly chromatic development that culminates in a slinking oboe solo over an earthy string groove. The final movement oscillates between vigorous additive passagework and disembodied sustained sonorities.

Cascading arpeggiations, colorful chord clusters, and embedded polyrhythms characterize the opening of Rounds for solo harp. As the piece evolves, Roberts establishes a multi-layered texture, with sustained bass notes connecting music that revels in irregular patterning and chime-like resonances.

Happy/Angry Music for Bearthoven (piano, bass, and percussion) embraces the poly-stylistic associations of their instrumentation, opening with rhythmically propulsive material that plays with expectations set up by repetition in figuration, texture, and pitch material. Roberts finds contrast in transitional material led by delicate passages in the bass, while a middle section mines a more expansive trajectory and consonant harmonic language before returning to the angularity of the opening to close out the work.

– Dan Lippel

  • Recorded at Oktaven Audio 9/26/20 & 3/29/21—4/2/21
  • Recording, Editing and Mastering: Ryan Streber
  • Session Producer: Adam Roberts
  • Editing Producers: Adam Roberts & Ryan Streber
  • Editing Assistants: Charles Mueller and Edwin Huet
  • Cover art and design: Marc Wolf,
  • Photos (Unsplash): bell: Arturo Rey; lights: Jan Huber; threads: Victoria

Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts writes music that takes listeners on compelling sonic journeys while drawing on a vivid array of sonic resources. Roberts’ music has been recently performed by ensembles such as the Arditti Quartet, the JACK Quartet, le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, the Callithumpian Consort, Earplay, andPlay duo, Transient Canvas, Ums ‘n Jip, Fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center, the Boston Conservatory Wind Ensemble, the Association for the Promotion of New Music, violist Garth Knox, Guerilla Opera, and at festivals such as Wien Modern (Vienna), Tanglewood, the Biennale Musique en Scene (Lyons), and the 2009 ISCM World Music Days (Sweden). Roberts is a 2016 Guggenheim Fellowship, and is the recipient of a Fromm Foundation Commission, the Benjamin H. Danks Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, an ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award, the Bernard Rogers Prize (Eastman), the New York Bohemians Prize (Harvard), the André Chevillion-Yvonne Bonnaud Prize from the Orléans Piano Competition, the Earplay Donald Aird Award, the Christoph and Stefan Kaske Fellowship from the Wellesley Composers Conference, the Leonard Bernstein Fellowship from the Tanglewood Music Center, the Bldodgett Prize (Harvard), and other awards. Commissions have come from the Callithumpian Consort, the Boston Conservatory Wind Ensemble, pianist Nolan Pearson, the Tanglewood Music Center, Guerilla Opera, and others.



Take Effect

The composer Adam Roberts has a knack for exciting chamber music, and here he brings many musicians in for a varied display of rich, expressive and focused songwriting, the exact kind, in fact, that has comprised all of his work up to this point.

“Shift Differential” starts the listen with Maya Bennardo’s violin and Hannah Levinson’s viola (both of andPlay) interacting with a distinct harmonic tint, quivering moments and a rare improvisational skill, and “Oboe Quartet” follows with 3 movements that welcomes Erik Behr (oboe) and JACK Quartet providing strings in the more classical oriented setting that balances the string presence with the oboe amid some creative grooves and sublime intimacy.

“Rounds” resides in the middle and showcases Hannah Lash’s harp, where the dreamy polyrhythms and textured beauty makes a large impact in a minimal environment, while “Diptych” brings andPlay back for timbre manipulation between the violin and viola that’s quite mesmerizing.

“Happy/Angry Music” arrives near the end and is an upbeat and playful album highlight with Karl Larson’s piano, Matt Evans’ percussion and Pat Swoboda’s bass exploring rhythm and pitch with inimitable results, and “Bell Threads” exits the listen with Levinson’s solo viola almost seeming like it’s a duet with itself, exploring two different registers of the instrument with both an adventurous and vulnerable technique.

An album that shines whether the setting is solo, duet, trio or quartet, the unpredictable time signatures, very precise gesturing and unconventional rhythms make for a chamber experience you won’t soon forget.

— Tom Haugen, 1.04.2022


Avant Music News

Strings are the predominant voice on Bell Threads, an album of composer Adam Roberts’ chamber music for solo, duo, trio and quartet. The title work, a piece for solo viola performed here by Hannah Levinson, contains the sliding between pitches, microtonal dissonances, contrasting upper and lower registers, and use of harmonics that typifies Roberts’ writing for strings. Levinson is joined by violinist Maya Bennardo on Shift Differential, a symmetrical work in three parts whose opening and closing sections feature raga-like phrasing built on stressed tones and microtonal sliding. In between is a section for the two to weave a texture of rapidly intertwining lines. Levinson and Bennardo also perform the two-part duet Diptych. Part I consists of drone tones and undulating lines with slight deviations above and below pitch, overlaid with pressure bowing; Part II includes microtonal near-unisons leavened by a more conventionally modernist-sounding counterpoint. The solo harp piece Rounds, performed by Hannah Lash, also relies on counterpoint, but of a rhythmic kind; rapidly plucked rhythms are set out against slower rhythms for a richly layered effect. The kaleidoscopic trio work Happy/Angry Music, for piano, double bass and percussion (performed by Bearthoven), plays with texture and changing time signatures and throws much of the melodic work to the bass; while the Oboe Quartet is a classically structured work written to complement the Mozart oboe quartet. Roberts’ quartet, performed by oboist Erik Behr and members of the JACK Quartet, represents an updating of the tradition, with generous use of bent tones, dissonances and extended techniques for both oboe and strings

— Daniel Barbiero, 11.25.2021



Like Kurtág’s music, that of Adam Roberts on a New Focus Recordings release has a narrow emotional compass and a preoccupation more with sound for its own sake than for sound whose purpose is communicative. The quartet here, which is the longest work on the disc, is for oboe (Erik Behr) and members of the JACK Quartet (Christopher Otto, violin; John Pickford Richards, viola; Jay Campbell, cello). Its second movement claims the sort of connection to an earlier composer of which Kurtág is fond: Roberts’ movement is called Lament: Hommage à J.S. Bach. And in fact there are Bachian elements here, including lyricism that Roberts otherwise denies to himself and his audience. Roberts (born 1980) repeatedly undermines the references to earlier material, though, as if extreme chromaticism and dissonance somehow improve on or pay a kind of odd tribute to the Baroque. The quartet’s first movement – Explosive, Curvy, Raucous – and its final Toccare give the work as a whole a classical three-movement structure, but Roberts goes out of his way to undercut and undermine that design and the occasional quotations embedded in it by making typical contemporary-composer performance demands, such as extended glissandi and material that floats with odd dissonance above disconnected accompaniments. This (+++) CD does showcase Roberts’ interest in various chamber-music and solo-instrument composition, although the sound of the various works tends to be very similar even when the instrumentation differs. The opening and closing works on the disc show this clearly: Shift Differential for violin (Mary Bennardo) and viola (Hannah Levinson) is aurally closely akin to Bell Threads for solo viola (Levinson). The solo treatment of the harp (Hannah Lash) in Rounds parallels that of the solo viola, with each work pushing to extend the inherent sound of the instrument for which it is written (another typical contemporary-composer approach) and both featuring irregular rhythms and a disconnected, jagged overall feeling. Also here is Diptych for violin and viola (Bennardo and Levinson), the two movements sounding similar to the single-movement Shift Differential but going on at considerably greater length, with the second movement focused on the production of microtones within scalar patterns. Different instruments are used for Happy/Angry Music, played by an ensemble called Bearthoven that includes piano (Karl Larson), percussion (Matt Evans), and bass (Pat Swoboda). This piece is more fun than anything else on the disc, accepting and accentuating the two percussion instruments (the piano is treated quite percussively) and often using the bass in a percussive manner as well. It is not always clear what music is happy and what sounds are angry, but it scarcely matters: parts of the piece are propulsive, parts hover aurally and fade into silence, parts delve into a level of consonance that Roberts otherwise employs infrequently, and parts (such as extended scales on the piano) simply sound silly – apparently intentionally. The work goes on a bit too long (almost 12 minutes), but there is enough cleverness in it to make it enjoyable to listen to. In fact, it is worth hearing more than once, a statement that is not always easy to make about contemporary music. The rest of this disc is on the ordinary side, but Happy/Angry Music is interesting enough to keep listeners engaged and certainly not angry – in fact, to keep them at least intermittently happy.

— Mark Estren, 11.24.2021


Vital Weekly

Adam Roberts is an American composer, born 1980, so an aspiring artist. Not much can I say about him, as the press release (as often is the case) limits itself to talking about the prizes won, fellowships, and who has performed the music. Well. Discogs does not help much, either, as it seems that several profiles have been mangled, with a jazz (double-)bassist of the same name (or is it the same person??) being also listed. But Roberts' own profile mentions nothing other than 'serious' classical music. So. He has published on Tzadik.
The music on this release is dominated by strings, including a harp, but also includes a piano/percussion/bass piece, and an oboe quartet. The first track is a very pensive violin/viola study, where both voices meander around each other in a dissonant, but beautiful manner. The Oboe Quartet starts off with more meandering, only that this one appears less stractured, not making best use of the somewhat complementary sounds of strings and oboe. The second movement is more carefully set with a soft, even tender, dialogue of the instruments. The third, and last, movement manages to pick the best of both previous tracks and makes an interesting listening. Had he only scrapped the 1st Mvmt ... A harp solo piece follows that actually manages to sound a bit like a piano, but as such is not too interesting. Diptych returns to the violin duet, whilst the title piece is a viola solo. The latter is a bit limited in impact and maybe a bit too long, as ideas run out.
Nevertheless, what really caught my attention was Happy/Angry Music, a trio of piano, percussion, bass. The anticipation was rewarded. We find influences from Chick Corea to Keith Jarrett and Keith Emerson that evolve into a long piece mostly dominated by the
piano. Which is a bit of a pity, as the potential of the percussion contributions is not fully explored (or lost in the mix). The release shows the variety the artist profile claims, but also, that some contexts work better than others.

— RSW, 11.23.2021

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