Chris Fisher-Lochhead: Wake Up the Dead

, composer


Chris Fisher-Lochhead's Wake Up the Dead features performances of his bristling scores by Ensemble Dal Niente, JACK Quartet, Quince Ensemble, and bassoonist Ben Roidl-Ward. Fisher-Lochhead conjures vibrant musical ecosystems by managing timbral diversity and alternate approaches to development and structure.


# Audio Title/Composer(s) Performer(s) Time
Total Time 40:05
01stutter-step the concept
stutter-step the concept
Ensemble Dal Niente, Michael Lewanski, conductor10:57
02Precarity Songs – “Précis”
Precarity Songs – “Précis”
Quince Ensemble2:48
JACK Quartet6:57
Ben Roidl-Ward, bassoon9:05
05Precarity Songs – “Four Until L8”
Precarity Songs – “Four Until L8”
Quince Ensemble3:11
06After Bessie Smith
After Bessie Smith
JACK Quartet7:07

On Wake Up the Dead, Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s music seems to jump through the speakers and grab the listener’s proverbial collar, demanding not only attention to its own construction, but a vigilant kind of listening. In his instrumental writing, Fisher-Lochhead shows an affinity for vigor, gravitating towards gestures that pack a lot of drama into short durations. When Fisher-Lochhead’s music explores sustained textures as in the two works for the vocal group Quince Ensemble, he embeds intensity inside durations — the music is always growing and imbued with urgency. This is music that takes an unspoken but almost polemical stance against complacency.

In stutter-step the concept, Fisher-Lochhead creates a musical ecosystem of independent, but interrelated, organisms. The dry, pizzicato harmonics of the strings, overblown utterances and sighing gestures in the winds, and terse high-hat figures evolve according to their own quasi-semantic logic, but meanwhile catalyze accumulation and development in other parts. One is invited to listen either to the journey of one line or the composite resultant phrases of the various timbres as they interact with one another. As the piece evolves, we hear the sonic jungle come “alive” with pops, exhortations, and cries. As it closes, it coalesces into a lilting chorale of gently swelling voices.

Fisher-Lochhead includes two Precarity Songs on the album, both performed by the Quince Ensemble. The first, “Précis,” is a wordless vocalise that explores harmonic and timbral color changes that are triggered by subtle shifts in inner voices and diction. Later in the program, “Four Until L8” explores some of the same techniques but this time with text. Here Fisher-Lochhead treats the ensemble more strictly, limiting it primarily to passages in rhythmic unison before a lush, melismatic phrase closes the song.

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The JACK Quartet performs two works on the album, Funktionslust and After Bessie Smith. The opening of Funktionslust bristles with compressed energy that erupts in brief, focused spikes of sound. The intensity of the music is generated as much by an unseen (or unheard) force restraining a powerful impulse as the sound of it releasing in spurts, like a controlled eruption. The middle section is marked by brief soloistic flights supported by percolating pizzicati. As in stutter-step, Fisher-Lochhead closes the piece with longer lined material, haunting sustained sonorities that morph and refract within their duration. After Bessie Smith uses transcriptions of several recordings of the song “Backwater Blues” as source material for a range of creative interpolation techniques. Fisher-Lochhead subjected the transcribed material to different processes, including time-stretching, spectral analysis, and layering, to distill something of the essence of the song and embed it in this bracingly severe work for string quartet. We hear the intensity of Bessie Smith’s musical personality in the malleable, elastically vocal string parts, an echo of the earthy cry at the heart of so many blues performances. But with the ponticello swells, jarring accents, and destabilizing glissandi, Fisher-Lochhead has fractured the original material from the mooring of the blues song structure, leaving only the poignant aching that is at the heart of its expression. As the piece ends, the threads of pitch that Fisher-Lochhead has stretched throughout congeal into one taut unison pitch, ending dramatically with a final ripping gesture.

grandFather for solo bassoon, performed by Ben Roidl-Ward, revels in a burly side of the instrument’s sonic vocabulary. The piece opens with a series of snarling multiphonics that shroud an impassioned, cathartic melodic shape. Fisher-Lochhead expands the traditional range of the instrument as furious passagework explodes into pointed shouts, breath sounds, and key clicks which are all deftly woven into the virtuosic texture. At times, Roidl-Ward’s instrument sounds like it is being processed through a ring modulator, so profound are the timbral shifts that occur in these passages of multiphonic clusters.

The trajectory of Wake Up the Dead is naturally balanced by the repeated instrumentation works for Quince Ensemble and JACK Quartet. One one hand, the string quartet pieces are kinetically charged. The vocal works, while gentler in tone color, share a similarly lean approach, eschewing extraneous material in favor of taut treatment. The large ensemble work that opens the program displays how Fisher-Lochhead allows independent voices to coalesce into a larger musical organism, while grandFather demonstrates how he can manifest a wide ranging sonic palette on just one instrument. Throughout, Chris Fisher-Lochhead keeps the heat on, writing music that is bracing and commands attention.

– Dan Lippel

Track 1 was recorded at Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL; June 4, 2018
Dan Nichols, recording engineer; Eliza Brown, session producer

Tracks 2 and 5 were recorded at Wild Sound, Minneapolis, MN; July 17, 2021
Steve Kaul, recording engineer; Linda Kachelmeier, session producer

Tracks 3 and 6 were recorded at Oktaven Studios, Mount Vernon, NY; February 14, 2023
Ryan Streber, recording engineer; Robert Whalen, session producer

Track 4 was recorded at Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL; July 22, 2018
Dan Nichols, recording engineer

Editing and mixing: Dan Nichols (Tracks 1-6), Steve Kaul (Tracks 2, 5), Ryan Streber (Tracks 3, 6)
All tracks mastered by Dan Nichols of Aphorism Studios, May, 2023

Album artwork by Nathan Meltz

Chris Fisher-Lochhead

Vermont-based composer/performer Chris Fisher-Lochhead has blazed an idiosyncratic path through the landscape of contemporary music, creating works that have been lauded as “an imaginative tour de force” (Boston Globe), “cheerfully anarchic stuff” (Chicago Tribune), and “the subtle warping of effort and ease” (New York Times). Working across a broad range of styles and media, he has developed a creative practice which seeks to cultivate open, adventuresome, and playful spaces for musical and social experimentation. He has developed notated compositions in close partnership with some of the world’s most celebrated performers of new music, toured and recorded as an improviser, and participated in cutting-edge interdisciplinary research collaborations. In 2016, his string quartet Hack—described as a “knockout” by the New Yorker’s Alex Ross—was a centerpiece of the Spektral Quartet’s Grammy-nominated album Serious Business. As a founding member of the Grant Wallace Band, a group dedicated to stylistic alchemy and collective creativity, he has released numerous studio albums and performed across the country. He holds degrees from the University of Michigan and Northwestern University and serves on the faculty of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

Ensemble Dal Niente

Ensemble Dal Niente performs new and experimental chamber music with dedication, virtuosity, and an exploratory spirit. Dal Niente’s roster of 23 musicians presents an uncommonly broad range of contemporary music, guiding listeners towards music that transforms existing ideas and subverts convention. Audiences coming to Dal Niente shows can expect distinctive productions—from fully staged operas to multimedia spectacles to intimate solo performances—that are curated to pique curiosity and connect art, culture, and people.

Now in its second decade, Ensemble Dal Niente has performed concerts across Europe and the Americas, including appearances at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC; The Foro Internacional de Música Nueva in Mexico City; MusicArte Festival in Panama City; The Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.; the Art Institute of Chicago; and the Darmstadt Summer Courses in Germany, where it was the first-ever ensemble to win the Kranichstein prize for interpretation in 2012.

The group has recordings available on the New World, New Amsterdam, New Focus, Navona, Parlour Tapes+, and Carrier labels; has held residencies at The University of Chicago, Harvard University, Stanford University, Brown University, Brandeis University, and Northwestern University, among others; and collaborated with a wide range of composers, from Enno Poppe to George Lewis to Erin Gee to Greg Saunier and Deerhoof.

The ensemble's name, Dal Niente ("from nothing" in Italian), is a tribute to Helmut Lachenmann's Dal niente (Interieur III), a work that upended traditional conceptions of instrumental technique; and also a reference to the group’s humble beginnings.

Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble

Singing with the precision and flexibility of modern chamber musicians, Quince Ensemble is changing the paradigm of contemporary vocal music. Described as "the Anonymous 4 of new music" by Opera News, Quince continually pushes the boundaries of vocal ensemble literature. As dedicated advocates of new music, Quince regularly commissions new works, providing wider exposure for the music of living composers. In 2016, they received a Chamber Music America award to commission a song cycle, The Best Place for This, by composer, LJ White. In 2016, Quince was featured on the KODY Festival Lublin, Poland in collaboration with David Lang and Beth Morrison Projects. They have also appeared on the Outpost Concert Series, the Philip Glass: Music with Friends concert at the Issue Project Room in Brooklyn, Alia Musica, and the SONiC Festival in New York. Comprised of vocalists Liz Pearse (soprano), Kayleigh Butcher (mezzo soprano), Amanda DeBoer Bartlett (soprano), and Carrie Henneman Shaw (soprano), Quince thrives on unique musical challenges and genre-bending contemporary repertoire.

JACK Quartet

The JACK Quartet electrifies audiences worldwide with "explosive virtuosity" (Boston Globe) and "viscerally exciting performances" (New York Times). David Patrick Stearns (Philadelphia Inquirer) proclaimed their performance as being "among the most stimulating new-music concerts of my experience." The Washington Post commented, "The string quartet may be a 250-year-old contraption, but young, brilliant groups like the JACK Quartet are keeping it thrillingly vital." Alex Ross (New Yorker) hailed their performance of Iannis Xenakis' complete string quartets as being "exceptional" and "beautifully harsh," and Mark Swed (Los Angeles Times) called their sold-out performances of Georg Friedrich Haas' String Quartet No. 3 "mind-blowingly good."

The recipient of New Music USA's 2013 Trailblazer Award, the quartet has performed to critical acclaim at Carnegie Hall (USA), Lincoln Center (USA), Wigmore Hall (United Kingdom), Suntory Hall (Japan), Salle Pleyel (France), Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ (Netherlands), La Biennale di Venezia (Italy), the Lucerne Festival (Switzerland), Bali Arts Festival (Indonesia), Reykjavik Arts Festival (Iceland), Festival Internacional Cervatino (Mexico), Kölner Philharmonie (Germany), Donaueschinger Musiktage (Germany), Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik (Germany), and Darmstadt Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik (Germany).

Comprising violinists Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Kevin McFarland, JACK is focused on the commissioning and performance of new works. In addition to working with composers and performers, JACK seeks to broaden and diversify the potential audience for new music through educational presentations designed for a variety of ages, backgrounds, and levels of musical experience.

The members of the quartet met while attending the Eastman School of Music and studied closely with the Arditti Quartet, Kronos Quartet, Muir String Quartet, and members of the Ensemble Intercontemporain.



The Whole Note

Vermont based composer/ performer Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s album Wake Up the Dead assembles six pieces of wide variety and instrumentation, including two works each for string quartet and female vocal quartet, one for mixed instrumental ensemble, and one extended work for solo bassoon. The album opens with stutter-step the concept, a commission by the Ensemble Dal Niente in 2016. This is a meaty introduction to Lochhead’s style of composition, and the ensemble interprets the score with commanding familiarity. An overall multi-phonic richness leaves space for irregular string solos, false harmonics and rich lower string resonances that are distributed evenly throughout the instrumentation giving a cohesiveness that sets up the rest of the album. The track Precarity Songs is a gorgeous piece for four high vocals performed by the Quince Ensemble, who also return on track five with Four Until L8, a more humourous piece with text. Track three, titled Funktionslust is performed by the JACK Quartet, and is a tightly wound collection of long tones, pizzicatos and expressive outbursts often layered simultaneously and at times stretched apart and then reduced again. The quartet takes the work in stride and makes the difficult score sound easy. The fourth track in the collection, Grandfather, a work for solo bassoon written for contemporary specialist Ben Roidl-Ward, is a commanding piece of extended technique bringing up the phrase New Complexity. It was illuminating to find the score online; it helped to appreciate the writing, the incredible execution of the overtones, key clicks, and vocal outburst as well as the creative and detailed notation. The final track After Bessie Smith returns with the JACK Quartet, to close the collection with an extension of Fisher-Lochhead’s signature stretching and reducing of thematic material. A very interesting album for new music and deep dissonance lovers.

— Cheryl Ockran, 1.31.2024

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