On Migration, Slava Grigoryan and the Australian String Quartet have teamed up to record three recent works written for the unusual combination of guitar and string quartet. The album is named for the first of these, a single-movement work composed in 2003 by American guitarist Ralph Towner, a name that will be more familiar to fans of the German jazz and new music record label ECM than to classical music audiences.
Migration languished unrecorded until now, and Towner credits Grigoryan’s enthusiasm and prodigious skill (indeed, in his hands its complex technical demands seem effortless) as central to the success of the work’s complex scalic runs and their integration with elegantly angular string parts.
It sits easily alongside Flexible Sky by Austrian guitarist and composer Wolfgang Muthspiel, a dynamic but contemplative work comprising four contrasting movements. Dark and exciting, it features beautiful glissandi, and the notable interplay between violins and guitar reflects Muthspiel’s earlier training on that instrument. Nevertheless, for Flexible Sky, Muthspiel’s approach to instrumentation is democratic, noting that for him the work is “an interactive web of equal voices”.
Towner, Muthspiel and Grigoryan regularly perform together as a guitar trio, indicating a degree of intimacy and mutual respect that is clearly evident in this, the premiere recording of these works. The showstopper, however, is Black Dogs, by Western Australian composer, conductor and performer Iain Grandage.
In contrast to the other two works, Black Dogs is structured similarly to a guitar concerto, in three movements with the guitar as lead instrument. Named for a term commonly used in reference to depression and related psychological issues, Grandage says that when close friends recently experienced “mental fragility, their experiences dominated my own mind and manifested themselves in this work”. Mysterious, entrancing and deeply melancholy, Black Dogs moves carefully and with thoughtful stillness, creating a stark sonic landscape of considerable power and delicate reflection.
These three works are complex, bold and exciting. They are not lightweight, and their considerable gravitas (Flexible Sky and Black Dogs especially) repays repeated listening. The playing is uniformly virtuosic while simultaneously warm and swinging, as is necessary for successful renderings of genre-straddling works, which is particularly the case for Migration.
Luminously recorded at the Ukaria Cultural Centre in Mt Barker, South Australia, Migration is an extremely impressive recording: innovative, high-quality and deserving of widespread attention.