“Challenging, enriching, wonderful music…the austere beauty is unutterably haunting…disquieting, unsettling, it makes an impact far exceeding its duration. Holmes speaks straight from his soul. Five stars: Urgently recommended.” (Colin Clarke, Fanfare, February 2021)
“The only American composer in this age range whose music has impressed me at multiple times and for multiple reasons is Jeffrey Holmes. He plies his trade quietly in California, and does what he wants musically, unattached and unapologetic. The fact that someone of his caliber and skill goes mostly unheralded while the equivalent of spoiled children lead the parade points to the tried-and-true maxim that one can be an artist or be famous, but not both.” (Dan Albertson, La Folia, May 2019)
“A particularly impressive combination of technical prowess and deep expression…intense, often abrasive, visionary, unafraid to challenge, even assault the listener.”
“Music of raw power and vision.”
“Screaming chords seem almost like the death rattle of a prehistoric beast.”
“I salute Holmes for his integrity and commitment to a very personal and challenging vision, very much of this time, and actually of a future when the pendulum will swing again to appreciate its lonely stance in the current musical landscape.”
(Robert Carl, Fanfare Magazine, May 2019)
“Captivating…the haunting and slightly disorienting sound disrupts and engages the open ear.” (Joseph Woodard, Los Angeles Times, 2004)
“Primal drama, dark and brooding like a blustering winter storm…a sharp sense of darkness and destiny.” (Paul Muller, Sequenza 21, September 2020)
“By far the most interesting and musically arresting work on the concert…Holmes’ use of microtones was the most creative and successful uses this author has heard…music to be really heard and deserving of reflection.” (Benjamin Boone, Society of Composers, INC., 2004)
“Holmes’ music engages in the idea of landscape and mysticism through his spectral technique. Through his choice of pitch and rhythmic textures, stunning colors emerge.” (The Talea Ensemble, March 11, 2016)
“Nearly seventy years after the death of trailblazing American composer Charles Ives, fear and suspicion of microtonality in Classical Music persist, particularly among artists and institutions of his native country. The earnest efforts of musicians active in many genres to promote appreciation of the uses of microintervals and alternate tonalities in diverse cultures have increased awareness but fostered sadly little progress towards widespread acceptance of modes of sonic expression that deviate from Western praxes. There is no shame in loving a Schubert melody or a Puccini phrase above all else, but innumerable beauties exist outside of the boundaries of traditional harmonies, yearning for discovery. There is also no shame in acknowledging the limits of one’s knowledge and experience by seeking new opportunities for musical exploration. Admittedly, venturing into the uncharted territory of new music can be daunting. As when visiting an unknown place for the first time, informed guidance immeasurably enriches the initial exposure.
New music offers few guided excursions into intriguing sonic environments as viscerally exciting and thought-provoking as Rider of Darkness, Path of Light, MicroFest Records’ artfully-engineered recording of works by American composer Jeffrey Holmes. The compositional voice that emerges in the pieces on this disc is one of astonishing originality. Eschewing the neo-Romantic and post-Modernist trends in Twenty-First-Century music, Holmes crafts aural tableaux in which juxtapositions of rhythmic and tonal intervals replace conventional interplay of melody and harmony. Holmes’s work is intrinsically interactive, spurring the listener to seek distinctive melodies in the undulating progressions of sound rather than presenting finite, unchanging tunes that require no engagement.
Holmes shares with Monteverdi, Händel, and Brahms an acute faculty for capitalizing on suspensions of time in his music. Wells of emotion fill as tones clash and cajole until they overflow, the deluges of feeling appearing like rays of sunlight penetrating oppressive skies, eternal but often gone in an instant. In all of the performances on this disc, Holmes’s music challenges artists and listeners alike, demanding not just to be performed and heard but to be felt. These works reveal that it is not solely in the biological sense that Holmes is a living composer. His artistry exhibits uncommon cognizance of the fact that, when performed and heard anew, all music, whether centuries or seconds old, is a living, evolving organism.
The instrumental pieces on Rider of Darkness, Path of Light disclose a Ravelian affinity for casting instruments’ timbres as characters in musical dramas, the interactions of each instrument with its brethren and its own varied tones shaping convoluted, sometimes almost contrapuntal dialogues. Conducted by David Fulmer with discernible comprehension of the music’s complementary complexities and simplicities, the musicians of Talea Ensemble—Barry Crawford (flute and piccolo), Stuart Breczinski (oboe and English horn), Marianne Gythfeldt (contrabass and piccolo clarinets), John Gattis (horn), Matthew Gold (percussion), Alex Lipowski (percussion), Lauren Cauley (violin), Elizabeth Weisser (viola), Chris Gross (’cello), and Greg Chudzik (double bass)—achieve a performance of Hagall [Haglaz – Hail] that seems to reduce its twenty minutes to mere moments.
Nature’s irrepressible fury rattles and rages in the music, but it is here the bringer of vital rejuvenation, not of indiscriminate destruction. Holmes’s writing for percussion is aptly raucous, but the skill with which he interweaves instrumental textures, especially those of the woodwinds, is captivating; even delicate. The Western canon includes many musical depictions of natural phenomena, but, performed on this disc with bracing immediacy, Hagall is an expressive phenomenon in its own right rather than an Impressionistic representation of external forces.
With Thund [Thundering Waters], Holmes proves that, like Liszt and Brahms, his imagination is as stimulated by the capabilities of the piano as by those of an instrumental ensemble. Pianist Jason Hardink offers a forceful rendering of the piece, his technique equal to the music’s formidable requirements. The virtuosity of his playing dazzles, but the sensitivity of his performance manifests the work’s prevailing ethos, limning the intangible sensations of chaos. The defining characteristic of Holmes’s compositional idiom in Thund is a perceptive use of jagged intervals that spur and then defy the listener’s expectations. Hardink’s shrewd phrasing energizes the music’s air of spontaneity, reflecting the reliable unpredictability of nature that is so integral an inspiration of the composer’s cunning.
As paired on this disc, the striking contrasts between a bass-baritone’s sepulchral tones in Urðarmána and a soprano’s brilliant upper register in Myrkriða, Ljósleiðà conjure images of the eerily symbiotic fire and frost of Icelandic landscapes. Utilizing evocative texts in Old Norse, largely of his own composition, Holmes forges—and the use of present tense is in this instance not a matter of semantics, as these are pieces that regenerate their sonic atmospheres anew and differently in each hearing—linguistic and metaphysical contexts that, befitting consequential works of art, are simultaneously unique and universal. The composer’s writing for voices is undeniably punishing for the singers, not least in its unrelenting traversals of their full ranges, yet this is never music that exploits vocal prowess for garish effects. The music’s poignant potency arises from Holmes’s unmistakably personal response to the narrative trajectories of the words.
Fittingly, the cornerstone of bass-baritone Nicholas Isherwood’s performance of Urðarmána [Moon of Fate] is incendiary singing that draws its heat from the text. As psychologically exacting as Philippe’s ‘Elle ne m’aime pas’ in Verdi’s Don Carlos and Wotans Abschied in Act Three of Wagner’s Die Walküre, Holmes’s music takes the voice to the brink of duress, but Isherwood sounds most confident when the writing is least comfortable. Collaborative pianist Mark Robson’s intrepid playing supplies the fuel with which Isherwood ignites his interpretation. The partnership of singer and pianist conveys admirable sophistication, the brashness of their exchanges developing in certain passages into a shared quest for equilibrium similar in ethos to the scene in Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges in which, moved to pity, the wronged forest creatures aid the injured child who has tormented them. In the most tumultuous moments of this performance, Isherwood and Robson accentuate the compassion at the heart of Urðarmána.
As the intensity of its emotional journey suggests, Urðarmána is not a piece that can be politely or casually sung. The primordial vigor of Isherwood’s singing belies its innate elegance, but the cogency of his interpretation of Holmes’s music relies upon technical refinement. Cognizance and respect of the voice’s limitations permit Isherwood to take artistic risks. Similar boldness, facilitated by assured mastery of the music, permeates Robson’s pianism, the unflappable musicality of his playing ideally partnering with Isherwood’s singing. Neither the intricacies nor the extravagances of Urðarmána disrupt the poetic urgency of this performance, in which singer and pianist immerse themselves—and, via the sounds they engender, the listener—in the mesmerizing modulations of Holmes’s music.
Structured in fifteen brief episodes, Myrkriða, Ljósleiðá [Rider of Darkness, Path of Light] unites elements of the Lieder cycles of Schubert and Schumann with Twenty-First Century cinema’s non-linear storytelling. Framed by series of metamorphosing reprises of the ‘Myrkriða’(‘Rider of Darkness’) and ‘Ljósleiðá’ (‘Path of Light’) segments, the piece shares with Arnold Schönberg’s Erwartung an abiding aura of spiritual analysis. Here, Holmes’s music becomes the setting for an enthralling sonic peregrination through expressive expanses that at once seem unknown and familiar. From the first pulses of ‘Nátta’ (‘Night Falling’), the performances of Tara Schwab (flute and alto flute), Yuri Inoo (percussion), Michael Kudirka (guitar and additional percussion, and the composer, who conducts and contributes percussion, enkindle an ethereal tonal world in which rhythms echo the changing moods of the words.
The kinetic energy of ‘Dagan’ (‘Daybreak’) crackles through the instruments, and the vastly different sonorities of ‘Myðr Nótt’ (‘Middle of the Night’) and the entrancing ‘Haugaeldr’ (‘Grave Fire’) are projected with wrenching conviction. Dissipating the tension that builds in ‘Ótta’ (‘Last Part of the Night’) and ‘Myrkr’ (‘Darkness’), the progression of ‘Sjóborg’ (‘Sunset’), ‘Hljoðr’ (‘Silence’), and ‘Lykð/Upphaf’ (‘End/Beginning’) proposes an uncertain resolution that, like every aspect of this music’s exegesis, perpetuates the ambiguous synergy of sound and silence.
Throughout the mercurial transitions of Myrkriða, Ljósleiðá, soprano Kisten Ashley Wiest unflinchingly overcomes the hazards of Holmes’s vocal lines whilst also demonstrating her abilities as a percussionist. As a test of the security and stamina of a soprano’s voice, Myrkriða, Ljósleiðá has few rivals in music of any era, its tessitura recalling the treacherous compasses of the Controller in Jonathan Dove’s Flight and Ariel in Thomas Adès’s The Tempest. Holmes’s writing for the voice routinely incorporates craigy ascents above the stave that necessitate extraordinary control. Wiest sagaciously safeguards her vocal resources, unleashing columns of focused sound at climaxes but reserving her most pointed tones for gentler passages.
Myrkriða, Ljósleiðá is a work that cannot be approached without thorough preparation, but Wiest’s performance exhibits understanding that reaches far beyond knowledge of notes and words. There are moments in which harshness and stridency are audible in the soprano’s vocalism, but these invariably originate with the words: when the voice is pushed, it is in pursuit of fleeting expressive details of the text that are too important to be sung sweetly. Singing this piece proficiently is a notable feat. Insightfully and movingly evincing the profundity of its drama, as Wiest does in this performance, is a hallmark of preeminent artistry.
Too often, the barriers that prevent listeners from connecting with new music are their own prejudices. Kirsten Flagstad night have sung the Königin der Nacht’s arias more easily than a contemporary composer can vanquish a reluctant listener’s preconceptions, but the highest aim of Art is to elucidate humanity’s failings in ways that elicit contemplation. In music, this is achieved, in part, by successive generations of artists devising new methods of expression, not because existing traditions are inadequate but because perspectives and relationships alter with the passage of time. As represented by the pieces on this disc, all performed with passion and precision, imparting the inescapable transience of existence is a fundamental component of Jeffrey Holmes’s music. Biases condemn humanity to riding in darkness, but, this disc intimates, embracing Art that seeks new means of deciphering the universe’s enigmas offers a path to light.” (Joseph Newsome, Voix des Arts: A Voice for the Performing Arts, May 2021)
“Extremely sophisticated…an excellent example of exquisitely crafted sound…Occasus goes beyond what can be perceived from the printed page. The piece is about sound ringing and decaying in space, and about textures. I would highly recommend this piece to a sensitive and sophisticated ensemble that is up for a rewarding challenge.” (John Lane, Percussive Notes, May 2014)
“Mesmerizing…brilliantly icy.” (Dan Goren, Composers Edition, September 2020)
“Drifting, ethereal” (Brett Campbell, San Francisco Classical Voice, 2011)
“MicroFest Records has released Rider of Darkness, Path of Light, a new CD by composer Jeffrey Holmes that offers a potent brew of the Old Norse filled with “…primitive myths, transcendent legends, and dramatic elemental landscapes in their primal and violent natural states.” All of this is expressed in “post-spectral, teleological music incorporating elements of mysticism and lyrical expression.” The four pieces on this album are performed by a number of leading Los Angeles area and East Coast musicians along with solo vocalists Nicholas Isherwood and Kirsten Ashley Wiest.
The first track is Urðarmána [Moon of Fate] (2012), as performed by pianist Mark Robson and bass baritone Nicholas Isherwood. The text is in Old Norse, partly written by the composer and partly drawn from historical Eddic poetry. The liner notes helpfully include a full English translation. Urðarmána opens with high, sharp runs of piano notes, all brittle and shattered, falling like shards of broken glass. The bass entrance is deep and profound, full of operatic in power and presence, darkly intoning the Norse text: “It was a moon of fate. Amidst both wind and rain…” The piano line weaves in and out, building tension in a series of wandering phrases. Isherwood’s voice often reaches down to a very low register, always with masterful assurance and expression.
As the piece proceeds, the piano accompanies with deep chords and skittering runs, adding to the sense of menace. The steady voice holds everything is balance even as the text tells of prophecy, stormy weather, impending sacrifice and great sadness. At the finish, the bass reverently intones “I will not blaspheme the gods…as you saved me from near death.” Isherwood’s singing in Norse is perfectly convincing and artfully precise as is the piano accompaniment of Mark Robson. The independence of the piano line and the vocals is manifestly apparent, yet they complement each other perfectly. Urðarmána [Moon of Fate] is exquisitely expressive and a highly evocative portrait of the spiritual state of our Norse cousins from over a thousand years past.
Track 2, Hagall (Haglaz) [Hail] (2015) follows, performed by the Talea Ensemble conducted by David Fulmer. Hail is a common feature of Nordic weather, especially during the late autumn, and signifies the transformation to winter. Inspired by Old Norse runic symbols for the seasons, Hagall unfolds in three contiguous sections representing the nuances of hail, sleet and snowy weather. The liner notes state that the Talea Ensemble evokes “…several references to ‘primordial’ instruments, including: the contra-bass clarinet imitating a Nordic lure, the French and English horns imitating primitive cow horns, non-pitched percussion instruments (such as skinned drums, metal objects, and clay pottery), various ‘non-octave’ scales and complex compound-rhythms, and a variety of microtonalities including several uses of the overtone series.”
Hagall opens with a series of frenzied pizzicato notes in the upper strings, sustained bass tones, rapid percussion and a flurry of woodwinds that create the sense of swirling instability as experienced in the center of a hail storm. The instruments all seem to be going in different directions, but the overall sound is a convincing and cohesive representation of a violent hail and snow shower. A short, sustained tutti section provides an interlude, giving sense of a settled, sustained snowfall. Soon, however, dramatic runs of individual instruments are heard simultaneously, and this, along with some high-pitched dissonance in the woodwinds, intensifies the sense that the weather is again closing in. Strong drum beats and assorted percussion begin a new section that seems to gather strength as the woodwinds and strings re-enter with sharp, stinging sounds, like the blast of ice crystals in a strong wind. More drama follows, alternating between chaos and structure, with the orchestration perfectly capturing the sense of a heavy snow storm in full fury. As the storm abates, a lovely violin solo is heard, as if commenting on the changed landscape under newly fallen snow. The playing of the Talea Ensemble is sure-footed throughout, even in the most tumultuous passages. Hagall is an impressive piece of music that puts the listener right in the heart of an arctic storm.
Track three is Thund [Thundering Waters] (2018), a work for solo piano performed by Jason Hardink. Thund consists of three movements played in succession on the same track, and offers three perspectives on the natural state of water. The first of these, “Vantaskuggsjá [Water-Mirror]” opens with soft, high piano notes interspersed with short silences. This is water at rest, but the piano line quickly accelerates into a series of flowing passages and trills that suggest a gentle stream or tumbling brook. This circles back to a calm surface but with a tension in the run of notes that suggests impending agitation.
As more notes are heard we cross into the second movement, “Hangafoss [Hanging Waterfall].” This has more activity in the higher registers that evoke a sense splashing combined with a downward falling, as ribbons of notes descend with increasing velocity. A churning gradually builds in all the piano registers and this resolves into the final movement, “Élivágar [Icy Waves, Primordial Sea].” Loud, complex sounds increase in density and the roiling texture evokes a wild, icy sea that only subsides at the finish. These movements are not clearly delineated but each consists of alternating stretches of tranquility and energy, much as water behaves in nature. The music constantly shifts and changes, never quite settling into a broad structure. The playing by Jason Hardink is fluid and controlled, moving easily between serenity and drama. Thund is a lively exploration of the intimate Norse relationship with water as gained from generations of seafaring and life in the fjords.
The final piece, Myrkriða, Ljósleiðá [Rider of Darkness, Path of Light] (2016), features soprano Kirsten Ashley Wiest, with Tara Schwab on flutes, Yuri Inoo playing percussion and guitarist Michael Kudirka. The piece proceeds in a series of 15 short tracks, each containing a fragment of the struggle between impending death and eternal light. As the liner notes explain: “With a text in Old Norse written by the composer, an ancient tongue blends two simultaneous stories: a difficult, violent, and painful journey toward the moment of death, represented by soprano and flute duo, and a recollection of the moment of death as remembered from a peaceful afterlife, where soprano and flute are joined by guitar and percussion.”
Myrkriða, Ljósleiðá opens with “Nátta (Night Falling).” There are mystical bells clanking, a fluttering flute and soft vocals calling out an incantation of the spirits as darkness falls. This immediately establishes a strong sense of the otherworldly that is present throughout the piece. Other tracks follow, building the story from alternating perspectives of existential dread and solemn repose. In tracks representing the Path of Light, the sounds are restrained and peacefully expressive. Where the Rider of Darkness is present, the feeling is full of tension and anxiety, with the vocals often reaching upward to something approximating a musical scream.
The power, control and range of Ms. Wiest’s voice is especially impressive given the intense emotive requirements over the arc of the story, as well as the many challenging vocal techniques contained in the score. As explained in the liner notes: “Many individual theoretical and stylistic elements are employed: non-octave harmonies, various microtonalities including both equal-tempered and just-intonation microtunings, a variety of “leitmotif” like melodic motives; extended and developed rhythmic talas, large-scale formal proportional symmetries, and extended performing techniques such as: singing into the flute…” All of this blends seamlessly into the ensemble as Myrkriða, Ljósleiðá unfolds.
In one of the later tracks, “Path of Light III”, there is a series of passages consisting of falling notes from the voice and instruments that clearly evoke the sense of one’s final living moments. The text for this is:
“My Path of Light has arrived,
Falling from the dark sky,
Like blood from the Death-blow.”
“Sunset” then follows with strong vocals, sung as if in rebellion against death. “Silence” is next, with a soft and sweetly resigned voice, now at peace. A haunting epilogue of hushed flute tones and the jangling of mystical beads quietly ends the piece. Myrkriða, Ljósleiðá [Rider of Darkness, Path of Light]is a harrowing journey from dark to light, skillfully composed and delivered with transcendent performances.
These days there is much discussion about the value of art in our culture. It should be obvious from this CD that what we know of the Old Norse peoples comes down to us most clearly through their legends and poetry. Often, when we look into the past we see a reflection of ourselves; the drama and the darkness heard in this album surely reflect some of the pessimism of our own tumultuous present.
All of the tracks on this album consistently capture the power of the Old Norse legends, masterfully realized through contemporary musical forms. Even when the complexity of the music approaches its unrelenting maximum, Holmes’ texture is transparently clear, with just the right notes always in just the right places. Rider of Darkness, Path of Light is a compelling journey into the heroic past and a telling commentary on our own present – superbly conveyed in 21st century musical language.”
(Paul Muller, Sequenza 21, January 14, 2021)
Challenging, enriching, wonderful music here from Jeffrey Holmes. And it is not just the music that is challenging: Holmes sets texts in Old Norse, references runes, and, despite his Modernist palette, calls upon an ancient collective well within us through his work with myth. It is a heady mix, not for the faint-hearted. But oh, the rewards.
The titles given here are in English, but Holmes gives them in Norse. The first piece, Moon of Fate (2012), is a monodrama for bass-baritone and piano, the text mainly by the composer but including fragments of the Edda. Unsurprisingly, the piece centers on death, destiny, mortality, plus the polar opposites of anger/acceptance and violence/sublimity. I wonder if there’s a Wagner influence (who, after all, loved a bit of Norse legend) in the pervading motifs that occur on piano to represent aspects of Nature, plus Fate itself. The musical language includes microtones and non-octave structures.
Perhaps it is all those Norse references that made me think that Isherwood would be a good Wotan. He is, though, known for his activities in contemporary music (although he has essayed the music of Siegfried Wagner: Der Kobold, Fanfare 31:3). Isherwood’s voice is confident, pitch-perfect, and resonant. It is a joy to hear, and Mark Robson is the ideal partner. Partner, co-creator, that is: certainly not “accompanist,” not here. Together, the two performers carve out a dark, often angry soundscape. Wind, rain, a “great sickness” of wintertime meet magic in the form of charms and chants. A pounding piano creates a magnetic momentum of its own over which Isherwood sails, magisterially; chthonic craters of sound seem to invoke the supra-temporal nature of myth itself. Although only 13 minutes long, Moon of Fate is an unforgettable experience.
A work for ensemble, Hail (2015) takes its title from the Old-Norse rune for hail (as in weather, hailstorm). It is the first of the winter runes, and so is transitional. Three elemental poems, all ancient, shape the piece, while both English and French horns imitate cow horns. Microtones, overtones, and complex rhythms are all part of the unsurprisingly frozen vocabulary; there is a wildness here, but it is brutal while fundamentally slow moving, like the inevitability of an ice floe. The piece overall describes a Scandinavian storm. A piece such as this requires an exemplary recording, and certainly everything is audible with crystalline cleanliness. The performance though is white hot in the best possible way: ever involving, always gripping. More overtly gestural than Moon of Fate, Hail is no less impactful. The austere beauty of the ending, with Lauren Cauley’s violin solo perfectly placed and delivered, is unutterably haunting.
The most recent work on the disc, Thundering Waters, dates from 2018. The piece is about water in various states: placid at first (the first section is entitled “Water Mirror”), followed by “Hanging Waterfall” and “Icy Waves, Primordial Sea.” It is heard in a terrific performance by Jason Hardink, sensitive and yet commanding. When it comes to Modernist music on the piano regarding water, inevitably Berio’s Wasserklavier comes to mind; and while there might be some points of contact, Holmes has a language all of his own.
The longest piece is the one that gives the disc its title, the 2016 Rider of Darkness, Path of Light for soprano and ensemble. Another monodrama, this time led by the soprano Kirsten Ashley Wiest, and again the subject matter centers on death (the unknown and its inevitability). The soprano soloist also has to play percussion; the flutist has to sing into their instrument. The piece includes a post-mortem recollection of life, after the travails and stress of the journey towards that point of no return; interestingly, the two viewpoints are intertwined, approaching the moment of death as a sort of mid-point from different directions. Soprano sings most often in combination with flute (the excellent Tara Schwab). The traditional night/day, darkness/light polarity is not so straightforward though. Consider this description: “Path of Light, pure blue-black sea, quiet clouds drip down like life-force blood.” Whether the idea of (in translation at least) a “Death Gate” in the sixth movement is a reference to the Gates of Hell I am not sure, but one thing is sure. The “Path of Light” is hard won. The instrumental seventh movement “Grave Fire” reminds us of Holmes’s expertise with chamber forces. Disquieting, unsettling, it makes an impact far exceeding its short duration; it also acts as contrast to the slightly more welcoming sonorities that initiate “Path of Light II,” a text that reminds is that “it is darkest before the dawn.” There is something about the loneliness of “Rider of Darkness III” that is compelling: just the conjoined voice and flute with the occasional tolling of a bell.
Talking of that pairing of soprano and flute, one has to acknowledge not only Wiest’s virtuosity but that of Tara Schwab, whose way with multiphonics in “Last Part of the Night” (the 10th movement) is commanding. Voice and guitar (Michael Kudirka) interact brilliantly in “Path of Light III” before a sunset unlike any other. “From the storm of metal my soul darkens, blood flows like a black cloud” are the words, and the music itself seems to bleed, coldly. An instrumental coda, “End/Beginning” finds the flute having the last plaintive word, falling finally into silence.
I have a feeling Rider of Darkness, Path of Light would be absolutely mesmeric in the concert hall in a live performance; it certainly makes an impression on disc. It is as if when working with these ancient ideas and texts, Holmes speaks straight from his soul. Urgently recommended.
Five stars: When working with these ancient ideas and texts, Holmes speaks straight from his soul.
(Colin Clarke, Fanfare, February 2021)
“MicroFest Records has recently released May the Bridges I Burn Light My Way, a new two-CD album by composer Jeffrey Holmes. With over two hours of music, this is a generous and comprehensive collection of the Holmes output since 2002. Performed by top Los Angeles area musicians, this set consists of one CD of chamber works for mixed instruments, and a separate CD of music for solo guitars and various accompanying ensembles. The album is inspired by Norse legends, primitive myths and “dramatic elemental landscapes in their primal and violent natural states.” Most of the pieces employ microtonal elements that evoke their exotic subjects in new and unexpected ways. This music is brilliantly crafted and beautifully performed making May the Bridges I Burn Light My Way a captivating listening experience.
Thrall (2014) for solo piano and five instruments opens the first CD of the album. The liner notes state that “The soloist alternates between six constantly developing cadenzas, interpolated within three rotating thematic elements that are presented in close succession at the very beginning of the work.” Accordingly, the beginning features dark, primal notes in the lower piano registers with a trickle of higher notes above. The other instruments enter with mysterious phrases that weave in and about. A series of violent cries and shouts are heard, memorably in the bass clarinet. As the piece proceeds, the solo piano line alternately dominates and recedes beneath waves of increasingly anxious accompaniment. Tension builds – only to be relieved by a grand pause – and the process begins again. Towards the finish, a great descending line is heard in all the instruments – as if following the piano off a cliff – and ending in a final shout.
Thrall is based on the old Norse word for ‘slave’, and incorporates equal temperament in the piano as well as equal tempered third-tone and quarter-tone divisions and Just Intonation harmonic approximations in the accompanying instruments. All of this adds to the exotic character of the piece without distracting from the masterful orchestration. The playing in all the parts is extremely precise and the overall ensemble sound is of a very high caliber. Thrall is an impressive fusion of rigorous passage writing and multiple tunings that yield an integrated and highly polished result.
Nastrond I (2006) for violin and percussion follows, and is inspired by a particularly gruesome legend of the ancient underworld. The composer writes: “Programmatically, Nastrond I depicts the shore of corpses, the place of bitter cold and unending night, that is as vile as it is vast; all its doors will face north. Its walls and roof will be made of wattled snakes, their heads facing inward, blowing so much poison that it runs in rivers.” This proceeds in three movements titled “The Sea”, “The Shore” and “The River”, and opens with a high, thin violin tone and light triangle. The feeling is both suspenseful and sorrowful, with a dash of mystery aided by evocative drumming. Additional percussion is then heard with the violin, conveying the appropriate sense of hopelessness. In the second movement, a slightly more playful melody appears in the vibraphone with solemn, sustained tones in the violin. The triangle returns at various times to add a nice transcendental touch. Strong chords in the vibraphone open the third movement, accompanied by a repeating phrase in the violin that slowly builds tension. An active drum rhythm followed by rapid vibraphone passages build the intensity while the violin holds a high, thin note that fades at the finish. Throughout, the percussion is perfectly played and never overwhelms the quietly expressive violin. Nastrond I is highly evocative and atmospheric music that draws the maximum nuance and imagery from its narrow musical forces.
Kirurgi, String Quartet No. 2 (2009) is next, performed by the acclaimed Lyris Quartet. The composer writes: “This work journeys through a wide range of emotional territory, and was inspired by my adventures in the Swedish and Norwegian Arctic landscapes.” String Quartet No. 2 consists of several movements that each posses a distinctive texture but share a consistent harmonic landscape. “Funeral March”, the first movement, opens with appropriately solemn tones in all voices and then seems to oscillate between long, sustained introspective sounds and more active, but stressful passages. There are two fugues and these also are grounded in a sense of regret and despair, with quietly flowing lines and a relaxed tempo. The second fugue contains a somewhat more active and purposeful feel, but this, too, is mostly introspective in character.
“Fantasy” has a driving feel as the quartet joins together in a pulsing rhythm and distinctive harmonies. A nicely settled tutti passage with sustained tones acts as an interlude before returning to the agitated texture of the opening. New, independent lines break out, escalating the tension that only slows and fades at the finish. There is a mysterious “Nocturne” movement with an evocative violin melody and the quiet “Elegy” which closes the work with appropriately mournful and subdued tones. Kirurgi exhibits all the strengths and virtues of the other pieces on this CD, beautifully expressed as a string quartet. The Lyris Quartet expertly extracts all of the drama and passion in these movements with maximum effect.
Oscularum Infame (2009), a piano trio, completes the first CD and is comprised of four continuous movements inspired by the elemental forces of fire, air, earth, and the sea. Dark piano chords and a mournful cello solo open this piece, followed by a high violin line that floats lightly above. A series of deep piano crashes ratchets up the tension, along with active passages in the strings. A haunting violin solo at about 5:40 is very expressively played. More tension and then a quietly dramatic cello solo at 11:50 is accompanied by dark piano chords underneath. Towards the finish, surging, wave-like rhythms evoke the open sea with sudden, strong chords that suggest a rising tide. This ultimately subsides and retreats into deep cello tones that bring this to a close. The internal structure of this piece is only occasionally evident, but even as each instrument moves more or less independently, there is a sense of cohesion that is a credit to the careful orchestration. There is just the right color, dynamic and emotion from each voice in the trio and this attests to a high level of performance excellence. Oscularum Infame is abstract music, but there is a polish and artistry about it that stands comparison with any of the 20th century masterworks.
The second CD of the set features works for guitars alone and works for guitars with instruments. Of the guitar pieces, Five Microtonal Studies (2002) was originally written for the duo of Michael Kudirka and Eric Benzant-Feldra. The composer writes that “Throughout this work, one guitar remains tuned approximately one sixth of a tone lower than the other guitar, though each is in tune with itself. More precisely, one is tuned to the 7th partial harmonic of the other which is 31% (or 31 ‘cents’) of a semitone lower.” Each of the five movements is short – from a little over one minute to three and a half minutes – and each deploys the microtonal tuning in diverse ways. The opening study, for example, begins with strong strumming followed by a series of soft scales that seem to creep in unexpectedly. More quiet scales follow in Study 2 as the guitars alternate to create spare, but endearing harmonies based on a simple four-note scale. Study 3 features two scales played in slightly offset phrases, inspired by Iannis Xenakis. Study 4 is played on the sixth string of each instrument and includes strummed chords that have a distinctively Spanish flavor while Study 5 is based on a series of dense trills. All of these short pieces are played with exacting skill in this recording by Michael Kudirka and Brian Head ,with careful attention to the implications of the unorthodox tuning.
Danzleiker (2012), for two guitars is a three-movement work inspired by the folk music of Scandinavia, and was composed during an extended exploration of its remote forests and arctic countryside. Both guitars are pitched in a microtonal tuning derived from a seventh partial harmonic and this imparts an exotic feel to the standard folk forms of polka or waltz. The first movement begins with quietly introspective guitar riffs that amble along, as if walking and thinking. A somber andante second movement – a ‘sad polka’ – follows, and this is deliberate and hardly dance-like. A cascade of descending microtonal scales add to the antiquated flavor. The guitar lines become more active with a flurry of notes before returning to the slow, moody feel of the opening. The final movement has more energy, with a solid beat and busily independent melody lines that alternate with strong strumming, but even here there is a return to a subdued finish. Danzleiker is an interesting update to old folk forms as seen through the lens of contemporary musical sensibility.
Nocturnes (2005), for solo guitar, was originally written for Nic Nichol, and is performed on this CD by Michael Kudirka. Three nocturnes are combined in various ways in this piece, beginning with light, quiet notes at the opening that suggest a soft summer evening. Strong strumming follows, interspersed with a series of faster passages. The second nocturne follows directly and is also softly reserved, but with a somewhat more active, questioning feel. Languid at first, this gradually builds so that in the final nocturne unexpectedly percussive sounds and strong strumming dominate before quietly trailing off at the finish. Nocturnes sketch a wide range of emotions – from leisurely to vigorous to agitated – with the playing always under careful control.
Hrith (2013) is written for solo guitar & six instruments and consists of several sections that mix various movements for the ensemble and soloist as well as for the soloist alone. Hrith explores the question of death and the afterlife, set in a fanciful Scandinavian landscape. This begins with a sharp percussive strike that includes timpani, bell and horn, recalling the aftermath of a Norse battle. The guitar enters, almost furtively, as the heavier sounds continue to dominate until the guitar is alone and strumming actively, followed by a long string of descending microtones. The ensemble follows with a long falling scale, perhaps evoking a swift journey to an underworld. The liner notes explain that “These various harmonic languages create multiplicities of timbre that alternate, interact, return and disappear. Microtunings occur throughout the instruments: in the ‘detuning’ of the solo guitar from the rest of the ensemble by a specific microtonal interval, [and] through pitch bending by most of the instruments…”
As the piece proceeds, a series of diverse moods, landscapes and images arise – sometimes restful and calm and at other times furious and forceful. The use of microtonal intervals in Hrithamplify the masterful orchestration and highlight the superb playing to effectively create an otherworldly feel throughout.
The final piece of the album is Malen (“May the Bridges I Burn Light My Way…”) (2004) and this is is a double-concerto for 2 guitars and 4 instruments. A series of quiet chords and single notes open this work, followed by an animated back-and-forth conversation in the two guitars. A bright, sustained oboe tone is heard and as the strings and percussion join in there arises an alien, ‘twilight zone’ feel to this that is very appealing. The alternating tension in the instruments and the calming influence of the guitars propels the piece forward. The combination of the various instruments adds to the strong sense of the exotic and the microtones provide dramatic tension. A series of strong beats in the percussion followed by a high, thin oboe tone, strumming in the guitars and a sinuous violin all make for an enigmatic finish.
This entire album – May the Bridges I Burn Light My Way – represents a definitive summation of the work of Jeffrey Holmes to date and demonstrates extraordinary craftsmanship as well as a mastery of contemporary musical forms.
The album features extraordinary performances throughout by many of California’s best musicians (in order of appearance in the album): Mari Kawamura, Rachel Beetz, James Sullivan, Shalini Vijayan, Ashley Walters, Kyle Motl, Donald Crockett, Yuri Inoo Miyoshi, Lyris Quartet, Alyssa Park, Luke Maurer, Timothy Loo, Charlie Tyler, Richard Valitutto, Michael Kudirka, Tara Schwab, Allen Fogle, Alison Bjorkedal, Tereza Stanislav, Maggie Parkins, Brian Head, Paul Sherman, Nick Terry, Nic Gerpe
May the Bridges I Burn Light My Way is available from MicroFest Records as well as Amazon. A physical CD set, digital downloads, and an informative 12 page digital booklet are also available.”
(Paul Muller, Sequenza 21, May 19, 2019)
“Jeffrey Holmes’ Ur was a break through premiere. With the ensemble surrounding the audience, each musician surrounded by similar set ups of gongs, toms, bass drums, flower pots, and cymbals, we listeners were bathed in swirling cascades of sound…it was magic.” (Nick Norton, New Classic LA, October 06, 2016)
“Nastrond, composed by Jeffrey Holmes for flute and guitar, explores its varying material in a most compelling way. The composition presents a beautiful exploration of multiple soundscapes, wherein each player has ample opportunity to showcase a full band of tone colors and individual virtuosity, and it also offers a true duo blend. Effects include flutter-tounging, microtones, Bartok pizzicato, and other percussive guitar effects.” (Flute Quarterly, November 2017)
“American Jeffrey Holmes, who studied with Donald Crockett, Georg Friedrich Haas and Stephen Hartke, is one of the few modern composers who follow in the microtonal footsteps of Harry Partch and Júlian Carillo. This double-CD release is a fascinating glimpse into his musical mind.
The opener, Thrall, is described by him as “a concertante work for piano and five players …composed in 2014. The title comes from the Old-Norse language meaning ‘slave.’ The equal tempered confines of the piano [is played against] the microtonal intonations of the melodic instruments.” The slightly weird-sounding world of Partch is immediately evident from the opening piano flourish, and continues as the music develops—and develop it does in its strange, dark manner. Although not really jazz-based. there is a certain boogie-woogie feel to the eight-to-the-bar rhythm of the keyboard that comes and goes. The strings play mostly slurred figures around the piano’s rhythmic music. The whole piece has an unsettling sound, not so much atonal as sounding as if every key within the 12 tones of an octave are being played against one another at various points. Descending chromatics are used for the melodic instruments, or rather descending slurs through the whole of the tonal spectrum.
Nastrond I, described as “the first in a series of tone-poems that each depict a region of the Scandinavian mythological underworld,” pits violin against percussion in yet another application of microtonality. Yet it is surprisingly lyrical in its middle section, starting around the three-minute mark, where the violin plays a simple but effective series of held tones while the percussion plays lightly behind it (triangle, woodblocks, etc.). At one point, there’s a slight resemblance to Marius Constant’s Twilight Zone theme (surely the strangest TV show theme music ever written). At 7:57 the music again becomes very syncopated, with the violin taking the lead and the percussion echoing, but this, too, eases up and the music develops.
This is followed in turn by his second string quartet of 2009, titled Kirurgi. Its six movements “are separated by textural differences, but united through motivic unity and a consistent harmonic landscape.” This music is simply bitonal for the most part, not as microtonal as the preceding works, and is played with energy and great style by the Lyris String Quartet. Again, strong rhythms are featured, syncopated but not really jazz-like, alternating with long held notes by the quartet as a unit and by the solo instruments therein. The second movement, a long (seven-minute) fugue, is again somewhat bitonal and features another surprisingly lyric melodic structure, including a stand-out violin solo in the closing minute to which the second violin adds its own plaintive counter-song, followed by the viola and then the cello. This is one thing I really liked about Holmes: he doesn’t just have one style or one “voice.” His music is quite varied in approach. The succeeding movements of the quartet, in fact, each have their own character and feel, which contributes to the whole.
Oscularum Infame, written for piano trio in 2009, consists of four principal movements with three interludes as well as a prelude and postlude. Here, too, Holmes is “simply” atonal and not microtonal, yet the music moves in a slow, slithering fashion through the chromatic scale.
Percussive crushed chords in the piano introduce the first movement after the prelude, a busy and complex movement with solos for each player. Some of this music has a bit of a George Antheil sound to it. Around the seven-minute mark, however, the music does become microtonal, and to interesting effect in context. Holmes created some real moods, and not just an intellectual exercise, in this astonishing work.
In CD 2 we encounter Holmes’ works for guitar, sometimes two guitars. Since this is an instrument that can easily be re-tuned to satisfy the whims of any composer, we are back in Microtonal Land. Hrith, the opening piece, was written for Holmes’ friend, guitarist Michael Kudirka, who plays on all of the works presented here. But most are not for guitar(s) alone, and Hrith is no exception. It begins, literally, with a bang from the percussion, following which we hear the French horn, strings, flute and harp before the guitar comes in against them in its own key or keys. One thing I especially liked about this music is that it uses the guitar in a strong way, often playing percussive chords à la Django Reinhardt or using “scrubs” like a Flamenco player. Very little of it is in the wimpy, Segovia-based style which has all but ruined classical guitar music over the last century. Kudirka does have a long solo in which some of the single notes are lightly plucked, but he is frequently asked to play with great strength and energy against the massed sextet behind him. The music has moments of quasi-modality in it but keeps melting in its microtonal morass. Holmes keeps our interest with his strong sense of musical structure. (Warning to programmers on classical music stations who just love to stick guitar pieces in: this is NOT music “for your body, mind and spirit.” It’s too good to be musical wallpaper.) The French horn blares long-held notes; the guitar becomes more agitated; the percussion booms once again, and the strings and winds slither upward like rising banshees—and yet, it ends softly.
The 5 Microtonal Studies, written in 2002 for two guitars, has one of the instruments tuned “approximately one-sixth of a tone beneath the other” although each guitar is in tune within itself. This gives the impression of one instrument constantly being “off.” The listener can take this one of two ways: as a purposeful, serious piece or as sort of a musical joke on those musicians who always seem to be off in pitch but can’t figure out which one of them is wrong. Either way, it’s fascinating music. Holmes plays with the guitars bouncing rapid triplet passages off each other in No. 5, ironically marked “Tranquillo” when it is nothing of the sort.
In Nocturnes, Holmes claims to be using “a new and unique theoretical and harmonic system” while combining three nocturnes in one, all of them “compiled, collected and juxtaposed upon one another in a variety of ways.” Again, some of the music is quite rapid in tempo, here belying the title of “nocturne,” although in some places a nocturnal mood is indeed created and sustained. Happily, the music is more than just a theoretical exercise. It is logically constructed and fascinating, often using upper harmonics as single notes within the harmonic framework.
In Danzleikr, Holmes has tried to bring some aspects of Nordic legends (his ancestral background) into the music and to “at times blend it with my personal musical language, and at others clash with it.” The result is a fascinating piece that sometimes sounds like Nordic folk music, only played by two guitars out of tune with one another.
The final work, which is the title track of this album, is a double concerto for two guitars and four other instruments: violin, oboe, celesta/piano and percussion. Yet it starts with just the two guitarists playing off each other until 3:06, when the flute enters holding a long D, with the oboe occasionally playing a microtone under it. The violin and percussion (it sounds like Chinese cymbals or finger cymbals) then enter playing edgier figures, joined by the oboe as the guitars placidly go on their own way in front of them. Eventually the whole group falls into these two styles, the flowing string-and-wind combination with percussion accents against the two guitars picking repeated eighth-note patterns. At the 12:234 mark, the percussion becomes quite strong and the music more rhythmic. It’s a fascinating, almost hypnotic piece.
All in all, this is quite a feast for lovers of the edgiest in modern music, well-conceived pieces and very well performed.”
(Lynn René Bayley, The Art Music Lounge, May 13, 2019)
“Holmes’ composition [Nastrond (III)], named for the Norse mythology, features contrasting sonic events. Its characteristics include dramatic increases in pitch and dynamic; descending passages, some including third tones; and long periods of stasis that suggest many shades of gray. The guitar sometimes imitates and sometimes creates tension through opposing musical gestures. Technically demanding and musically fascinating, Nastrond is a signature piece.” (Karen E. Moorman, Classical Voice of North Carolina, CVNC Online Arts Journal, November 10, 2013)
“With melodic profusion, the piece [Nastrond (I)] morphs through several timbral palettes. Monophonic passages for crotales and violin alternate with thumping low drums and heavy bowed attacks. The piece ends poetically, a long-held tone fading glacially into niente.” (Damjan Rakonjac, The Artificialist, March 06, 2014)
“Holmes craftily develops his melodic material into an exciting flourish…cascading lines emote an ethereal “waterfall-esque” feeling.” (Marcus D. Reddick, Percussive Notes, 2013)
“Jeffrey Holmes’ Fragments for soprano and piano challenges the typical role of voice and instrument. He treats the voice more as a chamber instrument than the usual declaimer of expression. The singer here is abstract and equal to the piano, given to melismatic chant (singing multiple notes on a single syllable) on a compilation of Latin phrases that focuses the listener on vocal timbre more than content.” (Russell Steinberg, “No Vocabulary for Music Today?”, June 02, 2014)
“Fragments (2010) by Jeffrey Holmes was next, from a Latin text compiled by the composer from a variety of historical sources. “Horumque visum contegas”, the first of four movements, began with a loud, dissonant piano crash that immediately introduced a strong sense of anxiety and menace. The voice entered with sustained and sorrowful tones that suggested a lament, and the piano joined in underneath, building the tension. The trading off between piano phrases and solo voice was especially effective in the small sonic confines of Monk Space so that when the two were heard together the sense of terror was doubled. The tempest continued in the second movement, “Fera pessima”, following the grim lines of the text: “Most evil beast… you, whom the old fierce Dragon are called… “ About midway through a quiet vocal solo added a subtle anxiety to the emotional mix before building back to a more forceful feeling of distress. The third movement, “Stella Maris”, began with a more subdued piano and a high vocal line that hinted at suspense and, ultimately, resignation. These emotions were artfully expressed and carefully balanced, especially at the lowest dynamic levels. A strong vocal line flashed above the roiling piano making a solid conclusion to this movement. “Qui Lux es et Dies” completed the piece with a long crescendo, the voice soaring and dominating with a potent sadness that bordered on despair. Soft piano notes followed, fading at the finish. Fragments is an unflinching look at the inner feelings of the disconsolate from a distant past, sharply drawn and artfully performed by Wiest and Lee.” (Paul Muller, Sequenza 21, April 02, 2018)
“The concert’s mood and the texture took on a much darker complex tone. The players returned from intermission to perform Tjur (Swedish for “bull”) a piece meant to evoke mythic figures battling giant bulls in a frigid interstellar environment. The pieces complicated structural vocabulary (according to the composer’s notes) is built upon, ‘non-octavating scales; symmetrical chord structures; several types of microtanalities; and a variety of manipulations of one rhythmic meta-tala’. It was too much for players. It was too much for the ears.” (Jim Farber, San Francisco Classical Voice, April 30, 2018)