An aTonalHits release

aTonal Hits ‘Movements’ — a wonderful listen for the coming wintry nights.

aTonal Hits is a small online team of Illya Filshtinskiy & Katha Zinn, and their prolific performing output shows them to be equally comfortable with Bach or Berg. While the duo has produced recordings of piano, string, and chamber repertoire from across all eras of western classical art music, they have particular focus on more modern output of Webern, Bartok, and the like. With this context, it piqued my curiosity to see what compositional style Filshtinskiy’s first album of original work would sound like. “Movements” was a surprise to be sure, but a welcome one. I had opportunity to pepper both performers with a barrage of questions, resulting in tidbits of interview insight to this review of the album.

Illya Filshtinskiy (piano) and Katha Zinn (violin)

Overall, “Movements” itself consists of 3 works, “Tokyo Movements” for violin & piano, which leads off the record and is coincidentally the ‘oldest’ composition dating back to 2015, then solo works for the individual instruments in the form of “Five Piano Movements” and a violin partita structurally fashioned after dance movements à la Bach. While an assumption may be reasonably made that this project was crafted during turbulent times to add to the pile of 2020 ‘quarantine albums,’

“The conception for the album in full was started quite a while ago, when Illya realized he had written enough pieces to actually put on an album! Lockdown certainly helped give us enough time to finish a lot of our projects in a more timely way, but this wasn’t specifically a lockdown project” (Zinn, Katha: personal interview, 2020).

The long gestation period of the creation of the pieces and their ultimate recording process was well served – for an album recorded partially at the aTonal home studio and partially at a studio in the Bronx, the quality is nearly indistinguishable from piece to piece. Mastering duties split by Gleb Kanasevich & Joe Patrych (who also engineered the recording of “Tokyo Movements”) should be duly noted, resulting in a finely crafted modern classical sound.

Considering the performance pedigree of Filshtinskiy, it may come as a surprise that Philip Glass would be an immediate comparison upon hearing the opening slow kinetic buildup of Tokyo Movements, but nevertheless an apt one. However, while listening through the album there may be plenty of small points of similarity to other composers to zero in on, but none quite pinpoint the sound that Filshtinskiy has achieved. Taking cues from such a huge range of sounds, from the gradual evolving textures and percussive elements of minimalist monoliths Glass or Riley, to some of the layered rhythmic polymetric beauty of postmodernists like David Lang or Kile Smith, he has successfully navigated the creation of a niche of captivating music all his own.

The opening, “Tokyo Movements” in particular has a subdued thread of energy winding through the piece. For dense modern music, it is well done that a piece like this could feel so ‘accessible’ while maintaining depth of composition and ensemble, but amongst the rhythmic interplay are beautiful harmonic progressions and expansive soundscapes. For a final comparison to Glass before laying that juxtaposition to rest – like Glass’s cinema scoring, each movement of the Tokyo Movements has a short video vignette to accompany it, matching the three movements titles of “Tokyo (Train Songs”, “Night Streets”, and “The Gamer”); filmed by Filshtinskiy himself, these are worth tracking down for a multidisciplinary audio-visual experience.


“Five Piano Movements” opens with a similar rhythmic vibe to the Tokyo Movements, but the inner movements veer into some more discordant textures, to their benefit. We can grasp at straws to compare to Bolcomb or Albright’s “Will-o-the-Wisp” movements or Shoenberg’s arpeggiations in his Klavierstucke, but Filshtinskiy’s combination of minimalism with more frenetic melodic ideas is an inventive setting. The close, intimate piano recording serve the “Meditative” and “Homage” movements as a deeply personal listen, a bit mid-range frequency heavy but still clear and sustained.

Where the “Five Piano Movements” reject pigeonholed comparison, the solo Violin Partita wears its Baroque influence proudly on its sleeve – at least in overall structure. While shadings of Bach may be present in the arpeggiations of the Prelude or the contrapuntal duetting in the Saraband, the overall tension of minor 9ths and open 5ths recurring through the work give it an uneasy energy and malaise. This is especially effective in the Saraband, as well as the Scherzo with its decidedly un-Baroque syncopations. The longer movements are the jewels of this work, the final movement Pendulum especially, as it gradually builds and extends off the initial ostinato to a dizzying climax of dynamic bariolage that maintains its apex for a long two minutes of sustained sound.

Despite the coronavirus hampering the post-release performing in support of a new album, the aTonal Hits duo of Illya Filshinskiy and Katha Zinn are hardly resting on their laurels. With further album projects steadily on the horizon (a complete Brahms Violin & Piano Sonatas project is on deck), their catalogue of performance-ready repertoire is ever-shifting. Listeners will have to keep an eye out for when these pieces will make an appearance in their live programming – “Our next [program] will be more Bach and a deeply austere Ustvolskaya Sonata, and maybe the next will circle back to one of my pieces, some Ysaye and some Chopin. Who knows!”(Filshtinskiy, Illya; 2020). In the meantime, with sheet music available, capable performers can dig in to these pieces on their own, or continue to enjoy them in their recorded form. “Movements” is a wonderful listen for the coming wintry nights.

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