Celesta is a suite of a dozen quietly transcendent, gem-like celesta solos—a slowly unfolding ribbon of short pensive pieces composed over the past year and performed by the composer. The individual pieces, ranging in length from under two minutes to just over six minutes, are notable for the beautifully simple ways in which they reveal themselves through repetition and elegantly fashioned variation. The composer notes that these works “project a lyrical world of quiet intensity, bathed in the glow of delicately ringing metal.”
Taken as a whole, this collection of solos creates its own graceful musical arc, and it is certainly among the largest statements ever composed specifically for the celesta alone. (For this recording, one of Los Angeles’s finest five-octave Schiedmayer celestas was used.)
A longtime proponent of expressive solo celesta music, Fink contributed Celesta Solo (1981) to the first Cold Blue anthology in the mid-1980s (which was reissued as a CD in the early 2000s), and his solo work For Celesta, performed by Bryan Pezzone, appeared on the 2001 Cold Blue CD titled I Hear It in the Rain (CB0004).
Michael Jon Fink is a Los Angeles–based composer-performer whose usually quiet, lyrical music has been described by the Los Angeles Times as “lustrous,” “metaphysically tinged,” and “unapologetically tranquil.” LA Weekly has written that his music is “of ethereal simplicity . . . he has shaped and refined his spare style . . . it is distinctly his own.” Fink’s instrumental and electronic music has been presented at the Green Umbrella Series of the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group, New Music L.A., the Monday Evening Concerts, the SCREAM Festival, the Fringe Festival, New Music America, the Martes Musicales, Podewil, the CalArts Contemporary Music Festival, and numerous other festivals throughout the United States and Europe, as well as at such venues as REDCAT and numerous new-music clubs and art galleries. He has written much chamber music, as well as concertos for a variety of instruments (including a concerto composed for avant-garde cellist Frances-Marie Uitti, who plays with two bows at the same time), incidental music for three plays by Wajdi Mouawad (Forêts, Seuls, and Temps), and the score for Tareq Daoud’s short dramatic film La salle des maîtres. Most recently Fink has focused on performing as an electric guitarist, particularly in semi-improvisational contexts with such performers as Brian Walsh, Derek Stein, Chas Smith, Vinny Golia, Ulrich Krieger, Alan Tofighi, and Maxwell Denney. Fink’s music has been released on the Cold Blue, Centaur, CRI, Raptoria Caam, Bare Bones, Wiretapper, TrancePort, and Contagion record labels. (His music appears on eight previous Cold Blue CDs: CB0039, CB0036, CB0017, CB0014, CB0009, CB0008, CB0005, and CB0004.) He has taught at CalArts for more than three decades.
The British blog Misfit City aptly wrote that there’s an “evanescent emotional skill to Fink’s music… [W]hat gets me every time is its sheer and honest beauty.”
“[Fink’s music is] music that comes from the classical tradition, but that feels like it belongs somewhere other than the concert hall . . . texturally rich, meticulously crafted and delicately beautiful.”—Dusted magazine
“[T]he long arc of his composing career has allowed Fink to refine his style of understated eloquence through simple musical materials . . . music that is simple, yet essential.”—Sequenza21 and New Classic LA
“It might be small music but it sounds absolutely great; a very strong release.”—Vital Weekly (Netherlands)
“It’s stark, silvery and somehow lush and bare all at once, each pitch of Michael Jon Fink’s music for celesta remaining frozen with a maelstrom of tone and pulse beneath. As usual, Cold Blue combines recorded sound, instrument and composition at the highest levels.
“On one of these levels, Fink offers music I can only describe as emanating from longing. Anyone following his music will have heard it, going back to his piano pieces of the early 1980s. His instrument of choice on these 2018 miniatures, a five-octave celesta, lends itself well to the aching distances so poignantly captured by a composer of extraordinary melodic gifts. A few bars of Triptych’s lydian-inflected opening, modal and chromatic by turn but supported by a gradually blooming ostinato, demonstrate both Fink’s compositional aesthetic and the instrument’s complex coloristic universe. Sunless transforms those open octaves and fifths, equating them more with the shifting sonic planes and overtonal interplay of a composition like A Temperament for Angels. Softly Yellowed Moon treads a thin line between melody and harmony, its spare counterpoint nearly disappearing into itself as implication comes close to birthing chord and cluster. The celesta’s music box timbre is a factor, but Chopin and late Liszt’s nostalgia, clothed in varied layers of complexity, are often evoked but never copied as the Romantic sounds unfold.
“These are sterile observations whose pedantic nature does nothing to illuminate the music’s complex underlying currents. Fink’s titles are more useful and mysterious; they connote a meditative distance, the involved and observational detachment meditation can foster. Each title is a static yet vibrant poetic utterance, and even the provocative First Star, Last Star is quietly cataclysmic rather than explosively apocalyptic. The music inhabits a world of similarly potent restraint. No pitch is wasted, no sustain counts for naught, and no silence is without import. The instrument and environment are integral to the experience. Each pitch vibrates, pulsing internally but entirely lacking the sometimes garish exuberance of a vibraphone. Acclimation to this smaller but hugely detailed landscape reveals attack in infinite variety, whether feather-soft or razor-sharp, and each multivalent decay joins with room ambiance to enhance the symmetries and ruptures in Fink’s simple yet complex pieces. After the End could not be better placed. Its chords conjure some third space between nursery and chorale, a space as familiarly strange as its titular evocation. Listening through the disc can open doors on the mystical, and nowhere better than in that final miniature’s sonorities, which just avoid hiding the subtlest polyrhythms in each decay. These are introspectively large statements on the smallest scale, and each nests motives and phrases of similar implication, all adding up to a disc whose power and beauty unfold with the celesta’s deceptively simple grace.” —Marc Medwin, Fanfare magazine
“As might be guessed, my wife hears a lot of music coming from the room in our condo where I do my work. Shortly after the first gesture of the first movement of Fink’s suite, she came to the room to ask what she had just heard. When I explained that it was a suite for solo celesta, she observed that she thought she had heard gamelan music!
“I offer this anecdote as a way of observing that the overall range of sonorities of the family of metallophones (regardless of structure or performance technique) is relatively limited…. Fink is clearly aware of these limitations and compensates for them through the diversity of the phrase structures deployed across his suite’s twelve movements…. Each movement says what it has to say and then steps back to allow its successor to do the same…. [T]here is no question in my mind that Fink’s work holds up to attentive listening.” —Stephen Smoliar, The Rehearsal Studio
“Celesta is an intriguing exploration of the expressive powers latent in the bright sounds of the celesta. The limitations of intonation, timbre and dynamics are, under the hands of Michael Jon Fink, crafted into precise vessels of sensitivity and introspection.”—Paul Muller, Sequenza21
“[Celesta] is a distinctive album…. It’s an ethereal, a simple (not a simplified) album—which is not a lack, but an intention, I would even call it a refined intent—with admirable elegance.” —HisVoice (Czech Republic)
“In one of the latest Cold Blue releases we get some remarkably resonant music for celesta. It is a program of dream-like sequences, 12 pieces in all by Michael Jon Fink. The album is simply entitled Celesta. The music is all of a piece, wistfully in a Radical Tonality zone, yet too one feels the ghosts of Erik Satie and the John Cage of Cheap Imitation and perhaps of Morton Feldman too, but never directly—instead, rather as the kind of nocturnal ambiance that, hmm, I suppose might ultimately go back to Chopin at times.
“What makes it ‘radical’ is the nearly intentless melodic form. Yet there is periodicity and elemental song form at times too—like a music box lullaby, like the stuffed animal my friend had when we were both probably three-years old? Music boxes and celestas have common tone colors of course and perhaps the wind-up boxes of childhood one recalls involuntarily when one hears the instrument.
“Yet it seems that Michael Jon Fink is aware of all that on some level and captures what the celesta was meant to sound like with music that is not unlike music-box Satie, perhaps. It is captivating, almost childlike, moving and a catalyst to a Brown Study steady state. Recommended for sure.” —Grego Edwards, Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review
“Twelve solo pieces for celesta are presented here, short instrumental pieces in the two- to three-minute range, with one exception. They are introspective and mysterious, covering a wide range of emotions that pull the most power and feeling out of every single note. The pieces are similar in that the presentation is simple and spacious, with the most emphasis on the melodies that wander through a surreal landscape of muted colors and soft shimmering beauty, all the while triggering feelings of joy, loneliness, mystery, wonder, and pensiveness—sometimes all within the same few measures…. Although this could have been performed on a piano, it’s the celesta, with its metallic bell-like sound that gives these pieces their unique character, existing in their own world unlike any other, beckoning listeners to completely immerse themselves. Within the stillness of the moment and intense feelings the composer brings forth, one can easily find oneself in a sort-of trance-like state that over the course of the twelve pieces begs for a repeat spin. In the process of familiarization I have found myself playing this for hours on end, each time becoming more focused on its beauty and simplicity.” —Peter Thelen, Exposé
“Fink’s hardly the first composer to have featured the celesta’s ethereal sound. It’s heard in Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, and Holst’s The Planets, for starters, but two of the better known cases show how amenable it is to contrasting moods: while it adds enchantment to ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’ in Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, it intensifies the macabre tone of Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Few have embraced the instrument as passionately as Fink, however, with his Celesta Solo included on the first Cold Blue anthology in the mid-‘80s and his solo work For Celesta on the 2001 Cold Blue release I Hear It in the Rain. Celesta, however, is the first time an entire release by the LA-based composer and CalArts teacher has been devoted to solo performances using the instrument. The dozen lustrous settings, many in the one- to two-minute range, and the longest six, form a delicate, shimmering suite of sorts. Composed over the past year, Fink’s quietly lyrical material exudes a gentle, even magical quality, especially when the sustain emanating from the keys creates the impression of a glow and when the celesta’s twinkle at times resembles a toy piano. Many a piece is pensive and delivered at a slow tempo, which tends to deepen the music’s dreamlike allure. Track titles such as ‘From the Singing River,’ ‘Ruins,’ and ‘Softly Yellowed Moon’ enhance the material’s evocative potential, even if that dimension wouldn’t suffer terribly in the absence of titles. Without other instruments accompanying the celesta, the music possesses a simplicity that doesn’t lessen its appeal; on the contrary, the austere presentation allows Fink’s artistry to be all the more perceptible. So charming is the result, one wonders why recordings featuring the instrument in a solo capacity are so rare.” —Ron Schepper, Textura
“In the hands of Michael Jon Fink, the celesta is a medium for extended meditations on the nature of repetition and development; the composition that he named after the instrument consists of twelve brief, quiet, and very beautiful pieces linked by their exploration of those themes.” —CD Hotlist
“If you thought it wasn’t possible to have a wholesome, well-balanced album of music for solo celeste, you were wrong! Michael Jon Fink, playing his own work, specializes in the beauty achieved when isolating one set of timbres; the entire work is an entrancing piece of minimalism—a slow walk through deliberate, almost improvisatory pages that feels like a memory trying to be remembered. Piece titles like ‘Cold Pastoral’, ‘Softly Yellowed Moon’, and ‘Nocturne for the Three Times’ add just the right hint of imagery for these wandering, melancholy pieces. An overall sense of dreamy quarantine is taken further by the album art: a photo of a dust devil on Mars by NASA.” —American Record Guide
“Even at their most outgoing, instruments like the celesta tend to hide in larger ensembles, coming out of the texture for little moments here and there. Perhaps this is because the celesta tends to be a quiet instrument: its tuned metal bars give off a delicate ring that is subtle and long lasting, but won’t compete with a horn section or timpani.
“On his latest album, appropriately titled Celesta, Los Angeles-based composer Michael Jon Fink moves the instrument to center stage. Rather than burying the instrument in a larger ensemble, Fink applies his sparse, tranquil, and quietly mysterious musical language to this often-overlooked instrument, creating what is among the largest ever collections of music for solo celesta.
“Comprised of twelve short pieces performed by the composer, this is an album in which less is more. Ranging from under one minute long to just over six, the pieces as a whole form something of an arc, at times melancholic, joyful, nostalgic, or pensive, but always quiet and spacious.
“This suite of sorts begins with ‘Call,’ a gently lilting melody over bell-like arpeggiations that is reminiscent of a tune from an ancient music box. ‘Cold Pastoral’ features two lines in sparse counterpoint, with a simple and repetitive, yet slowly varying melodic phrase that brings to mind a lake frozen in the dead of winter. The pensive stillness takes on a nostalgic tone in ‘Bells,’ with pentatonic melodies that twinkle like a wind chime. ‘From the Singing River’ turns things in a more mysterious direction, with little melodic variations that seems to circle around without ever arriving at their final destination.
“The following two pieces, ‘First Star, Last Star’ and ‘Post-Impression’ continue this trend, tending toward pensive arpeggiated melodies with plenty of space to let the instrument’s soft tones reverberate. By ‘Ruins,’ things have settled into a meditative trance, with the title helping to inspire a feeling of something that has been lost to the past. Slightly more active pieces follow, with the tenuously hopeful ‘Sunless’ incorporating some of the lower notes of the five-octave celesta and the eerie ‘Nocturne for the Three Times’ drifting through incredibly sparse and atmospheric textures.
“‘Softly Yellowed Moon’ is equally enigmatic, with two lines providing melody and harmony that wind their way down into the longest piece on the album, ‘Triptych.’ Loosely divided into three parts, the piece begins with a quietly wandering melody over a left-hand ostinato before moving into what is the most openly joyful music of the album. Eventually, the music reaches an almost animated conclusion featuring crescendos in tight harmony and the celesta sounding more bell-like than ever. The appropriately named ‘After the End,’ then, seems to question this borderline excitement, leaving us with a somber and unsettlingly harmonized reflection.
“Still, the album avoids drawing a clear conclusion. Is there a story here in the space between the notes, or are we just meant to reflect on the round tones of the celesta as they fade into silence? Each piece feels like a small and crystalline world of its own, inviting the listener to discover their own meaning for themselves.” —Peter Tracy, Second Inversion