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Elizabeth BROWN (b. 1953)
Seahorse for theremin and Partch Instruments (2008) [9:09]
Arcana for flute and recorded sound (2004) [9:32]
Piranesi for theremin and string quartet (2007) [13:50]
Three Arias from “A Bookmobile for Dreamers” for theremin and recorded sound (2011) [6:55]
Atlantis for theremin and amplified classical guitar (2007) [6:52]
Mirage for shakuhachi and string quartet (2008) [11:42]
Shinshōfūkei, or An Imagined Landscape for Japanese traditional instrument orchestra (2010) [14:37]
see end of review for performer details
rec. dates and location details not supplied
NEW WORLD RECORDS 80751-2 [73:00] 

Wow, this really is something different. We always find ourselves returning to the piano, string quartet or symphony orchestra because, well, they’re the best aren’t they? These more conventional settings have certainly bagged some of the best music ever written, but in seeking to break beyond the boundaries set by previous traditions you can go in any number of directions. These include fusing pop, jazz or other styles with your classical basis, exploring the world of nature or sounds from other nations, adapting or creating new noises with electronics, making your own instruments …
Elizabeth Brown is known for her multi-instrumental talents and unique compositional voice. You can hear her on this CD playing flute, theremin, shakuhachi and ‘Partch instruments’, those from the stable of Harry Partch, another remarkable American musician whose creations deserve exploration. Another distinctive element in this recording is the use of recorded sounds and electronics, aspects of the sonic landscape which more commonly enhance and extend the possibilities of the live instruments rather than contrasting in non-organic avant-garde shafts of extreme contrast.
Brown’s world is difficult to describe at times. The theremin, like the ondes Martenot, can become a touch ubiquitous if the truth be told, though the composer’s use of it is often subtle and usually lyrical or suitably dramatic. It tends to give a cinematic feel to these pieces, as evidenced by the somewhat Gothic atmosphere of Seahorse. This opener has a remarkable, chattering percussive texture which is fascinating, though the high pitched whistling further on gained me some dirty looks from the cat. Arcana already has some of the Eastern flavour to be encountered further on in the programme, with the modern flute being played with some stunning Japonaiserie techniques, which float effectively over a warmly mellifluous and sometimes dark and moody soundtrack, inviting the imagination to visualise vast and enigmatic chambers.
Theremin and string quartet meet in Piranesi, a work originally conceived to work as part of a multi-media collaboration with Brown’s artist husband Lothar Osterburg. Slow vibrato and other microtonal effects can disturb your orientation, but there is a tonal/harmonic core to this music against which this strangeness maintains an almost playful or folk-music like quality. The low register of the theremin further along has a quasi-vocal character which is also unusual. Three Arias from “A Bookmobile for Dreamers” is the closest we get to sentimentality on this CD, with Brown’s “uncanny knack of writing memorable, expressively deformed tunes” placed in a changing visual landscape, another collaboration in which the animated toy truck of the title moves through a variety of settings, from pastoral countryside to what sounds like a Brooklyn inhabited by a chorus of vocally trained felines.
The corrugated tonalities of this music invite the instrumental combination for Atlantis, a theremin and a slide guitar. Watery movement is suggested by the distortions and ‘deformation’ which these instruments are combined to create, at times emerging as a submerged Segovia or under-water Albéniz, but always with Brown’s intriguing individual touch.
Both of the last two pieces are strongly Japanese in flavour, the shakuhachi or bamboo flute defining the character of the largely reflective Mirage, and Shinshōfūkei, or An Imagined Landscape written for ‘an orchestra of traditional Japanese instruments’. This setting differentiates itself from a traditional Japanese orchestra, Brown creating her own vision with a unique combination of instruments. Perhaps the best piece in this programme, these four meditative evocations are by no means static, and each movement is packed with remarkable colours and harmonic and melodic shapes which, alien to Japanese tradition, create their own atmosphere and heightened sense of interest.
The booklet notes for this release sum up its contents well: “The music is blessed with an old-fashioned gift for clear and singable melody . . . except for the fact that the tune keeps bending and melting … Brown’s musical world is one of dreamlike sounds, images, textures, colors, and harmonies ... the work of an unpretentious, deep, and questing spirit.”
Fairly well recorded, the sonic picture of the string quartet, particularly in Mirage does have a boxy, narrow character, though with the unusual nature of the programme and the pieces themselves it is hard to tell if this is intentional or not. If you want to find out what one of the most interesting creative musical voices in the US has been up to for the last ten years and fancy escaping convention and seeking out new sounds, then this always intriguing and at times stunningly beautiful set of pieces demands your attention.
Dominy Clements 

Performer details
Newband (Elizabeth Brown (theremin); Dean Drummond (guitar 1); Jared Soldiviero (harmonic canon 1); Dave Broom (chromolodeon); Bill Ruyle (diamond marimba); Joe Bergen (bass marimba); Joe Fee (zoomoozophone and juststrokerods))

Elizabeth Brown (flute)


Elizabeth Brown (theremin); Momenta Quartet (Annaliesa Place and Sharon Roffman (violins); Stephanie Griffin (viola); Joanne Lin (cello))

Three Arias from “A Bookmobile for Dreamers”

Elizabeth Brown (theremin)


Elizabeth Brown (theremin); Ben Verdery (amplified classical guitar played with slide bar)


Elizabeth Brown (shakuhachi); Momenta Quartet

Pro Musica Nipponia (Makoto Takei and Takashi Harago (1.8 shakuhachi); Hiromu Motonaga (2.1 shakuhachi); Kohei Nishikawa (nohkan); Yuji Nishihara (shou); Chizuko Yamazaki (shamisen); Chie Sakurai and Keiko Hisamoto (koto); Noriko Tamura (21-string koto); No Kyeong Soon (kotsuzumi and binzasara); Yasushi Inada (conductor))