Departure Duo (Nina Guo, soprano, and Edward Kass, bass) releases their debut recording, Immensity Of, including works by Katherine Balch, John Aylward, Emily Praetorius, and György Kurtág. By featuring three works written for them alongside the work that formed their duo (the Kurtág) the virtuosic and adventurous duo calls attention to the precedent as well as the potential of this unique instrumentation that connects two poles of register and expression.
|01||I. le haut étang fume|
I. le haut étang fume
|02||II. quand le monde sera réduit|
II. quand le monde sera réduit
|03||III. j’ai tendu des cordes|
III. j’ai tendu des cordes
|04||IV. il sonne une cloche|
IV. il sonne une cloche
|05||I. Der Schwan|
I. Der Schwan
|06||II. Der Panther|
II. Der Panther
|07||III. Das Einhorn|
III. Das Einhorn
Einige Sätze aus den Sudelbüchern Georg Christoph LichtenbergsGyörgy Kurtág
|12||Eine wichtige Bemerkung (tr.)|
Eine wichtige Bemerkung (tr.)
|13||Eine wichtige Bemerkung|
Eine wichtige Bemerkung
|16||Ein Liebhaber der klassischen Philologie (tr.)|
Ein Liebhaber der klassischen Philologie (tr.)
|17||Ein Liebhaber der klassischen Philologie|
Ein Liebhaber der klassischen Philologie
|18||Ein Gourmand (tr.)|
Ein Gourmand (tr.)
|20||Franklin, der Erfinder (tr.)|
Franklin, der Erfinder (tr.)
|21||Franklin, der Erfinder|
Franklin, der Erfinder
|22||Die Kuh (tr.)|
Die Kuh (tr.)
|24||... und eine neue Welt ... (tr.)|
... und eine neue Welt ... (tr.)
|25||... und eine neue Welt ...|
... und eine neue Welt ...
|26||Die Kartoffeln (tr.)|
Die Kartoffeln (tr.)
|32||... ein Kirchstuhl ... (tr.)|
... ein Kirchstuhl ... (tr.)
|33||... ein Kirchstuhl ...|
... ein Kirchstuhl ...
|34||... an die aufgehende Sonne ... (tr.)|
... an die aufgehende Sonne ... (tr.)
|35||... an die aufgehende Sonne ...|
... an die aufgehende Sonne ...
|38||Der gute Ton (tr.)|
Der gute Ton (tr.)
|39||Der gute Ton|
Der gute Ton
|42||Ein Mädchen ... (tr.)|
Ein Mädchen ... (tr.)
|43||Ein Mädchen ...|
Ein Mädchen ...
|44||Die Hände (tr.)|
Die Hände (tr.)
|46||Verlorne Mühe (tr.)|
Verlorne Mühe (tr.)
|50||Ein merkwürdiger Gedanke (tr.)|
Ein merkwürdiger Gedanke (tr.)
|51||Ein merkwürdiger Gedanke|
Ein merkwürdiger Gedanke
Soprano Nina Guo and bassist Edward Kass, appearing here as Departure Duo, carry serious new-music bona fides, both having performed with major contemporary ensembles on an international stage. As Departure Duo they are seriously committed to growing the repertoire for this unusual and highly expressive instrumentation.
For Phrases, composer Katherine Balch sets texts by Arthur Rimbaud. “Sets” isn’t completely accurate — her relationship to the texts is innovative and changeable; sometimes text is rendered as a simple setting, sometimes the text is torn apart in order to portray it more completely, sometimes the text is fragmented to such a degree as to be more like clay in the composer’s hands than actual words. She hews close to the saturated, arresting tone of Rimbaud’s images (violet flowerlets, a lone black wood, pink fire). Guo and Kass “speak” to one another in a vocabulary hovering among meaning, gesture, and pure sound. After the hot scramble of le haut étang fume, quand le monde sera réduit disarms with a pure and gently ornamented voice supported by a simple bass line rich in harmonics. It is a moment suspended in time, not needing to grow in any direction. j’ai tendu des cordes lives in pure rhythm, starting as a groove on its first three syllables that soon crumbles into syncopated and unpredictable rhythms and a descending bass line that drops out of the stomach. In the final song, il sonne une cloche, streaming vocal tones threaded through with bird-like passages are delicately held aloft by pale arpeggios from the bass, which simply floats away.Read More
In Tiergarten (Zoo), John Aylward finds inspiration in three poems of Rilke, each about an animal with a powerful mythical history: the swan, the panther, and the unicorn. He lets each poem speak for itself, working with the rich images that the texts bring forth. In Der Schwan, Rilke’s texts contrast the swan’s awkward land-based tread against its well-poised and regal bearing in the water. The long, steady high notes in the voice are counterpointed by an endlessly turning harmonic glissando in the bass, a hidden moto perpetuo that makes the majestic presentation above the water possible. For Der Panther, Rilke imagines a powerful being alienated from his true nature. Aylward locks the musicians in a close dance, reedy double-stops and scratch tones rubbing against the smooth surfaces of the voice; a duo of intimate inter-reactions. He plays wonderfully against type in Die Einhorn (The Unicorn) — the bass accompanies the voice with mostly furtive staccato and pizzicato lines, articulating the notes with a broad spectrum of colors and expression, combining with Guo’s clear and luminous presentation to give remarkable ambiguity and depth to Rilke’s words.
Although not well-known today, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg was a renowned physicist of the 18th century. His posthumously-published scrapbooks later revealed him to be a world-class aphorist as well. These aphorisms were the inspiration behind György Kurtág’s Einige Sätze aus den Sudelbüchern Georg Christoph Lichtenbergs (Some Sentences from the Scrapbooks of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg).
Many of Lichtenberg’s aphorisms are humorous in nature and Kurtág audibly takes pleasure in this. In Die Kuh (The Cow), Kurtág uses an understated yet warbly, somewhat trippy voice, accompanied by the most delicate of pizzicatos, to relay that in Göttingen a woman once said, “In the time when our blessed cow was still alive.” For Die Kartoffeln (The Potatoes), Kurtág deploys masterful atonal first-species counterpoint to depict the somnolence of root vegetables awaiting spring. More seriously, Lichtenberg was an expert observer of human nature (as is Kurtág) and the sentiment behind ... und eine neue Welt … ( ... and a new world …) was likely controversial in Lichtenberg’s time. Kurtag’s rendering is daring on its own — he sets off the first two words with an audacious silence (fifteen seconds of a fifty-one-second piece!) and then completes the sentence with plain-spoken forcefulness. The whole piece is beautifully formed to set off the last syllable of “Entdeckung” with a playful (and rebellious) wink. In Verlorne Mühe (Effort in Vain), we feel too well the universal sensation of shame — the hot stab of a rolled “r” of “im Dunkel rot werden.”
Presentation can be a challenge with such short works, and so many of them (18 aphorisms, most less than a minute, the shortest being 15”). To foreground the connection between music and words, Guo and Kass take turns reading each brief text before its corresponding music.
The last work on the album is Immensity Of by Emily Praetorius. Enigmatic and arresting, the piece is dominated by achingly long glissandi in both instruments. The time scale is geologic — change turns slowly. It is a lonesome landscape, desertlike and depopulated. Whistling and birdsong, clucking mouth sounds and low, knocking pizzicatos appear and reappear, like hallucinations, but the interpretation can only be personal.
– Kyle Bartlett
Recorded August 2021 at Gordan Hall, MA
Joel Gordon, recording engineer
Mixed and Mastered by Joel Gordon and Departure Duo
Cover Image: Untitled from series Parallel by Anne-Sophie Coiffet
Photo by Kate Nottage
Design & Layout: Marc Wolf, marcjwolf.com
Departure Duo is a soprano and double bass duo comprised of Nina Guo and Edward Kass. Committed to performing repertoire written specifically for soprano+double bass, the duo seeks to show the incredible variety of styles and sounds possible through their combination. Departure Duo firmly believes that contemporary music can and should be accessible to all, and by encouraging dialogue with audiences, new music will not be viewed as a niche genre.
The duo’s long-term project, "30 by '30," aims to catalog 30 hours of soprano+double bass music by 2030. The approach is twofold: commissioning+premiering new works and researching pre-existing ones. Departure Duo frequently collaborates with living composers to create new music for their “high-low” partnership and, since 2015, has brought over a dozen works to life, including three of the pieces on this album. Their commissioning work has received support and recognition from Chamber Music America's Classical Commissioning Grant Program and New England Conservatory's Entrepreneurial Musicianship Department. On the research front, Departure Duo maintains the “30 by '30” database, which has over 22 hours of catalogued repertoire and is a freely accessible resource for anyone interested in soprano+double bass. The goal of “30 by ‘30” is to show that soprano+double bass music is an undeniable body of repertoire, one that is both musically viable and extremely diverse. The duo wants to recognize the whole community that makes up this high-low corner of the musical universe and encourage more people to join.
Departure Duo regularly tours and performs recitals, and recent highlights include Spoleto Festival USA, a Yellow Barn artist residency, Center for New Music (San Francisco), Indexical (Santa Cruz), Omaha Under the Radar, Jordan Hall, and KM28 (Berlin). As individuals, Nina and Edward have appeared with contemporary music groups including Ensemble Dal Niente, Ensemble Modern, ensemble ascolta, Callithumpian Consort, Wet Ink, and Decoder, and at festivals around the world such as the Tanglewood Music Center, Lucerne Festival, Achtbrücken (Cologne), SICPP (Boston), the Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music, and Pacific Music Festival (Japan).https://www.departureduo.com/
The duo of soprano and double bass shouldn't really work. But apparently György Kurtág thought enough of the idea to compose Einige Sätze aus den Sudelbüchern Georg Christoph Lichtenbergs, based on the scrapbooks of an obscure 18th century physicist, for such an ensemble. Taking that witty 1999 piece as a jumping off point, Nina Guo and Edward Kass went all in and commissioned three other works, leading to this delightful collection. The Kurtág consists of 22 very short vignettes that foreground Lichtenbergs' quirky pronouncements (example: "The one who is in love with himself has at least the advantage that he won't encounter many rivals."), almost like character studies of whomever would deign to write such things down. The duo alternates reading English translations of each one, which interrupts the flow a little, but their voices are so nice I don't really mind. The album opens with Katherine Balch's four-movement Phrases (2017), which pull and push poems by Arthur Rimbaud like textual silly putty, giving Guo a lot to play with as Kass' bass pulses in the background. The three movements of John Aylward's Tiergarten (2018) feel more like a duet between the players and also inject some tone-painting into three Rilke poems about animals freighted with mythical resonances, the swan, the panther, and the unicorn. The final work, Emily Praetorius' Immensity Of (2019), plays with one line of text from Daphne Oram, abstracting it with whistles and single notes as the bass searches for resolution and connection. While everything about this rara avis album could seem quite, well, serious, Guo and Kass have a lightness of approach (see the photos in the booklet for further proof of this), not too mention complete command over their instruments, making listening a pure pleasure. More commissions are in the offing and I say bring. them. on.
— Jeremy Shatan, 1.02.2023
Cheekily tagging itself “a high-low duo” the virtuoso Departure Duo is an unlikely combo. Boston-based soprano Nina Guo and double bassist Edward Kass are committed to commissioning, performing and touring repertoire composed for their unusual combination, music that explores the full range of styles and sounds they can produce. They frequently collaborate with sonic artists to create new music, including three of the works on Immensity Of by younger generation American composers Katherine Balch, John Aylward and Emily Praetorius.
Balch’s Phrases dramatically grapples with meaning, gesture and sound, while Aylward mines the poetry of Rilke for inspiration in Tiergarten (Zoo). The time-stretching Immensity Of by Praetorius is quite different from anything else here, featuring delicate, long glissandi for both voice and bass. Its beautiful lonely spaciousness is relieved only by soft whistling, birdsong, mouth clucks and knocking bass pizzicati.
Kurtág’s Einige Sätze aus den Sudelbüchern Georg Christoph Lichtenbergs forms the album’s centerpiece. Drawing from 18th-century German polymath Lichtenberg’s collection of often humorous aphorisms, the composer selected texts to form the lyrical and aesthetic backbone of his collection of 18 succinct individual sections, a veritable song cycle.
Kurtág’s pleasure in the texts’ wry humour is evident in Die Kuh (The Cow) and in several other places. In Die Kartoffeln (The Potatoes) for example, he appears to depict root vegetables in storage in atonal first-species counterpoint. Surely that’s a first! Departure Duo’s masterful performance makes a strong case for this 21-minute work, as well as for their high-low partnership.
— Andrew Timar, 12.15.2022
To the best of our knowledge, vocalist Nina Guo and I are the only two graduates from our small all-girls high school to ever go into the field of experimental music. We were in the same class and I even have a photo of us very earnestly performing together at graduation. Nina makes up for one half of Departure Duo, your new favorite double bass and soprano new music duo, with bassist Edward Kass. They recently released their debut album, Immensity Of (New Focus Recordings), which features works by Katherine Balch, John Aylward, Emily Praetorius, and György Kurtág. I’ve had this album on repeat for the past few weeks as their phenomenal musicianship, humor, and the works on the record continue to engage my ears and surprise me. It’s a pleasure to speak with the duo about Immensity Of and I encourage you to take a listen!
Anna Heflin: Can you share a little bit about the commissions on the album and what each piece means to you as a duo?
Nina Guo: The three commissioned pieces, Phrases, Tiergarten, and Immensity Of, are very special to us. Katherine Balch and John Aylward, the composers of Phrases and Tiergarten, respectively, are both dear friends of ours who we’ve known for years, and both of their pieces were surprise gifts! Katie wrote our first ever commission (Vidi l’angelo nel marmo), and then a few years later, told us that she had written a second piece for the combination, Phrases. John Aylward and I were getting a coffee when he took out the handwritten score for Der Panther and put it on the table. “Nina, this is for you and Eddie! I know how much you like Rilke and animals, so here is a Rilke setting… about an animal! The swan and the unicorn are on their way!” Apart from the pure delight of having new pieces to play (and who doesn’t enjoy a surprise present?), we love having these beautiful meeting grounds for us to make music with our friends, with whom we’ve grown up so much.
Immensity Of was part of a group of commissions from 2019. The composer, Emily Praetorius, requests that the audience should be as close as possible to the performers, and we wanted to extend that invitation as the closing gesture in the album. Both in concert and through the recording, we are happy for listeners to get even closer into soprano+double bass.
Edward Kass: Part of why we love commissioning is because it helps open our ears. Each of these pieces had textures and sounds we hadn’t explored yet in our other repertoire at that point, so these gave us a chance to expand our color palette. We love that there are still fresh ways to use our combination and sounds that still surprise us.
AH: There’s a real range in how Katherine Balch, John Aylward, and György Kurtág set text and to what degree they stay true to the original source material. How does each composer’s approach to text setting affect how you approach the piece from a vocal and timbral perspective?
NG: First, we think about what traditions and sound worlds the composer is drawing from in order to clarify the gestures in their music. Once we’ve figured that out, a lot of our work is figuring out where we match sound, where we diverge, and how we complete each other’s phrases. When we work directly with the composer, they will tell us what their musical priorities are. In coachings with Katie, she encourages us to go deeper into blending textures, becoming timbrally indistinct from one another. John is often interested in a probing, wondrous quality to the lines, and reminds us to have flexible tempi. In a coaching with Kurtág specialist Tony Arnold, she told us to ask the question, “What is the punchline?”
EK: It’s all about context and understanding a composer’s musical language. Of course, nothing replaces working directly with the composer, but we also find it really helpful to look at a composer’s other music, since it gives us a better understanding of how they hear and think. That really informs our approach to pieces.
AH: Would any or all of these pieces qualify as lieder? Why or why not?
NG: YES! For us, the piece with the closest relationship to the lieder tradition is John Aylward’s Tiergarten. Everything in the way John composed the music relates to delivering Rilke’s texts. There is text painting in the double bass part, and the vocal lines always have lyricism. Circuitous imagery in the poem leads to circular melodies, similar to an Ives song. Historically speaking, lieder/art song was composed for voice+piano. However, we’re in 2022! There is no musical reason to continue limiting the genre’s instrumentation. Soprano+double bass certainly has a place in the art song world!
EK: This is actually something we talk about a lot! We often joke that I’m basically a vocal pianist playing the wrong instrument. In all seriousness, though, we think a lot about how our pairing fits into the tradition of lieder/art song and how that interacts with the larger genre of vocal chamber music. As Nina says, we really feel like John’s pieces come directly from that tradition, given his approach to setting the German and the way he uses text painting in the bass, like all the rippling arpeggios and glissandi depicting water in “Der Schwan.”
AH: Humor is a rare gift in experimental music and every movement of György Kurtág’s “Einige Sätze aus den Sudelbüchern Georg Christoph Lichtenbergs” on your recording makes me chuckle. When you perform the piece live, do people get it and laugh? Is it standard practice to read the texts before playing each movement?
NG: Yes, we usually get some laughs out of our audiences, even if they aren’t expecting it! In performance, we also use physicality to aid our interpretation (for example, the eating and slurping of an imaginary peach in “Ein Gourmand”), but everything we do is in service of what is already in the score (Kurtág does say to gather much saliva as if sucking on a lemon). We started reading the translations a few years ago, and it is a practice borrowed from the great singer Stephanie Blythe. The texts in Kurtág’s piece are extremely short and completely uncontextualized. Since we mostly perform for English speaking audiences, we wanted listeners to have a chance to imagine what might be going on in each strange scene before hearing how Kurtág sets it to music.
EK: We want this music to feel approachable! We know it can be intimidating for someone to approach a new musical language, so humor can be a great way to break down the perceived barrier that exists around new music. Whenever there’s humor in the text or in the music, we want to make sure that comes across. People SHOULD laugh! We like knowing that the audience is in on the joke and right there with us. Once or twice in performance, the audience laughter got to us and we had to take a little extra time before we could start the next movement because we were breaking a bit and started laughing. It’s a good problem to have! More people should laugh in concerts! Older, more “standard” music is full of jokes, too! I’d love a world in which audiences regularly laughed out loud during such moments.
AH: Who was Georg Christoph Lichtenberg? Was he well known during György Kurtág’s time? Do you know anything about what inspired Kurtág to set the Lichtenberg texts?
NG: Lichtenberg was an 18th century German philosopher-scientist (as one was back in the day). He is most well-known for documenting the shape of electrical figures, and the tree-like patterns of lightning are named “Lichtenberg figures” after him. The text that Kurtág has chosen comes from Lichtenberg’s sudelbüchern, loosely translated as “scrapbooks.” We often compare Lichtenberg and his books to Benjamin Franklin and Poor Richard’s Almanack because of their similarly short and pithy qualities. We aren’t sure why Kurtág was drawn to these texts specifically, but their brevity and often skewed perspective is a great combination with Kurtág’s puzzling notation.
AH: You both have impeccable rhythm and intonation. Thinking about rhythm specifically, do you have any advice, recommendations, or resources to share with those looking to improve their rhythm?
NG: Slow then fast! We always start with the basics when learning a new piece. On the first few read throughs, neither of us plays or sings. We conduct and speak our parts at whatever tempo allows us to be accurate. If conducting is too tricky, then we clap the beat. Sometimes, we have to start very, very, very slowly, but it’s worth the extra time to build the ear and develop a foundation of hearing how we relate rhythmically. There is never any shame in counting out subdivisions or repeating rhythms on a loop; all of that builds good ensemble! Once the piece is learned and we can play through it, we constantly check with a metronome to keep our rhythmic internalization honest.
EK: It’s true, we spend a lot of time conducting and ta-ing or clapping and speaking our rhythms. That’s always the first step for us. This way we know that all the other musical elements are built on a solid foundation, and one that we know we’re feeling the same way. Even when we come back to a piece we’ve performed many times, we always start with checking the metronome and going through once with conducting and speaking.
AH: Can you tell us a little about your 30 by 30 project?
EK: A few years ago, we were talking to a friend about how to get people to take soprano+double bass seriously as a musical combination. He replied “You know, it’s not enough to have 10 or 20 pieces. People will really start taking notice once you’ve got 30 hours,” and with that, our 30 by ‘30 project was born! 30 by ‘30 is our long term project to have at least 30 hours of soprano+double bass music by 2030.
NG: Our approach is twofold: commissioning and research. In addition to working with composers to bring new pieces to life, we maintain a freely available database of all known, notated pieces for soprano and double bass (check it out here). We want to make it easier for the next generation of duos to find and play this music. The database is also an invaluable resource for us as performers to keep a finger on the pulse of this high/low world. Soprano+double bass music is for all of us to share; if you’re reading this and want to know more, please reach out!
— Anna Heflin, 12.01.2022
The four works appearing on the Departure Duo’s album Immensity Of represent a sampling of the repertoire the two—soprano Nina Guo and double bassist Edward Kass—have been assembling for double bass and soprano. What they hope to show is that this pairing, though unusual, is also unusually musical. This sparse yet exquisitely beautiful recording proves them right.
Guo and Kass’ focus is on contemporary work, much of it which they’ve commissioned. Hence three of the four compositions on the album, spanning 2017-2019, were written for the two. The fourth, by Hungarian composer György Kurtág, is from 1999. The Kurtág piece consists of short, outburst-like settings of twenty-two witty, aphoristic selections from 18th physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s scrapbooks (or “book of scribblings”). In keeping with some of Lichtenberg’s observations, Kurtág’s writing is often astringent, featuring leaping, expressionistic vocal lines underpinned by basslines that emphasize the opposition between the ranges and timbres of soprano voice and low strings. Katherine Balch’s Phrases, which sets fragments from Rimbaud’s poem Illuminations, closes the gap between double bass and soprano through generous use of extended technique for double bass, which pulls it up into an approximation of the soprano’s register. John Aylward’s three-movement Tiergarten (“zoo”) undergirds Guo’s delivery of Rilke’s poems about swan, panther, and unicorn with arpeggiated harmonics, thickly bowed chords, and staccato bowed and pizzicato lines, respectively. Immensity Of by Emily Praetorius is a quiet, slowly moving microtonal piece that sets Guo’s wordless voice against Kass’ bass as each produces long notes gliding downward and upward, away from and toward each other.
— Daniel Barbiero, 10.22.2022
Nina Guo (soprano) and Edward Kass (bass), i.e. Departure Duo, interpret the work of Katherine Balch, John Aylward, Emily Praetorius and Gyorgy Kurtág for these very meticulous and unique pieces that highlight their inestimable chemistry.
Balch’s “Phrases” starts the listen, and presents text by Arthur Rimbaud, as Guo’s pipes are quite vivid, sometimes fragmented, where the harmonic bass work complements the colorful nature of the composition superbly.
In the middle, “Tiergarten”, by Aylward, births a stirring focus, where 3 poems by Rilke are fleshed out with both intimacy and power, while Kurtág’s “Einige Sätze aus den Sudelbüchern Georg Christoph Lichtenbergs” injects talking amid the soaring soprano and well timed bass.
The title track exits the listen, and it presents a very absorbing minimalism that embraces whistling, clucking mouth sounds and bare pizzicatos in a highly deliberate, sparsely atypical finish.
A fascinating listen that’s full of calm gestures, just as it is wise ambiguity and personal artistry, there just isn’t a second here that’s not worth exploring again and again.
— Tom Haugen, 2.26.2023
What McClelland is not is avant-garde – that adjective applies much more clearly to the composers heard on a New Focus Recordings release featuring the highly unusual performance combination of soprano and double bass. “Quirky” describes this disc as clearly as it does the Haydn symphony/Mass combinations, but to very different effect: there is no way that this music, a little of which goes a long way, will appeal to a wide audience – but it will be very appealing indeed to those seeking to experience forms of composition and sonic display that frequently border on the weird. There is nothing particularly new about mixing very high musical elements with very low ones – for example, part of the exceedingly strange effect of Alkan’s Chanson de la folle au bord de la mer comes from doing this on the piano, and Alkan thought of it in 1844. Nevertheless, the mixing of soprano vocal parts with a solo double bass is not one most audiences will have heard, and it creates odd and at least intermittently effective aural landscapes in all four of the works on this disc. Those landscapes do not bear particularly long visits, though: even at only 51 minutes, the CD as a whole is a bit much. But, interestingly, its longest work – György Kurtág’s Einige Sätze aus den Sudelbüchern Georg Christoph Lichtenbergs – is the one that most involves listeners and best repays attention. That is because this piece, “Some Sentences from the Scrapbooks of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg,” a physicist well-known in the 18th century, includes no fewer than 42 tiny movements, half of them being settings by Kurtág of Lichtenberg’s aphoristic thoughts, the other half being English-language readings offered by Nina Guo and Edward Kass immediately prior to each piece – allowing English speakers to hear just what points Lichtenberg was making and to figure out how effectively Kurtág turned the thoughts into music in his 1996 work. This is a wonderful approach that generates real anticipation for hearing the musical settings. “A gourmand: he could pronounce the word ‘succulent’ in such a way that upon hearing it one believed one bit into a ripe peach.” “Steeple: upside-down funnel to lead prayer to Heaven.” “Audacity: he wasn’t ashamed, even ex officio.” “The good tone: the good tone is there, an octave lower.” “Effort in vain: blushing in the dark.” These scrapbook notes (published posthumously) are not deep thinking or greatly revelatory, but they are kernels of contemplation or amusement that Kurtág sets with considerable skill and a sure understanding of the capabilities of voice and double bass (both sometimes at their extremes). The remaining works on this (+++) CD, however, are not at this level. Phrases by Katherine Balch features standard-sounding screechiness from voice and instrument alike, its four short movements (not as short as the individual elements of Kurtág’s work) quickly outstaying their welcome through repetition and preoccupation with sonic oddities for their own sake. Tiergarten (“Zoo”) by John Aylward is not a complete menagerie but a study of three creatures: swan, panther and unicorn. Here too is a composer considering the words (in German) not as vehicles for expression but as building blocks of sound-for-sound’s-sake – the extended hiss of “s,” for example, and the pervasive atonal Sprechstimme, and the click of the consonants, all mixed with double-bass groans and shivers. Finally, Immensity Of by Emily Praetorius is a work of long (very long), slow (very slow) expression, voice and instrument alike spinning individual phrases out and out and out with occasional intercessions of brief contrasting sounds. The piece is effective tone-painting in its own way, but is about twice as long as it needs to be to make its point: its nine minutes seem much longer, while the 21 minutes of Kurtág’s work seem to zip by. This disc as a whole will be a treat for listeners enamored of unusual contemporary vocal material, although it is unlikely to reach (or reach out to) a wider audience.
— Mark Estren, 10.21.2022
For better or worse, much ink has been spilled trying to articulate the mechanics of certain types of new music. Thankfully, the Departure Duo’s debut album, Immensity Of, completely dispenses with this absurd practice.
The liner notes consist of a message from soprano Nina Guo and double bassist Edward Kass plus the texts the pair perform in settings by Katherine Balch, John Aylward, György Kurtág, and Emily Praetorius. And that’s it: just listen to the music seems to be their watchword; we trust it and so should you. How refreshing.
Not that any of these pieces are exactly easy on the ears. Yet the Duo’s performances are so secure, so colorful, so full of personality, that the album – which, at only fifty-two minutes, also manages never to overstay its welcome – is a veritable playground for the ear.
That’s certainly true of Balch’s Phrases, with its alternations of extended techniques and fragments of texts by Arthur Rimbaud. Yes, all of the piece’s four movements are largely organized around gesture and effect. But the variety of Balch’s materials is such that the music holds together quite well. Guo and Kass navigate it all impressively; when their parts align – as the dreamy bass arpeggios and floating vocal line do in the concluding “il sonne une cloche” – the results are magical.
The pair are similarly accomplished in Aylward’s setting of texts by Rilke and Kurtág’s Einige Sätze aus den Sudelbüchern Georg Christoph Lichtenbergs. The former mixes lyricism and grit in nearly equal measure: the central “Der Panther” beguilingly combines a rough-hewn bass part with a soaring, arcing vocal line.
Kurtág’s sequence of twenty-two miniatures (its longest movement lasts just under three minutes; the shortest, fifteen seconds) stands as a fascinating compendium of expressive viewpoints condensed to their essence. Everything’s here – from the declamatory “Geständnis” to the queasily ululating “Die Kuh” and the sometimes dusky, sometimes explosive “Verlorne Mühe” – and it’s executed with terrific precision.
Rounding things out is Praetorious’s Immensity Of. Setting a meditation on disintegration and decay by Daphne Oram, the music barely rises above a whisper. The focus of the Duo’s performance, though, is palpable; theirs is a reading that simply draws the listener in. It’s a track that makes for a strangely absorbing conclusion to this haunting, arresting release.
— Jonathan Blumhofer, 12.23.2022
This remarkable release offers proof that the well-worn adage, “There’s nothing new under the sun,” is dead wrong. Combining a soprano, the highest singing voice, with a double bass, the lowest voice in the orchestra, seemed improbable to me before encountering Departure Duo. I anticipated that the four works on the program probably run the gamut of music for this odd couple, but I was mistaken. There are other soprano-double bass duos, and their repertoire, if not burgeoning, isn’t paltry, either. Perhaps inspiration is offered by having György Kurtág as a precedent. His is actually the least avant-garde work on a program that elsewhere celebrates wildness (in keeping with the manic posing of soprano Nina Guo and double bassist Edward Kass in their zany booklet photo).
Kurtág ran across the posthumous notebooks of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742–1799), which became a more lasting literary contribution than the achievements in his life as a naturalist and aesthetic theorist. Kurtág is the master of aphoristic music and fragments, so there was a natural fit with Lichtenberg. The title of the piece, Einige Sätze aus den Sudelbüchern Georg Christoph Lichtenbergs, translates roughly as “Some settings from the scrapbooks of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg” (Sudelbuch is apparently an archaic word that literally means “wastebook”). In form, the score consists of 22 aphorisms that are read aloud (in English) before we hear Kurtág’s musical settings. These can be as brief as 15 seconds and are mostly under half a minute.
Lichtenberg had a philosophical bent and a taste for wit. His doodlings are enjoyably idiosyncratic. No. 1: “Order leads to virtue! But what leads to order?” No. 3: “The one who is in love with himself has at least the advantage that he won’t encounter many rivals.” No. 6: “He could pronounce the word ‘succulent’ in such a way that upon hearing it, one believed one bit into a ripe peach.” In the score’s first version, from 1996, the soprano was allowed to pick which of the 22 settings to sing and in what order. Kurtág also dictated that the double bass part was optional, allowing for a performance by soprano solo. This first version was withdrawn, and the final published score from 1999 took away the element of chance.
It is typical for Kurtág to let his imagination roam freely, and every setting is unpredictable—the idiom could be tonal and melodic or any other option, really, in both the vocal line and the accompaniment. A certain whimsical capriciousness is at the core of Kurtág’s inspiration here, which makes the Sudelbüchern a much easier listen than the harrowing Kafka Fragments, which are similarly scored for soprano and violin. From the first setting it becomes apparent that Guo and Kass are virtuosic performers of undeniable gifts.
The competition from other performers is slim. There is a recording for unaccompanied soprano by Lorna Windsor on Brilliant and another of the final version where soprano Viktoriia Vitrenko is much more Expressionist in style—she uses Sprechstimme directly, which Guo only hints at occasionally. Both rivals omit the spoken text, which raises my only caveat. As speakers, Guo and Kass rise no higher than amateur community theater. I can only advise listening to the recitations once and then programming the CD just for the music (there is also the alternative of downloading only Kurtág’s settings).
Guo’s remarkable range and technique as a singer are underlined even more emphatically in Phrases by Katherine Balch (b. 1991), one of the earliest pieces written for Departure Duo, along with Tiergarten by John Aylward (b. 1980). Balch sets four verses by Rimbaud very briefly but in a wildly varied style, the soprano part doing constant, rapid-fire gyrations in the first song while the double bass slips and slides recklessly. There is a fund of percussive sounds from the double bass, which sometimes plays cadenza-like gyrations of its own. The sum total bears no relation to the texts, so far as I can tell, but in the vein of the avant-garde as entertainment, Phrases fits the bill with beguiling imagination.
Aylward sets three Rilke poems that aren’t fragments: “The Swan,” “The Panther,” and “The Unicorn.” The titles are deceptive—these are philosophical musings, not depictions of animals. Aylward follows essentially the same practice set down by Kurtág, giving the soprano and double bass independent parts that occasionally come together but are mostly pursuing their own tangents. The double bass is sometimes set in a very high register, and the vocal part, while not stratospheric, is used more like an instrument than a vehicle for delivering meaningful words. Aylward’s writing is highly accomplished but somewhat frustrating in its incomprehensibility—that’s a proud avant-garde tradition, too.
The title work of this release, Immensity Of, by Emily Praetorius (b. 1990), unfolds in one movement lasting nine minutes, which gives scope for more extended effects. The mood is intimate and employs small gestures, including humming and whistling, plus a few imitations of birdsong, while the double bass is occupied playing long, sustained tones. The text is a single pessimistic sentence by Daphne Oram: “Some people feel that life is no more than a gradual decaying away to the point of death.” If these words are actually sung, they were indecipherable to me. But this takes nothing away from Immensity Of, which offers mesmerizing music that is haunting as you listen and keeps resonating in silence after the performance ends.
If I found one listen sufficient for the Aylward, the other three works on the program are fascinating and memorable. Guo is a spectacular singer and Kass a master of his instrument. I’ll confess that when I saw that a duo can be made of a soprano and double bass, I thought, “What next—ocarina and tube?” But I came away believing that the glory of the best contemporary music is that there is always something new under the sun.
— Huntley Dent, 1.25.2023