Today, a contemporary music album is by no means a novelty, but it becomes as such when an entirely brand new repertoire is brought into existence for an instrument that never had such a repertoire, as the ukulele. The ukulele is probably one of the most outstandingly multi-faceted instruments in today’s music. It not only possesses a complex historical identity, but it is also used across many of today’s musical genres, undergoing an extremely wide popularity in the many forms of music fruition, consumption, and even entertainment. Yet, the ukulele is still lacking a stable place in contemporary art music – however slippery and fragile this label may sound. As the history of the classical guitar teaches us, it is only thanks to the creative drive of certain performers that an instrument’s journey into a new genre can eventually take off. In this case, the tracklist of this CD gathers the fruits of a call for scores promoted by the highSCORE New Music Center (which Giovanni Albini founded and currently directs), as part of the last edition of its Festival, which took place online from 9 to 21 August, 2021. Be they participants, guests or even faculty members of highSCORE Festival, the 14 composers whose pieces are recorded here can not but bring together a necessarily polyphonic fresco of languages, tendencies, and trends in today’s contemporary music. Despite the inevitable multiplicity of this program, it is worth identifying a few common threads that establish useful connections to better orient the listeners.
A first theme is the relationship that some composers manifest towards pre-existing musical objects. Dies Rainbow by Fabrizio Nastari, the piece which opens the album, clearly states it with its unexpected conjunction between two worldwide-known motives: the Dies Irae and Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Behind the deliberately ironical tone of the piece, that works here almost like an operatic overture for the entire record, the composer reflects in an almost symbolic way on the “musical promiscuity” of the ukulele, understood here as a powerful means to embody culturally distant stimuli.
In a totally different way, but with a glance of a similar ironic taste, Estonian composer Toivo Tulev regards the instruments as a two-sided emotional artefact. In spite of a title that could evoke a serene atmosphere, Synchronistic Afternoon With a Freshly Tuned Ukulele reveals a way more pensive mood. Behind its double dedication to the performer and to the young recipient of an ukulele as a birthday present, Tulev hides a barely recognizable Happy Birthday tune, whose gaiety seems to be condensed just into the last bell chimes that close the piece.
A similar, hard-to-track borrowing is to be found in Reality’s Edge by Oliver Dubon, a highly introspective piece based on a quotation from a work (Grace and Decay for guitar solo) by his first mentor in composition, Brendon Randall-Myers. Despite of the strong relationship with the author’s life story, the atmosphere of this work spans from the rock-star introduction to a more lyric and scattered mid-section, where the reminiscences of tonal poles work as attraction elements to balance a quasi-fantasia writing, that finally comes back to an exuberant, yet delicate, strumming ending.
Frederick Rawski, in his Milan, Miseremembered, also works on pre-existing materials, but opts for a very well-known Pavane by the 16th century Spanish composer Luis de Milán. A digital delay, applied to an amplified ukulele, produces here a constant echoed diffraction which inevitably distorts the original musical material as in a broken mirror, on the one hand preserving certain general emotional features, and on the other multiplying its heterophonic potential.
The same effect is explored by Philip Ellis Foster in Cosmos 1, yet in the total absence of any pre-existing musical reference. On the contrary, the composer realized here an open score, where only a set of graphics and a set of pitches is given to the player, along with some specific, quasi-cageian instructions. The multiplying effect of delay is reflected here in a specific performative choice: Albini here plays two ukuleles at a time, arranging them on the floor in a symbolic homage to Giacinto Scelsi’s Ko-Tha for solo guitar.
A more in-depth use of electronics represents a recurring solution that other composers in this program found to escape from the constraints that the ukulele, a quintessential “pocket instrument”, imposes. Combining a pre-recorded electronic track with the massive use of extended techniques, Andrea Beggio achieves in Obscure Particles a very dense musical landscape, in which acoustic and acousmatic materials collide and frequently mix up their own sonic identities. Electronics is used here not as an external counterpart, but rather as a trigger to exploit the musical possibilities of the object-ukulele, providing them with a coherent environment in which they can be explored.
On the contrary, Preludio Variato by Alberto Barberis shows a much more traditional writing, whose impressive emotional weight is yet transformed on a timbric level through live electronics, that reacts in real time to what the performer is playing. In this piece, the electronic part gets to reframe the musical genre of the piece, letting the ukulele sound like a post-rock instrument and thus reshaping once again its identity.
Along with non-ukulelist composers, the presence of some ukulelists in this program witness how other performers are willing to participate in developing an alternative, new repertoire for their instrument. The compositional activity of Choan Gálvez, an appreciated ukulele teacher based in Barcelona, is here represented with The Cheerless Walk. The highly splenetic mood of this piece purges the instrument of any aura of easy entertainment, and makes the ukulele a perfect means for expressing inner feeling – almost a sort of emotional prosthesis to project the inner self outside with a penetrating voice.
A clear influence from the guitar music appears in The Department for the End of the World by Matthew Quilliam, a young ukuleleist whose musical performances include singing and theatrical aspects, in the manner of the American 20th century ukulele stars. In this piece, arranged from a previous soundtrack of his, a complex meshwork of musical topoi from the guitar repertoire of the last two centuries is used as a sardonic premonition of an end that – we know – will never arrive, as the ending song of an apocalyptic circus act.
The work of Samantha Muir, one of the leading forces in the contemporary ukulele world, is exemplified here by Blinter, a touching and meditative miniature inspired by a northern Scots word meaning “a cold dazzle” or “the radiance of winter stars on a cold night”. Behind the influence of a gestural minimalism, the piece highlights all the resources that the ukulele has in horizontal polyphony, just like other ancient and modern plucked instruments.
Be it gestural or structural, a minimalist attitude plays a significant role in today’s music, and leaves an evident imprint on some other composers in this program, as in the case of Sydey Doemel. Her piece, Green, works as a complex moving object revolving around a minor third (e-g), whose perception is constantly altered through metric and accentuative shifts that enforces a sense of rapt contemplation, in which the listeners are caught up in the musical object unfolding in front of them.
The repetition of formulas dominates also Intention Sector 3012 by Zulfiia Tursunova, a piece whose title refers to a “sector in the mind-brain space where intentions are never meant to be materialized and exist only in a form of a biochemical reaction”. The musical structure is led here by juxtaposing self-contained sections whose materials are later restated or transformed (as in the strumming section) in the piece, thus provoking a Cubist syntax that mirrors the ever-combining idea of chemical processes.
The Messenger by Davide Tammaro shares the same economy of materials, and explores the timbral resources of the ukulele in transposing gestural objects along the keyboard. As often happens with “non performer”-composers, a less idiomatic but more exploratory writing leads to highly virtuosic results and paves the way to testing the instrument’s potentials and limits. In this piece, Tammaro takes the ukulele’s miniaturized mechanics to the extreme, without renouncing the depth of an emotional expression.
The same challenge to explore the totality of the ukulele’s more traditional resources is evident in Brendon Rolle’s Afterward. The composer’s ease to fully dominate the instrument, though not being a performer, recalls the case of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco with the classical guitar. Exploration is here fully oriented toward an extremely powerful lyricism that seems almost to ignore the instrument’s boundaries. This sorrowful elegy is written for a meta-ukulele, a sonic artefact with the same lyrical resources of any classical instrument. Resources that, even within the tiniest space of a little, four-stringed plucked instrument, are now beginning to find a true expression thanks to artistic projects of this relevance.
Beyond the intrinsic musical value of the scores recorded here, a significant performative choice is to be noted. If every piece is written for the ukulele, Albini chose many different ukuleles according to each piece (a detailed account can be found on the last page of this booklet), opting for a certain size and scale length (soprano, concert, tenor, etc.) according to both technical and expressive needs of the score. In addition to that, he sometimes chose a specific instrument according to its peculiar timbral resources, in order to achieve an even more effective expressive result. Strings are chosen with the same care, not only to get the best out of each instrument, but to serve those same expressive purposes in a way that is quite unprecedented in the world of today’s stringed instruments. Seen this way, this CD not only presents a roster of new music for the instrument, but also highlights the many faces of it, thanks to a performer who is not satisfied with a disembodied vision of the ukulele, but who makes his versatility with his many ukuleles a fundamental tenet of his performance aesthetic.
Giovanni Cestino © 2021
Giovanni Albini (b. 1982), composer, ukulelist and music theorist, is a tenured professor of Music Theory, Solfège and Music Perception and head of research at the Conservatory “Antonio Vivaldi” of Alessandria (Italy), where he also teaches the first Italian ukulele university class. He also teaches Composition at the Conservatory of Lugano (Swiss Confederation), and is an academic member of the Istituto di Studi Superiori dell’Insubria “Gerolamo Cardano”.
He has composed several concert music scores that have been performed by international soloists, ensembles, and orchestras around the world (Europe, USA, Canada and Japan), as well as many tracks for video art, exhibitions, multimedia, commercials, trailers, videogames and television. His music has been recorded in monographic albums and collections and published by Brilliant Classics, Da Vinci Publishing, and Stradivarius.
His theoretical research focus on algebraic and geometrical formalization of musical elements, mathematically informed aesthetics, quantitative methods in music analysis and composition, new technologies for composition and music didactics, and ukulele's technique and arranging features. He has given lectures, paper presentations and masterclasses at many universities, conservatories and institutions, including: Yale University (New Haven, USA), Curtis Institute of Music (Philadelphia, USA), Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (Mexico City), Open University (Milton Keynes, UK), Lithuanian Union of Composers (Vilnius, Lithuania), Politecnico di Milano (Italy), and Biennale di Venezia (Italy).
He is a ukulelist devoted to the modern and classical reportoire and he commissions and performs new contemporary classical music written for the ukulele and transcribe classical and renowned contemporary and twentieth century scores for it, fostering the development of a new challenging and cultivated ukulele repertoire and aiming to deepen and evolve the idiomatic unique features of the instrument. He is the founding co-director of the First Ukulele International Conference (UIC 2021) – Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Performance, Composition, and Organology, hosted by the Department of Cultural Heritage and Environment of the University of Milan (Italy). He is the founding Artistic Director of the highSCORE New Music Center and of the highSCORE Festival, today’s principal Italian Contemporary Music Festival offering masterclasses.
He studied Composition at the “Giuseppe Verdi” Conservatory of Milan, where he achieved his bachelor and master degree of music. He subsequently received a ‘diploma di perfezionamento’ in Composition at the prestigious Accademia Nazionale di “Santa Cecilia” in Rome. He also completed a bachelor and a master of science in Mathematics and graduated in Classical Guitar. He received his PhD in Composition from the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre in Tallinn. His mentors in composition include Ivan Fedele, Mario Garuti, Paul Glass, Toivo Tulev, and Tõnu Kõrvits. His mentors in guitar include Maurizio Preda, Roberto Pinciroli, and Betho Davezac.
He is an Aquila Corde Armoniche official endorser.