New Guitar Release from Ben Verdery
A Giant Beside You Ben Verdery, guitars Ulysses Quartet: Christina Bouey & Rhiannon Banerdt, violins. Colin Brooks, viola. Grace Ho, cello. ReEntrant/New Focus Records REN 04 Total Time: 56:43 Recording: ****/**** Performance: ****/****
Guitarist’s Ben Verdery’s latest album is a collection of contemporary music, most are world premiere recordings here. He is joined here by the Ulysses Quartet for a somewhat eclectic exploration of musical styles.
The opening work, Quintet for High Strings (2018), was composed for Verdery by Bryce Dessner (b. 1976). Cast in a single movement, it opens with a series of rhythmic ideas that will serve as a sort of foundation for what is to come. The clustered string harmonies are a bit darker as things begin and then begin to move upwards into some rather beautiful moments of warmer color. The guitar weaves its way through these textures sometimes interacting with the string ideas and often picking up ideas as they go along. Dessner explores interesting musical worlds as well to indicate some of the different cultural music that Verdery has programmed over the years. A central section has an almost Asian musical quality with interesting slides and bent pitches and an aesthetic that seems to grow from these more subtle shades of sound. The final section has a folkish feel. These references to other standard guitar literature tropes also appear throughout which further make the piece a fine homage to its dedicatee. It is an excellent opener to this album and might be worth considering transferring to a string orchestra accompaniment to fill out the sound a bit more, but as it stands it is a strong entry into the literature.
Verdery has also made a new arrangement of Leonard Bernstein’s Clarinet Sonata. Others have tried arrangements for their instruments as well and really the primary exploration of such endeavors revolves around the colors and adjustments that are needed to help translate things that are unique to the original instrumentation. With the string quartet at his disposal, Verdery finds way to transform some of the solo held segments which allows for interesting shifts in color and tone here. Some will undoubtedly balk at this tampering, but there is some fine musicmaking here that opens up this work for audiences that might not have experienced it. There is a new intimacy here in this version that is brought with the guitar setting. The guitar line is an interesting hybrid of both the solo and piano part. It thus becomes its own “new” work of sorts.
The homage-like programming choices here continue in two shorter works by Verdery which use electric guitar. First is About to Fall (2022) a little piece that honors composer Ingram Marshall, with a somewhat haunting meditative quality. It introduces an idea that is part of the following work, A Giant Beside You (2021-22). Here Verdery explores quotation music and variation with an essay on the song Stand by Sly and the Family Stone in a more rock-influenced style which introduces new riffs into the sound worlds of the album in a more experimental work.
Guitarists love to mine the wealth of music from lands where the guitar is an important folk instrument and this is on display in the final work here, Javier Farias’ Andean Suite. This three-movement piece takes listeners on a musical journey through the mountain range starting with a Peruvian bull fight (“Yawar Fiesta”), moving on to a contrasting slower, somewhat poignant, meditation that blends the folkloric musics of the region (“Huayno”), and ends with an exciting Bolivian traditional dance (“Diablada”). Farias’ piece is a strong work of contemporary folkloric music with often fascinating harmonic shifts.
The Ulysses Quartet makes for an excellent companion for these works with the Dessner being a fine place for them to really shine. There is great crispness of sound here with an equally fine blend for the bigger, denser harmonic moments. The guitar is layered onto this in a very natural way which further mixes the sounds well together in thicker textures where the rhythmic aspects of its sound help pull things forward. Verdery's skill and virtuosic abilities are on display with moving performances here. The outer works on the album are quite excellent pieces with some beautiful music making by the ensemble. The inner pieces here allow for some experimental fun and stylistic differences to enhance the range of the album. With excellent sound and balance, and some engaging repertoire, A Giant Beside You is worth seeking out for lovers of new music for guitar and others looking for some fine new music off the beaten path.