"… swirling and vigorous … furiously energetic … thrilling … beautiful …"
— Christopher Adler

"… rare and unusual beauty … a deeply layered … and expressive sound world …"
— Classical Music Sentinel


Reading the title of this CD, Best Served Cold , seeing the cover of a casually dressed and photographed gentleman, and given the name ("Ablaze") of the label, one might be forgiven for assuming that the present release was some kind of a jazz or New Age issue. But the music on this CD can no more be considered jazz than can that of Roger Sessions, to whose music I hear similarities in some of the works recorded herein.

Ictus, the disc's opening work, is a string quartet commissioned by the Fromm Foundation at Harvard University. The title refers to the alteration of established material through changes in speed, accentuation, and colors through varying bow strokes and articulations. This piece is, well, I don't know whether to describe it as lyrically dissonant, or dissonantly lyrical. In other words, elements of various styles are intricately and convincingly woven together to produce a satisfying musical fabric. The following cleverly titled piano work, Show of Hands, is cast in three contrasting movements: the violent, all-over-the-keyboard "Best Served Cold," the gently-atonal and meditative "Ever Since," and the as-fast-as-can-be-played "Snap." Originally the three movements were three separate works, having been commissioned on various occasions, but subsequent to their composition, the composer realized that they would form an effective suite, which indeed they do. "Snap," in particular, has a whiff of the style of Conlon Nancarrow to it.

Whorl seems even more complex than the preceding works. In it, the clarinet, violin, and piano all are given involved lines, which the composer skillfully and intricately meshes to form arresting textures and sonorities. Occasionally, more tonal sonorities peep through the dissonance in captivating fashion. In Whorl, Lipten looks back to the ancient musical device of hocket, whereby one musical line is broken up and passed around to the various instruments. The composer compares this work to a family discussion in which each member is speaking at once, finishing each other's sentences, etc. That seems a good analogy to the music being heard here. The conversation ends abruptly, as if the object of the family discussion suddenly walked into the room.

Time's Dream is a six-movement work for a cappella chorus. Even though this is the most tonal (or least atonal) work on the CD, it fits in beautifully with the other works, and provides a most enjoyable contrast. My hat is off to Robert Geary and the choral group, Volti. This demanding work is tossed off seemingly effortlessly, with impeccable intonation and blend, and gorgeous vocal production; it is one of the most impressive displays of choral singing I've heard recently. The poetry set is by the capital-shy e. e. cummings, whom the notes nevertheless capitalize. Texts, all on the subject of time, are not included, but available on the Ablaze website.

The disc closes with Gyre, a sextet for flutes, clarinets, violin, cello, piano, and percussion, and the earliest composition on the CD. The composer describes the work as one of whirling contrast, combining the instruments in as many ways as possible. It's a highly effective piece of writing that is full of colors seemingly beyond the forces employed.

All the performances on this CD sound dead-on to me—as strong as the music they're presenting. Considering that the works were all recorded in different venues by different engineers, the consistency of the sonics is quite remarkable—and fine. This CD is indeed strong in every particular, and well worth exploring for those who feast on the music of such disparate but kindred composers as Elliott Carter, George Crumb, and György Ligeti.
—David DeBoor Canfield


David Lipten, born 1961 in New York City, is a name new to me (and, I see, new to Fanfare). He holds a Ph.D. from Duke University, where he studied with Scott Lindroth. He previously studied under Thea Musgrave. He is also active in the jazz field. His string quartet Ictus of 2000/01is urgent in a post-Schoenbergian way. Commissioned by Harvard University, the music implies a compelling rigor of underlying elements. All credit to the Ciompi Quartet, who honor the moments of eerie stillness as much as the awe-inspiring complexities of the score.

The piano piece Show of Hands comprises three movements. The first is entitled “Best Served Cold,” from which the disc as a whole takes its title. There are moments of outright violence in this score, contrasted with almost icy stasis (the central movement, “Ever Since”). There is no faulting pianist Mark Tollefsen’s virtuosity, either. Perhaps the piano recording could have had a touch more depth, but this piece and this performance remains an exciting discovery.

The chamber piece for clarinet, violin, and piano Whorl stands in stark contrast of mood. Lipten’s idea of using heterophony works well; the overall impression is one of contentment. Yet it is in the 2003 choral piece Time’s Dream that Lipten reveals his hand. Here he seems truly at home, setting e. e. cummings with huge sensitivity. Unfortunately, the texts are not reprinted in the booklet. Instead, one is directed to a weblink. Still, this is a tremendous performance, expertly recorded.

The final piece, Gyre (1996/97), for chamber ensemble is, in the composer’s words, “characterized by whirling contrasts”. The sound is almost quicksilver and certainly elusive, and as such it fascinates the ear. The title is extracted from a W. B. Yeats poem (The Second Coming). It is quite an extended work of some 20 minutes duration, using a ritornello form that reveals a firm compositional hand allied with a quick musical intelligence. The whole disc is well worth exploring. The label, Ablaze Records, is again new to me. Indeed, their discography seems small if their website is anything to go by. I look forward to more. Colin Clarke



Ictus can mean the instant of the downbeat or a way of indicating a stressed syllable. On this compact disc, it is a musically colorful and rhythmically muscular 2001 work for string quartet by David Lipten. The Ciompi Quartet: violinists Eric Pritchard and Hsiao-Mei Ku, violist Jonathan Bagg, and cellist Fred Raimi, play his Ictus with lyrical grace and rhythmic elegance. A downward flowing melody leads the listener into a state of reverie. One might recall the acts of good people in difficult times. Toward the end I could hear the steps of great heroes emerging from the forests of dissonance. Show of Hands is a trio of piano pieces written between 2003 and 2005 that begins with the dramatic Best Served Cold, which, of course, denotes revenge. It’s easy to dream up a scenario for this short, rhythmic work. Ever Since is smoother and more lyrical, and leads the mind toward peaceful thoughts, all of which run off in terror at the advance of the fast and furious minions of Snap. Lipten wrote Whorl for the Verdehr Trio. But, here, it is played with great finesse by violinist Beth Llana Schneider, clarinetist Jana Starling, and pianist Omri Shimron. The word denotes a type of spiral or circular pattern so, in his 2002 work, the composer has one instrument begin a theme while a second plays harmony and the third finishes the theme.

Volti is a San Francisco chorus founded and directed by Robert Geary whose 20 professional singers are dedicated to the discovery, creation, and performance of new vocal music. The ensemble fosters the music of contemporary American composers. In the 2003 composition Time’s Dream, they sing the words of e. e. cummings’s poem Now Air is Air and Thing is Thing: No Bliss. Lipten’s equally intriguing music creates multiple mind pictures, reminding us that our brains can hold many thoughts at the same time. This piece definitely deserves more than one hearing. The title for Gyre comes from a poem by William Butler Yeats called The Second Coming that states in part:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

In the only work from the last century heard here, Lipten’s bird swoops and dives through the air but never seems to catch his prey. Perhaps the falcon’s world is falling through the air. The sound is clear and pristine on this mind-bending disc. I really enjoyed listening to it and I think readers will like it too.
—Maria Nockin