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Josť-Luis HURTADO (b. 1975)
Parametrical Counterpoint
The caged, the immured, for piano (2018) [11:30]
Retour for a variable mixed ensemble of seven instruments (2013) [7:10]
Parametrical Counterpoint Version 1, for two variable ensembles of eight instruments each (2015) [5:15]
Parametrical Counterpoint Version 2, for two variable ensembles of eight instruments each (2015) [3:40]
Incandescent, for a twelve member amplified ensemble (2015) [6:10]
Parametrical Counterpoint Version 3 for two variable ensembles of eight instruments each (2015) [4:30]
Parametrical Counterpoint Version 4 for two variable ensembles of eight instruments each (2015) [4:00]
Le Stelle for piano and fixed media (2015) [7:45]
Talea Ensemble/Josť-Luis Hurtado (piano)
rec. 2015/2019, Oktaven Audio, Mount Vernon, USA
KAIROS 0015093KAI [50:00]

Kairos continue their enterprising exploration of recent music from Latin America with this portrait of Josť-Luis Hurtado, a Mexican-born American composer. His bio in the booklet lists a number of prestigious awards he’s acquired over the years; among those who’ve performed his work are the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, the JACK Quartet, the Ardittis and their erstwhile violist Garth Knox and the contemporary flute specialist Claire Chase. Here he is joined by his regular collaborators, the New York-based Talea Ensemble.

A dramatic and demanding piano solo, The caged, the immured opens proceedings. It is both the most extended and the most recent work on this disc. Commissioned by the National Autonomous University of Mexico it is unashamedly political, alluding to the separation of refugee children from their parents at the border between Mexico and the USA and to the direct psychological and physical consequences of this inflammatory policy. The title makes an obvious reference to Trump’s notorious ‘wall’. It exists in the form of a graphic score, sketches for which are reproduced in the booklet, and can be played on one or two pianos – in the latter eventuality the pages are simply turned upside down. Notwithstanding all of this, features such as attack, duration, dynamics and the general shaping of the work are kept under tight control, although it would be interesting to hear whether a different performer would produce a similar interpretation to the composer, who plays it here. Its opening moments are characterised by florid glissandi, excessive resonance, rapid repeated notes, violent attacks, almost as though the instrument is being pulverised. After three minutes or so a more introspective mood begins to creep in and even predominate, although flurries of jagged and unpredictable interruption intrude discomfitingly. The listener is kept on edge over the entire eleven minute span of a piece which makes for a challenging, uncomfortable listen, although its quieter sections convey a Scriabinesque limpidity. This is utterly conspicuous by its absence, however, in the coruscating din of its final bars, and the infinite decay of the final, shattering sustained chord. The vivid recording leaves nothing to the imagination.

The caged, the immured was laid down a couple of summers ago; at the same session Hurtado recorded Le Stelle, an earlier work which involves fixed media (in the form of pre-recorded electronics) and comprises nine tiny miniatures which are played without a break. The massive tutti at its outset is like some astronomical explosion; thereafter the piece oscillates gently between diffuse acoustic and synthetic elements in an arc which paradoxically seems arbitrary yet inevitable. There is an extraordinary variety of timbre and effect at play in this strange, beautiful piece. In his booklet introduction Hurtado reveals that Le Stelle is dedicated to Chopin and was especially influenced by the Polish master’s Nocturnes; whilst the physical notes may be light years apart, they certainly share some elusive ethereal essence.

These two pieces constitute the bookends of this programme; those in between were recorded back in 2015. These six shorter items for variously constituted ensembles include Incandescent for twelve players. It’s a Calder-like sonic mobile to which Hurtado cleverly adds amplification to zoom in on the contrasts between the varying perspectives thrown up by the piece’s design. Incandescent also kicks off with a violent, seemingly chance gesture (is this a Hurtado fingerprint?); its surfaces throughout at once seem sculpted and tactile. Listening afresh one might assume that the ensemble required here is percussion-dominated; in fact there are five winds/brass and five strings and it is those instruments which define the degrees of textural roughness produced. Incandescent is certainly noisy but familiarity reveals it to be curiously attractive in its raucousness.

Retour for seven instruments is the earliest work presented. It feels almost like a preparatory study for Incandescent; without amplification the textures, though still decidedly rough-edged in the main are rawer and less clearly demarcated. The percussive clicks, taps, stretchings and scrapings seem more diffuse, and invade a sequence of tiny instrumental episodes which interconnect very loosely. Retour interpolates something of the spirit of free jazz into a span of fractured instrumental experimentation. As a listening experience it just about coheres, but repeated exposure to this entire disc strongly suggests a more convincing unity is to be found in Hurtado’s more recent work.

Such a view is reinforced by the four different realisations of Parametrical Counterpoint, a piece which amounts to an experiment in sound whose outcomes are largely determined by the (presumably) independent decisions made by each of the conductors recruited to direct the two separate instrumental octets deployed. Hurtado provides a detailed, rather convoluted account of the rationale behind this fierce, fragmented music. I’m afraid that whilst such detail may be of interest to performers and musicologists it is of relatively little use to the critic. As my description implies, each ‘version’ proves to be completely sui generis. These drily variegated miniatures convey the spirit of a scratch ‘jam’; momentary slivers of melody (eg that provided by the piano halfway through Version 2) lure the ear merely by dint of their infrequency. Despite the fastidious work of the Kairos engineers, attempts by this listener to disentangle the respective contributions of the two instrumental groups deployed in each case proves to be a rather futile undertaking. Nor is it especially pertinent to Hurtado’s aims; as he states in the booklet: “…this work represented for me a kind of sound laboratory in which I could confirm my findings, and at the same time visualise their potential to build the tools that helped me develop many of the works I later composed”. If this is the case, I cannot help but wonder if Kairos would have been better advised to include examples of Hurtado’s oeuvre more overtly designed with an audience in mind, rather than these somewhat impenetrable academic investigations.

Knowledge is power; it’s always an education to be introduced to a fresh compositional voice and Hurtado is most certainly that. I found the two recent works which each require solo piano to be the most impressive, whilst Incandescent is the most compelling of the works for larger forces, notwithstanding its ferocity and truculence. There is little doubt that the Talea Ensemble are fully engaged by this occasionally playful music- I would almost go as far as suggesting that they seem to be having a lot of fun in striving to meet some of Hurtado’s more outlandish demands. In the end Parametrical Counterpoint is probably a disc best suited to adventurous spirits and robust constitutions.

Richard Hanlon

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