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Timothy McCORMACK (b. 1984)
karst survey, for chamber orchestra and electronics (2016) [18:03]
you actually are evaporating, for violin and cello (2011-2014) [23:44]
KARST, for large ensemble (2015-2016) [36:48]
Christopher Otto (violin); Kevin McFarland (cello)
Klangforum Wien
Ensemblekollektiv Berlin
rec. May 2018 at Studio 3 Wiener Funkhaus (ORF RadioKulturhaus Wien), Vienna, Austria (karst survey); October 2018 at Oktaven Audio, New York, USA (you actually are evaporating) and September 2018 at Saal 3, Haus des Rundfunks Berlin, Germany (KARST)
KAIROS 0018003KAI [78:52]

The topographical features of what is known as the Karst region, specifically the plateau that connects north eastern Italy with south western Slovenia might have provided the precise impulse for the making of two of the three pieces on this portrait disc dedicated to the work of the American composer Timothy McCormack, but the album in toto is more about the viability of the composer’s current stylistic preoccupations. McCormack postulates the idea of immersive, haptic music – he seeks the listener’s active ‘’embodiment” of the landscapes his sounds address. The Karst zone provides a perfect test for this hypothesis – the area is renowned for its limestone caves and its sinkholes, its terrain is visibly (and invisibly) pock-marked and changed by the waters of its springs and streams; the landscape is alive with glacially slow but palpable change, a metamorphosis which links to Nan Shepherd’s famous observation that ‘a mountain has an inside’. This thought is quoted in the booklet along with McCormack’s compositional or sonic philosophy which he has summarised thus: ‘I really wanted to put the listener on the ground walking through it and not understanding the connections between its features….I wanted to put the listener in really in the middle of this landscape, and you’re only seeing what you’re able to see – you don’t see how the whole thing connects until you’ve walked through it all.’

This is classic Kairos territory. As it happens McCormack’s music speaks to me in similar terms to the Quatuor Diotima’s disc of Arturo Fuentes’ quartet music which I reviewed in 2017. In McCormack’s case I have to assume the music’s appeal has something to do with the fact that I am pretty familiar with the region described, Slovenia being my favourite foreign holiday destination by some distance. The disc kicks off with karst survey (I’m afraid the significance of upper or lower case script in McCormack’s titles is a bit of a mystery to me) from 2016; it’s scored for three winds, two strings, piano, percussion and electronics. Immediately slowly shifting sonic shapes emerge from the speakers; the grain of string, lacerated shriek of reed and growl of rumbling percussion and piano far more to the fore than anything as conventional as pitch. It’s uncompromising yet fascinating, demanding yet utterly absorbing. It requires the kind of concentration which is best served by closed eyes so as to eliminate any extraneous visual distractions. Ethereally high sounds are filtered imperceptibly from depths whose vibrations one literally feels. A muffled thud at 9:28 seems to augur a change; a fading bass clarinet yields to an almost silence, whilst rustling, sustained, terrifying high wind and violin hover menacingly above some electronically realised tectonic catastrophe which creates the ‘consequence’ of the second half of the work. A sudden withdrawal at 17.20 is the beginning of the end. There is unquestionable skill in McCormack’s organisation of pace and tension, and his implications of space and claustrophobia. karst survey incorporates a magnificent din – it’s not for the faint-hearted but I can report I was even more impressed when experiencing it for a second time.

KARST could be construed as a sibling to karst survey; it is scored for a larger ensemble of 22 players divided into four diffuse instrumental groups and lasts twice as long as the other work. There is no conductor – the players are arranged on stage in such a way that they can cue each other. There is no electroacoustic element. Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s note amplifies the social element to this music – players need to have a profound understanding of each other’s parts as KARST is not designed with conventional instrumental hierarchies in mind. Like the sounds which dominate its sister piece, KARST incorporates a tension between minute, fragmentary instrumental detail and colossal holistic monumentality, ensuring its haptic character is even more pronounced. These contrasts emerge so organically that the sonic waves upon which they surf somehow don’t jar – it’s hardly a gentle country ramble but there are astonishing vistas and other memorable ecological experiences to be witnessed around every corner or atop each crest. Sounds tend to be rich and cavernous rather than arid even at low volume – this relates strongly to my own experiences of much of the Slovene landscape. KARST is inevitably slow but this is hardly an impediment to one’s appreciation of McCormack’s stunning sonic designs. The rapt conclusion evokes the all-encompassing aura of a didgeridoo.

The performances of these two works are phenomenal. Both Klangforum Wien (in karst survey) and the Ensemblekollektiv Berlin (actually a collaboration between four discrete groups – ensemble mosaik, Ensemble Adapter, Ensemble Apparat and Sonar Quartett) acquit themselves remarkably well in performance practices which must surely have been unprecedented even for such versatile and adventurous contemporary music specialists. The Kairos recording in each case is appropriately ‘in your face’; even those elements of these scores which verge on the inaudible teem with palpable life.

The two ‘karst’ pieces are divided by an earlier work, you actually are evaporating for violin and cello, completed in 2014. Tim Rutherford-Johnson emphasises the importance of the slow pace of McCormack’s music – one might suggest this enables the listener to appreciate the actual physicality of the natural processes to which the pieces allude, not unlike Fuentes (or even John Luther Adams, whose ‘environmental’ music many would at least find less confrontational). In fact the title of this duo refers to dance (in particular to a quotation from the choreographer William Forsythe: ‘Movement is a factor of the fact that you actually are evaporating’. The piece builds from an opening section where pitch and gesture seem indistinguishable – this is sound as movement and vice-versa – brief moments of undeniably harsh string sound dissipate into the earthy yet restrained sonic products of bow being drawn across string with almost imperceptibly. At 6:52 a sequence of granulated sonic waves grab the entire edifice by the neck – a waymark for the listener which might equate to ‘music’, not three minutes later though and we are back in the realm of what I would characterise as “timbral monotony”. I would summarise you actually are evaporating (and it’s not easy, believe me!) as a playoff between long periods of uneventful yet anxious stasis and jarring, unpredictable volleys of pitched string noise. It’s gripping up to a point although unlike the couplings on this disc I can’t foresee repeating the experience any time soon. Christopher Otto and Kevin McFarland are hardly shy of commitment to a rather brutal cause.

I get to review a lot of discs on Kairos – and they’re rarely ‘just’ about the music. The present issue is a prime example – an intriguing and viable concept (embodiment) that Timothy McCormack has thoroughly and I think successfully investigated in the two karst pieces bookending a more challenging and provocative experiment into the relationship between raw sound and movement which to be honest goes way over my head. Try it if you dare.

Richard Hanlon

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