Vol. 44 Issue 2-3 Reviews
David Felder: Jeu de Tarot

Compact disc, 2019, COV91913, available from Coviello Classics, 21 Bedford Square, London, WC1B 3HH, www.coviellomusic.com/.

Reviewed by Ross Feller CD Cover

Gambier, Ohio, USA


This disc features two, significant, multi-movement works, as well as a violin solo, by composer David Felder. The first piece, Jeu de Tarot, is scored for violin soloist, eleven performers, and electronics. The second piece, Netivot, is for string quartet and electronics. The presence of virtuoso, violinist Irvine Arditti is felt throughout this disc, as a soloist alongside an ensemble, as part of a string quartet, or as an unaccompanied soloist. The two ensemble works will be reviewed here.

Jeu de Tarot is based upon seven cards (one per movement) from a tarot deck. Each is, in a sense, sounded out by the soloist, ensemble, and electronics part. This piece is chockfull of unexpected sounds, gestures, and combinations of materials. A keyboard part includes parts for piano, harpsichord, and a MIDI keyboard, which can, as instructed in the score, be played by two people if necessary. The MIDI keyboard connects directly to a Max patch. According to the composer, the electronics part was employed for three reasons: to expand the keyboard set-up beyond the piano and harpsichord parts, to trigger cues from the keyboard part itself, and “to expand the tuning world of the piece and to present pre-made orchestrations – impossible live – of a set of sonic images related to the characterisitcs that are latent in each of the Tarot cards.”

In The Juggler, the first movement of Jeu de Tarot, the initial tempo is marked Dramatic (quarter equal to 60). Given the meticulously detailed notation employed by the composer the word ‘Dramatic’ becomes almost a tautology. It is impossible to hear the composer’s efforts as anything but dramatic. This is especially the case in the textures he wrought: sharp attacks that initiate entire gestural complexes, unstable changes of speed and dynamics, and chaotic, registral probing that leaves the listener not knowing what to expect next. These virtuosic materials negotiate a series of ‘sharp corners’ that keep the listener on their toes.

The Fool begins with an explosive, violent energy not unlike some of the work from the Second Viennese School. Subtle, electronic sounds appear in the background. About two minutes into the piece the texture shifts subtly to one characterized by a repeated bass tone, a ‘pivot’ axis around which other instruments revolve. At points it sounds like the materials are coming at you too fast to comprehend or register, the effect resembling a cross between Brian Ferneyhough’s concept of “too muchness” and Iannis Xenakis’s stochastic ideals. Additionally, there is a non-trivial application of spectral principles. This is music composed by someone who has mastered the art of writing for acoustic instruments, and knows how to blend sonic colors.

The third movement, High Priestess, opens with a low rumbling sound played by bass clarinet and contrabass, at a slow pace, with an edgy sense of restlessness. Various layers move around and evolve at different rates of speed. Some of these share pitch material, so the effect sounds like layers are duplicated but slowed down or sped up with respect to material presentation or development. There are also marked timbral shifts and contrasts.

The Hermit contains overlapping pitch collections between solo violin part and the ensemble. The pitch language makes reference to mid-20th century dissonance, a musical characterization of anguish perhaps. The violin part can be heard as an expression of the solitary nature of the hermit. About halfway through, the piece seems to end but is instantly rekindled with a greater level of dissonance, wherein the clarinet begins to carry more prominence, at times sounding like it was the violin’s duet partner.

The fifth movement, The Empress, sounds festive, using the full ensemble with bright timbres, reminiscent of the ensemble writing of Igor Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat. Materials fly by at a fast rate of speed. There is something like a circus or carnival aspect to the music, except that the carnival is extremely dark in tone, using repeated and parallel moving dissonances. One might imagine this movement as a backing track to one of Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings. About three-fifths of the way through the piece the materials culminate to a strategically placed pause, which produces a subtle textural change that eventually coalesces into a sea of trills. There is also a coda tacked on to the end, similar in scope to the very beginning, which is cut short by a punctuated attack.

The Hierophant is also characterized by harsh dissonances. The keyboard part, almost as a pitched percussion instrument, blends into the background. The dissonances at times coalesce into late-Romantic gestural and pitch collections that add a strange feeling of harkening to the mix. The solo violin part soars above the ensemble, and at other times joins the texture as a participant. The electronics part plays a more obvious and significant role in this movement.

The seventh and final movement, Moonlight begins with solo violin glissandi and scratch tones. The ensemble sneaks in to provide some textural support. The violin continues with cascading materials at very soft dynamic levels, at times sounding like birdsong as it plays notes in its highest register. Finally the texture completely thins out, leaving the violin to have the last word. The electronics part is so well integrated in this movement and in the piece as a whole, that it is difficult to hear it as a separate part. Instead it is used in a fused way that effectively bridges the conceptual gap between electronic and acoustic.

The next work on this disc, Netivot, is written for string quartet, electronics, and an optional film part. It was composed for and is performed by the formidable Arditti String Quartet. The title is a Hebrew word for ‘paths.’ According to the liner notes they are to be understood “in a pragmatic sense as the things that we walk on in order to get somewhere, but also in a spiritual sense as a way of being on the route to peace and self-fulfillment.” The first two movements: Devekut and Hitbodedut are named after forms of prayer as described in the Jewish Kabbalistic practices of Spanish mystic Abraham Abulafia. They can be considered as “states on the path towards divine revelation.” The third movement: Pillars of Clouds and Fire refers to the guideposts that the Israelites followed while traveling in the desert.

Interestingly, this work’s harmonic language comes from analyzed vowel formants produced by the voice. Devekut can be described as a sustained, microtonal, textural portrait. The various dissonances Felder uses produce different beating combinations that create viscerally shimmering effects. About three-fourths of the way through this first movement the texture breaks violently as if the music had suddenly snapped to attention - revealing electronic resonant trails that were formerly almost unnoticed. The movement ends shortly thereafter.

Hitbodedut opens with falling and wailing gestures. The electronics part is more obvious in this movement. For example, near the one minute mark we hear some noise and granular sounds that may have been processed samples of pizzicati heard immediately prior in the string quartet. This is followed with a poignant section featuring harmonics harmonic sweeps, and octaves, set into extreme ranges. As this section continues, more noises are added that might make one think of close-up sounds of the bow or rosin. Whatever the case, they carry a certain visceral weight that leads one to consider that what is being heard is the inside of a giant string instrument comprised of the four members of the string quartet, plus electronic modifications. Even though these materials capture one’s attention they are also fragmented and distilled by the composer to achieve a level of unpredictability. The fast pacing of events suggests that objects are passing by the listener while perhaps on a journey of their own. Elsewhere in the piece, material fragments are presented and passed around the quartet that are also diffracted by the electronics part, creating a dynamic kaleidoscope effect. The movement seems to end on a pessimistic note. Perhaps the prayer remains unanswered?

For Pillars of Clouds and Fire, the third, and last, movement, the electronics once again are used to granularize the texture but in even more obvious ways than the other movements. Still, the electronics part is for the most part less present than the string sounds, which creates a well-blended mixture of acoustic and electronic worlds. This conjures the idea of a heightened sense of reality, as if one were looking to clouds or fire for direction. The music for this movement ends after a fadeout of an open fifths chord, which is followed, oddly by about 30 seconds of silence, perhaps a connection with the optional film part.

The pieces on this disc represent the mature work of a composer worth checking out. His ability to deftly blend acoustic and electronic materials into convincing compositions is worth exploring.