New Music Raleigh might be the Southeast's most plugged-in musical collective devoted to the work of living composers. Co-curated by percussionist Shawn Galvin and violinist Karen Strittmatter Galvin, the group has focused on bringing stellar performers such as Detroit-based vocalist and songwriter Shara Worden to the area, as well as live collaborations with local talent like North Carolina Opera conductor Timothy Myers and Duke composer John Supko.
Now NMR takes another step forward, moving from the stage to the studio on Richmond-based composer and guitarist D.J. Sparr's new album from Centaur Records, 21207. They recorded these takes soon after debuting the material during an intimate September 2012 performance at Burning Coal Theatre. The first three tracks—the album's most ambitious offerings—feature the dynamic group under Myers' baton, representing a sort of programming full circle and coup for New Music Raleigh.
This release caps an eventful year for Sparr, who is composer-in-residence with the Richmond Symphony Orchestra. The Washington National Opera premiered his "Approaching Ali" at the Kennedy Center last June—the first event in their new American Opera Initiative. Still, 21207 is the summation of Sparr's compositional work to this point, and these delightful recordings should open up doors for him. In moving forward, he's also looking back: The album's seven tracks display his experimental, melodic and formal abilities within a warm, nostalgic frame.
The album's title is the zip code of the Baltimore suburb where Sparr grew up, attending the Baltimore School for the Arts. Opening piece "Woodlawn Drive," named for a road near Sparr's great-grandmother's house, indulges childhood memories with its wistful, pastoral opening before developing into a staccato, dissonant midsection that suggests a landscape under construction. The tree-lined drive of Sparr's youth, painted in bright colors by piano and flute, widens and sprouts strip malls as the fluttering woodwind strays off key. A steel drum coda captures the adult Sparr's conflicted acceptance of the loss that comes with progress.
NMR is at its best in the chamber piece "Sound Harmonies with Air," enhanced by ethereal electronic strings. Through a series of blossoming sounds, the ensemble's coherence sustains a breathless tension. Eschewing linear development, Sparr lets the composition swell and recede several times. This is music that compels you to clasp the headphones tight to your skull to catch every last decibel.
The album includes two duets between Sparr on guitar and Strittmatter Galvin on violin; in his liner notes, Sparr calls his duets with Galvin the oldest works in his "performable catalog." An exhilarating burst of atonal fusion, "Vim-Hocket" scampers and then gallops through an uninterrupted musical line. The broad brushstrokes of "Calm," however, have a folk feel, almost echoing Stephen Foster's "Old Folks at Home." To close the album, Sparr updates the two pieces by compressing them into one work, played by the Amsterdam-based Hexnut Ensemble.
"Fantasia for Flute and Electronics: Sugarhouse" is the only misstep. It's a duet between flutist Donna Shin and a door harp—a stringed sound box you hang on the back of a door, with little balls that bounce on the strings when the door is moved. The idea is intriguing: Shin's nimble flute atop the accelerating and quieting harp sounds. But the flute is recorded with such an echo that it's difficult to discern any central, guiding musical line. Instead of recovering the door harp's musicality from the bland tourist boutiques where they're sold, the echo reduces the flute to new-age background.
NMR has been almost exclusively a live ensemble since its founding in 2009, but Shawn Galvin says 21207 is the first in a series of future recordings. "Part of the mission of New Music Raleigh is to demonstrate—through performances, recordings, whatever—that we can produce all facets of what is going on in the most contemporary music," he says. "We can build it and disseminate it to the world right here from Raleigh."
NMR has several more recording projects in the pipeline. This fall, they will enter the studio with Brett William Dietz's Headcase: Opera Introspective. The 40-minute chamber opera for baritone and ensemble chronicles Dietz's stroke and recovery. Live performances include visuals of the composer's brain scans and other personal imagery.
Headcase has had a number of performances, but Galvin is excited about NMR producing its first definitive recording. "We're lucky to have the opportunity to go into the studio and do a recording of it, which marks the piece for the future," he says. "It also promotes the idea that the music is good enough to record and deserves more live performances."
NMR has put its pushpin on Raleigh with the group's name, but it's eyeing the rest of the new-music map. This recording, on which NMR plays perhaps the most interesting part, is an essential piece of that vision. "We would love to get to the point where we can bring or produce new works here," Shawn says, "and also have the infrastructure in place so that they can be recorded if that's the right thing for the composition and the performer."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Giant steps"