raW: Chamber Music by James Rolfe reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Continuum Contemporary Music project on Centrediscs CMCCD 16210 released on Monday, January 18, 2011 @ Gallery 345, Toronto.

James Rolfe has been generating music—abstract, choral, and operatic—that for 20 years has been winning him commissions, prestigious prizes, and performances galore. In recognition of part of Rolfe’s contribution to music we have this CD of selected chamber music pieces 1991-2004.

The 11′ title track “raW (2003)” sets out all martial as rhythmic variations on spastic fife and drum riffs. Then there’s a delicate lull that moves on taut, tentative feet like a wounded sparrow hopping and pecking before the snarling snares resume their march, discordant and sardonic in the mood of Weill or Zappa. Terrific stuff! Rolfe’s program notes are illuminating: ” raW was written by filtering J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto through Bob Marley’s War…Burning Spear’s The Invasion and John Philip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever. The technical bits are interesting too, but you’d have to get the CD for them.

Soprano Carla Huhtanen joins Laurent Phillipe at the piano and Ryan Scott on percussion for “Simon and Garfunkle & the Prophets of Rage (1993)”. This is a kind of ‘songspiel’ number— the lyrics distinctly separate and separated, which Huhtanen utters in truncated, oddly rhythmic chunks lightly bound by the ostinato instrumental. The resulting hammered rage makes an absorbing sonic array.

“Freddy’s Dead (2004) is a 3 ‘ vignette also based on a Bach theme (from Musical Offering, BWV 1079) that is “sped up…squeezed down…and otherwise mutilated”. Carol Lynn Fujino’s violin joins the piano and Paul Widner’s cello to produce a musical flow like a flooded river in full spate freighting debris—natural and household—that tumble in random, repeated patterns with a clocklike regularity. “Devilled Swan” is a wonderful mix of chimes, whistling tea-kettles and clownish drums.  “Fete de la Faim (1991)” has Huhtanen back singing fractured phrases by Rimbaud against an ensemble augmented by Max Christie’s clarinet, Angela Rudden’s viola and Ann Thompson’s flute, Gregory Oh, conducting.

The remaining titles on this album —“Drop,” “Squeeze,” and “Revenge! Revenge! Revenge!” — ought to reinforce the notion that Rolfe’s music is full of fun for folks who enjoy having their musical boundaries tickled.

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