In this wonderful collection of works for two guitars by a group of composers hailing from many spots on the globe, Duo Noire provides a compelling snapshot of the range of expression in contemporary chamber music for the instrument. Featuring music by Clarice Assad, Mary Kouyoumdijan, Courtney Bryan, Golfam Khayam, Gity Razaz and Gabriella Smith, the duo virtuosically presents a program that is aesthetically diverse, but focused around the values of narrative shape and expressive transparency.
Hocus PocusClarice Assad
|03||III. Klutzy Witches|
III. Klutzy Witches
|05||Soli Deo Gloria|
Soli Deo Gloria
Night TriptychGolfam Khayam
|07||II. Quasi Furioso|
II. Quasi Furioso
|08||III. Rubato, Amoroso, Molto Cantabile|
III. Rubato, Amoroso, Molto Cantabile
Four HaikusGity Razaz
|13||Loop the Fractal Hold of Rain|
Loop the Fractal Hold of Rain
“Night Triptych” opens with Clarice Assad’s (of the famed Assad guitar family) Hocus Pocus, a dynamic work blending the rhythmic intensity and rich harmonic color of the music from her native Brasil with an encyclopedic understanding of the timbral possibilities on the instrument. Percussive effects and brilliant arpeggios mark the opening movement, and a brooding second movement leads into a driving finale. Mary Kouyoumdjian’s Byblos is inspired by the ancient Lebanese city of the same name, and involves an accompanying electronic track that subtly deconstructs a Mediterranean traditional dance in hazy washes of sound. The guitar writing at times evokes the figurations of its regional cousin, the oud, and the relationship between live performers and the atmospheric backing track frames the push and pull between past and present in Kouyoumdjian’s engagement with this city that has seen multiple civilizations come and go. With its title, Courtney Bryan’s Soli Deo Gloria signals its alignment with centuries of work dedicated to the glory of a higher being and purpose. The composition’s journey is framed in terms of Bryan’s relationship to the stages of prayer — Contemplative, Unsettled and Searching, Questioning and Hoping, a Prayer, Pursuing, Realization, Acceptance. Bryan’s incorporation of jazz and gospel elements is subtle, integrated elegantly into her evolving compositional argument. Iranian composer Golfam Khayam’s title work is in three movements, “Improvisatory”, “Quasi Furioso”, and “Rubato, Amoroso, Molto Cantabile.” As with Kouyoumdjian’s work, we hear echoes of the oud and Middle Eastern music in fleet, ornamental slurred passages and pointed grace notes. But despite the hints at a geographically specific orientation, overall Khayam’s work comes from a place of universal contemplation, a style consistent to those familiar with ECM, the revered German label on which she has been featured. Also of Iranian heritage, Gity Razaz’s work is more squarely within the modernist compositional tradition, and her Four Haikus are four tightly crafted pieces, reminiscent in language and approach to the great late 20th century repertoire for guitar commissioned by Julian Bream. These works give the listener a chance to hear Duo Noire’s cultivated ensemble blend, well considered interpretative approach, and particularly in the second and final movements, rhythmic vibrancy. Gabriella Smith’s Loop the Fractal Hold of Rain engages with popular music more overtly than the other music on the recording, opening with an ostinato figure articulated with a slide that gives way to an insistent groove with engaging polyrhythmic counterpoint in harmonics. Shades of bluegrass and slide guitar inflect the minimalist structure.
- D. Lippel
Duo Noire is a "virtuosic pair” (I Care if You Listen) of pioneering African-American classical guitarists, Thomas Flippin and Christopher Mallett. Offering “profoundly enjoyable” premieres of genre-bending contemporary music with “spectacular precision,” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch) Duo Noire is breaking new ground in the world of guitar chamber music.
The duo has been featured on the cover of the Guitar Foundation of America's quarterly journal, Soundboard, as well as in articles by Chamber Music Magazine, Acoustic Guitar Magazine, Classical Guitar Magazine, and others. Their debut album was the first recording of Juilliard professor Raymond Lustig’s inspired minimalist work, FIGMENTS. The album has been repeatedly broadcast on WQXR and Q2 radio and was praised as “a unique and entrancing album that exists at the unusual intersection of minimalism and impressive classical guitar technique” (I Care if You Listen).
Duo Noire has performed at China’s Peking University, the 92 Street Y in New York City, Georgetown University, the New York City Classical Guitar Society, the Omaha Under the Radar and April in Santa Cruz new music festivals, and at the Times Center in a performance for the MacDowell Colony. The pair have also received fellowships from the Avaloch Farm Music Institute in New Hampshire and the Norfolk Music Festival in Connecticut. They frequently collaborate with GRAMMY- winning guitarist Bill Coulter, as well as MacArthur Fellow Jason Moran and the Porgy and Bess Broadway star Alicia Hall Moran.
Thomas and Christopher are graduates of the Yale School of Music. Today, Christopher is on the faculty at the University of California, Santa Cruz and is co-owner of the California Conservatory of Music near San Francisco. Thomas is on the faculty of Concordia College Conservatory and the Diller-Quaile School of Music in New York.
Clarice Assad (b.1978): Latin GRAMMY-nominee, Clarice Assad, is an acclaimed Brazilian-American singer, pianist, and composer. Born in Rio de Janeiro to a family of distinguished musicians during an oppressive military dictatorship, she turned to composition as an emotional outlet. Hocus Pocus depicts a cartoonish and magical conjuring of sound effects and textures between two guitars, and features moments of structured improvisation with spoons and percussion. (M.M. University of Michigan)http://www.clariceassad.com
Mary Kouyoumdjian (b.1983): As a first generation Armenian-American from a family directly affected by the Lebanese Civil War and Armenian Genocide, composer Mary Kouyoumdjian draws on her heritage in the sonic palette of Byblos, which is based on a recent visit to one of the oldest cities in Lebanon, first inhabited in 8,800 B.C.E. Byblos calls upon its performers to play “like folk instrumentalists, grittily and digging in. Imagine how one might approach playing an oud.” (D.M.A. Columbia University)http://www.marykouyoumdjian.com
Courtney Bryan (b.1982): A native of New Orleans and an accomplished classical and jazz pianist, Courtney Bryan notates the feeling of improvisation, interweaving new music, jazz, traditional gospel, spirituals, and hymns. Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God Alone) takes the listener through the stages of a prayer: “contemplative; unsettled and searching; questioning and hoping; a prayer; pursuing; realization; acceptance.” (D.M.A. Columbia University).http://www.courtneybryan.com
Golfam Khayam (b. 1983): Iranian composer and E.C.M. Records Artist Golfam Khayam was born in Tehran to a family of artists. She has studied a number of Persian strummed instruments, which inform her use of extended techniques she developed for the Western classical guitar: mallet hits, fingernail taps, chopstick scrapes, and more. Night Triptych, in which the performers rhythmically improvise their parts until aligning at specific notes, combines her love for contemporary classical music and Persian ethnic music. (M.M. University of Cincinnati, M.A. Haute École de Musique de Genève)http://www.golfamkhayam.com/
Hailed by the New York Times as “ravishing and engulfing,” Gity Razaz’s music ranges from concert solo pieces to large symphonic works. Ms. Razaz’s music has been commissioned and performed by BBC Symphony Orchestra, Seattle Symphony, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Washington National Opera, National Sawdust, Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, former cellist of the Kronos Quartet Jeffrey Zeigler, cellist Inbal Segev, violinist Jennifer Koh, violinist Francesca dePasquale, Metropolis Ensemble, Canada’s National Ballet School, American Composers Orchestra, and Amsterdam Cello Biennale among others.
Programming highlights include a 2021 commission from BBC Symphony Orchestra for the prestigious Last Night of the BBC Proms at London’s Royal Albert Hall and an upcoming concerto for world-renowned flutist Sharon Bezaly and the United Strings of Europe. Other commissions have included a full-length ballet for Ballet Moscow, which has received regular performances ever since its world premiere in Moscow in June of 2017. She was the composer-in-residence for the inaugural season of Brooklyn’s ground-breaking National Sawdust and Chautauqua Opera Company in 2017. Her first short opera was commissioned by Washington National Opera and premiered at the Kennedy Center. Her music for cello and electronics was included in the opening of Seattle Symphony’s Octave 9 in March 2019.
Her compositions have earned numerous national and international awards, such as the 2019 Andrew Imbrie Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters that is “is given to a composer of demonstrated artistic merit in mid-career”, the Jerome Foundation award, the Libby Larsen Prize in 28th International Search for New Music Competition, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Composer Institute, Juilliard Composers’ Orchestra Competition, three ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer awards, to name a few. In 2016, Ms. Razaz was offered the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans.
Ms. Razaz attended The Juilliard School on full scholarship, studying under the tutelage of Samuel Adler, Robert Beaser, and John Corigliano.https://gityrazaz.com/
Gabriella Smith (b.1991): Born in the San Francisco Bay Area, polymath Gabriella Smith began composing at the age of 8. An outdoor enthusiast, she can often be found backpacking with her ukulele and drawing musical inspiration from nature. Loop the Fractal Hold of Rain is based on a poem she wrote in her youth. In the composition, Smith imagines “interlocking loops and patterns and textures and rain” and incorporates structured improvisatory elements, as well as a glass slide for glissandi and a moment of “wild, crazy, vibrato.” (D.M.A. Princeton University)http://www.gabriellasmith.com
As compelling as the playing is by American classical guitarists Thomas Flippin and Christopher Mallett on their Duo Noire outing Night Triptych, of equal import is the album's set-list: world premiere recordings of newly commissioned works by six female composers from around the world. That's no accident: having noticed the extreme underrepresentation of female composers in classical concert programming and recordings, the Yale School of Music graduates launched the album project in 2015 as a way of making classical music more gender-inclusive. While two of the composers are United States-born (New Orleans native Courtney Bryan and San Francisco Bay area denizen Gabriella Smith), others have roots in Iran (Golfam Khayam, Gity Razaz), Brazil (Clarice Assad), and Armenia (Mary Kouyoumdjian). Such a project is easy to get behind, for all kinds of reasons.
The album begins on a suitably resplendent note with Assad's Hocus Pocus, a three-part setting that affords the players ample opportunities to strut their magical stuff. After the arresting flourishes of “Abracadabra!,” “Shamans” cools the pace for a brooding meditation packed with mystery, one intensified when spoons are aggressively applied to guitar strings, while “Klutzy Witches” perpetuates the pensive tone of the central movement. In each case, the beauty of the guitars' nylon strings and the duo's interactions are well-served by Assad's writing.
Khayam's three-part title work, which blends aspects of Persian ethnic and contemporary classical forms, draws on the Tehran-born composer's extensive familiarity with Persian strummed instruments to apply extended techniques to classical guitar. In the work's energized middle movement, “Quasi Furioso,” for example, chopsticks and pencils are used to generate aggressive percussive flourishes and scrapes; the contemplative “Rubato, Amoroso, Molto Cantabile,” by comparison, opts for a more delicate intertwine of harmonics and counterpoint.
Razaz, who emigrated from Tehran to the United States as a teenager, is represented on the release by Four Haikus, sketches that present a wide range of moods and techniques with concision. Whether it be the animated “Andante” or the ponderous “Largo,” melodic and rhythmic interplay are accentuated in material that's designed to be phrased by the performers as a singer might. Bryan's Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God Alone) roots itself in a sparkling uptempo performance infused with gospel and jazz, the episodic work presenting the guitarists' playing with the utmost clarity as they advance through the multiple stages of a prayer.
Arguably the recording's most compelling piece is Kouyoumdjian's atmospheric Byblos. The composer, a first-generation Armenian-American whose family was directly affected by the Lebanese Civil War and Armenian Genocide, wrote the work after a recent visit to the ancient Lebanese locale after which the piece is titled. Duo Noire's soft guitar tremolos and aggressive picking are augmented by a portentous backing track that imbues the material with an eerie, unsettling quality; so central is this sound element to the piece, it eventually overpowers the guitarists, whose playing is submerged by the swelling noise. As arresting, if for different reasons, is Smith's Americana-infused Loop the Fractal Hold of Rain for the way it brings a different kind of energy to the recording. Rhythm moves to the forefront in her nine-minute piece, with funky bluegrass-inflected riffs animating the material with insistent, syncopated momentum and vibrato and glissando effects that wouldn't sound out of place in an Indian raga.
As laudable as the project is for presenting works by female composers, it would be less of an accomplishment were its contents of only middling value, but that's hardly the case: the pieces are a varied lot that speak highly on behalf of their creators, and it doesn't hurt that the musicians bringing the material to life are Flippin and Mallett, virtuosos who invest their performances with energy and conviction. To claim that the two break new ground in the world of classical guitar music on the hour-long release isn't overselling it: deploying everything from stabs and strums to trills and taps, the guitarists consistently extend the acoustic instrument into adventurous territory without sacrificing musicality in the process.
You might not expect much from an unknown American guitar duo, on an album with indifferent graphic design and a program of completely unfamiliar music. And you would be making a major error. Duo Noire, true to its name, consists of a pair of African American guitarists, the first ones to graduate with Master's degrees from the Yale University School of Music. But the list of "firsts" only begins there. All-contemporary programs of guitar music are not common, and this may be the first to feature exclusively female composers. All the works were commissioned by Duo Noire, and they're a varied group, from the humorous Hocus Pocus by Brazil's Clarice Assad (a member of the famous Assad family, who are without exception worth hearing, and a bit more oriented toward classical composition than the others); the epic Byblos by Armenian-American composer Mary Kouyoumdjian; the minimalistic yet gospel- and jazz-flavored Soli Deo Gloria by New Orleans-born Courtney Bryan, which is intended not as a sacred work but as one exploring the boundary between sacred and secular; the titular Night Triptych, by Persian-American Golfam Khayam; the Four Haikus of another Iranian American, Gity Razaz, which include Persian influences; and the final Loop the Fractal Hold of Rain, which despite its scientific title features influences from bluegrass guitar. All these works include extended techniques (sample the second movement, "Shamans," of the Assad work, where a spoon is used to produce eerie guitar overtones), and the duo handles a large variety of technical demands well. Another star of the show is producer William Coulter, a guitarist himself, whose crystal clear, close-up guitar sound is absolutely exemplary. A truly pathbreaking recording that is greatly satisfying in its own right.
Duo Noire's debut recording for New Focus Recordings, Night Triptych, covers so many bases, and speaks so clearly to contemporary realities, that it immediately qualifies for several gold stars. But once you hear the sheer musicality of its premiere recordings of six new works for duo guitar, and how wonderfully they are played, you may be tempted to award the album several more.
For starters, Duo Noire is composed of two African-American men, both graduates of the Yale School of Music. Transcending the old New Music polarities of East Coast/West Coast, Christopher Mallett teaches at the University of California, Santa Cruz and co-owns the California Conservatory of Music near San Francisco, while Thomas Flippin teaches on the other coast, at both Concordia College Conservatory and the Diller-Quaile School of Music in New York.
Aware that less than 5% of the music performed on many concert series and recordings is by women, Thomas and Christopher set out to right the balance. "We felt like classical music was impoverishing itself by not including the artistry of incredibly gifted women composers like the ones we collaborated with on this album, who we feel have made extraordinary contributions to our instrument," they explain in the recording's press release (but not, curiously, in the album notes.)
Their choice of composers reflects more than their commitment to equality between the sexes. Grammy-nominated, Rio de Janeiro-born Clarice Assad (b.1978) is a Brazilian-American who has had commissions from Carnegie Hall and Chamber Music at Lincoln Center; Mary Kouyoumdjian (b.1983) is an Armenian-American with commissions from Carnegie Hall and Kronos Quartet; New Orleans native Courtney Bryan (b.1982) is an African-American whose music has been performed everywhere from Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and Symphony Space to the fabulous Ojai Music Festival; ECM Records artist Golfam Khayam (b.1983) was born in Tehran to a family of artists and plays both classical guitar and Persian setar; Gity Razaz (b.1986) was raised in a family of physicians in Tehran and emigrated to the US in her teens before becoming a Composer-in-Residence at National Sawdust in NYC and receiving commissions from Jeffrey Zeigler of Kronos, Ballet Moscow, and the Seattle Symphony; and Gabriella Smith (b.1991) is a white woman from the Bay Area whose compositions have been performed by Eighth Blackbird, Bang on a Can All-Stars, and more.
Anyone who is tempted to think that Night Triptych is mostly concerned with political correctness owes it to themselves to listen to these commissions. For compositions written solely for two guitars (or, in the case of Kouyoumdjian's "Byblos," guitars plus prerecorded back-up), the depth, variety, and range of colors is astounding. While the fact that I am just getting to know the amplifiers that have just entered my system leaves me reluctant to discuss the recording's sound quality in detail, I am quite impressed with its timbral range, air, and depth.
The music of Night Triptych is less about melody per se than about texture, atmosphere, and feeling. Auditioned via 24/96 files that are available from HDTracks, the performances are extremely tactile and sensual.
To say that each composition creates a world all its own only begins to tell the tale. You can get a surface sense of the nature of some of the pieces from the titles. "Hocus Pocus" (Assad) explores the magical effects of sound; "Byblos" (Kouyoumdjian) takes its name from an ancient Lebanese City; "Soli Deo Gloria" (Bryan) is a gospel- and jazz-infused journey through prayer; "Night Triptych" (Khayam) reflects the influence of contemporary classical and Persian ethnic music; "The Four Haikus" (Razaz) instructs the performers to approach its sections as either operatic recitatives or arias; and "Loop the Fractal Hold of Rain" (Smith) invokes interlocking loops and patterns and textures and rain via all-enveloping minimalism kinda sorta.
There's a goldmine of ideas and feelings here, whose riches will unveil themselves more and more over time.
Duo Noire consists of Thomas Flippin and Christopher Mallet. These guitarists are graduates of the Yale School of Music. For this, their debut album, they have chosen to feature a program of all women composers. Add to that the fact that these fine emerging artists are African-American (also the first African American graduates of Yale School of Music) and you have a glorious celebration of gender/cultural diversity as well as some mind blowing compositional efforts ably handled by these visionary musicians.
The demographics are necessarily prominent especially in these contentious times when racial and gender discrimination are, sadly, huge and difficult issues that remain largely unresolved. But the real story here is creative music and musicians. This duo seems to have a unique sound and are clearly schooled in their instruments to the point that they even seem to be expanding the very possibilities of a guitar duo. Above all this is an intelligent album.
The composers Clarice Assad (1978- ), Mary Kouyoumdjian (1983- ), Courtney Bryan (1982- ), Golfam Khayam (1983- ), Gity Razaz (1986- ), and Gabriella Smith (1991- ) are mostly unfamiliar names to this writer and, likely, to most listeners. But don’t let that put you off. This is a highly inventive set of compositions and these performers are doing the job of discovering these compositional talents.
There on six compositions on this thirteen track CD which has over an hour of music on it and it appears to be a landmark release for identifying new composers contributing to the guitar duo genre. Guitar duos are not an unusual instrumental grouping but this collection suggests fresh new directions that extend the possibilities of this instrumental configuration.
Of course the guitar duo is hardly a new idea. On the more pop side we have had Les Paul and Mary Ford and on the classical side many listeners will be familiar with Sergio and Odair Assad. And that brings us to Clarice Assad who is the daughter of Sergio Assad. Her composition, Hocus Pocus (2016) is in three movements, each ostensibly describing an aspect of magic. Clearly Assad is familiar with both traditional and extended techniques of composition for guitar. This is a sort of impressionistic work which calls upon the musicians to utilize a variety of techniques to evoke moods and images of each of the three movements, "Abracadabra!", "Shamans", and "Klutzy Witches".
Byblos (2017) by Mary Kouyoumdjian embraces her Persian roots as well as the conflicts which have plagued this area of the world. Here she is evoking an ancient town in Lebanon. This is the most extended single movement on the disc and demonstrates the composer’s mastery of form while it challenges the instrumentalists to evoke the ancient and mystical sounds of her classical culture.
The only African-American composer featured on this recording is Courtney Bryan. Her Solo Dei Gloria (2017) which was commissioned by Duo Noire takes the listener on a sonic journey through the composer’s impression of the inner process of prayer. That’s a mighty abstract concept and she manages accomplish it with just the two guitars (and, of course, two talented musicians).
The three movement, Night Triptych (2017) was also written for Duo Noire and has the honor of being the title track for this truly eclectic and innovative album. This has more the feel of an abstract musical work than the others featured but one does hear the influences of her ethnic origin (Persian/Iranian). Despite the more extended nature of this composition this work, like all the works presented here, is a sampling of the composer’s work and the astute listener will have many reasons to seek out more of this young composer’s work.
Four Haikus (2017) was also written for Duo Noire. This Iranian born composer is rapidly becoming established internationally as an accomplished composer. Like the previous work these four short movements are of a more abstract nature. Another sampling that will prompt listeners to seek out more of this emerging composer’s work.
Last but not least is the second most extended work here by the youngest of the composers represented. Loop the Fractal Hold of Rain (2017) is another Duo Noire commission. This is probably the most abstract and modern composition on the disc.
Many works here have at least the suggestion of dealing with politics, conflict, and the impact of such things on individuals.
It is admittedly unusual (though clearly not risky) to program compositions by all women composers. This is a wonderful collection with performances that are incisive and intriguing enough to leave their listeners wanting more. This is a group to watch/listen to.
-Allan J. Cronin, 8.9.18, New Music Buff
This brilliant album is a sparkling rejoinder to all who would respond to calls to diversify classical music with an “Of course - but quality is all that really matters!” So, here you have two African-American guitarists - the first two to ever graduate from Yale - playing music commissioned by them from female composers. Duo Noire checks so many boxes here that they’re almost in competition with Sacha Baron Cohen’s new character, that dolphin-loving liberal Dr. Nira Cain N’Degeocello, who takes PC to new heights of absurdity.
In a way the fictional interlocutor invoked above is right - quality IS all that matters. But good work is also where you find it and nothing will change in classical music unless people make the same kind of effort Thomas Flippin and Christopher Mallett have made here. They’ve obviously done their homework, tapping an international array of young composers (none were born before 1978) to expand the repertoire for two guitars in marvelous ways. Often using extended techniques and electronics, the works both transcend and exemplify the characteristics of the instruments. A perfect example is Byblos by Mary Kouyoumdjian, the second work here, which puts the guitars against a starlit electronic backdrop, allowing their tense arpeggios and riffs to bloom and almost become pure sound rather than the familiar acoustic textures. It should go without saying that this wouldn’t work without the Duo’s phenomenal technique.
The title piece, a three-part invention by Iranian-born Golfam Khayam, draws both on her Persian heritage and her interest in sound-art to arrive at a place of beauty that feels totally natural. Works by Clarice Assad, Courtney Bryan, Gity Razaz, and Gabriella Smith fill out the collection, which is a delight throughout. When ideology intersects with music it only advances the cause of both when the results are as compulsively listenable as what Duo Noire has put forth on Night Triptych. The album, out now on New Focus Recordings, is a complete success on all counts and if you are moved to seek out more music by the composers involved, further rewards will follow.
-Jeremy Shatan, 8.11.2018, An Earful
The American classical guitar Duo Noire released their latest album, Night Triptych, on June 22, 2018 with New Focus Recordings. Duo Noire is comprised of guitarists Thomas Flippin and Christopher Mallett, the first two African-American guitar graduates from the Yale School of Music. Night Triptych features world premiere recordings of newly commissioned works by Clarice Assad, Courtney Bryan, Golfam Khayam, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Gity Razaz, and Gabriella Smith.
In fact, this album was conceived as a commissioning project focused on female composers. Duo Noire says, “Our eyes were opened to the ways in which, year after year, many major concert series and albums feature less than 5% of music by women. We felt like classical music was impoverishing itself by not including the artistry of incredibly gifted women composers like the ones we collaborated with on this album, who we feel have made extraordinary contributions to our instrument.”
The resulting music indeed showcases the broad range of sound, colors, and techniques possible on the guitar. This is a particularly notable contribution in the realm of new music, where music for acoustic guitar in any form is sorely underrepresented. (I’ve even heard the instrument described by composers and performers as “old fashioned and inflexible,” with the implication that guitarists ought to stick to historical performance practice, leaving new music to instruments with a better ability to project.) Thanks to delving into this refreshing and musically diverse offering from Duo Noire, though, listeners will expand their understanding of the kinds of sounds that may be drawn from this beautiful instrument. And not only that–the Duo achieves their sonic explorations with an impeccable sense of ensemble and easy musicianship that sounds like they’ve been playing together for decades. The disc is a delight.
The album opens with a tantalizing three-movement tour-de-force called Hocus Pocus. The composer, Clarice Assad, is the daughter of a member of one of the world’s great guitar duos (the Assad Brothers), and she plays guitar herself. It shows in this piece–in a good way. Each movement illustrates a distinct characteristic sound in the guitars: the first movement is clownish, the second features playful and sudden contrasts between lyricism and improvised sound effects, and the third movement concludes the piece with jaunty flair.
The next offering by Mary Kouyoumdjian pairs the guitar duo with otherworldly electronics, a deconstructed Middle Eastern dance in a nod to her family. The electronics provide atmosphere and slowly rise to a more feverish pitch, synthesized timbres melding in and out with guitar tremolos. The third piece, Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God Alone) by Courtney Bryan, works on the listener very deliberately as a sort of musical prayer, drawing on the influence of jazz, gospels, spirituals, and hymns. The composition is harmonically and rhythmically rich, and the Duo are deliciously indulgent in their phrasing and pacing.
Iranian composer Golfam Khayam wrote the fourth piece on the album, the title track Night Triptych. Khayam’s study of Persian strummed instruments has encouraged her exploration of extended techniques for classical guitar, on full display in this work, especially in the middle movement, which uses percussive hits, scraps, and chopsticks and pencils to great effect. Listeners will revel in the third movement, which has gorgeous moments of introspection, harmonics, and light flourishes melding over drones that create an almost aromatic texture.
The penultimate piece by Gity Razaz, also an Iranian-born composer, asks Duo Noire to draw on the influence of operatic recitatives and arias, but within short-form musical “Haikus.” Haiku is exactly right for the first movement of the piece–the slowly “vocalized” phrases punctuated by chords that become like questions hanging in the air. The second movement has impressive interplay and unified tempo changes–a virtuosic showpiece for their sense of ensemble, while the third movement is more romantically pensive. The fourth movement returns to the interplay, but in a more frenetic and almost panicked mood, unrelentingly performed by the duo.
Finally, the Duo offers Loop the Fractal Hold of Rain by Gabriella Smith. The notes say that this piece is inspired by “Americana,” including “bluegrass” and “funky riffs,” which combine for a quirky sense of fun and athleticism. Extremely effective use of extended techniques allows the piece to play out with excellent depth and contour, not to mention the masterclass in these techniques thanks to a commanding performance from the duo.
A brief note about the programming: At first, I did wonder if the idea behind this set of commissions was to feature what Pauline Oliveros once called “lady composers”, but it is clear that in offering this disc, Duo Noire are making an earnest attempt to fill what they see as a hole in the literature for guitar. I applaud them for this effort, and I urge them to continue working as advocates and allies. It is vital to address structural inequalities in the classical and new music worlds, and the work must be ongoing and as inclusive as possible in order to be effective.
In total, the six pieces on Night Triptych draw the listener through an imaginative world full of one new acoustic discovery after another. Duo Noire transitions between extended and standard techniques with virtuosic ease, using their athletic and beautifully focused sound to project musicianship in perfect ensemble.
-Brianna Matzke, 8.15.2018, I Care If You Listen
In something a little under an hour guitar Duo Noire treat us to six New Music duos for classical guitar. All this in the new album Night Triptych (New Focus FCR210), the title of which is derived from the composition of the same name by Golfam Khayam.
Duo Noire, aka Thomas Flippin and Christopher Mallett are talented exponents of the contemporary classical guitar, with technique to spare and an interpretive acumen that serves them well in bringing to us the subtleties and sonic pleasures of each composition in the program. As I listened repeatedly to the offering I was reminded that there is something of a consensus nowadays as to the firmly grounded middle ground upon which contemporary classical guitar music currently stands. The edge of conventional soundings are a part of the presentation, a harmonic-melodic adventuresomeness, and a kind of synthesis of what the guitar has been and can be classically but also as drawn out of general guitar practice in the past century. The result is a sort of state-of-the-art view of what we can understand and appreciate today.
So as a whole there are bellwether bench marks and distinctive sound universes to be had in the program at large. It gives us Clarice Assad's Hocus Pocus, Mary Kouyoumdjian's Byblos, Courtney Bryan's Soli Deo Gloria, the previously mentioned Night Triptych, Gity Razaz's Four Haikus, and finally Gabriella Smith's Loop the Fractal Hold of Rain. All the composers are living and all the works show a great respect for the traditional and more modern idiomatic world of the guitar and its special sounds.
This program is a bit of a sleeper. Nothing introduces itself with skyrockets and 28 tuba fanfares, and so much the better because the music and performances stand out after a while of listens. It is thoroughgoing, most musical in design. It is not music to upset the applecart of assumptions in the contemporary music spheres. It does not need to do that because one gets something of lasting worth not just a shock blast of newness! I most definitely recommend this to any with an interest in New Music for guitar. Bravo!
-Grego Applegate Edwards, 7.26.2018, Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review
Duo Noire’s album "Night Triptych" (on New Focus Recordings) checks off a number of socially-relevant and politically-charged boxes. Given that it’s an album made by a pair of African-American guitarists — Thomas Flippin and Christopher Mallett — playing music by six women composers born since 1978, three of whom hail, one way or another, from the Middle East, how could it not?
Not to worry, though: "Night Triptych" isn’t just an exercise in musico-political activism (though, in a few ways, it’s a great example of that). Rather, its first strengths rest precisely where they should: in the music and the sheer excellence of the performances that catch the ear and don’t let it go.
Clarice Assad’s Hocus Pocus, for one, channels humor and mystery with some beguiling sonic textures over its three movements (“Abracadabra!,” “Shamans,” and “Klutzy Witches”). Her fluency writing for the ensemble is always striking, especially in the brilliantly flexible finale.
Mary Kouyoumdjian’s Byblos draws on the composer’s Lebanese-Armenian heritage, seeming to evoke the imagined sounds and gestures of ancient Lebanese folk music. Its mix of mystery and tough, dancing energy is beautifully – and hauntingly – executed.
Courtney Bryan’s Soli Deo Gloria offers a similar blend of focused devotion and explosive energy.
As in the Kouyoumdjian, Golfam Khayam’s title track draws on Middle Eastern ethnic music (in this case from the composer’s native Iran), as well as numerous contemporary Western extended techniques. Sensuous flourishes mark the dolorous opening “Improvisatory” while violent figures explode across the central “Quasi Furioso.” The finale, though, brings the work to a tender, lyrical close.
Gity Razaz is the album’s other Iran-born composer. Her Four Haikus are a set of touching miniatures: lushly scored and impassioned over the first three, playful in the concluding fourth.
Gabriella Smith’s Loop the Fractal Hold of Rain wraps up the album in a blaze of excitement with wild, looped glissandos giving way to folk-like refrains and tangy, bent-note figures before eliding into a surprisingly moving coda.
Mallett and Flippin play the whole program with terrific panache. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine more engaged or sympathetic performances of any of these pieces and the guitarists’ command of the varied stylistic demands between all six is faultless. An important disc, sure, but, even more, an inviting one that takes you to some fresh places well worth experiencing.
-Jonathan Blumhofer, 9.15.2018, The Arts Fuse
Women of non-European origin remain underrepresented in the classical guitar world. Among those helping change the situation are guitarists and teachers Thomas Flippin and Christopher Mallett, who together comprise Duo Noire, Not that they are on a crusade, they just want the best new music by the best composers. In the works they've commissioned here, those composers are women from diverse ethnic backgrounds, and the music really is terrific: original, colourful, exciting and taking advantage of everything two guitars have to offer in the way of technique, tone and timbre, It helps that the music also has such talented advocates, who embrace opportunities to improvise and embellish with style and gusto.
The three movement Hocus Pocus, by Brazilian-American composer Clarice Assad — daughter of Sergio Assad of the famous guitar-playing Assad Brothers — is magical in more ways than one, as fun as it is virtuosic. By contrast, Armenian-American composer Mary Kouyoumdjian's Byblos evokes the ancient history of that Lebanese city, while New Orleans composer and pianist Courtney Bryan's Soil Deo Gloria takes us into a different sonic world filled with spirituals, hymns and jazz.
The influence of Persian music is heard in suites by two composers originally hailing from Tehran — Golfam Khayam's Night Triptych and Gity Razaz's Four Haikus — before San Francisco composer Gabriella Smith's sparkling, sometimes plain crazy Loop the Fractal Hold of Rain ends this marvellous recital.
-Will Yeoman, 10.16.18, Limelight Magazine, 4.5 stars
Flippin and Mallett perform as Duo Noire. I reviewed Flippin’s solo disc—a pleasant but not especially impressive recital (S/O 2013). This is more interesting: all the works were written for the duo and are first recordings.
That all the works are new is seen by the birth dates of the composers—only Clarice Assad was born before 1981 (1978), so it’s a good bet that these are 21st Century compositions. And each is experimental in one form or another—though not the conceptionally experimental that was expected from new music in the past, but in that the composers are calling for new ways of making sounds. Special effects abound, particularly percussive sounds or other passages of approximate pitch. It works best in small doses.
Assad’s three-movement work, Hocus Pocus, is the most amusing—each makes a joke of traditional magical images. Even the name of the third piece, "Klutzy Witches", shows her playfulness. Several works have a minimalist character, notably Gabriella Smith’s Loop the Fractal Hold of Rain, which also has the silliest title of the lot. In Mary Kouyoumdjian’s Byblos, another minimalist work, there is an odd, high-pitched drone. It’s too sustained to be done by one of the guitarists, though I can’t recognize where it’s coming from, and no other instruments are credited.
The only work free of such effects is Gity Razaz’s Four Haikus; it is also my favorite here—and the only piece consistently beautiful. The notes do not discuss the meaning of the title. The pieces are short, but without the absolute concentration in minimal materials that would be found in a Haiku.
Duo Noire plays all with a fine technical command and a sense of the heart of each piece, whether playful or mysterious. The effects are all realized well, with no sense of struggle and a clear feel for what is intended.
A word about the demographics may be in order here—Flippin and Mallett are both African-American, and all the composers are women. Of those, Smith is from California. The others: one Armenian (Kouyoumdjian), two Iranians (Khayam and Razaz), a Brazilian (Assad), and an African-American from New Orleans (Bryan). There is, of course, no reason why guitarists or composers have to be old white guys like me, but that isn’t why the music is worth hearing; it’s worthy music, crafted and performed well.
-Kenneth Keaton, 10.31.18, American Record Guide
Night Triptych (New Focus Recordings) is the debut album from Duo Noire (guitarists Thomas Flippin and Christopher Mallett). Night Triptych features world premiere recordings of newly commissioned works by Clarice Assad, Courtney Bryan, Golfam Khayam, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Gity Razaz, and Gabriella Smith.
On Night Triptych, Duo Noire not only addresses the paucity of contemporary guitar music, but also the overwhelming lack of composer diversity in the guitar canon. The result of this commissioning and recording project is an album rich with stylistic influences, including traces of blues slide guitar (Smith’s Loop the Fractal Hold), solemn hymns (Bryan’s Soli Deo Gloria), and the guitar’s Middle Eastern cousin: the oud (Kouyoumdjian’s Byblos and Razaz’s Four Haikus).
-Amanda Cook, 12.21.18, I Care If You Listen