Boston based microtonal specialist Julia Werntz releases Someone Who Loves You Throws Me At You, a collection of chamber works with and without voice that demonstrate her highly personal style, often using microtones as her chosen pitch language, but capturing expressive truths that frame the emotional landscape of the piece instead of being dictated by its composite materials. Featured performers include violinist Gabriela Diaz, cellist David Russell, pianist John McDonald, sopranos Stephanie Lamprea and Rose Hegele, mezzo-soprano Katherine Growdon, clarinetist Kevin Price, violist Anna Griffis, the Ludovico Ensemble, and conductor Jeffrey Means.
Five Vignettes From the Garden by the Sea
|Gabriela Diaz, violin, David Russell, cello|
|01||I. The Sea Changes in the Afternoon|
I. The Sea Changes in the Afternoon
|02||II. Magpies Fly in the Trees|
II. Magpies Fly in the Trees
|03||III. We Eat Figs|
III. We Eat Figs
|04||IV. A Shield Bug Clings to the Tree for Hours|
IV. A Shield Bug Clings to the Tree for Hours
|05||V. Everyone is Away|
V. Everyone is Away
|John McDonald, piano||2:38|
Songs of Thumbelina
|Stephanie Lamprea, soprano, Kevin Price, bass clarinet and clarinet, Anna Griffis, viola|
|08||II. My dear, I must have been dreaming all of this|
II. My dear, I must have been dreaming all of this
Flying, Nesting, and Calling
|Ludovico Ensemble, John McDonald, piano, Jeffrey Means, conductor|
|Stephanie Lamprea, soprano, Rose Hegele, soprano, Katherine Growdon, mezzo-soprano|
|12||I. tade nyn|
I. tade nyn
|13||II. asteras eisathreis|
II. asteras eisathreis
|14||III. milon ego|
III. milon ego
|15||IV. o kala|
IV. o kala
Composer Julia Werntz, when asked what she hopes to convey with her music, says, “To feel animated… to be removed from the local time and place, to be transported… to be surprised – what I experience when I listen to my favorite music.”
Werntz is a microtonal composer. Just as the topography of the land determines how we move upon it — can we run, must we climb? — the shape of the scales we use determines not only the notes we have at our disposal, but can have temporal and formal implications as well.
When it comes to time, Werntz’s pieces are snapshots of sound. With a finer grain of pitch variation, it is as if each second carries more detail, more weight. It creates a luminous state of ambiguity, adding more tension, delaying resolution.
More and more over the last few years, Werntz’s music has been woven from the shape and time of nature. Her phrasing follows what she experiences (ideationally or actually); she doesn’t obey the expected symmetries of much classical music. Werntz is totally embodied in this work, as the first observer of these events, embodied before any composing has begun. There is a freedom in letting all the parameters convey and accommodate each other at once.
The vocal works here contrast from the music more clearly derived from the natural world. They face the texts, and are serving them to some degree. The composer discerns a gravitation, in her vocal works, to themes of eroticism and heightened emotion.
This album starts with Five Vignettes from the Garden by the Sea (2009). Each small movement is an essential piece of this work, expressing together a vibrant and dynamic soundscape. In “The Sea Changes in the Afternoon”, violin and cello harmonize with the ocean waves.
“Magpies Fly in the Trees” traces the acrobatic mischief of birds. Their flighty unpredictability is observed by the cello, whose sotto voce mutterings seem to somehow disapprove…
“We Eat Figs” shows off Werntz’s great capacity for counterpoint, with contrasting musics intertwining, each placed into higher relief by battuto and pizzicato lines against more lyrical material.
“A Shield Bug Clings to the Tree for Hours” presents a noisy, grinding exterior from the cello set against plaintively shaped high notes in the violin. Slowly the gesture is repeated, an aggression in slow motion…
“Everyone Is Away” opens with understated music similar to the first movement, but builds into greater intensity. This more charged atmosphere finds a kind or resolution that gradually calms, the instruments gently slipping away.
Werntz was already a committed microtonal composer when she wrote Tantrum (2001). She returned to 12 tone music with a twist — this piece uses a thirteen note row. Starting with a burly gesture from the piano’s low end, contrapuntal passages are exclaimed in clear, confident lines of single pitches, which build into fully-fleshed harmonies. This repeated dialectic of the one against the many, the gentle against the boisterous, evolves the piece.
Songs of Thumbelina (2014) is based on poems by Dana Dalton. Starting with images from the original Hans Christian Andersen story (very different from ones intended for today’s children), she paints an edgy, disquieted world of surveillance, “consensual knowledge” and a search for self-determination. Violist and clarinet/bass clarinetist occupy mutable, ever-evolving roles, sometimes mirroring or supporting the soprano, other times they sweep away old music and introduce new, an active dance with the soprano.
In Flying, Nesting, and Calling, Werntz turns to the activities of birds for inspiration. In the first movement, an astonishing brightness of wind multiphonics twists around slower, singing strings and the plainspoken piano, as if all defy gravity. “Nesting” is inspired by the movements of birds as they gather and weave material for their homes, shaped into periods of industry, conflict, and rest. In “Calling” she has created her own virtuosic bird calls, extroverted and confident.
Kaspoleo Melea (2018) is built from ancient poems expressing pure desire, fragments of Sappho and epigrams attributed to Plato. The three women’s voices, two sopranos and one mezzo, carry a huge coloristic and expressive range — from the warmth of a honeyed, understated mezzo piano to the unexpected electric shock of vibrato. The foregrounded breath sounds, the chest singing contrasted with shining open-throated passages, make “o kala” especially urgent and sensual.
– Kyle Bartlett
Five Vignettes From the Garden by the Sea recorded at BMOP Club Concert, Club Oberon, Cambridge, MA on May 2, 2012
Tantrum recorded at Distler Hall, Tufts University, Medford, MA on September 28, 2019
Recording engineer: Joel Gordon
Songs of Thumbelina recorded at the studio of Joel Gordon in Watertown, MA on February 1, 2020
Recording engineer: Joel Gordon
Flying, Nesting, and Calling recorded at Distler Hall, Tufts University, Medford, MA on September 28, 2019
Recording engineer: Joel Gordon
Kaspoleo Melea recorded at Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA on March 17, 2019
Recording engineers: Alex Yen and Jeffrey Means
Mastering by Jeffrey Means
Audio mastering: Joel Gordon
All works published by Frog Peak Music (BMI)
Cover and CD booklet artwork, design, and layout: Monte Antrim, monteantrim.com
The music of Boston-based composer Julia Werntz has been described as "meticulously crafted" and "pristine and unweighted by earthly reality" in NewMusicBox, and "attractive and intriguing" in 21st Century Music. Her works have been performed at concert series, festivals and venues throughout Europe and the United States, such as the Muziekgebouw Kleine Zaal in Amsterdam, the Hamburg Klangwerktage, the Tage für Neue Musik at the Darmstadt Akademie für Tonkunst, Unerhörte Music and the BKA Theater in Berlin, the UK Microfests 3 and 4, the Stockholm New Music Festival, the Week of Contemporary Music, Bucharest, the Here/Now Festival in Sofia, New York's Vision Festival, the New Music Gathering in Bowling Green, Pittsburgh's Music on the Edge, and in Boston on the Enchanted Circle, Extension Works, BMOP Club Concert, Boston Microtonal Society and various other series. Her work has been commissioned and/or performed by groups such as Ludovico Ensemble, Ensemble SCALA, Ecce Ensemble, loadbang, Alia Musica, Kamratön Ensemble, Ensemble New Babylon, Firebird Ensemble, Prana Duo, DuoKaya, Patchtax, Peridot Duo, Auros Group for New Music, and NotaRiotous Ensemble, among others. In Pittsburgh in June 2022, Kamratön Ensemble and Quince Ensemble staged an outstanding premiere performance of her opera The Strange Child (libretto by Kim Adrian, based on a tale by E.T.A. Hoffmann), with guest artists baritone Eugene Perry and tenor Robert Frankenberry in lead roles.
Through her music, her writings, and her teaching, Werntz has become recognized as a leading voice in the field of microtonal music. Her 2014 manual on microtonal ear training and composition, Steps to the Sea: Ear Training and Composing in a Minute Equal Temperament, sells steadily to composers, performers, and theorists (FrogPeak Music, available on Amazon). Her articles on microtonal and other contemporary music have appeared in Perspectives of New Music, NewMusicBox, New World Records, and other publications. Werntz is currently Professor of Music at Berklee College of Music, where she teaches traditional ear training and music theory courses and her unique Microtonal Ear Training and Composition course. From 2007 until stepping down in late 2022, she also taught highly popular practice and analysis courses in microtonal music at the New England Conservatory of Music. From the mid-1990s until 2018 she was Artistic Director of the Boston Microtonal Society and co-founded and co-directed its chamber ensemble, NotaRiotous.
Georgia native Gabriela Diaz began her musical training at the age of five, studying piano with her mother, and the next year, violin with her father. As a childhood cancer survivor, Gabriela is committed to sup- porting cancer research and treatment in her capacity as a musician. In 2004, Gabriela was a recipient of a grant from the Albert Schweitzer Foundation, an award that enabled Gabriela to create and direct the Boston Hope Ensemble. This program is now part of Winsor Music. A firm believer in the healing properties of music, Gabriela and her colleagues have performed in cancer units in Boston hospitals and presented benefit concerts for cancer research organizations in numerous venues throughout the United States.
A fierce champion of contemporary music, Gabriela has been fortunate to work closely with many significant composers on their own compositions, namely Pierre Boulez, Frederic Rzewski, Alvin Lucier, Unsuk Chin, Joan Tower, Roger Reynolds, Chaya Czernowin, Steve Reich, Tania León, Brian Ferneyhough, and Helmut Lachenmann. In 2012 Gabriela joined the violin faculty of Wellesley College. Gabriela is co-artistic director of the much beloved Boston-based chamber music and outreach organization Winsor Music. Please visit winsormusic.org for more information!
Gabriela’s recording of Lou Harrison’s Suite for Violin and American Gamelan was highlighted in the New York Times Article “5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Classical Music.” Critics have acclaimed Ga- briela as “a young violin master,” and “one of Boston’s most valuable players.” Lloyd Schwartz of the Boston Phoenix noted, “...Gabriela Diaz in a bewitching performance of Pierre Boulez’s 1991 Anthèmes. The come-hither meow of Diaz’s upward slides and her sustained pianis- simo fade-out were miracles of color, texture, and feeling.” Others have remarked on her “indefatigably expressive” playing, “polished technique,” and “vivid and elegant playing.” Gabriela can be heard on New World, Centaur, BMOPSound, Mode, Naxos, and Tzadik records. Gabriela plays on a Vuillaume violin generously on loan from Mark Ptashne and a viola made by her father, Manuel Diaz. Gabriela is proud to be a core member of the team that created Boston Hope Music, bringing music to patients and frontline medical workers during the pandemic. More info can be found at bostonhopemusic.orghttps://www.eurekaensemble.org/boston-hope-music
Hailed as "superb," “incisive," and "sonorous and panoramic” (Boston Globe), David Russell maintains a vigorous schedule both as soloist and as collaborator in the U.S. and Europe. He was appointed to the teaching faculty of Wellesley College in 2005 and currently serves as Lecturer and Director of Chamber Music. He has served as Principal cello of the orchestras of Odyssey Opera and Opera Boston since 2010 and performs regularly with many ensembles based in New England such as Cantata Singers and Ensemble, the Worcester Chamber Music Society and Emmanuel Music. A strong advocate of new music, Russell has performed and recorded with contemporary ensembles such as Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Firebird Ensemble, Ludovico Ensemble, Callithumpian Consort, Music on the Edge, Dinosaur Annex, Collage, the Fromm Players at Harvard, and entelechron. Recent projects include recordings of cello concertos by Chen Yi and Lukas Foss, recordings of solo and chamber works by Lee Hyla, Eric Moe, Tamar Diesendruck, Donald Crockett, Andrew Rindfleisch and Roger Zahab as well as premieres of music by David Lang, Barbara White, Marti Epstein, Daron Hagen, José-Luis Hurtado, Robert Carl, Gilda Lyons,and Jorge Martin. Russell has also recently premiered works for cello and orchestra by Laurie San Martin and Samuel Nichols, as well as works for solo cello by Tamar Diesendruck, Andrew Rindfleisch, and John Mallia. Russell has recorded for the Tzadik, Albany, BMOPSound, CRI, Centaur and New World Records labels.
Described as "the New England master of the short piece," John McDonald is a composer who tries to play the piano and a pianist who tries to compose. He is currently Professor of Music at Tufts University, where he teaches composition, theory, and performance. Before arriving at Tufts in 1990, he taught at Boston University, the Longy School of Music, M.I.T., and the Rivers Conservatory. McDonald's research interests include composition and new music pedagogy; intermedia collaboration involving composing and performing; solo and chamber music composition, performance and recording; writing new music for young and non-professional performers; music applications for visual art and science; and advocating for new and overlooked composers. He was the Music Teachers National Association Composer of the Year in 2007 and served as the Valentine Visiting Professor of Music at Amherst College in 2016-2017. His book, Stirring Up the Music: The Life, Works, and Influence of Composer T(homas) J(efferson) Anderson, is forthcoming from Borik Press. McDonald's most recent recordings include At All Device (Bridge Records 9528; a collection of McDonald piano works with soloist David Holzman; 2020), PanSync (Arsis Audio; works by Su Lian Tan and McDonald; 2022), and States of Play (Bridge 9564; works by Robert Carl and McDonald; 2022).
Colombian-American soprano Stephanie Lamprea is an architect of new sounds and expressions as a performer, recitalist, curator, and improviser, specializing in contemporary classical repertoire. Trained as an operatic coloratura, she uses her voice as a mechanism of avant-garde performance art, creating “maniacal shifts of vocal production and character... like an icepick through the skull” (Jason Eckardt). She has been praised by Opera News for "her iconoclasm and fearless commitment to new sounds" and for her "impressive display of extended vocal techniques, in the honorable tradition of such forward-looking artists as Bethany Beardslee, Cathy Berberian and Joan La Barbara." Her work has been described as “mercurial'' by I Care If You Listen and that she “sings so expressively and slowly with ever louder and higher-pitched voice, that the inclined listener [has] shivers down their back and tension flows into the last row." (Halberstadt.de) Stephanie has received awards from the Concert Artist Guild, St. Botolph Club Foundation, the John Cage Orgel Stiftung, the Puffin Foundation, and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. Stephanie has performed as a soloist at Roulette Intermedium, Constellation Chicago, Sound Scotland, National Sawdust, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Casa da Música. She has collaborated with several leading new music ensembles and bands including the International Contemporary Ensemble, Wavefield Ensemble, So Percussion, Red Note Ensemble, Talujon, Guerilla Opera, and Post Coal Prom Queen. In 2022, Stephanie released her debut solo album, Quaking Aspen, on New Focus Recordings. Featuring new works for voice and electronics by Jason Eckardt, Wang Lu, Kurt Rohde, Hannah Selin, George N. Gianopoulos, and James May, the album was hailed by PopMatters.com as "a bold artistic statement that’s exciting and innovative... a magical, intense, and deeply satisfying journey." A passionate educator and speaker, Stephanie has taught and performed in residency for universities across the United States and Europe including the University of California at Davis, Temple University, the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. She has presented her artistic research for the Wildflower Composers (USA), the European Platform for Artistic Research in Music (London), and the 2021 Shared Narratives Conference (Scotland), and she was a featured TEDx Speaker for TEDxWaltham: Going Places. Stephanie received her Bachelor’s Degree in Vocal Performance from the Manhattan School of Music, where she worked with Maitland Peters and Lucy Shelton. She has received additional vocal training from Dr. Julian Kwok and coaching from soprano Sarah Maria Sun. Stephanie is a candidate for the Doctor of Performing Arts degree at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, under the supervision of composer/zoo-musicologist Dr. Emily Doolittle and co-supervised by Dr. Laura Gonzalez and Jean Sangster.http://www.stephanielamprea.com/
Massachusetts native, clarinetist, and bass clarinetist Kevin Price is an advocate of new compositions, interdisciplinary collaborations, and the art of improvisation. Kevin has collaborated with a variety of Boston-based ensembles, such as Sound Icon, Odyssey Opera, and Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Currently, he is the founding member of the violin and clarinet duo, Box Not Found. He has performed with a number of world-renowned ensembles, including the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra as principal clarinetist and bass clarinetist under the artistic direction of Matthias Pintscher and the late Pierre Boulez, as well as the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group under the late Oliver Knussen.
Equally at home on modern and historical instruments, violist/violinist Anna Griffis has performed in Mexico, Turkey, Austria, Slovenia, Czechia, Taiwan, and throughout North America. She is a member of the New Bedford Symphony (principal) and the Albany Symphony and performs regularly with the Rhode Island Philharmonic, Emmanuel Music, Blue Heron, Les Bostonades, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, and Boston Lyric Opera. She co-founded Chicago-based Trio Speranza, prize winners at the Early Music America competition, and performs with and is Executive Director of the Boston-based new music group Ludovico Ensemble. Anna studied at Lawrence University, The Hartt School of Music, Tanglewood Music Center, and Boston University. She teaches and coaches chamber music at The New School of Music (Cambridge) and Tufts University, and is an affiliate artist at MIT. Anna oversees public relations for the Tufts Music Department and is a freelance graphic designer specializing in programs and publications. Originally from Annapolis, MD, Anna now lives in the great neighborhood of Lower Allston with her bassoonist husband and their cat, Pig.
The Ludovico Ensemble is a Boston-based chamber ensemble specializing in modern music. Founded in 2002 by percussionist Nicholas Tolle, the group is known for its carefully curated programs focusing on specific and often unusual instrumentations. From 2007-2014, the group held the position of Ensemble-In-Residence at the Boston Conservatory. In 2010, the group released its first album featuring chamber music by the late Dana Brayton, former composition teacher at the Boston Conservatory. The Boston Globe hailed Ludovico's recording of Marti Epstein's Hypnagogia as one of the best classical albums of 2015, and Alex Ross of The New Yorker called it a new release of interest. In 2016 the group released its third album featuring the music of Composer—In—Residence Mischa Salkind-Pearl. The group consists of many of the best freelancers and new music specialists in Boston, and its instrumentation varies wildly from concert to concert as the repertoire demands. The group's name is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fictional medical treatment featured in the Anthony Burgess novel and Stanley Kubrick movie "A Clockwork Orange," in which the protagonist is subjected to a classical conditioning regimen that induces nausea at the sight of violent or exploitative acts, but also, inadvertently, to the music of Beethoven.
Jeffrey Means is an American conductor and percussionist with a special interest in modern and contemporary music. His wide-ranging career has included engagements across North America and Europe, collaborating with many of today's leading composers and ensembles. He is artist director of the Boston-based group, Sound Icon, which has given premieres of numerous major works of the American and European Avant-Garde. After studying with Pierre Boulez in 2009-2011, he has maintained a close relationship with Boulez's music. Means is professor of conducting at Berklee College of Music and is an active recording engineer.
Canadian soprano Rose Hegele facilitates artistically rigorous performance experiences that explore the extremes of human vocal and artistic expression in 20th and 21st century art music. Working across disciplines including experimental theatre, silent film, chamber music, improvisation and choral singing, Ms. Hegele is passionate about curating performance experiences that foster creative musical practice, innovative collaborations, and service to the larger community. Highlights include performing the world premiere of Andy Vores’s Chrononhotonthologos with Guerilla Opera and leading ensemble performances in Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and music by Kian Khalilian at Clark University as an Artist-in-Residence. She has also performed at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, Jordan Hall, The Castro Theatre, Carnegie Hall, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
Boston-based mezzo-soprano Katherine Growdon enjoys a versatile career as a soloist, ensemble singer, and educator. Hailed for performances of "incisive authority" (New York Times) and "heart-rending emotion" (San Francisco Classical Voice), her voice has been described by the Boston Globe as "rich, rippling" and "full of dusky colors and pathos." She has made solo appearances in concert with the Handel and Haydn Society, Lorelei Ensemble, Boston Baroque, Emmanuel Music, Mark Morris Dance Group, Boston Pops, Atlanta Baroque Orchestra, Albany Symphony, Northwest Bach Festival, American Bach Soloists and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Notable operatic credits include Myrtle Wilson in the Boston premiere of Harbison's The Great Gatsby, Dido and the Sorceress in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas with the Mark Morris Dance Group, and St. Catherine in Honegger's Jeanne d'Arc au bOcher with Odyssey Opera. She is featured on the Boston Modern Orchestra Project recording of Kati Agocs' Vessel (BMOP).
— Jeremy Shatan, 7.06.2023
The time period of the compositions is the same, and there is plenty of overlap in instrumentation, but the sounds of the works are very different on a New Focus Recordings release of five pieces by Julia Werntz. This is because Werntz’ compositional style relies on the use of microtones, and listeners not already attuned (so to speak) to microtonal compositions will need to expand their auditory perception in order to absorb what Werntz is trying to communicate. The titles of Werntz’ pieces, and of their individual movements, are also part of the overall perceptual experience. Thus, Five Vignettes from the Garden by the Sea (2009), for violin and cello, is an exercise in Impressionism from a microtonal perspective. And Werntz’ use of string techniques, such as pizzicato in the movement called “We Eat Figs,” is quite different from Mueller’s in his string quartet. Listeners who are able to relate the sounds to movement titles such as “The Sea Changes in the Afternoon” and “A Shield Bug Clings to the Tree for Hours” will get the most from this piece. Next on the CD is the brief piano solo Tantrum (2001), which – again – needs listeners to understand its underlying structural premise in order to get the most of it: instead of microtones, this work is based on twelvetone techniques, but using a 13-note row. Next is Songs of Thumbelina(2014), one of those reinterpretation-of-a-classic concepts whose two movements – for soprano with bass clarinet/clarinet and viola – use Hans Christian Andersen’s tale as a jumping-off point for consideration of much more modern and troubling concepts than Andersen ever intended, through poetry by Dana Dalton. This is followed by Flying, Nesting, Calling (2016), whose overall title includes the one-word titles of each of its three movements. Birds are the stated inspiration for this work, but there is little that takes flight or builds nests in it – although the short third movement does contain elements of some very strange sort-of bird calls. Even shorter than this are most of the movements of Kaspoleo Melea (2018), in which two sopranos and a mezzo-soprano whisper, yell and speak ancient Greek fragments by Sappho and Plato. Werntz combines the women’s voices skillfully and more interestingly than she mixes the sounds of instruments in the other works here. Language issues aside, this is an interesting-sounding piece, helped by its brevity: three movements are under two minutes each and the fourth lasts two-and-a-half. The entire disc is only 45 minutes long, more than enough time for listeners to decide whether Werntz’ approach to chamber composition is one they find congenial enough to re-experience.
— Mark Estren, 7.06.2023
Western ears are deeply adapted to whole and half tones, which poses a challenge when it comes to a microtonal composer like the Boston-based Julia Werntz. To many general listeners, microtones rob music of a specific key and therefore causes destabilization, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing (classic Indian ragas are based on 22 microtones, or shrutis, each scale expressing various subtle emotions). Advocating for the chamber works on this release, the program notes say, “Werntz’s pieces are snapshots of sound. With a finer grain of pitch variation, it is as if each second carries more detail, more weight. It creates a luminous state of ambiguity, adding more tension, delaying resolution.”
These advantages are arguable, but two things are readily apparent listening to Werntz’s music: She is confident in using microtones for expression, not just for abstract ends, and secondly, tonal ambiguity is inescapable. It helps to begin with the relative simplicity of a duo for violin and cello, Five Vignettes from the Garden by the Sea, where the two instruments aren’t complicated by a denser texture of other voices. As a touchstone, my response is ambivalent. On its own, each instrument tends to sound out of tune, an inevitable result if you are accustomed to standard pitches. Yet the intertwined relationship between violinist Gabriela Diaz and cellist David Russell becomes arresting and tends to ameliorate any out-of-tune perception through dramatic interaction.
Werntz’s play on Beethoven’s “Rage over a Lost Penny” is Tantrum, also for piano and lasting only two minutes. The piano isn’t retuned for microtones, so we are dealing with regular pitches. The idiom is serial but with a twist—the tone row consists of 13 notes instead of twelve. This doesn’t really save the piece from sounding as arid as serial music typically does. The ground plan of Tantrum is easy to follow, at least. There is a clear contrast between sequences of single notes alternating with chords, sometimes harshly.
The third and last of the purely instrumental works is Flying, Nesting, and Calling, for mixed chamber ensemble and solo piano. Werntz turns to bird life for inspiration, using imitative gestures in the vein of using the rhythm of ocean waves in Five Vignettes. The instrumentation of the score, as performed by the Ludovico Ensemble, isn’t specified, but the program notes offer a guide. “In the first movement [“Flying”] an astonishing brightness of wind multiphonics twists around slower, singing strings and the plain-spoken piano, as if all defy gravity.” This description belies the angular shape of the music, however, which is as slow and hieratic as Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments, lacking any suggestion of wings in motion.
Nor does the second movement, “Nesting,” bear a recognizable resemblance to Nature. For me, the reference to birds is a red herring—unfortunately so, because the music is of high quality, exhibiting Werntz’s imaginative employment of microtones in the woodwinds and strings set against the regular pitches of the piano. Birds are discernible in the third movement, “Calling,” whose honks and tweets have a humorous ring—they aren’t far from Siegfried’s futile honking at the Forest Bird.
The two remaining works are vocal. Based on poems by Dana Dalton, the two Songs of Thumbelina for soprano, viola, and clarinet/bass clarinet veer very far from Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale, depicting instead a dystopian world for which microtonality provides suitable disquiet and eeriness. Despite the presence of the brilliant New Music specialist, soprano Stephanie Lamprea, these songs would be a very hard listening experience for general music lovers, the queasiness of microtonality being even more off-putting than atonality.
Easier to appreciate is the vocal trio Kaspoleo Melea, which the program notes tell us “is built from ancient poems expressing pure desire, fragments of Sappho and epigrams attributed to Plato.” The chosen fragments are enticing. For example, the third song, “milon ego,” goes, “I am an apple, someone who loves you throws me at you. Just say yes, Xanthippe; you and I both will wither.” The music benefits from being performed by two sopranos, including Lamprea, and a mezzo, who all are expert in hitting difficult pitches but also possess lovely voices and expressive phrasing. This helps to offset the challenges that emerge when general listeners confront atonal singing, and there are passing moments of consonance that also help in appreciating these five aphoristic songs.
Werntz has mastered the possibilities of microtonalism and has a subtle ear for it. I want to leave this as a final impression, along with my own preferences on the program, especially Five Vignettes and Kaspoleo Melea. I didn’t come away fully adapted to the fine-grained, ambiguous, often unsettling harmonies, but it was very worthwhile to be exposed to Werntz’s unique imagination.
— Huntley Dent, 9.09.2023
Julia Werntz’s microtonal music throws open a door to new possibilities, a door one might not have known existed. Her music lifts the listener off the everyday checkerboard of the 12-tone scale while keeping within the sound world of standard Western instruments and the human voice. This way she shows us that we’re part of a wider natural world than the one we usually inhabit when we listen to music. Wisely, New Focus Recordings gives us this gift in small, digestible doses on Someone Who Loves You Throws Me at You. A selective retrospective of Werntz’s work over the past two decades, the album begins with Five Vignettes from the Garden by the Sea (2009), where violin and cello shunt away notions of “in tune” and “out of tune.” While this can be a challenge for the ear, it’s a good opening feint: These familiar fretless string instruments have always contained the possibility of microtones, in any fractions that a composer might desire and a musician be able to finger; and listeners familiar with how these instruments sound are at least unconsciously aware of this.
Tantrum, a short piece for piano and the album’s earliest-composed (2001), expresses by contrast the composer’s distinctive harmonic language on an instrument without bendable notes. But it’s in the more recent pieces where Werntz most fully realizes her vision. Songs of Thumbelina sets two poems by Dana Dalton that both address the natural world, to music for viola, clarinet, bass clarinet, and soprano. The piece uses microtones to engage with the sound-universe of nature more minutely than Western music usually can.
The human voice is absent in the three parts of Flying, Nesting, and Calling. Instead Werntz brings in a larger ensemble to ascend to the world of birds, who know no 12-tone rules. By this point in the album we are well acclimated to microtonality. This music, together with the eerie dreaminess of the five miniatures comprising Kaspolea Melea for two sopranos and mezzo-soprano, completes the revelation of a new mind-expanding universe. Just as the strings of the Five Vignettes lack tonal restrictions, the human voice can glide to notes between the familiar 12 and gather to expose unthought-of harmonic possibilities. Thus the album ends with the purest distillation yet of this composer’s persistently unconventional vision.
— Jon Sobel, 10.21.2023