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.
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.Read More
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
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.https://www.juliadenboer.com/
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
Kermès, the latest disc on New Focus Recordings from the French-American pianist Julia Den Boer, brings together pieces by Giulia Lorusso, Linda Catlin Smith, Anna Thorvaldsdottir and Rebecca Saunders.
It’s a cleverly contrasted collection of contemporary piano music, from the bravura flourishes of Lorusso’s Déserts and the gently rocking dissonances and ghostly fragments of Catlin Smith’s The Underfolding, to the strummings and creakings of Thorvaldsdottir’s Reminiscence and the abrupt contrasts and relentless clusters of Saunders’s Crimson.
— Andrew Clements, 11.04.2021
On Kermès, pianist Julia Den Boer explores the many different possible textures of her instrument. The album features four modern works for solo piano, by composers Giulia Lorusso, Linda Catlin Smith, Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, and Rebecca Saunders, each of which exemplifies a different aspect of the piano. Saunders’ “Crimson” showcases striking dissonance, letting prickly tones explode into each other; Smith’s “The Underfolding” ruminates in a series of inquisitive colors, moving in impressionistic swaths of reverberant sound. Each piece seeks to illuminate the different resonances of the piano, highlighting the many facets of an instrument whose sound is so ubiquitous.
— Vanessa Ague, 1.12.2022
Julia Den Boer’s latest release is an invitation and a gift. The listener is drawn into a series of towering resonances and rewarded with a listening experience that redefines our acquaintance with the piano. Each of the four works on the disc extends what is sonically capable for the instrument and Den Boer’s expressive interpretations are world-class in their execution. It is through such superb performances that we are able to fully grasp the deeper communicative qualities each piece is offering the listener.
First, Giulia Lorusso’s Déserts begins with hyper-colouristic and excited brush strokes that evolve into lonesome pinpricks of brilliant colour and imagination. Linda Catlin Smith’s The Underfolding is a harmonic wonderscape. Smith’s sound world reveals itself as one of the most compelling artistic voices one can encounter: wonderfully layered sonorities create a veil of undiscovered colours in an ideal trance haven. The distant hollowness of Anna Thorvaldsdóttir’s Reminiscence produces a cerebral experience that evokes forlorn beauty. Rebecca Saunders’ Crimson uses prickly clusters and obtrusive deep interruptions that create unsettling exchanges. Den Boer’s attention to detail and expressive capabilities makes Kermes a must-listen.
— Adam Scime, 12.06.2021
Kermès? The practice of grinding up the bodies of the female Dactylopius coccus insect to produce the red pigment cochineal became widespread from the 15th century, superceding a similar process involving the Kermes vermillio, a scaly parasite found on the Mediterranean Kermes Oak. A brilliant and durable crimson colour, kermes dye was used as a currency in the Middle Ages. I'm telling you this because pianist Julia Den Boer's solo album is "a quest for deeper, richer, subtler, stable sources of colour". Déserts, by Giulia Lorusso is a sequence of five miniatures, each one evoking a different desert landscape. The sections aren't individually banded, but you can sense the shift from a desolate Bolivian salt plain to Atacama, a desert between Peru and Chile which fills with flowers every five years. Linda Catlin Smith's The Underfolding exploit's the piano's ability to sustain notes, the overlapping compared to an artist superimposing different colours to create new ones. The longest work here, it's enthralling.
Anna Thorvaldsdottir's Reminiscence has Den Boer duetting with herself, intermittently plucking and scraping the piano's strings. Crimson, by Rebecca Saunders, is more strident and percussive, Den Boer required to repeatedly tap the instrument's body just before the nine-minute mark, a brilliantly theatrical effect. Offbeat repertoire, but Den Boer's performances are compelling, each work feeling as if it's been recorded in a single take.
— Graham Rickson, 3.05.2022
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
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
The French-American pianist Julia Den Boer returns with a sophomore album, and it’s comprised of 4 absorbing pieces from experimental female composers that are executed with a sublime and technical ability.
Giulia Lorusso’s “Déserts” starts the listen with bare, precise keys that cultivate a very distinct mood as each of the 5 pieces identifies with a specific desert, i.e. the Wadi Rum in Jordan, carved out by the river; the Uyuni salt desert in Bolivia; the Atacama, a flowering desert located between Southern Peru and Northern Chile; the Murzuq in Libya, the sand sea; and the Hammada, the rocky desert, in the Western Sahara.
The middle track, Linda Catlin Smith’s “The Underfolding”, then manipulates pitch and rhythm with a very unique layering skill that emits much ambiguity, while “Reminiscence”, by Anna Thorvaldsdottir, blends 7 quick movements into a very intimate and focused display of stirring key work that puts emphasis on timbre.
Rebecca Saunders’ “Crimson” exits the listen, and is the most firm track present, where the frame of the instrument is even used to highlight the dramatic, animated environment.
A New York City resident who has made quite a global impression as both a soloist and chamber musician and who is always commissioning new works, Boer is constantly challenging the boundaries of her instrument, and here she’s redefining contemporary classical sounds with awe and wonder.
— Tom Haugen, 1.03.2022
First things first: Kermès derives its title from two Mediterranean kermes oaks-located insect species from which red pigment can be ground. The works on French-American pianist Julia Den Boer's second album aren't literally about red kermes dye, however; the idea of seeking out rich, deep, and diverse hues and the tints and shades thereof is something the pieces share. In their respectively idiosyncratic ways, Giulia Lorusso, Linda Catlin Smith, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, and Rebecca Saunders explore the piano's capacity for colour and texture in the material presented on the hour-long release, which Den Boer recorded at Oktaven Audio in Mt. Vernon, New York in October 2020.
The choice of material is in keeping with the NYC-based pianist's reputation as a contemporary music interpreter and advocate. While Kermès features her alone, Den Boer, a graduate of McGill University and SUNY Stony Brook University, also has established herself as a valued collaborator and chamber musician, as well as a member of Wavefield Ensemble. While only four works are performed, they encompass a substantial amount of stylistic territory and provide superb showcases for Den Boer's technical and interpretative command. Whereas Lorusso's Déserts (2018), for example, wends dynamically through its five parts, Smith's The Underfolding (2001) is an explorative travelogue of twenty-one-minute's duration and emblematic of the composer's distinctive style.
The five parts of Déserts, indexed as a single track and performed without interruption, were written with specific deserts in mind: the Wadi Rum in Jordan, carved out by the river;the salt desert Uyuni in Bolivia; the Atacama, a flowering desert located betwixt Southern Peru and Northern Chile; the Libya-located sand sea desert Murzuq; and the Hammada, the rocky desert, found in the Western Sahara. The character of each desert differs, of course, which Lorusso exploits as a creative springboard for her poetic treatments. Beginning pensively, the piece progresses into rippling undulations that evoke the rolling plains of a desert landform until, again, notes grow few in number and the pauses between them become as central to the expression. There's a patience to the pianist's approach that shows a deference on her part to the material, a commitment, in other words, to allow their essences to declare themselves and operate in humble service to that.
In The Underfolding, Smith emphasizes a number of things simultaneously, firstly harmonic ambiguity created by using, in her words, “chords and clusters to shade pitch and rhythm,” and secondly the layering of sound through the use of sustain to approximate in sound the underpainting technique of the visual artist. In this way the piece teases at melody whilst also generating an almost tectonic quality in its accumulating layers. Such material demands a painterly sensitivity from the pianist when it's delivered at a slow, measured pace. A delicate handling of touch and sustain is needed to allow the shadings to crystallize into multiple hues as notes and chords combine. There's momentum here, but it's of the gentle, reflective, and contemplative kind.
Similar to Lorusso's piece, Anna Thorvaldsdottir's Reminiscence (2017) comprises seven short sections performed in a seamless flow. Her work often evokes the austere grandeur and mystery of her native Iceland, and certainly one can hear echoes of that in Den Boer's realization. In a piece that conveys the barrenness of an ice-covered landscape, minimal note voicings appear alongside groaning bass rumbles plus icy glissandi sourced from the instrument's inner strings.
Saunders returns us to the long-form spirit of The Underfolding with Crimson (2005), its title aligning with the blood-red colour of the magnified brushstroke on the album cover; reference is also made to Molly Bloom's closing monologue in Ulysses, in which appear the words, “and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and ... yes.” In contrast to the mounting ecstasy Molly experiences, Saunders's material develops more methodically across its eighteen minutes, moving as it does through sharp explosions of chordal splashes, sprinklings, and clusters. Witnessing her blend high-pitched note clusters with swipes of the instrument's insides and percussive tapping on the piano proves engrossing.
Den Boer possesses virtuosic command of her instrument, but virtuosity here is exemplified as much in the sensitivity she shows in her examination of these oft-introspective works as in bravura displays. Probing too is her exploration of not just the piano's keys but its entire physical being. The degree of concentration she applies to the renderings is intense, and when so much attention is directed to space, sustain, dynamics, touch, and tempo, the results have the potential to mesmerize, as they do here.
— Ron Schepper, 1.21.2022
Contemporary music around the theme of sources of colour are found here in brilliant performances by a pianist who is obviously at home with contemporary repertoire. The album takes its name from insects which are the source of the brilliant red pigment used to create vermillion. There are four pieces, each by a contemporary experimental female composer – Linda Catlin Smith’s The Underfolding, Crimson by Rebecca Saunders, Reminiscence by Anna Thorvaldsdottir and Giulia Lorusso’s Deserts. An enjoyable disc of new music for immersive listening.
— SR, 12.16.2021
As with her earlier album, Lineage (2020), pianist Julia Den Boer here offers four works, diverse in construction but linked by a single abstract quality; this time out, all the composers are female. The title Kermès requires some explanation in the booklet. Kermès or kermes was (and is) an insect whose body, when dried and ground in large quantities, produced red dye; later, it was replaced by the cochineal bug. The abstract quality that links these works for Den Boer is that they seem to "extract" deeper pianistic colors from basic materials stated at the outset of a work or of its individual movements. The interest lies in the different routes taken by the four composers involved toward this goal. Giulia Lorusso's Déserts has a program of its own; its five movements are inspired by five different deserts around the world, and it has a minimalist quality despite some virtuoso passages. Linda Catlin Smith's The Underfolding is a study in overlapping planes of pitch and rhythm. Anna Thorvaldsdottir's Reminiscence, in seven short linked movements, uses strumming and other extended techniques to create the ghostly quality suggested by the title. Rebecca Saunders' Crimson is a work of rich contrasts exploring the etymological link between its title and that of the album, originating in the Arabic language. Den Boer has achieved a novel program here, and one can easily imagine her album being used in composition courses.
— James Manheim, 12.14.2021