Apollo Chamber Players releases their fifth studio album “With Malice Toward None, August 20 on Azica Records.
The album is “a collection of globally-inspired compositions and collaborations, with each composer sharing their own personal interpretations of folk music.” Works include a title track by Vietnam War veteran J. Kimo Williams with a performance by electric violinist Tracy Silverman, Pamela Z’s The Unraveling, What is the Word? by Christopher Theofanidis and Mark Wingate, new arrangements of a trio of Armenian folk songs by pioneering Armenian composer Komitas, and Eve Beglarian’s We Will Sing One Song for duduk, string quartet, percussion, and track. The Pamela Z, Theofanidis and Wingate, and Beglarian pieces are part of Apollo’s 20×2020 project, launched in 2014 with a mission to commission 20 new multicultural works before the end of the decade.
In J. Kimo Williams’ “With Malice Toward None” (2020), the composer speaks to the current social and cultural climate we face, taking inspiration from Beethoven, who wished that musical expression could affect change.
Carol Williams, the composer’s wife and a social activist and artist, says, “A speech by a politician is not expected to be the equivalent of poetry, or to cast a lasting memory in popular culture; especially not one given 155 years ago. But that is precisely what [Abraham Lincoln’s] phrase, ‘with malice toward none, and charity for all,’ has become. It is the definition of politics seamlessly intersecting with art. So should it be any different from having music intersect with politics? Not for Beethoven, as most students of his music are already aware. Today, there is still a critical need for ‘socially responsible pieces of music’ that can address our human failures with as much hope as it does despair. We are together here in 2020, facing challenges old and new, internal and external. And we have reached a new low point when a People, born more American than African, have to again demand that the value of their lives be recognized.” The piece is dedicated to the late Civil Rights leader John Lewis and was composed for Apollo Chamber Players and electric violinist Tracy Silverman, who performs on this recording.
Pamela Z drew from the American folk and rock music from the 1960s and 1970s that resonated with her since childhood to create “The Unraveling” (2019).
“In my childhood, the first songs I learned to sing and play were songs by the likes of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Malvina Reynolds, and my first forays into composing music were as a singer/songwriter very much influenced by these folk revival artists (protest songs and such) and folk rock artists… So, when someone mentions ‘folk music,’ this genre is always the first thing to pop into my mind.” Pamela Z celebrates her penchant for sampling, layering, looping, and fragmentation in the first movement to use “the string quartet as a human sample-playback device – creating their phrases and motifs from chopped-up, layered, and looped fragments of the dulcimer accompaniment for All I Want on Joni Mitchell’s Blue album. The second movement is a kind of ‘broken record’ riff on an old folk standard made popular by Peter, Paul, and Mary. The third movement is a slightly skewed lesson in a common finger-picking style, and the final movement is a wistful reminiscence of my busking days during my early visits to San Francisco, where I eventually relocated.”
Christopher Theofanidis and Mark Wingate’s “What is the Word?” (2017) is based on Samuel Beckett’s poem of the same name, which was written in response to his own late encounter with aphasia. Their piece begins with the reading of the original poem by actress Maura Hooper which unfolds over six subsequent movements that combine the abstracted voice with the string quartet in a highly interactive and surreal way.
Theofanidis and Wingate say of Beckett’s poem, “the aphasic search for ‘the word’ becomes something which itself spins off rhythm and phrase in a kind of virtuosic dance, the text moving along a spectrum between meaning and pure musical sound. Music, then, seemed to us the natural way to amplify this search for this intersection of sound and meaning.”
Armenian ethnomusicologist and composer Komitas created a renaissance in Armenian music, collecting and transcribing over 3,000 pieces of Armenian folk music during his life. “Themes of Armenian Folksongs” originates from a set of 10 collected folk songs by Komitas and later arranged for string quartet by Sarkis Aslamazyan of the Komitas Quartet.
Further editing, including the creation of a contemporary score and parts, occurred in 2021 by Apollo founder Matthew J. Detrick. “Festive Song” (Habrban) is a buoyant, lighthearted dance with a melancholic undercurrent; a quasi-official state hymn, the intensely soulful music of “The Crane” (Krounk), symbolizes longing for one’s homeland and the suffering of the of Armenian people wrought by the Armenian genocide; and Echmiadzin Dance (Vagharshapati), a galloping folk hoedown partnering the first violin and viola, originates from the ancient Armenian city of the same name, the country’s spiritual and cultural epicenter. Armenian violist and Acting Principal of the Houston Symphony Joan DerHovsepian joins as guest artist.
Eve Beglarian began creating “We Will Sing One Song” (2020) while reading “The Human Comedy” by Armenian-American writer William Saroyan. In it, a young boy waves at a man on a passing train, the man singing the song, “My Old Kentucky Home,” and the boy remembers this interaction forever.
Beglarian says, “Given that the man is singing about returning to a much-loved place that is also the scene of many violent and difficult events for him and for people like him, I imagine the author is intimating how singing about going home is similarly fraught.” The music of “We Will Sing One Song”, performed by Apollo with Arsen Petrosyan on duduk and Pejman Hadadi on percussion, starts with an exploration of the melody of those five words in the Stephen Foster original and grows into a curious, deeply untraditional dance, which releases into a percussion solo that resolves into an Armenian version of “My Old Kentucky Home.” “We Will Sing One Song” was recorded remotely in fall 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with Petrosyan in Yerevan, Armenia navigating safe travel during the Armenian/Azurbaijani conflict and Hadadi in Los Angeles.
Learn more at www.apollochamberplayers.org.