Detroit based Akropolis Reed Quintet releases Ghost Light, a collection of works written for them that are in dialogue with various "ghosts" — histories that are manifest in personal, collective, and even organic contexts. Featuring music by Stacy Garrop, Michael Gilbertson, Niloufar Nourbakhsh, Theo Chandler, and Jeff Scott with poet Marsha Music, Akropolis' precise and dynamic performances are matched by their curatorial creativity and commitment.
Rites for the AfterlifeStacy Garrop
|Akropolis Reed Quintet|
|01||I. Inscriptions from the Book of the Dead|
I. Inscriptions from the Book of the Dead
|02||II. Passage through the Netherworld|
II. Passage through the Netherworld
|03||III. The Hall of Judgement|
III. The Hall of Judgement
|04||IV. The Field of Reeds|
IV. The Field of Reeds
Kinds of LightMichael Gilbertson
|Akropolis Reed Quintet|
|Akropolis Reed Quintet||7:20|
Seed to SnagTheo Chandler
|Akropolis Reed Quintet|
|13||The Valley, the Bottom, and Hastings Street: Part 1|
The Valley, the Bottom, and Hastings Street: Part 1
|14||Homage to Paradise Valley: I. Ghosts of Black Bottom|
Homage to Paradise Valley: I. Ghosts of Black Bottom
|Akropolis Reed Quintet||9:05|
|15||The Valley, the Bottom, and Hastings Street: Part 2|
The Valley, the Bottom, and Hastings Street: Part 2
|16||Homage to Paradise Valley: II. Hastings Street Blues|
Homage to Paradise Valley: II. Hastings Street Blues
|Akropolis Reed Quintet||7:56|
|17||Homage to Paradise Valley: III. Roho, Pumzika Kwa Amani (Spirits, Rest Peacefully)|
Homage to Paradise Valley: III. Roho, Pumzika Kwa Amani (Spirits, Rest Peacefully)
|Akropolis Reed Quintet||4:46|
|18||The Valley, the Bottom, and Hastings Street: Part 3|
The Valley, the Bottom, and Hastings Street: Part 3
|19||Homage to Paradise Valley: IV. Paradise Theater Jump!|
Homage to Paradise Valley: IV. Paradise Theater Jump!
|Akropolis Reed Quintet||5:17|
Born out of their mission to create new music that connects their audience to one another and the outside world, the Akropolis Reed Quintet returns with their fourth album, Ghost Light. Featuring a diverse collection of world premiere recordings, Ghost Light is a meditation on life, death, and rebirth. Ghost Light shines a light on the ghosts all around us and grapples with the issues of mortality and with our personal and collective history.
Inspired by the ancient Egyptian belief in the soul’s journey to the afterlife, Rites for the Afterlife by Stacy Garrop opens the program. The music in the opening movement is searching and plaintive as it reflects the wandering and uncertainty of a soul leaving the body and beginning the next phase of its existence. In the second movement, the soul travels through the Netherworld where it encounters demons, serpents, crocodiles, and lakes of fire. In their evocative performance, Akropolis creates a sense of foreboding as different terrors move into the foreground. In the third, the soul stands before 42 divine judges in the Hall of Judgment. The music grows increasingly insistent and probing as the judges interrogate the soul until they finally pronounce judgment. In the fourth movement, “Field of Reeds,” the soul passes through to the afterlife where it will live forever next to the Nile. Garrop evokes the expanse of the field of reeds with Copland-like gestures and we feel a sense of peace as we come to the end of our journey.
In contrast to Garrop’s programmatic work, Kinds of Light by Michael Gilbertson is a more abstract exploration of the nature of light. Each of the four movements allows us to, as it were, see the wind quintet in a different light. In particular, the second movement, “Twilight,” has the effect of viewing a stationary object from an ever-shifting perspective. The movement is homorhythmic but Gilbertson contrasts harmonic and timbral change with the stasis of the rhythm to give a sense of a changing view. The third and fourth movements contrast this homorhythm with greater textural diversity as the voices constantly shift and combine in different ways in an act of true chamber music virtuosity from both composer and performers.Read More
Firing Squad by Niloufar Nourbakhsh is inspired by the opening sentence of 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez:
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon his father took him to discover ice.”
As Colonel Buendia faces imminent death, Nourbakhsh hones in on the juxtaposition between the intensity of the present moment and the memories of past life. In a confluence of past and present, Akropolis is brought into contact with their own memory as they perform with an altered recording of themselves. As past and present coalesce, Nourbakhsh brings the piece to an emotionally wrenching climax and forces the listener to confront nothing less than their own mortality.
Moving to the natural world, Seed to Snag by Theo Chandler is an exploration of the lifecycle of organic matter. Chandler uses Baroque forms throughout this piece and the first movement, “Sprout,” is reminiscent of a heavily ornamented Baroque prelude. Evoking birds and other natural sounds, the music evolves organically as it represents the slow emergence of plants. The second movement, “Stretch,” is an expressive and virtuosic bassoon solo – played brilliantly by Ryan Reynolds – that recalls an aria with harpsichord accompaniment. The other voices echo the pitches of the bassoon as the aria grows and stretches outward. With its consistent pulse, the third movement, “Sow,” represents seeds as they fall from a tree and spread to the earth before ending with a recapitulation of material from the first movement as the life cycle begins again.
The final work on the album, Homage to Paradise Valley by Jeff Scott, is rooted in the history of the predominantly Black neighborhood of Black Bottom in Detroit. This piece is a reflection on the life and death of this neighborhood and the way in which Black Bottom’s contributions – musical, personal, and historical – impact us today. The extensive musical legacy of Black Bottom is felt throughout this piece, both in the second movement’s homage to the nightclubs on Hastings Street and in the fourth movement’s tribute to the famed Paradise Theater. The composer describes the third movement as a “humble offering to the many souls who came before me and persevered through the middle passage, decades of slavery, disenfranchising laws, and inequality.” Poet and self-described Detroitist Marsha Music reads her poetry interstitially in this recording.
With Ghost Light, Akropolis demonstrates their unique sensibility and curatorial instinct by performing music by a diverse range of voices who each challenge the listener to confront the fundamental issues of life and death and to consider how our personal and collective history affects us today. The listener leaves the album ready to engage more deeply with the world around them.
-- Caleb van der Swaagh
Producers: Courtney Snyder Ng, Elliott Tackitt, Akropolis
Production Assistants: Thomas Morris
Recorded at First Presbyterian Church in Ypsilanti, MI & Tempermill Studios
Recorded, Edited, Mixing, & Mastering: Dave Schall Acoustic
Album Artwork: Ashton Springer
Publicist: Unfinished Side
Celebrating over a decade of music making, the Akropolis Reed Quintet, with their “infallible musicality and huge vitality” (Fanfare), has sparked a revolution in wind chamber music. An untamed band of 5 reed players and entrepreneurs, the members of Akropolis are united by a shared passion: to make new music that connects and reflects real people.
Akropolis delivers an average of 120 concerts and educational events nationwide each year; has premiered more than 130 works; runs an annual new music festival in Detroit called “Together We Sound”; is in residence at 3 Detroit high schools; and their third and latest album, The Space Between Us, was dubbed “pure gold” (San Francisco Chronicle). Akropolis believes anyone can compose great music, and during their 20-21 season will premiere and record more than 30 works by youth aged 12-22, including 12 Detroit high school students. Generously supported by 200+ donors and foundations nationwide, Akropolis is a 7-time winner of America’s foremost chamber music prizes including the 2014 Fischoff Gold Medal, and was founded at the University of Michigan in 2009.https://akropolisquintet.org/
Stacy Garrop’s music is centered on dramatic and lyrical storytelling, and she shares these stories by taking audiences on sonic journeys. Garrop is a full-time freelance composer. She has received numerous awards including an Arts and Letters Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Fromm Music Foundation Grant, Barlow Prize, and three Barlow Endowment commissions. Notable commissions include The Battle for the Ballot for the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra, Goddess Triptych for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Glorious Mahalia for the Kronos Quartet, Give Me Hunger for Chanticleer, The Transformation of Jane Doe for Chicago Opera Theater, and My Dearest Ruth for voice and piano with text by the husband of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The works of Michael Gilbertson have been described as “elegant” and “particularly beautiful” by the New York Times, “vivid, tightly woven” and “delectably subtle” by the Baltimore Sun, “genuinely moving” by the Washington Post, and “a compelling fusion of new and ancient” by the Philadelphia Inquirer. Gilbertson is the BMI Composer in Residence with the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra and is a professor at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in Music for his Quartet. His works have been programmed by the Minnesota Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony, Washington National Opera, Albany Symphony, and San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, among many others.
Described as “stark” by WNPR and “darkly lyrical” by the New York Times, a winner of the Second International Hildegard commission award, a 2019 recipient of Opera America’s Discovery Grant, and a finalist for Beth Morrison Projects Next Generation competition, Niloufar Nourbakhsh’s music has been commissioned and performed by Nashville Symphony Orchestra, International Contemporary Ensemble, Library of Congress, Shriver Hall Series, Cheswatyr Foundation, I-Park Foundation, National Sawdust, Center for Contemporary Opera, Women Composers Festival of Hartford, Forward Music Project, PUBLIQuartet, Ensemble Connect, Akropolis Reed Quintet, and Calidore Quartet at numerous festivals and venues including Carnegie Hall, and Washington Kennedy Center, Mostly Mozart Festival, Seal Bay Festival of American Chamber Music, and many more. A founding member and co-director of Iranian Female Composers Association, Niloufar is a strong advocate for music education and equal opportunities. In 2014, she worked as the site coordinator of Brooklyn Middle School Jazz Academy sponsored by Jazz at Lincoln Center. She is currently an adjunct faculty at Molloy College and co-director of Peabody Conservatory Laptop Orchestra. She also regularly performs with her Ensemble Decipher.
Niloufar is a music graduate and a Global Citizen Scholarship recipient of Goucher College as well as a Mahoney and Caplan Scholar from University of Oxford. Among her teachers are Lisa Weiss, Laura Kaminsky, Matthew Barnson, Margaret Schedel, Daniel Weymouth, Daria Semegen, and Sheila Silver. She holds a doctorate degree from Stony Brook University.
Theo Chandler is the recipient of the Copland House Residency Award, SCI/ASCAP Graduate Commission, American Prize for Vocal Chamber Music, Lili Boulanger Memorial Fund Award, Charles Ives Scholarship from the Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Graduate Music Award from the Presser Foundation. He has received commissions from the New York Youth Symphony First Music Program, Tanglewood Music Center, Fischer Duo, Utah Arts Festival, and others. He has been a fellow at the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme, Mizzou International Composers Festival, Tanglewood Music Center, Copland House Cultivate, and Aspen Music Festival. Previous residencies include Composer in Residence for Les Délices, Composer in Residence for the Maryland Wind Festival, Fellow for Musiqua, and more.
Marsha Music, daughter of a pre-Motown record producer, grew up in Highland Park and lives in the Palmer Park district of Detroit. She is a self-described Detroitist and writes about the city’s music, its past, present and future. She is a former activist/labor leader and a noted speaker. She has contributed to significant Detroit narratives, including "Untold Tales, Unsung Heroes: An Oral History of Detroit’s African American Community," as well as documentaries on HBO, PBS, and The History Channel. Ms. Music has read her poetry with the DSO; written and performed new poetry with the Detroit Opera Theater as part of their 2020 Drive-Thru opera, Twilight: Gods. She recently published her first book, "The Detroitist."
A native of Queens, NY, Jeff Scott started the French horn at age 14, receiving an anonymous gift scholarship to go to the Brooklyn College Preparatory Division. An even greater gift came from his first teacher, Carolyn Clark, who taught the young Mr. Scott for free during his high school years, giving him the opportunity to study music when resources were not available. Associate Professor of Horn at the Oberlin Conservatory, Mr. Scott's performance credits are many and varied, including The Lion King orchestra (on Broadway, New York) 1997-2005. He has been a member of the Alvin Ailey and Dance Theater of Harlem orchestras since 1995 and has performed under the direction of Wynton Marsalis with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Mr. Scott is also the French hornist in the internationally acclaimed wind quintet “Imani Winds."
Playing together intensively for more than a decade, Akropolis Reed Quintet have evolved a collective voice that appears to be organically integrated. if their technical ability, its scope, precision and finesse, enables these five Detroit based musicians to gel as a unit, total trust has to be a vital factor too. There's nothing tentative in their approach, and that extends to their programming of multifariously challenging and imaginative new works.
Ghost Light opens with Stacy Garrop's Rites For The Afterlife. Kari Landry's clarinet, Andrew Koeppe's bass clarinet, Ryan Reynolds's bassoon, Matt Landry's saxophone and Tim Gocklin's oboe seem to turn around a single axle, like spokes from a shared hub, as their agile instrumental voices trace the journey of a soul, as related in the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Michael Gilbertson's Kinds Of Light translates gradations of luminescence into sound, making use of the quintet's remarkable capacity to draw out fine shadings of timbre without compromising the phenomenal coordination of their performance.
Contrasts within Firing Squad, written by New York based Iranian composer Niloufar Nourbakhsh, suggest the disconnect between an execution squad, with its regimented flourishes, and the tormented delirium of their victim. The quintet brilliantly communicate that tragic tension. Theo Chandler's Seed To Snag, enacting the life cycle of a tree, seems consciously to stem directly from the group's organic character.
Finally, Jeff Scott's Homage To Paradise Valley, interleaved with poetry written and read by Marsha Music, reflects upon facets of Black American experience. Sparking together, Scott and Music bring another level of resonance to Akropolis Reed Quintet's repertoire. Ensembles achieving this standard of professional excellence can easily start to sound slick and self-satisfied. But Ghost Light finds this exceptional outfit audibly driven by real excitement and a sense of adventure.
— Julian Cowley, 4.13.2021
I was thinking about the Crash Test Dummies’ The Ghosts that Haunt Me, when the eerie, first moaning microtonal chord from the Akropolis Reed Quintet’s Ghost Light sounded in my headset. Spooky! This fantastic group of woodwind players from Detroit explores life and death at the far end of the musical spectrum; toe-tapping, mysterious, in tune and in synch. The cover art of the disc brought to mind the Dummies’ release from long ago. Look carefully, there’s purpose to the whimsy.
All the music was commissioned. Unusual? No, but the instrumentation is: two clarinets (soprano and bass), plus an oboe, a bassoon, and… saxophone! Here is range, here is agility and grace, here are complementary colours, never the cloying homophony of a saxophone quartet or worse, clarinet choir. Listen to the blends intentionally exploited by Michael Gilbertson in the brief and chipper Kinds of Light.
That opening moan is from Rites for the Afterlife, a four-movement work inspired by ancient Egyptian rituals guiding the soul from this world to the next. Composer Stacy Garrop’s unearthly timbres of microtonal clusters, executed with clean precision, draw the listener into the mystery. Unpitched whispery effects evoke reed beds by a river. Styx or Nile?
Iranian Niloufar Nourbakhsh based Firing Squad on the greatest opening sentence in literature, from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. This melancholy, melodic one-movement work explores mortality and memory.
Jeff Scott, French horn of the Imani Winds, wrote the disc’s most substantial work: Homage to Paradise Valley. This is activist music, composed to poems by Marsha Music, commissioned to commemorate the destruction of Detroit neighbourhoods and landmarks taken from the African American community during the mid-20th century, in the name of urban renewal.
— Max Christie, 5.06.2021
The video trailer for Akropolis Reed Quintet’s new album Ghost Light (New Focus Recordings) holds a reverent visual space for this collection of pieces about death, life, and honoring the spirits that inhabit these realms. Filmed in a dark room, a lightbulb at its center shines softly onto the musicians encircling it. The camera’s focus shifts from one musician to the next as oboist Tim Gocklin, clarinetist Kari Landry, saxophonist Matt Landry, bassoonist Ryan Reynolds, and bass clarinetist Andrew Koeppe each emerge from the shadows for a brief moment before fading back into the dimness. UK-based artist Ashton Springer’s work graces the album cover, his eery, moonlit landscape and its many solitary characters depicted in vivid aquamarine.
The album begins with a work inspired by a culture for whom death was an obsession. Stacy Garrop’s Rites for the Afterlife draws on her love of the myth and lore of Ancient Egypt and takes the listener on a journey of the soul, with each of the four movements sonically describing trials of the afterlife. Warm timbral trills and expectant, uneasy dissonances depict a soul slipping from life, blanketed with blessings thanks to prayers written in stone upon their tomb. Low growls in the bass clarinet and frantic flurries in the saxophone add to a sense of spiritual unease (Garrop’s wish here is to put the audience in the seat of a funeral barque alongside the recently departed, drifting into the netherworld on a river infested with dangerous and horrifying creatures of the afterlife). Final salvation can be felt in the gorgeous harmonies that move slowly between instruments as this soul is accepted into paradise for the rest of time.
Michael Gilbertson’s Kinds of Light is a celebration of the wide palette of colors that can be achieved by Akropolis Reed Quintet’s instrumentation. Each movement combines the ensemble in a different way, balancing register or timbre, optimizing for a specific sonic hue as all instruments move from note to note together in rhythmic solidarity. The reed quintet becomes more than the sum of its parts and achieves potent hues such as the soft violet proffered in “Movement II. Violet”, and the vivid, bright greens in the vivacious “Movement III. Fluorescence.”
The large emotional weight of Niloufar Nourbakhsh’s work Firing Squad was born from a small seed: a line from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon his father took him to discover ice.” The resulting piece takes a final moment of human existence and augments it to a 7.5 minute stream-of-consciousness work with tableaus flashing by like a lifetime of potent memories. Nourbakhsh manipulated recordings of Akropolis to create moments where the ensemble is faced with a mirror version of itself; an artistic structure akin to a person suddenly coming face-to-face with their life in their final moments. The crux of this work is absolutely magical: bi-aural beats loudly shimmer in and out of focus, unisons aching as they graze against each other and disintegrate into jagged harmony. The work ends in a haunting tutti exhale…a literal last breath.
Theo Chandler’s Seed to Snag is a powerful and profound meditation on birth. In the first movement, “Sprout,” thin lines unfurl like vine tendrils, timid and tentative. Single melodic fragments gradually fork into two; crescendoing into a cornucopia of verdant melodic growth. This work is a musical onomatopoeia, its score depicting visually what the music is portraying aurally. The second movement is dark and sparkling, with a bassoon line so beautiful that your mental gaze remains fixed AND transfixed the whole way through. The third movement takes textures from the first and augments them; brilliant eruptions of florid color give long moments of ecstasy to the final minutes of this work.
In his four-movement work, Homage to Paradise Valley, Jeff Scott takes us through the history of a neighborhood in Detroit: its beginnings as a fertile plain called “Black Bottom” for its dark, rich soil; its heyday as a hub for musical creativity; and its eventual decimation as this predominantly Black neighborhood was razed to make way for new development. Poet Marsha Music’s voice gives Detroit an origin story shaped almost as an Epic Poem, and her words act as literary interludes before movements I, II, and IV, setting our minds alight with images and sensations that Scott’s music fully fleshes out.
Akropolis Reed Quintet has done a beautiful job with this album. Not only do they performed these works with faultless detail and refreshing artistry, but they’ve given a reverent temporal space for the stories these composers decided to tell. It’s a true joy to sit and listen to these colors and tales that softly haunt you after the last track stops.
— Stephanie Ann Boyd, 4.20.2021
Ghost Light is more than an elegy. Sure, death is the common denominator of this Detroit-based ensemble’s fourth album, which continues Akropolis’s commitment to world-premiere recordings by living composers. Taken together, however, the works on Ghost Light set aside doleful hand-wringing in favor of a fundamental truth: One of our most powerful weapons against death is storytelling. That includes stories about death, like Stacy Garrop’s undulating, propulsive Rites of the Afterlife (per her interest in various cosmologies, this one’s on the Egyptian belief in a journey to the underworld) and Niloufar Nourbakhsh’s harrowing Firing Squad (my favorite track on the album, and inspired by the opening sentence of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude).
But narratives come to the fore most pointedly, and poignantly, in Jeff Scott’s Homage to Paradise Valley, a tribute to Detroit’s razed Black Bottom and Paradise Valley neighborhoods. In it, he evocatively renders city landmarks, like a bustling, then slackening Hastings Street in the second movement and the long-gone Paradise Theater in the fourth. Writer–historian Marsha Music recites spoken interludes, referencing neighborhood stalwarts like her father, pathbreaking record executive Joe Von Battle. (Ghost Light’s cover art nods to his eponymous record store.) “Our own Black Wall Street here was born, despite the animus and scorn,” Music says. Like so many Black neighborhoods systematically upended, then and now, it would not remain. But, as Scott’s quintet and Music’s powerful poetry attests, ghosts are all around—and they have stories to tell.
— Hannah Edgar, 6.27.2021
The sheer sound of this group, made up of oboe, clarinet, saxophone, bassoon, and bass clarinet, is instantly captivating. There's a sublime smoothness of tone, texture, and ensemble that brings to mind the reed sections of great American orchestras like that of Duke Ellington or Glenn Miller. The Akropolis are sure-handed in their curation and collaboration as well, as the five pieces here interact and relate to each other in thought-provoking ways, exploring everything from the Egyptian Book of the Dead to racial violence in their native Detroit. Their choice of composers - all unknown to me except for Jeff Scott who I know as a member of Imani Winds - leads to a wide variety of sonorities and emotional impacts. Stacy Garrop's Rites For The Afterlife, takes us through the narrative of the Egyptian Book of the Dead with an appropriate sense of mystery and even a little Kurt Weillian wit in the third movement, The Hall of Judgement. Kinds of Light by Michael Gilbertson provides portraits in sound for Flicker, Twilight, Fluorescence, and Ultraviolet in colorful fashion, without leaning on the concept too hard.
In Niloufar Nourbakhsh's Firing Squad - inspired by the first line of One Hundred Years of Solitude - the quartet is mirrored by a recording of themselves, occasionally sounding like an infinite loop. Theo Chandler's Seed To Snag has almost has the whimsy of a classic Disney score as he describes the lifecycle of organic material, adding yet more colors to Akropolis' palette. Scott's piece, Homage To Paradise Valley, closes the album and incorporates spoken word as Marsha Music reads her poems about Detroit's earlier days. Scott's music is tuneful and sparkling, with nods to jazz, and Music's poems are lively and nostalgic, with their tales of her father's record shop and the musical luminaries that put the city on the map. The readings do interrupt the overall flow of the album for this listener and I can imagine programming them out after a few plays, but that's a minor quibble about this powerful artistic statement.
— Jeremy Shatan, 4.25.2021
Let me say that this disc represents one of the most integrated releases that I have seen/heard. This has the gravitas of a well conceived and executed prog rock concept album (remember those?). This young group of musicians from Detroit present themselves in a photo in the accompanying booklet in casual dress flouting the old fashioned traditions of playing in tuxes much as another creative chamber ensemble (The Kronos Quartet) did many years ago. The Akropolis Reed Quintet is a group of instruments not commonly known (I’ve never heard of any repertoire for this combination of instruments, any musicians/musicologists want to chime in here?) in classical chamber ensembles. Whereas the Kronos began work a with a long held standard ensemble comprising two violins, a viola and a cello, the classical string quartet which can easily trace a long standing tradition going back to Haydn and very much alive today, the Akropolis consists of oboe (Tim Gocklin), clarinet (Kari Landry), saxophone (Matt Landry), bass clarinet (Andrew Koeppe), and bassoon (Ryan Reynolds), an unheard of combo. Its history begins here.
Unfamiliar music by an unfamiliar group of reed instruments doesn’t exactly shout, “Buy me, listen to me”, but the prospective listener need not fear. The program here consists of all new music for this ensemble. There are no competitors, at least for now. But all this music in truly excellent performances/recordings along with remarkably integrated collaboration with visual artist, British artist and illustrator Ashton Springer, and poet/writer Marsha Music combines in an apparent attempt to reclaim the artistic history that, in the days of the booming automotive industry and the success of Motown Recordings made Detroit a creative center known round the world. Ms. Music (a nom de plume for Marsha Battle Philpot), a Detroit native, is in many ways the heart of this album. Her father was a producer for Motown and her poetic reflections on local history infuses the album with a certain authenticity. The poet states she was “born in a record store”. Indeed it was the Joe’s Records which appears in Ashton’s album cover art to which she refers (metaphorically of course)
Ghost Light brings a variety of things into focus in this paean to Detroit, the home of these artists whose work very organically includes promotion of the arts in local schools and other venues. In works generally focused on themes of birth, death, and rebirth this album tells a sad story of lost history, of razed black neighborhoods, of fond memories, of a once thriving economy now struggling but fully embracing pride of place while seeking resolution of (and forgiveness?) for past injustices while looking optimistically to a better future.
The art work itself is a nostalgic example of fine cover art which successfully reflects the content and the character of the music contained within. The illustrations which so beautifully attract the eye to the cover are continued in the accompanying booklet which provides concise notes which place the music in the context of the composers’ various intent and processes as well as the nearly cinematic efforts made to represent the intended content of each piece. Though neither the poet nor the illustrator are known to this writer it is reasonable to assume that we will see/hear from them again. That would be my wish.
This is the fourth album by this prize winning chamber group which was formed in 2009 at the University of Michigan. It contains five musical compositions and three poems (which precede movements I, II, and IV of the final work). All the music, as noted above is generally on themes of life, death, and rebirth as well as “ghosts” of the past.
The first work by the only composer here that was known previously to this writer is “Rites for the Afterlife” (2018) by the amazing Stacy Garrop whose facility with melodic invention and subtle use of tone colors permeated her exciting Mythology Symphony. The four movements are roughly analogous to the classical sonata forms with a longer more complex first movement followed by a slow movement, a scherzo-like movement, and a finale which ties them all together. Here she titles her movements: I. Inscriptions from the Book of the Dead, II. Passage Through the Netherworld, III. The Hall of Judgement, and IV. The Field of Reeds. The composer provides a scenario which is recounted in the booklet. Let me say that her tone painting is that of a true master and I advise listeners to collect anything she releases. You will not be disappointed.
Second is “Kinds of Light” (2018) by Michael Gilbertson. This piece, in four brief movements attempting to metaphorically treat each instrument as a pigment. The movements: I. Flicker, II. Twilight, III. Fluorescence, and IV. Ultraviolet utilize timbres and combinations of timbres to represent the visuals implied by the titles. This is probably the most “experimental” of the pieces here but the experiment engages rather than repels.
“Firing Squad” (2018?) by Niloufar Nourbakhsh. If I’m reading those liner notes correctly, the performance of this work is accomplished with the ensemble playing with a recording of themselves playing the work. This is the most overtly political of the works represented here in its intense single movement.
“Seed to Snag” (2018) by Theo Chandler is cast in three movements: I. Sprout, II. Stretch, and III. Sow. Here is a metaphoric evocation of the cycle of life from birth to death utilizing baroque musical structures.
The album concludes with “Homage to Paradise Valley” by Jeff Scott. This is the largest work here clocking in at over 30 minutes including the poetry. Its four movements attempt to describe forgotten neighborhoods of Detroit. The movements are titled: I. Ghosts of black Bottom, II. Hastings Street blues, III. Roho Pumzika Kwa Amani, and IV. Paradise Theater Jump. Movements I, II, and IV are preceded by Detroit poet Marsha Music reading from her work. The beautiful title of the third movement is a phrase in Swahili which translates as, “Spirits, Rest Peacefully”. The other movements channel the ghosts of these nearly forgotten neighborhoods and that third movement invites those ghosts to a place of rest and the peace of knowing that they will not be forgotten.
I’ve placed links throughout this article so that readers can find more detail about the composers and other artists involved. All of the artists involved here deserve at least a second look if not more. Kudos to all who were involved in this project.
— Allan J. Cronin, 5.18.2021
Akropolis Reed Quintet has been playing together for almost 13 years and began as a humble student ensemble at the University of Michigan. With seven national chamber music awards and prizes and counting, the ensemble has taken the chamber music world by storm. The members of Akropolis aren’t just elite musicians, but spend active time working as commissioners, administrators, educators, and advocates, to name but a few activities.
Their fourth album, Ghost Light, features all new compositions by living composers. This is a concept that is deeply engrained in the fabric of what Akropolis represents as an ensemble. The common themes that are interwoven and heard and expressed throughout each piece are concepts of life-cycles revolving around the use of darkness, light, colors, instrumentation, and texture. Often times, death and rebirth are themes. The entire album is effectively able to balance a dark intrinsic battle with all the joy that life brings.
The first work on the album, Rites for the Afterlife, uniquely explores what ancient Egyptians believe happens after death. In four movements—“Inscriptions from the Book of the Dead,” “Passage through the Netherworld,” “The Hall of Judgement,” and “The Field of Reeds”—Stacy Garrop’s work allows the listener to follow a soul on the final journey from death to the afterworld. This work was commissioned in 2018 by the Barlow Endowment on behalf of Akropolis Reed Quintet, Calefax Reed Quintet, and the Brigham Young University Reed Quintet.
Kinds of Light by Michael Gilbertson explores light through the dimension of sound and texture, using a variety of contemporary compositional techniques. Elements of post-Minimalism are used by Gilbertson to help generate a sound that aligns with the type of light featured in each movement: “Flicker,” “Twilight,” “Fluorescent,” and “Ultraviolet.” Akropolis has mastered the compositional elements that Gilbertson uses and managed to perfectly balance the instrumentation and match articulation styles across the entire ensemble. This piece, as well as Firing Squad and Seed to Snag, was commissioned by Akropolis and the I-Park Foundation.
Firing Squad was written in 2018 by Iranian composer Niloufar Nourbakhsh. This deeply moving work was inspired by one sentence in the opening of the great literary novel One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez. This piece inspires the listener to go on an emotional journey of being forced to face certain death in front of the firing squad. Many humans will have a similar response when placed in this horrific situation and will quickly travel through an intense flood of memories, feelings, and experiences until their time is extinguished. This piece is unique because at certain times in the recording the composer overlaps a previous recording that Akropolis made to create a blurry or hazy sound, often creating an ethereal backdrop. Firing Squad is beautifully haunting. Feel free to exhale loudly with the ensemble at the end of this piece to release your frustration from the pandemic.
Theo Chandler’s Seed to Snag is another beautiful representation of the life cycle. This well-thought-out piece focuses on the life cycle of organic plant matter, and follows the life of a seed as it moves throughout its cyclical life from “seed to snag.” Chandler uniquely uses traditional Baroque compositional styles, mixed with contemporary elements, to express the journey of a seed to its ultimate rebirth. The first movement, “Sprout,” starts off unfolding and layering parts slowly, like a seed taking in water and sun light over time. Eventually, a root breaks out of the seed with a fast-growing vigor for life. Soon enough, roots are growing everywhere and bursting through the soil and growing towards the sun. The second movement, “Stretch,” features a gorgeous bassoon solo representing the seeds mature growth as a tree. Reaching up to the sky and growing old and majestic. The rest of the ensemble serves as atmospheric growth. In the final moment, “Sow,” the listener can hear seeds falling and spiraling off of the tree. This ultimately aids in the rebirth of a new tree, bringing the life cycle full circle. This uplifting last movement leaves the listener feeling invigorated and energetic.
The final piece on the album is Homage to Paradise Valley, composed by Jeff Scott, with poetry and narration by Detroit native Marsha Music. This piece was written after Scott was on tour with Imani Winds in Detroit. While in Michigan, he visited the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. The composer was inspired by a museum exhibit that chronicles the lives and treatment of African Americans in the areas of Paradise Valley and Black Bottom. Three of the four movements start with a short reading of poetry written by Marsha Music. Each movement focuses on different aspects of Black Bottom: “Ghosts of Black Bottom,” “Hastings Street Blues,” “Roho, Pumzika Kwa Amani,” and “Paradise Theater Jump.” This piece was commissioned by Akropolis and Chamber Music America. Funding was provided by the Chamber Music America Classical Commissioning Program, with additional funding provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Akropolis Reed Quintet’s fourth studio album Ghost Light does not disappoint. The performance standards of Akropolis are award winning for a reason. The ensemble interprets each piece and brings it to life by fully enveloping the literal meaning and purpose the composer intended. No detail is ignored. The ensemble executes musical elements like balance, attacks, articulations, and phrasing flawlessly. This album took several years to complete, with the Akropolis members harnessing their core values and working with multiple nonprofit arts organizations and composers to commission all new works. Their commitment to the creation of new reed quintet repertoire and working with some of the best living composers is commendable. If you haven’t been listening to Akropolis Reed Quintet, now is the time to check out their new album.
— Natalie Szabo, 7.17.2021
Another New Focus Recordings disc with a strong orientation toward instrumental sound features the Akropolis Reed Quintet playing five works intended to explore darkness, light and life cycles. The concept is ambitious and, realistically, more of a hook on which to hang some very different pieces than a fully thought-through theme for the CD. The five composers all show themselves adept at writing for the wind forces available to them here, but none of the works is strongly indicative of the supposed overall theme of the disc. Stacy Garrop’s four-movement Rites for the Afterlife is filled with suitably eerie, film-music-like scene-setting, with occasional solos for individual instruments bursting through what is mostly an ensemble piece that is intended primarily to be serious – although the third movement, The Hall of Judgment, is (unexpectedly in light of its title) almost scherzo-like. Michael Gilbertson’s Kinds of Light is also in four movements – short ones – and manages to reflect (so to speak) the titles rather effectively. Thus, Flicker is full of starts and stops; Twilight is slow-moving and crepuscular; Fluorescence flickers differently from the first movement, with something of an ostinato quality; and Ultraviolet pulsates almost constantly, to the point of annoyance. This is an interestingly interpretative work that, at just nine minutes total, manages not to overstay its welcome. Firing Squad by Niloufar Nourbakhsh is an atmospheric single-movement foray into sound combinations and permutations, featuring varying linear and chordal sections. Theo Chandler’s Seed to Snag includes three movements labeled Sprout, Stretch and Sow, the first giving a good but rather overlong impression of initial striving, the second using the winds effectively to encompass the idea of spreading out, and the third bouncing along brightly with intermittent pauses. The final work on the disc, and the longest by far, is Jeff Scott’s four-movement Homage to Paradise Valley, which incorporates scene-setting poetry by Marsha Music as introductions to the first, second and fourth movements. This is an ambitious work in “social awareness” mode, intended to pay tribute to various onetime African-American communities in Detroit. Like so many other advocacy pieces, it insists on its own importance and basically tells listeners that they ought to care about its topic. This is much less effective than simply creating engaging material to draw in an audience that is not already predisposed to become involved in the subject matter. The readings are fine, but they are far less evocative than Scott’s music – which, however, does not point with any level of specificity to a single city or specific locations within it. Music has inherent representational limits – even works constructed as carefully as Liszt’s symphonic poems tell their stories effectively only to listeners who already know what those stories are – so the issues of Homage to Paradise Valley are nothing new or unusual. But the extreme specificity of Music’s words, dealing as they do with very particular streets and neighborhoods in Detroit, means that only people who are highly knowledgeable about the city – or believe they should be highly knowledgeable about it – will get the full flavor of what Scott is trying to communicate. That is too bad, because the music on its own has many interesting elements, especially in the way it blends the sounds of the wind instruments. Homage to Paradise Valley is more effective as a non-referential woodwind suite than as an insistent tribute to a particular time, place and culture. Although not quite as intriguing as Kinds of Light, it is a satisfactory conclusion to an interestingly varied CD of very well-played contemporary woodwind music.