Inspired by Ovid's Metamorphoses and Calvino's deconstructive analysis of the classic Roman recasting of Greek myths, John Aylward's Celestial Forms and Stories establishes musical analogs to Ovid's way of depicting the world. Featuring musicians from Klangforum Wien in chamber formations, Celestial Forms and Stories encapsulates the transformative nature of myth, constantly being reimagined and reinterpreted over generations and retellings.
|Klangforum Wien, Olivier Vivarès, clarinet & bass clarinet, Sophie Schafleitner, violin, Andreas Lindenbaum, cello, Finnegan Downie Dear, conductor||9:40|
|Klangforum Wien, Olivier Vivarès, clarinet & bass clarinet, Sophie Schafleitner, violin, Andreas Lindenbaum, cello, Finnegan Downie Dear, conductor||8:43|
|Klangforum Wien, Andreas Lindenbaum, cello||8:55|
|Klangforum Wien, Markus Deuter, oboe, Bernhard Zachhuber, clarinet & bass clarinet, Sophie Schafleitner, violin, Dimitrios Polisoidis, viola, Andreas Lindenbaum, cello, Björn Wilker, percussion, Finnegan Downie Dear, conductor||11:32|
|Klangforum Wien, Markus Deuter, oboe, Bernhard Zachhuber, clarinet & bass clarinet, Sophie Schafleitner, violin, Dimitrios Polisoidis, viola, Andreas Lindenbaum, cello, Florian Müller, piano, Finnegan Downie Dear, conductor||15:11|
John Aylward’s Celestial Forms and Stories is a musical expression of a literary analysis of a classic Roman retelling of Greek myths. If that sounds like it will put the listener at several steps of remove from the original source of inspiration, it should. Aylward’s intention is not to merely portray the luminous complexity of ancient Greek characters such as Narcissus and Mercury, but to participate in an evolving reanimation of these stories. His inspiration is drawn not from the myths themselves, but from Italo Calvino’s analysis of Ovid’s venerated retelling in Metamorphoses. Calvino identifies Ovid’s predilection for explaining phenomena in terms of “elementary properties.” How might a composer explore these “elementary properties” and the narrative techniques used to develop them in a suite of works based on Greek literary characters? And to what extent are myths truly living organisms, kept alive by the renewed investment that new generations make in the analysis of the originals and their subsequent mutations? These are the questions at the core of Aylward’s work, heard here in a dynamic and colorful performance by Klangforum Wien.
The album opens with two pieces for a quartet of flute, clarinet, violin, and cello, Daedalus and Mercury. The quartet setting is an ideal platform for the exposition and development of distinct characters, a narrative technique Calvino highlights in Ovid’s writing. Aylward presents many of these characters within the piece’s first moments — fricative, anxious material in the flute and elastic glissandi in the violin are framed by architectural sustained pitches. Later in the piece, each of these ideas is mined more deeply in extended passages.Read More
Mercury opens with an appropriately shifting, unstable texture. Fragile harmonics in the bowed strings ornament rich floating lines in the winds. Aylward revels in the unpredictable in this work, using evocative shadings to shift quickly between contrasting characters.
Ephemera is the earliest work in the set, and served as the template for the rest of the series. The clarinet delivers initial emphatic bursts over a charged cello tremolo — as the texture develops, those short fragments grow into ecstatic longer lines. The insistence of the opening gesture permeates the two instruments, as the evolving dialogue becomes more animated and intense.
The final two works are both for mixed septet, with the instrumentations being nearly identical — flute, oboe, clarinet, violin, viola, and cello, with percussion in Narcissus and piano in Ananke. A natural opposition forms in this instrumentation between strings and winds with percussion/piano occupying an intermediary role, punctuating material from both groups. Imitation drives the texture forward in Narcissus, as material is elaborated on, interrupted, and enclosed by other voices within the ensemble.
There is an obsessive quality to the examination of ideas in Ananke. Aylward seems particularly engaged with syntax in this work, as Donatoni might turn a gesture around to look at from all rhythmic and agogic angles, but with Aylward’s characteristically polychromatic coloristic palette. Stravinsky-esque short chords enhance an off-balance sense of anticipation, while a poignant middle section features oscillating figures in the low registers under occasional disembodied calls in the winds, like a distant foghorn. Aylward breaks the muted mood with a dramatic solo piano passage, highlighting bright chords played across several registers. Ananke ends with a repeated ten-note figure in the viola, a record skipping moment that closes the work and the album with a question mark.
That question mark underscores Aylward’s embrace of the living myth. Each new generation is the recipient of this treasure chest of ideas and stories, spurring creativity and inspiration. Aylward’s ability to step back and see his own relationship to this material in the context of a larger trajectory of reexamination is borne out in his work — simultaneously hyper-engaged with detailed specificity of sound while also manifesting abstract principles of narrative strategy into his approach to development. Celestial Forms and Stories is the byproduct of Aylward’s multi-layered relationship to timeless myths — Ovid’s retelling, Calvino’s deconstruction, and his own hunger to see beyond superficial musical expression to the palimpsest of a multi-generational legacy.
– Dan Lippel
Recording Engineers: Kristaps Auster & Christoph Walder
Editing, mixing & mastering: Joel Gordon
Recorded at Tonzauber Recording Studio in Wiener Konzerthaus, Vienna, Austria, November 28th, 29th and 30th, 2020
Design: Marc Wolf, marcjwolf.com
Cover Image: Aylward, Roberta. Nightlight. 2015
Acrylic on birch panel. In the collection of the artist
Back cover image: Aylward, Roberta. Flare. 2015. Acrylic on birch panel. In the collection of the artist
John Aylward photo: Kate Soper
Klangforum member photographs: Tina Herzl
Finnegan Downie Dear photo: Frank Bloedhorn
John Aylward has been described by the Boston Globe as "A composer of wide intellectual curiosity" who summons "textures of efficient richness, delicate and deep all at once." His music is influenced by a range of modern and ancient literature and deeply affected by time spent in the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico. These streams of influence have led to a music that considers ancestral concepts of time, appropriations of indigenous cultures into surrealism, impressionism and post-modernism, and the connections between creative mythologies across civilizations.
Aylward's work has been performed internationally by a range of ensembles and soloists, and his own ensemble, Ecce, has served as a laboratory for his larger projects to take shape. Both as a pianist and as a director of the Etchings Festival, Aylward has supported new music of all kinds through commissions and performances.
Awards and fellowships include those from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (the Walter Hinrichsen Award and a Goddard Lieberson Fellowship) the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, the Koussevitzky Commission from the Library of Congress, the Fromm Music Foundation, the Fulbright Foundation, the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, the MacDowell Colony, the Atlantic Center for the Arts, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, First Prize from the International Society for Contemporary Music, and many others.
Aylward holds composition degrees (MFA, PhD) from Brandeis University and a degree in piano performance (BM) from the University of Arizona. John lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, with his wife Kate, and teaches music composition at Clark University.
Born in France, Olivier Vivarès studied clarinet with Claude Crousier in Marseille, with Jacques Di Donato in Lyon and with Chen Halevi in Trossingen. In particular, he specialised in playing bass clarinet, studying with Armand Angster and Jean-Marc Foltz in Strasbourg. In 2005, he was awarded the 2nd prize at the International Carl Nielsen Competition in Denmark, the prize for best interpretation for Caprice by A. Koppel, as well as the orchestra prize of the Odense Symphony Orchestra. At the centre of his work stands the interpretation and communication of contemporary music. He performs regularly with Ensemble MusikFabrik and the Ascolta Ensemble. Olivier Vivarès joined Klangforum Wien in 2007. He regularly appears at festivals such as Ars Musica Brussels, the Salzburg and the Lucerne Festival, the Venice Biennale, Klangspuren, Märzmusik Berlin, the Berlin Festival, the Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik, the Donaueschinger Musiktage, the Aldeburgh Festival, Wien Modern, and the Wiener Festwochen, both as a soloist and as an ensemble player. Olivier Vivarès is in continuous collaboration with composers such as Georges Aperghis, Beat Furrer, Bernhard Gander, Bernhard Lang and Alberto Posadas. He teaches clarinet at the University of Music, Graz (KUG) as a part of the study course Practice and Performance in Contemporary Music and at the University of Music Vienna (mdw) as a part of its focus on New Music – Instrumental Techniques and Artistic Practice. He is also a lecturer at ISA, the International Summer Academy of the mdw.
Sophie Schafleitner was born in Salzburg in 1974. Following her training with Irmgard Gahl at the Salzburg Mozarteum, she completed her violin studies with Gerhard Schulz at the University of Music Vienna. Sophie Schafleitner joined Klangforum Wien in 1997. In addition to her work as an ensemble musician and soloist, she is also active in various other chamber music formations such as the Schrammelquartett Attensam, or the music group Knoedel. Composers such as Aureliano Cattaneo, Liza Lim, Hannes Kerschbaumer, and Ying Wang have dedicated solo-pieces to her. Recent highlights include the Austrian première of Brice Pauset’s violin concerto as well as concerto appearances with the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra in Warsaw and Katowice where she performed violin-concertos by Alban Berg and Aureliano Cattaneo. In 2014, she started a close artistic collaboration with Christoph Marthaler and as a result has appeared as soloist in various music theatre productions. Sophie Schafleitner is also active in the context of Klangforum Wien’s professorship, participating in the master pro- gramme for New Music PPCM at the University of Music in Graz.
Andreas Lindenbaum was born in 1963 in Detmold, Germany. He studied cello and composition at the Detmold Academy of Music. In 1986 he received a scholarship from the “International Rotary-Foundation” which allowed him to pursue his studies at the School of Music in Bloomington, USA, where he was a student of Janos Starker. He also trained as an actor and worked with an independent theatre group in Germany for a year. From 1990 to 1999 he held a position as professor at the Conservatory of the City of Vienna. He has appeared as a soloist and with chamber music ensembles at the Salzburg Festival, the Bregenz Festival, Warsaw Autumn, and the Akiyoshidai Festival and has recorded for the radio as well as on CD both as a soloist and as a member of the Tetras-Quartett. In 1989 he moved to Vienna and became a member of Klangforum Wien.
Finnegan Downie Dear studied musicology at Cambridge University and piano at the Royal Academy of Music, where he was subsequently awarded the Lucille Graham and Hodgson Memorial Fellowships before being elected an Associate (ARAM) in 2017. He went on to work as a pianist and assistant at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and the Salzburger Festspiele, before coming to international attention as the winner of the Bamberger Symphoniker’s International Mahler Conducting Competition in 2020. As music director of the award-winning UK company Shadwell Opera and Ensemble, he collaborates with the UK’s finest young singers and instrumentalists, commissioning new operas and bringing stagings of seminal twentieth-century and contemporary works to new audiences. Shadwell’s performances have received consistent acclaim in the national and international press; he has also led the company on tours to Russia and Germany. He enjoys a close relationship with Klangforum Wien, and leads projects with orchestras across the globe including the London Philharmonic, City of Birmingham Symphony, DSO Berlin, Bamberger Symphoniker, Gothenburg Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, Sydney Symphony, Melbourne Symphony and Korean Symphony, and with opera houses including Royal Opera House, the Staatsoper Berlin, the Royal Swedish Opera and Theater an der Wien.
Markus Deuter was born in 1961 in Mühlheim/Ruhr. Johann Baptist Schlee was his first oboe teacher; subsequently, he studied with Diethelm Jonas and Prof. W. Feist (Essen), Prof. H. Hucke (Cologne), and Prof. P. Dombrecht (Brussels). In addition, he studied Early Music Performance Practice with Prof. H. Ruf (Cologne). He won the “Young Musicians Regional Competition” in 1975, 1977, 1979 and 1981 and was thrice awarded a scholarship by the “Oskar und Vera Ritter Foundation“. In 1978 he was the winner of the Culture Prize of the city of Mühlheim/Ruhr. Markus Deuter is member of various chamber music ensembles such as the Sabine Meyer Wind Octet, the Zelenka Ensemble, and the Aulos Quintett; he performs with the Munich Chamber Orchestra and holds the position of First Oboist in several orchestras, predominantly in Germany, such as the Robert Schumann Chamber Orchestra, the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester, the Kölner Kammerorchester, the Neues Orchester Köln, the Bach Collegium Stuttgart as well as the Gabrieli Consort and Players. From 1989 until 1993 he was a member of the ensemble musik- Fabrik conducted by Johannes Kalitzke. In addition, he participated in a great number of radio and CD productions. Markus Deuter became a member of Klangforum Wien in 1995.
Bernhard Zachhuber was born in Linz in 1965. From 1983, he studied concert clarinet with Peter Schmidl and Johann Hindler at the University of Music in Vienna. Bernhard Zachhuber was awarded a diploma in instrumental performance (Appreciation Award by the Ministry of Education and Arts) and received a degree in Instrumental Education in 1990. He also took part in a master class conducted by Hans Deinzer. His career as a profes- sional musician took off with a series of intense experiences with various orchestras. His involvement with Ensemble Aktuell, a symphony orchestra affiliated to the high school in Linz, brought about his first encounter with Franz Welser Möst; this was followed by an invitation to several tours with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, which had just been founded by Claudio Abbado, and a phase, lasting several years, as guest musician of the orchestra of the Vienna State Opera as well as the Vienna Philharmonic where he was able to work with a number of exceptional conductors. His interest in contemporary composers which are still active – or at any rate not long deceased – had already been established for some time; it was further kindled by his participation in performances of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten at the Vienna State Opera and Messiaen’s Saint Francoise d’Assise at the Salzburg Festival as well as repeated engagements with die reihe and the Ensemble XXth Century, before he became a member of Klangforum Wien in 1994. Apart from forays into the classical realm such as the chamber music festival Lockenhaus or the Mozartwoche, both in Salzburg and in Tokyo, where his performances included works like Mozart’s serenades for winds, Schubert’s octet or the sonatas and clarinet quintet by Brahms, Klangforum Wien has become his artistic “native country”. Here, Bern- hard Zachhuber has worked with artists of the most diverse fields – such as Christoph Marthaler in productions of Pierrot Lunaire and Quatuor pour la fin du temps presented at the Salzburg Festival and at the Guggenheim-Foundation, New York; but also with choreographer Meg Stuart, and filmmaker Bady Minck from Luxembourg, with whom he conceived the production Free Radicals, which combines miniatures both in film and music and was shown in Venice, Hamburg, Vienna, Brussels, Luxembourg and New York. In 2008 he started to teach as part of the professorial appointment of the whole ensemble at the University of Music, Graz, and at the summer academy Vienna – Prague – Budapest, passing on some of the special techniques and practices he has acquired over the years.
Dimitrios Polisoidis was born in Thessaloniki, Greece in 1961. He studied the violin with Dany Dossiou in his home town and later attended the University of Music Graz where he studied with Christos Poyzoides and also studied the viola with Herbert Blendinger. From 1990 to 1993 he was the principal viola player of the Philharmonic Orchestra Graz, and in 1993 became a member of Klangforum Wien. Dimitrios Polisoidis has devoted himself mainly to new music and to performing with experimental improvisation groups. He was an artistic collaborator in several live electronic projects at the Electronic Institute of the University of Music Graz, (IEM Graz). He has performed internation- ally and worked with many renowned composers such as Peter Ablinger, Georg Friedrich Haas, Bernhard Lang, Klaus Lang, Gösta Neuwirth, Olga Neuwirth, and George Lopez, who wrote works especially for him. In 2012, the federal state of Styria awarded him the “Karl Böhm Interpreter’s Prize.” He teaches at the University of Music Graz and at the Impuls Academy as well as at the International Summer Courses in Darmstadt. His CD recordings have been released by the labels hatART (Basle), Kairos (Vienna), Klangschnitte (Graz), mode records (NY), and Lyra (Athens).
Björn Wilker was born in Gelsenkirchen-Buer, Germany, in 1968. He studied percussion at the Academy of the Arts Berlin and at the College of Music in Freiburg im Breisgau with Robyn Schulkowsky, Bernhard Wulff and Isao Nakamura. After extensively performing as a freelance percussionist in new music, he became a member of Klangforum Wien in 1993. From 1998 to 2000 he took a period of leave in order to study composition with Helmut Lachenmann at the Stuttgart College of Music. In addition to playing with Klangforum Wien, Björn Wilker is active as a soloist and composer.
Florian Müller was born in Immenstadt, Germany. He studied piano and composition in Munich and Vienna. He is one of the central interpreters of contemporary music in Austria and has appeared as a soloist at important festivals such as Wien Modern and the Salzburg Festival. He is a regular guest at international festivals in Europe and has also toured the USA, Canada, Japan, Argentina and Israel with the Klangforum Wien. Florian Müller played with the SWR Orchestra, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, the MDR Orchestra and the Mahler Chamber Or- chestra, among others. He worked with well-known conductors such as Emilio Pomàrico, Sylvain Cambreling, Hans Zender, Fabio Luisi, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Peter Eötvös. He took part in theater works with Jerome Bel, Alain Platel, Christoph Marthaler and Jewgenij Sepochin, among others. Florian Müller has taught master classes at the Venice Biennale and the ISA Vienna- Prague-Budapest and is a professor of Performance Practice in Contemporary Music at the University of Music, Graz. His CD recordings include Beat Furrer’s Nuun, Clemens Gadenstätter’s comic sense and Friedrich Cerha’s relazioni fragili. Florian Müller became a member of Klangforum Wien in 1993.
The composer John Aylward seems committed to the idea of pushing the language of music into unchartered territory. His work consistently suggests that only the relatively extreme is interesting. In all of the radicalism that this soundscape suggests, Aylward also manages to remain true to bright sonorous textures evoked in vivid phrases that leap and gambol with elliptical geometry. Yet every so often the percussive impact of his work transforms its flowing character into a kaleidoscopic melee of scurrying voices which are built up layer upon layer.
His suite Celestial Forms and Stories reimagines characters and narratives from Ovid’s classic, Metamorphosis. The five pieces have been arranged in the form of an atmospheric suite inspired as much by the Latin epic poem as it is by the dissertation, Ovid and Universal Contiguity, by Italo Calvino, itself an iconic treatise, epic in breadth and scope.
Celestial Forms and Stories begins with Daedalus and the darkly dramatic voyage of Icarus, its lofty melodic line ascending rhythmically into the heat of the rarefied realm. The transcendent motion of Mercury exquisitely evokes the winged messenger colliding with the obdurate Battus. The suite melts into the buzzing, swooning mayfly, Ephemera. Narcissus follows, trapped in the glassy tomb with Echo. The suite climaxes in the restless drama of Ananke with its forceful, tumbling rhythmic changes. The remarkable musicians of Klangforum Wien perform this work with vivid orchestral colours and preeminent virtuosity.
— Raul da Gama, 4.21.2022
Few products of the imagination have had the endurance of the mythological figures of the classical Mediterranean world. Whether as archetypes, allegorical figures, proxies for natural forces, or just examples of behavior not to emulate, the gods, heroes, and anti-heroes of the Greek world have gone through many metamorphoses and shifts in significance, but through it all they have been kept alive through a centuries-long tradition of commentary, interpretation, reinterpretation, and misinterpretation. With his musical cycle Celestial Forms and Stories, composer John Aylward makes his own contribution to the tradition via Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Italo Calvino’s analyses of Ovid’s narrative style.
What Aylward was most interested in was the structure of Ovid’s work as Calvino described it—a set of simple elements undergoing combinations and transformations—and crafted a suite of five movements based on that principle. The suite is realized here in a series of excellent performances by members of Klangforum Wien in various combinations.
The opening movement is Daedalus (2016) for a quartet of flute, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin and cello. Daedalus casts its elements as melodic fragments distributed among the four instruments, often taking the form of a single line passing through a spectrum of instrumental colors. Aylward handles unpitched timbral effects in a similar manner, juxtaposing air notes, pops, and snap pizzicato to create coherent aggregates. Mercury (2014) follows with the same instrumentation and hence covers similar timbral territory. Its sound is skittering and driven by underlying trills and glissandi; its arrangement is as a coincidence of soloists, with each instrument pursuing independent lines ultimately tied together by overlapping dynamics. Ephemera, also from 2014, is for the duo of cello and bass clarinet. It continues and expands on the atmosphere created by Mercury, employing some of the same gestures while exploiting the dramatic effects facilitated by the timbral differences of these two instruments of close compass. Despite the minimal instrumentation, the piece has a full, almost lush, sound. Narcissus (2018) is for a seven-piece ensemble of flutes, oboe, clarinet/bass clarinet, string trio of violin, viola, and cello and percussion. Appropriately enough, the piece creates a sonic mirror effect with repeated and varied lines reflected back and forth among the instruments. The tuned percussion add a nice anchoring presence to the winds and strings. The last movement is Ananke (2019), named for the goddess of necessity—the most powerful figure in Greek mythology. Aylward scores the piece with the same instrumentation as Narcissus, but with piano substituting for percussion and playing a key role in driving the music. Ananke is urgent, forceful, insistent, and altogether compelling—like its namesake.
Celestial Forms and Stories follows Angelus Novus, Aylward’s 2020 album for voice and chamber ensemble. Like Angelus Novus, Celestial Forms is an ambitious work that aims for thematic and structural coherence and like Angelus Novus, it succeeds—and in doing so embodies the ancient Greek quality of arete: “excellence.”
— Daniel Barbiero, 2.11.2022
The musical expression of a literary analysis of classic Roman retelling of Greek myths, John Aylward brings musicians from Klangforum Wien for the classical and chamber fueled creativity.
“Daedalus” starts the listen the fuses a unique chamber experience, where alto flute is met with Vera Fischer’s bass flute, Andreas Lindenbaum’s graceful cello and Sophie Schafleitner’s diverse violin for the very unpredictable delivery.
“Mercury” follows, and showcases Olivier Vivarés’ quivering clarinet and bass clarinet in the cinematic and flowing climate, while “Ephemera” pairs clarinet and cello for a very atypical and lively interplay, where both instruments gesture towards each other with awe.
“Narcissus” lands near the end, and emits a more tense mood, as Markus Deuter’s oboe, Dimitrios Polisoidis’ viola and Bjorn Wilker’s percussion contribute much to the precisely layered album highlight, and “Ananke” exits the listen with Florian Muller’s dancing piano amid the playful oboe and trio of flutes populating the short chords and low registers.
Regardless of your interest in Greek mythology, this is a fascinating listen where bowed strings, dramatic keys, and rich winds weave in and out of dramatic and intimate areas of exploration.
— Tom Haugen, 5.08.2022
John Aylward is yet another composer who was born, started writing music without attending a conservatory or having a teacher, and yet has his music performed and wins awards all over the place. What a lucky guy!
Although written in different years ranging from 2014 to 2019, this is sort of Aylward’s “space album” although he doesn’t think of these pieces in terms of a suite. Judging from the opening, Daedalus, he is one of those modern composers who likes to use the “edgy-startling” style, presenting us with stiff, staccato rhythms played and spit out by various instruments, but as the piece develops we realize that this was just to set the rhythm for the first section. Indeed, as the music develops, Aylward slows things down and phrases his music with a legato feeling, showing that he has more than one “voice” as a composer. Indeed, by the 3:18 mark the music has become rather complex, using the bass clarinet to play a staccato counterpoint to the goings-on in the top line; several lines are in fact played simultaneously, creating a polyphonic web of sound. It is thus not music of great or personal emotions, but rather a very clever contrapuntal piece with lyrical interludes (mostly played by the violin and/or cello), yet I found it very effective music nonetheless.
Interestingly, although Mercury shares several traits in common with Daedalus, the approach is different enough to alert you that this is a different piece, and I appreciate that.. Aylward does, however, continue to rely on quick contrapuntal figures to make his points; apparently, this is his thing. Here, it sounds as if the cello is slapping its strings with the bow to create its own percussive sound at one point. (Maybe it’s just me, but at one point my mind flashed back to Marius Constant’s Twilight Zone theme music.) By the end of the piece, the music seemed to be more ambient (but in a good way) than structural.
The remaining pieces are variants on these motifs and ideas, modern, contrapuntal music with no set tonality and an imaginative use of the small forces involved (seven each on Narcissus and Anake but only two musicians on Ephemera). I was fascinated by the way Aylward was able to balance the various instrumental textures in the last two pieces; these show that he has a very fine ear for instrumental color, and in Narcissus he even uses some microtonal passages for the strings. Aylward also varies the rhythms a bit more in Narcissus. In Aneke, Aylward creates swirling, looping figures that give the impression of a musical kaleidoscope.
As is often the case with modern composers nowadays, one or two pieces in a concert including others’ music would make an interesting effect, but the continually challenging aesthetics demand so much close listening that a full program may wear on the listener. Nonetheless, this is a CD worth investigating. At least it’s not Chopin!
— Lynn René Bayley, 2.09.2022
The five-movement work in concert music is as old as music itself and John Aylward’s new recording, “Celestial Forms and Stories” — containing five separate and distinct sections — conforms, in its structure, to the works of Mozart and Beethoven. It is written, however, for chamber ensemble rather than full orchestra.
Inspired by the stories contained in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” the pieces — Daedelus, Mercury, Ephemera, Narcisus, and Ananke — were written over a period of six years, from 2014 to 2019. Composer Aylward seems to struggle with melody, employing the form but fighting all the way. He manages to give live musicians playing traditional instruments an almost electronic sound through his tricky and sometimes difficult harmonies. Fortunately, he has the excellent musicians of the Klangforum Wien, under the direction of Finnegan Downie Dear, to play this score.
John Aylward lives and works in Northampton, Massachusetts. Born in 1980, he has enjoyed many successes; this is his second recording of new works. He teaches and concertizes as a pianist. Part of the joy in listening to this recording comes from the content of the five sections, especially from the third movement, Ephemera, the Scherzo section, a joke really. Featuring two members of the ensemble, bass clarinetist Olivier Vivares and cellist Andreas Lindenbaum, the music vibrates from giggle to gag and back again over nearly nine minutes. Melody intrudes periodically in Aylward’s best fashion, but it never pauses or relents. This is typical of the work but is never as clear, clean, and obvious anywhere else.
In addition to the two musicians mentioned above, the Klangforum Wien consist of Vera Fischer (flute), Markus Deuter (oboe), Bernhard Zachhuber (clarinet), Sophie Schafleitner (violin), Dimitrios Polisoidis (viola), and Bjorn Wilker (percussion). This isn’t music you’ll play in the background of other activities; it requires listening to and is better on repeat hearings than it is the first time. The fifth section, Ananke, is the closest to lyrical this work ever gets, and its extended length of 15 minutes is well justified.
— J. Peter Bergman, 2.18.2022
Contemporary composer and Clark University associate professor John Aylward had been captivated by the Classic Roman poet Ovid's "Metamorphoses," a retelling of stories of Greek mythology, since his older brother gave him the book while he was growing up in Arizona.
Now with the album "Celestial Forms and Stories," released last month by New Focus Recordings, Aylward rewrites the myths that Ovid immortalized through a five-piece suite of atmospheric chamber music. The music is performed by the Viennese chamber orchestra Klangforum Wien with members in different chamber formations for the movements.
"I want it to feel like an immersive experience," Aylward said.
Aylward, who is associate professor of music composition at Clark, had given some thought to musically adapting "Metamorphoses" over the years but didn't want to put into music "another one of those artful takes on great myths if I didn't have my own avenue," he said.
But reading an analysis of Ovid’s style by the late Italian writer Italo Calvino gave Aylward some ideas of his own. The pieces that make up "Celestial Forms and Stories" were written over a period of six years, 2014-19.
In Ovid's "Metamorphoses," each story contains some sort of transformation (or metamorphosis) as the link that ties them all together. The transformations can be violent or exotic and ever-surprising. "It's such a fantastical poem," Aylward said. "Things can happen on a dime. A hand becomes a talon. A nose becomes a beak."
When he came upon Calvino's analyses, "they were the impetus," Aylward said. "(I thought) 'This is it.' I can deconstruct with some sort of new understanding."
Calvino wrote about a set of simple elements in Ovid's work undergoing combinations and transformations.
Aylward's composition has a foundational movement, "Ephemera" for clarinet and cello, out of which preceding and ensuing movements develop ("Daedalus," "Mercury," "Narcissus," "Anake").
The opening movement, "Daedalus," is for a quartet of flute, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin and cello with melodic fragments distributed among the four instruments. "Mercury" has the the same instrumentation.
"Narcissus" is for a seven-piece ensemble of flutes, oboe, clarinet/bass clarinet, string trio of violin, viola, and cello and percussion. Lines are "repeated and varied lines reflected back and forth among the instruments." "Anake" scores the piece with the same instrumentation as "Narcissus," but with piano substituting for percussion and moving things forward.
Aylward has said that "Textures, gestures, harmonies, and formal aspects recur across the pieces, aspects of them all sometimes visible, sometimes clouded, quickly passing or elongated under more mercurial material, always transformed to suit new circumstances, but holding threads of their origin."
The sound, perhaps appropriately for a work titled "Celestial Forms and Stories," is almost out of this world.
"I can see that. I've always been a big fan of science fiction, so maybe it's a nod to that," Aylward said jokingly.
However, "I do hope that the listener will be entranced by the mythologies," he said.
"You can hear the material recurring like characters in a new scene. You can treat the instruments as characters in the world I've made."
"Celestial Forms and Music" was also a true collaboration with the Austrian contemporary classical ensemble Klangforum Wien, Aylward said.
The ensemble is actually made up of 24 musicians from 10 different countries.
"We talked a lot about the music. At first I asked them if they would be interested in doing it," Aylward said. "'Do you want to do a recording project? We could do a recording pod.' They had many performance canceled (because of COVID). We had a very rich back and forth about it in the recording process. It was a very fruitful process. This brought my compositional practice to another level," Aylward said.
"Celestial Forms and Stories" was entirely produced, recorded, edited and mastered remotely due to COVID restraints.
Still, "I've heard many different interpretations of performances (of my work) and this ranks among the best," Aylward said.
"Celestial Forms and Stories" is the second album of music that Aylward has had released during the pandemic.
In the 2020 album "Angelus" by the contemporary music group Ecce Ensemble, Aylward, Ecce's artistic director, composed a monodrama that evoked journey, displacement, resilience, despair, feelings of transcendence and unreality reverberating through a stunning 10-movement monodrama.
In 2014, Aylward had accompanied his mother, Monika, on her first journey back to Germany since she was a World War II refugee. While in Europe, they also spent a couple of days in Paris, including visiting Centre Pompidou and viewing Paul Klee’s striking 1920 monoprint "Angelus Novus." Inspired by this painting and specifically its central image of the Angel of History, Aylward discovered German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin's text that powerfully describes this work of art and his own interpretation.
Now, with the heartbreaking events in the Ukraine, "Angelus" has resounding relevance.
In 2020, Aylward said, "This work is dedicated to my mother and to all those who have been displaced by violence and war, to their resilience and search for meaning in darkness."
It was also noted, at the release of "Angelus" in 2020, that its atmospheric, sometimes brooding discordance made it a work that seemed fitting for a world suddenly shut down by coronavirus.
Aylward's music has embraced solo works, chamber music, orchestral work and music for film. He has received numerous awards.
He grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and with his Southwestern background, his music has often explored concerns related to that landscape and culture such as ancestral concepts of time, appropriations of indigenous cultures into surrealism and impressionism, and the connections between native traditions and Greek and Roman mythology. He has received a number of commissions including from members of Klangforum Wien and Court-Circuit, Icon, the Washington Square Contemporary Music Society and from Open Space. The Boston Globe has described him as "a composer of wide intellectual curiosity" who summons "textures of efficient richness, delicate and deep all at once."
He came East to be a graduate student at Brandeis University, where he earned a doctorate in music composition and theory. He currently lives in Northampton.
Another reason for exploring Ovid and "Metamorphoses" was that "I teach in the liberal arts. I don't teach in a conservatory, and I like it that I grew up with a liberal arts education. When you teach long enough in the liberal arts you are surrounded by the classics. It's foundational," Aylward said.
But perhaps picking up a theme from "Metamorphoses," Aylward said, "I feel artists change and are always changing. I would like to think I will always be changing."
Indeed, he said he's currently working on a chamber opera, but since he started it he's also been writing two other pieces.
As COVID seems to be easing, at least in these parts, "I am looking forward to getting back to more public events and not worrying so much," he said.
Asked if COVID has changed him as a composer, Aylward said, "I do think it has changed me. Partly, I don't know how it's changed me yet."
And there are other happenings now which may change us, and the world.
"There are so many issues going on around me," Aylward said.
That's what he's been writing about. With feelings of dramatic dislocation and transformations, there may be soulmates to be found in "Angelus" and "Celestial Forms and Stories."
Avant Music news said in its review of "Celestial Forms and Stories" that like "Angelus" it is "an ambitious work that aims for thematic and structural coherence and like 'Angelus' … it succeeds — and in doing so embodies the ancient Greek quality of arete: 'excellence.'"
Aylward said that as he was writing "Angelus," he was also separately developing the movements that would become "Celestial Forms and Stories."
"'Angelus' was very personal, something I wanted to do as a way of exploring my mother's history," Aylward said.
"I was writing 'Celestial Forms' at the same time. I didn't know where they were going. I didn't know the 'Celestial' pieces were going to accrue. One is very personal, one is more curious. It's interesting that they were both slowly unfolding at the same time."
— Richard Duckett, 3.22.2022
There is a passage in the booklet supplied with this excellent new recording that describes John Aylward’s music as sounding like “Elliot Carter dreaming of Debussy” and I think that is an apt description of its immaculate poise between the bracing modernity of the American and the sensual delights of the Frenchman. It gives little idea, however, of just how distinctive Aylward’s own voice is and it speaks eloquently and clearly in this suite of chamber pieces inspired by Ovid.
What Ovid and Aylward share is an irrepressible fecundity of inspiration. The music like both the subject and the poetic form of Ovid’s metamorphosis, is in a constant state of transformation with each twist revealing new delights. If a particular section doesn’t take your fancy never fear because Aylward is not the kind of composer to make the listener sit around enduring something for the sake of a mathematical algorithm. He conceals his art in favour of entrancing sounds and textures. Given this quality what is remarkable is the way he is able to pull this all together into a coherent structure. The question for me with all new music is: does this need to be said? In the case of these pieces, the answer is an enthusiastic Yes!
The scale of Aylward’s vision matters. This may be chamber music but in no way is it limited in terms of scope or colour. I found myself thinking that this is yet another path forward from the pared back orchestration of late Mahler pieces such as Das Lied.
The piece that begins this album, Daedalus, commences with probably the most cliché modernist sounds on the disc and I can imagine some listeners abandoning it with the exclamation’Not more huffing and puffing into a flute!’ This would be an immense pity as the piece quickly settles down and becomes much more distinctive and immensely more interesting. I am not going to indulge in speculation as to the link between music and myth as if this were some kind of musical narrative. What it sets underway is a series of mutations of the material starting with a passage of static music that offers us a very broad horizon indeed. I was put in my mind of looking at photographs of deep space studded with billions of stars. The rest of the work alternates tireless movement in transforming the music in ingenious ways with the recurrence of moments of stasis.
Having set out his stall, Aylward really starts to enjoy himself in the delicate, quizzical textures that open the second piece, appropriately named Mercury. The trickiness that is clearly part of Aylward’s musical personality is given free rein here. If the language is modernist, the mood isn’t that of grim earnestness that sometimes besets contemporary classical. Possibly because the metal Mercury is liquid at room temperature, there is a lot of fluidity to the writing. The music for flute and clarinet flows delightfully. This is music to charm and fascinate as well as to set the mind boggling. The occasional glimpses of something deeper serve to remind us that the god Mercury, in his role as psychopomp, mediated between Hades and the upper worlds.
The central work of this five movement suite is provocatively titled Ephemera. I presume this refers to the transitory nature of music itself, it sounds and is gone, but also to the way in which, despite that transitory nature, music stays with us. In a group of pieces inspired by Ovid and transformations of all sorts, musical and mythological, it also seems to make the point that nothing ever stays the same. Being is becoming. It is the briefest of the sections and the most concentrated. It provides most of generative material for the other movements but this is not something the listener is going to be aware of. I was put in mind of the similarly ‘here one minute, gone the next’ nature of the music of Webern though Aylward’s language is less severe and rarified than the Austrian’s and his approach decidedly less dogmatic. The end of the piece brings a startling and unsettling collapse into silence. The fate of all music?
As befits its title, Narcissus is the most immediately seductive of the sections. Here the Debussy part of Aylward’s voice is most audible. It sounds like music that is enjoying its own loveliness and ingenuity! Whilst I enjoyed all the pieces on this disc, this one is lipsmackingly good.
The final section is entitled Ananke which means Necessity. The sleeve notes relate this to a consistently repeated though transformed musical figure that runs through the piece. The same notes liken this to the role of es muss sein figure in Beethoven’s last quartet. In other words, it enacts the infinite capacity of life to adapt and move forward. The music of this section, therefore, is the most mobile as well as being the most diverse and digressive. In parts it is the most violent but in others places it contains music of exquisite refinement.
A final word about the inexhaustible energy and imagination of Klangforum Wien. In much the same way that we are now grateful to Columbia for their Stravinsky edition, I believe that future generations will be grateful to them for their services, presumably for little thanks or reward, to the music of today. This present recording is a prime example since it is played and recorded with immense care and great joy in making such wonderful music.
— David McDade, 3.31.2022
It is worth noting that some vocal inspirations can lead, interestingly, to entirely non-vocal works, whose composers believe the underlying verbal material is better communicated through purely instrumental means. That is the attitude of John Aylward in his Celestial Forms and Stories, a set of five pieces performed by members of Klangforum Wien on a New Focus Recordings CD. As so often in contemporary music, an understanding of the basis of the compositional approach is necessary for listeners to have a full appreciation of the material. The works are based on Greek myths, an apparently still-inexhaustible source of thoughtfulness, learning and amusement. But Aylward’s approach is, by design, two steps removed from the original myths. First of all, he works from a Roman retelling of the stories: Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Secondly and more significantly, Aylward’s interest is not in the tales themselves but in Italo Calvino’s analysis and interpretation of them. Thus, a listener who hopes fully to absorb the ideas and approaches of Celestial Forms and Stories needs to be familiar with Greek myth, Roman retellings of Greek myth, and Calvino’s approach to Roman retellings of Greek myths. This is a lot to ask of an audience, although no more than other composers today seem to consider their due (or their works’ due). The question for listeners is whether the music, so remote from the words that inspired it, is a worthwhile experience – indeed, whether hearing the music on its own will encourage listeners to learn more about its foundations, explore them, and then re-hear what Aylward has created. Listeners who start with the music itself will find out for themselves how deeply they want to go into Aylward’s source material and his worldview. On the CD, Daedalus (2016), for clarinet, flute, violin and cello, is the usual contemporary mixture of plucked and stroked and glissando-ed notes, initially individuated and later given at greater length. Mercury (2014), for the same instruments, has none of the speed and sprightliness usually associated with this god (as in, for example, Holst’s “winged messenger” movement in The Planets), although it does have enough shifting of sound and harmonic lines to deserve to be called mercurial. Ephemera (2014) is a duet for clarinet and cello: these two warm-sounding and emotionally trenchant instruments are here used in ways that undermine their typical sound, creating a work of textural dialogue that is wholly without lyricism. Narcissus (2018) is for flute, oboe, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, and percussion, and uses an unsurprising structure in which different-sounding, differently grouped instruments are heard in opposition (but not really in reflection, which might be expected in a work of this title). Ananke (2019) uses a single percussion instrument, the piano, rather than a group of them, but otherwise has the same instrumentation as Narcissus. Ananke was the goddess of inevitability and had, in a sense, more power than the other gods, although not in as dark a way in Greek myths as is the case with the overall structure of Norse legends. With inevitability comes a level of compulsion, if not quite predetermination; and in this piece, the most interesting of the five heard here, Aylward has the music veer hither and thither, confusingly but compellingly, with short phrases contrasted with longer ones and a quiet, moody section followed immediately by a bright, intense one. The question for listeners is whether Ananke and/or the other works here stand effectively on their own as music, or whether it is only through understanding and exploring Aylward’s foundational verbal inspiration that it is possible to get as much out of the music as he has put into it. The reasonable followup question, to which each listener will have to form a personal answer, is whether further exploration sufficiently enhances the musical experience to be worth the time spent studying and investigating the roots of Celestial Forms and Stories.
Challenging modern music that will not be to every taste, but which will reward those desirous of moving beyond the familiar. The recording here is particularly nuanced, catching every strand of the evanescent lines.
— Barry Forshaw, 2.24.2022