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Contemporary ukulele C00506

A Contemporary Ukulele
Giovanni Albini (ukulele)
rec. August-September 2021, Pavia, Italy
DA VINCI CLASSICS C00506 [59:17]

Over the last several decades there has been growing interest in instruments that are not traditionally associated with classical music. The classical accordion is now thriving, with many excellent new players and recordings, as well as a growing repertoire. Listeners have been rediscovering the classical side of the mandolin, thanks to players like Avi Avital and Julien Martineau. But neither of those instruments is as unlikely as the ukulele. The accordion is almost a miniature organ, capable of a great deal of polyphony and colour. The mandolin has a long classical tradition to draw on. The ukulele has no tradition of classical composition, and its musical possibilities can seem deceptively limited. If it is to establish itself in the classical world, it will be thanks to ambitious albums like this one. I certainly hope that a serious art music tradition is developed; the ukulele appears to have become the most popular instrument in schools, and so it would be excellent were it available as a point of contact with the classical world.

A Contemporary Ukulele is the result of a “call for scores” by Giovanni Albini. Each work on the album is by a different contemporary composer, most of whom do not play the ukulele. I found some works to be more effective than others, but all the composers, possibly liberated by the lack of precedent, have written innovatively for the instrument, and I admire the diversity of compositional ideas. In Dies Rainbow composer Fabrizio Nastari takes the melody of Somewhere over the Rainbow and combines it with the Dies Irae chant. The result is curious indeed, with a middle section that sounds like medieval, two-part polyphony reimagined by Charles Ives. The outer sections more freely explore the themes, using strumming, arpeggios and percussive effect. Here, as in Matthew Quilliam’s delightfully dark composition The Department for the End of the World, we hear the whimsy often associated with the ukulele developed into a more ambitious musical form.

In Dies Rainbow the ukulele can sound rather like a miniature guitar. This is true for some of the other compositions as well, such as in the surprisingly lyrical middle section of Oliver Dubon’s Reality’s Edge. However, one is soon disabused of this easy comparison with the guitar and instead notices the particular characteristics of the ukulele. Its four strings, generally tuned higher than the guitar, often give the music a lean clarity. Moreover, some composers make inventive use of the ukulele’s re-entrant tuning, wherein the bottom string is commonly tuned an octave higher than one would expect. In Blinter, for example, Samantha Muir makes use of the ukulele’s tuning to develop a short, attractive piece in which arpeggios transform in a kaleidoscopic way. We also hear multiple types of ukulele, from soprano to baritone, and early to modern. The differences are subtle but nevertheless noticeable, thanks in part to the excellent recording quality.

The standard of playing is very high, and many of the works make virtuosic demands of Albini. He meets the challenge brilliantly, whether it is in the rapid passages in Davide Tammaro’s The Messenger or in the dense and angular music in the seven-minute Intention Sector 3012 by Zulfiia Tursunova. But for me, the work which really shows off the instrument (and player) to the greatest musical effect is Afterward by Brandon Rolle. Rolle, who like most composers on this album is not a ukulelist, has fully assimilated the character and capabilities of the ukulele and created a work of considerable imaginative power. It flows and breathes beautifully, with strange but always compelling themes, employing all the colours of the ukulele – harmonics, glissandi, arpeggios, campanella effects, drones – yet always with musical purpose. If I were to recommend one work from the album to convince someone of the ukulele’s potential, this would be it.

The one category of work I have yet to discuss is those works which use electronics. The results are to my ear mixed, but I have to confess to being generally disinclined towards mixing electronics with acoustic instrumentation. Other listeners may appreciate these works, but for me most of them sounded gimmicky, using mere electronic effect (such as chorus or delay) on top of the ukulele. The better work is Obscure Particles, which instead uses electronics to fundamentally transform the instrument. Composer Andrea Beggio employs various extended techniques in conjunction with an electronic track, and by doing so creates a genuinely interesting soundworld in which the ukulele is almost unrecognisable.

This is a novel album that explores a new musical landscape, and so one should not expect every work to be a great success, but it will be greatly enjoyable for anyone who, like me, is interested in new music and new sounds. When I first listened through this album, I found myself at the end of each work smiling and wondering what would be next. The album showcases what Albini, in the booklet, calls the “musical promiscuity” of the ukulele. Some of it is very good music, and some of it I found more interesting than pleasing, but I admire the breadth of music commissioned, and I hope it will help establish a precedent on which a thriving subculture of classical ukulele music can be built.

Steven Watson

Fabrizio NASTRI
Dies Rainbow [3:16]
Preludio Variato [5:48]
The Messenger [3:36]
Green [3:47]
Obscure Particles [3:44]
The Department for the End of the World [1:51]
Samantha MUIR
Blinter [2:59]
Philip Ellis FOSTER
Cosmos 1 [4:53]
Intention Sector 3012 [6:50]
Brandon ROLLE
Afterward [4:50]
Frederick RAWSKI
Milan Misremembered [2:54]
Synchronistic Afternoon with a Freshly Tuned Ukulele [5:03]
The Cheerless Walk [3:54]
Oliver DUBON
Reality’s Edge [5:49]

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