Julia Den Boer: Kermès


Pianist Julia Den Boer releases Kermès, a collection of four poignant solo works that invite the listener to examine and absorb themselves in the resonance, sustain, and sonority of the instrument. With multi-section works by Giulia Lorusso and Anna Thorvaldsdottir contrasted by longer structural arches of pieces by Linda Catlin Smith and Rebecca Saunders, Den Boer highlights an album that refreshes our listening relationship with perhaps the most comprehensively explored instrument of them all.


# Audio Title/Composer(s) Time
Total Time 63:03
02The Underfolding
The Underfolding

The modern piano can function as a symbol of the trajectory of Western art music. So much of the repertoire’s evolution can be seen through the lens of the development of keyboard instruments and their eventual manifestation in the modern, equal tempered piano that was established as standard in the late 19th century. And each new era of aesthetic investigation in music boasts landmark works for keyboard that reflect its sensibilities. It is within this context that intrepid pianist Julia Den Boer presents Kermès, a collection of four substantial works for piano by Rebecca Saunders, Linda Catlin Smith, Giulia Lorusso, and Anna Thorvaldsdottir. These works share an exploratory approach to resonance, sonority, and color that marries a post-Lachenmann focus on the sheer physical material of instruments with a sensitive approach to harmonic subtlety. The result is four varied works of powerfully expressive music that invite us to listen closely, almost “inside” the workings of the piano itself.

Giulia Lorusso’s Déserts is a collection of five pieces, performed here as one track, that are inspired by poetic images associated with the desert. Referencing deserts in Northern and Saharan Africa as well as South America, Lorusso depicts five distinct ecosystems in sound, from rocky landscapes and vast expanses of sand dunes to arid flower valleys and ancient river beds. The severity of the desert is an apt metaphor for Lorusso’s music, a sonic palette that evokes the intensely inward space and vibrancy that one might inhabit and encounter in an extreme environment.

Linda Catlin Smith’s The Underfolding explores the harmonic implications of the piano’s sustained tones as they layer on top of each other. With Feldman-esque delicacy, Smith investigates subtle shadings of voicing and color. Even familiar sonorities shine with new light as the context surrounding them reveals a different hue. Smith embeds implied melodic material within the unfolding chords, stating an explicit unadorned thematic line at one point in the bass.

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Structured similarly to the Lorusso work, Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Reminiscence is written in seven short sections. Thorvaldsdottir often uses instrumental color and space in her music to conjure natural landscapes, specifically those of her native Iceland. A delicate examination of timbre is the focus here as well, as Thorvaldsdottir establishes a multi-dimensional texture of sustained melodic tones, glissandi inside on the piano strings, and rumbling bass figures.

Rebecca Saunders’ Crimson contains the album’s most vigorous material. The work makes extensive use of cluster voicings that are alternatively articulated with sharp accents and as evocative echoes. These brilliant splashes of harmonic color activate the resonant qualities of the piano in fascinating ways, drawing our attention as much to the way the instrument responds as to the initial shadings of the pitches themselves. At a dramatic moment in the work, Den Boer taps on the frame of the instrument, introducing a timbre that reminds us of the physicality of the piano and its practitioner.

Julia Den Boer’s interpretations of these sensitive works are poignant and probing, patiently allowing their narratives to unfold and rising to the appropriate dramatic demands when the works have established them. These pieces point to a compelling new virtuosic anti-virtuosity on the piano — a preference among some composers to excavate the introspective side of the instrument as opposed to its bombastic quality. In this way, there is a kind of implicit neutralization of the piano’s dominance over other instruments, a tacit recognition and reminder that it is trafficking in the same fundamental parameters as the rest: vibration, rhythm, and structure.

– Dan Lippel

Recorded at Oktaven Audio, Mt. Vernon, NY, October 2020

Recording and mastering: Ryan Streber

Album design and artwork: Jessica Slaven

Julia Den Boer

French-American pianist Julia Den Boer is a passionate advocate for contemporary music. Based in New York city, she is internationally recognized as a soloist and chamber musician and is an active commissioner of new works. She is committed to exploring and broadening her instrument’s boundaries through close collaboration with composers.

Recent solo and chamber music appearances include the Festival d'Automne (Paris), the Time:Spans Festival (NYC), The San Francisco International Piano Festival, Unerhörte Musik (Berlin), the Infuse Concert Series (Paris), the Tectonics Festival (Glasgow), the International Computer Music Conference, the Banff Center, the North Carolina New Music Initiative, the SWR (Freiburg), New Music Concerts (Toronto), the MATA Festival, and the Klangspuren Festival (Schwaz).

Den Boer is a recipient of the Solti Foundation award, she was awarded the Prix Maurice Ohana from the 2021 International Orleans Competition and won the ninth annual Mikhashoff Trust Fund for New Music Pianist/Composer commissioning prize with composer Zosha Di Castri. She is a member of Wavefield Ensemble and will be joining Yarn/Wire as a guest artist for the 2021/2022 season.

Julia holds a Bachelor of Music from McGill University where she studied with Sara Laimon and a Master and Doctorate of Musical Arts from SUNY Stony Brook University where she studied under the mentorship of Gilbert Kalish.




Best of Bandcamp Contemporary Classical - October 2021

In this new collection, French-American pianist Julia Den Boer brings an electrifying precision to works by four of the strongest female composers at work today. Each piece conveys a bracing tactility, reveling in the materiality of sound. The album opens with “Déserts” by the Italian composer Giulia Lorusso, which is inspired by five deserts in South America and Africa. The music is both introspective in its billowing melodic shapes, but intensely physical in its rhythmic thrust, and while each subsection reflects different qualities of the various locations, as a whole Den Boer balances the dreamy and the visceral.

Canadian composer Linda Catlin Smith’s “The Underfolding” recalls the slow creep of Morton Feldman, as muted overtones, pierced by dry, terse phrases, pile up in elegant, pensive constellations. “Reminiscence” by Iceland’s Anna Thorvaldsdottir packs seven vignettes inspired by her homeland’s gorgeously rugged landscape into nine minutes, painting sonic images that don’t fret over narrative. Instead they evoke spooky environments, evoking placidity, tension, and ominous portent without a wasted gesture. The album concludes with Rebecca Saunders’s “Crimson,” the most bruising and physical work present here, larded with shattered-glass clusters, turbulent harmonies, and a wide dynamic range and delivered with ineffable clarity.

— Peter Margasak, 11.03.2021



Last year, I praised Den Boer's solo piano debut, Lineage, for its "sparkling and contemplative" nature and for its smart curation of four Canadian composers. I also called it a "go-to "morning album" - and, what do you know, she's gone and done it again - with only one Canadian this time. Featuring works by Giulia Lorusso (Italy), Linda Catlin Smith (Toronto, via NY), Anna Thorvaldsdottir (Iceland), and Rebecca Saunders (London), she's gathered together pieces that work well together, with enough contrast to avoid monotony, but also enough shared resonance to make for a complete whole. She's also received the deluxe recording treatment from Oktaven Audio so you can hear her sublime control of dynamics with even more clarity than on Lineage. It was also a coup to feature the first studio recording of Thorvaldsdottir's Reminiscence, a 2017 piece premiered in 2020 by Justin Krawitz. It's an almost skeletal work, held together only by Den Boer's deft pedal work, and seems to explore a world of deep interiority and features some sonic touches that will expand your idea of what the piano can do. This wonderful collection continues the establishment of Den Boer as one of the finest pianists working in new music.

— Jeremy Shatan, 11.02.2021


Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review

The ever opening panorama of New Music shows no sign of fading away. And there are some strides being made out there for novel and encouraging works appearing before us in a pretty steady stream of new releases. One to take seriously and listen to with absorption is pianist Julia Den Boer's Kermes (New Focus Recordings FCR311). It introduces to us four women composers and four new works deserving our attention— Deserts by Giulia Lorusso, The Underfolding by Linda Catlin Smith, Reminiscence by Anna Thorvaldsdottir, and Crimson by Rebecca Saunders.

These are composers not yet household names. I've covered quite a few by Anna Thorvaldsdottir, and a piece here and there by Linda Catlin Smith and Rebecca Saunders (type their names in the search box above for reviews).

The music has an adventuresome streak, It avoids the atonal bleep-bloop pointillism of High Modernism, though its harmonic-melodic sense embraces everything from ritualistic radical tonality to an edgy expansionist ambiguity. In a way it is beyond Modernism per se but also does not fall directly into the post-Modern Minimalist possibility. It does not ignore all of that which went before but nonetheless carves out a series of personal niches that are eminently pianistic and nicely suited to Julia Den Boer's virtuosity in latent potency and her genuine dedication to the piano as a kind of art form necessary and sufficient unto itself.

The Underfolding has a hypnotic continually recurring chord cluster that plays off a Satian-Cagean-Feldmanesque melody line that evokes without imitating, that converges in its paradoxically moving stasis. It is a wonderfully suspended temporary anomaly so to speak Ms. Den Boer handles beautifully the dream-like suspension that underpins the stricture of the work. It is an enchanted world we find our way into and it ravishes.

Reminiscence has a matching cosmic outlook of suspensions and repetitions interspersed with unique note responses that vary and open up the aural field.

Crimson sets up a more jagged sounding of clusters that interrelate at the same time as they unfold in ways that surprise and stray far beyond simple repetition.

Last but not least there is the opening Guilia Lorusso Deserts which adopts the pointillistic High Modernist rangy leaps and silence, and then makes something more hypnotic out of it. From, there the work rolls into a continual two-handed rhythmic density that has just the continuity needed thanks to Julia Den Boer's acrobatic virtuosity. This is a work to savor!

But then it all has plenty of substance to sink oneself into. Julia Den Boer triumphs and each work stands out as a worthy new gesture in high art. Do not miss this! New piano music thrives here! Listen!

— Grego Applegate Edwards, 10.21.2021

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