Ensemble Dal Niente: confined. speak.


Chicago based Ensemble Dal Niente releases confined. speak., a collection of works the group programmed in streaming performances during this past year. Despite the formidable hurdles associated with ensemble playing during the lockdown, Dal Niente presented concerts and took advantage of the ability to collaborate across vast distances. This album chronicles highlights from those events, featuring music by Melissa Vargas, George Lewis, Tomás Gueglio, Hilda Paredes, Igor Santos, and Andile Khumalo that reflects broad geographic influences from South America, North America, and Africa.


# Audio Title/Composer(s) Performer(s) Time
Total Time 63:34
01confined. speak.
confined. speak.
Ensemble Dal Niente, MingHuan Xu, violin, Winston Choi, piano13:17
02Demente Cuerda
Demente Cuerda
Ensemble Dal Niente, Ben Melsky, harp, Emma Hospelhorn, flute, Andrew Nogal, oboe, Zachary Good, clarinet, Ben Roidl-Ward, bassoon, Matthew Oliphant, french horn, Kyle Flens, percussion, Colin McCall, percussion, Tara Lynn Ramsey, violin, Caitlin Edwards, violin, Ammie Brod, viola, Juan Horie, cello, Edward Kass, double bass, Michael Lewanski, conductor15:02
03Triste y madrigal
Triste y madrigal
Ensemble Dal Niente, Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, soprano, Emma Hospelhorn, flute, Matthew Oliphant, french horn, Ben Melsky, harp, Jesse Langen, electric guitar, Tara Lynn Ramsey, violin, Michael Lewanski, conductor7:53
04Merce and Baby
Merce and Baby
Ensemble Dal Niente, Constance Volk, flute, Kyle Flens, percussion, Tara Lynn Ramsey, violin, Chris Wild, cello, Michael Lewanski, conductor9:13
05Es casi como el inicio... y comienza
Es casi como el inicio... y comienza
Ensemble Dal Niente, Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, soprano, Katie Jimoh, clarinet, Jesse Langen, guitar, Kyle Flens, percussion5:37
06Beyond Her Mask
Beyond Her Mask
Ensemble Dal Niente, Carrie Henneman Shaw, soprano, Constance Volk, flute, Andrew Nogal, oboe, Katie Jimoh, clarinet, Matthew Oliphant, french horn, Mabel Kwan, piano, Kyle Flens, percussion, Tara Lynn Ramsey, violin, Ammie Brod, viola, Juan Horie, cello, Michael Lewanski, conductor12:32

As with many new music groups, Chicago based Ensemble Dal Niente drew on deep resources of invention during the last couple of years to continue to present work that channeled our contemporary moment into sound. confined.speak. documents that work, specifically featuring five works that they championed during this period. These works reflect stark dichotomies that shaped these last eighteen months — enforced isolation and restricted movement mixed with a neutralizing of distance and geographic hurdles due to the migration of most activity to the virtual realm. The result is a rich snapshot of one ensemble’s fruitful work in the time of Covid, with composers representing three continents who share a sensibility of digging beneath the expected and discovering a fresh way to manifest forces pulling us in many directions.

Igor Santos’ title track expresses confinement in various ways — through constricted timbres such as the use of mutes, variegated bow pressure techniques, and inside the piano textures; through taut repetitive loops that mechanize the texture; and through a limited pitch language. Watery chord clusters in the piano accompany poignant muted double stops in the violin, an aria echoing off the walls inside one’s own mind.

Hilda Paredes’ kaleidoscopic harp concerto, Demente Cuerda (translated as either “demented string” or “of sound mind”) explores the intersection and divergence between the harp’s delicate timbre and the diverse colors of the ensemble. The work has a rhapsodic spirit, with vibrant, composite instrumental gestures melding together to create sinewy hybrid lines. The ensemble seems to grow out of the lush sound of the harp, indeed creating a large extended hybrid instrument of sorts, shadowing its twists and turns.

Read More

Tomás Gueglio’s Triste y madrigal is the first of three works featuring voice on the program. Soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett adopts a silvery, quasi-straight tone approach over a murky, ambiguous accompaniment of nocturnal utterances and interjections in the ensemble. This sonic bog gradually becomes more animated and engaged with the foreground melodic material before the texture is suddenly interrupted by an automated voice overlaid with orchestral interludes and voice clips from 1940’s melodrama. The cool, detached quality of the main voice and ensemble material juxtaposed with the nostalgic flashback to a bygone time echoes what many of us experienced during lockdown, a yearning for a richer emotional experience that we could only access through memory.

On Merce and Baby, George Lewis imagines the music that may have resulted from a documented collaboration between choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham and jazz drummer Baby Dodds. Short imitative gestures bounce through the quartet like bird song, energized by a vigorous, off-kilter percussion part. Embedded within the texture is a microtonal quotation of John Cage’s solo piano work Cheap Imitation. An extended lyrical violin solo passage and subsequent interwoven trio section provides a contrasting energy. By reimagining this historical meeting of the minds, Lewis shines light on one of many fruitful intersections between creative music in the white and black communities that have not been adequately recognized.

Melissa Vargas’ Es casi como el inicio... y comienza is written in non-metrical notation, instead orienting the pace of material around a clock timer. Deliberately drawn out instrumental gestures lay a foundation for wild, melismatic syllabic passages in the voice.

Andile Khumalo’s Beyond Her Mask confronts violence against women in his native South Africa. Khumalo used spectral analysis of the percussion instrument the Lion’s Roar and the human voice to generate material for the score. An impactful spoken text is painted by dramatic, coloristic orchestration in the ensemble. Khumalo creates an ethereal, surreal musical landscape, aptly capturing the line in the text, “Reality melts into a symphony of feelings and fleeting moments.” What a resonant image indeed for an album that chronicles a moment in time when our collective reality became suddenly suspended and driven inward.

– Dan Lippel

Engineering: Aphorism Studios; Dan Nichols and Mark Alletag Assistants Brandon Bott, Qi Yun

Mastering: Fredrick Gifford

Album artwork: alejandro t. acierto; Good Thomas Design, Natalie Mills Bontumasi

Additional technical support: Igor Santos

Dal Niente 2020/2021 Staff: Ben Melsky, Executive Director; Tomás Gueglio, Ensemble Manager; Emma Hospelhorn, Publicity Director; Igor Santos, Technical Director; Kyle Flens, Audience Development Director; Ammie Brod, Social Media

Artistic Programming Committee: Ben Melsky, Michael Lewanski, Amanda DeBoer Bartlett,

Tara Lynn Ramsey, Tomás Gueglio, Mabel Kwan, Emma Hospelhorn

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.


Igor Santos

Igor Santos is native of Curitiba, Brazil and has been based in Chicago for many years. A winner of the Rome Prize, his music has been performed internationally by leading musicians such as Ensemble Dal Niente, Ensemble Modern, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Alarm Will Sound, Eighth Blackbird, POING, the American Composers Orchestra, and The Florida Orchestra. In addition to writing concert music, he served as Technical Director for Ensemble Dal Niente, and composes for theater productions throughout the US and Europe. Please visit:


Hilda Paredes

Hilda Paredes is firmly established as one of the leading Mexican composers of her generation, and has been based in London for 35 years. While there is a testimony of constant collaboration with Mexican poets and artists in her works, she also draws inspiration from music and cultures from around the world. She studied at the National Conservatory of Music in Mexico City with Mario Lavista, and was an active participant in master classes at Dartington Summer School, studying with Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle, and Richard Rodney Bennett.


Tomás Gueglio

Tomás Gueglio is an Argentine composer based in Chicago. His music devises surreal and unique sound worlds through purposefully blending a variety of musical lineages and styles. Private languages, the logic of dreams, melodramas, and radio soap operas feature as central metaphors in his recent work. In addition to composing, he works as Ensemble Manager for Ensemble Dal Niente, and as Music Theory and Aural Skills Lecturer at Northwestern University.


George Lewis

George E. Lewis has been a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) since 1971, Lewis's work in electronic and computer music, computer-based multimedia installations, and notated and improvisative forms is documented on more than 140 recordings. His work has been presented by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonia Orchestra, Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Talea Ensemble, Dinosaur Annex, Ensemble Pamplemousse, Wet Ink, Ensemble Erik Satie, Eco Ensemble, and others, with commissions from American Composers Orchestra, International Contemporary Ensemble, Harvestworks, Ensemble Either/Or, Orkestra Futura, Turning Point Ensemble, San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, 2010 Vancouver Cultural Olympiad, IRCAM, Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, and others. Lewis has served as Ernest Bloch Visiting Professor of Music, University of California, Berkeley; Paul Fromm Composer in Residence, American Academy in Rome; Resident Scholar, Center for Disciplinary Innovation, University of Chicago; and CAC Fitt Artist In Residence, Brown University.

Lewis received the 2012 SEAMUS Award from the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States, and his book, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press, 2008) received the American Book Award and the American Musicological Society’s Music in American Culture Award. Lewis is co-editor of the two-volume Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies (2016), and his opera Afterword, commissioned by the Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry at the University of Chicago, premiered at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in October 2015 and has been performed in the United States, United Kingdom, and the Czech Republic.

Professor Lewis is the Edwin H. Case Professor of American Music at Columbia University. A 2015 Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy, Lewis has received a MacArthur Fellowship (2002), a Guggenheim Fellowship (2015), a United States Artists Walker Fellowship (2011), an Alpert Award in the Arts (1999), and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2015, Lewis received the degree of Doctor of Music (DMus, honoris causa) from the University of Edinburgh. He came to Columbia in 2004, having previously taught at the University of California, San Diego, Mills College, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Koninklijke Conservatorium Den Haag, and Simon Fraser University's Contemporary Arts Summer Institute. Lewis studied composition with Muhal Richard Abrams at the AACM School of Music, and trombone with Dean Hey.

Melissa Vargas

Melissa Vargas studied Musical Arts [composition] at the ASAB Department of Arts of the District University Francisco José de Caldas in Bogotá, Colombia and completed her Masters in Artistic Studies at the same institution. Vargas researches women composers in Latin America and Colombia. She is curator/producer/ founder of the contemporary and experimental concert cycle libres en el sonido, carried out at the cultural venue *matik-matik*, and is co-founder of the Festival Mujeres en la Música Nueva.


Andile Khumalo

Andile Khumalo is a South African composer and a music lecturer at the University of Witwatersrand. In 2013, he completed his Doctor of Musical Arts at Columbia University under the supervision of George Lewis, where he also studied with Fabien Levy and Tristan Murail. Prior to his DMA, Khumalo studied under Marco Stroppa at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst Stuttgart (HMDKS) and with Jürgen Bräuninger at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Please visit: music.columbia.edu/bios/andile-khumalo

13 Oct, 2022

New Focus releases on 2022 Grammy Ballot

New Focus releases on 2022 Grammy Ballot: Jennifer Grim (Best Classical Instrumental Solo, Best Contemporary Composition [David Sanford Offertory], Best Engineered Album/Classical https://www.newfocusrecordings.com/catalogue/jennifer-grim-through-broken-time/ String Orchestra of Brooklyn/Leilehua Lanzilotti and Scott Wollschleger (Best Orchestral Performance, Best Contemporary Composition …

Read More



I Care If You Listen

Ensemble Dal Niente, a staunch Chicago-based purveyor of new music, is not like other groups. Since its inception in 2004, Dal Niente — “from nothing,” in Italian — has gravitated to largely atonal scores that fall within the orbit of the very challenging and even the cacophonous and bizarre. Their latest album, confined. speak. (New Focus Recordings), highlights the ensemble’s activities during the pandemic while documenting a period of uncertainty in the performing arts.

Led by conductor Michael Lewanski, Dal Niente consists of a flexible core of instrumentalists who are attuned to the multiculturalism of our time. confined. speak. features composers from Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, South Africa, and the U.S., some of whom live or have lived in Europe. The six selections are culled from the group’s live-streamed concerts between October 2020 and June 2021, for which a worldwide audience tuned in, even if the halls were empty.

The title cut, a duet for violin and piano by Igor Santos, speaks to that dichotomy. Santos juxtaposes episodes of arrested communication — represented by nontraditional and mostly dissonant techniques — with flurries of throbbing release, in which the duet synchronizes into rhythmically tangible statements. Violinist MingHuan Xu attaches a mute to the bridge, which gives her bowing a mosquito-like buzz, while pianist Winston Choi is tasked with exploiting the instrument’s inherent resonance by making echoey sounds directly on the strings and tapping around and under the keyboard.

The violin crescendos into a funky groove with the piano; Xu plays loud, muted pizzicatos — note the contradiction — as Choi creates a deep thumping by loudly depressing the piano’s damper pedal while striking the lowest strings directly inside. Choi slams the fallboard and scrapes plastic cards against the tuning pegs. But this violence against the piano is warranted: Santos has a knack for creating techno-like beats with acoustic instruments — sometimes you’d swear more than two people are playing — while casting them into an architectural mold. By the end of the piece, you can make sense of the apparent discordance on the surface.

Scored for 13 players, Demente Cuerda by Hilda Paredes is a crusty harp concerto featuring Ben Melsky, who is also Dal Niente’s Executive Director. The title is a play on words in Spanish: depending on your spacing in writing, or on your emphasis in speech, “demente cuerda” can mean “of a sound mind” or “mad string.”

The concerto emerges from the lowest and murkiest of registers, as if from a thick mist, with bass clarinet and a corrosive buzz from wildly plucked harp strings. A glissando introduces the full ensemble; what were disparate textural fragments begin to coalesce, with piccolo and mallet percussion piercing through the former fogginess. Melsky’s bold strokes and abrupt plucking are often followed by a shimmer from the ensemble, like an afterglow. Blowing into the flute and into the mouthpiece of the horn, string glissandos and tremolos, and undulating overtones from the vibraphone all add a surreal effect.

A rumbling also opens Andile Khumalo’s Beyond Her Mask, which gives way to skittish strings and wordless ethereal vocals by soprano Carrie Henneman Shaw. But the vocals immediately turn into a rasping grunt — Khumalo is interested in the spectral analysis of sound — and then into recitation. The menacing atmosphere starts to churn with a restless clarinet and assorted percussion; airy, whispery woodwinds afford a temporary hush, later offset by an otherworldly buzzing from the horn. A heartbeat pattern waxes and wanes, perhaps suggesting the struggle and resilience of the women represented in the recitation; the text, uncredited, faces violence against women in South Africa, where Khumalo is from. The harrowing piece ends with the words “everything about me worth seeing cannot be seen,” over soft, faraway piano triads.

Shorter, but equally intriguing works by Tomás Gueglio, Melissa Vargas, and George Lewis round out the album. The latter’s Merce and Baby, from 2012, is a showpiece for jazz percussion; Kyle Flens channels the spirit of the titular jazz drummer Baby Dodds.

Gueglio’s Triste y madrigal consists of a soft incantation by soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett that becomes a little numbing combined with a static backdrop of whistling flutes and wisps from a distant violin. A similarly sparse soundscape of sorrowful clarinet, soft cymbal splashes, and an acoustic guitar with affected vibrato makes the bulk of Vargas’ Es casi como el inicio… y comienza, but the piece evolves when Bartlett jabbers in a rapid-fire glossolalia, then takes off into a wordless full-throated belting.

Balanced and thoroughly captivating, confined. speak. ponders last year’s downturn and stands for the countless groups that took to social media during the temporary suspension of live music to remain active and purposeful. The solitary experience of listening to the album at home replicates, in a more intimate manner, the somewhat paradoxical position Dal Niente found themselves in. This “live album,” performed for a vacant theater, has been transformed into something different, as the previous simultaneity in space and time between performers and audiences shifts to a looser, perhaps less poignant interchange.

— Esteban Meneses, 11.29.2021


The WholeNote

The Chicago based Ensemble Dal Niente releases a collection of works that were streamed during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. With each work offering a variety of experimental techniques and sound worlds, this music reveals the ensemble’s incredible musical abilities. Igor Santos’ confined. speak. is a post-Lachenmannian work that explores themes of “confinement and liberation.” Santos’ music is carefully crafted and contains an impressive series of magical events. The harp concerto of Hilda Paredes, titled Demente Cuerda, contains endless virtuosic gestures for both soloist and ensemble members – all of which are expertly performed. With Tomás Gueglio’s Triste y madrigal we receive a delicate and mysterious soprano part amid outlandish restlessness in the ensemble – a beautifully enigmatic work. In Merce and Baby by George Lewis, the composer creates an imagined musical scenario that exists only in the documentation of a collaboration between jazz drummer Baby Dodds and avantgarde dancer Merce Cunningham in the 1940s. Finally, Andile Khumalo’s Beyond Her Mask is a disturbing and important statement that confronts violence against women in South Africa. Ensemble Dal Niente delivers stunning performances of works that truly speak to our time.

— Adam Scime, 12.15.2021


Take Effect

Despite the enormous obstacles faced with playing concerts this past year, Chicago’s Ensemble Dal Niente documents their recent collaborations here, where they feature several composers that touch on sounds from South America, North America and Africa.

The title track opens the listen with interesting bow techniques, where timbre manipulation and atypical piano textures illuminate the Igor Santos tune, and Hilda Paredes’ Demente Cuerda follows with an initially haunting climate of precise harp playing that’s capable of lush moments, as well as quivering intimacy.

Tomás Gueglio’s Triste y madrigal occupies the middle spot and benefits from Amanda DeBoer Bartlett’s soprano in the primarily bare orchestral climate, while Merce and Baby meshes violin and percussion in all sorts of unpredictable ways that illustrate creative gesturing in the George Lewis composition.

Es casi como el inicio…y comienza, by Melissa Vargas, resides near the end and showcases a minimal delivery where vocals are used like an instrument, and Andile Khumalo’s Beyond Her Mask exits the listen with spoken text about violence against women that flows amid a busy landscape of ambient, playful and even dreamy instrumentation.

A very well thought out chamber focused listen, the 23 members of Ensemble Dal Niente make for an adventure that can at times be stirring and stripped back, just as it can be majestic and full, and these 6 pieces do a great job of spotlighting their profound talents.

— Tom Haugen, 12.29.2021



The location is an ocean away, but the ensemble size is similar for the ultra-modern music on a New Focus Recordings CD called Dal Niente Portrait 2020-2021. As the disc’s title indicates, the focus here is as much on the performers – the Chicago-based, 23-member Ensemble Dal Niente – as on the six works presented. Three of those include vocals and three are instrumental, that word defined rather loosely because the material tends to be aggressively modernistic, not only through electronic modification but also through extending performing techniques and instrumental sounds far beyond what listeners (other than those already firmly committed to the musical avant-garde) might expect to hear. The connective tissue of this CD is both geographical (as it is for the Laetare Vocal Ensemble’s disc) and anti-geographical: from its Chicago base, Ensemble Dal Niente created a series of virtual collaborative performances spanning three continents during the pandemic-forced closings and lockdowns of the 2020-2021 time period, reaching out virtually at a time when in-person music-making was simply not possible. Cleverness and creative response to an unprecedented-in-our-lifetime situation abound here, not only in the organization of the disc but also in the works themselves, whether or not they were created during the COVID-19 pandemic. The oldest piece on the CD, dating to 2004, is in some ways the most intriguing of all. It is Hilda Paredes’ harp concerto Demente Cuerda, whose title as written means “crazed string” but, if written de mente cuerda, would mean “of sound mind.” That is very neat word play (or almost-word play), and the work offers some attractive contrasts between the harp’s delicacy and the massed sound of the other instruments – although the interplay somewhat overstays its welcome by going on for 15 minutes. Another instrumental piece here is Igor Santos’ confined. speak. (titled using no capital letters and two periods – typical affectations for some contemporary composers). This piece does date to pandemic times (2020) and is intended to express confinement with musical means, ranging from mutes to limited pitch use. It does not, however, really sound very different from many other self-consciously modern instrumental works. George Lewis’ Merce and Baby (2012), however, does have some out-of-the-ordinary sounds. The title refers to choreographer/dancer Merce Cunningham and jazz drummer Baby Douds, and the piece is interesting not only for its easily anticipated forays into percussion but also for its less-expected willingness to lapse into lyricism for a while. The three vocal works on the CD are, on the whole, less interesting. Triste y madrigal (2021) by Tomás Gueglio has nothing to do with Monteverdi and everything to do with sound assemblage, containing some actual soprano passages, some voice clips from the 1940s, and instrumental material that ranges from murky to perky – a good reflection of the bizarrerie of pandemic-era life, but not a work that is particularly convincing to hear. The form, not the function, rules Melissa Vargas’ 2010 Es casi como el inicio…y comienza (the ellipsis is, yes, part of the title): a clock timer is used to pace broad instrumental passages that contrast with screechy vocals. And Andile Khumalo’s Beyond Her Mask (2021) tries to reflect not only pandemic times but also violence against women in Khumalo’s native South Africa, using a gratifyingly clear spoken text mixed with instrumental passages that do not really add much to the verbiage. This hit-or-miss assemblage of modernity in the time of COVID-19 will please fans of Ensemble Dal Niente, for whom it will appear to evoke emotional connection dal niente (out of nothing); but there is nothing here sufficiently engaging or convincing to reach out to listeners who are not already enthralled by the most-modern aspects of today’s music scene.


Vital Weekly

Ensemble Dal Niente did not stop working across the Covid years and here presents a collection of works they live-streamed during 2020 and 2021. The release sports six compositions by Melissa Vargas, George Lewis, Tomás Gueglio, Hilda Paredes, Igor Santos, and Andile Khumalo. Although you would expect a variety of styles, the ensemble manages to deliver a very consistent album of modern classical music.

Maybe the music was written especially to the needs of Dal Niente, maybe it was the times, maybe it was the choice of composers. The Chicago-based musicians make best use of the instruments at their disposal and from track 3 onwards a soprano voice joins the ensemble and is used to best effect. Sometimes reminding of the way Zeitkratzer use instruments to produce 'noise' and expand the classical modern universe towards electronic and abstract repertoires, Dal Niente uses some of these elements, meandering between single instrument shout-outs and ensemble vehemence, in an approach that reminds more of the early and mid-20th Century composers than contemporary classical music.

The last track is by South African composer Andile Khumalo, who here confronts violence against women. It consists of a musical score with an added soprano voice that also includes some spoken word passages. As usual, these are presented with excessive drama, and if I had not read the press release, I would have had a completely different take on what the composer's aim was. Personally, I would prefer not having an over-dramatised voice overlaying music, though I understand the composer's intentions.



In a statement of intent titled I Care If You Listen, one finds either enticement or a warning about the contents of this CD: “Ensemble Dal Niente, a staunch Chicago-based purveyor of new music, is not like other groups. Since its inception in 2004, Dal Niente—‘from nothing,’ in Italian—has gravitated to largely atonal scores that fall within the orbit of the very challenging and even the cacophonous and bizarre.” But if you have a settled interest in contemporary music, I think the enticement outweighs the warning. There are harsh sounds on the program, some of which many listeners wouldn’t call musical, but these do not predominate.

The “portrait 2020:2021” in the album’s subtitle refers to the fact that the six works here were performed remotely during the pandemic lockdown. Dal Niente, as with many contemporary ensembles, varies the instrumentation according to the work at hand; here the numbers range from a violin-and-piano duo in Igor Santos’s confined.speak to a chamber group of 13 for Hilda Paredes’s Demente Cuerda; three works call for a soprano vocalist. Although Santos’s piece provided the disc’s title, it is safe to say that being confined and feeling the urge to speak unifies all six composers and the multiple performers.

Santos’s confined.speak addresses confinement literally in the form of abrupt, interrupted gestures and a small range of notes. The use of mutes on the violin and inside the piano is so extreme that I mistook them for electronic augmentation. The sounds are natural, yet some of the time one barely recognizes the ordinary voice of the two instruments. The opening, for example, sounds like an electrified violin falling down stairs. There is no marked tonality, and the pianist is stumming or plucking inside the case as much as he is striking the keys. From such a description you might expect chaos, either organized or disorganized, but this is an effectively dramatic piece whose 13 minutes are constantly absorbing once you adapt to the idiom.

Adaptation is the key to appreciating any avant-garde art, but there is a secondary issue with this disc, in that each piece announces its own language, so the listener’s ear needs to be resilient. In the case of Peredes’s Demente cuerda, the title is double-edged, referring to psychological states that alternated during the lockdown: demente cuerda means “demented string,” while de mente cuerda means “of sound mind.” This dichotomy emerges sonically in the gentle tones of harp and flute at the top range of the 13 instruments, contrasted with the blows from two percussionists. Peredes fills 15 minutes with mostly short gestures that spin a kaleidoscope of colors, rather oddly like Ravel’s Bolero if you can imagine Bolero totally discombobulated.

Tomás Gueglio’s Triste y madrigal is the first work to use a singer, the gently lyrical soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, who sings a text I couldn’t understand without the text (it isn’t provided). The dreamy opening leads to snatches of spoken word and radio dialogue from 1940s melodramas in Spanish. This collage is inventive and creates the atmosphere of a happening—the program notes describe the piece as an “oneiric radio drama,” which is perfectly apt once you look up the meaning of “oneiric,” which refers to dreams. The soprano floats vaporously, often with an underpinning of harp, guitar, and flute. Dissonance is largely absent as the listener is enveloped in a haunting dreamscape. It is easy to identify with the feeling that the entire pandemic has been surreal.

Modern choreographer Merce Cunningham and the 1940s jazz drummer Baby Dodds never collaborated, but they are brought together as “absences” in George Lewis’s very imaginative piece Merce and Baby. Lewis is well known for his eclecticism, so the jazzy elements in the score are as convincing and evocative as the microtones borrowed from John Cage. There is a diaphanous background to suggest time mysteriously folding in on itself. What stands out for me is Lewis’s ability to be constantly inventive without resorting to facile noise-making as a substitute. One imagines that Merce and Baby would be enjoyed by many general listeners—the avant-garde is rarely this friendly.

I’m reminded of the older, intellectually abstract avant-garde when the notes to Melissa Vargas’s Es casi como el inicio … y comeienza declare that the composer “liberates the musicians from the tyranny of meter while simultaneously confining them to clock time.” Whatever this may mean, the piece is confined to minimal gestures, often single notes or short motifs, from a quartet of soprano (Bartlett again, singing a kind of mixed melisma and trills), clarinet, guitar, and percussion. The program notes don’t translate the long title, which Google translates as “It’s almost like the beginning ... and it begins.” As a collection of musical gestures the score is listenable, but it had no cumulative effect for me.

Dark menace, which was at the heart of the pandemic, became magnified with the rise of domestic violence against women during lockdown. Andile Khumalo takes this as the subject of Beyond Her Mask, the only political work on the program. The ensemble of 10 features Western instruments, but the notes describe something I find opaque: “The material for this piece is based on the spectral analysis [of] … the percussion instrument known as the Lion’s Roar and a human voice.” The musical effect, however, is largely set by soprano Carrie Henneman Shaw reciting an emotionally agitated text that revolves around violence. Nothing is explicitly stated to relate to women or to the composer’s native South Africa, so I took Beyond Her Mask at face value. It is “a symphony of feelings and fleeting moments,” to quote a phrase from the spoken text. As such it was engrossing throughout.

Conductor Michael Lewanski leads each piece, however unique its idiom, with perfect ease and sympathy. The diverse performers in Ensemble Dal Niente are of solo caliber, and New Focus’s recorded sound is impeccable. As a commentary on the confinement of lockdown, this disc could have been depressing or anxiety-riddled, but instead it is imaginative and uplifting because of its dedication to the free expression of music in a time of plague.

— Huntley Dent, 3.22.2022

Related Albums