The American classical guitar Duo Noire released their latest album, Night Triptych, on June 22, 2018 with New Focus Recordings. Duo Noire is comprised of guitarists Thomas Flippin and Christopher Mallett, the first two African-American guitar graduates from the Yale School of Music. Night Triptych features world premiere recordings of newly commissioned works by Clarice Assad, Courtney Bryan, Golfam Khayam, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Gity Razaz, and Gabriella Smith.
In fact, this album was conceived as a commissioning project focused on female composers. Duo Noire says, “Our eyes were opened to the ways in which, year after year, many major concert series and albums feature less than 5% of music by women. We felt like classical music was impoverishing itself by not including the artistry of incredibly gifted women composers like the ones we collaborated with on this album, who we feel have made extraordinary contributions to our instrument.”
The resulting music indeed showcases the broad range of sound, colors, and techniques possible on the guitar. This is a particularly notable contribution in the realm of new music, where music for acoustic guitar in any form is sorely underrepresented. (I’ve even heard the instrument described by composers and performers as “old fashioned and inflexible,” with the implication that guitarists ought to stick to historical performance practice, leaving new music to instruments with a better ability to project.) Thanks to delving into this refreshing and musically diverse offering from Duo Noire, though, listeners will expand their understanding of the kinds of sounds that may be drawn from this beautiful instrument. And not only that–the Duo achieves their sonic explorations with an impeccable sense of ensemble and easy musicianship that sounds like they’ve been playing together for decades. The disc is a delight.
The album opens with a tantalizing three-movement tour-de-force called Hocus Pocus. The composer, Clarice Assad, is the daughter of a member of one of the world’s great guitar duos (the Assad Brothers), and she plays guitar herself. It shows in this piece–in a good way. Each movement illustrates a distinct characteristic sound in the guitars: the first movement is clownish, the second features playful and sudden contrasts between lyricism and improvised sound effects, and the third movement concludes the piece with jaunty flair.
The next offering by Mary Kouyoumdjian pairs the guitar duo with otherworldly electronics, a deconstructed Middle Eastern dance in a nod to her family. The electronics provide atmosphere and slowly rise to a more feverish pitch, synthesized timbres melding in and out with guitar tremolos. The third piece, Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God Alone) by Courtney Bryan, works on the listener very deliberately as a sort of musical prayer, drawing on the influence of jazz, gospels, spirituals, and hymns. The composition is harmonically and rhythmically rich, and the Duo are deliciously indulgent in their phrasing and pacing.
Iranian composer Golfam Khayam wrote the fourth piece on the album, the title track Night Triptych. Khayam’s study of Persian strummed instruments has encouraged her exploration of extended techniques for classical guitar, on full display in this work, especially in the middle movement, which uses percussive hits, scraps, and chopsticks and pencils to great effect. Listeners will revel in the third movement, which has gorgeous moments of introspection, harmonics, and light flourishes melding over drones that create an almost aromatic texture.
The penultimate piece by Gity Razaz, also an Iranian-born composer, asks Duo Noire to draw on the influence of operatic recitatives and arias, but within short-form musical “Haikus.” Haiku is exactly right for the first movement of the piece–the slowly “vocalized” phrases punctuated by chords that become like questions hanging in the air. The second movement has impressive interplay and unified tempo changes–a virtuosic showpiece for their sense of ensemble, while the third movement is more romantically pensive. The fourth movement returns to the interplay, but in a more frenetic and almost panicked mood, unrelentingly performed by the duo.
Finally, the Duo offers Loop the Fractal Hold of Rain by Gabriella Smith. The notes say that this piece is inspired by “Americana,” including “bluegrass” and “funky riffs,” which combine for a quirky sense of fun and athleticism. Extremely effective use of extended techniques allows the piece to play out with excellent depth and contour, not to mention the masterclass in these techniques thanks to a commanding performance from the duo.
A brief note about the programming: At first, I did wonder if the idea behind this set of commissions was to feature what Pauline Oliveros once called “lady composers”, but it is clear that in offering this disc, Duo Noire are making an earnest attempt to fill what they see as a hole in the literature for guitar. I applaud them for this effort, and I urge them to continue working as advocates and allies. It is vital to address structural inequalities in the classical and new music worlds, and the work must be ongoing and as inclusive as possible in order to be effective.
In total, the six pieces on Night Triptych draw the listener through an imaginative world full of one new acoustic discovery after another. Duo Noire transitions between extended and standard techniques with virtuosic ease, using their athletic and beautifully focused sound to project musicianship in perfect ensemble.