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March 6, 2001

Modern ComposersLux Aeterna: Music for Two Cellos. Alexander Knaifel, Lux aeterna; Thomas Demenga, Duo? o, Du...; Jean Barriere, Sonata No. 10; Roland Moser, Wendungen; Barry Guy, Redshift. Patrick Demenga and Thomas Demenga, cellos. (ECM New Series, CD # 1695; 289 465 341-2) 2000.

Good news for fans of contemporary music: ECM New Series is back. Editions of Contemporary Music and producer Manfred Eicher put out some of the most important albums of new music, and re-interpretations of early music, in the late nineties, but they have been somewhat quiescent for a time. The past few weeks, however, have seen a stream of new releases, including the present album of works for two cellos, performed by the Swiss-born brothers Thomas and Patrick Demenga.

The title piece of the collection, Lux aeterna by Alexander Knaifel, is typical of the kind of works that ECM New Series has specialized in - definitely not in the mainstream, not tailored to the mass market, but work of integrity and honesty. Unlike contemporary works that take as their project pushing the boundaries of musical forms and expanding the concept of music itself, many of the pieces from ECM loop back to very early forms, creating, or maybe discovering, links between very old and very new music. They help define the modernist perspective, and also help define the links and common threads between old and new.

Alexander Knaifel was born in 1943 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, then part of the Soviet Union. He studied cello in Moscow but was forced to give up performing because of a "neural disorder" that affected his arms, and so turned to composing. He has produced a sizable body of work of astonishing variety, including chamber and small-group works for a variety of unconventional groupings, at least one opera and one ballet, "Whose Weapon is More Powerful," a work characterized as a "choreographic striptease," and "Jacob's Ladder," which he calls a "glossolalia." Lux aeterna, written in 1998, is scored for two cellos, strings, and chorus, and typifies Knaifel's later work in its use of reduced, monatic techniques to achieve haunting and moving effects. The following comments are quoted from the liner notes by Tatjana Rexroth: "The linearity of the ascending and descending scales of the melody in alternation with warm, chorale-like harmonies, the shifts from light to dark - these ever-recurring transitions suggest vistas broad and deep. It is an ebb and flow of sonorities between heaven and earth, a peaceful pulse that beats differently from anything we know in our own world. Strange and different: that is the effect of this peaceful breathing, this evolving line moving without the least pathos in the high registers, the single sounds burning themselves into an imaginary landscape and leaving behind the glowing embers of time." I'm not sure about the glowing embers of time, but the piece certainly leaves behind a sensation of tranquility of wholeness.

You can hear Lux aeterna by Alexander Knaifel performed by Patrick and Thomas Demenga on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, March 8 at 7:00 p.m. as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.

-- J. Green


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